He drove down the Northway wearing his usual Monday morning scowl. He wore it every day, lately, but on Monday it was more prominent.
It was always most prominent after the Sabbath.
Rain hammered against the windshield, wipers screeching as they plowed their way across the glass. It wasn’t the rain that bothered him, other than it made the jerks in the cars around him drive worse than usual. And no, it wasn't the jerks either. He tried to believe that they were good people trying to make it through another day, too. He hoped in his heart that they weren't really jerks cutting him off, not caring who they endangered, as long as they got to where they were going a few seconds faster.
It all came down to one thing, but he didn't like to admit it openly. He never fit in. From his earliest memories, he was an outsider. To his family he was the “white sheep,” to his friends he was a “geek,” at work he was “that computer guy,” and at church he just felt alone.
Fitting in never used to bother him. He always believed that someday he would meet someone, marry her in the temple, and have many children. Their kids would look up to him and want to be like him. They might even have the same interests. They were his hope.
Thirteen years had passed and with each year his hope faded with it. He had married in the temple, but they never had a child. His wife, Molly, had stopped attending church years ago. Gave him a big speech about how she couldn't live a lie. Things went down hill between them after that.
Where did that leave him? He had pondered that question over and over, especially as he sat alone at church. Then it would consume his thoughts for the rest of the week. By the weekend, it would start to subside, only to be brought back to the surface on the Sabbath. If he would never fit in here on Earth, would he ever be able to fit in on the other side of the veil?
He shook his head, as if trying to snap out of the thought.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” he thought. “Focus on the moment. Don't want to cause an accident.”
The rain poured down from an ominous sky. The windshield wipers once again pushed their way begrudgingly across the glass. Traffic thickened and cars had boxed him in on all sides. Several car lengths ahead, a silver sedan quickly cut in from an on-ramp and swerved across three lanes in what appeared to be an audition for an Indy car driver. Most of the stunt was obscured by a tractor-trailer two cars in front of him.
“O.K.! Now that guy is just a jerk!”
Perhaps fortunately, he never saw the consequences of the jerk's actions.
In the distance there was a beep. It came through quiet and blurry. Soon came another. Then another. With each beep, the sound became more focused, more rhythmic, and closer.
He inhaled like it was the first breath he had taken in years. As he did, his eyes began to open, each one a slit of blinding light cutting through the darkness. As the scene came into view, he found himself staring up at an off-white ceiling lined with florescent lights. The beep sounded out again, drawing his eyes sideways to see a heart monitor, an electronic line slowly beating a pattern of peaks and valleys across the screen.
Even without the sights and sounds, it was clearly a hospital. He recognized the smell, sanitized, with the slight hint of fecal matter. He only hoped it wasn't his own.
"What happened," he thought, trying to remember. His memory was blocked, as if he had just walked through a veil and could no longer see what lay behind him.
Maybe it was a dream, but it seems real enough. Besides, he was never creative enough to dream all this up. Each piece of equipment with their colored logos were far more detailed than he could have ever imagined. They even appeared to be running real tests on his body, at least they seemed real for his lack of knowledge.
He pushed the nurse call button on the side rail, but nothing happened. Perhaps it was broken. He lay there for a moment, hoping that someone would wonder into the room by chance. When no one did, he decided that if he was going to get answers, he would have to get up and find them himself. He slid off the side of the bed and stood up. This must be a dream, nothing hurts or is broken.
The sun shown through the window. The clock showed it was 10:40 in the morning. A sudden memory finally flashed. It had been raining. He walked to the window and could see that he was high above the ground, probably on the sixth or seventh floor. There were building rooftops scattered around and a long valley that stretched off for miles. The leaves were changing colors and created a beautiful tapestry of reds, orange, and yellows.
A sudden feeling that he was no longer alone caused him to turn.
"Actually, you've been here for quite awhile," said a man dressed in a white uniform. Clearly not a hospital uniform, it had more of a military look.
The man in white moved over to the bed and for the first time he realized that his body was still lying in the spot where he got up.
"And no, you're not dead," the man continued, peering into the face on the bed.
"Well, not exactly," he added, reflecting more than telling.
Feeling confused and at a disadvantage against the man in white, he stood in the middle of the room, mouth ajar, attempting to demand some answers, but no words came out.
"This is not a dream either. This is the most real experience you've had in a long time, brother."
This must be a dream. How else could this stranger know his very thoughts?
"If I'm not asleep or dead, then what am I?" he finally managed to squeeze out.
"There was a terrible, terrible accident. You've been in a coma for some time," said the man, finally turning from his body that still lie motionless in the bed.
"O.K., if I'm not dead, then who are you?" He asked. "I thought angels only came for the spirits of the dead."
"Sometimes I'm called an angel," said the man in white, "but right now I'm a recruiter, of sorts. I have come here to make you an offer. You see, when someone gets into your permanent position, and has the right spirit, they are offered an opportunity."
"An opportunity? An opportunity at what?" he questioned, shaking his head slightly and trying to grasp what was happening.
"An opportunity to join the Army of God," the man in white continued. "The war was won when Christ atoned for mankind, but the battle for the souls of men continues on both sides of the veil. God's army helps to protect and serve. We keep things in balance.
"The time will come when Heavenly Father's children will beat their swords into plowshares, but that time has not come yet. And so, brother, the offer. You can stay here and rest until the time of refreshing, when Christ comes again. No ill will shall be held against you for it. Or, if you choose, you can come with me and join the fray."
His eyes drifted as he thought about the proposal. His mind raced for a memory he had been missing since he first awoke. His eyes rested upon the empty chair by the bed. Molly. His heart sank as the romantic notion of his wife holding a constant vigil disappeared.
"It's been a long time, brother. Everyone has to move on at some point," the man in white consoled, placing a hand on his shoulder.
Before the tear forming in his eye could fall, as if on cue, Molly appeared in the doorway. Never noticing the two figures in the center of the room, she silently moved to the bedside. Gently taking his lifeless hand and she began to speak to him as if he were awake.
Her face had aged, not from time alone, but from the heartache she wore upon it. His heart ached along as he found a renewed love for her, regretting that it had ever faded.
"You say this is permanent if I stay here?"
"Yes," the man replied. "You will not wake again. Not until the resurrection."
"And if I go?"
"That body will die and she will have peace."
"Alright, I'm ready."
Months had passed since he arrived in the Spirit World. How long that was in earth time, he had no idea. Each moment had gone by so quickly, with everything being so new, that it was hard to tell. Plus, as the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun.
Basic training had been a spiritual eye opener. Back on Earth religion was almost a hobby to him. Now, his hobby was his career. “Scripture Mastery for Combat Situations” had been his favorite class, as well as “Ancient Hebrew Phrase Defenses.” By graduation, Hebrew had become a second language.
Tomorrow they would start A.I.T., Advanced Immortality Training. He couldn’t wait to start “Superior Prayer for Warfare.” Then, after A.I.T., it was out into the field. No one was completely sure what to expect after training, but several of the instructors said that how much they learned would determine their mission assignment. He was hoping his first mission would be back on the front line, Earth.
He lay back on his bunk, flipping through his copy of “God’s Word is His Power, is Yours?” He studied as much as he could. Not just to get a good mission, but, without knowing what to expect, he hoped that when he needed spiritual guidance and power, it would be at his finger tips.
Studying also took his mind off of his wife. The sadness in her pale blue eyes at the hospital as she sat over his comatose body still haunted him. Despite all their problems, there was still love between them. There was no going back now, but he wondered what he should have done differently.
Several men walked into the room, derailing his train of thought. Despite their size, they barely made a noise as they moved across the white marble floor. One broke off and stopped at the next bunk over. Walter Corboy opened his locker and rummaged through a drawer.
Corboy was tall with short, dark hair and squared jaw that gave him a very warrior-like appearance. He spoke like his personality, quick and ready to jump into whatever challenge that lie ahead. In every class or exercise, Corboy was at the front of the pack raring to go.
He and Corboy had met the first day they arrived at the Millennial Soldier Training Camp, unofficially named Fort Paradise. At first, he thought Corboy might be a jerk, but once they started talking he turned out to be a descent guy. According to Corboy, he had lived in New York City, he developed diabetes in the late 80’s, but never took care of it. Years later, he slipped into a diabetic coma in the mid 90’s. He jumped at the chance to join the “Corp,” as he called it. Said it was the “corp” in Corboy.
“Barrick, you still got your nose in a book?” Corboy said, in a thick accent. “We got one day to get some R & R and you’re fetchin’ studying. Put the book down and come hang out with the rest of us. The Spirit World Tabernacle Choir is singing tonight, I hear Elvis will be belting out a solo.”
Corboy always tried to include him, which he appreciated, but never went. What would he say? There didn’t seem to be any common interests between them and he was certain the last thing Corboy would want to talk about was training. Not knowing what to say or, worse, awkward silence was far too uncomfortable for him. Still, seeing Elvis sing was on his “Things to Do After I Die” list.
“Alright, I’m in.”
Corboy’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Terrific! Put that book away and let’s get outta here.”
The company stood in formation for breakfast prayer, as they had every morning. Another beautiful day, as each one had been. This would be the last morning they would stand here. Today they would graduate from training. Today they would get their mission letters.
Everyone was nervous about where they would go from here. Barrick stood still, trying not to let his nerves get the better of him. He let his mind wander over his training here at Fort Paradise. Weeks had passed and he still felt that seeing Elvis had been one of the highlights of his life, Earthly or spiritually. Molly, his wife, would have loved it, too. She always loved to hear an Elvis song. Even told him once that she married him because his thick black hair reminded her of Elvis.
He wondered if she had moved on and whether he would ever see her again. In the end, their relationship had been rocky at best. Did her inactivity in the church jeopardize their eternal covenant? Only time could tell at this point. If only he could talk to her now and tell her all the wonders he had seen, tell her it was all true.
A commotion from the Archangel’s office pulled him out of his thoughts. A cherub exited, easily distinguished by it’s helmet with four faces and four winged armor. They learned early in training about the different orders of angels, but this was the first time he had seen an actual cherub.
The cherub was followed by their commanding officer, Archangel Sovitski. A saint from Poland who was high up in the United Nation's peacekeeping forces before he fell deathly ill while on a humanitarian mission in the Congo. Rumor had it that he holds the record for the fastest promotion to Archangel since Michael.
The two saluted and the cherub extended its’ wings, flying off towards the Central Command buildings. As it glided upward through the air, it was joined by other cherubs from the different battalions. All eyes watched them for a moment and then found their way back to Sovitski.
“Must be something big for cherubim to be delivering the message,” whispered Corboy from the right.
“Alright men,” boomed Archangel Sovitski’s voice from the front. “Circle up!”
Everyone broke ranks and gathered as closely as they could. Archangel Sovitski jumped up on the bench by his office. “You up front, take a knee. You’ve come a long way soldiers. You have trained hard and have anxiously awaited your mission calls, many hoping to return to Earth and prepare the way for the Lord’s triumphant advent.”
“I have just been given great news. Jesus returned to Earth today,” Archangel Sovitski announced, as a wave of cheers rose throughout the troops. “But don’t let this glorious news make us forget our duty. There are still mission calls to give. Just because the enemy's leader is bound, his troops still rage across the Earth. It will take time and hard work to get the world cleaned up and in order.
“What say ye, are you ready?” Sovitski called out to another rally of cheers.
As the cheers continued, the large pearl colored doors to the offices opened and Archangel Zito, the Executive Officer, emerged from the office carrying a stack of envelopes.
“Fall in to receive mission calls!”
“I neva thought I’d be glad to get outta New York,” Corboy exclaimed as he dropped his gear.
They had taken up camp along the Hudson river, several miles north of New York City. Ahead of them lay the rolling hills that began the Catskills. Their first area had been Brooklyn, then Manhattan. The next leg of their mission was to head north towards Albany and engage the enemy in that region.
“Call it pride if you will, but I kinda resented being chosen for animal patrol at first,” Corboy reflected. “Figured it would be kind of boring. A waste of training.”
“Yeah, until that hell-hound jumped out of that dumpster behind Bargain Land and grabbed you by the ankle,” laughed Angel - Celestial Class Holt. Holt was the squad leader for first squad, second platoon, Delta company prior to Barrick and Corboy being assigned to it. He was a good leader, well versed in the scriptures, and had already seen a fair amount of combat prior to the Second Coming. He was also a bit of a prankster.
“That’s what I’m saying! Who knew it would be as exciting as it’s been. Of course, you could have warned me that thing was in there, Holt. Nearly soiled my garments,” Corboy replied, turning slightly red as several others laughed.
“But where would've been the fun in that?” Holt replied with a laugh.
“Still, we’ve seen some amazing things. Right, Barrick?” Corboy asked, trying to move the subject away from himself.
Barrick looked up from his field manual. “I don‘t know if I would call chasing rats around the sewers of New York amazing. Still, I’ll never forget the look on Sambrook’s face while swinging off that flagpole on the Empire State Building with one hand and clinging on to a possessed pigeon with the other.”
Sambrook quickly cut in to give his side of the story. Barrick only half listened as he looked out at the rolling hills, covered with lush, green vegetation. He took a deep breath of the fresh, clean air floating on the breeze and let his eyelids close. It reminded him of home in many ways, except the Hudson smelled a lot better now, fortunately having been cleansed by a separate division.
If they continued along the river, they would pass near his home town. He might catch a glimpse of his old stomping grounds, where he used to swim, go to church, where he proposed. Perhaps they would continue north after Albany and that would take him back to Molly. If she was still there.
She looked like an angel to him the day he asked her hand. The sun, reflecting off the river, gave her face a heavenly glow. He laughed to himself as he realized how much his image of angels had changed since then. Many times in church, he’d heard that angels don’t really have halos and wings, but they were depicted as such in most non-church effigies.
Looking around at his fellow angels, several still decked out in their armor, made him realize why they were depicted as they had been throughout history. How alien they must have appeared to ancient man. Metal breast plates with feather-like patterns that could be seen as folded wings. And their lighted headbands, for clearing the darkness, could easily appear to be halos.
They talked once in seminary about different types of angels. The thought reminded him of Ezekiel’s depiction of cherubim. He often wondered what they were like. Now he had actually seen one wearing it's helmet with four faces, breastplates of four wings, and on his side, a sword that was so refined and polished that the slightest refection of light made it appear to ignite with fire.
There was one class of soldier he had yet, but very much wanted, to see. The Seraphim. These soldiers were a separate rank all together, kind of like Special Forces. Their helmet’s visor appeared as wings, that shielded their eyes when in the presence of Heavenly Father. It was also said that their songs were like rivers of rushing light, that could penetrate any darkness.
Barrick snapped back into focus, as Sambrook’s field phone rang. Each member of the military carried a Spirit Phone, much like a pre-millennial smart phone, that allowed for communication and connection the to the SpiritNet, but each platoon also had a communications angel that carried a special Urim and Thummim to translate incoming mission calls. Everyone fell silent and waited.
“Urgent orders, sir!” Sambrook said, holding out the translation for Holt.
“Suit up angels,” Holt barked out.
A short time, and several hundred miles later, the squad stood outside the gates of a large pig farm. Barrick sniffed the air. The “High on the Hog Swinery” sign was clearly not needed to extend that information to any visitors. It was a hot and hazy August day and the sun baked a strong acidic stench into the humid breeze. The fragrance didn’t so much hang in the air as much as it reached up, grabbed hold, and choked all that was good from it.
About a hundred yards down a birch tree lined lane, an old fashioned white farm house stood, surrounded by several sheds, barns, and long concrete structures. As a boy in central Pennsylvania, he had grown up surrounded by similar farms, but knew little about their workings. He stood there looking at the buildings and equipment feeling a little obtuse.
There were no apparent signs of life. Everyone stood for a moment and took in the scene, until Corboy broke the silence.
“Is this some kind of a joke,” Corboy stammered out. “This one of your tricks, is it Holt?” What? You call HQ and have ‘em call in some kinda prank?”
“Ease up, Corboy,” Angel Holt retorted. “This is legit. Orders say that the 101st was on route through this area two days ago and were told several stories from the locals about people in the area being attacked by a large boar-like creature.
“They had to move on, but sent a request for an immediate investigation. That’s where we come in. Animals are our specialty,” Holt said with a grin.
“And they think it came from this place,” Corboy asked in a more even manner.
“It is central to the attacks,” Holt replied, walking up and loosening the cord that held the gate. “Well, when Jesus cast out Legion, they requested to possess a herd of swine. But those swine chose to run into a near by river and drown themselves rather than be possessed,” Angel Holt recounted. “Seems like these days, the swine aren’t much smarter than men.”
“Some say men and pigs are synonymous,” interjected Corboy. “Least that’s what my wife always says.”
They made their way up the lane, keeping watch for any signs of movement. A warm breeze blew by and shook the trees. The sun reflected off the dancing leaves, making them look like thousands of tiny cheering fans at a football game. Sadly, the events they were involved in had much more serious consequences.
Once they reached the farm house, Holt split them up. He and Sambrook would check the house, while the rest searched the buildings in groups of two. Corboy and Barrick headed for the abattoir, sticking to the well worn path from countless pigs that had gone to slaughter.
Apart from Corboy’s chattering about cute little chubby pink pigs with squiggly tails, there was a heavy silence hanging in the air. Remembering the farms of his youth, Barrick finally realized something had been bothering him ever since they passed through the gate. Not only was there no signs of humans or pigs, there were no signs of any life. There should be the sounds of birds and bugs chirping and buzzing, but there was nothing here. Not so much as a fly.
Just as Barrick was coming to his realization, a movement came from under the overhang at the far end of the abattoir. Half covered in shadow, it appeared to be the farmer, as it stood on two legs and wore overalls caked in pig excrement, which hung unbuttoned over one shoulder. But the face forced it’s way into the daylight, and appeared more out of place there than Marilyn Manson at a Motab concert.
The face bore little resemblance to anything human. It reminded Barrick of how the possessed dogs back in the city had looked twisted and tormented, like a werewolf he’d once seen in a movie. A hair covered boar-like snout protruded forward, bearing two nasty, yellow tusks. It’s ears were elongated and sat high on it head. The creature bristled it coarse fur and stared at them through small black eyes, looking to Barrick like some kind of Werepig.
“Ugh! That thing's not cute or pink,” Corboy curled his lip and exclaimed, “and there’s no way I’m checking him for a squiggly tail, either.”
The group continued to stare at each other as the other members of the squad joined them. The creature just stood and looked back and forth between the soldiers, furrowing his brow into deep, hateful ridges. It breathed heavily, pulling the air into it’s massive body, and when it exhaled, the air seems to flee his nostrils like it was desperately trying to escape.
“You think you can just come here and banish us,” the Werepig finally grunted, it’s voice raspy and guttural. It pulled it’s long tongue over a jagged tusk, grunting and squeaking as it waited a reply. “Our knowledge has grown a lot over the millennia. It won’t be as easy as you think!”
Corboy took a step forward in his usual cavalier way, “Alright, pig! We get it, you are Legion and there’s a whole bunch of ya in there. Well, the party’s over. Time to come out.”
As the final words left Corboy’s mouth, the Werepig let out a deafening squeal, lowered it's head, and charged forward, tusks first, knocking Corboy to the ground. Barrick watched in amazement as Corboy lay on his back, his head lolling to one side. Since their setting apart, their bodies had been transfigured and, although not yet immortal, were not able to be physically hurt.
But Corboy did not have physical wounds. He looked more like some of the light had been drained from him. Barrick knelt by Corboy and touched his head, allowing energy to flow between them. He watched in relief as the color returned to the face that had befriended him, all the while, the Werepig’s squealing laughter roared behind him.
“Not so easy. Eh angel?”
Barrick slowly stood and faced his adversary. The Werepig stood across from him, crouched and ready charge. Using his training, he calmed his anger, allowed the Spirit to build within him, and waited. The creature reared back it’s massive head, revealing it’s gnarled teeth and thickly ridged palate, and let out a horrible, unearthly howl filled with hate and rage.
The beast charged. Each step shook the ground beneath it. The mammoth body moved like a rocket powered freight train, covering the distance in the blink of an eye. Barrick barely managed to raise his right hand and speak before the monster reached him.
“Come out of the man, unclean spirit,” Barrick cried out in ancient Hebrew.
With that, the Werepig crashed face-down on the earth in a cloud of foul-smelling dust. The soldiers gathered round the hulking creature. Propping itself up with one arm, it looked up at them with contempt and disgust in it‘s black eyes. The unclean spirit rose from the body and stood at the center of the circle, leaving behind the moaning and reverted body of the farmer.
“Alright, Legion!” Holt demanded. “Where are the rest of you?”
“I am not Legion,” replied the spirit with an evil grin, “Like I said, we’ve learned a lot.”
Confused, Barrick looked around at the other soldiers and from the periphery realized what was meant. He turned to find that, while distracted by the Werepig, they had been surrounded by hundreds of swine. They all stood there for a moment in the heat of the late summer sun. The angels, still unsure of what was about to happen, prepared for the attack, while the pigs just stared at them through black eyes and faces tormented by the spirits within.
Suddenly the pig’s eyes began to pour out the blackness, like smoke from little pink chimneys on a cold winter’s night. The vapors twisted up through the sky and blocked out the sun in a bizarre kaleidoscope of malevolence. Before anyone could get out so much as a prayer, the blackness enveloped them. The last thing anyone heard before they were over taken was Sambrook, gasping in fear and awe, saying, “Oh my heck!”
Barrick realized now what was meant in the Book of Mormon by a mist of darkness. He could feel it on his skin, seizing him and binding his tongue. His mind raced with scriptures to no avail as he could feel the darkness fighting the light within him.
Desperate to free himself, he prayed. As he prayed he felt his heart turn again to his wife. She was always good at helping him see the light when he’d gotten himself in a mess. He wished to be near her once more, even comatose and in a hospital, just to have her near.
Weak and ready to abandon hope, a light suddenly appeared in the distance. He assured himself it wasn’t proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, as he was technically already dead by Earth’s standards. The light pierced through the darkness in long bright beams.
It could be only one thing. He remembered the stories of the Seraphim, the Special Forces of the Millennial Army and how the mere sound of their voices could vanquish any darkness. The closer they got, he could hear that they were singing an ancient hymn. The song burst through like the sound of many waters and quickly the blackness was washed away and the light returned.
Barrick found himself lying on his back, unsure of how he got there. He was weak and staggered as he tried to sit up. A figure stood over him and offered a hand. The Seraphim soldiers wore special visors over their eyes in the shape of wings. As he looked up the visor only revealed a warm smile. He took the hand and rose to his feet.
“Thank you,” Barrick softly said, catching his breath and dusting himself off.
“You’re welcome,” replied the Seraphim, in a familiar voice, barely concealing a slight laugh.
The Seraphim raised her visor to reveal her face. Barrick's eyes lit up and he embraced her.