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THE END IS NIGH

Second Edition



by



William Blackwell






THE END IS NIGH

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.


Copyright © 2019 Second Edition by WILLIAM BLACKWELL PUBLISHING. All rights reserved. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used factiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from William Blackwell Publishing except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.


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ISBN: 978-1-948046-46-6 (eBook)

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Acknowledgements



Heartfelt thanks to my loyal and supportive friends, family, readers, and especially my editor, Winslow Eliot, who continues to help me improve my craft.




The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.


—Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Book of Revelation, 16:8-9



It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.


― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451



Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt …


—Holy Bible, Old Testament, Book of Daniel





THE END IS NIGH




CONTENTS



Acknowledgement

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Epilogue

More William Blackwell Titles

Freaky Franky Synopsis

About the Author

Author Comments




Prologue



You got this. Relax. But Pastor Jonathon Brackley couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that this sermon would not go to plan. He was nervous, fidgety, and unsure about how the congregants would respond. He clasped his hands together, trying to hide the twitching of his fingers as he stepped up to the pulpit on a dark and cloudy Sunday morning. Tapping the microphone, he misstepped, staggered and swayed, and then put a hand on the mahogany platform and the Holy Bible for support. The Bible, more than the mahogany, gave him comfort and strength.

A murmur rolled through the packed church, echoed eerily, and subsided.

Pastor Jon cleared his throat. Feedback screeched from the microphone. Stopped. The worshippers murmured, a little louder this time. A baby tucked into her mother’s bosom in the first row began crying. The mother, with hushed niceties, tried to silence the pinkly-clad infant. Soft sobs turned into a loud wailing cry—“Whah, whaaah, whaaaah … whaaaaaaaaah!” The mother flushed, rose quickly, and left with the baby.

As the heavy oak entrance door thudded shut ominously, the baby’s cries grew faint, and Pastor Jon cleared his throat a second time. No feedback. No murmurs. No crying baby. Only silence and attentive eyes.

He looked out at the congregants, nodding fondly as he spotted some of his friends. He didn’t know if they were ready, if he was even ready. But one thing he did know. This would probably be his last sermon, so they better be ready. He better be ready. Lately, due to the controversial nature of his sermons, his superiors in the clergy were fast becoming alienated from him. More than just alienated, actually. Downright angry and offended. The comment from senior Pastor Gary Ellington before this morning’s sermon couldn’t have been more direct: “If you don’t tone it down, stop this doom and gloom talk, we’ll have no choice but to defrock you. Keep it upbeat. That’s what people want to hear. Give them what they want. And stay off the wine … at least while you’re preaching.”

But Pastor Jon hadn’t toned downed his sermons. Nor had he stayed off the booze. It was all he could do to cope with his disturbing visions of late. And his failing marriage. Earlier this morning, in spite of admonitions from his disgruntled wife, he’d polished off a bottle of Chilean red wine. His justification—the Bible was full of wine references. Jesus had even turned water into wine at a wedding. Of course, that didn’t prove He drank the wine, but it would have been perfectly normal for Him to do so. It did prove, at least to Pastor Jon’s logic, that Jesus didn’t condemn drinking wine any more than He condemned drinking water. Pastor Jon took his theory one step further, actually, believing Jesus was not only a wine drinker, but an excessive one. Maybe even a drunkard. Water to wine. Never mind. Get going …

He cleared his throat. “Thank you all for coming this morning. Today I want to talk about the Book of Revelation. Specifically, I want to talk about a vision I had last night that relates to Revelation.” He waited for the whispered murmur to die down before continuing. “As you all know, my name is Jon. According to Revelation, one day around the year 95 AD, a man named John had a vision from Heaven. Well, last night, I too had a vision, which I believe to be a vision from Heaven. Maybe epiphany is a better word.” His voice had started off as a low, slow, monotone droll. But as he talked, it gained volume, speed, passion, and conviction. “I’m guessing some of you might be curious as to what that vision might be about?” A pause. “It has to do with The Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath. Revelation 15:1 – 16:21.”

He paused again, listening to pages shuffling as the congregants found their reference points. “John sees seven angels with seven bowls filled with God's wrath. He hears a voice, telling the angels to empty out the disaster-filled bowls one at a time upon the Earth. Now, this is the part you might find hard to believe … but I tell you to warn you. I tell you to save you. I’ve been directed by God! I saw the angels, I heard the voice telling the angels to destroy the world.”

Thunder boomed overhead. A few people stirred. The rain came, slow at first, then torrential, tapping on roof and windows like so many nails in a coffin. A young couple seated at the back row got up and left. Pastor Jon waited until the thunder stopped, and once the heavy wood and metal door had thudded shut a second time, he continued: “Let’s talk about the bowls of God’s wrath. The angel poured out the first bowl on the Earth. Ugly and painful sores broke out on the worshippers of the devil. Look at the rampant spread of disease today: Ebola, Zika, Swine-Flu, Aids, common flu viruses mutating, getting stronger, killing people, becoming immune to treatment.”

He found his place in the Bible and quoted from the text: “‘The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood, like that of a dead man, and every living thing in the sea died.’ Look at what we do to our oceans. Reckless oil companies, irresponsible government, common people polluting and killing our eco-system. Killing us.”

A middle-aged man seated near the back rose and turned to leave. “No, don’t go. Stay and listen. The end is nigh. Prepare yourself.”

“You’re a fucking nutcase,” the man said, and stormed out.

Like a rising swell in turbulent ocean waters, a loud murmur swept through the church. Then grunts, throats clearing, gasps, followed by derogatory comments. “Something’s wrong with him … He’s lost his mind … He never had it … I’m not gonna listen to this shit … Fucking bullshit, you ask me.”

“Quiet, please,” Pastor Jon said, gesturing with outstretched hands. “Hear me out. That’s all I ask.”

Silence settled over the church. He continued reading aloud: “‘The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood.’ More pollution. More human negligence. The world is full of it and God has decided we need a cleansing. I now come to the fourth angel, and the most powerful and evocative image in my vision. If you listen to nothing else I say, listen to this. ‘The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify Him.’”

Pastor Jon coughed, took a sip of water—water to wine, water to wine—and resumed: “There are forest fires burning out of control as we speak. They will worsen. They will spread and devour our entire planet. The devil’s insidiousness has permeated the very fabric of our culture. He is in our thoughts, heaven forbid, in our prayers, and in our deeds. Cast him out and save yourself.”

“How do you propose we do that?” Ron Baxter shouted. Pastor Jon recognized the voice and spotted his one-time-friend-turned-acquaintance standing up in the third row. The obese, black-bearded man’s brow was furrowed and he rubbed the creases with a hand in an attempt to smooth them out.

“I’m getting there, Ronnie. Sit down. Be patient. Please.” Pastor Jon had planned on outlining each of the bowls of wrath in detail, referencing them with a corresponding modern day man-made calamity. Now, he realized, he was going to have to cut this sermon short if he had any hope of reaching the congregation. Too many naysayers. If he continued at this pace, he would lose half, if not all, before he properly prepared them for the end of the world. In any event, at least he had gotten to number four, the most important according to his epiphany. “Reaffirm your vows to God. Repent your sins. Go home and pray. Denounce the devil and his ways so you might be spared …”

Thunder boomed and the church trembled. A lightning bolt smashed through a large, oval-shaped stained-glass window in the peaked-roof temple of God. People started screaming, some fleeing, as shards of glass rained down on them. The lightning bolt forked and struck a white-robed Jesus statue. The lightning buzzed, circled the statue, shot through its arm, and blasted out from the pointed finger of Jesus like a well-aimed laser gun. The powerful bolt then struck a wooden church pew. It burst into flames. Pandemonium erupted and people fled en masse.

“You have one year,” Pastor Jon shouted after the fleeing mobs. “One year to the day. The world will burn in one year. Dig a cave, stock it with supplies, and wait. You will be told when it’s time to emerge. The end is nigh … prepare yourself!”




Chapter One



“I’m sick of all these conspiracy theories. The world is not gonna end soon, and I’m gonna keep on doing what I do best.” Even as Cray Lenning said the words, he wasn’t sure what they meant, or at least wasn’t sure what the latter part meant. What do I do best? He eyeballed his friend Mike Timble across the table of an outdoor patio in front of a Starbucks coffee shop in downtown Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

I do my job best. That’s what I do.

Cray sighed. Maybe he did do his job best. But his job, a garbage collector in the small city, had become mundane. Uneventful, unexciting, unfulfilling. Boring, actually.

Four years ago, after discovering his long-time girlfriend Emma Thymes fucking his so-called best friend Greg Smallton, Cray had lost interest in people and relationships. Friends and lovers … they can go fuck themselves. They burn your trust. Burned by love, he had become cowardly concerning romance. He was unwilling to approach women for fear of rejection or, worse still, infidelity. Emma had ruthlessly ripped his heart from his chest. But never again. Never would he give someone that opportunity again.

Maybe that’s why he was sick of Mike’s conspiracy theories. Maybe he was sick of his own life—his own attitude—and taking it out on Mike. It’s your shit. But no, it was more than that. Had to be more than that. Mike’s theories were asinine. He had just told Cray that in his infinite wisdom the world would come to an end on Thursday, June 30th. Today was June 1st.

But Mike was insistent. “I’m telling you, this isn’t another one of what you call my lame-brained conspiracy theories. This is the truth.”

Cray sipped his coffee and gazed momentarily out at the passing traffic and pedestrians on Queen Street that sunny afternoon. “What do you mean ‘truth’? It hasn’t come true yet.”

“No, but it will. Mark my words.”

“Let’s just say for a second there is a shred of truth to your theory—which frankly we both know isn’t the case—where did you acquire these prophetic words of wisdom from?”

“Someone told me. Then something else happened that confirmed it. Then I had a dream that confirmed it.”

“Some wacko told you? Who? A dream? You think just because some nutcase told you and you had a dream that it’s gonna come true?”

Mike was becoming irritated. He squeezed his empty paper coffee cup, pushed it on the table. It tipped over and rolled onto the sidewalk. He ignored it. “Oh, forget it, Cray. You’re not gonna believe me. Sometimes I don’t even know why I bother.”

“Bother with what? Telling me shit?”

“Even living, for fuck sakes. What’s the point? The world’s gonna end soon anyway and my life sucks.”

“Sorry, Mike. Don’t talk like that. Please.”

Mike scratched his two-day stubble and adjusted his baseball cap. He always did that when he was rattled or confused. He pointed across the street to an old, scraggly-haired, disheveled man—street beggar-bum—wheeling a shopping cart. It was stuffed with all kinds of goodies; at least goodies to him. “Shit, that’s him.”

“Who?”

“The man. The preacher I met.”

“What—” Cray didn’t have a chance to finish.

The man suddenly stopped, reached into his shopping cart, and extracted a sign. He released the cart. Unattended, it careened down the sidewalk, causing two pedestrians to deftly step out of its way.

Holding up the sign, the man, with speed belying his years, ran across the street. But ten feet from the sidewalk patio where Cray sat, a newer model Toyota Camry, pulling away from the curb, struck him. He flew back, landing with a thud as his head slammed into the asphalt surface. His hands still gripped the sign tightly.

Cray ran to his aid but stopped short. The offending motorist had already stopped, climbed out of his vehicle, and knelt down beside the man. Troubled, he scanned the faces of the gathering onlookers. “Someone call 911. He came out of nowhere.”

As Cray neared, he saw the pool of blood fanning out around the man’s head, dark red on black asphalt. His eyes were closed, expression sullen, leathery face ashen. Dead or unconscious, Cray didn’t know.

Cray turned around. Mike was frozen in his seat, expression sullen, pockmarked face ashen.

“He’s moving,” someone said. “Stand back.”

The man’s eyes opened wide. He lifted his head. His steel blue eyes locked onto Cray. He lifted the sign and repeated its proclamation scrawled in black on white cardboard. “The end is nigh! The end is nigh! Prepare yourself!”

Then he dropped the sign, fell back, slamming his head on the road a second time. His eyes rolled in his head, then closed. He grew still. Deathly still.

The end is nigh, all right buddy. At least for you. Cray was embarrassed and ashamed that a small smile actually played across his lips at those thoughts. He quickly wiped it away. It was replaced by a somber expression, a feeling of remorse and sadness for the poor bastard stretched out on the road, probably dead. But those feelings were intermingled with something else: a nagging, troubling, fearful feeling that something wasn’t quite right in the world anymore.

A crazy coincidence. That’s all.

Cray glanced back. Mike had disappeared.

More spectators began to gather. An ambulance siren blared. A cop car approached and stopped in the middle of the street, blocking traffic. Two cops got out. One knelt down to the victim while the other began questioning bystanders and surveying the damage.

A middle-aged woman, dressed in frumpy gray sweatpants and an oversized white sweatshirt with a pink elephant on the front, approached Cray. She had a little boy in hand who slurped an ice cream cone, white melting rivulets streaming down his chin, onto his clothes, dribbling onto the sidewalk. She touched Cray’s arm. “Do you know him?”

“Know who?”

An ambulance stopped at the scene. The shrill siren died. Two paramedics got out, one removing a stretcher from the back.

She pointed to the man, who was now being carefully examined by the paramedics.

“No, never seen him before. Why?”

“He stared right at you. As if he was giving his death message directly to you.”

The ice cream-carrying boy moved closer to Cray, oblivious to the bloody accident scene. He slurped the ice cream and held it up to Cray. Small white drops sprayed onto Cray’s blue jeans and black tennis shoes.

“Do you want some?” the boy asked.

Cray stepped back, out of melted ice cream range. “No thanks.” Morbid thoughts pressed into his mind. White light, red blood, black dawn. He shuddered.

“Josh, watch yourself,” the woman said. “You’re getting it all over him.” She pulled Josh closer to her side. Ice cream drops dribbled down her already stained gray sweatpants. Oblivious, she turned to Cray. “Did you see it?”

Cray nodded nervously. “I gotta go.”

She touched his arm. “Wait. You’re a witness. They might want to talk to you.”

Cray noticed a male cop, who had been questioning other spectators, glance curiously at him.

Without knowing why, Cray turned and ran, sprinting down the street and weaving around pedestrians on that beautiful Tuesday afternoon. A block and a half later, he stopped and glanced back, almost expecting the cops to be in hot pursuit. They weren’t, but he could barely see the old man being hoisted onto a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. Who is he? And what does he know?




Chapter Two



He knows, Mike thought that evening as he sat in his humble apartment two blocks away from Cray in downtown Charlottetown. He knows we’re all gonna die. He knows the future.

He had arrived home two hours ago and started taking stock of his life. Cray had called twice. He ignored both calls. Fucker doesn’t wanna believe me. I tried to warn him. He won’t listen. Fuck him. He can go and fuck himself, all I care.

But it wasn’t only Cray. He had told his mother Edith the story a few days ago. She wanted to have him examined by a psychiatrist. “You’re full of stupid conspiracy theories. Why don’t you go out and get yourself a job instead of worrying about the end of the world? I raised you to work hard and all you do is sit around watching TV and collecting social assistance.”

Easy for her to say. She grew up in a generation where if she didn’t work, she would starve. So she forged a successful nursing career until her recent retirement. Now her title was cynic and potato farmer’s wife. For a nurse, a career dedicated to caregiving, she certainly didn’t seem to give a shit about her only son. More than that, Edith was downright abusive to Mike. At least for the last two years, when her expectations that he would become a doctor were shattered after he was caught drinking during a lecture and expelled. Would have happened sooner or later anyway. It was his first year of university and he’d only lasted four months. His marks were shit. Lack of concentration. Lack of focus. “Doesn’t apply himself.” So they said, anyway. Well, they can fuck themselves. And so can Edith.

Mike moved a kitchen chair to the middle of the living room and stared up at the ceiling.

His father Thane was a little more sympathetic, but seemed equally doubtful of the veracity of the prediction. “I don’t know, son. It sounds a little farfetched to me. People have been predicting the end of the world since the beginning of time, and none of them have gotten it right. And besides, we’re all gonna die sooner or later. And none of us know when. So, we may as well make the best of it.” Handing Mike a sack of potatoes. “Here, gimme a hand with these, will ya. Try and take your mind of that stuff. It ain’t good for ya.”

So Mike took the potatoes, helped his father, and dropped the doomsday prophecy. At least for the time being. But it kept rearing its ugly head. Little voices kept telling him to get his affairs in order. Sorry, Dad. You’re gonna die in the apocalypse. I’ll miss you.

Holding a small handsaw, Mike stood on the chair and cut away a small circle in the ceiling. He examined the cast iron pipe underneath. Hope it’s strong enough.

When Mike met Pastor Jonathon Brackley a week ago, whom he now revered as a doomsday prophet, he did what few others would. He listened to the old man with the shopping cart. Bought him a bottle of rum. Sat in a park with him and drank it. Got drunk. Learned the man’s story. Although his theories had resulted in the loss of his preacher job, Pastor Jon, as he preferred to be called, would not let it go. Even though the repeated prophecies also resulted in a separation from his long-time wife and an estrangement from two adult sons, Pastor Jon hit the streets of his hometown, Moncton, New Brunswick, proselytizing to anyone who would listen. “The end is nigh. Prepare yourself.” Of course most people—99.9 percent—brushed him off as a lunatic and ignored him, even ridiculed and shunned him. Over time the frustration became unbearable. Hardly anyone would listen. So Pastor Jon took refuge in the bottle, drained his finances, and ended up living on the streets. When the nastiness in Moncton got too much to bear, he relocated to Charlottetown to preach his message, or “save the few who will listen.”

Mike began tying a rope around the exposed cast iron pipe. He tugged it. It’ll hold.

At first Mike had his doubts. But the reoccurring signs, signs that Pastor Jon had said would prove the truthfulness of his predictions, soon convinced him. Pastor Jon had said three things would happen to Mike after that fateful meeting in the park. The first one happened fifteen minutes after leaving the park. A crow swooped down low, circled Mike’s head twice, just as predicted, then promptly shit on it. The following evening Mike had a nightmare, again, as predicted. In it, a massive fireball engulfed the Earth. Horrific screams of dying people, the terrifying shrieks of dying animals; cars, buildings, infrastructure exploding everywhere. Mike tried to outrun the flames, searching for the hole, the underground shelter that Pastor Jon had told him to dig, the one that would protect him from the massive destruction. But, when he found it, it wasn’t what he remembered. It was only three feet deep, clearly not enough to protect one from such a lethal fireball. Terrified and with no options remaining, Mike took refuge in the hole, watched the Earth burn to the ground around him for a few horrifying seconds until the fireball engulfed him, fried and sizzled him like a pesky wasp.

Mike tugged on the rope, cinched it tight around the plumbing pipe. He sat down and began working the other end.

But the third sign was the clincher. The one that had made him run away scared. The one that happened only a few hours ago. Pastor Jon had been clear. “When you see me get struck down, and die, the end is nigh. Take refuge in the hole. Count the days. Stay there for ninety days and then come to the surface. My tribesmen will be there. They will help you rebuild.”

“What about you?” Mike had asked.

Pastor Jon had in one large pull drained the bottle, looked at Mike sorrowfully, and said, “I don’t care about me anymore. My life is over. Look at me.”

Only problem was, Mike had not been able to find a hole or underground shelter; other than the shallow one in his nightmare that had become his fiery grave. Although he had tried to find one. Not wanting to wait until the final prediction, he had, stoned out of his mind one night, driven to what he thought was crown land, a government-owned forest, stolen a backhoe from a nearby farmstead, and started digging out an abandoned well in an attempt to make his refuge from the coming apocalypse. Three hours and forty feet down, he was accosted by an angry farmer, pointing a double-barreled shotgun at his head and threatening to kill him. The result, three charges: theft, trespassing, and destruction of private property.

Mike finished the noose, wrapped it around his neck, and snugged it tight. Satisfied, he climbed onto the chair and stood up.

He lit up a joint and inhaled deeply, surveying the messy living room as the reassuring buzz seeped into his brain and dulled his senses. Take-out cartons littered the coffee table. Some had spilled over onto the stained carpet. He took a few more tokes, enjoying the comforting numbness. At least I won’t have to make my court date.

Before this moment, Mike had often wondered what his last thoughts might be. And it didn’t surprise him they would return to Sybil Saunders. She, after all, had been his only true love. But when Mike couldn’t hold down a steady job, nor a steady education, she had disappeared like a bat out of hell. Another toke. Exhale. Bat out of hell. Shit, can’t you come up with anything more original than that?

But as his mind cinema replayed the two-year union with Sybil, he realized he couldn’t blame her. She was twenty-eight. He, thirty-two. It was time for him to grow up and take life seriously. Toke. Exhale. For any woman to take him seriously, he would have to demonstrate the ability to provide emotionally, spiritually, and financially. Hell, he could hardly provide for himself, let alone a significant other. Toke. Exhale. Fucking loser.

“It doesn’t matter. The world is doomed. I sure as hell can’t survive in a fucking wasteland. I can barely survive here, for fuck sakes.”

Toke. Exhale. He flicked the joint away. It skipped off the hardwood, landed on a Chinese take-out container and started smoking.

Seeing it, he laughed. “Typical. Burn in Hell, motherfucker! You can all go and burn in Hell, motherfuckers!”

He kicked the chair over. The pipe creaked and groaned, but held. He dropped, abruptly halted by the force of the noose tightening around his neck. His body dangled about five inches from the floor. Perfect. His neck tightened. Bulged. He gasped and emitted a gurgling sound. He felt his face redden, eyes bulge, a tremendous painful force gripping his neck, the stinging of rope burns. His world grew dark. Yes, it’s time. It’s finally time to end my miserable existence.

As life drained from his body and mind, and his vision began to blur, he surveyed the room, and saw it: a greeting card. From Sybil. Probably a birthday card, since his birthday was a week away. Maybe she wants to get back together. Oh shit, what if she wants to get back together?

In an instant, Mike changed his mind. He didn’t want to die now, at least not until he’d read Sybil’s happy birthday message. He tried to raise his arms, reach the rope, and break the goddamned pipe from the ceiling. But his weakening arms would not obey brain commands. He tried to shout out to anyone who would listen but had no voice. The rope was too tight, too constricting.

He wriggled his feet, struggling to grab the rope, struggling to shout out. All in vain. No use. As a terrible blackness encompassed him, he saw the Chinese take-out carton, the one with the smoking joint, burst into flames. The flames fanned out quickly, devouring the old red shag carpet.

In the blackness, Mike saw fiery red. In the redness, Mike saw death.

Pleeeease! I don’t wanna die. Noooooo … nooo … noo … no …




Chapter Three



Six curious and probing eyes watched Pastor Jon. He slowly opened his eyes. His head ached dully. He brought his hand to it and felt layers of tight white gauze. He cleared the cobwebs. Bandaged. But what about my vision? I should be dead. “I’m alive.”

At the foot of his bed, a male doctor stood between two female nurses. He stepped forward. “You’re very lucky to be alive. Do you remember what happened?”

Pastor Jon strained the dim recesses of a memory scorched by alcohol abuse. And it came to him. “I was hit by a car.”

“Yes,” the doctor said. “You were hit by a car. The head impact cracked the back of your skull and you suffered a serious concussion. The chest impact caused cardiac arrest. Your heart stopped beating for about sixteen minutes.”

“But I’m alive. I was supposed to die.”

The medical staff exchanged confused glances. A nurse rolled her eyes. The doctor continued. “Well, technically sir, you were dead. For sixteen minutes or so. But our highly trained medical staff brought you back.” He stepped closer. “I’m Doctor Daniel Ames; these are Nurses Sandra Colling and Betty Reilly. And you are?”

Grimacing, Pastor Jon scratched his head.

“Don’t touch that,” Doctor Ames said. “It’s going to be very sore for quite some time.”

Pastor Jon removed his hand. “Did you say your name is Daniel?”

The doctor nodded, puzzlement creasing his brow.

“The book of Daniel. The Old Testament. God saved Daniel and his friends from their enemies, so Daniel could save the oppressed. Daniel understands visions and dreams … you understand visions and dreams. You’re the chosen one.”

The doctor rubbed his temple. Frowned. “I’m sorry, I’m not a religious man. Again, do you know your name?” He made a hand symbol to Betty. She nodded and left the room.

A long silence followed. Pastor Jon opened his mouth to blurt out another religious rant, but sighed instead. “I’m Jonathon Brackley. Pastor Jon.”

Daniel looked curiously at Pastor Jon. “You’re a priest?”

“I was. Defrocked now. But, in God’s eyes, I’m still a man of the cloth.”

Sandra glanced over at a dresser in a corner of the room. On it sat a pile of Pastor Jon’s stinky, tattered, booze-stained clothing. She rolled her eyes.

“I’m sure you are,” Daniel said. “But right now we need to talk about other things.” He held up two fingers. “How many fingers do you see?”

“Are you giving me the finger?”

“How many fingers do you see, Jon?”

“Two.”

“Good. Where were you born?”

A pause. “Moncton, New Brunswick.”

“Do you have a wife, children?”

“A wife. Two grown children. Estranged.”

“Sorry to hear that. How old are you?”

“I’m eighty.”

“What is today’s date?”

“Dunno. Can’t remember.”

“Today is June 1st. It’s early evening.”

“Oh, okay. Thirty days away from the end of the world. The end is nigh! Prepare yourself! The apocalypse is coming June 30th. Mark my words.”

Daniel shrugged. “And how do you know this?”

“All the numbers add up. The end is nigh.”

“Maybe it is, Jon, and maybe it isn’t, but I need to establish some things. Do you have a permanent address in town?”

“Yes.”

“Can you give it to me, please?”

“Victoria Park.”

“You sleep in the park?”

“I have no money. I lost my home to the bottle.”

“I’m sorry.” A frown. A pause.

“Do you have medical coverage?” Sandra asked.

“I don’t know.”

“We’ll sort that out later,” Daniel said.

Betty returned with a syringe and approached the bed.

Eyes widening, Pastor Jon said, “What’s that?”

“It’s just a sedative,” Daniel said. “You need to rest. I think you’re a little wound up from your accident. The police might want to ask you a few questions later. It’s a miracle you’re still cognitive.”

“You said it. Miracle. A miracle is the work of God. I thought you weren’t a religious man?”

“Take the sedative, please, Jon.”

“I don’t need a sedative. I need a drink.”

“You’re not going to find one here.”

Betty tied off his forearm and tapped a vein until it popped. From a tray, she lifted a syringe and pressed it gently until tiny of stream of clear liquid squirted out. She lowered the needle to the pulsating vein. “Just a little prick. This will calm you down.”

Pastor Jon sat bolt upright, pulling his arm away from the approaching needle. His eyes widened in horror. “Mike … you’ve got to save him. He’s gonna die. Maybe he’s already dead. Unless he’s in the hole. But he said there is no hole, only the hole in his head …”

Betty stepped back, a look of concern mixed with fear on her face.

Sandra scratched her chin, studying Pastor Jon.

“Who is Mike?” Daniel said. “What’s his last name?”

“For God’s sake, he never told me his last name.” Pastor Jon was becoming increasingly agitated. “He was there when I got hit. He knew the third sign. He disappeared to hide in the hole, as the prophecy says. But there is no hole. Only the hole in his head. Don’t you get it? Maybe he’s dead. If he’s not, he’s gonna die.” Pastor Jon pulled the IV from his wrist and started to climb out of bed. “I need to get out of here. I need to save him … if there’s still time.”

Sandra pressed a bedside button and two male orderlies rushed into the room. One restrained Pastor Jon’s arms, the other his legs.

But he struggled and shouted, tipping over a bedside tray with an errant foot. Sandra moved in and held his head with both hands, her young dimpled face flushing from the effort. Betty handed Daniel the syringe, stepped forward, and pushed down on Pastor Jon’s shoulders.

The old man had suddenly developed a mountain of strength that four people struggled to contain. After a few frantic moments, his right arm was finally still enough for Daniel to retighten the knot, tie it off, and plunge the syringe into a blood vessel.

Slowly, Pastor Jon’s escape efforts subsided. His extremities softened and relaxed. They released him. His eyes closed.

Sighs of relief.

“He’s one strong bastard,” an orderly said.

“And crazy as a loon,” Sandra said.

They all started as Pastor Jon’s eyes popped open. So did his mouth. “Save Mike. Please. Save yourself. The end is nigh!”

Then, just as suddenly, his eyes closed and he drifted off.




Chapter Four



Even though he lived only two blocks away from Mike Timble, Cray didn’t hear the police sirens. Or the ambulance siren. Or the massive explosion. Or the subsequent raging fire. But when he flicked on the TV on June 2nd, while having his morning coffee before work, he saw it on the news. Mike’s apartment building, still smoldering, surrounded by cops, firefighters, emergency vehicles, and crime scene tape.

Cray’s jaw dropped, his hand jiggled, and he spilled coffee on the kitchen table. He steadied the cup, wiped up the hot liquid. What the fuck?

A female reporter stood in front of the fire-ravaged apartment building, giving the low-down. “Police and firefighters are still investigating the cause of a blaze that destroyed half of a small apartment building at 215 Victoria Street in downtown Charlottetown last night.” She stepped forward, swept an unruly lock of brown hair out of her eyes, and continued. “This much we do know. Two people are dead. They have been identified as ninety-six-year-old Irma White, apparently too frail to flee, and twenty-eight-year-old Mike Timble. Twelve other residents, three cats, and two small dogs, were able to escape.” The reporter went on.

But Cray didn’t hear it. He spilled what remained of his coffee. Half of it landed on the floor, the other half splashed on his t-shirt and arm, scalding him. He rushed to the bathroom, peeled the shirt off, and still wearing his sweatpants, climbed into the shower. As the cold water cascaded down on him, he examined his chest and arm. Red and stinging to be sure, but he doubted the burns were serious. His coffee maker didn’t produce a high enough temperature to cause serious injury, or so he surmised as he stripped off sweatpants and underwear, adjusted the temperature to warm, and washed the affected areas gingerly. He thought about what had happened.

He and Mike had been friends for three years. Aside from the conspiracy theories and mood swings that had become more evident of late, they got along well. Cray had to admit now that he loved Mike like a brother. They often commiserated on how the world was going to hell in a handbasket. The lives of many controlled by the lives of a few so-called financial elites. Corrupt politicians. Economic woes. Overregulation. Environmental destruction. Terrorists bombing innocent civilians, now threatening to attack Canada. Social injustice. Criminal injustice. The US political clown show. They even discussed ugly closet skeletons, or at least the ones they were willing to admit. Cray remembered Mike lending a sympathetic ear when he told him of his relationship woes, how he was unable to trust women after Emma’s infidelity—hell, how he was even unable to trust men fully after his best friend’s betrayal during that fateful, carnal encounter with Emma.

Even their family situations were similar. Although Mike was an only child, he was slowly becoming estranged from his parents, whose expectations of him far exceeded what he was capable of or at least what he was willing to apply himself to. Cray wasn’t an only child. He had an older brother and an older sister, both living close to his mother and father in Moncton, New Brunswick. His brother Caleb was a criminal lawyer. His sister Darlene, a top-earning pharmaceutical salesperson. His father Glen, a retired oil and gas engineer. His mother Mary, a retired pharmacist. Cray, a garbage collector. Them, materialists; Cray collecting material waste.

Night and day.

He remembered something Mike had once said: “It’s the nature of Canadian families. The bonds aren’t that deep. They’re fickle. People compete with one another. If you don’t measure up, you get cast out. Simple as that.”

Cray knew it wasn’t as simple as that. Mike was making a sweeping generalization. Many Canadian families were bonded together as tight as Crazy Glue. But he had to admit, Mike had a point. There was a grain, perhaps a little more, of truth to what he’d said. Cray wasn’t measuring up to family expectations, so he was slowly getting cast out. Calls would take longer to be returned, tones were changing; he had even been excluded from a recent family get-together. Of course, when mother Mary dismissed the reunion of sorts as “merely an impromptu thing,” Cray didn’t believe her. Her follow-up comment had only served to further widen a growing chasm of estrangement. “We knew you wouldn’t want to come all the way down from Charlottetown just to spend a couple hours with your family … then have to drive all the way back home.”

Really? What about spending the night? “Well, they can go and fuck themselves,” Cray said, stepping out of the shower. The untimely passing of his friend had soured his mood. He walked into the living room and immediately picked up the phone. He called his boss at Streets and Sanitation and said he wouldn’t be coming in due to a cold. He didn’t have the heart to say his best friend had just died. He sat down and stared at the TV. He didn’t hear the words, but he saw the picture. A picture of Mike, sitting on the patio of Queen Street Starbucks, holding up his coffee, as one might hold up a beer, and grinning. Looking at Mike’s black-rimmed glasses, short-cropped brown hair, oversized belly, boyish grin, it wasn’t lost on Cray how much they looked alike. Like nerds, computer geeks. Almost could have been brothers. Both five-foot-eleven, although they differed in weight. Where Cray was a slim 160 pounds, Mike tipped the scales at about 210. And the eye color different: Cray, green, Mike, brown.

He studied the image on the screen and realized that it had been cropped. He had been cropped out of it. He could see his own black-sleeved arm leaning on the table beside Mike. The unmistakable silver watch on his wrist, the one his grandfather had gifted him before his death. His hand, gripping a coffee cup. Fuck, I was there with him. Was that picture taken yesterday?

That’s when the grief suddenly overwhelmed him. He couldn’t watch it anymore. He grabbed the remote, flicked off the TV, slumped to his knees, put his hands to his face, and started crying. The tears flowed silently for a short time, but were soon accompanied by loud wracking sobs. When the sobs finally ended, Cray was hit like a sledgehammer by the second emotion. Guilt. He curled up on the throw rug. I could have prevented this. It’s my fault. I should have done more than call him. I should have stopped by his apartment and rescued him.

Cray studied the black TV screen, as if for answers. But what if the fire was deliberate? It was still under investigation. What if it was arson? What if Mike committed suicide and took another innocent old lady with him? All the signs were there, signs that Cray had ignored, because of a selfish preoccupation with his own life. Another sledgehammer blow, one that caused him to curl up in a fetal position and put his hands to his ears, hoping to block more pain and more analysis. But it didn’t work. Mike’s comments yesterday—when Cray didn’t believe the apocalypse prophecy—reverberated in his mind like the tolling of a church bell.

Oh, forget it, Cray. You’re not gonna believe me. Sometimes I don’t even know why I bother.”

Bother with what? Telling me shit?”

Even living, for fuck sakes. What’s the point? The world’s gonna end soon anyway and my life sucks.”

An hour later, after Cray’s grief and guilt had subsided to a somewhat manageable level, he went out. As he walked toward Mike’s apartment, he formed a mission. Find out if Mike’s death was accidental, which he seriously doubted, and figure out what happened to the wacko who predicted the end of the world and then got run over by a car yesterday. What bothered Cray the most was Mike had probably been suicidal for many months and he had either ignored or not detected all the signs.

And he wanted to find out who this old man was, maybe even try and stem the tide of his own festering guilt by leveling some of the blame at him. What had Mike called him? A preacher. Maybe the preacher had been filling Mike’s head with negativity. Well, if he was, then he was responsible. Bum or preacher, he would get an earful. If he was even still alive.

As Cray approached the crime-scene-tape bordered apartment building, other questions surfaced. Why had Mike disappeared after seeing the preacher? A sign. He told him the end of the world was near. Why did Cray himself run away? Fear. Some part of you believed it. Bullshit. It’s fucking bullshit. That’s it.

The news media had left the scene. They had their deadlines. But there were still two fire trucks stationed nearby, a couple of firefighters dousing sizzling remnants of the building with pressurized water from large nozzles. A few firefighters loitered near the trucks, talking. There were also two cop cars on the scene, two cops just inside crime scene tape examining burnt debris, two more leaning against their vehicle talking. A handful of spectators stood outside the investigative line, some gawking, others filming videos with their smartphones.

Emotion welled up inside Cray as he approached a firetruck. He tried to keep his voice steady. “What happened?”

A beefy red-mustached firefighter approached. His fire-proof suit was blackened by ash. Debris particles clung to it. “It’s obvious, ain’t it, Sherlock?”

“I mean how did it happen?”

“We haven’t concluded our investigation yet. And who wants to know?”

“Mike Timble died in that fire. He was my best friend.”

The firefighter’s grin changed to a look of mild concern. He stepped toward Cray. “Sorry to hear that. Hey, I think I’ve seen you before. Aren’t you a garbage collector around town?”

Charlottetown, with forty-odd thousand residents, technically had city status. But really it was a small town. It was hard to run and hide from anyone. And, it seemed, most people knew you or knew of you. Cray nodded. “Phoned in sick today because of this.”

The firefighter extended an oversized hand. “Ben Anderson.”

Cray shook it. “Cray Lenning.” Ben’s handshake was a vice grip and Cray winced. That fucking hurt. Fucking goof.

“You wanna know what caused it, wait for the news. CBC will be on it.”

Rubbing his stinging hand, Cray turned to leave. “I guess. It’s just that Mike had been kind of depressed lately and I was wondering—”

Ben inched closer, touching Cray’s shoulder. He spoke almost in a whisper. “Wondering if maybe the fire was deliberate? Wondering if maybe this was an arson-suicide?”

Cray stepped back, intimidated. “Something like that.”

“You want my unofficial position? And don’t say a word to anyone. If you do, I’ll deny it anyway until the official report is in.”

“I won’t say a thing.”

“I was the first man to arrive at the apartment where it started. Mike’s apartment. You know what I saw?” Ben didn’t wait for an answer. “I saw your friend surrounded by and being engulfed by flames.”

“Was he screaming?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“He was already dead.”

“Already dead?”

“Yeah, hanging from the ceiling by a rope. I can’t say for sure he started the fire, but it looked to me like he hung himself, that’s for sure, especially after you say he was suicidal. I initially thought maybe someone killed him, started the fire to cover their tracks. But now I don’t believe that. He killed himself. He start the fire? Dunno yet. If he did, did he do it intentionally? Dunno yet. But, I aim to find out.”

Cray’s heart sank. His worst fears had come true. But, Mike wasn’t an arsonist, he knew that. Mike could barely kill a pesky housefly, let alone a person. But an old woman had died in the blaze, so now it was likely being investigated as a possible arson, murder-suicide. Or arson, murder, murder. Something like that. Who knew what the cop terminology was, but Cray suspected the police would surely have this information by now; they would probably withhold it from the public until the case was solved.

“I would have been able to gather more evidence,” Ben continued. “Maybe even save that old lady. But the floor caved in. I fell through it and crash-landed onto the main floor. By the time I got up to the second floor again, the fire had already engulfed your friend’s apartment and was tearing through the next door neighbor’s—Irma White’s suite.”

“Sorry.”

“So was I. I hit a massive wall of flames and had to retreat.” Ben sighed deeply and looked down at his blackened hands. “But I’ll never forget her screams. You ever hear the sound of someone burning alive?”

Cray shook his head.

“Trust me, you don’t want to. It was horrible.”

This day wasn’t starting out that well. “Thanks. But, if Mike did start the fire, he wouldn’t have done it deliberately. I don’t think he intentionally killed Irma. He could barely kill a mosquito.”

Ben removed his helmet and wiped his brow. “You wanna do something for your best friend? Clear his name? Don’t tell me, tell Marty.”

“Who’s Marty?”

Ben pointed to a plainclothes policeman picking through debris beyond the crime scene tape. “Detective Martin Strader. Transferred here from Toronto not long ago. He’s a hell of a cop. Put a lot of bad guys behind bars. I’m sure he’d like to talk to you.”

“Thanks. Appreciate your help.”

“Sorry about your loss.”

Cray moved away, watching firefighters hose down smoking debris, Marty poking at and examining evidence. He saw Ben approach Marty and start talking. Marty looked at Cray. Cray fought an urge to run. But the overwhelming tide of guilt kept him frozen to the spot. Like a swelling tsunami wave, questions tumbled through his mind. Did they recover Mike’s body? Obviously, they identified him. Where is his body? In the morgue, idiot. Where else would it be? Should I talk to Marty? I don’t trust cops.

After moving from his birthplace, Moncton, New Brunswick, three years ago, Cray remembered a nasty incident involving the cops that still left a bad taste in his mouth. He was collecting garbage on a residential street in town, had just picked up a black bin to load into the garbage truck’s crusher, when a beautiful blonde dressed in red hot pants and a skimpy top strolled by. Sid Boswell, stoned out of his mind on cannabis, stood next to Cray, ogling the beauty. Randy Sindle, the driver, poked his head out the window and eyed her lecherously. Randy was also stoned on pot. Cray was the only one not under the influence of any mind-altering substances.

“Now, that’s fucking smoking hot,” Sid said,

Cray nodded and went back to work.

Then Sid whistled and said, “Hey, baby.”

Randy also whistled. “Hey gorgeous, what ya doin’ tonight?”

She looked back, glowering angrily.

The result was disastrous. Young Penny Miles not only reported the incident to Streets and Maintenance Supervisor Sal Summers (Stupidvisor, in the eyes of the garbage collectors), she also called the cops. A cop visited the three one afternoon in the staff room. Randy and Sid denied it, pointing fingers at Cray, who denied any involvement. But the cop believed Randy and Sid. “Penny plans on filing sexual assault charges.” Horrified, Cray didn’t know if it was a bluff or not, but he wasn’t in a position to take chances. The cop demanded he make a formal apology to Penny or face sexual assault charges. Cray swallowed his pride and took the cop’s advice. Believing the Penny version of events, Sal the Stupidvisor also wrote him up for the incident. Now he had a black mark on his garbage collection career, through no fault of his own. Fucking pussy pass. Fucking liars, those city skids. Fucking cops.

Yeah, but who do you trust? What about Mike? You did nothing for him in his life. At least do something for him in his death.

“Cray?” the detective said, removing a glove and extending a hand. “I’m Detective Martin Strader. Mind if I ask you a few questions?”

Cray cautiously shook and released the hand. Firm, confident grip but not overpowering like Ben’s. He sized up Marty. A hot-shot investigator presumably, although he looked unassuming enough. He stood a trim five-ten with short gray-black hair, was soft-spoken with a disarming smile, piercing blue eyes, and small facial features. He could have been the friendly and caring father of your buddy next door. But Cray suspected beyond that polished veneer there was a sharp analytical mind and a personality that could turn from good cop to bad cop in a heartbeat if the situation warranted.

“No problem, Cray said, suddenly wishing he had followed his gut earlier, ran and hid. Yeah, right. Where you gonna hide?

“Sorry to hear about your loss. I understand Mike was your best friend.”

“Yeah.”

“Look, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of this. I’m not pointing any fingers or following any specific angle of investigation until I have all the facts.” He pointed to the fire-damaged building. “Two people died in there and I intend to find out what happened.”

“Of course.”

“What was your friend Mike like?”

Cray explained that he had noticed Mike becoming more despondent in the months leading up to his death. Suicidal, he now realized. He told the detective of the recent meeting at Starbucks where Mike had mentioned taking his own life. He told him of the car accident involving the preacher, of Mike’s sudden disappearance from the Starbucks immediately after. How he had called Mike twice the evening of his death but had been unable to reach him.

“Was there something in particular you think might have driven him over the edge? Any specific event come to mind?”

The preacher. The end is nigh. Should I tell him?

Marty gave him a look. Tell me everything, it said.

Cray recapped, including Mike’s fears about an apocalypse and details about the preacher and his prophecies. He omitted that he too, for reasons he still didn’t understand, had run like hell. Didn’t want to sound like a nutcase himself. There were enough of them around already without adding to the variety of mixed nuts.

Marty took a moment to process the information. He was weaving together the threads to form a cohesive and colorful quilt that would explain everything. “Jonathon Brackley?”

“Who?”

“The priest who was struck by the car. He goes by Pastor Jon.”

“He’s a priest? Mike called him a preacher also.”

“Was.”

“Is he dead?”

“No, he survived the accident. He was a priest. Defrocked. I’ve already done some background on him. Only this case took priority. Now, it looks like they might be connected.”

After two minutes of discussion, Marty asked, “You say you went straight home after witnessing Pastor Jon get hit by the car?”

“Yeah.”

“It didn’t occur to you to go and check on your friend? Drop by his apartment, less than two blocks away?”

“I told you I called him twice. He didn’t answer. It wasn’t the first time Mike didn’t return my calls. He’s done that before.”

“Right. Have you had any big fights with Mike lately?”

“We had a disagreement yesterday over his end-of-days theories, but I wouldn’t call that a big fight.”

“Okay. Do you have anyone who can verify that you were at home last night?”

Cray looked up at the sunny sky for answers. He didn’t remember calling anyone. But maybe one of his neighbors had seen him come in. Most of them lived vicariously through the lives of others. “An alibi? I don’t think so.” Stupid thing to tell a detective. “But I need to think.” Cray felt beads of perspiration popping on his forehead. He tried to ignore them, hoping Marty hadn’t noticed. “Am I a suspect?”

“I don’t rule anyone out until I have enough evidence to do so. But, frankly, I doubt it. I think Mike killed himself. But I don’t know who lit the fire that killed that old lady.”

“And you think I did it?”

“No, not yet. Look, I have to ask certain questions. If you become a suspect, you’ll know about it.”

Cray nodded, not reassured.

“One more question. So you think Jon’s proclamations about the end of the world drove your friend to suicide?”

“Let’s just say I think it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.” Maybe the straw that broke Mike’s neck. Cray shuddered and wiped wet eyes.

Marty handed Cray a card. “Sorry, I know this must be hard for you. And I didn’t mean to be pushy or point fingers. You have to understand it’s my job. I just want the truth. And, if you’re telling the truth, there is no defense needed. The truth defends itself.”

Cray wiped his eyes. Yeah, right. He probably says that to all suspects just to put them at ease. I don’t think so. Not with you guys. The truth didn’t mean shit when it came to Penny Miles. You guys wanted to charge me with sexual assault and I didn’t even do anything. He was tired of Marty and becoming overwhelmed with sadness and guilt again. He felt like going home and curling up in bed for the next twenty-four hours.

Cray nodded slowly. “Okay.”

“Do you have anything else you want to tell me?”

“No.”

Marty’s tone grew agitated. “I need to talk to this so-called priest. If he’s going around putting suicidal thoughts in people’s heads, there is gonna be hell to pay.” His tone turned buddy-like. “If you can think of anything else that might be important, please call me.”

“Okay.” Cray tucked the card in his pocket, turned and left. Walking home, he wondered what to do next. It appeared Marty was willing to mete out any punishment Pastor Jon might deserve. Should I go to the hospital and talk to the nutcase? He’s probably at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. What if Marty sees me? He’ll probably become suspicious, wonder what I’m doing there. Am I a suspect? I don’t have an alibi. Maybe he’ll charge me for something. Arson? Murder?


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