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art by Ron Sanders

Through Dry Places, Seeking Rest

Megan Arkenberg lives and writes in California. Her work has appeared in Asimov's, Lightspeed, The Best Horror of the Year, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance.

After sunset, my reflection appears in the black depths of the kitchen window, thin and pale and drunk. The ruins of the gas station are burning in the hills, a sheet of wet gold floating on my chest. I can almost smell the smoke. My eyebrows are dark and straight with frowning, my lips black with the dry, expensive wine I've spent these last four hours sipping from a plastic cup. I can almost see Michael in the angles of my face, the tipping back of my heavy-legged chair, my nervous fingers crumpling the thin red plastic, fingernails black with grease.
I buried my brother three days ago. There's some space on the side of the gas station where the ground is soft. Back when Michael and I were little, back before the world ended, we used to bike up the hill to that gas station and spend all of our pocket change on candy bars and toy soldiers. If I came alone, the woman behind the counter would give me a stick of gum for free, to take back home to Michael.
I don't know how to be alone. I don't know how to go and bring nothing back.
The gas station explodes, a light so bright it's almost blue. I let the front legs of my chair settle on the kitchen linoleum with a weighty rumble. My limbs creak like an old woman's as I totter towards the sink and refill my cup from a coffee pot that hasn't held coffee in years. I don't remember the taste of coffee, only its smell, sharp and bittersweet.
The wind is blowing from the west, thick with burning gasoline. I am drunk enough not to care, but not too drunk to notice.
I wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand, and my tears taste like a miracle, water into wine.
The angels told us not to be afraid.
I saw all the videos, back when the television still worked. The forest of microphones in journalists' manicured hands nearly obscured the angels' burnished shapes: six-winged, four-faced, wheels within wheels. And everywhere eyes, black, polished and deep. The microphones were unnecessary. We could hear the angels' voices in our heads, singing and infinitely sad.
It has been a long time since I saw an angel. Ten months, maybe more. I tell myself their absence doesn't frighten me. They were never good for anything, not for bringing rain or drying flooded fields, not for calming hurricanes or bar fights, not for curing cancer or alcoholism or the broken ribs that ripped my brother's lungs. Angels couldn't make the trains run. At the end of everything, all they did was talk.
I know the boy who killed my brother. His name was Luce, and he lived above the post office on Twenty-First and Chebar, where the street is always flooded and the train tracks run through the river slime. Michael never listened when people told him Luce was a junkie and a whore, but I believe it, I've believed it ever since I saw the black and yellow mess that olive-eyed fucker made of my brother's beautiful face. Everyone fights dirty at the end of the world, but the further you've fallen, the dirtier you fight.
The fire has spread to the wet grass, burning with grease-black smoke. My reflection in the depths of the coffee pot is Michael's broken face.
I don't know how it all started, how Michael and Luce hooked up, how they got into that alley with the dumpsters and the broken-down postal truck, both of them drunk and angry as dogs. I don't know what my brother said to make Luce snap, or if it was Michael who snapped first, who threw the first punch, who knocked Luce's dark head against the brick wall and crumpled like a tin can when Luce lashed back. That gorgeous cocksucker landed a kick or two in the wrong places. Or the right places. It depends on whether you think he really wanted to kill my brother.
My eyes are sunken into two black pits, like a skull, like the broken blood vessels in a drunk woman's brain. I don't know what to think.
Yesterday afternoon I went down to the post office with a switchblade in my pocket and a potful of wine sitting sour in my gut. I pried the doors apart and crept across the lobby with its displays of yellow envelopes and postage stamps, smelling the dusty glue scent that was in my brother's nostrils when he died. Then I reached the door to the back room and another scent overtook me, sour as vomit.
Luce was spread out on his bare mattress, his beautiful dark hair matted with blood from a scalp wound that had gone too long without stitches. His green eyes stared up at the ceiling, dull as plastic. I saw the empty bottle on the floor, the thin reddish line like a tear streak from the corner of his mouth.
I stepped back into the lobby and vomited over a display of Holy Virgin Christmas stamps, faded and cherubic.
Michael used to spend his evenings down at the freight yard with a few cans of spray paint, ornamenting the black and red and yellow corpses of trains. The air is always thick and foul-smelling so close to the river, but Michael didn't care. He could spend hours on one car, brightening the colors, smoothing the contours of his work until your heart would ache from the beauty of it. He painted women, cityscapes, massive flowers with petals the size of your torso. He painted angels and outspread pairs of wings. And everything he painted, every sweep of the spray can across the freight car's rusty skin became a living thing, struggling to free itself, struggling to run.
We were a family of runners. Michael chased trains. I chased angels.
A few years ago, Michael found a children's book in a dumpster, a fairy tale about people who could ride on trains. The pictures showed women in dresses on thick plush seats, crystal dining rooms with waiters in red suits, doors with brass handles and windows covered in velvet. My brother swore it was all true. So I took a crowbar to one of his masterpieces and showed him what was really inside: cans of baked beans and chewing tobacco and shaving cream, reams of unlined paper, naked logs with their knotted bark faces stripped away. Steel and limestone that smelled of sweat and heat.
Wordlessly, he rolled the door back into place, and never let anyone open one of his train cars again.
We never did find a living train. At night, he would whisper across our tiny bedroom of what it would be like, the woody smoke, the screech of the barred wheels, the weight of it all bearing down on us like a pack of wolves. Would it speak to us, like the angels? Would it be able to do the things the angel couldn't?
Without my brother, I am nothing. A freight car without its engine, an angel without its voice.
Michael mapped the rails around the county, the strands of rusted iron and wooden ties gone spongy with rain, and we would bike them for hours. Out into the fields that farmers still tended, the knee-high corn and chest-high barley, the thistles thick around our ankles. Sometimes farther. Once, we parked our bikes and crossed a bridge over a valley so old and far from anywhere that it had no name, and the river wound like a thread of glass a dozen yards below us. The wooden ties bounced and bucked beneath our feet. We came home tired and breathless, but we did not find a train.
I heard one, once. Only once. Perhaps it was a dream. The lonely piercing sound in the night, twin shrieks of pain, of warning. Alone, alone, it seemed to say. Stay away from me. As if it knew how dangerous it was.
I think of Luce, of what he knew or didn't know about himself as he lay bleeding on that bare mattress.
After the train came through, I shuddered in my narrow, cold-sheeted bed. There is no sound in the world more terrifying, more infinitely sad than a train whistle.
The last angel, the one I saw ten months ago, was at a gas station outside a little town called Fourth Lake. All the convenience store's windows were boarded over with plywood, but some enterprising locals had busted through, and you could see the cigarette boxes and plastic milk cartons and candy wrappers crumpled on the floor. The angel sat beneath the canopy of pump nine, six-winged and bright as an emerald, with huge black eyes in its cruel and sharp-toothed faces. The tip of one crystalline wing dipped into the tank of windshield fluid, long ago dried to bluish dust.
"I am looking for my brother," it sang in its high, brittle voice. I was surprised to hear it speak, surprised to feel the familiar swell of its words in my temples and my lungs. "Can you tell me where my brother has gone?"
I shook my head, my mouth as dry as salt. It shook its head back, a strangely human gesture. I thought perhaps it hadn't understood me. Then I remembered where I had seen angels and pointed east across the flooded corn fields, where the knotted ruins of barns and skeletal tractors stood silent, east towards the horizon that the city was no longer tall enough to break. Though its huge eyes followed my pointing finger, the angel's questions still rang in my head.
"I am looking for my brother. Can you tell me where my brother has gone?"
Perhaps it was repeating a prayer. Perhaps someone's sister or brother had crawled to it for help, and all it could do was talk.
I would have loaded it, wings and all, onto the back of my bike, ditching the looted cases of beer and breakfast cereal. But I have seen what happens to men who touch angels with their bare hands. I left it where it was. When I passed by again two weeks later, the angel was gone, and pump nine had grown over with purple clematis.
Two weeks after that, a group of men in Fourth Lake murdered an angel. All of them gathered in the high school gym, one with a video camera, to send it in to the news stations. This was just before the television went out. The angel was terrified, you could see it in the way its faces snarled and shrieked, its six wings beating against the orange cord they'd bound it with. The men kicked it and kicked it, and the sound echoed, sharp and hollow.
I wonder if it was anything like that, when Michael died.
When I'm sober, I wonder why men would kill an angel, but when I'm drunk, I know. I feel the same anger. How dare anything be so useless, so powerless.
It's begun to rain. I wonder if it can rain enough to extinguish a burning gas station. I find myself praying that it will and wonder why I care.
The angels in the city are dead. They were dead for a long time before they stopped running the videos. I don't know when exactly I figured it out, when I realized that the jewel-colored eyes on the television screen never blinked, and you could hear the clicks where the voice recordings stopped and started. After a while, you could hear the voices as well: in your ears, not in your head.
I don't know what they did with the angels' bodies. Buried them, like Michael in his shallow grave? Or left them like the trains, stalled on the tracks, waiting to run again?
The fire is dimming somewhat, and my reflection is in the window again. This is what Michael looked like when he died: terrified and infinitely sad.
There was a girl down at the freight yard this morning. She says her name is Remember and she laughs too much, but her laugh is bright and cool as water. She's good with a spray can, almost as good as Michael. She smells like paint, like metal and sweat and grease.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. She gave me a beer from a cooler in one of the cars and we sat in the open loading door, swinging our legs over the side, over the weed-grown gravel and rusted steel of the track. I didn't know how to explain it to her. I shielded my eyes with my hand and glanced around the yard: searching. I tapped the car beneath our legs: train. Then I reached down for one of the weeds, a long, thick one with purple flowers: alive.
It took her a moment, then she started laughing. "Trains aren't alive," she said. "They're made of metal. Like cars and bikes. They stopped moving because people stopped running them."
I shook my head and bumped my leg against hers, just to feel the heat of the clean denim, the hardness of muscle underneath. I pointed to one of Michael's pictures on the train across from us. It was an angel, metal and gemstone and very much alive.
Remember took a swig of pale, sour beer. "I don't believe in angels," she said.
In my dreams, I tell Michael not to go to Luce. Over and over again, heedless of the circumstances and the futility. We are crossing the railway bridge high above the valley, stepping from one fragile rain-rotted tie to the next, and I catch his arm as he stumbles. I hold him tightly to my chest, begging him not to leave me tonight. Knowing this is a nightmare, knowing it will do no good.
He gently cuffs my chin. "You worry too much," he says. I hear his voice in my head, in my chest.
I pull him close again.
"Let go," he says, because this is a nightmare. He strikes me again, and I fall.
"I'm looking for a train, too," Remember told me. She lifted her eyes to the red and rusty sky, like she could see it in the distance, headlights shining like stars. "I mean, I have to look for something, right? So I'm looking for a train that runs."
I pointed to myself, then to Michael's picture again: I'm looking for an angel.
She wasn't paying attention. She crumpled her beer can in her fist and flung it out of the car, out amid the sleeping freight, the canvases of Michael's dreams. It rolled to a stop beneath the pair of ebony wings.
"I'm going to walk every track in the world until I find one," Remember said.
I cupped my hand around my ear, lowered my eyelids, still pointing to the painted wings. Listening. Listening for an angel. Finally, Remember looked at me.
"What do you think an angel's voice sounds like?"
I reached out and brushed her cheek with the back of my hand. Her skin was damp and startlingly soft, like a rotting thing, heartbreakingly sweet. I pointed to the train.
The smoke stings my eyes. I watch the flames die in the rain-streaked window and I know that somewhere along the line I must have realized that the world has gone crazy. Somewhere my foot touched a wooden tie on the train tracks and it didn't bounce quite right. One of angel's hundred eyes went a second too long without blinking. Michael is dead. Remember is right, and the trains were never more than boxes of tobacco and lumber, and nothing I say or try to say can make a difference.
The flames die, and there is my reflection in the window, and I look so much like Michael that I wonder if I'm dreaming.
From the west, softly at first, there comes the sound of a train whistle. It is terrifying and sad and infinitely far away.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 7th, 2014

Author Comments

I've always been fascinated by the "post" of post-Apocalyptic, and wanted to stretch it even more. What happens after the world ends? And what happens after that?

- Megan Arkenberg
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