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Rapture Nation
    by Jennifer Noelle Welch

Rapture Nation
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

At dusk, our automotive caravan makes a slow arc off the highway. Lavender light glints on our vehicles: the RVs, in the lead, followed by pick-ups hauling water containers, a series of four-doors like plastic take-out boxes, and at the rear, a reclaimed school bus. Horns blare at us for slowing the traffic that rockets through the corridor of strip malls and roadside scrub. Our congregation rolls in a slow spiral over the faded paint lines of the Walmart parking lot before coming to rest on the asphalt like an old-time wagon circle. Our prayers of thanks rise like incense.

The news of the Rapture's approach blessed us with a new focus. K105.5 FM "The Light" broadcast the End Date. With months to prepare, we followed the advice of the Elders on the radio. We withdrew the children from school. Second vehicles and flatscreen TVs went the way of the rummage sale. "Won't you come to church?" we exhorted our neighbors who came to pick through our belongings. Hurrying away with our Kitchen-Aid mixers, they received our pitying smiles. Only believers can perceive God's invisible spiritual warfare. Whatever we had been before -- teachers, waitresses, doctors -- the coming Rapture made us His soldiers.

The Elders needed our donations for billboards, t-shirts, and TV ads proclaiming the End Date. We cashed out any investments that placed faith in a future He hadn't ordained: mortgages, college funds, bank accounts. We sold our houses, and last of all, the church and the land it stood on. Uplifted by the Elders' constant prayers on the radio, we headed for the assembly point with joy and trembling. Even if our hearts ached for our hometowns, our faces shone with the conviction of being right with God.

When the radio station went dead at the appointed hour, we cried out in happiness. The message-bearers had been swept up already! Though we could not yet feel it, the Earth had begun splitting. We visualized a wind moving across the globe, drawing believers up to Heaven. Soon it would embrace us. For several minutes, we teetered in hope on the edge of a yawning silence.

Hours passed. People sank to their backsides on the ground. No one voiced the dominant question: What if God had come and found none of us worthy? Rumors of miscalculation circulated. A reprieve, someone said, to bring more unbelievers into the fold. But the broadcast did not return.

Different voices lorded over the crowd, reasoned, bickered, and split off. Twenty-four hours later, only our core congregation remained. "Disperse!" barked the police, over their megaphones. Having no earthly home, we turned to the road. "Stay tuned, believers!" was K105.5's motto, and our radio dials have not wavered. Rolling from one superstore to the next, we listen for His direction in the crackles of static.

Not long after the last brake-light flickers off, the teenagers set up nylon tents around our perimeter. Others arrange lawn chairs at the center for the old folks to get fresh air. The smell of grilling frankfurters masks the reek of unwashed clothes. When we scrutinize the heavens which He set spinning, the effervescent stars look both colder and more beautiful. Luckily, the lampposts' holy orange glow shields us from too much contemplation of the void above.

During the evening Bible readings, the women pass jars of sun tea they have brewed from dandelion heads. Children blacken their bare feet skipping in and out of the concentric circles of vehicles. Collectively, we have decided against school for the young ones. With the end-days ever at hand, they have no need for reading on their own.

We keep busy. When the colder months come, the older women fashion warmer bedding from crumpled newspapers and shopping bags collected along guardrails. The teens play a game like jacks with stones and pigeon bones. We pray for the old-timers, whose coughing we hear more often. In the midst of our prayers, now, a song occasionally breaks out, turning wordless amid stamping feet and guttural shouts. The little ones look on, sucking their thumbs or scratching their scalps, eyes large in their grubby faces. We remind our brothers and sisters when they forget to include the name of God in their worship.

On the road, we rise and retire with the sun. The men trap and skin birds, drying the meat on car hoods. We twine the feathers in our sun-bleached hair. Our flock increases by two over the spring, and five more women are expecting. Such fruitfulness can only indicate God's satisfaction. He took just one of the babes to himself, seven hundred miles back in some weeds on the side of the highway.

Our hair has grown long, our bodies sun-tempered and hard. Just before dawn, we squat on our haunches in fear, anticipating the End. If any secret flicker of gratitude invades our heart as the sun pushes over the horizon, we smother it with shame. We are supposed to welcome the Day of Judgment. But when our thronging voices herald "the return of the Son," we have begun to wonder if all of us mean the same thing.

Soon, faint incantations accompany the morning's first sunbeams. In the midst of packing up the chairs and tents, we discover symbols like pagan runes scratched on some of the vehicles. Spiral sunbursts, surrounded by rays of light. Some of us, alarmed, rub them out.

Our motorcade crawls back onto the highway, suspensions creaking as we pick up speed. For days, our headlights have pointed towards the morning sun. Some speak of a new calling from just beyond the horizon. The believers hear it through the radio, which we have never turned off, and we strain to hear this new calling with them.

Whether it is His voice, or some ancient solar echo, matters little. We aren't the first to follow a star. We are drawn to the light, even as we run out of road.

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