By Margaret Ronald
19 November 2007
Another apocalyptic was out by Gert's truck, stuffing pamphlets under the wiper blades. "End's coming," he said as she approached, his voice a frail whinny.
"Is it, now." She looked him over, gauging his strength.
"And he will come in glory to judge the quick and the dead," he intoned, thrusting a handful of tracts at her, "to separate the sheep from the goats—"
Gert stepped out from behind the truck so that he could see the shotgun. "You're not from around here," she said. "So you probably don't know that I keep goats."
The tracts fluttered to the ground "It's—it's just a metaphor—"
"I know what it is. Go away."
He didn't argue. Gert waited till he was out of sight, then went to check on the goats in case he'd been a little too literal-minded. She found them standing in a ring in the east pasture. Cursing, Gert shoved them out of the way, only to stop short when the last of them moved aside.
A woman about Gert's age lay curled up among the thistles. Beside her sat a younger woman, awake but just as oblivious to the goats. "Hi."
"Hi," Gert said.
The waking woman smiled. "This is where it'll happen."
"Really." Gert gazed at the sleeping woman. Strands of brown hair drifted over her cheek, soft as feathers. "I'll take the goats down to the north pasture."
"I don't mind them."
"You should." Gert gave the woman a last glance, then shrugged and led the goats away. I'll chase them off when I come back.
Town was emptier than the last time she'd driven down. The only other traffic she saw was an SUV parked across three spaces in front of the food bank, where the director was trying to explain to a hysterical woman in a fur coat that they only took food, not jewelry.
As if to make up for it, the porch outside Jerry's store was more crowded than usual, including a few men she didn't recognize. She lugged her cooler up the stairs and elbowed her way through to the front door.
The sign over the refrigerator had been knocked off-center. Pre-Apocalypse Sale on Cheese, it read in Gert's angular handwriting—a joke to start with, less and less funny every day. By now Gert was almost too ashamed to take it down. She straightened it as she walked past, then steeled her nerves and fed quarters into Jerry's pay phone.
Her uncle still didn't answer. Gert closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the cool plastic of the phone, then replaced the receiver. "You heard anything from New York, Jerry?"
"No more than usual."
"Shit." She bit her lip and stuffed dried soup mix into her basket. "How about your son? He's got friends down that way, right?"
Jerry was silent long enough that Gert turned to look at him. "Neil left three days ago for Washington," he said at last. "Said he had to stop the Defense Department computers from blowing us all to kingdom come."
"Christ. I'm sorry, Jerry. When'd it hit him?"
"Same as everyone else." Jerry shook his head. "He'd been planning this for weeks."
"Christ," Gert said again. "Um. You want me to take the sign down?"
He shook his head a second time, not looking at her. "People are still buying, and as long as it's up, they'll buy." He blinked a few times, then looked down at her basket. "You finally deciding to stock up?"
"Thanks, no. Uncle Steve'll bring supplies when he comes up." The lie felt flat on her tongue, and Jerry did her the courtesy of not calling it out.
She left with two bags of groceries, and if there were a few more dry and canned goods than usual, it didn't matter. As she edged her way through the crowd, one of the newcomers pointed at her. "She'd be about her height, brown hair, blue eyes—"
"If you're cops," one of the old-timers started up, "there's a lot you could be doing here 'stead of looking for some girl. My nephew, I'll tell you—"
"I understand," another man Gert didn't recognize said, holding up his hands. "But we've got a lot to do, and since we're technically more deputies than official cops—"
"What my friend means is that we have to focus our resources," the first newcomer said. "She'd have been coming north. You're sure you haven't—"
Gert quickened her pace. When she got back to the truck, there was a Chick tract stuffed into the driver's-side door. She crumpled it in both hands and pitched it toward Jerry's.
The woman who'd been asleep regarded Gert's truck as a mouse might regard a large dog: not what she'd feared, but still dangerous. "Afternoon," Gert said as she got out.
"Hey," the woman said. "Jennifer said she talked to you earlier." She folded her arms over her chest and tugged at her sleeves. "Listen, I'm sorry if we're trespassing; we came here late last night and didn't see signs—"
"It's not a problem. Her name's Jennifer?"
The woman hesitated. "Yes. Jennifer Porter. I'm her sister, Adrienne."
"Gert Greenough." She shook Adrienne's hand, very aware of how callused her own hand was. "And this isn't my farm; it's my uncle's. I'm just the caretaker." She nodded toward the north pasture, where Casanova was loudly proclaiming his dominance. "I chased the goats away from your sister, but they're gonna need that pasture. Any chance you can convince her the world's gonna end down by the stream?"
Adrienne paled. "You—" She cleared her throat. "Do you think it'll happen here too?"
"No," Gert admitted. "I don't. But she seems pretty convinced."
"Oh, thank God." Adrienne's shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry, but I've just—we've been traveling for a while, and they're everywhere. Jennifer's handling it well, but some of the folks we've run into—"
"I can imagine." Gert walked to the back of the truck and started hauling out the empty cooler. "Any idea when she thinks it'll happen?"
Adrienne shook her head. "She won't tell me." She gave Gert a sidelong glance. "Why do you ask?"
"I want to know how long I'm gonna have houseguests." She held up a hand as Adrienne started to protest. "I could use the help. The farm's meant to be run by more than one person. If the world's still here after a week, we can talk wages."
Adrienne blinked. "That's—that's kind of you, but—"
Gert set the cooler down. "Someone's looking for your sister," she said without looking up.
"Not real ones. She okay?"
"Oh, God—" Adrienne ran both hands through her hair. "Define 'okay.' Aside from believing the apocalypse is going to happen in your goat pasture, yes, she's okay. She wouldn't hurt anyone."
"Then that's fine." Gert straightened up. "I got no problem with the two of you staying, at least till my uncle gets back."
Adrienne gave her a long, wary look. She had startlingly blue eyes, Gert noticed; less sunny than her sister's but much more distracting, and with something in them like Jerry's when he talked about his son. "All right," Adrienne said at last. "We do need a place to stay. Especially if Jennifer's serious about this." She looked down as she said it. Apocalyptics weren't known for changing their minds. "You're sure?"
Gert shrugged. "Yeah. The goats like you, after all." Easiest question she'd had all month.
Gert worried that Jennifer wouldn't want to come in for dinner, but Adrienne was used to handling her sister. A few quiet words were all it took, and Jennifer came smiling into the house.
Jennifer's contribution to the conversation was light and innocuous, with long pauses while she stared off into some happy private vision. Adrienne, though, told Gert more about the world outside Four Rivers than she'd heard in weeks. "It's gotten bad in the cities," she said. "I mean, it's maybe a tenth of the population at most that's gone apocalyptic, but that's enough."
Gert unspooled a second helping from the pasta pot. "Newspaper—well, the last one we got—thought it was a virus."
Adrienne shook her head. "Viruses don't work that way. Besides, it doesn't seem to be contagious, unless you count the copycats. It's like people just woke up knowing the world was going to end."
Jennifer nodded happily, and Adrienne glanced at her and away. "Anyway, it's not like it's everyone," she continued. "But it only takes one madman to blow up a police station, and the cities are thick with them."
"We had some rapture folk coming down from Canada about a week back," Gert offered. "Some of them had bleeding feet, they'd been walking so long."
"That's silly," Jennifer said. "They don't need to do that."
Adrienne coughed, looked at her sister, then held out her plate. "This is great pasta, Gert."
Gert blushed, then kicked herself for blushing. "Thanks."
After dinner, Gert showed them the pullout bed in the front room and headed out to the barn. Casanova needed a bandage over his knobby forehead; from the looks of it, he'd been attacking the latch again. Biter and Bleater were both pregnant, twins if Gert's sense for these things was right. Her uncle had named the two of them, and planned to name next year's kids too.
Gert tapped Bleater on the nose. "He'll be back," she promised. "They'll have names."
The next round of newcomers showed up halfway through Adrienne's second week, and Gert didn't notice them until they were almost up the drive. Casanova had finally knocked the latch off its pins and gorged himself on the trash. Two hours of swearing and wrestling had gotten him back in the barn, but when Gert emerged into a late-afternoon drizzle, the end of the driveway was bright with yellow rain slickers. "Crap. Adrienne!" she called over her shoulder. "Get your sister under cover. We've got visitors."
Adrienne emerged from the dairy, rain spotting her green apron. "Who is it?"
"Don't know. Like I said, get your sister."
As it turned out, only a few of them were wearing yellow rain slickers. Thirty people, some with shaved heads, some in traditional monks' robes, some in dripping yellow ponchos, stood at the gate. One of them came forward as Gert approached and laid a hand on the gate. "Open this," he said.
"I'd rather not," she said. "Any reason you're here?"
He smiled, beatific and cold. "We go seeking the Maitreya Buddha, who has arisen to restore the true teachings of dharma."
"He's not here."
The smile briefly widened. "No. But he is past here. Three days' journey."
"Five days," one of the other pilgrims said. The first man darted a glance at her, and she ducked her head.
Gert cleared her throat. "So I take it you want to walk through here to get to him?" He nodded. "I can't really let you. Goats'll get out." And once you're through that gate, you outnumber us ten to one.
"We have sworn to go straight to him." The man's smile never faltered, but there was no mistaking that note of iron.
"I kinda thought so. Hang on." Gert turned back up the drive to see Adrienne standing a yard away, still in her green apron. "Not cops," Gert said. "Buddhists. You keep them talking, I'll get my uncle's shotgun—"
"Don't." Adrienne's face was as pale as when she'd first arrived, but she didn't falter. "Let me try."
She ducked under the gate and came up surrounded by yellow. She looked small and very alone, and Gert had to dig her fingernails into her thighs to keep from running after her. Phrases drifted back to her: "—straight way not the true Way—", "—as water moves—"
A puddle went splortch behind her, and she turned to see Jennifer hanging onto the fence. "What are you doing?"
"Came to watch." Jennifer swung back and forth on the fence, watching her sister with infuriating calm.
Gert shook her head and turned back just as the Buddhists accepted Adrienne's proposal. One by one, they walked back down the drive. The last to go was the serene man, who looked up at the sign as if noting the name, then smiled at them and left.
Adrienne stayed at the gate, rain dripping down her back. Gert hurried forward. "God, Adrienne, are you okay?"
Adrienne drew a deep breath. "I told them to go around. More or less."
"You're shaking." Gert pressed the back of her hand to Adrienne's forehead. "And you're cold as ice."
"It's okay," Adrienne said, though she didn't resist as Gert led her up to the house. "Sometimes you can't talk to them."
As if to illustrate the point, Jennifer leapt down from the fence. "They should have stayed," she said, trotting along beside them.
Gert sighed. "Jennifer, we don't have enough to feed thirty hungry Buddhists. Now help me get your sister inside."
Adrienne was all right after being wrapped in a blanket and fussed over, though she protested weakly about getting back to the dairy. Gert took care of the last chores and returned to find Jennifer dozing on the couch. "Rough day," Gert said.
"She falls asleep anywhere." Adrienne huddled over the table like a mother awaiting bad news, the blanket drooping off her shoulders. "Gert, there's something I have to tell you."
Gert dragged a chair back and settled onto it. "Go for it."
"Those cops, the ones you saw when we first showed up. They're not looking for Jennifer." She looked up through her hair. "They're looking for me."
Gert nodded. "I kinda thought so, after I saw your sister. I figure you'd have gotten her under cover if she was really in danger, but since you came out all on your own, I thought maybe something else was going on." She remembered how Adrienne had looked like she was prepared for the worst. "Thanks for what you did, by the way. I didn't want to get the shotgun, but couldn't think of another way."
"You don't want to know what I did?"
She shrugged. "Not if you don't want to tell me."
"It wasn't . . . I wouldn't hurt you. Neither would Jennifer."
Gert made an exasperated noise. "I know that already." After a moment, Adrienne smiled back at her. "I . . .uh . . . there's something I probably should tell you too." Gert cringed at how clumsy she sounded. "I didn't let you stay here just because the goats liked you. I, um, did it because you're beautiful."
She looked down at the table, unable to face Adrienne. "When you went under the gate, I saw you there alone, and I—I didn't want you to go without telling you. And if you want to leave now or put a lock on the inside of your door, like if you don't trust me or something, then that's okay."
She didn't dare look at Adrienne, and so when Adrienne reached across the table and kissed her she couldn't do more than squeak. "I've wanted to do that—but I couldn't, not while I was lying to you about the cops," Adrienne said, sounding just as delightfully clumsy. "I thought you might think I was trying to bribe you—I thought you might throw us out—"
"I didn't want to take advantage of you."
"Call it mutual advantage," Adrienne said.
They made love in Gert's room at the back of the house, laughing and catching their breath, each turning her face to the pillows so as not to wake Jennifer. Gert's calluses didn't matter, and even the blisters Adrienne had from working in the dairy didn't make a difference.
"I like this place," Adrienne said after the first wave had crested and left them sated. "I mean, even if Jennifer hadn't decided to stop here, I think I'd have wanted to stay."
"It used to be my Gemma's." Gert ran the palm of her hand down Adrienne's arm, all the way to her fingers. "I grew up here, at least during the summers. Mom used to say I got my stubbornness from the goats."
"She might be right," Adrienne said, and Gert poked her. "It looks like a good place to grow up, though."
"Yeah. Special too. I mean, it's not every goat farm that gets the apocalypse in its back yard."
Adrienne sat up suddenly. "Don't joke about that."
Gert sat up beside her, the sheet sliding away. "I'm sorry."
Adrienne shook her head and turned to gaze out the window. A thin haze of moonlight filtered through the curtain. "She'd always been the sensible one, you know? Always the one who had her life under control. And then one day she calls me up, says the end is coming and she wants to meet it. It was like she'd joined a cult, only without the cult." She drew aimless patterns on the sheet. "I thought she was crazy."
Gert hugged her in silence. After a moment, Adrienne put her head on Gert's shoulder. "What made you change your mind?" Gert asked.
"I didn't," Adrienne said. "I just learned that other people are even crazier."
Jennifer didn't seem to mind the new sleeping arrangements, though whether she noticed them at all was doubtful. She did point out that Gert had started whistling while she worked. Which was true; Four Rivers felt more alive than it had in months, and even the approaching winter began to look less troubling.
And then, three weeks after Adrienne arrived, Gert took a fresh load of cheeses into town, the first full load she'd had since the sisters showed up. The food bank was closed now, and First Presbyterian had scorch marks running up its side, black against the brick. Jerry was talking to a couple of customers when she came in, so she headed to the refrigerator, added the cheeses, and straightened the sign. She piled her basket high with groceries, already imagining what she'd cook and when and how Adrienne would like it. Somehow Jerry'd managed to get a shipment of frozen raspberries; smiling, she balanced a bag on the top of the heap.
Someone coughed behind her. "Miss?"
She turned to see two men with bad crew-cuts and lumpy jackets. One stared at her sign as if it were a beacon. The other smiled. "Don't suppose you remember us, miss, but we were here a while back, looking for someone."
He unfolded a picture of Adrienne, looking considerably less grubby than when Gert had waved goodbye to her. "Have you seen this woman?"
"Don't think so," Gert said.
"Uh-huh." He glanced down at her basket. "You live alone, right? That's a lot of groceries for a woman living alone."
"I'm stocking up," she said. The man gave her a long, skeptical look. His partner, meanwhile, had wandered up to the cheese display. "Ted, leave those alone," the first man said. "You won't mind, then, if we come to take a look around. This woman's wanted for murder. Her victim was a friend of ours."
Gert shook her head. "It's not a big place. I think I'd have noticed anybody wandering around."
His partner turned around, cheese in hand. "'Pre-Apocalypse Sale on Cheese?' Why are we going to need cheese?"
Gert shrugged. "You never know."
He picked up three tubs. "I'll take these."
"For God's sake, Ted—"
"Gert." She turned to see Jerry at the door to the storeroom. "Your uncle called the other day."
"He did?" She clutched the basket to her. "When? Did he say where he was?"
Jerry shrugged. "Just said to give him a call," he said over his shoulder as he disappeared into the back.
Ted's partner had his back to Gert and was giving Ted an extended lecture on "blending in." "Excuse me." She edged past them to the phone. The receiver felt slippery, or perhaps it was just her hands.
This time it rang twelve times before she let it go. He'll call back, she thought, blinking fast as she set it back in place. He'll call back and make these assholes go away —
He'll come back to fix it all. Isn't that what the apocalyptics have been saying? Some of them, anyway, the ones waiting for Christ or the Mahdi or L. Ron. What makes you think Uncle Steve's coming back either?
Gert took a deep breath and laid her palm flat against the receiver, ready to let it go—and a tooth-shaking ring rattled the phone. She dropped the phone, dropped her basket, and caught one in either hand. "Hello?" she managed.
"Gert, I wasn't the one who told them. I don't care if you believe me."
"Believe you—?" This couldn't be her uncle. "Jer—"
"Chrissake, girl, don't say it. I'm calling from the storeroom. They came in here asking about you, said they heard you had visitors. The talky one, I told him about Neil, and he just said that I'd never find out if he was dead. Is that what you'd say to a father?"
"No," she agreed, turning her back and huddling over the phone. "I wouldn't say that."
"Didn't think so." He drew a long breath. "Get on home now. They won't be there till tomorrow afternoon at least, and that'll give you time to clean up whatever you got there."
"How—" She kept herself from looking at the men with an effort. "How can you be sure?"
Jerry laughed. "Because ever since Vinny left his service station to go sit outside Roswell, you can't get your tires changed in town, not all four of them. And after the way they treated everyone last time, these two aren't getting any rides."
"Thank you." She closed her hands around the basket. "Thank you. And you be careful too." It was what she'd used to say when talking to her uncle, and while neither of the men would know that, it made it a little easier to pretend.
Jerry grunted and hung up. Gert carefully put the receiver back, then gathered up the basket and hurried out past the two arguing men. Ted started after her, but the other caught him, saying something about knowing where to find her. Halfway home she realized she'd never paid Jerry for the groceries, and marked them down as just one more thing she owed him.
Adrienne was in the dairy when Gert returned. "Any news?" she said.
"Some." She set the basket down on the closest table. "Those men are back looking for you." Adrienne caught her breath, but Gert couldn't stop herself. "Said it was murder."
Adrienne put a shaking hand to her face. "Yes. It was."
Gert took her hands and held them between her own. "No crying in the dairy," she said. "I'll make tea."
Adrienne sat staring at the table as Gert put the kettle on. "He worked in my office," she said just as Gert finished pouring. "Same floor, different department, down the hall from where I worked in accounting."
"You were an accountant?" Gert said.
Adrienne looked up. "I like the goats better."
"Good taste." She added sugar to Adrienne's tea and slid it across the table.
Adrienne took a sip. "And then this . . . well, some people try to stop the end of the world, some take advantage of it, and some just treat it like it's free rein to do whatever they like. So he went to do what he'd always wanted: bang that bitch from accounting."
She ran her fingers through her hair. "He caught me in the copy room, after hours. I . . . there was this stapler, the really heavy kind, made for like fifty-page documents, and it was the first thing I could get my hands on . . . He hit his head on the way down, I remember that, but I don't know if it would have made a difference."
For a long moment she gazed into her tea, as if the leaves threatened to show her past instead of her future. "I got scared. And by that point the cops had their hands full, at least the ones who hadn't gone batshit . . . . You're real lucky you don't live in a city, Gert. That's all I can say."
Gert got up and put her arms around Adrienne. She drew a long, hitching breath. "And then I went and told Jennifer I wanted to come with her, and she never asked any questions, not even why I'd changed my mind—"
"Shh," Gert said. "Shh, now." Adrienne pressed her face against Gert's shoulder, and after a while the last sobs shook themselves free. Gert looked over her head, out the window to the east pasture. "We can hide you in the root cellar," she said. "Granddad used to keep his still there, so the entrance is pretty well hidden."
"I can let them search a little, and I could always let Casanova just try to eat them if they stay too long." She stroked Adrienne's hair. "I always said you could go when you liked, but I don't want you taken away." And if worse comes to worst, she thought, there's always the shotgun, and I've been told I'm a good shot.
"Neither do I." Adrienne wiped at her eyes.
"We'll work it out, okay?" She pulled the box of tissues across the table and handed one to Adrienne. "Jerry said they won't be able to get here till tomorrow afternoon."
"Tomorrow." Adrienne leaned back against Gert and laughed weakly. "That's funny. Jennifer came in earlier. She said she'd changed her mind and wanted me to know . . . . She says it's going to happen tomorrow."
Dinner was quiet, partly because Jennifer's usual sunniness had begun to fray. She's as uncertain about what's going to happen as we are, Gert thought, even though she's sure something will happen. So when she announced her decision to sleep outside, Gert just directed her to the spare blankets.
The two of them watched her walk down to the pasture, one blanket over her shoulder, another under her arm. The moon was two days past full, and its light threw all the shadows into stark relief. Adrienne's arm crept around Gert's waist. "My uncle's not coming back," Gert said.
She shrugged. "Can't be sure. But I can't keep hoping for it either." She picked up the dinner dishes and stacked them in the sink. "Can't keep hoping for something, just because it'll make things easier."
"I guess not." Adrienne smiled, but in the sad way that meant she was thinking of something else.
Gert paused a moment, gazing out at the silver fields, thinking of Jerry's son and Jennifer and all the wanderers waiting for the Rapture. "You know, when I was a kid, I was convinced I wouldn't live past my twentieth birthday."
Adrienne paused, one hand over the tea cozy. "You're kidding."
"Nope." Gert leaned back against the counter. "It's like I knew there was a change coming, only now I didn't have to deal with it, because I wouldn't be there for it. I keep thinking about that these days, what with all this going on."
Adrienne's smile faded. "Are you saying that Jennifer and all the rest stopped dealing with reality? Because that doesn't make any more sense than the other explanations."
Gert nodded, then shook her head. "I'm not sure. I think this whole apocalypse . . . There might be a change coming, but we know as much about it as a ten-year-old knows about being an adult."
"Or there might not be any change. Most of us didn't wake up knowing the world was coming to an end, after all." Adrienne sighed and tugged the cozy over the teapot. "And even if there is one, it still doesn't tell us what to do."
"Easy. Name the goats. Fix the barn. Make plans." Gert came around the side of the table and took Adrienne's hand. "Even if everything changes."
Adrienne put her arms around her. Gert kissed her hair, then glanced out at the east pasture.
A four-legged procession made its way down from the barn, led by Casanova, whose bloody forehead testified to his final victory over the latch. The flock ambled over to stand in a ring around Jennifer, then as one looked up. Goats and girl alike gazed up into the sky, waiting.