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Nothing moves on the road, nor has done so for some time, save for the lone figure who stumbles into the valley like a lost revenant from the north, where the city is. The man’s gait is stuttering and tentative, like some fearful newborn creature finding its feet for the first time. He is shoeless and his feet are black and blistered as they slap against the tarmac. Tufts of thin white hair splay out from beneath a blue baseball cap, the visor turned a little to the left and above it a cartoon depiction of a devil. The heat seems not to affect him. The clothes he wears are ill-fitting and as insubstantial as the uneasy shadow that shifts beneath him. His jeans are too long and their frayed ends drag along the road, and the shirt is held in place by just two buttons fastened in the wrong holes. One sleeve is rolled up over a tattooed arm and the other flaps about a wrist around which is tied a plastic strap, a name written on it. He stops beside a car parked askew on the shoulder, the driver’s door open, but nobody inside. He stands immobile, head tilted as though distracted by something and a weird vocalisation escapes his lips, some inarticulate utterance whose meaning is beyond knowing.
When no answer comes he lowers himself into the seat and grips the steering wheel in both hands and stares through the windshield, squinting at the bright light that melts the distant horizon. He turns the wheel a few degrees to the left and back the other way but the car doesn’t move. Nothing does. Maybe, in his coming here, he had sat behind the wheels of other cars as though to grasp what they were for, what purpose, if any, they had served. He does not know how many days have passed since he set out on the road, nor why he is on it, nor where he is going. He has no memory of the place he has come from, nor of the things he has passed along the way. There is no curiosity inside him, no desire or capacity at all to reflect on what he has seen.
Presently, he climbs out of the car and presses on toward the south, heedless of the small houses and isolated farms scattered among the hills, the empty fields where no beasts graze, and thick hedgerows where nothing stirs. Clouds like ragged sailboats float across the sky and throw shadows on the hills and a warm breeze pushes through a stand of trees, whispering of the world that has been forgotten. There is an absence in his face, some indeterminate lack that steals the light from his eyes. His skin is grey and lined and dirt hides in the creases, part of him, and his tongue slips in and out between his lips as though to taste something in the air, some base memory, perhaps, of what has been lost. Though his passage is slow and contingent, it is not entirely directionless for he has not deviated from this road. Despite his apparent lethargy, he seems compelled by some purpose unknown to himself or any other.
What passes for thought in his brain is a mere babble of white noise and he feels nothing save for an inconceivable yearning that is, perhaps, the source of those electrical impulses that still fire across his frayed neurons, compelling him to seek out something he can no longer comprehend. Everything that he was and that gave meaning to his life has been stripped away except for this hunger. He does not experience it as a concrete sensation that can be processed and understood, but as an abstract and involuntary disturbance. Whatever it is that compels him, all the miles he has traipsed are as inconsequential as the air that enters his mouth or the shadow that walks beside him. If he is aware of the darkness to which he is tethered, he does not show it. Save for the determination to keep moving, he shows nothing at all. No unease at the stillness that hangs over the country, no distress at the absence of life. There is nothing bizarre in the silence of the birds and insects, nothing at all peculiar in the emptiness of the world.
He shuffles along until he comes to a humpback bridge and halts at the crest, mouth half open as if surprised by the sound of the water below. He places a hand on the stone parapet, oblivious to the hard smoothness of the stone, and looks down at the clear water, listening like he has never heard such a sound before. Some peculiarity in it holds him there, something beyond his understanding. His eyes scan the rippling surface until he sees a man he doesn’t recognise, staring back up at him. The man in the river struggles to coalesce but is no less real than the one who watches him, not thinking about what he is doing down there or about the world that exists beneath the surface. An inverted world where the sky is still blue and the clouds still white, where the leaves on the trees are still green, stone is still hard and shadows are still shadows, even when they move.
It comes as no surprise when a hand reaches up toward him and he finds his own hand reaching down. There is no glint of recognition in either pair of eyes and yet here are eidolons of a life that used to be: faces blurred by rain, stars that fall out of the sky, bodies swaying beneath coloured lights, a thin woman who lays on a white bed, her eyes closed, and a frightened man, alone and confused, while others watch and sometimes laugh. Transient visions that spark neither questions nor answers, before the unseen current tears them apart and pulls the pieces down into the deep.
If he could make sense of these peculiar apparitions, would he would speak of them and tell of their significance for the life that was? Would the words pour out of him in a mad torrent of excited communication, a powerful desire to make himself known and understood? No, there is none of that, for even as he straightens up, it all slips away and there is only light and shadow on an unprimed canvas, a blank plane of unremembering. It is all beyond him now and in the place where memories should be, there is only a great emptiness and inside it, the hunger.
It is a primal hunger, without cause or end, born out of some obscure terror or perhaps sustained by it. Is it possible that some vestige of spirit or consciousness still strives to make a connection with one such as he used to be? No, that is the old life that is gone. It went with the same dispassionate ease as the sun sinks toward the mountains and will bring a darkness in its wake. Who knows what creatures may follow? Perhaps none. It is of no consequence to the man. Nothing is.
His shadow lengthens across the road, its stuttering motion seeming to mock his own hesitant movements. The heat falls out of the day but the growing chill has no affect on his indeterminate purpose, whatever it might be. The road bends to the right, sweeping past a single-storey building, its glass frontage shattered and open to the elements. Giant red letters above the building spell out a name he can no longer recognise. Inside the showroom, gleaming cars wait like cautious, predatory beasts. Past the building the road dips and where it levels out, a cluster of houses has grown up on one side, some kind of municipal building – a school maybe – on the other.
The man stops before he reaches the first house, chin against chest, staring down at the tarmac or the broken white line that runs down middle of the road like it means something to him, which it can’t possibly do. After a moment he lifts his head and sniffs the air. His mouth opens and the tip of his tongue protrudes and hangs there as though prehensile and waiting for some small creature of the dusk to stray within reach. A wordless sound breaches his lips and he turns his head to one side as though awaiting some response. When none comes he shuffles forward twenty or thirty yards before halting again and turning to stare at the third house. The curtains are shut and no light comes from within. He makes another incoherent noise and listens but there is no other sound. He sniffs the air again and something in it makes him linger there, some distinct scent that deep down in his lizard brain he recognises. Looking up toward the roof he sees smoke coiling from a chimney.
“Is it him?” the woman asks, without curiosity.
“I can’t tell,” the man says. “He’s just stopped there.”
“What are you going to do?” she says. “Maybe you better go out and talk to him.”
A young boy steps out from behind his mother. “No Dad, don’t go outside.”
The man turns back to the window and cracks the curtain a little. “Jesus,” he says. “He’s looking this way.”
“Oh god,” the woman groans. “Why did he have to come here?”
The man says nothing but continues to look through the window where the night comes on without stealth. It is hard to see the features of the man’s face but he is sure it is him. His head is tilted slightly up, as though looking at the roof or something else up there. He remembers too late the fire he lit just thirty minutes ago and curses himself for a fool.
At his shoulder, his wife asks once again if it is him.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Why, George?” she says, confused and a little ashamed of what she recognises as her own fear. “What does he want?”
George turns to her for a moment, frowning. What kind of question is that, he thinks. After the phone call two days ago, what does she think he wants? But he keeps this thought to himself and instead says, “Maybe nothing. Maybe he’ll pass by.”
“You think so?” the woman says, gripping his arms and squeezing, as if by doing so she’ll somehow make his utterance real.
“He’s coming this way.”
George turns and sees his son has crept in front of him and has pressed his face to the window. “Dammit Kirk,” he snaps, “get away from there.”
The boy is startled by his father’s tone. He shrinks back from the window and holds onto his mother’s leg. “There’s no need to frighten him,” she says, trying to keep her own fear from the boy.
“Ah Christ, he’s coming to the door.”
“You have to do something.”
“Talk to him, ask him what he wants.”
“Ssshhh,” George hisses. “He’s right outside.”
They stand in silence, barely breathing in the darkened room. After a moment or two, they hear a dry scraping at the front door.
“What is that?” the child asks.
“It’s okay, Kirk,” his mother says, hugging the boy. She looks at George. “What are you going to do?”
Why do I have to do anything, he wonders. The door is locked, the back door and windows too. He can’t get in. Yet the idea of doing nothing, of skulking in the dark till he has gone, is intolerable. “Wait here,” he says, moving toward the hallway.
“What are you doing?” his wife says, hurrying after him.
“Jesus, Emmy, what did I just say? Stay here?”
“Please Dad,” Kirk pleads. “Don’t go outside.”
“I’m just going into the hall, son. Maybe I can find out what he wants.”
“We know what he wants,” Emmy says, doubting herself.
George slips into the hallway and hears the scratching at the door, louder now and more persistent. His chest feels tight as he edges along the wall, and beads of cold sweat roll down his cheeks. Two days, he thinks. Did he walk all that way? The scraping at the door stops and George hears something else, a sound he can’t be sure of at first, until he moves closer to the door and then recognises as a sniffing noise. He gags, reflexively, and takes a step back.
A soft thump comes from the other side of the door and a second later a peculiar keening sound.
“Is that you?” George finds the strength to ask. “What happened up there? Did they really let you out?” He listens but the voice that responds speaks no language known to living man.
“Why are you here?” George says. “There’s nothing for you here.”
The scratching starts up again, harder now, more frantic. George hears movement behind him and turning, sees his wife and son standing in the hall, bewildered faces focused on the front door. “What did you say to him?” Emmy says.
George shrugs helplessly. This cannot be happening, he thinks. In two days. He puts a finger to his lips before turning back to the door. Steeling himself he places his hands against it and says in as firm a voice as he can muster, “Get away from here, or I’ll call the police.”
Implacable, the man outside continues to scratch and scrape at the door, heedless of George’s words. “We can’t help you,” George says. “There’s nothing for you here.”
The night is full now and the stars are in their prime. Somewhere far off in the dark a siren cuts through the air. “They’re coming,” George says. “They’re going to put a stop to all of this.”
The siren wails and grows closer. The assault on the door becomes more frenzied. “For God’s sake George, do something,” the woman – on the verge of panic – says.
“Like what?” George says, trying to contain his anger, and his fear.
“Ask him what he wants.”
“I already asked. He’s not saying anything.”
“Why not? Why doesn’t he tell us.”
George looks at her and feels something cold and brittle sweep through his body. He tries to speak but the words catch on his tongue. This isn’t happening, he tells himself once more, looking for solace in the possibility of delusion or nightmare. Emmy is beating his chest, he realises, coming back to himself. He grabs her wrists and holds them, stares into her eyes and says, “Because he can’t.”
“What does that mean?” she says. “What are you saying?”
But George has already turned back to the door. “It’s no good,” he says. “We tried our best but there was nothing we could do.” He presses the side of his head against the door, trying to catch the sound of the siren above the violent scratching, but it is feint now, fading into the distance. “They’re coming for you,” he says, weakly, despairingly. “You should go back now.”
Emmy comes to stand beside him. Her hand shakes as she touches his arm. “Please,” she says, “Please, leave us alone.”
Her words have no effect. The man continues his slow, relentless scratching and George can only imagine – though he does not want to – the state of his fingers, of his nails. There is nothing to be done, George tells himself as he stares at his wife and child. He nods two or three times, as if in confirmation, then turns back and opens the door. The moon outside is much diminished, he thinks as it slides behind a cloud as though in shame. He hears more sirens echo on the far edges of the valley but they do not come, and all the while the northern horizon glows orange and red.
In the morning the ruined door stands open and there is blood and much else on the threshold and in the hall. Nobody in the house speaks or moves and of the man there is no sign and all about as far as any eye can see, is stillness and quiet.