Copyright 2017 by Roman Theodore Brandt
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This story is for Tyler Larson. I love you.
Don’t use the phone at the end of the road. That’s how they find you.
Roman Theodore Brandt
A long time ago, I had a dream that I was on an empty road, with my brother Eli standing across from me in a beam of light from above. I remember watching his features take on an alien quality in the harsh glow: a harsher arch to the brows, deep shadows for eyes, lips curled up in a menacing grin. He stood and stared at me with his invisible eyes, dust particles swimming in the air around him, surrounded by nothingness.
“I’m scared,” I said to him, and he stepped back slowly, gliding into the shadows.
Then, I was alone, with the beam of moonlight shining down to where he used to be. Far down the road, I saw a streetlamp, and it was the only other light, at least a mile down the road. I started walking toward it, and I heard Eli behind me again, his shoes on the pavement getting closer and closer. Then, I heard his voice close to my ear, “Don’t use the phone at the end of the road.”
I woke up drenched in sweat, panicked, choking and gasping for breath with tears in my eyes. After that dream, it was hard to look at him across the table from me at breakfast, in the halls at school, in the family room at night, with his face flickering in the light of the screen. Even the laughter of the dead people from the TV couldn’t take that dream away. I got used to this new Eli, colored by my nightmare. Things went back to normal, but I could never shake the feeling of being watched when I slept, someone waiting in the darkness for me to go to sleep. I knew he was asleep in the next room, but in my mind, it was Eli. Eventually, I learned to think about nothing, and to clear my head of all thoughts before I went to bed, so I would never have to see him like that again.
Last month, Eli told me that Mom and Dad didn’t seem right. They walked different, they looked different, and they didn’t say much to each other. I started to notice after that. He was right. They didn’t say much to each other, and Dad spent a lot of time alone at the kitchen table after we all went to bed. I started to sneak out of my bedroom to watch him. I don’t know when he slept, or if he slept. He just sat there with a cup of cold coffee, facing away from the doorway and staring out the black windows at the deep, dark nothing beyond. I watched the back of his head and wondered what was going on in there.
Every morning, he was still at the table, but the scene would change. He would be wearing his uniform and Mom would be across from him in her own uniform. Two uniformed adults at a table, not speaking, not looking at each other. Dad had a fresh cup of coffee and Mom had her chai tea. Eli stared at me from across the table, and I looked down at my cereal with my heart racing.
“Tell me you noticed it, too,” he said once we were out of the house.
I shrugged. Cars roared past the school bus stop, full of other kids with their animated, happy parents.
“Mom’s a total zombie, and Dad’s not much better.” He laughed. “I can’t stand them anymore.”
“They aren’t that bad.”
“You ever seen Mom when she takes her pills?”
I sat listening to the faint music coming from the store across the street. “I take pills, too. So do you.”
“You take pills,” he said.
“We both do,” I said.
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “Prescription. Mom’s are different.”
I thought of Mom standing in the bathroom, staring in the mirror with her pills in one hand, her glass of vodka in the other saying, “I can do this. I can face the day. Maybe we won’t kill each other.” She looked over at me and smiled a little. “Hey, there,” she said, with her voice totally different. “I’ll be out there in a minute.”
I shrugged. “Maybe she acts weird.”
“She does. I’ve seen it, Zack. She’s a total weirdo now. I can’t figure it out.”
“Maybe she hates us,” I said.
He sighed, and then he leaned back against the bench. “Jesus, where is the bus already?” He looked down at his hands, picking at his nails. “I think they’re not Mom and Dad anymore.”
“Oh shut up, Eli. They are too.”
“No, really. Watch them. You’ll see it.
I watched Mom and Dad go through all the motions of being Mom and Dad, like half-hearted replacements. Dad’s pancakes were burned, and Mom nearly blew the house up trying to fix the garbage disposal and had to call a repair company. It wasn’t normal. I started to notice other people being weird as well: my teachers giving lifeless lectures, the school bus driver not braking as hard to avoid other cars.
“They’re replicas,” Eli said on the way home.
I shrugged again, because what was I supposed to say? I didn’t want to believe it.
“I watched a girl set her hair on fire in chemistry today,” Eli told me. “It’s like they don’t even know how to be humans anymore.”
I didn’t want to believe him, but I had seen things. I watched our parents change into pod people, staring glassy-eyed at the wall, the food burning in the oven, the glowing TV screen at night.
One night, I couldn’t sleep, and I went downstairs to where Eli was still up, watching TV. I stood in the doorway for a long time, watching with him, before he noticed me.
“You okay?” He asked from the couch, flickering in the blue light of the TV.
I shrugged and looked down at the floor. “How do you know if someone’s a replica?”
He grinned, a grin I almost remembered in the back of my mind, and I had to close my eyes. “You don’t,” he said.
One night, Eli shook me awake, his half-naked body gleaming with sweat. “I had a dream. I had a dream, and we have to get out of here.”
“Go to sleep. Go back to your room.”
“No,” he said, “I had a dream. We have to leave.”
“Not now; we’re not going out anywhere. It’s way too late.”
For no reason, he started to cry, tears streaming down his face. I looked up at him in the light from the moon outside, and I wondered what kind of nightmare would make my brother cry like that. “It’s horrible, it all ends. It’s all over, Zack.” Just like that, the moonlight was gone, and we were in total darkness, with Eli sobbing and trembling against me. “It’s all over, now. This is how I saw it.”
Down the hall, I heard someone pounding on the front door of the house, and the moonlight came back, shining in on Eli through the window, his messy hair and his sweat-drenched body. “What’s happening?” I asked him.
“Shut up, they’ll hear you.” Eli’s eyes were huge.
We sat in silence and listened to the pounding. “It’s the middle of the night,” Dad said from down the hall, and we peeked out to see him standing with the door open, just staring outside. He just stood there, staring, like he was a statue, and suddenly, the door slammed shut. Eli shut and locked the bedroom door.
“I’m staying in here,” he said. “I can’t be out there right now.”
“What’s going on?” Mom yelled, her bare feet slapping the hardwood floor outside my bedroom door.
“Go back to bed, it’s nothing.”
“It’s nothing,” she said.
“I told you, it’s nothing, I’ll be there in a minute.”
They were quiet, and I could hear my heart beating in my ears, Eli crouching over me on the bed with his hand over my mouth. “Shhh,” he whispered.
“I’m really tired of it being nothing. It’s going to be something one of these days, and you’re going to fuck it all up, Dan.”
“Would you just go back to bed already?”
More silence, and then I heard Mom’s feet slapping the floor past my room again, heading back to their bedroom. “Get yourself together,” she said. “You’re going to scare the boys.” We heard the bedroom door shut, and Eli collapsed against me. We slept like that, tangled in my sheets.
We left the next night after, because for once, Dad never came out of the bedroom. Mom just sat at the table, not saying anything. Their sad, silent roles had completely reversed. Eli and I watched them turn to stone in separate rooms. They never knew we left. There was no dinner, so I ate leftovers in my bedroom and we waited until Mom finally went to bed, too.
We walked right past the school bus stop, faintly alien now in the light of the streetlamps overhead, and we headed down the main road toward the bus station downtown. “How are we supposed to survive, though?” I asked finally.
“Just don’t worry about it. I have money.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
We got on a bus that looked like all the other buses and headed out of town
“I’m so tired,” I said to him in Des Moines with the sun coming up.
“Don’t go to sleep.” He was gripping the bus seat so hard his knuckles were white. “We can’t sleep yet, I told you.”
“I’m so tired.”
The sun rose to the middle of the sky and hovered there, baking the asphalt strip malls and the fast food dives of Chicago. Just outside of Indianapolis, Eli said we were going to get off the bus soon.
The first stop was the travel center in the middle of nowhere. Eli said it came to him in a dream. The rows of semi-trucks and huge expanses of asphalt were electric, crackling with purpose. We stepped off the bus single file with the freeway roaring in the distance, the only two people getting out here.
Eli stared out at the vehicles glittering on their way to and from places we would never know. “We’re here,” he said.
“Where are we?”
He smiled and adjusted his backpack. “At the beginning of the end.”
I looked around at the building, the pay phones, the cars at the gas pumps. No one knew, or everyone had been replaced. Eli would say they were all replicas, barely aware of their own backstories. “I’m hungry,” I said to him finally.
“Yeah, we better eat. It only gets harder from here.
Inside, we found a tiny restaurant and ordered food. Eli watched me as I rummaged through my own backpack. “I can’t find my meds,” I told him.
“You’re still taking those?”
“I see things without them.”
He sighed and slouched back in the booth. “I told you to stop taking them. That’s how they control your mind.”
I looked up at him, and he glanced out the window, his eyes darting over the parking lot. “Who does?”
“You know who. We’ve talked about this.”
“I get scared is all,” I said. “The meds keep things normal.”
He laughed. “Normal,” he said, doing air quotes.
“I get scared!”
“Listen,” he said, “What you see without those pills is the way it is. Pure, unfiltered reality. Everything you see is real.”
I had started sweating now, thinking back to all the things I used to see as a kid and the voices I heard coming from closed doors. “I don’t want to see those things. I just want to take the pills again.”
“No. Pure, unfiltered reality. I stopped taking mine, and you need to stop taking yours.”
My heart started to pound in my ears. “I can’t find them.”
Eli reached into his pocket and pulled out two pill bottles, one mine and one his. “I flushed them.”
I stopped digging in my backpack to stare at him. “No, I need them.”
“You need clarity. You need a clear head.”
I stood up from the booth, banging my knee and nearly falling over. “No, no, no. I need my meds.” I yanked my backpack up out of the booth, nearly spilling the contents on the floor. Eli stood up and followed me to the bathroom, closing the distance between us fast. He grabbed my shoulders and shoved me into one of the shower rooms and slammed the door behind us.
“Get yourself together,” he said.
“I’m scared, I’m going to call Mom.”
He shoved me back. I stumbled into the tile shower wall, and he slapped me hard, filling my head with technicolor galaxies rotating, spider webs of neurons connecting in my field of vision. I stood with my heart pounding and my temples throbbing, thinking of the blue pills swirling down a toilet somewhere. My eyes were wet, stinging with tears.
“I want to call Mom,” I told him, stumbling forward.
“She’s not real,” he said. “She’s not Mom anymore.”
“I want to go home.”
“There is no home. Home is gone.”
Eli and I stood staring at each other, and I knew he was right.
“How long will it take to get where we have to go?”
Eli shrugged. “I don’t know yet. A while, I guess.” He looked around the shower room, at the shower heads and the soap dishes. “It smells awful in here.”
“I’m scared, Eli.”
“There’s nothing to be scared of. I won’t let anything happen to you.” He prodded me toward the door. “Let’s go back to the booth and eat.”
Eli was right. He always has been, from the time we were little to now. He was older than me, and he had seen more. He told me our parents would put me on the pills, too, if I kept telling them what I saw and heard.
I remember the night I got out of the shower naked and dripping with water, and my reflection in the mirror over the sink was dry and still dressed. I guess I was screaming, and Mom burst in, slamming the door into the wall. “What? What?”
I told her what I saw, and Eli stood staring at me from the hallway, sad and disappointed. I knew I had said something wrong. That night, Mom and Dad sat up past our bedtime at the kitchen table, talking, and we sat on the floor in the hallway with our backs to the wall, listening.
“We can’t afford this,” Mom said.
“We can’t afford anything. Maybe we should just live in the car.”
“Don’t be stupid, Dan. You know what I mean. Two kids on medication?”
Dad sat at the table in silence for a minute. “It’s not abnormal these days.”
“These days,” Mom scoffed. “Isn’t that the truth.”
“I just don’t see what you’re getting all worked up about.”
Mom put her head down on the table, her voice muffled. “Is this our fault? Did we do something to fuck them up?”
“I told you,” Eli whispered.
I thought of my dry, clothed reflection in the mirror.
Mom sighed. “How are we going to do this?”
“We’ll make it,” Dad said, finally.
“Yeah, I know we’ll make it. I know.” Mom was quiet for a minute. “I just didn’t want to have to watch them both struggle, that’s all.”
“We’ll get through this.”
I looked over at Eli, with his dark eyes shining in the dim light of the hallway nightlight.
“Somehow,” Mom said, and then she started to cry.
“You’re screwed,” Eli whispered.
“This is no one’s fault,” I heard Dad say, and mom’s sobbing echoed off the kitchen walls and down the hallways to where we sat. Other than that, there was silence, deep and dark and haunted by everything I realized I didn’t know about our parents. I closed my eyes, my pulse racing, and I felt Eli grab my hand beyond the technicolor fireworks dancing on the backs of my eyelids.
“It’s not so bad,” he said, but it was.
We left the travel center on foot, following the freeway. The cars and semis and minivans roaring past nearly drowned Eli out as he talked.
“We just keep going until someone picks us up,” He said.
“What, like we hitchhike?”
“Yeah, like in the movies. Haven’t you ever seen that?”
“I guess,” I said.
We kept walking, the big trucks sending wind rushing up our backs, blowing us forward.
“What if we get killed?”
Eli laughed. “Trust me, some crazy asshole on the road is the least of our worries. We’ll just kill them first.”
“We can’t kill someone.” My brain was full of every terrifying news broadcast I had ever seen on TV. “Once you kill someone, they start looking for you. Don’t be stupid.”
“I’ll do it, then,” he said.
“We could just go back,” I said. “I don’t know what we’re even doing out here.”
A school bus rushed past, kicking up gravel dust. I coughed a little.
“We can’t go back, Zack.”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Tell me you understand.”
“I get it, I understand, jeez.”
A car whooshed past and pulled over to the side, gliding to a stop ahead of us with its flashers on.
“Here we go,” Eli told me, laughing. “Let’s hope this isn’t a serial killer.”
The car was driven by a dirty looking man who kept looking at Eli in the front seat. He was Dad’s age, but some of his teeth were missing and he smelled bad.
“Where are you boys from?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Eli said. “Just take us to Columbus.”
I looked around at the junk and trash next to me in the backseat. There were magazines and coupons and old fast food cups that smelled awful.
The man was a bad driver, veering onto the shoulder and other lanes. “You’re a long way from home, ain’t you?”
“We know where we’re going.”
“Why don’t you clean your car up?” I asked.
“Zack, shut up.” Eli sighed.
“How old are you?” The man stared at Eli, and then looked back at me, the car drifting into the other lane.
“Hey watch the road!”
“You can’t be more than sixteen,” The man said to Eli.
“I’m old enough,” Eli said quietly.
“Neither of you look old enough to be walking down the freeway like that.” He looked out at the road in front of the car. “It’s dangerous.”
“The world is dangerous, Mister.” Eli slouched down in his seat, and I knew he was thinking. I wondered if this guy was a replica. He was acting funny.
We drove for a long time, with the car drifting in and out of lanes, and the woods began to close in on both sides. There were hills and trees for as far as I could see.
“Listen, Mister,” Eli said. “I know a faster way to Columbus.”
“Ain’t no way faster than the freeway,” the man said.
“Listen,” Eli said again. “I see you looking at me. You think I don’t see you? Do I have to spell it out for you?”
The man glanced back at me in the rear-view mirror.
“Eli, I feel sick.”
“It’s okay, Zack.” He was quiet for a minute, and then he said to the man. “There’s a road up here. Pull off.”
“There’s not a road.” The man’s grip on the steering wheel tightened.
“There’s a road.”
“How do you know there’s a road?” I asked.
Eli turned and glared at me. “Can’t you just shut your mouth for a second?”
“Anyhow,” the man said, “You don’t know nothing about me. I’m just giving you a ride is all.”
My pulse was loud in my ear.
“I see where you were looking.”
“I don’t feel good,” I said quietly.
“Pull over, Mister. I think he’s gonna throw up.”
I felt my stomach lurching, and the car pulled over to the shoulder at full speed, bouncing over pot holes and onto a steep, grassy embankment. I flung the door open and puked up the pancakes I had eaten at the travel stop, watching it all fly out in chunky, liquid ropes toward the ditch far below.
“Jesus, is he gonna be okay?”
“He’s fine,” Eli said.
I hung out of the car, suspended by the seatbelt over the vomit-stained ditch, breathing hard. “I’m sorry, Eli. I’m sorry.”
I felt Eli’s eyes on me like a predator in the side mirror, taking in the vomit, the sweat, the dismantling of the whole situation. He sat in the front seat, waiting for it to be over.
“It’s fine, buddy,” he said finally. He was quiet for a minute. “Listen, Mister, forget the road. Why don’t you just let us out at the next rest area?”
The next stop was the rest area, and we were the only car. I left my backpack in the car, and the man got out with us. He followed us into the bathroom and kept looking over at us when we peed. He was evil, this guy.
“Listen, wait at the picnic table, okay?” Eli said to me after the man had gone outside.
“I’m scared. I think he’s a replica.”
“He is. I’m going to take care of him. I won’t let anything happen,” he said to me.
“Oh jeez. I can’t do this.”
“Zack, will you just go wait at the picnic area? Please?” I was shaking at that point, but I nodded, and he hugged me. “It’s gonna be okay, buddy,” he said in my ear, squeezing me. I thought of Mom and Dad and the man waiting outside and I wondered how it was ever going to be okay.
Eli and I met the man outside the door. “I can take you all the way to Columbus. I’m going across the state anyway,” the man said.
“Go,” Eli told me, and I started walking toward the picnic table, but it was more like floating. My head was swimming, and I thought I was going to be sick again.
“Let’s go for a walk in the woods back there,” Eli was saying to the man.
“I don’t do that,” the man said.
“Look, I’m not gonna tell anyone. We need money.”
There was a lot of silence as I sat with my back facing them, and then the man said. “You better not be shitting me.”
I watched them walk to the end of the deserted parking lot and out through the truck lot into the field, two figures getting smaller and smaller as they walked toward the woods. Only one of them was human.
It seemed like forever that they were gone. I watched black figures appear at the edge of the woods and disappear. I heard my name from the restrooms. My brain was swimming in aurora-colored nightmares, and I wished so hard for a full bottle of medication to make it go away.
When I saw Eli coming out of the woods in his shorts, it was like a nightmare. The world around me was shimmering from the heat of the huge, empty parking lots. We were still the only car in the entire lot, with the freeway traffic passing beyond the entrance and exit, humans and replicas with no idea what was going on. Eli was running, and he was alone. I couldn’t move. It was like when I used to wake up and see shadows and I couldn’t do anything, Eli was a shadow running toward me through the field, stumbling over grassy ruts and hills, reaching the truck parking lot and going full sprint, his bare feet slapping the pavement.
“Get to the car! Get to the car!” He was screaming, and suddenly, I felt the pit of my stomach go cold, ice water leaking into my veins, propelling me out of the tangled wood mess of the picnic table toward the man’s lonely car in the front parking lot, my shoes thundering across the asphalt with Eli closing in behind me. “Get to the car! Get in!”
I flung the door open and dove inside, scraping my elbow on the dashboard and fumbled to close the door. Now, I could see the man stumbling out of the woods far away like in some shimmering nightmare, naked from the waist down, dark and ruined and bloody and definitely not human anymore. Eli dropped into the driver’s seat and slammed the door.
“What’s happening? What’s going on?”
He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the man’s blood-soaked car key. Eli’s shorts and skin were covered in blood, and he smelled awful. “It’s worse than I thought, buddy. It’s so much worse.” His hands were shaking. “We have to go.”
“What did you do?” My voice was loud in the car, and Eli struggled to put the key in the ignition. “You can’t drive!”
“Shut up for a minute, okay? Just shut up!”
Then, as we both looked out the windshield, the man pitched forward into the field, headfirst, and didn’t get back up.
“Oh my god,” Eli said.
“What did you do?”
“Shut up!” He started the car.
“We’re in so much trouble! What did you do?”
“No we’re not. No we’re not, buddy. It’s okay,” Eli said, gripping the gear shift. The car shot backwards and swung crazily to the left, tires screeching. “I didn’t mean to hurt the guy, but he was already dead.”
The car shot forward, squealing and roaring. We sailed down the hill to the road that connected the two lots, and the entrance to the freeway was coming up fast. “What are we supposed to do now?”
“We’re getting out of here. Shut up.”
We bounced over an uneven part of the road and slid out onto the freeway. Cars honked and swerved, and I felt tears pouring down my cheeks, hot and stinging my eyes.
“Don’t be scared,” Eli said as we evened out, going faster than the other cars, but stable. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
We spent the night in the car in the woods, Eli soaked in blood and my stomach turning.
“What do we do now?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s all going to end anyway.”
Far away, I heard police sirens racing down the freeway. “Do you hear that?”
“No, there’s nothing.”
“I hear sirens.”
“It’s just the medication wearing off.”
We lay in the backseat in silence, listening to the sounds of the woods outside. “I bet they found him. We’re in trouble,” I said.
Eli didn’t say anything for a long time, and then he said, “Do you ever wonder what someone’s insides look like?”
I squeezed my eyes shut, remembering the man looking destroyed and gross. “No.”
Eli was quiet again for a long time, and then he said, “It’s not as interesting as you’d think.”
I looked up at the stars outside the car windows and thought about Mom and Dad.
“Don’t go to sleep yet,” Eli said.
“Something bad’s gonna happen.”
I looked around the car. “Don’t say that.”
“Listen, buddy. Before we say goodnight, I just wanted to say I’m sorry for everything I’ve done.”
“No, something bad’s gonna happen and it’s my fault.” His voice cracked. “It’s because of everything I did.”
“Just go to sleep,” I said. I was really starting to freak out.
“I’m sorry,” he said in my ear. After that, I pretended I didn’t know what was happening, because it was easier.
The last stop was the car accident. I woke up when the car bounced and the car lurched backward. Eli nearly kicked me in the head trying to get up into the driver’s seat. “Wake up wake up!” He yelled, and he started the car, throwing it into drive and tossing me back into the seat.
“What was that?”
“I don’t know.”
We flew down the rutted path in the woods, the car shuddering and breaking apart against rocks, losing pieces that tumbled further and further away behind us. “We need to turn around!”
“We can’t turn around!”
Just as suddenly as we started, we stopped. I was launched into the seat backs, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. The car was weightless, trash and junk and magazines floating and tumbling in the air around me. I heard a loud sound, and eventually I realized it was me. I was screaming.
For the next few minutes, all I could hear was my own gurgling, and I struggled to pull air into my lungs. I pulled myself up off the floorboard of the car and looked between the front seats, gasping for breath. The driver’s seat was empty.
The car was easy to get out of. It had landed upright at the bottom of a shallow ravine. Eli was nowhere. It was like he had vanished. I ran in the beams of the car’s headlights until they didn’t reach anymore, and then I ran in the darkness, my head pounding. My foot caught on a tree root, and I stumbled forward, my hair matted from blood and dirt, to see a figure standing in the beams of moonlight filtering down between the trees.
“It’s okay,” the figure said, and it was Eli, but his face was hidden in shadows. “I’m okay, everything’s okay.”
I was still breathing hard, and I could barely hear over the roaring in my ears. “What? Eli?”
“It’s me,” he said.
I coughed and squinted my eyes, trying to see his face in the darkness, but my eyes wouldn’t adjust. “I’m scared,” I said to him, and then I could see the harsh arch of his brow, the shadows of his eye sockets, his lips curling into a grin.
Suddenly, he was gone, leaving only the dancing dust particles in the beams of moonlight, with the forest echoing around me. Then, in my ear, I heard a voice that was not his say, “Don’t use the phone at the end of the road.”
I ran until I thought my feet were dead and my eyes were going to be scratched out by branches and I didn’t know if I could go on, and then I staggered out onto a freeway and started running faster. My blood was acid, my heart was a piston about to burst through my chest, but I still ran, until I saw the cold glow of headlights washing over the top of a distant hill, coming toward me. I stopped running and stood there for a second, unable to breathe or move, and then I started walking toward the lights. When they got close, the car swerved around me and skidded to a stop. I turned to see a young couple getting out of the car.
“Are you crazy?” The woman yelled. “You could’ve been killed!”
“I didn’t even see him,” the man said, and they ran toward me. “Oh my god,” the man said when they finally saw me in the halo of their car’s taillights. Their faces glowed red, hovering in the night.
“I need to get somewhere,” I told them.
“You look like you’re hurt, let’s get you to a hospital.” The woman went back to the car. “I’ll move the car seat over. It’s a good thing we left Emma with Mom.”
“I need to get somewhere,” I said as the man led me to their car.
“It’s alright, kid. Jesus, you’re young. What are you, fourteen? What are you doing out here?”
“I’m old enough,” I told him, and the woman backed out of the car.
“There you go, let’s get you out of here,” she said quietly. “My god, you’re banged up. What happened?”
“I have to find my brother,” I said as I got into the car. “He’s lost. He’s in the woods somewhere. Something bad happened.”
“Oh, sweetie,” the woman said.
“It’s gonna be fun getting the blood out of the car.” The man chuckled.
“Frank, you asshole.”
“Well, hey. It’s a good thing we found you. A kid your age walking along the road, any weirdo could have picked you up. Then you’d need therapy, too!”
“Frank, seriously. Don’t even joke about that,” the woman said.
I closed my eyes, thinking of Mom and Dad, the pills swirling down the toilet, the man at the rest stop, and I started to breathe harder. I thought of Eli, running toward the car. I thought of all the times I let him think I was asleep so he wouldn’t feel bad, and I felt dizzy.
“Calm down,” the man said. “It’s okay now.”
I listened to the couple in the car droning on and on about how they were going to help and everything was okay. Their voices sounded like they were far away, and above it all was Eli’s heavy breathing in the middle of the night, and I realized that I was in the only human for miles. Just then, there was a huge bang, and the top of the car came down over the strangers’ heads, smashing the windshield, and their screams were so loud I had to scream too just to drown them out.
It felt the crash like it was happening inside my head. My brain was alive, firing panic messages from the corneas to the brain stem. Start the pool of ice water in the stomach, shut off the pain sensors. This is going to hurt.
A dead eye, not blinking in the dark, watching the carnage all around. The brain sends panic messages to the legs. Move, move, move. The message comes back: return to sender. Invalid address.
A flashing banner, red on black: save yourself, save yourself, save yourself. The neural highways were destroyed at the bridges, trucks tumbling end over end into darkness, spilling words and sentences into the void below. My eyes blinked once, then never again, and the world collapsed into a single point of light, a dot on a map, a truck stop town in a rectangle state on a blue planet in an empty, gaping, starry void with no sound, silent and cold and getting bigger every second.
In a galaxy rotating far away in the darkness, the tiniest point of light shone with no change until even it was too dark to see, and there was only the void, silent and endless.
The car was a mess, upside down in the ditch, and I felt blood stinging in my eyes as I crawled out of the open back door, gasping for breath. I stood up with my legs shaking, my pants wet from my own pee, and looked at the car with its wheels still spinning, the headlights shining off into the deep, dark nothing beyond.
I staggered back toward the road, turning around to see two empty lanes. There was not a single pair of headlights anywhere, just an empty, silver strip of pavement in the moonlight. I figured I should start walking again.
I walked forever. I walked for miles and miles, with nothing to keep me company but the dark forest on one side of the road and the empty field on the other. No cars ever passed. Finally, I saw a light ahead, a single streetlamp in the middle of nowhere. Except for the road, you’d never know anyone had ever been out here, and now here was this clear, definite sign of civilization, and I started to laugh because it was all so stupid.
I started walking faster, then running, drawn to the warm glow of the light. When I got closer, I saw that there was a pay phone attached to the light pole, here in the middle of nowhere. I stopped in front of the light and stood for a minute, breathing hard, and then I collapsed on the ground, breathing in the gravel and pavement under me.
After a few minutes, I pushed myself to my feet and went over to the pay phone and put in the coins, dialed our home phone, and waited until the answering machine picked up. “I don’t know where I am,” I said into the machine, my voice echoing off the wood paneled walls of our living room with Mom and Dad bleeding out on the couch and the floor. “I can’t see anything, and I don’t know where Eli is.” Somewhere in the house, I knew a fan was kicking on, and the dirty dishes were rotting in the sink. “If you get this, I’m sorry for leaving. I’m sorry. I just want to come home.” The answering machine beeped, and it was all over. That was how it ended, with me holding the phone to my ear, listening to the busy signal echoing into the night.
I realized then that I couldn’t see the road beyond the light from the street lamp anymore. It was almost like it didn’t exist anywhere but where I was standing.
In my head, I heard Eli’s voice. “There is no home. Home is gone.”
I let the receiver drop and bounce, dangling from the pay phone, and I stood staring at it until it didn’t make sense anymore, this plastic phone in a metal box on a wooden pole on this empty road in the middle of nowhere.
“It’s okay, Buddy. I’m here too.” And just like that, there was nothing: no street lamp, no road, no moon, and nothing more to see.
I was born in the wastelands of the American Midwest, and I still live there, much to everyone’s regret. I started writing as a teenager as a side effect of what psychologists refer to as the “personal fable.” I believed that I was unique, that my personal life story impacted the world, and that the world revolves around me. In my mid-twenties, I picked up writing again because I was sick of reading slosh and tired of having to go back fifty years to find books I actually want to read. I was especially over the only gay literature available in 2008 being soft core porn romance bullshit with jacked, oiled-up porn stars on the covers. I decided that if I wanted to read something that wasn’t 500 pages of comma abuse and boners, I’d have to write it myself.
And so I did. It may not be the best, but it’s what I want to read. Thank you for the support, and I hope my writing means something to you as well.
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Thanks for the continued support and thanks for reading.
This story is dedicated to my partners in writing, a very select group of people who are also writers. They are all extremely talented and they write things that I look forward to reading (a rare thing these days because, in my opinion, there’s a lot of literary slosh in the world right now) and they have all at one point or another helped me shape one of my typo-riddled landmines into a finished book. Without the guidance of these awesome folks, I wouldn’t have the courage to publish anything I’ve written. I’d like to say that I do everything myself, but without the help of these people and being constantly inspired by their ability to keep writing and creating new works, I’d have given up long ago. I am inspired almost every day by you guys, even by things so mundane and inconsequential as status updates on social media, so thank you.
Moth and all of my literary family from Cuplets. You know who you are.
And, of course, my mom and dad.
If I forgot anyone, I’m sorry. I blame my advanced age.
I want to extend a very special thank you to all of my readers for your support and encouragement during my career. I’d like to extend it like the neck of a giraffe, but alas. I have no god-like abilities. You’ll have to accept some kind of mechanized neck extension.
You made it to the end. I bet you wish you could go home, now, but don’t get so excited. There is no home. Home is gone. This is the end of the road. There’s nothing after this. The only thing left is to hang up the phone.
Sweet dreams, Voids.
Eli was right. He always has been, from the time we were little to now. He was older than me, and he had seen more. He told me our parents would put me on the pills, too, if I kept telling them what I saw and heard.