32


AMY

11:37 AM


            “I’m sorry,” I say quietly as Chelsea and I sit in her idling car, the heater struggling to warm it up.
            Chelsea allows a cautious smile. “We gave her a chance. That’s all that matters.”
            “It seemed like things were going so well at first.”
            “Perhaps there’s still time for her to change. Keep her in your prayers.”
            “Do you think anyone is responding positively to the message?” I ask.
            “I have no idea, hon, but I like to hope. Maybe inactive ones will see it and have second thoughts. Maybe new ones will be motivated, too. It’s hard to say.”
            “The end feels so close, Chelsea,” I say.
            “It is. But until the organization tells us to stop with the preaching, we’ve got to keep positive.”
            I think over Chelsea’s words as she eases her station wagon from the lot and stops at a red light. Rain from the previous night has frozen with the sudden cold, and the road is covered in frosty patches of ice. Chelsea cranks the heat to full blast and I feel my feet slowly thaw in their boots.
            “So, what’s the plan for the rest of the day?” I ask, fingers hovering over the vents. The hot air streaming between them feels marvelous.
            “Let’s head back to my place. I noticed this morning there were a bunch of updates to the news section on the app. I’m curious to see what’s happening with our brothers in Hong Kong.”
            I nod thoughtfully, looking forward to getting out of the cold. The latest broadcast emphasized the need to pray specifically about our brothers undergoing various trials around the world. Chelsea and I have gotten into the habit of checking the site weekly, making notes of all the events, and then praying about them together after our study.
            The light turns green and Chelsea presses gently on the gas, letting the wheels find traction as we coast into the intersection. We hear the spin of rubber on ice as the vehicle behind us tries to accelerate too quickly. Chelsea throws a quick glance at her rearview mirror.
            “These roads are pretty sketchy today,” she says anxiously. “I hope Melissa takes it slow on her way home.”
            I nod in agreement and glance out my passenger window. There’s a green pickup truck speeding in our direction. Through its windshield, I see the driver, a man in a white beard, raise his eyes from the cell phone in his hand and panic. He drops the phone and grips the wheel tightly in both hands as all four tires lock. The bed of the truck fishtails left and right, but the vehicle continues to move our way, skidding across the slick ice.
            Chelsea turns to look and the two of us scream. There is no time to react, no time to move out of the way. A powerful explosion of glass erupts from the side of the vehicle as the pickup slams into us and everything goes black.

LUKE

11:39 AM


            I sit awhile alone in my car wondering what comes next. The homeless man has found some scraps of cardboard and has made a sort of sleeping bag from them. The temperature is far below anything bearable and I pity him. I remember a fleece blanket in my trunk and drive over. His hands shoot into the air as soon as he spots my car. He’s trembling when I open my door, and I can’t tell if it’s from fear or cold. I grab the blanket and hand it to him.
            His face explodes in a web of wrinkles, deep grooves cut into the skin and accentuated by a buildup of dirt and sweat. He thanks me softly with a mouth devoid of teeth. He throws the blanket over his head and burrows beneath the boxes as I drive away.
            It’s nearing lunch time but I’m not hungry. My mind keeps going back to Meade’s threats. I’ve never felt so helpless. He’s got enough leverage against me to completely derail my life. My marriage, my career, my future. It’s all in his hands. I have no choice but to comply. I need to get whatever information I can about the Witnesses and extract my wife and I from this situation as soon as possible. There’s simply no other way. I don’t like the implications this has for Walter and his wife, but I simply have no choice.
            I feel my foot go heavy on the pedal and scold myself, forcing myself to slow down. I pull to a stop at a red light and notice a couple of cars skidding a few feet into the crosswalk. The roads blister with black ice; there will be plenty of accidents today. I flip on my console, eager for a distraction. Sure enough, there’s been a collision on Raymond Avenue and Vonn Parkway, less than two miles from me. I inform dispatch that I’m on my way and hit the sirens and flashers.
            The cars ahead of me wiggle their way onto the shoulder lanes as I slip past, careful not to cause an accident of my own as I risk the intersection against the light. I keep my speed well below the limit and approach the scene.
            A green pickup truck spews a charcoal column of smoke from beneath its crumpled hood. The other vehicle, a maroon station wagon, has fared much worse. The right side is smashed and tattered beyond repair, a sea of glass shards splattered about the wreck. The driver of the pickup is on his cellphone babbling incoherently. A thin line of crimson runs down the side of his head but he’s oblivious to the injury.
            I approach the other vehicle carefully, looking through the shattered window to see if anyone’s inside. When I see them, my heart stops.



Monday, January 11


7:03 PM

LUKE


            I try to ignore the plastic tubing coming from my wife’s head and the patch of hair they had to shave away to insert it. A neck brace keeps her locked in place. Her right leg, which was shattered on the truck’s impact, is elevated and cocooned in a cast. A web of pipes and wires stream from her nose, mouth, and hands. It’s as if Amy is so frail that she would simply fall apart if it weren’t for these machines. My hands ache to reach out and touch her, to somehow pull her back to consciousness, but I’m too afraid of hurting her. I grip the edge of her mattress and lower my head in defeat.
            I was twenty-three when Amy and I met. I’d just finished my degree and marriage was the farthest thing from my mind. I was perfectly content with the idea of eternal bachelorhood. But Amy changed all that. We first met at a dinner party of a mutual friend, Hector. Amy was friends with Hector’s sister and he was interested in her. Hector had thought the feelings might be mutual, but after just a few minutes of observing the two of them, it was clear that the romance was one-sided. Amy was too sophisticated for him. While the other partygoers discussed the latest trends and music and movies, Amy’s mind was elsewhere, and eventually she disappeared completely.
            I found her lying on the back deck staring up at the stars. She said she’d always wanted to study astronomy but didn’t have a knack for the science behind it. She hoped to visit space someday and see if Earth was really as beautiful as the pictures made it seem. She had so much on her mind. She worried about the GMOs in her food and the way cotton was harvested by children in Bangladesh. She complained about the corruption of megacorporations and the greed of politicians.
            I’d never met anyone who cared so much about so much. She had the motivations of an activist but couldn’t decide what to do about it. She liked that I wanted to be a cop and said she’d probably be doing the same thing if it weren’t for her aversion to guns. We gazed at the stars and chatted for almost three hours. When we finally went back inside, nearly everyone had left or passed out. Hector was milling around picking up trash with a plastic bag in his hand. He gave me a defeated smile when he saw Amy and I together, as if he’d known all along it would come to this. Amy and I helped him clean up and left at two thirty in the morning. We exchanged numbers and were engaged within six months. We were married a year later.
            It was never a fairy tale marriage, but it’s been close. Amy’s always stood by me, supported me, and respected me. I can’t hold back the tears as I clench my hands together and press my forehead into them at the side of her bed. I can’t bear the thought of life without her. Walter knew what he was talking about. Amy was my star. My one in a million.
            A plastic printout of Amy’s MRI hangs from a railing above the foot of her bed. Some nurse has stuck a few sticky arrows to the film strip indicating where the brain swelling is worst. The surgeons put a tube in my wife’s head to help drain the fluid and reduce the inflammation. No one seems to know when she’ll wake up. Comas are unpredictable, they say. It could last hours, it could last days.
            It could last the rest of her life.
            I retreat downstairs to the cafeteria as night settles in. I have no appetite, but I force myself to eat anyway. I grab a small plastic dish of tossed salad covered in cling wrap and a baked potato. I dine by myself at a round table beneath a television set spewing an update on the North Korean missile crisis. ‘On the Brink?’ teases a headline at the bottom of the screen. For some reason it makes me angry, but I continue to watch.
            I shovel the tasteless food into my mouth as I stare numbly into the screen. They briefly mention Zeke Brady, the anarchist ex-cop Gabe mentioned a few weeks ago. He’s in police custody after being charged with plotting the assassination of a Senator. His supporters, who call themselves ‘zekes’, are up in arms over what they believe is a federal conspiracy to frame their leader. I watch, detached, as they wave a giant black flag with a painted red ‘Z’ at one of their rallies.
            I’m suddenly too tired to care anymore. I throw the half-eaten tray of food into the garbage and wander the corridors. I find myself in the underground parking garage, where a uniformed guard smoking a cigarette nods in my direction. There’s a firearm strapped to his side and I wonder when they started arming these people. Maybe after that shooting in Miami? I can’t remember and don’t bother to try. It’s all bad news, everywhere I look, everything I think and feel.
            I meander back through the corridors to the wing where Amy sleeps. There’s a voice I recognize down the hall and I track it down. I peek into one of the rooms and glimpse the back of a grey haired man hunched over a hospital bed. It’s Walter.
            I stand there quietly for a few moments, watching him as he strokes his wife’s head. She’s unconscious, though she seems to be breathing on her own. There are bandages on her face and arms, but the rest of her body is shielded from my view. She doesn’t look as bad as Amy, though. Walter seems to sense my presence. He turns to look at me. Dark skin circles his eyes and his smile is a thin wire.
            “Hi, Luke,” he says softly. I nod. Walter glances back to his wife before grabbing his coat and motioning for us to leave the room. He shuts the door as we exit.
            “How is she?” I ask.
            “Hit her head pretty bad on impact, but the doctors seem to think she’s through the worst of it. How’s Amy?”
            “Still unconscious,” I say, unwilling to call it a coma.
            “They’ll need lots of rest,” Walter says with a tired look. “We’ve both got a long road ahead of us.”
            “Yeah,” I say, sinking heavily into a bench in the hallway. I suddenly feel frail and exhausted, as if the blood’s been drained from my body. I rub my face in my hands, working the circulation back into my brain. Walter sits next to me and says nothing as the hospital sounds wash over us. A doctor mutters something quietly to a nurse behind the counter. Someone fills a plastic pill bottle. A stack of blood packets are loaded onto a cart and wheeled through a set of swinging doors.
            “We’ll get through this, Luke,” Walter says with a hand on my shoulder. I nod slowly, appreciating the support more than I’m willing to admit.

31


Monday, January 11


10:12 AM

AMY


            The tang of yeast hangs in the air of the deli as I warm my hands on a Styrofoam cup. The heaters in here are cranked up to full blast but the cold gusting through the front doors with the entrance and exit of each customer effectively negates it. Chelsea sits next to me in the booth, skimming over the latest news on a mirror site of JW.org. Over a hundred counties have now officially banned the activities of our organization, though in some of these places our website continues to function normally. The Great Tribulation is in full swing.
            We’ve been sitting here nibbling on pretzels and sipping coffee waiting for Melissa, the woman we met at the mall a few weeks ago. I’d figured it was a lost cause after we were banned from Grand Avenue Plaza, but Chelsea managed to find this Deli and somehow persuaded the woman to come out and meet us.
            Melissa finally stumbles through the front door at ten thirty. She peels off her down jacket and gloves and stuffs them into the bench across from us in the booth and plops down beside them. Her cheeks and nose are bright red from the icy weather outside, but I also note the dark blue discs under her eyes, which I attribute to the fact that she’s raising three boys.
            Chelsea orders her a latte and a pretzel and sets them in front of Melissa, who flashes the older woman a look of gratitude. We make small talk for a few minutes. We commiserate about the cold and the traffic and the flu.
            “So how were your holidays? Were your kids happy with the gifts?” Chelsea asks. Melissa pauses for a moment before tearing a bit of pretzel off and sticking it into her mouth.
            “Oh, I suppose so. The youngest one for sure. He was so excited about the hoverboard that he took it outside that morning and rode it down the road. I guess he hit a patch of ice, because he came home with a sprained wrist. We spent the rest of Christmas morning at the clinic getting him fitted for a brace.”
            “Oh, poor kid,” I say. Melissa shoots me a look, as if she’s surprised to learn that I can speak. Chelsea encouraged me earlier to try to be more a part of their conversation, but the result of this first attempt isn’t encouraging.
            “Boys will be boys,” Chelsea says with an easy laugh. “My son was just the same. For a while it seemed like we were at the hospital every other week for casts or stitches or slings.”
            “Oh, you have a son?”
            “Yeah. He’s grown now, of course.”
            “Oh, I see. Sorry, I kind of figured…” Melissa gives Chelsea an embarrassed look and glances back and forth between the two of us. My face goes red with the realization of what she was going to say.
            “Oh, no, we’re just friends,” Chelsea says, coolly as ever.
            “Right, of course. No, I’m sorry. I mean, not sorry, it’s nothing to be ashamed of if you guys were, you know… But whatever,” Melissa says with a dismissive shake of her head. She gulps down a bit of her latte and takes a long stare out the window as we wait for the awkwardness to pass.
            “So, are your boys still on winter break?” Chelsea asks.
            “No, and thank goodness for that. Don’t get me wrong; I love my kids, but after two weeks having them lounging around the house, playing video games, it gets old. I finally have the house to myself again.”
            “Spoken like a true mother.” Chelsea smiles.
            “So how were your holidays then? You have a big family thing?” asks Melissa.
            “Actually, no. My husband and I don’t celebrate Christmas. But we did get to spend some time together since his work was so slow that weekend. It was nice to have the quiet time.”
            “No Christmas, huh? That must be nice, not having to worry about holiday shopping,” the woman says wistfully.
            “It is. I’ve kind of always felt that the holiday season brings people more stress than joy. What’s supposed to be a happy time ends up being a burden, especially financially.”
            “Oh, absolutely. You know, I actually have friends that took out a loan from a bank just to buy gifts for their kids this season. I told them not to do it, that the kids would just have to understand, but they insisted. I guess they couldn’t deal with the pressure they’d face from the rest of their family if the kids went empty-handed. And with the interest rates as high as they are! Can you imagine?”
            “Wow, that’s really sad,” I say, and this time Melissa’s look tells me she agrees.
            “I’ve always thought that gifts should be given out of joy,” Chelsea says, and Melissa nods. “It reminds me of something I read recently.” Chelsea’s voice trails off as she fishes her iPad from her purse and taps the JW Library app. She navigates to 2 Corinthians 9:7 and highlights a section of the verse with a finger before sliding the tablet across the table. Melissa leans over and reads the words quietly.
            “Is this the Bible?” she asks, her expression slightly shifting.
            “Yeah. I like this verse because I think it really captures the essence of what gift-giving should be about. Giving freely when we want and not when others expect us to. I think of myself here. If it was me, and I was waiting all year for a particular day because I knew my husband was supposed to give me something special, and when the day rolls around all he’s gotten me are some flowers, I’d be disappointed. Maybe even a little angry. But if, one day when I wasn’t expecting it, he bought me those same flowers, it’d put a smile on my face. I think that’s the beauty of giving without compulsion.”
            “Makes sense. But try telling that to three teenage boys,” Melissa says.
            “Oh, I can only imagine.”
            “So,” Melissa says, lowering her voice as she looks between the two of us. “You’re Christian?”
            “I like to live by the principles here in the Bible,” Chelsea says nonchalantly. “What about you, Melissa? Do you have a faith?”
            Melissa shrugs and gazes into her coffee. “I dunno. Used to like going to church when I was a kid, always thought about returning one day, but looks like that opportunity is gone now.”
            “What do you mean?” I ask.
            “What, you haven’t seen the news in the last six months? Churches are all but extinct.”
            “The Bible isn’t,” Chelsea says.
            “Not yet, but maybe one day it will be. Everything’s changing so quickly in this country. These riots, religious bans. It’s like we’re living through one of those dystopian novels. What was it, 1984? Anyways, I don’t really know anything about the Bible. It’s been so long since I went to church. And plus, I don’t even know if I believe in God.”
            “You sound like me when I was your age,” Chelsea says.
            “Oh?”
            “When I was younger, I always sort of had this feeling, this inkling that God ought to exist, but I had no proof. I didn’t think anyone did. I wasn’t particularly interested in the Bible or religion.”
            “But you read the Bible now.”
            “I do. Eventually I met someone who really understood it, and used it to explain a lot of interesting questions for me. I realized I had lots of misconceptions about it, and eventually I came to see it as something very different from what I’d first thought.”
            “So, how do you see it now?”
            “I really believe it’s the inspired word of God.”
            Melissa’s eyes narrow slightly as she leans back in the booth and crosses her eyes. I hold my breath as I wait for her next words.
            “You two are Jehovah Witnesses, aren’t you?” she finally says.
            “Yes,” Chelsea says calmly.
            “I recognized that Bible app you just used. Been seeing that logo everywhere with that video that’s been going around. What’s it called?”
            A Judgment Message?” I say hopefully.
            “Yeah, that’s the one.”
            “And? What did you think?”
            “You people have some nerve, posting garbage like that. It’s fear mongering,” the woman says angrily. My heart sinks. “My littlest one saw it and couldn’t sleep that night. Kept saying something about God and Armageddon.”
            “I can understand how you feel, but the fact is–”
            “The fact is that we’re done here. I have no idea why you people dragged me out here, but I want no part of this,” Melissa says, gathering her items quickly into her arms and pushing out the front door, leaving her coffee and half eaten pretzel.

LUKE

10:20 AM


            It’s been three days since I stuck the WIRM in a P.O. box as instructed. Agent Meade called me this morning; he wants to meet again. It’s too cold to be outside, so I sit in my car in a parking lot and wait. The strip mall is all but abandoned; half the shops have succumbed to the economy and shelled up their windows with plywood. A homeless man throws an empty beer can at my car as he wheels his shopping cart past. He yells something, too, but I can’t make out a word of it with my heater going at full blast. It seems like there are more homeless on the streets every day and I feel for them, especially with this harsh winter weather.
            I’ve had a lot on my mind ever since that last dinner at Walter and Chelsea’s. I hadn’t been prepared for Walter’s scientific explanation for his belief in a God. The evidence he presented left me with even more questions. I’d never really understood evolution when I was in college, and the way Walter dissected and refuted it made me realize there was a whole lot left unsaid in those textbooks. According to Walter, there’s even more evidence for the existence of God to be found in the Bible itself. Though I’m skeptical, I wonder why we weren’t taught any of this in Sunday school.
            Half an hour passes before I finally spot a black SUV slithering into the spot beside me. Meade rolls down his window and gestures for me to get in. I can tell from a glance he’s not happy about what he heard on the recording device. I cling for a moment to the hope that maybe it failed completely, but Meade’s next words indicate otherwise.
            “What was this?” he says with a sneer as he flicks the WIRM at me. It ricochets from the window before disappearing somewhere beneath the seats. “I thought we were clear last time that I needed something solid to work with. I end up sitting through three hours of you two talking about what, natural disasters? Are you playing games with me, Harding?”
            “Look, I’m sorry. The opportunity didn’t come up. I tried, but we didn’t get around to it.”
            Didn’t get around to it? You kidding me? Three hours and you’re telling me you couldn’t think of something?”
            “I tried asking my wife about their meetings. It’s not on the recording. She gave me nothing, and said I should talk to Walter. These people are careful, Meade. They probably know your people are onto them.”
            “And how would they know that?”
            “They’re smart. They’ve been trained.”
            “We know they’ve been trained, Luke. It’s the somehow that we sent you to investigate. And so far you’re zero for two. I’ve got a hole burning in my pocket where the evidence we have against you is just waiting. I’m getting tired of sitting on my hands.”
            I’ve heard this rhetoric before, and each time it’s lost a bit of its sting. Maybe Meade senses he’s losing leverage.
            “So what happens, then? If I give you the info you’re looking for, what do you do with it?”
            “Not my job, Harding. I’m just here to get intel.”
            “And you’re the only one on this? For an operation that seems so critical, you must have other sources.”
            Meade gives me a long look before scowling. “Stop worrying about my job, and focus on yours.”
            The homeless man from the parking lot hobbles our way, his wobbling cart towed in his wake. Meade lets him get within a few feet before leaning into his horn. Startled, the man falls over, toppling the cart and sending his few possessions scattering along the macadam. Meade chuckles, clearly pleased with himself.
            “The Witnesses aren’t bad people, you know,” I mutter. “I don’t see why you’re targeting them.”
            “Jehovah’s Witnesses are like all the rest, Luke. Put them under a little pressure and they’ll either give in or turn against you. It’s a basic fight or flight response.”
            “Well then, there you have it. They’ve chosen flight. Why not just let them be?”
            “Because we’re not the weak country we used to be, making laws and then not enforcing them, or giving in when the people have their say. We’re fighting the banks, for once, going after corporate corruption like never before. This is a new America, Luke, and you should be proud to be a part of it. The government has finally got the bite to match the bark, and we’re it. We are securing a future that our children will feel safe growing up in.”
            I silently let the words wash over me in as I gaze out at the empty parking lot and darkened store windows, the poor homeless man refilling his cart with tarps and tattered blankets. Is this the new America Meade is talking about?
            “I don’t have kids,” I finally mumble.
            “Your loss. I have three. And I expect my government to take action to protect them.”
            “And you really think removing religion is the way to go?”
            “Of course you don’t, Luke. But I’ve seen things that would change your mind. I wasn’t always an FBI agent. I served my country overseas. Had a chance to get a close-up view of what religion does to people. Muslims, Jews, Christians, they’re all the same. Killing in the name of their gods. Wreaking havoc for their so-called faiths. I thought what I was seeing was just in the Middle East, that for some reason we’d found a way to reconcile our differences here in America. Then I came home and woke up.”
            “You mean terrorism?”
            “Yes, but not the kind you’re thinking of: jihadists in masks running around with AK-47s and taking hostages. It’s terrorism on all levels. Christians burning crosses in the name of Christ. Black ministers stoking the fires of racial hatred. Baptists protesting at gay funerals and weddings. Terrorism has many faces. And I’m sick of it.”
            “Ok,” I relent, “But if you take religion away, something will just come up in its place. People will always fight about something.”
            “No, Luke, you’re wrong. Not like religion. Nothing has the power to warp minds and divide communities like religious brainwashing. In all the history of man, nothing has caused more war and suffering. It’s time for a new era.”
            “And you’re going to change it? By locking people up and closing churches?”
            “You seem to think I’m the only one on this crusade. If only you knew how many senators, politicians, intellectuals, ex-Presidents–“
            “But the presidents were all churchgoers themselves,” I blurt out. Meade shakes his head and grins, but he seems to simmer from within.
            “In the past, maybe. Recently, it’s just been something said to gain support at the ballots. Truth be told, most are as secular as myself. Trust me when I say that in ten years, all the churches will be gone.”
            Ten years. It’s difficult to imagine, but I have no reason to doubt him, judging by the swiftness of the Liberation Act and how it’s overturned the entire religious spectrum in just a few months.
            “So what happens to the couple, then–Walter and Chelsea? After I get you the info you’re after, where do they end up?”
            “Why do you care?” Meade snivels.
            “They’re friends of my wife. It won’t be easy for her if something happens to them.”
            “They’ll be booked, spend a little time in jail. It’ll be on their record, then we let ‘em go, under one condition.”
            “What’s that?”
            “That they renounce their religious beliefs.”
            “That’s it?”
            “That’s it. Otherwise we’ll keep them till they do. In any case, they’re not the big fish we’re after. We want to know how they’re connected. Obviously, the Witnesses are still functioning as an organization, and that’s something we won’t tolerate.”
            “Don’t they have a headquarters or something?”
            “Of course they do. We shut that down months ago. There’s no one there now, just a bunch of empty offices and factories. But apparently, they’re still operating, and we need to know how. This has become a top priority of national security.”
            “Ok, I’ll look into it,” I finally accede.
            “You’d better. This is your last chance, Harding.”
            I nod, frowning.
            “And by the way, don’t assume that the worst that will come of your refusal to cooperate is some incriminating photos of you and another woman finding their way to Amy.”
            I’m shaking my head, not fully understanding.
            “Little slow on the draw there, Harding. Not sure how you ever made sergeant. You’re about as dumb as they get. The audio recording you gave me. It’s evidence.”
            “Evidence?”
            “Against you. If you fail me, we’ll make sure your captain gets a copy. Once he finds out you’re affiliated with a religious group, well, I’m sure your marriage will only be one of your worries.”
            Meade leans across my lap and flings my door open. I step out in a daze, his threat still sinking in.
            “Now get out of my car and get me that intel,” Meade growls as he starts his black SUV and roars away.

30


Saturday, December 26


LUKE

6:29 PM




            I got my in. It wasn’t all that hard, either. Amy was the one to bring it up, and all I had to do was nod my head in the right places and seem interested. Her and Chelsea had everything planned within a day, and now here we are, driving down the boulevard to the Novaks’s bungalow. I catch Amy trying to hide the smile that keeps creeping onto her face from the corner of my eye. I know she must have high hopes for me, that I’ve come to see the world through her eyes, and that I’m ready to give her religion a chance. It doesn’t feel good stringing her along like this, but what choice do I have? I’m doing this for us.

            We don’t talk much in the car, a few scattered comments about the weather and the traffic. It snowed a couple of days ago and just about threw the city into a panic. We’re too far south to ever get serious snow, but these last two years have brought freakish weather. The temperature drops and spikes as it pleases and no one knows what to expect anymore. Most of the snow has begun melting and collecting on the dirty lanes’ shoulders like clumps of wet coal. I hear the hiss of our tires as we slip onto a side road and gun it up the hill.

            I’ve got the recording device clipped under my jacket’s collar. What did Meade call it again, a WIRM? I’m not sure how much it’ll actually be able to pick up, but I’m not overly concerned. I have no desire to make Meade’s job any easier. Hey, maybe if I fail enough times he’ll just give up and forget about me. Or, we could win the lottery.

            We finally get to the house. It’s a little before seven and we get the same warm welcome from Walter and his wife. We’re ushered into the dining room and discover another elaborate spread. It’s the one thing I’ve been looking forward to all day. When it comes to cooking, I’ve learned that Chelsea doesn’t disappoint.

            The evening goes on more or less as it did last. The meal is eaten mostly in silence. You don’t ruin good food like this with too much conversation. The three of them discuss a thing or two, but I sense some restraint, like they’re trying not to annoy me with prattle I don’t understand.

            “So, Luke,” Walter finally says from across the table. The girls have gathered our plates and begun cleaning the kitchen. “Amy said that you had some things you wanted to ask.”

            If only he knew. A dozen questions come to mind. Where are their meetings held? Who’s in charge? Where do their orders come from? How are they communicating? I can’t ask any of this, of course. I’m the concerned husband, I remind myself. It’s something Walter will relate to, something that won’t seem out of place.

            “Yeah, Amy said something about being prepared for disasters,” I say. Walter nods, waiting for the question. “I’m curious what you two have done to prepare. And what, exactly, you’re preparing for.”

            “Oh, I see. Well, yes, Chelsea and I try to be prepared in case of emergencies. We have a couple of bags always at the ready in case we have to evacuate.”

            “Evacuate?” I wonder aloud. Geographically speaking, we live in one of the safer parts of the US. No fault lines, no coastal areas prone to flooding or hurricanes, too many trees for tornadoes.

            “Sure. We’re not just thinking of being prepared for natural disasters. Man-made disasters are just as common.”

            “Like?” I ask dubiously.

            “Suppose a power plant has an incident. Maybe there’s a fire. Or maybe something happens to the highways, blocking off our food supply for a few days.”

            “And there’s been lots of looting on the news,” Chelsea chimes in.

            “Ok, so you’re survivalists,” I say, imagining a propane generator tucked away somewhere and a closet full of guns and ammo. But Walter only smiles at me and shrugs the assumption away.

            “No, nothing like that, Luke. Our ultimate trust is placed in our God, Jehovah. We have confidence that he can protect us better than we ourselves.”

            “Isn’t that a contradiction, though? You say you trust in God, but you’ve stocked up on supplies.”

            “We’re not really stocked up. We’ve got enough to last us a few days in case of an emergency, especially in the event that we’ll suddenly have to leave everything behind.”

            “And how likely do you think that is? That you’ll have to leave it all behind?”

            Walter shrugs again. “Who knows? But we believe that the shrewd one sees the danger and conceals himself.” Walter says this in a way that makes me think he might be quoting from something, but says nothing to elaborate.

            “So is this common, then? Do most Witnesses prepare for worst-case scenarios?”

            My question elicits a frown as Walter leans back and takes a deep breath. “Do you really think it’s a worst-case scenario, Luke? Or do you think that the time we’re living in is prone to upheavals?”

            “I’d like to think I’m making a difference with all those hours I put into this community,” I say defensively. The words sound hostile but I lack the emotions to back them up. I can’t disagree with Walter and he probably knows it.

            “I’m not trivializing the work you do, Luke. As I said when I first met you, I’m grateful for law enforcement. If it weren’t for people like you, I have no doubt that things would be much worse. Still, you must admit that things are worsening, and not just here in Haliford. The whole world feels it. When we first moved into this house in the 80’s, we could leave our back door unlocked. We knew our neighbors. We felt safe. Crime was always something that was happening on the other side of town. Thirty years later, we’ve got cages on our windows and motion sensors all over the property. At night, we barely feel safe leaving the house to get something from our car in the driveway. From where I’m standing, we’re already living a kind of worst-case scenario.”

            I think to the apartment Amy and I have been renting since shortly before we were married. It’s a good two notches below this neighborhood in terms of desirable real estate, with gunshots and ambulances a regular part of the background noise. The lowlifes seem to steer clear of me somewhat because of the uniform, but even that won’t protect me forever, not with the level of crazy that people are rising to these days.

            “The Witnesses are not paranoid, but we are prepared. We’re taught to be,” Walter says.

            “Taught by whom?”

            “Taught by the Bible.”

            “The Bible tells you to prepare a bag with nylon rope and dust masks?” I say, laying it on thick.

            “The Bible encourages us to keep an eye on the times. It gives some clear signs to look for to know what period we’re living in.”

            “So it tells you when you have to grab your stuff and run away from your house?” I say, my tone softened.

            “Actually, there are Biblical accounts that describe exactly that. But if and when those pertain to our circumstances, we will have to wait and see. We don’t spend too much time worrying about it.”

            “Well, that’s good, because in the case of the manmade disasters you mentioned, I doubt that grabbing a bag with some bottled water and canned goods and running away would be safer than just staying put in your own home. People panic easy. It would be chaos outside.”

            “Interesting. So it sounds like you’ve given this scenario some thought, too,” Walter says.

            “It’s part of our training. We study mob psychology in the academy, what happens when society starts breaking down and people go nuts. It’s pretty scary how fast things can go to pot.” Walter is nodding thoughtfully but says nothing.

            “Still, whatever happens, it’ll all come down to firepower. If you want to talk worst-case scenarios, I say invest in a well-stocked gun locker with plenty of ammo. Food won’t do you a lick of good if you can’t protect it from thieves.” I watch Walter’s reaction carefully, seeing if he’ll take the bait. He is military, after all. He’s probably been trained on more weapons than I can identify, and it’d be foolish for him to not keep a few around for safety’s sake.

            “I used to think the same thing,” he says finally, glancing down at the back of his hands. He runs a finger along a groove in the wood grain. “The problem with weapons is, they can be used against you just as well as they can be used by you. It all depends on whose finger gets to the trigger first. And in a world where so many people have guns, not having one makes you seem like much less of a threat.”

            “So you’re saying you’ve got nothing stashed away in this place somewhere?” I ask a little impatiently.

            Walter shakes his head. “I haven’t owned a gun in years. Haven’t needed one.”

            “But you were just talking about how bad things are getting, how dangerous people are becoming. How can you leave it all up to chance?”

            “I’m not leaving it up to chance. But a gun is no guarantee either.”

            “Ok, fine. Let’s say there’s one of these man-made disasters. Chaos everywhere. People start freaking out, looting each other’s homes, setting things on fire, the works. Cops don’t show up for their patrols. Everything’s insane. You’re saying you wouldn’t want a gun at your side?”

            “No, I wouldn’t. Let’s analyze that scenario you’ve just described. So you’ve got looters going around breaking into shops and stores and stealing what they can. Eventually that runs out. So where do they end up? They go door to door. And it’s not just one or two people. In actual cases of societal breakdown, gangs form. That means when the people come knocking they come in groups; they’re more effective that way. And you can bet they’re armed. So they find you in your home, and it’s just you and your gun. Maybe you shoot and wound one or two of them, but you can bet they’ll return fire. And now they’re angry; they won’t stop ‘till you’re dead. So, how much safer did that gun make you?”

            “So what are you saying, then? Just let them come in and take everything?”

            “Absolutely. I would lock myself in a closet with my wife and let them ransack the place. They can have whatever they want. I don’t care. My life and Chelsea’s is all that matters.”

            Chelsea brushes up past us in her apron with a round platter topped with a chocolate cake lathered in pink icing. Despite being stuffed from the meal, my mouth is watering again.

            “Sorry to interrupt your conversation, boys. Sounds pretty heavy,” she says, setting the cake onto the table and licking a bit of icing that’s smudged into the back of her knuckle. Walter thanks her and she leans in to kiss him on the forehead. She takes a moment to glance at the two of us before fishing a board game out of a cabinet drawer and heading into the sitting room with my wife.

            We’re quiet for a few minutes as we savor the cake. “You know, you remind me a lot of myself, Luke,” Walter says without looking up from his plate. “Back when I was in the Air Force, I thought I could rely on myself for everything. That was part of our training, really. Learning to look out for number one. But as I got older, I learned that that kind of thinking just isn’t practical or realistic. We’re just not big enough to meet certain problems we face. We have to rely on something bigger than ourselves.”

            “God. Right?” I say.

            “I take it you don’t believe he exists, do you, Luke?”

            “I don’t really think about it. Never really had a need to. Never saw the point. Maybe one day I’ll change my mind.”

            “I know I did.”

            “Yeah, I can see that.”

            “You want to know why?”

            I shrug. “Sure.”