Based on Peter's storytelling, they know that the Antichrist will come out of Romania, so the clueless but intrepid peasants resolve to single-handedly spoil his ascent to power. Their mission is complicated by the mayor of the town, a shadowy genius with a secret past and a penchant for power.
Will the Americans escape the bizarre fate which has befallen them? Can they undo the consequences of their own do-gooding? This comedy of end-time errors leads to a side-splitting international crisis with a delightfully ironic resolution. It's kind of like the end of the world -- only funnier.
"Filled with wit and insight Scott Garber has written a funny book that does what all good satire is supposed to do: point one finger at something while pointing four more at ourselves." Greg Belliveau, author of Go Down to Silence
"The light irony and parody are deliciously amusing, while also searching, and the story often comes with a delightfully authentic echo of the paradoxes of post-communist Romania." Dr. Max Turner, London School of Theology
"Weaving terrorists threats, murder and a kidnapping around a light-hearted glimpse at what can happen when the 'faithful' misread prophecy, Scott Garber provides a compelling read." Martha Ogburn, author of Progeny
"Good for more than a few chuckles, but its real value lies in the serious questions it poses -- about the American evangelical subculture, about our expectations for the future, and about where we get our ideas." Paul W. Pyle, educator and author of Living By Design
"This penetrating critique of North American Evangelicalism is not only packed with cultural and theological insight--it made me laugh out loud." Dr. Kent A. Eaton, Professor of Culture, McPherson College
The Rapture Follies
Nicolae Retezat looked out over the porch railing, contemplating his kingdom. Not much of an empire, really, but at least it was picturesque, his little village of Micuți. This cluster of a dozen or so two-room houses with bowing rooflines and crumbling façades rested in an isolated valley framed by low, rounded mountains. In the distance he could see alpine peaks, the tips of which were still snow-covered. The foreground of his vista, however, was alive with the freshness of early spring. As purgatories go, it wasn’t such a bad destination.
He added a lidful of vodka to his coffee and leaned back in his chair, resting against the pebbly cement façade of his house. Another day in Micuți, a day that would be pretty much like all the rest—unless something went wrong, in which case it would be exactly like all the rest.
Just then the mailman, who delivered once a week by bicycle, came over the hill and began careening down the rutted dirt road that led into town. He pulled up short in front of Nicolae’s house and sat straddling the bicycle, a rusting behemoth covered with tumor-like lumps, scars left over from multiple welding repairs.
“Bună dimineață, Mr. Primar, sir,” said the mailman respectfully, using the Romanian term for mayor.
“Good morning, Cristi! Did you bring me some poștă?” said Nicolae.
The young man propped up his bicycle up against the porch and reached into his cracked and dusty saddlebags, extracting several envelopes.
“I’m sorry there’s not a lot. Three for you and one for the rest of the town. But this one looks like it is from a foreigner.”
“Interesting,” said the mayor, shuffling the letters before his eyes. “Say, how is your new wife? Everything okay?”
The mailman smiled broadly.
“Enough said,” concluded the mayor with a smile. “Have a swig of vodka if you like.”
Nicolae opened the envelope and recognized the letterhead, which read “Water of Life Ministries.” He quickly perused its contents and then glanced back at the postman, who was sneaking a second drink. The young man, embarrassed, pulled the bottle from his lips, sputtering.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to run out,” said Nicolae. “Listen, I should have something to send tomorrow. If you come by and pick it up there’s an extra 50,000 lei in it for you.”
“You have a deal, Mr. Mayor,” said the mailman. “I thank you, sir.”
Nicolae parked his coffee cup and headed down his front stairs toward the middle of town, which was only about 150 yards from where he lived at the edge of the village. His countenance showed both determination and distraction, as his mind raced, trying to plot out several moves ahead. He had been lobbying these Americans for three years, and now it was about to pay off.
Crossing the muddy street, he took a big step over a pile of cow dung. Chickens abandoned their pecking and scattered before him as he approached the gate on the other side. He pressed down on the lever-style handle and opened the creaking green metal door. The sound evidently alerted the man of the house, as Balescu appeared in the doorway even before Nicolae could shut the gate.
“Mr. Mayor, welcome.”
This Balescu, the elder one, was Nicolae’s liaison with the peasants who inhabited Micuți. While no more sophisticated than the rest, he was a great deal more reliable, and Nicolae used him for the kinds of tasks one could assign to an illiterate secretary. Balescu had about as much hair on his head as on his unshaven face, creating a grayish frame for his sincere features. One eye drooped lower than the other.
“Balescu, my old friend. Ce mai faceți?”
“I’m fine. And you?”
“Și eu bine.”
They shook hands.
“Won’t you come in?” said Balescu.
“Thanks, but not right now. Listen, I need you to get the people together for a town meeting at 7:00 tonight...”
The old Orthodox church was a badly deteriorated building with rotting floorboards and paint peeling from the once ornate walls. At night, however, the sanctuary still retained an aura of sanctity due to its insufficient lighting. And the old cast iron stove still took the chill out of the night air.
Nicolae noted that Balescu had done his job, as the people began to congregate even before the appointed hour. There were no benches, so all forty-eight of the villagers were standing. The men had removed their hats, revealing outrageously mashed hairdos with generous coatings of natural oil. The women wore scarves, more than one sweater, and heavy leggings under their dark wool skirts.
Low murmurs rippled through the crowd. As Nicolae strode to the elevated altar, he sensed their apprehension and immediately sought to put them at ease.
“I have some good news for you,” he said.
This provoked a unanimous sigh of relief, and smiles appeared, revealing intermittent blank spaces once occupied by teeth.
“I have been in contact with an American organization called Apa Vieții about our water supply. They want to drill new wells, so that we will have good water to drink again. It seems that a famous American author and his team of twelve will be staying in our town for a couple of weeks to do this work. That means that we will have to put them up in our houses and feed them. And they’re offering two hundred dollars per person for food and lodging. But these people are Americans. I can assure you that they’ll leave a lot more than two hundred dollars behind.”
Everyone was already talking among themselves.
“Do we have to cook American?” said Mrs. Balescu. “I don’t know how to do that.”
“I’m sure they’ll enjoy your cooking,” said Nicolae. “And we’ll get some meat for everyone ahead of time, so that you can really do it right without a lot of added expense.”
He continued, “Now, we’re going to need everyone’s enthusiastic cooperation to make this work. So I’m going to ask for a show of hands, just so we know that we can count on you. Any questions or comments?”
Balescu marched up to the front, just as the Nicolae had instructed. “Mr. Mayor, I don’t know how you do it. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you’re bringing to our little town. We’ll finally have decent water, and we’ll make two months’ wages in two weeks. I say we all need to get behind it.”
The vote, of course, was unanimous.
“This is a day that will change our town forever,” said Nicolae, once again addressing his constituents. “And I’m proud to count on your cooperation. So, in honor of the occasion, I’ve brought over my own private stash of țuică.”
The people broke out in spontaneous applause, as waves of pleasure rolled over the tiny congregation. His homemade plum brandy was considered to be the best anywhere.
After the celebrants had chanted, “Long live the mayor!” about a dozen times, Nicolae left the revelers passing around old two liter plastic bottles of his brew, and sneaked off to his house. As he walked up his front steps, yet another chorus of “Să trăiască Primarul!” echoed through the night.
That was another nice feature of Micuți. Here he was appreciated—a hero, in fact. To the government, however, he was persona non grata, the political equivalent of a migraine headache.
Nicolae walked past his state-of-the-art computer and instead pulled out the old manual typewriter that he used when making appeals for charity. Some of the keys were a little sticky, however, so it took him nearly two minutes to type the following hundred and fifty words.
Dear Mr. Fischer,
It is with great pleasure that I report to you the result of our town meeting. The people of Micuți are enthusiastic about your kind offer and stand ready and willing to accommodate the every need of our American guests.
Please relay to them what an honor it will be to have them among us, and especially to have a famous author grace our humble village.
Should the group need transportation to and from the Bucharest airport, I can pick them up in a minibus for only five hundred dollars. This works out to less than forty dollars per person, which I’m sure you’ll agree is quite reasonable for a six-hour trip. I will await any further details you may wish to share with me.
Should you need to contact me by phone, the country code is 40, the area code 59, and my local number is 666.
Very sincerely yours,
Mayor, Micuți, Romania
Peter Treiten II tried in vain to control his overburdened luggage cart in the narrow hallway at Otopeni International airport.
“Sorry,” he said again, as he bumped into yet another person toting nothing more than a small, woven bag — and received yet another surly look.
Through the jet-lagged haze that had befallen him, Peter looked back just to make sure his little flock was still together. Then he returned his gaze to the descending passageway before him, a tunnel to the unknown, bathed in the surreal flicker of a faltering fluorescent light.
It had been Peter’s idea to come to Romania, but the drawing was the brainchild of his publisher, Frank. Twelve lucky people would get to accompany Peter Treiten, author of the runaway bestseller, Rapture!, on a mission trip. With over four million entries, the promotion had been a huge success.
But recruiting twelve disciples to go on an all-expenses-paid well-digging expedition to Romania was one thing; leading them was another. He could see how they looked at him, the omnipotent author who could resolve any situation. In a book, yes, but this wasn’t fiction—and he was not the author.
In the fifteen minutes he had spent in the country, his omnipotence had already dissolved into impotence. In America everybody recognized him; everybody wanted to be his friend; everybody wanted to help. Here he was nobody and felt like even less.
When Brian’s passport had been questioned, the passport control agents would not let Peter go back to help straighten it out. The poor college student stood there almost in tears, until they finally waved him on with no explanation as to why they had detained him or why they were letting him go.
When the customs officials stopped Rhonda, the flighty hairdresser, and inspected her bags, Peter stepped in and objected. At which point he was instructed to shut up, and by the way, what was he carrying in all those extra boxes? So he stood by helplessly while they unpacked her bags and displayed her leopard-print thong underwear to all their gray-uniformed buddies and anyone else who wanted to have a peek, which turned out to be almost everyone in the airport.
Peter turned the corner at the end of the ramp and emerged into the terminal. Before him was a bewildering visual cacophony. He pulled up short, as his twelve disciples tried to avoid a pileup behind him.
“Where do we go from here?” said Earl Peppers, who never ceased to think out loud.
“We just have to go...let’s say...over that way...and eventually we should come upon a guy holding a sign with my name on it,” said Peter, craning his neck atop his lanky frame to scour the crowd.
Just then he realized that if this unknown person didn’t show up he would have no idea what to do next. Nervously, he patted down the few strands of silver-streaked red hair with which he tried to cover his bald spot. The hot, sticky air of late June had already turned the crowded room into a sauna, and the hair stuck in place.
“Taxi?” said a short man in sweat pants and a T-shirt, approaching rapidly.
“No,” said Peter, waving his index finger back and forth.
“Good fares... cheap,” the driver insisted, blocking Peter’s way. Once the group had come to a halt, the cab driver was joined by an immense throng of colleagues, all sporting three day’s worth of stubble, stale beer breath, and shirts with sweat stains in the back. Like a swarm of fire ants they accosted the team, all talking at the same time.
Peter wanted to keep moving, but pushing an overloaded luggage cart with a crazy wheel, he was losing ground to the aggressive taxi drivers. One the verge of panic, he heard something that arrested his attention.
“Treiten, Mr. Peter Treiten II.”
Turning in the direction of the voice, he saw a well-built man in his mid-forties with dark wavy hair approaching with a sign reading TREITEN. He was barking something stern in Romanian to the cab drivers, who parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses.
The man gave Peter an enthusiastic handshake. “Mayor Nicolae Retezat, at your service. Welcome to Romania!” he said in flawless English.
“How did you know it was me?” said Peter.
“Just a lucky guess,” said the mayor.
He then heartily greeted the team members, elegantly kissing the hand of each woman. His warm smile seemed to hearten the beleaguered bunch.
“While the mayor is fetching the minibus, I’m going to go over there and make a call,” Peter explained to his team. Just stay put, and I’ll be right back. I’ll have someone contact your families and tell them that you made it here safely.”
Standing with a finger in his right ear, he called the residence of his editor, Frank Marcum.
“Frank, this is Peter. Sorry about the early hour.”
“That’s okay. It’s four AM, almost time for me to get up anyway. So, I guess you made it. Good. I’ll put out a press release,” said Frank.
“You never stop, do you? No ‘I hope you had a nice flight’ or anything?”
“Just taking care of business, my friend. Hey, while you’re over there, why don’t you do some research for a new book on the humble beginnings of the Antichrist? It’s a guaranteed bestseller.”
“You’re obsessed, Frank.”
“Listen, buddy, we’re a team. Your job is to warn people about the end of the world. Mine is to make things as comfortable as possible until that time.”
“Hey, call Jodie later for me will you? She must have been too sound asleep to hear the phone. I left a message, but she’ll want to know that we talked. And contact the other families, too.”
“Got it. Any other warm fuzzies I can do for you?”
“Have a nice day, Frank.”
“Don’t drink the water.”
Peter and his team, dragging their luggage, struggled to keep up with the mayor’s rapid pace. They all flinched as he walked off the curb and right into the oncoming traffic without even looking. Tires screeched, and cars turned sideways in their effort to avoid him.
“Here we are,” he announced, reaching a vehicle parked in the crosswalk.
That’s when Peter discovered that minibus was the Euro-English term for a van. This one was a diminutive Mitsubishi from the early eighties. No two of its body panels were the same color. The side entry step was rusted completely off.
“There’s no way we can all get in here,” said Peter, shading his eyes and peering inside the van window.
“No problem,” said the mayor. “In Romania anything is possible. Now let’s see about that luggage! Young man, will you hold up this tailgate?” said the mayor to Brian. “It no longer stays up by itself,” said the mayor.
Peter eyed their considerable luggage, including the extra boxes containing copies of his book. Then he looked at the van. This was going to require a miracle on the order of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, only in reverse.
When less than half of the luggage fit inside the van, Peter felt vindicated in his earlier prediction. But the mayor was unfazed. “Luckily, I have some rope,” he said, holding up his index finger and marching around to look under the driver’s seat.
Rope in hand, the mayor climbed up on top of the van, and Pastor Dan—far and away the tallest member of the team—handed the bags up to him. There he erected a huge pyramid in the luggage rack. Then he tied it down as much as the short length of rope would allow and stood atop his creation. He must be twenty feet in the air, Peter calculated.
“There, that should hold as long as we don’t hit any bumps or turn any corners,” he said. “That’s a joke. An American joke. So, laugh, Americans, laugh!” he said.
“The guy’s a nut case. But I like him,” said Earl Peppers, a salesman from South Bend.
“But, Mr. Mayor,” said Peter, as the mayor scrambled down. “How do you propose to get everyone inside this van?”
“Very simple, Peter. May I call you Peter?”
“Simple mathematics. We are fourteen. I will drive, and you will ride over there. I think you call it... shotgun.”
The team members snickered.
“Then, there are twelve more people and six more seats. Six men and six women. Men on the bottom, women on top. Married couples together, unless you find another partner more interesting. Not married people, best of luck.”
The mayor helped the ladies up into the van, politely packing them in sardine-style.
“Okay, if there are no other questions, on to Micuți,” said the mayor.
“Mr. Mayor,” said Bev Dixon, seated on the lap of her husband, Jim, “What about seat belts? Back home I always make the kids buckle up in back.”
The mayor did not miss a beat, responding deliberately, as if trying to remember the law. “Madame, in Romania, if you are riding on someone’s lap and the minibus is carrying twice the maximum weight, seat belts are not obligatory.”
“I think we should pray,” suggested Pastor Dan, his voice sounding as scrunched as his 6”6” frame crammed into the seat beneath his wife.
Peter Treiten turned around. The scene reminded him of his youth, when the youth group used to see how many people they could stuff in a VW bug. This time, however, there would be no whistle after three minutes permitting them to exit.
“Good idea,” he said. “Bob, you’re the senior member of our team. Why don’t you pray?”
Bob couldn’t bow his head, on account of his wife’s right shoulder blade being mashed against his face, so he just closed his eyes and uttered a muffled prayer. “Oh, Lord, thank you for bringing us here to do this great thing for you. Help a lot of people to get saved. And help us not to die in this van or to get diarrhea real bad. Amen.”
When the mayor fired up the van, a tremendous clickety-clack reverberated throughout the vehicle.
“What is that?” said Peter with great concern.
“Well,” hollered the mayor over the din. “This is one of those older models with the engine inside the passenger compartment. I had to replace the old engine a few months ago. But this one is too big to fit in the same space, so it sticks up like this.”
The mayor lifted a tarp, which was all that covered the banging diesel. The noise level rose again.
“Good thing you’ve got it covered,” said Peter sardonically.
“Excuse me?” said the mayor, cupping his hand around his ear.
“Very clever,” yelled Peter.
Nicolae gave Peter the thumbs up, looking straight ahead with a big smile on his face.
What in the name of God have I got myself into? Peter wondered, as they dodged darting taxicabs amidst great gobs of diesel exhaust and angry car horns. I’m at the mercy of this madman, and these poor people are counting on me. And to make matters worse, I’m no good at non-fiction.
© Copyright Scott Garber, 2010