The End Is Near

By Dan Leach

Hold on,” Amy said, extending her upturned palm into the space between them. “Did you say the twelfth?”

“The twelfth,” Julian said with a decisive if not exaggerated nod.

“Of April?” she said.

“Yep.”

“As in,” and for the first time a sad smile began to form at the corners of her mouth, “April twelfth, two weeks from today?”

“That’s when it happens,” he said, eyes, as always, stuffed full with child-like sincerity.

It was not so much that the news surprised her. Like most members of the congregation, she was privy to a weekly reminder that autism can amplify a passion to a pitch so coarse and blaring that anything resembling logic gets drowned out like a whisper. Like the time Julian was convinced that angels were hiding in the rafters above the worship band. Or the time he discovered a secret code embedded in the Psalms that spelled out the downfall of America. Julian went through phases and when he did he expected everyone else to follow.

Like all fanatics, autistic or not, he was not content to be alone in his obsessions.

Without hesitation, she hooked her arm in his and guided him to the far side of the lobby, away from the clusters of people. The northeast corner of the lobby had been converted into a bookstore, equipped with portable plastic racks that brandished a collection of books read and recommended by various church leaders. There was one book written by an eleven-year old boy who, after dying and spending over an hour in heaven, felt compelled to tell the world what he saw on the other side. There was another written by a grown man who, after visiting a shack and having a hallucinatory conversation with a portly black woman, felt compelled to tell the world that God is, in fact, a portly black woman. The store, typically supervised by a volunteer, was empty for the moment and she ducked behind one of the racks to continue their conversation.

“Have you talked to Pastor Nate about this?” she asked.

“Pastor Nate is good man,” he started, breaking eye contact and beginning to pick at a dime-sized scab on his wrist. “But…um…” he continued, too fascinated with the scab to finish.

“But what, Julian?”

“But Mr. Hawkins said that even good men will be deceived,” he mumbled, peeling back the edges of the scab to reveal the moist and reddened flesh below.

“Mr. Hawkins said that?” she said. “You’ve been watching him on the TV again, haven’t you, Julian?”

“Uh-huh,” he said, freeing the scab entirely and lightly poking the crimson circle rising on his wrist.

“Well what does Mr. Hawkins say,” she said, swatting his bloodied fingers away from the wound, “about the verses where Jesus tells his disciples that nobody will be able to predict his return? Did Mr. Hawkins tell you about those verses, Julian?”

He showed no signs of having heard her. Pinching it between his thumb and index finger, he held the scab up to the light and studied it like a gem. His mouth went slack with awe and he brought the scab increasingly closer to his face until his eyes were almost crossed in admiration.

“Julian,” she whispered, noticing for the first time that he had not, judging by his smell, showered in several days. His faded red sweatshirt, the one he had worn every Sunday since that Sunday she had met him over a year ago, carried more than the usual collection of stains and his nose and ears had gone shiny with grease. He tilted his head slightly to the left, apparently having noticed some new aspect of the scab, and a subtle smile played on his lips.

“Julian,” she nearly shouted, punctuating the final syllable by slamming her shoe against the floor.

Startled, he quickly slipped it into the pocket of his shirt, brought his hand up to his mouth, and sucked his fingers clean. As if she had woken him from a deep sleep, he blinked hard several times and seemed confused as to where exactly he was.

“I have to go now,” he said, wiping his fingers against his pants and leaving a red smear on the wrinkled khakis. “Bye-bye, Amy.”

She grabbed him by the shoulders and refused to let him leave. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” she said, using all of her strength to pull him in for an embrace. He fought it, his arms remaining stiffly pressed against his sides, a subtle moan escaping his throat when she squeezed. His body even emitted a restless wiggle, the way small children sometimes do when they ache to be released.

“Promise me you’ll talk to Pastor Nate,” she said just before releasing her grip. “Just promise me that you won’t…” she started in. But when her hands slid down and attempted to clasp his forearms, he pivoted abruptly and sprinted towards the exit.  “Do anything stupid!” she shouted as much to herself as anyone else, and rolled her tired eyes at what she had come to know as a typical Julian exit.

For no other reason than proximity, she picked up a book, the one about the boy who went to heaven. While leafing through its contents, the volunteer, who had a red-flecked faux hawk and a ring in his lip, approached her and asked if she would like to purchase it. He looked to be in college and mentioned that he had read it and found it “definitely very inspirational.”

“No thank you,” she replied, returning the book to its place on the shelf, her three years of sanctification and thirty-four of Southern hospitality just barely strong enough to steady her hand and leave it right side up.

*   *   *

Next Sunday, Julian showed up thirty minutes early and, being scheduled as a greeter, took his place in the front of the building. As the congregation trickled in, Julian met them with his customary “Good-morning-welcome-to-Wellspring-Community-Church-glad-you’re-here” greeting, a two-handed handshake, and a toothy grin that was iconically his. He distributed the bulletins, the beige and folded slips of paper, which seemed, to all appearances, to be the same as any other Sunday’s. It was not until the time of worship had ended and Pastor Nate began his sermon that the members settled in and opened their bulletins to discover Julian’s contribution: a single white flyer on which six sentences were typed in a bold purple text. It read:

 

April 12th is JUDGEMENT DAY. 

Christ will return.

The righteous will be saved.

The sinful will be destroyed. 

The Bible guarantees it.

Will you be ready?

 

A color graphic of a globe wreathed in flames was printed on the four corners of the flyer and a chain of tiny crosses served as a border around the edges. Pastor Nate, who preferred to start his sermons with illustrative and humorous stories, was too immersed in an anecdote about three men, a genie, and a deserted island, to notice the stirring in his congregation. He was pacing back and forth on stage, respectively imitating the accent of the genie, who, for some reason, was Middle-Eastern, and the three men, all of whom spoke like diploma-carrying Southerners, when Karen Palmer stormed out of the sanctuary. Mr. Palmer followed several seconds later, carrying his wife’s purse and the crumpled Styrofoam she had used to drink her coffee. Sam Wood, after whispering “This is bullshit” to no one in particular, made a point of shuffling across his row and stomping out of the sanctuary via the center aisle. Sam then accosted Jeff Henderson, the associate pastor, who was attending the information center. After studying the flyer, Jeff broke into a sprint, ducked down the hall leading backstage, and appeared on stage and out of breath beside Pastor Nate, who was describing the implications of the Southerner’s second wish. Jeff seized Pastor Nate by the shoulder and thrust a flyer in his hand. Pastor Nate apologized for the interruption and then listened to Jeff explain the situation, his normally poised face becoming visibly perturbed. After several seconds, Jeff darted off stage and Pastor Nate turned to address the congregation.

“It has come to my attention that these,” he said, holding up the flyer, “have been inserted into this morning’s bulletins.”

A general hum of affirmation ran throughout the crowd, several hands even shooting up and waving the flyer around like an overdue assignment.

“Let me be crystal clear about this. We did not print those flyers. We do not believe in the information on those flyers. And, rest assured, we will find out who is responsible for sneaking them into our bulletins. I apologize for any inconvenience.”

Because she sat in the back, Amy easily scanned the sanctuary for Julian. Rising slightly out of her seat, she studied the rows of heads, a study made easier by the fact that most people were no longer facing Pastor Nate, who had resumed his Middle-Eastern genie voice, but rather turned sideways in order to convey their whispered theories on the flyer and its creator. When she didn’t see Julian, she quietly shuffled out of her row and headed for the door. Pastor Nate’s punch-line came just before she left the sanctuary—something about ex-wives, if she heard correctly—but she didn’t hear much laughter as she slipped into the lobby.

After checking every place with the exception of the men’s room, Amy broke into a jog towards her car. Julian lived in an apartment complex less than a mile from the church and, not able to attain a driver’s license, he would probably still be walking home.

She spotted the red sweatshirt in the distance and, for the first time since seeing the flyer, began to think of what she would say.

Proof-texting, which seemed cold, if not uptight, to the average member at Wellspring, worked well enough on Julian given his compulsive need to obey the Scriptures. She had learned through numerous conversations that, though autism had rendered him useless in most social contexts, it had driven him to memorize the entire New Testament by the age of thirteen, and, more importantly, to yield to any suggestion he believed to be biblical. As he often reminded those willing to listen: “In the Gospel of John, chapter fourteen, verse fifteen, Jesus says that those who love him will obey him.” Julian often followed this thought with a heartfelt offer to list his ten favorite verses or, on occasion, to provide a word-for-word recitation of the Sermon on the Mount. Most people dreaded such moments and limited their interaction with him to a cordial wave in the lobby or a quick handshake during the greeting time. Amy though, not without the occasional pang of regret, had learned to navigate his idiosyncrasies and build something like a friendship. Someone had to do it, she reasoned.

When she approached Julian in her car, he had just reached the entrance to the apartment complex and turned right towards his unit. She sped past him, whipped into a space, and was leaning against his door, arms crossed and eyebrows raised, at the moment he arrived. He came around the corner, key already extended, and jumped back when he saw her.

“Shouldn’t you be at church, Julian?”

“Y-y-you,” he mumbled, running his fingers along the tarnished teeth of the key. “You scared me, Amy.” He brought the key to his mouth and began sucking on the blade.

“Well we’re even then,” she said with a smile meant to ease. “Your little flyer caused quite a stir.”

“Mr. Hawkins says that—”

“You know what, Julian,” she cut in, pushing herself off the door and taking two large steps in his direction. “I’m done hearing what Mr. Hawkins has to say. I’ve seen the billboards. I’ve watched the commercials. And if that wasn’t enough, you’ve been non-stop with it for over a month now.”

“But in Daniel, chapter eight, verse fourteen, it says—”

“Stop it,” she shouted, immediately regretting it when he cowered, covering his face with his hands as if a blow would follow.

“Julian,” she began with a new calmness in her voice. “You’ve heard my arguments and, God knows, I’ve heard yours. And we’re not getting anywhere going back and forth like that. I guess we’ll just have to wait until the twelfth. We’ll see the truth of it then, won’t we?”

“I guess so,” he said.

“And as for that stunt with the flyer,” she said, taking the key from his hand and inserting it into the lock. “I don’t need to preach to you on the biblical precedent for respecting your pastor. What you did back there was wrong and, a little later on this evening, I expect you to call Pastor Nate and apologize, understood?”

She pushed in on the door and reached for the light-switch. He followed several steps behind.

“I just want them to be ready,” he said. “What if they have friends or family members that do not know the Lord. I just want them to—”

She raised a stiffened hand for silence and turned to face him with bewilderment in her features. “Julian,” she said, slowly. “Where is all of your furniture?”

Except for a tussled cot in the corner, composed of a pillow and two towels, all the furniture was gone. In the place where the bookshelf used to be, two books were neatly arranged against the baseboard—the collected works of Spurgeon and a tattered paperback of Boenhoffer. The presence of the cot combined with the empty white walls and the spotless beige carpeting made the room seem larger and lonelier than any room she had ever seen.

He started to answer her question and would have, no doubt, given an impressive slew of verses for support, but she stopped him in mid-sentence and chose instead to just stand there in silence. Julian understood and did not say a word. Together, they stood in the empty room, the branches of a tree rustling against the window, the hum of some car’s stereo receding down the street, the unchecked cadence of their breaths loud as crashing waves.

“Mr. Hawkins says that our possessions…” he calmly explained as he slipped into the kitchen to get a glass of water.

*   *   *

On the morning of April thirteenth, Amy woke up early. After a long, hot shower, she brewed a cheap and barely drinkable brand of coffee, drank down a cup with a slice of toast, and poured the rest in a thermos with a scoop of sugar and a generous pour of cream. She grabbed her Bible and car keys off the counter, snatched an orange from a bowl in the kitchen, left without locking the door, and found the world was still intact.

God had withheld his wrath for another day.

Driving, she stuck her hand out of the window and let the wind fill the spaces between her fingers. The cold breeze sent goose bumps up to her elbow and her palm tingled as the air ran over it. Her radio was turned down low but she could hear an old song playing beneath the rushing air. A woman with a voice like shattered glass sang about peace like a river and beneath her voice there was only a frail-sounding banjo. Sorrows. Like. Sea. Billows. Roll. It was, somehow, broken and beautiful at the same time.

When she pulled up to Wellspring, everyone was in motion. Pastor Nate and Gary Walpole were lifting a couch into the bed of Gary’s truck where a matching love seat already rested. Bobby Enders and the better half of the men’s ministry were assembling bookshelves and what looked to be a desk. Karen Hotchkiss was directing a dozen or so women in packing large plastic containers with items ranging from toiletries to food.

She climbed out of her truck and was greeted by Pastor Nate.

“This should cover most of his living room and kitchen,” he said, using his sleeve to wipe sweat from his forehead. “Tammy Watkins got a deal on a bed and is going to have it delivered this evening and I’m going to swing by Tony’s to get a TV. Is there anything else you can think of? Is there anything else the church could provide for Julian?”

As she thought about this, she couldn’t help but watch her own breath as it rose in plumes of dime-grey smoke. Since childhood, it had never ceased to amaze her. That an ordinary breath could turn to vapor. That a vapor that came from you could ascend so quickly into winter and then vanish forevermore.

“I think that it’s a start,” she said and watched each smoky syllable rise before her face.

* “H” quotation: Samuel Adams, 1768.

___

Dan Leach was born in Greer, SC, graduated from Clemson University in 2008, and taught in Charleston until 2014 when he relocated to Nebraska. He writes short fiction that explores connections between the South, masculinity, faith, and failure. His work has appeared in The New Madrid Review, The Greensboro Review, Deep South Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently at work on his first novel.


Comments are closed.