This Side of Salvation

Jeri Smith-Ready

For all those lost, forever and for now

“If the Lord comes and burns—as you say he will—I am not going away; I am going to stay here and stand the fire . . .”

- Sojourner Truth



If this were the last night of my life, I could be at peace with that.

That, and everything else, as I walk hand in hand with Bailey out of the pool house and back into the blare of the party. Her long hair brushes my elbow, stirring memories of reaching, fumbling inthe dark; memories so fresh they feel more like dreams—not etched as events in my past but posed as possibilities in my future.

Future. A word that stumbles off my tongue lately, like a phrase in a new foreign language.

The sandstone clock on the side of the pool houses four minutes after two. The final hour.

I try to put myself in the place of my parents and the others who think the Rapture will take place in fifty-six minutes. They’re waiting for that moment when the true believers, living and dead, will be raised up from earth before all hell literally breaks loose.

After scarfing their new favorite foods—pizza, cheesesteaks, TastyKakes—or are they already dreaming of that heavenly banquet? Are they playing their favorite tunes on infinite loop, or are they dreaming of that angelic choir? Are they having sex (not my parents—the thought makes me gag), or are they dreaming of that divine embrace?

Part of me wishes I’d never lost that all-consuming hunger. My soul still craves the unseen, unflinching love that was there for me in my darkest hours. Sometimes my lungs still need it to breathe. But even the sweetest faith can taste sour when it’s used as poison.

Bailey and I return to our towels, spread on the lawn not far from the gazebo where three seniors are karaoke-ing the prom’s theme song. It’s a bouncy, triumphant tune that idolizes our bright future.

End of the world or not, things change tonight. I can feel it in my bones, in my skin, nad every cell in between. The future is mine again.

Bailey stretches out beside me, and then slips on the corsage I gave her. The red rose doesn’t match her pink-and-blue paisley bikini, but she doesn’t care. As she inhales the rose’s scent, her blue-gray eyes smile at me through the sprigs of baby’s breath.

On my other side, my best friend, Kane, is too preoccupied with his prom date to notice we’ve returned. Or maybe he knows that anything he said right now, after where Bailey and I have been, would embarrass us (by “us,” I mean me).

I lie down on my back and take Bailey’s hand, feeling the itch of flowers against my wrist. I should tell her I need to leave soon, but this moment’s fragile perfection won’t allow words, especially not those that speak of limits.

So I close my eyes as sounds of the night wash over me. In the gazebo, my sister, Mara, belts out a Florence + the Machien song, to the delight of the crowd. To my right, Bailey hums along softly. To my left, Kane and Jonathan-not-John laugh together, then kiss, then laugh again. It feels like the whole world is happy.

I hear the wahp-wahp of sirens, see the blue-and-red strobe of lights through my eyelids, and realize that I am dead. Not heaven-bound dead, cashing in on my undeserved eternal ecstasy. Dead as in, if I’ve missed curfew—and therefore the non-end of the world—my dad is going to kill me.

Here on Stephen Rice’s lawn, “busted” echoes in a dozen panicky voices. I sit up quickly as barely dressed juniors and seniors scurry past, tripping over scattered beach towels, pouring out the contents of their plastic cups. I pity the grass its imminent hangover.“David, the cops are here. Are you sober?”

I turn to blink at Kane, sitting beside me. His sharp blue eyes examine my face. On his other side, Jonathan-not-John looks ready to run, but for Kane’s reassuring hand on his arm.

Bailey asked me that same question earlier. I’d said yes, when it was most important.

It’s still true. “Yeah, I fell asleep.” I fumble for my phone, before remembering I didn’t bring it with me. “What time is it?”

“A little after three.” His eyes widen. “Uh-oh. Were you supposed to be home at—”

“Two thirty. In time for—wait.” I look down at my hand, palm pressing grass that’s still green and alive. In the clear sky above the pool, stars are shining, not falling.

No trumpet blasts. No demon locusts from hell. No horses with lion heads and serpent tails shooting flames and smoke and sulfur from their mouths. My parents’ dream of the End Times—and my recurring nightmare—is a big fat no-show. Hallelujiah.

But I’m still late. I twist to my right to kiss Bailey good-bye, since I’ll probably be grounded for weeks.

She’s gone. Her abandoned corsage lies in the middle of her bright yellow towel.

“Where’s Bailey?” I ask Kane.

“Maybe in the bathroom? I didn’t see her leave. Hey, don’t panic. There’s no law against being at a party with booze if they can’t prove you drank it.”

“I had one sip an hour ago.”

He laughs at my concern. “By this point, that’s the same as none.”

The cops enter the backyard through the front gate of the tall wooden privacy fence and onto the patio through the sliding glass door, blocking off two escape routes.

Not the third, though. The partygoers stream toward the back gate, where I came in, behind the pool house.

“David!” My sister, Mara, lurches toward me in her short, black prom gown, silver sequins flashing in the light from the tiki torches. “We need to go. Now!”

No need to ask why. It’s obvious where she got the courage for that balls-to-the-wall karaoke performance that was thrilling the crowd when I fell asleep. Mara is hammered. She may be a year older than I am, but at seventeen she’s still way underage. If I don’t get her out of here, we’ll have bigger problems than angry parents.

But I’m barefoot and wearing borrowed swim trunks. “My clothes are in the pool house.”

“I’ll bring them to you tomorrow.” Kane hands me his sandals. “These’ll help you get through the woods without slicing your feet.”

“Thanks. If you see Bailey, tell her I’ll call her.” Assuming Mom and Dad don’t end my communication with the outside world.

“Hurry!” Mara huffs. Strands of brown hair flop in her face, remnants of her fancy prom do. She’s joined by Sam Schwartz—her date and my left fielder—who’s trying to walk and pull on his shoes at the same time.

I tighten the sandal straps and stand quickly but calmly. No sudden moves. With one last glance toward the patio, where a trio of cops are delivering Breathalyzer tests, Sam, Mara, and I slip away like ninjas.

Behind the pool house, a crowd of about a dozen swimsuit-clad prom goers are trying to cram themselves through the narrow back gate all at once.

“Stop pushing!” someone whispers.

“You stop pushing first!”

“Everyone stop pushing,” I urge through gritted teeth, checking behind me. We’ll be the last ones out—if we get out.

The crowd surges forward suddenly. In five seconds we’re at the gate and—

“You there,” a voice behind us commands. “Stop!”

Mara stops, because deep down, she’s still a good girl. I, on the other hand, have been in this situation before. I push her forward ahead of us as the literal hand of law enforcement brushes the back of my shoulder.

I don’t show the cop my face, figuring in the dark I probably look like any brown-haired guy in blue swim trunks. Without turning, I shove the gate shut behind me until the latch catches, bracing my feet against the ground. Sam helps me hold it closed against the cop. One of his friends joins us, a burly guy whose name I forget.

“Give me that branch!” I tell Mara, pointing to the closet of the two dozen limbs lying here on the edge of the woods.

I wedge the narrow end of the thick branch under the gate to make it stick. It won’t hold for long, but it’ll buy us a head start. The privacy fence’s wooden slats are too tall and tight for the cops to see over or between.

Sam takes Mara’s hand to follow the rest of the students, who are plunging blindly into the stand of trees in front of us.

“No,” I tell her. “This way.”

Mara gives Sam a quick kiss and a wistful whispered, “Bye!”

We run to the right, past three high-fenced backyards, until we reach Kane’s house. There’s a well-worn path between his home and mine on the other side of the woods. It’s a path I could walk in my sleep—and did, in fact, walk in my sleep a few times when I was eight.

I keep my drunk sister upright as we hurry down the hill, my feet sliding in Kane’s too-big sandals. These suburban woods are as much like a real forest as a golf course is like a real meadow, so there’s no underbrush to hide behind. My bare, pale torso is an arrest me beacon in the night.

At the stream, Mara turns on her phone’s flashlight app so we can see where to step across. The makeshift bridge Kane and I built years ago—three planks of plywood nailed together (high-tech, we are)—is barely visible, dark gray against the black water beneath.

Just as we reach the other side and pass under my tree house, a shout comes from behind us, up the hill. The cops must have broken out of the Rices’ backyard.

We run toward our house. The strap of Mara’s little silver purse is wrapped around her wrist, and the bag flashes in the porch light as she wobbles on her high heels.