Deployment to the Divine Army boot camp near the MARVA fallout zone was a week away. The official draft communiques for Sarah and the Maiths arrived two days following Stacy’s funeral. The same day, football season was canceled, and classes at Everton were postponed.
For Jesse, the anger over his aunt’s death still seethed. Despite recent tensions, he and his cousins set aside their differences and spent nights crying together, performing Joshuan prayers, and reading Joshuan Diary passages regarding goodwill and charity inspiration in order to cope with their forthcoming undertaking.
They also indulged in their favorite hobbies; walks to Dromann’s, playing backyard football, and engaging in humorous banter over random topics.
Jesse understood one thing: the Divine Army needed all the help it could get facing new Alaska. So, on an overcast and rainy 14 October, the day before his fifteenth birthday, he took a walk to Faithville.
When he arrived, he noticed something conspicuous: no military or police were present. One would never have believed their country was ready to go to battle.
Jesse wondered how there could be heavy watchdog activity over other pryvie sectors and little to none in New Hackensack, but any deep thoughts ceased when he saw the streaky white beard of Gabriel flowing downward like an avalanche while standing next to a flaming trash barrel.
“Mr. quarterback!” Gabriel exclaimed as he approached Jesse and shook his hand. “Quite a lot has changed since the last time you and your friends were here.”
“Well, that’s why I’m here,” Jesse replied, projecting humility in his tone. “Where’s the rest of the Four?”
“In the prayer tent,” Gabriel responded. “We just finished our lunch session. We’re waiting for rations to arrive.”
“Well, sir,” Jesse countered as he slipped his hands in his faded, ripped jeans pockets. “Would you mind if we sit for a chat?”
“Not at all! Come on in!” Gabriel gleamed.
They entered the green tent of the pew and cross and greeted Isiah, Zachary, and Peter. They sat face to face in a square-formation on brown plastic chairs with bent legs.
“Gentlemen,” Jesse began as he furrowed his black t-shirt. “I want to begin by apologizing. I’ve been preachy and arrogant. I tried to force my viewpoints on you, and I regret that. So I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me.”
Isiah smiled and extended his right arm and placed it on Jesse’s left shoulder. “Joshua forgives all,” he answered.
Jesse nodded. “I trust you and Peter feel the same way, Zachary?”
They both acknowledged.
“Happy early Divinity Day!” Peter exclaimed.
“HAPPY DIVINITY DAY!” the Four chanted as one.
“Thank you,” Jesse said. “Divinity Day is my birthday, but that’s beside the point.”
“Well, happy birthday, kid!” Zachary glistened. “Did you come here for a gift?!”
“Heh, no,” Jesse said. “But, I digress. As you know, the draft has taken place. I will be deployed to the MARVA zone base in a few days. I was wondering if you four would like to join.”
They collectively glanced at other in disbelief, then Isiah let out a slight chuckle, then his friends did the same.
“Okay, good one,” Isiah cracked. “Should have seen that one coming! That’s a doozy, Mr. anti-Ultimate…”
“I’m serious,” Jesse interrupted. “Things have changed.”
“The attack couldn’t have just ‘changed’ your mind,” Gabriel scoffed. “You don’t have any smartass questions about that?!”
Jesse dropped his eyes. A hint of sadness raced back into his mind, but knowing the Four did not understand what had happened to him, he restrained himself from snapping. Instead, he creased his eyebrows downward and raptly looked at each of the Four in their eyes.
“They killed my aunt,” Jesse sternly replied. “I want revenge.”
Gabriel’s jaw dropped. His friends leaned backwards in shock.
“Whoa,” Gabriel said. “Jesse, I’m… I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, you didn’t know,” Jesse calmly replied. “Look, this isn’t about conspiracies, feelings, or anything like that. If you want to believe I’m not fighting for my country, then so be it. But, this is something deep down I feel like I must do. I know how much you guys love this country, despite your living conditions. I believe this may be a wonderful opportunity for you.”
After an awkward silence, the Four stood up collectively and stared down Jesse like a father looks at his son when he’s ready to levy a punishment. Then, they raised their arms toward the green tent ceiling, and engaged in a silent Joshuan prayer, then all looked at Jesse together.
“Well, son,” Peter said, “this may or may not surprise you to know, but… we’ve all volunteered for the army, too. So have the rest of the able-bodied residents of Faithville and the surrounding tent colonies.”
“Really?” Jesse asked.
“Yes, sir. Even me, who the other guys rib me for being a peace or death-er. That attack changed my perspective. Again.”
“I’m glad you’ve strayed away, Pete,” Isiah added. “It’s all an antiquated dream, concocted after the Endgame. Humans are a competitive species. Peace is impossible. Even if we all get along, one jealous idiot will start the whole greed and envy cycle again.”
“Losing peace is a necessary sacrifice to maintain our freedoms. We don’t have many left. That’s why we’re okay with living in poverty and supporting our leader. He won’t strip us of those freedoms, even it means us giving up our ethics and enforcing some kind of bias.”
Jesse looked at Gabriel and Isiah cross-eyed. “I… see,” he stammered.
“Either way, I’m glad you’ll be joining us,” Gabriel said.
“I still have my beliefs,” Jesse replied, “but I’m learning now that sometimes you have to put your feelings aside.”..
“Been saying that for years!” Gabriel interrupted. “Even back to the days of the old America!”
“A toast to a new beginning, and the continued supremacy of the DRF!” Isiah declared as he produced a bottle of liquid harlowcane from a scratched-up glass bottle.
“HERE, HERE!” the Four shouted as one.
“Here, here,” Jesse added as Isiah poured harlowcane into five separate shot glasses.
“Do you like harlowcane, Jesse?” Isiah asked.
“Not really,” Jesse replied, “but I’m happy to join you guys in a toast.”
“Great!” Isiah said. “Good for two things: coping with stress and enjoying life!”
Jesse and the Four clanked their shot glasses together and took their sips. Shortly after, Zachary asked Jesse for a private word outside the tent.
Jesse followed Zachary across Bergen Boulevard and into Endgame Memorial Cemetery, where they had a seat on a rotten wooden bench near the main gated entrance.
Zachary stared blankly into space, seemingly not studying the headstones and sarcophaguses in front of him. Jesse sensed a certain tension beneath the lines on his face and the gloomy look in his eyes.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” Zachary asked.
“That you took me to the cemetery? I’m not sure that’s the adjective I’d use to describe this,” Jesse quipped.
“It’s the only place where we can have privacy.”
“Okay, you’re freaking me out.”
“Well, in a way it’s kind of appropriate. After we go off to New Alaska, any of us could end up here.”
“We all die one day.”
“In the next few months?”
“I had no idea you were this introspective.”
“I’m not, but did you see what happened before you arrived here?”
“Two members of the SAA resigned in protest of the forthcoming conflict.”
Jesse’s eyes widened in surprise. “No, I wasn’t aware of that at all,” he replied. “Which ones?”
“Devon LaForge and Karen MacDougal. Why would they resign in protest of our leader when it’s clear that New Alaska attacked us?”
“Well, their political philosophies are radically different from His Magnificence.”
“Yes, but that’s beside the point. Think of this: someone like you, someone so anti-His Magnificence would surely have done the same thing, right? But now you come here asking us to join you because they killed your aunt? Surprising, but bold!”
“They probably didn’t lose any loved ones on 9/25, but still; what would this have to do you feeling the way you do right now?”
“I remembered something your girlfriend said on 9/25 when you stopped by. Something like God protecting us on the front lines; something she adamantly questioned. I was angry about it, as you remember. Long after I cooled down, I thought back to when we first left Central Park because of over-crowdedness to establish Faithville. We wanted the space to grow our own colony and teach the word of Joshua. In the last month, though, something questionable took place in some tents within a hundred feet of us, specifically the tents with anti-His Magnificence citizens. The DCF started reducing their rations, and some were harassed verbally and physically.”
Jesse immediately thought back to Newark and realized the Soho group was not the only ones. For the first time since his aunt’s death, small thoughts of conspiracy planted in his mind, but his anger still outweighed any desire to change his mind regarding enlisting. Zachary had his attention, and he finally sat down next to him.
“Did anyone from those tents mention anything to you or your friends?” Jesse asked.
“Yeah,” Zachary replied with passionate inflection. “This one guy, who I don’t agree with politically but I respect him as a human being, told us something about loyalty oaths.”
Jesse squinted. At first, he felt disbelief, but then morbid curiosity took over. “I’m sorry, what?!”
“Yeah! I looked at him like he was insane, but for the first time, I realized there may be something to what your girlfriend so passionately argued about.”
Jesse slowly nodded in agreement.
“Nonetheless,” Zachary resumed, “I will fight for my country. But Jesse, I wanted to apologize to you if you were hurt by anything I said. I’m not sure if you or your girlfriend are right or not, but it was also wrong of me to judge you.”
Jesse smiled and shook Zachary’s hand. “Thank you,” he said. “I look forward to fighting alongside you.”
“Same here, my friend.”