Avery. Town where the farm was, with the barn and the goats and the one cow, who was so old and sagged you could see the peaks of her back ridge pointing up through her hide and who hadn’t produced a drop of milk in probably a decade. There were chickens, too, and about a thousand cats either stalking the mice or sleeping in piles under shafts of sun. It wasn’t a bad spread, all in all, if you just looked from the outside and ignored all the boney girls dragging ass through the garden and sloshing pails of water to the bath out back or the dudes trying to figure out how to chop fire wood, nearly taking their own legs out. The people of Avery pretty much ignored us, figuring we were just a bunch of hippies, which I guess a lot of us were. Avery isn’t too far from where Edgar and I grew up, or too different. No one’s ever heard of Avery—or they hadn’t, anyway, before we came along.
Barrett. He was the leader. I always assumed it was his farm, but later during the investigation and what-all it came out that it actually belonged to another member, this woman Leah. She slept in the shared room—which was actually three rooms with the walls between bashed down—with all the rest of us, while Barrett had the only private bedroom, so I guess that’s why I assumed. Barrett was older than anyone there (except Leah, who was probably past sixty). He was in his forties, probably mid-forties, and he had shiny black hair like a Labrador. When I first got there, my first day even visiting, Barrett sat me down outside. It was spring, the kind of day where you’re just more open to anything because it’s so goddamn beautiful outside with the sun and the clouds and the little wind gusts and you think anything is possible on a day like this. On a day like this, your life could change. So Barrett, he sits me down on this metal chair out by the garden and he pulls his own metal chair right there in front of me and we just look at each other for a good minute. More. And normally I’d think what’s this guy’s story, but there was something about him, Barrett. Trustworthy. Finally he says, You have questions.
Catechism. What we said each morning before breakfast. It didn’t have anything to do with Catholics, which I guess is what most people think of when they hear this part. I wouldn’t even know about that. Growing up, Dad’s religion was getting fucked up and chasing worn-out tail down at Sully’s, and Mom’s was whatever real murder show was on the tube. But at Ninth Day we went through the Q&A so often I was doing it in my sleep. Literally. I dreamed it. I can’t say I really believed it at the beginning, but I sure as shit said it. How do we come to know the Vision? We know the Vision when we know ourselves. How do we come to know ourselves? We know ourselves when we shed our desires for material comfort. Where does the Vision reside? The Vision resides in the souls of the family. Who is in the family? All who believe and have the courage to live the belief. When will we meet the Vision? On the day of the final ascension.
Discretion. The word Barrett used. We were sent out to spread the message of Ninth Day, but not let on too much about the specifics of the graduation system. Or about life at the farm. In surrounding towns we’d swing into coffee shops and lunch counters and other places of leisure and casually chat with the locals. We had pamphlets, of course. Everyone’s got pamphlets. But, Barrett warned me my first time out, don’t whip those out willy-nilly. And he didn’t give me a script. Said people could smell that a mile away. He told me to be honest. Well, honest within reason. He said, There are people who won’t understand and the truth we have here can be a little shocking. How would you feel if you were trying to enjoy your meatloaf sandwich and all of a sudden some kid you’ve never seen before, some kid looks like he’s been out rolling in the dirt and smells like sour goat’s milk, comes along telling about the Vision? You’d feel like getting the hell out of there. Calling somebody.
So we used discretion. Only talk about Ninth Day to the most open. Only break out the pamphlets to the most welcoming of the most open. We had a few visitors in those months before the end, but those were always people someone already knew, some old friend, some lost soul from way back. Or the occasional guy coming around and playing like he was interested because he was trying to lay one of our women. We never got anyone cold. But still we went out, chatted, and passed along flyers to kindest and most patient, usually young ones like us, or motherly types who looked at us like it was somehow their fault we had grime blooming on our skin. Some folks want to feel responsible for the whole world.
Edgar, he's the one who got into Ninth Day first. I thought he was putting me on. Not because it sounded loopy as all hell, which of course it did to my ears back then, but more because I'd never known Edgar to take anything seriously. Back home we used to drive up and down Lincoln Highway—well, our little strip of it anyway—where it goes through downtown, such as it is, and park our cars, my Galaxie or his El Camino, at McDonald’s on one end and the SudsyWash on the other, sucking down cokes spiked with whatever we could afford and shooting the shit about his rebuilt tranny or those nimrods with the ground effects under their Toyotas or whatever girl we were trying to charm before heading over to get blotto in that dark corner of the Annex where the Corona neon went out forever ago. Anyway, we were both working security at the library in those days, keeping the college kids from stealing those big expensive art books or giving each other tugs in their own dark corners. It was the first of May, I remember, because this undergraduate girl, real cutie, kept telling everyone who came to the desk, Happy May Day, and I kept saying, Mayday! Mayday! We’re going down! And Edgar, he comes to where I’ve got my feet up on the desk where the circulation kids sort the returns, maybe twenty minutes from knocking off, and he’s shaking his head like he just saw something ridiculous, like unspeakably ridiculous, and then he says to me—serious as hell, this fucking guy—he says, I found the path, Abe.
Food. You’d have thought that with all the gardening we did, all the milking of those goats and slaughtering of chickens (the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life up until that point, all those headless fuckers running around like drunks before dropping and bleeding out into the dust), we would have had some decent grub on the table. But no. Every morning we ate millet. Not oatmeal, not cornflakes. No eggs. Just goddamn millet with goat’s milk. Lunch and dinner were creamed chicken with plain rice, barely seasoned and half-warm. A paranoid person would have suspected that Barrett was hoarding chocolates and what-all up in his room, but I don’t think so. In those first days I would choke down the chicken mush and catch Barrett watching me with this look that reminded me it was all a test, a small sacrifice. And who was I to bitch about it? No one questioned Barrett. It was a given that he knew what was best for us. A natural fact. Like gravity. I’m going to question gravity? Pointless.
Guilt. That’s what they say I’m suffering: a type survivor’s guilt. Like it’s so simple. Like I’m some line in a big shrink’s book. Moving on.
Heron. It came and stayed all that summer. Perched up in an elm next to the barn, then, at dusk, swooped down smooth as you can imagine to the ground and danced through the blue light, stabbing its beak at the ground. I’d sit cross-legged in the weedy grass and watch him, hoping he’d get just a little closer. Others would come out and watch for a minute, then wander back to the house for evening sharing group. I’d stay until it was dark, until I couldn’t see him anymore. The only other person who ever gave the impression she gave a shit about the bird was Candy. None of the girls really talked to me, which was strange since I’d always done all right with the ones back home. I mean, we were all celibate at Ninth Day, anyway, but a little flirting wouldn’t have kept us from advancing towards the Vision, right? Little joking around? Little touch on the arm after catechism and before millet? But once, just once, Candy sat there in the field with me and the heron while the light faded. It was sort of like intimacy.
If I could have saved any one of them, aside from Edgar, it would have been Candy.
I. As in, me. What do you want to know? I’m 25 as of last month. I have three tattoos, all of which are visible if I take my shirt off. I have a brother, Mike, who I haven’t talked to in three years and another who got hit by a train and killed when he was 17. I was twelve then, I guess. His name was Chris, but everyone called him Carlos because for some reason he had kind of dark-ish skin and black hair, where the rest of us—Mom, Dad, Mike, and me—we all look like we could be in those commercials for Norwegian cruises. I mean, except for our fucked-up teeth and hacking smokers’ coughs and basic malnourishment. We’re really fair, is what I’m saying. I don’t know who started calling him Carlos. One of his friends, I guess. Maybe Stenny or Todd or some other dipshit blowing his cash every night down at Sully’s these days. Whoever it was, even Mom ended up calling him Carlos after a while, after he took a shine to the new name and wouldn’t answer to anything else. Shit, I’m surprised they didn’t put it on his gravestone. I thought they should have, like in quotes, thought he would have wanted it like that. I never said anything, though. Even at twelve I knew enough not to start making weird suggestions to people who just lost their kid.
I also used to be an excellent skateboarder and chess player. Moving on.
Jenny. Miss Jenny, we call her. Sometimes we call her other things, but always nice things. Well, not nice like we’d say it in front of her. But you know, complimentary. Guys being guys and showing off. That kind of shit. Stupid shit. Anyway, she’s the one who suggested I write all this down when I was having trouble expressing myself in group, and when I couldn’t write it down because there was too much to say and where do I start and all, she told me to do it this way, alphabetical. Simplify it, she was like. Slow down. So I’m doing it this way.
And really I’m just writing it for Miss Jenny since she’s the only person who’s going to see it. Though of course she’ll say I’m writing it for myself, but you know what I mean, Miss J.
Knot. I read a book (not a lot else to do here) about a group of people moving out to the country to live off the land and the guy who wrote the book called them a knot of dreamers and I really liked that. Made sense to me. Because that’s how it felt right at the peak of Ninth Day, late August, working through that heat and sleeping hard each night and sitting together through prayer with all that corn growing up tall as any of us in the fields all around the farm.
The others didn’t believe me. Didn’t believe I believed. I’m a smartass person and I know sometimes it seems like I don’t take anything seriously, and maybe most of the time that’s true, but for all the jokes I made about not knowing Paradise would smell so much like cow shit or when do I get my 72 virgins, by that point in late August I really did believe. Like I’ve never believed anything else in my life. And it wasn’t brainwashing anymore than your more popular religions are. Christianity and Judaism and Islam and what-all. I knew the Vision would become manifest. I fucking knew it like you know a dog barks and a baby cries for its mom. Natural fact. And whether my brothers and sisters trusted it or not, I saw them just that way. We were a new kind of family, all twisted up together in this great, beautiful knot.
Library. This is where, if I’d had a half a brain, I would have sensed something was up. Barrett sent me back to that library where Edgar and I used to work to pick up some books he’d ordered. I jumped at the chance, since we weren’t allowed to bring our cars to the farm and so I hadn’t driven in months and Barrett has this great Ford pick-up from the early 70s. Powder blue. Four on the floor. Big old fenders like they used to have. Cherry condition. I’d been eyeing it for a while, but the only person besides Barrett I’d ever seen driving it was Edgar, who got sent on errands to the grocery and wherever else every once in a while. So when Barrett tossed me the keys I figured, man, I’d done something right. And then, at the front door, everyone else back at the dining room table finishing up their millet, Barrett slipped two dollars into my hand, sneaky-like, and said, There’s that ice cream shop down from the library. You know it, right? He shrugged. He was all, Every once in a while a man needs to treat himself. I’m telling you I thought right there that I was his new right hand man, his new go-to. He could see past my humor and defense mechanisms (as you call them, Miss J) to what was really in me.
I drove those roads, flanked on either side by corn, the truck rumbling under me feeling like I’d maybe never felt before. Worth a goddamn. The books Barrett had sent me for were a few about gardening and some special version of the Bible and a copy of the Koran and one about medicinal herbs and plants. I remember that they were month-long check-outs and the stamp on the receipt said September 23. I remember because that’s my birthday. I set the stack in the cab of the truck, which was angled at the curb out front, and then wandered into the ice cream place feeling overwhelmed by the choices and lights and colors. I got a scoop of peanut butter and chocolate in a waffle cone and ate that fucker slow as I could sitting there in the cab of that cherry Ford. It was like back cruising the strip with Edgar. Or it was like being a kid. Or both. But better.
Marc and Melody. But also Will and Erin and Jane and Davis and Gemma and Leah and Kat and Amy and Elliot and Horner and Sunshine and Howie and Becky and Candy and Edgar.
Ninth Day. Barrett said that all the world’s religions were a little right and a little wrong. He said that all of these groups and doctrines came out of a gut understanding of the divine. He said that we all have the knowledge of God inside us, but it’s really hard to get to, and so you have all these groups and their leaders picking up on just a little bit here and a little bit there. Then they filled in all the gaps with whatever made sense in their time and their place. So the founders of Ninth Day brought all the religions’ ideas together, mapped their overlaps and their contradictions, separated out the literal from the just story parts, and found the true way. According to Barrett there were other Ninth Day groups all over the world, but I never saw any proof of this—not that I asked for any. Barrett said there were others, so there were others. It wasn’t until the investigation that I heard we were the only ones. I don’t know if that makes any difference.
Optimal recruit. That’s what I was, according to the people on my case. An optimal recruit for cults and other nefarious organizations. Young. White. Poor. Uneducated. Disconnected from family. Spiritually unmoored. Well, sure, when you put it that way. Everyone was all, Mm-hmm, that’s the profile. Looking at me like they were so not surprised. Even though I wasn’t that young or poor or uneducated. I went to high school, for Christ sake. Can’t argue with spiritually unmoored, though. Not the family thing neither.
Paramedics. They had to bring them in from two other towns, and still it took most of the afternoon.
Quiet. Like, in the evenings after we were done with work and prayer. That’s all I can think of for Q. Moving on.
Rapture. Not that Barrett ever used the word, and we didn’t tick the days off some old-ass calendar or anything like that, but I think we all knew on some level that was the endgame. Moving out of this world and to the Vision. I mean, it was in the catechism: the day of the final ascension. End of the world. What else.
September 21. Two days before my birthday. Barrett sent me out again to pick up books from the library. This time he handed me a twenty. Go have a couple beers, he said. Good old joint called the Annex. Martha behind the bar, pretty lady. Generous pours, too, if you’ve got a taste for that. I laughed, said I knew the place a little. It had been about forever since I’d had a drink and I had to say the idea of getting a little buzz on and rambling in that cherry Ford, windows down, little radio going, appealed to me so much that I didn’t let myself question why he’d make such a suggestion. Booze went against everything Ninth Day was about. Alcohol numbs the senses and distances you from the present moment. It makes you nostalgic, which, according to Ninth Day scripture, is the first sign of a slowing movement toward the Vision.
I wonder now what would have happened if I hadn’t given in to my dumb thirst, if I’d said no, thanks, and gently closed Barrett’s fingers around that twenty, told him I wouldn’t want to diminish my connection to the rest of the family. Would they have just changed their plans, like older siblings might when confronted with a day of babysitting the younger ones? Would they have saved everything for some other day, come up with another excuse to get rid of me? Or would they have seen this as a sign that they’d misjudged me? Would I be with them now, somewhere?
But they hadn’t misjudged me, of course. My weakness proved that.
Edgar was out by where the truck was parked tossing feed to the chickens. I nodded at him and then he smiled and said, Say hello to the world for me.
Will do, I was like.
And then he goes, Spread our gospel, Abe.
I opened the door of the Ford and was like, At the library? To which he just shrugged and grinned. I said, Alright, man. Got in the truck.
I had two Buds at the Annex and a shot of SoCo and flirted with Martha and actually completely forgot about the library books and driving back to the farm through the late-summer late afternoon I thought of how lucky I was to have been chosen to be a part of this group, this new family of mine, this tribe.
Tick-tock. All I heard when I came in. The kitchen clock, the one in the shape of an old-fashioned coffee grinder. Then I went into the front room.
I don’t know how long I looked at them—seconds, minutes, maybe—every one of them naked, in all manner of pose, some splayed out, some on their sides, like they just leaned over for a quick nap. Most of them, I saw once my eyes adjusted to what I was seeing, had vomited on themselves or the floor or both. Millet. Creamed chicken. Candy was on her stomach, her face smashed into the wood floor. Edgar was in this wingback chair in the corner, slumped over, kind of folded into himself. I stepped over a couple people and grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him and said, Edgar! Probably I said, No no no no! He was warm still, but there was no breath and when I tried to lift him up with my arms under his pits I couldn’t. He sort of fell to the floor and I wiped away the puke from his mouth and started doing CPR as seen on TV. Pressing into his chest and breathing into his mouth. No point, though. I tried with Candy, too, and a couple others, sort of frantic, sort of crying and shaking. After a bit of that I just kind of sat there looking at all their arms and legs flung out or wedged under them. Their faces were barely theirs anymore. Already looked like other things, masks. Empty eyes. Seeing all my dead friends on the floor there I felt a little like when Carlos died when I was twelve. Alone. Like, You fuckers all left me behind?
I got up and must have stood there in the middle of all their bodies for another half a minute, more, before realizing no Barrett. Went up the stairs and found him in his room. He was probably listening as I tried to bring the others back from the dead and I felt kind of embarrassed by that. He was sitting there on his bed, naked like the others, but alive, and with a .38 in his hand. It was almost funny. I saw how small he was—girly shoulders, puny arms, little cock hidden in its poof of fur—and that gun was so chunky that it seemed like he shouldn’t even be able to lift it. Finally after about a minute he said, I’ve really let myself down. And he held the gun out, went, Would you do me a favor? Put a finger to his temple and said, Make it look like it was me, if you can.
Why he didn’t just drink the drink like everyone else, I don’t know. Probably he watched what happened to them with the puking and all and got scared of going through it himself. Figured a bullet would be quicker. Easier. Kind of a dick move, when you think about it. And then he couldn’t even do that. Send me away and then ask me to finish the job.
Okay, motherfucker. Sure. Question my commitment now, why don’t you.
Upheaval. What the first doctors called it: psychological upheaval. Why they sent me here instead of the clink. And why the doctors took away my shoelaces and belt and only let me use the plastic forks and knives. Why I’m writing this, I guess.
The Vision. I guess it was God, if you need to think about it that way. I never did. I just thought of it as the point of everything. My mom and dad and the way they are. Carlos getting hit by that train. There was a kid when I was a kid who got some horrible fever that burned out his brain and he came back to school half a mental case, freaking out over the littlest things, screaming until they took him away and his family moved somewhere else and I never saw him again. That kind of thing. Just the goddamn fucking point of it all.
Waste. What everyone says. What a waste.
Xyrem: sodium oxybate, a.k.a. GHB. Everybody at the house (except Barrett) had it in their systems, along with a lot of other stuff.
Also, Xanax. What I’m on right now, along with a lot of other stuff. Moving on.
Why? What the doctors are always asking me. Not so much why did they do it, but this: if you wanted to go with them, why didn’t you turn the gun on yourself? I know what you say, Miss J. You say that I didn’t want to die. We sit in our circle and the other guys study their hands and you say that I never did, still don’t. You say all I ever wanted was a connection in life, that I never really had that and it’s what we all are looking for in all our different ways. And then you sweep your hand around the room and say, Well, what is this?
I don’t have an answer. But the real bitch of it all is that no matter how I look at it, it comes down to this: I’m either a sucker and a murderer, or I missed my only shot at something beyond all this pointlessness.
Zephyr. What we used to call Edgar’s El Camino. The Zephyr. I guess maybe it started because it had this stripe on the side that zig-zagged like a Z. I didn’t even know what it meant for a long time, but one day I finally looked it up. The west wind. The car was fast and when I think of the happiest times in my life it was cruising outside of town with Edgar, down those empty roads. Sometimes we’d have a couple girls hunkered down in the back, trying to keep their hair in place. But mostly not. Mostly it was just us, a little SoCo buzz on, windows open and that wind coming in so I couldn’t hear a thing except the ruckus of the engine. Edgar, he’s in the driving zone, focused straight ahead, and me I’m in the passenger zone, if there’s such a thing. I felt it, in those times driving with Edgar—even when things were shit at home or I was out of work or it was Carlos’s birthday—I felt that this world was so good and wasn’t it a trip sometimes being alive. And maybe that’s what you meant, Miss J, when you said we should find the grace within the pain. I’m not sure I’m going to find it again, I don’t know if I have the eyes to see it anymore after everything, or even if I want it, but I guess I’ll keep looking a little while longer. For you. Long as I’m here.