Leap of Faith
Thousands of miles above the silent earth, hurtling forward and down at an inconceivable speed, the comet 1000a (Alhazen) narrowed its metaphorical eyes. Inconsequential fragments of other minor asteroids blew past, interstellar dust and debris, tumbleweeds on a cosmic scale.
And down below the turning clouds, stolid and resolute on a vast, dry continent, a billion brave Chinese citizens stood before their little red stools, quietly awaiting the command. Beautiful, crystalline and clear, echoing brightly across the nation, the Speaker System for Solidarity broadcast the first few testing taps on a microphone.
“Right foot, up!” the disembodied voice was heard and understood everywhere in the enormous country, from the southern mountains, to the western deserts, to the fertile river plains. Every Chinese citizen placed his or her right foot on the plastic stepping stool.
“Left foot!” cried the disembodied voice. The entire nation now stood eighteen inches off the ground.
An impact, a detonation reverberated beneath the landing of ten billion shaky toes; houses caved, bamboo forests shook, volcanoes erupted, and massive waves bunched and receded, exposing strange squid and deep sea serpents to gasp and flail on the naked sand.
Smacked by the blunt weight of 77 million tons, the earth staggered and shuddered in its orbit. The skies rolled and roiled, and everything went black.
ONE WEEK EARLIER:
The phone buzzing in my pocket was driving me crazy, but I couldn’t pull it out because Mr. Thom was still hovering over my back. Beneath his wild John the Baptist beard, he had this nervous smile on his face, like he was my friend and he wanted to apologize for coming over to make me work. I could picture his expression perfectly even though I wasn’t looking up. He couldn’t hear the phone buzzing; my email notifications were on, but they were set to one of those mosquito ring tones that are too high-pitched for adults. Everyone else in the room heard it though, a persistent whine that made you want to swat at something. I could feel it too; it was like being jabbed over and over again with a miniature needle; it was an all-consuming itch. Sighing and wincing, clenching my jaw, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a pen instead.
“There,” I growled without looking up at the teacher. “I’m working. You can go now.”
Mr. Thom stopped smiling, I’m sure; I could hear his fur-muffled mouth smack open and closed, tasting for the right response. But eventually I felt his shade pass over me as he walked away. Someone snickered. I pulled out my phone as soon as I could and placed it hidden in my lap. The place where it had been vibrating against my leg kept twitching, and I scratched at it compulsively while I waited for the message to load. I have one of those old silver RAZRs; my mom says it’s all she can afford, even though she buys iPhones for herself. But I don’t mind; I mean it’s sleek and it flips open. It’s stylish, in a retro sort of way – like old-school communicators from Star Trek.
We were supposed to be studying some formula for flood geology – “catastrophism,” or something . . . I glanced at the worksheet while I waited for the message to load. Mr. Thom’s class was all about solving complex formulas and imputing data. The worksheet asked us to calculate the “levels of dissolved oxygen in the troposphere required to support gigantism in antediluvian arthropods” – which was way too technical for me. I prefer science fiction, where you can rest easy in the knowledge that the big words don’t really mean anything. But I used to think I was okay at science, too, until Mr. Thom’s class. He had been hired at the end of last year, when the old science teacher, Mr. Shore, quit. I guess there was some sort of scandal, you know; the state board of education said our school would lose its accreditation if it didn’t teach “mainstream” science, and Mr. Shore refused to tow the line, so he left. He hadn’t ever done much, to be honest, besides show us angry lectures from Australia about the global, pro-evolution conspiracy – but at least he was organized. And his classes were way easier than Mr. Thom’s.
Some people doubted whether Thom was even a Christian, though I thought he probably was. After all, our principal, Coach Kroger, had hired him. And if you weren’t Christian, why would you even apply to work at Veritas Bible Academy? Apart from their dullness, there was nothing especially sinister about the facts that he had us look at or the numbers he wanted us to crunch. Everything we researched was stuff that came from creation scientists or people who believe in intelligent design. Thom said he just wanted us to check their facts. Sometimes they were plausible; sometimes they weren’t. Either way, there can’t be anything un-Christian about looking at the facts, because the truth is Jesus (John 14:6), right? And facts are truth. Mr. Thom definitely wanted to know the truth. But his dusty way of checking up on it made my head hurt. When it came down to it, I guess I didn’t really care.
The message had loaded. It was from Rachel Wedgwood. My leg twitched wildly and my phone almost toppled out of my lap onto the floor. Why would she write to me, and why in the middle of the day? I knew she had study hall now, in the computer lab; all the Seniors did. But I was a Sophomore, and she’d never addressed an email just to me before. Maybe she’d finally noticed how I was filling out my school uniform this year. Checking the address bar, and . . . yeah. It was a forward. It’d gone out to the whole student body.
A quick glimpse around the room revealed at least half of the rest of the class was playing with their cellphones too. Mr. Thom had returned to his desk and collapsed invisibly behind the ragged piles of papers that he never handed back to us. Cautiously, I took my phone off my leg and placed it on the desk behind my book.
(“Fwd: END TIMES ALERT,” read the subject heading. “Is this for real? Check it out and pass it on!”)
>begin forwarded message:
> Calling on all True Believers in the One God, the Alpha and >Omega, the Lord Jesus Christ who will come to judge the living >and the dead:
>Christian sources within the WHITE HOUSE have confessed that >tonight a MAJOR PROPHECY from the BOOK OF REVELATIONS will be >fulfilled!!! This evening, the President will call a press >conference to announce that he is signing the SOVEREIGNTY of the >United States of America over to WORLD GOVERNMENT, otherwise >known as the UN and the “People’s” Republic of Communist >China!!!
>These events are clearly prophesied in the BOOK OF REVELATIONS, >in verses 13:7-8: “And he was given authority over every tribe, >people, language, and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will >worship the beast . . . .” The beast was GIVEN authority, just >as the president tonight will GIVE authority to the United >Nations!!!
>This also fulfills the prophecy of Rev. 13:11-12: “Then I saw >another beast, coming out of the earth. He . . . spoke like a >dragon. He exercised all authority of the first beast on his >behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the >first beast.” Obviously, the second beast is China! (Many >traditional Chinese are actually dragon-worshippers!)PRAISE GOD >that the meaning of HIS prophecy has been revealed!!!!
>Dear brethren in Christ, a time of strife and trial is coming – >and has now come! It may be too late for us to stop the >President now. But those who are washed in the BLOOD of the >LAMB must resist SATAN’S NEW WORLD ORDER unto death! Expect UN > “peace keeping” forces to soon arrive in your city. They may >STEAL (or “commandeer”) your property! They may ABDUCT and even >MURDER your families!!!
>He who has an ear, let him hear.
>If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go.
>If anyone is killed by the sword, with the sword he will be >killed.
>This calls for PATIENCE, ENDURANCE, and FAITHFULNESS on the >part of the saints. Rev. 13:9-10
>Brethren, NOW is the time for TRUE CHRISTIANS to come together >beneath the BANNER of our LORD!!! “Do not fear those who can >KILL the BODY . . . fear rather HE WHO CAN KILL the SOUL!!!” >(Matt. 10:28) For “BLESSED are the DEAD who DIE in the LORD >from now on. YES, says the SPIRIT, they will rest from their >LABOR, and their deeds will follow THEM.” Rev. 14:13
I raised my eyebrows and looked up from my email to see that most of the rest of the class was still reading. I’ve always been a fast reader, and the rest of them were probably tipped off to check their email because they heard my phone buzzing. Or they weren’t consciously tipped off, but my phone subconsciously suggested theirs in a Jedi mind trick sort of a way. Sitting in front of the teacher’s desk, Franklin Gifford finished reading his message too. He shrugged his shoulders and stashed his phone away just as Mr. Thom stood up to take another tour around the room. I looked down at my worksheet. “Gigantism in Antediluvian Arthropods . . .” yeah, whatever. I picked up my pen and prepared to doodle in the corners.
“Mr. Thom?” Franklin raised his hand, mercifully distracting him while the rest of the class also hid their cellphones.
“Yes, Franklin?” Thom said, turning to him and smiling eagerly beneath his beard. Please, his whole being seemed to cry, please ask me something about humidity and dissolved oxygen in the troposphere!
“Aren’t the Chinese, like, the only nation that believes dragons are good?” Several other students laughed, and Thom smiled nervously at this mysterious specimen of teenage wit.
“I don’t know,” he said slowly; “I mean, I think the Japanese have benevolent dragons too. There are probably a lot of them in other Asian cultures . . . .”
“Yeah, but,” Franklin persisted, “those are all pretty much just Chinese, right? I mean, there’s not really that big a difference between any of them.” A few other students laughed again.
Thom’s eyebrows furrowed, and his whole look blackened like a thunderhead. (How could anyone think Mr. Thom didn’t believe in God? Unless it was some medieval Father Christmas thing he was going for. But really, sometimes the man looked like he’d fallen off the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.)
“What did you get for question seven, Franklin?” he asked, officially dropping the subject of differences between Asians. “Not done with it yet?” He pivoted and caught my eyes before I could avert my gaze; “Patrick? Nothing yet either? You said you were working! Hmm. I’m disappointed.” He scanned the classroom to see if he could call out anyone else and make them feel bad too, but they were all already looking down. He grunted. “This assignment is now due before you leave.”
The President’s press conference was all over the news when I got home that day. The newscasters were speculating about the end of the world – except they didn’t put it like that because the news is mostly controlled by secular progressives. My mom already had the TVs on – the one in the kitchen, the one in her bedroom, the two in the living and dining room. We are a TV loving family. We only get basic cable, because there’s a lot of immorality on the more expensive channels, but we like to make the most of what’s included. The TV in the kitchen was set to UPN2, usually, so that we could watch reruns of shows like Nighthawk and the old MacGyver while we were cooking or doing the dishes. The ones in the living/dining room were typically on the major networks – either the evening news or America’s Got Talent. In her bedroom, my mom endured heart-rending stories about eating disorders on the Lifetime network. I had my own TV too, with an old DVD player built in, but I pretty much just used it for video games.
Tonight every set was fixed on a news station, and on every one of them reporters “live in Washington” made up nonsense to kill time before the President’s speech. Mom stared intently from the couch. Her eyes flitted between the screen in front of her and the one closer to the table. “Do you know anything about this?” she asked when she heard me drop my book bag behind the door. She rarely checked to see if it was me when I came home. Mahalo’s a pretty safe town, I guess, as long as you don’t go walking around certain areas after dark.
“Yeah,” I said as I sat down beside her. “I, uh, got an email about it. But, I mean . . .?” and I shrugged my shoulders in a way that said, yeah, but what the hell? without actually swearing.
We sat in silence for awhile, watching the predictions and analysis on the screen. Fox News kept using the phrase “the end of American sovereignty,” but they didn’t explain what that meant. Apparently there was some big natural disaster about to happen, and the President was working with the UN to try and stop it, or minimize the impact, or something. A telephone poll asked, “Do you trust the President’s choices?” which I thought was dumb because he just won the election, so obviously plenty of people trusted him. “You want any chips, or anything?” I asked mom. I pushed up off the couch and headed for the pantry.
“Oh, no, no,” she said without looking at me; “I’ll make dinner later, OK?”
“Yeah I’m not that hungry.”
When I got to the kitchen, the President had started walking out to the podium. There were two other guys with him, standing on either side: One was Chinese and the other had this little, colorful hat on – like he was a Muslim sailor or something. So apparently the rumors were true. I couldn’t believe it, even though I’d read about it in Rachel’s email: We were about to see the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy! Here was the leader of the free world, and he was about to voluntarily hand all his power over to the Dragon and the Beast! I decided not to open the chips until I’d heard what he had to say.
He began with something about how “the best impulses of humanity” were “those that served the common good.” “We as a nation,” he said, “have always striven to do more than simply look out for ourselves. The true American identity is one that advances the light of liberty and justice far beyond our own frontiers.” He paused for a moment, as if he were looking down at his notes – which I thought was odd, handwritten notes instead of a teleprompter.
“I have recently received information about a threat to all life on earth as we know it. The danger is serious, and it is imminent, and this government cannot overcome it on its own. That is, on our own, we the American people cannot overcome it. But the American spirit – which is itself the brightest light, the clearest expression of the best hopes of humanity – the American spirit, I say, cannot and will not be defeated. It cannot be broken. It can and will always overcome.
“What does it mean to be American, truly, if not to stand up to the challenges that are the most historically profound, that face all humanity? To lend strength and succor to the poor and the oppressed of the world? What is it to be American, in spirit, if not to reach out to souls everywhere who are striving to breathe free? What is it to be American, if not to recognize the kindred spirits of all who look to the light of justice, throughout the world, and to acknowledge the universal brotherhood of all humankind, regardless of race, or color, or religious persuasion?
“Last night I received word that a recently rediscovered comet, known to the scientific community as 1000a (Alhazen), threatens to collide with the planet Earth in one week’s time. The ensuing catastrophe would be beyond the scope of human history or even imagination. It would stir up a dust cloud that would block out most of the light of the sun, for a period of unknown thousands of years. It would easily rival the impact that formed the Chicxulub crater 65 million years ago and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
“Since eight o’clock last night, I have been in constant counsel with the leaders of NASA and our military, and I have spoken to the leaders of most of the world’s countries. There is no single, independent action that can save us from this crisis. This is not a science fiction movie; there are no nuclear warheads we can launch, no maverick astronauts who can guarantee the harmless destruction of the comet 1000a (Alhazen). But there is a hope – there is a solution – if we can come together not just as a nation, but as an entire world. We can defend the planet Earth – our mother Earth – if we stand united as her children, and take action in solidarity together with the entire race of humankind.
“Our best hope – and indeed, our only hope – begins with the incredible discipline and manufacturing capacity of the great nation of China. The Chinese government has informed me, and our top scientific advisers have confirmed, that a single, coordinated jump by every person alive in China would generate enough force to knock the earth out of its course around the sun. If timed correctly, this jump would also knock us out of the path of 1000a (Alhazen). The Chinese are prepared to take this step. Indeed, they have already begun the manufacture of over a billion little red stepping stools, of exactly the height necessary to optimize the jumping potential of the Chinese people.
“Now, this action on the part of the Chinese is only half of the solution. Without additional impacts of significant force in other locations around the globe, the Chinese jump would cause a disaster at least as drastic as a collision with the comet 1000a (Alhazen). Therefore, I have agreed that the United States will participate in a multilateral, worldwide effort to put the earth back into balance. With the assistance of UN peacekeeping forces, the US Army and the National Guard will be establishing jumping centers in various locations throughout the most geographically advantageous regions of the continental United States.
“We ask for your participation in this momentous, worldwide project. The soldiers I am sending into your cities and towns are under the strictest orders to protect the laws of the United States and the civil rights of its citizens. I have not signed away the leadership of this country, and we are not under martial law. However, all of our nation is in a state of emergency, as is the entire world. I ask for your patience, your understanding during these trying times, and your help. We cannot knock the world back into orbit if we don’t have enough people to jump.
“In order to generate the required amount of concentrated force in specific areas, it may be necessary for large populations to migrate, for a time, to certain designated jumping areas. Announcements regarding this particular will be sent to your state governors’ offices later this week. Again, your civil rights will be respected, and no one will force you to leave your home. Consider, however, that the fate of the entire world may hang upon your temporary cooperation with our worldwide plan. Because of its diplomatic and humanitarian resources, the United Nations is coordinating the bulk of this effort internationally, and is prepared to move groups of volunteers to the United States from neighboring countries in South and Central America, should the need arise.
“This threat is serious; it is the single greatest challenge ever faced in the history of humankind. It is also a great opportunity for us to prove the strength and resilience of the American spirit, and the human spirit. Many nations have come together before – to stamp out the plague of ignorance and hatred propagated by the Nazis in World War II, to take a firm stand against terror in the years following the attacks of September 11th, and to provide disaster relief in diverse times and places all over the world. Never have we faced an enemy so potentially devastating as this one; but if we can stand together, I believe we are up to the challenge.
“Some of you may disagree. It may be tempting for some to give up, tempting for some good people to give in to reactionary denialism, or cynicism or despair. To those of you who begin to feel this way, I say I believe that God has never yet let a temptation arise without also providing the faithful with a means to overcome it. In these current circumstances, the way forward is clear: It is time for us to put our doubts and our selfish fears aside. It is time to be trustworthy, to love our neighbors, and to be bold. We must step forward, reach out, and take the hand of fellowship extended by the rest of the world. This is the path that Providence has provided for us. We are Americans; we must be an example of how individuals from the world’s most diverse corners can stand united in the face of a true, mindless evil, a common foe. Thank you; God bless America, and God keep . . . everyone.”
He stepped away from the podium as he finished, despite the cries of “Mr. President, Mr. President!” flashing with the cameras among the press. I crinkled the bag of Doritos in my hand and dropped it on the floor to see what would happen. I mean it felt like the right reaction; I felt like I ought to be shocked and dropping things, eyes bulging, jaw slack, etc. I had just heard about the end of the world. And so I stepped down on the bag and crushed the chips. It seemed like the least I could do.
“Come here, Patrick,” my mom called from the other room. Her voice wavered. She was still staring at the TV but wasn’t actually watching it anymore.
For once she did turn to look at me when I came into the room. “Come sit here,” she patted once on the couch; “I’m gonna want you here. I’m gonna want you near me . . . .”
“Oh my God,” I said, hugging my chest as I dropped into the cushions next to her. All of a sudden it was really cold in the room.
“Patrick!” she grabbed my by shoulders and shook; “Don’t blaspheme! Oh, Patrick; don’t blaspheme, not now.” And she started to cry, and I put my arms around her and held her until she stopped. She fell asleep, and I just sat there, watching the TV screens without listening. I don’t know why I didn’t go to bed . . . it was Friday, it had been a long week. But I guess I was waiting to see a picture of the comet that threatened an end to the American way.
I slept late the next morning and went to the Wedgwood’s house for youth group that afternoon. When I arrived, all the overstuffed leather furniture was taken. The Wedgwood drawing room was rich – mahogany cases for the electronics, wall-to-wall carpeting with persian rugs on top. There was a half empty bottle of Coke on the coffee table, and a metal bowl with a small pool of tainted water where Rachel’s mom must’ve put out some ice for us.
“Hey,” Charity Dale said in greeting, cocking her head and waving her foot where it hung over the arm of a recliner. She was pink and sweating, flush with the kind of faux-sunburn you get from sitting inside all day without air conditioning. She wore this stretchy cotton T-shirt that looked like it was deciding whether or not to be skin, and jean short-shorts cut so that the bottoms of the pockets stuck out. Those shorts were cool and expensive, but Charity lived on the same street as me. I wondered if she’d massacred a pair of her mother’s old Levis.
“Patrick Smith, welcome; come on in.” Rachel turned and gestured for me to come into the room. This house was her estate, and she was Charity’s opposite in just about every way. Lithe and slender, with pale skin that still managed to look cold despite the heat, she could have been a Greek statue brought to life by Zeus, if there really were such pagan goddesses. There was definitely something more than human about her. Charity Dale’s hair was normal, neither blonde nor brown, but vital and ambiguous. Rachel’s was as straight and black as her skin was clear and white. The contrast was stark and uncompromising. It made it hard to do anything but agree when she spoke to you. “Come in, Patrick,” she repeated. “Would you like a drink?”
“Yeah . . . uh, yeah.” I shrugged my shoulders.
“I thought Mormons couldn’t drink Coke,” said Randy Cunningham. He was wearing a red mesh jersey with the armpits all stretched to let air in and his pecks out. He dominated the big couch in front of the coffee table.
“I’m not a Mormon. I’m . . . um, a Sophomore?” I said, confused and feeling totally lame. Randy didn’t come to youth group often, but he had to know I was a Christian. I mean I knew him. We both went to VBA.
“Randy, what? How does that make any sense at all?” Rachel asked, kneeling down in her dress and pouring me a drink.
“Cause his last name is Smith, you know, like Joseph Smith?” Randy expanded even more upon the couch and put his arms behind his head.
“Har har har,” Franklin Giffords mocked him.
“Anyway, don’t the Mormons, like, own Coca-Cola?” Cameron Wilson raised himself up on his elbows and then dropped back down into his chair, defeated by the humidity.
“Patrick, please have a seat,” Rachel opened a gray folding chair in front of the coffee table. Then she went over the couch, shoved Randy’s legs off it, and fell into the cushions next to him.
I had a sinking feeling that didn’t stop when I hit the metal seat.
Our youth pastor was AWOL, so Franklin opened the meeting with a prayer. Then Rachel took over. She was all business. While the rest of us slouched, she sat upright, on the edge of the couch, back straight as a princess awaiting coronation. She was so snowy and so cool, like she had a secret stash of December between her sun dress and her skin. She didn’t even miss a beat when Randy kept trying to swing his socked feet up into her lap, nor did she seem to be distracted by the way he toyed with the hem of her skirt with his toes.
“Basically, this is it,” she said, “The Tribulation. The beginning of the war to end all wars. You know what the Bible says. Open up to Revelation 8:10.” We picked up Bibles from the coffee table and began to rifle through them, but she already had her finger in the page. “‘The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water – the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died . . . . A third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night. As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth. . . .!’”
“‘Woe, woe,’” Randy echoed, sitting up and then falling calamitously into Rachel. She snorted and shoved him off of her.
“This war is gonna touch every human being on the world,” she continued. “It’s gonna mark us. I mean, the Bible says, you either get marked with the mark of the Beast, or with the Name of the Lamb, right?
“But a mark is something you can see. If you can’t see it, it isn’t a mark; it isn’t there. I don’t know about you guys, but I want to be marked with the mark of the Lamb. I want to see it! And I want people to see” (she paused for emphasis) “whose side I’m on, right? ‘Cause I’m gonna side with the Lord!” She nodded at everyone in the room, her deep blue eyes unblinking. And she had our attention. I sat still, probably gaping like a moron, frozen in fascination on the hard folding chair. The rest were still draped at large across the luxurious upholstery, but they were transfixed too. They watched and listened quietly, hardly even daring to breathe – except for Randy, who made little smacking sounds and pulled with his toes at some black lace on Rachel’s skirt.
“Right,” Charity Dale and I said at the same time. She looked at me and then looked down, biting her lip. I guess it was because we weren’t really that close anymore. I mean we had grown up on the same street, but nobody else had to know that.
But Rachel beamed straight into my face. I thought for a moment a skylight had opened in the roof, and her face was an icy mirror, and a ray of sunlight shone down on her. I’m sure it was the way Moses’s face had glowed, when he came down from the mountaintop. I had to blink and my eyes . . . I was almost, like, weeping, I was so dazzled.
“That’s right, Patrick!” she said, her voice glowing too. “We want to be seen. We want to show them. So how are we gonna make ourselves seen? How are we gonna display the glory and power of the name of Jesus?” She sighed in dismay and put her snowy hand on Randy’s foot. “I mean, they’re already invading our country. UN troops are gonna set up their camp just outside of our town? And they’re everywhere! And our President’s like the antichrist, and there are lots of ‘Americans’ – you know, like liberals – who’re already willing to do whatever he says. So what are we gonna do, to put a stop to this, to draw a line in the sand?” Her blue eyes blazed with zealous passion and cobalt fire. It was just too glorious. I had to look away, but I had to do it casually, so that no one would notice how helplessly I had been staring at her.
“We need to strike back!” Randy roared. He sat up and smacked Rachel’s thigh as he shouted, letting his fingers settle on her where they fell. She slid them back downwards to her knee. Everyone else groaned. The sudden movement sent eddies of heat across the room and snapped the cool, divine trance Rachel had held us in.
“Randy! Bro!” Cameron complained, wiping sudden sweat off of his forehead; “Seriously.”
“No, I mean it,” Randy insisted, gazing around the room with almost the same intensity Rachel had, except with his jerkiness replacing her icy hotness. “This is a war, like you said, and they have invaded our territory. It’s time we struck a blow in self-defense.”
“You don’t mean, like, actually fight against the army out there?” Franklin asked. “Like, throwing rocks at tanks in Gaza, that kind of shizzim?”
“We probably can do better than that. We are Americans, not, like, homeless people in the Third World,” Randy crossed his arms behind his head and smiled.
“Would anyone like any lemonade? I just made it this morning,” Mrs. Wedgwood, Rachel’s mother appeared abruptly, holding a sweating pitcher and looking – like her daughter – entirely unaffected by the heat. Hands went up lazily across the living room.
“I don’t think we should plan to hurt anybody,” Charity said, glancing over at me to see if I was about to say the same thing again. I was, actually, or at least I wanted to; I was glad she got to it first.
“Well,” Randy sighed, exasperated. “I guess we can all just sit here and wait for them. They will come for you, you know. All of you! 666. They will, frickin’, try to write it on your forehead.”
“Watch your language, Randall,” Mrs. Wedgwood murmured, pouring lemonade into Franklin’s glass.
“Sorry, Mrs. Wedgwood. But we gotta do something, and it’s got to be really something, you know? It’s gotta be, like, big. Something that God can get behind. We gotta try and stop them!”
Everyone was looking at Randy now, except Mrs. W., who continued to pour drinks. It was his show, and it was like . . . it was like, everyone except me seemed to think he really cared, all of a sudden. I mean it was a joke; I could totally tell he was just trying to see how far he could go, but no one called him out. So I just drank my lemonade and watched, like I was on the outside. And I felt like I was on the outside, because Rachel just kept looking at Randy, with those round blue eyes. She’d forgotten all about me. She was no longer including me in the cool brightness of her gaze.
“Sabotage,” Randy was saying. “We don’t need to actually shoot at anyone or blow anything up, just screw with their equipment a little. They want people to stand up on these jumping platforms. But what if the platforms buckle under a certain amount of weight? What if their boards develop mysterious cracks, or supports disappear in the middle of the night?”
“But those’ll be guarded,” Charity said. “I mean, they’re gonna expect someone to come in and try and screw them up. Even just, like, taggers from the public schools.”
“You have a better . . . idea?” he said, snapping at her at first, and then pronouncing the last word like he was all nice and sincerely interested in her opinion. She shrugged her shoulders.
“What about the clocks?” Franklin suggested. “Everyone’s supposed to jump at the same time, right? What about screwing with the, like, the clock tower? We could probably climb inside there and reset the hands, so that everyone who looks at it would be all confused and wouldn’t jump. And there are all those other signboards around town, too, with, like, digital displays. I bet we could take over a fair few of them.”
“That’s a great idea, Franklin!” Rachel beamed at him. “How can Satan accomplish his work if his followers don’t even know when to jump? If we can make them wait long enough, maybe some of them can still be saved.”
“Brilliant! Good job Franklin,” Randy added, trying to retrieve the attention. “But maybe we can do both. Get to the clocks and the platforms at the same time, and use the clocks as a distraction. Because, really, they’ll be able to reset the clocks, but they won’t know about the platforms until it’s too late, if we do it right. And anyone who plans to jump is just as good as marked already anyways.” He glanced around with this expression of openness and concern. “I know you’re all afraid of what might happen if you get caught, but we are at war. And this is, like, the Tribulation, too; this is Biblical prophecy, you know. We shouldn’t be worried about what will happen if we get caught. We should be more worried about what’ll happen if we don’t do anything.”
“Do not fear those who can kill the body; fear rather He who can kill the soul,” Rachel quoted (Matt. 10:28). Randy patted her leg, all possessive, and they looked into each other’s eyes and smiled.
“So, what’s the plan, then? Who’s gonna do what?” Cameron asked.
I thought of watching while the legs of some UN platform collapsed under the weight of a dozen people standing ten feet off the ground. I thought about what it would be like to see some of our non-Christian neighbors up there, so sure they were a part of some big scientific movement that was going to save the world, only to come crashing down before they had a chance to put that final seal on their lack of faith. I did kind of want to be the one to show them they were wrong, but if something like that happened . . . I kind of didn’t want them to know it was me. And I thought of all the digital displays along the road, attached to banks, gas stations, former Radio Shacks. I thought of trying to break into one of those at night, and then get into computers, and make the change and get out without being caught. It would be like Mission: Impossible, except it wouldn’t work. I would have no idea what to do.
“I’m going analog,” I said.
“What?” Randy and Rachel both turned to look at me at the same time, their heads turning one other, cogs and wheels.
“I’ll take the old clock tower.”
The public schools were closed until the crisis was passed, but VBA stayed open. Coach Kroger called all of our parents and told them attendance was a matter of conscience. “Of course it’s a personal decision; you have to do what’s right for your family,” he assured them. “But as for me and my family, we will be at school tomorrow.”
When Monday rolled around, there were even fewer absences than normal. All the teachers showed up; they probably had their own “as for me and my family” chats with Coach K. The volunteer moms were out in full force, too. They stood clustered in foyer, talking to each other in low voices and touching us all on the shoulder as we walked by. Rachel and Randy kept planning for our counterattack on the platforms and the clocks via cell phone – and no one seemed to mind if we had them out in class anymore. The teachers spent most periods praying with us, reading from Scripture, and lecturing on how Jesus said to keep busy at the End of Days, how in both parables and prophecy He indicated He didn’t want to come back and find we hadn’t been doing anything but wasting our time.
The exception was Mr. Thom. He greeted us Monday morning with a new packet of worksheets in his classic, befuddled style, and he kept building on it all week. We were supposed to be doing all these equations with inertia and velocity, or something like that. Every day he kept our heads down, cranking out numbers. He didn’t sit still behind his desk, either. He circled like some sort of dark cloud caught in a cyclone, ready to unleash lightnings on anyone who looked up from his work. It was like he actually still thought studying science was important.
It was nice, too, for awhile, just to not have to think about the fact that the world was about to end and Lucifer was making his big power play for all the hearts and minds of our nation. It was nice just to stare at numbers, and just breathe easy among these totally abstract concepts, and not have to constantly remind myself that breaking the law and risking jail might be bad, but would impress Rachel and definitely show God I was on the right side. So Thom’s class was actually the most relaxing hour we spent at school.
And then, Wednesday morning, Franklin asked him what we were actually working on.
“Mr. Thom, hey.” He raised his hand. Everyone looked up from their papers, blinking as our eyes refocused. No one had spoken a word out of turn in science class since we arrived on Monday. “Hey. What does this mean?” He asked it like an accusation, waving the worksheet as if it was exhibit A.
Mr. Thom sighed and paced over to the whiteboard. “Well,” he said, “we’re trying to calculate potential energy. If we take an object with a mass of 60 kilograms times ten to the ninth power,” he wrote it on the whiteboard, “and drop it from half a meter at the speed of gravity – nine point eight meters per second, squared . . . you get a potential force of 3 joules times ten to the eleventh power.” He fiddled with the whiteboard marker nervously and glanced around the room.
“So what are we trying to prove?” Franklin asked again, folding his arms. “What is this sixty billion kilogram object? You gonna tell us what it is?”
Mr. Thom smacked his lips behind his stormy beard. “It’s approximately the weight of all the people in China.” There was a complete silence, even from Franklin, as we took stock of what we had been doing. Without knowing it, we were trying to prove the science behind the jump; trying to validate the premise behind the whole Chinese/UN takeover of the world. It felt like . . . I don’t know, like we had been learning how to raise demons, or dance before the golden calf or something.
“But this is only one part of the equation; you all have different pieces;” Mr. Thom sounded hurried now, kind of frantic. Maybe he knew what was coming. “Today I was going to put you in groups of three, so you could pool your data, and you could find out for yourselves whether or not you thought it would work. It’s very complicated. You, Michelle,” he strode over to her desk and pointed at her worksheet, which she leaned away from, lifting her hands as if it was a hairy spider; “you were working out the different effects of the impact if all its force hits an object in one small spot, versus if it’s all spread out across a wider area.
“And you, Patrick,” and suddenly he was towering over me, smiling proudly, an over-emotional grandfather, “you have the really tough equation. This one.” He held it up for everyone to see. “Because the jump doesn’t introduce any new mass or energy into the system; it just displaces what’s already here. It’s not like . . . the comet, which could whack us from the outside, like a cue ball; it’s more like what happens when you shake a half-full gallon of milk. Waves made on the inside can cause the whole thing to jiggle and move.” He licked his lips and actually seemed excited, like we should be excited too, instead of just worried about what would happen when somebody found out we’d been working on this.
A girl behind me made a gagging noise. “I feel like I’ve been trying to talk to Amy Winehouse on a Ouija board,” she said. The sunburst sank back beneath Mr. Thom’s beard and the stormy glower returned.
“So, what? You want us all to go sign up for the big jump?” Franklin was playing the cold interrogator. “Join hands with the One World Movement, and turn our backs on heaven?”
Mr. Thom ran his fingers through his sideburns. “I want you to think for yourselves,” he said, “and to make informed decisions. That’s all. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you. Look” – he raised his hands like he was going to point at something, and then dropped them without finding an object – “They try to tell you that this comet is Wormwood; they’re saying it’s a star cast down from the heavens, sent to bring desolation to a third of the Earth. It’s from the book of Revelations, and it seems to fit. Yes. And I know everyone around you says there’s no way we can avoid it. But this isn’t the first time world events have meshed well with the symbols of Biblical apocalypse. Would-be doomsday prophets have concocted flawless interpretations of Revelations every few decades for the last two thousand years!
“And there have been massive meteor strikes on Earth before. Not many in human history, perhaps, but . . . the geologic record is full of them. It happens. Just look at the craters on Mars! Or on the moon. The moon’s like a shield for us, basically, but still, plenty of stuff gets through from time to time. Collisions are common on the cosmic scale.
“But even if Alhazen is the real, Biblical Wormwood; even if it is supposed to kill a third of the population, and destroy third of the land, and poison a third of the sea . . . does that really seem like such a good thing? Aren’t we supposed to protect life – especially human life? Take out your Bibles!” he ordered, in a fair impression of every other teacher at VBA this week. He didn’t wait to see if we did it, though. “In Genesis, Abraham pleaded with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. He made God promise He wouldn’t, if He could find ten good people in either city. In Exodus, Moses begs God not to destroy all the Israelites in the wilderness, and God changes His mind. He changes His mind! Jonah warns the Ninevites of God’s coming wrath; they repent, and God spares them. In the Gospels, John asks Jesus if they should call down fire on a city that rejects Him, and He says no. He says no. And yet here we are, assuming that this comet is God’s will. But what if . . . what if, even if it is His will, there’s still something we can do about it? What if a third of the people on Earth die, and there was something you could do about it, and you didn’t? Don’t some of you feel like you at least ought to try?”
The door opened behind us, and Coach Kroger stepped in. He looked cool as always, authoritative, calm and professional. He towered over the rest of us – even over Mr. Thom – a bald mountain top, peaking out over a sea of clouds. He shook his head once at the science teacher, who had frozen mid-rant at the appearance of his administrator. “It’s time for you to go,” Coach Kroger said. His expression was one of sadness and disappointment masking tightly controlled, muscular anger.
Mr. Thom flushed red and squeezed the marker in his fist, but then he dropped it and stormed quietly out of the room, a breeze sucking at the worksheets in his wake. We caught them and held them to our desks reflexively.
“Did you hear. . . ?” Franklin asked him.
Coach Kroger nodded. “Yeah. Thanks for texting me. I came as soon as I got your message, but I stood outside listening for a while.” He sighed. “I had to be sure he meant what he said, that it wasn’t just some exercise. The time of the harvest has come, and Lord begins to separate the wheat from the weeds.” He pulled a chair to the front of the room, and sat on it backwards, facing the class. “Let’s pray.”
They sent us home early from school that afternoon; I guess Coach Kroger didn’t want to have to deal with angry parents demanding he account for his heretical science teacher. Mom came to pick me up. She was smiling, and she had tears shining in her eyes, like she hadn’t ever expected to see me again until we met in heaven.
“Miss me since breakfast?” I asked, as she got into the driver’s seat and closed the door.
“Let’s just not go anywhere until . . . let’s just stay at home together for awhile,” she said. “I went shopping this morning; that was quite the experience.” She looked distant for a moment, and I could almost see the scenes of carts and competition playing behind her eyes, like some grocery-based reality show. She blinked and sat up, started the car and looked over her shoulder. “But there’s enough food in the house now for a week or two. We won’t need to go anywhere.”
“So you’re not jumping?” I asked.
I had meant to be sarcastic, but I guess it didn’t come out quite right because she screwed up her forehead a little, the way people do when they’re trying to think and still keep their eyes on the road. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “Have you seen the height of those platforms? They’re ten feet tall at least. There’s no way you can land safely coming off one of those things.”
“Mom,” I said, stretching the syllable in dismay. She looked at me quickly, then checked her mirrors.
“Kidding,” she said. She was quiet for a moment. “So you think it’s pointless, then, Patrick? You think it’s all over, after this weekend? I heard about what happened with Mr. Thom this morning.”
I couldn’t quite figure out how to answer her, because I couldn’t really believe she was asking me. Like, she was my mom. If the world were going to end, shouldn’t she know about it before me?
“Look,” she said; “I’ll make this deal with you: I won’t go anywhere if you don’t either. We stay together and watch the whole thing from our living room, or we go together, and face whatever’s coming. How’s that sound to you?”
“Good,” I said, because I didn’t know what would happen, with Rachel and the clocks, or Randy and the platforms, but I knew I wanted mom to stay home, in front of the televisions, where she was supposed to be. And it felt like she was treating me like a grown up. But I guess everyone is a defacto adult at the end of days.
Adults come and go when they please; I snuck out of my window at 11:30. Mom had come and stared at me from the doorway an hour earlier, which meant she had probably gone to bed. I’d pretended to sleep. Everything in the house was silent except the background electronics. The TVs were muted if they were still on. I stepped out into the gravel below my window as quietly as I could and didn’t look back. It felt like . . . like the air wrapped these cold fingers around me then, and pulled me forward. Like even if I had turned around all I could have seen were these black, icy fingerprints. So I stuffed my hands in my coat and kept going.
I don’t know how long my phone buzzed before I noticed it. I flipped it open to check the time when I got to Gordion St., and there was this whole long series of messages. The cc: list now included the entirety of Veritas Bible Academy. I had to duck under the shadow of a feral juniper to wait for all the messages to load. Rachel and Randy had concocted this elaborate plan, with three layers of action, codenames, synchronized watches. Franklin was heading up a group of protesters; they were going to throw rocks at the UN troops after all. Another senior named Matt, who could pass for a Mexican, was supposed to go out to the poor neighborhood, convince people to violate the military curfew, and start a riot. I wasn’t entirely clear on how he was supposed to do it, but I guess Rachel and Randy thought he was up to the job. Cameron and Charity led two groups to sabotage the jumping platform on Hewitt Blvd and the digital clock above it. Rachel and Randy had given themselves the biggest set of platforms, the ones beneath the old clock tower in Mahalo square. The last message in the list was just for me, from Rachel.
I know you have a tremendous heart for God, but there’s been a change of plans. Don’t worry about messing with the main clock tower. We will take the platforms alone. Stay home and support us through prayer.
Rachel (Gen. 29:17)
It had Rachel’s tagline, but I could read Randy’s sweaty fingerprints all over it. He had convinced her to ditch me. But I was already more than halfway there! I could see the clock tower now, illuminated in spotlights above the houses. And if I closed my eyes, I could just about picture Rachel tied to its top, dangling over a precipice, Randy her captor. Behind my eyelids, his whole aspect flashed with malice; he laughed and leered and dared me to the rescue. So I pushed my way back through the shrubbery and into the street. There was no turning back. The clocktower was mine. If everything went according to plan, there would be no one else in the city that night. Just Randall Cunningham and me, battling for the princess at the end of the world.
When I got to the clock tower, there was no one else there at all. White platforms extended in every direction, suspended in the night like a spreading deck of giant, floating cards – or like a table prepared for me in the presence of my enemies (Psalm 23). Except there were no enemies present. Perhaps the National Guard realized they were in the service of Babylon and deserted out of protest, or perhaps Matt’s curfew riot worked. Either way, the way was clear for the Lord.
Access to the tower had once required a key, but it opened into a little tourist information office that had been abandoned even before the invasion. Shuttered but not locked, of course, because Mahalo was as safe as it was boring. The few tweakers and pot smokers in town stuck to the fringes. They avoided this place, most likely due to paranoia about enclosed spaces, but VBA kids had used it for secret prayer meetings as long as I could remember. It was a thrill, like hiding in the upper room – except that it was the opposite, a sunken, basement office, several steps down from the rest of the surrounding plaza. The ceiling hatch up to the clock tower had always been unlocked before. I myself had been up behind the clock several times. Someone had installed an old PC interface on the landing in the nineties, but the basic organs were much older. It was entirely possible to turn the gears and reset the whole thing by hand. All I had to do was get across the square undetected, raise the shutter enough to crawl underneath it, and I would be good to go.
I turned in a circle to make sure no one was watching, then rolled like a ninja across the final shadow to the sliding metal door. My heart beat so powerfully that it made my arms feel comparatively weak, and for a moment I doubted I’d be able to lift the shutter on my own. But it rose almost at the touch of a finger, gliding upwards and rattling just enough to make me wince. Inside, the office was dank and humid. It was shady and still but somehow far hotter and wetter than the open Mahalo night. I switched on my flashlight, located the ladder to the hatch. I had just made it to the second rung, when the pearly gleam below the half-raised shutter erupted in red and blue. When the siren hit, I felt almost physically knocked over, as if it were some sort of sonic laser beam aimed directly at me. A disembodied voice, terrible and compelling, commanded, “Come out with your hands over your head . . . .” And I just knew. I knew in that moment that the Beast was laughing and the Lamb was slain.
“You shoulda stayed home,” Randy said to me for, like, the eighteenth time. “You shoulda gone home like we told you to. The operation would have been effective. But no, the little dipstick’s gotta be a hero, gotta try and impress the ladies. Yeah, I know what this is about.” He maneuvered in front of me to catch my eyes while I tried to look away. “You jeopardized the fate of nations for the sake of your sick little crush on Rachel Wedgwood. Hah. Good luck with that now, turdblossom.”
“Get off his back, Randy, geez,” someone called from the other side of the cell. We were in an old-fashioned, small town jail, a drunk tank for all the assorted tweakers and disorderlies rounded up over a weekend. It was maybe half the size of a typical classroom, with discount brand, lime green paint over concrete walls, floor, and ceiling. Actual iron bars cast fuzzy, fluorescent shadows across the faces of all my fellow inmates. On a typical evening they would mostly have been cadaverous losers, bloated or scrawny, in unwashed shirts. And there were a few greybeards here and there, islands of surliness and stench. But they were overwhelmed by a sea of well-groomed, teary-eyed VBA students tonight. The air was heady with regret and Axe body spray.
The girls were in another cell down the hall. At first we could hear them crying, and for awhile some of them were singing worship songs, but for the most part they had gone silent. It had been at least two hours since we were picked up – or at least that’s what it felt like. There were no clocks on the walls anywhere. The officers had taken away all our cell phones when they loaded us into the back of the van.
And it was my fault, I guess; I did trip that alarm when I rolled underneath the shutter to the clock tower. They had some sort of infra-red security system, like the kind that keeps your garage door from closing on you. If it wasn’t for me, they might not have caught us so fast. But they were there before I’d even made it up the ladder – like, a whole squad with flashing lights and blaring sirens, and riot gear, and the paddy wagon. I hadn’t told them where the rest of us were, either, but they managed to round up just about everyone. Randy wouldn’t believe I didn’t snitch. I didn’t bother telling anyone. If there was about to be a rapture, it was probably best just to leave it between me and God anyway.
The door at the end of the hall opened, and another officer came in to talk to the one leaning against the wall there, guarding us. We couldn’t hear what they were saying, even though we all quieted down to listen. But someone was getting out; it was obvious, and the whole cell full of teenagers kind of stood up at attention, like we were all strays and if we wagged our tails hard enough maybe someone would choose to take us home. The guard at the end of the hall stood, too, with the keys actually jingling in his hands. They walked together towards us; those closest to the bars took a step back instinctively. And they walked past us – down the hall, toward the girls. Several boys groaned.
A moment later there was a squealing metallic sound – carrots pulled from the gardens of vegetarian nightmares – and then the whole female contingent of VBA activists paraded by, hunched and weeping. It was so sad, it was like they were straight out of Schindler’s List, except for the fact they were wearing perfume and clothes. Even Rachel looked broken. She paused to look into our cell as she shuffled by, and so did a few of the others, and I expected her to give us a word of encouragement or prophecy, or even just recite Psalm 22 or something; but all she did was frown and shake her head and then look down again.
“We’ll keep fighting, Rach; you hear me?” Randy called after her.
“‘Not peace, but a sword,’” someone else shouted from the back, Franklin, I think, and then the whole group was pushing up past me, banging on the bars of the cell and shouting “‘Not peace, but a sword!’ ‘Not peace, but a sword!’”
Charity Dale lagged behind the rest of the group. She stopped and turned at the door, just before the metal detector, and scanned through the whole crowd as if she was searching for something. She looked scared – terrified – but not like she was scared she was in prison. I mean, it looked like she was scared of us, of the noise the other protesters were making, like we were rioters or anarchists or animals or something. Not the elect, not her brothers in Christ. She looked disgusted, and her eyes met mine. I don’t know how, exactly, but in that moment I could see it in her eyes; I could see that she was weighing it; she was deciding between me and the jump. It wasn’t all the world, and VBA, Alhazen, the Chinese, and God and all the angels; it was just her, and me, and leaping from a white platform. Her head tilted slightly. She looked askance, curling her lip into a sneer. And then she turned again and walked out after the crowd.
The boys settled back in after the girls left. I guess their parents had shown up to collect them; I don’t know. No one told us, and no one came to quiet us down, either. I mean, I would have been afraid that someone would get hurt, the way they were carrying on and pressing into the iron, but the guards didn’t care. They knew why we were here – I hadn’t squealed, but plenty of the other kids had – and they understood well enough; it was like they didn’t believe in any of it. Like they looked at us and just saw a bunch of juvenile delinquents; they didn’t catch any of the spiritual energy. I almost saw us like that, too, for a second, staring back at myself out of Charity Dale’s eyes. I suppose Jesus was right. At this moment in history, so near the end of the world, even the elect might be deceived, if that were possible (Matt. 24:24).
“It’s not like you could have reset the clock tower anyway, dipstick.”
Randy was talking to me again. He’d rushed the bars when the girls walked by, like everyone else, and afterwards he’d gone a ways into the corner with Cameron and Franklin, to pray or shoot craps or something. But now he was up in my face again. I looked up at him, forgetting to check my reflexes for a moment.
“What? You just realized I was talking to you?” he blinked and smiled; “Yeah, you frickin’ slug; I’m glad you’re finally paying attention. You got us all caught, you know that? But it’s not just about us, right? It’s not just about Rachel and Charity. It’s about God’s plan, about being faithful to the end. Who are you faithful to, Patrick Smith? Do you ever think about anyone but yourself?”
I opened my mouth to say something, but it was, like, buzzing with the sounds of crime, and the costs of crime, and everywhere else in the cramped little room people were already saying whatever I might have thought to say anyway. So I looked down again.
“Randy, geez, leave it alone!” Franklin came up next to him and shoved him away by the shoulder. “It’s not like he’s getting out of here anyway.”
“What do you mean?” This was Cameron. Franklin pulled them both into a huddle and said something quietly. They paused to look at me and smirk periodically. I strained to hear, but only picked up that they were talking about Franklin’s father, who was a local bigshot lawyer that everyone knew and respected in Mahalo.
Half an hour later (or an hour, or three, or five long minutes) everyone was gone except me and the graybeards. One of them was sprawled out and snoring alongside the back wall, another was talking to himself in the corner. He flicked a glance at me every once and awhile, and I had tried to listen to him for a little bit, but eventually I decided it was best not to. The guard by the door strolled by periodically and asked me how I was doing.
“The rest of those boys, they weren’t friends of yours? Why did they leave without you?”
“I dunno,” I shrugged. It was a question I’d spent a lot of time thinking over myself. No one told me, but it seemed likely that Franklin’s dad had sprung everyone else, threatening to sue the police station or something. Somehow Randy had convinced him to release everyone except me. They hadn’t said anything to me as they left, but they were crazily smug about giving each other high fives right in front of me without acknowledging my existence at all.
The guard sighed. “Well, if either one of these” (he pointed to the two drunkards) “gives you any trouble, you just holler.”
I nodded and he walked away.
It was luridly, depressingly lit in the cell and the adjoining hallway, with no windows anywhere by which you could tell day or night, but the industrial silence of the building and the quality of the air seemed to shift, eventually, into early morning. The guard on duty changed shifts again, and the talkative drunkard fell into a slightly less noisy sleep. It was colder, I could tell; it was the morning of the jump, and I was still stuck in jail.
I realized I hadn’t prayed since before I was caught. I’d spent hours – it felt like hundreds of hours – feeling sorry for myself, cursing Randall, working out explanations for my mom, and practicing apologies to Charity and Rachel, trying to figure out how it wasn’t my fault, but I hadn’t actually taken it to Jesus at all. As soon as I realized this, I felt a wave of revulsion. Here we were, facing an extinction-level event and the end times, the comet Wormwood cruising in on us and threatening to take out a third of the world, and I was in a jail cell, muttering to myself about how some high school girls felt about me. Maybe Randy had been right. Maybe Charity was right, and that’s why she looked so appalled and disgusted when she left. This was small potatoes, these little dramas in my life, compared to what was going on at the global – at the cosmic – scale. So I bowed my head.
God, I prayed, have mercy on me. Have mercy on us, according to your great love and patience.
God, all I wanted was to stand with you. I mean I wanted to impress Rachel, too, by showing her what a great soldier for Christ I was, but, I mean . . . I meant it. I want to do your will.
Is it your will that this comet collides with the earth, and the sky rolls up like a scroll? Did someone do something, or is it just, like, a timer went off in heaven, ding, and that was it?
Is it your will that I sit here, doing nothing, while the whole world comes to an end?
God, please, please, take care of my mom.
I was mumbling this over and over, with my eyes closed, and I probably sounded like the crazy drunk guy, when I heard a gentle rap on the iron bars above me.
“They say there’s gonna be an earthquake,” the guard said, laughing, as he opened the door for me. “You can tell them that the ground shook, and your chains fell off, and the door swung open and you escaped.”
I hesitated for a moment. “You mean like Paul and Silas?”
“Hell yeah, I know my Bible!” he smiled. “It’s too late for you to interfere, you know. There are protesters out there – adults, who really should know better – but there are more soldiers and police, and we are better prepared. So just run on home. Go see how that mother of yours is doing.”
I could hear them all somehow – the rioters, the protesters, the U.N. Peacekeeping force, all the rest of the town and the immigrants who had been brought in for the jumping – but I couldn’t see anyone. The streets were totally deserted; everything was concentrated downtown. I could feel the pull of it, too, like it was impossible to stand still, and any direction I went besides towards the center felt like running uphill. It was almost like the ground was tilted, slanted . . . I wondered if the Chinese jump had already taken place, and maybe what I felt was gravity gone screwy, tugging me forever away from the Lord’s intended course for the earth.
The front door of our house was open when I got there, and the screen was propped as if someone had been carrying furniture. I wondered if there had been looters, or something, but the rest of the block was peaceful and quiet. The house was quiet, too, as I rushed in without bothering to unstop the screen behind me.
“Mom?” I called into the silence. There were no televisions on, and there was no response. “Mom?”
It wasn’t like the TVs were on mute. I paused to listen for a second, but I couldn’t even hear the electric buzz that you get when you lower the volume during commercials. It was actually just off; the whole house was silent. I could hear the wind outside, but the house itself was like a husk, an empty shell cast off by the living creature of entertainment and information that used to reside within.
“Mom?” I went down the hall and into her room, but she wasn’t there either. Her bed was sort of half made, like normal, with the sheets and blankets all pulled back so it could air out during the day. There were a few clothes on the floor, but the drawers were mostly shut, and her suitcases were still in the closet. No signs indicated that she had packed frantically and left in a hurry, like in some secular action movie. Maybe she had been raptured! But then she wouldn’t have had time to turn off all the TVs.
I looked for a note, like a suicide note, or like Martin Luther’s theses nailed to the door, but there was nothing, not even on the whiteboard on the refrigerator. But there, plugged into a jack on the kitchen counter, by the microwave, was her cell phone. Why would she leave that? There was her purse, too, under the end table by the couch. Maybe she had indeed been taken up – maybe the rest of the neighborhood had, too, and that was why it was so quiet everywhere except where all the rumbling was coming from, to the north, in Mahalo center. Or maybe . . . an iPhone screen could shatter, falling from ten feet to the ground. I imagine you wouldn’t want to carry anything else with you, either; if the earth did reverberate from the impact, it could be dangerous to have bags and keys and things swinging around in the crowd.
Or maybe she was kidnapped or something, and that’s why the door was propped open. Someone had carried her out.
It was a weird decision; I mean it felt like some sort of renunciation, some sort of ritual, but I had to find out what happened to my mom. Stuffing my hands into the pockets of my coat, I fished out everything – gloves, pens, receipts, forgotten candy wrappers – and dropped it in the kitchen trash can. I took my phone out of my pocket too, and my wallet, and my house keys. For a moment I thought about throwing these away, too; I mean, it was the end of the world, and if I was raptured, I wasn’t planning to take them with me. But you don’t just throw away a cellphone, even if it’s outdated. There are chemicals in those things that can seriously poison the groundwater, and poor children in third world countries can get sick by taking them apart and selling their components.
So I put my valuables on the counter, flew out the door, and ran back towards Mahalo square. It was weird running openly down the same streets I had snuck across so stealthily just the night before. It was almost as dead this morning as it was last night, too, though the sun was shining, and there were some birds. And I could hear, somehow, the low but rising roar of whatever was happening downtown. It felt good to be moving toward that sound instead of away from it, like I wasn’t fighting anymore, like I was caught in the vortex and I was just going with it. I let Gordion St. pull me where it would, and before I knew it the jumping platforms were looming up ahead of me again.
I heard the crowds before I saw them: Hundreds of protesters filled the end of the street where it ran into the square. Some of them crouched closer to the buildings with kids, trying to screen them from the main body, in case it erupted into violence. Others pushed forward, waving signs and shouting, “Wormwood!”
It was their rallying cry, and it seemed to come from everywhere at once as I worked my way through them, toward the broad square filled with white platforms. Riot police with plastic shields stood in formation, blocking the way. They kept a perimeter clear behind them, a strange calm between the roiling crowd of protesters and the meeker masses milling about beneath the platforms in the square. I wondered why they didn’t fire tear gas to disperse the crowd, but then I realized: The wind, like everything else, seemed to be drawn toward the square in the center. If they gassed the protesters, they’d get fumes all over the platforms, too. Protecting the jump was paramount; the cops had gas masks, but the jumpers didn’t.
I pushed my way toward the front of the crowd. I’d never seen a group of people so angry before, so many angry faces and so much outrage in one place! It was all I could do to keep myself from shouting “Wormwood!” along with them. I caught myself mouthing it.
One of the cops behind the shields yelled at me to halt. I don’t know how I heard it over the rest of the din; he must have been using a megaphone or something. I couldn’t tell which one it was, but I just spoke to the one directly in front of me. I told him, “Please, I need to get through. I need to see my mother,” and I don’t know if he heard me either, but after a moment rifles (with rubber bullets?) appeared atop the shields to my left and right, the wall of shields opened up just enough to let me through.
“You have five seconds,” the megaphone voice said again, bodiless and omnipresent. I rushed through, passed the officers, and into the calm of the demilitarized zone around the square. I could hear the shouts of “Wormwood” still, of course, but now they sounded accusatory, like they were all directed at me. And then the sound of the shouts faded, as I stepped up onto the curb and in amidst the masses waiting to mount the platforms. Somehow the air was stiller here, and a palpable silence hung in the air, an aggressive mute, like the kind you notice just before it really starts to snow.
“Mom?” I called out into the silence. I mean I tried to shout, but either the atmosphere of the place just swallowed the sound, or else I was too tense to use my diaphragm effectively. I could barely hear myself or anything else. A couple of people shifted near me, ruffled just slightly, like emperor penguins. No one else moved. Their attention was too focused or too divided between the platforms and the sky. “Mom?” I tried again. There was no way to see her from the ground; it was just listless, frozen, penguin people everywhere. I needed to climb up to get a higher vantage point. A UN guard seemed to be climbing both up and down the steps to the platform. She had the richest, most flawless black skin I had ever seen. She was definitely not originally from Mahalo.
“Please let me by,” I muttered, my words disappearing in the void. “I need to get up there. I need to find my mom.”
She looked down at me (or up at me; I guess it just felt like she was looking down) and opened her mouth to speak. Whether her words simply vanished like mine had, or whether she had yet to make a sound, I don’t know; whatever her response had been, it was interrupted by a clear, crackling voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once.
“The Chinese jump . . . has occurred . . .” the disembodied voice echoed across the crowd. “You may begin to feel . . . tremors . . . . Brace yourselves . . . .”
Via some telepathy common to the unredeemed, the crowds around the bases of the platforms immediately organized themselves into orderly lines. I turned and flinched to find myself at the front of mine. The beautiful guard stepped aside and gestured for me to move on. There was nothing to do but climb up the ladder.
From the top I could see thousands of other people, people of all races, sexes, and ages crowding onto similar platforms. It felt as though I could see beyond the mere boundaries of Mahalo, Oregon. I stood above the earth, above its curvature, and I could view multitudes and nations. My own mother was somewhere out there, standing resolute. She had to be. Mr. Thom was somewhere too. I tried to pick them out, but it was no use. But . . . half a dozen platforms away, standing right at the brink, and gazing back at me . . . Charity Dale. She nodded as she met my eyes.
And then the Voice came again.
“You must . . . await the signal . . . . There will be . . . many false signals . . . . The real signal . . . will appear . . . like lightning . . . from horizon . . . to horizon . . . .”
The platform bounced below us with the concussion of feet, hundreds of feet, as more and more people clambered on. I was already too near the edge; any more shoulders and I wouldn’t be able to keep my balance. This wouldn’t be a jump. This would be a letting go, a giving in to the pressure and just tossing yourself into the air. I pushed backward, only to find that the ladder had emptied. Everyone else was standing still. Their attention was fixed on a ball of fire that was dawning out of nowhere, growing until it was a third the size of the sun. It hung deceptively stationary in the broad blue sky, staring down at us. We stared back in stillness while the platform shook. The platform bucked; the platform tilted –
“Prepare to jump . . .” the Voice said. The crowd around me surged forward. I turned to face the ledge and looked up once more at the star Wormwood, comet 1000a (Alhazen). And then the sky rolled and roiled, and everything went black.