The wheels of the bike spun mad as its chain rattled against ill-fitting gears. Mark Mueller rode with only a dim flashlight, taped to his handlebars, that guided his way home. Each spin of the wheel caused rust-covered gears to grind against each other, letting the sound of screeching metal shoot out into the desert night. The flashlight allowed Mark to see two feet of the road ahead of him. Only two feet. In all other directions, all he could see was empty blackness hiding the vast desert behind it. The best thing about riding his bike home from work was the cool breeze on his face and hands. The worst thing about riding his bike home was how every bump upset his already beer-soaked stomach.
Mark pulled on his brakes, swerved to the side of the road, and vomited on a squat saguaro cactus. He didn’t remember eating any fries, but there they sat decorating the desert’s own Christmas tree.
“’Tis the season,” he said with vomit still on his chin.
Mark raised his eyes from his accidental environmental vandalism and surveyed the land around him. Every so often he saw the dark outline of a large rock or a cluster of cacti silhouetted against the horizon. Bats squeaked above his head, hunting for moths and other unsuspecting insects. Mark watched them and let out a loud squeak in support of his winged companions.
An engine revved far off behind Mark. He was about to start pedaling again, but another surge in his stomach prompted him to wait for the car to pass. Yellow headlights grew larger and brighter as the car drew near. Mark could hear the loud songs of cicadas nearby, accompanied by the sound of an engine echoing across the wasteland. The headlights flew across the black asphalt towards Mark. He stood in place and waited for it to pass. But it never did. As soon as Mark’s figure was outlined in the car’s light, the sound of the engine slowed down.
The car’s wheels slowed and stopped about fifteen feet away from Mark. Because of the light’s intensity it was hard to make out any details of the car or of the occupants within. All Mark could tell was that the car was big. Maybe a van or an SUV.
“Hello?” asked Mark to no reply. “Hello?” he said again this time waving his hand. The engine of the car idled and the passenger door opened. A dark figure stepped out and stood still facing Mark. Over Mark’s head bats squeaked and in the distance cicadas sang. Another figure exited the car from the back passenger-side door. The driver’s door opened and a third body stepped out. The driver slammed their door shut. The three strangers stood in a line some ten feet away from Mark. Yellow light shone in his eyes; he could not see their faces. What he could see was that two of the strangers each carried something. One passenger held a large coil of something he couldn’t quite make out, maybe a rope. The driver held a long flat blade of some kind. A machete.
Mark did not ask any more questions. Thankfully, he was already on his bike so all he had to do was pedal faster than he ever had before. While Mark rode away, he turned his head and saw that the three strangers turned around and walked back to the car. Mark flew across the road as his gears screamed out into the desert. The engine revved and sped up to catch him. Mark pedaled harder. Sweat covered his whole body, every bump in the road jolted his stomach making him think he was going to throw up again.
The engine roared after him. Mark scanned the ground to try and find somewhere he could take his bike off road, but because of his dim taped-on light he could not see enough ahead. He looked ahead and prayed for an oncoming car. All Mark could hear was the wind in his ears and the steady acceleration of the engine behind him. He yelled for help. Nothing.
Yellow lights shone at his back. When he turned around to check behind him he saw that the car was only a few feet from him. Mark pedaled, he pedaled through the knot in his stomach and he pedaled through the pain in his legs. Mark looked back in time to see the front bumper of the car slap against his bike. He lost control and flew over his handlebars. Mark was screaming when he hit the hard asphalt in front of him and rolled through the dirt on the side of the road. His bike lay on the far side of the street casting its dim light into the night.
Mark was spread face down on the dirt and rocks. Blood filled his mouth. He had broken something. He had broken everything. He wasn’t sure. The car had stopped in the middle of the street. He was still caught in its headlights. One after another the strangers exited their car. This time, they did not stand in a line but walked right up to him. Mark could do nothing as they came closer. Not when he saw the machete reappear. Not even when he noticed that the second passenger wasn’t carrying rope, but a large coil of barbed wire. All he could do was gather enough breath to scream.
One of the figures started speaking, but Mark could not understand anything that was being said. All he could think about were the spots where he could feel his bone poking out from his skin. Hands pulled at Mark’s arms and placed them behind his back. Cold metal dug into his skin as the barbed wire wrapped around his wrists. Tears and blood ran down his face as he was handled into different positions. As the second passenger wrapped the barbed wire all around his body the stranger who had been speaking finally said something Mark could understand:
“Relax Mr. Mueller, this is the most important moment of your life. You have been chosen to serve. To serve The End of All Things.”
The stranger with the machete walked forward and Mark cried out to an empty desert. The bats went silent and the cicadas sang in the December night.
The doorbell rang and ringing bells echoed through the small brick house. To Alex Ledford, they were not the soft jingle the realtor promised but church bells that ripped him out of his Sunday morning stupor.
“Oh, fuck me,” said Alex as the jingle ended and he sat up in his twin bed. Alex stood up, walked to the bathroom and drank straight from the faucet. He went back to his bedroom and grabbed his pants from the night before. The doorbell rang again and he threw his pants to the floor.
“Jesus Christ, alright I’m coming!” he said and walked to the front door. He threw the door open and was met by two people dressed in suits. One of them, a balding man, had been startled by the sudden swinging of the door and stepped back. The other, a woman with long dark hair, hadn’t flinched.
“Alex Ledford?” she asked.
“Yes?” he replied.
“Hello, my name is Detective Vasquez and this is my partner Detective Gibbons. We would like to talk to you about your neighbor Mark Mueller.”
This is the first part of a serialized piece of fiction that will be continued in forthcoming issues of the Mark. Stay tuned…