They were playing behind the shrubbery, in the chill darkness under the front porch. Their presence was concealed by the green-painted frame latticing that extended the length of the house three feet from the bottom of the weathered porch to the ground.
Lowering his voice to a whisper tinged with suspicion, Jimmy turned to Chris. “Why’d you bring me under here? I don’t like it.”
The two eight-year-old boys crouched low on the cold earth to avoid bumping their skulls on the blackened overhead beams.
“Over there’s the secret I wanted to show you.” Chris pointed through the shadowy darkness to a long, narrow mound of earth at the far side of the crawl space. “Can you believe it?”
“See for yourself.”
Emboldened by Chris’s challenge, Jimmy, crawling on all fours, threaded a wary path through the detritus that had been shoved under the porch over the years—half-used bags of concrete mix and gravel, rusted garden tools, paint cans, broken lawn furniture. With distaste, he raised the arm of his winter jacket to swat away the tattered cobwebs dangling from the rafters that increased the closer he got to the oblong mound. Chris followed in his friend’s wake.
“It’s not just a pile of dirt,” Chris said, his voice preternaturally calm, when the two boys reached the raised earth. “Don’t you see? It’s a grave.”
The nylon whisper of the boys’ parkas as each hugged himself against the cold was the only sound to disturb the dead hush that followed. Gray light slanted through the latticing and cast a grid of cross-hatched shadows, grotesquely elongated, over the mound.
“You mean somebody’s buried here?” Jimmy’s eyes widened, imagining how neatly its dimensions would accommodate a corpse. An adult corpse, to be precise.
“Course it’s a grave,” Chris said. His thin treble, muffled by the beams overhead, was subdued but certain. He ran a pale hand over the top of the mound. The soil was damp to the touch, as if it had been freshly turned. And yet, paradoxically, it felt packed as hard as clay. When he lifted his hand, black dust clung to his palm. “I was exploring under here last Friday, while you were at your grandma’s for Thanksgiving. That’s when I found it—” Chris gazed at the grave “—and that was two days after Uncle Harry died.”
“The old creep’s dead? No way! I figured he’d just gone to live with some other relatives like he always does.”
“That’s what Mommy and Daddy want me to believe. When I got home from school Wednesday, they just said he’d ‘gone for good’ and ‘God’s riddance.’ But I know better.” Chris paused. For years during Uncle Harry’s off-and-on stays, he had shared Chris’s room, sleeping in the same bed, the furnace of his heavy, hairy, snoring body forming a valley in the center of the spongy double mattress from which Chris fought to keep himself from rolling. But when Uncle Harry had showed up this September—the cousins in Sulphur Springs had had enough of him—his parents had darkly informed Chris that the boy would be sleeping on the foldout sofa in the den while Harry stayed in Chris’s room. Chris had felt a surge of relief.
“I know he’s not just gone.” A scoffing tone entered Chris’s voice. “The day before, I heard Daddy talking on the phone ‘bout a coffin, and you’ve gotta have a coffin if somebody’s gonna die.”
“You saying your mom and dad buried him down here? And didn’t even tell you?”
“Maybe they didn’t want to scare me.”
“Remember how mean Uncle Harry was?”
“Don’t I, always cussing at us, smacking our heads if we got to close.”
Chris thought about the many times he’d awoken in the middle of the night to the smells of stale tobacco and liquor, his uncle’s heavy arm straight-jacketing him in the sweaty bed sheets. “Mommy and Daddy were always warning him he was in for it if he didn’t repent his ways.”
“But why bury him here?”
“Sure you want to know?”
Jimmy nodded. He’d drawn his knees up to his chin and encircled his legs with his arms.
“You got to keep it a secret. The way I figure, maybe this is where you have to be buried, if you’re wicked enough to … to go down there.”
Jimmy tried to laugh. “That’s stupid.” Yet his body shuttered, as if warding off the blow of an invisible antagonist. “Like this is some special doorway to … to Hell? That’s way too weird. I’m going back outside.”
Chris cast a last look at his uncle’s resting place, then trailed Jimmy to the opposite end of the crawl space. The two boys squirmed through the small door built into the facing of the lattice on the side of the porch and emerged into the pale light of the failing afternoon.
Wordlessly they pushed their way through the boxwoods and dead chrysanthemums fringing the house, kicked at the drifts of brittle leaves littering the brown lawn, its spotty covering of grass as withered as the sparse hairs on Uncle Harry’s scabby cranium. Reaching the street, they sat on the cold cement curb and stared upwards at the surrounding trees, whose bared limbs stretched upwards toward a darkening sky that showed no flush of sunset.
Tentatively, Chris spoke. “I didn’t meant to spook you.” To himself, he thought you’re my best friend. I needed to tell somebody my secret.
“Nah, I wasn’t scared. It just made me feel creepy, I mean creepy, being there, right beside it. Like his ghost was about to reach out and pull me down into the ground. You know?”
“I know.” Chris watched an invisible gust of wind rattle the trees overhead. “I’ve had weird feelings, too, ever since I found it.”
Chris affected a laugh. “Like maybe it’s my turn to die next.”
“Good kids don’t die. My mom promised me.”
“Okay.” But the words of Chris’s father reverberated, darkly, in his mind: All children are born into depravity, deserving of eternal death unless they spend all their days atoning.
“Why don’t you come over to my place? We can play video games.”
The temptation was overwhelming; Chris’s parents didn’t allow video games, called them the work of the Devil. But he knew better than to ask permission to join Jimmy tonight; it was his evening to read the Scripture, and he needed to practice before his dad came home. If Chris stumbled over the words, even those impossibly big words, his father would devise some new punishment; he always did. The family had been reading the New Testament, from the start, after dinner, for over a year now. God’s word must you hide in your heart, so that you sin not against Him, his father reminded him, drumming the hickory switch against his palm as he waited for Chris to bend face downwards over the bed.
“Nah, not today. Maybe after school tomorrow?”
Rising and stretching, Jimmy retrieved his skateboard from where he’d propped it against the front steps, and as Chris watched, his friend leapt onto the decal-festooned board. Theirs was a quiet neighborhood—not a moving car to dodge—but still, Chris admired Jimmy’s derring-do as he zigzagged down the steep hill towards his house. That was something else his parents didn’t allow—skateboards, and certainly not ones decorated in flames of red and gold and black.
A damp chill made Chris shiver as he returned the yard. The strange feeling that he’d tried to explain to Jimmy washed over him, a sensation, a tingle as hard to identify as bristles of a dry paintbrush passing lightly over the back of his neck, and it filled his mind with an answer he had not known till this moment:
It was going to happen soon.
Erika Fowles fretted. She tested the flounder: yes, it had thawed, but she dared not put it in the oven until she was sure Joash was on his way home. Then again, nothing would be worse than his arriving before dinner was ready to set out—especially if, as she had reason to suspect, her husband had undergone another trying day at Grace Christian. Joash hadn’t answered when she’d called him at his office twenty minutes ago. If only he believed in smart phones or text-messaging life would be so much easier. But he didn’t, more work of the Devil to distract the weak from the Light. From the vacant look of teens about town, glued to the ghostly screens they always had in hand, Erika had to admit he was probably right. She looked out the window over the kitchen sink, into the darkening driveway, no headlights in sight. Dare she steal a few minutes and return to her desk, shoved into the corner of the den, open her Milton, and see if she could make any progress on the masters thesis that she refused to admit she had all but abandoned years ago?
Sitting at the kitchen table as he filled in the blanks on his math worksheet, Chris watched his mother from the corner of his eyes. She was more skittish than usual, he’d noted that she’d already taken several tablespoons from the brandied fruit incubating in the glass jar on the kitchen counter—“to steady my nerves,” she said. That was right after he’d asked her, ever so casually, if Uncle Harry would be back for Christmas. “No!” she exclaimed, then hastily turned her face away. “I mean, no, it’s unlikely.”
Five days had passed, it was Friday, and still nothing had happened. He didn’t know what the event would be, but the nightmares told him it was imminent. They had commenced after Uncle Harry had disappeared, and they had intensified ever since Chris had found the grave-shaped mound of earth under the front porch. Strange forms had infiltrated his dreams, then burrowed their way into reality till they seemed living forces filling the darkness of his bedroom—now that he was sleeping, again, in his own bed, the foul scent of Uncle Harry yet clinging to the duvet—and they whispered to him that he was wasn’t dreaming, that he was awake, their gentle voices close by his ear murmuring, Walk forth with us. But he couldn’t have been awake, there was no one in his room, no one trying to pull him under, the silenced cries that struggled to exit his throat and the warm touch of fingers that paralyzed him were not real. And yet, every night, he’d woken choking, trying to scream out loud the horror that he felt, the horror that knew no bounds between waking and sleeping.
“Chris, honey? You’ve the most peculiar look on your face—”
The sound of a car engine revving to pull into the steep driveway diverted his mother; his father was home. He watched as she quickly dashed paprika on the pale flesh of the fish, slipped the casserole dish into the pre-heated oven. Flesh of our flesh. Fishes and loaves for the multitude. The blessed ones.
Joash Fowles was indeed in the surly mood that his wife anticipated when he slammed open the back door and stomped wearily into the kitchen—a mood so familiar to Chris that the boy immediately willed himself into invisibility. The weight of the world—not simply the weight of serving as second-in-command of the sixty-odd students enrolled at Grace Christian Academy—tugged at the man’s shoulders as he crossed the room. Have pity on me! Such trials as I suffer for all the little children of the world, every hour of every day, so that they may someday learn to walk in the light of Lord! That was the message that each of his heavy footsteps conveyed to the fraying linoleum as he dropped his briefcase on the formica top of the kitchen table, sending Chris’s math sheet spiraling to the floor.
Erica fluttered to his side, fragile as a moth flitting around a flame that yearned but dared not touch. “Dinner’ll be ready by the time you wash up!”
A half hour later, hunched over the oak table in the dining room, Joash was not yet done pontificating about the indignities he’d suffered throughout his day. The head master was leaning hard on him because next year’s projected enrollments were down. And he suspected that the new history teacher, despite her training in Kingdom Education theology, wasn’t as strict a creationist as she’d led him to believe when he’d signed her up for a two-year contract.
“How can we lead the child to Christ, build the child up in Christ, if his teachers walk in darkness?”
But worst of all, he’d had to deal with Spud Conway, a junior caught in possession of a forbidden novel—its title unnamed in Chris’s presence. Joash had advocated immediate suspension, but the head master peremptorily overruled him. Spud’s parents, he reminded Joash, were two of the Academy’s most vociferous fundraisers; and Spud was dating Chastity Riddlebury, whose father served on the Board of Trustees. Rules are rules, and infractions infractions, Joash doggedly countered: in the final reckoning we shall all be measured equally before God’s throne. But the head master had barely deigned to listen, so Joash bemoaned as he scooped the last white flakes of tasteless flounder into his mouth; Mammon was establishing a foothold in their precious school, so Joash lamented. Erika attempted to lighten the mood by reminding him of the Church Fathers who had tried to silence Milton, calling his masterpiece the work of an apostate, but he shrugged her off. What Erika really wanted to tell her husband was that she’d called Lamont College about the cost of re-enrolling for completion credits in January, so that she could finish her thesis once and for all.
Chris drifted in and out of the conversation as he picked at his soggy vegetables, studying his father’s hands. They lay with palms turned down on either side of his place setting, gripping the edge of the table convulsively. The long, thick fingers, tipped by bitten fingernails, crossed with bluish veins, covered with silky black hair, seemed to vibrate with rage. So unlike like his mother’s small thin hands, nervously winging their way here and there, fingering the utensils, stroking the buttons on the high collar of her white blouse, folding and unfolding her napkin.
Night had completely drowned the last vestiges of twilight when the family resettled in the front room by a glowering fire as Mr. Fowles prepared to read the evening scripture. Corinthians. Second Corinthians, Chris corrected himself as he looked out the front window into the starless blackness, pondering the approaching time, when, alone, he would have to face the dreaming and waking terrors that threatened to suck him beneath the wave-like shadow of night.
Chris turned from the window—he had been noticed, for this one instant had actually become a livingbreathingbeing in his father’s eyes.
For his father was talking to him, a rare note of approval in his voice. On Fridays, students were permitted forego the Academy’s dress code and wear jeans if they donated two dollars to a designated missionary fund. Yes, his mother chimed in, eagerly, we should be so proud, Chris took the money from his book fund to give the mission in Zaire—so many lost souls and so much disease! Why hadn’t his father noticed that he was wearing jeans this morning, Chris wondered? He had been sitting right by his father’s side in the car as they drove to school. No time for rumination, though: Mr. Fowles handed the opened Book to Chris, who read his ten verses carefully, his words punctuated by the cracks of firewood yielding to the flames that leaped fitfully between them. He made no mistakes. Mr. Fowles took over where Chris had left off.
“But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached; or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him …”
And Chris’s thoughts again wandered, thinking of the night to come, of his growing certainty that something would happen any night now, that the forces battling within his dreams, straining at him, pulling him from all sides, were readying for a final assault. Against such horrors, Chris willed his mind to return to the living room, to his father’s powerful if bowed body outlined by the flickering beams of the fire, to his mother leaning back in her rocker, eyelids closing, then fluttering open, as she submitted to utter stillness. He had spied her taking more spoonfuls of syrup from the brandied fruit jar in the kitchen when the two of them had cleared away the dinner plates.
“… for such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel: for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”
Lying the Book aside, Mr. Fowles commenced a prayer—“Pray that we, your faithful servants, are not deceived by the False Prophet, nor led from the inerrant Word”—and he was just uttering “Amen” when the telephone in its nook by the dining room rang shrilly. Exasperation lit his face, presaging an outburst of temper that Mrs. Fowles attempted to divert by asking Chris, in as light a lilt as she could manage, to answer the phone.
He dashed out of the overheated room and put the heavy receiver to his ear. “Hey, it’s me, Jimmy. My parents said it was cool if you want to do a sleepover here tomorrow.”
Jimmy’s words entered Chris’s soul like the answer to a prayer. If only his parents said yes, he would make it through tomorrow tonight, if he were at Jimmy’s, if only . . . so he waited, feigning patience, as he conveyed Jimmy’s invitation and his parents deliberated. True, the boy was an A student at Grace Christian, but Joash frowned on the fact that Jimmy’s parents had joined First Methodist rather than their own Church of the Final Believers. Still, a boy should have friends, Chris’s mother said, and better a good Christian boy like Jimmy. . . . “Well, as long as you get home in plenty of time to dress for Sunday School,” Mr. Fowles gave his assent, and Chris dashed back to the phone nook to convey the good news, biting his lower lip in something like joy. Tomorrow night he would be safe. Now he only need worry about tonight.
“Don’t forget to take the trash to the curb,” his mother called from the living room as he put the receiver down.
It was his final Friday night task before brushing his teeth for bed. On the way out the kitchen door, Chris noticed the flashlight on the shelf above the dishwasher and took it with him. After lugging the waste receptacles to the street, he wandered across the front yard, dimly lit by street lamps, until he found two sticks he thought were the right size. He pulled some twine from his jeans’ pocket and, taking off his mittens, tied the sticks together hastily. His hands shook with cold as he tiptoed to the side of the front porch and flicked on the flashlight. His heart was pounding but that didn’t stop him from stooping to breach the entrance leading to the underside of the porch. Nor did it stop him from crawling over to Uncle Harry’s grave, spectrally lit in the golden beam of the flashlight, and laying his crudely fashioned cross on top of the mound. He raced out, heart still throbbing fiercely, praying that his action had secured a night of calm from the forces rallying in the darkness of his room.
First they’d played Super Smash Brothers, and then they’d raced each other in Mario Kart Eight, manipulating their controls with lightening-speed fingers as they sat raptly in front of the 48 inch flat-screen television. Flat-screen! For Chris, the sleek clarity of the image was even greater than the thrill of playing video games that would have sent his parents into lamentations about the end of civilization. Earlier in the evening, he and Jimmy had constructed a fort out of cardboard boxes, chairs, and a sheet, smack in the middle of Jimmy’s bedroom, and his mom had allowed them to eat their dinner on the floor inside the citadel: mac-n-cheese and chicken nuggets—not a vegetable in sight.
And now, best because most forbidden of all, Jimmy’s dad was letting them watch as he navigated “The Last of Us,” a gruesome video game in which a diseased and putrefying earth is on its last legs, and in which the few humans who have escaped the pestilence are killing each other for sustenance: an End of Days scenario even more vivid than the Revelations of St. John to which the minister in the Church of the Final Believers had recently subjected the congregation. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s mom indulged her “little men” with all variety of treats: carmel popcorn, scoops of chocolate-drizzled vanilla ice-cream, and, most miraculous of all, cans of Dr. Pepper. Chris’s parents frowned on soft drinks—Chris had been lectured time and again about how they stunted a child’s growth. The slippery slope from “soft” to “hard” drink addiction was one avoided by the truly righteous.
Jimmy tilted his head, drained his can in one swallow, and Chris, not to be outdone, followed suit. The soda’s fizz was intoxicating. He grinned at Jimmy and let out a belch, and Jimmy obligingly belched back. But Chris’s grin vanished as he felt his throat constrict and mouth pucker, and before he quite knew what was happening he’d vomited all over the hardwood floor.
“Why, why, did I have to get sick?” Chris moaned in the darkness of his own room. Thirty minutes ago, his parents had fetched him from Jimmy’s house. Yes, Chris may have also overeaten, Jimmy’s parents admitted over the phone, but his forehead’s burning hot, he’s definitely come down with a fever. Chris had protested, with tears, that he’d be fine, but to no avail—both sets of parents agreed he must go home. And he’d protested, again, when his mother administered a dose of medicine that tasted as bitter, to his fevered imagination, as a potion concocted by a coven of witches and warlocks. When she turned out the light in his room, he’d protested again, crying despite himself. The hall light filtering in from the half-closed door revealed a look of genuine concern on Mrs. Fowles’ face as she retraced her steps to the side of Chris’s bed and stroked his hand.
“What’s gotten into you, honey? Be my brave little soldier.” God’s Soldier, Chris thought, the words springing loose from some remote place deep within his fevered thoughts. She touched his hot forehead with her cool lips, whispered that he must sleepsleepsleep, and tiptoed out of the room, leaving the room in utter darkness when she shut the door. Chris knew he would not be alone for long. So he willed himself to stay awake, to remain alert against the coming forces. He was drowsy, though, the urge to close his eyes swept over him in waves, was it an effect of the bitter drug he’d been forced to swallow, its taste still benumbing his tongue?
And then it hit him, with more force than it had ever unleashed before.
Jimmy felt fit as a fiddle when he woke up the next morning. He was buttoning his shirt when he spotted Chris’s scuffed blue backpack, sagging forlornly in the corner of his bedroom; it had been forgotten in the rush of last night’s events, when the Fowleses arrived in a fuss to convey Chris home. He knew it contained Chris’s homework assignments, plus his marble collection and favorite baseball cap, to say nothing of his Bible, so after breakfast he called his friend to let him know he’d left the bag here. Only when no one answered did Jimmy remember the Fowles’ strict rule about never answering the phone on the Lord’s Day. He bet Chris was already feeling better, so he asked his parents if he might dash up the hill to return the bag. Sure, they agreed, but be quick, since the Fowleses always leave early for church—and for the Lord’s sake don’t get near the boy if he’s still ailing!
The wintry day was blustery, the frigid air stung Jimmy’s cheeks shining red as he dashed off on his mission of mercy, backpack hitched over his shoulder. Huffing and puffing up the hill to Chris’s house, he watched his breath condense into white vapor. Fast-moving, heavy clouds were moving in from the east, portending the first snow of the season. Jimmy made a mental note to wax his sled’s blades this afternoon. With any luck, he would soon be sledding down this very hill.
Out of breath but filled with energy, he entered Chris’s yard. Frost covered the ground, crunching under the soles of his shoes as he stepped across the lawn. Following his usual route, he headed around the side of the house to the kitchen door. But before he’d gone more than a few steps, he heard raised voices emanating from within. Angry, combative voices, the words muffled to meaninglessness by the clapboard siding but belonging Chris’s parents, sounds rising and falling in a rhythm of dispute the likes of which Jimmy had never before witnessed between the couple, always so quiet, so removed, in his presence.
The strident tones gave Jimmy pause, and he looked around, uncertain whether to continue forward. Maybe this wasn’t the time to interrupt them. Chris’s backpack could wait.
“I wonder,” Jimmy thought, randomly, not really knowing what he wondered as he retraced his steps along the side of the house. Approaching the front yard, he noticed that the small door in the latticing leading under the porch had swung open. It creaked to and fro in a wintry gust of air that set the choir of tree limbs overhead sighing as the branches bowed and swayed.
“I wonder,” Jimmy thought again, and without quite knowing what he was doing, he approached the opening, put down Chris’s backpack, and entered the underbelly of the porch, taking a deep breath as he squirmed forward in the direction of Uncle Harry’s grave. The crawl space was pitch black, no daylight yet penetrated its length. Though he was seized with second thoughts, a feeling compelled Jimmy to make his way to the far side of the porch. Gradually, his vision adjusted to the darkness.
“Here we are,” he said to himself, coming to a stop by Uncle Harry’s grave. A broken cross, made of sticks, lay across its top.
Instantly, he caught his breath. His mouth opened, but no sound emerged from his parted lips as he gazed before him. There, in the dim shadows, he realized he was looking at two mounds of earth. And the second was but half the length of the first.