CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO


LOUIS


Anthony led us out of Alma and into a dense forest. I could see the tops of mountains through the web of branches above us, and above them the dark grey sky. Snow was still falling down, dancing gracefully through the air. I shivered as the wind whistled past us.

"So, Anthony?" Kayla said, "What did you mean by you're 'somewhat' of a priest?"

"I meant I wasn't one before, but now the people look to me for help and guidance. In my past life, I was a church going, God fearing man. I went every Sunday morning, to Wednesday night services. Volunteered and even hosted some church events. I lived and breathed the word of God. After the End, my church family and I gathered in the church and made a vow to be there for each other, comfort one another in our time of need. Soon, after the pastor died, everyone started to turn to me for guidance. Eventually, they just appointed me as the new leader, some of them even call me Father Anthony."

I rolled my eyes. I had given up on God a long time ago, back when the infection hit and when I lost my mom. I had never been one for faith or religion in the first place, but this world couldn't possibly be something God would willingly create. And if he did, then he wasn't the all loving, all merciful God that all the churches said about him.

The trees began to thin out and I saw a town at the edge of the woods.

"Welcome to Fairplay!" Anthony said like a tour guide, gesturing toward the town. "It's not much, but it's home."

"And where is Rae at?" I asked.

"He's at our church now, come with me." Anthony led us into town, and turned left, moving north on the main road.

"How long have you lived here?" Kayla asked.

"Born and raised," Anthony responded jovially. "Love it here. There's a bit of history here, too. The town was once a gold mining settlement, you know."

"That's interesting," Mitch said, though from the tone of voice he didn't sound very interested.

We turned onto a side road, and there was the church, standing tall surrounded by a bunch of small houses. The bell tower was at the front, above the front doors that were painted black. The church itself was painted white, some of the paint chipping. Tiles were missing from its roof, but it was pretty well kept for the most part. It looked almost untouched by the apocalypse, unlike the houses surrounding it, some of which looked as though they were about to fall apart.

"Wow," Kayla said, looking up at the church in awe. "it's so beautiful."

Anthony smiled. "It's our home, we do our best to take care of it."

As we got closer, the doors opened and some people came pouring out, smiling at the sight of us. Anthony waved at them, smiling from ear to ear. You'd think his face was stuck that way, he had been smiling since the moment we met him. I looked at every person who approached, all of them grinning and shaking our hands, welcoming us to their little town. All of it gave me a very uneasy feeling. It all seemed so out of place, a peaceful little town in the middle of a wasteland full of Infected. I thought back to Colorado Springs, which had given me the same feeling.

We needed to get Rae and leave as soon as possible.


MITCH


Anthony introduced us to everyone in his flock, all very nice men, women, and a few children, all of them very happy to see us. There were maybe thirty people altogether. There was a loud hum from everything chatting with each other and introducing themselves to us.

Anthony held up his hands to silence everyone. "While I'm sure we're all happy to have guests with us, these lovely people are tired and need rest."

"Where's Rae?" Louis demanded, beginning to sound annoyed.

Everyone got quiet and glanced at him nervously. Anthony sighed, but still held that creepy, ear to ear grin on his face. "This way."

He gestured toward the church, but when we looked up Rae was already standing in the doorway, looking surprised. Louis stormed forward, furious.

"Of all the stupid things you've done throughout your entire life," he started, getting closer and closer to yelling with every word, "this has got to be the stupidest thing you could have EVER done!"

Everyone looked uncomfortable, and looked around awkwardly. Rae had his hands behind his back, staring down at his feet with his face brick red.

"Running away? In the middle of the night, no telling if there are any Infected or bandits or God knows what else could have been in that forest. You could have died."

"I know," Rae muttered.

Louis looked baffled. "So why did you do it?"

"Because you're a bastard!" Rae said, glaring at Louis. "You and Mitch, both of you are monsters. You're both sick!"

Anthony ran over and stood nervously between the two brothers, who were both shaking with anger and both looking ready to punch the other. "Calm down now, boys. Now is not the best time for this, you're standing on the steps of a holy house." He beamed at the church.

Kayla went over and put her hands on Rae's shoulders. He angrily shrugged away from her with a huff. I patted Louis' shoulder, and he just sighed.

"Now, let me show you where you'll be sleeping."

"We really should be going," Louis said, "Thank you, Anthony, but we've got places to be."

"I want to stay," Rae spat.

"No," Louis said crossly, but Kayla held her hand up.

"How about we just rest?" she snapped. "We'll take it easy for one night. We'll figure out what we'll do next, but please let's just rest."

The boys fell silent, there was no arguing with Kayla. She'd win.


LOUIS


That night the snow came down heavier than it had in the past two weeks. The howling wind kept me awake, it shook the thin walls of the little house Anthony had led us to. It was one street over from the large church, and we could see it looming over the houses and trees, like it was staring down at us. Like we were peasants standing at the walls of a castle.

Given the state the church was in compared to this house, it certainly seemed that way.

The four of us had talked once Anthony left. Well, it was more like Rae and I yelled at each other while Louis and Kayla sat in the other room planning our next move. They decided that we would leave the next day, after the service Anthony had invited us to. He was so happy to see some new faces, and Kayla thought it would be polite to attend one of the sermons he had. "It seems like the nice thing to do, as visitors," she had said.

Once we left this little town, we'd be off to The Community, and Mitch had said no more stopping in towns or cities. Only to rest and take shelter if we need it, but no more steering off of the main course. He, like the rest of us, wanted to get to The Community and be done with this. "The road trip from hell" is what he called it.

I agreed with him. The minute we arrived, I didn't care if I ever spoke to him or Kayla again. I wondered if it had been a mistake, deciding to join in on their little adventure to a place that probably didn't even exist and was probably nothing more than some dead man's dream. If we got there and found nothing, I don't know what I'd do. Lose my mind? Try to find someplace else? Give up?

I was so lost in thought I didn't even realize that I had been up all night, staring out of the living room window at the high church walls. Rae shuffled down the stairs, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Kayla came down behind him, yawning.

Mitch sat up on the couch and stretched, his back popping. "This has got to be the most uncomfortable couch ever," he muttered.

We made our way towards the church, where Anthony had told us he hosted breakfast along with his morning sermon. Some of the townspeople were already heading inside, and when we approached them they all smiled at us and directed us inside. I didn't like the feeling in my gut, the one that I had yesterday when I met these people, the one I had in Colorado Springs. I had a bad feeling about this town, about the people here. Was I just being paranoid? Would our past experiences foster mistrust for anyone else we'd meet?

The inside of the church was enormous and beautiful. Stain glass windows lined the walls, the rows of pews had been moved to accommodate long brown tables and chairs that took up the middle of the hall. There were enough spots to sit all the townspeople and then some. The altar was breathtaking, a large white pedestal with an open book sitting on top of it, which I could only assume was the Bible. An organ stood proudly at the side of the altar, just below three rows of stands that a choir would have stood on and led the church in songs of worship. And above it all was a large beautiful oak cross mounted on the wall.

It was all so beautiful that you wouldn't think the world had ended, the beauty inside the church made me forget, just for a moment, all the terrible things this new world had brought with it. All the destruction, all the death, it all seemed to fade for a second, and it had been the most peaceful second I'd had since all this had started.

The townspeople led us to the tables and sat us down at the front so we'd have a clear view of the altar. Some women appeared carrying plates of eggs and sausages. My jaw dropped at the sight of the food, and the women smiled as they loaded up our plates. But that feeling was still there in my stomach, despite how beautiful the church was and how good the food smelled. I didn't want to trust any of this, but my stomach rumbled loudly and I helped myself to a very delicious breakfast.

After everyone had finished eating, Anthony appeared through a door at the back of the church, and stepped onto the altar. Everyone fell silent and smiled at him admirably.

He grinned and said, "Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining me today. If you haven't yet, please take a chance to meet some wonderful new people to the area!" He gestured over to us, but the statement seemed pretty ridiculous considering everyone in town had met us already. But no one else seemed to care, they were all staring at Anthony, waiting for the next thing he had to say.

"My sons and daughters, none of this would be possible without the help of our Lord. None of this could have happened. We wouldn't have the livestock for this food, we wouldn't have shelter over our heads, we wouldn't have this church to bask in His love for us. But most of all, we wouldn't have our Saviors."

Everyone nodded in agreement and muttered things to one another. Mitch and I shared a look, both of us confused. Rae and Kayla looked perplexed as well.

"Ah yes, the Saviors. Our Liberators. The Cleaners. They are known by many names, my children. And it is that time. Come, let us go thank our Saviors."

Everyone stood up and followed Anthony through the door at the back of the church. Some of them stopped and pulled us from our seats and made us follow. We were lead down a cramped hallway and down some stairs and through the back door. I gasped.

Inside the yard, surrounded by a high chain link fence, were three Infected chained to large metal poles. They all had buckets in front of them, buckets which contained the remains of some poor animal. They were all on their knees, digging at the flesh in the bucket and slurping down the flesh and blood. The sight was sickening, and it felt like the breakfast I had just enjoyed was about to come back up.

"Praise be to our Saviors!" Anthony exclaimed, throwing his hands up in worship.

The townsfolk gathered along the fence and dropped to their knees as if they were in prayer. "Praise be to our Saviors!"

My stomach churned. Mitch looked at me, and asked me if I was alright, but no sound came from his mouth. All I heard were the screams from the Infected once they realized they were surrounded by people, by fresh food. The screams filled my head, making it impossible to think. I retched and threw up the eggs and sausage, and then everything went black.