Four years ago, I had a short story accepted into an anthology (ebook) where all proceeds went to a charity. The premise of the anthologies that this press did was was “Cliches for a Cause.” Every anthology they did was tied together by a cliche theme. This particular short story was for the anthology of “In the end.”
The premise was that every story had to start with the three words “In the end,” and had to deal with some sort of post-apocalyptic scenario. My entry is below. I loved this story and I think it evidenced a huge turning point in my writing capability. My wife Laura also did artwork to accompany this story which I’ve also included.
“In the end, does it even matter which way we go?” Jack’s voice was soft, a whisper. I wasn’t even sure he wanted me to actually hear what he said. His hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel while the words hissed out between clenched teeth. We were running low on gas, supplies, and will. This was not the first time he had uttered those words, and I found myself staring at him. He looked at me and sighed. I knew that look and sigh and both were a portend for what was on the horizon.
“We have to go somewhere, Jack, we can’t stay here. We’ve picked it clean, what scraps were left.” I sat back, tugging at the seat-belt that was digging in. It was still habit to buckle up after all this time, even though we hadn’t seen a soul on the road in weeks. We’d followed a trail of proverbial corpses, trying to find a sign of life. There were no actual bodies and, really, that was the weirdest part. Whatever was happening left no trace behind. The remains we left behind us were the scars of civilization; empty cities a shell of what they once were, buildings falling in on themselves, and roads that were disappearing. It made travel slow and almost fruitless. Still, we had found a gas station on the outskirts of a small town that was barely more than a pockmark on the map. And luckily, it hadn’t been drained dry yet.
We had even found some canned goods, maybe enough to last a few more weeks. I had wanted to crack one of the cans of peaches open, to celebrate, but Jack had warned against that. We might feel like we had a lot now, but it’d run out all too soon, he had said. No point in making the inevitable happen that much faster. I hated it, but agreed with him at the time.
“Well, I think we should keep heading west. No point doubling back the way we came, right?” I looked over at Jack, arms starting to cross over my chest. I quickly uncrossed them, not wanting to escalate whatever was stirring here further into a fight. Neither of us had the energy for that. It was his turn to handle the tree that was laying across the road, stretching its branches out to block our way. This was the worst part, having to stop so often to clear our path of fallen trees. My arms were tired from the last bit of pushing. More often than not, it was a fallen tree, but that time it had been a herd of cars blocking the road. All of them had been picked clean of anything useful. All that remained in them had been memories left behind: clothes, belongings, and a stuffed bear or monkey or kitten here and there. Still, if it gave Jack a chance to cool down I was all for skipping his turn.
“I’ll take this one. You relax, breathe, count to ten if you have to. Catch a nap if you think it’ll help. Once I clear the road we have at least a few good hours of light left. Might be able to get to higher ground, see what’s out there.” My words, at least, sounded hopeful. It’d been a long while since we had come across any signs of life, or really anything more than the random canned goods we had boxed up in the back seat.
“What’s the point? Seriously, Cat.” He wouldn’t look at me, just kept his gaze straight out the window at the tree that blocked our path. If his look could start a fire, the tree would already be a torch against the oncoming night’s sky.
“What the shitting shit, man? We are not giving up now,” I snapped. I was already reaching into the backseat for the axe we had picked up from the gas station. We had thought to take a chainsaw at one point, but fuel was too precious to waste. “Come on, I’ll take this tree. Get out, take a walk, get some fresh air. We’ve been in the car all day. Stretch your legs some.”
“Should’ve gone north.” Now his words were sullen, which meant that we were past a fight for the most part. If this all came down to him losing the rock-paper-scissors game for which highway to take I was going to be pissed. Well, more pissed than I already was. He had wanted to head up towards Chicago, but I figured heading west towards St. Louis might be better. At least there might be something near the river. Maybe people had decided to head there. But even that was a best guess and at this point we were both pulling ideas out of thin air.
“Well, too late for that now. We’re not backtracking, there’s no point. Maybe we can circle back that way if there’s nothing this way?” An olive branch offered, and his hands loosened up a little from the steering wheel. That’d have to suffice for now, I thought to myself. We had been together long enough to know when we were reaching our limits. And how to avoid pushing buttons unnecessarily. We had talked each other off of emotional ledges more than once. Our wedding day came to mind, partners in crime to piss off his mom. Seven years ago? Eight? I could never remember, which he loved to tease me about.
I had been pissed at my mother-in-law for wanting a live band versus a playlist; our playlist. It wasn’t a huge wedding by any means, just our closest friends and family. I had fumed, and had almost said some choice words that might’ve further soured the day when I found out she booked them despite our wishes. Instead, we did what we always did: we made a great team. It was his parents, and mine, and our friends. A band wasn’t needed. We had already started to scheme well before the wedding and had plans for our big little day. When the band showed, we paid them a little more to leave and sent them on their way, excusing them for the night without a need to play. They were ecstatic for free money on top of what they had been paid already.
His mother was furious and ended up calling me bitch, not a good enough woman for her son, and so forth and so on. I smiled through it all, and decided to be the better woman. That is, until it was time for the after party at her house. We spread the word during the bride-and-groom mingling and everyone but her somehow managed to end up at our hotel. Family and friends, laughing, living, and loving. As I came back to the here and now, I looked at Jack from the side with a smile creeping over my face and saw that he was cooling down.
He turned the car off and reclined the driver’s seat with a tired sigh. Sensing impending doom had passed, I slid out of the car, hauling the axe with me. I leaned in the rear passenger window to get my work gloves out from the side pouch my backpack. Out here, I could better smell the night’s air, unsullied by humanity. It was odd that it was so noticeable, but it was: there was a certain quality to the air, almost enough to make me heady. I stretched, the axe high above my head. As I arched my back, I let out a stuttering groan that was carried away by the wind. There were no answers, other than the coming night itself. Without the flow of air from driving, or the almost-purr of the engine cut off, the world around slept. I listened to the lack of wind and silence. It wasn’t yet night, and there wasn’t much in the way of bugs buzzing yet. We weren’t that far on this side of winter, so we had some time before we had to find a new tent. As I moved to limber up my body, I looked at the area around us. The interstate was near bear except for the few cards that had been abandoned. The land around the road was barren fields of grass. There wasn’t anything to be seen for miles. The horizon was blank and bare for as far as I could see. This tree had once stood to mar the perfect horizon, but now it was a roadblock. Once I was done stretching, I stepped around to the front of the car and hefted the axe.
The tree, the third one this week, lay sprawled over the road, branches splayed like outstretched arms. We found a lot of trees this way, blocking the way forward, their branches reaching for the far side of the road. The weather had been clear for us lately, but that didn’t mean we weren’t skirting past storms that were roiling through the Midwest. Without much in the way of a weather app to launch, or a radio station to tune into, we had little to no idea of what was going on in the world around us from day to day. I had to shake my head again to clear it. I hefted the axe up, one hand just beneath the head and the other firm on the handle. With one good swing, I sank the head into the tree, aiming for the thickest branch. This would make it easier, at least I could clear some of the bigger branches and we could skirt around the better part of the tree. The other option was to backtrack and go around, but Jack hated that. I did too, really. Conserving gas where we could would get us that much further before we had to walk. Maybe we’d get lucky and find some ride-able bikes somewhere . That’d be a world above having to walk.
Before I knew it, the largest branch fell off with a loud thud. I leaned the axe against the front of the car as I took another moment to stretch. There was no point in pulling a muscle doing this. We couldn’t afford that. I stole a look back at the car. Jack had his head leaned against the frame of the door and his eyes were closed. At least he was managing to catch a nap. His sleep these last few nights had been restless at best. I had known this blow up was coming, just not when. We hadn’t seen signs of anyone else in some time and it was starting to wear thin on both of us.
The branch was heavier than I thought, but it wasn’t impossible to hoist up and crab-walk over to the side of the highway. I was able to lose myself in the process: swing, chop, swing, chop. Drag. Rinse, repeat. My mind started to drift back to when all of this began. No could explain what was going on, though people had conspiracy theories aplenty. People had started to simply disappear. It was a trickle at first. A friend of a friend was gone, or someone you saw every few days at the store, or a coworker whose name you knew but that was mostly it. After the first week, though? That’s when the world started to go to hell in a hand-basket. People were scared and no one had answers. People were simply disappearing in droves; there one moment and gone the next. The world as we knew it ended pretty damn quick. Communication broke down, and by the time Jack and I hit the road, most of our friends and family were gone. We had been holed up in our house, on the outskirts of town, large enough for our closest loved ones and friends to hide with us from whatever was taking people.
It didn’t help. In the end, they all still disappeared. When Jack shook me awake in a house devoid of life, when it was just the two of us, we set out for the last time. We hadn’t been more than a night or two in one place since.
The roads were empty, the towns were barren. We saw people, but most kept their distance. A few were willing to trade stories, ask after lost loved ones, or barter for supplies. We were lucky to not run into the sorts who thought to take rather than trade, but we’d had a few close calls. We had burned through almost a half tank of gas outrunning a pickup truck that had floodlights mounted and pointed right at us. Somehow, we made it. They gave up after a harrying night’s drive. Maybe they ran out of fuel, or decided they didn’t need whatever we had. That was one of the last times we had seen another living soul. Since then, it had pretty much been just us and the road.
I was down to the last branch when I realized that somewhere in there the sun had decided it, too, had had enough and fled further towards the horizon. As the world came crashing back in I felt every muscle protesting at the sudden lack of fluid movements: axe, tree, axe, tree, swing, swing, drag. To be honest, it felt good to let loose a little bit and take out some of my own anger on the tree. It was better than taking it out on Jack. I looked into the windshield of the car as I headed back across the empty road, and , at first, didn’t see Jack. It crashed in on me and, for a moment, I felt my world narrow to a single point. This was it, I was alone, completely. The empty car stared me in the face and my heart leapt into my throat before stopping. It was trying to climb out of me. Perhaps to search for Jack, since my body seemed rooted in place.
“What’s got you giving up the ghost?” The words were right behind me, and the rustling of clothing followed it. Jack never did zip up all the way after a bio break. Had a habit of doing it when he was walking back. I used to yell at him for it, but right now I’d take that noise over the sudden, crashing silence of being utterly alone. I couldn’t handle that. I was already teetering on that precipice, and the crooked lilt of his glasses brought me back. They hadn’t fit right since he had sat on them and it wasn’t like we could get a new pair.
“I should punch you, sneaking off like that.” My words were almost a hiccough with how my heart started to race once it remembered it needed to move. Adrenaline coursed through me and I felt as if I were going to run off into the night myself. Or collapse. Either, really.
“I had to go, and you were laying into that tree pretty good.” His tone, and the way he looked anywhere but at me, told me he knew exactly what had me going. I shrugged a little and placed the axe and my gloves back where in the truck. After a few moments of leaning against the car, hands on the frame of the door, I turned to look at him.
“Tree deserved it. I didn’t like the way it was looking at me. Didn’t have a good tone of voice.” My face cracked into half a smile which widened further once his did the same. It was infectious and before we knew it we actually managed a bit of a laugh. “Fuck the trees, right?”
“You can say that again, Catgirl.” He grinned a little, that look on his face that made me almost forget everything that had happened. That we were out on a stretch of highway, alone for who knew how many miles. Maybe we were the last two people on earth. That wasn’t the first time the thought had popped up. The way things were going, it wasn’t going to be the last. I shoved it away for now. We had a good mood brewing and there was no point in wasting it. Apparently Jack agreed, that grin spoke volumes. “What say you to us popping open an extra can of peaches? Have it after the stew, as a dessert. Let’s live a little.”
“I don’t know.” As tempting as that sounded, the way I damn near started to drool spoke volumes. It sounded really good, as much as I hated peaches. That ceased to matter, what we did or did not like. I’d stomach them just fine, with the sweet, thick syrup they had been marinating in since the factory. I licked my lips, unable to help myself, and the battle was already lost. Jack already had the grin cranked up to “I won” levels and was rummaging around the backseat. Two cans, can opener, and that very handsome grin. I could not bear to say no to that, and it would not hurt to splurge a little.
“You’re right, you know, Cat. West probably is the better way to go.” This was spoken around a mouthful of cold stew, which we had split into our cups. We didn’t even bother to cook it all that often any more, unless it was well past the expiration date. Cold food was another reality of life. We didn’t need a fire tonight. The weather was warm enough, and we sat a little closer than we had been lately. Hip to hip, our arms moving by rote as we savored every bite.
“It makes sense to me. The Mississippi has to have something, right? If there’s anyone out this way they have to be near water. Moving water at that.” It made sense to me, and the further we headed north the colder it’d eventually get. I shrugged again and set my cup to the side where it sat, empty and forlorn.
“One direction is as good as another. Like you said, if nothing else, we can swing up to Chicago if there’s nothing there.” I nodded at that, and settled in a little closer to him. The food sat heavy on my stomach, and my aching body was already begging for a few moment’s respite. Stretched out here, beneath the stars, it almost felt as if we were camping. I was content, wrapping my arms around Jack as I shifted. Suddenly, I was using him as a pillow. He laughed, shook his head, and started for the peaches. With us curled up like a pretzel, it took him a few tries to get leverage to open the can, but he managed, somehow without spilling a single drop of the syrup. Once the lid popped up, I opened my mouth and Jack was dutiful in giving me the first piece.
My eyes closed and I’m not sure what noise I made when the sweet sourness hit my tongue, and I coughed a little at first. My teeth were hesitant to sink into the soft flesh of the peach. If I started to chew it was already that much closer to being over. I let it start to fall apart in my mouth before I started to chew. Jack stole a few bites before he gave me my next piece, and I was more than willing to lay there and be fed by my handsome Jack. I closed my eyes and waited for the next sporkful of fruit, and I could almost imagine the sound of a ceiling fan whirring lazily to circulate air. I thought I could hear the neighbors above us having one of their rather energetic talks. They never fought, not really, but man were they loud talkers. The sounds of the city joined in, and I fancied I could smell the car exhaust and scent of life being lived. The peach that fell off of Jack’s spork to splort onto my face ruined any further reverie and I plucked it off with two fingers and popped it into my mouth with a laugh.
I’m not sure what point I dozed off, but I did. I fell asleep curled against Jack, face pressed in against him, hiding from the night’s sky. I’m not sure how long I had been asleep, but when I awoke I was half sprawled out on the rough surface of the road. I muttered at Jack, wondering what he was doing. The words I tried to spit out were half lost as my mind groggily fought waking up.
“Jack?” I fumbled up and onto legs that didn’t want to stand as I looked around, trying to see where he was. “Are you pissing again? Did you have to dump me on the ground?” My grumbles were mostly to grouse and I doubted that he could hear them. Still, I was not certain where he had gotten off to. “Come on, Jack.” Silence. There was nothing. I started to head towards the side of the road, but, no. I looked towards the other half of the road, across the divide, and saw little over there as well. Back the way we came was just as barren, and the road forward was little better. The moon was high and bright above, and I could see, but, there was nothing there for me to see.
“Jack? Jack, come on. Come on. This isn’t cool. ” These words and variations on them repeated, almost like a mantra. The longer that he didn’t answer and the more the words were spoke by rote. Then, there, in the distance, I saw something moving across the highway. “JACK!”
My voice cracked, and I realized I was running. There was something there, on the other side of the road, moving. It was all I had, and I locked onto it and took off. My legs pumped as fast as my heart, and I ran. I forgot to breathe, I didn’t care to. I couldn’t. Not without Jack. I was over the median divider and was leapfrogging cars, running. I felt as if I were trapped in a dream, outrunning whatever monster was crawling out of the closet. I moved sluggishly, unable to kick my body into high gear. I tripped over my own feet, stumbled, caught myself against a car, and kept going.
“Jack! Stop! Come back!” I gave chase, pushing an already tired and drained body as hard as I could. When I started to see Jack’s clothing in the road, dropped where he had apparently taken it off, I paused for a second. It might be him, but he might not be himself. The stress was known to make people crack. That wasn’t unheard of. Though it might not even be him, but someone else out here. Either of those options and I was running headlong into what might be a problem. I didn’t care, I couldn’t. I ran harder, picking up his boots, his pants, his shirts, his coat. Even his underwear had been haphazardly tossed away. I felt like a mother chasing a nudist toddler as I shouted his name over and over. The shape in the distance seemed to stay just as far away as it had started, but I couldn’t stop running. I held on to Jack’s clothing, cradled it against my chest. It became the solid part of the mantra of my words: “Jack, come on, come back.” I was stuck on repeat, and I could not deal with being alone. Not now. He couldn’t leave me.
Whatever I had been running towards ended up being nothing more than a tree, reaching for the sky, planted firmly atop a small hill. It took all I had to get up to the top of it. I dropped the clothes, struggling for breath, and I saw it there, gleaming in the dirt, beneath the tree: Jack’s wedding ring. It sat on one of the exposed roots, and I scrambled for it on hands and knees. I held it close as I looked up at the branches reaching to the sky, and closed my eyes.
And the wind rustling the leaves sounded like a sigh. His sigh. I tried to stand, but my body felt rooted to the ground beneath him.