Calling God's Bluff
For all life longs for the Last Day
The central observation of those who study suicide
meme: (pron. ‘meem’) A contagious
idea that replicates
At two a.m. on the day we left for the Last Day Festival, Mike Hansen, my law partner and best friend in all the world, uncorked our last bottle of Dom Perignon.
"A toast!" he said, swaying. “To death!”
He lifted back his head and took a long swig. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, all I could do was wince.
Two hookers we had picked up to take along for the ride were sleeping in front of the fireplace of Mike’s lakeside bungalow under afghans Mike had retrieved from the back bedroom and tossed over their naked bodies. A dying flame cast long malevolent shadows across the floor to the wall behind us. Every now and then a cinder popped off the charred hunks of wood from the fireplace onto the polished oak floor. One of the whores, Kayla, Mike's date--the one with the husky voice and short, ash-blonde hair–cracked out a snore every now and then.
Swaying forward, Mike offered me the bottle. I declined. Enough was enough. We had been partying all night, smoking joint after joint of expensive pot and snorting too many lines of the purest coke. In the middle of all that, Mike had popped open our last three bottles of the Dom Perignon left over from celebrating the $14.5 million Gleason verdict last year.
Last year…..had it only been a year?
Around midnight, we had started kissing each other’s whores, stripped off our clothes and found ourselves engaged in a wild, orgasmic free-for-all.
Somehow, after all that, after all the booze and coke and pot and sex, I was completely sober. And my declination of another swig of champagne seemed to have sobered up Mike as well.
"Are we really going through with this?" Mike sighed and fell backwards onto the sofa.
I uncrossed my legs and stretched out on the floor crucifix style.
Mike and I had been friends twenty years but we had never been closer than tonight. We
had made love to each other’s whores. And, less than two days from now, we were going to face the end of our lives together.
"Yeah," I said. "We’re really going through with it. By this time Sunday, we'll be dead."
He stared into the glow of dying embers in the fireplace.
"No, not dead," he corrected, with a slight burp, repeating the party line. "With God."
Incredibly, right then, the prospect of that - of death - didn't frighten me. I was a true believer at that moment, certain that death for us and for all mankind was the right and proper thing to do. Dying would finally and forever deliver us from evil, Amen.
"Yeah," I said and smiled. “Calling God’s bluff.”
Calling God's bluff.
That had become our mantra, our battle cry.
It had started out as a whisper in some long forgotten place. A letter to the editor, a comment in some chat room perhaps. A call to a radio talk show host. We presumed that the Teacher, or whatever he was being called back then, had started it all in a moment of epiphany, after the idea had incubated and evolved in his mind all his life. Someone reported he had practiced his routine years ago on some street corner. Or maybe, he had just heard someone mention it off the cuff one day and had adopted it as a mission all his own.
Nobody was sure. And nobody cared anymore how the whole thing had come to pass. All we knew was what the Teacher was saying made perfect, logical sense.
“What we’ll be doing, my friends, is simply this: calling God’s bluff!” he had proclaimed in his best, wide-armed, white-robed, long-haired superstar style, exuding that supreme confidence and determination that we had come to know and love. He had first used that phrase, calling God’s bluff, during one of his prime-time sermons, his grand infomercials which, after only three months of his appearance on the pop scene, had become the highest rated shows of all time, with more viewers worldwide than the original runs, reruns, and syndications of I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, and Seinfeld combined.
Calling God’s bluff.
Day after day and night after night, on his radio talk shows, internet sites, on his television infomercials, and in his bestselling book, entitled, naturally enough, Calling God’s Bluff, the Preacher reminded us that our lives were absolutely and positively meaningless.
There was one, and only one, infallible Truth: no matter what we did, death came.
And then, in an impassioned sermon just a few minutes after midnight just this past New Year’s Day, the Teacher gave us his stark solution, finally revealing what he had been irrevocably leading up to all that time: we must kill ourselves.
All of us. The whole human race in one act of bravado and scorn, the ultimate act of calling God’s bluff.
He even gave us the exact date and time when we must actually call God’s bluff. When, at the Holy One’s command, all of humanity over the entire planet--from Ho Chi Min City to Tehran
to The Big Apple to the jungles of the Congo to Hollywood, Vegas, and LA- -in one mass act of release, would snuff itself out in a universal act of self-extinction, coinciding (so it was later claimed by certain of his disciples) with some astral, cosmological alignment of the heavens.
He would lead the event in front of a live audience, at least a million strong, at something called The Judgment Day Festival, on some wide open farmland on the plains near Buffalo, Wyoming, USA.
Crazy, right? No way to sell that.
So how did he do it? How did the Preacher convince type-A guys like Mike and me that the lives we led were not worth keeping? That we should give up our law firms, our dental practices, our vice-presidencies, our mutual funds, 401k plans and stock options, IRAs, country club memberships; our SUVs, and Hummers and BMWs and Jaguars; and, most of all, our expensive, over-priced, over-taxed homes in safe, slumbering, sterile subdivisions? How was he able to convince us that because of death, our lives literally meant nothing, and that, therefore, the only thing that mattered was calling God’s bluff in a unified mass suicide of human consciousness?
Somewhere, some snappy reporter blamed it on memes, an idea that spreads like a virus, eventually infecting everyone no matter how ridiculous or specious the idea may later seem. The meme was spread, in this case, by the best propaganda masters of all time–the Teacher, whose charisma made Jesus Christ and Adolph Hitler seem like pikers, and his thousand and one disciples.
The Teacher had appeared out of nowhere in an era that some disc jockey philosopher had termed, "The Great Depression of the Soul," 2000's style--derivative and lost. Despite our prosperity, our riches, our longevity, we were empty. Capitalism could provide us with fancy cars, nice clothes, and expensive jewelry, for some at least, but it could not end the ultimate fear which burned in the back of our brains from the first time we could think.
The worm at the core: death.
And, so, here we were, heading west to The Mother of All Festivals in Mike's vintage aquamarine 1964 Mustang, complete with the gleaming silver bucking bronco on the front grill.
Mike had bought the car a year ago, just before the Reverend's sudden and unexpected appearance on the scene of the modern global village. It had been the latest jewel in his growing collection of antique cars, accumulated in the past couple of years during his lapse into middle age. This craze had followed hot on the heels of his divorce from Gloria, his wife of twenty-five years, and the abandonment of his three teenage daughters.
Just before nine that morning, Mike had started banging things around. The hookers and I finally woke up groggy, with throbbing heads. Somehow, we got ourselves together, showered, dressed, and jammed into the Mustang, coffee cups in hand, and headed west.
Pamela, my whore, had to pee not ten minutes into the trip. She was a rough-voiced city girl, about half my age, a tan gypsy with gold rings on every finger and long golden earrings. She had even put a ring through her pierced left eyebrow.
Looking at her and Kayla squeezed next to each other in the backseat, I suddenly regretted that I wasn't taking this drive with my wife, Carol, and not this gypsy girl who didn't have the slightest clue what was going on. To her, this was some kind of mixed up adventure which would end up okay like everything else in her messed up life. I had followed Mike's lead with some middle-age craziness of my own, and only three months ago, smack in the middle of the Holy Man’s crusade--perhaps because of it--abandoned a solid eighteen-year marriage.
We stopped at a rest area along the interstate to let Pamela pee. The place was jammed with cars and campers, truckers and motorcycle gangs. Hundreds of delirious people were rushing from their parked vehicles to restrooms and refreshment areas and returning just as quickly to get back on the road and resume the last and greatest journey ever.
We were all going to the same place, "The Mother of All Festivals," as it had come to be called, and there was definite camaraderie and excitement in the air. Positively giddy, people were giggling at the thought of what they were part of, giving each other nods of recognition, handshakes, high-fives. Mankind was united as it had never been, a virtual jamboree of peace and love and positive connection.
"Let's go!" Mike urged as we hurried back to the Mustang. I took the front seat, while the girls wearily stuffed themselves into the back again without much complaint. The Mustang was soon churning out of the rest area and blending into the traffic jam that was heading west down Interstate 90, America's Main Street.
No cops. No highway patrol. It was a breeze. The only "Authority" on the road that morning was the Preacher's green berets, His self-proclaimed Truth Squad Warriors, thousands of kids in olive revolutionary uniforms.
Every now and then, a patrol of them would storm past us on loud, souped-up Harleys. They were cocky pricks, if you asked me, with a holier-than-thou attitude that got under my skin whenever I had the displeasure of having to deal with one of them. That, fortunately, had been infrequent before this trip so there seemed no need to worry over their apparent overzealousness. The message was the Preacher, not these henchmen with their delusions of grandeur.
But, just past Cleveland, one of them came speeding along side us and gestured haughtily with his left thumb for Mike to pull over. Like some sour-pussed redneck highway trooper, the soldier swung off his Harley and swaggered over to the driver's side window with a sneer equal to his attitude.
"You late for something, partner?" he said to Mike, nodding and looking seriously pissed off. "You cut off a station wagon of kids back there. Almost drove them off the road. Gonna kill yourself and somebody else before it’s really supposed to happen."
Mike kept his cool, nodding deferentially. It was noticeably unlike him. I had always known Mike to be somewhat belligerent in the face of authority. I was expecting to hear him tell this self-proclaimed trooper to go fuck himself.
But all he said was, "No problem, comrade," and considerately added: "We’re off to the festival. Just anxious to get there, I guess."
The kid still had that cocky smirk and spit onto the gravel next to the side of the car. I thought I saw some of the spittle mar the finish on the door of the Mustang.
"Yeah," he said. "Aren't we all. Just slow down." With a sarcastic snigger, he added: "Comrade."
Then the kid was gone, swaggering back to his cycle like a full-feathered peacock.
"Bastard," I muttered, when he was out of earshot.
Our mood was definitely sour. We were going to the biggest bash of all time in a suddenly bummed-out state of mind.
"You've got to be kidding me," Pamela chimed in. "What the hell was that?"
"His army," I answered. "Scary ain't it. Pricks like that. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
"Naw," Mike broke in, over it just like that and upbeat again. "Just one little prick. And, anyway, the Preacher's gotta have 'em. They're a necessary evil." He turned to me with his wide, blue eyes and confident, toothy grin.
If nothing else, the incident had the effect of slowing Mike down, which wasn't such a bad thing. He stabilized at 67 to 70, every now and then glancing up at the rear view mirror.
Late that afternoon, we stopped at a Bob Evans for a late lunch. A selection of restaurants and diners had been commandeered by units of the Preacher’s warriors so that the mass of people on the road heading toward the Judgment Day Festival could eat. After all, until the mass suicide of mankind occurred, you still had to eat. Since there was no need for money anymore, the meal was free.
"That's what I'm gonna miss, if nothing else," I commented while twirling a toothpick through my teeth, waiting for the girls to return from the ladies room.
"What's that?" Mike asked.
He laughed. "Not sex?"
Then I laughed.
The radio didn't play a song, no matter what station I tried. Nothing but news about the festival, stuff we'd heard a thousand times. Old speeches of the Preacher being replayed over and over ad nauseam. On other stations, there were round-table discussions of professor types assuring everyone about the righteousness of what we were doing. The All-Knowing-One seemed to have brainwashed everyone, even the most hard-nosed, world-weary journalists, intellectual masturbators and think-tankers.
Memes, I thought.
As Mike drove on, and the radio droned out all thought, our conversation stopped and silence overcame the car. Not long after, the girls and I were fast asleep.
Finally, just outside Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Mike pulled into another rest area. He gave me a shove, said he was beat. Would I mind taking over the controls? I yawned, glanced down at my watch. It read: 10:30. I told him I'd be happy to.
We roused the girls and they squirmed out of the Mustang. For a few minutes, the four of us stood at the side of the car stretching our legs and backs. Finally, we ventured to the restrooms.
"Not so crowded now," I said to Mike, who was in the stall next to mine. “Not so happy, either.” The rest area was pretty much deserted, with only a few tired stragglers like us stumbling in.
He shrugged. "Lot of people probably already bedded down for the night. Saps'll miss out on getting there first thing tomorrow and being close to the action."
Without much fanfare, we were on the road again, with me driving. Not long afterwards, Mike and the girls were fast asleep. Mike even accompanied Kayla's snoring.
With nothing better to do, I clicked on the radio and tuned it low so as not to disturb them.
The highway was not as jammed with traffic as before. I needed something to keep me alert, something to put me in the right frame of mind for the hours of night driving ahead, preferably some music.
I fooled around with the dial, going from end to end several times. All I got was static or the continuous drivel of over-ebullient mini-preacher evangelists, shouting out things about the coming "rapture," "rhapsody," "soul-lifting," “god-bluffing,” and a hundred other glorious sounding names for what we, as a race and species, would be doing around noon tomorrow.
I continued jumping from station to station hoping to get lucky and catch some good ol’ rock’n’roll. I'd listen for a time to the clatter, broken only by an occasion spasm of snoring from Mike or Kayla or Pamela, or the whimper of one of their private dreams.
Finally, I latched onto a station that wasn't spouting the party line. Somehow, a heretic, or group of heretics, had taken over some nearby, low-level FM station and were blaring their own brand of propaganda.
"Stop!" pleaded the announcer. "Don’t do it! In the name of mankind, in the name of God, reject this insanity."
Despite myself, I kept tuned to the guy. He sounded so frantic, so genuine. In a stark, clear tone, he declared that the Reverend was a fake, the Devil’s crusade. He had somehow duped us all, that his "mission" was false, the insane ravings of a madman. There would be no revelation from God or any Cosmic Entity if we all joined in and killed ourselves, only the end of civilization, the extinction of mankind.
"You will neither reach God by doing what this false prophet has asked you to do," the radio guy exhorted, "nor the Kingdom of Heaven. You will only attain the Kingdom ruled over by death and oblivion. The Kingdom of the Great Deceiver, Lucifer!"
Oblivion. Death. The way he said it frightened me, brought home the magnitude of what we were doing. The reality of it.
"You must cease and desist this madness. We implore you to join us against this folly. Despite our forced silence, there are many who have been able to quietly resist the wicked charm of the False One who preaches death as salvation.
"In small, hidden corners we exist. We will survive after he leads the rest of mankind into death. From that catastrophe, we shall rise up and rebuild the world. We have taken over this radio station tonight to preach this message of hope and resistance, so that more of you can be saved. Please listen and join us in rebuilding our world and avoid eternal damnation and oblivion."
He went on and on, assuring his listeners that the resistance was real and that the Preacher's mission was pure folly. Every now and then, his words were broken by a cackle of static, caused, perhaps, by a bolt of lightening from some distant Midwestern thunderstorm.
As I listened to his rant, a pang of doubt crept into my very soul. I began to long for my former life, despite its banality and aimlessness. What we faced instead was, perhaps, an even worse fate.
I was roused from this gloomy introspection by commotion in the radio. The announcer was shouting incoherently, frantically. An instant later, there was the unmistakable snap and pop of automatic rifles. The radio fell silent.
Then, another voice came on.
"This station has been liberated by the Army of the Prophet. Disregard the prior broadcast of falsehood you have heard. It was blasphemy."
There was no other sound after that.
How had He convinced 6 billion people to kill themselves at precisely the same moment?
"Through death, we shall find God," He promised, assuring us that the mass suicide of the entire human race would be the ultimate display of our Faith in God's existence.
"He will intervene," the Preacher guaranteed, nodding and smiling beneficently. "He will not let us truly die. Instead, he will recognize our suffering and end the misery of our lives always darkened by the prospect of death."
After a pause, looking up heaven, he had proclaimed, "Death will thenceforth be banished from our dreams, from our vocabulary, and we will laugh in wonder with the angels."
The confidence of His voice, His words, gave us no doubt.
"Once and for all,” He proclaimed, “We must spurn the natural existence in which we are presently trapped. Forever. Amen."
"Amen!" We all had cheered, believing.
"Amen," I whispered.
Michael had suggested that we put in the tape of one of the Reverend’s sermons after the fiasco of the heretic radio show. It had visibly shaken me. I couldn't even drive anymore.
"You alright?" he asked.
The girls were asleep, indifferent to the commotion. We were driving in blackness in little traffic. It was two A.M.
I sighed and nodded.
"Wow." I gasped. "That was mind-boggling. It was like I had never heard the Preacher."
"We're gonna be there in a few hours.”
Mike looked at me.
From the tape, the Preacher's determined, confident voice boomed out to the throng of converts jamming the seats and aisles of some municipal auditorium. Mike lowered the volume so he could talk to me, see if I was all right.
"I can't wait," I told him feebly, unconvincing.
We rode on in silence for a time. The Preacher's sermon played on the tape, a low nattering, too low to distinguish what he was saying. But we knew it by heart.
"Wasn't it so silly before?" Mike broke in. "When we used to believe in life, the lives we led, as if they meant something." He laughed to himself. "As if any of it mattered. As if, when we died, we had accomplished something instead of perpetuating the race for some unknown reason."
I wondered why he was telling me this, rote stuff, axiomatic, understood by everyone, even little kids.
"Yeah," I agreed, with a sigh, wondering what if he was wrong.
I didn't say this to Michael. But thinking it seemed offensive, criminal. It was the first time since the day I first watched the Preacher's Show-of-Shows last New Year’s Day that I had experienced such apprehension, such doubt. Doing so now, on the eve of Judgment Day, frightened me. My face went pale. I was feeling dizzy, nauseous. To fend it off, I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
Seeing this, Michael reached over and turned up the volume.
"God will not let his children die." The Preacher’s voice was firm, confident. "We are calling Him to us."
Calling God's bluff.
But I kept thinking, what if he doesn't take it?
I finally did fall asleep. When I woke up, I saw that we were speeding down the straight, flat interstate. The sun had not yet risen sufficiently to give color to the bare, gray landscape which had been split in two by the black asphalt.
I looked over at Mike. He seemed OK. The radio was off.
"Where are we?" I asked, straightening.
"Almost there," he beamed. "Just crossed into Wyoming. About an hour more."
I looked back and saw that the girls, too, were stirring.
I was surprised by the lack of traffic along this stretch of highway. It was so near the festival. I thought maybe that Mike had taken a wrong turn, gotten us lost. But within minutes, we almost crashed into a clog of vans, RVs, trucks, cars, and motorcycles.
We stopped, and crawled for a time. Despite the traffic jam, no one was bitching or growling over the problem. We were almost there and everyone seemed mollified, relieved to be this close. Conversations exchanged across cars, people asking where you were from, hoots and hollering, even some joyful horn-blowing.
"When we gonna park?" Kayla asked from the backseat. "I gotta pee."
Next to her, my Pamela chimed in, "Me, too."
"Look," Mike said, "we can't just stop here, in the middle of this traffic. You'll just have to wait."
But after another couple of minutes, we stopped for good. This became quite apparent when a throng of people in front of us exited their vehicles all at once and headed west, presumably toward the festival stage.
"I guess this is where we park," Mike shrugged.
With that news, the bladder laden girls and I let out collective sighs and we joined the mass abandonment of the cars. It felt good to be outside, stretching in the warm, morning breeze.
About twenty yards off the highway, there were some trees and brush where the girls scampered to squat and relieve themselves. Mike and I laughed as they rushed off. Unabashedly, we unzipped our pants and pissed along the side of the interstate next to the cars, copy-catting a handful of other guys likewise pissing into the soft summer wind.
With our bladders empty, we entered the mass migration heading toward the Festival. Men, women, and even kids, people of all shapes and sizes, colors, creeds, sexes and persuasions, heading with uniform determination toward the main stage, like an inexorable river disgorging into some lake.
After about a mile of walking with this rush of humanity, Kayla started to whine. "My feet hurt," she complained. "Where are we going? Is this the right way?"
Trudging onward, we tried to ignore her. I was struck right then with an almost overwhelming realization that we were among a vast accumulation of humanity, a living ocean of people stretching out for miles. The center of gravity of this mass lay ahead of us, down a low, long slope of trodden grass and barley and wheat, ending at the festival stage.
All at once, we just stopped, this entire mass of humanity, so abruptly that we almost ran into the backs of the people in front of us. Tallest among us, Mike tried to look over the top of the crowd. He guessed that we were still probably five or six miles from the stage.
"This is it," he informed us with a shrug. "Nowhere else to go. We'll have to watch it from here." He laughed. "The cheap seats."
Everyone around us seemed to have come to the same conclusion and started looking around for a convenient place to plop down.
"We can't even see the stage from here," Kayla whined.
Some of the folks around us were already sitting down, laying out blankets and coolers on the crushed grass.
"Looks like this is the best we can do," Mike said.
Kayla tsked, clearly displeased. "We coulda stayed home," she griped. "We coulda partied in front of the TV instead of coming all this way. From here, I don't even feel part of it."
"But we're here," I said, tired of her whining. "We are part of it."
Kayla frowned, unconvinced. Pamela bent over and whispered in my ear that she was always this way, a royal pain.
"Well." Mike sighed. "Let's find a spot."
With a shrug, he selected a patch of grass and unfurled the blanket he had carried from the car. We were momentarily distracted from smoothing it out by the sudden appearance, out of nowhere, of a passing patrol of sour-pussed truth soldiers.
Without apology, the patrol ate up a narrow swath of grass and dirt as they tramped through, rudely disbursing the settling crowd.
Everyone stopped whatever they were doing to move aside and gawk at the Preacher's self-proclaimed army, his guardians of right, with their hard expressions and camouflage uniforms and brown berets. In that moment, I was reminded of storm troopers from Nazi war documentaries.
That was my second inkling that maybe what we were doing wasn't quite right.
After the patrol passed, we arranged ourselves on the blanket.
"We are going to die today."
That statement, stark as a thunderclap, came from some guy on a blanket a few yards away. I wasn't sure of the exact location of the voice, but I could discern surprise and tension. An unanticipated mood of dread had descended upon us. We were stricken by second-thoughts, misapprehension, a longing for things past. Our faith in the wisdom and truth of the Preacher’s mission had ebbed.
"We are really going to die today." The voice was now incredulous.
It was as if we all had suddenly realized what we were about to throw away, the folly of the Reverend's theory.
There were other comments, similarly edged. But no one went far enough to suggest that we should get up and leave, that we should abandon this foolishness.
The four of us did little talking. Kayla complained about being hungry, regretting that we had left a bag of potato chips in the Mustang. She seemed to have no conception why we were here. To her, it was as if we were part of a rock concert. And, perhaps, that’s what it was like for most people, just another human happening.
"Is it too late to go back for it?" she asked Mike, who gave her a disgusted look as if to say, You're going to be dead soon, so what does it matter, you dumb bitch. At least, I felt like saying it for him.
"No, honey," he said to her softly, as if to a child. "It's going to start any minute."
I huddled Pamela into my arms while Kayla smoldered over the forgotten potato chips. Poor Mike tried to mollify her by stroking her blonde hair.
I began thinking how useless and stupid our lives had become with nothing to live for except death itself. I imagined everyone at the festival felt that way that moment, all 1.5 million or so of us, sad, tired, alone, dreading and expecting death, and possibly oblivion like the heretic DJ had predicted.
It became profoundly still, as if everyone had stopped moving and talking. Even the insects were silent. No birds flew. We were trapped, inert beings. There was nothing left to do but wait.
Incredibly, an hour passed like this. I checked my watch every five minutes. And then, a few minutes before noon, people down toward the front of the stage started to rise.
"This is it," I heard Mike mumble to himself. I saw him squeeze Kayla's hand.
Finally, our section rose and stood with the others.
There was giggling, the nervous kind, some outright laughter, too, and sobbing. It was not unlike when the featured band came out at the start of a rock concert.
Somebody shouted something. Another person screamed and kept screaming. A baby cried.
This unorganized, spontaneous noise evolved into a persistent roar, which seemed as if it would never end.
From the distance, on the tip of my toes, I managed to see between the bobbing heads in front of me why we had stood and why everyone had started cheering. I checked my watch again. It was 11:57.
The Holy One, the Reverend, the Preacher, had come out onto the Festival stage.
He stopped and bowed at center-stage, stood up and saluted his audience. Then, he blew kisses to the TV cameras lined up at every conceivable angle.
The crowd was howling. Everyone seemed suddenly secure now that he was finally out there, with us. Our faith and confidence had been restored.
Finally, with his long, black hair flowing in the gentle breeze, wearing the simple ankle-length white robe that had become his trademark, the Holy One delicately gestured, like some kind of latter-day Pope, for us all to quiet down.
It took a couple minutes, but finally we settled down and waited for the next move.
He looked up and stared for a time.
“Hey, God!” he shouted, still looking up into the clear blue sky. “It’s the last day. Your Judgment Day has come at last for what you did to Adam and to Eve and to all of us. We are right now, right here,” and then he shouted viciously, “calling your bluff!"
A great wave and roar rolled out from the stage as the crowd rose up to the fringes. The ground shook under our feet as we were caught up in it, standing and howling into the deep blue sky.
It took a long time for the Preacher to quiet us this time. As he smiled beneficently, he seemed in no great hurry. He waited patiently, scanning the immense assemblage streaming ten, fifteen miles out from the stage.
Finally, when the cheering faded, he started again, his voice booming into the thick, hot August air from enormous black speaker boxes positioned in rows extending outward from the stage for a hundred yards.
"I am," he said, "the Wizard of Oz, the Second Coming of the Christ, the first coming of Mankind, and maybe, the Anti-Christ." His laugh was long and low. "I am matter and anti-matter. And I am here to take you on a one way trip to par-ra-dize."
Another spontaneous roar rose up and spread out from center stage, reaching, it seemed, into heaven. It did not last as long as the previous storm, nor was it as vigorous. We were settling in, wondering, waiting, and only now sensing that this was really happening and that we were really part of it.
At last, the crowd again quieted.
"Into God's embrace we shall ride headlong this day!" His voice quavered, resonated. "He shall have us at His table this night, as his eternal dinner guests. And, tonight, we shall eat from that table and the food shall be the answers to all our questions!"
Even from this distance, I could feel his overwhelming presence. My heart ached to be closer and yet I was giddy to be this close, close enough that I could see him in person.
His arms rose up in a characteristic pattern we had all come to know. Squinting, I could even vaguely perceive his eyes glaring out at us all in fierce, unstoppable determination. My thoughts turned to that radio guy, the heretic who did not believe the wisdom and authority of the preacher's words. How could he, how could anyone, question such manifest preeminence?
"Now it is time." The preacher's voice suddenly lowered. Then, after a breath, he whispered hoarsely into the microphone, "to die."
All across the world, in countless millions of homes, everywhere, in the most isolated, primitive villages, even in caves where aborigines yet lived, the word had spread. Everyone was experiencing this moment. When the Reverend gave the order, I, we, and they, were going to kill ourselves. We were all, all of humanity, going to call God’s bluff and end the meaninglessness of our lives.
The great religious leaders, though they had tried desperately and incessantly, to stop us, had failed. Their words, their sermons, their threats of excommunication, had fallen on deaf ears. Their message had been no antidote for the simplicity of the Preacher's call to ultimate action.
And, anyway, the Preacher had long ago debunked all religions. In simple, understandable terms, he had revealed them as phony myths, built on fantasy rather than truth.
"Just listen to what they have to say," he had cleverly implored, and after a small, derisive laugh, continued. "Hear how silly and hollow they sound. Jesus, for example, an immaculate birth, that is, without the benefit of sperm and egg? Rising from the dead and walking around for a few weeks to prove that he is God’s son and had been born and died for our sins, whatever they may be. That's about as believable as the one about Santa Claus living at the North Pole."
We had all laughed silently over that, nodded our heads. Wasn't it silly to have faith in such an absurd and somber religion?
He likewise debunked Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, and any other religion you could name.
Having said all that, the Preacher then told us why only his way made sense, why only mass self-imposed extinction would solve the ultimate problem of the human condition: In a life where death was inevitable, what was the difference if we all went at once, now, instead of waiting to go one by one, as we had done throughout the ages and were destined to do for countless more, until the sun went nova or burned out or some other cosmic cataclysm liquidated all memory of the human species.
So why not meet those fates together, all at once, unified, and offer ourselves to the ultimate truth. Right now.
In the face of these arguments, and the way the Holy One extolled them, not a church, not even the Pope, the Ayatollah, the Dalai Lama or the Reverend Billy Graham could come up with a compelling counter-argument, except some general admonition against suicide. "Don't give in to this ugly, vile despair."
They beseeched. They pleaded. But nobody listened. And now we were all here.
We were not committing suicide, the High One had responded. We were simply going to have a direct, face-to-face conclave with God, The God, on our terms, not his.
Now that was profound, powerful stuff, and the Preacher's response, so confident and strong, had made it feel righteous and honorable.
Calling God's bluff.
The little pill was in the palm of my hand. I observed it for a long moment. Rock candy, I thought. It resembled rock candy. It had the crystalline shape, rough texture, and milky color of something I had eaten as a kid.
It had been passed out like candy at various distribution points just about everywhere on the planet the last several weeks. I had picked up mine in a McDonald's parking lot near my apartment only a couple days ago.
"One to a customer, if you please," the truth trooper had said as he reached into a small black pouch attached to his belt and handed me the pill.
And now the time had come to take it.
The Preacher lifted his arms and looked up into heaven. Suddenly, without further adieu, He gave the order.
"It is time!" He bellowed. "Let us go meet God."
Wide-eyed, dumbstruck, we all watched as he actually took the pill. A hand went to his mouth and after an instant, he collapsed upon the stage. Then everyone else on stage around him, his closest disciples--Jessup, Rupert, Falinger, Kafelli, Noreham, Lancaster, D’Angelo--names and personalities who had become so familiar to us all, together with his inner circle of movie and rock stars, had fallen.
A collective gasp emitted from the crowd. This thing had irrevocably been put into motion. He had done it, and now we were expected to follow, to effectuate His plan, to deny our instinct for self-preservation.
A moment later, I noticed that some people around us had calmly swallowed their pills and were falling into their lovers' arms or in lumps onto the ground.
Pamela was squeezing my hand so tight it hurt. She was a whore, not a zealot. She hardly understand what was happening and why. I tried to wiggle out of her grip but she wouldn't let go.
"It's happening," she whispered to herself. "It's really happening." Suddenly, she didn’t seem like just a ditsy whore.
People were shouting, yelping, exhorting each other to go through with it. Babies were crying. Mothers were moaning. “Take it,” someone exhorted, “Do it. Go for it.”
Call God’s bluff.
My eyes were fixed on some guy maybe ten yards away standing like me with his hand tightly holding the hand of his woman. He had the pill pinched between the thumb and index finger of his other hand. He was staring at it, trying to reach that momentous decision to fling it into his mouth and die.
Then, all at once, he did it. He just did it, in one swift fling. In the next moment, his body twisted around and he fell to the ground. His wife or girlfriend screamed. Trembling, in the next instant, she popped the pill and fell in a heap across his body.
Many couples and families around us were, like us, holding back, feeling the exuberance for this thing fading away like a dream. We all stood in stunned silence, unable to move. Around us, a lot of people had already dropped dead.
I wondered what Carol and the kids were doing right then, whether they had already taken their pills and lay sprawled across the living room floor, dead, in front of the big-screen television I had bought just weeks before I had abandoned them.
Suddenly, truth squads were upon us, dozens of brazen, arrogant bastards in brown camouflage, pointing rifles and ordering us to take our pills, shouting at us that we were cowards, that the Reverend and God were waiting for us.
Mike turned to me.
"Let's just do it, man," he urged. "See what happens." Then, he smiled, just smiled, before ever so gently placing the pill on his tongue. I reached for him. Too late. An instant passed and Mike fell into his hooker's arms. She shuddered and screamed and passed him over to me.
"Mikey!" I shouted. "Mikey!"
The years of our friendship, all those memories, all those laughs, gone.
I lowered him onto the blanket and pried open his mouth with a finger, trying to get the pill out. But it was too late. He was dead. Dead.
I wondered what he was seeing now. God?
His hooker was clearly losing it. She was mumbling something. Pamela was desperately trying to console her, but she too was having difficulty holding on. Some other people around us were taking the pill, killing themselves. It seemed for the moment the only thing left to do.
I was distracted by a thirty-something guy with a goatee sitting on the blanket next to ours. A woman, maybe his wife, was dead in a lump next to him. Another guy was lying motionless, dead, next to her.
"What's in it?" asked the guy with the goatee. It took me a moment to realize he was asking me.
"Huh?" In the background, I could hear Kayla's senseless muttering.
"In the pill," he asked. "What's it made of."
"Cyanide," I told him. "Kill ya instantly."
The guy nodded, looked away from me, then put the pill in his mouth. "Shit," I whispered to myself. It felt as if I had killed him.
At that moment I realized that I couldn't go through with it. I didn't want to die. I no longer wanted any part of the Holy Man's crusade. The heretic DJ’s exhortations were blaring in my brain.
In the distance, back toward the cars, I noticed a commotion. People running. Then there was the pop and spit of gunfire. Truth squads were shooting nonbelievers, the people who had given up the faith and were running away. Men, women, and children. In the midst of the running, I heard screams. Then I saw a whole wave of people fall. Murdered.
I turned to the women. They wore shocked, scared expressions, incapable of defending themselves. Kayla surprised me by moving a trembling hand to her lips. She tasted the pill by licking it. That was enough. She was dead in an instant and collapsed at our feet. Why the impulse struck her to do it, I'll never know. Perhaps, she couldn't have explained it either.
For her part, Pamela looked at the pill in the palm of her hand. Suddenly, she threw it onto the grass.
"Fuck it," I heard her say. Then a bullet ripped a hole in her forehead. I jumped and turned. From about twenty yards, I saw a truth soldier's M-16. He had wasted her for throwing the pill away. He started randomly picking off other people who hadn't yet taken their pills and were standing around mulling over what to do. I counted four, five people shot and killed splat, just like that. Seeing him swirl around looking for more, I dropped to the ground and rested my head on Mike's left thigh.
More soldiers came over and helped pick off people standing around in shock, unable to move or act. Then they started poking through the bodies with the barrels of their M-16s, making sure, I guess, that there were no fakers like me. I started to panic. They were no more than twenty yards away.
After an excruciating minute or so, I got lucky. I heard one of the soldiers shout, "There's more of them! Down there!" The entire small platoon headed that way with their rifles pop-popping, picking off the scattering, panic-stricken men, women, babies.
For an indeterminable time, I stayed right where I was, lying beside my dead friend and the poor hookers, desperately trying to look dead.
After awhile, there was only the buzz of flies. Even the soldiers appeared to have abandoned the place. Maybe they had killed themselves, shot themselves in a kind of feverish rapture as they joined their Master in Heaven.
How had we been so stupid? How had we been duped? I started crying thinking of the
Billions – billions!--of children that had died for this, never to have lived.
But maybe I was wrong. Maybe the Teacher, my dead friends, the thousands who had died in these fields, and the billions (billions!) around the world who had likewise followed the Teacher's example and killed themselves--maybe they were with God at this very moment, shaking their heads at my folly for not joining them.
But I still had the Pill. It was in my hand. I stared at it for a long time while the late afternoon sun boiled down upon me.
Finally, with a shudder, I flicked it into the grass and rubbed my hands across my jeans.
For a long time, I laid there. All around me, it was strangely and inexplicably silent. Had everyone died except me? Somehow, after the long bright day had faded to dusk, then black, chilly darkness, with the blazing diamonds of stars blaring above me, I actually managed to fall asleep. Only once did I stir at the sound of gunfire popping from a distance.
I woke up just as the first light of day was rolling over some low hills to the east. Everything was bathed in gray and mist and stillness. There was a distinct, uncomfortable chill in the air, and in low places, fog hugged the ground.
It took a few moments for my head to clear, for the awful events of yesterday to focus into reality.
Next to me were the already bloated bodies of Michael, Pam and Kayla. As I cautiously lifted my head, I saw a whole mass of death, thousands upon thousands of dead, silent bodies.
I wondered suddenly how many had survived. The one thing I was sure of, God wasn't around. But what that meant, I didn’t know. One school of thought was that God wouldn't intervene unless every last man, woman and child was dead. Nothing short of the extinction of the whole human race would mean anything to the universal God.
The more prevalent theory, however, the one espoused by the Holy Man himself, was that as long as a great majority of humans killed themselves, God would be forced into Revelation. Many scientists predicted that if too many of us died, the survivors would be as good as dead and follow not long after.
When there seemed to be no one around, not another living soul or a truth soldier lurking in the shadows for a faker like me, I started crawling across the cadavers, along the wet grass, heading for a thicket of brush and trees.
Hoping for the safety in numbers.
Vince Scarsella has been an attorney for over 26 years. Since 1989, he has been in charge of a court agency in Buffalo, New York, which investigates complaints of ethical misconduct against attorneys. He is happily married with three children. His work has appeared in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, The Leading Edge, Fictitious Force and Strange Pleasures #5.
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