— for Tarlie Townsend
As the new millennium drew near, Erin’s family began preparing for the apocalypse. Jesus was going to return at the stroke of midnight, appearing in the New York City skyline as the ball dropped on TV and the moon turned to blood. Locusts would descend across the land while the dead emerged from their graves to prophesy among the living. The faithful would be whisked up into Paradise, their old flesh falling away as they assumed their glorified bodies.
Erin envisioned herself gliding through the clouds in a new, shimmering form, thin and incandescent. As the daughter of a pastor, she had spent all fourteen years of her life waiting for Jesus to come back. Her mother homeschooled the children to shield them from the world’s corrupting influence. Most of Erin’s time was spent taking care of her six younger brothers and sisters.
Now all of their sacrifices would be worth it. The signs were everywhere: famines, plagues, earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars, the persecution of Christians. Her father had read that computers wouldn’t be able to change their dates from 1999 to 2000, and the world would be plunged into chaos. It was the perfect opportunity for the Antichrist to seize power and begin his seven-year reign of terror.
Erin’s dad had a computer at his church office for writing sermons and responding to church members’ emails. He didn’t allow his family to use it.
“The Internet has the potential for great evil,” he said.
Erin’s cousin Stephanie was the only teenager Erin knew who had her own email address. Now Erin’s family was visiting Stephanie’s on this, the last Christmas season before the millennium. Stephanie sat Erin down in front of a plywood desk and signed her on to the World Wide Web for the first time.
“Mom and Dad say I should only use it for homework, but I mostly use it to look up music,” Stephanie said.
The computer was encased in aqua-blue-and-white plastic. Twinkling lights from the living-room Christmas tree reflected in the screen. As Stephanie logged on, the modem screeched and buzzed.
“You’ve got mail,” the computer announced.
Stephanie clicked with the mouse, then tapped a few keys, and pictures popped up on the screen. There were boy bands posing in matching white suits and rectangular sunglasses. Stephanie clicked again and showed Erin teenage pop starlets strolling red carpets in stiletto heels and metallic skirts with their midriffs exposed.
“She signed her record contract when she was fifteen,” Stephanie said about one singer. “She was just like us, and now look at her.”
The singer didn’t look like she had much in common with either of them. She had silky brown hair swept back by a wind machine. In one hand she held a microphone; with the other she reached out toward an audience of thousands.
“She’s pretty,” Erin said.
“So pretty,” Stephanie agreed, pulling her leg up onto the chair. “And she puts on an amazing show. What do you think that’s like: all those people listening to everything you say and yelling your name? It must be so crazy. I asked my mom to sign me up for singing lessons, but she said I can’t do them and ballet both.”
Last Sunday Erin had sung in front of her church for the annual Christmas pageant, her voice airy and sweet as she invoked the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. Before Erin had hit the highest note, she’d taken a deep breath and felt a rush of air and power fill her chest.
“Maybe we could start a band together someday,” Stephanie said.
“That sounds fun,” Erin admitted.
The singer wore a shiny pink tube top (“It’s pleather,” Stephanie explained), and her stomach was bare and dusted with a constellation of glitter. Erin liked looking at her, and this feeling repulsed her.
“I don’t think we should look at these anymore,” she said quietly.
“She’s stirring up lust. That’s a sin.”
“Maybe they’re just enjoying the show.”
“That outfit,” Erin said, pointing to the singer’s abs, “is designed to make men feel lust.”
“OK.” Stephanie shrugged and clicked away from the photo. “Sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”
Erin pulled herself up from the desk feeling strangely disappointed. Her parents had warned her that living for Christ meant being misunderstood, rejected, or even martyred. They hadn’t prepared her for polite disengagement.
The cousins walked in silence to the dining room, where the two families were preparing to have dinner.
Aunt Teri was distributing soft-tipped utensils and coloring books at the children’s table for Erin’s siblings and Stephanie’s younger sister, Brooke. Erin’s mom ladled green-bean casserole and mashed potatoes onto multicolored plates and handed them to the children. Uncle Scott held a glass of wine in his left hand and an electric carving knife in his right, about to cut into the ham’s lacquered glaze. Her father shouted to Scott over the noise of the whirring knife about the best angle to slice around the bone. Erin knew the two brothers had banded together in childhood to survive their parents’ abuse. Then Tom had been born again while Scott had remained a Catholic, like their mother and father. The subject of religion remained a source of tension between them.
A runner embroidered with poinsettias was laid over the table, the star-shaped blooms studding the hem. A basket of frosted pinecones and peppermint carnations sat in the center. Scented red candles burned at either end of the table, their sharp spiciness mingling with the aromas of ham and mashed potatoes. Two more places than usual were set next to each other in the middle.
“Mom said we can sit at the grown-ups’ table this year!” Stephanie said. “What do you think?” She gestured at the display. Two plastic champagne flutes held a clear, bubbly liquid.
“Is that real champagne?” Erin asked. She would have been shocked if her aunt and uncle were serving alcohol to teenagers, but she couldn’t be sure when it came to the unsaved.
“No, it’s just sparkling grape juice, but still very sophisticated!”
Stephanie pulled out her chair and sat down with a ballerina’s lightness, a satisfied expression on her face. Erin tried to emulate her cousin’s grace but felt stiff and awkward. She was all too aware of her mother standing nearby, trying to maneuver Erin’s wriggling baby sister into a high chair.
“Look, Mom,” Erin said. “Sparkling grape juice.”
Her mother glanced at Erin’s glass, and the corner of her mouth twitched.
“Yes, I saw that,” she replied, turning back to the baby.
Erin added sparkling grape juice to her mental list of things to avoid — just another one thrown on the pile.
Uncle Scott tapped his glass with a spoon.
“We’re fortunate to have a pastor in the family, so it’s only right that he say grace before we begin,” he said, smiling at his brother. “Tom?”
Erin’s father took her uncle’s place in front of the room. Everyone closed their eyes and bowed their heads. This was a moment Erin loved — the communion of silence and shared belief.
Her father thanked the Lord for becoming a baby in a manger almost two thousand years ago so that mankind might have eternal life. He prayed that their hearts would be soft to hearing God’s word. He praised God for the many blessings He had poured over their lives. Finally he said, “Amen,” and the rest of the room echoed him. Stephanie crossed herself. Erin thought it must be soothing to lightly touch one’s chest and think about salvation.
“Try the sparkling grape juice,” Stephanie said eagerly.
Stephanie shrugged, pinched the plastic flute between her thumb and forefinger, and took a sip.
“This is how they drink it in Paris.”
“Very fancy, ladies,” Aunt Teri said with a wink.
It occurred to Erin for the first time that elegance might be a quality a person could learn, not just something you were born with. Stephanie could transform at will into a dancer, elongating her torso, lightening her arms, and softening her hands. She could choose to move her body in ways that pleased her. Erin thought about her own body only when she shopped for loose-fitting shirts to conceal her breasts, which she prayed wouldn’t get any bigger, or when she ate little slips of white paper between meals to try to quiet her rumbling stomach. She’d never thought about how she wanted to present herself — whether bold and charismatic like the pop singer, or refined like Stephanie, or mysterious, or athletic, or funny. There was no point in even asking herself the question in a world on the brink of ending.
Tom and Scott argued about last week’s football game with dramatic boos and exclamations of “You’re kidding me!” Teri crouched down at the kids’ table, made fish lips, and moved her arms as though they were fins. The baby smacked her palms on the high-chair tray and squealed in delight. Erin’s mother told her younger siblings to eat their green beans. The happy chaos lifted Erin’s spirits.
“So, tell me more about that singer,” Erin said to Stephanie as she cut her ham into small pieces.
“The one in the belly shirt.”
Stephanie described the love affair between the singer and a fellow pop star, her virginity, her small Southern hometown. Erin pushed candied yams around her plate, shaping them into a smaller-looking pile, and listened intently for clues about the kind of girl she might have been with different parents. “We can listen to her album after dinner. I’ll show you some of the choreography.”
Erin’s pulse quickened with worry that her mother had heard Stephanie’s plan, but her mother was distracted by the men arguing.
“Jesus, can we have one holiday where you don’t try to convert me?” Uncle Scott was saying.
Stephanie gave Erin a knowing look and rolled her eyes. Family gatherings often began with their fathers chatting about work and kids and home-improvement projects, but eventually the old patterns took over, and the brothers ventured into more dangerous topics: who’d received less affection from their parents in childhood; who knew more about a given subject; and, ultimately, whether Scott was going to hell.
“I’m just saying you should get your heart and your house in order for when Christ returns,” Tom replied. “I’m worried about you, Scott. You’re drinking again.”
Uncle Scott exuded calm, but Erin saw a slight tremble in the hand that held his fork. She could sense his nerves crackling under the skin. Aunt Teri placed her hand over her husband’s, and everyone waited for what was coming.
Scott smirked and took a long drink. His wineglass caught the overheard light, and its color reminded Erin of crushed-velvet dresses.
“Listen,” he began, leaning forward. “You may have convinced a couple of dozen people that you can talk to God, but I’ve known you your whole life, and you can take that bullshit out of here.”
“Jesus is coming back. All the signs are there. You’re on a path to destruction, and you’re taking the girls with you.”
“At least I don’t beat the personality out of my kids like Dad did to us.”
“He didn’t mean that, Tom,” Aunt Teri interjected.
Erin heard blood rushing in her ears. Something tight and insistent began pushing its way forward from the back of her throat, until she swallowed it down. Stephanie reached under the table to squeeze Erin’s hand, but Erin pulled it away.
Wasn’t the obedient child the best child? That’s what the Bible said parents should want from their children.
“You need to apologize, Scott,” Aunt Teri said.
“Don’t bother,” Erin’s father said, wiping his hands on his napkin and tossing it on his plate. “We’re leaving.”
Erin’s mother stood up quietly and pulled the baby from the high chair. Erin slipped out of her seat and followed her parents, ushering her small troop of younger siblings to the front door. The lump in her throat wanted to push forward. Tears threatened to come.
Her father walked out of the house without his jacket and started the car. Her mother opened the hallway closet and pulled down an armful of puffy winter coats. Aunt Teri and Stephanie followed them down the hall, their feet padding on the tile.
“Please, let’s just finish our meal,” Teri said. “The kids have been looking forward to seeing their cousins all week.”
Erin’s mother zipped the baby’s coat without looking up.
“Stephanie and Brooke are not godly influences on my children,” she said.
Erin slipped her feet into her boots, took her knit hat out of her coat sleeve, and tried to focus on the thick, scratchy fabric in her hands. Then she felt a tap on her shoulder, and Stephanie pulled her into a hug.
“I’m sorry about my dad,” she whispered into Erin’s ear.
“I’m sorry, too,” Erin replied, though she wasn’t sure for what.
“We’ll listen to some music next time. I promise.”
Erin doubted there would be a next time.
On the two-hour drive home Erin tried to keep her siblings quiet while her father yelled about his brother. At home he led them all in their nightly devotions and selected the Bible passage about the fool who says in his heart that there is no God. Erin sat on the couch with her Bible in her lap and tried to take notes in her devotional notebook, but she kept thinking about the bile in her uncle’s voice, and the singer’s arm outstretched to the audience, and the sparkling filth of the world.
After everyone else had gone to bed, Erin listened for the signs that her parents would soon be asleep: the sound of her mother setting a water glass on her nightstand and her father flipping off the light switch. A few minutes later she sneaked downstairs to the radio in the living room. The skin on Erin’s neck prickled. If her parents found her listening to secular music, her father would tell her to pull her pants down to her knees, and her mother would fetch a wooden spoon from the kitchen.
She waited until the house was silent, then turned the volume to the lowest setting and pressed the power button. It clicked on like a courteous bellman she had summoned. She turned the dial away from the local Christian station, past the static, until she heard bass and drums and a singer scaling a flight of notes on a single word. Maybe it was the same singer she’d seen on Stephanie’s computer. She took her hand away from the dial.
What would happen if she wasn’t taken up in the Rapture? She might wake up on that snowy New Year’s morning to find her parents’ coffee sitting cold and black on the kitchen countertop, her younger siblings’ beds unmade, and a smear of glitter twinkling on her belly. She would pick up her family’s still-warm clothes from the floor, fold them, and put them away. She would call every number listed in the church directory, but no one would answer. Then she would dress in something thick and warm and take the keys from her mother’s purse.
What choice would she have but to go live with her cousin? The rest of her family would be up in heaven, peeking down at her from the edge of a crystalline river, thin and sexless in their glorified heavenly bodies.
She would learn ballet and how to sip champagne like they do in Paris. She would use the Internet to look at pictures of beautiful pop stars in pleather tops. She and Stephanie would start a band.
Sitting in front of the radio in the last days of the millennium, Erin took the pen from her devotional notebook, held it to her lips, and pretended to sing.