He'd experienced this place too many times not to know that it was hopeless to deny the Devil's desires. Still, Noah Neely bit his lip, trying to swallow the urge to retch up his dinner. He felt sick to his stomach, and the noxious fumes that spiraled up from the smoldering ground weren't helping much. As he twisted and turned against the chains that bound him, the sharp metal digging into his flesh, a bead of sweat ran down his nose and leapt suicidally toward the flames, evaporating before it had a chance to reach the ground.
Chained to the great wall, Noah fought in vain against his bonds, struggling to free himself though he knew escape was impossible.
"Please! Heavenly Father, help me!" he cried, his hoarse voice cracking in time with the popping whips of fire that blazed under his brand-new dress shoes, mission-standard, a parting gift from his brother.
The flames slowly licked up around him, scorching his legs and setting fire to his marble-white missionary shirt. The agony was unbearable, but the scorch marks on his sleeves put his neat-freak mind over the edge. Just another way the Devil had truly personalized his torture. He screamed again and again, his voice breaking, begging for anyone – anyone – to put him out of his misery. Noah looked upwards and saw Satan himself grinning down at him, his gnarled claws gripping the coal-black peaks that scraped the netherworld sky.
"What do you want from me?" screamed Noah, tears streaming down his face to hiss and crackle in the scorching blaze. "I'm trying, Heavenly Father knows I'm trying!"
"Heavenly Father!" the Devil laughed maniacally. "He doesn't want to listen to you anymore. He sent you here, didn't he?" Bending down, his gruesome face inches from Noah's own, he showed his sharp black teeth in a ghastly smile. "Suffer for your crimes, sinner!"
Noah screamed again as the flames shot up, no longer confined to the fiery ground. They licked at his ankles then leapt higher, scorching his legs and twisting them into bloody, black hunks of flesh. Then, just as he thought he couldn't bear any more, he felt the indescribable feeling of blunt spikes being hammered through the bone and sinew of his arms and feet. He arched his back and screamed, blood coursing down his body, until his throat faltered and his tears obscured his vision. As Satan mimicked his agonized pleas, something deep inside Noah broke. He felt his head fall forward onto his chest and his eyes roll back into his head, as he surrendered to the realization that Heavenly Father really had abandoned him. Even in this moment of complete desertion he still wasn't spared the pain, but he gave up, no longer struggling against his chains, as his frail body was wracked with wave after wave of agony.
"Noah," the Devil taunted over the hiss of the fire and the howling of his minions. "The boy who had to run away. Noah, the boy who couldn't face his fears like a man. Noah, the failure.
Noah, Noah, Noah, Noah!
Noah felt himself being shaken awake by a hand on his shoulder. He started suddenly, momentarily blinded by the light streaming in the windows of the rickety bus. He blinked, unable to rid himself of the hellish scene still playing like a horror movie on the inside of his eyelids. For a moment he thought he could still hear Satan's laughter, and he shivered at the memory.
"Come on, Noah! Let's go! We're here!"
Sure enough, Noah looked through the window and found that the small bus had pulled up to a dusty bench with a sign saying "Kitguli Bus Stop". He exhaled slowly and glanced over at his mission companion, who was looking at him with concern shining in his eyes.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine." Noah gave a small smile. "Thanks for waking me, Eric."
The dusty-haired boy next to him smiled weakly. "It's Elder Schrader now, remember?"
"Oh- right. Of course." Noah wasn't sure that he'd ever get used to calling Eric by that clunky moniker. They'd been best friends since they were six and had caught each other drawing Moroni and Mormon in the sandbox at recess, and had hoped to complete their missions together for almost as long, a plan they'd abandoned when Noah's family packed up and moved halfway across the world to New York in sixth grade. The second Noah turned 18, he and his brother had moved back to New Zealand, even though it meant delaying their missions until they were 21.
"Hey Er- um, Elder Schrader?"
"I'm really glad we got paired together."
"Me too, dork," Eric said, grabbing both men's suitcases. The bus driver honked rudely at them, reminding them in universal language that he had a schedule to keep. "Come on, we really should go," said Eric, heading to the front of the bus.
"Okay, okay. I'm coming," said Noah, hurrying to catch up.
Stepping off the bus into the bright Ugandan sunlight, he blinked hard and put his hand up to provide some protection. It didn't work – it was over a hundred degrees out, and there was no escaping the oppressive heat and glaring sun. So he gave up and instead offered his hand to the handsome redheaded man in a tight white shirt and regulation-length black slacks. He certainly didn't look like a district leader to Noah, but his nameplate read "Elder McKinley", so he figured this had to be the right man.
"Hi… I'm, uh, Elder Neeley."
"Nice to meet you, Elder Neeley. I'm Elder McKinley, the district leader for this area. And you," the man said, offering Eric his hand, "Must be Elder Schrader."
"Yep, that's me! It's really great to meet you," Eric said, pumping Elder McKinley's hand vigorously.
Noah could have kicked him. Really? Could he be any less professional? The two of them had talked about how they both really wanted to make good first impressions in Uganda, and this wasn't the way he wanted to do it. Still, Elder McKinley seemed to react warmly to Eric's friendly greeting, so things couldn't be too strict around here. As if to confirm his thoughts, Elder McKinley smiled warmly and gestured to the man next to him.
"This is my mission companion, Elder Thomas," he said.
The thin man smiled broadly. "Hi there, guys!" He quickly stuck out his hand, arm straight. "Great to meet you!" Both men shook the Elder's hand.
"So, um, where do we sleep?" asked Eric awkwardly, trying to make a joke. Noah looked around, realizing for the first time that their "city of destination" consisted of a bench that functioned as a bus stop, a café that was really more of a lemonade stand, and a "Clothomart" that had three of its four windows covered up with dirty cloth.
Elder McKinley forced a small laugh. "Don't worry, home's a little farther away. You two ready to go?"
Eric nodded enthusiastically, but Noah's distress at the word "home" must have showed on his face because Elder McKinley smiled at him reassuringly.
"You might be a little nervous, but I promise we're all good guys. I'm sure you two will fit right in!" The man's easy laugh made Noah feel a little better, but he stiffened instead and looked away.
"Okay, let's get you two into the Jeep, shall we?" Elder McKinley picked up Noah's suitcase and put it gently into the second row. "Why'd you pack so light?" he asked the two of them, picking up Eric's bag.
"Oh, well, not much variation in standard missionary clothing," said Noah.
"No, I suppose not," Elder McKinley laughed again. "When I came to Uganda, I think I must have brought an entire carry-on just for my ties." He placed Eric's bag next to Noah's.
Elder Thomas jumped in. "Yeah. He brings them out on special occasions. We've been here almost a month and I don't think I've seen a repeat yet!" He climbed into the passenger seat of the car, his clean missionary uniform contrasting sharply with the sandblasted, open-top vehicle.
"Is it, uh, a quick ride?" asked Noah. Eric had been forced to spend a good five minutes convincing him to get on the rickety bus; he wasn't exactly a fan of non-standard means of transportation.
"Only about twenty minutes." The district leader flashed a bright smile at Noah again before hopping into the driver's seat. Though he was nervous, Noah's heart gave a little jump. Angry with himself, Noah bit his lip, closed his eyes, and took a sharp breath in. The feeling went away and Noah opened his eyes. "That's better," he thought, reassuring himself. "You're okay. It's okay. It's fine."
The first ten minutes of the car ride passed in silence, as Elder McKinley focused on the dirt road and his three passengers watched the African countryside roll by. It all looked the same to Noah – red mud and tan dirt, a few patches of sun-dried grass, maybe a tree or two. Every few minutes they'd spot a goat wandering nearby, its udders swollen with milk, or a scantily clad young boy running in the opposite direction. But for the most part, the whole area seemed to be deserted.
Finally Noah spoke up. "Um, I guess we're not in the village yet, but, uh, why aren't there any people around?"
Silence. Then– "Well, there's this guy. The General," Elder Thomas spoke up. "He's... not very nice."
"He shoots people." Elder McKinley said sharply.
"Like… often?" asked Eric quietly.
Elder McKinley sighed. "No, not often, but often enough to scare everyone to Provo and back. They're all terrified to leave the village."
Noah released a breath he didn't realize he was holding. "But... he doesn't live in the village."
"No," said Elder Thomas. "A few villages over. About half an hour on foot."
"What… what does he do?" Noah, though appalled, was fascinated. Here was a chance to prove to himself that he was brave enough, man enough, to handle a tough mission. It was why he'd requested Africa as his destination; that, and because it was so far away from either New York or New Zealand.
"It's harsh stuff. But that's why we're here, right?" Elder McKinley forced an uptick into his voice. "To save the people of Uganda by giving them something more positive to focus on – all they need is a little push. After all, Heavenly Father accepts everyone with a pure heart."
"You okay?" asked Eric, almost under his breath.
"Yeah." Noah shook his head to rid himself of the thought of his nightly torture. "I'm… fine. Really."
"So, Elders, what's life like in New Zealand?" asked Elder McKinley, not noticing the boy's discomfort. Noah figured they were getting close to the village by now, though the scenery hadn't changed a bit. He stared out the side of the car, still a little freaked out by the lack of protective metal and glass.
Noah started, whipping his head around. "Sorry, yeah, my family's in New York but I lived in New Zealand when I was a kid and I guess I just missed it."
"So you moved back?"
"Yeah, my brother and I, we flew out on my 18th birthday. He's a year older than me. We enrolled the next day at the Auckland MTC." Noah looked away. No, he didn't want to talk any more about his family.
"And you, Elder Schrader? Do you miss your family yet?"
"Oh no, not yet. I think I'll be just fine without them. I've got five sisters."
The district leader laughed. Noah shifted his eyes away from the two of them and back onto the dusty road rolling under the jeep.
"Well, you're free now." A moment later – "Oh, we're getting close!"
Eric looked up to see a few huts in the distance. "Is that the village?"
"Yep!" said Elder McKinley proudly. "And that right there–" he pointed to a short whitewashed building– "is our headquarters. That's where we sleep, eat, and pray. That's home!"
Noah tried hard to focus on the building and not on the deplorable state of the huts around it. A woman was trying to thatch a roof while juggling a pitifully thin baby, trash was strewn everywhere, and – Noah worked hard to keep the bile down – piled against one of the larges huts was the rotting carcass of some sort of wild animal. His hands shaking, he forced himself to look away.
Elder McKinley pulled up in front of the building and quickly ushered them inside where the air smelled too much like pine freshener and not enough like real oxygen. It was very plain – the door opened to a small living room featuring an old couch and a coffee table supporting several dozen copies of The Book of Mormon. A chalkboard featuring six names – and not much else – was the only decoration. Beyond that was the kitchen, almost smaller than the average bathroom, and a hallway which led to a few bedrooms.
"Elder Michaels, Elder Zelder, the new recruits are here!" called Elder McKinley. Two other elders were already inside waiting for them. They jumped up.
"Hi there!" They said, introducing themselves.
"I'm Elder Michaels, from Provo!" said the taller man. As he shook hands, Noah noticed with displeasure that the Elder's black hair was slicked down to the point where it was plastered against his head.
"And I'm Elder Zelder, from Tallahassee," said the shorter man, smiling at Noah, who smiled back shyly. "It's really great to finally meet you two."
"Nice to meet you too," said Eric. He stifled a yawn. "Sorry, long trip. Elder Neely here," he punched Noah in the shoulder, "Got some sleep on the bus, but I was up the whole time. Twenty hours."
"Wow, you guys must be exhausted," said Elder McKinley kindly.
"Well, shall we show you two your room?" offered Elder Michaels. "It's all ready and waiting for you."
"Um, sure! Thanks!" said Eric enthusiastically.
"I'd, um, like to stay up a little longer if that's okay with you," said Noah. Anything to delay falling asleep again.
"Sorry, mission rules!" said Elder Thomas in a sing-songy voice. "Rule #41. Never retire after your mission companion!" He tapped his shirt pocket with his index finger, pointing out the missionary guidebook inside. "Where's yours?"
"Oh, I must have left it in my bag." Noah had read through the whole thing only once, while waiting for the plane to take off. He'd sort of known most of them already, but he wasn't looking forward to following the rules. No swimming? No road trips? No phones? It had almost made him want to get off right there on the runway and run home to his brother.
But no, Noah didn't give up. He didn't run away. He was a man now, a missionary, in Uganda of all places. He could do this.
Noah took a deep breath and, trying not to think about what the night would bring, walked purposefully toward his bedroom.