* * *

Johnny and the Antichrist
by afrai

* * *


The coach broke down in the middle of the journey. When the driver and the History teacher started hitting each other with rolled-up maps, Johnny decided it was likely that it was going to take more time than they'd thought to get to the museum.

He, Wobbler, Yo-less and Bigmac spilled out of the coach into the open air gratefully. The inside of the coach had smelled of cigarette smoke and the ghosts of crisps long gone, and the seats had been sticky with unknowable substances. Outside the sun was shining and the sky was blue and everything was very green, everywhere they looked.

"It looks like a postcard," said Bigmac.

"Maybe we should go back into the coach," said Wobbler nervously. Wobbler had nothing against nature, as long as there were at least twenty miles between him and it. A little environment was all right in the right time and place, he said, but there was no point spreading gobs of it around everywhere. "We ought to be careful, new place like this. I bet there's all strange chemicals in the air. Look, the sky's blue."

"Of course the sky's blue," said Yo-less. "What'd you expect it to be, red? The sky's always blue."

"It's not in Blackbury," said Johnny. "It's just sort of whitey-grey."

"Yeah, but that's 'cos we're advanced," said Yo-less. "You don't get that sort of sky in just any undeveloped area, like here."

"What is this place, anyway?" said Bigmac. "It doesn't look like it's on the way to the museum."

"It isn't," said Yo-less. "That's why Miss is yelling. She says there's no way we could've gone through here unless the driver was intoxicated, and then the driver said she'd know, wouldn't she, and then she said--"

"Yeah, we heard," said Wobbler. "Huh, she's mental, that one. Remember when she burst out crying when Bigmac asked her not to crumple the Everlasting Note, he'd need to use it again?"

"I did, too," said Bigmac, who had used the Everlasting Note to excuse himself for every class he hadn't felt like having for the last seven years. No teacher wanted to argue with a boy with Bigmac's braces. "The very next day it was. I dunno what come over her. Did you catch any names when she was shouting just then?"

"Well, yes, but I seriously doubt we're where she was shouting," said Yo-less. "I'm pretty sure there'd be more flames and nasty red people with pitchforks, and definitely fewer cows."

"Tadfield," said Johnny.


"Lower Tadfield," said Johnny. "That's where we are."

The other three boys looked at his face.

"Oh, no," said Wobbler, speaking for all of them. "He's off again . . ."

* * *

Being the Beast

Adam was careful.

It wasn't easy being . . . what he was. It was all very well saying he wouldn't change anything, and he wouldn't, there wasn't any point anyway, everyone'd just mess it up and it'd be all to do over again. But it was hard. It didn't matter when it was just little things, but sometimes little thing quietly morphed into bigger things, and bigger things into even bigger things, and those things into things that could swallow the whole world.

If Adam let them.

Sometimes -- rarely -- he had nightmares of waking up and finding the Earth transformed, because he had changed it in his sleep.

So mostly he just ignored it, the large part of Adam Young that lay at the base of the universe. Anyway, it wasn't half as interesting as the large part of Adam Young that made up new games for the Them and ran around with Dog and made sneak attacks on harmless adults and avoided finishing his homework. Adam could do things, but it wasn't half as fun as not doing them.

But he couldn't always escape himself. Sometimes there were things he just knew, things he couldn't ignore.

Like a single question mark amidst the masses of full stops people called their minds.

Like a door open in the wall of human thought.

Like a boy wandering the outer limits of imagination in old trainers and an anorak.

Adam wondered if he knew any interesting games.

* * *


It was like the air before a thunderstorm. Johnny felt as if he had goosebumps all along the inside of his skin. His brain prickled.

Yo-less waved a hand in front of Johnny's face.

"Johnny? You all right?"

"His eyes are all funny," said Bigmac, with clinical interest. "Reckon he's seeing things again?"

"I'd say that's practically a certainty," said Yo-less. "I just want to know what it is he's seeing."

"I don't!" said Wobbler.

"There's something very weird about this place," said Johnny. His voice sounded as if it came from very far away.

"Yeah, that's what I said," said Wobbler. "I knew all this sun wasn't healthy. I bet there's all UV rays and that, scrambling our brains . . ."

"They were too late to get to you, then," said Bigmac.

"No, no, you can't see UV rays," said Yo-less. "They're there even if you can't see the sun. There probably aren't any more of them here than there were in Blackbury--"


"I hate it when he goes like this," moaned Wobbler.

"Bet you five quid it's invisible giant bugs this time," said Bigmac, grinning. "Bet you they want Johnny to find them some lunch--"

"Shut up!"

"Stop winding him up, Bigmac," said Yo-less. "Giant bugs aren't biologically feasible, anyway. They wouldn't be able to move."

"Yeah, they just lie in wait until some nice juicy lunch comes along, and then -- crunch!"

"Shut up!"

"Really, Johnny, you should have given up these -- fits by now," said Yo-less severely. "They sent you for counselling sessions and everything. You were certified not mental by three separate psychiatrists."

"He's not mental," said Bigmac. "Seeing invisible giant bugs that are there isn't mental--"

"There aren't any invisible giant bugs, and you know it!" said Wobbler. "Prob'ly Johnny isn't even thinking of anything weird, anyway. Prob'ly he's just remembering something he forgot."

"Like his insect spray?"

"I don't think there are any insects here except ants," said Johnny, waking up. "And maybe beetles. But not very big ones."

He looked around, as if he were seeing the world for the first time.

"It's much weirder than that," he said. He had that bemused, slightly indignant expression he got whenever he'd found that the world had pulled yet another fast one on him, and that just when he'd thought he'd had it all figured out, there was loads more going on than he could ever have imagined.


"Men runnin' around with hockey masks and chainsaws," muttered Bigmac.

"Shut up!"

"Let's look around," said Johnny.

"What for?" said Wobbler. "There's nothing here! It's the middle of nowhere! And I seriously think we should be getting back to the coach!"

"Don't be daft," said Johnny. "There's nothing bad here. Nobody's even around, look."

"That's always the worst part of the film!"

Johnny blinked.


"The part where they're walking along, right, and everything's okay and it's all quiet, and then--"

"Crunch!" said Bigmac.

"It isn't anything bad," said Johnny. "Look at it! It's just a place where people live! Good people! But . . . there's just something weird, that's all."

He looked at them. Then he sighed.

"All right, you lot stay here," he said. "I'm just going to have a look around."

"Give us a shout if you see any invisible giant bugs," said Bigmac cheerfully.

Johnny shoved his hands into his pockets, and walked off.

He wasn't sure what it was that was weird. Just -- something was off. Tadfield was beautiful, but it was off. Not wrong, exactly, but not right either. He didn't know what it was, but it permeated the whole place. It was in the air, in the ground beneath his feet. It was in the sky: Wobbler was right, it was like no sky he'd ever seen in England. It was endlessly blue and perfect, like a picture or a nightmare.

Johnny vaguely recalled being told about the Earth's crust in school. Underneath the ground they walked on was a sea of molten rock, the teacher had said; its surges fed volcanoes, shook the earth. Johnny had imagined the ground balanced precariously on an ocean of fire, while humans and animals and trees peacefully went about their daily business on top, never dreaming of what lay below.

Tadfield felt like that. It felt like something huge and dangerous and powerful was just under the surface, and once in a while the ground shook.

He felt a tremor now.

He didn't know where he was going, but he followed where his feet led him.

* * *

Simon, who was called Bigmac

Johnny had a hole in his head where the universe came in. That was his problem.

It was, Yo-less and Wobbler and Bigmac were uncomfortably aware, their job as his friends to help him deal with that problem.

Yo-less said it first.

"Maybe we ought to go after him," he said.

"Nah, he'll be all right," said Bigmac. "'S not like he's wanderin' around High Street or something. I can't see anyone mugging him here, can you?"

"But that's it, isn't it?" said Yo-less. "It always looks peaceful in the worst films. D'you remember that one where there was that perfect neighbourhood, and everybody was happy and did their homework and Contributed to Society, and it turned out really they'd all had their brains pickled by this mad scientist, and they chased after the newcomers so's they could pickle their brains?"

"They'd have a job and a half pickling Johnny's brain," said Bigmac. "I reckon his is pickled twice over already. He's mental."

"Probably," said Yo-less. "But he's our friend."

For some reason, they both looked at Wobbler.

"What?" he said. "Johnny can take care of himself!"

"But maybe we ought to give him a hand, like," said Yo-less.

"I've no objection," said Bigmac. "This place is as dead as a zombie. Deader." He brightened.

"P'raps we'll find a car. I haven't seen one since we got out."

"I'm not sure they have cars. I bet they all ride bicycles to work. I bet they haven't even got a burger bar," said Yo-less. "Anyway, you're not touch any cars, even if we do find them. You remember what Mr. Bede did the last time."

"Huh, and I hadn't even hurt his car," said Bigmac. "Anyway, it was a stupid car. It couldn't even drive straight. Huh, he should've been grateful I tested it. He could've got hurt, driving a car like that."

"Wobbler?" said Yo-less.

Wobbler squirmed in agony, torn between loyalty and paranoia.

"Right, right," he said. "But we're going back to the coach the minute we see any invisible giant bugs, all right?"

"We wouldn't be able to see them if they're invisible," said Yo-less. "Anyway, I keep telling you, giant bugs aren't possible. They just wouldn't work."

"Well, do you see any around?"



"Huh, they wouldn't have to pickle any of our brains," said Bigmac. "They'd just have to bung 'em straight in the jar, no problem."

"I bet they don't pickle brains. What'd they do with pickled brains, anyway?"

"Maybe they spread it on toast."

"I Can't Believe It's Not Vegemite!, sort of thing?"

"Nah, they just put them back into people's heads and let them free," said Yo-less.

"How do they tell the difference after?" said Bigmac darkly.

"Maybe they stop eating vegemite?"

"Sounds like an improvement to me."

"Stop mucking about, you two," said Yo-less. "Come on, I think he went that way."

* * *

Plans within plans

Adam had been doing some reading, surprisingly enough.

It wasn't that he didn't like reading; it was just that he had very specific tastes when it came to books. He liked Anathema's books, those were wicked, although her collection had become less interesting since it'd started including books like The Sleeping Giant of Computer Engineering and Electronics In The New Millennium and How To Fix Your Computer: When Chips Go Fishy. He liked the sort of books they had in the school library, which were generally about boys with improbable names who endured hideously boring lives at boarding-schools, interspersed with thrilling adventures, which were described in prose about as lively as mouldy bread. He liked the magazines Brian's older brother hid under his mattress.

What he'd been reading lately, though, was none of the above.

It had a lot of dirty bits, but Adam hadn't really been paying attention to them, at least not after the first two or three times. What he was focusing on was the last part, though not Revelations -- he'd been through all that, and it hadn't been half as exciting as they made out. It'd just been messy. He could do without having it mentioned ever again.

What he read made him think, though.

What he thought was: he really didn't have enough for apostles.

What he thought was: come to think of it, he didn't even have a prophet. Not a proper prophet. Not a single one of Them could be considered a proper prophet. They didn't have the right mindset.

What he thought was: actually, on second thought, he didn't want a prophet, or even apostles. Prophets -- and apostles -- messed people about. He didn't want to mess people about; in his opinion, there'd been more than enough messin' about in the entire history of the world. A prophet wasn't what he was looking for. He didn't think there was a name for what he was looking for; he wasn't even sure it existed, but he did know what it was.

It was walking around Tadfield at the moment, its head and heart wide open to the world. And once it'd arrived, it and Adam could sit down and have a talk about what it was he was really after.

He wasn't entirely sure what that was, but he was sure it didn't have anything to do with angels or demons or Judgement Day or things that just messed people about.

Adam didn't want to save humanity. People had to save themselves.

Adam was young enough not to find the saying trite, and wise enough to believe it.

* * *


The molten rock feeling had got stronger as Johnny walked on. His head spun, but he kept walking.

He had to. It wasn't that he couldn't stop, because he could. There wasn't any spell on his feet that kept them moving. It was just that he had to know. This was important. Johnny didn't know how he knew, but he did.

He felt as though he was slowly, inexorably being drawn to the centre of the universe.

The way there was pleasant, anyway. Tadfield was really nice. He was right -- good people lived here. You could tell from the carefully cut lawns, the unlittered roads, the faces of the adults who looked up as he passed. They didn't look welcoming, exactly; he was a boy who obviously had nothing to do, after all, and Johnny thought probably the world would end before any adult would look happy at the appearance of a strange teenager with obviously nothing to do. But the distrust on their faces was more a sort of "you should be doing your homework instead of loitering around and likely eyeing my orchard, I wouldn't be surprised, how would you like it if I rang your parents?" distrust than a "don't you dare touch me, I've got lawyers and a cell phone" distrust, which was the kind the adults in Blackbury generally had.

He wondered what it would be like to live here for always. Peaceful, he thought, but only if you could ignore the ground gently rocking beneath you.

There was a bunch of trees, off the road. Johnny ambled towards it, and almost fell into the hole in the ground.

"Watch out for the nettles," said a voice. A golden head heaved into view.

Johnny stopped and stared, his mouth open.

It wasn't that the boy was good-looking, although he was -- he looked a bit like a film star, and a bit like a picture out of Yo-less's mum's books, which were heavy on angels and God and light on anything Johnny and his friends found interesting.

But the boy was it. Everything.

Johnny felt his mind expand to include illimitable horizons. For a moment the entire universe was in his head. The boy in the pit glowed with an almost unbearable light, a golden radiance that filtered through the leaves and spanned the fields around them. The world folded to a single point, and Johnny was nearly there, nearly understood --

And then the feeling was gone, leaving him with a bit of a headache. He blinked.

The boy was just a boy, and not at all luminous. And he was speaking.

"Hi. I'm Adam Young," he said.

"You're, um," Johnny said. He wasn't sure he ought to say it, he wasn't even sure if it was true, or what it meant, if anything, but it came out anyway. "You're the Antichrist."

"Sort of," said Adam. "But not 'zackly. I've nothing against Christ. I'm perfectly all right with Christ. You might even say I'm pro-Christ. That's more right than the other one."

"Er," said Johnny. "I'm John Maxwell."

He felt something more was needed, but --

"I'm not sure there's a name for what I am," he said.

Adam beamed.

"That's all right," he said. "I reckon I can help you find a name for it. I'm good at finding names."

Johnny looked at the boy's tattered jeans, beaten-up trainers, and grey T-shirt -- it didn't look like it had started out grey, but it was certainly grey now. He looked at the pit, which was full of milk crates and dead supermarket trolleys, and which looked like a bombing would be an improvement. He looked at Adam's clear, sane eyes.

"Yeah," said Johnny. "I suppose you are."

* * *

Only you can save mankind

Johnny stepped around gingerly as if he thought the Pit was full of land-mines, so they went and sat beside a pond and skipped stones instead.

At least, Adam skipped stones across the surface of the water. Johnny threw stones and watched them sink, with a resigned expression that implied this sort of thing happened to him all the time.

Adam was explaining his plan.

He'd been doing a lot of thinking.

"Jesus had these friends, y'see, who followed him around an' fended off pushy worshippers an' listened to his stories an' stuff," said Adam. "Dizzyples."

Johnny didn't know much about religion. His mum didn't often go to church, and his grandad only worshipped whatever was on the telly at the time. But he'd been given a lot of lectures over the years by Yo-less's mum, who was a nurse and practically on talking terms with God. According to Yo-less, only the Pope was closer to God than his mum, and that only on his better days.

Now Yo-less's mum's voice rose in the back of Johnny's head.

"Disciples?" said Johnny.

"Yeah, that," said Adam. He turned his face to Johnny, his eyes wide and earnest. Johnny tried not to look at him. He'd found that looking at those eyes made galaxies dance across his vision and the heartbeat of the universe resound in his chest, and it all made him feel a bit like he'd taken bad curry.

"They helped him do his job," said Adam. "And his job was to spread the Word. He was s'posed to help people find God. He was sort of God's shortcut to the world."

Johnny had a dreadful feeling he knew what was coming up, but he couldn't stop himself asking.

"So what does that have to do with me?" he asked.

Adam leaned forward, his eyes intense. Johnny felt himself turn green, but he couldn't look away.

"I said I wouldn't do anythin'," said Adam. "I can't sort things out for everyone, even if I am -- you know. I mean, it jus' can't be done. I mean, I'm only one person. An' it's not right, messing people about. People ought to find their own way. It doesn't work any other way. Only--"

He paused.

"I want to help," he said. "I think I sort of -- well, I don't have to, but I think I should. Not mess around the way Anathema says I ought to, 'cos that doesn't work, an' it's too much bother anyway, to keep doin' it over an' over again an' nobody listening. But people are so lonely. And it's so hard sometimes, and they just don't see . . ."

His eyes grew distant, and very very old.

"It might help. Jus' to have someone there. Someone who could see. Someone who would say what needed to be said. Someone who wouldn't say anythin' at all, maybe. Someone who'd understand. An' then when his job was done he could go away, an' maybe some people would've heard what he'd said, or what he hadn't said. An' they could talk about it, an' they could figure out their own way. It might help."

Johnny found himself speaking.

"Someone who'd just be there," he said. "You can get medals just for being there."

The thought seemed to come from very long ago, although it didn't. Johnny remembered.

He always remembered.

"A sort of Guide," said Adam softly. "You've got the diz -- disciples already."

Johnny woke up.

"What, you mean Wobbler and Yo-less and Bigmac?" he said. "They're just my friends. They don't follow me around. Not to help, anyway."

"They do, though," said Adam. "It's the same with the Them. They help -- though I guess they aren't disciples," he added conscientiously. "They haven't got the right way of thinkin'. They're more sort of the people who hang around and watch. But they help anyway."

"But -- I can't be a prophet," said Johnny helplessly, in the face of certain defeat. "I'm just a kid! I only learnt to tie my shoelaces when I was seven! I can't even do algebra!"

"You wouldn't be a prophet," said Adam patiently. "I said. It's not a prophet. There isn't a name for it yet, I don't think. Only you're it."

"People wouldn't listen to me!"

"But they do!" said Adam. He scrubbed his face.

"It's sort of -- you can't choose it, really," he said. "I'm sorry. But you can't. 'S jus' that you're the only person for the job."

"I don't want to be the only person for the job," said Johnny, and he realised that wasn't true. He wouldn't mind being a -- sort of Guide. It sounded better than being a total nutter, which was what Wobbler thought he was. He wouldn't mind being a non-prophet, or whatever it was Adam thought he should be, only . . .

. . . Only he was certain the world wasn't like this for everyone. A choice between one way and the other, and the choice no real choice at all. He didn't want to be the one who had to change the world, even if all he had to do was be there. He was sure to mess it up. He would get it wrong; he always got it wrong.

But if not you, who else?

He wasn't special. He wasn't unique, or powerful, or talented, or even interesting. He was just there.

That had to be enough.

"All right," said Johnny, because he had always been going to say it, and there really wasn't any other way. "All right."

He stared at the sunlight glittering off the surface of the water.

"I still don't understand your plan, though," he said.

"It's not my plan," said Adam. "Um. I thought up bits of it, but . . . I think it's sort of ineffable."

"Yeah, maybe," said Johnny. "But I still don't understand it."

The sound of voices made them look up. A terrifying face, with a smile that seemed all metal, thrust through the bushes.

"Hey, Johnny!" said Bigmac. "Guys, he's in here!"

"I guess you should be goin'," said Adam. "The coach ought to be all right by now."

Johnny didn't ask how he knew that. He thought he could probably hazard a guess.

"Yeah," he said. He paused.

"It's been -- weird," he said. "Really, really weird."

Adam just smiled sunnily.

"You'll be all right," he said. "Don't worry about it. Just go on as you always have, an' you'll be all right."

"What've you been up to?" said Wobbler. "We've been looking all over for you! It's a wilderness out here! It's as bad as camping!"

Johnny smiled at them, out of the sheer relief of familiarity.

"It's all right," he said. "Let's go home."

He started walking towards them, but he stopped at the looks on their faces.

He looked down.

"Oh, no," said Johnny.

He'd forgotten the pool. This didn't seem to have made much of a difference.

Water rippled around his feet. The soles of his trainers and one trailing shoelace were wet, but otherwise Johnny was perfectly dry.

He lifted a foot and set it down again on the surface of the water. It felt like stepping on marshmallows.

He looked around, but Adam was gone. He could still see the golden glow he'd thought Adam had, as purple-green blotches in his vision. He blinked them away.

He turned to the others.

". . . Here we go again," said Yo-less, in a tone of deep resignation.

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