By Sarah Ennals
“First, God came for the Fundies, and I did nothing, because they’d been praying for Him to do that for decades.”
It was just over two months since the Rapture, or what everyone was still calling the Rapture, even though those of us left behind weren’t being pelted with scorpions, there were no obvious candidates around for the Antichrist — though one or two attention-seekers had tried to claim they were — and life was generally getting back to normal.
There hadn’t been that many people taken, for one thing. Almost none outside the U.S. I wasn’t sure if that was because the rest of the world really was as sinful as Americans had always suspected, or because the foreign Christians just hadn’t included the Rapture in their beliefs. Even here in the Midwest, there still seemed to be plenty of churches around that seemed okay with still being here. One or two of them expressed shock in public statements. Most of the rest had offered condolences and grief-counseling to people who’d had family Raptured, and then just got on with whatever it was they’d been doing before.
You’d think there would have been more abandoned houses, but the banks had claimed most of them while the wrangling went on over whether their owners were legally dead. If they weren’t, they were currently defaulting on their mortgage payments. The manager of Twin Rivers’ local bank, though, had belonged to the megachurch on the edge of town, and had disappeared with the rest of the congregation. The remaining bank employees, understandably a little nervous about moving in on the properties of their former boss’s friends, had hired my freelance cleaning service to investigate and maintain the empty homes.
I’d been going through the church records alphabetically, and by “L” I was starting to encounter squatters if I was lucky, rancid meals on the table if I wasn’t. Thank God the world hadn’t ended, and the power was still running to the refrigerators, or the job would have been a hundred times worse. Well, everything would have been a hundred times worse, I suppose.
Today I was in front of an empty home with a surprisingly neat yard, explained when an old man called to me from across the street:
“You from the bank?” A hat shielded his eyes from the sun, and more or less kept his long grey hair from falling in his face.
“Not exactly. The bank just hired me to come round and clean up.” I walked over and handed him one of my cards. He surveyed me suspiciously but said nothing. Actually I preferred his cautious assessment to over-friendliness or instant rejection.
“I’ve been trimming their lawn,” he said. “It’s no trouble when I’m already cutting my own, and I guess it’s like keeping a grave tidy, you know?” He petted the German Shepherd that had been looking around his leg at me, and it came out onto the stoop, wagging its tail. “They had a dog in the back yard, too; I’ve taken him to live here. That’s not going to get me in trouble, is it?” I shook my head, and he became friendlier.
“Guess animals really don’t have souls, unless the dog’s as sinful as me. No call to have left it to starve, though.” He held out his hand. “I’m Bob Frost, like the poet, only not.”
“I’m not sure what they called the dog,” said Bob, “but he answers to Dog.”
I went back to his neighbor’s house, unlocked the door with my master key, and looked around. Not too bad except for the dust. No smell. They must have had lunch early that day or been planning to have it later. The clothes of those who’d been Raptured were always found lying in heaps, but their stomach contents always seem to have gone with them. A few internet forums hotly debated what, if anything, this proved. I was just glad I had less to mop up.
The place was a small ranch-style house, but the floors were a nice hardwood, only a little scratched; there were area rugs in a brown and green geometric design. Good choice, I thought, recalling the dog. A sofa with brown upholstery and a lot of throw pillows faced a flatscreen TV. The owners hadn’t segregated the house into man-cave and shabby-floral territories; I guess that spoke well of their marriage.
I switched on the TV, as I always did, just to see what channel it was set to. Usually it was news or sports. This time it was sports. I changed it to an entertainment channel and let the music play as I went around the house. There was a pair of jeans and a pale blue t-shirt on the floor of the laundry room in back; the bra and panties inside confirmed that they were from a Raptured body. I picked them up and put them in the washing machine, along with the contents of the laundry basket. Next to a jug of detergent was an unopened bag of dog food. I put it aside to give to Bob Frost for the dog, then set the detergent on top of the machine and continued my sweep of the house. The jeans and t-shirt had been Arlene Ladd’s, per the records, and there had been a five-year-old daughter, Keelie, at home too.
Dwight Ladd, the father, had been Raptured from the power station where he worked. He was one of the people who’d vanished in plain view of others; people brought his case up when anyone suggested the whole phenomenon was some kind of hoax.
Keelie’s drawings were on the fridge in the kitchen, and her striped leggings and t-shirt dress were behind the breakfast bar. You got used to finding things like this after a while, and though my heart squeezed a bit, it was nothing I hadn’t expected.
I added Keelie’s clothes to the wash, started the cycle, then went back to the living room and turned up the volume on the music before I started in on tidying the rest of the house. When the fridge was emptied and cleaned, I transferred the clothes to the spin dryer and looked around for what to do next. Arlene had kept a tidy house, so there wasn’t much to do but dust a few surfaces. I didn’t want to rearrange anything. If the Ladds came back, or if they were finally pronounced legally dead and their next-of-kin inherited the place, neither would find it any the worse for their absence.
Finally, I sat down on the couch and flipped the TV back to sports before turning it off. I thought of making a cup of coffee, but I hadn’t seen any instant stuff in the cupboards, and I didn’t want to clean the machine afterwards. Besides, I’d forgotten to bring along any milk. I got up and dusted, and by then the dryer had stopped, so I could fold the clothes and put them away.
Afterwards, I knocked on Bob’s door and handed over the bag of dog food.
“His name’s Brett,” I said. “Their kid had a drawing of him on the fridge.” Brett looked up and wagged his tail, but then he’d been doing that all along. He sniffed at the bag and whined a little.
“They were nice folks,” said neighbor Bob. “Damn shame they’re gone — I mean, I guess it’s what they wanted, but you never know, do you?”
Dwight took off his respirator and safety goggles and descended to the control room. He checked everything, and went online to the chatroom the remaining power and water employees had set up:
<dwight33>water in the cooling towers 90 degrees F. added chlorine.
<dwight33>whos in the room
<fishbone>im in atlanta.
<fishbone>2 guys down with the flu and not enough trainees.
<dwight33>i hear ya. hows the treatment plant holding?
<fishbone>they say we might hasve to let the phone lines fail to keep both plants active.
Dwight’s stomach knotted.
<dwight33> but the cel towrs are alreay off. evryones on dialup.
<fishbone>waters the priority you know we need the treatment plants and greywater for the cooling towers
<dwight33> i know but how will we keep intouch without chat?
He waited for a reply. In the corner he could see “fishbone is typing” but it was a while before the words came up in chat:
<fishbone>theyre saying chat is just gossip most of the time anyway and that each congregation needs to learn to be independent.
Dwight read this through twice before he typed back:
<dwight33>something going on there?
(fishbone is typing)
(fishbone is typing)
(fishbone has logged out)
When the Faithless had vanished, the Faithful of the area had put their various doomsday preparations into effect; but when forty-eight hours had passed with no sign of zombies or black helicopters, most had ventured out and convened on the church building. They had quickly voted to set up a communal shelter — no one felt like returning to the silent neighborhoods except to collect supplies. Even then it had taken them only a few weeks to move all non-perishable foods to several nearby warehouses. A few holdouts still remained in the nearby woods, but after all attempts to contact them — even by Pastor Burgess — had been met with rifle shots, the rest of the congregation decided to pray for them and give them their space. Dwight and Arlene had been secretly relieved, and suspected they were not the only ones. The Faithful with bunkers had always been a bit of an embarrassment to their less-extreme brethren. Dwight’s offer to try to keep the power on had been met with applause — or it had then.
He was so proud of Arlene; of how calm she and the other women had been. Within a day they’d had a school and daycare set up, and began organizing the community’s food supply. Only in private had she confessed her feelings to him:
“I should have witnessed more — poor Bob, and the other families on our street. They might have been saved if I’d tried harder.” Dwight had done his best to comfort her, but his thoughts went out to his own co-workers at the power station. He’d wondered what more he could have done to bring them to God in time.
Of course, that had been at the beginning, when they still thought they were the ones God had spared.
Nearly the end of the day and I had one more stop to make. The congregation’s building was registered under the name Lamb of God Christian Community Church, so alphabetically it was next on my list, although it was a couple of miles out in an industrial park on the edge of town. It wouldn’t need much cleaning, though, especially since it had already been searched within the first twelve hours after its congregation vanished. Still, I felt uneasy as I drove out to the building, and when it appeared, white in the twilight beyond the black river of its parking lot, it was an effort to open the door of my car and get out. I calmed myself, got the cleaning supplies from the trunk, and made sure I had the right key handy before I approached the big front door.
The place didn’t smell like a church, I thought. All the ones I’d grown up with had smelled of varnished wood and hymnbooks; candles if it was around Christmas. This building smelled like an office. It wasn’t bad, but it was newer than I was used to. The homes were sad, but they didn’t spook me like the church. I was used to working in homes while the owners were away, but this place felt really empty — like it had been scrubbed sterile.
Stray cats watched Sylvia as she drove out to the clinic. As a vet, she’d tried speaking up shortly after the Faithless vanished about how the pets left behind ought to be put down, or at least spayed and neutered so there wouldn’t be packs of starving feral dogs roaming about. But with medical supplies limited and doctors more so, she’d been directed to go to the one clinic that was still open and help with human patients. Most of the dogs that didn’t belong to Faithful families had been shot, but a number of cats had eluded the hunt and were rapidly bouncing back in numbers. At least we won’t have to worry about a rat problem, she told herself.
The few remaining staff at the clinic had proven unsnobbish about working with a veterinarian. For one thing they’d all been too traumatized in the first few days for any kind of sniping at each others’ credentials. The casualties of the extremists were quickly treated — all but Pastor Burgess, whose compassion for the more paranoid members of his flock had only earned him a martyrdom. When he slipped into a final coma, and with the rest of the world’s human population gone — not dead, not injured, but vanished — there was nothing to do but wait at the clinic and try to take in the enormity of it all. Sylvia recalled the palpable relief in the room when Dr. Stoeger, the senior physician, suggested they focus on preventative medicine and sent people off to go do bacterial counts at the water reservoir. Sylvia had remained behind to do any suturing that might come up; she was by far the most experienced at it.
As I passed through the entrance hall, I glanced at one of the pictures on the wall. It looked like Jesus flipping over a table. Odd choice, I thought, until I realized he was driving the money-changers out of the temple. Still, it wasn’t an image I expected in a conservative church. I imagined the vanished participants as enthusiastic followers of the prosperity gospel. The image of Arlene Ladd’s crumpled jeans and t-shirt flashed in my mind’s eye. She’d been a member, and I felt sorry for thinking badly of her by generalization.
Then an odd thing happened. For a moment, I could smell cooking — beef teriyaki. It was absolutely real, and then it was gone. Not drifted away, not faded, just switched off, as though I had been in one room, and now I was in another. I don’t know how long I stood there, with the broom in my hand. Part of me said, “Ignore it and do your job.” Part of me said, “Run!”
Another part of me said, “Go check the kitchen, and find out if you’re crazy or not.”
Well, maybe I was crazy, because as I headed downstairs I could hear voices:
“Keelie, why aren’t you with the other kids? Mommy’s got a kitchen full of people to supervise now. Come on, you go back to the other kids before they get worried, and Daddy’ll come pick you up later.”
“Can we take Brett for a walk afterward? Can we go to the mall after that?”
“Nobody goes to the mall anymore, sweetiebug. All the stores are — who are you?!”
The woman looked at me in astonishment, and the little girl ducked behind her mother’s legs. Then they winked out like a candle flame.
Slowly, I became aware of my grip on the handrail. I stared at my knuckles, willing my fingers to loosen. Maybe I shouldn’t have, because when they did my hand began shaking like the rest of me.
She’d called the girl “Keelie.” I hadn’t noticed any photos of the Ladds on the walls of their home, but I knew who it was I’d just seen.
And they saw me. I sat down on the step. Arlene mentioned supervising a whole kitchen. There must have been others there, only I hadn’t seen or heard them, because—
Because you were only thinking about the Ladds, not the others.
That must be it. I could only connect with individual people because I could only feel for individuals. I tried to concentrate, tried to picture Arlene and Keelie again, but I couldn’t make it happen. Brett — she talked about walking Brett. But Brett was still here, with Bob Frost. How did that work? I couldn’t figure it out, and the church building had gone silent and sterile again, so I drove home to bed.
The phone rang, a rare thing at the clinic these days. Sylvia recognized the church secretary’s voice:
“Sylvia? Is anyone there free to see a patient?”
“You know we are,” she snapped, and regretted it immediately. Time was, Ted would only have chuckled at this reply, but he had his hands full now, keeping Lamb of God congregation from splintering. It had been easier to have faith when they had no clear evidence, than it was now that they were all adrift together in a miracle no one could interpret.
“What’s the problem?” she asked, in a gentler tone.
The secretary sighed. “Dwight Ladd took a tumble out at the water plant. Raymond found him when he arrived to start his shift. He’s conscious, but thinks one or both arms might be broken. Can you go or send someone to check him out?”
“I’m on call, but if it’s his collarbone I’ll want to have one of the regular doctors take a look. Most of my past patients were quadrupeds.”
As it turned out, it was Dwight’s collarbone. Dr. Stoeger looked him over when Sylvia and Arlene brought him in (Raymond had helped with the stretcher but stayed to watch the plant. Fortunately Dwight was not a large man.)
“I’m going to put your arm in a sling,” said Stoeger, “but you’re going to need to take it easy for a bit. The bones will start to knit in a week or two, but if you’re moving around too much they’re not going to line up.”
Dwight frowned. “You know none of us can afford to slack off—”
“It’s not slacking off,” Arlene interrupted. “It’s recovery. You’ll be no good to anyone if you don’t take the time off.”
“At the very least you’re going to need the sling for a few weeks, otherwise we get what’s called a mal-union, and I’ll have to break the bone again to straighten it. Can’t you get someone to help carry things and push buttons at the plant while you supervise?”
“Everyone over the age of nine is already busy with something.”
“What about someone under the age of nine?” Sylvia asked.
Dwight tilted his head in thought and winced as the posture drew pain through his upper chest.
“Ow! Gotta learn not to move my head so much.”
“Keelie’s a bright kid,” Arlene said. “If the work doesn’t involve heavy lifting.”
“Mostly button-pushing. I’ll have to watch my mouth in front of her, though, especially if I’m going to be in this sort of pain.” Dwight slouched, cautious this time not to move the wrong way. “Stupid accident … it’s like … well, it’s the way it could have happened anywhere that bothers me. I could have fallen at home, or at church. It wasn’t even a job risk, you know?”
“When you’re trying to run the world with a skeleton staff,” Sylvia replied, “every moment of every day is a potential failure point.”
“Thanks, Doc,” he said to Stoeger,” and Doc,” he added to Sylvia. “For what it’s worth I’m sure you’d have done fine on your own, even if you’re not used to collarbones.” He turned to the Stoeger: “She saved Brett’s leg — Brett’s our dog — after he got hit by a car a few years back.”
“I can’t take credit for that. Brett’s a mutt, mostly German Shepherd. He’s like a wolf — still pretty close to God’s creation. There hasn’t been much human tampering with his genetics, so he heals faster than us, faster than some poor overbred pug dog.”
I don’t remember what I dreamt, or if I dreamt. But I woke the following morning sure that I’d found the key to this mystery, and convinced for a moment it was this realization that had jerked me awake. Then the phone rang again.
“Apple Blossom Housekeeping.” Call display showed it was the bank calling.
“Ms. DeBennedetti, I’m calling from Twin Rivers Savings and Loan, we’re the ones who contracted you to maintain the Lamb of God church property and the houses of several of its congregation?”
“Ms. DeBennedetti, we’ve settled ownership of the properties with the surviving families, and we need you to bring in the keys this afternoon.”
“Um, alright. Do I just drop them at the bank building?”
“That’ll be fine. We’re open till five o’clock.”
“Okay.” So that was it, then. It was out of my hands, or would be by this afternoon.
That still gives you eight hours. Well, seven and a half if you subtract the driving.
I was beginning to dislike that part of my mind, mainly because it was right. I’ve worked cleanup for crime scenes. Other people are squeamish about that sort of thing, but it’s easy once you get used to it because everyone’s already dead. There’s nothing you can do for them, and their bodies have been taken off the premises anyway, so you never even have to see them.
But I saw Arlene and Keelie, alive, at the church, and there was no lying to myself about that.
Cursing all the way, I got up, dressed, and drove to Bob Frost’s house, hoping to find him at home. He wasn’t, and I sat on his front stoop until he returned from walking Brett. The dog wagged his tail at the sight of me, and though I suspected he did that with every human he met, it gave me the courage to tell Bob my thoughts.
When I finished he looked me in the eyes, saying nothing. I gazed back, and after a moment saw his glance flicker up and down my frame. I guessed he was withholding judgment for the moment on whether or not I was crazy, and had moved on to deciding whether or not I was dangerous, and if so, whether humoring me was the lesser or greater risk. At last he stooped to pet Brett, without breaking eye contact.
“Alrighty, then,” he said.
We drove out to the church in Bob’s ancient Dodge. Brett crouched on the back seat, panting cheerfully and eyeing the scenery as it sped past the car windows. Bob hunched over the wheel.
“Bob? Tell me some more about your neighbors.”
“I only talked to them a couple of times,” he admitted, “not counting when they tried to witness to me. I said I wasn’t interested. They didn’t bother me about it again, though, and the father — Dwight — helped me one time when I locked myself out of my car.” The old man kept his eyes focused on the road. “Their little girl was one of those solemn little kids. But she used to wave at me when they walked the dog past my house.” He gave a short laugh that was like a cough. “Polite little wave, like the Queen of England. See, the thing is Brett, their dog; he’s a big dog, but he’s a sweetheart, would never bite anybody. I figured they must be all right to raise a good dog and a good kid like that.”
The big white building seemed less alarming in the light of day, but by the same token, my visions of the night before seemed ridiculous, and I confessed as much to Bob as he drove.
“Does it make me sound less crazy that I’m wondering if I’m crazy?”
Bob considered this, but I was beginning to get used to his long pauses.
“Seeing as how we live in a world where thousands of people just vanished one day, I figure we can try your suggestion and adjust our ideas of sanity as we go.”
We pulled into the parking lot, and I let Brett out of the back seat. As soon as his paws hit the asphalt he sniffed the air, whined softly, and looked up with a confused expression at Bob who was edging himself out on the driver’s side.
“May I speak with my husband alone for a minute?”
When Sylvia had departed Arlene took Dwight’s good arm.
“I saw something today I can’t explain. I’d think I was going crazy, except Keelie saw it too and described it to me without any prompting. There was a woman with a broom coming down the stairs. I didn’t recognize her, and I’d recognize anyone here. She was short, sort of heavy, but healthy-looking, with curly hair, dark, and she was wearing a janitor’s uniform.”
“Could she be someone else left behind, who only just now—”
“She disappeared when I tried to speak to her. And then Keelie asked, ‘Who was that lady, Mommy,’ so I know it wasn’t my imagination.”
“This is the church.” I let us in with the key I had until five o’clock to return.
After the bright light outside the interior of the church was dark and green spots swam before my eyes. I tried to recall the faces I’d seen yesterday, but Brett was tugging at his leash now. Bob peered around.
“Which way?” he said.
“We’re in the narthex. The steeple’s above us, and the sanctuary is at the other end, but I saw them downstairs where the kitchen and the classrooms are.” Indeed, the dog was leading us downwards now. Something moved in the dim at the bottom of the staircase. My heart froze, but it was only a coatroom with a mirrored door.
This is the church.
Brett was straining at his shadow in the glass. I let go of his leash as the dog ran towards another mirror at the end of the hall.
No, towards another Brett, tail wagging. Their noses touched in a sniff—
This is the steeple.
and there was a great lurch
and a non-sound
like when your ears pop
in an elevator.
Open the doors
“Mommy? What’s going on?” Keelie picked at the side seam of Arlene’s jeans while another woman, in scrubs, reached out to me tentatively. Now the place was full of confused families, and Bob Frost kept shaking everyone’s hands vigorously as if he were in the receiving line at a wedding.
“Are you Arlene Ladd?” Heads were peering around doorposts and feet hurrying down carpeted stairs. A lot of them must have been gathered in the sanctuary on the main floor.
“My god,” Bob kept saying, “you’re back.”
Brett, only one of him now, was chasing his own tail and barking happily.
“No one disappeared,” I said, “We … we diverged from each other. That’s why the animals were present in both worlds — humans just expect them to be there. They’re part of the scenery to us.” Dwight was ruffling the dog’s fur as his wife picked their daughter up.
“So what happens now, Mrs.—?” Arlene asked me.
“Ester DeBennedetti.” I brushed a wisp of hair from Keelie’s eyes. “I’d advise getting a good night’s sleep, if your neighbors will let you. Right now I don’t want to think about the explaining we’re all going to have to do to the authorities.”
Bob tapped me on the shoulder.
“My car can’t hold more than six, although I’d be willing to make a few trips.”
“I mean,” Arlene interrupted him and turned to me, “what about the others?”
“Not everybody came back. There were — some people broke away from this congregation, after it happened. They’re still … somewhere else. Holed up with guns. They think it’s the Tribulation.”
I looked her in the eye, this woman in her saccharine pastel-colored t-shirt and mom jeans. I couldn’t have helped, Brett couldn’t have found them, without someone on the other side.
“We all keep trying to reach each other, I guess.”
Sarah Ennals lives in Toronto with her spouse and writes sporadically. Her story ‘The Emmet’ won the first annual Friends of the Merril Collection Short-Story Contest in 2012, and her most recent publication was a werewolf story for Sky Warrior’s Tails of the Pack. When not writing or working at her day job, she draws cartoons, knits, and sews.