The first time I saw the end of the world, Aunt Rowan convinced my mother it was just a toddler’s normal night terrors. I don’t know how she managed it. There’s nothing normal about our family.
I tell Neve about it, when we’re tangled together on the sofa in her family’s rumpus room, stripped down to shorts and bras because being together is new, and still a little awkward, and we’re afraid of discovery. It’s too hot to draw the curtains. The fan just pushes the air around, waiting for an afternoon storm to relieve it of duty.
Neve’s parents are out, cheering her brother’s football team. That’s the danger in having two teenagers – you move somewhere wholesome like Moowilla, to get one away from his big-city, delinquent friends and, while you’re busy with him, the other one’s barely unpacked before she decides she’s a lesbian and hooks up with the town weirdo.
“All Dalangeurs have the Sight,” I say, turning my head so my cheek rests on Neve’s knee. I can’t talk about this stuff while I’m drowning in her deep-water eyes. “Cartomancy, chiromancy, augury, scrying, oneiromancy.”
“Mollie…” She makes one of her grumpy puppy growls and I smile and explain the jargon.
“Reading the future in cards, palms, clouds, water and dreams. Aunt Rowan always knows what’s needed. She says it’s foretelling but Grandma says it’s ailuromancy since my aunt can’t do it unless one of the cats is nearby.”
“So that’s why your family have all those cats.” Neve laughs and twists a strand of my dark hair around her finger. “Everyone is so freaked out by them, but they’re not witches’ familiars like people say.”
“Not all of them. The cats are…”
“So cool.” Neve grins because she loves my TikTok cat videos.
The cats are complicated. I have the words in my mouth – ‘cats do my bidding’ – but I swallow them. It sounds too weird. I don’t mention Grandma’s power, either. People can laugh about telling the future by the movements of cats, but even Neve might resent that old Mrs Dalangeur always knows the winning lottery numbers in advance. I tell her about one of my cousins instead.
“Monica’s gyromancy means she has to walk in circles until she falls over and has visions.”
“That sucks,” Neve says, but she smirks as if she’s imagining my prim cousin dizzy and staggering like a drunk.
It is pretty funny to watch.
“At least none of us practice haruspicy. That’s reading the entrails of sacrificial animals.”
“Gross.” She tugs my hair and I turn to look at her. “And you see the end of the world? In your dreams?”
“Always the same thing?”
I shake my head.
“Nuclear winters, zombie uprisings, alien invasions, global pandemics, meteor strikes, climate catastrophes.” I shrug, bumping Neve’s leg, trying to shake off the memory of my nightmares. “Once it was giant, tentacled monsters rising up from the seabed.”
She bites her lip and I want to kiss her, but I hold still because I know what’s coming.
“Then it’s not… real?”
I shrug again, like it doesn’t matter.
“I guess not. Mum’s theory is it’s some sort of collective anxiety thing. She thinks I’m seeing the world’s apocalypse zeitgeist.”
Neve drops a kiss on my forehead, so I guess I sound sadder than I wanted to.
“It’s impressive, right?” I joke.
“It’s cool.” She kisses my head again, slower, like she’s breathing me in. “Better on a resume than being a waitress.”
Which is all my family think I’m good for. Moowilla is one of those cute hinterland towns surrounded by dairy farms. Every weekend, tourists walk up and down the main street buying fudge, and tie-dyed skirts, and wind-chimes, and potted begonias. They eat lunch at the old Imperial Hotel or at Bessy Bee’s Café or they pop into Dalangeur’s Antiques to browse and enjoy a Devonshire tea and a tarot reading.
Grandma reads the cards. I make the tea.
I don’t want to think about work when I have the afternoon off to supposedly study with Neve, so I say, “Corinna calls me the Apocalypse Cow,” which is stupid because I don’t want to think about my other cousin, either.
“Corinna’s the cow.” Neve pushes her hair out of her face as the fan ruffles it. “Why does she think she’s so hot?”
I laugh. I can’t help it.
“Come on, everyone thinks she’s hot.”
“I don’t,” Neve says, with the hint of a pout.
“Everyone else, then. She’ll be this year’s Teen Queen.”
Neve lifts her chin.
“Didn’t you tell me the dairy festival has three queens?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I say. “The Dairy Queen’s older, but the Teen Queen’s always a high school senior. Whoever fundraises best is crowned Queen of Charity and that’ll be Jodie Fischer. Corinna’s already calling her the Cash Cow.”
“Your cousin really is a cow.” Neve’s pout blooms like some gorgeous, plump orchid. “And beauty pageants are stupid.”
“Yeah.” I sit up. “But the Big Moo’s a big deal for the local economy and with the price milk’s been getting lately…”
I trail off as Neve tucks her pout away and her lips curve up in a slow smile. She says, “How come all the local kids are scared of you when you’re so nice?”
I forget to breathe. No-one’s ever called me that. I don’t think anyone in my family has ever been called that. Neve really needs to understand what she’s getting into.
“The Dalangeur witches…” I force myself not to shrug again. “People are scared of what they don’t understand.”
“They can’t really think you’re all witches?” She snorts.
“We are all witches,” I say, and she laughs before she sees the look on my face.
“You’re serious,” she whispers. “But Mollie, you’re not evil.”
“It’s not about good or evil,” I say. “It’s about being the same as everyone else or being different.”
“God binaries suck,” Neve sighs. Then she grins. “I mean, you rock the witchy little Wednesday look.” She pulls my hair forward, over my shoulders and starts plaiting it. “You must have put a spell on me; I’d do anything for you.”
She tugs me towards her with my plaits and I wrap my arms around her waist.
“Anything,” she repeats, and I shiver as the fan hits the sweat on my back.
We kiss, but I can tell Neve’s got one eye on the clock. It’s half-past four. The Belmont Street shops will be shutting, the football’s finished, and her family will be home soon enough. She says they’d completely freak out about us.
Mine would just assume I was playing games. ‘Claws in, kitten,’ Grandma would say. ‘Don’t hurt the mice too bad.’
“Storm’s coming,” I murmur when we stop to breathe again. “I’d better go.”
I pull on my top and grab my bag.
“Send a pic of the kittens when you get home,” she says, stroking my cheek. “I’ll text you later.”
I run down the Beacon Street hill and cut through the playground, past the old Corbett house that got turned into a dental surgery last year. The wind at the front of the storm whips my face. The air tastes like dirty ice from the bottom of an esky. I’m almost at the back gate on Nugent Lane when the rain slams out of the low clouds and hits me hard, knocking me into darkness.
Someone screams and there’s a horrible creaking sound, drawn out and painful like a mountain giving birth. I push wet hair out of my face and peer through something thick and sticky and I freak out thinking it’s blood. It smells of death, of decay, of the end of the world.
Mud. It’s mud and I’m lying in it, slithering in it like a carpet python crossing a flooded creek. It’s dark, storm dark, and I get my hands under me and push myself up. I think I’ve hit my head because I’m dazzled by dozens of drunk-dancing, fallen stars and it takes me too long to work out they’re the festival lanterns on Belmont Street.
Then I get flashes of clarity – people and places I know and love – and I realise it’s a vision. A ute slides past me, trailing sodden crepe paper streamers. Muddy broken bodies lie tangled with shattered trees. I recognise Neve’s brother. My science teacher. Corinna. My cousin’s eyes are open and unseeing, empty of calculation and malice and triumph even though she’s wearing the Teen Queen’s pink satin sash.
The rending groan is like a chisel in my skull. I spin in a circle, gagging against the reek of sewage and gas, knowing it’s only a matter of time before something explodes. Everything is wrong ways, sideways, falling down.
Mum and Aunt Rowan stagger along the veranda of the Imperial Hotel, dragging Grandma with them. The boards twist beneath them and the wrought-iron breaks and the timbers shatter and Mum shrieks, but it’s lost in the roar as the hotel tears apart and rushes like a runaway semi, down the side of the mountain.
No, no, no.
Something shakes me and, for a moment, I think I’m going to fall too.
“Don’t make me slap you, Mollie,” Corinna says. “Grandma’s watching.”
I blink against tears and rain and stare into my cousin’s eyes, which spark with irritation.
“Oh,” I gasp. “You’re alive.” I hug her before I think better of it and she shoves me away.
“Like you’re happy about that.” She sneers. “You’re making a spectacle of yourself, standing out in the rain like a poleaxed heifer.”
I can tell she’s quoting Grandma, but I don’t care. I duck under the drenching branches of the lemon tree at the back gate and stagger across the yard and into the kitchen. Half a dozen cats retreat from the rain that comes in with me.
Mum and Aunt Rowan and Grandma frown in unison and my breath catches in a sob to see them safe. I shake as words pour out of me like the water. I tell them everything.
“A landslide,” I say. “Belmont Street’s going to slide down the mountain. What do we do?”
There’s a weird pause, a silence as they look at me, then Grandma sighs.
“Mollie.” Mum picks up the kettle as it starts to whistle. “You need to go and get dry.”
“I…” I press my lips together to keep my teeth from chattering then I try again. “You all died. I don’t want–”
“Your visions don’t mean anything, child,” Grandma says. “It’s unfortunate, but–”
“No, you don’t get it,” I insist. They have to believe me. “This wasn’t a dream, not like watching some stupid zombie movie. Not like the other times. I was in it. It happened–”
“Even if it did–” Grandma says and I yell, “It was real!”
Aunt Rowan narrows her eyes down to slits, like one of the cats.
Mum pours hot water into the big teapot, filling the kitchen with the bitter citrus tang of her tea. She puts the kettle down and looks away as she says, “There’s no way to know when it might happen.”
“Yes, there is.” I drag in a deep breath. They won’t listen if I keep yelling. “The streamers. The lanterns. It was the Big Moo. And it was this year’s festival because Corinna was wearing the teen pageant sash. We have to stop it.”
Slow clapping makes me spin around. Corinna has one hip propped against the sink and a smirk masquerading as a smile on her face.
“Wow, Mollie,” she says. “I couldn’t work out your angle with this one, but there it is. You’re jealous. You honestly want to ruin the festival because you’re jealous of me.”
“Don’t be stupid,” I say. “You’re all being stupid.”
Our argument whirls around the kitchen like a storm, but I guess they’d rather believe Corinna’s reason than accept that I might have seen something true.
“We can watch for portents.” Grandma shrugs as if to add that she doesn’t expect to see any.
“Sure,” I mutter and stomp upstairs before the burn in my throat turns into tears. I keep flashing on the vision, gagging on the remembered stink of burst gas and sewerage pipes. I try to distract myself, photographing the two kittens asleep on my bed, curled together like a yin-yang plushie. I send the image to Neve and my phone pings a moment later with a heart-eyes emoji.
U get wet, she texts.
Just wet. I stare at the text before I hit send. It’s a lie which is something Dalangeur women are good at. I backspace over it. Replace it with N U srs anything?
My phone vibrates and I answer Neve’s call.
“Anything,” she says softly. “Seriously. What is it?”
I tell her what happened.
“We can’t stop a landslide,” she says. “What can we do?”
She believes me. I drop onto the bed, waking the kittens.
“We’ve got to get everyone off Belmont Street before the award ceremony.”
“Alright,’ Neve says. “Then we need a plan.”
One kitten puffs out its fur and hisses and they launch at each other in a mock battle.
“I’ve got a plan,” I say. “If you’ll help…”
“Seriously, anything,” she says, and I text a heart-eyes emoji back at her, because I don’t have words for how she makes me feel.
We get three weeks of rain. There’s flooding on the coast and fallen trees block the road up the mountain for half a day. I hope the Big Moo will be cancelled, but it’s too important, apparently. The morning of the festival is sunny as if the weather is doing its best to maximise the disaster.
I edge downstairs, feeling like I’m walking on eggshells.
Mum, Aunt Rowan, and Grandma are in the kitchen.
“I did two readings last night, Mollie.” Grandma wraps her hands around her cup as if she needs the warmth in her joints. “Another this morning. It was all the Tower, the three and ten of swords and the Wheel of Fortune, reversed.”
Disaster, loss, collapse, bad luck. The end of the world. Or, at least, of this little part of it.
“I owe you an apology,” Grandma says. “You were right.”
Aunt Rowan looks away from the dozen cats huddled together, staring at the back door, and says, “Trouble.”
Mum taps the rim of her teacup. “Today.”
“I’m glad Monica’s interstate,” my aunt adds. “It’s one less person to worry about.”
“We won’t open the store,” Grandma says. “We’ll load what we can into the cars and take ourselves and the cats to safety.”
I’m still stunned by Grandma apologising but I manage to croak out, “What about everyone else in Moowilla?”
Mum says, “Most people won’t listen. Some… well, we’ll try and warn them.”
“I’ve got a plan,” I admit. “A friend said she’d help me.”
“You don’t have any friends,” Corinna says from the doorway, hands on hips to display the nails she’s just painted. The chemical reek of acetone wafts into the kitchen ahead of her and the cats sway away from it like furry seaweed in a strong current. “Unless you mean that stuck-up new girl who’s been following you around.”
“Neve’s family own a security business. She knows about alarms and electronics. We’re going to try and get everyone behind Pine Street, maybe onto the netball courts, and…”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Corinna says. “I’ve got a crown to win.”
“We have to go.” Aunt Rowan shudders as one of the cats starts wailing to get out.
“Mollie’s trying to ruin it,” my cousin protests. “She’s making the cats act weird, so you’ll believe her.”
Grandma severs the outcry as easily as she cuts scones.
“No Dalangeur needs a crown,” she says with awful finality. “Tell us your plan, Mollie.”
“We have to clear Belmont Street.” I shrug. “Neve’s doing alarms and sirens.
I’m going to make the cats act weird.”
I smile at my cousin and give them the details.
It’s a long, hot day and there are a thousand things to do. Minutes tick by, dragging us closer to disaster. The air seems to get heavier and thinner as the humidity rises and I try to tell myself I can’t feel the earth beneath my feet shifting.
I can’t deny the rippling unease which spreads through the crowds as locals pass on the warning. Everywhere I go, I hear whispers of ‘the Dalangeur women said’. I don’t know if it will work, if it will be enough, or if it will just make them more afraid of us.
The parade starts, and it’s like someone pulls a plug making the air pressure gurgle away down a drain. The breeze picks up and the locals turn like windsocks, looking at the clouds massing on the south-west horizon.
I hurry to find Neve.
She waits until the school band has marched past before she says, “Everything’s wired up.”
A quad bike driven by Mr Kincaid in a cow onesie passes, pulling the Rotary Club’s float. I lean forward, as if I’m checking to see what’s coming next and take Neve’s hand.
One of the kids marching in cardboard milk cartons waves too vigorously and staggers into another. Someone yells out ‘milkshake’ and the crowd laughs. I shiver and tell myself it wasn’t a tremor. We’ve still got time.
“I’m going to go gather the troops,” I tell Neve.
“Not waiting for the pageant float?” She huffs a laugh. “Your cousin will be heartbroken.”
Before I can answer, Mrs O’Halloran, who’s coached netball since forever, bustles over and says, “Mollie, love, your mum says you’re in charge. I’m going down to the clubhouse now, to turn the urn on.”
I stare at her, open-mouthed, and she adds, “Storm’s coming. Everyone’ll get wet. They’ll want a nice, hot cup of tea.”
“I, yeah, thanks Mrs O, that’s good thinking.”
She hurries off and Neve nudges my arm. I turn and there’s Corinna and the other pageant contestants, sitting on haybales on the Dairy Queens’ float. They’re all smiling and waving but my cousin looks ready to spit. Neve and I wave back, and I catch the edge of one of those crowd ripples which murmurs the word ‘Dalangeur’.
Corinna scowls. It’s just for a moment but enough to show that my cousin likes being the centre of attention, but she doesn’t like being part of Moowilla’s oddest family. I grin.
Things are going to get odder.
“Troops,” I say, and Neve squeezes my hand.
I run along Nugent Lane calling the cats. The sky is bruised, as if the clouds have pressed too hard against Moowilla’s rooftops. It takes ages to get to both ends of Belmont Street and with every pounding step I worry that the earth has started to slide. The cats come to me, swarm to me, because even those that were shut inside find their way unbarred.
Aunt Rowan said she’d sing the locks.
I channel the mewling tide of cats down Baker Lane. They don’t like the wind or the noise from the speakers in the rotunda as Councillor Lowe gallops through his list of thanks. Maybe he thinks he’ll finish before the storm hits. The wind lifts strands of his thin hair and the crowd fidgets, glancing up at the dark clouds.
The cats bump against my legs, wanting to run, but I hold them back with my will. I’ve never tried to order so many cats and they weave around, making me dizzy. Or maybe the ground is moving. A deep rumble shakes me to my bones.
“Alright.” The councillor grabs his hair. “I know you’re excited to know which lovely young ladies are this year’s Dairy Queens, so without–”
The rumble moves past me, out into Belmont Street, a roll of thunder like a tsunami of sound. There’s a squeal of feedback and the announcement Neve copied from an old movie starts blaring out, “I repeat, this is not a drill. This is the apocalypse. Please exit the hospital in an orderly fashion. Thank you. I repeat…”
People look up, look around, start to back away. Councillor Lowe shakes the microphone and raises his other hand as if he’s got a question. The fire alarms in the general store and the post office go off in stereo, lights start flashing and I send the cats out of Baker Lane in a rush as the first heavy raindrops fall.
It’s a total freakin’ mess, like I’m slugging it out with the storm to see which of us is in charge. People run, but when they’re confronted by a hissing lump of wet cat, they run the other way. Angry cats, yowling cats, witches’ cats – I get them to move like sheepdogs herding the crowd. People scream, but it’s drowned out by alarms, the bellowing announcement, and the hammering rain.
The best part is that enough people know to run for the netball courts, and the rest follow anyone who looks like they know what they’re doing. No, the best part is when Corinna runs past, shrieking at Mrs Kitade’s marmalade tom cat which chases her all the way to Pine Street.
Unlikely as it is, I think the cats are enjoying themselves.
The alarms and announcement cut out and moments later Neve runs down Belmont Street towards me. I grab her hand and we sprint after the cats. My feet slip in the rain and mud, but Neve drags me on. Everyone’s crowded in and around the netball clubhouse – yelling at each other and demanding answers – trying to pretend they’re not hemmed in by a creepy clowder of hissing, herding cats.
Someone shouts, “I’m going to find out what’s going on.”
It’s Councillor Lowe. He takes three steps and a grey cat darts between his ankles and trips him. He’s just pulling himself out of the mud as we reach the edge of the crowd.
“Here’s Mollie,” Corinna cries. “She did it. Her and her friend, but it was Mollie’s idea.”
The councillor glares and splutters and everyone starts yelling words like ‘dangerous’, ‘delinquent’ and ‘irresponsible’ at us. Neve grips my hand hard.
Mum and Grandma and Aunt Rowan appear at the clubhouse door with cups of tea to hand out, then they cross their arms and watch.
“Well?” Councillor Lowe shouts over the rain. “What have you got to say for yourself?”
I open my mouth and I’m not sure what I’m going to say – that we’re witches but we’re not evil; that we’re weird but we’re still a part of this town. Instead a crack of lightning strikes somewhere way too close and the thunder beats against us. I stagger and lose control of the cats which streak for the shelter of the clubhouse.
A tremor shakes the field, dropping most of us to our knees. Behind me, on Belmont Street, there’s a crash and a roar like a monster’s been unleashed.
The horrible groan of rending timbers drowns out the storm. Everyone’s jaw drops and their eyes go wide. I don’t have to say anything. I just put my hands over my ears and wait for the end of the end of the world.
About the Author
LOUISE PIEPER has been told she’s too smart for her own good, wears too much black, has too many books and reads too much, but she doesn’t believe any of those things is possible. Her stories have been published in Heroines 1 and 2 and 3 (Neo Perennial Press, 2018, 2019, 2020) and CSFG Publishing’s A Hand of Knaves (2018) and the soon to be released Unnatural Order (2020). She shares stories and writes about writing at louisepieper.com. Occasionally, she takes her face out of a book long enough to comment on Facebook at louisepieperauthor.