Mom says, "Somebody needs to go outside and feed the Beast!"
I suppose that's me. It should be Rose's turn, but of course it's me. We ran out of that stuff called Alpo a long time ago, but the Beast will eat anything out of a can, or even uncooked spaghetti. Nobody wants to feed the Beast because it takes forever. You think you've fed all seven heads, but it always turns out that you've missed one or two, which start blaspheming, and then, before you know it, the main head is hungry again. It can take all night on a Saturday.
Not that there's much to do now that the world has ended. It actually ended back when Rose and I were little, so little that I don't remember. Mom has nothing to say about Judgment Day. She barely noticed it, but then again, she claims that she was always out of step with her generation.
It turns out, however, that the end isn't really the end. Or maybe eternity is just really long. In any case we're all here, still, except for my father and his parents, who are in heaven. I know this because sometimes I see them peeking through the clouds at me and then scattering when the Beast rears his horn-covered heads.
This shack has always been my home. We were homeschooled, in fact, so I haven't spent much time away from here. Rose and I have our own bedroom, and Mom has another room she uses for her clients. We have an old-style TV that we use as a fish tank, except, of course, we can't keep the fish going. Mom says that we aren't missing anything, not on TV or in the sea.
The Beast stays in the front yard all the time. He doesn't do much but he does expect to be fed. Once, when Rose and I were little, we tried to take him for a walk. We may as well have tried to walk our house.
I guess I'd better go feed the Beast now. He's getting louder.
We have tea every Friday afternoon in these pretty little cups that you can't set down until you're finished drinking. They're actually the crowns that the Beast used to wear on each of his ten horns, and they give the tea this strange, metallic taste.
We like to have our tea out on the front porch even though the Scary Thing can find us so easily. Rose groans whenever she sees him coming, but Mom just sits still with her usual smile.
The Scary Thing has two heads: one male, one female. It walks around all the time getting mad at everyone. This time, though, the Scary Thing has a special message for Mom:
"This is all your fault, you stupid whore! Your sins date back to the Fall! You brought the Beast here. You destroyed everything. Your whoring ways caused all our woes."
Rose jumps to her feet. "If you're so perfect, why are you down here with us? Why aren't you in heaven? Just who the hell are you anyway?"
"Don't let him bother you, Rose," Mom says as she sips her tea. "Don't react."
"I hate this fucking place!" And then Rose lets her teacup drop before running inside and slamming the screen door behind her.
The Scary Thing is singing hymns now. Mom just hums along as if she's enjoying the music, but I feel sick inside. My problem is that I can't be nice, like Mom, or angry, like Rose. I have this gnawing in my gut all the time. I'm afraid that what the Scary Thing says is true: there is something wrong with our family. Could we possibly have caused the end of the world? Is everything our fault? I look in the direction of the sea and wonder if I could change it back to the way it once was, full of fish and cruise ships.
When the Beast has had enough, it charges the Scary Thing, which goes running off, screaming about Jesus. Mom laughs and I force a smile.
"You'd better get the Beast a treat, Lily," Mom says as she reaches to pick up Rose's cup. "And tell your sister that it's safe to come out now."
I don't know what to do for a treat so I give the Beast the last of our tea. I pour it right down the throat of the main head, and this seems to satisfy him.
Almost every afternoon and evening Mom is busy with her clients.
"You know what she's doing in there, don't you?" Rose likes to ask me, usually when she's angry or restless. Revelations of the Big Sister. Like I don't already know everything. Like I care. As if there are any secrets post-Apocalypse.
"Sure I know."
"Like hell you do. All you do is collect glass and driftwood and hang out at home."
"Okay. Well. But I do know what Mom does with her clients. Okay?"
Rose does everything with a smirk. It has been like this for a few years now, as if the smirk is a tattoo she got. She smirks her way to the bathroom mirror each morning. She smirks her way to work at the ice cream store, Judgment Cones. People, the Left Behind, will stand in line for ice cream even though it melts immediately. They mostly reminisce about the way ice cream used to be. Nostalgia is a big thing post-Apocalypse. What else is there to do but remember?
Sometimes, when I'm on the beach picking up glass and driftwood (and shells--Rose forgot to mention that) I see Dad looking down at me. I don't know why he can't smile and wave. He just has to gnash his teeth and pound his heart and tear his hair out. Talk about making things worse. Honestly, I don't see anything wrong with the way things are. Some people belong in one place, some belong in another. As far as I can tell, that's the way it's always been.
Angels have the same problem as my dad. They're always showing up and telling us to leave here. They hand us daggers and little vials of poison and try to convince us to surrender.
"It's because they're out of work," Mom says. "They kind of lost their function after the Rapture."
Rose disagrees. "It's because they're perverts. There's not one of them who hasn't come onto me. And they always want to do the weirdest shit--never the hole you'd expect."
Mom smiles and goes to her room.
The angels don't bother me, not enough to keep me off the beach. I don't know what I'm going to do with all the stuff I collect. Make something, I guess. I like the collecting, the walking and gazing, the waiting for something to grab my eye. There's a lot of jewelry out there (it fell off everyone who was Raptured), but I never take it. I prefer natural objects. Glass counts because it was once sand.
Sometimes I come home and find the Beast under my bed. It's a pain to get him to go back outside, but I kind of like it when he's indoors. I like seeing where each of his seven heads is lying. Seven heads, ten horns. Once all the heads were together in a big clump. Another time each one of them was in a different dresser drawer, and the horns got stuck on my underwear. But I didn't care. I wonder what makes him want to come inside. Does he love us? Does he think he belongs here?
I usually let him stay with me until Mom makes me take him outside. I discovered that he likes to have his horns rubbed. I found a healed-over wound on the main head, the one with four horns. Apparently, even the Beast has been traumatized. Even he can be hurt--and recover.
I want to take him down to the sea with me. That's where he came from, after all, according to Mom. Besides, the sea is the only place you can be outdoors for long because it's so hot all the time. Mom says that we would never believe how beautiful the sea used to be before it was filled with oil and dead fish. And jewelry.
But the Beast doesn't like water. I can't even give him a bath. He only likes to stand around or lie in the shade.
Mom: "Give that animal a break, Lily. He's got seven tongues. Maybe he'll start grooming."
Rose: "He stinks. I don't see how she can stand to spend so much time with him."
Me: "Don't talk about him that way."
A confession: there is a part of me that truly loves the Beast, no matter how much of a pain he is. I don't want him to leave. I have even had the thought that I could jump on his back and ride off forever.
But where to?
I can't answer that question.
The fact is, nobody knows what's out there. All news of the world beyond this neighborhood comes from Mom's clients. They're not what I would call a reliable source, and they mostly want to talk about themselves. Besides, nobody can travel very far in this heat. Most travel tales are only tall tales.
So imagine my surprise when Rose tells me she's moving out. I try not to look shocked. Maybe she's only blowing off steam. Everybody gets fed up down here, except for Mom. I am a bit worried, though, because Rose has a saddle for the Beast.
"Where did you get that?"
"One of my co-workers had a horse. The horse went up into the sky, and the saddle fell off. Can you imagine? Your horse gets Raptured and you don't?"
I can't really imagine any of this, but I believe it. I believe stories about horses in the sky. I don't believe in an idea like saddling up our Beast, though. I can't see it.
"I know it will work," Rose told me. "He's been ridden before."
"Yeah. And you know who did the riding, don't you?"
I know she's going to say that it was Mom. There are a lot of rumors about Mom. But I don't care. "I don't think you can get that saddle on him, Rose. Remember how hard it was to use the leash that one time? He won't follow."
"You spoil that stupid Beast, Lily."
Should I tell her that I have had this same idea? Should I bring up the dangers of dehydration, serpents, starvation? It's not like we're little girls anymore. I don't have to go along with everything she says.
It's Friday teatime. We're having it on the front porch. Rose and I take the porch swing, Mom sits on the front steps, and the Beast is lying on his side like a dog. It's almost too hot to be outside, but Mom likes to pretend that we can still have a normal life. Keep up appearances.
The Scary Thing comes and goes with more whore-talk. This time it adds in some criticism of Mom's parenting skills. The Beast growls at it the whole time.
In our bedroom late that night, Rose starts packing. We don't have much, so this is not a big job. She puts her clothes in a pile and wraps a sheet around them. I want to tell her that she should be thinking about water. The saddle is poking out from under our bed where she hid it.
"You should take your teacup," I tell her.
"Why would I do that? I want to forget all about this place."
"You need something to hold water. To drink from, you know?"
Rose finishes packing and looks me in the eye. "What about you, Lily? What are you bringing?"
"I don't think I'm going, Rose."
"You have to." Rose looks serious. "The Beast likes you. He's never going to come without you."
"All right," I say. I don't want to hurt her. I don't want to hurt anybody, and neither does Mom. That's how I know the Scary Thing is a liar: we are not bad people. I tell Rose, "We'll go in the morning. Before it gets too hot."
Rose acts like she didn't hear me. "I can't stand this anymore, Lily. I can't stand the shame. I can't stand the heat. I can't stand the sameness. Day in, day out. It's a prison sentence."
"Mom says it was exactly the same before the Apocalypse. Except maybe it wasn't quite so hot."
And then my sister surprises me by collapsing on the bed and sobbing. She is defeated, and I am haunted by one of the things she said: "What do you mean, you can't stand the shame?"
Rose sits up and wipes her face with her hands. "That fucking Scary Thing gets to me."
"You don't honestly believe what it says about Mom, do you?"
My sister looks at me like she can't believe how stupid I am. "She's the town whore, Lily."
"But that doesn't make all of this her fault."
I want to ask if she has ever met any nice guys at Judgment Cones, or if she would like to go for a walk on the beach with me, when she stands up and ties a knot in the sheet before shoving it under the bed with the saddle. "You're absolutely right, Lily," she says, hands on hips. "It's not her fault."
I'm a little bit scared of Rose right now. Not as scared as I am of the Scary Thing, but pretty scared all the same. When my sister turns suddenly decisive, it means she's up to something. Rose can't ever be still. Acceptance is a foreign concept to her.
I think I know what she's planning. I have to tell Mom.
I'm not supposed to bother Mom when she's working, but I slide into her bedroom in between clients. It is already Saturday afternoon.
"Coffee break," I say, but all I have for her is watery tea.
"Lily, you're not supposed to be here."
"There's no problem. It's just another horseman, but he said he'd wait."
Mom's wearing a pretty red dress and eye shadow, but most of all it's her happiness that makes her attractive. Some people are happy, some aren't. That's just the way it is.
And that's how I begin my speech: "Rose isn't happy, Mom."
"You didn't barge in here to tell me that, did you?"
"She's unhappy and she's going to do something drastic. I think she's going to take it out on the Scary Thing."
"Oh, the Scary Thing will be fine."
"And what about Rose?"
Mom puts the "coffee" down on her nightstand and sits cross-legged on the floor with me. "Lily, don't you understand who the Scary Thing is?"
I don't know why I'm scared. All I can do is stare at Mom's pretty face.
"The Scary Thing was my first lover."
"Get out," I tell my mother. I can't picture the Scary Thing as anyone's lover. "You mean… no… was he all, I mean, were there two heads back then? How did you…?”
"He was exactly the same. I always think of the Scary Thing as a he--the female head is just an ornament."
"You weren't in love, were you?"
Mom looks down. This is the first time I've ever seen her embarrassed. The first time she's had trouble telling me something. Then I think I know the answer:
"Did he rape you?"
"Oh, no. It wasn't like that. It was worse, in a sense. He called himself a holy man. He seduced me, won me over. And as soon as I gave in--with my heart as well as my body--he started calling me a whore. That was right before Judgment Day."
"So you do remember the end of the world?" I ask, gulping for air because I've been holding my breath.
"I don't like to remember it, but I do. I was heartbroken and betrayed. I didn't care that it was the end."
"And what about Dad?"
Mom strokes my face to ease me into the truth. "Think about it, Lily. Dad is not really your dad. Your father couldn't have children. I guess that was one reason why I was so willing to be seduced."
The first thing I see, when I shut my eyes, is Rose. I'm no longer worried that she'll try to murder the Scary Thing. Now I'm worried that she'll join him because she's so angry and restless. And desperate.
"I'd better get back to my client, Lily."
"What about the Beast?" I ask. "Who is he? Where did he come from?"
"The Beast was a gift from the Scary Thing. I don't think he expected the Beast to bond with you, though."
I run out of her room before she can tell me to be gentle with Rose. I don't know what I'm going to tell my sister. None of this is good news. But one thing is apparent to me: this is all the Scary Thing's fault, isn't it?
When I find my sister, she is in the back of Judgment Cones, behind the dumpster, wrestling with the Scary Thing. There are so many props--whips, chains, knives, Bibles--that I can't tell what kind of crime scene this is. They could become lovers. They could kill each other. It's all the same thing in our world. Whatever they're doing, I have to stop it.
"Don't do it, Rose!" I shout. "He's the deceiver! He's our father, not Dad. And everything is his fault. Everything." I am aware that I look a lot like the Scary Thing as I wave my arms in the air and pass judgment, with such certainty, on another being. Is this genetics at work? I try to calm myself and add: "Mom's not a whore. And neither are you."
But Rose is all tangled up in his arms. The two heads, I realize, are a lot to contend with. As the male head of the Scary Thing starts kissing my sister, sucking her breath out, the female head, usually so silent and subservient, turns to me and beckons, "Come and be with us, Lily."
Jesus. I could really use some help here.
The one we called Dad is looking down at us from the clouds, but I can't read his expression. He looks resigned, I guess. Like this is inevitable. Fate. I know better than to expect any help from Mom.
But then I hear something running toward us. An enormous animal. Even Rose is roused from whatever spell the Scary Thing has put on her. The whole world begins to shake, and everything becomes quiet, like this is, for real, the Last Day.
It is my mother riding the Beast. Neither of them look like themselves. They are both focused, on fire, fast. Mom has on a purple dress I've never seen before. She looks ten years younger. The Beast looks great, too, like someone has been feeding him the right food for a change. All seven heads are standing proud and upright on those slender necks, and Mom is straight-backed too. In one arm she is holding a spear.
Mom draws her arm back as Rose pins the Scary Thing in place, and then Mom puts her whole self into that spear, so she can get right at the heart of this thing that has kept us afraid for too long.
--Jan Stinchcomb was born in San Francisco just weeks before the Summer of Love began. Her work is forthcoming in The Red Penny Papers and has appeared in PANK online, Notes Magazine, Words and Images, Singularities: Writing from the Center of the Edge, and in Tartts Two and Four: Incisive Fiction from Emerging Writers. A former foreign language teacher, she lives in a purple house in Austin with her husband, daughters and rehabilitated feral cat. Visit her at www.janstinchcomb.com.