Welcome to the End
Keshia C. Willi
The car was unbearably hot, stifling and close, and the tension between Carl and his son was just as electric and tight. They hadn’t said a word to each other for fifty miles, other than a brief spat about the radio station. Jack had won with a rather shitty comment about Carl's parenting skills. Carl couldn’t compete with that or evidently live with the guilt that inevitably ensued. He was itching to break the silence, but laid back parenting skills were more important. He had to play it cool. Screw it, he was just going to go for it.
He felt like words would just come fumbling out of his mouth if he didn’t start slow. Slow and cool. That’s right. Bring up the roadside stand up ahead. Yeah, the old man looks pretty decrepit. Bet what he is selling is just as old. No, that was lame. That was…
“Look!” Jack said. Carl expected to see what was already occupying his thoughts at the moment, but instead it was a sign his son was pointing at. There, just a few yards away. As he passed by, he read it, a blur in the visible heat.
WELCOME TO THE END
Pretty cryptic. Pretty creepy. Probably some Bible-thumping end of the world crap. But now that he looked around, it was pretty empty out here. Empty and dead. In fact, the more he looked around, the creepier it got. And the more he realized…where the hell are we? He knew he hadn’t taken a wrong turn. At least not for the last thirty miles. The kid. Yeah, the kid distracted him, with his damn radio station.
The roadside stand was still up ahead. The old man still sitting next to his wares, staring out on the road beyond. Carl decided to stop. Maybe to get directions. At the very least, to clear his head.
He slowed the car and pulled over in front of the stand. The dust billowed out from beneath his wheels and settled on the old man. Carl unfastened his seatbelt and turned to Jack, saying as authoritatively as possible, "Stay in here."
Jack rolled his eyes and looked out his window. Nothing to see, but at least he was occupied and out of trouble.
Carl got out of the car, the heat hitting him like a truck, and immediately, he was sweating. He walked over to the old man, staring him down as he approached, but the old man never looked at him. Instead, he stared off in the distance, his hands clutching the arms of his lawn chair. He laughed to himself, more of a rasp than real laughter.
When Carl stopped in front of him, blocking his view, his laughter stopped. He stared into Carl, not saying a word. Carl felt the awkwardness as heavy as the heat, and finally brought himself to say, "Hot day, isn't it?"
Carl sighed inwardly. He never was good at conversation. It didn't seem to matter, because the old man didn't answer. Stupid, old geezer. Carl cleared his throat to try and get some kind of reaction from him. Nothing.
"Look, can you tell me where we are? Or where we're not, if that would help? I'm heading toward Palmsville. Am I at least headed in the right direction?"
He waited. Nothing. Hot and fed up, he turned and headed back toward the car. Before he opened his door, the man, enveloped in a cloud of dust swept up from the road, spoke up.
"You ought to turn round. Folks going that way, they don't come back. Seen cars go that away, but ain't seen no cars coming out. Like the sign say, it's the end."
Carl was hot and impatient, and the man made no sense. He said, rather brusquely, "The end of what?"
The old man smiled. It was a toothless grin, wide and chapped with dried tobacco juice. "The end of the line. For you. For him." He nodded his head toward Jack inside the car. His eyes lingered there for a moment with interest, before turning back to Carl.
Carl only stared, mouth open and eyes wide, until dust blew his way. Then he came to his senses.
"Yeah," he said, "Right."
He turned his back on the man and headed back to the car, only to find Jack outside, standing next to the passenger door. He was staring blankly at the old man. The old man returned the same blank stare. The creeps ran all the way up Carl’s spine. He felt sure that something, somehow was being said between those two. Silently. And he wasn't invited. Feeling left out didn't bother him, but the creeps sure did.
He called to Jack. Nothing. The kid didn't even blink. He called again, yelled this time. That took. Jack turned to him, rather distantly, as if he had just woken up out of a long sleep. He yawned and hiccuped, before muttering under his breath as he climbed back into the car.
The old man sat laughing softly. Carl took one last look at him before getting into the car. He wanted to get as far away from the crazy as he could, which meant turning around and going back the way he came. Which he did—as fast as he could.
As he put miles between him and the end of everything, he looked back in the rearview mirror. The dust had billowed and taken over the road behind him. He could no longer see the sign, or the old man, or even the road. The more he looked, the more road and land were swallowed up by the dust.
It was like the earth was covering up his tracks and leaving no trace of his existence. It's something for a man to say, "I have been there," but to not know exactly where there might be takes a toll. And now there was no trace of anything behind him, and the mountainous cloud of dust was closing in fast.
I'll outrun it, he told himself, and he slammed his foot down on the accelerator. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jack, frightened and looking back.
"Dad," he whispered, and then, "Dad!"
Carl could sense that he was frightened and knew what his response should be. The good dad allays fears. The good dad doesn't get us in a situation to begin with. Well, he would have a discussion about what kind of dad he really was later. He tried to floor it and realized he already had. He was going as fast as his car would take him, and still the dust cloud was gaining on him. He cried out something, and from the looks of Jack's face, it wasn't something pretty. He would regret it later, but now, if he could just get far enough ahead, or turn off somewhere. But the land stretched out empty ahead of him. There was no turn off, no place to dive for cover. It was flat, and open and dead.
He could hear the wind, thunderous and wild, sweeping up behind him. It whistled in the cracks of the windows and rocked the car. Finally, Carl stopped the car with a jolt. Jack nearly flew into the windshield as it stopped. Carl was out of breath and sweating; he didn't know why. He turned around just as the cloud of dust engulfed them. The wind swept over the car, and under it, and along all sides, and he could hear the dust and sand grinding and scraping across the windows. Jack stuck his face to the window, looking out at the nothingness. Carl, in a Dad-moment, pulled him back. He clung to his son, but his son wriggled his way out of his hold and looked out the window.
The grains of sand and dust started to grow bigger, hitting the side of the car and the windows with tremendous force. Out of the deafening roar, a new sound arose: the slivering, cracking sound of breaking glass. The windows of the car slowly veined and then cracked with an audible crunch. Carl pulled Jack back from the window. This time his son did not recoil.
Carl looked helplessly out the cracked windshield. He could just make out something there in the red-black thickness, What was it? He strained to see. At first it was only a shadow, barely noticeable through the rushing cloud. It came closer and closer, unswayed by the driving wind.
It grew into the figure of a man. Or was it a man? It seemed both plainly human and oddly animal in form. It stopped and Carl knew that its eyes were upon them, staring them down in the midst of the storm. Without warning, the figure lunged forward, pitch black in its fury and blinding in speed. It made for the car, headfirst.
Carl grabbed hold of Jack and pressed them both down into the seat. He waited for an impact, a jolt, something. But there was nothing. Still, he kept his head down and a tight hold on Jack. Jack muttered something, and attempted to push himself up, but Carl held him down. Suddenly, it was quiet. Deathly still. Carl could hear as well as feel his heart pounding in his chest. He could hear the rapid breathing of his son, feel the pulse in his neck running wild.
Warily, Carl raised his head. Jack pushed his way out of Carl's hold to look up and out the window. There was nothing but dust and sand. No road, no direction. Nothing—for miles. As far as the eye could see. A sour feeling sat heavy in Carl's stomach. He realized he didn't know where the road and the land began. Thoughts ran rapidly through his mind. How to escape? How to find help? Where is the road? A landmark? Anything?
"Dad," said Jack, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open. "We can't go out there."
"We're not going out there," said Carl. He turned the key in the ignition to start the car. It sputtered and shook, but nothing else happened. It wouldn't even turn over. Dust must have gotten inside. Choked the engine. Damn.
He tried it again out of desperation. Jack looked at him and said, "Dad, it's not going to work."
Carl sighed, letting his hands fall from the steering wheel. "Then we'll have to walk."
Jack whipped around to him; his eyes full of fright. "Huh-uh. It's not safe. We can't go out there."
Carl was not in the mood for another argument. "The storm is over. We just have to head in the same direction we were going until we find help. Then we can get the car towed, and before you know it, we'll be on our way again."
Jack was adamant. "We can't go out there!"
"That's enough!" Carl yelled. He didn't mean to raise his voice. But the kid. Always defiant. Always questioning. This time he wasn't going to win.
"Dad," he said much quieter, and his voice fell almost to a whisper, "He's out there."
Carl tried to read Jack's eyes. His expression was blank, like his stare at the old man at the stand. After a brief second, Jack yawned and hiccuped, and his eyes once more focused and turned their attention back to the window.
Carl had the chills again. They danced all along his spine. As much as he tried to ignore them or write them off, he couldn't. It was the way Jack looked at him that made him afraid.
"Who's there?" he asked.
Jack didn't answer. He was scanning the horizon, seemingly desperate to see anything familiar. Carl followed his gaze, looked out at the barrenness that encapsulated them.
"We're gonna have to walk, buddy," he said.
He heard Jack sigh and before he could say anything else, Jack opened the car door and jumped out. A cloud of dust billowed up from beneath his feet. It caught on the breeze and scattered. Jack looked around before turning back. Carl knew from his eyes that his son was ready to go, so he pushed open his door and stepped out. He met his son on the other side of the car and put his arm around him. Jack pushed away and started walking.
"We should really go this way," said Carl, pointing in the direction the car was facing. Jack turned around, visibly perturbed and walked back to his dad. Together they started out on what Carl thought was the right direction, their pace slow as they took in their surroundings.
They walked. For what seemed like forever, they walked, trying to gather some semblance of atmosphere and place. There was nothing but flat open land, covered in slithering dust and sand that whispered under their feet. The sun was hot, the heat unbearable, and the longer they walked, the hotter it got.
Carl's mind had taken an easy exit hours back. He let himself fall into an all-consuming blankness that occupied every space of his mind and left little for construing direction. Finally, he realized that Jack was just as quiet, trailing behind his father and breathing heavily. Carl felt guilty. A usual feeling for him, but still, in this instance, he really felt guilty. He didn't know how, but somehow this was his fault. If he had only been paying attention. If only he hadn't tried to argue so vehemently about the radio, perhaps they would be in Palmsville by now.
He decided to make conversation. It was the least he could do, and it would pass the time. "You're awful quiet," he said.
He could hear Jack's breathing. It paused for a moment as he said, "I'm breathing."
Strike one. Try again.
"What would you like to do when we get to Palmsville? You pick. Anything you like. I'm game."
He slowed down so that Jack could catch up to him. He saw how heavily the kid walked, his head down, his breathing fast and deep.
"Seeing as how we might not even get there, I'll pass." Jack said, then went back to breathing. He paused for a moment before adding, "You were only going to pass me off to some relative and run off again. It's not like you ever stay."
Strike two. This was getting messy. But, try again.
"I know we've had some rough times--" Carl began, but Jack interrupted his breathing long enough to cut him off.
"I've had rough times. You haven't been anywhere around."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Carl asked. "How you're feeling?"
"Who are you, Dr. Phil?" came the sarcastic reply from his son. "Mom died. You left. And I was wherever you put me. I went to school. Did as I was told. And played nice with obnoxious cousins that I never want to see again."
"But you haven't told me how you feel," said Carl. He stopped, staring down his son.
Jack stopped suddenly, throwing up his arms in frustration that seemed to ebb and swell just as quickly. "I don't feel anything!" he cried. "Why is everyone always asking me how I feel? Why is that so important?"
"Because you're important, Jack."
Jack looked up to him. He could see the tears rimming his dark brown eyes, but Jack was a stubborn boy and he held them back as fiercely as he held back the scream that welled up inside him.
"I am not," he said quietly.
Jack's voice seemed to tremble. It quaked in Carl's heart and ached there in silence. He saw the pain, the damage he had done to the kid was there in his brown eyes. He saw how hard he fought to keep it hidden. But nothing can be hidden from a dad. A dad always knows. Doesn't he?
He knew. He knew how much he had hurt when his wife, Emma, died. How life had stopped, his heart, everything stopped. It was hard enough getting up every morning and seeing the empty side of the bed and knowing that he was alone. He couldn't find it in himself to care for another human being when he couldn't even take care of himself.
He had done what he had to do. That's what he told himself. But now, it didn't seem right, didn't seem true. He had acted out of fear, and no man can act out of fear and still call himself a man—a dad. And now, he had nothing to show for it, but a messed-up kid who hated him.
Strike, you're out!
But he had already used up his chances, used them up long ago. And now? What could he possible say now that could change anything?
He realized he had fallen into his own thoughts, blacking out everything around him, including his son. When he turned toward him, he found him standing straight and rigid, breathing heavily, and facing away from him. His breathing was so fast and hard, he thought it a wonder that the kid hadn't passed out. He was staring at something, something far away, but what? Carl looked and didn't see anything. He went to his son's side, touching him gently to try and jolt him from his spell. But it didn't work.
"What is it, Jack?"
Hiccup. "He's coming."
"Who? Who do you see?"
Hiccup. "The highwayman.”
Carl desperately looked out on the horizon, he looked everywhere around him. But all he could see was the sand and the red dust and the mirages that tempted but vanished. Then he saw it. Out of the vaporous distance, a shadow. It was darker than dark, a patch of night in the seemingly endless red abyss. It was coming closer, fast, faster than a person or even an animal could travel.
The silence was broken by the sound of Jack gasping and heaving. He leaned over as if to retch but nothing but groans and cries came out. His face turned scarlet. Before Carl could do anything, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed.
Carl ran to him, picked his limp body in his arms, and then just sat there. His mind was racing, trying to remember all those first aid classes he'd taken way, way back. But he remembered nothing. He called his son's name, desperately shaking him to bring him back to consciousness. Instead, he began convulsing. Violent tremors moved throughout his body and gasping sounds escaped his open lips.
Desperate, Carl looked out over the expanse, for anything or anyone. His eyes fell on the approaching black figure. He cried for help, stretching his voice out into the void. And it came. Slowly—cool, calm and effortless—it came. Out of the misty mirage that swept the land, a man approached. He was all in black, including a black waistcoat, even in this heat. He stood before Carl and Jack, his eyes bent on the boy. His lips frowned, but Carl could see a glint of delight in his eyes, which unnerved him.
"Your son," said the man, "he's fallen ill?"
At this point, Carl didn't care how frightening this man appeared, or how sour his stomach felt to look at him. He wanted help for his son, who had now grown deathly still, his breathing—it stopped.
Carl panicked. He shook Jack violently, trying to revive him, and called his name. The man only looked on. At last Carl looked up at him, eyes glaring, and said, "Help him!"
The man knelt down beside Carl and Jack. He looked over the boy from head to toe, laid his hand upon his chest, and listened. Listened for what, Carl didn't know, but he knew that's what he was doing.
The man smiled and said, "You would have him live?"
Carl nodded, unable to speak.
"Then name your price," said the man, his eyes dark and yet alight with something terrible.
"What?" Carl muttered. He held tighter to his son.
"Every life has a price," said the man. "What's yours?"
Carl was exasperated. "I don't understand. Are you asking me to bargain...for my son?"
The man stared at him, unblinkingly. "Yes," he said.
His fingers tarried far too long on Jack's chest, checking for a pulse, though he must have known there was none.
"What would you give for a life?" said the man.
Carl looked at his son in disbelief. He tried to find a solution in this moment, but oh, so many other thoughts and images crowded his head. Jack being born. Jack learning to walk. Jack's first day of school. His birthdays. His friends. His mother dying. And then there were no more memories. They had been swallowed up by...what? Hiding. Excuses. Driving. Driving endlessly alone. And his son...lost somewhere...just as lost as he was.
A chill ran through him, and he looked first at his son and then at the man, who was smiling. In that moment, a thought occurred to him, quiet at first, then it screamed as loud as if he were speaking. His son was his, always had been. But somewhere along the line, he had relinquished his right to him. To his place as dad. It was his fault that they had lost each other. His fault that they were lost now. His fault that his son lay lifeless in his arms. He was responsible for this life, this little flickering candle that was oh so fragile and oh so precious. He had let it go out. And now...
"What would you give...for a life? For his life?" asked the man again.
Carl sat up straight, holding tightly to his son. "Mine."
The man smiled and then lunged his hand into Jack's chest. He came out with a fist full of heart and blood. He ground it in his hand and shattering it into dust that fell lifelessly from his hand and onto the wind.
Carl only looked on, frightened. The man turned to him and did the same. Carl felt the weight of his hand in his chest, felt it grab hold and rip. And then there was no more. He collapsed, his hold on his son released.
The man did not look as he fell, did not even react. Instead he looked at the heart held in his hand, bleeding and beating. He smiled.
"A life for a life," he said and plunged the heart into Jack's chest. Immediately he jolted awake, gasping hard for breath.
Jack's eyes opened, blinked hard and fast in the sunlight. He looked up where the man had stood and saw no one. Where his father had lain was a scattering of dust that blew away in the wind as it engulfed him. Weakly, Jack stood and looked around him. There was nothing. And no one. Just the end of everything.