The heated metal inside the car made a ticking noise as it cooled. In front of them the black congeries hung still. Nothing moved. They were on the side of the road. The boy had a sliver of dust across his face that shone as he turned to face him. The boy said nothing, waited, then opened his lips. He cut him off. It was a city he had visited in his youth. Looking at it, he could pick out a Torino with no wheels near the river bank. Rib Tips, a sign said.
They would have to go around. It would be full of men in wait or worse. The quickest way was through the outer edge, following the road. A piece of ash fell from the first clump of buildings. They got out of the car.
The black amassment did not shine. It brought to mind a tree so tall and wide and rooted to the ground that it was impossible to remove—expanding everywhere, through windows, rooms, doors, swatting the occupants of the house to the floor. Too knotted and dense to cut even if he had something to cut it with.
They walked to a convenience store that looked like a jawless skull. He took a beer out of a case. It was expired but looked okay. They sipped it while watching the parking lot.
It’s bubbly, the boy said. It’s good.
Yes. It is.
You have some, Dad.
I want you to drink it.
Is it because I wont get to drink another?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m going to have to hike down the road a bit, look for gasoline. I want you to stay here and take care of things.
You’ll be okay?
The boy sipped from the beer.
When I was your age my dad shared a beer with me and I thought it was about the best thing in the world.
The boy stared at him.
I better get a move on if I want to get us out of here by dark. Good talk, Son.
The boy nodded.
The edges of the city were nothing. Burnt out, frayed, trashstrewn. He did not want to risk stopping and starting the car again, but he wanted to know if the road was clear from any possible vantage point. This is a part of the country I don’t normally get to see he thought. Everything had been burned. Trees on the median twisted into withered shapes. There was a body without eyes in the doorway of a Howard Johnson’s. He knew enough not to look. There were two gas stations. He searched around in one of the adjoining convenience stores for canisters and found none. They had been taken long ago. He looked instead for any container with a top and a large cavity and an imperforated surface. He found one for pretzel snacks. The pretzel snacks had long ago been eaten but the lid and the container were still intact. Then he went to each pump, checking to make sure no dregs were left that he couldn’t siphon into the container.
Each time he pressed the handle to pump gas, found nothing, then immediately took out his knife and sawed off the pump handle, leaving only the hose. He put the hose in his mouth and sucked and met dry air but just the same put the hose over the container. Nothing came. It was a strange feeling both wanting to taste gas and not to.
The air inside the hoses was stale. None of the pumps had any gas. He took great marching steps to the round hole in the concrete nearby and tried to use his knife to peel open the lid. He stopped and got up again and went to the garage section of the store and found a screwdriver and wrenches and came back and tried those. When the bolt started to unscrew he stood again and found a hose from the garage section and piled it next to the lid. He looped it so it made a nice pile. This felt good though there was no real purpose to it. He made himself lower to the lid and start using the wrench. There was an ancient candy bar wrapper his foot slipped on and he hit his head against the lid.
It took him thirty minutes to undo the lid. Flashes of the boy being attacked, snatched away came into his head. Why did he leave him there? The boy could just as easily stand here. He would be worried, could wander off. It was thirty minutes back. The lid was almost undone, he could siphon the gas and walk back with it, and he would lose an hour if he walked there and back first.
He stood up, tripped on the curled hose and fell face first onto the concrete. He yelled obscenities. Brainless, hopeless, dickless, heartless, fat-ass, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped. Above him the sky unfolded like distended clumps of tissue.
He got up silently and went back to work. He avoided getting gasoline in his mouth. He siphoned it into the container until it was half full and the tank empty. He thought I’m on a pilgrimage to see a moose. He laughed. It became a belly laugh and he rolled over to let it roll through him. It did not last long and he smiled long after he felt it. There was no one there to see it. He knew he had to get up and start back.
The container was heavy. The boy was where he left him. He plopped the container beside him, the sound declaring victory. The boy did not respond.
Ready to go?
Yeah. It’s been a real drag, Dad.
Well, it’s only going to get better from here. We’ve got the gas, we put it in the car, and we go.
Why are we going to a place if no one’s going to be there?
Get in the car, Russ.
They got back in the car.
I just thought it might be easier to, she said across the flame of the dash.
Nothing worthwhile is easy. You know that.
You set standards no family can live up to.
Weddings, anniversaries, funerals, holidays.
She stared him down. He looked away.
It’s fortified, Ellen. I’ve planned everything very carefully so we’d get there.
I know how much it means to you, but I think it’d be a lot easier on all of us if you’d just try to relax.
I’m begging you.
What are you doing? I should have done it a long time ago. When there were three bullets in the gun instead of two. It seems like a pretty bad idea driving out. I was stupid. I was brought. And now I’m done. It’s been just one disaster after another. Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather drive to a theme park. But I cant. I cant.
We’ll find a place to stay for the night, and we’ll start fresh in the morning.
You talk about going there but there’s no there there to go to.
You have an uncanny knack for looking at the dark side of things.
My only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.
They continued driving until he stopped. He wouldn’t stop until they had no gas. When he did, he stared at her.
Where are you going?
What do you care?
She opened the door and was gone.
He dreamed of a wooden rollercoaster bitten in half by cyclopean jaws whose owner had long since left the scene. The car was hanging off a chewed end, and he, or himself in the dream, wondered how to climb up to it and position himself and the boy inside without it tottering over the edge. He shuddered awake.
Dawn came slowly. It made him more comfortable that he could see farther. He looked at the woman on the roof. Her skin was still slack in some places, taut in others. There should have been insects buzzing in and out of her but there were none. Maybe some maggots inside. He had no idea why he still had her there, why he did not hide her from the boy. But he needed her there. She scared off newcomers. She looked like a death’s head, his version of a mermaid on a prow. Beware me, for I will be you. He smiled at the thought of anyone seeing their rail-thin bodies and thinking them murderous. He wasn’t and the boy wasn’t and she sure as hell wasn’t. They were alone.
That night he dreamed that it had been a trick, that the boy was neither warrant nor god but interchangeable, his face erased with another’s who pretended to be his son. He sat by the fire with growing unease without running or signaling that he had noticed.