As soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me: the strangers shall submit themselves unto me.
"Father?" I turn around to see Fiona Kallichore at the edge of the pulpit, grasping her clutch purse in front of her stomach. She's got the shakes again, probably from the previous night spent with the bottle instead of her husband.
"Yes, Fiona?" I reply, stepping down to meet her.
"You gave another wonderful sermon as usual."
"I have a question to ask you."
"I have been praying a lot lately, though nothing has changed. Do you think He can really hear us?"
"He hears every prayer, no matter how quiet you speak."
She perks up at my answer, and nods a goodbye before running off down the center aisle of the nave. The remainder of the congregation heads out into an early summer afternoon while I gather my items from the morning mass. It's back to the house for a few hours until I need to be back at the church, for a stretch of sleep I failed to get last night.
This voice does not belong to Fiona. It has been a long time since I was called something other than Father.
I look around just to make sure. The church is empty. I assume it is the settling of the building or the squeak of one of His creatures scuttling underneath the pews.
Then it comes again. A whisper through His holy air.
"Who's there?" I ask an empty room. The vacant benches and seats give me no answer.
A few moments pass before the voice hisses at me, almost angry that I haven't figured out where it's coming from. "Banks!"
I have my suspicions that it's one of the young boys who hid in the Sunday school room. I march down the centre aisle of the nave to look for any stragglers. As I walk, I find nothing.
"Over here," it sighs.
I know where they are now. I bring my attention to the left side of the nave, and to the stone statue of John the Baptist holding his head upon a platter. It had been a gift from the stoneworker next door. I make myself doubt that John is speaking to me through the monument. Sure, we all want the Lord to speak to us in some way, but I do not want a burden so heavy. I do not want the people to come to me for more answers than usual.
I swallow a lump in my throat and look into John's content eyes of stone. "John the Baptist?"
"No," the voice answers me. It is almost just the murmur of a breeze, coming from an open window at the end of the church. The voice is dry with age. I can hear the years that have passed. "I am the Lord of all Hosts, the Almighty. I merely speak through the statue of John."
I look around the church one last time to make sure that I am alone.
"Why do you choose to speak to me?" I ask quietly.
"You are one of my strongest believers. I need you to lead only my most devout followers."
Even if I didn't want to hear the Lord, I had to listen. It was my duty to obey His word. "How will I do this?"
"First, we will need to meet somewhere else, somewhere more private."
"Tonight, after the sun sets, I want you to go north into the desert, taking the road that brings you to the mountains. Stop at the first Joshua tree that you see, on the left side. I will be waiting for you there."
I hadn't been out too far into the desert since I was much younger, before I joined the clergy. I would camp under the stars with a few of my cousins. Out here, there were no bright lights to hide the glory of God's sky. One can see His greatest masterpiece before them with a black background and a glow that isn't the same anywhere else but the desert.
I find the Joshua tree that the Lord had described to me. I am quite far from the city, most of the trees that were closer to the limits had been transplanted next to hotels and casinos years ago. It is not one of the most majestic I've seen, barely able to reach towards heaven with its dry branches. I'm not sure what I was expecting to find there. Perhaps He thought of me as a Moses of sorts and would set the tree on fire.
I wait for one hour. And then another. I take a seat at the base of the tree and lean against the truck, kicking up some dust that will soil my black pants and shirt.
I look up to the stars splashed across the sky, and wonder why He has been watching from above for so long, making me wait.
The next thing I know, the sun in rising. I am still sitting against the tree, but I don't know where all of the time has gone. My head is heavy, and the small of my back aches. I can't imagine that I'd been out there all night. Perhaps I had simply fallen asleep.
I admit to myself that I am going crazy. He would not want to speak to me.
I drive myself back home, taking each mile slowly, as I feel like I've gotten barely any sleep at all. I'm reminded of the days before the clergy, when I'd spend a night or two a week at a bar and return home the next day as a shadow of my former self. As soon as I make it through my front door, I collapse onto the couch, too tired to make it to the bedroom.
I dream. I dream of Him.
He is shrouded in light. I can barely see the outline of His form, that of a thin man. Clothed in the sun, He helps me off of a dusty ground.
"Banks," He says, "I watched over you last night while you were in the desert. You trusted in me to keep you safe. Now I know that you are ready, ready to lead my people into a new age."
"New age?" I ask.
"You question me?"
"I am merely curious, Father."
"A time has come in which only the devout shall thrive. I am going to rid the world of poison and decay. I am starting over, and I want you to help me. Next Saturday night, have the most pious and holy attend a meeting at your church. Tell no one that you think will ruin the new age. Have everyone drink the wine, my blood, that is kept near the altar. Will you do this for me, Banks?"
"I will, Father."
I wake with a start. Another few hours have passed while I was asleep. I reach for the phone and dial Fiona's number first.
Twenty has been my lucky number for a long time, though the other members of the church frown upon chance. I have invited twenty of the congregation to an important meeting Saturday night. They take their seats in the first few rows of pews and we pass around cups of wine.
"I have called you all here because last week, the Almighty spoke to me," I tell them. "He told me to gather those who I believe are the most pious, so we may enter a new age together."
"A new age?" Fiona repeats. "Father, did God tell you that the rapture is coming?"
I am surprised to see that no one doubts me. Everyone drinks their wine, and once they have, I do as well. There is silence in the nave for a long time as we wait. We are waiting for any sign. I begin to doubt myself for a moment, though my dreams had never been as real as the one in which He appeared to me.
We all look to the back of the nave when one of the doors opens.
I hear Him whisper from somewhere behind me. "Twenty? I suppose that will do."
There are three men at the back of the nave. They are not men as we know them. They are very tall and very thin and do not wear clothes, though they have no shame to hide. Their skin is a plethora of greys and reds, their heads too long and rectangular to be earthly. I cannot look away, for their large white eyes with great black pupils freeze me where I am standing.
Fiona is the first to vomit. A few others soon follow until everyone seated is throwing up onto the floor of the nave. Once their stomachs are empty, they expel blood through their mouths, and then something I never wanted to see and would never forget. It came out from behind their lips looking like a poorly filled sausage bathed in blood, and as it wormed its way out, it jerked their necks and heads back and forth.
The three beings walk past the devout and pious without looking at them, dying once the monsters are released. The center being, the tallest, stops a few feet in front of me and raises its slender arm until its hand rests on my shoulder. I have a feeling that it is trying to be sincere, but with its large bulging eyes, it can't be.
It parts its thin lips and speaks to me with a dry voice I've heard before. "Thank you, Banks. You've helped us begin the new age."
I feel a tickle in the back of my throat. "No. I couldn't have."
"We couldn't have done it without you."