Thursday, May 8, 2008

Toll the Bell

A column of thick smoke still poured upward from the mound of hot coals and charred flesh. A strange mixture of scents carried into the woods as twelve dark figures stepped away from the fire pit like hour hands extending from the center of a smoldering clock. At the six o'clock position, walked Maureen Newman. When she could no longer hear the cracks of twigs underneath the feet of her comrades, she took a knee upon the ground and dropped the backpack from her shoulder. She loosed her heavy velvet cloak and rolled it up tightly. It was quickly swapped for the lightweight jacket in her pack. She thrust her arms through the worn sleeves and pulled the zipper up tight to her neck. With her pack secured on her back again, she sighed heavily and began the long trek to her car.

The Adirondack Park was beautiful during the summer. The temperatures rarely made it far from 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the daytime in July, but dropped sharply as the sun began to set. The near total shade created by the expanse of ancient foliage over Maureen's head made the twilight hour even cooler, and she pressed her hands into the jacket's pockets to tighten it around her. Gusts of wind would blow through and rattle the full leaves on the trees. These calming pulses of white noise fell upon the ears of a woman too self absorbed to appreciate their splendor.

Even though the meeting place was three quarters of a mile south of Turtle Lake, she had to walk in a large arc to the west in order to avoid the homes scattered along the lake front. At first, this walk had been completed with a sense of purpose and enthusiasm. Recently, the journey became more arduous with each undertaking. Today, it served as an opportunity for quiet contemplation. It had been six years. Six years since Maureen had lost her faith in the world and joined this doomsday cult.

You wouldn't think her a cultist if you saw her. She didn't look anything but average in every sense. No tattoos, wild hair or abnormal piercings set her apart. Her figure was lean from hours spent hiking in these woods but wouldn't look remarkable in a bathing suit if she ever made it to a beach. It was only her thoughts which deviated from the norm. She often wondered, if she had friends, how would she explain her affiliation with this group? What would they say? Unfortunately for her, she didn't have to worry about these difficult issues. She only had to have these serious conversations with herself, and she crafted the tough questions. Maureen struggled with one of these questions as she stomped heavily through the brush. If you join a cult because you lost your faith in humanity, what does it mean when you lose faith in that cult?

Her life had been naught but a string of failures. Maureen had failed to be anything remarka
ble physically or mentally. She failed to integrate herself socially after the age of twelve. Her parents failed to live long enough to guide her into adulthood. She failed to establish herself in a career that was even semi-lucrative. Hell, she even failed to sort out her own sexual orientation, which ensured that the few relationships she managed to start ended abruptly. This was probably a good thing, given the quality of the people she chose to involve herself with. She was twenty-eight, lonely, and couldn't find anything good about the world of man. Nature was a different story. There were so many things she found beautiful about the world. It was grand and majestic and nearly infinite.

Maureen's heavy boots ground down upon the faces of moss covered boulders as she scaled a steep incline next to a creek. Her heavy breaths created brief puffs of fog in front of her face.

One day, she simply decided that humans were a plague. She didn't come to this conclusion because of brainwashing or some sort of chemical imbalance in her brain. At most, one could argue that her past left her much more receptive to fatalistic ideologies. She thought it through and made the decision to help wipe out humanity. The larger problem is how to accomplish this goal. She certainly wasn't any sort of genetic engineer, biochemist or nuclear physicist. She was quite far from possessing a bottomless bank account, and she had no private army to command. She could barely get her dog to obey orders. Ultimately, she turned to the only option available for the would be genocidist on a budget, supernatural intervention. She always believed in the supernatural, so it wasn't a stretch for her to look into cults. In an area of the country with a rich history of witch burnings, one can find a cult with a minimal amount of effort. Six years worth of rituals and incantations, and nothing to show for it.

Maureen put all of her energy into the cult's activities at first. She truly wanted to succeed in bringing an end to the human race. She did research, bought supplies and meditated for hours to find the path to destruction. On a number of occasions, she felt as if she had been lead to the answer. That the next gathering would set things in motion. The fact that she was pushing the long limbs of pine trees out of her path as the din of a small city's bustle found its way into her ears is evidence enough of how successful she had been.

The forest ahead of her was thinning out, and the black of the oversized parking lot where her rusted Toyota sat could be seen peeking through the tree trunks. She imagined herself getting out of her car in the future. She saw herself stepping down the embankment towards the tree line with her backpack, on her way to another gathering she didn't want to attend. Then she made a new decision. She decided that the cult was a waste of time and effort. This wasn't an epiphany. In her heart, she knew this to be true a long time ago. A large amount of despair and a pinch of pride held her to these rituals. At least there was some sort of hope that way, but she could only delude herself for so long. No amount of rare plants, chanting, drawn symbols or sacrificed animals were going to raise the souls of dead and usher in the end of the world. She was thirty-four years old and no closer to a content existence than she was before. A single word worked its way into her mind... hermit. She was probably a prime candidate. A life alone, in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but the landscape and animals around her. She actually cracked a small smile at the idea. She could be pretty damn happy that way, and she couldn't believe she hadn't thought of it before.

The toes of Maureen's boots dug into the soft earth of the small hill before her. Her eyes stared down at her feet as she searched her mind for the perfect spot to retreat to. Adirondack was enormous, and there were a number of places that would be more than secluded enough. She was pulled from her state of distraction as she crested the hill. A shrill scream shocked her back to attention and set every hair on her body on end. Her muscles locked up in a panic as she snapped her wide eyed head up. The sun was low in the sky and cast an orange glow over everything, except for where it shone a sparkling ruby color as it passed through a veritable fountain blood.

The scream devolved into wet sucking noise followed by a hollow sputtering, like the first shot of air and warm water out of a garden hose that has been laying on a driveway. Gray fingers dug underneath this poor woman's jaw and tore through the flesh as a partially eaten teenager ripped the nape of her neck away in between his teeth. She thrashed and convulsed under the chomping jaws of this thing. Maureen stood paralyzed by the horror she was witnessing. Slowly, she began to notice the rest of the parking lot. People were running everywhere. Cars were crashed into each other at the entrance, and people were fleeing on foot. Here and there small huddles could be seen along the ground. She could only assume that they were doing what the young man in front of her was doing. Eating.

That whole cult thing sounded like an even worse idea now. Some years ago, if you would have described this scene to her, it would have been like a holiday print from Currier & Ives. Now, standing here, the full weight of what they were trying to achieve settled on her chest. She was wrong about the cult. They had actually succeeded.

Control of her muscles was returning to her, and she began to step to her left to move around the carnage and get to her car. With Maureen now moving, the previously preoccupied assailant took a new interest in her. As he pulled himself up onto his lightly gnawed legs, she managed to push out two syllables that quite accurately summed up her current analysis of the situation :

Oh, no.”

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