Rapture ~ Max Dunbar

July 11, 2008

The first of that day’s many strange events occurred at the Oxford Road junction at 11:42am. It was a sunny spring morning with a plane gunning quietly through a blank blue sky.

Oxford Road is a four-lane street lined by restaurants and bars. A four-way junction sits by the Cornerhouse and splits the traffic down Oxford Street and another major road. Along Oxford Street, a courier for a large city firm had been stuck behind some arsehole in a Vauxhall Corsa, listening to Talk Sport and waiting for the lights to change for what seemed like half an hour. The traffic light finally descended into green, and the Corsa waited a few seconds before accelerating.

Come on, pal, today, the courier whispered, fingers drumming an impatient tattoo on the wheel.

            At last the Corsa edged forward and began to accelerate. The courier hit his own pedal, and surged forward right into the back end of the red Corsa. The arsehole had just driven a few yards, and then stopped.

            ‘Right, that’s fucking it,’ the courier murmured to himself, getting out of the driver’s door. There was a note of satisfaction in his voice. He was going to demand the Corsa driver’s insurance details, and if the driver did not comply then he would find half his teeth gone and a few major bones reset at new and interesting angles.

            The radio seemed to be going nuts, panicky voices overlapped by grinding static, but the courier barely noticed or cared. He strode up to the Corsa, put one hand on the door and wrenched it open.

            There was no one there. The car had that familiar smell of exhaust, sweat and tobacco, and the Corsa guy’s radio was still on, but the vehicle was definitely unoccupied. He looked up and around him – but he knew that there had been no time for the driver to get out and abandon his car in the short seconds since he had put on the brakes.

            He looked around… and kept looking.

There was a twelve-car pile up at the Oxford Road junction. The petrol tank of a black cab had caught into a serious blaze that was spreading to the traffic islands. As he watched, a 192 bus drove up towards a junction, then wavered onto the pavement opposite, smashing into the double doors of the conference hotel. A couple of students had been walking on the pavement, and the courier had seen one of them turn around at the last minute, seen the man’s imminent death register in his face (a change of expression that was almost cartoonish in its sudden shock and dismay) and then the vehicle’s undercarriage had swallowed them, no blood, no screams, nothing.

He jogged back towards the pile-up at the traffic islands. There were a couple of people trapped inside a family saloon whose doors were now buckled shut by the impact. A man with a broken leg had crawled out of his vehicle and was levering himself toward the pavement, blood dripping from his face onto the tarmac. But many of the cars were empty, GMR and XFM and Key 103 still blasting from whatever radios still worked, cigarettes smouldering in ashtrays, half-drunk Evian bottles and coke cans spilled on the seats and floor. Amy Winehouse was singing about how she wasn’t going to rehab, no, no, no.

            The courier got out his mobile and called 999, but there was only an engaged tone.

            He looked up into the bright blue sky. The airplane traced a semicircular contrail as it headed towards earth.

 

Scenes from the late morning and afternoon of April 19, 2007:

            A call centre manager marched into the open-plan office to demand an explanation as to why no one had replied to his emails, and found that about half of his workforce had simply vanished into thin air. Every light on the phones was glowing red. 

            Paul Adams and his brother Dave had gone to the King pub in the Northern Quarter to watch the sport, as they’d done every season for the last forty years. It was a slow game and the two men had lapsed into argument. Paul was in the middle of what he thought was a particularly good point about City’s midfield when his brother disappeared. He just fizzled away into nothing, like he was on a teleporter from Star Trek. His pint glass shattered on the ground.

            Shocked, Paul looked back to the game on the big screen, which had been abandoned due to the disappearance of fourteen of the players, seven linesmen and one of the commentators. Disoriented fans milled around half-empty terraces.

            In a Fallowfield apartment, Jonathan Robson was having sex with a beautiful young clubber that he had been chatting up for the last twelve hours, first at the Music Box, then at the afterparty in that warehouse in Belle Vue. He’d spent hundreds on pills, coke and wine trying to get her into bed, and now he was going to fuck this woman’s brains out.

At least, that was the idea. But the girl vanished just a few moments into the intercourse, leaving Robson with a wilting, dripping cock and the notion that the whole encounter had been some kind of wishful hallucination.

            It was outside association time at Strangeways prison, and the guard on duty was surprised when many of the inmates dematerialised from the exercise quad. A few more saw an opportunity and moved towards him. The guard, Dennis Stringham, was one of the more corrupt and bullying of the prison officers and widely hated.

            Through the closing circle of his grinning charges, Stringham saw a few other prisoners making a run for the exits. He screamed for backup, but none came: most of the duty screws had dematerialised as well.

            Over at Manchester Royal Infirmary, the A and E was flooded with casualties from car crashes and train derailments. One guy was being treated for multiple fractures after his business partner had vanished while the two of them were carrying a heavy couch up a flight of apartment stairs. There were plenty of beds, as many of the long-term patients had disappeared. The downside was that a lot of staff had gone too, including medical specialists, surgeons and technical operators.

            Danny Hansen had been on his feet for a while. He had ingested nine MDMA caplets and two and half grams of cocaine since finishing work the previous night. Now he was in a post-club party at the Music Box on Oxford Street. A lot of his mates had flagged or passed out or copped off, but he was still up for it, still going strong.

            He was broken out of his rhythms when the guy behind the decks faded into the darkness. Danny swigged at some water, trying to convince himself this was some trick, some sophisticated buildup. Some of the dancers around him were also fading. The big black guy with the glowstick between his teeth, the blonde girl in the white trouser suit, the stout young goth with the red hair – going, going, gone.

Other clubbers were looking around, indignant and confused at the loss of the beat. But Danny thought this was the most amazing thing that had ever happened in the span of his twenty-four years. He took a few steps backwards, looked around the decimated dancefloor and shouted: ‘Fucking phenomenal!’

 

Harry Prentice walked over to the Cornerhouse bar and got a drink. He had to serve himself, since the barman had dematerialised some time ago. Out of habit, he put a pound in the tip jar.

            He returned to the other three in his group. They’d all had a long Friday night and had come out early to get over it. It was now approaching the evening. The smoke seeped through the glass in the walls. Their best option seemed to be to just keep drinking.

            ‘Will this happen to us?’ asked Andy Milligan. ‘Are we just going to, like, fade out of existence?’

            ‘No, man,’ Harry said, although he couldn’t know that. ‘I reckon if we were going to go, we’d have gone by now.’

            Julia stood up. ‘I want to see the news. I want to know what the official version of this is.’

            Harry and Julia searched the half-empty bar and found an old portable TV in a back room near the glass collecting station. They plugged it into a socket by the window and turned it on. The electricity still worked. At least for now.

            As expected, the only programmes running were news broadcasts. The picture was overlapped by fuzz and the shot kept jerking and wavering, perhaps because many of the cameramen and technicians had vanished. The newsreader looked like a harried stand-in.

             ‘…looks like between fifty and sixty-five per cent of the population have, and there’s no other way to put this, just disappeared off the face of the earth. And this isn’t just in Britain: we’re getting reports from the United States, Europe and Asia that say that the same basic occurrences are happening there. As you can imagine, this has caused major chaos and disruption to the country. The FTSE is at an all-time low, roads have come to a standstill and there has been looting in the streets. We’re going to go to Number Ten for official reaction.

‘Now, the Prime Minister disappeared some hours ago, as have most of his Cabinet, but we can still talk to Mr Blair’s spokesman, who should be appearing on the picture behind me any minute – ah.’

A middle-aged man in a suit appeared on the big screen beside the newsreader. He was standing outside Downing Street and holding a sheaf of papers.

            ‘Now, Michael, I understand that you have intelligence on what’s happening today?’

            The spokesman cleared his throat. ‘Yes. Earlier this afternoon, I was visited by a man claiming to be an emissary from God, who appeared in my office shortly after these disappearances began. When I say appeared, I mean he literally materialised in my office. He introduced himself, like I said, as an emissary from the Lord, and explained that the strange events we’re seeing today were in fact the beginning of the Rapture, as foretold in the Book of Revelation.’

            ‘The Rapture?’ the newsreader said. ‘You do realise how fantastical this sounds?’

            ‘Yes, Ian, I must admit I was initially sceptical about this assertion, but when one thinks about it one realises that it is the only explanation that makes any sense. The emissary explained that this is indeed the beginning of Armageddon, when all the people who’ve served God well are ascended to heaven. He asked me to read this statement.’ The spokesman unfolded a sheet of A4 paper, and cleared his throat again.

‘’Behold, mortals, for this is the time of Apocalypse and the End of Days. Those righteous among you, who have kept the Lord alive in your hearts, will be taken into the kingdom of Heaven, there to spend eternity in His loving embrace. Yet there are unrighteous among you, who have led men away from the Truth and the Faith, and they shall perish in that perversity and abomination which they have created. Tremble, mortals and sinners! This is the time of the Prophet and the End of Days! There shall be a wailing and gnashing of teeth, their cities will burn, and ye shall hear the cries and lamentations of their women.’

The spokesman paused. ‘And, well, it goes on like this. I don’t know if I should read out any more, as there may be young children watching this broadcast, but the statement goes on to detail various graphic punishments for the, ah, sinners among us. It makes quite unsettling reading.’

            The newsreader said, ‘Well, Michael, I have to say I’m shocked. This is all just, well, literally unbelievable.’

            ‘I wouldn’t say that,’ the spokesman said. ‘We are, after all, an ostensibly Christian country, and everything the emissary said is indeed predicted in the Book of Revelation. The emissary also said that, ah, representatives from the kingdom of God will be arriving on Earth to facilitate the ascendance process. These are, as you say, very strange times, but I think they also give us an opportunity for renewal, to move forward as a nation that celebrates spirituality, of all faiths and cultures.’

            The newsreader then began interviewing church leaders for their reaction. Julia said, ‘Jesus. This doesn’t look good at all.’

            Harry picked up his drink and walked over to the glass wall. Sure enough, a man surrounded by a radiant, almost yellow light was ushering people into a glowing conical tube that extended up past the windowpane. He felt like the straightman in the world’s biggest joke. It was all true. The religion, the holy texts that he had hated and mocked for most of his adult life, it was all true.

            He walked outside and up to the man of God. Except for the soft outline of light, the apparition looked completely normal; he could have been a council employee. He was holding a clipboard.

            Harry said, ‘Excuse me. Erm… this can’t be happening, can it? Can it really?’

            ‘What’s it look like,’ the man said, not looking around from the queue of the Saved.

            He was close to the ray of light but hardly dared look at it. It gave off a faint humming sound, and he noticed that the hairs on his arms were on end. ‘But… why now?’

            ‘Well,’ the man said, ‘the numbers 19 and 4 have a special significance in the Bible. Don’t quite understand all the numerology shit myself, but it’s all in there. Plus, it’s your just punishment to be left to stew in your own corruption. Your society is an affront in the sight of the Lord.’

            ‘What do you mean by that?’

Harry turned around at Julia’s voice. She had walked out onto the steps without him realising. The other two were hovering behind her.

            The man of Heaven said, in matter-of-fact tones, ‘You’ve separated church and state, you’ve encouraged the spread of idolatry and blasphemy, and you’ve allowed mortal law to supplement the word of God. Did you know only seven per cent of people in this country go to church? Seven per cent! Can you fucking believe that?’ He turned to face them, distracted from his duties.

‘I mean, look. You’ve let Jews, Muslims, Rastafarians and Christ knows what else come into your country and set up their own heathen churches and kebab shops. Despite the fact that the Book of Deuteronomy clearly states that you should kill all heretical believers and destroy their property. You’ve granted rights to women, to the blacks…’ He waved an arm up towards the Gay Village on Canal Street. ‘You’ve even got a whole district just for the sodomites! Did you cunts never read Leviticus?’

He shook his head. ‘That Enlightenment thing, that’s where you all went wrong. Christ, that was one almighty fuckup you boys made.’

            Andy Milligan said, ‘But the vicar at my church said that Christianity was a religion of peace, where everyone was accepted. He said all the stuff about killing was, you know, misinterpretation.’

            The emissary snorted. ‘Yeah, and that was another mistake, all those liberal priests. I mean, what’s the point of having religion if you’ve got to be nice and politically correct about it? God may see every sparrow fall, but it doesn’t mean He gives a fuck.’

            Julia said, ‘How do you choose who gets saved and who doesn’t?’

            ‘We take people who have kept themselves pure, and stayed on the path of righteousness.’

            ‘Hang on,’ said Andy Milligan. ‘I was raised Catholic. I go to church every Sunday. Why aren’t I coming with you?’

            ‘When you were fifteen years old,’ the man said, leafing through the papers on his clipboard, ‘you had lustful thoughts about the girl who sat in front of you in biology class. Heaven only accepts those who have denied such mortal urges.’

            The Saved had lost their look of resentful impatience and were taking an interest in the conversation. A pigtailed blonde said, ‘So what’s Heaven like, then?’

            ‘Eternal paradise,’ answered the man promptly.

            ‘But what do you do all day, in Heaven?’

            ‘Well,’ the man said, ‘one of the great delights of paradise is being able to look down and see the unrighteous sinners boiling in the lake of fire and the agonies of punishment.’

            ‘Okay,’ the girl said. ‘What else?’

            The man was looking harassed now. Every eye in the queue was on him, and a murmuring ripple had spread at the back.

            ‘Look, Heaven’s good. Being out of the world is good. Nothingness is good,’ he said with impatience. ‘Now, we’ve got a lot to get through. Move along, move into the light.’

            Harry looked around at the wreckage of Oxford Road. Paramedics were helping people into an ambulance and tending to their wounds. Firemen were using industrial cutters to rescue families from their crashed cars. People were looting the shops, just like the news had said, but he noticed that they were sharing their food and drink rather than fighting over it. He saw a woman, released from an upended Volvo, rush over to a man who was walking over from Odder Bar with his arms outstretched and tears in his eyes. The woman threw her arms around him with a survivor’s intensity and they held each other for a long time. The fireman who’d done the cutting watched them, his stance devoid of envy and pride.

            He was flooded by a joy and resolve that made his arms twitch as if electricity was running along them. He thought it was something only a mortal creature could feel, an atheist’s epiphany.

            Harry Prentice moved past the queue of souls (some of them were now looking around with a very human doubt on their faces, as if tempted to break the chain) and went to join the cleanup operation. His friends were by his side. There would be a lot of work, and heartache, but maybe later there would be time for drink, and talk, and love, and all the good things of the world.

            The man of God watched them go with an expression of jobsworth’s contempt. He’d seen those odd speculative looks in his queue of the Saved, and quickly hurried them on; this was no part of the plan.

            ‘Come on, move along, we got a lot to get through,’ he repeated, and placed his body against the street as they shuffled forward, not wanting them to see what they were missing. 

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4 Responses to “Rapture ~ Max Dunbar”

  1. […] Savage Omnibus #2 rapture by max dunbar […]

  2. […] My short story of this name is up on Savage Manners […]

  3. […] Update: I once wrote an apocalypse story, available here […]

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