Chapters:

Chapter 1

ONE

Mila wasn’t the first to discover the churches were missing. Far from it.

It had been a regular Sunday morning when Mila dragged herself out of bed, poured the cereal with one eye open and threw on her Sunday best; a black pencil skirt and golden- collared shirt to match her hair.

Instead of greeting her acquaintances by the doorsteps and taking her seat in the third row, she was stopped by a concerned crowd staring at a blank field where the church used to be.

It didn’t make sense to see a lush field of blooming flowers in place of their mighty cathedral. Mila considered church her home, especially after her family threw her out when she was sixteen. She was lost, riddled with addiction and struggling to find her place in the world. Without her sanctuary, there was no telling what she’d do.

“Did...someone take it?” Mila was the first to break the silence. The crowd turned to look at her, their faces white, their prayer beads in hand. “I mean...was it demolished?”

“No, love.” Sue, a gentle soul in her fifties wrapped her arm around Mila’s shoulders. She was the closest thing to a mother Mila had ever had. “Look at the grass. It’s as if the church never existed.”

“It’s the work of God,” a gentleman Mila had never spoken to said.

“Or the devil,” Sue said. “What test is this? It’s a punishment, isn’t it?”

“I think it’s a prank,” Mila said, her voice tightening. “It has to be. I mean...God is capable of anything...but he wouldn’t do this. The devil doesn’t have the power to do it, either. This is the work of man...or woman...or aliens.”

Just like that it happened. Mila became the outsider again. They stared at her with disgust and hatred, as if she were responsible for taking their church away. Fighting the urge to burst into tears, she shuffled closer to Sue, comforted by her motherly touch.

“Has anybody seen Father Luke?” Elmer asked, whipping out his phone when no one answered. “I’ll call him.”

The crowd mumbled quietly to one another as Elmer pressed his phone to his ear and waited.

“I better tweet this,” Sophie said, burying her face into her screen. “Mila, you’re good at hashtags. What should I put?”

Mila shifted uncomfortably, the atmosphere slowly changing tone.

“Um, hashtag Church gone? I don’t know,” she kicked at the grass. “I’m not thinking clearly.”

“It’s cool, it’s cool.” Sophie didn’t look up from her phone. She rarely did. She was one of those laidback teenagers who took everything as it came. Skinny, fashionable and sweet, she was one of the few people Mila actually felt good around.

She glanced over Sophie’s shoulder and read the tweet.

Hometown church disappeared. Grassy plain. #wtf #weirdnews #churchgone

“Do you think anyone will know what happened?”

“We’ll find out soon enough.” Sophie glanced up from her phone and grinned. “Already got two favorites and one retweet!”

“He’s not answering,” Elmer said.

“Try again!” someone called out. “Father Luke will know what to do!”

Elmer dialed the number again, but this time he glanced at the field.

“What is it, Elmer?”

“Shh! Can’t you hear that?”

A lump formed in Mila’s throat when she heard the distant ringing. “I hear it.”

“Hear what, love?” Sue asked, but Mila was already pushing through the crowd to get to Elmer. She dropped to her knees and pressed her ear to the ground, following the high-pitched ring. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead when a dark shadow tugged at her stomach.

“Please no,” she whispered, digging her nails into the grass, pulling up the blades and dirt. “Please just let me be crazy. Please, please, please!”

Mila couldn’t understand why something as soft as grass and dirt could feel like shards of glass beneath her fingernails. It hurt, but it was the least of her problems.

“I need a shovel,” Mila said. “Or a spoon…or something!”

“Will my bobby pin suffice?”

“Not really, Sophie.”

“Oh!” an old lady in a wheelchair rummaged through her bag. “I have knitting needles?”

“Perfect. Thank you.” Mila grabbed the needles and plunged them into the ground, scraping the dirt away.

She swore her heart stopped beating, just for a moment, when her fingers finally clasped around the phone. She pulled it out, sickened when she saw the wallpaper. It was Father Luke’s three daughters, gathered around him as he blew out birthday candles. There was no denying it. It was definitely his phone.

Elmer hung up and the ringing stopped immediately. He snatched the phone from Mila, his jaw clenched. “What...what the hell is going on here?”

Mila couldn’t fight the tears anymore. She crumbled to her side and wept.

“Oh crap.” Sophie’s tone contradicted her entire personality. “Guys? It’s not just here.”

Mila pulled herself off the ground, struggling to see through her drowned eyes. “Soph? What are you on about?”

“The church, the disappearance, the grassy plain! It’s not just here!” Sophie’s words ran into one another. “It...I...it’s everything. Every temple, every church...anything that’s remotely religious is gone. It’s all over social media!”

An eerie silence befell the crowd. Mila thought she was suddenly deafened by the quiet, so she did the only rational thing she could think of in a time of despair.

She screamed.

**

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

Mila wasn’t the type of Christian who memorized entire passages, whipping them out at a moment’s notice, but she remembered the passage about doubting her faith and the existence of God. She just wasn’t convinced; not when a book had been translated and changed so many times in the last thousand years. There was a creator: that she was sure of. But whether the creator was a man in sandals who hated gay people was something she debated.

It’s not like that even mattered anymore. It was the people who mattered. She sat alone in Quake Diner, blowing on a cappuccino that was cold. She just couldn’t bring herself to drink it.

She stared outside, the streets littered with “the end is near” and “repent” signs. Within five hours, the whole town had switched to a state of fear. Everyone, except for Hank, the owner of the cafe.

A natural optimist with one leg and a perpetual smile, Hank was unfazed by the missing churches. Maybe it was because he was an atheist, or maybe it was because he loved a good conspiracy theory, but he laughed every time he turned on his phone and checked the latest breaking story.

“Hey Mills,” he said, limping over and falling into the seat across from her. “Check this article out. Man falsely predicted end of world last year warns us he was right. Ha!”

“Doesn’t it upset you?” Mila asked, slightly comforted by his burly chuckle.

“The article? Nah, it’s a crack up.”

“Not the article. The missing churches.”

Hank stroked his bushy beard. “It’s exciting. Can’t you see it’s a government ploy to whip us into shape? It’s the illuminati. I bet my bottom dollar. Without temples and churches, the fundamentalists are gonna go nuts and kill each other, reducing the population. The people left over will be so fearful and gullible that they’ll listen to anyone who claims they know how to fix the problem. I can tell you one thing, Mila: I’m not falling for that crap. No way, no how. I know Beyoncé and Jay Z think they can control us with their reptilian eyes and subliminal messages, but it’s not getting through to me. I have a bunker they can’t get to and I’ll fight the illuminati off if it kills me! They won’t control us! You’re welcome to my bunker, Mila. It must be scary living alone in a time like this.”

“I have my cat.” Mila attempted to joke, but it only made her depressed. She lived in a lousy

bedsitter that was probably smaller than a coffin. “I might take you up on that offer, Hank. I don’t want to disturb Sue. She’s praying with her family tonight.”

“Where’s your family at? Surely you’re not still on the outs with them?”

“I’m so far out that I can barely remember what their voices sound like. Coke, alcohol, and an abortion at sixteen really fueled their indifference towards me. I think they moved to Canada last year...I, I think. It’s what I heard on the grapevine anyway. They won’t even accept my Facebook messages. Nothing will undo my actions and they’re stuck in the past. They don’t believe in forgiveness.”

“That sucks.”

“Just a little.”

“My family and I don’t get along well, either. Ever since my stupid brother got us in that car accident. I miss ol’ leftie.” Hank motioned at his missing leg. “We talk at Christmas. Feel obliged to, being the last surviving family member, but the love is gone. Not that any of that will matter when the illuminati take over. Henry is a rule follower, you know? He’ll bow down to his new masters. Wimp. Reckon you’ll still go to work tomorrow? Won’t legal secretaries become redundant with the new world order?”

“Ah. I guess I’ll go. I need some semblance of normality. A lot more people will be breaking the law if they think God gave up on us.” Mila glanced outside, looking through her grim reflection. The town looked normal...but...it wasn’t. It was hard to describe. People were praying around the patch of land where the church used to be. Some shops were closed, but others carried on as if it were a normal Sunday afternoon. She swept her hair, auburn with golden streaks, behind her ear, struggling to ease her racing heart. She wasn’t ready for this. For any of it. She was petrified of what was going to happen.

Hank must’ve noticed Mila’s strained expression, because he stood up and took her full cup of coffee with him. “Come on, Mills. Let me show you the bunker. Crash with me tonight.”

“No.” She stood, pulling out coins from her purse. “No thank you. Maybe tomorrow? If, if that’s okay? I need to feed my cat and...recharge. Catch up on the news. Process and all that. I’ll come by after work tomorrow?”

“No dramas, mate, no dramas. It wasn’t a sleazy offer, just so you know. You’re a good kid, no matter your past. You’re making amends and I respect that. Whenever you need me, I’m here. You got that?”

“I do.” Her smile was genuine, but her chest still felt tight. “Thanks Hank. Can I leave the money on the table?”

“That money is going straight back into your purse, missy. I’m not gonna need it when the illuminati take over.”

“Right. Goodnight.”

Mila left, surprised by how cold it had gotten outside. She powerwalked home, through the dicey area of town, sickened by the amount of high neighbors that were spread out on their lawns fornicating and drinking. She guessed they didn’t have any worry of spiritual consequences anymore.

The worst neighbor was Jack. He was a hardcore drug dealer, covered in tattoos. His life’s mission was to sleep with Mila, especially after she made the mistake of buying pot from him as a teenager. It was just her luck that she ended up moving next door. It was the only place she could afford.

“Hey Mila!” he slurred.

“Hey Jack,” she said politely, but she didn’t want to engage.

“Wanna join?” he motioned to the naked women on the lawn with him. “Give me five minutes and I’ll be ready to go again.”

“No thank you,” she said, avoiding eye contact. She didn’t want to see his scrawny body and greasy hair.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, Mila! The churches are gone! Your God won’t care! I’m sick of asking nicely!”

“I said no, Jack!” She fumbled with the lock and hurried inside, regretting her decision to stay at home. She would’ve been a lot safer with Hank.

Ignoring his cackle, she switched on the lights, relieved to find her tabby cat Eevee asleep on her bed. Her house was as cozy as she could physically make it, but it still wasn’t ideal. The walls were brown, with various stains on the ceiling. The floorboards were old and creaky and her furniture was bought third-hand on Facebook Swap and Sell. The bedroom and living area were the same room, with a cramped kitchenette and bathroom to the left. Absolutely tiny.

She undressed and put on her nightgown, still too distressed to eat. Petting Eevee, she slid into bed and turned on the radio. It was only the afternoon, but she was ready for bed.

“Many are saying this is the end of the world. It’s advisory to repent in the safety of your home and be with your loved ones.”

Loved ones? Nobody loved Mila. She reached towards her bed stand and rummaged around for her bible. When she couldn’t find it, her heart skipped a beat. She threw back the covers and pulled out her diary, facial cream and hair bands. Still no bible. Was this some kind of cruel joke?

She dropped to the ground and checked under the bed, but only Eevee’s mouse toy was there. Shit. Where had she put it? Surely she hadn’t misplaced it. Panicked, she searched every drawer in the kitchen, checked in the bathroom and laundry and pulled her bedside table from the wall to check if it’d fallen behind. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Defeated, she sat on the end of her bed and wept.

Can’t believe fucking Mila won’t put aside her gay religion to have some of this! What do you reckon, girls? Who wants more?”

There was a cheer outside, followed by pleasurable moans.

Mila blocked her ears and thought back to the last time she had her bible. It was…it was two nights ago. She was in bed…she was tired…but she definitely put it back in the drawer.

She cringed when Jack swore and the girls moaned. She hated the f-word.

Wait. What if Jack had taken the bible? It wouldn’t be the first time he broke in undetected. He was proficient at lock picking, and he broke in about two months ago and put a fake horse head in Mila’s bed with a card that said “Happy Birthday. Ready to fuck?” He was a grade A douchebag.

Mila had frantically searched for an affordable place to live ever since, but nothing else was in her budget. She was too scared to call the cops. They didn’t like her and wouldn’t bother helping. In their minds, she was just as feral as Jack.

She wouldn’t put it past Jack to steal her bible. He’d think it was funny, especially considering how religious she was. He was a lowlife scumbag who didn’t even know what compassion was. She threw on a coat to hide her nipples poking through her nightgown and slid into sweatpants.

Filled with a sense of entitlement and fury, she burst through her front door and glared at her naked neighbors who had spread over onto her lawn. She wasn’t taking any more of their shit.  

“Did you take my bible?” she asked, folding her arms.

“Hey?”

“My bible, Jack! You broke in and took it! I told you never to come back into my house!”

“I haven’t been in your house since your birthday! I keep my fucking promises, all right? Besides, what the fuck would I want with your goddamn bible, Mila? The churches are gone. Ever stopped to consider maybe bibles are gone too? The devil has risen, girlie. This world belongs to people of the night. You may as well join us. I’ve been wanting to grab that ass of yours since I first saw you. Bet you’re a screamer...I can make you scream, Mila. How about it?”

“Get off my lawn!”

There was an ominous flash in Jack’s eyes and Mila instantly regretted her outburst. Jack was capable of a lot of things. As a teenager, she was defiant, strong-headed and people like Jack were her friends; her lovers. Deep down, part of her liked him…and she was even strangely attracted to him, but her common sense made her fearful.

“I’m not going anywhere, Mila,” he rasped. “So you either join us or you go back inside and shut the fuck up.”

Option two was the obvious choice. Shaken, she ran back inside and locked the door, scrambling beneath the covers. She inhaled steadily and burst into tears when the door rattled.

“Hey, Mila? Come out. Forget your preachy crap. The world’s a better place now! Drugs and sex...lots of sex. Don’t tell me that’s not what you want. Our bodies pressed together, sweating together...shit, girl. I’m hard just thinking about you.”  

She didn’t reply. She wanted him to think she’d left through the back door.

“Mila? Let me fuck you! Come on! I like it fast and rough!” His laugh was evil. “Unless you’re more interested in pussy? I can just watch…for a while.”

She closed her eyes and mentally blocked him out. He’d pass out soon enough. He always did whenever he drank too much. She just hoped he’d drunk enough.