Riley Knight was on the road to Jericho when the world came tumbling down. It was the beginning of an apocalyptic journey that began one day earlier in a San Diego hotel. Riley was there to meet Louie Casanova, a friend and former teammate from his minor league baseball days with the Raleigh Tar Stains.
Their get together that night wasn’t simply an excuse to renew old ties. Louie was now a scouting supervisor for Arizona’s major league baseball team. He was coming to town and wanted to gauge Riley’s interest in an available position.
Only Louie was running late, which left Riley awaiting his arrival perched at the hotel bar uneasily listening to the man next to him urgently warn of the world’s imminent end.
The prophet of doom was Shephard Van Ark. He was clad in a black military-style flight jacket, khaki work pants, and low-cut army tactical boots. Coupled with his wire frame glasses, large beer belly and flowing gray beard, Shephard looked like an urban commando version of Santa Claus.
Shephard had been attending the West Coast Prepare or Die Expo, a three-day October event featuring vendors, expert presentations and networking for people interested in surviving Doomsday.
The Expo had wrapped up a few hours earlier, and Shephard was having a few drinks before heading off to the airport for his flight back home. Riley was now engaged in conversation with him, more out of a need to occupy time than in any real desire to hear what Shephard had to say.
The way Riley figured, he was ill-suited for the survivalist game. It was hard to prepare for Armageddon when the most pressing issue in his life was making next month’s rent. Taking caring of present-day realities was a far more productive use of energy than focusing it on events unlikely to ever materialize.
Shephard was quick to disagree. “Do you have any idea the number of long-term, globally fatal events that are just waiting to smack us upside the head? I mean the list is flipping endless.”
Not waiting for a response, Shephard began to spout them off in rapid succession, his voice rising with each catastrophic calamity. “You’ve got your worldwide pandemics; extinction-level meteorites; mega tsunamis; giant solar flares; super volcanoes; hypernovas; and galaxy-annihilating gamma ray bursts.”
“That doesn’t even include man-made catastrophes like nuclear war; global economic collapse; genetically engineered biological agents; and self-replicating killer robots gone amuck.”
Shephard leaned in to Riley. “The odds of any one of those death scenarios, not to mention the dozens more I haven’t even mentioned, are just too damn great to ignore.”
By this point, Shephard had worked himself into quite a state. He was waving around the plastic sword that once held his martini olive like a swashbuckling pirate.
Afraid Shephard would inadvertently thrust the miniature cutlass into his eye, Riley began to demand he put it down when the power in the hotel suddenly cut out, plunging the bar into complete darkness.
Riley’s first reaction was to laughingly inform Shephard the apocalypse was indeed upon them. Shephard didn’t reply, although his silence wasn’t shared by the others in the room.
The interruption of the football game on the bar’s now dead television monitor prompted a raucous but good-natured response from a group of liquored-up patrons at a nearby table. Others in the room, while not quite as vocal, filled the air with lighthearted jokes.
The good times only lasted ten minutes or so when, still without electricity, people began to become increasingly annoyed that their descent into darkness had overstayed its welcome.
Despite the staff’s plea for patience, the uneasy clamoring just increased. It was at this tenuous point that the lights suddenly returned. Order in the bar was quickly restored, new found civility aided by a round of free drinks provided by the bar manager.
With the lights restored, Riley quickly noticed Shephard shaking profusely. “I’m just so damn jumpy about when this thing’s going to hit. I thought this was the real deal,” he explained, as he wiped his brow with a cocktail napkin.
Riley attempted to reassure Shephard by easing the mood. He jokingly said the loss of electrical power didn’t rise to the level of annihilation scenarios Shephard had been ranting about.
Riley’s comment had been made in jest, but judged by the look on Shephard’s face it came off smartass in tone. “I used to be like you. I thought survivalists were just a bunch of lunatics too,” snorted Shephard.
He held up his empty martini glass to the bartender and said to Riley in a lowered voice, “That was until I was shown the light.”
Shephard’s conversion from survivalist skeptic to true believer came five years earlier at a Plucky Rooster, a popular national fast food chicken chain. At the time Shephard was the owner-operator of fifteen very profitable Plucky Rooster franchises strewn throughout Kentucky.
On a visit to his franchise in Louisville, Shephard began to choke while eating a deep-fried wing and drumstick combo. “The next thing I know, I’m floating outside my body, looking down at all my employees watching me choke to death. I mean they were literally doing nothing.”
“So I yell down from the ceiling for someone to get off their ass and give me the Heimlich maneuver or something, but they couldn’t hear me.”
Shephard shook his head in sad disgust. “Finally, I saw one of the customers push her way through the circle of dead weight employees in an attempt to get this chicken bone out of my throat. But then Floyd Monroe, the manager of the Plucky Rooster….”
Shephard stopped talking and took off his glasses. “I still can’t believe it,” he said rubbing his eyes. He let out a deep sigh. “When the woman knelt down by my body, Floyd actually pulled her away.”
According to Shephard, Floyd sternly warned the woman that if Shephard died while she tried to save him, she could be held liable for his death. The woman started to protest but Floyd waved her off. The woman stood up and thanked Floyd for potentially saving her some deep legal problems.
“She actually shook his hand,” said Shephard in disbelief.
Shephard then began to get excited. “Now at this point I’m screaming down at Floyd that if I survive this, I’m going to kill him, but that doesn’t look too likely since I can see myself already turning blue there on the floor.”
It was at that point in his near-death experience when Shephard said he saw the light appear in front of him, a bright embraceable warm radiance accompanied by a soothing voice calling him into it.
Shephard however wasn’t ready to comply just yet and began to resist. “I was yelling at the voice that I wasn’t going anywhere until it did something about that jackass Floyd Monroe. I mean I was livid. I wanted some action.”
The voice tried coaxing Shephard into the light by promising him that it only wanted to talk for a brief moment before it sent him back into his body. Then Shephard could take care of Floyd anyway he wanted. It sounded like a reasonable compromise and so Shephard headed off into the light.
What happened next according to Shephard was his face-to-face meeting with God, or who he presumed to be God. “He kind of looked like Mr. Feathers.”
Mr. Feathers was Plucky Rooster’s national mascot, a giant red rooster famous for his straw hat and bib overalls.
Riley’s look of disbelief was shared by Shephard. “I know. I was expecting God to look different too. Something along the lines of a bearded, silvery-haired guy in a white robe. Naturally, I began to think I was getting conned.”
Shephard paused for a moment as the bartender set down a fresh martini. Taking a small sip, he continued on. “Mr. Feathers assured me that He really was God. He explained the reason for His appearance was that if I saw the real Him, I couldn’t handle the awesomeness of it. That’s why God puts himself in familiar, comforting forms that don’t scare the shit out of you.”
Once satisfied he was dealing with the real Almighty, Shephard listened to God inform him that He would soon be hitting Earth with an apocalyptic event. “God’s really getting fed up with Mankind, but He doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater either,” explained Shephard.
In order to solve that conundrum, God charged Shephard with selecting twelve people to help prepare a place for all them to survive Doomsday.
Riley asked Shephard what type of biblical horror God was planning, but Shephard just shook his head. “He said I didn’t need to know because He works in mysterious ways or something along those lines.”
As to who Shephard was supposed to pick to survive the end of the world with him, he just shrugged. “Hell if I know. He said He’d trust my judgment.”
Shephard was in the dark it seemed about a lot, but the biggest mystery was why God had chosen him in the first place. “When I asked Him why I got the big assignment, He told me to quit asking so many damn questions.”
That’s when God propelled Shephard back into his body, just in time for him to see a paramedic stick her hand down his throat and pull out the chicken bone.
After being resuscitated, Shephard was eager to begin carrying out God’s plan but first had to deal with some unfinished business. “I fired Floyd Monroe’s ass as they were wheeling me out on the stretcher. Floyd was looking all surprised, but I told the son of a bitch that I saw what he had done.”
Following his release from the hospital, Shephard immediately began to shift his earthly focus from running his Plucky Rooster franchises to tackling his Holy mission.
As a late arrival to the survivalist game, Shephard began attending countless survivalist trade shows and conventions, looking over the latest industry innovations and trends. “I was in a race against time,” he explained.
The biggest problem according to Shephard was that since God wouldn’t tell him what type of big event He planned, Shephard had no choice but to prepare for all possibilities.
Shephard took another drink. “Look, I appreciate that God’s not micromanaging me on this, but He didn’t give me a whole lot of information to work with either. Since I didn’t know what eradication event He was planning, I really didn’t know what to build at first.”
“Do I construct an ark only for Him to unleash a new Ice Age? Where does that leave me? I settled on building a land-based survival compound, but for all I know I may have built the damn thing on top of Ground Zero.”
Shephard wouldn’t disclose to Riley the exact location of his survival compound other than it was in a mountainous area somewhere in the contiguous United States.
“Wherever you built it, what made you choose that particular location?” inquired Riley.
Shephard would only say, “I was sitting on the can reading the news when I saw an article about a rare heavenly event that took place there. It just called to me.”
With his site selected, Shephard was ready to proceed with the final piece of the plan, which was to determine who to take with him to ride out the Apocalypse. While Shephard didn’t know at first who he would select, he did eliminate his wife, children and grandchildren early on in the recruiting process.
That decision occurred shortly after Shephard sold all his Plucky Rooster franchises to purchase the property for the survival compound and the supplies to stock it, a move which led his entire family to try to have him declared legally insane.
Riley didn’t consider himself a legal expert, but he had gathered from listening to Shephard for only this short time that his family seemed to have a solid case.
Shephard though was armed with some pretty high-priced lawyers who convinced the Commonwealth of Kentucky otherwise. “After their petition was thrown out, I told them they were officially off the to-be-saved list,” he said with a satisfied look.
His legal troubles over, Shephard eventually managed to locate twelve people who were willing to leave their lives behind to follow him.
“How did you find them?” asked Riley.
“Advertisements in survivalist online magazines like Armageddon Monthly and on websites like SurviveToThrive.com. Places like that.” Shephard tossed a few bills down on the bar. “They’re at the compound now. That’s why I need to get back. You never know when this thing’s going to hit.”
“You probably don’t need to rush,” responded Riley. “I mean why would God unleash his cataclysmic event when you’re away from your survival compound? That makes no sense.”
“How the hell should I know what’s going on in His mind,” exclaimed Shephard. “None of this makes any sense.”
As he got up from his chair, Shephard admitted that preparation can only take one so far. In the end it came down to divine intervention. God would ultimately determine who survived.
With that, he shook Riley’s hand. “I believe God has a plan for all of us. I was just lucky enough that I got to hear mine firsthand.”
Riley agreed. God had a plan for him as well, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
He had once been an injury-prone pitcher struggling to keep his flickering prospects of playing in the big leagues alive when his dream was extinguished after his release from the Raleigh Tar Stains.
For years after he had drifted through a series of purposeless jobs, from lot attendant to bartender to pool cleaner, the latest stocking grocery shelves. His professional failures were rivaled only by his personal ones. The women who had once gravitated his way were now more elusive to find.
Now into his thirties, a high school graduate with no clear skill set, Riley had become truly lost. He craved a chance for a life do over but didn’t know how to achieve it. Having been on his downward slide for so long, it felt impossible to stop the descent. All he could do was brace for the inevitable hard landing.
Only now the rough crash might be avoided by the return of Louie Casanova into his life. Life is funny he thought. Right when things seem darkest, the light suddenly appears. Perhaps his aimless odyssey was finally coming to a merciful end.
As if on cue, Riley felt a hard slap on his shoulder. He turned around and looked up into the smiling face of Louie Casanova.