Saturday, January 05, 2008

The undoing


He caught sight of the girl on his way out, in the late afternoon heat and haze. For an hour or so, after the last bell, he had marked up a week's worth of essays — never an edifying task, these days — and when he was finished he had packed up his briefcase, cleaned the dust off his desk the best he could, sipped the last lukewarm coffee in the office pot, and started out across the nearly deserted parking lot to his car. She was sitting by herself on the stone wall that marked the limits of the school grounds, just a few yards in from the road to town. Dressed in a faded lime-green T-shirt and jeans, with her backback on the wall beside her, she sat dangling her knees, head bent down, apparently deep in thought but more likely, he suspected, just lost in space.

Her name was Kelly Hinther. She was a ninth-grader, and he knew her because she had been in his English class the year before. Like most of the kids in the valley she had family problems. Her mother had done time, a couple of years back, for meth possession, and was now in a halfway house somewhere; her father was out of the picture and from what he'd heard about him that was just as well. She lived with her grandmother, who was a bit of a train-wreck herself with a drinking problem but who did at least care for the girl and tried to keep her fed and clothed and out of trouble. Kelly had difficulties with reading and even more with attitude but he had a hunch that somewhere deep down she was actually relatively bright. She had surprised once him by reciting, from memory and verbatim, a couplet from an Andrew Marvell poem that he had recited to the class a few weeks earlier on a whim, never expecting the lines to sink in:

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near

That kind of thing didn't help her on her exams, particularly — she had barely passed the course — but he had the impression that, in another time and place, where she wouldn't have started out in life with concrete blocks sealed around her feet and headed downhill from there, she might actually have blossomed into something approaching a responsible adult citizen, able to take care of herself and maybe even live a productive life. She was a handful, though, no question about that, always being punished for some minor infraction: smoking, cursing, goofing off. No doubt that was why she was sitting there: detention, again, and hadn't caught the late bus home.

He called to her and asked her if she wanted a ride. She stared at him blankly for a moment, then muttered “yeah, okay,” slipped down off the wall, and half-carried, half-dragged her backpack to his dusty Subaru compact.

Officially this was frowned upon. Two years before there had been an incident. A young teacher at the school, someone from away, had made the mistake of assuming that one of his students, another dirt-poor girl from a rough home, wouldn't be likely to complain to the authorities if he attempted to take a few liberties. The girl blackened his eye with an impressively pugilistic right jab and raised holy hell. The teacher was summarily dismissed the next morning, and by evening he had cleaned out his apartment and left town for good. His haste was understandable: nearly everybody in the valley owned a gun, and word had its way of getting around, even if that kind of thing would be kept out of the tame little weekly that was the valley's only official source of local news. At a staff meeting shortly afterwards policies were clarified; even the appearance of improper intimacy with a student was to be carefully avoided. Giving an unaccompanied minor a ride was a bit "gray area," but he'd taken Kelly home before — she lived on a bluff, outside of town, on his way — and the grandmother didn't seem to have a problem with it. In any case, he knew there was a good chance that the old lady might well already be three sheets to the wind and in no condition to drive. Even if she could be reached on the phone it would be a half-hour trip to school, an hour before Kelly got home.

She slung the backpack into the back and took a seat in the front beside him, carefully buckling her belt, an operation which he knew perfectly well was for his benefit only. He started the ignition, gave the windshield a squirt, and flicked on the wipers to clean away the grime. As he pulled onto the highway the car began to quiver gently, shaken by a small tremor coming from the pavement beneath. Involuntarily the girl's eyes widened and she drew in a breath, but it was over in a second. Nothing to get excited about: sometimes there were dozens of quakes a day, and this wasn't even one of the bigger ones, the ones that could go on at times for a full minute or more, in a kind of slow shuddering and churning of the earth that would be followed by a terrible, anxious stillness, something like the beginning of a migraine or that last uneasy moment before you started to throw up.

The geological disturbances had begun a few months earlier. In the valley, the first inkling had come when a couple of boys hiking in the woods had noticed something unusual in the waters of the little creek they were wading across. It was like a kind of miniature vortex, just a yard or so in diameter. The water was behaving as if some invisible force were bending gravity down. You could put your hand on the surface of the creek and feel the pull, even though there was no visible rupture in the creek bed beneath or anything else that might have accounted for the effect. The earthquakes followed, not long after. At first they were few and far between, and didn't hurt anyone or do any real damage, but within a few weeks they had grown in frequency and power until they had settled into a pattern of sporadic major tremors and almost continuous aftershocks. A number of older buildings in the valley had crumbled into ruins, and objects left overnight — even parked cars — were sometimes displaced long distances by the vibration by the time morning came. For months now the sky had been shrouded with an ominous russet tinge; a powdery grime the same color covered everything, leaving a bitter, gritty residue in the mouth and lungs.

The anomalies were worldwide in scope: hundred-year floods on the Gulf Coast, unprecedented landslides in the Andes, choking dust storms across huge swaths of Africa and Australia. There was much talk, in the churches and elsewhere, of the Last Days; news reports spoke darkly of some kind of tear in the fabric of space, a singularity. The teacher wasn't a believer and he didn't get the physics, but in any case the scientists themselves didn't seem to really know what was happening or where it might lead, though it seemed to be getting steadily worse.

They drove along the valley floor for a few miles, between fields of withering alfalfa, then turned off to the right. The county road they were now travelling on didn't connect with anything, it just went up and into the hills, and so the dust on the pavement was like new snow, unmarked by tires. They passed a few gray, abandoned shacks and tobacco sheds, and one shuttered farmhouse, but then nothing until they began to climb out of the valley, up to where the real rednecks used to live until a couple of decades back. Here and there dirt tracks spurred off, now to the left, now to the right, disappearing into the scrub, but he didn't know any children from those roads, or if any of the houses that might have once stood along them were still occupied. As far as he knew only hunters — and maybe the occasional illicit horticulturist — spent any time there now.

The ridge where he and the girl both lived was higher up, at the edge of the deep pines, and as they reached its crest a prospect of the valley below opened out on their left, its contours softened by the haze that hung over it. Usually the air was a few degrees cooler up here, where a stiff wind rippled year round, but as they drove along they felt instead that it was becoming suffocatingly hot. He rolled his side window down a bit further to let in some more air, even though the dust was nearly blinding him.

On the right ahead, on a small bluff, her house appeared, with the dilapidated, listing garage beside it. He signalled — out of habit rather than need, as they had passed no traffic since leaving the main road — and pulled into the unpaved driveway. As the car rolled to a stop the earth began to rumble underneath them again. Ten seconds later, just as the tremor seemed to be about to subside, there was an awful, tearing noise and a major quake began. The car rocked on its shocks for sixty seconds. It wasn't the worst he had felt, he thought, but it came close. Beside him the girl was pale, her lips tight, her hands locked on the dashboard and her gaze fixed out the front windshield as if she thought she could stop the earth's motion by will alone.

When the quake was over she unhitched the seatbelt, got out, gathered her things from the back, and closed the door. She looked up at the house uncertainly for a second, then turned back towards him and leaned her head into the passenger window, her eyes cast down. He watched, waiting for her to speak, but she didn't seem able to form words. He wondered if Kelly might be epileptic and was having a small seizure or if she just needed to get her land legs back.

“Kelly—?,” he started to ask, but at once she spoke, distinctly and firmly:

“Mr. Kursoe, do you think it's the end of the world?”

For a second he hesitated, thinking that the girl just might be strong enough to handle it if he gave her an honest reply, but then he changed his mind — he couldn't do it to her.

“No, Kelly,” he said, in as reassuring a tone as he could muster, then quickly added, “no, I'm sure not.”

He watched her step slowly away, up towards the house, then he turned the wheel and urged the car down the driveway and onto the road. He had driven no more than a few hundred yards when the haze suddenly worsened. He slowed to half speed, struggling to see through the windshield, navigating as much by the sound of the tires on the gritty asphalt as by sight. The dust blowing in through the windows was choking, lacerating his face, stinging his eyes beneath his glasses. Stones and debris covered the road, and as the tires ground over it projectiles kicked up, colliding with the sides and undercarriage of the car.

A few miles short of home he braked, at first tentatively, then urgently, then he lifted his foot up and let the car creep forward. As he accelerated again he was surprised to note that he could no longer feel the friction of the tires. Instead, the whole roadbed appeared to be moving laterally, in the direction of the valley; rocks and mud tumbled across it, and a terrible deep roar seemed to be coming at him from all directions at once. In terror he clenched the steering wheel, fighting to keep the car on the road even as the road itself seemed to be about to dissolve into nothingness. For an instant he blacked out, though without releasing his grip. When he came to he realized that his foot was no longer on the gas pedal, but that the car was still moving, faster now, falling through a cascade of rubble into fathomless space.

1 comment:

chris dunn said...

This was great--a classic sci-fi short-short story!
I once had a book: "One Hundred Of The Shortest Sci-fi Stories"--it was a favorite of mine, it included Asimov's "The Star"--the most famous sci-fi short-short in existence, but all the stories were cool, and none more than two, two-and-a-half pages!