Gerald glanced at the hitchhiker staring out the passenger side of his truck. “Did ya’ hear me, son?”
“I said, if you’re looking for mercy out that window, you won’t find it there. This world ain’t for giving mercy and when it does, it comes with a price.”
Slouched against the worn leather seat, the hitchhiker pulled his gaze away from the barren landscape, eyes drawn to the anomaly marring the desert sky. He inhaled a sharp breath and slid further into his seat, hands grasping the dashboard.
“It’s getting bigger,” he mumbled.
Gerald felt sorry for the man.
He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, fingers cradled in the grooves, knuckles white. A man took his responsibilities seriously. He didn’t pack his expensive backpack, toss his hair in a bun and throw his thumb into the air at passing cars. No. That was reserved for boys.
The hitchhiker tore his gaze away from the sky, eyes darting around the cab. “Don’t you have a radio or something? My phones been dead for days and the last time I heard any news was yesterday morning.”
“Radio’s busted and no cell. Hate the damn things. Put up with one cause my wife Mary wanted to reach me, but she’s long gone. Ain’t no one to call.” Gerald steered around an armadillo carcass, pink and white tissue broiling on the blistering asphalt. Damn critters could be hell on the undercarriage.
“How do you keep up with the news, man? Don’t you wanna know what that thing is? I mean, it could be the end of the world.”
Gerald fought the urge to look skyward. Oh, he’d kept up with the news alright. When the sky split open, spewing out bruised clouds, lightening swirling within, he’d stayed glued to the television like anyone else. Watching. Waiting. Listening for answers. They called it Finis Omnium – the end of all things. Physicists, Scientists, Preachers. That last one ticked him off the most. Men claiming it was the second coming. That God was coming.
Not his God. His God wouldn’t crawl through a hole in the sky.
“If it’s my time, then ain’t nothing going to stop it.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it,” the kid mumbled.
Gerald pretended he didn’t hear him. Judging by the dark circles beneath his eyes and grit crusted around his nails, the kid must have been hiking for days, probably since the thing appeared in the sky.
“What’s your name, son?”
“You heading back to your parents, Randall?”
“No. I got someone to see.”
“What’s it to you?”
Gerald chuckled. “Nothing. It’s just that I’ve been driving this route for a while, since the farmers market opened in eighty-six. It’s a long drive and you ain’t my first hitcher. I like the company. Gets kind of boring when you sit in silence the whole way.”
“I guess.” Randall sat up, stiff-backed. “It’s my brother.”
“Nah. Younger. I haven’t seen him in a year and I—I thought I’d check up on him, you know? With things being…” He motioned toward the sky.
“Are you two close?”
“What happened?” Gerald stared straight ahead, eyes locked on the yellow lines darting through the center of the highway. Randall picked at the loose strings on his pants. Gerald waited. When the questions came, the passenger either shut down or spilled it. He preferred the latter.
“I left him. My dad’s an ass. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I left, you know? Brody didn’t want me to go. He’s only ten.” Randal slumped in the seat. “I didn’t even say goodbye.”
“I’m sure he’ll understand. Maybe now’s a good chance for you and your dad to make amends. Good book says ‘honor thy father’ but it forgets to mention how hard it can be. My dad and I had our squabbles, especially when I was your age. Thought I was man enough to fight him.” Gerald chuckled. “He laid me out for three days straight.”
“Yeah, but I bet he didn’t come home from work, beat your mom or take it out on you when he’d had a rough day.”
Reaching into his shirt pocket, Gerald pulled out a smoke. No, his dad was nothing like that, but he’d known many who were. It wasn’t right, but that’s the way it was. He lit the cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth, releasing wisps of smoke into the air. “No, he didn’t.”
“Be glad he didn’t. I begged my mom to leave him, but she wouldn’t listen. Always made excuses. Same with Brody. He doesn’t get it, you know? We’d be better off without him. I’ve got an aunt in Odessa who will take us in. I’m hoping he’ll come with me this time, maybe even mom. Assuming the world doesn’t end, that is.”
“There is that,” Gerald said, wafting a handful of smoke out the window.
Dusk was coming, but the day seemed to be getting hotter. A rattle came from the engine. He glanced at the temperature panel. It read one-twenty. Just one more thing to fix on the old truck.
“There’s a rest stop coming up. Gonna pull over and let the truck cool.” He tossed his cigarette out the window. “Got some sandwiches and water in the back if you’re hungry.”
Randall nodded, eyes locked on the sky again.
Damn kid’s obsessed, he thought. Hell, he couldn’t blame him. Thing looked like something out of the Twilight Zone. A few days ago, it’d been nothing but a little white line against the sky. Like one of those vapor trails from a passing jet. Then it began to grow, to open.
The old truck sputtered, plumes of smoke spilling from beneath. He slipped it into neutral, coasting to the entrance of the rest stop.
“We out of gas?” Randall asked, leaning over to look at the gauge.
“Nah, she’s just hot. Desert’s hard on her.” He slid into the gravel drive, tapping the brakes. The battered ford came to a stop, kicking up dust. It sputtered twice, then died.
“Come on,” Gerald said. “I gotta take a whiz.”
Randall opened the passenger side door, hinges screeching. He got out and stretched his lanky arms above his head before kicking the door shut. Gerald flinched. Kid had no damn respect for antiques.
Stepping out of the truck, a curtain of oppressive heat weighed heavily on his shoulders. He shielded his eyes against the colorless haze. In the distance, beyond the blanched landscape, shadowy mountains loomed. Stopping in the cusp of the Mojave always made Gerald nervous. There was something eerie about it. The absence of color, of sound, the feeling of being watched. Here, the sun became the devil’s eye. Beneath it roasted a brittle terrain dotted with anemic cacti. Here, life did not thrive. Here, it was throttled, left hopeless, swallowed by a desolate expanse.
“There’s a cooler in the back of the pickup and a bag of bread. Why don’t you bring it to the table over there? I’ll be back in a minute.”
He trudged around the corner of the out-of-business café. Those doors closed a good twelve years ago. As far as Gerald could figure, the state highway bought it, slapped a rest area sign on it, and called it a day.
He paused at the antique gas pump, giving it a quick pat with his weathered hands. It’s faded red paint, blemished with rust, was a monument to time passed, a nostalgic era. It deserved respect.
Walking around the side of the building, he could see the empty highway for miles. He had no intention of standing in that inferno of a restroom if he didn’t need to. With no other cars around, Gerald unzipped his pants and took care of business. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead. Maybe the thermometer hadn’t been wrong. It certainly felt hotter than usual. With dusk only a few hours away, the temperature should be dropping, but it seemed intent on sticking around. He tugged at the zipper of his pants, stopping when something came around the side of the building.
For a moment, he thought he was having a stroke. Mary had always warned him about those.
“Smoking cigarettes will cause your brain to clot, give you a stroke. Put it out, Gerald. I don’t want to spend my life changing your bedsheets when you become a vegetable.”
In the end, it was he who changed the bedsheets, watching as the cancer ate her alive, reducing her to a bag of bones and sagging skin. “Kill me, for mercy’s sake, Gerald. If you can’t do it, just hand me that bottle of pills and walk away.”
The thing slinking around the corner reminded him of what she looked like those last few weeks. Emaciated. Lifeless. Its matted fur drooped below its underbelly, waxy hide hanging in wrinkled coils off its back. The desert fox stumbled and craned his head toward Gerald. Its eyes held the gelatinous sheen of blood-tinged cataracts. Gerald rocked back on his heels, angling his body toward the truck, wondering if he should run and get his gun.
The fox shuddered. Large convulsions shook the animal and it fell on its side, swollen tongue hanging out of its mouth. It quivered a few more seconds before growing still. Gerald grabbed a stick lying beneath a nearby shrub and approaching the fox. He stood above it, back to the sun, shadow stretching alongside the animal. He poked the fox in the ribs. It didn’t move. Gerald poked harder, running the stick across its distended belly.
The flesh looked swollen, mushy. Pinching his tongue between his teeth, he applied more pressure. A flap of fur-matted skin sloughed off, exposing grey-tinged tissue. He gagged and dropped the stick. Gerald turned away, gaze drawn to the blemish marring the sky, and traced a cross over his chest, something he hadn’t done since his teens when he’d given up Catholicism to become a Baptist with Mary. He started back to the truck, back to the young man crouched over a wooden table eating a ham and cheese sandwich.
Randall smiled at him over the sandwich. Crushed Lays tumbled out of the two pieces of bread and onto his flannel shirt. Gerald bit the side of his cheek, suppressing a grin. Maybe the kid wasn’t so bad.
“I made you a sandwich,” Randall said, motioning to the napkin. “Sorry about the chips. I wasn’t thinking. It was Brody’s favorite and I…” He paused, biting the inside of his cheek. “I just wasn’t thinking.”
Gerald picked up his sandwich and tore off the crust. “No, this is perfect. Mary always made them this way for me.”
“Your wife, right?”
“Yeah. She’s been gone a few years now. Cancer.”
“I’m sorry, man.”
Gerald gave him a half-smile, blinking back mist from his eyes. God, he missed Mary. “We all have to go sometime. I’m glad she died before this. Would’ve terrified her.”
Randall looked up at the sky. “It doesn’t terrify you?”
Gerald stared at the anomaly. The tear was supposedly hundreds of miles wide. Beyond it, they’d detected no universe, no planets, nothing. “It does. I won’t deny that. The bible says, ‘the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’. I want to prove my trust in God, but I fear it nonetheless.”
Randall wiped his hands on the napkin and looked down, chin pressed against his chest. “I keep hoping it’s something good, even though every part of me knows better. All I want is to be with my family, to be there for my brother. I can’t imagine how terrified he is.”
“By all means then,” Gerald said, throwing down his wadded-up napkin. “Let’s get going.”
Sweat pooled around Gerald’s shirt collar, wet hair clung to his forehead. He checked the temperature again. This time it said one-fifty-two. He placed his hands in front of the air conditioner vent. It was still blowing cool air.
Maybe I’m getting sick.
He sure felt like he was coming down with something. Taking a hand off the steering wheel, he flexed his cramped fingers, trying to remember if he’d checked the date on the sandwich meat before he’d bought it.
He glanced at Randall. The kid was quiet, his face a bluish hue. “You feeling alright, son?”
Randall didn’t answer. Hell, the kid didn’t even blink. Gerald remembered the fox at the rest stop. It had the same glazed over look as the kid. His heart pounded.
“I asked if you were okay,” he said, raising his voice.
“Huh?” Randall asked, turning to face him.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“Not really, man. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the heat or something.”
“No.” Gerald shook his head. “I think it might have been the sandwich meat. I’m feeling pretty off myself. Gonna pull over here in a sec and get a few more waters out of the back. Mind scrounging around in the glove box? Think I have a bottle of Pepto in there.”
“Sure.” The kid leaned forward and released the latch.
Gerald pulled the truck off the road, parking behind a sign reminding him they still had over a hundred miles to go until they reached the city. He stepped out. The heat hit him first. Then the smell.
His eyes burned as if someone held them open over a lit fire. Tendrils of heat wafted off the asphalt, catching the last rays of daylight. The air was heavy, thick with invisible steam. He took a deep breath, his throat and chest burning.
“What’s that smell?” Randall tumbled out of the other side of the truck.
“Saltwater,” Gerald whispered, clearing his parched throat. “It smells like the sea.”
“There’s no water in the desert, though.”
Gerald looked toward the sky. With night falling, the anomaly was barely visible except for the constant rolling lightning. “No. There isn’t.”
He walked to the back of the truck and flipped open the lid on the cooler. The bottles were sitting in soupy water. Gerald plunged his hand inside, took out several bottles, and tossed them in the cab. Pulling a bandana out of his pocket, he dipped it into the cooler and wiped it across his face and neck. He dipped it a second time and walked around the cab, offering it to Randall.
The kid looked at the dripping rag, then back to Gerald. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Randall made a retching noise and raced behind a nearby bush. Gerald walked in the other direction, giving the kid privacy. With the way his own stomach was churning, he figured he’d be doing the same later tonight.
The setting sun slipped behind the horizon, plunging the desert into darkness.
“Even when I walk in the valley of darkness, I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff-they comfort me. Lord, please do not leave us unforsaken,” he muttered.
He heard footsteps racing behind him and turned to see Randall running toward the truck, a wild look in his eyes.
“There’s something out there,” he screamed, lunging in the passenger side of the cab.
Gerald jogged around to the driver’s side, eyes scanning the horizon. He slid into the seat. “Did you see what it was?”
Randall stared out the window, chest heaving, hands gripping the dashboard. “Yeah. Just go, man.”
“Was it a coyote? A big cat? I’ve seen—”
“None of that crap. This thing wasn’t from here.”
“What do you—”
“Just go!” Randall pounded his fist against the dashboard.
Gerald cranked the truck and pulled onto the empty highway.
“Terraforming,” Gerald mumbled, staring off into the distance.
“Is that what you think is happening?”
He looked at Randall, surprised by the question. He hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud. The kid stared at him, face sickly pale, lips white. Gerald swallowed.
“It’s just a movie I saw once. Something about aliens changing the atmosphere to make our planet habitable for them. I think they—”
“I know what terraforming is.” Randall grabbed a bottle of water and started to unscrew the lid. He paused, staring at the bottle, eyebrows knitted together. “I can’t feel my hands.”
“Not much farther now. As soon as we get out of here, we’ll head to the nearest hospital.”
Randall continued to stare at his hands.
Half an hour later, the truck sputtered its last breath.
Gerald’s fingers toyed with the rubber grip of the pistol in his lap. Seventeen bullets. That’s how many bullets his gun could hold. Sixteen in the magazine, one in the chamber. Now the only bullet left was the one in the chamber.
They’d come like cicadas. Swarming. Large shadows hidden by night. Three times he’d unrolled the window and shot at the distant creatures. All three times they came back.
He closed his eyes and thought of Mary. The look on her face when the doctors told her there was nothing else they could do. Mary, her mouth frozen open in a permanent mask of pain, lifeless white fingers clenching the sheets. Mary, the woman he was too coward to release from her misery.
God, give me the strength to do what’s right.
“They aren’t terraforming us.” Randall coughed into his hands. When he lowered them, they were tinged with bloody mucus. He shut his eyes, curly hair plastered on his pale skin. “Not terraforming. My dad…the asshole…liked to smoke meat. Hated him, but man was he a good cook. He said it was all in how…you prepped it. He used salt and lime, said it was an acid, that it broke down the meat, made it tender. Then he’d cook it real slow.”
Pulling back the hammer, Gerald listened as the creatures scratched the truck’s hood, trying to find a way inside.
“The thing back there, the thing I saw…it didn’t have any teeth. Just this sucker thing for a face.” Randall placed his fist against his mouth, swallowing hard. “They put something in the air to break down our tissue. Then they cranked up the heat. They’re cooking us alive.”
One of them slammed against the truck. Metal screeched and a large crack appeared across the back window. One more hit like that and the window would shatter.
Randall put his hands against his ears and began to rock back and forth. “Brody! Momma! I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Please…I’m so sorry. I don’t want to die. Not like this. Not like this.”
“You ain’t gonna,” Gerald whispered, lifting his gun. He couldn’t help his wife, hadn’t been strong enough then, but maybe he was for the boy. “You ain’t gonna.”
A sharp report echoed in the dusty expanse of what remained of Mojave National Preserve.
“May God have mercy on your soul.” Gerald let the gun fall, brushed his hand against Randall’s face. Closed his eyes. “Lord, give me the strength to trust in you. For I know that nothing good dwells in my flesh, but only in my spirit. If it is your will to strip me of my sins, then I will obey. In your name I pray. Amen.”
He flicked the lock open with his thumb, door handle cradled beneath his fingers. With the other hand, he traced the shape of a cross over his chest. He tugged on the handle and kicked the door open.
Gerald stepped out and whispered into the night, “I’m coming, Mary.”
Image – Pixabay.com