[tw post-apocalyptic grotesque bleakness involving dead bodies & stuff]
He’s headed northwest on I-70 when at last he’s finally forced to pull over.
In the end, it’s not because he’s out of gas, or because stalled cars and trucks have blocked the interstate completely making it impossible to go around. He’s had to go off-road surprisingly few times, mostly thanks to multi-vehicle collisions; drivers long since dragged from their cars and either devoured or turned, stuck horns no longer blaring, headlights dimmed. Only very rarely is the clump of accidents so bad and the shoulder so impassable (or, once, in Pennsylvania, a washed-out bridge) that he simply has to change cars: walk to the other side of the tangle and steel himself to pull whatever’s left from another driver’s seat. Then there’s a ritual: jump-start the battery with his remaining juice, hot-wire ignition the way he was taught; check the gas level, wipe the oil dipstick, examine the tires. Sometimes, to his relief and pleasure—an uncomfortable pleasure, followed by a thick sickened feeling he suspects might be shame—all he has to do is just turn the key, because whoever was about to die had startled presence of mind enough, was so schooled and conditioned by habit, that she’d simply turned off her car in the moments before death.
It’s almost always she, he notices. The same ones who leave behind well-organized purses and center consoles and gloveboxes, handbags he ransacks for their stores of tissues and lotion, candy and gum, painkillers and stronger prescription drugs. These are the women who keep bottled water in the cup holders, fruit rollups and energy bars in the back floorboards or seat pockets. When he is forced to switch cars, he brings everything with him, carries it in the largest handbag he’s found: a pebbled chocolate-brown satchel with a dulled gold stamp reading “kate spade.” He addresses Kate, sometimes, not just in his head but already aloud; thanks her for the water, for the lip emollients that stop his own from burning.
Even this far from big cities the sky roils with dark smoke, heavy and unsettled. He’s lost enough grace not to be able to tell what it is that’s burning, which chemicals and pollutants sift down through the air and sting his eyes and membranes inside his nose and mouth. It’s sifting away, too; he loses it by the hour—it dries up, like watching water evaporate from a puddle. I wasted time, he thinks, not with bitterness but numbly, and now doth time waste me.
(Sometimes in the cars he finds children, their gender obscured by decay. He needs to remember, tries to, that they were people, that they were just as beloved. Whatever rags the children are wearing, whatever length of hair remains on their skulls, he calls them all Mary, because that name once meant something. He unstraps them gently from their seats, arranges families together by the side of the interstate and starts the fire, leaving quickly before it can draw attention. He prays sometimes but only once he’s driving away, safe behind the wheel; sometimes tries to sing “Dies Irae” or say the קדיש, mumbles requiums under his breath, larynx hoarse, throat choking shut on the notes.)
Long ago, pressed into the clammy stone, years he spent listening enrapt to that one contralto nun, her voice like rich soft rainwater gliding over the modal syllables of “Ave, generosa,” transcendent hymns she wrote in Mary’s praise. Listened decades, half a century, until her clear skin wrinkled and she grew old, until she was not. She had something he no longer has, did he ever have it. Did humanity. Was it a thing that ever existed once, that he helped smash. Does she write psalms even now in her heaven, does she still cradle and lift into the light that glorious lucent glasslike orb of her fragile but luminous faith.
for heaven’s flood poured into you as heaven’s word was clothed in flesh in you you are the lily, gleaming white, upon which g-d has fixed his gaze before all else created around you he enwrapped his warm embrace so that his son was suckled at your breast
He drives. He has to know, it takes days, he doesn’t sleep, doesn’t stop. Goes faster at night when he sees eyes gleaming out at him from the roadside.
And yet finally, It’s a billboard that does it, just a stupid fucking billboard, peeling and weathered, stuck out crooked from a neglected cornfield, and he pulls over because he starts laughing too hard to keep driving.
HELL IS REAL, it reads, with conviction, in uppercase block letters, white against black; and of course across the front someone has inevitably spraypainted the livid diagonal scarlet warning: CROATOAN.
He can’t help it. He watches himself break open, has watched this happen to people before, knows it’s hysteria but there is it anyway, like swallowing down nausea or gasping in fear, something bodies just do that can’t really be avoided. So he gives into it, gets himself out of the car—no one for miles, if the plague ever had been there it’s moved on—barely gets the door shut and then just folds over against it, his forehead smacking painfully hard against the glass window as his mouth presses against the bare crook of his arm, convulsing, opened and biting into skin to muffle the sounds. His shirt sleeve is torn off up high where he’d used it to bandage—bandage someone—someone who immediately didn’t make it. Wasted effort. And his own efforts wasting him.
HELL IS REAL. Hell is real! They had no idea how real. Hell is here, hell is now. He’s been to hell, spent forty years plummeting down through the worst it had to offer and it was nothing, this was infinitely worse and more wrong because this wasn’t supposed to—wasn’t meant to be hell—this was a deliberately planned paradise, and both the gardeners and their caretakers, they’d all conspired, unintentionally, through a series of colossally egotistical, blinded choices, to uproot, to defile, to spoil everything that—
He catches his breath, reaches to wipe wetness off his face and his hand comes away filthy, streaked with soot. It’s hard to swallow, it’s hard to make his chest stop whatever it’s doing. His arm is dirty where his face rubbed it. He should use one of the bottles of water to wash, probably. Find more water.
Vaguely gray and furry, an animal darts off through the corn and the stalks quiver and rattle behind it. Eventually he’ll need to eat but he can’t think about that, not yet, not when hell is real. Hell is nearby, so proximate it throbs.
Hell is that he’s maybe an hour outside of Lebanon, with Detroit’s ruins behind him. And he is terrified—not of what he will, but of what he might not find there.