ThisIsNotTheEnd(James has recently learned that he is, for lack of a better term, the Antichrist, and a group of men in Cadillac Escalades just tried to abduct him, though he managed to evade them and sprint home.)

James ran inside the house and spun on his heel, slamming the front door with two hands and all his weight. He flipped the knob lock, jammed home the dead bolt, and ran up to his room. He shoved that door shut and locked it as well. Hands up, barely breathing, James backed away as if they were right behind him, as if the door could burst open any second and the blond man would come rushing in. His hands shook, and his breath felt ragged in his throat.

Help.

Hot, itchy pre-tears filled his eyes, and he wished for someone—for help. What amazed him in that moment, though, was that it wasn’t Mom or Dad or even the police that he longed to see. It was Ezra.

Three sharp knocks sounded off the door, and James’s breath stopped. His feet moved up and down automatically, but he went nowhere. He spun, searching, though whether he was looking for a weapon or an escape route, he couldn’t say. He pictured the blond man and his cohorts on the other side of the door, their ears pressed to the wood, listening, and he clapped his hand over his mouth to quiet his breathing.

Get out of here. The window.

They’ll have someone down there!

Climb down to the living room!

What? Why?

What are you doing? Call the police!

But just as James tore into his pocket to get at his phone—

“It’s okay, James. It’s me.”

Ezra. James couldn’t believe it. How . . . ? But he didn’t think; he snapped the lock free and swung the door open to find Ezra standing in his hallway, balancing a plate of chocolate chip cookies and two glasses of milk.

“May I come in?”

James moved out of his way without a word, and Ezra buzzed into the room.

How . . . ?

“Now,” Ezra said, “why did you want to see me?”

“How did you know that I wanted to see you?”

Ezra looked up, as if searching for the right words. “In time, questions like those will be obvious, but right now they may take more time than the answer is worth. Plus, it doesn’t answer my question to you. So for now let’s just say you’re putting out waves and I’m tuned to the frequency. Does that make sense?”

“No.”

Ezra smiled and it felt to James like a pat on the back. “It’s good to be honest. People who pretend to understand things they don’t just to avoid looking stupid often end up looking stupid at the worst possible moment. But don’t worry; in time this will all make sense.” Ezra took two cookies and a glass of milk for himself, placing the rest on the bedside table. He sat at James’s desk, careful to set the plate and glass where it wouldn’t disturb any of James’s work.

James stood with his back to the wall. He looked at Ezra, half illuminated by the weak desk lamp. A part of James wanted to rush across the room and throw his arms around Ezra, and while he was pretty sure that Ezra would hold him, some other part knew that it wouldn’t satisfy the urge. As if Ezra’s hugs would be like a copy of an original.

Ezra had a cookie only inches from his mouth when James said, “Those guys tried to grab me.”

Ezra stopped. “The men in the Escalades?” James nodded, and Ezra set down his cookie. “Tell me everything.”

James told him what had happened, and for once, Ezra’s cool deserted him. He stood and made as if to pace but settled by the window, his hands massaging each other as he looked out at the late afternoon. He asked for details, slowing James down twice as the story touched on the blond man.

When Ezra turned back, his comforting smile had returned. Ezra went back for the cookies he’d left on the desk and pushed the rest toward James. “Eat, James. I have a lot to tell you, and everything goes down better with cookies and milk.”

James and Ezra each took a bite of cookie, though James wasn’t hungry at all.

“Hm, dry,” Ezra said. He dunked the remaining cookie in his glass of milk. “Easily remedied.” When Ezra had finished both cookies, he clapped the crumbs from his hands and stood, looking down at James. “The men who attempted to abduct you this afternoon are part of a Roman Catholic cabal, hundreds of years old and backed—at least financially—by the Vatican.” He paused, perhaps expecting some sort of reaction, but James remained quiet. James waited, tense and listening, and Ezra smiled, laying his hand on James’s shoulder. “You’re going to do very well, James.”

Ezra once again sat at the desk, crossing his legs. He spoke slowly. “Everything’s backwards in this world. The sooner you realize that, the clearer your perceptions will become. For instance, this little event tonight. Now, it would seem that Catholics would be the natural enemy of the”—Ezra air-quotes—“Antichrist, right?”

James nodded. He found that he couldn’t keep his gaze from rounding on the window. What’s out there? What’s coming? What was that sound?

“But that’s wrong,” Ezra continued. “According to their books, the Antichrist is supposed to shepherd in the great end—the Rapture, the battle between heaven and hell, and the return of Jesus Christ to Earth. This is what they want. The Antichrist, in other words, is the rain that brings the rainbow. The thing is, a small cabal of Roman Catholics long ago had a different interpretation of their role in the Apocalypse. Some mixture of perverse humanism and to-the-letter Christian duty. This cabal—and this goes back to the late 1400s, you understand—they believe it’s their duty to keep the End at bay until they’ve converted the whole world. Do you see? The conclusion they’ve come to is that it’s every Christian’s duty not just to proselytize but to convert everyone. The Apocalypse is sort of like the final tally, and it’s their job to have everyone on the right side of the line by the time Dad gets home. I’m sorry, do you mind?” Ezra reached over and plucked another cookie from the plate. “It’s just that you haven’t even finished yours and, well, anyway . . . where was I? Ah, yes, who knows how many false Antichrists they’ve killed in their history—?”

James’s eyes went wide, and his fists closed around the blanket. That word[1] vibrated every minuscule tissue of his body. His mind recoiled, and he felt a childish urge to close his eyes, cover his ears, and scream. And then, in an instant that was over so fast he felt as if he’d missed it, James’s unlived life passed by. Dates and college and being a father and family vacations on Florida beaches with sandwiches in Tupperware while kids raged against the surf and being old and looking back and gone.

“It’s okay, James.” Ezra caught his eye. “It’ll be alright. I promise.

“I don’t know how they found you. They’re a closely guarded organization. I’ve heard that they believe in a mystical numerology, using some kind of mathematical soothsaying to reveal things which they take as divine messages. They apparently believe math is some form of communication with”—again the air quotes—“God.”

“But I’m getting off on a tangent. Like I said before, you’re going to be just fine. This is not that big of a deal. They’re on to you? Fine. We’ll just get you some protection.” Ezra looked around the room and, apparently not finding what he was looking for, said, “Pardon me, James, but I believe I saw a potted plant in the hallway. Was it real?”

“What?”

“Is the plant real? Is the soil it sits in actual ground?”

“Uh . . .” James felt unable to access the information Ezra wanted. His mind was drowning in the blond man, in a group of grown-ups who wanted to kill him, and he found it almost impossible to breach the surface back to this room, this now. “ . . . yeah.”

“Wonderful. Would you please go and get me a handful of the soil?”

James didn’t move.

“Now, please.”

James stood like a somnambulist and walked out.

Ezra called after him. “You must steel yourself, James. You must marshal all that you have within. In time it will all be necessary.”

James heard him crunch down on another cookie and speak through his mouthful. “Do you know what stands in your way? Fear. Fear is the mind-killer, as a great man[2] once said.[3] You need to address your fear, to address those things which create the fear.”

James walked in thinking, Those things which create the fear? Oh, you mean THE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO KILL ME! How’s that, you asshole? He held a fistful of soil out to Ezra.

“Ah, thank you. Right here, if you will.” Ezra took the dirt without looking at it. “This anti-Antichrist cabal, for instance. Terrifying, right?”

James nodded. They want to kill you.

“Well, maybe not so. What do we know of them? We know they made a concerted effort today to abduct an unguarded, unarmed, unsuspecting sixteen-year-old boy and failed. We know they are a secret society that passes their secrets down with their genes, cousins marrying cousins, half-sisters and half-brothers, like a royal family. And what does that tell us? Inbreeding. Which means they are working against a stacked genetic deck. I would wager that a good many of their number are—to put it kindly—unduly challenged in the development of their mental capacities. And finally, I think we can say with certainty that their original goal has been corrupted. You see, the Vatican knows about them. The Vatican is very much like any government, and as such it has intelligence operations—like the CIA, for instance. You run rebels here, you back a dictator there, finance a guerilla war or two, but always while maintaining deniability. The Vatican, as I’ve said, operates in much the same way. Who knows? This cabal could be right. Or this one. Or that one. Support each one at a distance, but keep them close enough to jump on board at a moment’s notice.

“So, the Vatican has been financing them from the beginning, and this anti-Antichrist cabal lives big and fat, and they hunt potential Antichrists. They no longer proselytize or try to convert anyone. If you want my opinion, I think they’ve grown to like their status, their lives. I think 100 percent be damned, they just want to keep the Apocalypse at bay. Or maybe at this point they’re simply acting out of habit. Either way, you’ll be able to navigate them without the slightest problem once you begin to accept and master your gifts. And until then, as I said, we’ll just get you a little protection.

“Spit, please.” Ezra held out the handful of dirt, and James looked at it without moving. “Spit, James.”

James decided—and it happened in that single instant—that he was too tired to question and fight anymore. I believe. And as the decision struck him, it felt as though he descended into a warm bath; his tension broke, and the weight was lessened. James leaned forward and spit in the dirt. The spit was light brown from the cookies and milk. “Sorry.”

“Perfectly alright, James. Again, please.”

James spat twice more at Ezra’s insistence, until the clump was sufficiently muddied.

Ezra pressed his hands together, and the muscles and tendons of his fingers and forearms jumped and flexed as he squeezed harder and harder. Then he released, and in the open palm of his left hand was a tightly packed ball of mud. Ezra kept his hand where it was, bringing his face down to it. He opened his mouth and exhaled onto the mud, which seemed to shudder.

Then he spoke, whispering to it. “Dii-iiink . . . Dii-iiink . . .”

Ezra straightened up and held his hand out so that it was between the two of them. James watched.

The ball of mud . . . shuddered.

James’s first instinct was to back away, but he didn’t. He stood and tightened his fists and told himself not to be scared. However, what he saw next did scare him. It is a singular experience and one experienced by very few in the history of this Earth—James saw the impossible.

The ball of mud shook, was still, and then opened like a flower. But it wasn’t a flower; it was a man. A tiny man made of mud, and as if he’d been lying on his back curled in a ball, he unfolded, his arms and legs unfurling until he lay spread in Ezra’s palm like the Vitruvian Man. Then he did something truly amazing: he stretched. It was such a human gesture, and it reminded James of the way babies stretched when first awoken. The little mud man finished his stretch and sat up, looking around, and when he saw Ezra it was as if his whole body sagged.

“What?” the little man said, and James was amazed at the voice, so loud and clear. “What am I doing here?”

“Hello, Dink,” Ezra said with his customary smile.

“Hurry, Asmodis.” The little man turned fully now, setting his feet and planting his fists firmly on his hips. He looked up at Ezra’s beaming visage. “Spit it out, or I’m gone.”

“Dink, I’m afraid that your singular services are once again needed.”

“No, okay? No. I’m too busy.”

This can’t be real. This isn’t happening.

“Whatever it is this time,” Dink said, “it doesn’t matter. Okay? Just no. Plus, you’re supposed to be looking for the One, but every time I see you, you’re just hanging around and you got some—” The little man froze as he caught James in his periphery.

Oh, crap.

Dink turned to face James, and if possible, his shoulders pulled back farther. “Who am I looking at, Asmodis?”

James’s voice came out weak. “Why does he keep calling you that?”

Ezra chuckled and set Dink on the bed, where he continued to stare up at James. “Don’t worry; that’s just what I’m called in the place where I’m from. And to answer your question,” he said to Dink, drawing the little man’s attention up to him, “this is James Salley.” Ezra paused, clearly enjoying the moment. “He is the One.”

The little mud man’s entire body reacted to these words. His shoulders tightened, and his knees flexed, as if he were preparing to leap at James. But instead, he snapped his ankles together and brought his left fist up to his chest in a single, crisp motion. “Honor,” the little man said. “I am Kesin of the Army of the Morning Star, though everyone calls me Dink.” He nodded once.

James immediately knew two things: Dink was a warrior, and things like honor were important to him. He didn’t know how he knew these things, but he was sure that if he didn’t answer honestly and earnestly, then something would forever be missing between them.

“Hello, Dink. I’m James. I’m . . . Ezra, who you call Asmodis—he told me that I’m the One, sort of.” James shifted under Dink’s gaze but didn’t look away. “To be totally honest . . . I’m pretty freaked out right now.”

“The Antichrist hunters have been after him,” Ezra said, a small smile on his face.

Dink looked from James to Ezra and then back again. “I’ll watch over him.”

“You must be ready at all times, Dink.”

“I’ve pledged to watch over him, which means I will,” Dink said without looking at Ezra. “Don’t talk to me like I’m an asshole.”

“As you can see, James, Dink is not the most charming of acquaintances, but he is our most fearsome warrior. He’ll keep you safe. If—”

“Thank you,” James said, jamming it between Ezra’s words. “Thank you, Dink.”

Dink nodded without taking his little, dark eyes from James’s.

“As I was saying, if you need Dink, all you have to do is call him.”

James stood up. He felt a sense of ceremony for which he had no training or natural inclination. James gave a nod to match Dink’s and reached out a hand.

The little man took hold of the tip of James’s middle finger with both hands and shook. “I’ll be ready,” Dink said. Then he looked to Ezra. “I’ll tell the others that the time is at hand, Asmodis.” And with that, the life was instantly extinguished from his eyes. The expression went from his face and his small form folded up once more, until again he resembled a small oval of hard dirt, though one packed impossibly tight. Ezra picked it up and handed it to James.

God, it’s so light. It looked so heavy when . . . when it was Dink.

“Keep that with you at all times,” Ezra said. James looked at it, unsure of what he should do now. Eventually he placed it on the top of his bedside table with the same care with which one would lay a child in its cradle. “Soon you will need no such protection. You, James, will be the greatest power that this world has ever known.”

Here we go.

But Ezra seemed to read James’s exhaustion and did not go on. “I think that’s enough for tonight.”

[1] Killed killed killed killed killed killed killed killed killed killed killed killed killed killed killed killed killed

[2] Frank Herbert b.1920, d.1986.

[3] Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

_______________________

JJ_AuthorPhotoJESSE JORDAN is a writer and editor in and around Chicago. His novel, This Is Not the End (2016, Medallion), received a starred review from Kirkus, where it was called “A wickedly funny examination of what it means to choose your own destiny.” He received his MFA from Columbia College Chicago and his first novel, Gospel Hollow, was published in 2012.

Adapted from This is Not the End, by Jesse Jordan, Copyright © 2016 by Jesse Jordan. With the permission of the publisher, Medallion Press.

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