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.
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 Mesa’s 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".