Weapons were not allowed in the dining hall. They had to be turned in to the armory as soon as they were brought into the building. Cadets and regulars alike had to come through a side entrance from the parking lot where a sergeant in blue exchanged a numbered check tag for the pistols and automatic rifles. If someone in uniform entered through the front, the minister on duty would immediately redirect him outside and then write him up and send the report to the commander. The consequence was likely to be food service duty for three months straight, working daily alongside the women.
Joshua Russell laid his pistol on the counter and maintained a neutral expression. He was twenty-one now and recently graduated from the Free Christian Academy at Camp Goshen, a full member of the Order of the Eagle and Cross, and authorized to carry a sidearm. He felt his compact muscles glide through his sleeve as he placed the gun down. They still seemed new to him, these bulges beneath his clothing, as if he had gone through a second puberty that had reshaped his body in ways the first maturation had failed to do. The Academy’s physical fitness regimen had transformed him to an extent he had not believed possible. When he was in high school, he had watched the muscle definition appear effortlessly in the torsos of other boys and had waited for the same to happen to him, but countless hours in front of the mirror revealed only an elongation and a slight leaning out of his arms and chest. He would pivot around the fork of his legs to catch a view angle that would be a bit more gratifying and confidence-enhancing, but he despaired at the meager curve of his triceps and the bony promontory above his underdeveloped deltoid. His shoulder looked like a bird roost, he thought. He would force down the feelings of inadequacy by ramming his head through a tee shirt and throwing himself in front of a computer screen to annihilate the paragons of musculature that populated the war games of cyberspace. His tag was Son of Nun, and he rarely ended a competition without seeing it at the top of the standings.
The weight room at the Academy changed all that. He could admit to himself now that he had feared the regimen, not only the physical exertion—which he was sure would be painful—but the humiliation that he would have to measure out for himself, pound for pound, in front of the other, stronger boys. He was certain he would be mocked by a cadre of brawny football types who would plant themselves too close, fold their thick arms, and breathe audibly as they waited for him to complete his reps with the curling bar that held only two small iron plates yet forced the blood into his face and made his stringy arms shake. But that had not happened. The brawny football types were there, but they didn’t crowd or mock; they took him under their wing, along with the other frosh, most of whom were skinny like Josh, or doughy and larval like Josh’s soon-to-be best friend, Dennis.
Presiding over the weight room was Pastor Morton. Bullet-headed and stocky, a former center for a Division Three football team, Pastor Morton saw each new recruit as a person who had been denied, up to the present moment, the opportunity and guidance to become the physical specimen that God intended him to be. It was his job to shepherd each flaccid boy into the fullness of corporeal manhood. Josh had expected apoplectic shouting and flying spittle, but Pastor Morton spoke softly. He paid individual attention to each of his pupils, challenged without pushing, and gently but firmly explained to anyone who might bully another that he had special assignments for redirecting uncontrolled testosterone, which generally meant extended latrine duty while wearing a floral shower cap. His favorite line was “just one more,” which he would say whenever Josh reached the end of a set of lifts. He repeated it until he sensed Josh truly could not complete a single additional rep, when he would say, “Okay, shake it off,” and demonstrate with his own prodigious arms.
Under Pastor Morton, Josh learned patience and technique, and felt his body become dense and tight. Now he didn’t have to find an angle to observe the definition in his muscles. He saw it straight away every time he stepped in front of the mirror to shave. And even though Pastor Morton discouraged the idolatry of self-worship, Josh did turn this way and that to admire what he had accomplished, but only if he was sure he was alone. Pastor said that a man becomes fit to do the work of the Lord, not to gratify himself.
Josh strode past the clangor of the kitchen on his right and into the dining hall. There, beneath a utilitarian fluorescent glare, two or three hundred souls hunched over long rectangular tables and worked their mouths around the eggs and beans and canned fruit that had been ladled onto their paper plates. The vapors from the warm food mingled with the exhalations of the crowd and got into Josh’s pores. A few pairs of eyes turned up and registered the uniform. There were even a few smiles. Josh scanned above the rows of heads in search of the hall proctor.
The Order of the Eagle and Cross made a point of humility. All members, uniformed or otherwise, had to volunteer one day a week for community service involving direct contact with the unsaved. The tasks to be performed were to be menial and not require a hierarchy or special tools. If you did have a uniform, however, you were expected to wear it.
“We want them to understand,” said Pastor Morton, “that we’re people just like them. When they see that uniform, we want them to say to themselves, ‘They’re on my side.’ ”
Josh preferred line duty. He would wait tables if asked, but felt more comfortable on the other side of the sneeze guard doling out the daily sustenance for the shuffling parade of down-and-outers and their pallid children who pushed their trays along the worn aluminum rails. As he stood ready to ladle the food onto a plate and looked into the rheumy, expectant eyes of a hungry old woman, or at an unshaven man who had the downcast face of a beagle caught chewing the slippers, he felt truly called by God. He had been singled out for special things, holy things. He felt his heart swell beneath the medallions and badges on his jacket. He enjoyed the struggle in his chest as humility pushed pride back into its small dark lair and tamped down the lid.
He found the proctor and got his assignment. He emptied trash cans and swabbed floors for his four-hour shift, with his dark blue cap neatly tucked into his back pocket and a white apron covering his sky-blue blouse. At the end of his shift he washed his hands and asked if anything else needed to be done and when the proctor said no, Josh retrieved his sidearm and returned to the bachelor officer quarters on the other side of the complex.
The bachelor officer quarters, which everyone called the BOQs, were partitioned classrooms in what was once an elementary school. The dining hall had been an auditorium. The gymnasium was still used for its original purpose, but the OEC had painted over the old school’s mascot at center court (a bee) with its own eagle and cross symbol, which was a larger version of the one on his armband.
As he removed his thick-soled bluchers and lay back on his bunk, he remembered his mother’s comments about his uniform the last time they had spoken. He wondered how she could be a good Christian but be so blind about what was happening in the world. The very existence of the country was threatened. The enemy was not only without but within. Her own ex-husband, Josh’s father, was living proof. It was only by the grace of God that he had survived the BART bombing seven years ago. How could she support this Hector Valiente, who opposed the opening of the LNG plant his father was building? Valiente would deliver the country back to the Stone Age if he were elected. His father was doing his part to preserve the American way of life. If the climate was changing, that was God’s will. To compound the suffering of the people by denying them heat and electricity, and to further depress the economy, was to surrender to those who wanted to make America weak, and thumb your nose at God.
The door to the BOQ swung inward. Dennis stepped in.
Josh immediately noticed the brightening in Dennis’s cheeks. Dennis normally had the palest skin Josh had ever seen, so pale it was almost blue, like skim milk.
“Peace and freedom,” Dennis said.
“Peace and freedom,” Josh returned. “What happened?”
Dennis tossed his garrison cap onto a dresser and pulled the wide black belt from the large buckle at his waist. He coiled the belt rapidly around his fist and laid it by his cap where it relaxed into a spiral, like a chambered nautilus.
“We kicked some criminal butt,” he said. “On Lakeshore in Oakland. Me and Willy Reich, and this black recruit Johnson they sent up from the Coliseum.”
“Man, you should have seen it. Guy comes running out of his produce store, Asian guy, yelling at these two black guys running down the sidewalk. I ask him what’s wrong and he says, ‘Those guys didn’t pay. Two bags, they didn’t pay.’ So we break into a sprint, and this double-parked car, old, a real primer car, just guns it out of there. So these guys drop the bags and bolt, cabbages rolling all over. Willy tackles the fat one. He’s too slow. So this thief starts talking about his family’s hungry, he’s got no money. I say, well that’s true for a lot of people but they aren’t stealing, and what about the shop owner, how’s he gonna pay his suppliers for that food if you don’t pay him? Then we called the cops.”
“You did good,” Josh said. After a moment, he added, “But I don’t know if you kicked butt. I mean, you didn’t hurt the guy.”
“Oh, Willy hurt him all right. Broke his wrist on the takedown.”
Dennis shrugged the jacket from his shoulders and hung it in the closet. He pulled out the Navy surplus shirt and pants that the regulars wore when they were off duty. Josh watched him change in silence.
“Why aren’t you changing?” asked Dennis. “Come on, let’s go to mess.”
Josh got up and donned his frayed fatigues as well. They headed down the corridor where a dull roar, like the pent-up hum of an oversized beehive, rolled over them and swallowed up the sound of their heavy footfall.
On the other side of the double doors, dozens of young men in fatigues animatedly stuffed their faces. The aroma of seared meat hung in the room, a conquering, triumphant smell that claimed every cubic inch of air. The two of them got into the chow line. Although the trays were the same as those in the public dining hall, the plates were ceramic, not paper, and the tableware stainless steel rather than plastic. The food was served by lay members from churches near the compound, mostly women beyond childbearing years. Each young man got a well-sauced pork chop, mashed potatoes, a slotted-spoonful of peas, a slice of lemon meringue pie, and a glass of fresh milk. They presented their wrists to the woman at the end of the counter to be scanned. The nozzle-shaped device detected the chip embedded beneath their skin with a succinct beep.
They sat at a long table with several others and bowed their heads in a mumbled prayer of grace.
“Bless us, O God, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Dennis cut into his chop and speared the meat with his fork. He held it up at eye level.
“It’s worth being a member just for this,” he said.
“Don’t say that,” Josh said. “It’s blasphemous.”