Come Hell or High Water
An awful lot of money goes into meteorology considering how inaccurate it is. I distilled my feelings about the matter down to that after wondering if “Fuck every weatherman to death” might be an overreaction. I’d been promised a rare sunny Saturday sandwiched between an overcast Friday and Sunday. It had been sunny too, until I got to the forest.
As if on cue, the moment I stepped out of my beat up little Geo, the rain started. Brought to mind a half remembered cartoon where the poor fellow darted inside and outside with the rain starting and stopping accordingly, just to spite him. Normally I wait for Summer for outdoorsy shit. But if you’re into mushroom hunting, Spring and Fall are when you’ll have the most luck.
Spring in this state is a cruel joke. Brilliantly sunny days you’d swear were borrowed in advance from the coming Summer, interspersed with violent rainstorms. April showers bring May flowers, right? Nope, more showers. You’ve really got to savor what little sunshine you get.
I recalled there was a cave network somewhere in the area. This is a hot spot for me as there’s quite a lot to do and it’s relatively unstructured. I found out about it from my sister’s then-fiance. It’s a poorly kept secret in their little town, popular place to come up to camp in some real wilderness with nothing in the way of fees.
I sat in the car, brow furrowed, until I decided if I’d bothered coming out here I was damn well going to pick some mushrooms. Plan A was to head for the caves. I could take shelter there and wait out the rain. Once I was under the forest canopy I discovered it really wasn’t all that bad.
Stuck to the plan anyway as I’d brought the makings of stew and fancied the idea of getting it started in a cozy little cave. The idea was to head out while it simmered to look for mushrooms, then add whatever I found to it when I got back.
I never found the cave. About a mile in, I tripped on something. In one of those fits of pain induced stupidity I swore at whatever it was, as if it’d done it deliberately. I turned back to look, expecting a rock or thick root. Instead, the rusted edge of a round metal lid of some kind. Manhole cover? No, those all look more or less the same.
This was hinged, and slightly convex. Brittle flecks of yellowing paint still clung to it, evidently white at one point. Probing under the rim with my fingers and tugging at it, to my surprise I discovered it was ajar. I had second thoughts just then, remembering what I’d come here to do and wondering what I might find in there. “You just know there’s spooky ass ghosts down there” I muttered to myself. “You just KNOW it.”
No ghosts that I could see. The sunlight reaching down through the open porthole revealed a ladder and a modest patch of the floor. Faded green carpet. Not the sewer I expected. Or tomb. Somehow sufficiently encouraging that I descended the ladder to snoop around a bit. This was really turning out to be intriguing. What exactly had I found?
Groping along the wall in the darkness, I felt the familiar shape of a light switch and flipped it. The lights came on a few at a time. Needed new bulbs, I guessed. But it meant this place was receiving electricity from somewhere. The room was round, like I was standing in a horizontal section of sewer pipe or something. By the ladder was a wooden rack with a jacket and hazmat suit hanging from it.
The back wall bore a large painted logo, “Survive-All”. I began to get an inkling of what this place was built for. “Hello? I don’t mean to intrude.” No response. It was a lie anyway, of course I’d meant to intrude. It just hadn’t dawned on me until a moment ago that there could be anyone else here. As it appeared abandoned, I continued exploring. It’s not every day you stumble across something like this.
The other wall had a door hanging open. Something like the hatches in a submarine, with a big wheel in the center used to seal it shut. And once I was through, another hatch just like it. Some kind of airlock. I closed the outer door and spun the wheel to seal it. Then I spun the wheel on the other door until I felt some give, and swung it open. I was at once struck by a burst of musty air. The smell of a long disused closet.
Inside it was laid out quite like some RVs I’ve seen. Table and seats built right into one wall, and a door which led to what I assumed was a bathroom at the end of it. Between here and there sat a microwave mini-fridge combo, and a bulky antique of a computer. It was difficult to date any of it until I found the shelf of cassette tapes. There was a record player as well, but the only records for it bore the same “Survive-All” logo I’d seen on the way in.
On a whim I placed one of them, set the needle and hit play. Crackling and hissing followed, then a voice began to speak in that charismatic but corny manner common to radio and television personalities of the fifties and sixties.
"The international struggles of our world may lead to…NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST! Radioactive fallout, that deadly by-product of a nuclear attack, will kill literally millions of unprotected families in the event of an atomic attack. Is YOUR family protected? Do YOU have a fallout shelter?”
I’d heard enough to get the gist. Somebody bought this thing back during the cold war assuming the rest of the world would go up in flames while he camped out in safety and comfort. When the bombs didn’t drop he must’ve moved on with his life and forgotten this place existed. Mystery solved, until I noticed the bookshelf.
“The Late, Great Planet Earth”. “Final Shockwaves to Armageddon”. “Hidden Prophecies in Psalms”. “Christ Returns by 1988: 101 Reasons Why.” Finally, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988”.
Not very diverse taste in literature, it would seem. I searched for anything else. Mystery, scifi, even smut. Only books predicting that the world would end in 1988. Were the tapes also like this? I rifled through them expecting stuff like One Direction only to find they were all blanks, or had been. Each case was labeled with a day, month and year, starting in 1987. The only tape player was hooked up to the computer. I vaguely recalled that these older computers used cassette tapes to load programs. One of my dad’s “back in my day” stories.
I popped that sucker in and hit play, not sure what to expect. A few seconds of silence, then a man’s voice started in, sounding calm and measured. “Everything’s in place now. I wasn’t sure if I’d have time for this degree of preparation. Finances have been tight. Maxed out my cards, took out every loan I could get, and I must admit I feel a bit guilty. They’ll never live to collect on any of it. But they are of the world, and will burn with it.”
I sat back, stupefied. It just went on like that. “As the final hour approaches I feel conflicted. I should be excited for the culmination of history but regret eats at me, because of those I tried to save who would not turn to the Lord out of pride and ignorance. But then, he who is wicked, let him be wicked still. I did everything in my power to rescue them from the fire, what comes next is on their heads not mine.”
The rest of the tape was just the guy singing hymns and commenting on events in the news. In every case certain that said events were predicted by Revelations as portents of Armageddon. I felt I had a better handle on things now. Why somebody would go to all this trouble and expense, I mean. But why a shelter? Didn’t people like this think they’d be teleported away, or rise up into the sky? The next tape touched on that.
“The damned who happen upon this shelter during the tribulation will no doubt wonder why I elected to stay behind. One man sacrificed himself that we all might reconnect with God. How can I do less? I will remain here and minister to the lost, that they might understand why they weren’t taken and redeem themselves by confessing that Christ is God in the flesh.”
As I listened, I turned on the computer. Not expecting much as I assumed I’d have to load everything by tape, but a loud chunky whirring revealed that there was a hard drive someplace in the desk. This was confirmed by the boot sequence which listed drive C as 15 megabytes. I smiled. There are songs on my phone bigger than that.
Then it began to boot something called TempleOS. I cocked my head. Come again? Not Windows? Or DOS? That’s a new one on me. A white screen with black text reading “Temple OS: Divine Intellect, Public Domain, Kept-Perfect Operating System.” came up, with what looked like an MS Paint drawing of a sword laid across a scale. I stared. What the shit? Who ever used this, and for what?
There were numbered menu options on one side of the screen and a bunch of animated gif icons to the left. Stuff like “flight simulator”, “after Egypt”, and a sub-program within that which spat out random sentences when executed. What was this made to compete with? It seemed to have a basic word processor, calculator and so on. Plus something called “Captain Bible in the Dome of Darkness”.
I played a bit of that and found it equally inscrutable. You’re a Bible themed superhero infiltrating a city enveloped by a dome of “Satanic lies”, armed with a digital Bible which can only store one verse at a time. To combat the sinister robots who try to shake your faith, you go and choose the correct verse to rebut them from special scripture dispensing stations, then return and use the verse to defeat them.
I had flashbacks of similar edutainment software from my youth. Something about a spaceman who shoots math problems, and a cartoon rabbit game centered around literacy. Number Munchers was legitimately awesome. This game, not so much. I tried to imagine the reaction of some poor kid whose well intentioned grandma bought him Captain Bible for Christmas.
The man’s voice in the background trailed off and the tape shuddered to a stop. I’d tuned it out while dicking around with the computer and couldn’t recall much of what he’d said. Popped that tape out anyway and put the next one in.
“So now faggots want to get married. Wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t heard it straight from Pat. Just as predicted. We might've stopped all this had we just put them on their own island somewhere with an electric fence around it. Too late now. Morals are degenerating more and more every day. People are falling away from the faith, just like it says they will when the end approaches. Stuff like this makes it hard to feel bad for ‘em. What will become of the ones who won’t confess? Just more trash for the fire, I suppose.”
Charming guy. I fiddled with one of the books as I listened. The bookmark turned out to be an MRE wrapper. Spaghetti with meat sauce. Better him than me! Backpacking food is similar, I could only ever stomach the chili mac. The voice droned on, sounding increasingly excited with each tape.
“It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed, thinking about what Heaven will be like. I’ve always felt I belong there. Like I’m a stranger on Earth, just passing through. I’ve done my share of fishing for men, so my mansion and treasures are assuredly waiting for me. All that remains is for father to call me home. So long as he’ll permit a brief detour. There’s still work to be done down here. I need to find a good Christian woman to join my project, for one thing. I don’t know if I can do this alone. I know God will send her to me when I least expect it.”
All the apocalyptic stuff aside I began to empathize with the guy. Reading between the lines, he didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere and more than anything else was just lonely. Then it occurred to me to put in the first tape marked 1988. When it started playing I heard the man’s voice as before, but frantic and breathless. There was also muffled crying in the background.
“Not long now. Not long at all. Everything’s aligning like he said it would. You just have to know how to look, and you’ll see it. Just two days left and all of this will be in ruins. That city below? Flaming wreckage. Demons marching over what’s left, skewering survivors. Horrific no doubt, but they chose it. God sent me the pure wife I prayed for. If you have even as much faith as a mustard seed, mountains will move when you command it! She doesn’t understand what I’ve saved her from. After it happens, she’ll thank me.”
I grew tense, my empathy rapidly diminishing as I got a clearer picture of what sort of person had recorded these tapes. I put in the next one. It began with a minute or so of soft weeping. When he spoke, his voice continually broke up. “I don’t understand. I don’t. Show me a sign! All of the codes pointed to the same date. How could this happen? I look at the calendar and can’t believe it. She won’t shut up in there. I’ve got her tied down but whenever she’s awake she just screams. Radio didn’t mention anything about it. What are they hiding? What does it mean?”
I dunno. I guess I expected the ‘moment of truth’ to be funny. Not sobering. Certainly not so troubling either. Yet on the next tape he sounded as if he’d completely recovered. “Everything’s clear now. I never lost faith and the rewards have been unimaginably generous. My wife missed her period and has been throwing up in the morning. I’m going to be a father! On top of that, the calculations were revised. It actually points to Rosh Hashana, 1989! I knew he couldn’t be wrong. The relief is impossible to describe. I could really feel the darkness overtake me for a while there. I just wish my wife were so happy. I minister to her every night about God’s plan for her to bear my children, but she only screams and spits at me. Pearls before swine. No matter, I have another year to change her heart. I don’t think the MREs will hold out that long so I’ve begun hunting to supplement our food supply.”
I didn’t recall seeing any guns on the way in. I got up and opened the fridge. To my surprise there were wrapped bundles of meat in there. No discernible smell, either. Remarkably well preserved, all things considered. Curiosity gripped me. How had he reacted when 1989 came and went without incident? I felt tempted to climb out, shut the hatch and be done with it. But I never could do without closure. So I popped in the next tape.
“Hannah isn’t coping well. I keep telling her that sometimes God calls children to rejoin him, but she won’t even look at me. What does she want? I keep her fed, I prepared this home for us, I was just as devastated when baby Michael didn’t make it. But our story doesn’t end there, I told her. We kept trying until she again fell pregnant. Her baby bump is quite big now, and I have a feeling about this one. We’ll be a complete family by the time the end comes. Then begins the real adventure, saving the souls of those left behind. So often, she is in tears, yelling at me that she wants to go home. I want to go home to the Kingdom of Heaven just as badly.”
The next tape was the first of those marked 1990. This is what I was looking for. How could it continue? Surely he’d figured things out by then? If so, he must be in jail now. Providing he didn’t shoot himself or something. I could see no other way for this to end. Yet there were plenty more tapes. So I hit play.
“I can’t say for sure what’s happened. But I feel a change inside of me. Some imperceptible threshold has been passed. Of course, the superficial appearance is that the world outside is still there, same as it’s always been. Yet something’s different, there’s no mistaking it. Has he returned invisibly? A spiritual revolution! The kingdom has come in men’s hearts! Yet, when I turn on the radio I only hear more of the great falling away from the faith, the normalization of perversion and other signs of the downward spiral our sin steeped world is caught in. What explains it? I could roll with even a blow like this, if baby Peter had survived. Yet, I know it fits into a plan larger than I can understand. I’ve also accepted that Hannah will never understand it, after her escape attempt. She won’t be doing that again, not without legs. “If some part of our body causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” I told her. “It is better for you to lose your legs than for your whole body to go to hell.”
My stomach turned. Could the whole thing be a sick joke? Something he’d recorded and left behind to freak out trespassers? The urge within me to leave was growing stronger. Yet, there were still tapes I’d not listened to. I could never abide leaving a story unfinished. On the next tape he sounded disjointed and manic.
“I know exactly what you want, you old serpent. You’re so subtle about it, you think I’ll confuse it for my own desires. You sneaky little fuck. It’s so simple, isn’t it? To kill them all would make me God. Of course, I’ve heard it all before. That’s a very old lie, my friend! And what else should I expect from the father of all lies? I’m still in the driver’s seat, you know. You’ll never harm Hannah so long as I’m in control. You take the most important things from me, thinking it’ll drive me to venture out into that doomed world for medicine. So that baby Isaac will live. But that’s up to God, my friend. You can’t stand that, can you? You want me to meddle in his design! That’s the seed of perversion, I know it all too well.”
My hands shook as I switched the tapes. Where was it going? Where else could it go. On the next tape he sounded even more unhinged. “Sleep you say, but sleep is the little death and I will not abandon my station until Christ himself comes to relieve me. Enough of your tricks! How you tore at my heart when you took baby Isaac from me! How you tear at it still, sending demons into Hannah which speak such hateful filth against me in her own voice! You’ll not hurt her so long as I control my own actions. That’s the barrier you cannot cross. I am protected by the blood of the Lamb, so Hannah is too. Leave this place! Torment me no longer! The end has come and gone, I must soon go out into the world and save whomever will bow the knee and confess that Christ is Lord. So lost that they did not even notice! My work is cut out for me. But I am unafraid, for I wear the full armor of God.”
I heard stirring in the other room. I stiffened, and strained my ears. Nothing. But the tapes had put me in a state of mind where I couldn’t leave it alone. I got up and proceeded to the bathroom. Only, it wasn’t a bathroom. Upon opening the door, I discovered a modest bedroom with a filthy queen sized mattress, sprawled across which was the most pitiable figure. Emaciated to skeletal proportions but with only stumps from the knee down. Plainly still alive as the chest rose and fell erratically.
“I’m...sorry, I didn’t know anybody else-” With great effort it propped itself up enough to make eye contact. I convulsed. The face hung flaccidly from the skull beneath it, most of the hair having long since fallen out. The eyes were bloodshot with immense rippling bags beneath them, the mouth entirely toothless. It bellowed incomprehensibly at me, then began to cry. Clutched in her arms were three small, shriveled masses. One hand over my mouth and the other holding my stomach, I backed out of the room and stumbled towards the airlock.
I shut the inner door, and spun the wheel until it was tight. But before I could take hold of the wheel on the opposite door, it began to turn on its own.