The scenery outside the little car whizzed past. It was a mini electro-limo, big enough for two people to sit comfortably across from each other, with large windows to take in the view. The river-bottom really was beautiful, thought Tony, no matter how many times he went away and came home again, this view never failed to stir something far inside him.
“So?” Richard sat looking expectantly at Tony.
“Are you going to talk about it?”
“Am I going to talk about what?”
“Don't be a dick”
“I could talk for days about how I'm a dick, but remember, I'm not the one named after one.”
“Why are you shutting me out?”
“You talk to me like I'm your wife.”
“Kathy always calls you my second wife”, Richard says with a small laugh.
“Forget that. She's the second wife.” Tony chuckles a little despite himself.
“That's more like it.”, says Richard, “Talk to me.”
“Well, the book-signing was great, we had a huge turnout. I'm going to make a bunch more money. The hotel was shitty, pretending to be nice, I barely slept a wink on that tired old mattress. It's probably seen a lot of good times, that mattress, but just not by me.”
“Just talk to me. Stop joking around for once.”
“Stop joking? When I've got a goddamn tag on my toe.”
“Forty five years, Tony. Forty five years.”
“I know how long it was, Dick.”
“I hate that name.”
“I know you do. That's why I say it.”
“Forty five years. Why won't you talk about it”
“What's the obsession with me talking? Aren't you always telling me to shut up?”
Richard didn't answer this, but just grunted and stared out the window.
“I don't know why you live so far out in the suburbs.” Tony grumbled, “I could be home by now.”
“You say that every time I pick you up.”
“Pick me up? This is a driverless car, and I paid for it. Pick me up, ha! When was the last time you saw someone driving a car?”
“It's been a while.”
“Man, you're old.”
“You've been saying that since we were thirty five.”
“And I was right then.”
“So what does that make us now?”
“Really fucking old.”
“Eloquent. I thought you were a writer.”
“A shitty writer.”
“We're not that old.”
“Like you said, forty five years. Young people don't celebrate forty fifth anniversaries.”
“Neither did you, to be fair. You were a month short.”
“Wow, Dick, that's cold.”
“Hey, I'm just trying to get you to talk.”
They both went silent for a moment, then Tony pulled a small package from his pocket and removed the plastic seal.
“What is that?” asked Richard, “Are those cigarettes?”
“Yessir. Authentic, hand-cut Virginia Tobacco. This pack cost me forty three dollars.”
“Man, everything's expensive down there! What are you doing with cigarettes anyway? You haven't smoked in years.”
“In forty five years to be exact.”
“Sounds about right. But anyway, you can't smoke in these cars.”
“Oh yeah? Watch this.”
And he pulled a cigarette from the pack, took a lighter from his pocket, lit the cigarette, took a long pull, and exhaled a large cloud of smoke. The car's alarm voice immediately sounded,
“PLEASE DO NOT SMOKE IN THIS CAR, SMOKING IS PROHIBITED IN ALL FREIGHTWAY ELECTRO-LIMOS. PLEASE DO NOT SMOKE IN THIS CAR, SMOKING IS...”
“See what I told you?” Richard said, grimacing as the loud voice continued its rant.
“Watch”, said Tony, “SHUT UP, CAR! I'LL SMOKE IF I GODDAMN FEEL LIKE IT!!”, he shouted in a voice even louder than the alarm.
The voice immediately stopped but left a huffy silence behind. The window next to Tony opened a few centimetres and a little whirring fan popped out of the ceiling, pushing the smoke outside, then a small ashtray slid out of the door with a little click.
“Well what do you know?” Richard laughed, “Although that’s a bit passive aggressive for a car, wouldn't you say?”
“I had a passive aggressive spaceship in my last book, you know.”
“I do know. I read all your books.”
“I've never recommended that, you know. They're all garbage.”
“Nice. Well I suppose you're humble, at least.”
“I'm amazing at being humble.”
“How's the cigarette?”
“Kind of a let down, actually. Want one?”
“Sure.” He took the proffered cigarette, let Tony light it, and took a small puff.
“When was the last time you smoked?” Tony asked
“About 55 years ago. Kathy hates cigarettes”
“55 years! God, you're old.”
“I told you, we're not that old” He puffed a couple more times, “You know what? That's pretty smooth. I never liked cigarettes except when I was drunk, found them too harsh.”
“I know, I remember. Yup, that's the hand-cut Virginia tobacco, these are craft cigarettes right here. ”
“Craft! I remember when everything was craft this and craft that. Home-made, hand-crafted, organic, GMO-free, blah, blah, blah.”
“Old. Really old.”
“Stop that. Are you going to talk to me?”
“Are you my wife and my shrink now?”
“Talk to me.”
They sat in silence again, puffing on the craft cigarettes. The car filled with soft, white smoke, despite the efforts of the small fan. The view turned to rows of houses, all so similar, hard to tell one boulevard from the next.
Tony finally spoke, each word taking effort, “I don't know what I'm going to do. Until a week ago, I hadn't spent a night alone in forty five years. I don't know how to be alone. I don't want to be alone. I'm no good on my own.”
“There you go, don't you feel better?”
“No, I feel shittier.”
“Yeah, I figured.” Richard said, and then coughed for a few seconds, “maybe these aren't as smooth as I thought. I guess I'm not drunk enough,” he laughed as he butted out the cigarette. “You know these things will kill you.”
“Only if I'm lucky.”
Richard laughed again, “I guess we are old, aren't we?”
“As the hills, my friend.”
The rows of houses continued to whizz past the large windows, slightly obscured by the smoke hanging gently in the air.
She was gone. He pauses before putting the key in the lock, and I watch him standing there, staring at the door. He doesn't know what to do anymore than I do. I feel the breeze against my bare legs. She was gone. The funeral made it real. They kept saying her name. We haven't said her name since it happened. She was gone. We really put all our eggs in one basket with this one he used to joke to his friends, more prolific friends, friends with broods of loud children.
Only child they called her. She was gone. He opens the door, take three steps inside and stops, slumped. He takes his phone out of his pocket, glances at it and puts it on the counter. I follow him inside, close the door and put my arms around him from behind, like I used to. He pulls away, like he does now, only I thought today might be different.
“I need to go to the bathroom” he says, and walks out of the room.
Gone. Beverly. The name stings in my eyes. Beverly, with your father's eyes, so piercing. You didn't get my beady eyes, forever behind glasses or covered with makeup. Beverly, with my frizzy ringlets, so much prettier on you, a curly frame for those eyes. Gone. I wasn't supposed to outlive you. What a godawful deal for you, Beverly, six measly trips around the sun on this stupid rock. I don't want to be here anymore.
Beverly, my middle name. I was shy of my middle name, swearing close friends to secrecy, the only people with whom I shared it. It's a pretty name, they would say, why do you hate it? I hear muffled sobs from the bathroom. He never cries in front of me, only I thought today might be different.
She was gone. I feel my body shake, it wants to cry, but there's nothing left. I told him my middle name on our first date. He asked and I told him without a thought. When he looked at me with those eyes, I couldn't lie. That never changed. But he doesn't look at me as much anymore. God, what is wrong with me? Where are these thoughts coming from? Why am I worrying about this today? She was gone. Couples grow apart. It's time to face facts. She was gone. My body shakes again, still nothing.
A buzz from the counter interrupts my thoughts, his phone, never away from his side on any other day. I look at it without thinking and see a message from a nameless number.
<Darling, I'm so sorry. I can't imagine how awful this must be for you. I want to make you feel better. I want touch you and hold you in my arms and console you. Text me when you can get away.>
Wrong number. It has to be a wrong number. I glance toward the hall. I never look at his phone. I never wanted to be a jailer. You have to trust people. It's a wrong number. It has to be. He always says there's only me. You have to trust people...don't you? Before I know it I've unlocked the phone and there they are, messages, so many messages, back and forth, words, intimate words, to someone else... my darling... I need you right... when can you... she doesn't understand... I'm waiting in my bed, my body is...
Gone. This conversation is real. It is right here in front of my eyes. It is real. I can't see around it.
He has turned on the fan in the bathroom. Either he really had to go, or he's just buying more time. Time to cry alone. He won't cry with me. He's waiting for someone else. This isn't real. Couples drift apart. That's what everyone says.
But this isn't drifting. This is just apart. And it's not as if things have been all bad. I thought we were just in a lull. We were always so busy. But these words he says to another. These words he used to say to me. How can he talk to someone else this way? This isn't just sex. This is a whole relationship. I feel sick, light-headed. Everything is wrong. I close his phone and put it exactly where it was. It didn't happen. I just imagined it.
Beverly, I'm glad you're dead so you'll never know your father's a cheater.
I thought there was nothing left, but the tears take hold of me again and I sink to the floor. I feel my skirt tear as I collapse, we never dress up anymore, what a reason to finally do it. I can't believe those words that went through my head. Oh Beverly, I didn't mean it! Beverly, you can't be gone. I hate him so much. How could he look at me and say those words to someone else? How could he sleep next to me and say those words to someone else? I loved him. I loved his eyes, Beverly's eyes.
I can't stop crying. My body hurts and I feel like I could vomit, and I can't stop crying. Beverly you can't be gone. I hate him.
I hear the toilet flush, then the water running. He is so fussy about washing his hands, he has beautiful hands, hands that knew every bit of my body, hands that touch someone else now. Gone.
I don't move. My eyes are blurry. I can't look at him, at those eyes, Beverly's eyes. You can't be gone. Only child, my beautiful daughter. I hear his footsteps and feel his hands on me, his gentle hands, helping me stand. He puts his arms around me. Holds me like he used to, one hand around my waist, the other stroking my hair.
He breaks the desperate silence finally, whispering in my ear, “at least we still have each other.”
I wonder how long a person can survive on soda. Or pop, or whatever you call it. Josh used to make fun of me for calling it soda. I wish he was here. Josh probably knows how long you can live on soda. I never thought I'd wonder something like that. I've never been one for deep thoughts. I'm full of thoughts at the moment, more thoughts than I've ever had. Josh liked to remind me that I wasn't the smart brother, or the good-looking brother, or the talented brother, or the anything brother, just the fat, stupid brother, the always-in-the-way brother, the wreck-everything brother. I'm sorry I wreck everything, Josh. I wish you were here. You would have known to scratch lines in the wall or something to keep track of how long we were stuck here. But I don't know how long it's been. I think it's been a month, but Josh says I'm not good at keeping track of time. I know my skin is hanging off of me in folds. I'm glad there are no mirrors in here. I don't think I'd be able to stomach the sight of me. And I was at the best I'd ever been, 220 pounds of show muscle, tanned and oiled, flexing for the crowd. I loved it; I loved making people cheer with my body. For once I didn't care what Josh thought. He said it was stupid, that I looked stupid, that my muscles weren't functional or whatever, but I didn't care. I wish you were here, Josh. I don't know what to do. It was all so loud, sudden, and confusing. I was driving my car back from a fitness competition (fitness! yeah right, I could hear Josh say) and then there was a wall of dirt rushing right at me, and before I knew it the car was rolling, and then I thought I was dead. When I woke up I had dried blood on my face and my head hurt, but I seemed to be okay. The car was right side up but was partially crushed from above by something, I couldn't tell what, but it was big. I was just able to slide out the window and worm my way out from under whatever was on top of my car. After making my way out I was able to see that it was a large truck, a transport truck of some kind, impossible to tell what because it was covered in dirt. It seemed a miracle that the car wasn't completely crushed, but it seemed to have landed right in a low spot. As for the wall of dirt I saw before getting knocked out, the landscape around me was just that, dirt, flattened trees, hazy sky, vehicles upside down and smashed, everything covered in dirt. It almost looked like a dust storm but this wasn't a desert, at least it wasn't before I got knocked out. I don't know what happened. I'm not good at figuring things out. I wish Josh were here. Josh used to tie me to the bed and gag me with his dirty underwear, then hit me and pinch me until I cried. He was always stronger and faster than me. I tried to fight back but it never was any use. And no one believed me. Not perfect Josh with his perfect grades and his perfect smile and his perfect everything. They wouldn't believe it of him, and so I stopped telling.
I hate you, Josh.
I wish you were here.
You'd know what happened, you'd be brave enough to venture out and explore. You wouldn't just sit here drinking soda and watching your muscles turn to nothing, watch your skin get loose and grey. I'm so hungry. All I do is dream of food now. I don't want to drink any more soda, but it's all I have. I learned quick that drinking cola on an empty stomach gives you the runs. So I avoided it ever since. But I'm out of orange, I'm almost out of ginger ale and lemon-lime, it's only a matter of time before I have to start in on that nasty shit. But I don't know how much longer I'm going to make it anyway. I'm shaky and cold one minute, then hot and dry-heaving the next. I'm so scared. I don't want to die, Josh. I don't want to die alone. I'm so scared of the dark. None of the lights work, nothing works. I sleep on a pile of coats in the back of the soda truck. I found the coats in the cab of the truck. The driver seemed like she must have died instantly, that was a mercy at least. She didn't waste away, watching her body eat itself to death, drinking soda and vomiting it back up. One good knock on the head and she was done, no more pain, no more fear. Oh god, I hate the night. I can hear animals, I don't know what they are, I never was good at remembering things, howling and screaming, crying out and shaking me through, waking me again and again. I spend more time sleeping these last few days, I have no energy any more. Josh, where are you? Do you wonder where I am? I can hear voices outside! Those are human voices. I haven't talked to anyone in so long. I heave myself off the coats, I steady myself on the wall, fight back the dizziness. I need to know. It's Josh, I know it is. He's here to make everything better. I stumble out through the swinging door at the back. Josh! It is you! But it's not you, no. But you look like Josh. Josh, is that you? Your friend looks like Daniel. Daniel was almost as bad as Josh. The two of them would take turns torturing me. It was a game, a competition, who could cause me the most pain without leaving a mark. Daniel and Josh, always with different girls, the flavour of the week. God, they say, are you okay? How long have you been here? I don't know, I tell them, about a month? I ask if they know what happened, they say they don't but they think it was some sort of bomb. They've been walking for weeks they say, and most everyone they found has been dead. Animals, humans, plants, almost all dead. They've been scrounging on whatever they could find, they say. What have you been eating, they ask. I tell them only soda. That's shitty, Josh says. A month of just pop! Damn that's rough, says Daniel. Daniel takes some meat out of his bag, wrapped in waxy paper, and offers it to me. They were able to cook some meat at a farm they found. Everyone on the farm was dead, but part of house had been spared from the blast by chance. The meat tastes strange but I can't stop, I keep putting it in my mouth and chewing it as fast as I can. Slow down, they say, you'll get sick. Your body can't handle it, slow down. But I can't. The meat tastes strange but it's everything I've been missing. It's the dozen doughnuts I would eat in the dark, alone, then stick my finger down my throat, it's the protein shake I would drink every morning and night after the gym, it's the triple cheeseburger and large fries from the drive-in. I can't stop. Then everything is wrong, I'm so dizzy, the meat is coming back out of my mouth and onto the ground. I'm on the ground, my stomach is twisting, heaving, rejecting that sickly sweet meat. Oh shit, they say, oh no, he's going into shock. What's happening, Josh? What's happening to me? I don't want to die, Josh. Not like this. Then everything is dark. I feel nothing. Am I dead? Is this death? I don't see a white light. I don't see anything. Josh, what's happening? Is this hell, Josh? And then all there is is pain. Pain, searing pain, my whole body is pain, someone is screaming, is that me screaming? Josh, what are you doing? Why do you have that knife? Daniel and Josh are torturing me again, but this time they're using knives! The words don't come out, only screams. Oh God, Josh says, he's still alive, oh God! Daniel says, oh shit, what do we do? Poor bastard, says Josh, put him out of his misery. Josh, what do you mean? What is happening to me? Josh, there's so much pain. And then there was nothing.