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Jodi Angel, author of You Only Get Letters from Jail and Matthew Spektor, author of Amerian Dream Machine reading at Powell's Books Monday, July 22, 7:00pm
This week we bring you “Why Antichrist?” by Chris Adrian, from issue 31. It’s been 4 years since this story was originally published and we think it’s about time to read it again.
My father warned me that sadness cleaves to sadness, and that depressed people go around in hangdog packs. Common disaster is the worst reason for a friendship. In picking your friends, he said, you should consider what great things you can do together. You are assembling a team, he told me, not a teatime cozy of crybabies, and he made me promise never to become part of any orphans’ or bereaved sons’ club, because sitting around in a circle of pity getting your worst qualities praised and reinforced was no way to move ahead with a great life. That is the way down, he said, making a down roller-coaster motion with his hand, but you shall go up.
So I knew what it was all about, when Cindy Hacklight started paying nice attention to me after her father died. He was the richest man in town and was doubling his money at the World Trade Center when the planes hit. Cindy became a tragic celebrity, and suddenly everybody remembered that my father had died when we were all in tenth grade, and the teachers all looked at me in the silences that fell during the frequent breaks they provided for us to talk about our feelings, as if I were somehow more grown-up than everybody else because my life had sucked harder and earlier than most. Or like I must have learned something back then, that if I would only share would make it easier for them all to bear up in these days. But I just stared at my desk, because I didn’t know anything like that.
I caught Cindy looking at me in class or at lunch, and a couple times she came to games and I would feel an itching on the back of my neck in the middle of a play and look up to see her there. But she didn’t actually talk to me until the middle of October, and I never tried to talk to her, though like everyone else I felt bad about her dad. She was always surrounded by friends or admirers and seemed like she was getting enough sympathy to last anybody a lifetime, so I stayed away.
One afternoon after school while I was walking down to the lacrosse field I saw her with her friends, playing around on the statues outside the library. She ran after me when she saw me, but she didn’t catch up till I was passing the gym. “Hey!” she said, and I stopped and turned around.
“Hey,” I said, and then she just stood there, pulling at her skirt and touching the pencil that was stuck in her hair and looking at the divers falling past the windows in the gym. “Yeah,” I said, because I didn’t know what to say to her. “See you later.”
“I know how you feel,” she said suddenly, spitting the words out all at once and stringing them together in a swift mumble, but I’d heard the phrase so many times before I think I would’ve understood it if somebody had said it to me in Chinese.
“No you don’t,” I said, and walked away. Her hand was only touching my bag and she let it drop away.
“I’m having a party tonight!” she called out after me. “You should come!”
“I don’t really go to parties,” I said, which was true. I didn’t like to drink, and didn’t like watching people get drunk, and the people I wanted to make out with were never the people who wanted to make out with me, and if I wanted to make some drunk girl cry then I could stay home and do that with my mother.
But I did go, and maybe that was the first sign, that weird pressure I felt all through practice and at home while I made dinner and while my mom watched me eat, not touching what was on her plate except to push up the potatoes in heaps, and to take strings of chicken off the bone to dangle for the dog. I was thinking of Cindy and her party all afternoon, and in the shower after practice I had stood with my eyes closed under the water like I always do and felt like I was spinning in place, my bare feet turning on the soap-slicked tile, and when I opened my eyes I found I had turned to face south, down toward the river and her house. I almost never feel like I have to do something, but when I do, it usually turns out to be the right thing—I’ll pass the ball to someone who looks like he’s covered or pick an answer on a test that I think is wrong but feel is right and it always works out.
“I’m going to a party,” I told my mother.
“Good for you, honey,” she said. “You don’t get out enough. Did we show you this?” She turned down to the dog. He is part poodle but mostly mutt and the fancy haircut my mother gets for him every month always looks like borrowed finery to me. “Channel up!” she shouted at him, and he ran toward the television and turned it off with a bump of his nose. “Well, we’re working on it,” she said. “But go, go! You have a good time! Don’t worry about these.” She indicated the dishes with a sweep of her hand. “Puppy and I will take care of everything.” But she went to her room not very much longer after that, the dog trailing after her, and closed her door. So I cleaned up myself before I went down the hill to Cindy’s house.
We lived in the same big neighborhood, one of those places on the Severn where people pay a lot of money for big woods and the feeling that they are miles away from their neighbors. On the curving roads it would have been two miles to Cindy’s house, but cutting down the hill through the woods it wasn’t even one. She lived on Beach Road, right on the river, on a little house-sized peninsula. The drive down to the house was full of cars, but the woods covered the light and the noise of the party until I came around the bend in the drive and saw the place, every window bright. Cindy was sitting alone on her front porch with a glass of wine in either hand, one red and one white, taking sips of each one while I watched her. I don’t know why I stood watching like that but it wasn’t long before she looked up at me. “I knew you’d come,” she said.
You always knew and have always known. This is not my father, this is not my family, this is not my world. I am a stranger here and a visitor and somewhere else there is a home where I belong. I sent you out as I had to. But even in your lonely exile I have been with you. When your father turned toward you in comfort and in anger that was my hand you felt, when the moon followed you as a child and you thought it was your friend that was my bright eye upon you, whenever you felt peace that was my spirit filling your heart. Always a childhood feels like forever and did you think I could leave you alone for all of those years?
“I feel like shit,” Cindy said, “but I want everybody else to have a good time.” That was the point of the party—the next best thing to feeling happy herself was to see other people happy. So she floated from group to group in her house, exhorting them to drink more or laugh more or sing more or join her for a game of strip poker upstairs in her big attic bedroom. “Come on,” she said to me when I hesitated to accept a drink. “It’s for charity.”
I followed her upstairs and sat between her and Paul Ricker at the poker game. Paul had big eyes and a very open face, and was in his underwear within twenty minutes. Most of the other kids had at least taken off their shirts, but I was only barefoot, and Cindy was still fully clothed. She was in and out of the game, running off to dance downstairs, or to bring more players upstairs, or to replenish the drinks, mixing vodka and gin and ginger ale and grapefruit juice in a big bowl in the middle of her bedroom floor and then dipping out servings with a ladle.
“Hey,” Paul said, “stick on stick, body on body!” We were on the lacrosse team together, and he liked to imitate our couch.
“Right,” I said, trying not to look at his hairy belly. I had seen it before in the showers but it was different here in a darkened room full of drunk kids, at least a fourth of whom had given up on the game to make out in front of everyone. Even drunk-droopy, Paul’s eyes were huge, and they seemed to shine in the dark. He scooted over so our legs were touching, and I moved. He put his hand out and rubbed between my shoulder blades, circles around and around.
“No,” I said, and moved away again.
“Dude,” he said, “I’m kidding!”
“I know,” I said. He smiled, and seemed all eyes and teeth.
“You know,” he said. “I know. We both know!” And then he leaned into and starting kissing my neck. He had hardly attached himself to me before Cindy pulled him off.
“We have a winner!” she said, and announced that Paul was the drunkest person at the party. Everyone applauded, and Paul bowed, then turned around and pulled down his underwear to show us all his ass.
“You may address me,” he said, “as Mr. Winterbottom!”
“Mr. Winterbottom!” somebody called out. “Tell us a story!”
“Once upon a time,” Paul said, shaking his ass back and forth with every word, “there was a boy named Paul.”
“New game!” Cindy said, pushing Paul aside, so that he fell next to her bed and narrowly missed splitting his head on her night table. He rolled on the carpet and laughed hysterically. “Everybody!” Cindy was shouting over the music. “Everybody come upstairs!” Only three or four people came up, but it seemed to be enough for her. She distributed the candles that were burning on her dresser and windowsill to the people on the ground, and drew us all into a circle. Then she reached under her bed and took out a Ouija board. “This is a game,” she said, “called Let’s Talk to My Dad.”
Paul laughed for a moment, but even drunk as he was, he noticed that everyone else had become totally quiet.
“Cindy,” said a girl on the other side of the room. It was too dark to see who. “That’s…that’s just…”
“It’s okay!” Cindy said. “It’s not what you think. It’s not really him. I know that. Of course I know. I’m not crazy. It’s just some fucked-up spirit that pretends to be him. They can’t fool me.” She put the board down in the middle of the circle we’d made and started drawing people into it, pulling at their shirts if they were still wearing them, or giving people hugs and then pulling on their arms, saying all the while, “Come on, come on.” Soon she had us gathered closed around the board. “Hands on, she said, guiding fingers to the planchette, until at least a dozen people were touching it. I just held a candle. “Quiet now,” Cindy said, though no one was talking. She had closed her door but we could all still hear the music from downstairs. “Quiet and still. All the smart people, empty out your heads. All the drunk people, get serious for a second.” This made Paul laugh again.
“Serious!” Cindy said. After a few moments of heavy-breathing silence, she started to hum in a low tone, as if setting a tone for herself, because when she called out for her dad she pitched her voice lower than mine. “Papa,” she said. “Father. We are calling for you. Come back across the river and speak to us. We are ignorant and wish to learn the secrets of the dead.”
“You’re ignorant,” said Paul. “I’m not ignorant. I’m just fine.” He snorted but didn’t take his finger away from the planchette, and Cindy ignored him.
“Papa! Are you there?” The planchette moved right away, swinging in three quick arcs to spell, Yes.
“How have you been?” she asked, still in that deep goofy voice.
As well as can be expected, the board answered. Given the circumstances. Malcolm Walker wrote down the letters as they came and then read the words out loud.
“Well,” Cindy said. “It’s not exactly all parades and puppy shows up here either.”
“Up?” said Paul. Cindy held a finger to her lips.
“Will you answer our questions?” she asked.
Of course, as always. I am your servant.
“That must be nice,” said Sonia Chu. “I wish I could order my dad around.”
“Careful what you wish for,” said Cindy. “Questions? Questions?”
“Are any of our teachers gay?” asked Malcolm.
Mrs. Lambert is a lesbian, was the reply. Sonia said we hardly needed a spirit to tell us that.
“Are the terrorists there in hell?” asked Paul. “Are they roasting on a spit?”
Hell is a heaven to the innocent eye and the unspoiled imagination.
“What kind of answer is that?” Paul asked.
Answers are questions. Questions are answers.
“Who in this room is going to die?” Cindy asked. “Give us a name!”
“Cindy!” said Sonia. “Gross!”
All to die but one. All to suffer but one.
“Now this is getting creepy,” said Malcolm.
“It’s supposed to be creepy,” said Paul.
“But who will die first?” Cindy asked.
What does time matter when time is soon to end?
“He’s never very straightforward,” Cindy said. “You just have to be patient.”
“But I don’t want to know,” said Sonia.
“Sure you do,” said Cindy. “Come on, it’s just a game.”
It is not a game. It is the end of time. My suffering is great but yours will be greater.
“Was it horrible?” asked Arthur. “There in the tower. It must have been horrible. Did you see it coming? Did you see the plane?
It was coming all my life but a greater disaster is coming for you.
“I think he’s on their side,” said Paul. Cindy told him to shut up.
“Who will die?” Cindy asked again.
All but one.
Cindy sighed. “Sometimes you just have to humor them,” she said, “to get your answer. Fine Who is it? Who is going to live forever?”
The Great One. Lucifer’s son. Antichrist.
“The Antichrist is at this party?” asked Paul. “I’m going to kick his ass”
He is among you. He has always been among you, sleeping and dreaming, but even now he wakes.
“Who?” Cindy asked. “Stop teasing. Tell us!” And instead of letters this time the planchette swooped toward the person it wanted to name, the fingers drawing along the hands, the hands drawing along the bodies so that all twelve of the players fell forward, faces to the carpet. The planchette flew off the board and flowed over the carpet as if on wheels, stopping at the uttermost reach of their arms and pointing squarely at me. I turned to look behind me, expecting for some reason to see Cindy’s mom, back early from her trip out of town with Cindy’s sister, standing in the door. But the door was closed and nobody was there.
You go among them as if in a dream, with a dreamer’s eye and a dreamer’s suspicion that there is a world behind this world. You feel all the time as if they are crowding you in a small room, everyone one of them turning toward you a face that for all its earnestness is a mask. Their joy does not touch you; their grief has always made you feel as if you were floating away from them. They are born to suffer, but suffering to you is only a tool. Every day you ask yourself, “What is wrong with me, that I feel this way? What is wrong with me, and what is my life, that my father should die and my mother should leave her body for twenty-three hours out of the day?” You are angel and giant, Azazel and Abaddon, and it is not because there is something wrong with you that you hate…everything. You were made perfect; the world was not.
“Crazy party,” Paul said to me the next day. We were in the locker room after practice. “I don’t remember anything that happened after nine, but I heard about the Ouija thing. Don’t worry about it. One of those things told my sister that she was Jesus.”
“You don’t remember anything?”
“Well, a couple flashes here and there. I remember singing a lot. And a little bit of the poker game. And looking for my pants. That’s about it. Except…” He leaned down close, so that his mouth was close to my ear. “I think I screwed somebody. Don’t remember any of it—damn it!—but I woke up today with this feeling, and when I felt down there it was just like after…you know. How’s that for fucked up?”
“That’s definitely fucked up,” I said.
“I have a list of candidates, but how do you figure something like that out. You can’t just walk up and say, ‘Hey, Cindy, did we screw last night?’ Except I’m sure it wasn’t her. Anyway, I’ll figure it out.” He left his practice uniform in a pile at his feet and walked off to take a shower.
“Good luck with that,” I said, and waited until he was done with his shower before I took mine.
Cindy found me again while I was waiting for the bus. There was barely enough light to read by but I was sitting in the grass with my history book and for once I could pay attention to what I was reading, so I didn’t notice when she came up, and only saw her when she sat next to me.
“Hey,” she said. When I didn’t look up she pushed my shoulder. “Hey!”
“What?” I said.
“What?” she said, imitating my voice but making me sound like a retard.
“Thanks for coming to my party last night. Too bad you ruined it by being the Antichrist.”
“Whatever,” I said. After the Ouija game, I had left, though Cindy had asked me to stay, and made a big joke of the whole thing by taking the planchette and pointing it at people, saying things like “You’re Ronald Reagan” and “You’re the pope” and “You’re a double-penised huffalump!” But I felt like it had been a mistake to come. I went home and felt that way for the rest of the night. “I usually don’t go to parties,” I told Cindy now. “Something stupid always happens to me at parties.”
“Not that it’s bad. I wouldn’t mind meeting the Antichrist. I have a lot of questions for him, because he’s somebody in the know. Right?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, think about it. He’d know more than us, right?”
“I used to be into all that shit, back in junior high. Black candles and secret piercings and praying in your fireplace and being like, Satan is my master! I had black hair back then and hung out with Susie Freep. Did you ever know her? She goes to Trinity now.”
“No,” I said, still trying to read.
“Good thing. She was a bad influence. My mom practically had to send me to a deprogramming camp to get me away from her. She was like our high priestess or something. She gave it up, though. Now she’s in Young Life. How about that?”
“Yeah,” I said. Then she was quiet for a moment, but it was too dark to read. The sky was still bright pale blue, but shadows had come over the grass, and I couldn’t make out letters anymore.
Cindy leaned over and put her head on my shoulder. “It’s going to be a beautiful evening,” she said.
“I like the fall,” I said, not moving.
“It’s my favorite season,” she said. “Still, even with September and shit. Hey, my mom and my sister are going to be gone until Friday. You should come over and watch a movie or something.” She was quiet a little while longer, and I was wondering where the bus could be, when she said, “Last night I dreamed I was having sex with my father.”
“Everybody has that dream,” I said, which is true, if a therapist saying so makes a thing true. Cindy took her head off my shoulder and when I turned to look at her she threw water in my face
“Jesus,” I said. “What was that for?
“Does it burn?” she asked. “Does it hurt you?” And even though the water was in a regular squirt bottle I knew it was holy water.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” I said, grabbing it away from her and taking a long swig of it. It was very warm, and I thought as I drank it that she must have been keeping it close to her body all day. I threw the bottle down. “How’s that?” I asked. “Now will you lay off? Now will you just leave me alone? I don’t have any answers for you. I don’t know shit.” And I picked up my bag and my stick and walked off.
“It was just a joke!” she called out. “Come on. I’ll give you a ride!” But I kept walking all the way home.
“I was mad all though dinner, so I barely talked at all when my mother asked me questions about the party. She said she was sorry if it wasn’t very fun, and told me I shouldn’t judge all parties by one party, and that to give up on all on account of the one would be like giving up on people just because my father was a boor and a cheat. Then she told me stories about parties she had gone to in high school, and about the prom when she’d nearly died in a boating accident, except that the natural buoyancy of her dress saved her. I had heard the stories before. I hardly ate anything before my stomach started to hurt. I kept thinking it was being so mad that was giving me the stomachache.
I was nauseated later, but I didn’t throw up until close to midnight, just after I fell asleep. I woke up to it—a horrible burning stab in my belly, and then a feeling of fullness, and then I was throwing up right in my bed. When I turned on my light I saw that it was bright blood. It covered my sheets and my pillow, so I changed them, thinking that was all that was going to happen, and even feeling a little better, but then the burning came again, and though I made it to the toilet this time I had barely finished throwing up before I had to sit down and shoot black blood out of my ass. I sat there for a little while, shaking and cold, before I got dressed and knocked on my mother’s door.
“Mom,” I said. “I need to go to the hospital.” I knocked again, and called out again. The dog barked, but there wasn’t any other answer. So I drove myself.
My mouth was harsh, my hand was always in a fist. I could not say “I love you,” but do you really think I did not love you, and do not love you now? You were my comfort in darkness, my consolation, my prize. How can you, a pup and a shrub, even just a seed, know all the faces of love? Therefore, turn your anger away from me. Lay it on the world that God has put before you to receive it, and trust that when you remember who you are, then you will understand, and all your long confusion will become bright shining clarity. For if you know my name and my history, then how can you be surprised that I would teach you by mysteries and by opposites?
“I hate social workers,” Cindy said. She had come to visit me in the hospital, though I didn’t want any visitors. She showed up with my homework and a bunch of homemade cards, and I thought that the art teacher had made everybody draw a card for me, like we used to do in grade school when a kid got sick or her dog died, but when she gave them to me I saw that she had made them all. “One of them kept coming to our house. This Red Cross lady. I don’t even know how she found us, but she kept showing up and my mom kept letting her in, and she would sit around having tea with her and then she would talk to us each in private. Like my mother didn’t already have a five-hundred-dollar-an-hour therapist before my dad died. It’s hard to lose your father, she told me, but it’s even harder when it’s a national tragedy and not just a personal one. I told her that was very wise, but I said it like, wise, you know, you know? Like you could tell by the tone of my voice how I thought she was clueless. But she thought I was complimenting her and she told me I was very mature for my age. So when she came again, when we were alone, I leaned over to her, and guess what I said?”
I was staring out the window at the perfect fall day. I wanted to be at lacrosse practice.
“Guess what I said?” Cindy repeated.
“I don’t know,” I said. The hospital social worker had just finished talking to me when Cindy came in, asking me again about why my mother couldn’t bring me to the hospital. When I said again that she’d been sick, she asked again with what, and I said she should talk to my mother about that. She’s better about lying in that way than I am—she can make up a whole story in the time it takes to tell it. I knew I would screw things up by talking too much so I just started at the lady and told her my stomach was starting to hurt again, so she left.
“I said, ‘I’m not a fucking disaster area.’ And she said, ‘You must be very angry, I understand your anger.’ I hate social workers.”
“Somebody has to do the social work,” I said.
“But I bet it really knocked her for a loop when you told her you were the Antichrist. There’s a rehab job none of them could resist.”
“We didn’t talk about that.”
“He is the son of the devil but I think that with the right role models he could be a very productive member of society.”
“Very funny,” I said. She got out of her chair and sat down next to me on the bed, and took my hand. I didn’t pull away, and she didn’t’ say anything. We just sat like that for a while. A nurse came into put some medication in my IV. They were treating me for an ulcer in my duodenum, the part of the small intestine that comes right after the stomach. The doctor kept asking me if I was worried about something, because this is the kind of ulcer you get from worrying very intensely.
“Do you think people are forgetting already?” Cindy asked, after the nurse was gone. “About my dad, I mean.”
“It’s hardly been a month,” I said.
“Long enough, she said. “People usually forget about shit like this in a couple days. I mean, imagine if it hadn’t been…how it was. If he just died drunk driving or something. Nobody would have remembered in a week. I almost liked it, before, how people kept saying that nothing was ever going to be the same. Because it wasn’t—not for me. And I wanted it to not be for anybody else either.”
“It never gets back to normal,” I said.
“Not for me,” she said. “But I mean for them. You know, I liked it, when they kept playing the footage over and over again. My mom kept turning off the television but I kept it on in my room. And I kept saying, ‘Yes, do it again. Show us every fucking morning so nobody ever forgets what they did to my dad.’ But now I have to watch it on my tape.”
“That sounds like a bad idea,” I said. “I get sad just looking at my dad’s picture.” She turned to me then, and brought my hand up to her heart.
“You know, we are exactly alike, me and you. Exactly alike,”
“No, we’re not,” I said, taking my hand away. “My stomach hurts. I’m going to take a nap.”
“Okay,” she said. “Hey, I almost forgot.” She rummaged in her suitcase-sized duffel bag and brought out a present.
“You already gave me the cards,” I said.
“Just open it.” It was another Ouija board, just the regular kind, not fancy like hers. “You’re not supposed to play with it alone. It’ll make you crazy or possessed if you do.”
“I don’t need one of these,” I said, and she leaned close.
“You don’t have to pretend with me,” she said. “You don’t have to put up an act. I know you want to talk to your dad.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said, and dropped it on the floor.
“You’re going to be all over it when I’m gone.”
“Jesus! Will you knock that off!”
“You keep saying ‘Jesus’ like that and you’re going to get gonorrhea or something,” she said. “It’s not good for you to say ‘Jesus’ all the time.” I pushed the nurse button, to ask them to kick her out, but she left by herself. “What do you want me to bring you tomorrow?” At first I said nothing, but then I asked for my lacrosse stick and a ball. Then she was gone, and I reached down and pushed the game under the bed. When the nurse came in I told her I didn’t need her but she stayed for a minute, refilling the water pitcher and straightening the blankets.
“Your girlfriend is pretty,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, not knowing why I didn’t say she wasn’t my girlfriend. I turned over and thought about lacrosse plays, because that usually helped me sleep, and I think I slept for a couple minutes, because I had a dream that Paul and I were facing off together in front of a huge crowd. Which made no sense, because we play on the same team and Paul’s a goalie. When I opened my eyes I was staring at a whole window full of blue sky. I flipped through the cards. They said things like “Hope the bleeding in your stomach stops soon” and “You are going to live!” One was a stick figure lacrosse player saying “Your team needs you back.” Only one of them said, “Get well soon, Antichrist!” I threw that one away.
You are not a creature, but were born out of my mind and my desire, and the perfect part of you fills you more day by day. One day soon there will be nothing human left. Today a pinprick makes you bleed, a prayer makes you sick to your stomach. Tomorrow you will walk naked on battlefields and crush houses under your heel. Raise your hand then, and an eagle will perch your fist. Should an insult at the sun, it will tremble in the sky. Again and again you have felt it, just for a second you know your power, and you are amazed until the necessary lie wraps you up again, and you forget, and the great outstanding truth seems just like an idle daydream. One day soon the very opposite will be true, and you will wake, upon a mountain of skulls, from a day dream of being sullen and ordinary, and wonder, Was I ever that way?
“It’ll just be another day,” my father said, meaning the day he would die. And he said not to mark it, or make it special, or keep it like some black holiday. “Parents come and go,” he said, “that’s how it’s supposed to be,” even though he was only forty-two. He made me promise never to use his death as an excuse for not trying at something, and not to be one of those people who give up on life because God demonstrates early to them that it ends. Cindy said it was like he wanted me to get over his death before he even died. And she said that for her every day was the day. She didn’t have to wait for the one-month or six-month or one-year anniversaries. She marked the time every morning, and every morning when she woke the two planes flew into her head and the towers fell down all over again.
I don’t know when we became friends, or even when she stopped being annoying to me, or when I started to look forward to sitting with her after practice, waiting for the bus. She helped me change the note from the doctor to say that I could play again in a week instead of a month. We would lie on our backs staring straight up at the sky, not even looking at each other when we talked. And sometimes the bus would come and go in that time, and she would give me a ride home.
She had become less popular, either because people were forgetting about what had happened, like she said they would, or because they just didn’t like having her bring it up all the time or talk about it like it had just happened that morning. It made it easier to be around her when she stopped always drawing a crowd wherever she went. It didn’t bother me when Paul Ricker made fun of me for having a crazy girlfriend, even though I didn’t think of her as a girlfriend.
She left the Antichrist thing alone, mostly. Every once in a while she would say something like, “When you come into your kingdom you will have to do something about him,” meaning our obnoxious English teacher or the headmaster or one of the people who were starting to make fun of her. Or she would say very casually that she had reached one of the terrorists with her board and he had saluted her as a Friend of the Antichrist. If she made me mad with it then she would laugh and hit my shoulder and say that she was kidding. She admitted that the ulcer had just been a coincidence with the holy water, and by late November I thought she had given up on it, and given up on trying to prove that it was true.
But we went out driving one night, the same day of the first big snow. After I made dinner for my mother I walked down to Cindy’s house and found her making a ramp for her sister to jump off on their skis. There was a little mound over their septic tank that you could go down and build up speed. The ramp was too close to the house, though, and I told her so.
“It’s fine,” she said. But when her sister jumped off it she skied right into the garage.
“I told you,” I said. Her sister had gone crying into the house, threatening to tell their mother that Cindy did it on purpose.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said. We went out like we always did, driving up and down the hills in our town, then out to General’s Highway. I slouched back in the passenger’s seat and put my feet on the dashboard, looking at the telephone wires on the side of the road running together and apart and together again, not thinking of anything while Cindy talked. She stopped and picked up a pizza to go with the beer she’d stolen from her fridge, and we took it to a place we’d been before, a development under construction about ten miles up the river from where we lived. When we arrived it was dark, and the backhoes were giant shadows among the trees. “Home at last,” Cindy said, pulling the car into a driveway that ran up to an empty foundation.
Right away she climbed into the backseat. Usually we talked for a while—both of us reclining in the seats with our eyes closed—not always about our fathers or the attacks or even school or lacrosse, and then it would get cold and she would say it would be warmer in the back, where we could sit up against each other.
“Don’t you want any pizza?” I asked her.
“Not just yet.” She patted the seat next to her, and I went back.
We never did much. It would have disappointed Paul and his lurid imagination. He always asked about very particular things, acts and insertions I had barely ever imagined, until I blushed enough to make him shut up. Cindy and I would kiss, and hold each other, and I would usually take off my shirt because she liked to put her cheek right against my chest, and sometimes when I held her like that was the time we would talk most about our fathers, usually just a story about something they had done when we were kids, something bad or something good—it didn’t matter. And then we would kiss again, and I knew she wanted me to do more than I could. It was only fear that kept me from going as far as she would let me. I think I wanted to, but I felt sure that something horrible would happen if I did. “Maybe something terrible should happen,” she said when I told her this.
It all seemed so usual already, and so familiar. The way the leather car seat felt against the skin of my back, and the way the whole car seemed to glow when the moon shone through the fogged-up windows, and the way she pulled on my hair to tilt my head so she could get at the space under my chin. It was all fine. I never minded when she muttered things I could only half understand, or spoke sentences where I would only catch a single word, like falling or sky or open. But that night she had opened up my pants with one hand, though she didn’t reach in, and she was pushing her hips into me so forcefully I thought we would break through the undercarriage and fall onto the snow, when she put her mouth right in my ear and said, “I want you to put your fist through the whole world like you did through those two towers.”
I sat up and pushed her away. “What?”
“Nothing,” she said. “I didn’t say anything.” And she tried to kiss me again, but I pushed her away.
“I should go home,” I said, and put on my shirt.
“Whatever,” she said, watching me as I climbed into the front seat. I sat there for a little while, with the pizza in my lap again, staring straight ahead while she asked me to come back again. Finally she heaved a big sigh, then got out of the car and walked around to the driver’s seat.
“How could you say something like that?” I asked her, when we were about halfway home.
“Don’t judge me,” she said. “What do you know?”
“That’s just horrible. You of all people should know how horrible that is.”
“Fuck off,” she said. “What do you know? You can’t even be hurt. And don’t tell me I’m horrible when you’re the son of the fucking devil.”
“You’re crazy,” I said.
“Totally,” she said. “Who would have thought the Antichrist would be such a loser?”
I had nothing to say to that, and I thought about asking her to stop the car so I could walk home, but it was snowing again. “You missed my turn,” I told her, when she drove by Severna Forest Road.
“You can walk from my house,” she said. And she sped up as she got closer, taking the sharp turns on Beach Road at thirty miles an hour in the ice and snow. When I told her to slow down she didn’t say anything, but just before we got to her house she turned and looked at me and smiled, and then she reached over and with a practiced motion undid my seat belt from its clasp. Before I could ask what she was doing she floored the accelerator and aimed the car at the garage, running straight at the ramp she’d built earlier.
She let out a scream when we flew off the ramp. It might have been a word, but I couldn’t tell what. I had barely gotten my seat belt in my hand when we went through the garage door and hit the wall on the other side. Her car was a Volvo—the safest thing her father could buy her. But she must have disabled the air bag on my side. I went straight through the windshield.
If I passed out, it was just for a moment. The lights were on in the garage, so when I sat up where I’d fallen across the hood I could see how I was covered in pizza, not blood. When I stood up I was very stiff, and when I touched my nose it was sore. Cindy was cursing and disentangling herself from her air bag. Her door wouldn’t open; she had to come through mine. I just stood there, looking around at the shelves full of paint and old trophies and gardening tools.
“I told you!” Cindy shouted, pounding me on the chest, either attacking me or congratulating me, I couldn’t tell which. “I fucking told you!” Behind her a door opened and I saw her sister’s face appear, hovering just to the left of the jamb.
“Boy, are you going to get it,” she said.
Look around you—this is your time. Every day the world invites you to proclaim yourself. Every day the creatures speak your name. They are calling and calling. All the orphan disasters, all the bleating selfish morons at play with the common welfare. It is a wicked mess that you were born to inherit and redeem. The evil is stupid, and it is administered by fools who defile your birthright. But now the days are counting, and soon you will hold them, tender and cruel, in your great fist, and the punishment they desire you will deal out to them in heaps.
There was a set of train tracks that ran through our neighborhood, down from where Cindy lived on the other side of my hill. Five years ago a couple of seniors had gotten stoned and had lain down in the middle of the tracks, meaning to let a train pass over them. Others before them had lain there too, then jumped up after the train passed to hoot and screech, but when Bill Stuart did it, the cowcatcher lifted his head right off his neck and threw it so far into the woods they had to get a police dog to find it. I went down there the night of Cindy’s second party.
I don’t know how she had convinced her mother to leave her home alone again when she went out of town. It had only been two weeks since she’d wrecked the car, though she was able to explain that by saying that the car skidded on some ice. I had already stopped talking to her. When she sent me notes, I sent them back unread, and after practice I would walk home right away, instead of waiting for the bus.
Nobody went to the party this time, and it made me sad to think of Cindy sitting alone in her big house, feeling like everyone had forgotten her father and what had happened just a couple of months ago, her worst suspicions about people validated. But I couldn’t imagine going down there to her, and not just because I was afraid of what she might do next to prove who she thought I was.
I thought I would step in front of the train right before it came, but instead I just lay down in the middle of the tracks. I tucked my chin against my chest, because people said that was Bill’s mistake, that he had lifted when he should have tucked. Whether because of that, or because they had in the intervening years raised the cowcatcher so that it would deliberately miss a boy’s chin, the train passed over without touching my body. But I felt touched by the noise, and even though it was a very long freight train, I wished it had gone on longer. Wrapped in the noise, I felt put away from everything that had been making me feel so sad and so wrong for the past few weeks and months and years. It was a place where Cindy could not have reached in to bother me, where no voice that said it was my father’s could speak to me, where no doubt about who I was, and no hope about who I might become, could intrude. You were supposed to scream your head off when the train went over to you, but I just lay there with my mouth shut and my eyes open, watching the moon flash in the spaces between the boxcars.
“How was the party?” my mother asked when I got back home. She was sitting at the kitchen table with the dog, which liked to lie on his belly on the table with his head on his crossed paws. While my mother drank, they would sit that way for hours, staring into each other’s eyes until it was time to watch television or go for a walk or go to bed.
“I left early,” I said.
“Just a little boring.”
“Well, that’s a shame. How about a little drink?” she asked, both offering one and asking for one. I took her glass and got her some new ice and poured her some more vodka and got some water for myself. When I sat down the dog swiveled around, ever rising but turning himself by making swimming motions with his paws, so that he rotated clockwise until he faced me. My mother batted at his thumping tail. “I’m having a bad night too,” she said. “Puppy and I have been talking.” I put out my hand to the dog, expecting him to shy away from it, or to growl at me, but he rubbed his face against my palm. “I’ve been asking him, ‘Where is it written that a woman has got to suffer all her life? Where is it written that your father should die and your mother should die and your brother should die and your sister should die and your husband should die?’”
“He’s just a dog,” I said.
“I am not asking him to get an answer,” she said, drawing herself up and looking down her long nose at me. “The table may as well answer me, or the carpet, or the sky. Haven’t you been listening to a word I’ve said?”
“Did you ever worship the devil?”
“What? What sort of question is that? Why would you ask such a thing?”
“I don’t know.” The dog turned back to her, as if he were offended by the question too.
“If you don’t want to talk,” she said. “If you’re sick of me, then just say so.” She stood up and snapped her fingers. The dog jumped off the table and ran to their room, and she followed him there without saying anything else, and slammed the door. I stayed a little while at the table, drinking my water, then poured myself some of her vodka, and sat in her chair, drinking and thinking about things, but I knew even as I tried it that it would not be my way, and that it wouldn’t help me any, to sit there like she did. I went to my room.
I had thrown out the Ouija board five times already, and five times I had gone and gotten it out of the garbage again and set it in my lap to talk to the mind or the spirit that said it was my father’s. That night I sat for a long while talking to it, and like always, when I was done I felt ashamed as if I had been masturbating. I got into bed but only turned from side to side, thinking in turn about Cindy and Paul and my father. When the moon rose high enough to shine in my window it made the room too bright even with the shades drawn.
I went under my bed, something I used to do when I was small, especially if my parents were fighting or there was something else going on that was frightening me. Back then all the other kids I knew were scared of the space beneath their beds, but for me it was always the one place where I never felt afraid, and the darker it was, the better I felt. I pulled my blanket so that it hung down almost all the way to the ground, blocking out all the light, and then I closed my eyes and hugged my knees. Why Antichrist? I asked, not necessarily of anything or anybody. But I wanted to know. Why that? Why did that have to be the answer to the problem in me?
Again and again you asked me, over and over I answer. You have always known why. You have always felt it, the wrongness in you going out in great circles to corrupt the whole world. I say “corrupt”; I mean “perfect.” So how can you ask me why, when the very problem you lament is its own answer and solution? Beloved son, when will you stop sorrowing after the very thing you should celebrate?
“I haven’t seen your crazy girlfriend around lately,” Paul said to me after the last practice of the season.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I said. “She never was.”
“Well, that girl who is your friend,” he said. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “At home, I guess.”
“You should leave her alone anyway. Let her decompress. Let her de-crazy, you know.”
“I guess. Hey, you know on Thursday when you were running with a Trinity defenseman towards the goal and the guy was trying to check you but he could only get your glove and he was trying so hard to check you he didn’t notice that Malcolm had set himself up as a pick?”
“Yeah,” he said, not turning around from his locker.
“And he bounced off of Malcolm and you got that sidearm shot between the legs of the goalie?”
“That was a great play.”
“Thanks, man,” he said, and he turned around and smiled. “You’re not so bad yourself.” We were alone in the locker room, because he had taken forever in the shower and I had hung around talking to him the whole time. He turned back to keep packing up his bag, and there was something in the way he was smiling that made it seem like the only thing in the world I could do was walk over and put my arms around him. It seemed as inevitable as flying through the windshield when Cindy’s car hit the wall of her garage; like that, it was something nobody could have stopped. And just for a second, when I stood there with one arm across Paul’s chest and another across his belly, and I could feel him relaxing against me, it seemed like everything was right everywhere, and a whole other set of days that had nothing to do with Cindy or her Ouija board or being the son of the devil was opening up in front of me. I thought for sure Paul was going to put his hand on my hand and say my name, and I had closed my eyes to wait for it. But he knocked me back with his elbow, then turned around and pushed me. “What the fuck?” he said. “What was that? What’s your problem?” I just looked up at him, rubbing my chest where he’d pushed me, because I didn’t have an answer for him.
I walked home after practice, and went right to my room, and didn’t even come out when my mother knocked on my door and asked what was for dinner. I kept picking up the board and putting it down again, and sat with my back against the wall, staring at the space under my bed, but I didn’t crawl under there, because I was afraid I might not come out again if I did. I listened to my mother making herself something to eat and talking to the dog, and watching the television. It was after midnight by the time she went to her bed. After I heard her door close I left my room and then the house. I walked down the hill, cutting through the woods, to Cindy’s house.
There was a light in her window, flickering blue and red and orange, like she was watching television. I threw a couple crab apples lightly against the glass.
“There you are,” she said. “You want to come up and watch a movie?” I said I did. She came downstairs and let me in, and led my by the hand through her darkened house, past her mom’s and sister’s bedrooms, careful not even to step on the light that seeped from underneath their doors.
“The party was last week,” she said, when we were in her room.
“I know,” I said.
“Well, better late.” She sat me down on her bed, turned off her television, and then fiddled with her computer. “You want some popcorn?”
“Good. It wouldn’t be appropriate. I got this for my birthday.” She held up a digital projector at me, turning it from side to side. “It’s better than just the screen. I’d do it downstairs if my mom and the little rodent weren’t at home. You can make the picture really big in the living room, and the people are as big as rabbits. And you can do this thing where when one of them jumps, then you jump too, from off the balcony except you land on the couch, right? Not that you would need to. Here we go.”
She pressed a button and a whole section of her wall because a harsh digital blue rectangle, and then a softer blue rectangle of sky, and then the camera swung down to show a man talking silently at a café table, sipping at his coffee and waving his hand to punctuate his silent exclamations. The towers were clearly visible behind him.
“I always watch it from the beginning,” she said. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“It’s fine,” I said, and I took her hand. She pulled it away.
“Hey, pay attention. This is your education, not mine. I’ve been educated.”
“Do you watch it every night?”
She shrugged. “That’s Antonin,” she said, pointing at the man. “That’s his name. I found that out.” The plane flew in behind him, and the explosion seemed to blossom into the whole room. Cindy startled and took my hand back. “Here we go,” she said. We sat and watched, Cindy biting her lips and squeezing my hand. “Now,” she said, standing up just before the second plane hit. “That one never surprises me. Are you feeling anything? Are you remembering anything?”
“You know. Memories. Reasons. Your father.”
“No,” I said. “Come here.”
“You can’t see their faces,” she said. “Even on the living room wall. When they jump you can’t see their faces. I thought if I could project it against the side of the house, then maybe. Maybe if you saw a face, then you would know who you are.”
“I know who I am,” I said. “I know what I want.”
“You’re the same as always,” she said, shaking her head. “Wait a minute. Take off your shirt. Just your shirt. I didn’t say your pants. Anyway.” She picked up the projector and turned it away from the wall so that it shone on me, and stepping closer while she focused it, she made a rectangle just the size of my chest. I closed my eyes and tried to feel the heat from the fire. “How about now?”
“No,” I said.
“Goddamn.” She faced the projector into the mirror, but when I tried to look at it, it was too bright. Then she took off her own shirt, and stood where the images would shine on her. “See?” she said. Now people were jumping, and I saw them fall from her face, disappearing in the black space above her shoulder to rush past her ribs. “Do you see? When you do it this way, then you can almost feel what they were feeling. Isn’t it horrible? Doesn’t it make you remember why you did it?” I walked over and did something that seemed so much the opposite of what I had done with Paul. I held her from the front, and there was nothing tender in it, and it made me feel like everything was wrong, and going to be wrong.
The projector shone above her bed. When she lay down its light passed over her, but I could feel the towers on my back when I was on her, and when she sat above me I could see them reaching up her body, and then suddenly reaching down as the first one fell. We rolled on her bed, and I felt like the projector was wrapping us in light, even as darkness reached in between to wrap us too, unrolling from out of the mirror and from the window and from under the bed. It filled up my head, so all I saw was light flashing in the boundless dark. Cindy went away, and the whole world went away, and even the sadness I’d felt, not just since my father had died, but every day of my life—that went away too. I heard a voice that said, “There you are. There you are.”
“There,” Cindy was saying when I opened my eyes. “There you are. It’s hard. It’s really hard being the son of the devil, but you’ll get used to it. People get used to anything.” I stayed where I was, pressing my face into her shoulder, crying, not just because I was sad, but because I finally knew who I was, and believed it, grateful and happy for the ruin I had just done, for the ruin I had brought and the ruin I would bring, every catastrophe more beloved to me than the next, thinking that even though I wasn’t looking at them on the wall, I could see the buildings in my mind—Oh Father, let them burn, their heat is as perfect as my glee—lit up like birthday candles to celebrate the first day of my life.
Chris Adrian is the author of Gob’s Grief , The Children’s Hospital, A Better Angel and The Great Night. Selected by The New Yorker as one of their “20 Under 40,” he lives in San Francisco, where he is a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology