Jack has a problem. Actually, he has several. Top of the pile are his impending GCSE exams. Just below are the mysterious naps he’s been taking, at all times of the day and night. They come complete with the sorts of dreams that leave scars but no memories. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s still trying to cope with his father abandoning him and his family only a few months ago…
When the devil came to Earth, he did three things.
Jack didn’t know the devil had come. He knew nothing beyond the text book in front of him and the revision website he’d recently found that seemed to tell him the answer to every question he could possibly be asked about the political situation in a country following a natural disaster.
He noticed the shakes, though. They were hard enough to make the tea-stained mugs shoved to the back of his desk rattle together and the light above his head swing back and forth.
He pushed his chair back, compensating for the stuck wheel to ensure he didn’t go arse over tit, and listened. Shouts came from downstairs, but nothing that made him inclined to go down there. The shaking was weird, though. They didn’t get earthquakes in England and this was definitely an earthquake. Unless someone had driven a car into the house.
He rose, padded to the window, and tweaked the curtains aside. The front lawn was empty and the street, quiet. The drizzle came down like it was too lazy to bother rain properly, but was determined to soak anyone stupid enough to go outside.
He sniffed, returned to his desk, and the ramifications on a populace of a complete lack of easily obtainable food. Odd, that he’d been reading about natural disasters just as Aldershot suffered its first ever earthquake. He was tempted to go online to find out whether it was the first, but the lock he’d put on the internet wouldn’t run out for another half hour. He had one site, and one site only, so he looked to that for inspiration.
He lifted his head, peeled off the paper that had stuck itself to his face, and slumped from the room. The lock was off the internet, but he didn’t bother look at it, so he didn’t see the news. He didn’t see the panic spreading across social media like PSY had just announced a collaboration with Beyonce and the Greek, father and son dance duo from Britain’s Got Talent. He didn’t see the photos that would soon overtake Kardashian’s backside as the most viewed images on the web.
What he saw was a plate of spaghetti bolognese and his mother’s frown. ‘You look bad, are you studying too hard?’
He coughed and crammed food into his mouth to save telling the truth. Lara bounced in a moment later, took one look at him, and ruined it all. ‘Jack’s been sleeping, Jack’s been sleeping.’
He swallowed it down. ‘Shut up.’
‘Now, Jack, don’t be rude to your sister. Besides, she’s right. How long this time?’
He grunted and returned to his lunch. Lara was in a painfully cheerful mood today, and spent the entire meal regaling mum with all the wonderful ways she’d teased the boys during her recent shopping trip. Jack did his best to block it out, the same way he blocked out the crop tops and short skirts that made him blush any time he was forced to leave the house with her.
He’d been sleeping a lot recently. Mum blamed the study. Lara blamed the late night masturbation sessions. Jack would have been happy had it been either, but he knew it wasn’t. He was studying, hard, but not hard enough to knock himself out. Ditto for the wanking.
He had no idea what it was. One minute he’d be in the middle of something, the next he’d be waking up. It was the sort of sleep that felt like you’d been sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The world could be ending whilst he was asleep and he’d have no idea. It should have been nice. He’d spent the last year feeling like he couldn’t sleep enough, like the pressure of everything in his life was driving him insane.
Sleep should have been an escape. But he woke feeling like he’d run a marathon instead of resting. On top of that, he then couldn’t get to sleep at night. Hence the wanking. Anything to pass the time.
And then there were the dreams. He hadn’t told mum about them. He hadn’t told her about the sleeping, but she’d found him at his desk, more than once, and not been able to wake him, which scared the crap out of her. Scared him, too, though he hid it. She didn’t need him freaking out, not with everything else going on.
Maybe that was why Lara was acting the slut. Maybe she just needed the attention, now dad wasn’t around.
‘Seriously, love, do you think you’re working too hard?’ mum tried again. She was trying a lot at the moment, which made him feel beyond shitty. He couldn’t imagine what she was going through, but it was him having the weird sleep issues and Lara going out every night, whilst she just stayed at home, making sure they were eating properly and not going mad.
‘I’m not working that hard. Lara studied way more than me for GCSEs.’
‘It’s true, I did. And I’m way smarter than him, so he should be doing even more.’
‘I know. You’re dumb, admit it, J, you’re dumb as a bag of hammers.’
‘At least I don’t feel the need to show my tits off to every person I meet.’
‘Jack, that’s enough.’ Jack winced at the pain in mum’s voice. And the patience.
‘Sorry, Lar, my bad.’
‘Hey, it’s fine. If you had boobs as nice as mine, you’d show them off to everyone, too.’
‘Lara.’ Mum again. ‘Please don’t say that, not even as a joke.’
‘Sorry, mum.’ Lara got up and strolled to the kettle, flicking it on whilst peering out the window. ‘He’s not coming back, is he?’
She didn’t need to say who. They all knew. He’d taken his weights bench and his clothes, not to mention leaving the note making it quite clear he wasn’t coming back. But still Lara needed to ask. Maybe she thought if she asked enough times, the answer would be different. That’s what Jack was hoping. He wasn’t sure Lara was, though. He wasn’t sure what Lara thought about it.
‘He’s not, my love. I’m sorry.’ Mum sounded heavy. She was a narrow woman, in lots of ways, though not in the love she bore for her children, but she was never heavy. Jack’s strongest childhood memories were of her doing. She’d be doing all sorts, be it house stuff, or playing with them, or seeing friends, or whatever. But always doing.
She hadn’t done much the last few months. Not done much of anything. Jack crammed the bolognese in, trying to pretend it still had flavour, then sloped back upstairs.
His textbook lay open, beckoning him, but there was as much chance of returning to it as flying to the moon. Exams were two weeks away, which made every minute he revised precious. But he wouldn’t learn anything, not at the moment. All he could focus on was his need to punch something, anything. He wouldn’t because he didn’t tend to punch stuff and, if he did, he was likely to break his hand.
The day after dad left, he’d punched something anyway, because his normally logical, ordered brain, had gone on vacation and left him with nothing but rage. Six months later, it still tried to take off now and then, but he reined it in and settled it with bursts of Call of Duty or Halo.
He perched on his chair and opened the internet. The BBC news page flashed up and, for the few moments, his brain refused to take in what he saw there. He closed the window, took a breath, and opened it again. Someone was playing with him. It was some kind of weird joke by the BBC.
The page opened again. Normally the news site was a smorgasbord of everything that was happening in the world. Now, though, there was only one window that filled the screen. On it was what he thought had once been the Houses of Parliament. Now, there were a few smoking chunks of brick and remnants of walls. He wouldn’t have recognised it at all without the clock face of Big Ben lying haphazardly in the foreground.
‘What the fuck?’ he muttered under his breath. The next second, the door burst in, followed by Lara. ‘Hey, you’re supposed to knock.’
‘Have you seen it?’
‘Seen what?’ she didn’t even attempt to argue with his assertion for her to knock, so he knew even before she jabbed her finger at the screen what she was talking about. ‘What is it?’ he asked, scowling when she shook her head.
‘No idea.’ She nudged him across and perched on the chair with him. Being this close to her was unusual at the best of times, but the one good thing to come from dad going was a cessation of years of hostility. They were still locked in an even battle of cuss-based wits, though he knew he was winning it, but the bitterness that had underpinned their struggles was gone, evaporated in the time it took them to read his note. ‘But it looks terrible.’
‘Is it terrorists?’
‘Could be.’ She nudged his hand off the mouse pad and scrolled down. Beneath the picture was some text. Jack tried to read it and track how fast she was reading it at the same time.
Following the announcement this morning of the arrival of the Antichrist, most scheduling at the BBC has been postponed. We will have 24 news feed on the main website, but viewers should be aware that, for safety reasons, commentary feed may be intermittent.
Jack pulled his headphones out of the computer and flicked on his crappy computer speakers.
‘…where he’s come from. Hell is, of course, the popular option, though we cannot comment on the likelihood of the Antichrist coming from what may be a fictional location. With only one formal announcement from the being at this time, it is difficult to make any reasoned judgments.’
The commentator fell silent and Lara looked at him. ‘Does this mean what I think it does?’
‘It can’t. This is some massive practical joke, like War of the Worlds or something.’
‘What’s War of the Worlds?’
Jack sighed and shook his head. ‘It’s this really famous radio play. When they played it the first time, everyone thought it was real and crapped themselves.’
‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.’
‘Yeah, kind of. This is like that, only more modern.’ He almost added ‘and scarier’, but didn’t think their current truce went far enough to spare him the scorn that would come from saying it.
‘This isn’t a fake.’ She said, eyes on her phone.
‘How do you know?’
‘I met this guy the other night who works for Sky. They’re all over this. The picture’s real.’
Jack swallowed, wiped his forehead, and scrolled back up the screen. The Houses of Parliament were gone, along with Big Ben and the surrounding few buildings. Jack squinted, then zoomed in on the narrow strip of water he could see on the left of the screen.
It was red. The Thames was red.
‘That news again, in full.’ The voice from the computer made him jump. ‘At approximately 8:00am this morning, Greenwich meantime, a person appeared in the air over the Thames. In a voice clearly audible at a radius of over a mile, he informed the world that he was the Antichrist and had come to damn us all. Lightning then shot from his fingers, destroying the Houses of Parliament and the surrounding area.
‘The evacuation of London began some 30 minutes later, by which time the person had come to Earth on the south side of the Thames. At the moment his feet touched the ground, onlookers reported the water of the Thames turning red. Storm clouds gathered over central London, which have yet to recede, and people, apparently at random, began to hurl themselves into the crimson river.
‘This has now been going on for well over two hours, resulting in hundreds of casualties. Police are working hard to set up effective cordons, but people are reported to be fighting like maniacs to throw themselves to their deaths.
‘Demands by the world’s media to get a better view of the person have been met with frustration. Cameras and digital equipment of all types malfunction when used too close to the person, or in any attempt to take his photo. So far, sketchy reports suggest he is average height, with jet black hair, pale skin and bright blue eyes, but, I should stress, these details can not be confirmed.’
‘Holy shit.’ Lara breathed.
‘Really not, there’s nothing holy about this.’
‘Hah hah, very funny. You know what I mean.’
‘What does it mean, though? I mean, is it the end of the world or something?’
‘God, if it is, I’m not gonna spend it hanging out in your bedroom.’
‘Thanks, Sis, you’re too kind.’
‘Hey, no offence, I love you, but I’d much rather get drunk and have sex. You should, too.’ She scrambled off the chair and dashed out. Jack stared at the screen. He was still waiting for the announcer to call it a fake, to burst out laughing and apologise for any distress the broadcast might have caused.
He wasn’t going to, though. It was real. Funny how the BBC weren’t willing to comment on the possibility of hell being a real place when a guy calling himself the Antichrist was compelling people to threw themselves into a river his mere presence had turned red. Was it actually blood or just a clever trick?
He had to go there. He had to see. It was stupid, suicide possibly, but something was telling him he had to go. It was in his gut, right at the back, a place he’d never even known was there, let alone listened to. But it was more powerful than anything he’d ever felt. He had no choice.
He rose from his desk and dug through his drawers, trying to choose clothes that would be suitable to die in, yet also keep him buoyant should he be compelled like the rest to dive into the Thames.
That was a waste of time, so he settled for jeans and a Nirvana t-shirt, topped with a hoodie. He sat on his bed to unplug his phone and his eyelids drooped like they had weights tied to them. The next moment, he rolled onto his side and slept.
The dream was there, waiting for him. He didn’t know it was the same one he’d had every day for the last six months. He didn’t remember it from one day to the next, despite how vivid it felt when he was sleeping. It was just as vivid when he woke, but always skipped away as he rose from the depths, abandoning him as his eyes opened.
This time was no different. A man sat before him, one leg crossed over the other. Shadow obscured the man’s face, though Jack thought he could see blue eyes, shiny like the man was close to tears.
The stone beneath his feet smelt of fires, the sort that contained plastic, and made his nose wrinkle. He shivered. The man was speaking and, for once, the words were clear as day.
‘He brought me here, young Jack, but I need you to make me whole. Come to me, Jack, come to me.’
A narrow hand extended from the shadows and a bony finger extended, then bent, beckoning him. He was utterly cold, like he’d just stepped into a cold shower. He shivered again, but this time he couldn’t stop it and his whole body shook and shook.
His eyes flashed open and he stared at his bedspread. He had to go. He checked his phone, still clutched in one hand. He’d slept for five minutes, no longer. Barely time to fall asleep, let alone dream, yet he could see it, clear as day. He had to go to him.
He took the stairs two at a time and caught Lara by the front door. She had her slutty clothes on and smelt like a perfume shop. She did, he had to admit, look pretty. She also looked like a slut.
‘You have to drive me.’ He said.
‘You have to drive me into London. We have to go now.’
‘The world’s ending and you think I’m gonna waste it driving you into London?’
‘If the world’s really ending, I expect you to spend it with mum. But it’s not gonna end.’
‘Cos I say so. Now come on, get the car keys and let’s go.’
She opened her mouth to argue, then shut it again. Her forehead wrinkled and she opened her mouth again. ‘You sound really sure.’
‘I had a dream.’
She snorted and shook her head. He grabbed her arm and she shook it off, scowling. ‘Fine, I’ll drive you, just shut up already.’
She grabbed the keys from the side and led him out the front door. He hesitated on the step. Something told him he should say goodbye to mum, but that felt too final, like he’d already decided something bad was going to happen and that, by acting on it, he’d make it happen. If he didn’t say goodbye, he had to come back, which meant nothing terrible could happen.
He nodded to himself as he climbed into the passenger side of the car and drank in another monster scowl from his sister.
The roads into London were quiet, most people, no doubt, pinned to their TVs and computers. They got as far as Hammersmith before they reached the first roadblocks. They used maps on their phones and took a detour, soon finding a road the police hadn’t yet managed to block. They made their way all the way to Chelsea before the police had things locked down, at which point they headed for the river.
They found themselves in a narrow cul-de-sac in Chelsea with the river hiding behind a tall row of townhouses. Jack didn’t hesitate. He was operating on autopilot, like someone had planned everything for him in advance.
He led them to the front door of one of the houses and pounded on it until an elderly man opened it, eyes wide at the sight of the two strange teenagers on his step.
‘We’re going to use your boat,’ Jack announced, before shoving past the man and stomping through to the back of his house. He heard Lara apologising behind him, but paid no attention. Every second he wasted, more people died.
And this was his fault.
He didn’t know why it was his fault, but it felt true. Horribly, inescapably, true.
He hauled open the patio doors and dashed down the short garden to the end, where the Thames lapped against a minuscule motorboat moored to a narrow wooden jetty. He paused a moment, letting his jealousy at this man owning a private jetty in Chelsea wash straight over him, before he clambered in and looked at the engine.
The strange force that had been guiding him took a break and he found himself scratching his head. The old guy had come chasing after them, so Jack stood, making the boat and Lara, who had just jumped in, rock and shout, and demanded he show them how it worked. The man looked ready to argue, but, just as with his sister, saw something in Jack’s eyes that stopped him.
He hesitated a moment longer, then showed Jack how to start the engine before doing it himself. They cast off and chugged out into the centre of the Thames. The water was high, rushing past them, waves splashing off the bows. It was red, deep red and, where it burst up and caught the evening sun, was no less red. It wasn’t water with some red in it, it was red.
He stuck his finger in and brought it to his nose.
‘Eww, that’s nasty.’ Lara exclaimed, as though sniffing river water was somehow worse than the end of the world. His nose told him what he’d hoped wasn’t true.
‘What?’ Lara shrunk from the sides of the boat, trying to make herself as small as possible.
‘It’s blood. A river of blood.’
‘Oh my god. What about the fishes?’
‘Excellent question, sis, so glad that’s the first thing you think about.’
‘Well, what are you thinking about?’
He frowned, staring across the river to the flats on the far side. What was he thinking about? His brain was oddly calm, empty of everything except the present moment, the engine vibrating against his hand and the water beneath the boat.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Jack, what’s going on?’
‘I mean, you got me to drive you here, you got that guy to give you his boat. I mean, you’re bloody 14, what’s going on?’
‘Okay, first off, I’m 16, as you well know. Second off… I don’t know, alright. I just know I have to do this.’
‘You’re weird. Just so we’re agreed, you’re totally bat shit crazy, alright?’
‘Yeah, I know. Sorry.’
‘Hey, don’t apologise to me, say sorry to mum, you’re her son.’
‘But your brother.’
‘Yeah, well, we might want to get genetics tests for that one, cos somehow, I doubt it.’
He grinned, looking past her down the river. Not far to go, now. He could feel him. The man from his dreams was waiting.
They emerged from beneath Victoria Bridge, ignoring the hailing coming from both above them and the boat hovering 20 feet to their left, and saw him. It was probably 20 feet to starboard, or port or something, but Jack didn’t much care. He knew the moment he saw the man on the bank, it didn’t matter.
The news report had been mostly correct. Dark hair, pale skin, blue eyes. But they’re been wrong about the height. Sure, he was six foot, give or take, but he stood like a giant, surveying the scene like he’d never come down.
As Jack slowed the engine, a shot rang out across the river. He ducked, wincing as the sound drilled its way into his brain. The man on the bank looked down at himself, then up at something on the bridge above them. The next moment, a handful of men clad in black and blue uniforms hurled themselves into the raging river.
Jack watched them, tears running down his cheeks. They made no effort to swim, no effort to save themselves. The police boat that had been keeping pace with him and Lara pulled across to help them, but no amount of shouting or rubber rings made any difference. The men sunk beneath the waves, blood-soaked faces hidden then revealed by the waves, before disappearing altogether.
‘God, Jack, what is he?’
‘He’s the devil.’
‘Look at him.’ Jack hauled the boat over, bringing it closer to the shore, closer to the man who stood there, staring straight back at them. Lara gasped, covering her mouth.
‘Dad?’ she breathed. Jack leant forwards and patted her on the shoulder.
‘I’ve been dreaming about him. I didn’t know it was him until today.’
‘You’ve been dreaming about dad and you didn’t tell me?’
‘I didn’t know it was dad, alright? I didn’t know anything, I didn’t even remember it. But it’s dad. I mean, it’s not dad, it’s the devil. But it’s dad’s body.’
‘Jack, you came.’ The voice crossed the water like it had been fired from a gun, to envelop the boat.
‘Don’t get any closer, Jack, you can’t.’ Lara whined.
He ignored her, steering them nearer. The engine was on reverse, battling with the tide threatening to yank them out to sea.
‘You came for me. Good boy.’ The voice was dad’s, but it was like someone else was speaking at the same time, copying his words, only with a voice three octaves and several levels of hell deeper. Jack swallowed.
‘What did you do, Dad?’
‘Your father summoned me.’
‘Why do you think? Revenge. Your mother wasn’t good to him.’
‘You mean she didn’t let him smack her around.’ Lara shouted, standing up in the boat. ‘You mean she didn’t sit back when he tried to do the same to me. Fuck you, arsehole, my dad was a bastard.’
Jack nearly forgot to control the boat. He nearly forgot to do anything. ‘Lara, what the hell are you talking about?’
‘What do you think I’m talking about? How did you not know what he was doing?’
‘I… there’s no way. I mean, dad?’
‘Yes, dad.’ She turned back to the Antichrist. ‘So what, he summoned you and you stole his body.’
‘Something like that. I fear he didn’t read the small print too well.’
‘You have to go.’ Jack held back from shouting, but his voice carried enough steel to make Lara thump back into her seat and turn to stare at him, eyes wide. ‘You have to leave, now, this isn’t your world.’
‘It’s funny you should say that, because actually, your father invited me here and that makes it very much my world.’
‘But not without me.’ Jack frowned as the words emerged. He didn’t know why he’d said them, or what had to happen, but the Antichrist needed him in order to stay in the world.
‘Well, young man, I’d hoped to save you from that truth until it was too late, but yes, I do require you to complete the exchange.’
‘You won’t have me.’
‘Oh come now, do you really think you can resist me? Bring the boat a little closer.’
He wasn’t going to, but when he looked down at his hand, he saw it move and shift the boat across the water, nearer and nearer the shore.
‘Jack, stop it.’
‘I can’t, Lar, I’m trying.’
‘Just let go.’
‘I can’t.’ He stared at his hand, willing it to release, but his fingers were locked tight, his arm no longer his own.
‘You see, Jack, there’s no way to stop this.’
The boat bumped against the grass and Jack looked up at the devil. It was his father, yet it was so different, so inhuman, it looked nothing like him. An energy seeped from him, like poison from a wound, that made his features twisted and evil, though they looked much as they always had. Maybe the six months since his disappearance had changed the person Jack had in his head.
Or maybe this was his real father, instead of the man he’d always thought he was. If what Lara said was true… ‘Lara, did he really hit you?’
‘He only hit me once. Slapped me round the face. Tried it again and mum got in the way. He punched her. I’d seen it before, but not like this. He was kicking her…’ she trailed off and Jack tore his gaze from the devil to his sister. Tears were spilling from her eyes, but her jaw was clenched tight.
‘He needs me to complete it. He needs my blood.’
‘You can’t stop him.’
‘I can. But I need a second when he’s not in control. Can you distract him for just a second, please?’
It was her turn to pull her gaze from their father and look at him. ‘Jack, what are you going to do?’
‘Don’t worry about it, just distract him, alright?’
The Antichrist looked down on them, smiling in a way their father never had. As he stalked closer, Jack smelled him, the same melted plastic tang of his dreams. He gagged and shoved himself against the back of the boat.
‘Time’s up, Jack, I’m bored. Come on, now, don’t keep your father waiting.’
Jack rose from his seat, legs no more his to control than his hands. At that moment, Lara leapt from the boat onto the bank and threw herself at the devil. His eyes widened just before the nails on her right hand caught in his cheek and opened deep, bloody furrows there. She was screaming and punching, flailing at him with hands and feet, but Jack couldn’t watch.
He felt the control slip, just a little. Just enough. He turned away, seeing the police boats waiting in the river, seeing them watching him, wondering what this skinny kid from Aldershot was doing here. Then he threw himself over the side.
The blood sucked him down but, though he tried, he couldn’t stop himself kicking and pulling for the surface.
‘JACK!’ He heard Lara scream and twisted round in the water. The devil held her, one arm around her neck as she struggled in his embrace. He was condemning her just as surely as himself, but he couldn’t stop now. This was the only way.
With a will he’d never known he had, he pressed his arms to his sides and made his feet still. The blood washed over his head and he breathed it in. He burst out coughing as the rich, thick liquid streamed down his throat. He bobbed up, once, then down again and this time, his mouth burst open and the blood came flooding in.
The next time he went up, his last, he saw the devil standing alone. Lara knelt beside him, coughing into the grass, but the devil was screaming, howling to the sky.
Jack had just long enough to register that the blood in his lungs had become water. Ordinary Thames water. Then it dragged him down and the world went dark.