The five men took their seats around Peter Burton’s kitchen table as an ancient grandfather clock in the sitting room clanged out a low tone on the hour. It was eleven o’clock and the air carried the scent of strong coffee and leftover blueberry pie which had been warmed, sliced, and served on small saucers by Peter’s wife before she’d retired to bed. So far the dessert had been eaten by no one––everyone was full on tension.
It wasn’t unusual to be holding the elders’ meeting in a private home. For one, the hall was already in use by another congregation, and for another, the recent tumult between religion and politics had put everyone on edge. While the Witnesses’ activities hadn’t been banned outright, there were already countless instances of harassment, prompting the organization to urge caution. Many of the brothers suspected it was only a matter of time before the usual function of Kingdom Halls was interrupted indefinitely.
Peter took a deep breath and studied the four faces around the table. To his right was Jack Reese, the service overseer. The brother was in his mid-fifties with greying hair swept back at his temples. He wore a perpetual frown, the face of an astute man concerned always with the details. Perched on his hooked nose were a pair of thin, frameless bifocals that he now peered over, his eyes darting from face to face before finally settling on his folded hands.
Next was Ajay Sharma. Ajay had moved in from a Punjabi group in Palo Alto with his wife, Sheila, and their two small children, once they’d determined that the children needed a spiritual upbringing in English. It had been a difficult transition for the parents, but they had never regretted the decision, and the children were gradually blossoming into stable and mature preteens.
At twenty-nine years old, Ted Watkins was the youngest and the newest elder of the bunch, having just been appointed after the previous circuit visit. Standing a full six feet four inches tall, he was also the largest of the body, though his youthful demeanor and sometimes awkward way of handling himself were often at odds with his size. He was zealous, humble, and loved the sheep, though he still had much to learn. He was the only single elder on the body.
Lastly was Marcus Kelly, the coordinator. The oldest member of Monte Vista’s elder body and easily the most seasoned, Marcus was well-respected not just in his congregation, but in the entire circuit, often giving talks and interviews on conventions. He’d served in past years as a missionary and then a circuit overseer, and his wealth of experience was valued by all on the body, but especially Peter. Marcus had been the one to first study the Bible with Peter, just a few months after Marcus and Vivian had come off the road from the circuit work to care for aging parents. Peter had seen firsthand how Marcus’ experiences had enriched and molded him, and rarely wasted an opportunity to glean lessons from the wizened (though unfailingly humble) Marcus Kelly.
“Thank you all for agreeing to meet on such short notice,” Marcus began after an opening prayer. He took his time to acknowledge each of the elders around the table and continued. “I know it’s late and I’ll do my best to make sure this doesn’t drag on.”
“It’s fine, Marcus. Is everything all right?” asked Jack Reese, frowning more than usual. Peter watched as Marcus’ expression seemed to stretch a little, as if both ends of his face were being pulled taut in a vise. He craned his neck, gave his head of tightly curled white hair a quick scratch, and nodded.
“It’s… Well, it’s difficult to say. Let me get right to it. I received a letter in my inbox today,” Marcus began, glancing at Peter. “It came in from the branch late this afternoon. It was marked ‘urgent’. The instructions were for us to get together, in person, to discuss it as a body as soon as possible.”
As the congregation secretary, Peter already knew about the letter. In fact, he’d been the one to see it first, and had immediately contacted Marcus. Still, despite being thoroughly informed of its contents, he found it impossible to control his heartbeat, which galloped in his chest like a runaway stallion. He took a nervous sip from his coffee and watched as Brother Kelly reached across the table to hand each of the brothers a copy of the letter. Peter glanced down at his hands to find them trembling against the mug.
The group of five fell silent as their eyes crawled over the two pages of text, carefully absorbing every word. Peter studied their expressions anxiously. Eyes widened, brows rose, mouths fell slightly ajar. Jack Reese even gasped. Minutes dragged on as each of the elders read the letter a second time, and then a third.
“Are we sure this is for real?” Ted Watkins finally asked, waving the papers slightly in one hand. His eyes were narrow slits and one brow was arched high in suspicion. Marcus gestured for Peter to answer.
“I thought the same thing, Ted. I called the C.O. as soon as I read it; his phone was busy all afternoon but he finally got back to me a couple of hours ago, just before Marcus called you all. It’s legitimate.”
Jack Reese rubbed his temples slowly, a deep frown cutting grooves into his forehead. Ajay appeared to be frozen.
“And we’re supposed to read this to the congregation at the next meeting,” Ted said, referencing the postscript of the letter. His voice trailed off as he appeared to think of something.
“Yes. Tomorrow night. Apparently, the whole world will be getting the news this week,” said Marcus.
“The whole world…” Jack exclaimed softly. “How is this going to work? I mean, just logistically speaking…”
“How will the friends react? That’s my question,” said Ajay. His eyes were closed, the tips of his fingers tented into a prism resting against his chin and forehead.
“Trial by fire,” Brother Kelly said finally, a calm look settled on his face. The others turned to him slowly, wondering at the placid smile.
“What do you mean, Brother Kelly?” Ted asked.
“The tested quality of faith mentioned at 1 Peter 1:7. Faith more valuable than gold that perishes. It must be tested.”
“You’re saying that’s all this is? A test?” Jack asked.
“I don’t mean it was thought up by our organization just to test the friends. It will certainly prove to be the right direction. Still, for many it will be just that: a test. Maybe, up until this point, the biggest test they’ve ever faced.”
“I’d say so. How will the friends be able to follow these instructions?” Ted asked quietly, unassumingly.
“We lead them by our example,” said Marcus. “Now, more than ever, the sheep will be watching and following the shepherds.”
“Marcus is right. Our good examples are going to be crucial here. This letter is clear about it. We need to be the first to take action,” Peter said.
"I supposed this is why we got that long letter about simplifying our lives a while back," Ajay said. The others nodded in simultaneous realization.
Numbed by the contents of the letter and the gravity of all that was impending, conversation dwindled for another fifteen minutes until the meeting was finally dismissed with a prayer. Ted Watkins, Ajay Sharma, and Jack Reese climbed into their cars, red taillights bleeding off into the night as Marcus Kelly stood for a moment on Peter’s front porch.
“Thank you,” Peter said quietly. “Thank you for your example.”
“A group effort,” Marcus replied. “We’re all in this together.”
“I know, but you’re often the voice of reason. Exactly what we need on the body.”
Marcus smiled. “Everyone serves a purpose. Remember, Jehovah’s spirit can move any elder to say what needs to be heard.”
“How do you feel?” Marcus said, leaning back and inhaling the chilly night air.
Peter let out a long breath through clenched teeth. “Scared. Unsure.”
Marcus chuckled. “So honest and modest. Two of your best qualities, Peter.”
“I’d be lying if I said anything else. Really.”
“It’s ok. Fear is natural.” Marcus Kelly gripped the younger man’s shoulder tightly in his hand. “We’ll get through this. Together.”
“Yeah. I’m counting on it,” Peter said with a sigh.
Peter Burton wiped a cold seam of sweat from his brow as he approached the stage. The congregation Bible study had ended, as planned, five whole minutes early to allow for the reading of the lengthy letter––the letter that he, as the chairman for that week’s meeting, was to read.
Peter could hardly recall the last time he’d been so nervous getting up on stage. Rows of fluorescent bulbs swam in a sea of blinding artificial light just inches from his head. In the audience before him, a field of staring heads stretched for miles. Peter’s nerves buzzed and throbbed, his hands were wet and clammy, knees numb and failing. He took a deep breath, said a prayer, and opened his mouth.
“Brothers and sisters,” he began, struggling to steel himself. “For the conclusion of tonight’s meeting, we have an announcement to make. It comes in the form of a letter that was received this week from the branch. Please, friends, pay close attention. Please. The contents of this letter are very… significant.”
“To all congregations around the world:
Dear Brothers, are you keeping on the watch? Recent developments within the United Nations have brought about swift changes to the worldwide religious climate. The heavy restrictions on the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, coupled with the fierce targeting of Muslims across Western Europe, Australasia, and North America, are irrefutable evidence that the great tribulation foretold in the Bible has begun! With the passage of time, we can be sure that the remaining elements of Babylon the Great, which has sat for so long on “many waters” will be dealt a swift blow, as if “completely burned with fire.”
“In the past, God’s people have often been delivered as a single, unified group. Noah and his family were spared together in a single ark of their construction. Centuries later, Moses led, not many groups, but one throng composed of millions out of Egypt and across the Red Sea, where Pharaoh and his army were destroyed. In the first century C.E., Christians fled Jerusalem to a common destination––“the mountains”. After much deliberation and prayerful consideration, we have reason to believe that our impending salvation at Armageddon will be performed under similar circumstances. Consider the following evidence…”
“…With this understanding in mind, we are encouraging brothers and sisters everywhere to further simplify their lives in preparation for a large scale evacuation. Further details regarding this evacuation, including specific dates and locations, will be provided in future correspondence from the branch…”
The audience was deathly silent for the entire five minutes required for Peter to read the letter. Later, he would describe the experience as if he were watching someone else on that stage reading. The nerves and perspiration were washed away in those long moments and his mind was sharp and clear. It was then, as he read the closing salutations from the Governing Body, that he became fully resolved to do whatever was needed to shepherd the sheep.
The letter’s affect on the congregation was palpable. After the song and prayer, many sat frozen in their seats. Others ambled about as if in a daze, while still others were abuzz with animated conversation. Peter stumbled from the steps of the stage and paused for a moment beside an elderly sister who sat with her head bowed, gnarled hands folded delicately in her lap like wilted flower petals.
“Sister Blum, is everything all right?” Peter asked gently. The woman was quiet for a few moments before gazing up at the elder, her eyes twinkling like moist gems in deep wells.
“Oh yes, Brother Burton. I was just saying a prayer. I wanted to thank Jehovah for the opportunity to be here tonight. This night will go down in history, you know.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“Jehovah always keeps his people busy, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, that he does.”
“What exciting times to be living in!” Eleanor Blum exclaimed softly, her wrinkled lips splaying apart to reveal a warm smile. But even as she spoke, Peter’s mind wandered. He fretted over the challenges this old sister––now nearly in her nineties––would have to overcome to follow the instructions in the letter just read.
“Will you be ok? You know, with the evacuation and everything?” he asked. Eleanor’s head tilted curiously as her expression shifted into a crooked smile.
“Well, of course I will, Peter. I have you all.”
Peter and Rachel drove home from the meeting late that night. The fog from the bay had drifted south into the valley and hung like a grey, damp stain in the night air. The doleful bellow of a distant freight train and the smack of tires against slick asphalt were the only audible sounds.
“How are you?” Peter gently inquired as their SUV slowed to a stop at an intersection. It didn’t surprise him that it took his wife the better part of a minute to reply.
“I’m so worried about her. It’s all I can think about,” Rachel said, her voice just above a whisper as she gazed out at the blur of traffic glowing through the fog.
“Yeah. Me too. It was the first thing I thought of when I read the letter yesterday.”
“I dreamed about her again last night. She was pregnant… She was having the baby by herself in––”
“Rachel, please. Don’t do this to yourself,” Peter said.
“How can I help it? Without knowing what’s really going on…”
“We just have to wait and see.”
“So the letter,” Rachel said after a few moments of silence “That’s why all the elders came over so late last night.”
“How are the others taking it?”
Peter took a deep breath. “I think everyone’s processing it differently. Just like the rest of the friends. Marcus seems to have the best handle on it, of course. But I think many of us are in shock. Maybe me too, to some extent.”
“It doesn’t seem real.”
“Tell me about it. We all said the same thing.”
“So we don’t know where we’re going, or when?”
“Not yet. This is just a heads up, I guess. Give us some time to prepare mentally.”
“The letter mentioned simplifying again. What about the house?”
“I’ve been thinking about it. Either we try to find some renters or… I don’t know. Would you be comfortable putting it on the market?”
Rachel said nothing for a long moment. Then, “I want to call Vivian in the morning, see what they plan on doing.”
“Good idea. Maybe we can have her and Marcus over for dinner, have a nice long chat about things. I think we could both use it.”
“Yeah, ok,” Rachel said with a pained sigh that nearly broke her husband’s heart.
“I’ll send Marcus a text tonight–” Peter was cut off by a buzzing in his pocket. He glanced at the screen before slipping in his Bluetooth and taking the call.
“Pete, hey there. You home yet?” It was Jack Reese and as usual he sounded anxious.
“No, we’re still on the road. It’ll be another five minutes. What’s up?”
“It’s Darren and Rita.”
“Yeah? How are they? I didn’t see them tonight.”
“Neither did I, but apparently they got wind of the letter.”
“I can’t imagine they took it well,” Peter said.
“Nope, they seem pretty upset. I was thinking you could give them a call.”
Peter glanced at his watch. It was nearly eleven. He was operating on four hours of sleep and no dinner. Having an emotionally charged discussion with Darren and Rita Hughes was just about the last thing he wanted to do.
“Alright. Tell them I can Skype in a half hour or so.”
“Ok. Will do, Pete. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it. You always seem to know how to get through to them.”
“Not so sure about that, but I’ll give it a shot. Thanks for the call, Jack,” said Peter before hanging up.
A light rain weighed the fog down even more, so that now it floated in the air like a wet sponge in murky dishwater. Rachel reached over and slipped her slender hand into her husband’s for a gentle squeeze.
“I’m proud of you, Peter,” she said softly as Peter flicked on the windshield wipers. Despite everything, he relaxed a little and smiled at her.
“Where is this coming from?”
“I don’t say it enough. You do so much for so many. And I can only imagine how much busier you’re about to get.”
“Yeah, don’t remind me. I honestly have no idea how any of this is going to work out.”
Rachel removed her hand from Peter’s and brushed a strand of hair from his eyes.
“It will, Peter. It always does.”
Peter shoved a forkful of leftover meatloaf into his mouth as he pried open the screen of his laptop and logged in. He paused for a minute as his news widgets slipped updates into view. Half were concerning the recent religious restrictions. He scanned the rest without absorbing much of anything. Something about China and Taiwan. North Korea’s ever-advancing ICBMs. An earthquake in the South Pacific. He swept the alerts off the screen and opened Skype. Unsurprisingly, Darren and Rita’s names were near the top of his ‘Recent Contacts’ column. He bowed his head for a prayer before dialing, then clicked and waited.
There was a time, not so long ago, when such a call would’ve brought him nothing but eager anticipation. He and Darren had, after all, been friends for years–had even pioneered together for a brief period in their twenties. In their thirties, though, they’d gone their separate ways. Darren had met a sister from the East Coast and left California to pursue her. Peter had met her in passing several times during the courtship, but even from those brief interactions, he knew she wasn’t right for him. Not for Darren. Darren was too eager to please, too innocent, the kind of guy that could easily be taken advantage of. Peter had seen it before, during their time together in California, and with Rita, he sensed that his friend was just walking into a bad situation. Still, it had been a mistake to voice his concerns. Darren was head over heels and his mind had been made up. The two were married within six months.
Peter’s opinion of Rita had been the first wedge in his relationship with Darren, but it wouldn’t be the last. A few years after the wedding, Darren had moved with Rita back to the Bay Area, back into Peter’s congregation. In the time since they’d returned, the couple had probably missed half of the meetings. They owed much of this to Rita’s shaky health, which seemed to fluctuate, more than anything, with her general mood. To make matters worse, the two were embroiled in an ugly class action lawsuit against a large pharmaceutical company.
For years, Rita had been on diet pills that were later claimed to cause stomach and liver damage. A late night TV ad promising “quick and significant compensation” had sent her the next day to the doctor’s office for a check up. An ultrasound revealed that Rita Hughes did, in fact, show signs of gastric ulcers. A call to the law offices of Schucker & Dial was placed, and so their arduous process began.
Predictably, the drug company did its best to prove that Rita’s stomach issues were unrelated to its drug, citing her diet (her weight was well over three hundred pounds and counting), hereditary illnesses, and other lifestyle factors. Having her life dissected and scrutinized by the company’s hired guns took a noticeable toll on Rita’s physical and emotional health, which seemed to only worsen by the month. Fourteen months and countless phone calls and examinations later, they’d still seen no payout, and were beginning to get anxious.
“Hello?” came the tired voice on the other side. A moment later the video caught up. Darren looked terrible. It wasn’t the worst Peter had seen him, but it was close.
“Hey Darren, how are you?”
“Not too good, Peter. We heard about the letter that was read tonight,” Darren said, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms.
“Ah, yes. The letter.”
“When’s this… evacuation supposed to take place? And where?”
“There weren’t any specifics. They said there will be more details soon.”
“Well, I think you know how Rita and I feel about it,” Darren said.
“How do you feel?”
“Peter, come on. There’s just no way we can pick up and leave. Even if Rita was in good health–which she is not–we’re right in the middle of this class action. We’re literally on the phone with Haskins every single day, sometimes even more than that.”
“Who’s Haskins?” Peter asked. He knew most of the details of the litigation, even the name of the lead attorney, and was fairly certain this was a new name.
“Oh, he’s the new attorney we’ve been assigned to. This lawsuit is huge, growing every week, there are dozens of plaintiffs involved and the list keeps getting bigger. Haskins said it’s gonna be a huge payout when the company finally decides to settle. We’re talking tens of millions,” Darren said, instantly sounding less tired.
“Huh. Any idea when the settlement might happen?” Peter asked.
“Soon, he said. If I had to guess, it’d be before the end of the year. But you know these drug companies, wanting to play hardball and everything. We just have to be patient and stick to our guns. Pulling out now–or leaving for some evacuation–is just out of the question for us.” Peter tried not to cringe at the way Darren said the word. It was bitter, unconcealed derision.
Peter nodded solemnly and resisted the urge to ask if Darren and his wife really needed a few million in payouts from a legal settlement. While their precise financial situation eluded him, by outward appearances, Rita and Darren seemed to be doing ok. Darren sold used cars online and business was fairly consistent. They weren’t exactly rolling in cash, but they weren’t suffering, either.
“How’s Rita feeling?” Peter asked, switching gears.
“Not great. Stomach’s been acting up this week. Those pills really did a number on her. She’s been having these bad headaches, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the researchers find a way to link that to the drug as well. These companies, I tell you. Their greed knows no bounds.”
“Yeah.” Peter frowned, noting the irony.
“Anyways… Did we miss anything else tonight?” Darren asked, reaching for something off camera and returning with a bowl of ice cream.
“Um… Well, Evan was supposed to have his first reading. We’ve been encouraging him to get up there for years. But right before the part he changed his mind, couldn’t do it. Cold feet, I guess. Maybe next time.”
“Yeah, kid’s pretty shy, huh? What is he, seven?”
“Oh, right. I guess he’s just small for his age. Hey by the way, I have some good news for you.”
“Yeah, you know the Toyota Highlander you had your eyes on? Burgundy, 2016 model?”
“Well, the buyer fell through. Don’t know what happened, just stopped returning calls and emails. So if you’re still interested… And listen, I’m willing to come way down on the price.”
“Uh… Darren, I don’t really think buying a car is a wise decision right now, given the circumstances.”
“Totoyas hold their value, Pete,” Darren said.
“I’m talking about the evacuation, Darren. The letter mentioned simplifying. Like that last one, remember? That means getting rid of things.”
Dead silence on the other end for a few moments as Darren spooned the rest of his ice cream from the bowl. “Yeah, I suppose so. Look Peter, I appreciate the call, but it’s pretty late. I’ll call you in a few days, let you know how things are, yeah?”
“Yeah, thanks. You do that,” Peter said with his best effort at a smile. The two said their goodbyes and hung up, leaving Peter Burton to stare at his blank screen in the dark.