Hot summer night. Lindsey and I sat in Granny Madge's house—right next door to our trailer—and watched The 700 Club. The ceiling fan creaked above us. Lindsey scribbled in a coloring book. Granny sat in her recliner like a monument, like a beached whale that had found a way to survive by not moving. The TV had a remote. The recliner had a remote. She kept a trashcan and a basket of lemons beside her chair. Salt shaker on the table. Picture of Jesus on the wall.
My stomach was churning all night. I'd finished a Judy Blume book—Blubber, maybe, or Then Again, Maybe I Won't—as well as the stack of Reader's Digest on Granny's table. Now I had nothing but Christian television. I got up and paced the room, stood at the screen door, hoping to see Mom's headlights pulling in. Whenever she went on dates, I got nervous—not for her, but for us. The fields were dark. The road was desolate and dangerous. Granny had a gun, but how fast could she get to it? Without Mom around, I felt like a Spartan newborn left on a hillside, hoping the wolves wouldn't smell me. I lay on the couch and moaned.
"Stomach bothering you?" Granny said.
"I don't feel good."
"Reckon it was that ravioli?"
Granny had fed us Chef Boyardee for supper.
"I don't know," I said.
"It's because your mama's gone," she said. "A mother ought to be home with her children, not out on the town with some man."
Pat Robertson didn't help. On TV, he spoke about Revelation, Armageddon, the Whore of Babylon. Stars will fall from the sky. The ocean will turn to blood. Monsters will roam the Earth. Everyone who refuses the mark will be executed. He quoted scripture about brother turning against brother, father against son. Fleeing to the hills, woe unto those who are with child, the final battle, the bottomless pit.
I glanced at Lindsey, who was absorbed in her coloring book, humming a tune. On my other side, Granny snored, letting Pat Robertson creep into her subconscious. I sat between them with the hairs on my arms standing up.
A pair of headlights swung into the yard, and Lindsey and I jumped up. But it was just someone turning around, probably lost out here in the sticks.
I stood on the porch for a while. Heat lightning in the distance. Deep rolling clouds. A blue truck, just like my father's, puttered slowly by and disappeared into the night.
Back inside, I asked, "Is all that stuff true?"
"What stuff?" Granny said.
"The end of the world, and all that."
"Sure it's true," she said. "That's straight from the Bible. 'All these things shall come to pass.' Always study your Bible, Sammy."
"When is this supposed to happen?" I said.
"Neither the day nor the hour knoweth no man, but only my father in heaven," Granny said.
"So it could be tomorrow, or a hundred years from now?"
"That's right," she said.
When Mom came home that night, Lindsey and I ran across the yard to meet her. We hugged her legs. She smelled like perfume. She laughed and said, "Well, hey! I didn't expect yall to be awake."
"We were waiting for you," Lindsey said.
"We can't sleep over there," I said.
It was just starting to rain as she opened the trailer door.
The next week, my father showed up, even though he and Mom were divorced. Wooden beams stuck out the back of his truck. Mom stood on the porch with her hands on her hips and said, "What are you doing here, Frank?"
"Got something for yall," he said. In the cab with him, in cages so small they couldn't turn around, were half a dozen white rabbits. Lindsey squealed when she saw them. "Don't stick your finger in there," my father said. "They'll draw blood."
"What are you doing with those things?" Mom said.
My father unloaded the beams, along with some plywood and chicken wire. "Gonna build a hutch for yall back here."
"What are we supposed to do with a bunch of rabbits?"
"Ain't you ever had rabbit stew?"
Mom turned to me and rolled her eyes.
"Besides," my father said. "These kids need to learn how to raise animals."
"Why?" Mom said. "In case the apocalypse comes and we have to live off the land?"
Had Mom been watching The 700 Club too?
"You never know," my father said, walking around back.
That day, under the shade of a sprawling oak, he built a row of rabbit hutches—wire cages raised off the ground, with a sheet of plywood nailed to the top. He placed food and water dispensers in each cage, and lined the bottoms with newspaper. Then he dumped the rabbits in. They had room to hop around, but no walls, and if the newspaper ripped, no real floor. Lindsey petted each one as my father dropped it in. They had red eyes and didn't seem friendly.
My father wiped his forehead and leaned on a shovel.
"What will they do when it rains?" Mom asked.
"They got a roof," my father said.
"Frank," Mom said. "They're gonna be soaked and freezing, sitting in those cages like that."
My father threw up his arms. "Jesus Christ. You're always complaining about money, child support, food stamps, all that shit—and when I try to do something to really help, you don't want it."
"How in the hell does this help us?" Mom said.
"Next time you run out of food stamps, come out here and grab one of these damn rabbits by the ears, and throw it in a pot. And remember to thank me when you say the blessing over it."
"We're not throwing them in a pot!" Lindsey said.
"That's what they're for, honey," my father said.
Mom shook her head. "Fine, Frank," she said.
That night, in my bed, I thought about the rabbits sitting out there. Were they scared? Confused? Tired of being shuttered from one cage to another? Hoping for a release they would never get?
Occasionally, when the mood struck, Mom herded us into the Oldsmobile and drove to Summerfield Baptist for the Sunday service. It was a clean-looking church with a tidy lawn and hand-painted sign. In the foyer, Christian pamphlets lay on tables for anyone to take. Among these were tiny comic books with titles like This Was Your Life and Creator or Liar? I snatched up a few, to read when the sermon got boring.
We sat towards the back, amidst the shuffling and murmuring of country people going about their weekly ritual. Men wore jeans with round cans of Skoal in the back pockets. Women wore pastel dresses with sleeves and buttons. Children had names like Amos and Malachi. Everyone was gratingly nice.
"Lord knows, without a father who's worth a damn, yall need some kind of structure and guidance," Mom said. "Plus, I like the singing."
Lindsey liked it too, and kept the hymnal in her lap, ready to find whatever song the pastor commanded.
I flipped through the comics. They were written by someone named Jack T. Chick, and they featured graphic scenes of Christ being flogged, as well as damned figures wailing in a lake of fire. One of them told the story of a future society where Christians were hunted down and tortured until they denied Christ. In the comic, a young boy betrays his family to the evil inquisitors, who place Grandpa in an electro-shock chamber and zap the hell out of him.
Years later, as an adult, I learned that Jack T. Chick was a lunatic survivalist anti-Semite who lived out West, burrowed up in some mountain, waiting for the Rapture. But as an eight-year old, I figured: Hey, this stuff is on TV. It's in these comics. This preacher is up here yelling about it. It's in the Bible, for Christ's sake. It must be true. So why is everybody just going about their lives like everything's fine?
I glanced at Mom: she had the expression of someone making a grocery list. I never told her, but I started having nightmares that summer. They typically involved her and Lindsey falling under the spell of the Antichrist, accepting the mark, and helping the others hunt me down. I woke up soaked, my fists clenched tight. I could only hope, when the time came, that we would all make the right choice.
A few weeks later, the pastor requested to see me in his office. Mom drove me to the church on a Tuesday evening, and waited in the car for me. The whole thing seemed creepy, but I knew what he wanted: for me to get baptized.
He sat behind his desk writing on a yellow legal pad: on old man with leathery skin, as though he'd been an outdoorsman for decades before becoming a preacher. He wore glasses and had an air of genuine kindness. Books lined the walls, most of them Bibles or Christian literature by C. S. Lewis or Billy Graham. I sat across from him.
"The age of accountability is twelve," he said. "Do you know what that means?"
"That's when your sins start counting against you," I said.
"Basically," he said. "But it's not set in stone. Some people are aware at a younger age. So it can never hurt to go ahead and get baptized. You're a smart boy, Samuel. I have a hunch you're ready."
"Why twelve?" I asked.
"That's how old Jesus was when his mother found him debating scholars in the temple. So that's the age when we should be aware. But like I said, it's not concrete. Some people become accountable sooner than others."
"What if someone is retarded, and they never know?"
The pastor tugged at his collar. "Well," he said. "Let's not get into all that. I want to ask you some questions."
"Okay," I said.
"Why did Jesus come here?"
"To save everyone," I said.
"Okay," the pastor said. "But more specifically, who did he come to save?"
I hesitated. "Humanity?"
"Yes, but who did Jesus specifically have in mind when he was hanging on that cross?" The pastor leaned forward, as though to imply something.
"Me?" I said.
He smiled. "That's right. You."
"Well," I said, "and you, too."
"Me, you, everybody," the pastor said, waving a hand. "But most of all, you. That's what every Christian should focus on. Jesus came here specifically to save you."
"I get it," I said.
"Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior?"
"Yes," I said. That seemed like a given.
"Splendid. We'll baptize you next week, in Sunday service." The pastor sat back and started cleaning his glasses.
"What about the thief on the cross?" I said.
"The thief who was crucified beside Jesus. He was never baptized. But Jesus said he would be with him in paradise."
"You're a very astute young man," the pastor said. "Baptism is not a requirement for salvation. Accepting Jesus is the only thing that matters. But baptism is a public display of your commitment to Christ. Jesus himself set the example in the River Jordan."
"Why is it called the River Jordan instead of the Jordan River?" I said.
"You sure have plenty of questions," the pastor said. "There'll be time for that later. I'll see you next week. Remember to bring your bathing suit."
The day of the ceremony, I followed the pastor behind the pulpit, into some back rooms. We both wore white robes over swim trunks. The baptismal pool overlooked the audience, and at the appointed moment in the service, the curtain was pulled back, exposing us in our robes to the gaze of a hundred people. Mom and Lindsey sat in the back row.
The pastor said a few words, asked me if I accepted Christ—once again, I did—and then held me underwater for about five seconds. When I came up, everyone was clapping. That was it. The curtain closed, we climbed out of the pool, and some elderly deacon threw towels to us. My clothes were in a bag.
"Some churches just sprinkle water on your head," I said. "How come we don't do that?"
"We believe in full immersion," the pastor said. "That's why we're Baptists."
That had never occurred to me before.
As I tied my shoes, about to head downstairs and join Mom and Lindsey, the elderly deacon put a hand on my shoulder. His old red face stared down at me. He had an anchor tattooed on his forearm.
"Tremendous decision you've made today, son," he said. "Tremendous decision."
At home, it was my job to feed the rabbits. I poured food and water into their dispensers, and put down fresh newspaper. The ground beneath their cages was covered in little round turds. The oak provided more shelter than I'd thought—once, after a thunderstorm, I went to check on the rabbits, certain they'd been soaked. But they were totally dry.
It occurred to me that these rabbits had been born in cages. They didn't long for the woods because they'd never been in the woods. They only knew how to eat, drink, sleep, shit. They didn't even realize they were in cages.
The bars that protected them for so long ended up being their undoing. One afternoon, a horrible shrieking came from out back. Mom, Lindsey, and I ran out there. A pack of stray dogs had come trotting through the fields and discovered our rabbits, helpless, four feet off the ground, with chicken wire floors. They'd shredded the newspaper, pulled the rabbits' feet through the holes, and were gnawing them off when Mom and I got there. Mom swung a broom and I threw sticks. The dogs fled easily, back across the field, licking their chops, happy with what they'd gotten. All but one of the rabbits had bright red stumps for feet. They lay there shrieking, dripping blood onto their own feces. One of them, who lost two feet, just blinked silently. "Jesus Christ," Mom said, running inside. Lindsey leaned against the trailer and wailed.
Mom called Hecky, an elderly black man who lived down the road. Hecky was older than Granny Madge—his grandparents had been slaves. He had a reputation for eating all sorts of wildlife. He would know what to do with these rabbits.
The five minutes we waited for him were the longest five minutes of my life. The rabbits shrieked the whole time. When Hecky arrived, clad in overalls and a hat that looked like a dishrag, he was holding a machete. This made Lindsey wail even louder. Mom stood on the porch, grabbing her hair with both hands, saying, "Hecky, they're mutilated, my God, those animals are just mutilated…."
"I'll go take a look," Hecky said, and went around back. One rabbity voice at a time, the shrieking stopped. Suddenly it was quiet, and the buzz of dragonflies seemed incredibly loud. Hecky reappeared with a sack full of lumpy shapes. "It's over now," he said.
"Why?" Lindsey sobbed, yanking Mom's shirt. "Why? Why?"
"Just some mean old nasty dogs," Hecky said.
"Sorry to bother you, Hecky," Mom said. "Thanks for coming by."
"It's all right. I was just listening to the A.M. radio."
"I told Frank this was a stupid idea."
"Well," Hecky said, "somebody better get them dogs under control."
Lindsey's face was a mess of tears and snot. "Why did they have to die?"
"I'm sorry, honey," Mom said. "That was just awful."
"Everbody dies," I said.
"Sam," Mom said.
"What? It's true. Everybody dies."
"Not like that," Mom said.
"Well," Hecky said. "We won't have any lucky feet, but we should get a pretty good stew out of this."
When my father returned, he immediately came up with a solution: "Just slide another piece of plywood under there," he said. "All the shit would collect on it, but at least those damn—"
"Frank," Mom said. "Forget it. No more rabbits."
My father held up his hands. "Fine. I won't try to help no more."
"You can help by paying child support," Mom said.
Years later, when I was in high school, the old pastor had a stroke. Mom and I visited him in the hospital. He lay in a bed with tubes up his nose, hands crossed on his lap, dressed in a white gown with cartoon elephants on it. The room exploded with flowers like a botanical garden. People milled around, including the pastor's wife, who greeted Mom with a smile. "He'll be with Jesus soon," she said. "It's a time to celebrate, not mourn."
"Right," Mom said.
I watched the pastor's chest rise and fall. Later that night, it would fall and not rise again. I don't know who, if anyone, was beside him when he died. Mom and I stayed just a few minutes, and the ride home was mostly silent. Finally she said, "Good old Pastor Newbury. He preached at that church almost thirty years. He was there when I was a little girl."
"Reckon they'll hire a new one," I said.
"Well, sure," Mom said. "They'll bring in somebody young and fresh. Maybe we could start going again. It's been a while."
I rolled my eyes. "No thanks."
At sixteen, I wasn't a full-blown atheist, but some of my childhood views had changed. Sure, there was a God—maybe even Jesus—but all that end-of-the-world stuff seemed like a Stephen King novel. And the idea of Hell made even less sense: what about all the people who had never heard of Christ? How could they be punished for rejecting him? And what about the millions who had lived and died before Christ ever existed?
That night, I sat on the porch with Granny Madge and watched the heat lightning roll in. The air was thick and ominous. Mom came out with a glass of iced tea and leaned on the rail. It felt like something was about to happen. If there's ever gonna be a Rapture, I thought, let this be it. Come on. Now's the perfect time.
Lightning flashed, and for a moment all the fields were lit up like it was noon. Then came the thunder, like a fever breaking, and behind it a wall of rain, slow and steady, that turned Granny's yard into a lake. We sat there with the storm blowing around us, and I imagined all the coneys in those fields, burrowed down, curled onto each other in warm dens, in briar patches where they were born and where they would die, with no fear whatever that someday their homes would be paved over and the homes of humans built on top, because they had no idea such things could happen.