Bourbon Penn 12

The Road Knows When a Journey is Over

by George Sandison

It was my idea to drive north. It’ll take more than the Thorn to make me leave my homeland. I want to lie here in the cold forever. I guess the others do too.

Lyla’s face is sallow in the glow from the dash as we travel in silence. I wonder if she’s thinking of Sofia. Her knuckles are white, the veins compressed into the tissues of her hand. There is a bulge in her cheek that speaks of tension, prominent underneath such delicate features.

Her hand brushes mine, which rests on my thigh, whenever she changes gears. The mix of excitement and guilt tightens my throat. I can’t decide if it’s right or not, us, now. It’s better than doing this alone.

The buckled landscape is strange, but the road mostly endured the test. It tore in places and we arc around welts of tarmac, debris and abandoned cars. These vehicles are mausoleums to underprepared corpses. Dead eyes gaze from slumped heads, disappointed at their lack of finery. We’ve all tried to stop looking through the windows, but the occupants refuse us the same courtesy; death never blinks.

The shrapnel of humanity gleams in the sickly light that passes for day. We drive through the twilight hours where the sun passes behind the Thorn, a second darkness in the day to host our nightmares.

Mal and Sal are in the car behind, choosing a sensible hatchback for their drive. Their sons raced on ahead in their Jeep and we haven’t seen them for hours. A month ago we would have told them they were too young to drive, that they weren’t responsible enough. Perhaps Mal and Sal figured they won’t do anything stupid. But then we were stupid when we were young. Denied cars, we could have drowned, fallen off a roof or something. The Thorn hasn’t changed the follies of youth, just how they are played out. Maybe Mal and Sal decided it doesn’t matter any more.

Lyla and I didn’t talk much before Sofia died. Sofia always resented me for not taking an interest in her only sister. So the silence we craft now is a comfortable thing. We stare out at the flat reflections thrown back at us by our Land Rover’s headlights. I wonder if she’s feeling guilty like I do, like she’s betraying Sofia’s memory?

• • •

We skirt around the south of the Drag, where Liverpool used to be. The boys are waiting for us where the motorway meets the carnage. The end of the line. We have to go back and pick a route through Crewe after which we are forced on to the north coast of Wales on our way to Colwyn Bay. Maybe the mountains subdued the shockwaves, because the roads are less warped and twisted up here. The Thorn is a silhouetted mass towering over the earth until we reach the coast, just past Chester. When we finally turn the corner that exposes us to the vista we all stop, immobilized by the scale of it.

The boys get out of their car first. Mal and Sal follow, wrapping their little fingers together. Lyla and I take our time, weary and inured to the devastation. Our eyes lock over the bonnet, and I see her relax slightly, her shoulders slumping. The world is terrible, certainly, but only to pieces of us that are now numb.

There are ruins around the very tip of the Drag. They must have been the suburbs, but their names are all lost to me now. Had it hit London I could have spent hours sketching out winners and losers of the catastrophe. Maybe Enfield would have survived whilst Kensington and Chelsea became a chasm? Perhaps it would have sloughed a path through London Bridge to Bermondsey, diverting over the river into Wapping, cutting the Isle of Dogs free on the way. Except it didn’t. I’m toying with a catastrophe. Instead there is the start of a huge furrow in the skin of the earth that consumed the city, the Wirral and so much more.

Most of it is hidden by the water, which boils and churns in its victory over the land. I envy the sea its adaptability. The tides jealously guard the secrets of their new domains, but they can’t hide the cause. The Thorn. A single claw bereft of a predator, one large enough to swallow stars in its maw. A snake’s tooth broken off in the thin shell of our planetary egg. It is black, rough-shod and embedded in the heart of Ireland where the tip has pierced the crust of the Earth, cracked it open.

The path it carved into the sea is fresh and bleeding. The water pours in to this vast crack only to sublimate to steam which tunnels up into the sky, desperate to condense and start the process again. The Earth is a hemophiliac, the wound refusing to heal. From here we can hear a dull roar, the voices of eternity playing Chinese Whispers.

Does anyone agree on what the Thorn is? Not that it matters. It has mortally wounded humanity; the skies are full of ash. A new ice age is born.

• • •

Some time later we decide our journey is over.

None of us expected to find anything out here, we just wanted front row seats for the end of all things. We camp in the shadow of a bluff, sheltered from the elements, probably the closest living humans to the Thorn. We don’t know or care how many survivors there are: Those who cling to some sense of purpose, a reason to continue. We only want to be left to grieve for Sofia, and each other, in peace.

The fire burns greedily, chewing through the bounty of darkness. I think it’s that time when night and morning intermingle, waiting for sleep to give them their identity. Lyla keeps her watch and checks it repeatedly, just one of a bounty of nervous tics. We live in the gloaming reflection of life, under the Thorn.

Now that we have chosen to arrive we are revitalized, suddenly free to roam away from the cars. Lyla rests her head on my lap by the fire, a finger scratching at the hem of my jeans. Opposite, Mal and Sal sit side by side, looking older than yesterday. The boys are sprawled close enough to absorb warmth, but they’ll leap up again no doubt. I find their mania soothing, it appeals to a part of me I thought too gray to stir.

Mal stares at his feet, occasionally placing his palms together as if he’s doing yoga. Can he find his centre in this broken land? Sal told him earlier that one side of his body is bigger than the other, which he can’t believe. He looks sceptically at his hands, shifting one up, then the other, desperate to make them match.

The silence lasts too long. It is always hungry, wanting more of us. I shift Lyla from her nest and ask them, “How do we want to start this off then?” They say nothing, look to each other for guidance. “I’m getting the champagne.”

The boys’ heads shoot to stare down their parents, predatory and wanting. Rowlie is old enough at 16, we’d all turn a blind eye for Oliver as well — show me a 13-year-old that doesn’t want to get drunk. It’s Peter I wonder about. He’s just 9. A month ago that would have been obscenely young; that little number would have made monsters of us all. I head to the car and leave the decision to Mal and Sal.

The box of bottles peals and echoes across the coastline as I carry it back. I place the box near the fire and say, “The good news is they’re chilled.” Mal laughs. Sal, her blanket wrapped tight around her, smiles. I pass one to Lyla and she looks at me with that same impassive stare she’s had for weeks. I don’t blame her.

I take a bottle for myself and shift the box into Mal’s reach. He passes one to Sal then takes one and holds it out for the boys. Rowlie takes it quickly but Mal holds it tight and says, “We toast first. You keep a close eye on Peter. And stay away from the cliffs.” Rowlie nods solemnly. “I mean it,” pushes Mal, “We’ll worry about dying soon enough. No rush.” Rowlie takes the newly freed bottle with less enthusiasm than he started with. We toast in silence, then they slink off into the night.

We drink quickly at first. I hear Mal suppress a belch then mumble an apology. Lyla takes a swig, rolls her head, and then releases a great resonating belch of her own. Sal is first to laugh, whilst I turn to Lyla just in time to catch the trace of a smile. I take her hand in the shadow of our legs where the others can’t see. It’s no secret, but I know Lyla prefers it this way.

I have to look away from her, look up. I can’t forget the earthquake, the way the very planet shuddered and reeled from the impact. We were thrown bodily such huge distances it was laughable. I remember shrieking maniacally after the first shockwave, like I’d just come off a roller coaster. The aftershocks for the next couple of hours reduced me to a sobbing mote under the vast talon. By the time they stopped, the clouds of dust were already blooming toward the sky. The land was deconstructed to great slabs and jagged-edged plates.

I name my mercies now, mouthing them silently in the firelight: Lyla, Mal, Sal, Rowlie, Oliver, Peter.

Possessed by the need to speak, I say, “So–” but draw the sound out, uncertain how to continue until the word completes itself for me, “–fia.”

Lyla clenches my hand tightly and says, “Sofia.”

So it is spoken, and a weight is lifted from us, some shroud over communication. I see Mal stir, his posture change, and I realize he’s remembering what a garrulous son of a bitch he can be. He looks around at an imaginary audience a couple of times and then says to me, “I’ve got to tell you something. You know I love you, but Sofia really hated the way you chew your nails. She was right too, it’s infuriating. I sure as hell know she was feeding you enough.”

It’s true. I chew them to the quick, grab spiny shards with incisors and make myself bleed in deep, stinging dots. It’s a nervous habit of mine I hate; I’m not surprised to hear it bothered her, too. The best I can say is, “Nice, Mal, you got any more?”

“More?” he replies, pretending offense, “You tell me. What about the sausages?”

I laugh, which surprises me as much as it does Lyla. Sofia and I had agreed the sausages incident was best left buried because it tapped into some deep chord of one-upmanship in us. It always started good-natured, but neither of us would back down. Until one of us would finally take it too seriously.

I go for the bait. “You see Mal, the thing about Sofia is you have to understand quite how much she liked sausages. I mean like she really pathologically adored sausages.”

“We know that,” Mal interrupts, “You’ve got to tell us if you ate them or not.”

“Do I?” I ask him, through my laughter. Mal’s nodding like a fool, Sal’s grin is wide like the horizon and beautiful. I weigh up whether or not I’m ready to confess to this pettiest of crimes. I did it to make her angry and Sofia knew. I always hoped she also knew I did it so she wouldn’t be perfect. I had to have that over her or she would have killed me with serenity.

Quickly now, my laughter fades. I’ve felt like a ghost since Sofia died. No one should pass away in their sleep, it’s selfish. Painless, peaceful and beyond reconciliation for anyone who wakes up. It’s been 48 days since I kissed her cold cheek, the sun bright and warming on my last act of innocence. It’s been six weeks since the Thorn landed. I can’t remember which night Lyla and I first slept together, just that she came to me.

It’s not long before I feel drunk. Champagne always does that to me, but at least the warmth of alcohol offers a more fundamental sense of peace. We give up on silence and share stories, thoughts, irrelevancies and more. Lyla tells us about a time they tried shoplifting. They had it all planned out, except Sofia lost her nerve halfway through and left Lyla wandering around the shop dodging the increasingly suspicious security guard whilst also shedding her heavy load of pilfered sweets.

Eventually I have to excuse myself, risk letting the rest of the world back in. As I piss into the night, hearing the steady wet splatter on the ground, I breathe deeply. We have a head-start on the rest of the world when it comes to accepting death. I guess that’s finally paying off. Even if just for a moment, Sofia’s life outweighs her death.

I trudge the short distance back to the fire, noisily, before I get close enough to see the new figures, and the recognizable shapes of long shotgun barrels. As I come into the firelight one of them gestures for me to sit next to Lyla, which I do. I can see three of them, all haggard and looking hungry.

The one in the middle says, “You know they’ve left us, don’t you?” his accent thick with the songs of the hills. These are locals. We all shake our heads dumbly, genuinely ignorant. “Sure, looked like it came from up north somewhere. A rocket. Looks to me like anyone who can is leaving.”

The gaunt man on his left says, “That was debris coming down, and you know it. It’s cruel to tell them anything else.”

“All I’m saying is someone must have made it.”

His thin friend shakes his head.

I imagine a bolt of light rising out of this dusty night. It’s something I’ve only ever seen on TV, recorded, abstracted, but I pretend this great arc soared into space so strong, slipping past the nightmare. I conjure a crew of humanity’s best, the lucky ones leaving on the last adventure. There’s a chance they’ll survive, a chance they’ll become heroes. There has to be.

The man in the middle asks, “You got anyone else here then?”

Despite the very real danger they carry, I feel little as Mal and Sal wrestle with their nerve. They want to keep the boys’ presence a secret. They’re worried we’re going to die here, now. I size up these new arrivals myself, trying to gauge their desperation. I see a weariness, enforced purpose more than the twitchy irrationalities of fear. I don’t know why, but I say to them, “There are three boys nearby drinking, their children,” I nod at Mal and Sal here, “They’re good kids. Please don’t hurt them.”

Mal is wide-eyed with fear, Sal’s head bowed with the expectation of the worst. Lyla squeezes my hand violently. As the one in the middle grunts an acknowledgement, refusing to commit, I feel certain that they don’t want to hurt us.

They stand there, just watching us for a couple of minutes. Maybe they’re weighing up how likely it is we’ll try and fight. I won’t. If this is to be it, then at least I was drunk and happy not long ago. None of the others move either, they have their own reasons for that. Then, without speaking, the strangers break the shotguns into the crooks of their arms and set off in the direction of the cars and our supplies.

Mal’s voice quivers with aftershocks of tension as he says, “They just want our food. They wouldn’t hurt the kids, would they?”

“I don’t think so,” I reply. I recognized their expressions as acceptance. I can think of only one thing in short supply in this world. I turn and shout into the darkness, “Bring some back here if you want, I’ll cook something up for all of us.”

The only answer is their receding footsteps, I don’t know if they’ll just take our food and disappear or not. I hope they come back and sit with us. I would know what they have lost, tell them they are not alone.

George Sandison is the Managing Editor at Unsung Stories, an independent publisher of literary and ambitious speculative fiction. His short stories have appeared in Pornokitsch, Jupiter SF, In Shades, Shelf Heroes, SQ Mag, Perihelion and