On lumber stained red from the martyrs before him, the commissar’s men hoisted Amos high. His blood dripped from the old dog spikes that pinned his limbs to the scarred wood. Had his tongue not been cut out, Simon knew Amos would have been proselytizing up there before so many onlookers. The crowd cheered as a man hammered a crude sign to Amos’ cross that read “TRATER.” They would watch Amos choke and writhe until his last breath, excited at the thought of fresh meat. It was a Party tradition to feed upon the corpses of traitors, a tactic used to keep the rabble subservient and loyal. Simon watched from behind the crowd, skulking in the shadows, hands in his pockets to protect their contents from pickpockets. He’d seen enough men die on the road. He didn’t need to see it in the settlements, the supposed last bastions of civilization, where the only people who could read were either holding a whip or were gray-haired, perhaps both. Simon was thankful his father had taught him how to read.
Anxious and hungry, the citizens of New Cherno jeered and swore at Amos, wishing him a swift death, not for mercy, but from hunger pangs. It had been a while since the community’s last public execution — a while since their last feast. It was not too often the peasants had meat. One man yelled, “I hope the preacher’s heart is as tender as his soul!” The crowd roared with laughter. Another tried to claim Amos’ liver saying, “It’s more tender than any heart could ever be.” Pushing his way to the front, one of the guards replied, “Surely, the commissar would take the liver. It is the best part. Party officials first.”
“Only someone who thought the word traitor was spelled T R A T E R would actually believe that the commissar ate human flesh,” Simon muttered to himself. He had seen the commissar’s hog pens in the valley, hidden away from the commonwealth where the smell of hog shit was downwind. The commissar saved the best for himself, like a true communist. Half a handle of moonshine would get Simon a pound of bacon. Both were rare commodities. Pigs would eat anything, including human flesh, so there was plenty to feed them, especially with so many unhappy with the commissar. Denouncing the Party or the commissar was a crime punishable by hanging and then cannibalization, or in Amos’ case crucifixion and then cannibalization. Few in the public were aware that more often than not, the accused would end up in the hogs’ feed troughs. The public executions were done on an as needed basis to keep the crowds “happy,” but Amos would not make it out of the square and into a trough. He would be shared amongst the Party as a sort of communion. It was an irony he knew the people would not understand. The commissar had a sense of humor — a dark sense of humor.
As Simon peered out over the crowd, he saw the signature puff and roll of thick smoke — the commissar. It was not long before the crowd in front of him was parted like the Red Sea and the commissar was standing before him in his old Russian paratrooper fatigues, tattered the way you’d expect a thirty year old uniform to be.
“Simon, my boy,” he roared with his arms raised, cigar in hand. “I knew you’d be around for the Mass. The old shit couldn’t keep his mouth shut anymore, so we took care of it for him.” He put his burly arm around Simon’s shoulders and leaned in close to his ear, “What have you got for me today? You know, I have not had a good drink since you last came by. Our still produces swill. Maybe you want some bacon, or perhaps the love of a woman? No doubt.” The old man chuckled behind his moustache, reminiscent Uncle Joe. Anyone who still knew who Joseph Stalin was could have seen the resemblance.
“A book,” said Simon flatly.
“A book,” the commissar asked incredulously. “No one reads these days, and we have plenty of kindling around here. Tinder for the fires. What need do I have of a book, unless perhaps it is about making moonshine?” Another chuckle.
The old paratrooper had been a part of Russia’s initial invasion force before the big bombs were dropped. He could read and write in English just as well as he spoke it, unlike most of the peasants who meandered about the settlement. Truth be told, the man was not even a real communist, but he was an opportunist. The communist facade was just that, a cover to give him control over the people he’d come to conquer. In the new world, it did not matter what Communism had been as long as it offered order and a chance of survival. Artyom, or Arty, as his wife calls him, went from being a peasant in Smolensk to being a king in the smoldering rubble of the USA, courtesy of his comrades in Moscow whose bones now littered the Kremlin.
“Not here. We go to my office. The peasants cannot see such dealings, lest they think me a capitalist like you.” Yet, another chuckle. Simon pondered the possibility of taking advantage of the commissar’s good mood. The pair shuffled their way toward his office. Dimly lit, but well decorated, it was at the old bank across the street from the square where Amos would be quartered as soon as the crowd grew tired of watching him die. Artyom liked to be close to the vault, though Simon knew it was empty.
Artyom took a seat behind his desk and put his feet up, still puffing on his mossy cigar. “Show me,” he commanded. “Let me see the riches that you’ve pulled from the dirt this time. Surely it is more valuable than anything a farmer could bring me. I eat plenty well these days,” he smirked as he slapped his gut. Simon began to pull a small parcel from his jacket pocket, but paused for a second to make sure nothing else fell out.
“Full pockets, eh? You must have done good this time.”
Simon slowly unraveled a cloth that had been wrapped around the book. Before he could hold it up for Artyom to see, the greedy man had snatched it from Simon’s calloused hands.
The commissar held the book up to the single light that hung from the ceiling as if in awe. “My friend, this is not a book. This is the Holy Bible!” The excited commissar thumbed through the nearly pristine pages. “Solar panels. Solar collectors. Water turbines. Wind turbines. Batteries. A wealth of knowledge,” he exclaimed. “We have a great deal of these parts,” he said without looking up. “Obviously, what we don’t have we can buy from you. You dirty capitalist! You stand to make more from this than I could have realized. What do you want for it?”
Simon stood up so that he was looking down at the commissar who had become noticeably disturbed.
“No checkpoints. No more bribing guards. No more travel permit. I want the freedom to come and go as I please through the settlement and its surrounding territory at all times of the day. I also want the right to charge up my batteries when I am in town free of charge. Last, I want two pounds of bacon and the rest of those cigars I always see you smoking.”
Simon’s face was stolid. The commissar may have acted friendly, but he certainly was not Simon’s friend. This was merely a business arrangement from which both could benefit. The commissar stood up to meet Simon’s gaze. He then took a drag from his cigar and blew a soft stream of putrid smoke in the other man’s face, his true self outlined in the haze of the smog. He knew Simon was asking for a lot, but this book could bring some semblance of the old life. Air conditioning, Disney films, and so much more. Fuel was rare and the generators needed constant maintenance. This would solve that, but he didn’t like Simon’s attitude. Artyom was in charge, not Simon. Even a little victory would show Simon who’s boss. Artyom was a hard man, but he was also very petty.
“Deal,” he said with his thick accent. “But no cigars, and I also want a pack of your cigarettes.” Artyom smiled, happy with being the one to now make demands the way a commissar should. Simon breathed a sigh of relief and reached his hand into his breast pocket revealing a crumbled white packet of old cigarettes.
“No, no, no. My friend, I would like the special cigarettes. You know which ones I speak of. The ones you get from the hillbillies. Those are the cigarettes I want,” Artyom’s smile was now a beaming grin that could have lit up the office all by itself.
Feigning reluctance, Simon agreed. He did not smoke. The tainted air outside was bad enough. The cigarettes were merely currency, usually for bribing guards. Simon produced a small tin from his backpack. Inside were several hand-rolled cigarettes — not like the prewar kind he tried to give the commissar before. He handed over the book with the tin resting on top of it. The commissar happily accepted the goods and quickly stuffed the tin in his back pocket.
“Ah, my friend. It is always a pleasure doing business with you,” the words rolled pleasantly off his tongue. “You will no longer have to worry about being accosted by my men. Seek out the quartermaster and he’ll give you the rest of what you asked for. Just be sure to let him know that I sent you. Now, is there anything else?”
“No. I just want to get out of here.” Without saying anything else, Simon stood up from his seat and left the commissar. He wanted to get away from what he’d seen, away from the man who did it, and away from the last filth of humanity. The road was all Simon needed. To be away was all he wanted so he could escape the noise and think. Merely existing may have been enough for the people of New Cherno, but Simon needed more than that.
Simon made his way to the quartermaster where he was given the promised provisions and a badge that would get him through all the checkpoints from now on. Once he passed without hassle through the last checkpoint and out of the valley, Simon was on open road. The settlements in the area were predominantly communist. The need for travel permits kept the roads relatively empty except for the occasional bandit or patrol, but he wasn’t worried about them right now. He’d spent too much time in New Cherno. The conversation he’d had with Amos the night before his execution had Simon excited. He had bribed the guards with cigarettes so he could see Amos one last time. He’d known Amos since he was young, barely an adult. He was a man torn between his convictions and his addictions. The communists could only tolerate him for so long. Simon had managed to record Amos’ last words. He’d found a recorder hidden away in an old desk and traded some bacon he’d gotten from the commissar for as many batteries as he could get. Simon had almost dropped the recorder in the commissar’s office when he was reaching for the book. That could have been very hard to explain, even for Simon. With any luck, he would have spent time in the gulag instead of the stomachs of pseudo-communists. Luckily, he avoided both.
While the main road was relatively empty, it was getting dark and Simon wanted to listen to the tape. He was at a familiar gravel road that led to an empty farmhouse a mile or so off the main road. It was safer for him to stay there than to keep going in the dark. He made his way to the house’s cellar, worried someone would see his lamp light through one of the windows upstairs. Anxious, he threw down his pack and lit his lamp. He wasn’t even hungry, he just wanted to start writing so he could erase the cassette. Simon pulled out an old book with a few empty pages and a red pen from his backpack. Sitting on the sandy floor, he pushed play on his recorder. Amos’ raspy voice spoke to Simon from the grave in the dim light of his lamp:
“They call me a preacher, but I haven’t spoken to God in a long time. No, I preach someone else’s word — my word. Someone needs to hear what I have to say. If they can’t read it, let them hear it. For too long, it’s been a game of them and us. When I was a child, it was the Communists who were going to destroy everything my parents had worked so hard for. As a young man, it was the Muslims who hated me for my freedom. Somewhere, across the ocean, there was probably a boy who was told the Capitalists would make him a slave. He was told the Christians would kill him. The Cold War never ended — war never ended. The Soviet Union may have fallen, but we found new enemies, and our hatred burned on. It was only a matter of time before the bombs fell. It does not matter who pulled the trigger first, only that it happened. Here we are now, all of us, suffering and starving, except for that fat leach of commissar. You would think that after all of this we would realize that it was not famine, disease, or warheads that were the biggest killers in our short history. No, it was ideology. It still is ideology. The real preachers say the earth wept when the first bomb melted flesh from bone, but that is not true. She wept when she realized we were still here. Ideology led us to the precipice of the abyss, and like lemmings, we plunged into its darkness. I awoke at the bottom only to find that nothing had changed. Here, propped up on soap boxes, ideology stands as the beacon of light at the end of the dark tunnel down which it had cast us. How can that which brought us to ruination also be our salvation? It can’t. For too long I followed; too long I obeyed. Today, I obey no longer. That’s it. Let them know that I’ll die a free man, even though my last moments are behind bars.”
Simon had scribbled the words on a blank page of a ragged copy of The Communist Manifesto, as it turned out. The red ink was appropriate for the Party’s colors, as well as Amos’ blood. He’d found it buried in a trash heap far outside of New Cherno, preserved by the layers of debris above it. When he’d picked it up, Simon figured someone would probably recognized the hammer and sickle, but threw it on the heap when they realized they couldn’t read it. That, or they realized what a farce it all was. He turned the book over in his hands and saw the name “Amos Freeman” written on the back in the dim light. “I guess it was a farce then,” Simon said aloud. It comforted Simon to know that Amos’ last words could be saved alongside the very thing they denounced. The words made him feel warm, filled him with vigor. “Today, I obey no longer” dangerous words, Simon thought, “but words I could certainly live by — have lived by.” He scratched out the word “Communist” on the cover and wrote “Amos’.”