Neither the Day nor the Hour
The second my peepers snapped open I knew something was super sketch about the day.
For one thing, it was blazing bright, the force of a thousand suns streaming around the lone shade pulled across my naked window. Which meant I overslept. Which also meant the bar sitting below my apartment was missing its commanding general.
“Not good Max Blade…”
I moaned as I eased my aching body upright.
Then I remembered good ol’ Burt. Best bar cook this side of the Grand River that Mill Creek Junction had to offer. He’d be cussin’ up a storm, flippin’ flapjacks and bacon, scramblin’ eggs and brewin’ coffee. But he’d manage until I dragged my sorry ass out of bed.
But then the second thing hit me that sure as hell confirmed the day was super sketch.
Not a smell, not a scent, not a whiff!
Doubly not good.
By this time, judging by the sunlight trying to bust the door down, my walls should be drippin’ bacon grease by now with how many plates of the stuff we served down in Max’s Place.
Yet no bacon, no coffee, no nothin’!
Which meant good ol’ Burt wasn’t downstairs cooking breakfast for the Sunday mornin’ church-goin’ crowd. Not the mimosa or Bloody Mary kind, mind you. But what they lacked in imbibing they more than made up in tipping. At least they had that going for ‘em.
Anyhow, that brings me to the third reason I knew something was sketchy about the day.
Not a peep, not a squeak, not a tweet from underneath my warped floorboards of the hundred-year-old joint.
Or the clang of pots and pans working the stove like it was nobody’s business. Or the scuff of chairs and shoes sliding along the well-worn wood floor there was no way I was gonna replace, thank you very much. Or the jingle of my trusty barroom doorbell announcing the next church-goin’ patron.
“Not good Max Blade…”
I eased out of bed, sitting at the edge to listen, to discern, to intuit anything that could clue me into what in hot hades was going on.
No nothing. Complete solitude.
Not good indeed.
Time for a look-see.
I changed into a t-shirt and a pair of pants, both smelling far riper than I would have wanted given the sour morning. Then I slipped into my sherpa-lined slippers for the jaunt downstairs. Because a man’s gotta have at least one cozy comfort in life. And it might as well be sherpa-lined slippers. Especially when the day’s gone to hot hades.
I went to my apartment door to take the flight of stairs down below when I realized a fourth thing that made the day extra-super sketch.
The copper-colored mutt usually slept at the end of my bed, all curled and snoring to beat the band. Because a man’s gotta have a good dog, sleeping at the end of the bed, snoring up a storm. And a Golden Retriever is as good a dog as they come—as mutt as he was, with a Shih Tzu for a mama. Didn’t know how that happened. But as they say, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Yet no Rusty.
Which wasn’t unusual. Had one of those doggy doors installed, so maybe he was downstairs.
Speaking of which…
I opened the door and headed to the first floor of the century-year-old joint passed to me by Papa and his papa before him, who won it in an OK-Coral-style gunfight at the start of World War I, right out on Main Street. Or so the family legend goes. Who knows. All I know is I should be swimmin’ in breakfast fumes by now, which got me all hot and bothered under the collar at the bozos who hadn’t shown up to their Sunday-morning shift.
The creaks and clatters and moans of the stair boards were loud enough to wake Old Man Nugent sheltered in the mirror unit next door above his barber shop. Never knew how he kept the place afloat, but the Junction being what it was had churned up a doozie of a rumor. Something about the Mafia or cartels south of the border. Which I never paid much mind to nor paid much judgment. Figured it was the small-town way and all.
Either way, I reached the bottom and threw open the door, then stepped into an episode of the X-Files.
Lights were still off. Chairs were still turned upside down on their respective tables. Still smelled of bleach, because I damn well ain’t never gettin’ another food safety violation, not with that bureaucratic sick-in-the-mud looking over my shoulders. And Pine-Sol, lots of Pine-Sol. Because I sure as hot hades ain’t redoing those floors, and Mama said it’s the best way to keep wood all new like. Mama’s know best. Especially the janitor kind.
Not a sight to be seen, not a sound to be heard, not a smell to be smelled other than that bleach and stale peanuts and rotten hops.
“Not good Max Blade…”
I walked farther inside, my slippers sending up squeaky perturbations across the floor. And yes, perturbations. Got a whole mouthful of them kinda words. But I only had one on the tip of my tongue at the time.
Not even my faithful server was around.
“Anybody?” I shouted, my only reply an echo of my frustrated self.
I huffed and walked to the bar, reaching down for the phone that sat underneath. I plunked it on the worn wood stained with time and drink and started pecking out Burt’s phone number from memory.
Now, a more civilized fella might have whipped out his dandy smartphone device. No way, siree. Dumb phone for me, what with the government listening in and all.
The phone rang. I waited.
Five rings, then voicemail.
I scrunched up my face and grunted a frustration, then hung up and dialed Sheila’s number.
The phone rang. I waited.
Four rings then a ‘Hello,’ which gave me hope.
“Hey, there, Sheila—
“Psych! You know the drill.”
Then the blasted beep of the voicemail tone.
I slammed the receiver back in place and threw the phone back under the bar.
“What the hot hades is going on?”
Time for another look-see.
I sauntered to the front door and fiddled with the lock, taking a gander outside and growing curious at what I saw.
Unlocking the door, I threw it open and stepped out into the mid-morning sun, looking with dumbfounded disbelief up and down the street lined with the best that small-town living had to offer.
Which was nothing.
Correction. Which was no one.
Not a soul around.
Which wasn’t entirely unusual, since it was Sunday mornin’ after all. And being the Midwest, and a stray piece of the Bible Belt flapping up to West Michigan, where Mill Creek Junction seemed to form the epicenter of all things Bible Belty, the town was probably where it always was around this time.
Butts in the Rev’s polished walnut pews.
Not that I had anything against religion, per se. Just different strokes for different folks and all that jazz.
But it was eerie seeing the streets deserted. Like Kirk Cameron showed up and disapperated the world to Saint Pete’s pearly gates, rapture style. Only with me left behind.
I snorted a laugh and spun back toward the bar. Now that was a good one. Blast from the childhood religious fundamentalist past, that’s for sure.
So the whole town’s holed up in Rev’s Sunday service, eh? Sounded like the perfect time for a grocery run. Stock up for the week before the crazy became even crazier.
I went back inside and locked up tight. Before heading out back, I redialed my two no-shows in hopes of reaching them the second time around the block.
What’s the saying? Crazy is doing something twice and expecting different results? Or whatever, because round two was another dead end. This time I left them each voicemails to get their asses to work, or else. They knew I was full of it. Didn’t have a firing bone in my body. But maybe it would get ‘em to call me back and tell me what’s what.
I gave one more call to Rusty as I headed out back.
Same results. Still crazy.
Then I pushed through the back door to my aging, sagging Plymouth Breeze. Hey, at least it was gold. A man’s gotta have at least one rust bucket in his lifetime. It might as well be gold, and a Plymouth Breeze circa 1999. Mine just happened to have lasted since college, built with a touch of Detroit love. Or Mexico, wherever the hell they built ‘em back then thanks to Clinton’s NAFTA.
I climbed inside and started her up. Purred like a kitten. Then I backed out and spit gravel before flopping onto Main Street, hanging a left through the center of town toward Meyer’s General.
Flipping on the radio, I nearly jumped through the roof at the sound of static hissing like Ma’s pack of felines. Normally, I’d be jammin’ to Miles Davis, or Dizzy Gillespie, or Milt Jackson, or some newfangled wannabe jazz musician that couldn’t fill a thimble-worth of talent if you wrung ‘em out sideways.
I flipped to another station. Same static hiss. Then another.
Same damn result.
“Not good, Max Blade…”
I went to flip it off when I threw on the brakes and cried to high heaven at the sight staring me dead in the peepers ahead.
The Rev’s white-clapboard, well-steepled Mill Creek Baptist Church.
Not a car, not a parishioner, not a soul to be seen!
Even the springtime, twitterpated birds and bunnies seemed to be playin’ hooky.
I rolled down the window and hung out for a better look-see, thinking that my peepers were playing tricks on me.
“What the hell is going on here?” I hollered. Mostly for myself but also toward the Rev’s stompin’ grounds, hoping the fella would come out and throw a Bible in my direction trying to wash my mouth out with the Holy Ghost.
No one came.
Now I was getting nervous. Burt and Sheila had been no shows. The most reliable, dependable, hard-working stiffs this side of the Grand River. And that wasn’t even touchin’ on the MIA customers who hadn’t shown up. Not the church-goin’ kind but the regulars, like Ken and Barbie (hand to God their real names), Old Man Nugent, then Sue, Tom, Harry, and Louise.
Add to that the fact Rev Johnson’s peeps had flown the coop and I right shat myself at the single possibility that somehow became more probable the longer I sat idling in unrelenting solitude on Main Street.
I literally shuddered at the word ricocheting in my ears from childhood’s long dead sitting in that very church. Got a goose egg to prove it, too, as I slid back inside. I rolled up the window and threw the Breeze back into drive, then got the heck out of Junction as fast as my four bald tires would take me.
Beelining it for Meyer’s General, I marinated on the possibility that was frighteningly probable.
The second coming of the Lord Jesus himself. Come to beam his peeps outta here to the sweet by-and-by, X-Files style—leaving the rest of the world to get chewed up and spit out by the Four Horsemen.
I pawed away a line of sweat beading on my hairline at the possibility that seemed more probable by each revolution of my bald tires.
“No way. No cotton pickin’ way…”
Memories of the Apocalypse growin’ up with a goodly dose of Bible in the Junction, like all children, came to the fore. We were the dutiful church-goin’ type like all families. Second row from the front, left side on the aisle was our pew of choice. And for every Sunday evening for two years straight, Rev Johnson brought the Book of Revelation to roost, with chronologies painted across bed sheets detailing the play-by-play of the end of the world as we knew it.
Didn’t feel fine then, didn’t feel fine now…
He’d wrap up every sermon with an invitation to repent and turn to Jesus before the rapture. Before it was too late. And each Sunday, for two years, I dutifully obliged. Thought back then the extra prayers would serve as extra insurance for the future. A sort of Baptist indulgence against being left behind.
But now, racing down Main Street, the Junction a ghost town, my bowels were turning to water quicker than Jesus turned water into wine.
“No way. No cotton pickin’ way…”
Meyer’s General parking lot came into view and I almost shat myself twice over. Then I started to cry. Big, bold, beautiful tears of joy.
The parking lot was full!
A grown-ass man, like a blubbering idiot, I was never more thankful to find Meyer’s crowded on a Sunday morning! All that hocus-pocus superstition about the rapture was a false alarm!
Or was it.
Because if the Rev’s parking lot full of church-goin’ type was empty, and Meyer’s General was chock full of peeps, then…
“Not good Max Blade…”
Only one way to find out.
I found a spot and slid in to park, then headed straight inside.
Where I found people—actual people!—rushing about, carts filed to the brim.
Perhaps it wasn’t the end of the world as I knew it…
I saddled up and grabbed a cart, then set about gathering supplies for the week ahead. Starting with the produce section.
Where oddly, a group of people were swarming.
The wheels squeaking with an irritating whistle, I eased my cart up behind a middle-aged woman.
Who turned to leave with fists sheathed in orange kitchen gloves fulls of potatoes wearing a face mask.
I gave a yelp. She gave a yell, screeching something fierce about social distancing. Which made not a lick of sense.
Social distancing? What the hot hades is that?
Then one by one, the other swarmers left donned in the same garb: gloves of various kinds and shades, mouths covered by masks.
Looked like a bunch of extras from The Walking Dead had wandered into Meyer’s General.
And who’d picked over the craft services table clean to the bone!
Not a potato left. Same for the tomatoes, onions, and summer squash.
“Not good Max Blade…”
I spun around to find much of the produce picked clean, too, only finding some heads of iceberg lettuce and organic zucchini the size of my middle finger.
And the more I took in my surroundings, I noticed everyone and their mother was wearing the same getup. Gloves, face mask.
All but me…
Which made me instantly regret my decision to supply up for the week, worrying some plague had been unleashed on the town. And here I thought Jesus had returned!
Apparently I had bigger issues.
Moving on, I squeaked my cart for the bread aisle.
Which was picked clean as well. Not even the organic fair trade vegan gluten-free spelt-grain loaves were left! Which surely meant something sinister was afoot. Because no one but Max Blade cared for organic fair trade vegan gluten-free spelt-grain bread.
Moving on again, I figured canned soup would be a good bet for the bar’s menu ahead, given I couldn’t make anything fresh.
Nope. Nothing, nada, nyet!
Learned that last word in my Rosetta Stone Russian module. As well as Govno! which I shouted with as much angsty growl as a true Muscovite hyped up on a bottle of fermented potatoes.
Moving on yet again, I walked up and down the aisles, all forlorn and desperate and searching, like the refugees I’d heard about crossing into Greece and Turkey and over Big Donny T’s nonexistent wall—understanding good and well what they’d felt. And having zero clue what the hot hades was going on.
About the only thing left on my shopping list was a few packs of TP. We were runnin’ mighty low at Max’s Place, so I figured we should stock up while—
The sight before my cotton pickin’ peepers stole my breath.
Five shelves, from floor to ceiling, stretching damn near the length of Meyer’s General, normally stacked with Cottonelle and Angel Soft, brimming with Charmin Ultra Soft and Ultra Strong—my personal fav—
All of it gone.
Nothing, nada, nyet!
“The apocalypse really is upon us…”
What the hot hades was I going to do?
What the hot hades was my bottom going to do, since I had a roll and a half left?
And then I saw her. Mary Lou Henesy! Standing six feet away, and curiously moving away from me every inch I took toward her. She’d been one of Mama’s Bible study pals from Church growin’ up. Which meant she was a Bible-totin’, Scripture-quotin’, born-again Christian!
Yet there she was. Stuffing the last pack of TP into her cart instead of jumpin’ and jivin’ through Saint Pete’s pearly gates!
Which also meant there was no way in hot hades—or heaven, I guess—that the rapture had happened. Because surely she’d have been one of the first to get beamed up to Jesus’ mother ship.
I could hardly contain my delight, so I leaped toward her for answers.
She screamed from behind a face mask, throwing the pack of TP at me and jumping back another few feet.
“Keep your social distance, young man!”
Not that I was necessarily ungrateful. My bottom sure was appreciative of her innovative move. But still…
Confused, I took another step, holding my hands out in surrender this time, thinking maybe she thought I was tryin’ to mug the poor soul. In Meyer’s General of all places. On Sunday morning’. And for TP.
“It’s me, Mary Lou. Max Bla—”
To which she responded with another scream before hightailing it out of there, disappearing down the soup aisle.
I stood motionless, too stunned for words. Of all the peeps in Mill Creek, Mary Lou was the last person I’d ever thought was capable of such downright rude, thoughtless, unchristian-like behavior.
I shook my head. “No. Banish the thought, Max Blade!”
Yet he couldn’t deny the possibility.
Maybe she was left behind, too! As unsuspecting like me!
A shiver ratcheted up my spine at the possibility, however remote.
Then I cursed myself for the judgmental thought and gathered my wits about me. I’d need every last one if I were to make it out of Meyer’s General with enough provisions to survive…whatever the hot hades it was! At least I got a pack of TP out of the trip.
I reached for it when a hand reached between my legs and snatched the pack from my grip.
I spun around to find an old man with a cane I didn’t recognize looking like Zoro, face masked by a faded red bandana, tufts of silver hair sticking up all catawampus and wielding his walking stick like a rapier, TP stuffed under a rail-thin arm.
“It’s mine,” he said, backing up with his extended cane. “I saw it first!”
Couldn’t believe my ears. “Are you kidding me? Mary Lou just hit me in the head with the damn thing!”
Before I could do a thing about it, he took off running, far faster than I would’ve guessed his spindly legs could’ve taken him, disappearing down the cookie aisle.
I stood speechless, unable to move, barely able to put a thought together.
The world had gone stark, raving mad!
Max’s Place was empty, so was the Rev’s joint. And on a Sunday mornin’ when both should be filled to the brim!
Meyer’s General was picked over like the zombie apocalypse had just descended upon the Junction.
And old men were stealing packs of TP—wielding canes like rapiers, no less!
“What the hot hades has the world come to?”
Had not a clue, but with the Meyer’s run a bust, I needed to get back to a phone and place the only call I knew would confirm it all for me.
I hustled back to the safety of my golden Breeze, then hustled back into town. Same drive back, same result. Not a soul to be found. Not at Mill Creek Baptist, not on Main Street, not at Max’s Place.
I parked in the back then headed inside. Still no sign of Rusty. Maybe Jesus had come for him too.
I sauntered back to the bar top, the ever present smell of bleach and stale peanuts and rotten hops hovering like a hellish miasma, knowing what needed to be done.
Time for the nuclear option. The one that would reveal all.
I took the phone out and plopped it on the counter, then punched in the number to Ma and Pa. Always picked up by the fourth ring—max. If they were home, I was golden. If not, well…
My index finger hovered over the digits, a tremble taking hold with worry at what would happen.
Surely they’d be there. Where else would they be on a Sunday morning if they weren’t at church? Probably some issue with the power or gas. That’s why Rev’s joint was shuttered.
I shook away the Christian apocalyptic fiction and punched in their number.
Moment of truth.
My bowels went watery with dread.
Then four and five before going to voicemail.
I let the phone clatter to the floor.
I slid down the polished wood bar to the floor.
And I had a thought. Desperate, but it might do.
I picked the phone back up and punched in my best friend Cheeto’s number, a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. Well, more the spiritual-but-not-religious type. Raised Presbyterian and sorta fell off the wagon on that one. Either way, if the dude was home, I was truly screwed.
It rang once and the guy answered.
“Duuude! How’s it hangin’?”
My gut sank clear through the floorboards to the pile of dead mice rotting in the ancient basement.
I ran a hand through my hair. “How’s it hangin’? Mill Creek has gone to crazy town and you’re asking me how’s it hangin?”
“Dude, sounds like you need to jump into the golden Breeze and head on over to share this plate of shrooms I just—”
“Seriously, Cheeto. Neither the time nor the place! Need my wits about me if I’m gonna figure out what the hot hades is going on!”
“Uh, whatcha mean, bro?”
“It’s like I woke up to the second coming of Jesus with my pants wrapped around my ankles.”
Cheeto laughed. “Good one, bro.”
“I’m serious! What did that one dude in the Bible say about the end of the world?”
“Uh, you mean Jesus?”
“Exactly! Something about two men will be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Something about keeping watch, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”
Cheeto chuckled. “You’ve seriously flipped your lid, bro…”
“It’s like God let loose the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the town, like he started tippin’ over the seven bowls of the Book of Revelation, like he—
“Or, like, the governor issued a mandatory shelter-in-place lockdown order last night. And, like, she told us to social distance like it’s nobody’s business. And, like, she near well mandated face masks or else risk a month in the clink?”
“What the hot hades are you talking about?”
“The pandemic, dude,” Cheeto said, chewing something on the other end. “The virus. Complete with cold-and-flu-like symptoms that’s creeping across the country. Where have you been? It’s like all over the news.”
“You know I don’t watch that commie-pinko bull. Don’t even own no television.”
“Well that’s the word on the street.”
“A virus. Covid-19, they call it. Possibly cooked up in some lab in China. Complete with sore throat, fever, aches and pains, chest congestion.”
“Now that you mention it, I did wake a bit achy this mornin’”
Cheeto sucked in a breath. “I don’t know, bro. You might wanna think about getting that checked out. Could be covid positive.”
“Thanks for the concern, but I’ll throw back a shot of Jameson and call it good.”
“Suit yourself. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Later.”
I said my goodbye and hung up the phone. I leaned against the bar and folded my arms, contemplating the blessed turn.
Cold-and-flu-like symptoms, ehh?
Turned out, the rapture was the least of my worries.
A drunken giggle escaped my widening mouth at the thought. “A virus…How about that.”
Feeling utterly foolish about my previous inklings, I shook my head and stuffed the phone back under the counter.
When a sudden chill overtook me, and an ache began to spread across every one of my bones, and a fire grew in my throat something fierce. And then—
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Neither the Day nor the Hour
Mill Creek Junction • Short Story
Max Blade is having a no good very bad day. Not only did he oversleep his alarm, his bar downstairs should be hopping with customers for morning Sunday brunch.
Except it’s quiet as a funeral parlor at midnight. And Max fears something’s not quite right in the world. What’s going on? He’s about to find out.
Read the first story that launched the new Mill Creek Junction story world, filled with real people living life, exploring faith.