Lake City, Fla. -- Until a few years ago, it wasn't hard to identify an End Time family on the checkout line of the local Publix, or in the aisles of the Wal-Mart on Route 90.
The men invariably wore suits and ties; the women appeared in drab, ankle-length dresses and black, low-heeled shoes; their toddlers, obedient and withdrawn, followed their parents about in single file like a troupe of ducks.
Slowly, though, townies began to notice changes in the End Timers' appearance.
It was something of a shock at first. End Time women started to appear in public with glossed, pink, rosy, ruby lips. Not long thereafter, they took to applying eyeliner, mascara, even rouge. At the same time, bubble gum began finding its way into their little boys' mouths and nail polish began to sparkle on the fingertips of their teenage girls.
Cell phones, digital watches, tube tops, Nike sneakers - for years branded as sinful by the End Timers' spiritual leader, Charles Meade - became permissible, and popular, among the End Timers. Even animals, theretofore considered instruments of Satan, were declared demon-free.
In these changes, community leaders found reason to hope. Perhaps Meade's devotees had decided to open up to the world around them, to "stop acting like ETs," as one local put it.
After years of tension and suspicion, many in the community longed for normalcy; folks wanted to stop looking at their neighbors and wondering.
So when Meade invited the public to a 10-night revival to mark the 1998 opening of the Worship Center, county officials and business leaders sensed an opportunity. "Everyone Welcome," read the full-page ads published in the Lake City Reporter.
Public turnout, though, was thin, and in the months and years that followed, it became apparent that a thaw in relations was not to be.
The End Timers sent no one to the National Day of Prayer, an annual event in Lake City to which faithful from various Christian denominations come together to mingle and pray.
They continued to shun the public schools and forbid their children to play with non-End Timers. They snubbed Columbia High football, the PTA and July 4th celebrations.
Despite their isolation from civic life, they could not remain out of the news. In January, the citizenry of Lake City was stung by a headline on the front page of the local newspaper: "LOCAL WOMAN DIES AFTER GIVING BIRTH AT HOME"
Kathryn Marie Kennedy, 23, a granddaughter of Meade's wife, Marlene, had bled to death in her bed on January 9, after delivering a son.
According to the Columbia County sheriff's office, she apparently had difficulty releasing the placenta, and had lain in bed, hemorrhaging, for six hours. At 11 a.m., she lost consciousness and never woke.
Another three hours passed before family members summoned help. When the paramedics arrived, they found Kathryn Kennedy in the master bedroom, cold to the touch.
Why, the investigators asked the family, hadn't anybody called for help sooner?
"Religious reasons," Brian S. Rix, the investigating officer, noted in his final report. In adhering to their belief in faith healing, the family had committed no crime, officials decided, and they closed the case.
Over the years, the End Timers had made just one brief exception to their studied avoidance of Lake City civic life. In 1994, they voted.
In District 2, where Meade's followers were congregated, County Commissioner Finley J. Little was running for re-election. A Democrat, he had whipped his opponent soundly the last time out and was the hands-down favorite again.
Then, one night on a television news program, Little chastised the End Timers for isolating themselves from the community.
That autumn, they registered in droves. "Every single one of them, to my knowledge, registered Republican," Carolyn D. Kirby, the county's supervisor of elections, recalled recently. "And from what I could tell, they all voted."
Little lost in a landslide.
The End Timers have not exercised their bloc power in local politics since.
The local economy, however, is another matter.
At no other time, as far as the gentlemen at the local Chamber of Commerce can recollect, has Lake City been the hive of business activity that it is today.
Jim Poole, 57, the chamber's executive director and a local resident since 1980, remembers when the town didn't have a Cracker Barrel, a TCBY, a fitness center. (It now has a Curves.) He remembers when the population of the whole county was just 36,000; it's 60,000 today.
Poole points to new office complexes, many the work of End Timers. He ticks off the strip malls built or rehabbed by End Timers: Westfield Square, Jackson Square, Marion Crossing, Campbell Station and, recently under construction along Route 90, Village Square.
Little of the new money has touched the Historic Town Center, where shops with striped awnings and 1950s Coke machines have become boarded-up relics. But the strip malls buzz with customers, many of them End Timers, who patronize shops run by End Timers, which employ, largely, End Timers.
Some in the local citizenry view this as evidence that Meade's flock isn't much concerned with the community as a whole. Few say so on the record, however: homeowners say they fear retribution by Meade's devotees; small business owners say they could lose their End Time customers.
The silence, says Doug Baker, who owns an electronics store, speaks volumes about the mood in Lake City today. "Either people figure, what's the use, or they're just plain afraid to open their mouths."
Twenty years after first arriving in Lake City, the End Timers "still haven't blended shoulder-to-shoulder with other faiths," Poole concedes. However, he says, "economics-wise, they've been a blessing."
Evelyn Little, 76, wonders about the nature of this blessing. The retired schoolteacher still lives in Southwood Acres, one of the few natives remaining in a subdivision now populated almost entirely by End Timers.
As darkness settles over the neighborhood, it is not unusual for the stillness to be punctuated by loud cracks. Sometimes it's just a gunshot or two, Little says. Other times, the firing comes in bursts.
"They wait 'til just about dark, and then the guns start going off in their yards," she says. "Carl here, he knows guns, and he thinks they got automatics."
Her husband, a retired veteran of 77, nods. "You can't pull a trigger as fast as they do unless you're using an automatic," he says. "Now, if that's what they've got, well, what the heck do they need weapons like that for?" (According to Lorraine Heser, whose son is a member of the sect, End Time women train with guns to protect their homes.)
Evelyn Little shakes her head. "I was out in my flower bed, weeding, you know, when all of a sudden this noise - a gunshot - comes close to me." She grimaces. "My son was in the trailer home out back at the time," she says. "The bullet went right by his head."
In years past, she never troubled to lock her doors. Now, she deadbolts them. At night, she keeps her shades drawn, keeps her dog, Milo, close. By day, she and Carl keep to themselves - just like their neighbors.
Just up the road, behind a red-brick wall and iron gates marked "MM," is the Meade compound. There, nothing stirs in the self-imposed isolation, except at those times when a Cadillac glides through the gates, or a glow appears in one of the upstairs windows.
"Those End Timers are the most anti-friendly people you want to meet," Evelyn Little says. "You put one foot on their property and they come flying out of their houses and run you off."
Neighbors, as it happens, are not the only ones who have been run off.
Over the years, dozens of parents had made the trip to Lake City, hoping to re-establish contact with sons and daughters who, after joining the sect, had severed ties to family. Often, they had doors slammed in their faces.
Milton J. Heser, of Billings, Mont., whose son had joined the End Timers in the mid-1990s, sold his house and moved with his wife, Lorraine, to Lake City. He hoped to patch up the relationship with their son, who by that time had a wife and four kids.
At first, things were good: the Hesers had their son and his family over for Saturday dinners, always careful to avoid the topic of religion.
Then one day, their son cut them off.
The couple moved back to Montana, where Milton Heser died of cancer in 2001. He never did speak with his son again. "It was very, very tough on my husband," says Lorraine Heser, 71, "because he and my son, David, had always been so close."
Stories like this one had long circulated, but the Hesers became the talk of Lake City after Milton Heser shared his experience in a letter published by the Lake City Reporter.
It read, in part: "Meade Ministries talked to our daughter-in-law and asked why we did not join their group ... Then our son came over on a Sunday morning and said if we didn't join their organization, we could no longer see them or the grandchildren . . .
"This is supposed to be a religious group," he added. "I wonder whatever happened to honor thy father and mother?"
If anyone doubts that the End Timers are here to stay in their Promised Land, the new, brick entrance to the Southwood subdivision ought to dispel any uncertainties. A bronze plaque on its face announces that the visitor is no longer entering Southwood Acres, but "Southwood Estates."
Twenty years ago, the dusty roads of the neighborhood had girls on bicycles, ladies carting picnic baskets, boys followed by their hounds on their way to a fishing hole. Mothers set extra places at the supper table for a neighbor who might, or might not, drop by.
Now the roads are quiet, except for the occasional hiss of tires on asphalt, a Cadillac passing. Properties are fenced off or surrounded by brick walls, and the custom of neighbors gathering on porches to swap scuttlebutt and share a pipe or iced tea is a memory.
Many of these changes are not unlike what has transpired in hundreds of other small towns in the last two decades. Time passes; communities grow; small-town neighborliness is lost.
But in Lake City, where neighbor shuns neighbor and suspicion reigns, this too, in the estimation of some locals, is the End Timers' fault.