|Park Benches on the Apocalypse by Neriak|
“I’m not eating that.” Debbie said for the hundredth time. Bart shrugged and put the dead rat in his pocket, to save for later.
“I’m cold, Bart. Why did we have to go out today? Why couldn’t we have stayed back home?” Debbie moaned and Bart didn’t list the myriad reasons why staying home wasn’t the wonderful idea his wife thought it was.
“At least we had a roof over our heads. And walls to keep away the cold…” Debbie responded, as if having read Bart’s thoughts. “And we were in the suburbs. It wasn’t so bad in the suburbs. And there wasn’t that much fallout. And we had Mr. Stevens’ bomb shelter to hide in. I bet he’d let us in, if only you’d let me talk to him.”
Bart sighed and kept on going. There was no point in dwelling any further on the matter. He’d seen Mr. Stevens, when everything went belly-up and died. He saw him through the living room window, shooting his praying wife at the back of the head, his daughters dead by her side before he put the barrel in his mouth.
So Bart did the next sensible thing: he made Debbie get in the car (with hardly any supplies for the road), new year’s gift-wrapped packages still in the trunk and made for the interstate.
“I can’t go on. Oh Bart, I just can’t.” Debbie moaned, falling to the ground on her knees. “Why couldn’t we have just stayed in the car? We could have gone through the interstate, tried our luck past that pile-up…”
Bart stopped and started setting up camp. Debbie was exhausted, pale and absolutely comical in her expensive fur and jewellery, struggling to cross the wasteland on her worn-out high heels. He was certain he looked no less ridiculous: a middle-aged man in a torn and filthy tux, covered in blood and dust, his hair caked with sweat and day-long ash from the cosmic bombardment.
He stole a glance at his wife, who shivered inside her thousand-dollar coat, her teeth chattering. She kept going:
“Why couldn’t we have stayed in the car, Bart?”
Because, Bart had told her time and time again, the car’s engine had died on the minute of the blast, the moment the solar flare reached the earth. Debbie had seen it too, a second dawn rising at the edge of the horizon, sweeping across the world, blindingly white. She’d known what it was, too, but seemed to have forgotten.
Bart had gotten out of the car, dragging Debbie with him. She hadn’t realized what had happened just yet, or chose not to. They’d left the interstate on foot, as they heard the passengers of the dead cars piling out, screaming obscenities. He heard a gunshot as they left the interstate, drowning out the noise for only a moment, before the cries of grown men resumed.
Ash began to fall from the sky that night, as they made their way east, toward the nearest town. Bart’s original plan was to get to the city, find the kids and perhaps hole up there but the solar flare had changed all that. He didn’t tell Debbie, but he knew deep inside that there would be no-one there to meet them.
“I wonder if Judy’s okay. She’s no good in a crisis…” Debbie said, longingly looking at the makeshift fire Bart had set up. The flames were slowly rising, from a tiny light that grew as it licked hungrily at the sticks, growing slowly but carefully. Bart was setting up the tent he had bought for his grandson for Christmas.
“Thank God she’s got Donny. I know you didn’t like him, at first.” Debbie said, uselessly fanning the flames with her hands. Bart didn’t tell her the truth, of course: that he’d never liked Donny. That he thought he was no good for his little girl. That he considered him a drunkard and a fool and that the only reason he’d let Judy go on with the marriage was because he knew it would make her happy.
“Oh dear, I remember how mad you were, the day she brought him over to meet us…oh, don’t give me that look! You know what I’m talking about!” her words brought back memories that Bart desperately hoped he could forget: his snide remarks, his bitterness, the near-silent fight he’d had with Debbie in the kitchen when Donny cracked that silly dirty joke.
“Good thing he’d brought the scotch, or who knows what might have happened?”
Bart nodded. He’d had a lot to drink that day, he and Donny and Judy. Debbie never drank a drop. She’d always been his designated ‘social driver’ whenever he risked doing something incredibly stupid like, say, smash his fist across his son-in-law’s to be face.
He didn’t, of course. FDebbie made sure of that. Judy gave them two grandkids and Donny didn’t turn out to be half-bad, either. Not that Bart was going to start liking him anytime soon.
The cold wind brought with it biting cold and a mouthful of grit. Bart and Debbie rushed inside the tent, seeking shelter. The temperature had dropped significantly since sundown and they were both shivering, trying to divine the shapes of the fire against their tent’s fabric, struggling against the night.
“Couldn’t we open the tent flap? Only for a bit? We could let some warmth in…” Debbie asked but knew there was no point to it. They’d just risk letting the ash and the cold in. It was only a matter of time before the flame died down for good and they were alone in the dark.
Debbie trembled like a leaf the entire night, even after Bart had sung her to sleep.
There was no dawn the following day. Just darkness, cut with a bit of sunlight. The sky was black, stained red in places. Bart thought of his first date with Debbie, when he’d spilled red wine all over her dress, halfway through wooing her. She still took it off, that night.
“What’s wrong with the sky?” Debbie asked, terror spiking her voice. Bart thought of powerful, terrifying words: he thought of gamma rays and pyrocumuli and black rain. He thought of firestorms, swallowing up the forests and vaporizing rivers. He thought of radiation poisoning and every possible flavor of death that came with it: bone marrow death, gastrointestinal death, central nervous system death. He didn’t speak a word of those things to Debbie, of course.
Bart packed the tent and they went on their way.
“How far is it yet? How long do we have to walk? Do you even know where we’re headed?”
Bart did his best not to break into a run, not to look at his wife, the image of her terrified, tired, pale face burned into his brain.
“Please, Bart…just say something. Please talk to me.”
He thought of radiation, descending from the heavens and washing every living thing in its terrible glow. Bart blinked and saw imaginary neon-green death poisoning the trees, the ground, themselves. He could even swear he could see it already, soaking in through his skin and making its way into his blood and bones.
There was a tiny little sound like a kitten being run over by a car that made Bart turn. Debbie had fallen flat on the ground, the heels of her shoes broken and the stockings torn. It took him a while before he realized that his wife was sobbing, struggling to get up. Bart kneeled next to her, grabbing her by the shoulders, struggling to get her on her feet.
She fought back against him, beating at his chest and arms with her fists, crying. Bart held her until his knees gave way and she stopped crying.
“I can’t go on…I can’t do it, I can’t.” she sobbed. Bart thought: me neither.
“You think Judy will be alright?” she asked and knew that Bart would have nodded no, if only he had the strength to do even that much.
“I’m really tired.” Debbie said. “Can’t we stop here for a while?” she asked. “I just can’t go on, not in these shoes…”
Above them, lightning ripped across the sky, a spiderweb made of light. Thunder roared, like the moan of a great hungry wolf, quaking the earth. Bart felt so very tired then. He wanted to reach inside him and find the strength to lie to Debbie, to tell her that he knew these woods like the back of his hand, that the town was just over the next ridge, but he couldn’t. So he told the truth instead:
He didn’t know where they were. He didn’t know how long they had yet to go. He feared that the solar flare had burned the sky and that they were already poisoned by radiation. But he’d be damned if he left his wife here to die like an animal in the middle of nowhere.
“Oh, you big lug…”
Bart kept telling her that he was sorry, that he could make it all better, find a safer place. He believed that if they kept going for a while longer, a day or two at most, they’d find shelter. The hills here were filled with makeshift bomb shelter set up during the Cold War. There was a military base somewhere around here too, he was certain. They’d have doctors there and medicine and three square meals a day.
Debbie just laughed.
“You go on, Bart. I’ll catch up with you, okay?” her lips brushed his and then she sagged, her breathing ragged. Bart stayed until it stopped entirely, until Debbie felt like a great weight, wrapped in fur, adorned with jewellery.
When he had made sure his wife had gone, Bart walked on across the forest, his destination forgotten. Above him, the pregnant black clouds unleashed rain that smelled like tar and rotten eggs. He let it pour all over him, drench his skin and his tux until he was a uniformly black shape, invisible against the night.
He fell on his knees and slept on the ground when his body finally gave way. The sound of the sky splitting in half woke him up, the next day.
Bart looked up and saw the heavens exposed like the viscera of a great beast, a wound reopening as the scabs split. He thought of the world spinning in the belly of the wolf, sprayed by acid. It was the thought of Debbie, lying on the cold hard ground, soot-black and dead, that drove him on.
On the third day, Bart didn’t look at the sky, transfixed at his feet. His good shoes had split and broken. By midday, his teeth felt loose. The big terrible words and the flavors of death rolled around in his skull until nightfall, when the heavens rained fire. There was a hole in his belly, as big as the world, as black as the sky above him.
Bart thought of Debbie and Judy and her husband and the grandkids. He thought of them awash in invisible death. He thought of geysers, a thousand miles high, spitting heat and death at poor old Earth. He wanted to pray, but there was no-one he could pray to worth a damn.
He wanted to scream, to spit and curse, but he knew that the great gears that ground lives and spit out disaster were uncaring and unheeding.
He’d found a path that led out of the woods long before that, which he followed shivering and bleeding from his gums. There was a poisonous frog sitting in his chest, spitting foul ichor. There was a terrible buzzing in his ears, obscuring all thought.
Bart lost his footing and tumbled down across the side of the path, tearing down stray branches. Something hard and pointed stopped his fall and Bart knew that something in his body had given way, even though there was no pain. There was only the taste of pennies in his mouth and a growing blackness.
He wished his wife was there. He wished he could see Judy at least, or perhaps her kids. He found himself longing even for the company of Donny, to ease his troubles. Somewhere above him, there was the beating of wings. Bart imagined them sending ripples across the neon-green waves of death, dispersing them, as it made its way toward him.
There was a weight on his chest that Bart had felt once before, right before his six-month stay at the hospital. The beating of wings drew closer.
Swallowing a mouthful of nickels, Bart said:
“I’m sorry, Debbie. I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”
He held his breath, waited for a very long time, fighting against the darkness that was enveloping him, that was swallowing him whole, from tip to toe, until he heard her voice, for one last time:
“Oh, you big lug…”
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