Bourbon Penn 26

Where the Prayers Run Like Weeds Along the Road

by Fred Coppersmith

You find the dead man waiting for you right where you left him, leaning against the old wooden fence at the side of the road. He looks like he’s smiling, a lopsided grin of too many teeth, but you’re sure that’s just a trick of the light, or of too little sleep. Because when you pull the truck over and rub both of your eyes until you see stars, the grin is gone, and the dead man just grumbles at you and says, “What took you so long?”

You squint into the distance as you climb out of the cab, making sure there are no other cars on the road. It’s just an excuse to not answer his question right away and the both of you know it. You’re not even sure you could say what day of the week it was if he asked, but you know for sure there hasn’t been another car on this road in a very long time.

“Quarantine,” you finally answer, because it’s only halfway a lie, and because you like to keep your conversations with the dead man short. The truth is, you did spot a few barricades between here and Duluth, even a lone police station along the empty road whose windows were boarded and whose brick walls hadn’t yet crumbled completely to dust. But there was no one left inside it, or if there was, you’re glad you didn’t see them, and you can only hope they didn’t see you.

The truth is, any quarantine worth a damn fell a long time ago, and there’s nothing left out here on the road that anybody should have to see.

“Uh huh,” says the dead man, just to make sure you know he doesn’t believe it. He’s usually much chattier than this, needling, trying to get you to talk, but you figure the approaching storm has got him spooked. He doesn’t want to spend another night caught out in the rain. He knows as well as you the sort of things that might come out at night to hunt, and to feed. He knows that being dead won’t be any defense if those things happen to find him.

“We should get going,” he says.

You lift the dead man into the flatbed of the truck, hating the feel (and certainly the smell) of his flesh so close to your own. From too much practice, you know it’s best to lift with your knees, and to get it over with as quickly as possible.

“Secure?” you ask, and you think he raises an eyebrow at that, listening for the lilt in your voice. You can usually control it if you stick to simple syllables, no more than two or three at a time. But it’s harder to control when you’re tired, and the dead man knows you’ve been on the road all morning. If you’re not careful, he’ll try to get you to talk. And in getting you to talk, he’ll get you to sing.

Maybe it’s just because it amuses him, what the change did to your voice. Maybe he’s still looking for answers out here and thinks he’ll find them in whatever he hears your voice say. You haven’t asked, and he hasn’t exactly volunteered. Either way, though, you’re pretty sure you want to keep him from hearing too much of your song.

Either way, you don’t wait for an answer. You close up the truck and climb back into the cab. It’ll be his own damn fault if he doesn’t hold on, a repeat of what happened miles back in Evansville, when he tumbled into the road and you were forced to spin the truck around.

Or was that in Cedar Rapids? You used to be able remember things like that. But the two of you have been heading north for so many days now, and there was nothing left of either city except the dead, the fallen, and the changed.

“Don’t go slow on my account,” you hear him say, and you roll up the window, even though the air conditioner’s busted and the cab of the truck still stinks of cigarettes. Even though it must have been almost a week ago, now, that you stole it.

The radio still works, at least you assume, but you keep it switched off as a rule. There’s nothing but static, no one left out there to broadcast, and you got tired of listening for something that wasn’t ever going to be there anymore.

Maybe you got scared you wouldn’t know what to do if one day, instead, it was.

When the angels first fell to Earth, everything broke into pieces. That’s how you remember it, anyway. That’s the picture that comes to mind whenever you think about the end of the world. Anyone who went quick, or went mad, you remember thinking they were the lucky ones. Everyone else was just a piece of the breakage. Everyone else, like you … changed.

You were sitting at your kitchen table when it happened, watching what would turn out to be one of the last news reports ever on television. They were talking very calmly about what they had taken to calling the arrival. There was some expert or another on the television screen, warning people away from the site of the impact. The place where the ship, or the presence, or whatever it was, had fallen. You were talking to somebody else—it’s funny how you can’t quite remember who—when you realized, quite suddenly, that you were singing.

“What are you doing?” he asked. And you think he might have smiled, maybe even laughed, at first. Now that you remember it, you think he might have been your husband, maybe even said your name. Meredith, he might have called you, or Margaret. “Do you hear what it is you’re doing?” You remember he stared at you for a very long time after that. “What is that strange song that you’re—“

You try to remember, but it was a long time ago, in a world that isn’t here anymore. Or if it is still here, it’s nothing but the dust and bones of that world, nothing left of it but dead men and broken pieces. It’s easier just to focus on the road and the world that you’re in now. Think about nothing except for where you and the dead man are headed. You can’t trust any of your memories, even if they’re the only things you have left. You don’t know if what you saw on the TV that day was real. You don’t even know for sure if you were married.

All you know for sure, all you can really place any trust in anymore, is the singing. Every time you try to speak, it always comes out instead as singing.

Is it any wonder you don’t let yourself do it very often?

“Take a right up ahead,” you hear the dead man shout from the back of the truck. “You’ll wanna follow that for at least a couple miles till you hit I-90.”

You do as he says, and it’s only as you curve around the highway’s entrance ramp that it occurs to you to even wonder if I-90 runs through this part of the country, or in the direction that the two of you want to be headed. None of this looks the least bit familiar, but the dead man is the closest thing you have to a map. And this wouldn’t be the first time that the geography you’re traveling through wasn’t where you’d expected it to be. Whole cities, whole states, have gone missing, and not just in your memories.

There are no other cars on this road, whichever one it is, except for a handful of broken-down heaps rusting along the shoulder. You wonder about that, too, as you drive. However quick the end of the world happened, it seems to you like there ought to be at least a few more cars, maybe bodies or belongings abandoned in the road. How much of it, you wonder, was just suddenly gone, erased like everything else, by whatever it was the angels did or caused that rewrote the world when they fell? How much of it was salvaged, scavenged, hunted, by the strange and hungry people who wound up rewritten along with it?

The thing is, everyone died after the arrival. Everything that was worth something in this world just vanished, was destroyed, ground to dust. When the fallen spilled across the borders, they undid the world like a tidal wave crashing onto a shore. There was something left when the waters receded, but it wasn’t the world.

Anyone who was left wound up like you, or like the dead man rotting in the back of the truck. Changed. And on some fundamental level that you still don’t remotely understand. That morning at your kitchen table, you and the rest of the world were remade into something different, something feral and strange and maybe only half-human.

You think maybe it’s a blessing you don’t remember it well. Because make no mistake: just because it gave you a song, that doesn’t mean it left you with anything else.

All the same, you keep an eye out for any campfires, signs of life in the thin scratch of trees that stand along the highway. It’s been days since you last ran into any kind of trouble, and even that was just a crazed old witch with a shotgun who tried to stop you from siphoning gas outside her ruin of a town. But you know better than to take any chances. Even if there’s no sound for miles except the shaky hum of the engine, and nothing to see except the heavy storm clouds you won’t be able to outrun before nightfall, you know all too well that what’s left of this world is anything but safe.

There’s hardly enough people left alive to be anything like a threat, but when did that ever stop people from trying?

Besides, there are still the fallen to watch out for.

“Those things aren’t any damn angels,” the dead man muttered the first time you met him. “Damn thing that fell from the sky was a spaceship and the both of us know it.”

You didn’t argue with him then, and you won’t now, even if he decides to start the whole thing back up. Maybe you’ll get lucky and he’ll finally tire himself out. His mouth is the only part of him that still really works right, the only part of him where rigor hasn’t started to set in. Sometimes you figure he’s just trying to get his money’s worth.

It’s not like you can remember enough to say for sure if he’s wrong. You can’t even remember where you were the first time you and him met.

A week or two ago, the dead man was just there, thumbing for a ride at the side of the road. His body was already half-decayed, and his legs were both gone. But you stopped whatever car it was you were driving back then and pulled up alongside.

“I can’t offer you money,” he said, and you didn’t know if that was meant to be some kind of joke. “But I expect I can get you closer to the damn thing than you’re likely to get on your own.”

Of course he meant north, the site of the impact. The arrival. The fall. The news reports never mentioned the town or the city by name—or maybe they did, and it just slipped away from you like everything else. You had no idea what was waiting for you there, in the heart of where the angels had undone the world, and you had no good reason to go. But it never once occurred to you to tell the dead man that he was wrong.

“I don’t know what those bastards did to me neither,” he told you, “but it’s like I got this homing beacon or something lodged in my brain.”

Maybe that was why he was so irritable, you remember thinking. Maybe that was why his death didn’t fully take. Back then, you didn’t have any reason yet to doubt him. You didn’t think either one of you had any reasons left to lie.

“Mind the stomach, though,” he said, as you hefted him into the car. “That’s where I got shot.”

It’s starting to rain—not a lot, but enough that you’re almost tempted to ask the dead man if he’s all right back there. You don’t think he feels the heat or the cold, not exactly, but then, neither exactly do you. There’s a plastic tarp in the back of the truck if the rain gets to be too much, and it’s not like his hands don’t work at all, even if they are blackened with rot. It’s not like he can’t fend for himself if he just tries. You’re sure as hell not letting him ride up front with you.

“We should hit the border sometime round nightfall,” he says after a few more miles. There’s a flash in the sky, almost like lightning, but you don’t see the actual strike, so you don’t know if the two of you are driving away from or into the storm. “An alien ship crash-landed in Canada.” He chuckles, though you don’t know why that’s supposed to be funny. “Ain’t that always the goddamn way?”

The dead man has never shied away from sharing with you his pet theories about what happened—to him, and to the rest of the world. Alien neurotoxins, he told you once. Mass hallucinations. A failed invasion force. (“Ain’t you never seen a sci-fi movie?”) They arrived in too many numbers, he said, or maybe too few. Whichever it was, everything went south the day they crash-landed up north. He’s told you this more times than you care to count.

You know it wasn’t you who killed the dead man, but only because if it was, you know he’d never let you forget.

You probably have enough gas in the tank to get the truck as far as Vancouver, or to whatever city it is that now sits in Vancouver’s place. The way the sky is starting to look, some of that is going to be hard driving, even if it’s just the wind and the rain the two of you have to worry about. But for now it’s just another stretch of highway no less lonely than any other, and there are at least a good three or four more hours in front of you before sunset.

You almost don’t notice the body lying in the road before it’s too late.

“What the hell?” the dead man shouts as the truck skids to a sudden halt. His body slams against the rear window of the truck’s cab and he curses again, spitting at you a colorful assortment of angry names.

“Quiet!” you hiss, glancing back at him, even though you know it’s a mistake to take your eyes off the road. This is a trap. This is almost definitely a trap.

You throw the truck into park but you don’t shut off the engine. Instead, you let your hand stray toward the shotgun that’s propped up against the passenger seat, which you can only hope you remembered to reload.

The body in the road isn’t dead, you can tell at least that much right away. It’s lying on its side, with its back to the truck, but you’re pretty sure you can see the ragged rise and fall of its breathing.

Not that that means much of anything nowadays.

It’s wrapped in something like an old army coat, dark olive green beneath all the mud and other unclassifiable stains, too heavy by half for even this kind of weather. You couldn’t even begin to guess if it’s supposed to be a man or a woman.

It could very well be an angel, it suddenly occurs to you. But, then, you don’t think you’d still be sitting there, alive and wondering that, if that were the case.

The truth is, you’ve never actually seen one of the fallen, not up close, but you’ve felt the heavy weight of their presence and seen enough of their handiwork to be afraid. You don’t have to be the fool who kicks up a hornets’ nest to know that you should run if you ever hear them buzzing.

It’s the knife in the body’s hand that finally convinces you it’s something other than an angel. You’re just about to open the driver’s-side door and slide carefully from the truck when you spot the glint of metal in the fading afternoon light. A hunting knife, from the looks of it, long and dangerously sharp. Something about it tugs at your memory. But then the body in the road jumps to its feet and lets loose a shrill caw-caw sound that draws two other similarly dressed figures running from the surrounding woods.

You barely have time to grab the shotgun and bolt from the cab before they’re both at the back of the truck, reaching for the dead man, who shouts angrily and tries fending them off. They’re quick but uncoordinated, and unarmed unlike their companion. The dead man may not have very much strength, but neither do they, and their fumbling attempts to hoist him from the truck might almost be comical under different circumstances.

You fire the gun.

You’re a terrible shot, but they’re close enough that it doesn’t matter. You hit one of them square in the shoulder and he (or she) goes spinning wildly around, the other one immediately backing off in a blind panic. It’s only then that you remember the only shells you took off the old lady were filled with rock salt. But if the two of them realize that, it hasn’t lessened any of the fear in their eyes.

You spare a quick glance toward the front of the truck, but their decoy has already run, dropped the knife in the road and hightailed it back to the woods. You pump the shotgun again and bark at the other two, “Get lost!” and breathe a sigh of relief when they don’t need any other encouragement than that.

“You should’ve killed them,” the dead man grumbles when they’ve both disappeared into the trees. “How do you know they won’t just be circling back?”

“They won’t,” you tell him.

You’re not sure if that’s true, but it sounds convincing enough, and the one thing you’re definitely too tired to do is argue.

“They wanted me, did you notice?” says the dead man, when he realizes you’re not going to say anything else. “Probably figured where we were headed and they wanted to hitch a ride.”

Probably they just wanted you for food, is what you think, but you don’t say it. You almost feel sorry for the three of them, just another half-starved wild pack that fell together when the world fell apart. They may be lost, but it’s not like there’s a whole lot else you can be out here except for that.

But that’s not the kind of thing you can tell the dead man.

Instead, you just stare at the knife.

It’s sharper than the one that was on your kitchen table that morning. Heavier, too, though not by much. The steel is surprisingly cold against the palm of your hand, and it only draws a little blood when you brush your thumb across the edge of the blade.

There was so much more of it that morning.

“Are we just gonna stand around here all day?” the dead man finally grunts. He stares at you crookedly when you laugh out loud at that, but … well, come on, just look at his legs.

For a brief moment, you almost forget why you were so angry with him only yesterday. Why you tossed him from the truck and abandoned him to the rainy night. Why it wasn’t until the sun had risen over the highway that you finally decided to slow down, cool off, and turn back. For just a moment, the two of you might be nothing more than old friends, out on the road for an afternoon’s jaunt.

But then you look again at the knife, and it cuts something inside of you like a memory loose.

“Did you kill him?” the dead man asked you.

You were camped for the night in some nameless city, and you didn’t even need to look up at him from your can of cold beans to know immediately who he meant. He was fishing again, like he’d been doing for days, maybe weeks. He’d told you about the woman who’d shot and killed him, the one he said was his wife, but what he really wanted was your story, to get you talking, to get you angry, to make you lose control and start to sing. He’d heard a little of it when you weren’t careful and now it seemed like he always wanted more. You’d ignored him as best you could, pushed him off, muttering nothing in response as you drove through ravaged town after ravaged town, watching for any sign of movement and listening always instead for the angry approach of angels’ wings.

“You’ve never said,” said the dead man with a smirk, “but you sure talk about your husband often enough.”

And that was more than you could take, because it was nothing better than a lie. You never talked about him at all, not if you could help it, and certainly not to the dead man. Some things you’d mostly stopped letting yourself even think about anymore.

Your husband, and what the song told you to do him, was one of those things.

He yelled at you the entire time, the dead man did, as you heaved his body from the bed of the truck and pitched him up against the fence. He spat every curse he must have known at you, maybe invented several more, but it felt so good to finally be rid of him. How had you not done this before? How had his wife only shot him once? You sped away even though you had no earthly idea where you were headed, knowing only that you’d wring his neck if you tried to stay, that you’d only be discouraged when he stubbornly refused to properly die. You drove for hours, blinded by your anger, but also suddenly ecstatic, exhilarated, electric, finally free.

It was disappointing when the spell broke shortly before dawn. You wanted to keep driving through the night, through your rage, through the ruins, but of course you had to go back. Where else could you go if you didn’t go back?

The worst part wasn’t reaching that decision. The worst part was knowing that he’d expect it of you. The dead man had pushed you to the edge, with a not-even-convincingly told lie, and he’d never had any fear you wouldn’t return.

You’d had your little tantrum, but now it was time to get back to the business at hand. Now it was time to continue ferrying the both of you north.

“Okay, fine,” you hear yourself tell him now, “all right,” not even caring anymore if your voice fades into song.

You tuck the blade into your belt as you stand back up in the road. The sky has almost started to clear, but it’s still bruised with the promise of more rain. The dead man is a lot of things, but he isn’t wrong: it isn’t safe just standing there. Even if the wild pack doesn’t reappear, there are always worse things out in the woods. Maybe you haven’t ever seen an angel, but you’ve seen enough of what’s left when the fallen have their way with the unwary.

You remember driving through some other city east or west of here, in the days right after the end of the world happened. As you neared the center of town, you spied a young girl with glowing green eyes dancing on the ledge of a building. She couldn’t have been more than three stories up, and you couldn’t have been more than a few hundred feet away, but no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t make out a single word she was shouting. You wanted to wave, signal her somehow, but then a vast shadow swooped down from the sky and she was suddenly gone. Like she had never even been there in the first place.

Were the angels cast out of heaven? Did they arrive from outer space? What does it matter where the monsters came from, if nowadays they’re under every bed?

Sitting again behind the wheel of the truck, you’re struck by another, more recent memory: of the long drive back to reclaim the dead man this morning. Your anger had subsided, and it was just you and the empty road, the empty world, for miles as the hours rolled past. You must have started talking to yourself then, because the next thing you knew, you weren’t talking at all. It was like somebody else was perched there beside you, like it was them who was talking, or like they’d switched the radio back on and the two of you were just sitting there, side by side, merrily singing along.

Every time you try to speak, the words always come out instead as singing.

At first, those words are always your own, but that never lasts. When the angels fell to Earth, they left behind something inside you, like somebody else’s voice that tells you in song what to do. Pick up this knife; pick up the pace; flee as fast as you can into the heart of the raging storm. Was it the song that told you to kill your husband? Compelled you to start driving? Convinced you to listen when the dead man claimed he knew where to go? You’re not even sure anymore if you ever really wanted to go north, if you ever actually had a choice. You just heard the tune and followed in step.

Now the song has told you how to do something else. On that long drive back this morning, it told you how to kill the dead man—and even better, how to make sure this time his death finally sticks. It all sounded so simple. A small handful of words, a few shallow cuts. You even have another knife. Can you really blame yourself for wanting to listen again?

“We’re still making good time,” the dead man tells you, after you’ve put some distance between you and that spot in the road. “It’ll be late before we get there, but I’ve got a good feeling about this.”

You don’t know if he’s lying, even though the song told you he has been for days. Maybe he believes what he’s saying. Maybe it’s not just you he’s trying to convince. When the world ended, it changed him too, and you can’t exactly blame him for wanting that change to matter. No matter how much the dead man pisses you off, you understand why he wants there to be a reason, an answer, a remedy, something waiting for you both in the north. He’s not the only one who’s been holding on to that lie.

You think maybe you won’t kill him tonight after all. Maybe it’s enough to know you still have options.

You’ll have to stop to scrounge some food before you get anywhere, anyway. You can wait and see if he makes some new excuse, pokes at some other old wound. Maybe he’ll astound you both and have been telling the truth. There’s no reason you have to decide on anything just yet.

It’s not like his lying to you would mean the end of the world.

“Good feeling,” you echo back, “sure,” smiling just a little at the sound enveloping your voice. All of it’s just words, but in the end, all your words become songs, and what are songs if not the prayers we say to no particular gods?

You don’t know if any of the old gods are still listening. You don’t know if any of the new ones are worth talking to. But there are worse things in whatever is left of this world than not knowing. You might even meet a few of those things if you keep driving.

You smile again, this time what feels like for real, patting the knife at your hip and searching the sky for any sliver of sun, and you drive toward whatever is or is not out there.

Fred Coppersmith’s fiction has appeared previously or is forthcoming in such places as Stupefying Stories, Mythic Delirium, and All Worlds Wayfarer, among others. He toils by day in the wilds of academic publishing and also edits the quarterly zine Kaleidotrope.