[img_assist|nid=4529|title=Blue Mist by Lee Muslin © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=267]They woke together at a rest stop on the interstate, car windows dimmed by frozen breath and through the glass, anemic blue dawn swelling over Wyoming.
She struggled out of the sleeping bag, wrestled with the nest of blankets and pulled at the door. She poured herself out into the empty lot and shuffled a few paces from the car before she buckled over a strip of grass and vomited. It slapped the ground and steam rose from it. The man got out of the car and went to her and put his hands on her shoulders to steady her, to hold her. She heaved again, just water and foam.
"Get your hands off me."
"What can I do?"
"This isn’t your problem." She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Drive. We shouldn’t have stopped."
They got back into the beaten silver Saturn and pushed the blankets to the back seat, which was piled with unpacked clothes, some still on hangars, some tangled at the floorboards.
"Jesus, Peter. Why don’t you just hate me?"
He started the car, which struggled in the cold. The engine knocked and shuddered. He drove.
* * *
She slapped his hand away from the radio and it stung, and when he pulled away it made him swerve over the line, into the red gravel shoulder, which probably made her hate him all the more.
"Christ. Learn how to drive."
"You hit me."
"I hit your hand."
"I was turning it off."
"There’s nothing to listen to, Annie. It’s just Jesus radio. There’s nothing there."
She folded her arms and turned to the window and was sullen for a while.
"I thought they might say something about it."
They were silent for a long time more, listening to AM static rise and fall because Peter was afraid to touch the radio and upset her again, and Annie was too proud to admit that she had been wrong and there was really nothing on the radio about this horrible thing that had happened. Just hallelujah. Just praise the Lord.
And so it was the End of Days through the long Wyoming desert.
Eventually, when the voices faded, Annie turned off the radio and there was only wind and the hiss of the road.
"This is crazy," she said.
"Yep? What’s that supposed to mean?"
"I was agreeing."
"Yep. Are you a fucking cowboy?"
He didn’t answer. He shifted and drove with one hand.
She didn’t look at him. "Which part?"
"I said this was crazy and you agreed."
"Which part did you agree to?"
The road was empty and wide, and so he turned and stared at her. "All of it," he said.
"Keep your eyes on the road."
He turned back.
"And that isn’t an answer. Tell me what you think is crazy."
"That there are no radio stations. That we haven’t been through a town in sixty miles. There’s a storm coming and we don’t have anywhere to stay. Everything."
"Everything that’s happened. Every goddamned thing, Annie. You and me. New York. All of it."
She nodded. That was enough.
Then it was back to the radio.
Annie hit scan and it rolled through the entire AM band without stopping. It started again and stopped on static. She switched to FM and hit a station. Christian. Like everything.
The voice was rattled. It said, What will become of the children?
There were coughs in the pause and shuffling papers.
In the final days when God’s wrath is descended over the Earth and the horsemen have strode among us. What will become of the children?
Annie drew back her hand.
Some say that children are the innocent, but God almighty, the child will pay for the sins of their fathers and death will befall them as it did the children of Pharaoh, and locusts will consume their flesh and flies will fill their eyes.
"Jesus Christ, Annie. Turn it off."
Peter flicked his finger over the volume knob and the radio went dead. He looked at her and waited for her to scream or hit him again. But she was silent. And then tears came.
"I hate you," she said.
"That’s probably true."
"This is such shitty timing."
"We can’t have a baby now."
He took his hand from the wheel and shifted it toward her. He put it on her leg, covered by the bloated down coat, which he loathed, and had always loathed. She put her hand on top of his and they held each other this way while the long desolation passed outside, while miles of fences flickered by and the morning sun settled on the land like ash.
"I still love you," he said. "I don’t know if that makes any difference, but I do."
"It does." She squeezed his hand. "I don’t know why, but it does."
* * *
Miles piled upon miles, and the exits were useless and barren.
"No Services," he said as another sign slipped by.
"How can there be no services? How do people live here if there are no services?"
"I think they drive a long way for services."
"Stop saying services."
"Fuck this place."
"We’ll find something."
"Fuck you too."
They were quiet for a while.
"I’m hungry," she said.
"I mean it. I’m really hungry."
"When we get to an exit, we’ll see if we can find some services."
"Go to hell." She folded her arms and leaned against the window. "Why didn’t we bring any food with us?"
"Because we were in a hurry. And yesterday I didn’t think we’d have trouble finding some."
* * *
They did come to an exit, which wasn’t a town, just a clutter of lots and gravel to either side of the highway, two gas stations, a junkyard, and a McDonald’s.
It was a nameless settlement that had sprouted simply because one old local road rambled out of the country and crossed the interstate.
They came off the highway and crept to the top of the ramp, slick with ice and snowblown. The car slipped and then caught the pavement again.
The station at the end of the ramp had put out orange barricades and a slab of plywood that said NO GAS. They turned left and the tires slipped as they moved onto the overpass and skidded down the other side.
At the other station, a long line of pickup trucks had stacked up at the pumps.
"There’s a McDonald’s," she said.
"You never eat that shit."
"I need to eat. I don’t care what it is."
The snow on the local road had gathered in eddies and he drove slowly over black ice where the tires had no grip. He turned into the parking lot and turned off the engine.
"I don’t want to get caught in the storm," he said. "I think we can make it to Laramie before it hits. If we hurry."
She nodded. "Yeah. Alright."
They got out and the dry wind bit them. Snow blew around their ankles and packed in dusty drifts at the edge of the lot. They shuffled for the door.
Inside, it was yesterday in America. Yesterday, when nothing had happened at all.
Annie ordered breakfast, but the kid behind the counter, an Indian with long black hair and bad skin, told her that it was too late, so she muttered under her breath and walked away. Peter ordered for her.
The kid disappeared into the back and Peter waited. The place was bright. The place was warm. It was good to be warm after the bitter winter night at the side of the road.
Annie sat in a booth against the front window, staring at her open hands. She pulled off her dowdy knit hat and frazzled hair splayed out in wild directions. When Peter had met her, she had been so prim and ordered. Her hair precise, her clothes immaculate, her body angelic.
But this had changed and she had become tangled and wrecked, as they together had wheeled wildly off the rails, and whatever they’d been once, they were no longer.
At the end, they cheated on each other ferociously, for vengeance, to push the other away, to disgust the other and bring the thorny bramble of their undone love to a permanent, fiery end.
And it had worked, and they had ended, squarely and without remorse.
Then on Monday came into their lives news of the baby.
Then on Tuesday came the end of the world.
The kid came back to the counter. "Sorry it’s taking so long. A lot of people didn’t show up today."
"We don’t even got the guy that cleans the shitter."
"Just didn’t come in." The kid looked around to see if he was being watched. He leaned in and almost whispered. "Hey. You heard anything?"
Peter shook his head. "No."
"They don’t let us turn on the radio or nothing. So I ain’t heard. But if you heard something–"
"I haven’t. Sorry."
"Okay. Yeah. I’ll bring it out to you in a minute."
[img_assist|nid=4536|title=Untitled by Nicole Koenitzer © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=255]Peter left the counter and walked to the table by the window. He hung over Annie for a while. She looked up at him, regarded him, exhausted and confused, the same way she had looked at her hands. Perplexed by her appendages, baffled that he was still attached to her, and she to him.
He sat across from her. "I have a plan."
"We eat. Then we find gas. We can wait in line over there. Then if we drive all day, we can make it to Omaha. If we drive hard, we could make it to Chicago by tomorrow night. We’ll be there for Christmas. Everything will be okay when we get home."
"That isn’t a plan, Peter. That’s just what we were doing anyway."
"It makes me feel better to say it."
The kid came over with a tray of Big Macs in their greasy boxes.
"Sorry it took so long. Some of ’em might be a little fucked up because the guy who knows how to put them together on Tuesdays didn’t show up today, so I just guessed from the pictures."
"It’s okay," Annie said, which was unusually kind.
He lingered, then shuffled back to the counter.
There was honking. A lot of honking and Annie craned her neck to see over Peter’s shoulder.
"What is it?" He turned.
At the gas station, two men were scuffling. One pushed the other and a clumsy swing landed them both in a pile of snow.
From the passenger side of one of the fueling pickups, a woman dropped down, drunk and morbidly obese, shouting incoherent obscenity. While she ranted, she pulled the nozzle from the tank and dragged the hose to the opposite side of the pump island, dousing the truck that was parked there.
A couple of burley men tried to stop her, but they were driven off by a spray of gasoline to the eyes. They howled and scuttered away. She grabbed at one of her breasts. She flipped her middle finger as the gas pooled around her.
Peter switched places at the table. He sat next to Annie so he could watch.
The rest of the pickups in the line started to scatter, banging into each other, honking, jamming up against the wall of the station, against the pumps and islands, steel slapping steel and glass snapping.
The woman chased a few trucks to the extent of the hose. She turned circles and wrapped her legs in it. She fell, struggling, rolling in the gas. She untangled herself and stood and held a lighter to the grill of the truck.
One of the men in the snow, all battered now and dripping with blood, stood up and yelled. He might have been trying to reason with her. She couldn’t hear or didn’t care. She sparked the lighter and lit the pickup on fire.
The flames flashed back up her arm and burned the gas that had soaked into her sweatshirt. People ran from the tangle of trucks as fire chased out over the slicks that had gathered.
The woman screamed and ran and flailed her arm, but the fire jumped to her hair and covered her body. She set fire to the ground as she ran.
The next pickup in line caught fire. The station was a roiling black cloud, a filthy billowing torch, all alight in the snowy morning.
The bloody man tried to stop the burning woman, but she was frantic and slapped at him, and some of the flame jumped across to his coat and his hair.
He tried to get away, but walls of fire rolled up from the pools on the ground. He ran through it but was consumed and collapsed into the snowbank. The fat woman fell behind him and burned.
Annie had taken a bite of the Big Mac. She put it back in the box and pushed it away.
"Why is this happening?
"Why’s what happening?"
"You know what."
"They’re fighting over gas."
"Not that. All of it."
"The usual reasons, I guess."
Annie took the Big Mac and bit it. She stuffed her mouth with it.
Peter felt the heat of the fire on his face through the glass.
He said, "If it would have happened a month ago, would we have broken up? Do you think we would have been so terrible to each other?"
She worked pieces of food around in her cheeks as she thought. "No. No, I don’t think so."
"We need different things now. Things are different."
"We have new priorities." She looked at him and wiped her mouth with a bunched paper napkin. "It changes everything."
The glass rattled and rumbled. A broad and sucking bulge of fire rose up over the gas station.
"So what do we do?"
"We do what we have to. We make it work."
"Wait," he said. "Wait, are we talking about the bomb or the baby?"
She shook her head. "We’re talking about us."
* * *
They left the place behind. The fire department never came. As they slid by the gas station, Annie pressed her hands over her eyes. The burned bodies stuck in Peter’s periphery like shadows, black and stiff against the snow which melted around them in the heat of the soaring fire.
They crept out onto the ramp and back to the interstate.
"We can make it to Laramie," he said.
"Don’t you think we should find gas?"
"Look at the gauge."
"It’s on E."
"Exactly what? That means it’s empty."
"No, it means we probably have sixty miles left on this tank."
"Sixty miles? It’s on empty, you asshole."
"We’ll be fine, Annie."
* * *
At the side of I-80, where the car had run out of gas, Annie paced along the muddy red gravel shoulder, clutching her hands and doubling over, and cursing in a way that kept her warm with hellfire.
Peter sat in the car and waited for her rage to pass.
"You stupid fuck!" She kicked the ground and a hail of gravel hit the car. She turned and walked off.
On the crests of the rocky brown hills around them, pumpjacks nodded in slow succession, draining oil from the earth, scattered across the washes and ridges.
[img_assist|nid=4532|title=Repose by Suzanne Comer © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=257]He watched her walk away and thought, as terrible as she was, as bad as they had been to each other, she was the most important thing left in the world.
He opened the door and called after her. She stopped and turned back.
"What are we going to do, Peter? We don’t have any gas."
"We’ll wait for somebody. We’ll wait for a car."
"There are no cars. There’s a storm coming. Nobody’s driving except us."
"We’re not driving either, actually."
She bit down hard.
"It’s warmer in here," he said. "Just get in the car."
* * *
The storm did come, and it consumed them.
They sat together in the back seat on their clothes, bundled under sleeping bags and blankets. The car rocked and shuddered in the wind.
The last pale sun came through the deepening snow on the glass, blue and icy light.
"There’ll be a plow through soon. Or maybe highway patrol. We’ll be fine."
"It’s getting dark."
"It’s just the snow on the windows."
"No. It’s late. The sun’s going down and it’ll get colder."
"We’ll be alright. We can still make it to my mom and dad’s tomorrow night. We’ll have Christmas. It’ll be normal. Everything will be O.K. when we get home."
"It isn’t fucking normal."
"I’m glad you’ll get to meet them."
"Were you ever going to introduce me?"
"When? We’ve been together for eight months."
"They live fourteen hundred miles away."
"You could have figured something out."
"What about you? I’ve only met your mother once, and she lives in Vegas."
"Once is enough for anyone."
"I liked her."
"That’s because you were both drunk and disgusting."
Annie shifted and brought herself closer to him. "Do you think she’s alright? Do you think she’s safe?"
"Definitely. She’s on vacation."
"She’s out of the country. I’m sure everything’s fine in Europe."
She put her head on his shoulder, heavy and smelling of wool and sweat. The ridiculous ball on top of her hat tickled his cheek.
"What if they don’t like me?"
"They’ll like you."
"But what if they don’t? Or what if I don’t like them?"
"Annie, everybody is going to like everybody else. Everything is going to be fine."
"But that isn’t true, is it." She slid her arm behind him and held him. "Everything isn’t going to be fine."
"Things will be different, that’s all. It might get harder for a while, but it doesn’t mean it’ll be bad. It doesn’t have to be."
"Are you talking about the bomb again?"
"No. The baby. Weren’t we talking about the baby?"
"I’m cold," she said. "Do you want to make love?"
"I didn’t know that was still an option."
"Well, it is."
"Then yes. Yes, I do."
* * *
They did make love, with their clothes mostly on and swaddled in blankets. The windows gathered fog, which froze and glowed in the dusk.
When they had finished, and all of the light had gone out of the sky and the snow that covered the glass had gone dark, they sat together and thought of home.
Sound came from behind them. A slow vibration in the ground became a shudder and a quake. The growl from the highway became a torrent of raging engines and rattling steel.
"Jesus, what is it?" She sat up and scratched at the ice on the rear window.
Headlights burned through the snow and filled the car. Peter wrestled with the blankets and pushed his shoulder against the door to break the seal of ice that had formed. Clumps of snow fell over his freezing hands.
Standing in the gravel with his back to the wind, he watched the tanks pass with armored trucks and Humvees heading south. The headlights on the highway snaked back along the road for miles.
Annie climbed out, still wrapped in her blanket. They watched the convoy pass, too loud to speak over the whistling and growling and screaming of machines.
Annie waved her arms. She moved closer to the road, but none of them slowed.
Eventually, when the end of the convoy came, and the road was silent, a few military semis brought up the rear. A tanker passed, and another pulled to the shoulder and stopped behind them, flooding the place where they stood with light.
[img_assist|nid=4533|title=Guggenheim by Gary Koenitzer © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=202]The engine rattled and knocked. The driver dropped down.
"Are you in need of assistance, ma’am?" The soldier jogged toward them with hands deep in his coat. "They called back and said you were trying to flag us down."
"We ran out of gas," she said. "What’s happening?"
"Gas? Not a problem." He turned and shouted into the light. "Diaz. Grab a gas can."
The passenger door opened and slammed and there was a shuffling in the gravel.
"What’s going on?" Peter said.
"Do you know anything about New York?"
"Really can’t say."
The other soldier hustled toward them lugging a brown plastic gas can. She was small and wore thick glasses.
Peter had to pry the frozen gas tank door with a key.
He twisted off the cap and the soldier started to pour.
"Where are you two headed?" she asked.
"Home," Peter said.
"West of Chicago."
"How far west?"
She nodded. "Where you coming from?"
"You picked a very bad time to take a very long road trip."
"We’re going to see his family for Christmas," Annie said.
"Have you spoken to them?"
"We couldn’t get through."
The soldier who had been driving scraped his boot in the dirt. "No one can," he said. "Are you married?"
"No," Peter said.
"You two should get married. Make it right in the eyes of the Lord."
Annie took Peter’s hand.
"So," he said, "you planning to take I-80 all the way?"
"Yeah," Peter said.
"Well, maybe when you get to Des Moines, you should quit the interstate."
"Why?" Annie squeezed harder.
"I think you might find the old U.S….uh, the old U.S. highways a more scenic way to travel."
"We’re kind of in a hurry."
"Then you better quit the interstate at Des Moines. You follow?" He stepped closer. "This thing ain’t over, brother. Do yourself a favor and stay off the highway."
He turned and headed back to the truck.
The other one finished with the gas can and put the cap back on the tank.
"I don’t know what kind of mileage you get, but that should get you to Cheyenne. You can find gas there."
"Why are you doing this?" Annie said.
"We’re just here to serve, ma’am."
"That isn’t true."
The soldier stood for a while, quiet and staring, the last of the snow falling between them.
"Sins," she said.
"It was Jackson’s idea. To make up for the sins we gotta go do now."
"Diaz! Let’s roll."
The soldier turned away and jogged back to the truck.
"What fucking sins?"
"Annie, shut up."
"I don’t know. Just shut up."
The engine growled and knocked and the truck rattled back onto the road, heading south.
They stood alone in the dark at the roadside, smelling ice and sage, silent for a while. Too long.
"Start the car," Annie said. "I’m cold."
"I love you," he said.
"I’m cold," she said. "I love you, too."
* * *
They sang. They were beset by the madness that comes on long ribbons of American road. They sang through the snarled and snowblown streets of Cheyenne, they sang through the last of Wyoming and six more hours into Nebraska. They told stories about their lives all the way to Omaha.
They laughed and were giddy and then fell into silence in a 24 hour Wal-Mart parking lot which bustled and hummed through the night as lines backed out of doors for generators and palettes of bottled water and Band-Aids and all of the other things that had suddenly become the stuff of life.
They slept in the white glare of mercury vapor lights and in the morning Annie was sick again before they set out at dawn.
Civilization began to coalesce along the road, exits with new frequency, populated by chain restaurants and big box stores.
The radio, which had possessed her the day before, was silent. They had decided, without saying so, that neither cared to know what new and terrible things had happened to the world in the night. All they needed to know of that came from emergency vehicles flickering past and clusters of military trucks at intervals on an otherwise vacant highway.
At the edge of Des Moines, she said, "You never asked me what I was going to do."
She fiddled with the vents and the heat controls.
"Do with what?"
"If I was going to keep it."
"I just assumed."
"How could you assume something like that?"
"I don’t know. I just did."
"You were right. I just mean that I’m curious. That’s all. Why did you think that?"
"It was the way you said it."
"How did I say it?"
"You didn’t say, I’m pregnant. You said I’m having a baby."
She shook her head. She flicked off the heat. "No, I didn’t."
"Yes you did."
"No I didn’t. I said we’re having a baby."
And that was true. She had.
* * *
They came to signs that warned of a roadblock. Not the usual orange construction fare, but olive and white military signs which were clearly not suggestions of caution, but statements of very serious intent.
They left the interstate, off onto the snowy, vacant surface streets of the suburbs. The soldier in Wyoming had told them to quit the interstate, and from an overpass, they saw why.
A tangle of trucks and flickering lights scattered across cordons. Semis were being searched, minivans turned inside out. An entire living room had been assembled on the side of the road from a moving truck that was being taken apart. Lamps and sofas and an oversized television in proper arrangement in the snow.
* * *
On old U.S. Highway 30, things were clear. The wind had kept the snow off the road, blown into drifts and culverts.
They drove all day through old America, town after tiny town forgotten when the interstate had opened and sucked away what traffic had flowed through these old veins. And surrounded by wide, white fields were main streets lined by storefronts, now vacant, and other streets that crept off to the edges, shaded by broad old oaks that covered dignified, forgotten houses.
The sun fell behind them and winter dusk came early again, and then finally they came to the Mississippi and Illinois beyond.
They stopped so that Annie could piss.
There had been no town for miles, and there wouldn’t be for miles more, and even when they found one, nothing would be open. So this place was as good as any.
She walked away from the road, crunching snow out into a field. Peter leaned against the car and looked down the road, out into the strange silver dark, which wasn’t dark at all. The light of unencumbered stars and sliver of moon on the snow which had gathered against the broken stalks of harvested corn, and in the still he heard in the air a river of traffic from the interstate, two or three miles away, a brief stretch of reprieve, unhindered by barricades after Davenport.
It was this way that he remembered home. Still and perfect in winter, the smell of snow, if there was such a thing, and the rush of traffic somewhere out in the dark.
And then a light swelled in the sky.
The sky went blue like day. Annie was forty feet away, squatting in the field in sudden noonday. She fell backward and scrambled to her knees and then the light faded. It drew back across the sky, painting stars again as it receded to the east.
He heard Annie struggle in the snow, then saw her again, jogging toward the road.
"What the fuck? Peter, what was that?"
He listened and watched the sky, but there was nothing. She moved forward and fell into him. He held her, squeezed her in his arms. She was shaking.
He had stopped counting by thousands when the sound came, a low roar a minute late, which was the end of Chicago.
* * *
They drove and said nothing.
They drove until the places they passed by and through became familiar to him, became places he had been before, roads he had driven once, roads he had crossed twice, and then places that he called home.
They stopped in front of his house, which was an average sort of American house in an average American suburb, part of the sprawl pressing fingers out into the fields.
The lights were still on. That was good. Strands of Christmas lights lined the eaves and angles. A tree glimmered in the window. The lights wouldn’t stay on forever, but tonight at least, they were bright, and they were home.
A woman came to the glass and cupped her hands over her eyes to see outside.
"Is that your mother?"
"Fucking yep. Honest to God."
"Don’t be nervous."
"I’m not nervous. I’m scared."
"Yeah. Me too."
They got out of the car and walked together toward the house. His mother disappeared and he could hear her yelling to his father somewhere inside.
To the east, the sky was burning red, and at its edges, orange light broke through strange clouds, all black and scattered out over the horizon.
A breeze had swelled toward them, but it would shift by morning. He was sure that it had to. He was sure of it.
"Everything’s okay now," he said. "We’re here."
"Yes," she said. "We’re here."
"We shouldn’t stay outside though."
"No. We shouldn’t."
She took his hand. She squeezed it. They walked together out of the cold and into the house.
DJ Kinney is the author of The End of Oranges, an unpublished collection of short stories which examines themes of love and calamity under difficult, often surreal circumstances. Stories from The End of Oranges have been published in Eureka Literary Magazine, Eclipse, Puckerbrush Review, Allegheny Review, Vincent Brothers Review and others. DJ lives and works in Portland, Oregon with his miniature dachshund John R. Crichton, Jr.