Monthly Archives: January 2013

Like There’s No Tomorrow

Like There’s No Tomorrow

Ryan Everett Felton

 

            “You have to understand, we thought the world was ending.”

            Kathy wrung her hands over her bulbous gut, wobbling with the shift of her weight on the chair’s one short leg. Her brother Brad looked down at her, his lips half an inch apart, arms dead at his sides. He’d expected Kathy to stumble over the threshold with half a dozen overstuffed suitcases and spill them onto the floor, and there they were, at her feet. Even the weedy, narrow-eyed guy she’d brought with her came as no surprise. Brad was warned she’d be bringing a plus-one.

            What had thrown Brad was the sight of his sister’s bloated, very pregnant belly.

            She’d detected the dismay on his face right away, launched into her hasty explanation and took a seat, palms flat on her abdomen as if trying to suppress the course of nature at work within.

            “Father Culvert,” she said, “found evidence in the scripture, this numerology that figured to the exact hour and minute when Christ would return. He was so sure, and so we all were. We weren’t supposed to still be here. The Lord should’ve taken us last August.” Her hands lifted, leaving damp wrinkles where they’d been resting on her blouse, and ran fingers through her hair. “Only He didn’t come.”

            Brad felt his jaw drop and found it impossible to clamp shut. To Kathy’s left, standing with a duffel bag strapped across his chest, her companion shuffled on the hardwood floor and said nothing.

            Brad said, “Kath, what the hell does this have to do with anything?”

            She gripped either side of her seat and bit her bottom lip. The words, it seemed, had come to mind, but getting them out was hard on her. “Listen,” she said. “Ron and I…” She stopped, and Ron – the slouching dope who hovered behind her – gave her shoulder a soft squeeze. “We followed Father Culvert’s teachings for months. When the day finally came – what we believed to be our final day on Earth – the congregation gathered. To be together, you know? But Ron and I…”

            “What?”

            Her chair leg tapped against the hardwood again. “It’s funny,” she said. “We never really spoke until that day. But there on the church grounds, waiting for the world to end, we got to talking. It was wrong of us to be scared, Brad, but we were. God forgive us, we were scared to go. And neither of us had ever— We were both still—”

            Brad folded his arms. “What? Still what?”

            “Virgins,” Kathy said, though if he hadn’t seen her lips move Brad wouldn’t have been sure she’d said anything.

            “Jesus,” he said. “So you…” he chuckled; he couldn’t help it. “What? So you snuck into the tool shed for a quickie before the Rapture hit?”

            “It’s not funny!” Kathy stood. He always forgot that his sister was taller than him until they stood face-to-face. “Look at me!” she said. “This wasn’t supposed to happen! We shouldn’t still be here.”

            Allowing her belly to graze his for only an instant, Brad shuffled backward to create some distance between himself and his gestating nephew ­– or niece. She was right; there was nothing funny about this, but it was serious in that precarious way that would be hilarious, were it happening to anyone else. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Of course this is difficult for you. I get it, I do.” He bent over, picked up one of her heavier bags, as if the gesture would soften the blow of his next comment. “But I mean, really, Kath? You, duped into one of these doomsday hoaxes? Weren’t you always the smart one?”

            The melodrama machine of her teenage years was still well-oiled: Kathy yanked the suitcase from his hands and knocked the chair back with the insides of her knees. “I knew you’d act this way,” she said, squatting to grab her other, smaller bags. “You never believed in anything, never had a lick of faith in anyone – yourself included. I shouldn’t have come here.” She pointed at the door, and gangly Ron reached for the knob.

            “Thanks a lot, Brad. Goodbye.”

            “Wait,” Brad said, and she did. Ron, to his credit, flat-out froze to the point of holding his breath, arm outstretched.

            His sister raised an eyebrow: I’m listening, it said.

            “Look, I’m surprised is all,” said Brad, and he reached out for the cumbersome suitcase slipping from his sister’s white-knuckled hand. She let him take it. “You have to admit you caught me off-guard. When I invited you to stay here, I wasn’t exactly prepared to put up a baby, too. That’s all.”

            “So if I stay,” Kathy said, the look of a flight risk still about her, “no more mocking me? No poking fun at my beliefs?”

            “I will be,” said Brad, hoping at least one eye was twinkling, “a paragon of understanding and respect.”

            “And Ron can stay here, too?”

            Brad looked at him, still hunched over the doorknob, awaiting his next command, and could see nothing but the tag sticking out of his collar, the belt loop he had missed. Every negligible detail that, when taken together, summed up a man’s entire personality. This one was not a winner.

            “Sure,” Brad said, his lips undecided as to whether they should expose any teeth in their hard-won smile. “You know, until you two land on your feet.” Realizing they had not yet shaken hands, Brad extended his, decided to hell with it, and peeled back his mouth to exhibit possibly every bit of enamel in his head.

            Watching Ron accept his handshake was like a slow-motion recap. When at last his squishy palm rubbed up against Brad’s own, the two men nodded at one another and Brad added, to be friendly: “So what do you do, Ron? Kathy never said.”

            Ron blinked. A fair amount. “Do?” he repeated.

            Kathy stepped in, said, “Ron owned his own business. You know the Mobil station on Pennbrook? That was his. He sold it a few months ago. He’s still looking for new work.”

            “Wanted a change of scenery, huh?” said Brad. He switched Kathy’s bag over to the other hand; it must have been holding half her life. “I get that.”

            “Well,” Ron said, “that, and the world was ending.”

            Brad tucked his upper lip into the bottom one and nodded, evading Kathy’s scrutinizing gaze. He hitched the hefty suitcase under his arm and clucked his tongue, jerking his head toward the hallway beyond. “Let’s get you set up in the guestroom, huh?”

 

***

 

            “So he sells his gas station, knocks up your sister, loses his house and files bankruptcy?”

            “Not necessarily in that order.”

            Brad and his partner Carly stood on opposite ends of a nicked-up table in their studio. It was a cramped space, overfilled with second-hand printmaking equipment and thrift store purchases, small and cheap enough that their collective output of custom t-shirts and art prints could still turn something of a profit. Brad had rummaged through several disorganized drawers before locating a pre-cut rectangle of mesh fabric, which he now absent-mindedly wrapped around his hands while catching Carly up on recent events in his home.

            She said, “This is a tragedy. They’re staying with you even after the kid comes?”

            He stretched out the mesh, pinned it on four corners around a wooden frame. “Where else do they have to go? Kathy said this Ron guy was heading out to look for work today, but when I left he was still eating cereal in his underwear.” He flicked the stretched-out material, which bounced back into his fingernail. “My cereal.”

            Carly yanked out the glasses tucked into her collar, blew on them. “It’s gotta be hard,” she said. Put them on. “To muster up the motivation, I mean. You’d be disillusioned, too. Can you imagine?”

            “No,” said Brad, “I can’t.” The hose fastened to a hook on the wall slid out in the grip of his fingers. A light squeeze on the handle sent a spray of screen wash spurting out onto the elastic canvas. “Some asshole comes along and tells me I’ve only got a month before the world ends? No, I can’t imagine hearing that and saying, ‘Everything must go.'”

            She flicked on the fan pointed at the fabric. “It’s not that unusual,” she said. “I sold my car and bought a bike because Al Gore told me the world was ending and it was partly my fault.” She grabbed the hose from Brad, who’d been making a game of wrapping it around his neck and arms, and hung it back up. “It’s not that different, either,” she said, “from you leaving everything you knew, moving out here, to pursue your fling with Faye. You believed enough in that to say, ‘Everything must go.'”

            “The two are nothing alike,” said Brad, taking a step back from the silk-screen canvas, “except in that they both ended in disaster.”

            He stared, silent. Straight ahead.

            “What are you thinking?” asked Carly.

            “It’s a bit warped.” Brad frowned.

            She turned off the small fan and assessed their blank, stretchy slate. Indeed, the upper-left corner had a run in it, similar to those riddling her current pair of leggings. As a result, the mesh sagged somewhat in the middle.

            “Damn,” she said.

 

***

 

            Upon his return home he found Kathy curled up on the sofa, his cat tucked under her arms and struggling to wriggle free. Ron was gone – or, at least, not in the den.

            “You asleep?” Brad said.

            Kathy did not open her eyes or move in any way. “No,” she said. A ballpoint pen fell from her hand, rolled under the couch.

            “You’re still in your PJs,” Brad said, aware he was chastising. “You should get out, get some fresh air or take a walk. It’d be good for the baby.” He sat opposite her on the coffee table.

            “How’s that?” she said, lying on her side, eyes shut.

            “I don’t know,” Brad said, kicking off his shoes. They landed with individual thuds on the wooden flooring. “I’m not a doctor. But it’s gotta be better than this couch potato shit.” The cat mewled, squirming in his sister’s grip. “What have you been doing all day?”

            Kathy lifted an arm to point at a spot on the table where a notepad sat, several bent pages flapping in the air conditioning. The cat took this opportunity to catapult itself across the room, around the corner and out of sight. Brad took up the notepad and let the pages fall so that the first one lay on top. Here began a bulleted list, about six pages in total, with the heading “Names for the Bastard” scratched in at the top in mean, firm lettering.

            “God!” said Brad. He skimmed through the baby names, detecting a pattern early on: Aaron, Isaiah, Abraham, Luke…

            “Wow,” he said. “When you pick a theme you really stick to it.”

            Kathy opened her eyes at last, blinked a few times. “What?”

            “The Biblical names. It’s just staunch, is all.” Brad thumbed to the last page and tapped on one. “Oh, wait,” he said. “A deviation! You rebel. ‘Braxton.’ That’s not bad.”

            Kathy’s eyes wandered to the corner of the cushion she’d wrapped around her index finger. “It’s Father Culvert’s first name,” she said.

            Brad slid the notepad across the glass surface of the table. It came to a teetering halt at the edge. “Oh, for…! You really do need to get out more.”

            His sister shrugged, closed her eyes again.

            In the proceeding uncomfortable silence, Brad noticed the single sheet of parchment that had been underneath the notepad – tri-folded, with Kathy’s name etched on in cursive. He lifted it, waited for his sister to protest, and when she didn’t, unfolded it.

            He wished he hadn’t. It was a message – dated over three months ago – from Father Culvert himself. A declaration of Kathy’s un-ceremonial excommunication from her church for, as Culvert had put it, “evident practice of libidinous, deviant, and unsavory behavior(s) in her life outside the church.”

            The letter wrinkled in his tightening grasp. Had he a fireplace, or at least a lighter, he would have set fire to the damn thing. He smacked it against the glass and pushed it out of reach.

            “Why on Earth would you keep that note?” he said.

            Kathy flittered her eyelids, propped herself up on an elbow – her most energetic display so far. “A reminder,” she said.

            “These zealots have made a Hester Prynn figure out of you,” said Brad. Blood pressure rising, he jammed his now-shaking hands into his pockets and stood. “This Culvert guy’s supposed to your, uh, spiritual guide, and he pulls this?” On the table, the letter lifted a crinkled corner, as if waving, taunting. “And you might name your kid after this bastard?”

            Kathy sat upright. “He’s not the bastard,” she said, no passion in her voice. Only defeat.

            “That’s it,” he said, and reaching up, wrapped his hands around her wrists, anchored her to himself. “I understand all of this would be a lot of pressure for anybody, but this…” He could feel her pulse in his palms. “If we don’t do something to rein this shit in, there’s a human being’s entire life that’s apt to be ruined here.”

            Kathy took a sudden interest in a wad of cat fuzz that skittered near the base of the couch.

            “Kath,” said Brad, “I’m talking about you going to see someone.”

            Kathy’s arms became dead weight in Brad’s hands. “‘See?'” she said. “As in, a shrink?”

            Brad loosened his grip but held fast. “A therapist, yes,” he said. Now the billowing fur ball threatened to mesmerize him as well, but he managed to lock onto his sister’s gaze and kept it there. “I’ll foot the bill, whatever. We just need to get you some help.”

            “No,” said Kathy, slipping her hands from her brother’s. “I don’t think I’m interested.”

            “You should hear yourself,” said Brad, standing up. “You’re depressed.”

            “Sure,” said Kathy. Her hands went to her stomach, gripped it like a basketball. “Sure, I am. But I’ve got it under control, Brad. I’ve been praying about it.” Then, as though disgusted by herself, her hands dropped and swung to connect behind her back. “I’d appreciate if you did, too.”

            Finger and thumb pinching the bridge of his nose, Brad squinted, looking down. “Sis…”

            Kathy said nothing, waited. Brad thought she wasn’t playing dumb, that in truth she had no idea where his sentence might be going.

            Around then there came, from the foyer, the suction sound of the front door opening, the metallic smack of it slamming shut. Footsteps, and finally, the nasal drone of Ron – father of Kathy’s doomed child:

            “Well, hi, everyone.”

            “Hi, Ron,” said Brad, just before Kathy waved a brief greeting and, sensing an escape route, took off for the spare room.

            Perhaps Brad and his sister had managed to play it cool – to avoid giving off a sense of palpable tension in the room – but when Ron grinned, oblivious, and made a beeline for the old piano, the more likely explanation was that he was just that imperceptive. Without another word to Brad or a glance after the mother of his child, Ron took a seat at the dust-coated baby grand and cracked his knuckles. A second later he began playing, some hymn or something Brad had a vague recollection of from childhood Sunday school sessions.

            He wasn’t that bad, Brad thought; in fact, his musical prowess was somewhat impressive, had a sort-of Rain Man quality to it. It was the first nice surprise this Ron had yet to provide since his and Kathy’s arrival.

            “Do you know ‘Hey Jude?'” Brad called across the room to him.

            Ron kept on playing, back arched, legs splayed. “Who?” he said.

            Brad shook his head, gave another accidental glance to Kathy’s excommunication letter on the coffee table. “Never mind,” he said, stepping away. The cat reappeared now with trepidation, pawing its way to the source of the choir tune and curling up at Ron’s legs.

            Brad followed it, stood at his houseguest’s side. Ron hardly appeared to notice the presence of either one of them.

            “You been out job hunting?” Brad asked.

            Fingers sweeping across ivory, Ron’s mouth went askew. “Huh?” he said.

            “I just assumed,” said Brad. “You know, you’ve been out a while. Any leads on a job?”

            “Oh,” Ron said. He shrugged and flared his nostrils just as the song came to a close. With a pivot on the piano stool, he came to face Brad.

            “Anything for dinner?” he said.

 

***

 

            The weeks passed, and as her stomach continued to expand, so too did Kathy’s despondency and Brad’s concern for her – and for her child, who’d be here any day. There was no telling what his sister’s reaction might be when the nurse placed that kid in her arms, no guessing what she’d do when left alone with it.

            Maybe, Brad often reminded himself, she’ll be fine. Maybe motherly instinct will kick in. Still, though, the way she’d talked about her baby, her disposition since she’d turned up at his door, the dull gloss of her eyes – none of it was very encouraging. Sharing living quarters with her had become an emotionally exhausting daily exercise, and for the past few days Brad had made it a practice to either avoid mentioning anything related to babies or to not speak to Kathy at all.

            He did not have the same concern when it came to Ron, who spent most of his time out of the house. Not that Brad minded, except that it meant Kathy was alone during a lot of the daytime, when he was at the studio and Ron was off doing God-knew-what (but probably not searching for work).

            So it came as something of a shock when Kathy stopped Brad on his way out the door one day to ask him:

            “Do you think Ron will make a good father?”

            Brad stepped back from the foyer, taking his time in turning toward her. She waited, either patient or just none too eager to hear his answer. Her arms were folded over her belly.

            “Do I think,” Brad repeated, stalling, “that Ron will make a good father? To your child?”

            She let her weight hit the wall, leaning back, her hair falling over her eyes. “Yeah,” she said. “Do you?”

            “Are you asking me,” Brad said as he dropped his satchel, “because you really want an honest answer, or are you asking me because you want to be comforted?”

            She brushed a brunette lock off of her face. “Well, that’s an answer of a sort, anyway,” she said.

            “Why’d you want him here with you?” Brad asked.

            Kathy shrugged a single shoulder. “Where else could he go?” she said. Pushing herself upright with her elbows, she grunted and added, “I just wish the congregation could help me look after this kid. You know, a community. A fellowship.” Then: “Or would you know about that?”

            The only sound was that of his antique clock ticking one room away as Brad shook his head and breathed in. The cell phone in his pocket took to buzzing – probably Carly, already at the studio and wondering where he was. He ignored it.

            “Yeah, well,” he said, “your fellowship’s not here, are they? I am. And I might not have a one-way ticket to wherever it is you think you’re all going when the world goes up in flames, Kath, but right now – I’m all you got. I’m all that baby’s got.”

            His pocket went zzt, zzt. A new voicemail, maybe, or a text. He left it. “If you think for a second that this Ron guy is going to be anything but a hindrance to you and your kid moving forward, you’re joking yourself. I’d say there’s no way you really believe he’s gonna pull off the Dad thing, but something tells me you can convince yourself of just about anything if you want to. What’s the point?”

            Kathy said nothing, turned to walk off and threw up a dismissive hand.

            “You asked,” said Brad.

            His sister took off in a pregnant waddle. A door slammed.

            Brad said, “She asked.”

 

***

 

            Carly all but shook him down when he closed the studio entrance behind him, grabbing his arms and leading him wordlessly into the main space. There in the loft was a single-person sofa, placed before an ancient tube television tuned in to a news network.

            She bent over at the TV and held down the volume button until the audio bounced off of empty walls.

            “Why didn’t you answer my calls?” she asked.

            “Kath and I were…” Brad brushed his fingertips across the sofa. “Talking,” he said.

            “Whatever,” she said, taking a seat on the floor. “You’re just in time.” Tapping the small screen with a painted nail she said, “They’re doing a report on your sister’s guy. Culvert, the minister? It’s a whole thing on these doomsday prophecies. And I noticed something in the promos they were running I thought might interest you.”

            Brad took a seat on the lounge chair and turned his attention to the news piece already in progress.

            The reporter onscreen spoke to the camera, microphone in hand. “…but these devotees,” she said, “won’t be deterred. Their faith, they say, is strong enough to endure these trials, and they’ll follow Father Culvert until the world truly ends – which, according to Culvert himself, will still happen before year’s end.”

            Carly stared up at the screen. “They were trying to find some disillusioned member of this church,” she said. “Get their take on things. But nobody seems all that discouraged after selling all their stuff and quitting their jobs, just for things to go on as usual after this guy’s ‘sure thing’ Apocalypse. Crazy, right?”

            Brad nodded. “Crazy.”

            She reacted to something onscreen, shot up on her knees and smacked the side of the TV set. “This!” she said. “Here it is, this shot! I wanted you to see.”

            At first Brad didn’t know what he was supposed to be looking at. Some stock footage from inside the chapel: Culvert preaching, pounding his fist on the lectern, a small choir behind him applauding. The man who had convinced his sister the world was coming to an end inspired no such blind faith in Brad. Culvert looked no different than any other screaming televangelist. White hair, cheap suit, red face – a Southern huckster behind a pulpit.

            Then Brad saw it. The camera angled to the right for just a second, but it was long enough for Brad to recognize Ron standing at Culvert’s side – neck pushed out like a cartoon buzzard, smirking and nodding along.

            Carly spun herself around to find Brad leaning forward, mouth open. “When was this shot?” he said.

            “I dunno,” she said. “This week, I’d guess.”

            Brad cupped his nose and mouth in his hands, spilled his breath into them. He leaned back. “Turn it off,” he said.

            With the flick of a switch Carly silenced the television. “That’s him, right? Your sister’s boyfriend or whatever?”

            “Not boyfriend. No.” Pleather upholstery squeaked under Brad’s legs as he stood. “But yeah, that’s Ron. How’d you recognize him?”

            A shrug, a small giggle. “I looked him up on Facebook,” she said. “So he’s still going? I thought they were exiled or… disbarred or whatever.”

            The musty studio air filled Brad’s lungs, where he held it. “What’s the name of the church?” he said.

            “Calvary Evangelical,” she said. “Something like that. Why, you thinking of joining?”

            Brad dug his keys out of his pocket, squeezed them in his palm. A neglected lighting fixture flickered above him, so he didn’t know for sure whether it was poor wiring or pure vitriol that blurred his vision.

            “Something like that,” he said.

 

***

 

            A sanctuary full of off-key singing voices, engaged in what could have been any hymn, greeted Brad when he let himself in the front doors of Calvary Evangelical. He glanced at his watch. Who the hell has time for a church service on a Wednesday morning? These were some devout men and women.

            He entered the chapel, stood in the rear scanning the backs of the congregation’s heads and counting gray hair buns while he scoured the pews for his prey. All the while, the room lifted their voices in praise:

            Are you washed in the blood?

            In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?

            Finding Ron was simple. The man would have stood out wherever he went, stretched-out and gangly as his own shadow. He couldn’t even blend in with his fellow flannel-wearing, arched-back brethren. In the second-to-last row, dead center, he sat, both hands clutching a hymnal and tossing his head back in song.

            Are your garments spotless?

            Are they white as snow?

            Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

            He would have time to be disturbed by how much the lyrics of the song angered him later, but for now Brad took a few long, quick strides to the pew in back and grabbed a seat directly behind his future nephew-or-niece’s father. The organist struck the last few keys of her current sheet music, and the room fell so silent that her riffling through the pages toward her next song bounced off the vaulted ceiling, hit Brad’s ears like thunder.

            In that temporary silence, Brad leaned forward, hovered his chin just above Ron’s shoulder, and whispered into his ear.

            “So this is how you show my sister your support, huh?” he said.

            None too quick on the uptake, Ron didn’t give a jolt until the word “sister,” but by the end of Brad’s accusation he had turned his head to face him in profile.

            “Brad,” he said. A spasm of a smile tickled his mouth. “How— how are you?” His hand swung over the pew, clapped Brad on the shoulder. “Welcome!” he said. “What brings you here?”

            Weak, a bit warble-y at first, the organ spat out the beginnings of a new song. Soon the instrument and its ensuing mob accompaniment were positively booming. Brad had to raise his voice to be sure Ron could hear him – and he needed Ron to hear him.

            “What’re you doing here, Ron?” he said. “These people tossed you out. Made my sister into a pariah. Is this where you go all day?” A woman with white hair done up in a Marge Simpson style tossed him an evil, burning look and put a finger up to her lips. He ignored her.

            Ron swallowed, and when he did his Adam’s apple seemed on the verge of busting out. “Brad, please,” he said, holding out his palm. “This is a church service. You’re welcome to stay, but we gotta put this on the backburner until the sermon’s over, bud.”

            The idea of staying for the service was so funny to Brad that he half-shouted, half-chortled in Ron’s ear. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t think so. I’m not here for a sermon, asshole. And you shouldn’t be, either. You being here— you’re betraying Kathy! I mean, what would she think if she knew you’d been coming here? Spending your time with the people who turned her away, called her a harlot? How…?” The question could have ended a number of ways, but already knowing the answer to all of them, he trailed off instead.

            Ron’s grossly purple tongue flickered over his segmented lips. He sucked on his cheeks and stared at his knees.

            The hymn continued, though in the last couple of rows, singing voices dwindled as the worshippers, one by one, began to turn around and gawk or leer at Brad. He didn’t care: Ron’s stonewall reaction to his question had suggested something new, a thought that had not occurred to him until now. He had to know.

            “Kathy knows, doesn’t she?” he said. “She knows you’ve been coming here.”

            One of Ron’s shoulders bounced to his earlobe.

            “How…?” Brad ran both hands through his thinning hair. “What’s she have to say about that, Ron?”

            “Nothing, Brad. She says nothing.” It was the first time Brad had seen him answer something with any self-assurance, the only instance he could think of wherein Ron had given no pause, no hint of the gears turning in his head to reach some slow conclusion. It was arrogant.

            The song ended. As the chapel fell once again into an eerie, dissonant quiet, Ron dropped his voice to a dog whistle of a whisper. Brad heard him just fine.

            “Kathy and I are not together. She does her thing, I do mine, but we’re not married. We aren’t in love. That’s never been what this was about.”

            “Then why the hell,” Brad said, his teeth never quite parting, “are you living in my house?” His knuckles, he saw, had begun to glow white as he gripped the back of the pew. Most of the room was staring at them now.

            “Not my decision,” Ron said. “Kathy insisted. Now, please, Brad…” He bugged out his eyeballs, cocked his head in the direction of the pulpit and the baptismal in front.

            “There a problem, gentlemen?”

            This – over a speaker system, in an electric Southern drawl – caused something in Brad to snap and let him feel embarrassment at last. He felt his cheeks go hot, a tingle at the base of his neck, as every pair of eyes in the room honed in on him and Ron – only now he sensed them, could detect the disdain in their gaze. There was a palpable— well, the only word for it was “hate.” He had disrupted a sacred order. He was a heretic now, would be branded one forever, remembered by these people and discussed by them for the rest of their lives.

            And for some reason, this bothered him.

            “Fellas? What’s going on here?”

            Brad jerked his head from left to right, even up at the light fixtures for a second, to determine the source of this new ridicule. At last he spotted him: Father Culvert, as seen on TV, ambling down from a set of steps that led backstage toward the lectern. An old-fashioned microphone jutted from his grip, and when he spoke into it he looked as though he might eat it.

            “Now, you boys best behave,” he said. His lips moved, but his voice came from everywhere. “We may not have nuns here, but I’ll have to smack you on the back on the head with a ruler myself if you don’t hush up!” It was a joke, spoken in an upbeat lilt, and the crowd responded in kind with gentle laughter.

            This just made Brad feel even more like choking somebody.

            “Actually,” he said, getting up, “I was just finishing up here.” Rather than go around it, he used the pew as a step to lift his leg over the back and hop down. “You people enjoy your service. I’m sure it’ll be enlightening.” The exit door seemed so far away that he took off at an almost-jogging pace, but he wasn’t out of earshot yet when someone (or several someones) called out, “Amen!” and the opening notes of yet another praise song piped out of the rickety organ.

 

***

 

            His car had been parked in the furthest reaches of the lot, on the outskirts of a sad, rusted little playground in the adjacent acreage of the church. He was close enough to press the remote lock on his key when someone called out to him.

            “You’re Kathy’s brother, aint’cha?”

            His voice was almost unrecognizable without being broadcast over an outdated speaker system, but Brad knew Culvert had followed him out into the parking lot before he turned around to face him.

            “Yeah,” he said, loud enough for the preacher to hear. Before either of them spoke again, they waited until he had caught up to Brad. Soon he was close enough that Brad could have swung a fist and landed a left hook on the old man’s flat nose.

            “Sorry if I embarrassed you back there, son,” Culvert said, the edges of his smile disappearing into puffy cheeks, “but you gotta admit you were acting a little inconsiderate.”

            It occurred to Brad that he could just hop in his car and drive off without another word. The man didn’t warrant a response. To Brad’s agitated mind, Culvert was sub-human, a leech and a corrupter. But the same anger that had driven him here, led him to the pew and pointed his mouth into Ron’s waxy ear canal, nudged him into a response. He held a hand over his brow, like a visor, and locked eyes with the pastor.

            “I want you to stay away from my sister,” he said. “You people are toxic to her. Keep your distance, you hear me?”

            Culvert shook his head, one arm tucked into his tweed jacket. “That needn’t be a worry, son,” he said. “Kathy is no longer welcome here. She’s…” A low whistle chirped out of his throat as he breathed out. “She’s not a good fit for us.”

            Brad nodded. “Because she’s got a bastard on the way, right?”

            Culvert held up a hand in protest and set his flabby neck waddle to flapping. “I would never say that,” he said. “We simply hold our congregation to a higher moral standard.”

            “And what about Ron?” Backlit as he was by the still low-hanging sun, Culvert appeared to Brad as nothing more than a faceless black cutout.

            The preacher’s hand went to Brad’s bicep, gave it a sickening squeeze. “You take care of your sister, okay?” he said. “There’s not a whole lot of time before all this…” he gestured, indicating – Brad guessed – the world itself, “…is gone. Your actions over the next couple months are gonna be important. Every decision you make, son, will be called into question. I’d like to see you and your sister made it when the End comes.”

            Brad stepped back, out of the man’s reach. “Spare me your end-of-days bullshit, reverend,” he said. “Whatever hold you have over these people, I don’t see it, but I’ll tell you for nothing it’s not fair. It’s not healthy.” Thinking better of it, he stepped forward again, got closer than he had been.

            Culvert did not flinch, didn’t back away. “Their faith is unhealthy?” he asked.

            Brad snorted. “All you’ve managed to do is spook them into hanging onto your every word. That’s not faith. That’s scare tactics.” His finger, to his own surprise, found itself pressed against the preacher’s chest. “Tell me. What happens when Judgment Day comes again and nothing happens? Again?”

            The old man’s mouth contorted into something like a lizard’s, and again an odd chirrup emanated from his throat. “That’s not gonna happen,” he said. “Tell me, son, do you believe in God?”

            Brad’s eyes burned in the sun, welled up with salty liquid that only stung worse. After a moment, he spun his keys on their ring around his finger once and turned halfway to grab the car door handle.

            “Tell Ron I’m leaving his stuff out on the porch,” he said. “He can pick it up when the service is over.”

            And he drove off, left Father Culvert standing there in the golden light of day, his shadow expanding toward some infinite vanishing point.

 

***

 

            It was a forty-five minute drive home from Calvary. At around the halfway point Brad pulled over at a gas station, one of those old-fashioned places where somebody filled the tank on the customer’s behalf in anticipation of a tip. While an old man in a fur-lined hat monitored the tank’s progress and wiped his nose on the back of a gloved hand, Brad slipped his phone from his pocket and glared at it until he caught his own dour reflection in the screen.
            He cleared his throat without need and dialed a number that wasn’t in his contacts list but attributed to memory. It rang almost long enough to skip to voicemail and then she picked up.
            “Yeah?”
            “Faye?” Brad scooted back into an upright position.
            “What is it, Brad?” In the background, office machinery whirred and beeped.
            “Are you…” He shot a glance at the pump attendant, feeling self-aware. “Are you home?”
            “No,” she said. Her voice was rushed, subdued. “I started this new job. I’m at work.”

            “Oh.” One finger found the radio dial and fiddled with it, though the engine was idle. “I didn’t know that.”

            “Well, you wouldn’t. Did you need something?”

            At work. Brad’s free hand abandoned the dash, started working its way into his thick hair. “Where’s Riley? If you’re at work, who’s watching him?”

            “I have a sitter.” No further details offered.

            “I was hoping to say ‘hi,'” he said. A light click outside told him his tank was full.

            “Well, you can’t,” she said. “Not right now.” A generic-sounding telephone rang behind her, wherever she was.

            “Hey,” he said, “do you remember that onesie I made him, back then? The one that looked like—”

            “I’ve got to go, Brad.” There came the sound of an overt shuffling of papers, a loud rustling he felt he was supposed to hear. “Another time.” It felt to him like she meant that last bit, at least, in that moment.

            He jumped at a soft tapping on the driver’s side window. The old gas clerk bent forward, peering in and miming the act of rolling down a window.

            “Yeah,” said Brad. “I’ve got to run, too.”

            Neither of them used the word “goodbye,” or any variation thereof. They simply hung up on each end, Faye returning to her work and Brad turning his attention to the old-timer standing outside his car.
            He handed him two twenties, told him to keep the change, and didn’t realize this meant he’d have no cash for a drive-thru on the way home until he was at least a mile away.

 

***

 

            The television was still on in the studio, though now it was turned to some daytime soap, confirming Brad’s long-held suspicion regarding what Carly did anytime he was away.

            She flipped herself over on the sofa at the sound of the door opening. “How’d it go?” she asked.

            Brad grunted and waved her off, making for the coffee pot and whatever lukewarm swill was left in it.

            Her curly hair bounced as she yanked herself upright, her legs tucked under her. The TV didn’t shut off when she pressed on the remote, so she just tossed it aside and walked over to him. She handed him a tiny bottle of Jack Daniels, which he promptly emptied into his coffee mug. He knew she’d gone out and gotten it special.

            “The shirt’s just about done,” she said. “It’s hanging in the workspace, drying. You wanna see?”

            Brad nodded and sipped. His taste buds roared in protest.

            Once in their workstation, he eyed the garment hanging next to a slow-spinning fan with both hands wrapped around his mug. After downing the rest of its contents, he pulled the thing off its hanger and laid it face-up on an ironing board.

            Carly pulled herself up onto an unfurnished table and rocked from side to side. “What was he like?” she said. “The Armageddon guy?”

            Brad peeled a sheet of thick-stock paper from a pile of more of the same. “How do you think?” he said. “A creep.”

            He set the sheet on top of the shirt and lowered the iron’s steaming surface onto it.

            “I just don’t get this obsession with the end of the world,” Carly said, scraping the soles of her moccasins across the concrete floor. “I mean, somebody’s always screaming that the sky is falling and someone’s always listening.”

            Brad lifted the iron, set it down on its base. Its power cord gave some resistance when he yanked on it, but popped out of the socket nonetheless.

            His business partner folded her hands in her lap, clicked the bracelets on either of her wrists together. “I’m not so eager for doomsday, myself,” she said. “I think all of us have still got a lot of work to do, y’know?”

            He held up the shirt, about ten times too small for him or Carly, the front of it facing her.

            “I know,” he said. “That’s what I always liked about you, kid.”

            She hopped down off the table, ran her fingers over the tiny garment, and kissed him on the cheek. It had been at least half a decade since she’d last done that.

            He knew it could be the last time she would, too – end of the world or not.

 

***

 

            When Kathy first moved in, Brad had installed a porch swing in front of the house. It was a shoddy job, but with Ron missing on the day of its construction Brad hadn’t had the extra pair of hands he’d needed to do it right. It hung so low to the ground that, as she swung back and forth on it, Kathy’s pregnant physique came close to dragging along the porch.

            This is how Brad found his sister upon his return home. A quick look at the entryway told him that Ron must have been by to pick up his things already. The suitcase he’d left out for him was gone.

            As she rocked there, Brad approached from the driveway with a small, plain gift bag dangling from one hand. Kathy studied a nearby, half-dead potted plant.

            Once at arm’s length of her, he held out the bag to his sister. It wasn’t recompense, this gift – he felt no need for that. He watched her pull away scant layers of tissue paper and wondered if that was how she’d interpret it: some lazy plea for forgiveness.

            She pulled the doll-size t-shirt out of the bag, held it up. The design was of Brad’s own, the print and shirt itself one of a kind. On it, a heart with an anchor draped over it, a stereotypical sailor tattoo design. The words “I love Mom” emblazoned in bold, masculine print.

            Kathy’s mouth floated off to one side. The miniscule clothing held up by two fingers flapped in the outdoor breeze. Her eyes flicked up at Brad.

            “This is just like the one you’re wearing in that old picture from our Mackinaw Island trip. How’d you find this?” she said.

            Brad smirked, cocked his head. “Made it,” he said.

            She smiled, gently folded it and set it on her lap. “This is sweet,” she said.

            “Yeah, well,” Brad put a hand on her shoulder. “What can I say? I’m a sweetheart.” As he reached for the door handle, something pulled his arm back. Kathy gripped his wrist with a soft, ominous touch.

            “You should know,” she said, recoiling into a fetal position on the swing, “we have a visitor.”

            “What?”

            “Fair warning.”

            The door felt heavy then, but this mystery resolved itself in an instant. Ron’s suitcase sat, propped up against the foyer wall, untouched. The rattle of saucers and cups from the kitchen led Brad there in a fast-mounting suspense.

            At the breakfast bar sat Ron, dunking Oreos in a steaming mug. Across from him, standing and leaning on the counter, was Father Culvert, beaming as he steeped a Lipton bag in his own cup.

            “Ah! Brad!” Culvert said, the light in his eyes more artificial than that of the overhead lamp. “Take a chair.”

            “Hey, Brad,” Ron said to a cookie.

            Brad balled his fists, flicked an index finger out of one of them and pointed it at the door. “Get out,” he said. “Get out of my house.”

            “Now, son,” said Culvert as he set his mug down, “we’re not trying to impose. We’ll be out of your hair in just a—”

            “My sister’s not welcome at your church?” Brad said, stomping around the bar. “You’re not welcome here. Out, now.”

            There was a jarring clang to his left, where Ron had somehow dropped his teacup onto the linoleum below. It was a far drop from the man’s hand, and physics took care of the rest as the thing shattered into several dozen ceramic pieces at his feet. Both Brad and Culvert stopped to stare for just a moment.

            “Sorry, Brad!” Ron said. He dropped the rest of an Oreo into his mouth and stood up, then squatted with his flamingo legs splayed out to the sides. He began to scoop hot tea and sharp glass into his bare hands, saying, “sorry, sorry” over and over.

            “Both of you,” Brad said. “Just go. I’ve got the mess. Go.”

            On hands and knees, Ron continued to pool the liquid into his hands. “I feel so bad, man,” he said. “Let me just…”

            “Leave it,” said Brad. He was shoulder-to-shoulder with Culvert, seconds away from dragging him out the door by the collar.

            The old man straightened up, put a hand to his heart. “Son,” he said. “We won’t take up too much of your time. We just need you to hear us out. Two minutes, that’s all I ask. What do you say?”

            Ron stopped, tilted his head up to them.

            Brad sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “What is it?” he said.

            “Kathy’s coming with us.” Culvert sniffed, smoothed out the folds in his jacket. “Back to Calvary. It’s decided.”

            Brad held his fists so tight that his palms lost feeling. “Like hell,” he said.

            Culvert grunted something viscous out of his throat and swallowed. “You were right,” he said. As if he couldn’t help himself, a smile formed upon his thin mouth. Slow and small at first, then expanding into a shit-eating grin by the end of his next sentence. “We were wrong to abandon her. She needs us. There was a…” he inhaled. “A meeting, after you left. We took a vote, the elders, the congregation and I. It was unanimous. Kathy and her child will need us for the trials that lay ahead. I came to bring her and Ronald home.”

            At the mention of his name, Ron pulled himself up with the counter. A brown puddle formed around his tennis shoes.

            “No,” Brad said.

            “It’s decided,” Culvert said. “Now, that’s not to say you can’t still be a part of her and the kid’s life, Brad. I’d like to see you on Sundays, too. You’re welcome any time, so long as you don’t cause a ruckus like today’s.”

            The room began to swirl around Brad, gray pulsating spots encroaching on his vision. He steadied himself. “That’s not going to happen.”

            “Just know our door is always open.”

            “No,” said Brad. “I don’t mean me attending your service. I mean Kathy going with you. That’s not going to happen.”

            “Yes it is, Brad.”

            That wasn’t Culvert. Wasn’t Ron.

            It was Kathy.

            She stood at the threshold from the living room to the kitchen, one foot on carpet, one on tile. A thin stream of tea flowed on the floor toward her, as though attracted.

            “I’m going with them,” she said. Anyone could see her knees shaking, and anyone would have known they weren’t just buckling under the weight of the baby. “We’ve already talked it through.”

            “Kathy.” Brad forgot the other men were there, forgot about the spill and trampled over it to her. “What are you talking about? You’ve got to be kidding me. These people aren’t your friends, you understand? They’re, he’s…” He wheeled around, barked and indicated Culvert. “He’s just doing this to get under my skin!”

            Kathy shook her head. “And why would he do that?”

            “Because,” said Brad, “I made him look like an idiot today. I called him out on this garbage he spews. He’s getting back at me!”

            “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. She laid her palm flat against his cheek. It was ice-cold. “I’m going now,” she said. “Thank you for helping me through this transition.” Her hand slid off his face. “Thank you for the t-shirt.” The next thing he saw was her back, growing distant as she made her way for the door. Ron and Culvert followed her, but not before the preacher took a second or two to throw what Brad thought of as a derisive sneer his way.

            “They don’t have your best interests at heart!” Brad said, his voice raised and a little tremulous.

            Ron held the door open for Culvert. Kathy was last in line, gathering her things in the foyer. She looked back at her brother, stood in profile with her globe-belly in full view. Her back curved into a “C,” pulled forth by the gravity of what was in her womb.

            She said, “You don’t know what that means, Brad. Not for me.”

            And she stepped outside. Ron closed the door behind them, sealed them off from Brad’s vision. Made it so they were gone.

            Brad took a step forward, looked down. The spilled tea was still trickling toward its goal, where the tile met with carpet. If it reached its destination there’d be a serious stain to contend with.

            “Damn it,” Brad said, and darted back into the kitchen for a towel. By the time he came back over with it, a sopping brown mass was already being absorbed by the patch of nylon flooring that led into his living room.

            He dropped the towel, stamped down on it, and made a dash for the door. Maybe Kathy could still be convinced. If he made it about the kid – not himself, and not Kathy, but the kid – she may yet listen to reason.

            The door pulled open with suctioned resistance and gave him a glimpse at the empty porch. At the empty driveway. Kathy’s car was already gone.

            He trod along the grass and pavement to the side of the road, looked off in both directions for the sign of her taillights. But there were no cars on the road, not so far as he could see.

            They may as well have disappeared.

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