I shut them out, make my world the rusting footbridge, the warm air, and the dark water below. An untouched bubble of space that I alone inhabit. On the worn concrete abutment beneath me, someone has scrawled in white paint the words LOOK UP, and I do so, without thinking, the command bypassing conscious thought. The sky is perfectly blue, cerulean above me and cornflower in the distance. I tumble the words through my hands, adding to them: azure, cobalt, bondi, indigo, ultramarine. The blues merge and swirl, dripping through my hands leaving long streaming trails of letters.
I shake my head and laugh loud, listening to the sound travel on the warm breeze. Happy. For the first time in many months, I am free, in control. My life is my own again.
I try to ignore the voice, but I know Alex is already walking down the bridge toward me. The brief surge of freedom is already starting to fade. I try to hold tight to the moment, leaning out and surveying the debris choked creek beneath. What I had taken for a filthy styrofoam beer cooler catches my eye, and I look closer and see a green and mossy haunch. A rotting human thigh, the remaining skin greenish white, the rest of the body vanishing into the algae choked water.
I feel sick, the last scraps of joy congealing, turning rancid. The fear is creeping back in. I turn to Alex, my island of calm in the half-year storm, and watch him walk towards me like a barefoot saint, his sandy hair tangled and wild. His wide and white grin lights up his face beneath dark eyes, and the fear does not vanish, but halts its approach.
“How you feeling, Roger?” He asks, his eyes twinkling.
“Fucked up, man,” I answer without thought. He smiles wider, his eyes crinkling at the edges. “I like it here. It’s… quiet. You grew up here?”
“That I did, boyo. That I did. You feeling sick at all? We ate a shitload of mushrooms.”
It takes me a moment to check, pinging my innards for a report, but I shake my head, feeling nothing.
“Well, c’mon,” he said. “Winters is a tiny ass town, let me give you the grand tour.”
The shattering glass sounds again. I flinch, and look back across the bridge.
“Leif and King?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says, looking chagrined. “I told them we won’t need the car anymore, and King’s decided he wanted to kill it.”
The thought of never sitting in a car again strikes me, an open handed blow of finality, and my eyes well with tears. The strange intensity of the emotion is overwhelming, and somehow comforting, and I find myself thinking of the last time I hugged my mother.
“You want to join them?” He asks, his dilated pupils locked on mine.
“No,” I say. “No. I’m really wasted. Let’s walk. Show me the town.”
We walk across the bridge, through an oak shaded park and toward a gazebo, its white paint peeling in the summer heat. The intersection of Railroad and East Main heralds the beginning of a tiny downtown strip, a few restaurants in the ground floor of century old brick buildings. Alex seems to sense, as he always does, when the moment calls for quiet, and so we simply walk up the street, gazing through the broken or dusty windows into cluttered and abandoned storefronts. Antiques. Art galleries. A bike shop. I try to imagine the place when it was alive, and not for the first time, find the task difficult.
Alex was right: no one had been left in the small towns. A few evacuation leaflets still flutter in the breeze, now yellowed and warped from the spring rains. Winters is dead, but not quite in the way the big city was dead, or the way the camps were dead. Apart from the rotting leg in the river, Winters feels antiseptic, the air free of the constant sweet, smoky rot that become a constant fixture in the last year.
Our good fortune, I suppose. The air was clear and silent; the brick edifices seem to lean over me, creating red canyons of abandoned history. Despite the lingering warmth of the late valley summer, dried leaves are already piling in the gutters. Without a human hand to clean them I picture them heaping up, year after year, burying the small town in endless leaf pile, patiently waiting in vain for a small child to leap into them.
Spun off on this chain of images and ideas, I drift away from Alex and lean against the boarded windows of a storefront. The leaves are swirling now with the blues in my mind, the cool colors crackling through the warm autumn. Somewhere in the middle of a conceptual whirlwind, I get sick, the bile rising from the back of my throat bringing an unpleasant fungus taste. I spit, repeatedly, as my mouth floods with thin and bitter saliva.
“Tell me if I can help, man.”
Alex is across the street, leaning against a bike rack, watching me. I try to shake my head, to raise an arm, but I am trapped inside the whirlwind, not sure of its boundaries and borders, not sure if I am enjoying this anymore. Far away, there is a thudding sound, and Leif and King’s muffled voices blend into the spinning vortex.
“Nope,” I manage with great effort. Alex nods and looks away.
After some time, what seems like a long hot hour, the whirlwind recedes, and I find myself standing straight, high and smiling, on a lovely last day.
“If you’re not ready, it doesn’t have to be today,” says Alex, reading my mind in that frustrating/comforting Alex way.
“No,” I lie. “I’m ready. This is good. Just a few hours of this and I’ll be good to go.”
Alex laughs at some joke I’m not sure I understand or meant to tell, but it’s infectious and I join him. But I’m not ready. And I’m not sure I will be. I think I’ve always known that. It seemed so perfect, before. I love the plan more for it’s beauty and perfect Alex-ness than for my part in it.
“Me too,” he says, hand resting on the hard outline in the pocket of his faded jeans. I can feel the weight of it from here, can feel its cold gravity.
“Can I see it?” King’s voice startles me, and I leap backwards to see him; Alex turns with a casual grace, never surprised. King’s standing just a few yards away, in the center of the street, hands clasped behind his back, a broad figure in a black silk shirt. We’ve all worn our favorite clothes, our truest skins, Alex would say.
“Hello King,” replies Alex, and makes no move towards his pockets.
“Please,” King says, with a wide smile. King has never made me comfortable. He is funny, fiery, and charismatic, but never comforting, and today he seems to burn hotter, and it brings the fear back in. I don’t like it, and with the logic of a child’s tantrum, I want him to leave.
Alex shrugs, forced nonchalance, and pulls out the revolver. The air seems to still around it, as if the black metal of the gun absorbs sound as well as light. He tosses it to King.
With customary grace, King plucks it out of the air, and never arresting the motion of his hand, hurls it at a small window on the second floor window of a hotel. It passes through the glass with no resistance, the sparkling sounds of shattering muffled in the stillness of the moment.
The moment stretches. No one moves. King’s hands are at his sides, and now I see they are slicked in blood and gore. He smiles, a sad smile that turns the corners of his eyes and sighs.
“I’m sorry, gents, but the plan changed a little.” His declaration hangs in the air, and I see Alex standing taller, bracing himself. His eyes are focused on Kings filthy hands, and the dust devil at the root of my mind begins to screech. The air is thick with portent and meaning, and I can’t grasp it.
“Where’s Leif?” Alex asks, but it’s one of his irritating Socratic questions, one not meant to gather information, but expose something Alex already knows. King wiggles his fingers, flicking something dark from the tips.
“I’m sorry for not discussing it with you Alex, but I need to do it this way.”
“But, we are discussing it Royal.” At the mention of his actual name, King’s eyelids flicker. “Which means we can still discuss. Which means we can come to different conclusions. Why are we here?”
“To make our own end, I know, I know,” says King.
“How is it my end if you make it for me?”
“Because you already chose it, here, today. And it’s the only thing I can give to you at the end. I was powerless before I realized that it had to be this way. But now I can do this last deed for you. I made it real easy for Leif. It’s better this way.”
“It’s… an issue of consent, Royal. And I do not consent. So we have to talk this out. What did you take, buddy?”
King looks wounded, and he opens his mouth but nothing comes out. His face contracts, all wrinkles and clenched teeth.
“Shit.” He goes to touch his face, looks at his hands, and stops. “All of it. That’s how I’m going. Shit. I thought this would make sense to you Alex. I knew Roger would wail, but I thought you’d like this.”
“I know Royal, and I appreciate that, but I have to decline.” Alex is moving towards King, his movements that of a hunter, even and smooth. His voice is low and deep, and I find that even I am calmed by it.
“Fuck. Fuck.” Royal wipes his hands on his pants. “Fuck, I think it’s too late, Alex.”
“It’s never too late, Royal.” The repeated name, the calm voice; I see Alex the hostage negotiator, Alex the diplomat, Alex the therapist. A thousand possible Alexes that a dead world no longer needs.
“I shouldn’t have said anything. Now I’ve scared you. I didn’t want that. Shit. Shit shit shit. I love you two. This was supposed to be a gift.”
King sucks at his teeth, and chew at his lower lip. The tension of the moment is tipping, and I can’t see which way. The last fragments of history, falling to the floor. I think about the path that took us here: Alex’s unassailable logic, King’s sense of bleak romance, Leif’s nihilism and grief, and my need to regain one last element of control in a world that seemed to decay around us.
“We did this to make a good end,” Alex says. “Don’t take that from us.”
“Tell you what,” King says with a smile that splits his face, burning coals of his eyes separated from his square jaw. “Let’s make it a game. One of you runs faster than the other. I’m betting it’s Alex.”
His black eyes fall on me, and I see that the waiting is over, all choice and discussion behind us. The moment ends in terror. We are all moving, King barreling toward me, Alex slipping sideways and behind, heading for the door of the hotel. The still air shatters like glass and I hear every sound, the slapping footfalls, the sucking breath, the blood in my veins. The whirlwind spins, dead leaves, stray colors, and twisting black snakes, and I can barely keep my balance.
King is right behind me when I press hard with my left foot, propelling my body sideways to pivot and turn right, and I dip low to throw myself into a run.
King is laughing, and god fucking dammit if I’m not laughing as well; suddenly we’re ten again, playing capture the flag on unkempt park lawn. I find the will to push harder, feeling something in my leg about to tear. Oh well. Last run.
He catches up to me in less than a block. He reaches out to grab me, and I throw myself forward, my foot catches and I fall to the road. My hands grind against the concrete, flesh abrading away, and I smash my forehead once with a bounce. I kick out hard behind at King’s knees, and his inertia carries him into the blow. He’s still laughing as he topples over me, silk shirt shredding against the concrete.
I’m already up and moving, back down the main street, towards the hotel, screaming Alex’s name at the top of my lungs. Behind me King has risen to his feet, brushing himself off. He’s limping a little, I can hear his uneven footfalls as he presses on.
“Yes! Yes godammit!” He bellows. “This is a good end. You and me, Roger!”
I’m back to the hotel, and I aim for the open door, but stop hard before entering.
It’s a depot. The cots still line the lobby, blood and shit stains dry on the canvas. The light streams through the open door like a purifying beam. Dust and foul rot drift on the air. Closed up for months, until Alex pried the door open. I think of him, alone in the dark, climbing the stairs. Looking for the gun.
“Alex! Hurry up, for fucks sake!” I yell.
“Yeah, Alex, what’s taking you so long!” King says, so much closer than he should be, and I know the time is up. I run.
King could have gone pro. He could have been a star. For all his size, he moves like a predatory cat, quick bursts of frightening speed. He never told us why he quit in college. His look told us not to ask.
If I hadn’t have tripped him early, he’d have me already. Now, he’s right behind me, and it’s all I can do to stay breathing. The air is hot in my lungs, and as I propel myself across the treelined park, back to the bridge, I hear a crackling from one knee, drumming in time to a wash of hot white pain. As if in response, King whoops loudly, and his off beat footsteps accelerate.
I turn before the bridge, following a footpath by the river, hoping the rough terrain will slow him more than me. I can hear him breathing. Great gasping breaths. He’s laughing again, wheezing beneath each burst.
The path winds through a row of backyards, tiny houses painted in garish colors. Hot pink, fire engine red, lime green. Shattered windows, and overgrown grass. A child’s play set, swing listing to one side on a knotted chain.
The blue house. A ladder. The roof. I bound across the lawn in three agonizing steps and jump. My feet catch the second rung and I climb, feeling elation rise inside me.
I expect anger from King as I haul the ladder up and onto the flat rooftop, but he only laughs harder, putting his blood slicked hands on his knees and wheezing to catch his breath.
“Nice,” he hisses. “Nice work, Rog.”
On the roof, there’s a corpse, almost a dried husk in the sun. In one wrinkled hand, a kitchen knife glints from beneath dried brown blood. There’s an empty bucket of white paint, the brush glued to the bottom. I realize I’m standing on a letter, and it takes me a moment to widen my view.
There’s a message in thick block letters. White paint against the black tar roof.
YOU JUST WATCHED.
A suicide note for a satellite.
“Holy shit, King, you should fucking see this.”
My friend looks up from his wheezing breaths, eyes quizzical. It begins to occur to me how fucking bizarre this moment is, this little rest at the end.
“You would love this, man,” I finish, voice weak with the strangeness of it all.
“Tell me about it.” He smiles wide, that terrifying infectious smile. “Or… you can send me down the ladder.”
“Are we done? Can we go back to the way it was?” What a stupid fucking question, I think.
But King just stares. The fire is fading and I can see a the first early tremors of guilt and fear on his face.
Alex’s first shot, taken from a dead run, hits King in the shoulder, a bright spray of blood that catches the sun as he spins. The sound is far away, a firecracker. The second shot pierces the flesh of his tree trunk thigh, and he drops to the lawn.
None of us speak. Alex strides towards us with the rhythmic gate and taut expression of a soldier. King seems to deflate, the tension on his face and body melting away. From the river, I hear the buzz of flies.
Alex kneels at King’s side, training the gun on him. I look away.
I can hear them whispering, one last private moment. I think of the many times Alex has talked King out of a violent felony, brought him out of one of his black moods with just his voice and his heart.
There are tears in my eyes when I turn back. Alex is sliding the gun into King’s hand, gripping his wrist tight, keeping the pistol against the man’s temple. King’s face is gray, but his eyes are bright and lucid. Alex threads King’s finger into the trigger guard, and leans backwards, still bracing his wrist. Alex is speaking, but his back is to me, and I can’t quite make it out.
“Yeah. Thanks.” King’s voice is a strained hiss, but a little of his smile is back.
I don’t have time to look away. The impact flings King’s head sideways against his shoulder. The sound on the grass is like the spray of a hose in summer, a thousand liquid patters. King slumps backwards, limp, into the embrace of unshorn weeds.
Alex and I sit on the roof a long time, staring at the dead little town and at the gun, with it’s three remaining shells. He’s retrieved the backpack from the car, filled with the precious hoard of warm beer and cigarettes. The sun is low and orange on the horizon before either of us speak.
“You ready?” he asks.
“No,” I say, feeling the flat clarity of sobriety.
“Me neither,” he says. “But we don’t have much time.”
“We can find more food.”
“For how long? The supply is limited and rotting on the shelves. And you and I aren’t hunters or farmers. I got the hell out of this town as soon as I could. We were raised for a world that isn’t there anymore.”
“I know.” The old argument. Alex’s pessimism, his pragmatism. He’s right, and I know it. This isn’t an adventure. This is a slow death. Our apparent immunity to the bug just shifts the burden to starvation. “Not tonight. Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow.” He nods. “I’m so sorry about King and Leif.”
“You remember when we met Leif? And we always said it like ‘Leaf,’ and he never said shit. Then two years later, he sits us down and says ‘Now that we’re all friends, it would mean a lot to me if you pronounced my name right.’”
“Yeah. Lay-ff. You remember what King said to that?”
I wait, letting him finish the old story.
“‘Fuck you, Leaf.’”
His impression of King’s dismissive drawl pricks my heart, and my eyes burn. I remember the moment with an impact that feels like a physical blow. I remember the strained expression on Leif’s face. How he never mentioned it again, and we never even tried to say his name right. Shit. I’m crying in earnest now.
“I don’t know if I can do it tomorrow, either, Alex.”
He is silent for a long time.
“We’ll dig graves for those assholes. Do it proper.”
The sun dips below the buildings of the dead town, and I open another beer, and we talk into the night, about the good old days.