art by Seth Alan Bareiss
Red at the End of the World
by Lynda E Rucker
The man is tapping out a tune with one foot, a tune that is a mystery to everyone but him. The tune goes something like this: tap tap tap pause tap tap tap pause tap tap tap tap pause tap tap tap tap pause. It's worse than having a pop song stuck on repeat inside your head because instead of trying to shed it you keep trying to capture it, and the only man who knows the secret is still tap-tap-tapping but he isn't going to reveal a thing.
He's not; and you know it by looking at him. You know it first by looking at his shoes, which are brown leather, scuffed and laced up wrong with floppy worn tongues. Above the shoes, a flash of thin ankles: he's lost his socks. You feel sure "lost" is the right word, not "forgotten" or "not worn." He had socks at one time and now, for whatever reason, they are gone. Above the thin ankles, frayed denim hems. The jeans (Granny still calls them dungarees; you do not know why this piece of information rises unbidden in your thoughts) don't fit the bare ankles and the battered shoes. You think: normal. That's it; the jeans are the attire of a normal person. The shoes are things a crazy person would wear, shuffling through the city on their broken-down backs, talking to people who aren't there.
It occurs to you, then: he has lost his socks, and the shoes do not belong to him. He has scavenged them from somewhere.
Traveling upwards, a buckskin vest--really!--is draped over a plain black T-shirt. He has a weak chin, a perturbed mouth, a handlebar mustache. This, too, is not normal, but the shoes of crazy people are not normal in a careless way, while there are few things so deliberate as a handlebar mustache. Above the mustache, a substantial nose, topped with medium-sized dark eyes, a thick brow, a brush of graying hair last cut with indifference.
You stomp your foot. "Eureka!" you say. "Three Blind Mice!" Three blind mice. Pause. Three blind mice. Pause. See how they run.
The smile breaks across his face as slowly as any you've ever seen. His teeth are perfectly straight, if yellow near the gums, and that's the moment you know. His hollow face; his lupine grin.
You experience a number of conflicting emotions:
1. You feel annoyed. You have found yourself in a similar position too many times before. You should have known it was coming to this once again, and yet somehow, you did not.
2. You feel fear, naturally, because however jaded you may otherwise be, this is a situation that would engender fear in anyone.
3. You begin to feel sorry for him. Clearly, his plans have gone awry. Something has caused him to lose his socks and his shoes--something chased him, perhaps?--and he's stuck in a crowded and smelly urban bus station in a broken city tapping out sinister nursery rhymes to the indifference or irritation of everyone around him.
4. You feel glee. He has been frightened, perhaps even bested. You can't help noticing how he's planted himself in the most crowded part of the station, and how his gaze crawls over dark corners, over shadows, over the blank rectangle of night framed in the doorway marked "Exit."
5. You feel hungry. After all, you are carrying food to Granny, and the smell of it is making you deliciously, deliriously hungry. Him, too: his nose is twitching. You draw back against your seat when you notice this. You sink into your hated red shawl. You wait.
A man comes out and announces that the bus is running late. Someone asks him which bus. He answers, "All of them."
Amid the grumbles you think to yourself that it is unfair to complain. There is, after all, an apocalypse on. You're lucky the buses are running at all. As for Granny's irradiated and now rapidly cooling supper--well, that, like so many things, cannot be helped.
Because there is only a delay, and not an outright cancellation, the buses do arrive eventually. You and all the other passengers dutifully file aboard. As you pay the driver, you lean close to him and whisper about who you are, and the wolf. You point to the wolf so the driver will know not to let him on. You whisper because you don't want everyone knowing who you are. But when you're finished a big grin breaks across his face and he says, "Sure thing, Red!" And he glances up into his rearview mirror to address all the other passengers. "Guess who we've got with us tonight," he announces. "Hi, Red!" chorus the bus passengers, and you try to get to your seat, keeping your head down the whole time. Someone grabs your arm and says, "Here, sit next to me"; it's a kid with a pierced lower lip and a pale complexion under a shock of black-as-a-moonless-night hair.
"Seriously," the kid says. "Sit here." He shifts to make more room. "I could use the company." He sticks out his hand. "I'm Snow White."
The armed guards have taken their posts on the crudely installed running boards on either side of the bus, and the vehicle goes rumbling out into the street. You try not to look out, because you always see terrible things. Last time it was a child hung from a lamppost, a sign round its neck proclaiming it "Jack B Nimble." Things not-human have taken the streets. Your mother has a hand-crank radio especially for disasters--not disasters such as these, for who could have foreseen such things?--but for more prosaic horrors like earthquakes and terrorist attacks. The voices on the windup radio used to give statistics about the best and worst times of day to try to travel through the city, but they have mostly fallen silent now. You were always taking your chances anyway, no matter the time of day or night.
Snow White says, "You're taller than I thought you'd be."