art by Jonathan Westbrook
Dolly at the End of the World
by Amanda C. Davis
"Never open the box," said Pappy, and since Pappy had been dead twenty years and no one ever came along to tell her otherwise, Dolly never did.
She stood on the porch in her grandmother's dress, scowling at the sky. The clouds to the west had parted to show a gash of sunset pink. She'd been a little girl the last time the sky was anything but grey.
"Don't like," she said.
Unnerved, she went inside. The red box in the living room shuddered. She gave it a friendly pat as she passed. "Don't open the box, Dolly," she said. "Okay, Pappy."
She went into the cellar and picked out a can of food. "One in the morning, one in the middle, one at the dark of night," she sang. "Don't choose the puffy ones, Dolly. I won't, Pappy."
When she got to the kitchen, there was a man there.
Dolly froze. Her fingers tightened around the can.
The man held out his hands. "Hey there. Don't be afraid. Do you understand me? Man, I knew someone must still be alive out here. I'm Malcolm."
Dolly's mouth opened and closed.
He dropped his backpack, clattery with pots and cups and tools. "Is that dinner?" he said. "What are we having?"
"One in the morning," said Dolly, finding her voice, "one in the middle, and one at the dark of night."
"I guess it's the dark of night right now!" said Malcolm. "I saw a pump outside. I'm going to wash up. Cook something good for me, darlin'!"
Dolly heated the food on the cast-iron stovetop and put it all in a bowl at Pappy's old seat at the table. When Malcolm came back in, beaming, he said, "I believe I could eat that whole thing! I guess you already ate."
He guessed wrong, but Dolly didn't say so. She didn't say anything.
After dinner, Malcolm pushed back Pappy's chair. "I haven't had hot food since--boy. You know how far a walk it is even to the burnt-out cities? Weeks. But I knew--" He wagged his finger. "I knew there was something out here in the boonies worth going for. And for the taking too. Everything a man could need." He eyed her. "Come here! Let me make you feel good."
So she did, and he did, so that she didn't know how to feel when he was done.
"You're not such a bad lay for a quiet little porker," said Malcolm. "What's your name, darlin'?"
Her head swam at his nearness, his newness. "Don't open the box, Dolly," she whispered.
"Dolly?" he said. Then: "What box?"
She didn't answer. Even though he was right there, and still talking, and still alive, she drifted off to the comfortable dark of sleep.
While Dolly heated canned yams in the morning, Malcolm talked.
"You wouldn't believe how many people didn't get out in time. It's a regular gold mine. The last house I found, the lady must have been wearing every piece of jewelry she owned. Dolled herself up to meet the Grim Reaper. That was days ago. I'm going to be famous when I get back. The new Lawrence of Arabia. Malcolm of the Dead Zone. Say cheese, darlin'." A bright flash went off in Dolly's face. "Yeah, we used to say the only way anthropologists make any money was sellin' books or robbing tombs. I say, why not have it both ways? You'll make a hell of an essay. The New Yorker'll love this. Hey, what were you saying last night about a box?"
The word "box" drove Dolly's head up. She backed closer to the stove. "Don't open the box, Dolly."
"But what's in it?"
She groped for words. "Don't--"