by Carolyn Divish
On the morning of the rapture, Tansy McClellan lay on the trailer’s scruffy carpet like a slab of old meat. Her toy cradle—a childhood artifact that had been used more often for X-rated Barbie and Ken sessions than sleeping baby dolls—hovered in the air above her head. The wooden frame, cocooned in thick layers of orange yarn, was barely recognizable as the thing that had been ignored for years in a corner of her childhood bedroom. Four months ago, her mother brought it to the trailer, as if now that Tansy was herself a mother, she’d want it. She’d rolled her eyes at her mother’s sentimentality, but now, it was the only thing keeping her real baby from rising up to the ceiling.
Motionless on the nasty carpet, Tansy was unsure what to do next. Every dumbbell she owned, all the kitchen pots filled with water, milk jugs full of gravel, shampoo bottles, scraps of lumber, anything heavy she could find were tied into the coils of yarn. It was a desperate attempt to tether the cradle to prevent it from drifting away, and still it floated above the floor like a parade balloon in the center of the trailer.
The tube television played the same continuous loop of people floating away that it had been playing all night. The newscaster, a blonde with hair cemented into a bob, announced that the president had asked all citizens to remain indoors while the nation’s top scientists determined what to do about gravity’s selective failure.
“GSF, as it’s being called, is happening worldwide, but we still have no answers.” The blonde’s voice played over an image stream of religious kooks holding signs reading “Rise to Meet Your Maker or Stay Inside and Be Damned” and “The Time is at Hand!”
Inside the toy cradle, seven-month-old Julie slept quietly, her body pressing up into the yarn. As Tansy sat up to watch, Julie pulled a tiny fist to her mouth, leaving a ripple of yarn in its wake. Tansy laid a soft hand on the yarn. The crib bobbed like a boat on the water.
“So beautiful,” she whispered, touching a finger to Julie’s cheek through the yarn web. The sleeping infant with her curl of hair and flawless skin was as perfect as a magazine photo.
The TV hissed and screeched as it cut out to static. It was last thing that had belonged to her ex, Ron, and its constant failure to perform was yet another reminder of him. Sometimes slamming the side would fix it, mostly it didn’t.
“Fuck you, Ron,” Tansy mumbled as Julie’s eyes flew open. “Wherever you are.”
When Ron took off to Alaska to live out his Ice-Road-Truckers dream—because “Them guys know real men don’t get tied down to daily grind bullshit”—all she could say was good riddance. The poorly executed tattoo of his face was easy enough to cover up. A horn and a cover of grey converted Ron’s twisted grin and close-set eyes into a rhinoceros, which she rather liked even if it did have an odd smile. All that remained of the asshole Ron Chance was a half-broke TV, a rhino grinning manically on her shoulder, and a newborn. In this part of rural Indiana, only the tattoo was hard to explain.
“Hush, pumpkin.” Tansy gently swayed the cradle up and down, left and right, back and forth, and idly hummed a lullaby.
Julia Marie Destiny Chance had put Tansy’s life on the right track: no more weed, no more drinking, no more dancing at the titty bar (although that last one was not entirely her choice). Instead Tansy had begun working at the Wal-Mart and had opened a bank account. She intended to be somebody now that she was someone’s mother.
Julie’s fleshy cheeks crammed into the opening. Her mother’s tune had caught her ear. It was the one Tansy always hummed, a hair band oldie that played at the club a lot, but Tansy felt a chill spread down her body. She realized she was humming “The Final Countdown.”
The TV static cleared to the opening trumpets of the morning show and a series of sound bites. A home video of teenage girls giggling as they tumbled above their living room couch, kicking off the popcorn ceiling. Footage of a New Jersey commuter train crash, inside pressure lifting it from the rails and bursting the sheet metal open like a microwaved hot dog. The crib rose higher and Tansy had to stand.
“This will all be over soon.” Tansy brushed a finger against Julie’s cheek. Julie turned to catch it in her mouth. “And you and me will keep on keeping on. Just like we’ve always done.”
The first news story featured a clip from the International Space Station. Astronaut Sergej Demitriov had filmed dawn over Earth’s western hemisphere. Clouds of dark flecks rose like soda bubbles. Sergej said it was impossible to tell what happened to the flecks, but it seemed that they just disappeared before reaching the edge of the atmosphere. He promised that once fellow astronaut Yen Ling reported for duty, they’d have more answers.
“Mr. Demitriov, is Mr. Ling there?” the reporter demanded. “The American people need answers.” He tapped his papers against his desk, an action meant to convey his seriousness, but only amplified his fear.
“He’s gone,” Sergej Demitriov mouthed.
The TV cut to static again.
Julie spat out Tansy’s fingertip and flailed against the prison of yarn, crying “Ma ma ma ma ma.”
Tansy ached to hold her daughter in her arms and feel the soft baby rolls against her body. When a fat tear rolled down Julie’s reddened cheek to the yarn, Tansy’s heart shredded. “I can’t, pumpkin. You have to stay there for your own good.”
Julie’s head twisted, searching the yarn for a nipple to latch to. Each time her head turned, the pencil dot of a freckle at her temple winked through the opening and the weights knotted at the end of the yarn swayed and clinked. Cold water splashed from the pans onto Tansy’s bare feet.
“Shhhh, honey. Shhhh.”
“Ma Ma Ma.” Julie’s cries escalated, but it was the pouted lip that was the final straw. The quivery earthquakes that shuddered the baby face. The wrinkled chin folds.
Tansy’s breasts tingled with letdown.
Gravity or rapture or alien fucking apocalypse, Tansy couldn’t stand the separation anymore. The overwhelming urge to hold her baby, coded in the DNA of every cell, was stronger than breathing. She was willing to risk everything to feel her baby’s skin next to her own.
“Mama’s coming,” Tansy’s voice cracked with tears.
Tansy scissored through the yarn with sharp chops, pushing her daughter down out of the way. As the weighted cradle clattered to the floor, Tansy caught Julie with both arms, folding her tight against her chest. The same force that pulled Julie upwards buoyed Tansy so her toes barely clung to the carpet. Bending over her daughter, she tried to think herself heavier, imagined herself a dead weight anchoring Julie to earth.
With one hand, Tansy freed a breast and Julie latched to it, a snapping turtle motion, stretching the nipple out impossibly far like the night in Jamie Shock’s shop when Tansy’d had it pierced. The guy had pulled it roughly, pinching it between his fingers before punching the post through. She’d been proud that she hadn’t cried. A year later, in the hospital with Julie, she had removed the piercing to breastfeed, and then bawled. Cried and cried in the hospital bed.
“What should Mama do?” she asked.
She clung to Julie, uncertain whether she should let herself rise with her daughter or let her go. What if the kooks were right and everyone left on Earth was damned? She didn’t believe in heaven or hell, but was she certain enough to stake Julie’s chance at happiness? On the other hand, would a good mother release her infant to float into the sky to face an unknown fate helpless and alone?
“Oh God, Julie. I don’t know what to do.”
Tansy’s toes lost their grip on the carpet, unable to withstand the force. They bobbed upward together, Julie’s body rounded with baby chub, and Tansy’s sinewy one bent over it. Tansy’s feet brushed the table lamp’s cracked shade as they passed, knocking the light off center and casting a rocking light around the living room.
Julie’s only answer was to smile.
Tansy knew what her own mother would say, if she could have called her. It was the same bit of sage advice she had given for every circumstance of Tansy’s life. “You only get one chance, Tansy Mackenzie McClain. Don’t screw it up.” She never offered how to avoid “screwing it up.” Each time, Tansy’s decisions didn’t work out, her mother reworked the same bit of advice as a perfect scolding. “That was your one chance, Tansy Mackenzie McClain, and you screwed it up.”
Tansy’s back bumped the ceiling near a damaged patch that had leaked during heavy storms. The trailer looked so strange from up here. The piles of messes, dishes in the sink, heaps of dirty clothes, the dust she hadn’t seen, the general shabbiness of her life, all the minor details she’d never even noticed.
“This was where we lived.” Tansy cupped Julie’s head. And brushed her lips against the baby cheeks. “You made me happy, little girl.”
This life was already in past tense. She could feel the tears coming.
“Don’t screw it up now, Tansy.” She swallowed her fear. “Time to make a good choice.”
Pinned between Julie’s upward force and the trailer’s ceiling, she had little room to move. Julie’s position, wedged into Tansy’s chest, made it nearly impossible to draw breath, but Julie continued to suckle, unaffected by the building pressure. Tansy stretched a toe toward the recliner. If she could snag her toe in the recliner’s ripped upholstery, she could pull them back to the floor. She could buy time to think.
The crack was sudden, a rifle crack resonating inside her chest. Tansy held her breath, waiting to feel the pain of broken ribs or a hole in her abdomen. Julie screamed with delight as they broke through the rotten roof. Tansy shrank from jagged fingers of roofing metal, but the fine edge caught her, scratching a red line down her calf. Stifling a squeal, Tansy scrambled to center her weight over her daughter.
She winced as droplets of blood swelled from the cut, but there was no time to think of small hurts now. “I guess I’m in it for the long haul, pumpkin. Hold on tight to me, okay?”
Tansy felt giddy as the remnants of her life fell away. She’d never noticed how snug it had been. Now the horizon stretched out and her sense of freedom expanded to meet it.
She could see Mrs. Kerby, the town gossip, hanging damp underwear on her backyard line. The town square was crowded with fire engines and police cars as Mayor Campbell hosted a meeting of first responders. To the east, the Victorian farmhouse, Tansy’s childhood home, hid behind an enormous oak, her rope swing still attached. At the modest bungalow next door, Candy Bledsoe’s junker Plymouth reclined in the driveway, a jack holding up its front end. A million years ago, they were best friends, before life sorted them into nerd and stoner, and Candy went to college. At the end of Boatman Road, the Super Wal-Mart loomed over its enormous parking lot, the largest building in the town with a parking lot to match.
“No work for me today.” Tansy doubted she’d even be written up. Today wasn’t a day anyone would care, good choice or not. “No Wal-Mart for me ever again.”
Tansy glanced upward. No pearly gates, but no alien ship either. An hour before, the sky had been full of people on the currents. Now the sky was empty except for the two of them. The tail end of The Rising, the last people from Earth who would learn the truth, but she was far too high to worry about what was in store. She had no choice but to believe that it would be good.
“Mama loves you.” Tansy shifted to place a kiss on the tiny freckle at Julie’s temple.
The shift in weight made Julie squirm. She made whimpers of discomfort as she tried to wriggle away.
“Honey, stay close to Mama.” Tansy looked at the ground now so far below that she could barely identify the ribbons of roads and cars traveling like a stream of ants, and her stomach seized with terror. She squinted up once more, and still saw nothing but the blazing sun. “Just a little further, pumpkin. Mama doesn’t mean to hurt you.”
Below, the familiar whoosh of cars, sirens, text alerts, background chatter faded away, and for a while, the only sounds were the two of them breathing and the air swirling over their heads.
“Just you and me,” Tansy cooed. She knew she was holding Julie too tight, but she couldn’t quell the fear bubbling in her belly.
Thin air beat against her ears drums and tortured her lungs. Below her, Julie’s ribcage strained for air. Using what energy she could muster, Tansy tightened her upper body to give Julie more room to breathe. It brought back memories of dancing on the pole at the club.
“Whatever’s gonna happen, it better happen quick.” Tansy forced a laugh. “Mama’s arms are getting tired.”
For no reason Tansy could tell, Julie’s face crunched up. The corners of her mouth pulled deep into a frown and her eyes squeezed shut.
“Shhh,” Tansy tried, but Julie wouldn’t be calmed.
The long intakes of air, marked by empty voids in the sound, hurt Tansy the most. The deep suck of those infant lungs preparing to push out a flash of a wail, no longer than a burp, pierced her heart. The baby face twisted and coiled, going red with a distinct bluish tinge.
“No.” Each word required a full breath. “Julie.” Tansy felt light-headed. “Stop.”
She had trouble remembering why it was important that Julie stop crying, only that it was very important. And then the clouds parted and she saw the ground impossibly far away. So far away, she no longer recognized it, but not yet far enough to create the familiar blue and green marble.
Julie’s wails were fewer and her breaths more pained. Her face more blue.
Tansy desperately wanted to cradle her baby in her arms, to soothe the crying and feel the comforting warmth against her chest. To smell the baby smell, a fresh human unblemished by life’s knocks.
Her chest muscles were quivering. Her body was soaked in sweat from the heat as well as the effort. Her fingers clung to the baby flesh more tightly than she wanted.
Somewhere overhead, the Space Station circled with Sergej Demitriov watching. The pair of flecks intertwined. A mother and daughter, the last of The Risen—one true Risen and one just along for the ride—coasting into the atmosphere soon to meet whatever fate lay ahead.
At least, someone would be a witness.
Writhing under Tansy’s hands, Julie’s face contorted. The cries were weak grunts now, her face blue-grey. Her ribcage fluttered, mining for oxygen in the rarified air. Wriggled against her mother’s grip, she struggled for air, space.
Tansy let go.
Her eyes locked on Julie’s beautiful curl at the crown. The freckle on her temple. The daughter who would have everything she’d never had. And that she would have given anything for.
Tansy only wished her own mother could know that when it counted, Tansy was a good mother. She hadn’t screwed it up.
She wished Ron could see her too. She’d love to see the look on his face when he saw that his tattoo sexpot was a better mother than he’d chalked her up to be. When they had been waiting in the clinic’s office—her in the paper gown, him thumbing through the hunting and fishing magazine—he’d said, “This is the right thing. You’re not the mothering type. You’re too much about you.”
So she had walked out, paper gown and all, even though she knew Ron wouldn’t stick around to be a father to their baby.
Tansy grinned like the armored rhino tattoo on her shoulder, now blistered and burned, but still smiling that cockeyed smile. With the wind buffeting her back, she watched Julie’s speck disappear in a blink. One second a tiny baby rising in the clouds, a helium balloon released to escape gravity’s inevitable suction, and the next, gone as if she’d never been there.
Carolyn Divish is an Indianapolis-based writer. Her work has appeared in Jack and Jill Children’s Magazine, Silver Birch Press, Punchnel’s, Mythic Indy Anthology, and elsewhere. She received an MFA from Butler University and worked as Prose Editor for Booth.