It ate part of the town yesterday, and when Mom and Dad caught me listening to them whisper about it late at night, Dad sat me down and told me that, "I was not—under any circumstances—going to go back there, do you understand, young lady? Because it's big and dangerous and scary and even the adults don't know what it is."
Dad said I would get it "so bad" if I ever went back there, but of course I had to go. The first time I went was with Susan Cassidy, and this is what we saw:
The prairie was all dusted dry, that's the only way I can explain it: Ray's old gas station was gone and so was Ray I guess, but then, so was the grocery store and the thrift shop and the sidewalk and even the road, and if that wasn't weird enough, the only thing that was left of that part of town were the grasses, only, way too clean, shiny like I'd never seen them before, glowing, as if the buildings we'd built over them had never been there at all. I thought that was the weirdest thing I'd ever seen, but things got even weirder after that.
There are no hills here.
You'd know that if you lived where I live, but down the street from Susie's (if you know where to go) there's an old dusty path that runs out from behind the dollar store, and eventually, it leads up to this thing we call a hill. It's kind of a little rise that looks over the part of town where the thing landed the first time, and that's where it landed again, I guess, the morning after Susie and I sat on the hill and looked over the polished no-space where a good stretch of our town used to be: now with no gas station, no thrift store, no road, no nothin'.
We were only there for a minute or two because Susie got scared and kept saying: "I dunno, Kathy. I don't like this, I don't like it one bit. What if our parents find out? What if it comes back and it storms again? What if— This is weird, Kathy. weird, weird, weird what if—"
And eventually, I had to leave just shut Susie up, and I was too loud sneaking back home and Dad caught me and grounded me for a week right there in the living room. After that, he called up Susie's mom and grounded her too, and I went straight upstairs with no dinner to "think about what I'd done."
Upstairs, all I got to thinking about was that without Susie Cassidy, I would've stayed looking at that strip of vanished town forever, that snipped-off bit of normal, with the polished golden grasses growing tall and even on a perfect line where the street ended, as clean as if someone had sliced off the edge of town with a razor.
Upstairs, I got to thinking that I wanted to see the monster come back. Call me crazy, but I had to know how it did it, and in school I'd heard the boys talking and found out that the only one who's maybe seen it for real is Robbie Rickshaw. Robbie scares me more than the monster, first cause he's a boy and next cause he's Robbie Rickshaw, but if Dad hadn't grounded me right after I went up the hill with Susie, I'd have gone to see him sooner.
If any of the stories about Robbie are true, he's the only person in this town crazy enough to go chasing after monsters. It's something in his blood I guess, and maybe when the world gets crazy, it's safer to be with crazy people than normal ones.
That, and Robbie's been talking about this monster for years. So after I was sure that Mom and Dad were asleep, I put on my adventure jacket and my warmest socks and I climbed out the window and down the tree and onto the road, already trusting without ever having met, our town's notorious wildboy, Robert B. Rickshaw.
I stood there for a small forever throwing stones at his window before he snuck up behind me, and when I spun around I was so scared, more scared than I'd been of that people-less, houseless-less, town-less stretch of clean field that I'd seen on the hill with Susie. More scared than I was scared of the monster that had eaten part of our town.
Susie says that Robbie's weird, weird and mean and strange and different. She says he's no good, and that when he came to town, familyless and friendless and alone, everyone started out curious and came away scared, because Robbie's a weird boy and because he's a different color and because for a long time he couldn't stop talking about monsters and crazy, horrible things.
From what I know about him from school, Robbie's bad reputation raised him up pretty quick, and he started to act out more as an outcast, and whenever you heard about a kid spray painting walls or shooting out road signs or hitting mailboxes with baseball bats that kid was always Robbie even if it wasn't, and all of that must've made him worse. But when I met Robbie Rickshaw outside of the orphanage, he didn't look particularly mean or aggressive or strange.
He looked more confused than anything. He looked like he was already dressed for adventure, with the right clothes and the right supplies and everything, and that was weird because I'd just been throwing pebbles at what I thought was his window, trying to wake him up.
I guess it was as strange for Robbie to have a girl visiting him in the middle of the night as it was for me to be there, and it must have been even stranger that that girl was me: little, loopy, bookish Kathy Mathers, who doesn't talk much to boys in general, let alone boys like Robbie Rickshaw.
So, Robbie, standing there in the cold in his dirty jacket and his shredded shoes, who'd probably been watching me try to get his attention for ten minutes, could say nothing except:
"What do you want?"
And me, suddenly conscious of my nicer jacket and nicer shoes and general girlishness, could say nothing except:
"Susie… people say that you've seen it."
He didn't like that.
Robbie turned around and probably would've walked down the street if I hadn't grabbed his coat and kind of pulled him around and said: "wait, wait. Robbie, please. Don't go."
Something in the way I said that stopped him.
Maybe I did something that only boys can understand, because Robbie didn't walk away and I don't know why. He just stood there looking at me with this strange mix of curiosity and interest and maybe even fear, and it got to the point when I felt like I needed to say something, so I said:
"Look— they say that you've seen it and that you know where it lives, and maybe no one believes you but I believe you, and I want to go there and I want to go now."
Robbie Rickshaw spat on the ground.
"And why should I take you, Kooky Kathy Bookworm? What's in it for me?" he asked, using the nickname that used to make me cry in the school bathroom before I got too big to care about bullies.
In the street I didn't cry. I looked him right in his dusty face.
"Nothing. I've got no food and no lunch money or nothin', but I'll be your friend. Mom says that boys like you don't have any friends and I think that's sad. So, I'll be your friend, Robbie Rickshaw, and I'll tell Susie Cassidy not to say nasty things about you. And how's that?"
I felt stupid as soon as I said it, and I thought he was gonna spit on my shoes or hit me right there on the sidewalk on the wrong side of town. But to my surprise, tough and dirty Robbie Rickshaw didn't spit or laugh or scoff or even sneer. He only said:
"You'll regret it, bein' my friend," and he stared into the sidewalk cracks.
"Prove it," I said, with my hands on my hips and my feet set like Mom, and the two of us looked into each other's eyes until he turned and walked down the yellow line on the road.
I knew then that it was alright if I followed him, and I did, and maybe Robbie was right and I was better off not being his friend, better off staying home and vanishing with Mom and Dad and our world, but that's not what happened.
What happened is I went out with Robbie Rickshaw and we saw things no one should see, and afterward, we lived to tell the tale.
He led me out of town on paths I'd never seen before and beyond, to places that were strange but still familiar, still populated with the same thick, tall, waving gold grasses of home, except less touched by the soot of the city.
Those grasses grew straight and high overhead, and with each step through the wilderness, I trusted Robbie Rickshaw not to do something awful to me like the things men did to girls in tales.
Though, already, he didn't seem like that type of boy.
Robbie hardly talked, didn't smile, and walked with a quiet but reserved roguishness that didn't fit the wildboy stories I'd heard about him, and around the time we saw the mountain, I began to wonder if any of the things I'd heard about Robbie Rickshaw were actually true.
He pointed to the bluish mass of skyline in the distance, barely visible at night and easily taller than anything I'd ever seen or imagined.
"We have to go up there," he said.
"Has that mountain always been there?"
He nodded. "Yeah, but you can't see it from town, and your people never go outside of town because they're either too scared or too dumb."
"Mom and Dad aren't dumb," I said, and he replied, real slow:
"Yeah. They are," and I dropped it, with both of us walking through what must have been miles of grassland until we stepped on something I'd never walked on before.
It was hard: shiny and smooth and dustless, what I guess people mean when they talk about stone, or maybe it was something else, but it had this smell: a smell so strong and unreal that it made my eyes water and my nose burn.
It was acrid, too-clean, something near-citric and toxic and it hurt.
"Why do we have to go here?" I asked, doing my best to cover my crying eyes with my sleeve.
"Because you asked me to take you and because these stinking flats are the only place it doesn't go. I hate it here too, but this place is flat and weird and grassless until the… mountain and it won't go there. It only feeds on the towns in the prairie."
I thought about that while we trudged along, then: "So… so you do think it'll come back?"
"I think worse," he said, "I think it'll come back in the morning after dawn. I think it'll do what it does, and I think that this time there'll be nothing left: no town, no people, no nothin."
"Then why don't you do something?" I snapped, "why don't you tell the police or the principal or the people in the orphanage?"
"Because they beat me," he said, "and because I hate it here. I hate this stupid town and I hate these stupid people and I hope it does come back. I hope it comes back just like I always said it would, and I hope it wipes this stupid place off the face of the earth."
"You don't mean that," I said, but Robbie didn't reply, and I didn't ask him any more questions, because I knew he was serious about those awful things that he said, and neither of us spoke another word until we came to the foot of the mountain.
While blue at a distance it was black up close, sheer, slick, and easily the tallest thing I'd ever seen. From atop the first ridge we could see a vast stretch of the flat-flat grassland that I used to think was the whole world, and as we clambered and scrambled up that mountain, huffing and puffing, I couldn't help but look over it all and see how big the world actually was and how small we were in comparison.
We didn't talk until we'd been climbing for what must have been hours, and then I asked Robbie the question that had been nagging me most of the night. It was:
"Why me? If you hate everyone and everything then why take me with you? Why not run away by yourself and never come back?"
"I tried," he said.
"I tried," he shrugged. "I tried to run away and save myself, but when I packed up and started off you were there throwing rocks at my window. I sat and watched you in the cold by the dumpsters, and after a while I figured that I didn't hate you as much as the others."
I couldn't help laughing just a little. "I don't hate you either," I said, and we looked at each other and then looked away, over the cold grassland cast under purple night light.
"So, will we be able to see the monster when the sun comes up?" I asked.
"Sure," said Robbie. "We're standing on it."
And, seeing the look on my face, Robbie Rickshaw smiled a smile that would melt the heart of a snake.
Dawn came all at once, like always: first there was no light and then it was all there, illuminating the whole world from somewhere far above.
I could see the grassland, see the hard, shining, stinking flats around it. I could even see up and up the face of the silent, sleeping beast, all the way up to where it faded into places that my eyes weren't meant to see. We couldn't climb any higher. There weren't any more ledges. I plucked up the courage to whisper:
"How do you know it won't eat us? How do you know it won't move?"
Robbie shook his head.
"It can't move by itself. That's all I know. If it's anything like last time, it won't move until the second monster gets here."
"I don't know what to call it," Robbie said, "call it God if you want to, but don't ask me what it is, 'cause I can't tell you."
"And that's what you saw last time?"
"Yeah," he said, and for the first time since we started off to the mountain Robbie Rickshaw looked truly sad, trailing off to a choked whisper: "last time."
And that was when I finally put it all together: how Robbie came to town familyless, how he couldn't stop talking about monsters.
"It… where you came from. It— it ate your town didn't it? Ate your family?"
He nodded, head down, one tear cutting through the grime on his cheeks:
"Nothin'... nothin' left. All of them."
I reached out and held his hand for a long time. It was warm, and while I held it I couldn't help thinking about my own family, couldn't help imagining that just now Mom and Dad must be waking up in town and wondering where I was: knocking on my door, checking my bed, calling the neighbors, yelling my name, crying and staring their day in a frenzy, knowing exactly where I'd gone without being able to follow, and here I was overlooking it all, with nothing left to do but hold Wild Robbie Rickshaw's hand because I needed to know.
I needed to see it happen.
And I did.
In about an hour the monster woke up, and Robbie and I watched it gobble up the whole town.
The second thing arrived with seven thunderous earthquake—footsteps that shook the world and almost split my head in half. Looking up, I couldn't see all of what it was. It stretched up and up and up into heaven, the monster that only Robbie had seen, and before I shielded my eyes from it I knew he was right.
It was God, and God was vengeful.
High up in the clouds, he throttled the top of our mountain with a hand as big as a planet, and with us still perched on the ledge far below, he slid the mountainous mass of monster over the stinking flats until it was well on the way to our town.
There was a tumultuous, atomic rumbling noise, an ear-splitting, head-crunching, deafening roar, and in a second, the monster slid across the miles of grassland that had taken us all night to cross with impossible, sickening ease.
Under us, it began to storm.
Such a storm I'd never seen. It was the godly, horrible, thunderous tumult of the rapture. Riding on the flat outcrop of the mountain, we moved too fast to see it all. One second we weren't there and the next second we were, sliding over our town as if we rode on a cloud. It all happened so fast that I don't think I could see everything even if I wanted to.
I remember looking down and watching a hundred terrible tornadoes obliterate everything I'd ever known: public library shredded to pieces, the roads blown to dust, cars gone, hospital sucked to heaven, Susie's parents' house torn to splinters and eradicated, and under all of it, nothing left but pure and uniform golden grasses.
Over the roar of His thunderous anger, I couldn't even hear their screams. I couldn't hear anything until it was over and the storms subsided. There was a sickening lurch in my stomach as the monster retreated back to the edge of creation, and I couldn't move until Robbie grabbed me and yelled "JUMP!"
I didn't have time to argue.
He grabbed my hand and we jumped, fell floating down to earth while God and his monster left us holding each other on the floor of a world made clean.
I'm not sure how long we laid there, but I remember waking up to a pure and golden world with not even a speck of dust to be found.
It was heaven: not even the memory of our people remained. We were speechless for a while, your father and I, but eventually life moved on, and pretty soon we got to building the town you see around you today, complete with road signs and supermarkets and the home where we raised you.
Robbie says that God will bring his monster around again, and he's lived through it twice, so I thought I'd tell you both this story as soon as you were old enough to understand what it means. Your father thinks that when the monster comes back we'll all run away together, but he knows as well as I do that we can't do that.
Robbie and I are too old now.
We'll stay with the home we built and vanish like my family did, but you Adam, and you Eve, well— you're both about as old as I was when I ran away with your father, and maybe it's your destiny to start it all over again.
But who knows?
Between the four of us, I think we're smart enough to get you out of here next time the rapture comes. As someone who's seen Him, I can tell you that God ain't built in our image, kids: he's got hands big as planets and continents for feet, a squishy body that goes up and up and up.
As dust, we can't claim to understand His will. But know this: someday, God'll want his grassland heavenly clean again, and when he does, we'll wait for him and his monster with our heads held high and our eyes unguarded, 'cause God must know as well as I do that dust settles in every corner of creation, and try as he might, he can't vacuum us all.