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Give Us Barabbas!

A short work of religious horror by international best-selling author Stuart Thaman.

My church always went overboard during Lent. There was a running joke among most Lutherans that Lent was their favorite time of year. The forty-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter was upheld as a sacred time when the church combined the most doom with the most gloom and each pew would compete for the record number of tears shed during service. A fine Lutheran tradition to say the least.

Most of the young people, myself included, attended Wednesday Lent services because all of the old folk cooked us free meals beforehand. Nothing like a little bribery to pad the attendance sheet. Assuming that my parents had been good Lutheran parents all throughout my infancy, I had attended twenty seven grueling years, over 100 Wednesday nights, of Lenten services.

I didn’t expect the twenty eighth year to be much different.

Wednesday night services rolled along with their usual familiarity. We all gathered in the undercroft before service to talk over bowls of free soup and slices of tasty homemade bread. For some of the real old-timers, Lent was a period of fasting. For everyone else, Lent meant getting a free meal and hanging out with friends before a dreary service. The low tones of dismal classics like Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted would get stuck in my head for hours after I left the sanctuary.

Needless to say, my attitude toward passion plays was even worse than my attitude toward attending church twice a week. Inner reflection and feeling ravaged by my life of sin never came easily to me. And for the record, I never really understood how so many people actually looked forward to that kind of thing.

Good Friday, the end of Lent and the saddest day of the church year, always concluded with a passion play. Always. The young kids would get dressed up in surprisingly accurate robes and sandals and act out the story of Jesus being condemned and crucified. Over the years, our passion play had gained a reputation for having the highest production value around. As it turned out, one of the old geezers in the congregation owned a theater production company back in his prime. Not only did he finance the entire play, he brought in professional makeup and effects studios to bring the play to life. It was a whole thing in the community. People came from all around just to see it.

I suppose the high expectations are what made everyone so complacent when the shit hit the fan. The kids were in the middle of the passion play, attempting to convince Pontius Pilate and Herod to send Jesus to crucifixion, when things took an unexpected turn. “Whom shall I set free?” a tall boy with dirty blonde hair asked the robed crowd of children.

As one, they lifted their fists in the air and chanted, “Barabbas! Give us Barabbas!” They had rehearsed for months and not a single voice was out of place. Then, inexplicably, Barabbas walked out of the sacristy and climbed atop the altar.

A few of the parents and grandparents gasped at first—probably at the sight of such dirty sandals marring the wooden altar, but they thought it was part of the passion play. We all did.

It took nearly half a minute for the collective audience to realize that this Barabbas wasn’t a child in Hollywood makeup. Pastor James slowly rose from his seat in the first pew and lifted a hand toward the man. When Barabbas spoke, everyone knew beyond a doubt that he was the Barabbas. The fucking Barabbas.

“Thank you,” Barabbas said loudly in Hebrew. With magic reminiscent of Pentecost, everyone in the church knew he was speaking Hebrew and yet could understand. Pastor James screamed and fell to his knees. A few others joined him. The rest of us sat in our rigid pews like deer in celestial headlights.

“I have come to herald the arrival of the Lord!” Barabbas shouted at the top of his lungs. Anyone screaming instantly stopped. The man’s voice carried so much authority that to speak at the same time as him would be to invite absolute disaster. But the power of his words had another effect as well. They were so loud I fell off the front of the pew to clutch my ears and hide. A few people grabbed their Bibles and whispered the Lord’s Prayer, but most of us just peered over the wooden seats and wondered what would happen next.

I learned in Sunday School that the rapture—the return of the dead and living Christians to heaven—would happen after the Time of Tribulation and the millennium of peace on Earth. I guess that our translation was a little off, because almost every member of the church vanished in the blink of an eye when Barabbas clapped his grime-crusted hands.

At once, all of the believers, presumably throughout the entire world, ascended. My jaw nearly hit the floor. I looked all around, but the only other person I saw was the grizzled Vietnam vet who played the organ and had an ongoing affair with one of the Spanish maids who cleaned the church.

“For now,” Barabbas continued in Hebrew that I somehow comprehended, “this world belongs to me.” His voice boomed and threatened to shatter the stained-glass windows to either side of the altar. He wore a soot-colored grin that made me sick to my stomach. Of all the things Barabbas could have said from atop the altar, that wasn’t what I wanted to hear. What the hell did it even mean?

I didn’t get much time to contemplate. Sounds of chaos rising from the street outside stole my attention, and I knew beyond a doubt that the end of the world had begun.

Gulping down my fear, my eyes darted from pew to pew for anything I might be able to use as a weapon. The world would be in utter chaos, and I had no plans of living through the rapture just to die on day one of Tribulation. When the believers had been spirited away, their clothes, jewelry, even their glasses and contacts, were all left behind. There was a cop who sat a few rows behind me, and I could see his gun resting neatly on top of his clothes with his shiny badge and black leather belt. It looked like the cop’s wife must have had implants; two bloody, curved slices of silicone rested on top of her crumpled dress like a monument to human vanity.

I got down on my belly and shimmied under the pews until I reached the cop’s belt. I snatched it up, secured it around my waist, and made a run for the door. I could hear Barabbas maniacally laughing behind me, and his voice was overpowering. His cackles filled my mind and pushed out all other sounds until I could barely think.

When I burst through the front door, the scene before me was so horrific that I considered turning around. Everywhere I looked, fires blazed against the evening sky. Hailstones the size of bowling balls crashed down and tore great chunks from the pavement. Smoldering clumps of ash and embers drifted down in such a thick sheet that it was hard to breath. What few people I saw were running. Some of them were on fire. Others were missing limbs or simply covered in blood.

I shielded my mouth and eyes and crept between a row of bushes and the wall of the church. My first thought was to get underground. If death and destruction were raining freely from the sky, the subway was my best chance for refuge. Or maybe I could find a bomb shelter somewhere without supplies to make it through the worst of it.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when I felt a man slide down behind the bushes next to me. Thinking it was Barabbas, I fumbled for the gun at my belt. “Cool it, boy,” the old organ player snarled as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I ain’t gonna’ hurt ya.”

Very reassuring, I thought. I considered making a run for it and leaving the man behind, but who else would I find? Surely, a war veteran would make for a decent ally throughout seven years of unmitigated Tribulation. Besides, with all of the Christians gone, a crusty old timer was probably the best I could hope for.

“We need more weapons,” he hacked through a voice clogged with decades of cigarette smoke.

“What’s your name?” I asked, realizing that I had never once talked to the organ player at my own church in twenty eight years. Some church-goer I was.

“Name’s Bill,” he answered. He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up with him. He pointed to a pile of clothes on the sidewalk that partially concealed something metallic underneath. “Maybe something we can use.” We inched out from the bushes to investigate.

Bill kicked the workout clothes aside and then laughed so hard I thought he might choke. What we had hoped to be a pipe or gun or heck, even a sword, turned out to be the metal glint of a prosthetic leg. It had a colorful jogging shoe still tied neatly over the fake metal foot. Bill grabbed it and scoffed. “Good enough, I suppose. Guess those lucky bastards couldn’t take a damned thing upstairs with ‘em. Ha.”

Despite the fire and brimstone raining down around us, I had to laugh. Shuffling through the clothes, I found a nice-looking exercise watch, a pedometer, two slivers of gold that I assumed to be dental fillings, and a pool of bright, multi-colored liquid that oozed onto the pavement like mercury.

“What the hell is that?” I asked, looking up at Bill, who was busy fitting the prosthetic leg over his forearm like an ill-fitting shield.

Bill bent over and squinted, sniffing the viscous liquid and jabbing at it with his finger. After a moment, he chuckled. “Tattoo ink,” he said with a shake of his head.

“Wow,” was all I could manage. I thought of all of those ‘Jesus loves me and my tattoos’ T-shirts I had seen at concerts. In the end, it seemed that Hot Topic pseudo-theology didn’t pan out the way they had hoped.

“Look alive!” Bill shouted with a thick layer of post-war machismo covering up his fear. I wheeled around and saw Barabbas walk out the front doors of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church with his hands held high like a boxer winning a belt. The two-thousand-year-old man was so caked in dirt and grime that it was hard to tell where his face ended and his dark beard began. Despite the millennia of musty age that overwhelmed his clothes, Barabbas had eyes like molten diamonds.

Everything about Barabbas’ demeanor exuded confidence. The man had, for the second time it seemed, bested God. For seven years, the Earth would belong to the deranged murderer Pilate had set free.

And for the first time in a very, very long time, I was forced to seriously reevaluate my faith. The problem was, now I knew. I knew that God was real and the Christians had been right. I had stubbornly attended church out of social obligation and considered myself a passive believer, whatever that meant. Now that I had witnessed the rapture, the possibility for faith had evaporated. After all, the whole concept of faith was to believe without waiting for Barabbas to conquer the Earth first. To put it simply, I was screwed. Or better, I was doomed.

Bill’s calloused hand interrupted my silent musings, and I realized that I was staring directly into Barabbas’ eyes. His gaze was beyond sinister—the very visage of personified evil. A burning stone crashed into the pavement not far from my feet, and I jerked backward to avoid the flying rubble. “To the subway!” I shouted to Bill, my only hope in the world.

More chunks of blazing rock crashed down around us as we ran. The subway wasn’t far, only a few blocks, but fires blazed in every direction. A wildly swerving city bus barreled down the street toward us, and we were forced to duck into a pizza shop to avoid being crushed. Unfortunately, the cashier hadn’t been counted among the believers.

“Get the hell out!” he screamed at the top of his lungs from behind the counter. I opened my mouth to plead, but a shotgun blast erupted before I could say a word. The sound of it crashed violently against my eardrums and brought me the gift of a high-pitched buzzing that I knew would take hours to fade.

Thankfully, the cashier was a terrible marksman, and the blast tore a hole out of the ceiling instead of my chest. In an instant, Bill was on top of the kid, beating him senseless with his metal leg. I rubbed my ears and crept around the side of the counter as Bill landed the killing blow and splattered the kid’s brains all over the tile. As quickly as it had begun, the confrontation was over.

“Holy shit, man…” I muttered when I saw the gleam of bloodlust flashing behind Bill’s eyes. “You didn’t have to kill him.” Bill snatched a box of shells from the cabinet beneath the register.

The old vet turned and glared at me over his shoulder. “Boy,” he chided with a slight southern drawl, “I stacked kids younger’n him ten feet high in the jungle. Did it every day for two years.” He spat and loaded a round into the twelve gauge. “S’either you or him. I learned that the day I turned eighteen.” He gave the bludgeoned corpse a nonchalant kick and headed back to the street without another word.

My gut churned, and I briefly considered running from the deranged lunatic with a shotgun. The idea of getting shot in the back quickly made up my mind, and I reluctantly fell into step beside him. “So why do you play the organ? You don’t seem like the musical type.” Why in God’s name do you go to church? is what I wanted to ask.

We marched down the side of the road, darting from awning to awning and constantly looking over our shoulders for signs of Barabbas. “Safer’n sellin’ pills, and I don’t got the body for a career in porn,” he stated as though I should have already known.

“Do you even follow any of the church teachings?”

Bill snorted. “Ain’t that a right stupid question, boy? The hell I’d be ‘ere for?” He had a point, I had to admit. Bill motioned with his hand, and we both crouched down behind a postal box. There was movement ahead.

Three middle-aged men in business attire rounded the corner a block ahead of us. One of them looked burned and another was holding his wrist at an unnatural angle. Bill shouldered the shotgun and took his time aiming down the sights. He squeezed the trigger, and the blast was deafening. The man in the center of the group of three, the only uninjured one, dropped like a sack of bricks.

Bill loosed a war cry, and the other two scattered back the way they had come.

“What the hell!” I screamed at him. “You just kill anyone you please? This isn’t a damn video game.”

He glanced at me with that crazed look in his eyes, and a grin crept onto his face. “You wan’ take his place? You or them, only rule left now, boy.” Bill spat, punched the postal box for good measure, and continued down the street toward the subway.

We reached the end of the block and pressed our backs against the wall of a coffee shop. “The subway shouldn’t be far,” I said, gathering my courage.

Bill stole a glance around the corner and immediately ducked back. “We’re in the real shit now, boy,” he grumbled. The overwhelmingly confident tones had faded from his voice and he looked pale. I reached a hand around the stone corner of the coffee shop, and what I saw took my breath away.

A swarm of locusts buzzed in a giant column, swirling like an endless tornado climbing into heaven. Directly in front of the locusts was a carved stone throne. I expected Barabbas to be seated there, but the creature occupying the throne was far worse. Far worse than anything I could have imagined.

He was huge. A monolithic man by human standards, easily over seven feet tall and with shoulders to make an NFL linebacker jealous. His body was skeletal, but bulging with power. Great purple wings draped over the sides of his throne, and a golden crown rested between his horns above a row of spider-like eyes. Within his pulsating rib cage, human faces peered out and screamed for release. The creature’s entire skeletal body was a prison for condemned souls.

“My God…” I whispered, ducking back to the meager safety of the coffee shop wall.

Bill shook his head. “God don’t care about you no more, boy. He made His choice, same as we did.” I knew he was right. There would be no army of celestial warriors swooping down to my rescue. I turned to run back the way we had come, but a line of figures slowly approached and made my feet remain still.

Seven men clad in white with tall wings tucked behind their backs marched down the road directly toward us. “Angels?” I hoped. Maybe there would be some sliver of salvation after all.

Bill sighed and lifted his shotgun. “Look, boy. Seven angels with seven bowls. They ain’t on our side.” He pulled the trigger and sent a shot hurtling into the center angel to no effect. The celestial procession continued absolutely unhindered. Bill loaded another shell and shrugged, easing his grip on the gun. “Suppose this is how it ends for us, eh, boy?”

I watched as the angels marched with their bowls held out before them. I remembered enough Sunday School to know that those bowls held the very wrath of God. We were good and truly fucked.

I slumped against the wall of the coffee shop and kept my eyes on the angels as they neared. Bill stood there, shotgun hanging by his side, and didn’t say a word. A few buzzing locusts flew around the corner, and my gut sank even further. The creature, whatever he was, turned the corner to meet the angels. He clutched a sword in one of his bony hands that shimmered with the faint glow of unearthly fire.

“Abaddon,” one of the angels cried out joyously. In a single motion, the seven angels knelt and placed their bowls at his feet. The souls trapped within Abaddon’s skeleton wailed and begged to be released. Their cries only made them appear more pathetic.

“Sheol has been unlocked, my king,” one of the genuflecting angels said at Abaddon’s feet.

“Your armies are ready, O Great Destroyer,” another of the angels added. “Lord Barabbas has ordered that this one be your first sacrifice.” With a sudden jerk of his head, the angel looked directly at me and pointed a finger at my head.

Abaddon turned and smiled. His ring of eyes fixed their gaze on my body, and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness washed over my soul. I thought of the people in church whispering the Lord’s Prayer right before they were raptured, but I knew that it wouldn’t do me any good. It was too late for that kind of thing. I glanced down at the pistol on my side and scoffed. I had put my hope in a gun; a worthless piece of metal I stole from an ascended believer.

The trapped souls howled and reached their ghostly hands through the bones of Abaddon’s ribcage, stretching and grasping at the air with desperation.

With a voice like thunder, Abaddon beckoned to me. “Come here, my child,” he boomed. His words were more than an invitation—they were a command that my body was helpless to resist. I rose to my feet and began shambling toward the center of the street.

“Screw this,” I heard Bill whimper behind me before he turned the shotgun on himself and squeezed the trigger for the last time. Stuck in my trance, I didn’t even flinch at the sound of all the buckshot shredding the man’s skull.

“Do not be afraid!” Abaddon thundered through his skeletal mouth. His voice was so powerful that it threatened to shake the crown from his horned head. “The wheat has been harvested, and you are the chaff that is to be thrown into the fire.” Abaddon tapped the hilt of his sword against his ribcage, and the trapped souls scrambled away from his hand.

Two of the angels grabbed my shoulders and held me in place before the towering skeletal warlord. “In seven years, that fire will be lit and you shall be consumed,” Abaddon explained. The wailing souls backed away from me and scattered to the edges of his ribcage, making room for a new arrival.

“Until then,” Abaddon brought his voice to a low whisper as he raised his mighty sword above my head, “you shall serve.”

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