Saturday, May 24, 2008

Race to Dawn

Cathleen Silver had never been the type to watch CNN. Even before Pastor Billings had warned - nay, outright forbidden - dutiful wives like herself from worrying themselves with issues that bore no particular relevance to serving God, husband or family (in no particular order), Cathleen had never understood why she should be interested in the particulars of that brief Russia-Israel war that had, after all, not a single casualty. Nor why anyone should care about some trifling election in some Eastern European country she'd never even heard of. And had she not pressed the wrong button on her remote control trying to switch off her television set before bed, she'd have missed their exclusive coverage of the end of the world.

"Starting from 6.15 AM, Israeli time, children have been disappearing in a wave that follows the sun as it rises across Europe and Africa."

Newsreaders, outwardly calm and dignified but inwardly either terrified for their loved ones or ecstatic at breaking what was the story of the century, spoke in the flattest General American monotone they could muster under the circumstances, interspersed with vignettes from reporters across Europe.

A reporter standing at the peak of a wave-beaten cliff (a small red bug on the screen informed Cathleen that these cliffs were somewhere in Britain - specifically a place called "Dover") gestured towards the ominous red glow on the horizon. The air above the waters was thick with the exhaust fumes of ferries, warships, freighters and yachts, some commandeered by the French Navy, some piloted by altruistic individuals who had picked up as many desperate families as they could from the Calais coastline. All the boats carried European refugees across the Channel to England, in the hope that perhaps, just perhaps, the island would be safe from the plague that had swept the mainland.

"The ships will arrive to an empty town," the man said, clutching his microphone hard as the strong sea winds howled against the chalk face below, "as many of the residents of Dover have already evacuated to the West Country.

Reports are coming in from Heathrow and Gatwick of queues, some of made up of well over two-thousand people, all desperate for flights to the US and Canada, while in Liverpool police have been forced to seal off the port after violence erupted when all Dublin and Dun Laoghaire ferries left port early to escape the encroac..."

Cathleen shut-off the set and picked up her well-worn, hand-annotated Bible. Many of the notes were based directly on Billings' sermons, and were marked by a veritable forest of fluorescent, brightly coloured post-its that poked out of its pages. Green notes were about the Second Coming, red ones were about Hell, and yellow ones were about the Rapture. There were a lot of yellow ones.

Billings had explained all of this - the regeneration of Israel, the massive nuclear war, and now the Rapture. And it was all in the Bible, or so Billings had promised. She took his word for it. He'd never mentioned it coming in a wave, but then it doesn't matter if a few small details were wrong. The important thing was that true Christians would get to Heaven early, while the rest of humanity would be forced to sit through the apocalypse. So, who could Cathleen save?

Ronald, her husband; he'd never been the religious type. He was a train driver on the Chicago-Dallas railroad, and Cathleen worried that he was happier alone in his cab with a stack of those 'magazines' than he was at home with her. Besides, he was driving the night freight tonight - railway regulations forebade Ronald from carrying a cellphone, otherwise Cathleen could have called him, tried to score a last-minute conversion.

What about her daughter Zoe? She was away at college but then, she was probably beyond saving anyway - joining either the Feminist Society or Friends of LGBT was risky from an "I want to be Raptured" perspective, Pastor Billings had explained. Joining both was spiritual suicide. Her son Michael on the other hand... well, he was young and innocent. He got the free pass. And Cathleen? Well, she'd never sinned... at least, she couldn't remember doing any of those things the Reverend had called sinful. And she knew the Sinners' Prayer off by heart, that had to count for something.

Michael was in bed at the moment. In a few short hours, they'd both be with God. But then, how long's a few hours? Cathleen glanced at the clock, eager to see the morning for the first time since her eighth Christmas. What! Not only just gone midnight? Sunrise isn't until eight o'clock 'round this time of year!

"There must be some way to speed this process along," she thought.

Then it hit her. If she drove towards the East Coast, she could meet the Rapture head on! New York was about 12 hours drive from Mount Prospect, so if the Sun is going to rise in about 7 hours time - Cathleen flicked open the road atlas - they'll be saved somewhere on Interstate 80 outside Pittsburgh. Not the most glamorous place to be saved, but it'll do.

Cathleen shook Michael from his sleep, packed the leftovers from the Sunday meal into a picnic basket, and bundled both boy and basket into the backseat of their station wagon.

"Where are we going, mom?" asked Michael, still in his teddy-bear pajamas.

"To God" was her simple reply. She'd never explained the Rapture to him, but she saw no point in confusing him with it now. She could tell him after the fact.

"But we went to church yesterday" Michael muttered, drifting in and out of sleep.

The tank was full - Ronald was always so particular about preparing his trips in advance that he even prepared for journeys he hadn't planned - and Cathleen floored the gas pedal. The car screeched through the leafy suburban streets towards the on-ramp. The eastbound lanes of the freeway were totally clear while the westbound stood bumper to bumper all the way from New York - it was only 2 AM, but a few insomniacs lulling themselves to sleep on rolling news had learnt of the horrifying disappearances sweeping across the continent. They'd telephoned friends, friends telephoned other friends, until most of the country was either driving straight for California, or lining up at airports where a handful of lucky souls could snatch a few extra hours together on the Pan-Con flight to Tokyo.

After hundreds of miles of featureless grey concrete, Cathleen spotted the first light on the horizon. Unfortunately, it was just the urban glow from Cleveland, streetlights still buzzing unaware that half the city had left, and the other half would shortly get a very rude awakening indeed. Nevertheless, Cleveland meant she'd been driving for the best part of six hours. Slightly less actually - the roads were clearer than usual, and since the police were more concerned with getting people away from the steadily approaching sunlight, Cathleen was exceeding the speed limit by a good 20 mph. She was tired - she'd been up early to get everything ready for church, dressing Michael in his Sunday best, washing Ronald's clothes for his shift – but it wasn't far now. If she could just her eyes open and on the road for a couple more hours, she could make it.

As the station wagon passed the Punxsutawny junction, the first shafts of real sunlight danced across the night sky. The gas tank was running low, but there were only a few minutes of night left anyway. There's no harm in running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere if you're going to be Raptured away to safety.

"We're almost saved Michael!" Cathleen yelled, brimming with excitement.

"From who?" Michael groaned.

The first sliver of the Sun edged over the horizon.

"Exciting isn't it!" asked Cathleen.

No response. Michael must have drifted off again.

Cathleen jammed the pedal to the floor one more time, and charged towards the morning, drawn to the light like a moth to a table lamp. She kept going until a splutter from the engine told her that the petrol was almost gone. By now, the entire sun had risen over the horizon. "No point going any further", she thought, "let's stop here". She watched as the deep black of the night was slowly chased away by the light blue daylight.

Any second now... any second now.

Cathleen realised suddenly that she wasn't especially presentable to God - she'd been driving all night, with no sleep, no shower, still in her mucky apron. God probably doesn't care about appearances, but nevertheless, I might as well brush my hair, make it look like I've made an effort, she muttered to herself. Michael too - his hair is so scruffy first thing in the morning. God shouldn't have to see him like that!

She took the brush from the glove compartment and turned to the backseat of the car. A pile of teddy-bear pyjamas lay across the seat, flapping loosely in the breeze that drifted through the open window, glowing in the dappled morning sun.

By SchrodingersDuck


Abelardus said...

The tank was full ...

She had half a carton of cigarettes, it was dark, and she was wearing sunglasses!

But seriously, that's pretty good. Amazing what you can do with a blurb. This could comprise its own series even.

Anonymous said...

The penultimate paragraph is a beautiful bit of characterization: The RTC's God as a sort of gruff boss or crotchety uncle who must be respected for his power and ability to change your life, but can be fooled if you make it look as though you made an effort.

It reminds me of a remark somebody made over at Slacktivist about the "soul-winning" culture of his alma mater, where people actually tried to get someone else's converts to doubt their faith so _they_ could get them to say the Magic Prayer--because at the end of the day, that would be one more soul in their account, never mind how it got there.

Jenny Islander

Carlie said...

Amazing! Very good portrait of someone who thinks she knows a lot more than she does.

Nenya said...

Poor Cathleen!

Great stuff coming out of the "rapture wave" idea.