By Dave Dentel
This is the third part of a story I wrote to commemorate—and help make sense of—the crisis that has gripped our planet going on fourteen months now. Subsequent parts will follow. And if you like what you see, please consider backing my volume of short stories now on Kickstarter. —Dave Dentel
He had drained his second cup of coffee. Sarah sent one of her younger daughters bounding over to collect the soiled dishes for scrubbing. Dale watched the girl with admiration; it astonished him how most of the church kids had embraced their impromptu campout as an unexpected adventure.
It certainly was rustic. They drew water from a mountain spring and performed ablutions in a latrine dug on the opposite slope. Most of the men had abandoned shaving; the whiskers thickening on their padded cheeks reminded Dale of gorged alley cats.
Two bearded faces were approaching now—Phil Busby, bachelor, accountant, worship leader and Dale’s closest friend, and Jeremiah Green, a real estate broker whose family was among the church’s most affluent.
Dale rose and stretched in order to greet them properly.
“Morning, gents,” he said, quickly settling on an agreeable subject for small talk before announcing prayer in a few minutes.
“So what do you think?” he queried, squinting at the sun still rising toward its apogee. “Looks like our stretch of perfect September weather might be over. Could be in for a touch of Indian summer.”
Phil ran a sleeved forearm across his brow as if testing for perspiration.
“It is getting a bit warm,” he concurred.
Jeremiah didn’t venture an opinion. Instead he fished a large cellphone out of his pocket and began poking the glass screen. His efforts only produced consternation.
“Hey, Jere,” Dale said. “What are you looking for?”
The young father stifled an epithet before responding.
“Trying to get the weather forecast,” he finally answered between clenched incisors. “Don’t know why I can’t get a signal. I can see a couple of cell towers from right here.”
Dale and Phil followed his gaze down toward Bison Flats. Past clusters of homes and farms, the buildings of downtown spread in a neat grid, like models on a toy railroad. Nothing moved on the roads.
“What I want to know,” Dale inquired, returning his focus to the men beside him, “is how you managed to keep your phone powered.”
Phil shot Jeremiah a look that conveyed the need for candor.
“Well,” Jeremiah shrugged. “After my turn on night watch I’ve been firing up my van to charge it.”
Dale didn’t bother to hide his disappointment.
“Hey, I’m not the only one,” Jeremiah blurted. “A couple of us men have been keeping our phones connected just in case. Besides, you wouldn’t believe what’s been on my newsfeed since we’ve been up here. The Middle East is going up in flames. Detroit and Houston have asked for federal troops, and the president has locked down the capital.”
“Say,” interjected Phil, planting a pair of knuckles on Dale’s biceps in a friendly attempt at diverting the conversation. “You think the president could be the guy? The Man of Perdition? The Beast with Ten Horns? The Abomination of Desolation?”
Dale didn’t give it a second thought.
“Not likely,” he replied. “Scripture says he’ll bring on the Day of the Lord by personifying evil. Doesn’t say anything about him being a witless clown.”
Jeremiah let out a slow breath, relieved at having apparently escaped a lecture.
But Dale wasn’t about to let things go.
“We’ll talk about this later,” he said, indicating Jeremiah’s phone. Turning to Phil, he added: “Let’s round up the families for prayer.”
It took fifteen minutes for most of the congregation to assemble around the fire pit. Building the rough circle of stacked stones was one of the first projects they had undertaken upon arriving atop the ridge; since then it had served as the center of their camp and worship. Though in some places little more than a jumble, in Dale’s mind the bit of masonry evoked epic stories of the ancient Hebrews and their faith. Like the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan, here his own church had raised stones of remembrance to mark their expected entrance to the promised land. And like the fire on the altar within the walls of the tabernacle, this circle of flame was never allowed to be quenched.
Dale was still pondering these lofty motifs as he waited for a few more stragglers—mostly women and girls finishing morning chores. The serenity he hoped his reflections would engender, however, eluded him. Instead he found himself anxious to get on with things. It didn’t help that in a vain attempt to get his instrument in tune Phil kept plucking the same two guitar strings.
Compelled by his own mounting irritation, Dale decided to forego an opening song and proceed directly to the unpleasant task only he could undertake, and one he had providentially avoided for weeks—pastoral correction.
“Good News Church!” he called out to the assembly. “When we all chose to flee to this mountaintop, we united in a pledge to abandon the world and to look instead to our glorious hope, the imminent return of our Savior and King. But I’m afraid that some of us, like Lot’s wife, are being tempted to look back.”
Dale paused to let the gravity of his words take effect.
“There’s nothing for us back there,” he continued, throwing a nod in the direction of Bison Flats. “Everything we need is here,” he added, indicating with a gesture the camp and the congregation.
He hoisted his thick black Bible.
“The prophet Isaiah assures us that God’s word will stand forever,” he went on. “Everything else is about to go up in smoke.”
He sighed, taking a moment to replace his copy of Scripture with two new props grasped firmly in each hand—his cellphone and a blunt stone.
“That’s why I’m asking you,” he said, picking up the thread of his homily, “not ordering, not condemning—just asking—that you follow my example and sever any remaining links to the distractions, the foolishness, the outright deceit that we’ve all left behind.”
“Believe me folks,” Dale urged, “we won’t be worrying about cell reception in heaven.”
Then, with a single, sharp blow of the stone he shattered the screen on his phone.
The reaction from his congregation was disappointing. Before the glass and plastic shards from his now worthless device fluttered to earth, most of the assembly had turned toward the source of something more alarming than his sermon illustration. A girl’s voice was crying for help over the sobs of an even younger child.
The gathering thinned in moments, as several parents broke from the circle to scurry toward the sound of the distraught children. Dale craned for a better look. About a hundred yards toward the western slope he thought he could see a girl of about twelve struggling to carry another much younger and smaller girl. From the matching blonde hair he guessed it was the Whetherby sisters—Rachel and Hannah.
When a path opened between the church folks remaining at the fire pit, Dale strode toward the girls, who by now had been intercepted by three or four adults, including their father, David. The parent immediately removed Hannah from her older sister’s awkward grasp and laid her on the ground. A quick inspection revealed the cause of the little one’s distress—she was bleeding profusely from a gash in her lower left leg.
Between their continued sobs, David tried to extract from the girls an account of what had happened. The other adults passed around the call for Stephen James, a physician’s assistant who worked at Bison Flats’ only health clinic.
At last sufficiently calmed, Rachel explained that the two had been playing near a rockfall when Hannah fell and cut herself. She told the story with the aspect of someone who reveals the truth in spite of the anticipated consequences. Her father, however, was too preoccupied with Hannah’s injury to chide anyone.
Stephen arrived with a first aid kit. He cleaned and dressed the wound, then pulled aside David and Hannah’s mother, Abigail, who was now on the scene.
“The cut’s pretty deep,” he advised the parents. “I don’t know that I’m going to get it to stop bleeding without stitches.”
Dale stepped forward to insert himself into the conversation.
“You’re not thinking of taking her to the clinic?” he asked.
“Might have to.”
Dale paused to consider. It didn’t make sense to seek medical aid when the source of all help was so close at hand.
He decided what must be done. He raised his hands to beckon the congregation, who by now had pretty much clustered in the vicinity of the commotion.
“Church!” he called. “We need your help! This little girl”—he indicated Hannah—“has hurt herself in a common, everyday childhood accident. But now she’s facing a possible injury even greater than the one that’s wounded her leg. If it doesn’t stop bleeding, her mom and dad may have to consider taking her back to the world that we’ve all rejected—a world that is doomed.”
He raised his eyes heavenward.
“So please, pray! Ask the God and Father who made us all to forestall the flow of blood, so we can maintain our vigil. After all, it could be just hours—even minutes—before all our ailments are healed forever.”
The congregants complied. They circled closer to Dale and the Whetherbys, the nearest ones laying hands on the worried parents. Many, as they felt led, prayed out loud.
Stephen, meanwhile, continued his work. He elevated Hannah’s leg and applied compression to her wound. By the time the final prayer was pronounced, the bleeding had stopped.