Even though I’d slept poorly, I got up at 8:00 the next morning to join the nuns in the kitchen. It used to be the old employee break room. I liked it because it had skylights, which made the room bright and cheerful during the day.
“Good Morning, Raquel,” Sister Scholastica said as I sat down next to her. “How did you sleep?”
“Terrible.” I reached for the pot and poured hot chicory into my mug.
“Would you be a dear and pass the soy milk, Raquel?” That was Sister Agatha. A tall, angular woman with close-cropped hair and deep brown skin, she was sitting on my left. Like the other Sisters, she’d given up her birth name and taken the name of a saint. And boy did she pick a doozy.
Saint Agatha was a virgin who was imprisoned for rejecting the advances of Governor Quintanus. He had her breasts cut off as punishment, but the joke was on him because St. Peter healed Agatha that very night. So Quintanus got his revenge by having Agatha rolled over hot coals until God had to go and ruin everything by sending down an earthquake.
“Would you like some oatmeal, Raquel?” Sister Rose sat across from me, arctic blue eyes wide, delicate eyebrows lifted as she awaited my answer. She had taken the name of Saint Rose, a woman so beautiful, she could have married any man she wished. But all Rose wanted in life was A) to be a virgin and B) to contemplate the Blessed Sacrament. So she sheared off her hair and smeared pepper on her face to scare off her suitors. Later in life, she made her own Crown of Thorns which eventually became lodged in her skull.
“Elbows off the table, Raquel.” That, of course, was Sister Monica. Other than the Mother Superior, she was the oldest of the Sisters, with salt-and-pepper hair and strong, calloused hands. She was named for Saint Monica, wife to an adulterous husband and long-suffering mother of that no-good son, Augustine. Monica cried every night until he converted to Christianity. This went on for nine years because there were no telephones in the 4th century. Otherwise, Monica could have cried over the phone until Augustine converted. He’d have lasted two weeks, tops.
The empty chair at the head of the table belonged to Mother Quiteria. She’d probably already eaten and was back in her office, which was fine with me. I was eighteen years old, but Mother Quiteria still scared the crap out of me and all the other kids in the Zone. None of us knew what she did before becoming a nun, although there were theories. Some believed she was a CIA assassin, while others said she was an alligator wrangler.
I let Sister Rose serve my oatmeal as my mind drifted back to Sisko. Why had he disappeared? Where had he gone? Why was he back? And why now, when I was finally moving on?
“Is everything all right, Raquel? You’re so quiet this morning.”
I looked up and saw Sister Rose watching me with concern. I gave her a brief smile. “Yeah, I’m fine.” I looked around the table and saw that the other Sisters were watching me too. “Really, I’m okay. I’m just a little freaked about the weird stuff going on right now.”
Sister Rose nodded. “It’s definitely worrisome.”
“Has anyone seen Sister Joan?” asked Sister Monica.
“I think she’s in her cube,” said Sister Rose. “She said she wasn’t hungry.”
“We should bring her some tea if she isn’t feeling well,” said Sister Scholastica.
“I can’t do it,” said Sister Agatha, pushing back her chair. “I’m sparring with Sister Monica this morning and I want to spend some time warming up.”
“Make sure to practice your Thunder Kick,” said Sister Monica. “It’s a little weak.”
“Speak for yourself, Sister. Your Rooster Elbow wouldn’t hurt a chicken.”
“How scandalous!” laughed Sister Scholastica.
Sister Agatha ignore the comment and turned to me. “Care to watch?”
“Another time,” I told her. “I’m gonna go check on Sister J.”
The sisters were still giggling when I left.
I found Sister J sitting on her cot. Strands of her shoulder length blond hair had slipped out of her pony tail and covered her face. She was looking down at something in the palm of her hand and didn’t notice me standing in front of her.
She started. “Raquel! What are you doing here?”
“The Sisters missed you at breakfast,” I said. “Is everything all right?”
She brushed her hair from her eyes. “I’m fine.”
Sister J was a terrible liar. Her eyes were puffy and her face was blotchy. Obviously, she’d been crying. Plus, everyone knows that “I’m fine” is code for “my life is shit.”
Now I sat on the cot next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
She put her arms around me and sighed. “I am now that you’re with me.”
I hugged her back.
“Did you need me for something?” she asked when we’d finished hugging.
“I was just checking on you.”
She smiled. “You’re so sweet. Was that all?”
I hesitated, unsure if I should tell her about Sisko. Sister J read it in my face. “What?”
So I told her, “I saw Sisko last night.”
Her breath caught.
“I know,” I said. “Shocker, huh?”
She put her hand on my arm. “Where was he?”
“Here, in the parking lot outside the convent.”
All the color drained from her face. “Did you talk to him?”
“What did he say?”
“He needs to talk to you.”
She stood up abruptly. “Where is he now?”
“I don’t know. But he was really insistent about seeing you, so I imagine he’s somewhere close by.”
She opened the top drawer of her little file cabinet and hurriedly dropped the thing she was holding inside. Then she turned to me. “I want you to promise me something.”
“Sure,” I said uneasily.
“Do not talk to him until I’ve had a chance to see him myself.”
She shook her head emphatically. “Just promise me.”
“Okay, I promise.”
She took my head in her hands and regarded me. “It’s important that you do as I ask.”
“I already said I would,” I responded, slightly irritated.
She kissed me on the forehead. “I’ll be back soon.” But as she exited the cubicle, she turned to me. “You know I love you, more than anything in the world, don’t you?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Never forget that.”
I left Sister J’s room and headed to The Loving Heart of Jesus. One of the first things you saw when you entered the thrift was an oil painting of a headless woman holding her bloody head. That would be Quiteria, patron saint of kicking Roman ass. She spent her days busting Christians out of jail and not listening to her father. He had her decapitated for refusing to get married, which seems kind of harsh if you ask me.
Next to the painting was a sign I’d made to deter shoplifters: JESUS SEES EVERYTHING YOU DO. SO DO OUR SECURITY CAMERAS. We didn’t actually have security cameras, but the customers didn’t know that.
The store was empty, so I brought up the news feed to see the latest on Jesus. He hadn’t said or done anything new since giving his ultimatum. Mostly he just floated above the White House, looking really pissed.
Meanwhile, the Internet was going crazy. Was Mega-Jesus real or fake? If he was fake, how did you explain the hundreds of videos that had been uploaded to YouTube and other sites over the past eighteen hours?
I was so absorbed by the news that I didn’t hear Mother Quiteria walk up behind me.
“Turn that garbage off,” she growled.
Startled, I toggled off the ‘Screen immediately.
“I need to speak to Sister Joan,” said Mother Quiteria. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know. I’ll check the warehouse.”
I hurried to the back of the store and stuck my head through the doorway. Sure enough, Sister J was there. I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her speaking in a tense, hushed voice.
I cleared my throat. “Sister J?”
The talking abruptly stopped. “Give me a moment,” she called out. There was more whispering. Then she hurried into the store.
Who was she talking to? I wanted to ask her but she breezed by me to see Mother Quiteria.
“Yes? What is it?”
Mother Quiteria folded her beefy arms over her chest and frowned. Unlike the other Sisters, she wore the traditional habit. In it, she resembled nothing less than a human tank with orthopedic shoes. “We may have a problem.”
“What’s going on?”
“People are starting to panic over this… manifestation,” said Mother Quiteria.
“Are you talking about D.C. or here?” asked Sister J.
“I’ve been told a riot broke out in D.C. People are trying to leave the area but there’s a massive traffic jam on Interstate 66, so now they’re looting stores and fighting with each other.”
Sister J nodded gravely. “Just this morning, I heard this morning that some of the other Orders have been getting bomb threats from a group called the Disciples of Prosperity.”
“Oh my God.” I started laughing before I could stop myself.
Mother Quiteria nailed me with her eyes. “What’s funny?”
I composed myself as quickly as possible. “I know who that is.”
“The Disciples are the followers of Reverend Prosperity Jones.”
“I’ve never heard of him,” said Sister J.
“He’s a joke.”
“A bomb threat is no joke,” said Mother Quiteria.
“I’m telling you, the guy’s a nutcase. You want to see? I can bring up his videos on the Net.”
“Do it,” ordered Mother Quiteria.
I found the Prosperity Jones channel on YouTube. My, my. The good reverend had been busy. I scrolled through the most recent sermons.
“What on Earth…” Mother Quiteria squinted at the ‘Screen as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. “Do people actually watch this?”
“Are you kidding? They love it. Look at how many subscribers he has,” I said. “But do yourself a favor and don’t read the comments.”
“I think I need to sit down,” said Mother Quiteria.
I grabbed a folding chair and placed it next to her.
“Jones just posted a new video,” I told her. “You wanna see it?”
Mother Quiteria looked about as enthused as someone forced to eat bucket of worms. “I might as well.”
Jones was standing in a room that looked like a study. His face was pale and shiny and there were dark circles under his eyes. He licked his lips and his eyes darted nervously to the left.
“Greetings, loyal…” He coughed and cleared his throat. His voice was raw, as if he’d been screaming.
“Greetings, loyal disciples,” he began again. “By now, you’ve p-probably learned what the rest of the world knows: Armageddon is here.” He gulped visibly and looked slightly to the left of the camera, his expression questioning. “But fear not, for I have personally s-spoken to the Lord.” Here, he broke into a coughing fit. Someone from off camera handed him a glass of water. Jones took a drink and went on.
“The Lord has told me…” He paused, frowning slightly. “The Lord wants you to know that when he asked us to bring him the wicked, he forgot to specify that what he really wanted was wicked women. A lot of them.” Jones took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Now, you’re probably asking yourself, ‘Where can I find large numbers of wicked women in the short time the Lord has given us?’ I’ll tell you: look in the places where feminists and lesbians congregate, like women’s health clinics and women’s churches.” He paused and took another breath.
“The Lord also has instructed me to tell you these exact words. He says, ‘Do not fail or my wrath will be unspeakable.’” Jones winced. “Now go forth, my disciples and do whatever you must to fulfill this task. The fate of the world is up to you.”