In early fall of the last year, I found myself laying flat in the bed of a Chevy as I headed North, never feeling so tired in my whole life. Occasionally, the world would turn red and blue, and my heart would explode and I would pull the tarp tighter around me like a cocoon. At some point, I slept. It was a struggling effort that left me with an aching neck, and when I woke, I was still moving. The world was bright when I rose, and I felt hungover.
The thoughts entered my mind slowly:
This truck needs new struts… I could use a drink… gotta piss….
Then all at once:
Where now? What the Hell was I thinking! It’s cold. Mom and Dad would be pissed. Oh God.
I leaned over the side and blew chunks onto the conveyor belt of pavement, my stomach grinding itself into pulp. I spat out bits of steamed carrots, wiped my chin, and settled onto my back to watch the clouds meander into and out of existence. They would collect like raindrops into a puddle and over the next hour they would twirl and shift and eventually vanish into the air. The world in my peripheral was a hum of green and brown with the occasional splash of autumnal orange. I was glad the leaves wouldn’t have time to fall before it was all over. Despite my passion for leaf piles and pumpkin pies, sledding and snow days, I realized in that moment that freedom deserved green grass and full trees. I stacked my hands on my chest, sure that we’d be stopping soon for gas.
Petey was confident behind the wheel, and I felt safe in his hands. Back before I was inside that dungeon, he would drive me through forest roads in his old man’s Jeep until the entire thing, us included, was caked with mud. I’d laugh as he drove through puddles and splashed us with filth through the netting, and, when I got home, Mom would throw a fit about all the crud I was shedding over the tile. Sometimes she’d stand me in the side yard and spray me off with the water hose and laugh as I was blown back against the fence by the cold, and then I’d chase after her, my clothes soaking wet and threatening her with a hug as she side-stepped awkwardly around the house.
He was a good guy for picking me up. He had better things to do. Everyone did. Time was disappearing like the clouds in the sky and the leaves on the trees and nobody had a say in it. All we could do was start living like the country songs told us to, or at least that’s what some of the guys would say out in the yard. I had listened to them, obviously, because there I was: an escapee in the back of a pickup truck thinking about how peaceful the sky was. If that didn’t make for a good country song, then I don’t know what would.
Based on the way the altitude was building in my ears like a champagne cork ready to burst, I guessed us to be somewhere in New Hampshire, scurrying into the White Mountains like a cartoon mouse into its home in the bottom of a kitchen wall. Cars passed, but rarely. Some honked their hellos as they raced by, but most just sped past, tires screeching as they hurried off to wherever.
Long after my ears had popped, Petey cut the engine and we rolled into a CITGO. I hopped onto the ground, as relieved to step foot on the gravel as the truck was to get rid of me.
“Hey, woah!” called Petey as he fell out of the driver’s seat and hurried over to me. “What’re you doing?”
“It’s fine,” I said, enforcing the notion with a pat on his shoulder. “If we ain’t far enough away now, then I just might as well live the rest of my life under that damned tarp.”
“But Petey…” I smiled and laughed, tossing my arms around him and squeezing him against my chest until he groaned.
“But Mint!” he whimpered, draping his arms around my back and grabbing handfuls of my shirt.
He pulled back, holding me outstretched by the shoulders and scanning me as if to make sure that yes, I did in fact exist.
“Nice outfit,” he said with a snicker.
I looked down. Nothing fit quite right. The t-shirt, a red and blue Sox logo on the chest, was far too tight, the jeans were about a size too big, and the boots, the laces nowhere to be found, were threatening to slip off with any sudden movement. Clothes didn’t ever seem to take a liking to me even when I bought them myself, so I appreciated whatever effort Petey put into scrounging my outfit together. Beat the hell out of that orange monstrosity laying in some wooded ditch on the side of 495.
The station door creaked open, and a wiry, mustached man slinked out. He wore a mesh Ford hat and no shirt, and his belt buckle caught the sun like a mirror. Hanging on the side of his jeans was a holstered pistol, the clasp undone.
“Can I help you fellas?” he hollered around a toothpick, resting a thumb on the butt of the gun.
Petey leaned over to me.
“Ain’t he some sort of stereotype?” he whispered, sending me stifling laughter into my elbow.
The attendant cocked an eyebrow.
“Please,” said Petey. “Some gas? You got any?”
The man chewed his toothpick, flicking his eyes back and forth between Petey and myself.
He wiped the sweat from his chest, spat the toothpick into the dirt, and pointed at me.
“What’s up with the big guy? He talk? You have a name, friend?”
I swallowed, my throat suddenly a desert.
“Ha!” he said. “That’s no name.”
“Sure it is. Mine.”
“And that’s what your folks call ya?”
“If they was still around, they would. Everyone does.”
The man chewed the meaty part of his cheek.
“We don’t have much in the tanks here,” he said.
“Enough to get us where we’re going?” asked Petey, pulling a wallet from his pocket.
The attendant spat, ignoring the wallet.
“Depends on where that would be, doesn’t it?”
Petey and I looked at each other with a familiar glance, the shared expression of two men with not a single plan between them.
“What’s your name?” I asked the attendant.
“Anywhere around here worth going, Samuel? Any good place to spend the rest of time?”
Samuel spat again and sauntered towards us, snapping the holster shut over the butt of his pistol and dropping his arms. He pulled another toothpick from the pocket of his jeans and shoved it between his teeth.
“Fryeburg, maybe. Over the border up near Conway. They’re having something at the fairgrounds. Calling it the ‘End of the World Fair’, got rides, booze, girls. They say they’re gonna keep it running until the sand runs out. Supposed to be a decent way to spend the end of days, I hear.”
Samuel motioned towards the truck’s gas tank. Petey hurried over and opened it for him, and Samuel stuck the hose in and squeezed the handle.
Petey slapped me on the shoulder.
“How’s that sound to you, Mint?”
I didn’t need to think; therein lies the beauty of having no options.
“Great, Petey.” I said. “If you don’t mind dropping me off.”
“Of course. You spent five years in hell. Least I can do is help you have a happy week before you kick it.”
I thanked him, and he insisted with a dismissive swing of the hand that I don’t worry about it.
“What’s your plan?” asked Samuel, nudging Petey on the shoulder. “You got a girl to count the seconds with?”
Petey shook his head.
“My lady’s gone already. Got a little guy, three years old. Name’s David. I dropped him at my parent’s farm, going to go meet him once I get my friend here where he needs to go.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Samuel. “Three years. It’s not enough. Well, let’s pray for David’s sake that the pastors aren’t the sacks of shit I know they are. Here’s to hoping that dead’s not the end.”
“Here’s to hoping,” we echoed, raising imaginary glasses.
“What about you? Where are you gonna go?” asked Petey, the meter ticking in a slow and comforting tempo behind him.
“Nowhere,” answered Samuel.
“Nowhere. I knew it the second I heard the news. I’m going to stay right where I stand, grant gasoline to those who deserve it, and right as it starts to hit the fan, I’m gonna take one of these bullets in this here Ess and Dubya and put it right through my skull. Mhm, that’s what I’ll do.”
“I’m not going to argue with you, friend. You do whatever you need.”
“I will,” said Samuel. “This station is my duty to the world. Just like the cops and doctors who’s still doing their jobs, I’m doing mine. ‘Cus that’s what the world needs of me ‘fore the clock hits zero: to be the sherpa of hopeless travelers.”
He bowed and washed an arm through the air in front of him, and when he rose, his face was decorated with a gap-toothed grin.
We all stood and nodded for a long moment, absorbing the Sun on our faces and waiting for the pump to stop ticking.
Fryeburg, Maine: a place I had never heard of but in which, instantly, I had decided to spend the rest of my life. It’s funny how things work out like that when it gets down to crunch time, when fear of dying alone takes hold and you have nowhere to go back to.
The very name of the town bubbled out of the mouth with the reluctance of syrup from a bottle, each letter making you stretch and work for it. But at the same time, it sounded quaint – a Middle America town in the very corner of the country. Fryeburg, where everybody knows everybody, and the Corner Store is closed on Sundays. There’s something idyllic in that image, a Rockwell painting come to life and enveloping a whole town.
I could see myself there, at an ice cream counter beside a young, slick-haired kid and a man behind the counter in a paper hat, enthusiastically drying off a Sundae glass as the Sun smiled at us through a window and—
Petey tapped my shoulder, pulling me from my daydream.
“You ready to get going?”
I nodded, kicking at a rock with the toe of my shoe.
“Here you go,” said Petey, holding out a pair of twenties, panned out.
Samuel grabbed the fingers of Petey’s hand and closed them around the bills, shaking his head and spitting once more by his feet.
“Nuh uh,” he said. “What am I going to do with that? Start a four-oh-one-kay? I hear the market’s tops at the moment, maybe I’ll invest.”
Petey raised an eyebrow. You sure?
“Might as well wipe my behind with it, but that’s what I got a closet full of TP for. Go on now, get on with it.”
He motioned North up the road, the micah in the pavement catching the light like Fourth of July sparklers.
I reached to shake Samuel’s hand and he grabbed me, pulling me by the shoulders until his chest was saturating my shirt with sweat.
We said nothing, and he held me with the fervor of a longtime friend, his holstered gun cutting into my hip. Then, when he was satisfied, he pushed me away with what might have been tears in his eyes, and repeated the process with Petey.
We wished Samuel a final thanks and waved as we left the station. He waved back, spat into the dirt, and vanished behind the trees.
We added fifty three and a half miles to the odometer before the engine gave out in a plume of black smoke. It was sudden, and loud as a bastard, and elicited an equally loud and sudden “Shit!” from Petey. He jerked the wheel as he navigated blindly to a stop. We were jostled in our seats viciously, and, for the first time in my life, only weeks before my guaranteed death, I found myself glad that my parents had trained me like a dog to keep my seat belt buckled.
Eventually, we settled by the side of the road, some belt in the engine continuing to whirr defiantly.
Petey and I stepped out of the car, shutting our doors in unison. We jogged to the front, turning to find a scene of misery. The air held the sharp taste of oxidized metal, of blood slipping down the back of your throat after a nosebleed. Slipping a thumb under the hood, Petey flicked it open. Flames and smoke chased him backwards, and he tumbled onto his ass, quickly scrambling his way back up to his feet.
“God fucking dammit!” he screamed, kicking the tire over and over until spittle flew from his mouth. He kicked until he ended up bent over with his hands on his knees, catching his breath. His hair fell over his face, and his back throbbed as he gathered himself.
Slowly, I walked over to him, placing a hand on his back.
“Sorry,” I said.
He looked up, his eyes bleary.
“Me too, Mint. Me too.”
He stood up, brushing back his hair.
He burst into a scream, turned in a wide circle, and sprinted at the car. He planted his right foot and swung all his weight through his left. The toe of his boot collided with the tire almost silently, and he fell to the ground, grabbing his foot and exploring his impressive bank of expletives.
“Fryeburg can’t be too much further,” I said, pulling him up by his arm as he continued to curse the world and every God in it.
“Twenty miles according to the last sign, and that was ‘bout ten minutes back.”
The truck continued to sizzle and crackle like steak on a grill. I took a step away from it, waiting for one of those action movie explosions to leave me reeling on the ground.
“And anyways,” I continued, pulling Petey away from the wreckage with me. “Maybe we’ll get a ride for a piece of it. We’ll just walk the road, and we’ll get there eventually.”
“That just isn’t gonna cut it at all, man! I’ve got my boy to get back to. I can’t be throwing away days like this!”
“Well, what do you have up your sleeve?”
Petey said nothing, his eyes fixed on the truck.
“You need me to grab anything from it?” I asked.
“Eighteen damned years that thing ran without a hiccup. No busted tires, blown gaskets, nothing, and it decides to shit the bed now of all times! With… how many days left, is it now?”
I counted the days since I had last seen the counter on the bottom of the news report.
“Six,” I said.
He snorted, and through teary eyes, he managed to crack a smile, although at the time, I couldn’t possibly imagine what he found worth smiling about.
And with one last, desperate look back, he started rapidly up the road, forcing me to jog to catch up.
“Come on, man!” I called between difficult breaths.
“What? Did prison make Thick Mint even thicker?” he chuckled half-heartedly.
“Nuh uh,” I said. “Thick Mint was always thick, and sitting in an eight-by-eight for five years didn’t make him much thinner.
“You know,” I said to dodge silence. “Everyone in there called me Mint. I brought it up to my cellmate on the first day, couldn’t imagine going back to that nonsense my parents gave me. And as it happens, prisoners like nicknames. Even some of the guards took to calling me it, though some just called me Thick. They said it fits.”
“Course it fits,” he said. “You really expect me to give you a name that don’t fit? Even when we were kids, I was sharp, and my nicknames just as much.”
“You always had the brains for the two of us,” I agreed, talking just to avoid the insanity-inducing length of the road ahead. “Good thing there were some others with some brains in those cells with me, else I’d still be in there behind those darned bars, praying for a guard to come by and toss me a chicken bone to suck on.”
“Wasn’t great, for sure. Most of the guards gave up about a week ‘fore I called you. A couple stuck around, those with a hopeless feeling of responsibility and no families. But at some point, they left too. Locked all the doors and waved goodbye as they turned the lights off on us and left us with no food or water.”
“Yep, I was getting real hungry by the time the bars slid open a couple nights later. My cellmate had been spending the nights clutching his stomach and groaning through the night, but you know me, I sleep through earthquakes. The noise of a voice woke me, and my mouth tasted like dry piss, and my eyes were filled with guck. One of my buddies leaned in through the doorway, his face all silvery in the moon light, and told me to get out. So I did. Called you, and here we are. I let the others do the thinking, get their-selves out of there, and I just followed. Just like with you and me.”
The answer seemed to satisfy Petey, though he didn’t respond to it. Instead, he nodded and sighed, then nodded again with more vigor.
The road reflected the heat like a kid melting an ant with a glass, and after about half an hour, we were forced to strip our shirts from our backs. The birds fluttered in the opposite direction as we walked, early travellers in the year’s Southern migration.
How far will they get before they world as they know it goes KA-BLEWY? I was forced to wonder.
I turned and asked Petey what he thought.
“Connecticut,” he said solemnly. “D.C. maybe. Doesn’t really matter if you ask me.”
“Sure it does. All they have left is where they finish off.”
“If that’s true for them then the same goes for us, and doubly so. Ain’t that the most depressing thing you’ve ever heard?”
I turned my head to watch his face as we walked, stumbling my way through a pot hole. His jaw was slack, his eyes empty.
“I mean, think about it. All we’re doing now is running, floundering like a fish after you reel it in, tryna grab onto something we can make sense of in our last moments. Those birds won’t get where they’re going. They’ll just end up flopping to the ground somewhere along the way, smoldering on the side of the road like my truck back there.”
Petey quickened his pace and I pumped my arms to catch up. I had half a head on him and twice the muscle, but still he made me put in effort just to walk beside him.
For hours we trekked. No cars passed. The Sun climbed higher and as it did, my mouth dried out and the sour taste of aridity gathered inside. The click of our boot-heels developed into a steady, comforting rhythm, and at one point I began to hum along to it an imaginary song. Few words were said. Occasionally, Petey would ask me to cut out my humming and for a few minutes I would, but the tune would slip back into my mouth without my noticing, and then he would glare at me and the process would repeat.
I felt like telling him more about prison—how it was different from the movies, how it was exactly the same—and I felt like asking him how he’d been. How’s his kid? How are his ‘rents? How had the world changed since I last lived in it?
It seemed such a shame to spend the last few days in silence, refusing to be one with everything around us, but he didn’t feel like speaking. In fact, he didn’t seem to want to do anything besides walk. He kept his eyes on the road in front of his feet, blowing puffs of air out through his nose and gritting his teeth. The road became uneven, and it seemed like every hundred feet or so, we were stepping over another tire-flattened bunny or squirrel.
“This must be what it feels like to walk up to the hangman,” Petey said suddenly and without clarification.
He said it with the same certainty and disregard for my comprehension that my father used to speak about politicians. That Ronald Reagan is the right man for the job! He has the gumption it takes to take it to the Soviets.
“We ain’t getting punished for nothing.”
“Sure we are. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that somebody’s pretty pissed at us for one thing or another.”
“So I went off to prison and you went off to church? Bit late for that, don’t you—“
He stopped and turned to look at me.
“Never too late.”
The Sun was just peaking in the sky, and sweat dripped from the tips of our noses like leaky faucets.
“What the hell’s wrong with you, Petey? Long as I known you, you’ve never been this serious.”
“Is impending death not reason enough?”
I wiped my face, and he brushed his hair off his forehead.
“No, it’s not. This isn’t the Petey I know.”
“That’s right, Mint! Five whole years, you were gone. I changed! It’s fucking ridiculous that you didn’t.”
He had stepped so close to me that his breath cooled my chest, and the whiffs I got of it were stale. His skin had sagged since I had last seen him, and his shoulders were now dotted with little brown mounds and tags.
“I have changed,” I said.
“Jesus Christ, Mint.” He squeezed his forehead and shook his head at the ground. “Let’s just walk, okay?”
“Not ’til you tell me what’s got you like this.”
Putting his hands on his hips, he looked at me like you would a disobedient toddler.
“And don’t look at me like that!” I finished. “I’m not your kid, you don’t get to act like I am.”
He turned to his left, and without another word, started walking.
And that’s when everything turned red.
When the world faded back from red to blue, I was crying, Petey was screaming, and I was on top of him.
I threw my hands into the air, falling off him and onto the road, which greeted my bare back like a stove top. Jumping to my feet and grabbing my lower back, the noise came bumbling from my mouth in a helpless jumble: the apologies and the “Oh my God”s and the sobs all mixed together into a thick, dumb stew.
“The hell, man!”
I responded with stupid, meaningless mutterings, my hands speaking a similar degree of nonsense as I tried to explain.
“The hell?” he repeated, on his feet now.
My arms pointed here and there, and my mouth fluttered open and closed with wobbling lips.
He ran at me, buried his head in my chest, and forced me back several feet. He grunted as he tried to pull me to the ground by my shoulders, and his fists beat on my chest with the noise of a chef tenderizing steak.
“I’m sorry!” I screamed.
And that’s when I realized he was crying too, and seconds later, his punches turned soft, and eventually he wrapped his arms around my chest and let his tears drain onto my skin.
I wrapped myself around him until he grunted, and then squeezed a little harder still. My back and his were covered in road dust, and we rocked side to side as we held each other.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated, over and over and over.
“Shut up!” he answered. “Just shut up you big idiot!”
But still, I continued.
“So sorry! So damn sorry!”
And then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t apologizing, but I was still sputtering words out helplessly, and when I heard what words they were, I started crying even harder, feeling absolutely terrified for the first time since the judge banged his hammer and started listing off years.
“I don’t want to die! I don’t want to, Petey! I don’t want this all to end!”
“Me neither, Mint!” he said back, and for a long minute we stopped talking and sobbed into each other.
“Why does this have to happen, Pete? Why! I know I’m simple and all, but I just don’t get it.”
And once again:
“Me neither, Mint.”
Our tears died off slowly, and eventually, we separated.
His nose was bleeding and leaking snot. The left side of his face was pink, and raw with road rash, and he pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped it all away.
“You can hit me if you want,” I told him.
He laughed, then his face turned somber, and still my mouth hung open and the words flowed from it.
“I’m just tired of being so sad. Everyone in prison was sad all the time, and it made me sad the whole time, and then I get out and you won’t even talk to me. I finally get to spend time with my best pal, and he’s spending our little bit of time together being upset. Why can’t we just talk while we go? Five years, and we can’t even find out what went on with each other. You had a wife, man! You’ve got a kid, for God’s sake!”
A bumblebee landed on my chest, and I watched it for a moment, chin tucked into my neck, before slapping it away.
“The least you could do is tell me about them, you know. I guess…I guess I just don’t want to die without a friend. Does that make me queer?”
He clenched his jaw until his teeth squeaked. His eyes were redder than the blood on his cheek, and glassier than I’d ever seen them. Looking up to the sky, he twisted his lips and blew air from his nose.
“My parents didn’t let me take him with me,” he said.
“I wanted you to meet him, I swear. Mom and Dad weren’t having it.”
I wandered over to the side of the road and sat on the barrier, ignoring the pain of the metal burning my ass through my pants.
“It’s me, isn’t it?”
“Can’t have your kid hanging out with a criminal. No need to sugar coat it, Pete.”
“It’s not that,” said Pete, staring at his toes.
“No, no, no,” I went on, relentless.
“Jesus Christ,” whispered Petey. “Are you gonna make me say it? You’re really gonna make me say it? Fine! I hurt him. There, you happy?”
He swallowed, grimaced, and held his breath until his face turned purple, finally releasing it and blinking the tears from his eyes.
“Hurt him?” I asked.
“Kill him, Mint! I tried to fucking kill him! I took him to the well out back and had him sit on the edge and kissed his head ’til my lips hurt, and then I told him that it’s all alright, and that I’d see him soon, and I wiped the tears from his cheeks, and then I pushed.”
I looked at him the way a puppy does a baby, but not even. It was more intense than that, it was the the way you’d expect an alien to inspect a cat.
“I was scared, we were all scared!”
He began stumbling up the road, and I swear that I could hear his tears sizzle against the pavement.
“David’s all I have, and when it was clear that this isn’t a drill…. What was I supposed to do? Read him Goodnight Moon and watch him play with his blocks, knowing that in a week or two he’s gonna go up in a ball of flames like the rest of us?”
I chased after him, calling his name—Pete! Petey!—but he continued forward, and as he walked, he sobbed.
“Quit it, Petey! Talk to me.”
“So you can tell me I’m a fuckup too, so you can tell me I shouldn’t be alone with my boy?”
He stopped and turned, throwing his arms out to the side, palms open.
“Not from you, man. Everybody else, Mom and Pop, fine! But not you, Mint. Not you!”
I stepped towards him, flicking sweat from my brow to the ground with the back of my hand.
“You’re scaring me,” I said. “Petey, you’re scaring the crap out of me right now.”
He fell to his knees and sobbed into his palms.
“He was my kid! My goddamn kid! And I tried to murder him with my own two hands. How do I go on living like this? How do I face Death with any sort of self-respect? Do you want to tell me? Go ahead. Tell me how I can walk up to Saint Peter and tell him with a straight face that I deserve to be let in, that I have lived my life in a way that privileges me to join my son behind the pearly gates. Huh, do you know, Mint? Do you know how to think of yourself as a human being after doing something like what I did?”
I knelt, throwing an arm around him, our skin sticking together and our warm stink becoming one.
“Is David okay?”
“What kind of question is that! His own father tried to kill him, no he’s not okay!”
Petey pounded his fist into the pavement, and I let him, shushing him like my mom used to when I was upset. My whole body was clenched to prevent the tears, and my hand gripped his shoulder tight. His body shook with each sob, the desperate heaves of a man with regrets, desperate heaves which I knew well.
“But his body,” I asked. “How hurt?”
He wiped the gel-like composite of snot and tears and sweat from his face and smeared it on the ground.
“Broken arm, busted nose, sprained ankle.”
“That ain’t that bad,” I offered, not knowing if I believed it.
“It had been raining those past few days. I heard the splash, then nothing for a long while, and then he started crying, this real piercing squeal. And the fucked up thing is that he was calling for me, in between his head ducking under the water. He just kept saying in this garbled, confused, choking, angelic voice ‘Daddy! Dad! Daddy!’ like he didn’t even understand what just happened, what I just did to him.
“Turns out the water was real high. I didn’t even think to check before I did it. I fished him out, and then I just fell onto the grass and held him against my chest for awhile. That’s how my Dad found us, and that was the last time I was, and ever will be, alone with my son, his clothes soaking mine, holding each other with all this pain and regret and fear inside of us, both of us praying to live in a different world.”
Petey brushed me off and rose to his feet. He stared down the road, South. His hands fell by his side and his breath left his lips like a wounded soldier limping off a battlefield, and his back was red with sun burn, and his fist and cheek were raw and seeping blood.
“Do you know what I think?” I asked to his back. “It’s something I would tell myself, late at night staring up at the concrete ceiling, moonlight coming into the room through an iron grate, the routine pacing of guards on the other sides of the bars…. It was something I would say out loud, because that was the way it sounded the most real, like it was a real fact. Sometimes I would wake my cellmate because I got to saying it so loud, and then I would just whisper it under my breath until I fell asleep. You know what I would say?”
Petey shook his head.
I grabbed him by the shoulders, lowering my gaze to his, feeling in my hands and wrists the way he trembled.
“My mistakes aren’t me.”
His eyebrows arched.
“Well holy shit.”
A smile teased at the corners of his lips on an otherwise miserable face.
“Who knew you were such a poet, Mint!”
I pushed him away.
“You really can’t stay serious for even a minute, can you? Fine, then. Don’t listen to me if you don’t want to,” I said.
“No, seriously. That is some profound shit there, Emerson!”
“Cut it out.”
“Aw, come on! While you’re at it with the whole philosophical thing, wouldya care to fill me in on the meaning of life?”
“Ya know,” I said, leaning back onto the barrier by the side of the road, ignoring the heat. “This is what you always do. You go on saying that you’re real smart, but when I say anything, you don’t give it a single consideration. So you come to me, and you spill your terrible secrets to me, your best friend in the whole world, and I listen with these big, goofy, compassionate ears. I’m the only person who can listen to a story like that and not hate you for it. You know that, right? I can take your faults and your moral shortcomings and I can compare them to the Petey I know and put it all together. You never were a bad guy in your whole life, and you ain’t a bad guy now. You were scared. And you did something stupid—real fucking stupid, I’ll give you that—and a moment later, you regretted it. If anyone gets that, it’s me. So would you please pull your head out of your ass for a frickin’ minute and listen to me? Don’t look at me like a dummy. I’ve been a dummy my whole life and I’m sick and tired of it. So for once, just one single time before I die, talk to me like I’m a human being, a person with some good thoughts rattling around up here, a person that loves you. Can you do that? Please?”
For a minute, and a long one at that, the birds were the only noise. They chased each other from tree to tree, diving after each other, hot on each other’s trails as they climbed into the blue. They skirted the roadside chirping gleefully, wings beating feverishly against the wind. The pine trees rustled, and the cool wind washing over our sweat-glistened backs teased an Autumn that would never quite arrive.
And eventually, with an odd expression of bashfulness that I had never seen on my good friend’s face, Petey spoke.
“Well, go ahead then.”
And I smiled.
“Your mistakes. They aren’t you. That’s it, all there is to it. You’re Petey. You’re a son and a dad, and caring ones at that. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had in my whole entire life, and you’re the best person I’ve ever known. You aren’t that day at the well, you aren’t your fear, and you aren’t that giant pain in your chest that every person on the planet is feeling right about now. You are only your mistakes if you don’t realize they were mistakes. Some guys in prison didn’t get that. They were proud of the people they hurt and the lives they ruined. But that isn’t you. And you’ve got to know that. You fucked up. Congratulations! Welcome to the club. Our members include every person on the planet. And it might just be a belief of mine, but I am of the humble opinion that spending the six days in this beautiful world tallying up all the ways we fucked up in life is a sure way to leave it without finding meaning.
“It’s kind of a wonderful thing if you ask me, this terrible, terrible opportunity we have. We know when we are going to lose everything that matters to us. We know when our kids, and our parents, and our friends, and our enemies, and every stranger we never met, will die. We were provided with this knowledge, and all of a sudden—poof!—we have a chance to take advantage of it all. That’s what I’m choosing, at least. I’m choosing to picture those birds flying so far South that they outrun fate, that they end up somewhere real pretty where there are so many colorful things that the world looks like a painting. And I choose to believe that things are going to be okay, in one way or another, and that these last six days count. Some people say that these six days are meaningless, that they have no purpose. They say that we built up this wonderful society over millions of years, trying to make things better for the generation after us, and that in six days, all that will be proven to have no purpose. But that’s just dead wrong, if you ask me. If you ask me, these six days are the most meaningful days in the history of people. These next few days are when we get to put everything we learned over the last million years to the test. We get to suck the marrow out of life, meet people we never thought of meeting before, reunite with long-lost friends, show our kids the beauty in the world before it disappears forever.
“That’s what I choose to believe at least, and as my friend, I thought you deserved to know. Your choice is yours, but I’m not going to let you mope around until the Apocalypse comes without at least saying something. I love you too much for that.”
I swallowed, and separated my gaze from his. I could feel his eyes searching my face, and I blushed from the intensity of his stare. He came over and sat down beside me. The emotion was building in the air around us like weather, and eventually he threw an arm around me.
“You’re welcome, bud.”
We sat there until our shadows became long on the road, watching squirrels and deer meander across, as above us a family of hawks circled again and again.
We talked about a lot of things then, and we also spent a long while saying nothing. It was the nicest moment I’d had in over five years, and only when Petey broke the silence did I realize how much I would miss such times.
“Can I ask you something?” he asked, picking at his fingernails.
“Well, there’s no easy way to say it. And I don’t want you to think that I’d ever think different of you, cus you’re my friend, and…jeez…I guess I just want to know….”
“If I did what they said I did?” I finished for him.
“Yes,” he confirmed.
I tilted my head to the sky, admired the blue, and turned to face him.
“Yeah, I did it. I deserved every minute I spent in that cell, and a million more. I hurt people, Petey. Not just her, but her family too. She probably had a mom, and a dad, and maybe even a baby brother and a little puppy dog. Maybe she even had her own friend like I have you, who is sitting on the side of a road somewhere right now, missing out on spending the end of the world with their best friend, and just a sliver of their soul is looking forward to seeing her again after it’s all over.”
I was hoping he would say something, but his lips stayed shut.
“I can’t believe what I did. Do you think I’ll go to Hell, Petey?”
“Mint…” Petey said, moving to wipe a tear from my cheek. I pushed his hand away and let the tears drip onto my chest. His face became a blur as my eyes started to burn.
“I’m a murderer, and murderers go to Hell. You don’t got to be the Pope to know that much.”
“You did your time,” he said.
“A fraction of it. I cheated. Only five years out of a whole life’s worth. Maybe the rest of it will come after it all ends, and I’ll find myself in chains surrounded by fire for eternity. Maybe this is just a vacation before the real punishment.”
“If that’s the case, then I’ll be right there beside you. We all screwed up, you said it yourself. If some bastard is going to punish us all, then we’ll be down there together, telling jokes and reminiscing about the good ol’ days forever.”
“Is it screwed up that I find that thought real comforting?”
“Nah,” he answered, grinning.
We pulled each other close, and I breathed his scent deep into my lungs. It was sharp and harsh, the smell of sweat and sunburnt skin, but I savored it until it faded. My eyes were closed, and I could feel by his grip that his were too. He grabbed the fat of my shoulders like a t-shirt and squeezed. However many miles there were to Fryeburg, however many minutes or seconds were left on the timer, however many other people in the world were sad or desperate or scared shitless, that embrace—the hot metal singeing our asses and our stomachs growling for food and our mouths void of water—was immediately and intimately important. It was a frozen moment even as we lived it, and the world fell away from us like an October leaf from its branch. The next six days were meaningless, as were all the ones tracing back to our births. There was a silent understanding that no words from my mouth or his could match, and we embraced the gift of connection just the same as we embraced each other.
I sighed, then he did, and when I opened my eyes, reality came rushing back toward us in the form of a baby blue station wagon.
“Petey,” I said. “Look.”
I pulled back, pointing. Far to the North, perhaps a mile and a half down a long hill, a car puttered toward us.
We stood up, waving our arms like madmen. And like an ambassador from God himself, the distant driver answered in two long, beautiful honks.
We turned to each other.
“It’s going South,” I said. “Fryeburg’s North.”
“Come with me,” he said. “I want you to spend these days with me. I’ll convince my parents to let you stay with us. David would love you.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Aww, come on, Mint. No time to be brave.”
“I’m not being brave. You and I got our time. Now you and your family get your’s.”
He pushed my chest.
“Quit it. Come on.”
“I have a good feeling about the fair, Petey.”
“I need you, man!”
“No. You don’t.”
He spat into the dirt, and as the car neared, his arguing dribbled to a stop.
“I’m going to this fair, Petey. I’m going to get to meet people. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve made a friend?”
“No,” he answered quietly.
“Since the day I met you,” I said. “I think it’s time I fix that.”
With that, he fell into me, and for the last time, we held each other.
“And anyways,” I continued, watching the car pull to a stop over his shoulder. “I’ll be meeting David real soon, and I’ll be seeing you there too. I’m real sure of it.”
“Where will that be?” he asked.
“Wherever the good people go.”
“Yeah?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered.
He pulled back, and looked into my eyes.
“I’ll see you there, Mint.”
“Seeya there, Petey.”
And with that, he turned, climbed into the passenger seat of the car, and waved goodbye for the last time.
I stood there for a long time, waving at a fading speck on the horizon.
The sun had disappeared behind a distant mountain by the time I started walking again. I was lonely in a way that I had never known before, and the pains of the day were catching up to me. The soles of my feet were fire, and my back cursed me for every step. The thirst moved from my mouth to my head, and I had to slow my pace to keep from fainting. I walked through the night, stopping only once to drink from a roadside stream.
Most of the walk was spent thinking about Petey, wondering if he would make it to his parents’ place, and how he would spend his last days with David, and if I had made a mistake by not going with him.
I dreamed of the End of the World fair, and of what Heaven would be like. Sometimes I convinced myself that neither of those places existed, that I’d get to where I was going and find a wide, empty space where I’d spend eternity alone. But for most of the trek, I managed to picture those places in vivid color, full of happy people looking for friends to make the most of it with.
I was nervous, nonetheless, and determined, after a long period of consideration, that my greatest fear in the world was darkness. Give me Heaven or give me Hell, but don’t give me nothing. Give me a fair or a lynch mob, but don’t give me an empty field. I begged God of this, afraid that my prayer would be drowned out by a billion others from all over the world, all asking for the same thing.
Eventually, around the time my knees started giving out, I found myself at the foot of a tall hill. At the base of the hill, nearly obscured by overgrown brush and just barely visible in the moon light, a sign stood.
I raised my fists above my head.
“HA!” I shouted at the sky. I laughed, bouncing on my toes and throwing my arms around my body with spastic joy.
I sprinted up the hill, praying harder than I had ever prayed in my entire life; for Petey and for David and for me.
I bounded like a child, afraid and hopeful of what I would find when I reached the top, terrified of looking out over the world and finding nothing at all. I forced those thoughts to the back of my mind, and as I took the last few steps, my breaths heavy and difficult, I closed my eyes. I closed them hard, and I clenched my fists, and I told myself that it would be okay, that it would not all be for naught, that the next six days would make the last five years meaningless. And lastly, I told myself that it was okay to forgive myself, that it was the only thing I had left to do. Whether I’m greeted by the lights of the Fair or a dark, empty valley, I would be alright.
All I could do now was open my eyes and see what cards I was dealt.
And I looked.