Prolonging the Inevitable

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

No gas, either. The little old Subaru had gotten this far on its quarter-tank and did not even have the momentum left to make the turn. Cord looked at the downward path, thinking of pushing the car until gravity took hold. He then thought about just what that rail-free roller coaster ride would be like, picturing it in the context of the previous twenty-four hours. Certain death before getting to the bottom. He got out, tossing his keys onto the passenger seat as he did, locking the door as he closed it to prevent himself from going back on his whim. The car, like all it had borne him from, was now an irretrievable part of the past.

He looked at the rolling hills once more. He vaguely remembered hearing somewhere that it was harder to walk down a slope than up it, the counterintuitive fact sticking long after the explanation behind it had fled, so he turned his face toward the forest instead. He could almost convince himself that he was a trailblazer, striking off into a new frontier, even as his shoes slapped on the pavement.

As he passed into the forest proper, the light dimmed further. The context of recent events came to trouble him again, suggesting that being eaten by wolves would also be a reasonable extrapolation from the mess that he had made. Except, he thought, it would be too final. The real problem with the past day was that it was only a concentrated version of the past few years, a perfection of the practice he had pursued in the art of screwing up.

He knew that he had no one else to blame for his current straits, but he could not blame himself. He had tried to put the blame on others, managing only to alienate his whole family and basically anyone that could be called a friend. It turned out that scapegoats were a finite resource. But even at times like this, when the crisis had lost its edge and he could think with some clarity about what he had done, he could do no more than shrug and declare himself a victim of circumstances.

Cord looked over his shoulder and found to his surprise that he could no longer see where he had left the car. The road behind him made a gentle curve, one he had not noticed while he had been walking it, and there was nothing to be seen behind him but trees. He tried to be pleased with this development, tried to consider it a drawing of a curtain between him and the past. He found that he could not shift the image of being engulfed by the woods.

Ahead, the way seemed to grow steeper, making it impossible to tell if it were another distant curve that road vanished into or simply the canopy of the forest. Cord slowed, again reconsidering the upward path as the best for him, and in a reflex brought the phone out to check on the GPS app. He saw only his own face in its black mirror.

He had almost no clue where he might be. When he had moved to the city, it had been from east. Until now, he had never driven west. His use of secondary roads to flee his self-made troubles had knocked out what little sense of geography he had. Up had seemed as good an idea as all those changes of road until the car had run dry, but now… had all of it been error heaped on error, with the crowning folly of hiking into an unknown wood?

He looked back again. If it was an error, he could undo it, but he felt as if he had come a long way. A walk just as long to retrace his steps, to do no more than get back to where he had started, and then… what? He had seen nothing from that vantage point to attract him down. He felt a growing conviction that going back down would itself be the jewel in the crown of errors.

In any case, he was hardly lost in the woods, not with a paved road under his feet. They didn’t pave roads just for fun. A few more minutes of walking, he decided, would put an entirely new face on the situation. As if in answer to the thought, the incline of the road seemed to reduce.

Cord realized that the distant, unplaceable chain saw sound had ceased, swallowed by distance. The realization came with an awareness that there was no replacement of that sound. No twittering birds, no hush of wind through the branches above. The only noises he heard were the rhythms of his own progress, feet and breath in a mutual syncopation. The lack of sound seemed eerie, and he stopped again. After half a minute of careful open-mouthed breathing, the rattle of a crow somewhere ahead came as a surprise and a relief.

He was about to start off again when he thought he heard another noise. Something he could not define, somewhere in the trees beyond the far side of the road, not a crackle of leaves, not the crunch of a trampled stick, but something that gave him an impression of stealthy movement.

Another moment of dithering came, whether to press on or retreat. He went on, his memory offering all kinds of contradictory advise gleaned from film and television. A human has better endurance than most animals. Running is what prey does. Play dead. Wave your arms in the air and roar. He felt his legs trying to break into a trot, and in controlling himself he made his gait jerky.

Another, similar sound, this time on the near side of the road, but equally impossible to define. A regular hooting began, and he nearly did run until he understood it was some kind of eddy in his own sinuses making that noise. He became fixed upon not running, not being prey. He could smell his own fear in his own sweat, a smell no predator could miss.

When the crow called out again, Cord nearly screamed as he darted sideways, a spasm of a leap which would have carried well into traffic if there had been any. It was sitting on a limb just off his side of the road, regarding him over its shoulder. He waved a hand at it, although he was not sure himself whether it was a greeting or an attempt to shoo it away. Another crow’s metallic reply came from somewhere out of sight.

The bird swung its head around, moving its dark scrutiny of Cord to the other eye. It creaked, a low noise which barely reached him, then hopped from its limb, dropping before opening its wings to glide across a gap between trees. Cord watched its short flight, idly pondering why it would have bothered to change trees like than, and then he stopped, comprehending why there was a gap at all.

A smaller road lay perpendicular to the one he travelled, one that seemed to have some brightness in its distance despite starting in the same tree-made gloom he had been in for so long now. But it was narrow, a dirt track rather than a paved road, the sort of thing that could well be a prelude to lost in the woods, and that would have been enough to dismiss it except for the splash of mud just by the intersection. A little pot-hole, emptied by the passage of a car through it, and it seemed a recent passage, the spray of mud still damp, the impression of the treads still sharp. It was plain that the car had entered this side-road rather than departed from it. Once again, Cord found himself faced with two different ways to go and no help in choosing. He stood for a while, considering.

The crow yelled again. Its distant companion replied, a moment later. They set up call and response, near and far, loud and soft. Wherever the more distant one sat, its voice came along the little road. It seemed to Cord that the crows wanted him to take that direction, and his consideration now included the matter of how much a pair of crows might care for his safety.

His decision, when he made it, was equivocal. He would try the track, see if he could get a better sense of where it led, and if he did not find a satisfactory answer in a limited time he would back-track to the pavement. He initially set upon ten minutes as a sensible interval, then grimaced at his own foolishness. He had given up wearing a watch ages ago, a redundant item when there was a cell phone always to hand. The firm ten minutes was dismissed for a vague sense of having gone on long enough.

The crows shouted approval as he went, the first one soaring past him to disappear into the trees. Its voice and its fellow’s were soon of equal volume, somewhere ahead. It was not a pleasant song, but it was preferable to the strange silence which had wrapped about him earlier. Cord decided, as a way of exorcising the nervousness of that memory, that the crows had been the source of the stealthy little noises he had heard.

As he went, the brightness he thought he had seen this way grew, and he found himself in a clearing, the trees drawing back from the road. Cord looked up at the sky, saw the same high bowl of grey as had been there when he abandoned his car. It had to be well after noon. That thought added hunger to his concerns, his last meal a small breakfast, the last poor scraps in the apartment washed down with milk gone slightly sour

When he dropped his gaze again, he found that he had come to the end of the road. It had apparently gone much farther, once, as shown by the long tunnel through the trees reaching to the vanishing point and a remaining hint of ruts stretching out under a cover of grass. The beaten track turned sharply left, going only a short distance before becoming indistinct in the short turf of a yard which lay before a house.

Cord walked into the yard, nervous of what reception he might get. There were no signs admonishing against trespassing on the trees which flanked the access, but that did not mean the occupant might not be an angry recluse with a shotgun. The house itself was exactly what an angry recluse might set up in, a one-story affair, probably built from a mail-order kit between the great wars of the last century. Its clapboard sides were a lightly fuzzed driftwood grey, hinting here and there that paint had once been present. There was glass in all the window frames, though, and the shakes of the roof were in decent shape.

Peeking around the far side of the house was a vehicle. Not the pickup truck the setting called for, but a Cadillac Eldorado, one of the long, low, extra-wide monsters of the ‘seventies. Such a car was not impossible out here, but it should have had the same aspect of neglected deterioration as the house. This car was showroom shiny, faultless Balmoral green paint under chrome that twinkled even in the day’s subdued light. As he approached, Cord saw that the headlights had a light fuzz of dead bugs on them, which somehow did not spoil the looks but grounded the car in the world, rendered it a real thing instead of a vision from a long-gone past.

He reached the stoop that lay in front of the house. He could see nothing inside. The windows showed nothing but darkness under the reflected grey of the inscrutable clouds, and the screen door offered only the darker grey of its weave against a windowless inner door. Cord put a foot on the first of two steps, then looked toward the car again. He felt the germination of a thought and paused to review the likely outcome of checking the car first for keys, of possibly just getting into it and surging away on a wave of V8 power.

His imagination presented a dozen outcomes in succession, the variations lying only in how soon and how grim his comeuppance might be. The most distant was to be jailed for grand theft auto, among inmates who were all substantially harder men than he, while the most immediate was turning from looking for keys in the glovebox to find the world eclipsed by twin shotgun barrels. He finished his ascent to the door and knocked.

The crows resumed their chorus, and Cord realized that he had not noticed when they stopped. They were near, perhaps even on the house. He stepped back to peer up at the roof, and as he did so, the storm door opened, startling him slightly.

Behind the screen was a woman, dressed in a plain blue shift dress. She was older than Cord, and from the whiteness and texture of her long loose hair he would have said much older, but the face the hair framed made him uncertain of his estimate. There were lines around the eyes, too fine to be called wrinkles, but the eyes themselves were clear, startlingly pale grey, and the flesh beneath them seemed firm.

Smiling, Cord explained in broad terms how he had come to be there, starting no further into the past than the failure of the car, speaking a little more loudly than he would have chosen to be heard over the raucous birds. He did not ask for anything, either, although he wanted a ride, a meal… something he could hardly define, now that he gave the matter a little thought. All he wanted, so far as he would admit to this woman, was the direction and distance of the nearest town.

The woman said nothing. While he spoke, she kept her steady grey eyes fixed upon him, and he felt as though he stood before a judge. When he stopped, she pushed the screen door open. Cord stepped back as the spring inside made its eerie howl, expecting her to come out. Instead, she gestured for him to enter.

The inside of the house was almost as rustic as the exterior, although less weathered. The woman walked through a living room, with surprising ranks of bookshelves supporting large unmarked volumes, an odd contrast with the few simple wooden chairs. Cord followed her, careful to not let the screen door slam behind him. As it settled into its frame, the crows outside fell silent; without someone trying to talk over them, he thought, there was no more fun in shouting.

The bare floor planks creaked under him as Cord walked through the living room. The woman had led him into the kitchen, a wood stove tucked into one corner and a counter running along an exterior wall from which a hand-pump rose, its spout above a broad but shallow sink. She nodded to the dining table in the corner opposite the stove, a tube-legged affair a couple of generations newer than the house. Cord sat in one of the matching chairs, lowering himself carefully onto the knit cover which stood where, no doubt, smooth vinyl had once been.

The woman rattled the pump a couple of times, and it spat into the sink. She worked the handle once more, filling an enamelled tin cup. Before Cord could say anything, she moved away from him, opening what he at first thought was the freezer compartment of a small refrigerator. Even before she took up the pick, he realized it was an icebox. With a couple of seemingly lazy backhand swings, she chipped some lumps from the block of ice, and scooped them into the cup.

She put the cup in front of him, turning away while he was thanking her. The water was clear, and even though it smelled and tasted strongly of iron, he drank it happily, his awareness of the vast gulf between now and his insubstantial breakfast suddenly huge.

From the lower section of the icebox, the woman took what Cord first thought was a cake. She cut a slice and placed it before him, a tarnished fork rattling musically as the plate touched down. A wide slice of raised game pie, not a cake, sat before him.

Cord regarded the pink and brown strata of the pie for long moments before reaching for the fork. How long since it had been cooked? How long might it have sat in the icebox? He opened his mouth to decline, but then the smell of it came to him. No hint of rot or wrongness, just savoury delight. He barely thanked her again before going to work with the fork.

He looked up from the plate once, as he was approaching the outer crust, and saw that for the first time since he arrived, the woman’s expression was other than neutral. She was smiling as she watched him eat. She turned away almost as he looked, and he was able to dismiss a small inner voice that wondered if the smile had not seemed calculating. He had, after all, barely seen it.

When he was done, he was about to set the fork back on the plate when it struck him that the tines were now bright metal. Under his fingers, too, the tarnish was gone, and silver shone like the chrome on the car outside. He turned the fork over, saw the line of marks struck onto its neck and marvelled at them, suddenly aware of the weight of the utensil. He knew that hallmarks told the when and where a piece of true silverware was made, but he did not know how to read them.

He set the fork down and saw that the tarnish was not disappeared but only transferred to his fingers. His thumb looked as if he had placed it on an ink pad. He touched his lips briefly, then rubbed at them with the back of his hand.

The woman returned to the kitchen, moving so quietly that he was unsurprised he had not noticed her departure. She was carrying two of the large books from the living room, which she set on the table to Cord’s left. Shoving the plate aside, she tumbled one off the other so it lay in front of him, face down. She opened the book, showing him the last page.

It was a photo album, and like everything else in the house it was old. The pictures were little three-by-five black and white snapshots with age-yellowed edges, glued to black cardboard pages. On the back of the final page, there were two pictures. The first showed the back of a car sticking up out of a ditch, skid-marks memorializing the car’s failure to negotiate a tight bend between rolling hills, and a broad plume of dark smoke coming from the hidden forward end of the car. The car was not the sort of torpedo-tailed dinosaur which should have appeared in this sort of photo, but the same Subaru he had abandoned.

The next photo also showed a ditch, but the road ran through thick forest. In this ditch, there was no car. There was a man, made to look tiny not just by the smallness of the print and the distance of the camera, but by the peculiarly deflated way he lay on his back. Cord looked closer, and saw his own face, his eyes hazy and his eyebrows pale with frost.

He flipped over the page, saw scenes he almost recognized from the day and the week before. Deeper into the book, more pictures of himself destroyed, the circumstances less familiar as pages went, but the theme was clear. Every mistake he had cursed himself for, for longer than he could remember, had actually been the best of bad choices. Every one, it seemed, had been a step in the path leading him to this house. He shoved the album, still open, away from him, and it in turn pushed the plate right off the table. He tried to rise, but his legs had suddenly lost their power in spite of the surge of panic he felt turning up the speed of his heart.

The woman opened the other album. The same arrangement of old photographs on the page confronted him. The first showed Cord sitting at the table, half the pie still in front of him, his face frozen in middle of thrusting the filled fork into his mouth, his other hand clutching the tin mug. In the next, he was in the driver’s seat of Cadillac, the background blurring as the camera tracked the speeding car, while the woman sat in the back seat. She looked directly into the lens. With a shaking hand that seemed to move without his direction, he turned over these pages, saw more pictures including the three of them, himself, the woman and the car, always in a different place. Never the centre of the action, but present, almost certainly participating in… flip… wonderful happenings… flip… terrible events… flip… impossible things that made his eyes hurt despite the distancing veil of cracked and discoloured silver emulsion. All of it ordained, as his presence here had been ordained, and designed to bring about…

He rose at last, kicking away from the table before he reached the end of the album. He whirled, stumbled through the living room, intent only on leaving, on foot and alone, to end the journey that the pictures had laid out. He watched behind him, expecting the woman to become a pursuing fury, at very least to take up a knife and rush after him, but she was composedly closing up the books, her attention more on them than on him.

He banged open the screen door, then froze at the top of the stoop. It was not the sudden cawing of the crows which arrested him, but the unexpected presence of other people in the yard. Dozens of them, all staring silently at him. Many of them were familiar, in a way Cord only understood as he felt the woman’s presence just behind his elbow. The familiar ones wore his own face, and of the two closest one was deformed and scorched, ejected too late from an auto crash. The rest were not him, but all of them, men and women, bore the mark of whatever had concuded their journey here. Of all of them, only he had claimed the prize in the unwitting race. Only he had dined at the woman’s table and taken the silver she had offered.

He started at the slight pressure in his back as she urged him forward, then allowed himself to be guided. All the smiling, supportive, dead faces of the crowd bowed, and they moved to clear a path from door to car with no more noise than their feet made moving in the grass. As he came around the house, Cord saw the driver’s door was standing open, as was the back door on the far side. The woman walked past him. With a backhanded gesture not unlike the one she had used to shatter ice, easy and practiced, she held something out to him; a big square GM key, its teeth sharp and new, hanging off a fob mounted with the Cadillac escutcheon.

Cord spun, and took a few bounding steps away, making one last effort at self-direction. He tripped, whether over his own feet, or a root, or the foot of one of the onlookers, and skidded on the short grass. Several of the spectators, ones not too badly mutilated, bent to gently help him back to his feet.

The woman was right there. She stepped past him, made a graceful dancer’s curtsey, and retrieved the cell phone which had skittered out of his pocket in the fall. She held it out to him, along with the keys, and he saw one more impossibility which made him laugh bitterly and bow his head. He took what she offered and allowed himself, consciously this time, to be led.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the Eldorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the Eldorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.

“Prolonging the Inevitable” ©2018 Dirck de Lint. The story was developed for a contest in which the first and last paragraphs were given, there was a limit of fifty paragraphs, and quoted conversation was not allowed.