Tom Perrotta is an American novelist and screenwriter best known for his novels Election (1998) and Little Children (2004), both of which were made into critically acclaimed, Academy Award-nominated films. Perrotta co-wrote the screenplay for the 2006 film version of Little Children with Todd Field, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is also known for his novel The Leftovers (2011), which was adapted into a TV series for HBO. For more about Tom, visit his website at http://www.tomperrotta.net/
Laurie Garvey hadn’t been raised to believe in the Rapture. She hadn’t been raised to believe in much of anything, except the foolishness of belief itself.
We’re agnostics, she used to tell her kids, back when they were little and needed a way to define themselves to their Catholic and Jewish and Unitarian friends. We don’t know if there’s a God, and nobody else does, either. They might say they do, but they really don’t.
The first time she’d heard about the Rapture, she was a freshman in college, taking a class called Intro to World Religions. The phenomenon the professor described seemed like a joke to her, hordes of Christians floating out of their clothes, rising up through the roofs of their houses and cars to meet Jesus in the sky, everyone else standing around with their mouths hanging open, wondering where all the good people had gone. The theology remained murky to her, even after she read the section on “Premillennial Dispensationalism” in her textbook, all that mumbo jumbo about Armageddon and the Antichrist and the Four Horse men of the Apocalypse. It felt like religious kitsch, as a tacky as a black velvet painting, the kind of fantasy that appealed to people who ate too much fried food, spanked their kids, and had no problem with the theory that their loving God invented AIDS to punish the gays. Every once in a while, in the years that followed, she’d spot someone reading one of the Left Behind books in an airport or on a train, and feel a twinge of pity, and even a little bit of tenderness, for the poor sucker who had nothing better to read, and nothing else to do, except sit around dreaming about the end of the world.
And then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn’t some ancient rumor—a dead man coming back to life during the Roman Empire—or a dusty homegrown legend, Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York, conversing with an angel. This was real. The Rapture happened in her own hometown, to her best friend’s daughter, among others, while Laurie herself was in the house. God’s intrusion into her life couldn’t have been any clearer if He’d addressed her from a burning azalea.
At least you would have thought so. And yet she managed to deny the obvious for weeks and months afterward, clinging to her doubts like a life preserver, desperately echoing the scientists and pundits and politicians who insisted that the cause of what they called the “Sudden Departure” remained unknown, and cautioned the public to avoid jumping to conclusions until the release of the official report by the nonpartisan government panel that was investigating the matter.
“Something tragic occurred,” the experts repeated over and over. “It was a Rapture-like phenomenon, but it doesn’t appear to have been the Rapture.”
Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who’d disappeared on October 14th—Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, what ever the heck they were—hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn’t be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.
So it was easy enough to be confused, to throw up your hands and claim that you just didn’t know what was going on. But Laurie knew. Deep in her heart, as soon as it happened, she knew. She’d been left behind. They all had. It didn’t matter that God hadn’t factored religion into His decision-making—if anything, that just made it worse, more of a personal rejection. And yet she chose to ignore this knowledge, to banish it to some murky recess of her mind—the basement storage area for things you couldn’t bear to think about—the same place you hid the knowledge that you were going to die, so you could live your life without being depressed every minute of every day.
Besides, it was a busy time, those first few months after the Rapture, with school cancelled in Mapleton, her daughter home all day, and her son back from college. There was shopping and laundry to do, just like before, meals to cook, and dishes to wash. There were memorial services to attend as well, slide shows to compile, tears to wipe away, so many exhausting conversations. She spent a lot of time with poor Rosalie Sussman, visiting her almost every morning, trying to help her through her unfathomable grief. Sometimes they talked about her departed daughter, Jen—what a sweet girl she was, always smiling, etc.—but mostly they just sat together without speaking. The silence felt deep and right, as if there were nothing either of them could say that could possibly be important enough to break it.
You started seeing them around town the following autumn, people in white clothing, traveling in same-sex pairs, always smoking. Laurie recognized a few of them— Barbara Santangelo, whose son was in her daughter’s class; Marty Powers, who used to play softball with her husband, and whose wife had been taken in the Rapture, or whatever it was. Mostly they ignored you, but sometimes they followed you around as if they were private detectives hired to keep track of your movements. If you said hello, they just gave you a blank look, but if you asked a more substantive question, they handed over a business card printed on one side with the following message:
WE ARE MEMBERS OF THE GUILTY REMNANT. WE HAVE TAKEN
In smaller type, on the other side of the card, was a Web address you could consult for more information: www.guiltyremnant.com.
That was a weird fall. A full year had passed since the catastrophe; the survivors had absorbed the blow and found, to their amazement, that they were still standing, though some were a bit more wobbly than others. In a tentative, fragile way, things were starting to return to normal. The schools had reopened and most people had gone back to work. Kids played soccer in the park on weekends; there were even a handful of trick-or-treaters on Halloween. You could feel the old habits returning, life assuming its former shape.
But Laurie couldn’t get with the program. Besides caring for Rosalie, she was worried sick about her own kids. Tom had gone back to college for the spring semester, but he’d fallen under the influence of a sketchy self- appointed “healing prophet” named Holy Wayne, failed all his classes, and refused to come home. He’d phoned a couple of times over the summer to let her know he was okay, but he wouldn’t say where he was or what he was doing. Jill was struggling with depression and posttraumatic stress—of course she was. Jen Sussman had been her best friend since preschool—but she refused to talk to Laurie about it or to see a therapist. Meanwhile, her husband seemed bizarrely upbeat, all good news all the time. Business was booming, the weather was fine, he just ran six miles in under an hour, if you could believe that.
“What about you?” Kevin would ask, not the least bit self- conscious in his spandex pants, his face glowing with good health and a thin layer of perspiration. “What’d you do all day?”
“Me? I helped Rosalie with her scrapbook.”
He made a face, disapproval mingled with forbearance.
“She’s still doing that?”
“She doesn’t want to finish. Today we did a little history of Jen’s swimming career. You could watch her grow up year by year, her body changing inside that blue bathing suit. Just heartbreaking.”
“Huh.” Kevin filled his glass with ice water from the built-in dispenser on the fridge. She could tell he wasn’t listening, knew that he’d lost interest in the subject of Jen Sussman months ago. “What’s for dinner?”
Laurie couldn’t say that she was shocked when Rosalie announced that she was joining the Guilty Remnant. Rosalie had been fascinated by the people in white since the first time she saw them, frequently wondering out loud how hard it would be to keep a vow of silence, especially if you happened to bump into an old friend, someone you hadn’t seen in a long time.
“They’d have to give you some leeway in a case like that, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know,” Laurie said. “I kind of doubt it. They’re fanatics. They don’t like to make exceptions.”
“Not even if it was your own brother, and you hadn’t seen him for twenty years? You wouldn’t even be able to say hi?”
“Don’t ask me. Ask them.”
“How can I ask them? They’re not allowed to talk.”
“I don’t know. Check the website.”
Rosalie checked the website a lot that winter. She developed a close I.M. friendship—evidently, the vow of silence didn’t extend to electronic communications—with the Director of Public Outreach, a nice woman who answered all her questions and walked her through her doubts and reservations.
“Her name’s Connie. She used to be a dermatologist.”
“She sold her practice and donated the proceeds to the organization. That’s what a lot of people do. It’s not cheap to keep an operation like that afloat.”
Laurie had read an article about the Guilty Remnant in the local paper, so she knew that there were at least forty people living in their “compound” on Ginkgo Street, a six-house subdivision that had been deeded to the organization by the developer, a wealthy man named Troy Vincent, who was now living there as an ordinary member, with no special privileges.
“What about you?” Laurie asked. “You gonna sell the house?”
“Not right away. There’s a six-month trial period. I don’t have to make any decisions until then.”
Rosalie shook her head, as if amazed by her own boldness. Laurie could see how excited she was now that she’d made the decision to change her life.
“It’s gonna be weird, wearing white clothes all the time. I kind of wish it was blue or gray or something. I don’t look good in white.”
“I just can’t believe you’re gonna start smoking.”
“Ugh.” Rosalie grimaced. She was one of those hard-line non-smokers, the kind of person who waved her hand frantically in front of her face whenever she got within twenty feet of a lit cigarette. “That’s gonna take some getting used to. But it’s like a sacrament, you know? You have to do it. You don’t have a choice.”
“Your poor lungs.”
“We’re not gonna live long enough to get cancer. The Bible says there’s just seven years of Tribulation after the Rapture.”
“But it wasn’t the Rapture,” Laurie said, as much to herself as to her friend. “Not really.”
“You should come with me.” Rosalie’s voice was soft and serious. “Maybe we could be roommates or something.”
“I can’t,” Laurie told her. “I can’t leave my family.”
Family: She felt bad even saying the word out loud. Rosalie had no family to speak of. She’d been divorced for years and Jen was her only child. She had a mother and stepfather in Michigan, and a sister in Minneapolis, but she didn’t talk to them much.
“That’s what I figured.” Rosalie gave a small shrug of resignation. “Just thought I’d give it a try.”
A week later, Laurie drove Rosalie to Ginkgo Street. It was a beautiful day, full of sunshine and birdsong. The houses looked imposing—sprawling three- story colonials with half- acre lots that probably would have sold for a million dollars or more when they were built.
“Wow,” she said. “Pretty swanky.”
“I know.” Rosalie smiled nervously. She was dressed in white and carrying a small suitcase containing mostly underwear and toiletries, plus the scrapbooks she’d spent so much time on. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“If you don’t like it, just give me a call. I’ll come get you.”
“I think I’ll be okay.”
They walked up the steps of a white house with the word HEAD-QUARTERS painted over the front door. Laurie wasn’t allowed to enter the building, so she hugged her friend goodbye on the stoop, and then watched as Rosalie was led inside by a woman with a pale, kindly face who may or may not have been Connie, the former dermatologist.
Almost a year passed before Laurie returned to Ginkgo Street. It was another spring day, a little cooler, not quite as sunny. This time she was the one dressed in white, carrying a small suitcase. It wasn’t very heavy, just underwear, a toothbrush, and an album containing carefully chosen photographs of her family, a short visual history of the people she loved and was leaving behind.
(C) Tom Perrotta 2011
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.