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Dystopia

Which is more beautiful a sunset or sunrise? I had often pondered that throughout my life. It is a subjective question.
Every sunrise and sunset is different and varied in intensity of colors and cloud formations. The sun is setting now. To me
the darkness that follows is like death. I pray to survive till the next morning's light, the birth of a new day.

Darkness.

The candle flickers. Other than daylight and fire, candles are our only source of light now. In our temporary refuge its light
casts ominous shadows on the walls. We have become nomadic. Wandering from place to place, scavenging anything
useful, anything edible.

I peer through the stained glass window towards the city in the valley below. The site, a painful reminder of the present
reality. I am scared. We have lived too long in the somber belief that what we can't see can't hurt us. In societies case, we
choose not to see the obvious. Like ostriches oblivious to the happenings surrounding us, our heads are in the sand. No
one paid attention to the lions amongst us.

For a moment I thought I saw movement outside the window. A shadow. A chill runs down my spine. No, no, no, there's
nothing there. There are no monsters. A least that's what we were told to believe.

I turn to the others. There are eighteen of us now. We had been as many as forty, but with each day, life grew more
difficult and more dangerous. Some had died in attacks, ambushes or traps, while others had either split off into smaller
groups to avoid attention, or worse, brought their own lives to an end in the plight of a hopeless future. It has been nine
months since what can only be described as mass insanity swept across the nation. Life as we had known it was over.

Our group is a diverse group which is uncommon now. White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, gay, lesbian,
different religions, or lack of there, we're pretty much textbook diversity. The melting pot which the United States had
struggled to be. We are an image of days past. We sit speaking in hushed whispers around the candle. We are trying to
avoid any attention. Through my objections, the unnecessary source of light burns in front of us, beckoning unwanted
eyes.

I have always been fascinated by the thought processes of others. I listened intently as they speak of the events that
created the world of today. Seventeen people, with at times, vastly different perspectives of cause and effect. Basically it
came down to two lines of thinking, the blamers and the self blamers. They blame the government, the media, ideology,
racism, racial groups, the past, present, future and even blame themselves for their actions, inactions and even the actions
of others. There was no shortage of blame here. A lot of anger and a lot of guilt all hushed in whispers. Several cry as they
had each night since we banded together. After a short while there were glimpses of racial tension amongst us. We had
promised each other to be better than this. The rumble of thunder startles the group. Composure was reestablished and
some amongst the group began to pray, which for some reason, made me feel uncomfortable. I did not understand the
nature of my reaction until later.

I glance out the window again. In the distance I can see fires ravaging the city only miles away. What we had thought was
thunder was likely an explosion. There are at least four high rises engulfed in flames. In my mind I envision people leaping
from the higher floors to their death like on 9/11, rather than to die in the fire. The thought was probably a reality. It was
chaos there. Five in our group had escaped Phoenix two months prior. They were in shock when we found them. They
were and still are a quiet group. When they do speak, they spoke as little as possible about their experience. James, a
thirty year old muscular white man once told me "they did things,, to us, to me,, " and broke down into tears for hours
never revealing exactly what happened. Even through the absence of his words, I knew what had happened. Little bits and
pieces of their story from time to time would be divulged over the following weeks. It was enough to let us know that the
city was the last place we wanted to go.
I remembered the reports of Marshall law, placed in effect, to stop the violence. For weeks it was all that aired on the
news. That was before all forms of communication, television, telephones, Internet and print news abruptly ended. The
power grids were attacked plunging the cities into darkness. It was the dawn of a new dark age.

In the beginning the suburbs where I resided retained a short lived period of normalcy. The unrest and violence spread
across the nation like a plague sweeping from one large city to another. Two months into the disorder, the last news
reports indicated that the violence had spread to twenty-three major cities. Detroit and Chicago had been reduced to
ashes. Their inhabitants fleeing to the suburbs, and in some cases, areas of wilderness until a time when the chaos would
end.

I recall the shock of the first week. Outwardly it appeared to be civil unrest in Detroit due to racial tensions. There was a
lot of anger and hatred that had been long suppressed, not just in this city, but all across the United States. Over the years,
many African-American men had died at the hands of the police. The reason for the death didn't matter to most, even if
video evidence showed a police being fired upon, if the end result was the death of a Black man, the reason he died was
racism. It started with two Black teens who were breaking into a house. The police showed up and one of the teens had a
gun. The resulting shootout left both teens dead. Then began the demonstrations, the vandalizing, the arson and the
violence. Within a week, the arsons intensified. There were reports that White supremacist were responsible, although it
could have been other groups as well. In the days that followed, an all out race war had begun.

Every level of government official, from local to national tried to quell the violence, to no end. News commentators
capitalized and sensationalized the catastrophe for ratings. The rhetoric of the talking heads still resonates in my head.
"Only a fool puts themselves in harm's way with the belief that their morals, charity or love will protect them from bad
intentions of others." "Do not be deceived by the appearance of what could be a friend, as an enemy can wear the same
face. The body is just a shell. One's true nature and intent is that which lies hidden inside." "The government knew this
was coming for a long time and did nothing." Frighteningly, their messages, though politically incorrect at the time, makes
perfect sense now. Panic swept through the country when the death toll reached ten thousand. Each day the number of
deaths increased. Two months later the count was at an estimated three million, and at this point the flow of information
ceased. I watched as each television channel one by one went off the air. The National Guard, and shortly after the
military, roamed the streets, but the violence only intensified and in most cases, they found themselves outgunned and
outnumbered by mobs ready and willing to kill them or anyone else they deemed the enemy. Then one day the military
retreated, leaving the cities to burn or fall under hostile control.

The sound of another explosion. I rush to the window. It was closer this time. A building outside the city is now burning
and judging the location, it was likely the Mesas police station. It had been and probably still was being used by both local
law enforcement and the military as a command post. Behind me the others have gathered to view the destruction. "That
police station is on the road that leads directly here" a middle aged white man named Richard points out. "They will be
coming for us." Across the dimly lit room a foreign woman with darker skin tones and thick accent responds "Who do you
mean by they?" obviously offended. A white woman next to her repeats the question "yeah who do you mean by they?".
Shit, we are beyond the reality of political correctness, I think to myself. He doesn't respond as they expect, but I knew
what he meant. "One faction or another."

In that moment I wondered how future scholars, if there are any, will look to the past for a flash point where the
breakdown of race relations began. Even if records survive they will find no single event, but rather a long series of events.
They will come to the conclusion that a portion of population was unwilling to let go of the past while another portion was
unwilling to embrace the future. They will also realize that the volatile combination of Hispanic drug gangs, immigration,
Islamic cultural differences and extremism, terrorism, the Black Lives matter movement, the increase in the number of
White supremacist and a surge of Nationalism was a powder keg waiting for the right spark to light the fuse. A nation
where groups purposely segregated themselves believing that unity and commonality would diminish their own race and
cultural backgrounds. The breakdown in our society was well under way, long before the death of the two teens at the
hands of the police in Detroit, and long before the election of extremely unpopular and perceivably racist White president.

It's past midnight now. Some amongst the group have fallen asleep in the pews while others still hold vigil. Their
continuous candlelight prayers begins to grate my nerves. Some believe that by some miracle life will return to normal one
day if they only can survive until that day comes. They are sadly mistaken. They have buried their heads like ostriches,
choosing not to see the world in its terrifying new reality. A lawless world where execution squads and rape gangs commit
atrocities in broad daylight. Then there were those driven mad by hunger. Cannibalism has become a reality. In every crisis
there are always those who would capitalize in any way possible. That type of person would sell other people as slaves or
for sex and even as food. Too many people have died in the unleashed hatred and orgy of death, birthed from racial
divides to make normalcy a possibility again.

I envy those who escaped the country in the first months before everything collapsed, before the ethnic cleansing. They
are the ones who are lucky not knowing this life. A life which can be described as apocalyptic or hell on Earth. I have urged
the group to consider crossing the border into Mexico. At least there we could get refugee status. But their ill placed hope
holds them here. Perhaps I will go on my own.

"Wake up!!" Someone shouts. The light of approaching vehicles beams through the stained glass windows of the Church of
the Last Days. "Put out the candle!" someone else yells. "Quiet, quiet!" I tell the group. We hear the vehicles come to a
stop close to the entrance of the subdivision. They are large pickup trucks, five of them. In the dark I could tell that the
men who exited the trucks are carrying rifles. It is too dark to see any other details. We listen for a hint of who they may
be. Do they sound White, Black, Hispanic or Middle Eastern?? Suddenly screams and the sound of automatic gunfire come
from nearby houses. Other people were hiding there!? Perhaps the house owners. Through the stained glass windows
night becomes day as homes are set ablaze with Molotov cocktails. Half of our group lay on the floor of the church with
their eyes closed whimpering in prayer. The lions will have their feast tonight.

In the madness taking form, I look at those cowering and laugh to myself as the realization sets in. In the time before the
shit hit the fan, they were a bunch of local atheist and liberally minded zealots who would have rejoiced if every Christian
church in the country had burned down. Tonight they will get their wish as they grovel to a deity they do not believe in.
The lions, the monsters, death itself is just outside the doors. The voices of men yelling in Arabic herald the arrival of
Molotov cocktails against the church's exterior and panic sets in amongst those inside.

The flames begin to engulf the double doors that are the main entrance to the church and smoke begins to fill the air. Two
women begin to scream and in response a barrage of bullets pierce the double doors. More voices from outside yelling in
Arabic. Gunshots began shattering the stained glass windows on all sides of the building. A wave of five of our people rush
the west side doors to flee the burning structure. The group of five who had escaped Phoenix. They didn't make it twenty
feet outside before being taken down by gunfire. A second group of six tries the east exit with the same results. The
monsters outside are enjoying this. Seven of us are left. The fire rages and the smoke inside the church made the air
unbreathable.

The remainder of us make our way to the back of the church where there is one last exit. We open the door expecting
gunfire but instead we find the two men who guarded this exit on the ground, their bodies bloodied from bullets. Gun fire
can be heard from the front of the church, even through the noise of the inferno. I peer around the corner and see an
exchange of shots between two men. It has to be two rival racial factions. Now is the time to make our escape while the
attackers are distracted. "Split up! Don't follow anyone. It's our only chance to make it out alive." I tell the others. "RUN!!"

We scatter as fast as we can to the wooded area behind the church. Our exit is noticed and bullets fly in our direction.
Peripherally, I see three of our group taken down. The full moon and cloudless night betray our positions. I dodge between
trees trying to stay out of the direct line of fire. Another of us falls. I loose track of the remaining two. The cool, winter
night air numbs my mind. I will run until the sounds and light from the fire is no more. I will run until the sound of gun
shots is a safe distance away. I wondered if the others had survived.

I don't know how far I have run. I am out of breath and feeling light headed. I squat down for a moment to rest. The
adrenaline is wearing off and I feel pain in my rib cage. I touch the area and the pain intensified. There is blood on my
hand. I stand and lift my shirt to find a flesh wound. A bullet grazed my chest, leaving not an entrance or exit wound, but
rather a straight line of partially cauterized flesh. I check the rest of my body and thankfully find nothing. I need to find
shelter and tend to my wound. Although the temperature is not freezing yet it's cool enough to suffer from exposure.

I walk a while and I hear the sound of a branch crack under the weight of something. A human foot or an animal,
something is nearby. I duck down to see the silhouette of a person in the distance. I freeze in place not knowing if it is
friend or foe. I wait and I watch as a person walks ever closer. "Fuck" I whisper to myself as I slowly maneuver around a
tree beside me to keep out of view. It's a man. I believe a Middle Eastern looking man and definitely not part of our group.
He carries a rifle, and is now about thirty feet from me. He stops for a moment and drinks from what appears to be a flask,
then continues down the path. I wait a while and decide to walk in the opposite direction from where the man headed. I
took a few steps and two gun shots ring out. A bullet passes through my right arm and this time I feel the pain. I run as fast
as I could not knowing the exact position of my assailant or even if it is the same man. More bullets fly past me.
Fortunately for me this is not a fully automatic rifle. Several bullets strike trees near me. I loose my footing while running
downhill and tumble about fifteen feet. The adrenaline has kicked in and my mind is in survival mode. I think I cracked a
rib in the fall. I stagger forward seeing a river in the distance. Several more shots ring out as I continue running towards
the river in the hopes of swimming to the other side to loose my pursuer. I am almost there, when I realize that the river
will be lower than the ground I am running on. I reach the edge and see a twenty foot drop and a river flowing more
rapidly than I would have anticipated. I leap into the cold water, it takes my breath away. I swim towards the opposite
side. My pursuer now having reached the river's edge continuously fires in my direction. I swim under water briefly to
avoid the bullets. Thankfully it is dark and the current is swiftly pulling me away. Whoever this is he is a poor shot. The cold
is quickly draining my energy. I try to swim to the other bank but the current is too swift and I am making no headway. My
mind is beginning to shut down and my body is numb. I feel I am losing consciousness.

In a moment of clarity, I find myself still in the river but clinging to the trunk of a fallen tree. Hypothermia has set in. I
notice a bridge only a few yards away and I try to move my body toward the shore but my muscles will not respond. My
vision is fading. I hear noises a short distance away. The sounds are getting louder. From nowhere a Black man's hand
reaches for me. I use all of my strength and reach for his hand. My desperation exceeds my fear. I surrender myself to Fate
and the possibility of life. I feel my limp body roughly pulled from the water. While the last fragments of consciousness
escape me, the image of the night's sunset replays in my mind. The world dissolves to black and the last thing I hear are
the words "I got you".
Miracle at Midnight

Mike Feeney threw a lighted match into the rusted half-barrel of firewood he had scrounged from nearby abandoned
buildings and watched as the flames grew. He settled beneath the concrete bridge that had become home, and tightened
a tattered blanket around his emaciated frame. He knew the fire would attract other hapless vagrants, but he didnt mind.
Numbers brought safety, company and conversation. They could share a bottle of whiskey or the stale bread he had pulled
from a dumpster earlier that day. With any luck somebody would have a gram or two of cut cocaine, enough to fight the
withdrawal symptoms that had begun to gnaw at him and make him shiver. With New York temperatures set to plummet
to minus five this Christmas Eve, Mike needed all the help he could muster to make it to Christmas Day.

Twenty minutes later, as darkness fell, an old African American gentleman approached. Mind if I share? he said, pointing
at the fire. I wont be no trouble, no trouble at all, sir.

Be my guest, Mike replied, gesturing to a spot beside him.

The old man dropped his two stuffed trash bags and held his hands over the flames. He shuddered, tightened the rope
securing his ragged coat and looked to where Mike sat. Gonna be a cold one, my friend.

Sure is. Dont suppose you have anything could warm us up? Ive a bit of bread and a whack of cheese myself. Maybe we
could share?

Cheese! Now theres a delicacy I havent tasted in a while. Ive a drop of watered-down whiskey. I reckon we could have
ourselves a right good dinner after a while.

Sure could, Mike said, stretching out his hand. Im Mike, Mike Feeney.

John, John Thompson.

The old man clutched Mikes hand and stared down at him. Mike Feeney, Mike Feeney, why does that name sound
familiar?

God knows. Seems to me everyones name sounds familiar when youre living on the street. Its not like we have loads of
guests coming and going or heaps of names to remember.

John pulled a grey pillow and a worn blanket from one of his bags. He shook his head. I get that, but mind you, I got me a
good eye for detail and a memory for names. I dont function like I used to, but something tells me I know you. Goddamn
memory, used to be sharp as a razor. Itll come to me though. Itll come to me. Always does.

He proceeded to roll out his blanket and adjust his pillow. He lay down, snuggled up and for a while studied the algae
covered underbelly of the bridge. He rolled over and looked at Mike. What brought you to these depths, my friend?

Mike shrugged. You know how it is. One thing leads to another. One day you have money, a wife, a business, the next its
all gone.

How does that happen?

You take things for granted. You get fond of the good life.
What kinda good life?

Parties, drugs, women. You allow others to run your business; next thing you know your accountants have embezzled you
and your lawyers fucked you. Youre bankrupt and your ex-wives are demanding a fortune.

John sat up and let his blanket flop to his waist. God damn it, I got it. I got it now. I knew it would come to me. The
accent. Youre the Irish guy. Youre . . . youre Mike Feeney of Feeney Construction. Aint that right, Mr. Feeney, sir?

Mike nodded. Thats right, Im that Mike Feeney.

Yeah, used to have that thing going for sick children, too. Your commercials . . . all over the television at a time. Sort of
a hole in the wall gang thing.

Mike laughed. Well thats someone much more famous than me. I believe thats Paul Newman, but yeah, something
along those lines. We funded operations for sick children whose parents couldnt afford the treatment.

Damn right you did, and had soup kitchens down on 69th street.

Thats right, we did. Mike lay down and closed his eyes. Seems like a long time ago . . . a very long time ago. He
clasped his shoulders to control his shivering and drifted off to sleep.

Loud voices woke him. He rubbed his eyes, caught the smell of a smouldering fire and looked to where John lay. Three
youths had surrounded him, tossed him from his blanket and had begun to burn his few belongings. They jeered and
kicked him as they threatened to strip him and burn everything he owned. They had already removed his jacket and as
two held him down the third tugged at his ragged pants.

Mike struggled to his feet and staggered before gaining composure. Enough, he shouted. Thats enough.

The three youths turned and stared. Jesus Christ, one with a shaven head said. Im looking at a fucking zombie. Dont
worry, homie, you wont feel left out. Well get to you next. His friends laughed, and went back to removing Johns pants
as he pleaded for mercy.

Homie! Mike shouted. Homie! Homie, my fucking hole. Ill give you Homie, you baldy bastard.

He pulled a double action, semi-automatic Walther from his belt and fired a shot. The youth with the shaven head fell to
the ground clutching his foot. His friends looked up and watched as he rolled back and forth screaming. Jesus Christ, you
mad bastard, he roared at Mike. Youve blown my fucking foot off.

Yeah? I must be getting rusty, Mike said, standing with the gun pointed at the other two. I was aiming for your head,
but Im steady now. I wont miss these two.

The two youths held up their hands as Mike pointed to their clothes. Well be needing those. They began to strip. As they
threw their clothes to where Mike stood he motioned to the guy on the ground. I grazed your ankle, you goddamn pussy,
nothing more. I had a mind to blow your fucking balls off. Now strip and get the fuck outta here before I lose my temper.

The guy let go of his foot and began to follow Mikes instructions. As the three of them stood wearing nothing but their
underwear, Mike pointed the gun towards their groins. Well be needing those to kindle our fire.

Without a word they pulled off their boxers and threw them over. As they stood clutching their testicles Mike pointed to
John. Now before you go, shrivelled dicks, an apology to my friend. They turned to where John sat clutching his pants.
Were sorry, man. It was just a bit of fun.

Next time you want fun, Mike said, come to me. Ill give you all the fun you can handle. Now get the hell outta here
before I put a bullet that far up your asses your mothers will feel it.
The three youths, bent, and covering their manhood, scurried off, the one with the shaven head limping behind the
others. Mike stuck his handgun into the belt of his pants, and knelt down beside his friend. You okay? John wiped the
tears from his face and mumbled. Yes, sir, Mr. Feeney. Im fine. Thank you. Thank you for saving my life.

Just a few punks, thats all. Come on, get dressed, well have that dinner we talked about. Mike pulled an old strapless
wristwatch from his jacket and checked the time. 10:30 pm. Yeah, its dinner time. I must be leaving in about an hour.

You got somewhere to go?

Yes.

Where? If you dont mind me asking.

Im going to midnight mass.

You go to church?

Im going tonight.

Can I come? I wont be no trouble. Its warm in the church, right?

Yeah, its warm in the church, but I travel alone, my friend.

John nodded with the wisdom accrued from years on the street. I understand. Then lets get this dinner going.

They sat by the fire and shared their meagre rations savouring each morsel of bread as if it was their last. What church
you going to? John asked, taking a slug of the watered-down whiskey.

Holy Rosary over on Adee Avenue.

You been there before?

A few times, when I first came to the States.

So what takes you back tonight.

Business.

What kind of business? You asking God to get you off the streets?

Mike spilled the whiskey down his chin as he tried to take a drink. He clutched the bottle with an iron grip and stared at it
as he spoke. Have you ever experienced runny eyes, a runny nose, diarrhoea, dehydration, complete lack of appetite,
overwhelming nausea, and pain in every part of your body, all at once?

Like the flu?

Like the flu, multiplied by ten.

Cant say, Ive ever had it that bad.

Those, my friend, are addiction withdrawal symptoms, and its like nothing youve ever felt before.

I get it, John said, nodding. Youre going to get help for your addiction.

Mike grinned and handed John the bottle. Yes, I guess you could say that. He checked his watch, bundled up his
belongings and stretched out his hand. I wish you all the best my friend. Take care.

He left without looking back and made his way to Adee Avenue where the church of the Holy Rosary loomed like a
lighthouse through the bleak Bronx darkness. At five minutes to twelve, he slipped inside and knelt unobtrusively in the
back pew. A good crowd attended. He hadn't been part of a congregation for so long, he could hardly remember the
format. He hoped the collection still took place after the homily.

Nothing had changed. After a sermon, when the priest ranted on about goodwill, and losing Christmas to commercialism,
six men weaved through the pews to collect the Christmas offering before bringing baskets brimming with cash to the
altar.

Mike felt his mouth salivate and his pulse race at the thought of a fix. He moved fast, closed and barred the double doors,
pulled his ski mask down over his face and fired two quick rounds into the ceiling. People screeched and screamed.
Parents pulled their children close and shielded their eyes. He fired another round into the air and ran to the altar.
Grabbing the priest, he held the gun to his head. The crowd settled.

No one's going to get hurt. Do as I say and I'll be out of here in five minutes.

He pulled a garbage bag from his pocket and threw it to an old man in the front row.

Empty the baskets, he shouted.

The man looked at the priest. The priest nodded. Do as he says.

The congregation remained quiet and still. May God have mercy on you this Christmas, my friend, the priest announced
for all to hear.

Shut up, Mike replied. He pointed his gun at the old man. And you . . . hurry it up there.

Not a local accent, the priest said, after a few moments.

Never you mind about accents.

Lapsed, I assume, the priest continued, undeterred.

What did I just tell you? Mike said, tightening his grip on the priest's vestments. He pointed to the man again. Would
you hurry it along, pops.

The old man looked up, let go of the bag and sat down on the steps. I'm sorry, Father, I can't do this. I've fought for my
country in two wars and I'll be damned if I'm going to take orders from some cowardly punk pointing a gun at defenceless
women and children in a church. So go ahead, shoot me, you two-bit son of a bitch.

John now, please. Do as he says, the priest urged. We don't want any trouble.

Mike pulled at the ski mask irritating his neck. Jesus Christ. Of all the churches I choose to rob, I end up in the middle of a
fucking Oprah show with a war hero.

He pointed his gun to another man in the front row. You. I suppose you've some hero's cause too.

The man stood and looked up. No, no, not me, Michael. I've no cause worth dying for. Well, I'm thinking its Michael, he
said, straining his neck.

An old lady coughed and Mike pointed the gun at her. The crowd gasped. I'm warning you now. The next one to move
gets it. He turned to the man standing. What are you on about? My name's not Michael.
I know, Mike, he replied.

The overpowering heat in the church began to agitate Mike. He scratched his crotch with the gun, then, pointed it back at
the priest's head. He looked down to where the trash bag lay, with only one basket emptied.

Okay, fill it, he said.

As the man began to fill the bag, Mike became curious. You think you know me?

Without raising his head the man responded. I do know you. You're Mike Feeney. How could I forget? I used to work for
you. You helped me out. Four years ago you paid for my little girls open-heart surgery on Christmas Day. Remember?

Mike eased his grip on the priest's garments and leaned on the altar. The man continued. You're the Irish Santa. He
turned to a little blue-eyed girl wearing a hooded sweatshirt sitting in the front pew. Roisin, that's the Irish Santa.

The little girl fought off her mother's attempt to restrain her and climbed the steps to the altar. She walked to where Mike
stood and raised her arms to hug him. Go away now, child, before you get hurt, he said, in a hesitant gruff voice. Your
dad's got me mixed up.

No, he hasn't, the child replied. You must remember me. She pulled up her top and showed Mike the scar running
from her neck to her naval. You saved my life. I have your photo on my dresser. I pray for you every night.

Like hell you do. You're only a kid. You couldn't be praying for me or I wouldn't be here. No, no. Go on back to your mom
now. He pointed the gun at the congregation again. The child pulled her top down, but refused to move. She grabbed his
trousers and pleaded.

Can I see your face?

Stop with your nonsense now. Mike signalled to her father. How we doing there?

Good. A few more minutes. It wouldn't hurt you know.

What wouldn't hurt?

To show her your face.

Mike thought for a second. Are you crazy?

Look at it this way, the girl's father said. You're not going to shoot anyone. We know who you are, so why not grant the
child her Christmas wish? Do you know how often she has asked to meet you? Only for you and your generosity, she
wouldn't be here today.

Mike released the priest and looked at the child. The little girl held up her arms again. He scanned the congregation and
waved the gun. Don't anyone try anything funny now. He turned. Just a quick hug.

He bent down and the little girl flung her arms around him. He shivered, a cold sweat broke on his brow and an
uncontrollable tremor seized him.

You're sick, Santa, the child said, drawing back. You've got the flu. Come home with us. Mom will give you Calpol to
make you better.

Mike straightened, stared at the sea of eyes before him and glanced at the priest by his side. We can get you help, you
know, the priest said. We have good programmes right here in the parish.

Roisin's father threw the bag full of cash into the centre aisle. Mike stared at it. The girl tugged at his leg.
Come on, Santa, we'll help you, like you helped me. I'll share my turkey with you. Please?

Mike paused and tried to steady his shaking hands. He set the gun down rested his arms on the altar and looked into the
priests eyes. You can help me?

Definitely. That's my business redemption. Take off the mask and take part in the service.

You can have my seat, Santa. I'll sit on your lap, the child said.

And you'll share your turkey? Mike asked.

Sure. You can have it all.

He looked around the crowded church. Jesus. I cant even get a simple robbery right. He grabbed his ski mask, rolled it
up his face and shook his head.

You are the Irish Santa! Roisin exclaimed.

Mike tousled the childs hair and knelt down beside her. Tears streamed down his face as he held her close. Im so happy
for you my little friend. Im so happy you made it. Maybe . . . just maybe, you could help me make it.

Sure, Irish Santa. Sure I will. She grabbed his hand as he straightened and bent over the microphone.

Im so sorry everyone, so sorry. I didnt mean to cause you any harm. Please forgive me. Pray for me.

Silence ensued. An old lady stood and began to clap. Others joined in. The priest turned and hugged Mike. People
continued to applaud as they rose to their feet. Roisin led Mike to the front pew where she sat on his lap until the end of
mass.

***
Directed into Silence

As the tires of Austin's 1995 Cadillac sped down the road into the thick fog, he knew he'd taken a wrong turn. Austin
Reyes' destination was Helmsley, a small rural town just miles from Arizona. But now, he had a feeling that he was no
where near where he wanted to be. It was really his mistake for having picked up a hitchhiker and been so gullible for
believing his directions. The hiker told him to go straight then take the first left. Well, that first left was a dirt road,
certainly not leading to any big town.

A new scene. That was what he needed. The accident had almost killed him, the crash had destroyed him and his body had
been so badly damaged a new start was what he needed. He didnt remember very much about it. He knew that he had
messed up on the drive home, the alcohol in his system had altered his senses and he lost his footing on the accelerator.
He remembered the trees rushing towards him and then nothing. Life after that seemed hazy and grey, almost like he was
in a dream.

The nightmares that followed the accident were startlingly real. Faces and places he recognised but couldnt quite
remember the names of. Everything seemed faded and time seemed to pass in an almost stop start way, like something
from a clockwork animation. It was funny but Austin never felt quite the same afterwards, almost like he was living in
another reality. A change of scene was exactly what he needed.

Austin's current scenery was trees, the odd building, mostly boarded up and the fog thick enough to cut with a knife. As he
descended deeper and deeper into the fog, it felt as if he was driving into the abyss. Austin spotted a sign up ahead.
Having to slow down in order for his eyes to peer through the fog he saw that the sign consisted of crumbling damp wood
and a, once silver, rusted plate with big letters engraved. The letters read "Welcome to Greenvale."

Maybe I should turn back? That thought plagued Austin's mind. When he peered out of his back window, there were no
gaps through the fog. It was like a sheet of snow on the window whereas the view straight ahead looked a little more
positive and a little less intimidating to make his way through. Austin pressed down the gas and drove ahead. On the left,
he noticed a small narrow house. It looked grey and was covered in black ash.

As Austin's Cadillac rolled deeper and deeper into Greenvale, he knew something was wrong. He had passed two rows of
buildings and what looked like a church. They were all abandoned and a lot were covered in ash. There were no people, no
cars, nothing. There was nothing except empty buildings and ash. Inky and soft, like downy fur and it coated everything
that wasnt blanketed by the fluffy white vapours. The fog faded gradually but was still clearly evident. Austin pushed
down on the brake and got out of the car. The coldness in the air pinched his cheeks. He was sure that he had never been
there before but there was something about the buildings that surrounded him now that was so familiar, so hauntingly
familiar.

"Hello!?" Austin shouted. He was answered with a dull echo. Where was he? His feet took him forward. So far, Greenvale
felt like one long singular street. He climbed back into the warmth of the car and drove down the street for a good ten
minutes but he saw no turns or corners. So far, just one long road. No cars, no people, not even the sound of animals or
night birds in the sky. Nothing. He also noticed that half of the buildings were boarded up but half weren't. Was there
anybody in them?

Austin passed three boarded up buildings before coming to one where there was a rod of wood through the door handles;
it almost looked like someone placed it there to stop whatever was inside from getting out. He took a deep breath,
steadied himself and yanked it out and pulled the door open. The place looked like a school hall. There was an office
section that was covered in black ash and down the corridor were rows of lockers. All the lockers were pitch black. It was
hard to tell where one locker ended and another began. Austin walked further up the corridor, following faint noises.

The noise grew louder. A small clinking noise. Lots of them. Repeatedly. Austin stopped dead in his tracks when the silence
was cut by loud laughter.
Where did that come from? Austin was unnerved by the laughter. Then, right in front on his eyes, a young man appeared
out of nowhere, holding an empty wine glass, although that never stopped him trying to drink from the frosted glass. The
man's apparel was old; he was wearing an elegant grey suit with black pinstripes on his feet a pair of highly polished black
shoes. The man's eyes met Austins. "Glad to see you again, sir."

The man vanished. Just like that his body evaporated into ash and blew away. Austin's mind was all over the place. "Glad
to see you again." What the hell was that? He felt the desperate urge to run away but the clinking noise continued. It
sounded like glasses being clinked together. Austin's eye was drawn to the end of the corridor. A wall with a smear of
black ash across it. Austin ran his fingers across the wall. It left coarse black marks on his finger tips.

He turned the corner to see what was making the noise. There were about twenty people in all, all in suits and dresses
holding empty wine glasses repeatedly tapping them against each other. All heads turned to face Austin and in unison said
the same thing; "Glad to see you again, sir." Austin stared at them with confusion on his face. All the bodies then, again,
evaporated into black ash and floated away. The ash blew back down the corridor and out of a smashed window. Austin
followed.

When he reached outside, Austin saw that every single building and the road and sidewalk was covered in black ash. The
fog had disappeared. It was now darker than it has been before. The only light in Greenvale was the shining of the moon.

The black ash continued to blow about until it rose up to Austin's level. The black ash evolved into numerous human
forms. The same people from the school he recognised, all antique coats and pretty silk dresses. Then all the people
crumbled to ash again then the ash drew itself together as if drawn by a magnet and it formed the figure of one person.
The man in the suit. "Hello sir, will you be staying long this time? Austin glanced around, then wondered something. He'd
been seeing black ash blow around and turning into humans who recognised him. He was in Greenvale, a place covered
start to finish in black ash, a place that seemed to have been forgotten by the world. The question burned itself brightly in
his brain, why wasn't he scared?

Austin stared at the man in the suit. "How do you know me? Where am I?" The man in the suit laughed then again, just as
if by magic, disappeared. Austin was still not scared but felt an urge to get in his car and drive away, it was madness.

Clambering back into the car he pressed down on the accelerator and sped out of Greenvale, passing the Welcome sign
again. The black ash began to disappear on the sidewalk. For a split second, it was light. Midday he guessed. But then the
next moment, it was darkness. The trees around him were growing bigger and arching over touching each other like ebony
fingers interlocking. No light could get through. As Austin looked up, a sudden feeling of drowsiness came upon him then
blackness.

When Austin finally came back around, the trees were still arching over him, blocking out the silver light of the swollen
moon. He drove forward in complete silence. Black ash began to appear again, raining down like sooty drizzle. Austin took
no notice. He passed the Welcome to Greenvale sign again. Took no notice. He passed boarded up buildings again. Took
no notice. He drove up the long road. Again. Then stopped and climbed out of the car looking around at the ash scattered
on the ground and the buildings. The ash rose up from the ground and the people appeared again. The man in the suit
emerged from the crowd and said "Glad you are back sir, we all missed you." Everyone else nodded and made sounds of
agreement. Austin looked at all of them and let out a relieved sigh. The black ash on the building blew away, which caused
all boarded up buildings to open. Everyone now had wine glasses. They were no longer empty. The man in the suit
outstretched his arm and offered Austin a glass. Austin took the glass and placed his hand on the man in the suits
shoulder. "Oh it's good to be back Smith." Austin gulped his wine as everyone followed him down the main road of
Greenvale.

"It's good to be back."

Bio: A student from Scotland who loves to write and aims to mess with minds through fiction.