Last Man
by Liam Hogan

If it had been a crossroads, I’d have kept on North, kept putting the miles between me and what—and where —I was running from.

But it wasn’t: it was a T-junction. The lonely road coming to an abrupt stop, two equally desolate strips of asphalt running at right angles, one East, one West.

No road signs, no distances to the nearest town, no street names; nothing.

A low, barbwire fence wasn’t much of an obstacle, but burnt stubble stretched out to the gray, distant horizon; there was nothing for me there.

I had to stop burning my bridges. The memory of screamed curses; the heavy thud of heavy men running to her aid, the blood damp against the thin cuff of my leather jacket. Dried now, dried and stiffened, but still there. An accident, of course. A simple misunderstanding, gotten out of hand. A slap, provoking my explosive reaction. Funny, how often accidents can happen to one man. Maybe the witch was right; maybe I was trouble. And maybe I was going to hell. But I'd kinda like to find my way out of Montana first.

So: East, or West? If I had a coin, I’d have flipped it. There wasn’t anything else to decide it on. The road stretched out to the same gray horizon, a hint of distant mountains, the Rockies, perhaps, but not for considerably more miles than I could walk, not without food, and water and rest.

The only place I knew for sure I’d find any of those things was two hours back the way I’d come, and I’d get no welcome there. Not after what I’d done.

I’d left town at dawn, having spent the remains of the night skulking behind a dumpster, and, since then, I’d not seen anybody. No cars, no farmers, no one. Mankind may as well have been wiped off the face of the Earth, with me, the undeserved Last Man. The last anything—no cattle, no birds, no nothing. Bleak, and desolate.

I’d been wary of cars coming up behind, worried someone might give chase. For any other traffic, I’d have been hitching a lift, going any which way, getting the hell out.

I slipped off my shoe, shook loose a piece of grit. Tapped my last cigarette from the crumpled pack. Squatting by the dusty scrub of the verge, reluctant to sit, I thumbed the wheel of the plastic lighter, shielding it against the mournful wind, sucking deeply as it caught.

I took time over my smoke; a chance to see if this road was as quiet as the other. And, not yet having settled on a direction, I was in no particular hurry. The day was still young.

I should have known not to get mixed up with her. I always was attracted to exotic types. Black hair down to her slim waist, almond eyes of glittering green, skin burnished gold. I’d wondered if she was Latino, or Native American. Indian turned out to be right, but the other sort: born in the shadows of the Himalayas, an awfully long way from home.

The barman had seen me stare, had answered my questions with obvious reluctance. “You don’t wanna mess with Zeeya,” he’d warned, his tattooed fingers making the sign of the horns.

“She likes heavy metal?” I quipped, undoing all the work I’d put in to encourage a generous free pour. But that didn’t matter anymore; by then, I’d a new windmill to tilt at.

When the Marlboro was burnt down to the filter, I flicked the butt across the road, spun the empty red pack into the long grass. Rising, I spat into the dirt, a sour taste of whisky brought back by the hit of nicotine.

I stood tall and looked both ways, hoping for the distant glint of a car, or better yet, a truck.

Nothing. Not even a heat mirage to give me false hope. The sun was just beginning to crack through the sullen clouds; maybe it would brighten, later. So I headed left - West, with the sun to my side and out of my eyes, until noon, at least. Hopefully, I’d be somewhere else, by then.

It was an hour’s dull trudge before I came to the next T-junction. The same situation, a burnt field of stubble ahead, two roads left and right, still no signs, still no cars. Without breaking step, I turned right. I didn't want to complete the square, wind up back where I’d started. That wouldn't be good for my health.

Another hour, another T-Junction. 'T,' standing for 'tedious'. I stopped, undid my fly and let loose a dribble of too-yellow piss.

Which landed on an empty, crumpled, Marlboro cigarette pack.

I looked back over my shoulder. There wasn’t anything to hang my eye on; it all looked the same. But if couldn’t be, could it? Slowly, I re-zipped, wandered over to the opposite side of the road, scanned the boundary between asphalt and dirt.

The burnt-down-to-the-filter nub of a cigarette grinned back at me.

I was getting spooked. It wasn’t like cigarette butts, or even Marlboro packs, were exactly rare. I’d most likely find such trash, along with fading cans of Bud, on the verge of any road, even one as unfrequented as this. Wouldn’t I?

It was gone noon, the day warming up, summer’s last hurrah. It wouldn’t be long until fall colors set in—anywhere there were trees, rather than just the dismal remnants of a harvested crop stretching in all directions. The clouds had been shredded, but not dispersed; ahead some loomed gray, threatening rain.

That could only make a bad day worse.

I chewed my lip. Whether this was that first T-junction or not, I was still faced with the same two choices: East, or West.

This time, I went East.

An hour later I was staring down at that damned crumpled pack.

The only way I could figure it was if the road was one great big circle, so large that it didn’t look anything but straight, the same way the Earth looks flat unless you’re up high. But why would such a road exist? What did it serve? There hadn’t been a single turning, not even a dirt track to some lonely farm.

And that was a problem. For the road to end at the same T-junction, both ways, without there being any other turnings, it’d have to be some crazy Escher drawing, an impossible Mobius strip of bitumen.

I spent a while scratching figure of 8’s in the dust with the toe of my shoe, but nothing made sense. That second turning, when I’d not stopped, just headed what I’d thought was North, had that been the same junction as the first? As the last two? And if not, then the picture wasn’t what I was failing to draw.

Dry swallowing, I felt a rough edge to my lips, tasted iron. Whether it was the sun, or the wind, I wasn’t sure. But this had stopped being fun a while back. How long could I go without water? Twelve hours? A day? Two?

Still. There was no point in panicking, not yet. The sun didn’t move that much in an hour. I’d use my shadow as a landmark. Keep it to my right and just behind me, and I couldn’t possibly go round in a circle again.

I set off, heading West, too fast, at first, and then, once the junction had faded out of sight, slackening to a more relaxed pace as the monotony of the view took over.

Despite my casual speed, my heart was racing as I approached the next junction, looking for differences, and looking for that damned red pack.

The sun had stayed at my side, so it was, of course, impossible for it to be there.

But, still, there it was.

I prodded it out into the middle of the road. Stamped it flat, and then spun and savagely kicked at it, scuffing my shoe, anger flaring and then, because there wasn’t anything else around to kick, fading.

When someone slaps you, and it doesn’t matter who, you’re going to react; to slap back, with added interest. And sure, maybe that’s not always the wise thing, and it certainly doesn’t help you get the girl, but it’s not the end of the world, it’s not the worst a man can do.

But when she’s screaming into my face, calling me all the names under the sun, telling how she’s got people - her twelve followers - who will mess me up so bad even my bitch of a mother wouldn’t recognize me, and then when she spits, the saliva thick with blood...

I over reacted, just as I always damn well over react. But she’d brought it on herself. You don’t spit at a man on a short fuse. Open hands clenched into fists.

I still figured she’d come out of it better than I had. She’d recover, and maybe she’d be a little bit more polite, more respectful next time. Whereas I’d lost my bag and my wallet. Everything I owned in the world, little though that was.

I stepped over the barbed wire. The soil was packed dry, the autumn rains yet to descend. I’d keep going North, ignore the damned stupid roads.

It was late afternoon when I came to a barbed wire fence, to a T-junction. I chewed at a hangnail.

No sign of the cigarette pack. Not until I remember I’d kicked it away, not until I crossed to the other side, to find the flattened, misshaped box propped up by the corner fence post.

But that was insane, impossible. Even though it was currently behind the clouds, the sun has been on my back all the way; I could still feel the warmth on my bare neck.

And then the clouds parted, and there was my shadow, where the sun should be.

I howled into that big sky until I felt the expletives rasp against my throat. Swallowed painfully, realizing it was doing me no good.

Exhaustion was messing with my head. I must have walked in a circle, must have not been paying enough damned attention. I’d once stood on a wide empty beach, in the middle of winter. Closed my eyes and attempted to walk straight. And whether it was the wind, the barely perceptible slope or it was just an impossible task, by the time I’d counted to a hundred steps, opened my eyes and looked back, a long line of footsteps curved away behind me.

Same thing here. With nothing to set my sights on, I’d gone in a big arc.

One that brought me back exactly where I’d started.

I spiked the pack on the barbed wire and set out again, deliberately at an angle, kicking at the blackened stalks until the soot covered the scrapes in my shoe-leather, stumbling in the tractor ruts. It was just a field, how big could one field be?

I saw the red pack hanging by a wire in the gathering gloom ahead, as the first spots of heavy rain begin to fall, threatening to turn the field into a mire.

I turned my face to the gunmetal sky, opening my parched throat for what scant relief it offered.

It was dark when I gave up trying to work it all out. Dark, with my feet blistered, my stomach past empty, my damp frame shivering against the sudden cold.

Dark, when I escaped purgatory and finally took that third option of the T: South. The only option I’d ever actually had. Back the way I’d come. Back to Zeeya, to a town turned against me, to rough justice.

Two hours it took coming out this way, it took much limping my way back. It was near midnight when I saw the glow lighting up the horizon.

In the end, the smoke and the flames, the dark forms of a dozen almost-men - her followers - spread waiting across the road...

Hell. They’re not any surprise at all.

 

© Liam Hogan, 2016
For more info on the author click here. This story was read by Aundré Barnes.