Sarah had always been a stubborn girl. Her mom would often say, “My girl is stubborn as a mule.” Her dad would almost immediately chime in, “Most troublesome mule in a pack at least admits they’re a mule. Our girl gets it in her head one day she’s a duck, we better dig a pond out back.” Still, this was mostly a charming affectation. Sarah was a good girl, a good daughter to her parents, a good big sister to her little sister, Lucy, a good best friend to her best friend Katy, and a good Christian to God—all in all just another good and promising resident of Ponder, Texas, population 1,321.
But then one hot summer day, just a few weeks shy of Sarah’s tenth birthday, a high branch on the tallest Sycamore in the backyard cracked and fell while her sister Lucy was playing under its shade. Moments later, Sarah was no longer a big sister and Sarah no longer believed in God. She told herself that she could not and would not ever believe again. This troubled her parents almost as much as the terrible loss they had suffered. Neighbors and kin alike said not to worry. It was just the grief speaking. Just a phase. To that, Sarah’s dad, would solemnly shake his head, no. Preacher John tried talking to Sarah in his gentle, singsong voice he used to disarm and charm the children of his flock. He’d crouch down to stare Sarah in her eyes and remind her — that if she believed again, she’d be reunited with her sister one day in the kingdom of heaven. Sarah just stared back at Preacher John. She stared back like a statue, like she did when her friend Katy would challenge her to a staring contest. Sarah never, ever blinked first much to the disappointment of both Katy and Preacher John.
So a little over two years later, when the Rapture came early one Sunday morning, Sarah would be the sole resident of Ponder left behind. Of course, this didn’t change Sarah’s mind one bit in regards to the existence of the Almighty. She was stubborn, remember.
She slept in later than usual that morning as neither the smell of her dad’s made-from-scratch blueberry pancakes nor her mom’s gentle nudging caress materialized to wake her. Eventually, the sunlight creeping into her bedroom window stretched across the hardwood floor and up her bed to shine upon her face. Sarah clenched her eyes tight and turned away. She was awake now though and soon opened one eye to see that it was well past ten. She wondered why she wasn’t sitting, albeit reluctantly, at Sunday services with her family. Despite having abdicated her faith, she was still expected to and did sit between her parents every Sunday amongst the faithful. Sarah was twelve and a half and acknowledged that her parents still had say over the wheres and whens of her life. Give unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s— she knew the words regardless of who might or might not have spoken them. Caesar, she believed in. He killed and was killed. That made well enough sense.
She rose, made her bed, and dressed in her Sunday best like she would any Sunday. As she closed her bedroom door behind her, she turned a sharp left, not glancing to the right, the direction of her sister’s room. Sarah had averted looking in that direction for over two years now. She knew it was there. She knew it was empty. Sarah went downstairs.
She discovered the kitchen was empty. So was the living room. Sarah looked out front, then out back. Her dad’s truck was parked right where it always was parked. She ran back upstairs to her parent’s bedroom. The door was still shut, so she knocked once, twice, before slowly turning the knob. She pushed it open just a crack, so she could peek inside. Seeing an empty bed, she opened the door and stepped inside. She stared closely at the bed. The sheets and blankets stretched up all the way to the pillows but were still rippled. Sarah ran her hand over the yellow quilt, flattening the empty spaces beneath. Where were her parents? Sarah wasn’t a girl that spooked easily, if ever. Still, this was odd. Maybe her mom or dad had gotten sick and needed rushing to the hospital. Maybe it was such an emergency they forgot to wake her. But…the truck was outside. She would have heard an ambulance arrive. Something was wrong. Something had happened, but what? Sarah went back downstairs.
She picked up the kitchen phone to call over to Katy’s. It rang and rang. There was no answer. She went to the hall closet, put on her yellow sweater, then headed out the front door and started west for Katy’s. Sarah walked as quick as she could down the road. The sun blazed low and red. It was the biggest, lowest, and reddest sun Sarah had ever seen. She walked even faster. Not one car passed her by. Arriving at Katy’s front gate, she flung open the picket fence door and ran up the walk. Sarah rang the doorbell. No answer. She knocked on the door and then knocked harder when still no one answered. Sarah ran around the house, peeking in every window. She found no sign of Katy or her family. Was everyone still at services? Was there a town fair today that she had forgotten about? She was not a forgetful person. Sarah glanced up at the strange, big red sun and began walking towards town.
The walk to and through town was long and difficult. Katy stopped at every house along the way to ring each doorbell, pound on every door, and peek into every window. Every door was locked. Every house and store was empty. All the while the red sun seemed to grow larger and hotter by the minute. Sarah could no longer look up at the sky. She squinted and shaded her brow with one hand as she fluttered from house to house and store to store. Eventually the only place left to check was church.
Church stood on the western edge of Ponder where the main road ended. Sarah was flushed and drenched in sweat by the time its solitary pinnacle was finally within her sight. She walked as quickly as her legs would take her through the gravel parking lot, empty save for Preacher John’s station wagon. She climbed the short flight of stairs that led up to the two tall white front doors. She reached out for both doorknobs and sighed in relief when they turned and the doors parted open.
Sarah stepped inside and closed the doors behind her. She was happy to finally find some shade. Church was dark and Sarah soon realized, empty also. She looped around the outside edge of the block of pews first, then starting from the back, she sped through each pew, turning sharply into the next like a mouse rushing through a maze. Each row was empty save for the bibles tucked inside the wooden slots at the back of each bench. Sarah emerged from the front pew and climbed up the steps to the altar. She stood behind the lectern, beneath the hanging wooden cross. She looked back over her shoulder, as the noise outside roared louder. It sounded first like wind, then rain, and then fire. A red glow illuminated the high windows of the rear wall.
She gave a perfunctory glance up to the skinny, bare cross, before her gaze fixated on the stainless steel bowl sitting atop the altar. The small bowl was filled with communion wafers for services. Sarah had not received communion in several years. Since her sister had passed, she’d just sit alone in the pew while her parents and other parishioners stood and passed over her in procession for the sacrament. She reached for the bowl now and cradled it with both hands. She stared down into the wafers. They looked like tiny white coins. Sarah noticed the reflection of the cross along the bowl’s polished curve. It was like looking into one of those funhouse mirrors. Sarah raised the bowl to eye level and tilted it slightly in every direction. She watched the cross stretch then shrink again and again. She found a small imperfection along the bowl where the cross was smallest and doubled itself. Sarah moved the bowl closer to her face and saw her reflection staring back, a tiny cross centered perfectly in each eye. Outside the noise, the horrible noise, grew louder and closer. She hoped her parents and the rest of the town were okay wherever they were. She stared deeply into her reflection staring right back at her. Sarah smiled knowing she would not be the first one to blink.
About the Author: Anthony Ausiello is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction at Fairleigh Dickinson University and is a reader for the The Literary Review. Way back when, he received his BA in English from The Pennsylvania State University. His work has appeared in The East Bay Review, Berfrois, NoiseMedium, Rat’s Ass Review, and Writer’s Digest. Anthony successfully navigated through corporate America for almost two decades before departing to search for the Promised Land. He lives happily in Westfield, New Jersey, with his wife, Talia, and children, Anya and Eli.