2011 winter fwriters csmith caravan

by Curtis Smith

Angela sat in the backseat of her parents' packed-to-bursting van. Stacked boxes of dried fruits and shotgun shells cut her little brother from view. He was probably sleeping, which was fine with Angela, the tears he'd been blubbering since their mother had woken them before dawn finally silenced. Sparky? Angela whispered, not wanting to wake her brother. Sparky, the family's excitable terrier, scrambled his way from the abandoned passenger seat and clambered onto Angela's lap.

Good boy, she whispered, stroking the curly locks framing the dog's dewy, black eyes. She reached into her windbreaker pocket, retrieved a stick of her father's venison jerky and snapped off a brittle chunk. Sit, she said. Her treat-holding hand rose, a coaxing which lured the dog's front paws from her lap, a trembling, begging pose he held until his jaws snapped the jerky from her fingers. They repeated the ritual a half dozen times until the stick was gone. Satisfied, Sparky hopped over a water purifier, a collection of various-sized rubber boots before settling back into the passenger seat.

A gray fog pressed in upon the vans and pickups collected in the community center's lot. Like most of the other vehicles, a hitched trailed weighed down their van's rear. Angela's parents and the other adults, their forms whittled to indistinct shadows, stood on the dewy baseball field beside the lot, their heads lowered, their hands linked in a prayer circle. In the center, the prophet raised his arms, and the sleeves of his robe hung like the wings of a bird yearning to take flight. The circle broke, and the adults moved in an uncalled square dance, a reeling from couple to couple, exchanges of hugs and handshakes and kisses. Angela cracked her window and listened to the sounds of their laughter, the women's impromptu singing of "Amazing Grace" as they emerged from the fog. Strange, Angela thought, rolling up her window, the morning's mood, a twisted Christmas, the adults giddy and euphoric, the children shrinking into the background, quiet observers who understood this was not their day.

Back in the car, her father started the engine, her mother still humming as Sparky curled onto her lap. With a strained groan, the car crept forward. The piled-high provision beside Angela shifted. She braced the seat's cardboard divide, not wanting the boxes to topple onto her brother. Her father took his place in the procession of taillight-flashing vehicles, a caravan of believers. Like the others ahead of them, they paused at the lot's exit.

Angela's father rolled down his window. The morning's chill reached into the car. Goosebumps rose on the bare skin of Angela's arms. From her perspective in the seat directly behind her father, all she could see was the prophet's torso. She studied the faded stain on the robe's front—ketchup, gravy perhaps—and when he laid his hands on the roof to bless the car and their journey, his billowing sleeve exposed the checkered flannel shirt he often wore to their youth group meetings. As her father put the car in gear, the prophet rested his palm against Angela's window. The meat of his hand turned white, and the ghostly impression of lines and calluses lingered on the glass after he'd pulled away. Angela studied him through the smudged impression. She recalled the weight of that hand, its gentle yet insistent pressure as it pried apart her knees the night her parents were late picking her up from Bible study. My beautiful, obedient lamb, he whispered, his stubbly cheek burning against hers, the fight in her limbs melting into limp surrender.

Eight weeks ago, on a sticky-warm Sunday of early September, the prophet had declared the time had come. Halleluiah! Angela's focus had not been on the prophet's sermon but on the bright sunshine outside the windows, a white butterfly flitting between the last daylily blooms, her reverie shattered by the adults leaping to their feet, the community center's folding chairs clattering to the floor, the room blossoming with tearful exaltations of joy. Halleluiah, brothers and sisters! The next day, the buying and selling frenzy began. FOR SALE signs sprouted on the congregation's lawns. Angela's family made nightly trips to the Home Depot, the other believers often stumbled upon when they turned a corner, public scenes of barely contained ecstasy, their heaven-praising hands raised to the store's girdered ceiling. The cashiers joked with them at first, but as the weeks passed, they simply eyed them with increasing suspicion as their checkout scanners chirped. The believers sold their houses, a glut on the market in which few received their asking price, but none of them bothered to haggle, the buyers' initial offers pounced upon with giddy abandon for Angela's family and the rest of the flock were headed to a shimmering future where faith would be the only currency that mattered.

On the main road, their trailer rattled behind them. An overblown breadbox balanced on two wheels, the trailer was packed tight with axes and shovels, firearms and ammunition, ropes, a pair of machetes, lanterns, generators, casting nets, rice and flour in twenty-pound sacks, waterproof matches, clothes that would see Angela and her brother through puberty, enough vegetable seeds to sustain a murder of crows. Angela had helped her father pack the trailer, a chore that seemed haphazard at first but soon transformed into the workings of an intricate, life-sized puzzle, Angela perched atop her father's shoulders, the final box of canned pears wedged into a ceiling-scraping nook. When they bolted the trailer door, Angela thought it was all more than necessary, her father's typical overkill. Now, as they passed through the sluggish hush of town, their only company the pre-breakfast dog walkers and huffing joggers, she felt horribly unprepared, naked in a way that had nothing to do with clothes.

How would the end come? The Lord had given the prophet the gift of the hour but had withheld His means. The elders debated whether the wicked would perish in fire or ice, nuclear war or plague or drought, conversations that struck Angela as both morbid and peculiar, the adults willingly divorcing themselves from the only reality they'd ever known, the actuality of flesh just a footnote to the rapture that awaited their saved souls. The prophet's last few sermons had hedged from such images of annihilation, hinting that what awaited the outside world may be a fate which kept bodies and cities intact but which would drown the disbelievers in a flood of pornography and greed and Godless humanism. One way or another, the prophet claimed his flock would be spared, be it in the next world of God's kingdom or in this one, all of them safe in their fortified compound high in the hills.

Angela rested her hand against the window. The fading imprint the prophet had left dwarfed her outstretched fingers. They passed her school, the library. The football stadium and the playground and the movie theater. They'd never return—this was the only solid truth Angela could cling to, and she focused on this lone, immutable nugget until it hardened in the pit of her belly. With this knowledge, everything outside her window faded to dust, vaporized, consumed not only by the fog but also by a world-leveling magic worthy of the Old Testament and the promises of Revelations. Halleluiah.

Silence is golden, my lamb, the prophet had whispered, his breath smelling of half chewed meat and damp forests. In the front seat, her mother hummed the opening notes of "I Shall Be Released." Her father joined in on the second verse, and soon, they were both singing. Sparky yowled a piercing, tail-wagging accompaniment. They passed Angela's best friend's house, the one with the creaking porch swing Angela loved, a laundry chute which rose like a hollow tree through the house's innards. Angela turned, watching the house fade into the mist, and she wondered how long her friend and all the others in town would remember them. When would their flock be swallowed by the drudgery of uncounted days, by the milestones of birthdays and funerals, weddings and graduations? Perhaps only then would Angela and the others in their caravan become what the prophet had promised they'd soon all be, spirits released from this world.

* "Caravan" first appear in Monkeybicycle.

Featured Works

Short Fiction
The Diorama and
Caravan

Essay
Witness

About the Author

Curtis Smith's stories and essays have appeared in over sixty literary reviews and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Writing, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He has published three novels, An Unadorned Life (by the now defunct Neshui Publishing), and Sound and Noise and Truth or Something Like It (both from Casperian Books). Press 53 has released his last two story collections, Bad Monkey and The Species Crown. March Street Press has published two collections of his flash fiction. This coming winter, Sunnyoutside Publishing will release his essay collection, Witness. For more information on Curtis Smith, visit www.curtisjsmith.com.

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