Johnny James was sitting on the front porch, sipping from a glass of
gasoline in the December heat, when the doomscreamer came. Of course,
doomscreamers were nothing new; these days they were as common as
blue moons. This one was of the usual variety: skinny-framed, with
haunted dark eyes and a long black beard full of dust and filth. He
wore dirty khaki trousers and a faded green Izod shirt, and on his
feet were sandals made from tires with the emblem still showing:
Michelin. Johnny sipped his Exxon Super Unleaded and pondered that
the doomscreamer's outfit must be the yuppie version of sackcloth and
"Prepare for the end! Prepare to meet your Maker!" The
doomscreamer had a loud, booming voice that echoed in the stillness
over the town that stood on the edge of Nebraskan cornfields. It
floated over Grant Street, where the statues of town fathers stood,
past the Victorian houses at the end of King's Lane that had burned
with such beautiful flames, past the empty playground at the silent
Bloch School, over Bradbury Park where paint flaked off the grinning
carousel horses, down Koontz Street where the businesses used to
thrive, over Ellison Field where no bat would smack another softball.
The doomscreamer's voice filled the town, and ignited the ears of all
who remained. "No refuge for the wicked! Prepare for the end!
Johnny heard a screen door slam. His neighbor in the white house
across the way stood on his own porch loading a rifle. Johnny called,
"Hey, Gordon! What're you doin', man?"
Gordon Mayfield continued to push bullets into his rifle. Between
Johnny and Gordon, the air shimmered with hazy heat. "Target
practice!" Gordon shouted; his voice cracked and his hands were
shaking. He was a big fleshy man with a shaved head, and he wore only
blue jeans, his bare chest and shoulders glistening with sweat.
"Gonna do me some target practice!" he said as he pushed the last
shell into the rifle's magazine and clicked the safety off.
Johnny swallowed gasoline and rocked in his chair. "Prepare!
Prepare!" the doomscreamer hollered as he approached his end. The
man was standing in front of the empty house next to Gordon's, where
the Carmichael family had lived before they fled with a wandering
evangelist and his flock on his way to California. "Prepare!" The
doomscreamer lifted his arms, sweat stains on his Izod, and shouted to
the sky, "O ye sinners, prepare to—"
His voice faltered. He looked down at his Michelins, which had begun
to sink into the street.
The doomscreamer made a small terrified squeak. He was not prepared.
His ankles had sunk into the gray concrete, which sparkled like
quicksilver in a circle around him. Swiftly he sank to his waist in
the mire, his mouth open in a righteous O.
Gordon had lifted the rifle to put a bullet through the doomscreamer's
skull. Now he realized a pull of the trigger would be wasted energy,
and might even increase his own risk of spontaneous combustion. He
released the trigger and slowly lowered his gun.
"Help me!" The doomscreamer saw Johnny, and lifted his hands in
supplication. "Help me, brother!" He was up to his alligator in
the shimmering, hungry concrete. His eyes begged like those of a lost
puppy. "Please...help me!"
Johnny was on his feet, though he didn't remember standing. He had
set the glass of gasoline aside, and he was about to walk down the
porch steps, across the scorched yard, and offer his hand to the
sinking doomscreamer. But he paused, because he knew he'd never get
there in time, and when the concrete pooled like that, you never knew
how firm the dirt would be either.
"Help me!" The doomscreamer had gone down to his chin. He
stretched, trying to claw his way out, but quicksilver offers no
handholds. "For God's sake, hel—" His face went under. His head
slid down, and the concrete swirled through his hair. Then—perhaps
two seconds later—his clawing hands were all that was left of him,
and as they slid down after him, the street suddenly solidified again
in a ripple of hardening silver. Concrete locked around the
ex-doomscreamer's wrists, and his hands looked like white plants
growing out of the center of the street. The fingers twitched a few
times, then went rigid.
Gordon went down his steps and walked carefully to the upthrust hands,
prodding his path with the rifle's barrel. When he was certain, or as
certain as he could be, that the street wouldn't suck him under too,
he knelt beside the hands and just sat there staring.
"What is it? What's going on?" Brenda James had come out of the
house, her light brown hair damp with sweat. Johnny pointed at the
hands, and his wife whispered, "Oh my God."
"Got on a nice wristwatch," Gordon said after another moment. He
leaned closer, squinting at the dial. "It's a Rolex. You want it
"No," Johnny said. "I don't think so."
"Brenda? You want it? Looks like it tells good time."
She shook her head and grasped Johnny's arm.
"It'd be a waste to leave it out here. First car that comes along, no
more watch." Gordon glanced up and down the street. It had been a
long time since a car had passed this way, but you never knew. He
decided, and took the Rolex off the dead man's wrist. The crystal was
cracked and there flecks of dried concrete on it, but it was a nice
shiny watch. He put it on and stood up. "Happened too fast to do
anythin' about it. Didn't it, Johnny?"
"Yeah. Way too fast." His throat was dry. He took the last sip
of gasoline from the glass. His breath smelled like the pumps at
Lansdale's Exxon Station on deLint Street.
Gordon started to walk away. Brenda said, "Are you ... are you just
going to leave him there?"
Gordon stopped. He looked down at the hands, wiped his brow with his
forearm, and returned his gaze to Brenda and Johnny. "I've got an ax
in my garage."
"Just leave him there," Johnny said, and Gordon nodded and walked up
his porch steps, still testing the earth with the rifle's barrel. He
sighed with relief when he reached the porch's sturdy floor.
"Poker game at Ray's tonight," Gordon reminded them. "You gonna
"Yeah. We'd planned on it."
"Good." His gaze slid toward the white hands, then quickly away
again. "Nothin' like winnin' a little cash to take your mind off
your troubles, right?"
"Right," Johnny agreed. "Except you're the one who usually wins
all the money."
"Hey, what can I say?" Gordon shrugged. "I'm a lucky dude."
"I thought I'd bring J.J. tonight," Brenda offered in a high, merry
voice. Both Johnny and Gordon flinched a little. "J.J. needs to get
out of the house," Brenda went on. "He likes to be around people."
"Uh ... sure." Gordon glanced quickly at Johnny. He darted another
look at the white hands sticking out of the street, and then he went
into his house and the screen door slammed behind him.
Brenda began to sing softly as Johnny followed her into their house.
An old nursery song, one she'd sung to J.J. when he was just an
infant. "Go to sleep, little baby, when you wake I'll give you
some cake and you can ride the pretty little poneeee...."
"Brenda? I don't think it's a good idea."
"What?" She turned toward him, smiling, her blue eyes without
luster. "What's not a good idea, hon?"
"Taking J.J. out of his room. You know how he likes it in there."
Brenda's smile fractured. "That's what you say! You're
always trying to hurt me, and keep me from being with J.J. Why can't
I take J.J. outside? Why can't I sit on the porch with my baby like
other mothers do? Why can't I? Answer me, Johnny?" Her face had
reddened with anger. "Why?"
Johnny's expression remained calm. They'd been over this territory
many times. "Go ask J.J. why," he suggested, and he saw her eyes
lose their focus, like ice forming over blue pools.
Brenda turned away from him and strode purposefully down the corridor.
She stopped before the closed door to J.J.'s room. Hanging on a wall
hook next to the door was a small orange oxygen tank on a backpack,
connected to a clear plastic oxygen mask. Brenda had had much
practice in slipping the tank on, and she did it with little
difficulty. Then she turned on the airflow and strapped the hissing
oxygen mask over her nose and mouth. She picked up a crowbar,
inserting it into a scarred furrow in the doorjamb at J.J.'s room.
She pushed against it, but the door wouldn't budge.
"I'll help you," Johnny said, and started toward her.
"No! No, I'll do it!" Brenda strained against the crowbar with
desperate strength, her oxygen mask fogging up. And then there was a
small cracking noise followed by a whoosh that never failed
to remind Johnny of a pop top coming off a vacuum-sealed pack of
tennis balls. Air shrilled for a few seconds in the hallway, the
suction staggering Johnny and Brenda off balance, and then the door to
J.J.'s room was unsealed. Brenda went in, and lodged the crowbar
between the doorjamb and the door so it wouldn't trap her when the air
started to leak away again, which would be in less than two minutes.
Brenda sat down on Johnny Junior's bed. The room's wallpaper had
airplanes on it, but the glue was cracking in the dry, airless heat
and the paper sagged, the airplanes falling to earth. "J.J?" Brenda
said. "J.J? Wake up, J.J." She reached out and touched the boy's
shoulder. He lay nestled under the sheet, having a good long sleep.
"J.J, it's Momma," Brenda said, and stroked the limp dark hair back
from the mummified, gasping face.
Johnny waited in the corridor. He could hear Brenda talking to the
dead boy, her voice rising and falling, her words muffled by the
oxygen mask. Johnny's heart ached. He knew the routine. She would
pick up the dry husk and hold him—carefully, because even in her
madness she knew how fragile J.J. was—and maybe sing him that
nursery rhyme a few times. But it would dawn on her that time was
short, and the air was being sucked out of that room into a
vacuum-sealed unknown dimension. The longer the door was left open,
the harder the oxygen was pulled into the walls. If you stayed in
there over two or three minutes, you could feel the walls pulling at
you, as if they were trying suck you right through the seams. The
scientists had a name for it: the "pharaoh effect." The scientists
had a name for everything, `like "concrete quicksand" and "gravity
howitzers" and "hutomic blast," among others. Oh, those scientists
were a real smart bunch, weren't they? Johnny heard Brenda begin to
sing, in an oddly disconnected, wispy voice: "Go to sleep, little
baby, when you wake I'll give you some cake...."
It had happened almost two months ago. J.J. was four years old. Of
course, things were crazy by then, and Johnny and Brenda had heard
about the "pharaoh effect" on the TV news, but you never thought such
a thing could ever happen in your own house. J.J. had gone to bed,
like any other night, and sometime before morning all the air had been
sucked out of his room. Just like that. All gone. Air was the
room's enemy; the walls hated oxygen, and sucked it all into that
unknown dimension before it could collect. They both had been too
shocked to bury J.J, and it was Johnny who'd realized that J.J.'s
body was rapidly mummifying in the airless heat. So they let the body
stay in that room, though they could never bring J.J. out because the
corpse would surely fall apart after a few hours of exposure to
Johnny felt the air swirling past him, being drawn into J.J.'s room.
"Brenda?" he called. "You'd better come on out now."
Brenda's singing died. He heard her sob quietly. The air was
beginning to whistle around the crowbar, a dangerous sound. Inside
the room, Brenda's hair danced and her clothes were plucked by
invisible fingers. A storm of air whirled around her, being drawn
into the walls. She was transfixed by the sight of J.J.'s white baby
teeth in his brown, wrinkled face: the face of an Egyptian prince.
"Brenda!" Johnny's voice was firm now. "Come on!"
She drew the sheet back up to J.J.'s chin; the sheet crackled like a
dead leaf. Then she smoothed his dried-out hair and backed toward the
door with insane winds battering her body.
They both had to strain to dislodge the crowbar. As soon as it came
loose, Johnny grasped the door's edge to keep it from slamming shut.
He held it, his strength in jeopardy, as Brenda squeezed through.
Then he let the door go. It slammed with a force that shook the
house. Along the door's edge was a quick whoooosh as it was
sealed tight. Then silence.
Brenda stood in the dim light, her shoulders bowed. Johnny lifted the
oxygen tank and backpack off her, then took the mask from her face.
He checked the oxygen gauge; have to fill it up again pretty soon. He
hung the equipment back on its hook. There was a shrill little
steampipe whistle of air being drawn through the crack at the bottom
of the door, and Johnny pressed a towel into it. The whistle ceased.
Brenda's back straightened. "J.J. says he's fine," she told him.
She was smiling again, and her eyes glinted with a false, horrible
happiness. "He says he doesn't want to go to Ray's tonight. But he
doesn't mind that we do. Not one little bit."
"That's good," Johnny said, and he walked to the front room. When
he glanced at his wife, he saw Brenda still standing before the door
to the room that ate oxygen. "Want to watch some TV?" he asked her.
"TV. Oh. Yes. Let's watch some TV." She turned away from the
door and came back to him.
Brenda sat down on the den's sofa, and Johnny turned on the Sony.
Most of the channels showed static, but a few of them still worked: on
them you could see the negative images of old shows like "Hawaiian
Eye," "My Mother the Car," "Checkmate," and "Amos Burke, Secret
Agent." The networks had gone off the air a month or so ago, and
Johnny figured these shows were just bouncing around in space, maybe
hurled to Earth out of the unknown dimension. Their eyes were used to
the negative images by now. It beat listening to the radio, because on
the only stations they could get, Beatles songs were played backward
at half-speed, over and over again.
Between "Checkmate" and a commercial for Brylcreem Hair
Dressing—"A Little Dab'll Do Ya!"—Brenda began to cry. Johnny
put his arm around her, and she leaned her head against his shoulder.
He smelled J.J. on her: the odor of dry corn husks, burning in the
midsummer heat. Except it was almost Christmastime, ho, ho, ho.
Something passed by, Johnny thought. That's what the
scientists had said, almost six months ago. Something passed
by. That was the headline in the newspapers, and on the cover of
every magazine that used to be sold over at Sarrantonio's newsstand on
Gresham Street. And what it was that passed by, the scientists didn't
know. They took some guesses, though: magnetic storm, black hole, time
warp, gas cloud, a comet of some material that kinked the very fabric
of physics. A scientist up in Oregon said he thought the universe had
just stopped expanding and was now crushing inward on itself.
Somebody else said he believed the cosmos was dying of old age.
Galactic cancer. A tumor in the brain of Creation. Cosmic AIDS.
Whatever. The fact was that things were not what they'd been six
months ago, and nobody was saying it was going to get better. Or that
six months from now there'd be an Earth, or a universe where it used
Something passed by. Three words. A death sentence.
On this asylum planet called Earth, the molecules of matter had
warped. Water had a disturbing tendency to explode like
nitroglycerine, which had rearranged the intestines of a few hundred
thousand people before the scientists figured it out. Gasoline, on
the contrary, was now safe to drink, as well as engine oil, furniture
polish, hydrochloric acid, and rat poison. Concrete melted into pools
of quicksand, the clouds rained stones, and ... well, there were other
things too terrible to contemplate, like the day Johnny had been with
Marty Chesley and Bo Duggan, finishing off a few bottles at one of the
bars on Monteleone Street. Bo had complained of a headache, and the
next minute his brains had spewed out of his ears like gray soup.
Something passed by. And because of that, anything could
We made somebody mad, Johnny thought; he watched the negative images
of Doug McClure and Sebastian Cabot. We screwed it up, somehow.
Walked where we shouldn't have. Done what we didn't need to do. We
picked a fruit off a tree we had no business picking, and....
God help us, he thought. Brenda made a small sobbing sound.
Sometime later, red-bellied clouds came in from the prairie, their
shadows sliding over the straight and empty highways. There was no
thunder or lightning, just a slow, thick drizzle. The windows of the
James house streamed crimson, and blood ran in the gutters. Pieces of
raw flesh and entrails thunked down onto the roofs, fell onto the
streets, lay steaming in the heat-scorched yards. A blizzard of flies
followed the clouds, and buzzards followed the flies.
"Read 'em and weep, gents," Gordon said, showing his royal flush.
He swept the pot of dimes and quarters toward him, and the other men
at the round table moaned and muttered. "Like I say, I'm a lucky
"Too lucky." Howard Carnes slapped his cards down—a measly aces
and fours—and reached for the pitcher. He poured himself a glassful
"So I was sayin' to Danny," Ray Barnett went on, speaking to the
group as he waited for Gordon to shuffle and deal. "What's the use
of leavin' town? I mean, it's not like there's gonna be anyplace
different, right? Everything's screwed up." He pushed a plug of
chewing tobacco into his mouth and offered the pack to Johnny.
Johnny shook his head. Nick Gleason said, "I heard there's a place
in South America that's normal. A place in Brazil. The water's still
"Aw, that's bullshit." Ike McCord picked up his newly dealt cards
and examined them, keeping a true poker face on his hard, flinty
features. "The whole damn Amazon River blew up. Bastard's still on
fire. That's what I heard before the networks went off. It was on
CBS." He rearranged a couple of cards. "Nowhere's any different
from here. The whole world's the same."
"You don't know everything!" Nick shot back. A little red had begun
to glow in his fat cheeks. "I'll bet there's someplace where things
are normal! Maybe at the north pole or somewhere like that!"
"The north pole!" Ray laughed. "Who the hell wants to live at the
damned north pole?"
"I could live there," Nick went on. "Me and Terri could. Get us
some tents and warm clothes, we'd be all right."
"I don't think Terri would want to wake up with an icicle on her
nose," Johnny said, looking at a hand full of nothing.
Gordon laughed. "Yeah! It'd be ol' Nick who'd have an icicle
hangin' off something', and it wouldn't be his nose!" The other men
chortled, but Nick remained silent, his cheeks reddening; he stared
fixedly at his cards, which were just as bad Johnny's.
There was a peal of high, false, forced laughter from the front room,
where Brenda sat with Terri Gleason, Jane McCord and her two kids,
Rhonda Carnes and their fifteen-year-old daughter, Kathy, who lay on
the floor listening to Bon Jovi tapes on her Walkman. Elderly Mrs.
McCord, Ike's mother, was needlepointing, her glasses perched on the
end of her nose and her wrinkled fingers diligent.
"So Danny says he and Paula want to go west," Ray said. "I'll open
for a quarter." He tossed it into the pot. "Danny says he's never
seen San Francisco, so that's where they want to go."
"I wouldn't go west if you paid me." Howard threw a quarter in.
"I'd get on a boat and go to an island. Like Tahiti. One of those
places where women dance with their stomachs."
"Yeah, I could see Rhonda in a grass skirt! I'll raise you a
quarter, gents." Gordon put his money into the pot. "Couldn't you
guys see Howard drinkin' out of a damn coconut? Man, he'd make a
monkey look like a prince char—"
From the distance came a hollow boom that echoed over the
town and cut Gordon's jaunty voice off. The talking and forced
laughter ceased in the front room. Mrs. McCord missed a stitch, and
Kathy Carnes sat up and took the Walkman earphones off.
There was another boom, closer this time. The house's floor
trembled. The men sat staring desperately at their cards. A third
blast, further away. Then silence, in which hearts pounded and
Gordon's new Rolex ticked off the seconds.
"It's over," old Mrs. McCord announced. She was back in her rhythm
again. "Wasn't even close."
"I wouldn't go west if you paid me," Howard repeated. His voice
trembled. "Gimme three cards."
"Three cards it is." Gordon gave everybody what they needed, then
said, "One card for the dealer." His hands were shaking.
Johnny glanced out the window. Far away, over the rotting cornfields,
there was a flash of jagged red. The percussion came within seconds:
a muffled, powerful boom.
"I'm bumpin' everybody fifty cents," Gordon announced. "Come on,
come on! Let's play cards!"
Ike McCord folded. Johnny had nothing, so he folded too. "Turn 'em
over!" Gordon said. Howard grinned and showed his kings and jacks.
He started to rake in the pot, but Gordon said, "Hold on, Howie," as
he turned over his hand and showed his four tens and a deuce.
"Sorry, gents. Read 'em and weep." He pulled the coins toward
Howard's face had gone chalky. Another blast echoed through the
night. The floor trembled. Howard said, "You're cheatin', you
Gordon stared at him, his mouth open. Sweat glistened on his face.
"Hold on, now, Howard," Ike said. "You don't want to say things
"You must be helpin' him, damn it!" Howard's voice was louder, more
strident, and it stopped the voices of the women. "Hell, it's plain
as day he's cheatin'! Ain't nobody's luck can be as good as his!"
"I'm not a cheater." Gordon stood up; his chair fell over backward.
"I won't take that kind of talk from any man."
"Come on, everybody!" Johnny said. "Let's settle down and—"
"I'm not a cheater!" Gordon shouted. "I play 'em honest!" A
blast made the walls moan, and a red glow jumped at the window.
"You always win the big pots!" Howard stood up, trembling. "How
come you always win the big pots, Gordon?"
Rhonda Carnes, Jane McCord, and Brenda were peering into the room,
eyes wide and fearful. "Hush up in there!" old Mrs. McCord
hollered. "Shut your traps, children!"
"Nobody calls me a cheater, damn you!" Gordon flinched as a blast
pounded the earth. He stared at Howard, his fists clenched. "I deal
'em honest and I play 'em honest, and by God, I ought to..." He
reached out, his hand grasping for Howard's shirt collar.
Before his hand could get there, Gordon Mayfield burst into flame.
"Jesus!" Ray shrieked, leaping back. The table upset, and the cards
and coins flew through the air. Jane McCord screamed, and so did her
husband. Johnny staggered backward, tripped, and fell against the
wall. Gordon's flesh was aflame from bald skull to the bottom of his
feet, and as his plaid shirt caught fire, Gordon thrashed and writhed.
Two burning deuces spun from the inside of his shirt and snapped at
Howard's face. Gordon was screaming for help, the flesh running off
him as incandescent heat built inside his body. He tore at his skin,
trying to put out the fire that would not be extinguished.
"Help him!" Brenda shouted. "Somebody help him!" But Gordon
staggered back against the wall, scorching it. The ceiling above his
head was charred and smoking. His Rolex exploded with a small
Johnny was on his knees in the protection of the overturned table, and
as he rose he felt Gordon's heat pucker his own face. Gordon was
flailing, a mass of yellow flames, and Johnny leapt up and grasped
Brenda's hand, pulling her with him toward the front door. "Get
out!" he yelled. "Everybody get out!"
Johnny didn't wait for them; he pulled Brenda out the door, and they
ran through the night, south on Silva Street. He looked back, saw a
few more figures fleeing from the house, but he couldn't tell who they
were. And then there was a white flare that dazzled his eyes and Ray
Barnett's house exploded, timbers and roof tiles flying through the
sultry air. The shock wave knocked Brenda and Johnny to the pavement;
she was screaming, and Johnny clasped his hand over her mouth because
he knew that if he started to scream it was all over for him.
Fragments of the house rained down around them, along with burning
clumps of human flesh. Johnny and Brenda got up and ran, their knees
They ran through the center of town, along the straight thoroughfare
of Straub Street, past the Spector Theatre and the Skipp Religious
Bookstore. Other shouts and screams echoed through the night, and red
lightning danced in the cornfields. Johnny had no thought but to get
them home, and hope that the earth wouldn't suck them under before
they got there.
They fled past the cemetery on McDowell Hill, and there was a crash
and boom that dropped Johnny and Brenda to their knees again.
Red lightning arced overhead, a sickly-sweet smell in the air. When
Johnny looked at the cemetery again, he saw there was no longer a
hill; the entire rise had been mashed flat, as if by a tremendous
crushing fist. And then, three seconds later, broken tombstones and
bits of coffins slammed down on the plain where a hill had stood for
two hundred years. Gravity howitzer, Johnny thought; he
hauled Brenda to her feet, and they staggered on across Olson Lane and
past the broken remnants of the Baptist church at the intersection of
Daniels and Saul streets.
A brick house on Wright Street was crushed to the ground as they fled
past it, slammed into the boiling dust by the invisible power of
gravity gone mad. Johnny gripped Brenda's hand and pulled her on,
through the deserted streets. Gravity howitzers boomed all across
town, from Schow Street on the west to Barker Promenade on the east.
The red lightning cracked overhead, snapping through the air like
cat-o'-nine-tails. And then Johnny and Brenda staggered onto Strieber
Circle, right at the edge of town, where you had a full view of the
fields and the stars, and kids used to watch, wistfully, for UFOs.
There would be UFOs tonight, and no deliverance from the Earth.
Gravity howitzers smashed into the fields, making the stars shimmer.
The ground shook, and in the glare of the red lightning Johnny and
Brenda could see the effect of the gravity howitzers, the cornstalks
mashed flat to the ground in circles twelve or fifteen feet around.
The fist of God, Johnny thought. Another house was smashed to rubble
on the street behind them; there was no pattern or reason for the
gravity howitzers, but Johnny had seen what was left of Stan Haines
after the man was hit by one on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Stan had
been a mass of bloody tissue jammed into his crumpled shoes, like a
The howitzers marched back and forth across the fields. Two or three
more houses were hit, over on the north edge of town. And then, quite
abruptly, it was all over. There was the noise of people shouting and
dogs barking; the sounds seemed to combine, until you couldn't tell
one from the other.
Johnny and Brenda sat on the curb, gripping hands and trembling. The
long night went on.
The sun turned violet. Even at midday, the sun was a purple ball in a
white, featureless sky. The air was always hot, but the sun itself no
longer seemed warm. The first of a new year passed, and burning
winter drifted toward springtime.
Johnny noticed them in Brenda's hands first. Brown freckles. Age
spots, he realized they were. Her skin was changing. It was becoming
leathery, and deep wrinkles began to line her face. At twenty-seven
years of age, her hair began to go gray.
And sometime later, as he was shaving with gasoline, he noticed his
own face: the lines around his eyes were going away. His face was
softening. And his clothes: his clothes just didn't fit right
anymore. They were getting baggy, his shirts beginning to swallow him
Of course, Brenda noticed it too. How could she not, though she tried
her best to deny it. Her bones ached. Her spine was starting to bow
over. Her fingers hurt, and the worst was when she lost control of
her hands hands and dropped J.J. and a piece of him cracked off like
brittle clay. One day in March it became clear to her, when she
looked in the mirror and saw the wrinkled, age-freckled face of an old
woman staring back. And then she looked at Johnny and saw a
nineteen-year-old boy where a thirty-year-old man used to be.
They sat on the porch together, Johnny fidgety and nervous, as young
folks are when they're around the gray-haired elderly. Brenda was
stooped and silent, staring straight ahead with watery, faded blue
"We're goin' in different directions," Johnny said in a voice that
was getting higher-pitched by the day. "I don't know what happened
or why. But ... it just did." He reached out, took one of her
wrinkled hands. Her bones felt fragile, bird-like. "I love you,"
She smiled. "I love you," she answered in her old woman's quaver.
They sat for a while in the purple glare. And then Johnny went down
to the street and pitched stones at the side of Gordon Mayfield's
empty house while Brenda nodded and slept.
Something passed by, she thought in her cage of dreams. She
remembered her wedding day, and she oozed a dribble of saliva as she
smiled. Something passed by. What had it been, and where
had it gone?
Johnny made friends with a dog, but Brenda wouldn't let him keep it in
the house. Johnny promised he'd clean up after it, and feed it, and
all the other stuff you were supposed to do. Brenda said certainly
not, that she wouldn't have it shedding all over her furniture.
Johnny cried some, but he got over it. He found a baseball and bat in
an empty house, and he spent most of his time swatting the ball up and
down the street. Brenda tried to take up needlepoint, but her fingers
just weren't up to it.
These are the final days, she thought as she sat on the porch and
watched his small body as he chased the ball. She kept her Bible in
her lap, and read it constantly, though her eyes burned and watered.
The final days were here at last, and no man could stop the passage of
The day came when Johnny couldn't crawl into her lap, and it hurt her
shoulders to lift him, but she wanted him nestled against her. Johnny
played with his fingers, and Brenda told him about paradise and the
world yet to be. Johnny asked her what kind of toys they had there,
and Brenda smiled a toothless grin and stroked his hair.
Something passed by, and Brenda knew what it was: time. Old clocks
ticking down. Old planets slowing in their orbits. Old hearts
laboring. The huge machine was winding to a finish now, and who could
say that was a bad thing?
She held him in her arms as she rocked slowly on the front porch. She
sang to him, and old sweet song: "Go to sleep, little baby, when
She stopped and squinted at the fields.
A huge wave of iridescent green and violet was undulating across the
earth. It came on silently, almost ... yes, Brenda decided. It came
on with a lovely grace. The wave rolled slowly across the fields, and
in its wake it left a gray blankness, like the wiping clean of a
schoolboy's slate. It would soon reach the town, their street, their
house, their front porch. And then she and her beautiful child would
know the puzzle's answer.
It came on, with relentless power.
She had time to finish her song: "... I'll give you some cake and
you can ride the pretty little poneeee."
The wave reached them. It sang of distant shores. The infant in her
arms looked up at her, eyes glowing, and the old woman smiled at him
and stood up to meet the mystery.