[It’s the end of the world and as Harry contemplates the unthinkable, an unlikely friend tries desperately to talk him out of it. 5,232 words]
Harry Jones sat on the front steps of his house, eyes closed, daydreaming.
It was quiet. Real quiet. Now just add the trees, the grass, the dirt road…
Can you see it? Can you?
Harry smiled. He could see it. See it very well. He had grown up there.
Now, add the sounds. Birds, crickets, tree frogs…
Harry frowned a bit. No… no, he couldn’t hear it. All he could hear… was the nothingness. It was strange, this unearthly quiet. Out in the country, the days and nights were full of sound, of life, of nature. Since moving into the city, the noises had only increased, more sound, more life, and all that mechanical, man-made sound. It had driven him a little mad at first, a country boy living in the urban sprawl, but over the years the noise had drifted into the background, a constant presence that more and more became a comforting blanket that signified he was home.
Now… now there was just the silence. It seemed to sit in his ear like a horrible weight, a negative thing that he could almost envision with red eyes and fangs.
Harry opened his eyes and looked around. He wiped sweat from his brow with his chunky, freckled forearm. If buildings could sweat, he thought, I just might drown here in this sticky, thick stillness.
As it were, the buildings lined the street, boldly and coldly, irreverent to the heat that sat over the city. Humid, stifling… and above all, quiet.
“HEY!” He cried out suddenly, surprising himself. His voice called back to him a second later. The silent horrible thing in his ear disappeared and he was glad. He giggled, a high pitched squeak. He realized it may have been days since he’d said anything. When he’d first hear his voice echo like that down the city streets he’d been chilled; it was an eerie sound that should never have existed. Now, though… it was sort of funny. And it was the only company he had.
I’m the early riser, Harry thought. This was kind’ve like being awake at 3:30 in the morning, watching the stars all alone while the world dozed. Only it was one in the afternoon, and the sun perched high in the sky.
“Bastards,” he muttered. As he stood up, a slight breeze crept past him, barely moving his dirty, long, red hair. He lifted his arms out to catch as much of it as he could.
Then, as quick as it had come, it was gone, like a city mutt that tried to slink away unnoticed.
“Tra-la-la, goodbye,” he said, and saluted it. “Nice knowing you. Come again sometime. Anytime.” Now that he had spoken again he couldn’t seem to stop. It seemed to keep that awful presence out of his ear, and that was worth going just a little bit crazy for. He smiled down the street, at the lines of parked cards, at the dead traffic light.
“Ha!” he yelled, and the city laughed back, ha, ha, ha, ha… fading back around a corner, maybe down an alley.
Harry turned and walked back through his dark doorway, emerging a moment later with two paper bags, one lining the inside of the other. The bags were slightly crumpled, and coupons decorated one side.
If I had my car, I could drive to the store, he thought. If he hadn’t lent it to his brother-in-law last week, maybe he could even drive right out of this city. But where would he go? This was his city. This was his home. He was safe here, at least.
He stood there for a moment, lost in thought until his stomach growled and brought him back. He’d let too much of the day slip by him yesterday, and time was wasting today. He had to go.
Harry walked out into the middle of the street, deciding which way to go today. He had pretty much covered about six blocks all around in the past week, but the pickings weren’t very good. Though there were a few nice houses around, the area was generally lower income. Low income, low food. Low food, less for Harry to find.
Which way today?
After a few more minutes thought, he smiled. “Down… down… down… downtown!” He began walking, the sun on his back.
* * *
It was around four o’clock. Still plenty of time to get back, thought Harry. He had no idea how far he’d walked… his mind had wandered even as his feet carried him there. But he was here.
Harry stood in front of a glass window, staring at the suits on display. One of the mannequins had been knocked over, and its head had rolled out of view. If it even had a head.
Suits. Harry had never been able to afford one. If he had had one, maybe he wouldn’t have had to work all those crummy jobs.
Yeah, a suit. A snazzy gray suit. Double-breasted. Very important-looking. He smiled.
Harry kicked the window and bounced back, his teeth clicking loudly together. He frowned, looking around, and went over to pick up a loose cobblestone at the entrance to the alley. He paused for just a moment, looking around, almost feeling guilty. Then he just reared back and hurled the stone at the glass.
The sound smashed through the silence like an explosion, and Harry nearly fell over, surprised and a little shocked. It seemed to bounce of the buildings and hit him from all directions before the quiet rushed back in.
Harry stepped up to the large hole and looked at all the suits, not so unobtainable anymore, his for the taking. He put his foot carefully on the ledge… but then stopped.
He could feel the sweat trickling down his side, his tee shirt stuck uncomfortably to his back. He jeans were damp and tight upon his legs.
He started laughing then, and couldn’t seem to stop. Suit? Suit? Where were all those rich guys in suits now? He laughed and the city joined in, laughing with him, up and down the empty city streets.
Eventually the pain of laughing so hard on his desperately empty stomach helped bring him back to the mission at hand. No, he didn’t need a goddamn suit… but something else occurred to him. Harry stepped up, carefully slipping through the hole in the glass window, and walked past the mannequins and suits on display, coming to the sales floor on the other side. He waited a minute for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
It was a large store, filled with clothes racks huddled in the darkness. Sales and promotional signs hung from the ceiling. Eventually his eyes made out what he was looking for: a sign over a door on the side of the store that read “Employees only.” Lady Luck was on his side too– a thin strip of sunlight from windows on the other end of the store seemed to point right toward the door.
Harry hopped down onto the sales floor and stopped a moment, listening. He tried to slow his breathing down, listening. His wide eyes looked around at the clothes racks, searching the shadows. I’m fine, I’m fine, he told himself, and yet that primitive part of his brain that had kept the human species alive all these years was screaming at him, alarm bells sounding. It was too dark, too far to go…
Harry took a deep breath and then quickly crossed the store, heading to the door, and feeling the nervousness leave him just a bit as he crossed into the sunlight that chased away the gloom. He glanced at the “Employees only” sign, smiled, and opened the door.
Some of the sunlight penetrated the room beyond, but there were no exterior windows there and the darkness was much deeper. Still, he saw what he was hoping, praying to see.
The promised land that came as large, rectangular shapes in the gloom. Vending machines.
He realized in that moment that sweat was dripping down his nose, and he could feel it threatening to pour over his eyebrows. He quickly wiped his brow with his hands, and then…
Wait. He whipped around and looked back in the gloom. Had he heard something back there? The shadowy clothes racks sat still, silent… hiding something?
Harry could feel the panic begin to set in, fighting with his rational mind that he was being stupid. Finally though, his hunger joined in, raw and powerful, beating back the urge to flee. There was nothing there he told himself and forced himself to turn back around and step into the employee lounge. He stepped to the side so he wouldn’t block any light, letting his eyes adjust further and then crossed over to the machines.
The first one was the snack machine, and his heart began racing when he realized that it was mostly full, grateful that the vendor had stocked the machine relatively soon before the world went to shit.
Then he looked closer, and his smile faltered. Most of the rows was filled with candy, and the candy had all melted in the heat. The old familiar shapes of candy bars and sweet treats were all bloated and soaked brown.
“Damn,” he whispered. For a moment he’d been able to taste the chocolate.
Then his eyes focused on the crackers and chips. Surely they’d still be okay.
Harry went over to a metal side table, picked it up and swung it at the vending machine. The front wasn’t glass, but rather plastic, and the side table bounced off it. Harry’s anger boiled up inside into a fury and he screamed then, swinging the table at the front over and over and over again… until the plastic covering finally broke just a bit. Harry tossed the side table aside and grabbed the break, ignoring the slight stab of pain as the sharp edge dug in, he pulled it and it slowly gave way. The stench of rotted chocolate assaulted his nose, but he reached in and grabbed a bag of Bar-B-Q chips, tearing them open with his teeth and pouring them into his mouth. They were dry and he choked a bit, but the salty, smoky flavor was a slice of heaven. He suddenly realized he was making grunts and groans of animal pleasure and laughed.
His hunger sated just a little bit, the stench suddenly renewed its assault and he began to gag. He staggered back and took deep breaths in the hot air further away, trying desperately to keep the precious chips down in his gullet.
“Okay, I’m okay. Ooooo-kay…” he muttered. He let out a deep breath, then breathed in deep and held it before going back to the machine.
It took about seven breaths to dig out what edibles he could from their metal corkscrew holders. There weren’t many chips above the candy, but there were crackers and peanut packages below, covered in some of the sticky, nasty mess, and now so were his hands. He wiped them on the lower part of his jeans, searched out a plastic bag bearing the store logo, and loaded it up with his reeking pile of snack food.
Elated with his find, he strode across the store fearlessly, weaving between the shadowly clothes racks, climbed up into the display window, and hopped through the hole to the sidewalk.
Across the empty street a man stood there, staring at him.
Harry’s heart slammed into his chest. What time is it? he thought desperately, looking wildly at the sky. It was still light, the sun was still out, and a ragged breath escaped his lips. He looked back at the man.
He was old, dressed in threadbare clothing and frighteningly thin. He seemed to be leaning slightly forward, as if into a strong wind. A filthy brown baseball cap covered his wispy white hair.
“Hello, sir,” the man said. His voice low and nearly as raggedy as he looked, and yet it had a slight musical quality about it, like maybe he was a singer in another life. Tears were running down his face.
Harry clutched his bag tightly and stepped back, bumping into the glass window. He closed his eyes tightly for a moment and then opened them again.
The man stepped forward a step. “I’m so glad to see someone who’s alive, finally!” He smiled, and several teeth were missing from his grin. “It’s been days, but it sure feels a whole lot longer. My name’s Oliver, but my friends used to call me Owl.”
He took a few more steps forward, stepping into the street. It seemed to throw his balance though and he stumbled to his knees.
Harry jumped back against the glass again, and then started side stepping away.
Owl chuckled as he stood up slowly. “I heard that racket you were making. I admire your courage sir. I couldn’t bring myself to do that myself.” He glanced around. “Too damn loud,” he whispered.
Owl kept talking and shuffled towards him, but Harry didn’t hear him. His mind was racing. How long had he been walking downtown… how long had he been inside? The shadows seemed longer than should be. The tall buildings obscured the sun’s place in the sky…
Harry turned and began to walk back uptown.
“Excuse me, sir?” Owl called after him. “Where are you going?”
Harry’s goodie bag thumped against his leg as he picked up the pace.
“What… what’s wrong? You can’t… you can’t leave me!”
Harry rounded a corner without looking back and could suddenly see the sun was way too low in the sky. Way too low…
“I don’t mean any harm… I’m not looking for food, just some company!” There was panic in Owl’s voice, and then Harry heard a yelp of pain.
Had he fallen down again? Harry picked up his pace.
“C’mon, don’t ya miss real people, man?” The voice was louder now. Owl had come around the corner. Harry could hear his shuffling footsteps behind him.
He could hear Owl’s breath wheezing as he struggled to keep up. Ten minutes passed and Harry kept going, not looking back. The wheezing and the footsteps sounded further and further back. Harry was leaving him behind.
“Hey!” Owl finally shouted, hoarse and watery. “How can you just walk way and leave me out here? I got no where to go.”
“Go back to where you’ve been!” Harry shouted over his shoulder.
“I don’t have no home, man. Haven’t had one for years.” He heard a groan and Owl cry out in pain. He glanced back and saw the old man had sat down heavily on the sidewalk, leaning to the side, clutching at his leg. “Had Lady Luck smiling on me I guess. She don’t smile forever.”
Silence answered him, except for Harry’s footsteps.
“At least leave me a little bit of food, man! I’m about to starve.” And then he began to weep softly, piteously.
Harry slowed down and finally stopped. He looked down into his bag. Owl was no more a beggar now than Harry was a thief. This world had no more titles. He was alive, just like Harry. That’s all that mattered.
Owl looked up and saw Harry standing there. “Lord bless you!” he wheezed. “I know how you must be feeling, but we got to stick together, right?” He grinned fiercely.
Harry looked at him, trying to force down the panic and think a moment. Could he bring this man into his home, or would that screw things up? Could Owl even make it there in time?
“You can’t come with me,” Harry said.
Owl’s face looked like Harry had punched him. His eyes fluttered, blinking. “You can’t be serious?”
“I’m sorry,” Harry said, digging into his bag. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry… I’m scared and I gotta get home.” He looked into his bag, avoiding looking in Owl’s direction. He pulled out a few sticky packages of crackers and a bag of peanuts and put them down on the sidewalk. “You can have this, take it and go find someplace safe. I’ve got to go.” Without looking back he continued down the street.
A minute later Owl’s voice called out. “Thanks for the food… you’re a good soul.”
Harry continued walking, and waited for the silence to close in as he left Owl behind. But it didn’t. Owl’s shuffling footsteps could be heard behind him, along with the crackling sound of plastic wrapping being opened. The crunch of crackers in a hungry mouth. He wasn’t keeping Harry’s pace but he was following.
Time passed. Owl was falling further behind, his wheezing breaths rapid and alarming, but he was still there, still following. Harry stopped and turned around.
“You can’t come!” he yelled.
Owl smiled, waved and stopped too. He leaned his hands on his knees, catching his breath. “I haven’t been uptown for many years.”
“Go away!” Harry nearly shrieked. “Go find someplace else to hide.”
“You can’t turn me away,” Owl said. “I just know you can’t. I can tell. I can tell. We’re brothers now, you and me.”
“It’s my home. Mine. Not yours. I don’t know if that’ll make any difference, but…”
Owl took off his brown cap and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “I get that. I really do. But…”
“No!” Harry yelled. “No! No! No!” Then he just screamed, rage and fear powering through his throat so fast it hurt. Owl looked at him with something like pity before Harry just turned and began to run up the street. Sprinting.
“Hey… hey! I’m sorry man, wait!”
Harry picked up his pace, running faster.
“You can’t just leave me!” Owl shrieked behind him, really far behind him now as Harry’s feet pounding the pavement. A few minutes later and Harry couldn’t hear Owl’s breathing, couldn’t hear his shuffling footsteps.
“DON’T LEAVE ME ALONE MAN!” came Owl’s pitiful scream, echoing down the street from far, far behind.
Harry gritted his teeth and ran.
He lasted another ten minutes at that pace before his legs, feeling like molten lead, stumbled and he nearly fell. His lungs felt like they were filled with razors.
“Gotta… gotta sit,” he panted, leaning heavily against the hood of a car. He slid down it and sat heavily upon the ground. Breathe. Breathe. The soft warm air. Breathe…
After his breathing eased and his heart was no longer pounding in his chest, he looked inside his bag. He reached down and pulled out the first thing to stick to his fingers, a bag of peanuts.
Harry ripped it open and dumped half of it into his mouth. They were soft, mushy but still good, peanutty goodness.
He looked up into the sky, and the sun was out of view now, hiding on the other side of the city. He looked around at the quiet stone buildings, many similar to his own. He wasn’t too far now, not far at all.
He tried to stand but his legs cramped, and Harry fell over, straightening them out quickly.
“Ow-ow-ow-ow,” he hissed, rubbing at the cramped muscles. “Easy now, easy does it.”
I’ll just lay here a few minute, Harry thought, resting his head on the sidewalk. He glanced down the street, back the way he came, but there was no one there. The warm air settled over him like a comforter. Just a few…
* * *
“You okay man?” Owl asked, shaking Harry’s shoulder.
Harry jerked to a sitting position. Owl was sitting next to him, skinny legs sprawled out, his feet bare. He wiggled toes.
“Good to see you’re alive at least,” Owl said. He looked down at his own feet. “Yep, my shoes gave out a while back. The right one about ten blocks ago, and the left one a block after that.” He chuckled. “They just don’t throw away shoes like they used to.”
Harry stood up quickly and snatched at his bag. Owl looked up at him. “Say, I never caught your name?”
“Harry Jones,” he said without thinking and then jumped away from Owl like he was going to grab at him. Then he looked around, looked at the sky. How long had he been out? “Shit!” he hissed.
Harry could hear Owl’s joints pop as the old man struggled to stand up too. It was almost like a gun signifying the start of a race, and Harry began to trot away.
Owl let out an incredulous sound. “Harry? What the hell? You’re leaving me again?”
“Is your house nearby? Because if it ain’t we gotta find somewhere to hole up, now!”
Harry picked up the pace and ran around the corner.
“I coulda taken your food! I coulda left you there sleeping the day away, you could still be right here when the sun went down! Don’t leave me man!” Owl howled behind him.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” Harry panted as he ran.
“Ah, Harry man…” came the quiet reply fading away as the shadows closed in behind.
* * *
Harry sat huddled in the den, on top a pile of blankets and pillows. The smelly bag of loot was a few feet away. He’d eaten a bag of crackers when he’d returned home, but he wasn’t really hungry at all.
Owl had stolen his appetite.
It was stifling hot in here, and dark… real dark. The only light coming faintly through the one tiny window in the room was from the moon. Harry had left that window unboarded up because he needed some light.
Just a little.
And the window was small, and high up, so Harry figured it was worth the risk.
A few hours ago he had heard someone shouting. No, not someone– it had been Owl of course. There was no one else. Harry had been real still then, and real quiet.
Not that it really mattered. The voice was far off. Owl couldn’t find him here. Impossible.
But if Harry was real still, then maybe he wouldn’t scream. Because Owl would surely find him then.
Harry hadn’t heard anything since then, so he assumed Owl must have gone into hiding. Owl had to be smart to have stuck around this long without a home to hide in. Maybe Harry would even come out in the morning and find Owl, offer some food, try to explain. Surely Owl would understand that he couldn’t have someone inside who didn’t live here…
But what if you’d offered to let him live here? No… no. That wouldn’t work.
He pushed his face deeper into the pillows, damp with his sweat. The quiet, the dark… it was both comforting and terrifying. He drifted off…
* * *
Oblivion. It took away the pain. The fear. The loneliness. It took away the hunger for a while, until his stomach cramped up. Pale afternoon sunlight peeked through the little window as he opened his eyes and dragged himself over to the bag of snack food. He fished out a bag of chips, crunched them with his eyes closed, then crawled back to his pile of pillows and blankets.
* * *
He fought the waking but consciousness won out. He opened one eye to the darkness. It was night again. What had woke him?
Harry stopped breathing for a moment. Was that just the wind whispering? But Harry knew better than to hope for that. Better not to hear anything than… something. Harry shut his eyes tight, shivering. See no evil, hear no evil…
Harry bit his lip to keep from screaming. That couldn’t be right, but… was someone actually knocking on his front door.
Knock. Knock… knock… knocknocknocknock!
“Special delivery for Harry P. Jones!” cried a cheery voice.
Harry began to shake. It was the kind of shiver that seemed to come from the marrow and shook you bone deep. He was tired, so tired of these endless nights.
Shhh… no screaming allowed.
“Harreeeeeeee? C’mon, man. You’re supposed to say ‘Who’s there?’ right?”
Harry heard fingers tapping gently against the door.
“Cut the bullshit, Harry. I know you’re here. This is your home. I let my fingers do the walking. Checked the phone book. Harry P. Jones, 103 West Pine Street. Right there in black and white.” Owl laughed. “There was another Harry Jones, but the address was up Northside ’round High Mill way and, no offense guy… but you didn’t look like upper crust material to me.”
“But hey– we’re alright man,” said Owl. “You and me understand each other. We got a lot in common. Let me in, we’ll have a good talk. Sit back, kick up our feet. Maybe have a drink. What you say? We got a deal here or what?”
Harry shook his head vigorously, then opened his eyes and looked around. He was standing in the hall, near the front door! Sleep walking?
Knock! Knock! Harry almost did scream then.
“Harry, I know you’re there, close. I can smell you. Rotten chocolate and stale sweat. Come back here Harry and let me in. Harry.” Owl paused, sighing. “Goddamit Harry open up… I’m starving!”
Harry was backing up, and when he got back to the den he leaned against the wall. His teeth were chattering. His skin felt alien, rough and cold even in the heat. “They… they know I’m here,” he whispered.
“Nope.” Owl’s face was now pressed up against the den window, impossibly high up.
And Harry screamed. Or would have screamed if he had a voice, but no sound came from his open mouth.
“No need to worry. I kept it a secret, Harry. They’d tear you apart if they knew you were here, shit, tear each other apart to get to you.” He smiled, eyes locking on Harry’s. “No… it’s just me… and you.”
Harry found himself two feet from the window before he finally shut his eyes tight and hit himself in the nose. Pain rocketed through his head then, cleansing pain, and he let out a groan, staggering away from the window to his spot in the corner. He collapsed into the blankets.
“I can still see you…” called Owl in a sing-song voice. “And your little bag of food. Did you eat it all, Harry? Did you get your blood sugar all hopped up?”
“Shut up, shut up!” Harry screamed miserably.
“Shhhhh!” Owl hissed. His eyes flashed in the dark. “You want the whole neighborhood to hear? Man, get it together. It’s not bad, really. I was scared too, but I met up with a nice kid. She was real sweet about the whole thing. It was simple, easy. C’mon, let’s just talk, face to face. Let me in, just…”
Harry pulled his eyes away and covered his ears. Despite Owl’s worlds, and the pain, Harry had figured out what he needed to do. He stood up.
Yes. Yes. Simple. Easy.
He walked into the kitchen. Owl soon appeared at the window above the sink. Harry glanced at him, and saw he still had the brown ball cap on.
“What’s up?” Owl asked. “What ya doing?”
Harry took the longest, sharpest knife he had from the drainboard. It was a good eight inches long, and he showed it Owl.
“Okay… what’s that for? Cooking up a steak?”
Harry smiled, turned, and returned to the den. As he sat down there was a rapping again at the small window.
“Yoo-hoo, Harry. I think I know what you’re thinking and let me tell you it’s no good. It’s stupid man.”
“Ha!” Harry had to choke down more laughter. He wasn’t sure he could stop if he let it come. He held out his left arm and placed the tip of the knife against his wrist.
“No. No…” whispered Owl.
Harry stared at where the knife touched his wrist, felt it’s edge slick against his skin. Do it, he told himself. It’s simple. Easy. A quick, fast cut, and some pain but soon it would be all over. No pain, no hunger, no fear, nothing…
Owl let out a sound of relief. “You just can’t do it. You can’t…”
“Shut up!” Harry barked, tears springing to his eyes. He focused on his wrist again. Just a push, a jerk even, and it would be all over…
“They say suicides go to hell Harry… think of your soul, you’re a good soul…”
His hands trembled as he lifted the knife away. You fuck-up, he thought bitterly.
“Whooee, had me going there buddy,” Owl chuckled, relief chasing away fear in his voice. “Lordy, what a mess you’d have made!”
Harry glared at him. “If I had a gun I’d shoot you and then I’d shoot myself!”
“Tsk, tsk. I wanna be your friend, Harry. You don’t shoot your friends, just like you don’t leave them out in the cold when they come calling. You let them in with open arms.”
Owl continued his patter but Harry tuned him out, looking at the knife, trying to clear his mind of the fear, the despair, the cold, the loneliness. Suicide was often seen as the only way to escape a pain so deep and overwhelming… but that wasn’t what he could wrap his mind around.
It didn’t have to be that way… it didn’t have to be a retreat.
“Alright, enough of the bullshit, Harry. If you don’t let me in tonight, I’ll come back tomorrow night, and the next, and the next…”
No, it could be the best course of action, a plan of attack.
Without a moment to think about it more Harry plunged the knife deep into stomach.
“No!” Owl shrieked.
It felt like fire in his gut, impossible pain, and he fought the darkness that tried to overwhelm his consciousness. Screams of agony ripped from his throat but he kept pushing with the knife, but it wouldn’t go any further so he fell over onto the knife, plunging it deeper. Red waves of misery screamed along every nerve path. Screams rang in his ears, his own… or maybe Owl’s… probably both but oh god this hurt so bad I didn’t know the pain the pain not just pain but PAIN…
Harry tried to pull out the knife but blood was pouring out, making his hands slippery.
“Harry! Goddamit Harry you’re wasting it all!”
The blackness that would have offered relief was beaten back by the heat and the torture, and Harry couldn’t seem to scream loud enough, it was as if his throat, his mouth was just not big enough…
“Let me in Harry, I’ll take away the pain. Take it all away and you’ll feel fine, please… just say ‘Come in Owl, come in,’ just say it!”
“Say it!” shrieked another voice, or maybe it was two, but it wasn’t Owl’s, and it sounded like someone else was screaming, or maybe it was lots of screaming. There was pounding at the front door too, and windows rattling all around the house.
But the pain… the pain…
Come in Owl, Harry thought, come in please come in… but he couldn’t seem to get it past his screams.
Which was best.