It was the month of the apocalypse, and I’d come home to a house of shadows and gloom. The curtains and blinds were all shut, barring any light except what leaked through the door. The air smelled like spoiled fast food. No sound came from within—not his labored breath from the recliner, not even his favorite sitcom laughing hysterically at itself.
That was the first time I doubted.
Not that there hadn’t been moments before then. Moments that didn’t feel right, I guess, despite having every assurance they would be—they were—from the one person who really could say definitively. But it was coming home to darkness that made me wonder if things weren’t as they should be. Weren’t as promised.
“My Lord …?” I called, but I was met with the same silence, the same dark. That’s fine, I assured myself, arms shaking, chest tight. Everything’s fine … “Lord Grivvux?” I tried again, my voice thin as prayer.
Something crashed across the living room floor, and “Dammit! Is that you?” his voice called from the black.
Only then did I remember to breathe, though it came out in ragged, uncertain laughter.
The Supreme Lord—Maker, Keeper, Destroyer of Worlds—was alright.
“Yes, my Lord!” I said, fumbling with the bags and keys as I stepped inside, grinning with dumb relief. “It is I, your faithful servant—”
“Sam, please,” the Lord God cut me off. “You really don’t need to go on like that. Once you’ve helped your god in and out of the tub, I’d say you’re on a more familiar basis.” The recliner groaned as he rose to meet me.
“Ah! Yes! Of course!” I said awkwardly, kicking the door shut behind me. “Forgive me, King of Kings, Lord Grivvux of the Permafire.”
“It’s fine, Sam … And again, Grux will be fine.”
“Grux …” I said, trying on the word, but it still didn’t feel right. Thousands of years ago, it was Grivvux—not Grux—who was worshiped all across Sumer. The fatted calf was venerated and slain at the Altar of Grivvux, not Grux. When our priests and acolytes were seduced by other gods, the family order kept faith with Grivvux, not Grux. “I, uh, like it.”
I shuffled past him, trying not to catch the sour smell of his skin. No matter how hard I scrubbed, he always smelled like unwashed feet. It was just one more thing to deal with since his long-prophesied return. There was no telling the cause of it all—if it was disbelief in the old powers, the unchecked metastasis of sin, or global warming—but the Lord God had taken human form and now he was, well, too human, I guess …
“They had fresh lamb today!” I called over my shoulder.
“How fresh?” he asked, following behind me, his rough soles scratching the hardwood.
“Well, it’s not still kicking …”
Was that disappointment? I wondered, making my way to the kitchen blindly and reaching for the light.
The world flashed before I heard him. The Lord God shielded himself with his arm, revealing skin littered with sores. I killed the light, and then we just stood there, embarrassed in the dark.
“Is that because of me?” I finally asked.
“It’s best you try not to think about it,” he said, but I was already tallying up the day’s sins. I flipped off the Mercedes that cut me off. I lied to the beggar asking for change. I snagged the last box of fiber supplements from an old woman.
“Did you get the ceremonial robes?” he asked.
“Um, yes, well …” I began sorting through plastic bags, searching by feel. “Linnamin’s was having a sale.” I withdrew two neatly-folded robes. They were black, but presently so was everything.
“It doesn’t matter where they came from, Sam.” The Lord God walked across the kitchen and turned on the patio light, letting in just enough for us to see by. “So long as we take this seriously.”
I looked doubtfully at the mass-produced bathrobes.
Lord Grivvux returned to examine one, brushing it softly with his rough hands. “These will do fine …” he said, pressing the robe against his cheek as though some secret magic were sewn into its design, some hope only the righteous and wise could discern.
“They have a three hundred thread count …” I said.
That night, we knelt before the fireplace in our ceremonial bathrobes, the fire eating the logs with a crackle and spark that sounded like laughter.
“What’s this supposed to do again?” I asked, uncertainly.
“It’s a minor restoration spell, Sam. Nothing to be apprehensive about. We’re simply appealing to the powers beyond to grant me a greater form, one that isn’t in need of such maintenance. One that might inspire a bit more awe …”
Lord Grivvux sensed my doubt and clarified, “So I can better guard against the Last End, Sam.”
“Yes, of course. The Big Wet One.”
“Oh, sorry, nothing. That’s just what Mom used to call the Final Flood. Sort of a joke, really. I guess that’s not appropriate anymore …”
He said nothing and continued the preparations.
It was Mom who first taught me the old faith: the rituals, spells, and prophecies. She was pretty transparent about it being what soured her marriage, why Dad ran off before I was born. It’s okay, Samuel, she’d told me, Lord Grivvux of the Permafire is your true Father, as he is for all. She always believed the Lord had big plans for me, but I doubt even she dreamed I’d be the Chosen One to herald our Lord before the end.
Granted, it’s not like there were a lot of runners-up.
After Mom passed, I became the last of our order—a lonely ember cooling in the ash. The Grivvuxian Acolytes once comprised thousands, but believers dropped off every year the Lord did not return. You could hardly blame them. Some had witnessed the rise of new gods and queer religions, each promising the same things: peace, prosperity, the end of the world.
Me, I waited forty-three years for the one true God to return—to realize my purpose, or learn if I even had one. So I did what most people do while they wait for things to happen.
I got a job. I paid my bills. I did my time.
It was the planetary alignment that changed all that. Before then, the signs were already rolling in, but I was too blind or stubborn to see them. Toads croaked outside my window—GRIVV-ux … GRIVV-ux … The words He doth come appeared while making dinner, materializing out of noodles, eggs, or ground beef.
But the planets aligning was the promised sign—they told me when Lord Grivvux was coming, and where he would be. I didn’t even know it was happening until an overzealous intern cornered me in the breakroom with it, hoping to initiate some early networking through what was surely to him just an interesting fact.
“Pretty neat, huh? I’m Jimmy—Jim—James!” he stammered nervously before thrusting forth a rigid hand.
“I have to go!” I dropped my coffee and ran to check if what he told me was true, and sure enough, the end was nigh.
That was the last time I stepped foot in that office. An eighteen-year corporate climb abandoned for a higher purpose. For the greater good. And for all I know my coffee is still puddled on the breakroom floor and Jimmy-Jim-James is running the place.
Things didn’t turn out quite like I imagined, though.
“It is ready,” said the Lord God solemnly. “First, the mustard seeds, for they contain the Kingdoms of Heaven.”
Amongst the assorted ingredients, I found a small pouch. I poured the seeds into my palm and cast them into the fire. The flames took the seeds ungratefully, nipping at my hand.
“Next, Wolf’s Claw.”
I fumbled through bundles of herbs.
“It’s the green one … white hairs …”
I found the spindly plant and threw it in. A white light flashed, revealing shadowy figures standing all around us, and when the light dissolved, they too were gone.
“Who were they?” I asked.
“The Watchers. Do not fret. Their presence is a good omen. Now the pennyroyal. Purple.”
I had questions. I always had questions. I wasn’t supposed to have questions though, so I kept my mouth shut, and withdrew a long string of purple bulbs and threw it over the blaze. The fire turned a lavender shade and burned so hot that sweat ran down my forehead and cheeks.
“Now for the mandrake, the one that looks like a—”
“Yeah, I’m familiar with this guy.” I took the vaguely human-shaped root from the pile of spell components.
Lord Grivvux watched me, dumbfounded. “You know the mandrake?”
“Sort of. Just from Harry Potter.” The root roused to life in my hand, gently unfurling its limbs like I’d woken it from a long, restful sleep.
Lord Grivvux narrowed his eyes, considering. “Harry Potter … Is this some sorcerer that you know?”
“Ah, well, he’s a wizard actually, but he’s not really—”
Amazement washed over my God’s face, a confluence of excitement and frustration, and I felt deeply that I’d done something wrong. “Sam, I wish you had spoken sooner! We should absolutely consult with this wizard before performing the ritual! This could be the break we’ve been waiting for!”
“No, no, he’s like, a character,” I fumbled. “In a story. Books. Movies. He isn’t real …”
“Oh,” said the Lord God, blank-faced.
The mandrake twisted and writhed in my hand.
“Well …” said the King of Kings.
“Should we not—”
“Please, proceed,” he said with a passive gesture.
A crease opened along the mandrake’s head, wailing pitifully, “Noooo …”
“Yikes!” I startled. “Is it speaking?”
“Begging,” said Lord Grivvux simply, as if this were expected. A mere fact of the world. I thought he might still be bugged about Harry Potter.
“Why now?” I asked.
“Being eaten or burned or thrown away, it can handle. But to be sacrificed, to be turned over to the Darkness, that is another matter entirely.”
I went to toss it on the fire, but Lord Grivvux stopped me.
“No,” he said. “The mandrake is blameless, completely without sin. It must choose to enter the flames. Otherwise the Watchers may not accept our offering.”
A hundred questions rattled through my mind. Who were these Watchers? They couldn’t be gods in their own right, for there was only one God, and Grivvux—not Grux—was his name. So what did it mean that they could refuse him? Did freewill really extend that far? I couldn’t tell if that made my Lord more godly or less, but just then the fire’s warmth began to wane. We were running out of time.
“Does it need convincing?” I asked, preparing my best speech about the salvation of many and the greater good.
“Not from you.” Lord Grivvux took the mandrake and cradled it in his arms, whispering to it in some language I could not understand—some language soft and beautiful and profound.
Like a tamed infant, the mandrake grew calm. The Lord set it gently onto the hardwood floor, and with quiet dignity, the noble root stood up and marched steadfast into the fire. Fingers of violet flame wrapped around it, guiding it in until it was swallowed by light. My Lord God smiled, all worry wiped from his face. But behind the wisps of flame, shadows swung against smoke and stone. Somewhere in the fire, life crumbled woefully to ash.
Lord Grivvux leaned forward, closed his eyes, and blew out the fire like it was only a birthday candle. Maybe it was, I thought.
In the smoldering ash, small specks now glistened and shone.
“Draw forth a mustard seed,” my Lord commanded.
I found a tiny kernel, bright as a star, and pinched it between my fingers.
“Here! Here!” said my Lord anxiously. I dropped the seed in the center of his palm, and he blew on it delicately, causing it to roll about, growing like a snowball until the mustard seed filled his palm. “Yes … yes …” said the Lord God as thin green shoots twisted out, branching into alien tendrils. “Come to me …” Once they touched his cheek, they cast a brilliant light through his skin, until golden rays seeped from his every pore.
It’s working … I thought, amazed.
The image reminded me of when Mom would take me camping, how at the end of every ghost story, she’d put the flashlight in her mouth so her cheeks glowed amber, pink, and gold. Now it made me laugh with melancholy joy—the kind of joy that’s known loss yet also knows that no one is ever lost forever.
The light spread through my Lord’s body, until he positively glowed from scalp to toe, and where the tendril rest, the worn skin cracked like it was only a shell, revealing a golden cheek, golden eye, and golden brow hidden just beneath the surface.
It’s true, I thought. It’s all true. It’s all real … And no words can capture the unutterable joy of that moment. The joy of knowing I’d invested my heart well, that I’d been on the right path all along. The joy as full and ineffable as he was.
But my God blinked, or I did.
The tendril faltered, turned black, wilted to the floor. My king diminished, returned to his tired, frail form.
“What happened?” I asked.
Grivvux sighed. “Magic is a living thing, Sam … and it has too long been neglected in this world.”
He rose, defeated.
I was about to ask what was next, but he simply dropped the ceremonial bathrobe to the floor, revealing his scarred and red-cratered body, and walked silently to his room.
“We’ll find the answer, my king!” I shouted after him. “Whatever it takes!”
The only response was the sound of his door shutting me out.
When I’d first found God, hunched and frail in an abandoned church, I’d thought: That’s about right. Not what I expected at all. That’s what you want in a god. So I guess I was willing to overlook what he said when I approached:
“Please don’t. Just stay back. It’s all wrong. Just let me go …”
Growing up in a religious household, you think the hardest part of faith is wondering if you’re wrong. If in those moments of raw need and vulnerability you’re just talking to the wind. And if He isn’t real, what is? What virtues or beauty have any significance if not handed down from above? The most frightening thing you can imagine is not the seven hells or the final flood, it’s a world without value. Then you meet God face to face and know—really know—that we’re not alone. There’s someone out there. Someone listening. Someone giving purpose and meaning to all things.
You’d think it would be easier after that, but sometimes I missed the not knowing.
The morning after the ritual, I came home to find him on the back patio, talking to the birds. There were three of them: a blue jay, a robin, and a lowly pigeon, all perched side by side along the fence. They whistled and chirped, and Grivvux laughed and whistled back.
Soon more birds swooped in. A whole congregation. A murder—or is that only with crows? They lined the fence like springtime decorations. Their songs were no longer sweet melodies, but busy and discordant, too many voices speaking and disagreeing at once.
Then the lowly pigeon that was there all along stepped forward. It purred at Grivvux, who sighed and whistled back. I couldn’t begin to guess what they were discussing, but at the end of it, the pigeon flew to his hand, nuzzling affectionately at his thumb and cooing a strange, sad sound. “Thank you, old friend,” said Grivvux as he turned and brought the pigeon inside.
He nodded casually in my direction as he entered, and before I could ask how he was feeling, he tossed the pigeon down his throat like it was just a couple of aspirin. I sat there, mouth gaping, wide-eyed and dumb, while Grivvux leaned with one arm against the kitchen counter, gradually composing himself.
“They remember …” he said at last, and turned to face me. “I think I feel better.”
“Maybe that’s the answer …” I said. “Birds!”
Grivvux cringed and waved me off. “Sam, do you have any idea how many birds it would take to put me in just fair health?”
“It doesn’t matter!” I protested. “Whatever it takes! It’s for the greater good!”
“I appreciate your fervor. Did you get the pills?”
It was difficult taking a deity to the doctor. He didn’t have a social security number, insurance, or credit cards. And he didn’t get sick like people. He didn’t get cancer or the flu. He got Despair and Disbelief, Exile and Oblivion. The silver lining is that those conditions have a lot of the same symptoms as the stuff people get, which is why I’d started bribing a pharmacist at the drugstore down the street.
“She wasn’t working today,” I said.
He nodded vaguely before gripping his stomach. “Maybe you should get her number,” he said, bracing against the kitchen counter as a sudden wave of Dread doubled him over.
Generally speaking, bribes fall under the wide umbrella of sin. Granted, a lot of things do, but that doesn’t warrant a hand wave, no matter who you are. Unless you’re God, I guess, and you’re really that desperate, and something really has to be done.
I mean, if the Lord gives his blessing, how can it be a sin?
I still don’t know.
Early in his convalescence, Grivvux went into an all-night trance to find someone that could help us. I was never too keen on that idea. Wasn’t I supposed to be the one to help? Wasn’t that why I’d kept my whole life on hold, and then abandoned all I’d worked for once he finally showed? But when God says Go for help, you do not say, My Lord, I’m right here!
Her name was Arielle. She was working two jobs to afford the medical bills brought on by her husband’s sudden diagnosis of stage-4 leukemia. I knew this before she told me, of course. Grivvux had searched for someone in need, someone desperate enough to help other desperate people. I suppose we were lucky that she happened to be a pharmacist.
Over the months, a sort of quiet camaraderie had developed between us. We were both trapped in our situations, unsure how to move forward, doing whatever we could to keep afloat. Sometimes I wondered if she dreamed what I dreamed—just running away, escaping the chains of duty, the chains of being chosen.
“How’s he doing today?” she asked the morning after he ate a bird.
“Getting better some,” I said, wondering if we’d have to find an ornithologist struggling to make ends meet. “It’s hard to say, though …”
“Ah, I’m sorry, hon. I know how it is.” She rubbed at her ring like a nervous tic.
“How are you holding up?” I asked.
“Ah …” she said wistfully, lost in thought. “When I left this morning he was feeling better. Watching TV on the couch, splayed out in his boxers and ratty t-shirt. Barbarian. It felt oddly normal, though. So I guess I’m good.”
“Thank God for good days.”
She laughed, dryly. “Not sure I’d thank God if I met him, but to each their own.”
The hidden truth of this struck like a spear in my side. Made me wonder if there wasn’t something we could do to help, if the Lord could heal her husband, or restore their finances with his weight in gold. But without their plight, Arielle would have no need to help us, and then where would the world be?
Suddenly uncomfortable, I cleared my throat and offered the typical folded papers. Arielle looked at them and frowned. She glanced over her shoulder once, then withdrew a bag from under the counter and passed it to me. I thanked her and turned to leave when I remembered my Lord’s firm command.
Maybe you should get her number.
“Listen,” I said, turning back. “I was thinking maybe it would be a good idea to exchange phone numbers.”
Her brow raised skeptically.
“I just mean—no, I was, uh, thinking, that is, given what we’re each going through, I don’t know. If you ever want to talk with someone that understands …”
I arrived home still rubbing the waxy receipt paper between my fingers, unsure how I felt about it—how I should feel about it. I was nervous and excited and enticed and I was ashamed for feeling nervous and excited and enticed.
I periodically opened the folded note to gaze at the numbers.
Grivvux was in the backyard again, this time gardening in a blue-and-white Hawaiian shirt and brown pants, both covered in smears of dark soil. On his head was a beach hat with a sunflower design. He’d been tending Mom’s garden, which had turned pitiful and weed-grown from neglect ever since her death.
He startled to find me watching him. “Sam! I’m glad you’re here,” he said, composing himself. “I have a new spell for us to try.” He turned back to his work and thrust a spade into the soil, withdrawing a dark pile of earth. “I’m feeling very optimistic,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice.
“I got her number,” I said, feeling a strange tug at my cheeks.
Grivvux stopped digging.
“For your pills,” I clarified.
“Yes … But not just.”
My cheeks warmed. “She’s married,” I said, a little too quickly.
He poked at the soil ponderously before looking over his shoulder. “There are hard times ahead, Sam. Much will be demanded in order to bring about this world’s salvation.” He returned to the dirt, delicately placing a pink amaryllis. “Do not spurn what joy has offered. You both should take what solace you can while it’s available.”
“I don’t know, my Lor—Grux. Her husband is dying …”
“I know.” Grux brushed the flower’s petals, and then turned to face me. “Sam, this world is naught but shadows and wind. A passing thing, an illusion. All that matters—really matters—are the lives caught in it, the lives I intend to save. The only groom is I, and the world is my bride. Call her.”
He glanced past me. “Oh hello there, Penny!” He walked over to talk to the neighbor on the other side of the fence. “I’m feeling much better today, thank you. I see your petunias are coming in beautifully. Did you use the coffee grounds like I suggested?”
I met with Arielle the following Wednesday. Not exactly date night, which was fine because it wasn’t exactly a date. It was just coffee with a friend. Not even a friend really, an acquaintance—an accomplice. But an hour before meeting, she texted to see if we could get drinks at a local bar instead. And she pushed us from a casual four o’clock to half past eight.
The Mariana was all in a nautical theme, with crossed oars and thick, knotted ropes hanging from the walls. Appropriate, I thought, for the end of the world, the flood that would wash away our cities, our cultures, our sins.
Above the entryway hung a rowboat, old and well-used, with chipped paint and warped wood, darkened so that it almost looked wet with sea spray. It was hard not to stare at it, to imagine it undulating gently over the Pacific, with no one to answer to and nothing to be ashamed of, just rowing, rowing, forever …
I turned absently when her hand brushed my arm and I jumped in surprise, almost spilling the iced water I’d ordered to occupy my hands.
“Oh hey, Arielle!” I blurted uncomfortably, feeling that vast ocean evaporate around me.
She just laughed.
“So, this is going out …” she said with a wry smile, glancing about the bar.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “I guess this is something people do now. We’ll see if it takes off.”
We ordered drinks and clinked our glasses a bit too hard, the sound reverberating like something delicate warning it might break, but we just laughed and sipped.
The conversation was stilted at first, struggling to navigate the standard get-to-know-you’s when we already knew so much about each other, but only our sad and intimates. Fortunately, Arielle was intent on avoiding these subjects, dismissing her own with a flippant, “We can skip that, we both know everything’s fucked.” She punctuated it with a boisterous, if nihilistic, laugh.
Instead, we focused on the relief of going out again, and looking back wistfully to the warmth of summers past. Under the counter, our knees brushed occasionally, stirring awkward laughter and fumbled apologies.
Arielle told me how she missed kayaking, missed floating down the American River on hot days with a cooler full of PBR. She missed the sun hanging like a jewel over the water, and the river-smell on her skin when she headed back home.
“I’d be tipsy as hell by the time we reached shore,” she said, “so my husband would have to drive home while I napped in the back seat.”
She began to laugh but stopped abruptly, seeming on the verge of tears before quietly composing herself, while the mere mention of her husband drew my chest tight, set my heart thundering against my ribs.
Arielle gave me a quizzical look, then appeared to recognize my discomfort. “Don’t worry,” she said casually, “he knows I’m here. We tell each other everything. Our marriage is like a church, we’re open to everybody.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to conceal my surprise. “Oh,” I said again. The faith was pretty old-school in how it defined marriage—and even more so in how it defined infidelity—but then in the 90’s there were attempts to modernize, in the vain hope of drawing new believers. Would open marriages not fold into that? Wasn’t love love, after all? I wondered if Grux knew, if that’s why he said the only groom was him. Did that make this a real date? Did that make this okay? Who determines these things?
“What about you?” she asked.
“Yeah, have you always been taking care of your dad or was there some blessed before time you look back to when you wake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep?” She laughed once in playful self-acknowledgment.
I opened my mouth to speak and realized that I had nothing to say. My childhood wasn’t full of adventure or play, it was full of prophecy and tales of annihilation. Each day had opened and closed with prayer, and each prayer opened and closed with the pact:
The world forgets You, but we are not the world.
We hold no grand ambitions, no fanciful dreams of conceit.
We live but to die, born to usher in the end.
I was raised to shun the world; I didn’t get to float downstream, and even after Mom passed, it never occurred to me that I could.
“Oh, I’ve always taken care of him,” I said, taking a long sip, swallowing it down.
Arielle nodded. “See, I knew you were one of the good ones,” she said with a wink, and finished her own beverage.
I blushed, and she teased me for blushing, and I blushed even more, and she laughed all the harder.
We ordered another round, and the night grew late in an instant. We were so engrossed in laughter and conversation that the owners had to come out and ask us to leave. Their employees had already cleared the tables and mopped around us. We snapped from our daze, apologized, tipped generously, apologized again, and headed out. “Sorry!” Arielle shouted back once they locked the doors behind us, and then we stumbled off together.
The night was crisp and cool and occasionally Arielle would lean against me as we walked off our buzz along the quiet midtown streets.
“… Where’d you park?” I asked lamely.
“Oh, I had an Uber drop me off,” she said, pulling out her phone and opening the app.
“Please,” she said, “everyone just calls me Ellie.”
Ellie … I thought. Of course! Arielle didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but Ellie was laid back. Ellie was carefree. Ellie was inviting and warm.
“I could drive you home, if you like …”
The smile she gave me could melt the icecaps entire, and flood the earth in a rush of warm spray.
We lingered awhile in the driveway, heads down, eyes fixed on our own laps. Ellie’s right hand turned the ring on her left, the diamond going over and under. Like a karmic wheel, I thought, turning endlessly, going nowhere. I wondered if it was a sign of second thoughts, or a prelude to something else.
“Thank you for this,” she said, smiling. “I had a really good time tonight. It feels like it’s been so long since I’ve gotten to do … anything.”
Her smile cracked, then shattered, her face scrunching up, tears streaming. “I’m sorry!” She wiped desperately at her eyes, trying to dam the flood. “This has nothing to do with you,” she said with a reassuring hand.
I felt tremendous guilt then. Would she even be in this situation if Grivvux hadn’t come down? Would it be such a sin to wish he’d stayed up in his ethereal realm? Just let the world keep spinning with its small joys and heavy sins? I knew already the answer, of course, even if I tried to not know it.
“I know …” I said, wiping my own cheek.
Her hand reached for mine, and I could feel the wet spots of tears on her skin. Our eyes met, vulnerable and aching. It felt like a call. I shifted closer, but she dropped her head and looked away.
Silence filled the car as our walls resurfaced. I withdrew back to my seat.
“Ughhh …” she groaned, then laughed and wiped the last tears from her eyes. “What are we doing?” she asked, more to herself than to me it seemed.
“Just what we’ve been doing,” I said, more thinking aloud than answering her. “Trying to stay afloat.”
When she kissed me, it was as unexpected as the rapture. Her lips tasted like honey and milk and the dreams you thought could never come true. She pressed against me, her fingers sliding through my hair, pulling me closer until it hurt, blissfully.
I came home, body tingling, lips raw and electric. The house was dark and I didn’t even mind. “Hello!” I called, but there was no answer. “Grux?” The house remained quiet. A thought pierced me: What if I killed him with my sins? I checked in the kitchen, the patio, turning on lights everywhere as I went, but illuminating nothing.
Had the Lord God died in my care? Had I failed him, failed every living soul on the planet? Were we doomed because of me? Because I wasn’t prepared enough for his return? Because I wasn’t holy enough to make him whole?
Grux said it was okay, didn’t he? Was he wrong about that? Can he be wrong? Is that even possible?
I went down the hall to the master bedroom that once belonged to my mother, and then to me, and now belonged to the Lord Supreme. The door was shut. He probably just went to bed early, I told myself. But then I heard his voice, faint but animated, on the other side. I pressed my ear to the door, straining to make out what was said: vague promises, pleas, weeping. He’s praying, I realized. Listening closer, I caught the words, “Lord Grivvux of the Permafire.”
He’s praying to himself …
Embarrassed, I stepped away, but just then a loud bell chimed from my pocket and the voice beyond went quiet. I shook with shame and cleared my throat. “My lord, I’m, uh, home. Grux, I mean … Hi …”
“Hello, Sam,” the voice carried through the door. “I’d like to be alone tonight.”
“Sure, I, um, things happened with Ellie.”
I gulped and retreated to my room. On my phone was an urgent bank notification about a suspicious purchase. I ran the numbers in my head—several rounds of drinks at a high end bar, tips.
I went to check the account, worrying over how much I’d spent. Sure, gold was something we could scrounge up, but it required Grux to do back-breaking labor and spirit-heavy spells, which was hard to justify so I could go on a date.
The flagged purchase was a mail order from Etsy. Rush delivery. A sacrificial blade crafted by “authentic virginized monks”—whatever those were. The blade itself was long and curved, with elaborate designs etched along the sides. It looked beautiful, but cruel.
I remembered that Grux had mentioned a new ritual, and ignored the warning.
As foreseen in the Grivvuxian prophecies of old, the weather on the last days of Earth was lovely. Maybe the prophets didn’t phrase it quite like that—more like, “there will be no hint of cloud, let alone the harbingers of great rains that will wash away the cultures of man.” But however you translate the old texts, those last days were indeed blessed.
Not that everyone could appreciate them.
A week after Ellie and I first went out, Grux still hadn’t brought up the new spell or the sacrificial blade. He remained distant after Ellie and I started seeing each other, and as often as she came over, Grux still wouldn’t let me introduce her.
“We’ll meet,” he told me. “Just not like that.”
“You’re no fun,” I teased, and he said nothing in response for a long while, just watched me sprucing up the house, spraying air-freshener, hiding arcane instruments and ornaments that we’d experimented with to no avail.
“Be sure you don’t grow too attached, Sam,” he said warily. “We’re here to save the world, not fall in love.”
“I’m not in love,” I said a bit too quickly. He looked at me, unconvinced. “I’m just doing what you told me,” I said. “Like I always have. I’m taking joy while it’s available. Isn’t that what you said? This whole thing was your idea … my Lord God.”
“Yes, Sam. Of course. But remember that the key phrase there was while it’s available. Sacrifices will have to be made, Sam. Some things can only be paid for in blood.”
Immediately, the sacrificial blade from Etsy came to mind.
“I won’t let any harm come to her,” I said firmly. Ellie had paid enough. I wouldn’t let her be dragged through more. This wasn’t her faith, wasn’t her fight, wasn’t her price to pay.
Grux just looked confused, then nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I understand. We’ll discuss the end of the world at another time. Have fun on your date.”
That night, when I brought Arielle home, we found roots of gold set on the kitchen counter like fresh pulled carrots. A folded note sat beside them with the address and rates of a nearby motel.
“What are those?” she asked, confused.
“Nothing,” I said, quickly wrapping them in paper towels. “Dad likes to garden is all. He finds all sorts of weird things at the farmer’s market!” I opened the fridge and tossed them in the crisper. They clanked metallically as vegetables seldom do.
Ellie didn’t take well to the motel meetups. She didn’t understand why we couldn’t go back to my place anymore, or how I could afford a room every few nights.
“I just think it would be easier if we stayed at your place …” she said.
“I know. But Dad doesn’t like people coming over. It’s much better this way.”
“Maybe if you introduced us, he’d be okay with me.” A mischievous grin took her face. “Or you could sneak me into your room like we’re two stupid kids in high school.”
“No,” I told her. “I can’t.”
That gleeful expression dissolved into the familiar, everyday gloom. “Shouldn’t you be with him, though?” she said, pulling away. It wasn’t a question, and I knew we weren’t talking about the Lord Supreme. It was him. Her him. “Doesn’t he need you close by?”
Her eyes turned from me, scanning the room as if seeing it for the first time in all its drab lifelessness. There was no love or life in this room. Everything was sterile, but only superficially. Her eyes bloomed with wonder and disgust, and refused to meet mine.
“He’s fine,” I said, drawing her back. “If there’s trouble, he’ll call. Trust me.” She was unconvinced, feeling further from me now than ever. If only I could tell her that the author of the universe had given his blessing. Or that the motel was his idea.
“There are hard times ahead,” I found myself saying. “Don’t spurn what joy has offered. We should take what joy we can while it’s available.”
Her eyes looked into mine, weighing the words uncertainly. “This isn’t joy,” she said, tossing her purse onto the pleather chair. “This is staying afloat.” She sat on the foot of the bed, and began taking off her heels. “Well?” This while gesturing at my pants with a dismissive hand.
It all works out just fine. That’s how the world ends, I told myself this as things fell apart, but there was no conviction in that old faith.
Ellie called me in tears while I waited at the motel. Said something had happened, she was on her way to the hospital. “It’s over,” she said. “I have to go. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too,” I said, but she was already gone.
The house was dark when I came home. Of course it’s dark, I thought. Why would there be any light in the house of the lord? I threw my jacket toward the ottoman, heard the buttons scrape the floor, and left it. “Grux?” I called, but there was no answer. Something turned in my stomach—a bad feeling. I wondered if Despair had finally caught up with him, if the pills had only put off the inevitable a few weeks. “My lord?”
I switched on the front lights, but the room stayed dark. In the kitchen, it was the same. The power must have gone out. But then I saw the streetlight over the back fence, its amber rays seeping into the kitchen.
And I saw them.
Dark figures stood outside, shadows looking in. The Watchers. Almost as soon as I spotted them, the streetlight flickered and died, the shadows melting into night. Their presence is a good omen, I remembered and tried not to be afraid.
Blindly, I made my way down the hall to the master bedroom. The door hung halfway open. “Grux?” I called in, leaning to peer inside. Enough moonlight came in from the open window that I could faintly make out the shape of the bed. Feathers blew across the floor in a haunting dance.
I was too afraid to go in. Too afraid of what I might find.
“My lord, answer me,” I demanded, but there was no reply. “Grux! Grivvux! My Lord God, please say something, say anything!”
Only the mindless bluster of wind.
The door creaked as I opened it further and urged myself inside, but before I’d reached the bed, someone struck me from behind and the floor came swinging up to meet me, my head thudding painfully against the hardwood.
“I’m sorry, Sam,” said his voice as he climbed over me, pinning me down. “This is the only way to save you!”
“What’s happening?” I cried, flailing frantically until I managed to turn over. The eyes were all I could make out in the dark, so wide they seemed lidless. He began chanting in the ancient tongue, and the sacrificial blade winked in the moonlight as it rose over my chest. He drove it down, but I caught his wrist and held him off.
“We’re out of time, Sam! This has to happen!”
“But I served you,” I said, trying not to weep.
“Then serve me, Sam! This is for the greater good!”
The greater good … I remembered the mandrake’s sacrifice, how Grux couldn’t just throw it in the fire. There were rules even he must obey. “You can’t do this!” I screamed, feeling my heart pounding in my ears as the knife inched closer. “I don’t agree to this! Watchers! I’m not a willing sacrifice!”
“Sam …” he said, pressing down with all his strength, “You’re not blameless.” The knife jolted closer, its tip pressing into my shirt. “It’s not your fault—it was never supposed to be you,” he added, as if trying to comfort me before my murder. “There was no one else … No one left.”
Suddenly, I understood. I was only the Chosen One because I was the last. I wasn’t special. Wasn’t holy. Wasn’t anything more than here.
I realized then that I hated him. I hated him for his power, and I hated him for his weakness. I hated him for what he gave and what he demanded. I should have known. Our own scripture tells us: His right hand gives and his left hand takes, but his right hand also takes.
With a sudden surge of determination, I pushed the knife from my chest and threw him off me. We struggled and writhed there on the floor, our bodies thumping against the hardwood.
“Sam!” he gasped. “Please! Think on what you do! Don’t you want to save this world?”
He was stronger than I’d expected. I could barely hold him off.
The feathers …
Grux was stronger than me now, and he had the knife. He had everything he needed to save the world without me. Yet as we fought, he never swung or stabbed at me, but rather kept the blade tucked flat against his forearm, as if he was afraid of hurting me with it. I realized then that it was important to him that he kill me, but not hurt me.
That was his mistake.
I struck him as hard as I could across the cheek and then wrested the blade from his fumbling hand. Stunned, he reached after it wildly, cutting both hands before recoiling in fear. “Think of her!” he pleaded as I guided the blade over him. “You two were never meant to be forever, Sam! This will be!”
“I’m not doing this for her,” I said through gritted teeth. “This is for me.”
Grux gasped when the knife plunged through him. His lips trembled, searching for the words to undo this. “Oh, Sam,” he said—not spitefully, but dripping with pity. “My poor lost child. There’s no saving you now. There’s no saving any of you …”
Some last words.
It’s been three weeks since I killed the one true god. Ellie’s husband passed on the same day. I don’t know if that’s fate or coincidence, bad luck or nothing. Probably nothing, but then isn’t everything?
We spoke once more in the days that followed. She’s moving out of town, though she didn’t say where she’s going and I didn’t ask. With the apocalypse on the horizon, I didn’t think it mattered much.
“I hope you stay afloat,” I told her.
She sniffled and cleared her throat. “I always do.”
“No, I mean keep your raft handy.”
She laughed and said goodbye.
I buried the Lord Most High in the backyard. He always liked to garden there. But now great thorny roses, bigger and brighter than any I’ve ever seen, have sprouted through the soft earth and spread through the yard. I don’t know how they got there—if they were planted beforehand, or if they’re the strange result of bird-magic leaving his body.
At first I ignored them, let them flourish like weeds before they finally tapped dry, their ruby petals wilting through the California drought. I had bigger concerns, after all. The crushing responsibility of the world’s doom. The unknowable mystery that clung to my every thought: Did I betray God, or did God betray me?
It’s not like I could pray about it.
I watched the world’s end from my rooftop, the sun setting over an old world full of quiet joys, hidden griefs, petty and monstrous sins.
But the hour marked upon the cosmic calendar came and went unremarked. No rolling tide of judgment. No righteous annihilation. Maybe without God it couldn’t happen. Or maybe the end is still coming and we just got the math wrong.
‘Maybe’ like the wet mortar around every brick of faith, waiting to harden into cold certainty. It is not ours to know, say the holy texts, but to wait and see what God and fate have conspired.
Wait and see, like a challenge.
Wait and see, like a threat.
I’ve started watering the roses at night, when it’s cooler out. It’s helped to break the habit of my evening prayers, the habit of kneeling and reaching out, only to receive the spiritual equivalent of a disconnect tone. And with Grux gone, a thought has been slowly boring into me:
There’s no one to help us but us.
No sorrow or joy but us. No righteousness or sin but us.
The flowers have bounced back pretty quickly, their petals blood-bright, their leaves lush as Eden. My neighbor Penny loves them, and demanded to know my secret. I really didn’t know what to tell her—I hadn’t done anything special, hadn’t applied arcane tricks or esoteric skills or a once in a generation green thumb.
“Care,” I told her.
“That’s usually what it comes down to,” she said, and asked if I wouldn’t mind helping her plant some in her own garden.
I’ve been going over every few days, first to plant the roses, then to help with other small tasks around the house. In turn, she’s been showing me how to prune the flowers so they don’t grow over each other, how to direct them so that they stay healthy and strong, how to water them at the right times to help with the drought.
“How’s your father?” she asked the other day.
“Oh,” I said awkwardly, “he actually passed a little while ago …”
“I’m sorry to hear that, dear,” she said. “He was a sweet man, I’m sure you miss him terribly. He’s still with you though. I can feel him in you.”
“Okay,” I said, eager to drop it, hoping she was wrong, though a part of me hoped in spite of myself that she was right.
With her guidance, I’ve mulched and fertilized the soil around the rosebushes, even moved a few to keep them from crowding each other (or growing in the silhouette of a buried body). But the roses grow with a mind all their own, creeping with thorny vines across the yard to latch and climb the walls of the house. And each morning, their blushing, crimson faces turn not towards the rising sun but to my bedroom window, as if watching still for the coming of the lord.