When Yeshua was five, he was going to go see the fireworks on Granite point. His older brother Enoch had packed them a lunch and a blanket when their Father put his foot down and said no. he could remember little of the argument that ensued, only his Father’s face, shining certain and smug as he quoted passages from various books reasons why his sons could not see the fireworks display set off by the highschool. At that age the words had flown over his head, but one image stayed with him: that of his older brother decking his Father, blood pattering onto the eggshell carpet and his Father’s old lacrosse jersey.
His brother had promptly left the house never to return, and eventually they had thrown out the jersey. Yeshua knew better than to ask where his brother had gone, because at five he already had an index of thing his Father did not approve of, and questions were right at the tippy top. His mother would look forlorn out the window sometimes; cradling the potholder he’d sewn her in kindergarten, until Father threw that out too. Mama did not have much time to mourn her eldest as they were soon blessed with another.
When Yeshua was eleven, the world was going to end.
He didn’t find it out all at once; it was little signs, little details here and there. Father had the carriage house torn down and paid several contractors cash to build another building underground. Yeshua could no longer attend school; neither could four-and-a-half Nebuchadnezzar. Father simply stood at the door and told them that there was no longer a school, and that they would do their learning at home. Neb squalled, having fallen deep in love with his teacher a month before. Yeshua accepted this decision, though he knew the truth. Father had never been comfortable with strangers, now that he had gathered a flock about him he set about isolating his family. Mama could no longer go to the store; her errands were done for her. That left her time, Father said, to catch up on her scripture. Mama spent more time staring out the window.
Yeshua began to get in trouble for things he had no hand in. If Neb threw a fit and pounded the floor with his fists, it was Yeshua who was setting a bad example for his brother. If the little boy fidgeted during sermon and kicked the chair in front of him, it was the older boy who got pinched on the back of the neck for bending to temptation. Yeshua spent more and more time in the yard, making forts in the mounds of dirt left by the workers after they had quit early. They had walked out without pay, calling Father a nutcase and threatening with legal action. Father assured their family over dinner that he was in the right, was always in the right, and that the lord would provide. The lord provided in the form of followers, who brought donations for the family and cheap labor. They raised a bunker while Yeshua sat inside, watching TV.
The cartoons were pushed aside and eventually stopped completely, to make room for news stories about places, cities, people Yeshua had never even heard of, of panic and fear and violence that only increased with the passage of time. Father found him watching the news one day, as Singapore drowned in a red tide that reached higher than any skyscraper, and called it an earthly distraction. He turned the TV off and threw the remote outside. The next day, Yeshua was back with the still barely working remote, and his Father unplugged the set and took the cord. Yeshua stole the cord from one of the power tools and used that, until finally his Father sat him down, and held his hands as he told his son of the false prophets, that his Father was the only voice he should listen to, and that those other places had never really existed. They were, he said, merely illusions to tempt the chosen out into the world, and the heathens dwelling within were better off dead. He took the Magnavox and threw it into the duck pond, so Yeshua stayed up in the loft and listened to the radio while he watched the flock work, building stairways and installing sinks according to Father’s divine plan.
Mama tried her best to be supportive of Father. Every night she took something from the deepfreeze and made the best meal she could for the flock. She handed out prayer books, typewritten from Father’s shaky writing, and founded a ladies’ group. Father found her primping for the gathering one day and laughed gently, taking her mirror compact and lipstick and holding them up at arm’s length. He talked of vanity to his flock, of the worthlessness of appearance, while Mama hid her reddening face in his hands.
Mama eventually withdrew from the flock and concentrated on Neb, who squirmed away more the harder she tried to hold him. Neb had taken to following Yeshua around, so Yeshua took precaution to disappear carefully, leaving his brother no notion of where he’d gone.
Sometimes Yeshua would slip off into the woods, sometimes to town. He mailed a letter to his brother, but no reply was forthcoming. He walked around the small town’s streets, watched more and more front windows being boarded, until the town was still and silent as a stone.
The flock began to chafe at his Father’s yoke. They met him at the door one day, and Father sent the boys up to their rooms. Yeshua did not hear what words they exchanged, but no work was done on their half-finished bunker, that day or the days after that. His Father spent his days on the phone, alternately shaming and cajoling his flock on their lack of fortitude.
Ben Toles, the greengrocer, came to the door one evening. Father forgot to send them upstairs, so Yeshua crouched beside the couch, silent as he could. Mama watched the two men, her face drawn and white behind the book she was reading to Neb. Neb squirmed uncomfortably, gnawing on the tie Father made them wear every day.
“Paul,” Mr. Toles said, “you know what I come for.”
Father made as if to push him out the door, but while Mr. Toles was pushing seventy, his work had made him strong and tougher to shift than a tree stump.
“It ain’t right, what you’re doing,” he said to Father in a hoarse whisper, “Amy and the kids, they don’t deserve this. What do you think, you’re just going to hide and wait it out? And then what?”
Father fixed him with a glare from behind the steel frames of his glasses. “I have no truck with the weak-of-faith, sir. You had the choice, you all had the choice,” he called out the doorway past Mr. Toles, as if the whole of his congregation had followed the grocer.
Mr. Toles shook his head. “It ain’t about that anymore, Paul. My sister in Tallahassee said they’ve been coming up all over the east coast, wiping out everything they could get a hold of. The folks that stayed were wiped out too, and they were military. Paul, what makes you think you’re going to stand up to it?”
Father’s voice rang clear and loud as he said, “Because I have never let my faith be shaken by the hand of man. You hear the stricken fall into the pit and you desert out of fear.” He laughed theatrically. “My family will survive, you’ll see. The lord has seen our purity and strength of cause, he shall see us through.”
The old man’s gaze was weary and sad. “Paul …what makes you think those things have anything to do with God? “
Father’s face pinched and he gathered himself for another shove, but Mr. Toles held up his hand.
“All right, all right,” he said, “I’ll go. But Nora’s ordered me to tell you there’s a hot meal waiting for your kids if you or Amy should change your minds.”
Father slammed the door in his face.
Things got harder after that. Father was trying to build the shelter by himself, and Yeshua was expected to help. Mama tried to look after Neb, but he had decided that at four and a half that he was too old for his mother and took to darting away at the first sign of weakness in her grip. Mama developed migraines and needed to lay down frequently during the day, which meant that responsibility for entertaining his baby brother once again fell on Yeshua. While his Father huffed and sweated a single sheet of corrugated steel into place, Yeshua made a mud puddle for Neb’s Tonka trucks.
One night, after a long day of backbreaking work, Yeshua lay awake and listened to his brother snore. His mother was having a sobbing fit with his Father downstairs, snatches of their conversation floated up to his ears.
“…so hard, why do we have to…”
“…just tired, Amy, you’re not thinking clearly…”
“…please, just this once, just to help…”
“…don’t need pity and neither do they…”
“….still your son, dammit…”
“…just cavorting with other men, without a thought for his family….”
Mama came upstairs for a while, crying. Anyone who tried to argue with Father usually ended up crying or walked away. Yeshua rolled over and thought of his older brother and made plans.
There came a day when Yeshua went to the radio and found only noise, chaos fading into the hiss of static. He rolled the tuner from one end to another so hard it made a dent in his finger, and heard them all disappear. Even the local station, two towns away, had sunk into noisy oblivion. Very calmly, he shut off the radio, went to his room, and took off his suit. He pulled an old t-shirt on and snuck to the kitchen to make sandwiches. Mama lay drooling on the couch, a small bottle of pills on the floor beside her. Yeshua felt her cheek and covered her with a blanket. He found an old toolbox and dumped everything out in a clatter of metal, putting his precious cargo of sandwiches and a single pop bottle nestled in an old tablecloth.
The next part would take finesse.
He found Neb outside, making rough car noises with his mouth, while his Father shouted and sweated in the distance. His little brother popped up, curious.
“Whatcha doin’” he said, face grimy with days of dirt.
“We’re taking a trip. Here,” he said, handing the lunch to his brother. While Neb scrabbled at the lock, Yeshua snatched up two camping chairs and motioned for his brother to follow. It was a long walk into town, and Neb was fidgety after days without a nap. Yeshua feared he would give away their position, so he told Neb that what they were doing was something special, a big-boy expedition that little whiny babies weren’t invited along to. That clammed him up. Neb spent the rest of the journey with his mouth shut, eyes dancing with his first real secret.
The high school was deserted, the cyclone fence hanging limp in many place. Yeshua held a section up just enough so that Neb could crawl through, and then squirmed in after him, chain-link leaving pink scratches down his back. Neb crinkled his nose at the empty buildings, hugging the toolbox to his chest.
“What’re we doin’ here Yes?”
“Wait a bit. You’ll see.”
Yeshua got his bearing and headed off to the science building. Enoch had told him the route to the top long ago, when he thought Yeshua would end up in the same high school. It was a long climb; he had to haul a disagreeable Neb as well as their picnic things. Finally he threw back a trapdoor and there they were, at the top of the world. The school looked down over most of the town, Enoch and his friends had come up here to fire projectiles with a homemade catapult. He wondered if Enoch was thinking of him, wherever he was, whoever he was with.
Neb was delighted at this new wonderland, scampering from edge to edge as Yeshua spread the blanket and laid out the picnic. The radio he had brought with them hissed static as the boys ate their lunch. Yeshua took the last swallow of pop and set up the camp chairs, checking his watch. Neb lay on the blanket and kicked his legs, singing an off-key and hastily improvised song about clouds.
The radio gave a deafening squeal of feedback and the boys jumped. Neb scooted over to his older brother.
“What was that?”
“They’re coming.” Yeshua whispered back. He couldn’t say why he felt the need to whisper; it just felt important to stay as quiet as possible.
It didn’t take long for it to it to reach them. Fifteen minutes—an hour, too fast for anything human.
Yeshua watched them come into town, the things that could only be traced by the swath of destruction they brought. The old automat went up, and the drugstore flattened as if blown out.
“Who?” Neb hopped impatiently, and Yeshua lifted him up to sit on his shoulder.
They were in the thick of the town now. The auto plant went up like a yellow-orange chrysanthemum, tires blazing red against the asphalt. Then the grocer’s exploded in a shower of glass, followed by the hair salon and the post office.
Neb’s mouth dropped into an ‘o’ of surprise. “Wow.”
Street after street the buildings flew apart, raining bricks and timber. Display windows shattered, catching the light of the fires and throwing it back to the boys in a thousand diamond points. Neb’s school went next, jungle gym flattening as trees flew apart into clouds of splinters. The next street over, the fire department had been cut jaggedly in two, the immense weight of something unseen bowling right through it. All that was left of Yeshua’s old school was the utility shed where the janitor kept the riding mower. The old church they had attended before Neb was born lasted a full second under the onslaught before becoming powder.
Neb had grown quiet, snuggling back into the solid form of his older brother.
“Yes,” he whispered, “they’re comin’ this way. What’s gonna happen to us?”
Yeshua watched the trees splinter in half around their property, turning Neb so he wouldn’t witness the destruction of their home.
“Fireworks, Neb,” he breathed, “We’ll become fireworks.”