The Prodigal

The armored Humvee crawled down the rubble-strewn avenue, avoiding the larger piles and dodging craters, before it came to stop at its destination. The church building had once been beautiful, and the remnants of the large stained glass windows still glowed in the late afternoon light, but the war had taken it’s toll on the edifice. Large gashes had been taken out of the roof, and one of walls had caved in. A separate wing of the structure looked as though a bomb, from one of the many air raids which had released ordinance on this town, had landed a direct hit–the foundation was almost all that remained, and the stone from which the building had been made was embedded in the buildings across the road. When the vehicle came to a rest, the passenger door opened and a soldier stepped out on to a street. The driver also emerged, keeping his rifle at the ready and scanning the buildings for any signs of trouble.

The first soldier pointed toward an entryway, where the church doors were sagging on their hinges and swinging in the breeze. “Corporal, I’m heading inside. Wait here, I’ll be back in a minute.”

“You sure, Cap? This neighborhood’s been a problem. Couple of the MP’s got shot at last night.”

The soldier nodded. “I’m sure. Wait here.”

“Your funeral, sir. But I don’t want to catch hell for letting you go off alone.”

“I’ll be fine. Stay here.”

“Yessir.” The corporal leaned back up against the Humvee, but continued to scan the buildings.

The captain picked his way through the rubble and broken glass as he made his way toward the beckoning portal. Once he reached the entryway he pulled open a door and stepped inside. He expected to be greeted with darkness, but the narthex had several large holes blown through it, allowing the sunlight to pour in. The effect unnerved him for some reason. Turning to his left the captain pulled open the doors to the sanctuary, which remained in place out of some miracle, and stepped into a stark reminder of just how destructive this war had been. Rubble from the collapsed sanctuary wall had poured into the space, throwing pews out of the way and cutting off a third of the space. The ceiling was in terrible shape, and gave an ominous warning creak as he entered. Bits of the roof fell from the large holes which adorned it, causing the captain to jump back.

I shouldn’t stay here long, he thought.

“What do you want?” a voice croaked from near the front of the room. “There’s nothing left to steal, they already took everything.”

The captain wheeled and drew his pistol, looking for the threat. Instead, he fixed his eyes on an older man, covered in dust and whose facial features were hidden behind a scraggy beard. His clothing was as patched and dirty as the man appeared to be. But even dust and grime couldn’t hide his eyes, which were pale green and knowing. The captain lowered his weapon and cocked his head. He knew those eyes.

“Walt? Is that you?”

The man blinked and cocked his head, “Yah I’m Walt, what do you… pastor? Is that you?”

The captain holstered his pistol and stepped toward the man, “I haven’t been a pastor for a long time, Walter. But I’m glad you remember me that way.” Waving his arms toward the broken sanctuary he asked, “Walt, what happened here?”

Walt collapsed on to the platform at the front of the sanctuary. “It’s gone, pastor. Blown up. I guess we lost the windows the first Summer of the war, when the town got occupied. Those folks didn’t like them very much and they liked smashing ’em up and making folks watch.

“The bombs came later, they destroyed the education wing and… well, you see what else.” Tears formed on Walt’s face, “We had some displaced families living there when the bomb hit, I found pieces of them the next day…”

The captain’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry.”

Walt shrugged as the tears began to drip off his cheeks, but he made no other response.

“Were they our bombs, or theirs?”

“Does it matter?”

The captain nodded, “It does to me.”

“Well it doesn’t matter down here!” Walt snapped back. “‘Their’ bombs, ‘our’ bombs. Who cares! All that matters is there were bombs. They fell… and… I was left to pick up the pieces.”

“I’m sorry, Walt, I didn’t mean…”

“Who cares what you ‘mean!’ I think you’re right, you’re not a pastor. Not anymore.” Walt pointed an accusing finger at the captain and shouted, “A pastor would have cared about the people who died seeking shelter!”

As Walt’s shout reverberated off of the remaining structure several bits of roof fell to the ground, causing the captain to jump back. Walt didn’t so much as flinch.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. Is there anyone else left?”

Walt’s arm lowered as he shrugged again. “Just me, I think. At least, no one comes ’round any more. I know the Baileys moved to the mountains when it all started, even though I begged them to stay. They kept in touch before the mail stopped, trying to get me to come stay with them. I don’t know what they’re doing now, or if they’re still alive. When the shortages hit that first Winter we lost a couple dozen families. Some just packed up and left for the refugee camps. A few either starved to death or froze to death when the heat and electric went out. Most others just disappeared. We tried to keep worshipping for a while, thought it was our duty, but when a couple of folks got shot on their way out Sunday morning it put an end to that. I took the keys and I tried to keep the place going the way Jesus would want, but the help all faded over time. I’m all that’s left, captain.”

The captain winced at Walt’s change of address. “I’m sorry I left you here all alone, Walt.”

“Why did you leave us? We needed you. We needed our pastor.”

“I know you don’t understand,” the captain and Walt had had a loud argument the day he announced his intention to join the fight. “But I left to protect you, all of you.”

Walt grunted. “And how’s that working out for you?”

The captain held back his own tears. “Not well.”

At that moment two MP’s stepped into the space, one of which pointed toward Walt. They didn’t see the captain, as he was blocked by a pillar.

“That’s him,” the pointing MP said. “That’s the asshole who keeps thinking the rules don’t apply to him. He keep trying to get folks together to do whatever the hell these nut jobs do.”

The other stepped forward. “All right, sir. You’re going to have to come with us.”

“Why?”

“Because unsanctioned civilian assemblies are prohibited, dipshit. And you just can’t help yourself.”

“What ‘assembly?’ I’m the only here. I’m always the only one here.”

“C’mon, sir, don’t make this hard. You try to assemble, right now that’s considered sedition. We’ve got to take you in.”

“You get it, asshole? You come with us,” the MP raised his rifle, “or I just shoot you right now and put you out of our misery.”

The captain stepped out from behind the pillar. “I don’t think that will be necessary, sergeant. I’ll vouch for him.”

The two MP’s turned and, upon spying someone of greater rank, they both saluted. The captain returned the salute, eliciting a scoff of disdain from Walt.

“You can leave him here, gentlemen. He’s not going to hurt anyone.”

The second MP shook his head. “Sorry, sir, we can’t do that. We’re under orders from the general. Anyone who is caught trying to assemble a group of civilians is to be taken in for questioning. No exceptions.

The captain sighed and nodded. “I understand. He’ll come quietly.”

The MP’s rushed up to Walt and bound his hands behind his back. As they escorted him out of the broken sanctuary the captain placed his hands on the old congregant’s shoulder and said, “I am so sorry, Walt. I didn’t want any of this to happen.”

Walk gazed into the captains eyes, searching for something. At last, he shook his head. “You got the voice, and the face. But, captain, there’s nothing for you to be sorry about. I don’t know you. I knew my pastor, and he wouldn’t go along with any of this.”

The first MP smacked Walt on the back of the head, causing the old man to wince. “That’s enough, freak. Shut your gob or I’ll make it really difficult for you to speak!”

“Sergeant, that’s not necessary. You will treat prisoners with respect. Understood?”

The first MP shrugged. “Sorry sir, but with these religious freaks you really need to put them in their place.”

“Sergeant, I don’t care if he’s just blew your buddy’s head off. He’s your prisoner, you treat him with respect.”

The first MP glared up at the captain, contemplating his retort, when his partner intervened, “Jeez, Chip. Let it go. You got the old man, let’s get out of here.”

“Fine. Do we have permission to depart with our prisoner, captain?”

“You do. Get out of my face.”

Both the MP’s saluted again and escorted Walt from the room.

“Don’t think the changes anything, captain! You left your calling, don’t think salving your conscious by not being quite as bad as everyone else changes that!” The first MP smacked Walk on the back of the head again, just as Walt was being dragged from view. The captain could hear him singing Amazing Grace as he was dragged from his church home.

The lone soldier looked at the remnants of the sanctuary and sighed. He’d never return. As he made his way back to the car his driver pointed toward the MP’s Humvee making its way back up the street. “Jeez, sir, you met one of those old freaks and didn’t call out?”

“He wasn’t dangerous, corporal.”

The corporal gave a non-committal nod, “Even so, I’m happy those MP’s took him out of there. You ready to go, sir?”

The captain nodded, “I am.” And with that he mounted the vehicle, which prompted his driver to do likewise. As they turned to make their way back to base the corporal broke the awkward silence.

“Did you find what you were looking for, sir?”

“I think so, yes.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, sir, why did you want to head to that church. We got nicer ones near us that aren’t as dangerous.”

The captain turned to the driver and took a deep breath. “If you’re interested, it’s because I used to pastor that church. Before the war.”

The corporal grinned, “Shit, sir, I didn’t know you used to be religious! When’dya give it up?”

The captain cocked his head. “To be honest, I didn’t think I had.”

“Really? Sorry for saying sir, but you sure? I don’t know much about the whole religious thing, but I don’t think a lot of the shit I’ve seen you get into would go along with the all that Jesus shit.”

“That may be, corporal. That may be.”

As the Humvee turned back on to the main road and picked up speed he allowed himself to gaze out at the buildings as they passed by. Walt would never know what the captain had given up in order to do what he thought needed to be done. But deep in the vestiges of his heart the captain also wondered if Walt hadn’t been right. He’d left his path, and abandoned the people who needed him most. He hoped he could resolve those things later on, after the war, but he feared he never would.

As they passed the supermarket where the captain used to shop for his family the old soldier took notice of an empty MP Humvee along the side of the road. As they passed the crack of a single gunshot rang out. The captain closed his eyes and shook his head as they drove past, and he didn’t open them again until he got back to camp.

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