ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019
Ira will love her boyfriend very much. He will be safe, have a nice apartment, take her to shows and gallery openings and rooftop cocktail parties. He will have soft lips and gentle hands and make a good salary as a surgeon. He won’t be Jewish, but her sisters will approve anyway. Ira will live in New York, where she is from, and love her Chicago-born doctor with all her heart that she wishes she could show him. A heart she will feel is full of red clay dust and she won’t be able to explain why. When he will ask why—and he will ask her at least twice a year—she will be blank. She won’t have the slightest clue. Not the hint of an idea. But she will cry out in her sleep. In the place where she will go when she wakes in the night in terror—a place that isn’t a place so much as a time that has no end—ideas are never her job.
In this place, Eric is the guy with the ideas. Let’s do some coke. Let’s rob a liquor store. The world is ending and we know this because we see the radiation in our sky our water our earth which is cosmic punishment for our overreach our hubris our faults our wars the second coming will force us to look into the face of our complicity to genocide and we will die screaming when the dead take what truly belongs to them: all of us, we who have been their undoing. Let’s make spinach chips.
Nobody questions these ideas. How could they? Eric owns the house that everyone lives in so these ideas are an essential part of daily operations. Misty, Eric’s first and closest girlfriend, is the tactician who translates these concepts into plans. Steps, actionable and efficient. Like: if we’re robbing liquor stores we need a car and a gun without bullets because we’re not murderers. Like: the End of Times is coming so prepare by keeping it as painless as possible. It’s best to stay high to make sure nothing hurts. Except when there’s a job to do.
There are others, too, in the house on Catoctin Ave. that Eric’s grandmother left him. In ten years, their names will be a blur that Ira will try to parse but be unable to seperate. The others do speed, so half the time they’re out of the house and half the time they’re running up the damn electricity bill, talking through the night in the glow of fourteen floor lamps that they bought at TJ Maxx. But just because the world is ending doesn’t mean the utilities payment isn’t due on the third of the month.
Ira tries to keep track. In notebooks, she scribbles calendars, phone numbers, debt consolidation options. The house doesn’t have a computer but it’s only a half-hour walk to the library, which isn’t hard to find anymore. It’s pretty much a straight line. Eric initially thought he could teach Ira to find any spot in Las Vegas using just her intuition, like somehow her traumatic brain injury gave her superpowers. Eric probably still believes this, though he lets her use a map now. Last time Ira went on a mission without directions she got lost on the Strip, disoriented and crying. Somebody called the cops and she lied, told them she lived somewhere other than Sierra Oeste, that she was somebody other than Ira Hewitt, and she came home without any money, which wasn’t part of Eric’s idea or Misty’s plan, and the electric bill was almost due, but nobody held it against her for too long because of her scar.
Las Vegas isn’t where Ira intended to be but it’s close enough. Deserts, mountains, kids with guns, and an ever-present looming sense of dread under the heavy knowledge of human fragility. At least she’s not in a Brooklyn hospital anymore. The whole ‘freak-accident-brain-damage’ thing isn’t great, but it’s bearable. She owes a lot to people who don’t know — who will never know — that she was planning on joining the army, but know her as a recruit anyway. Trooper. That’s what Eric called her when he found her hitchhiking— five-foot-four, sunburnt, bruised. A trauma-ward escapee stumbling along the Bruce Woodbury Beltway. Ira remembers Eric stepping out of his truck with the force and fluidity of a waterfall. Damn, what a trooper.
But she is hardly an occupying force. There is very little she will take away from this time, hardly a victory to extoll after the fact. In ten years, her hair will be long, scars faded. She won’t limp or get lost. She won’t sleep on a futon with a woman who may or may not love her. But in Las Vegas she is on a futon with Misty and she and Misty and all the others say they love Eric and Eric says that love won’t save them.
Eric is covered in dirt and blood. Their endtimes prophet landlord excavates the earth at night. He is digging a grave for all of them. It’s not large enough yet. It needs to contain the whole world. It will overflow with bodies. It needs to be cool and dry, clay walls to preserve the faces of the haunted flesh, he says. Misty says he should be careful not to hit a gas pipe.
Eric says trust him, this is a good idea.
This will become a joke. Ira will laugh about it at parties. The time she was in a cult. They weren’t even a very good cult, she’ll say. They didn’t know when the apocalypse was. What kind of cult doesn’t know that? They were just junkies. It wasn’t a real cult. It was pretty messed up. I was pretty messed up then. Her surgeon boyfriend will smile but he won’t laugh like she will. He will have been raised Catholic—part of him will always be waiting for The End. Ira will be able to tell. Forever after Las Vegas, she will know the faces of men who are preparing for the death of everyone around them. She will try not to trust them. She will fail.
She’ll be lying anyway, at those parties. To her friends and to her surgeon boyfriend. She will be keeping a secret. There is absolutely a date for the end of the world.
Eric tells her to guess. When she’s new to him, sitting in the back of his truck he says, “Guess when it ends.”
“I don’t know.” There are too many numbers in guessing. The Earth is billions of years old. He might as well ask a single-celled organism to guess how many generations until the species evolves.
“Just guess.” He has a commanding presence. He speaks in imperatives.
Eric’s philosophy, the dead coming back to reclaim what is owed to them, is immediate. It is unmoored from Biblical tradition, assembled from George Romero films and anti-war pamphlets, but it is consistently immediate. Eric presents the litany of pressing concerns as if the next call anyone will receive will be from a debt collector from the afterlife. Eric kisses Ira.
When she is less new to him, novelty wearing thin like the tread of her boots, she sleeps with Misty. Misty has long hair, short nails, tight veins, a mind that doesn’t so much wander as endlessly connect points. She asks Ira about the accident, then talks about her own father who climbed out onto the interstate one night and crumpled like a Coke can under an 18-wheeler. Ira doesn’t ask why. They talk money, how Misty had to suggest robbing convenience stores—frustrated because it was such a 101 concept. And religion, how Misty was raised as a girl named Milagritos in a California warehouse church she had to leave because she could feel the vibrations in the ground, lived in terror of a fault-line swallowing her, something for which there would never be enough preparation. Eric’s proposed apocalypse is much more orderly. “Even if it’s fake,” Misty says, and Ira is surprised because that’s not what people are supposed to say about charismatic heroin addicts who know the date of the End of the World. That’s not what people are supposed to say about the men who give them shelter. There’s never supposed to be a question. “I believe it.”
“I feel that way about God.” Ira looks out the kitchen window. Clumps of dirt appear from the depths of the hole Eric digs. Someday it’s going to open up to the other side of the world and someone will be able to put their hand in and turn everything inside out.
“I feel that way about everything.” Misty’s hair is purple like the bruises around her elbows. Her skin is brown like the distant Spring Mountains. When she kisses Ira, when Eric is with one of the others or his idea, her lips taste like Carmex. Practical. They don’t talk about what it means, to kiss. Kissing isn’t an idea. It’s an action.
Ira wants to tell her so many things about New York, wants to tell her about what it was like to be 15 and stand on the Brooklyn Bridge, watching The Towers catch on fire. About how it’s nothing at all to reconcile her bat mitzvah with Eric’s distinctly Revivalist apocalypse. About how there was very little solid faith in her when the sky cleaved open and took 2,606 people with it. She wants to say that she’s already seen the end of the world.
In the future, her surgeon boyfriend will never even learn Misty’s name. This woman will stay immortal in Ira’s memory the way the sight of the skyline full of smoke did. Something grand and terrifying. Misty is a series of metaphors about nature and Ira’s future boyfriend won’t care about metaphors about nature. Misty kisses her and Ira wants to say she’s in love, that she only ever wanted to go to California and Misty is as close to California as she'll ever get, but they have a job to do. They have to go make rent.
Weren’t your parents looking for you? her surgeon boyfriend will ask, when she tells him a version of the story where the crimes are petty and the philosophy believed by more than a handful. She will have no other answer than a shrug, an acknowledgement of the potential and the futility. Even if her family had searched, where could they have found her? Who would think to look in Eric’s house? Who would think to look outside New York?
In Las Vegas, she defies four generations of city residency. Her existence is unimaginable to her family. Eric’s gun looks like a prop. A cowboy film gun, pearl-handled. On the back, in permanent marker, he has written the date of The End. Ira focuses on the worn numbers bisected by his thumb. Above them, the lights—humming. Ira is aware of this cliché. Addicts in ski masks. A dirty convenience store in the middle of nowhere, Nevada. A man with his hands up. An open register. An open highway, a black night.
“You don’t have to do this.” The cashier is unmoving. In this moment, the moment she returns to over and over, the summer of 2004, Ira is 19 years old. She’s spent five months with Eric, six months in Las Vegas. Eight months free of the hospital, eleven months away from the accident. The man behind the register is old enough to be her father, her uncle. Does he have a family of his own? She will imagine he does, that his knowing is divine.
“Yeah we do.” Misty has a black glock that Ira knows isn’t loaded because Misty never loads the gun because it never comes to that. Not once in eleven holdups. “That’s the fucking nature of the game. Gotta get paid.” She indicates to put the money on the counter. The man is motionless; fingers spread wide, palms in plain view.
“Your generosity will serve you in the end.” Eric uses his Prophet voice, reaching deep into his stomach and far above his head until there is resonance, solid as what Ira images a church pew must feel like. In the future, she will decline invitations to worship. How could any real church live up to the idea of Eric? “Look at it this way. You don’t need money on the journey. When you return, you can get it back.”
“What the fuck, buddy?” The man is backing up, ready to grab for his phone—a thin, silver Motorola. Ira wishes she had one like that.
“Heaven awaits you, friend. Soon will be the end.” He is so handsome, Eric. More handsome than any man Ira will date afterwards, even the surgeon. He is handsome and confident and he has a plan for everyone’s souls, a pit in the back yard for their bodies. He says, “You see the signs. A king and a conqueror riding forth on a white horse, a war, famine, death. No more than two years and the floods will begin. All the dead will push up from the Earth and take what belongs to them.”
“Look, man, I don’t want trouble.” The cashier is lowering his hand, his guard. He is reaching away from the Word. Ira closes her eyes.
“The sins of man span the millennia and must be paid by man in blood.” Eric takes another step closer, his pink thrift-store button-down hanging on him like drapery, body a thin coiled spring. “Do you think you’re free of sin?”
“I think you’re fucking crazy.” The cashier opens the gate that separates him from the aisles and takes a step forward. His jeans are faded, he’s wearing flipflops that peel away from the linoleum with a sticky slap. “Can you hear me in there, man?” He’s beginning to lower his hands, one reaching out. “You need help.”
Ira’s surgeon boyfriend will speak about the death of his elderly patients with a particular euphemism: Too good for this world. It will be unclear if he actually believes this. Ira will listen to these stories — about grandfathers who die on the operating table and widows who develop blood clots overnight post-op, and watch her surgeon boyfriend’s face — his unmoved expression. Her surgeon’s goodness will be conventionally infallible. He will be a man who runs charity marathons, volunteers on the weekends, only eats organic. Ira will cling to this holiness, even the illusion of it. To her surgeon boyfriend’s belief that the ultimate payment for goodness is death. Ira will always think of the man who was trying his best, who was doing what he thought was good when he tried to take Eric’s gun.
Initially, only the man is moving. He’s asking if Eric has ever been to NA, ever thought about going to school, doing something with his life. Eric is stunned, like he’s been hit square in the chest. He stares at the man, confounded, unblinking. For a second, Ira imagines that this man will take Eric’s place, that the new cult is the cult of this cashier whose bravery is unparalleled. And then she can see that the man’s arm is moving quickly, suddenly, that he’s going to try to pull the gun away but Eric sees it too and the first shot goes wide of the man as Eric tries to pull away but his hand is caught in the cashier’s hand and Misty is screaming like she’s the one facing life or death and Ira feels very far away from herself, watching the men struggle, watching the cashier twist Eric’s arm until his hand contorts to something like openness until Eric starts shouting and his body coils, a taught rubber band of muscle, long fingers and dirty fingernails around that pearl handle and those dark numbers until the second shot. And then the third.
There is silence after. Everyone waiting for the ringing in their ears to die. Eric says, “Ira, go get the cash. The register should be open.” But she is frozen in place, examining a pack of Oreos, waiting for the sound of sirens. It never comes. The red on the wall behind the cashier isn’t movie red. There’s no change in the humming lights, the exhale of the freezer section.
Misty is no longer screaming but yelling. “What the fuck, Eric? What the fuck was that? Eric, what the fuck?” Her questions blur into another background noise.
Eric doesn’t answer Misty. He looks at Ira. He smiles. “Go get the cash?”
Ira goes behind the counter, empties the register. The body in the aisle, between the candy and the protein bars, looks unreal. What does a body look like? she will ask her surgeon boyfriend when she lives with him in an apartment with a view of apartments that have a view of Central Park. He will say it’s about the level of response. If a person can’t respond, can’t be brought to the point where they could, it’s just a body. He will be the type of doctor who strongly advocates for pulling the comatose off of life support, harvesting their skin for grafts. She won’t argue. She will wonder about the skin of the cashier, dead for $86.41 and the sins of humanity, killers never caught despite “best efforts.” She tries not to look at him. It. A corpse is not a gendered object, her surgeon boyfriend will tell her. He will be complaining about DOAs. The man, the corpse, will be DOA. She imagines him reborn, a Chayot to seek her out, force her to pay for her complicity.
The night air on their faces when they leave the gas station is cool. It’s hard to believe the world will end in fire. Ira can’t imagine it ending at all. The Shirelles are playing on the radio. The stars are bright and close, the dry valley full of lights. Eric and Misty are singing, though Misty’s voice is hoarse, her body stiff. The world is full of peace. She will never be able to explain this.
Eric leaves first. It’s only right that he go before. In the bathroom of their house on a spring hot day, he begins to vomit. Foaming at the mouth, spit a fine froth on his lips like the outline of the tide on sand. “Relax, relax,” Misty is saying. Ira is afraid to tell her that it’s no good. She’s afraid to think it. If she can’t be positive, she’ll doom him.
But she watches him on the bathroom floor, screaming and holding his head, crying out in pain, and she knows the end. She feels it between her ribs. Nobody suggests a hospital. When she tells the story of the end to her surgeon boyfriend, he will tell her Eric probably had a stroke, that it was just a random act of God. But here, when he is suffering, nobody mentions divine intervention. Lisa and Lea stand by with orange juice, cool wet rags. Eric is sick into the night and when Misty is out looking for morphine, he rests his head on Ira’s lap and shakes. “I can’t see. Fuck. I think this is serious.” He sounds like and unlike himself. The son of a minister, a man, a cliché, with too many misdemeanors and not enough direction. Ira loves him for his force and his force is fading. She tries not to think about what this means for her love. Anyway, he dies.
The sprinklers down the street crack to life. There is motion in the morning hours of a Las Vegas Sunday. Misty returns with oxy in a sandwich bag. “Well, shit.” She sits in the empty tub and touches Ira’s hair. Neither of them say anything as the sun pulls itself over the mountains and pushes in through the window, iconizing the corpse that was Eric with a halo of gold around his dishwater blonde head. “I guess we bury him.”
“In the yard?”
Misty’s voice is calm. “It’s a grave, isn’t it?”
Eric’s body is cooling. Ira feels him under her fingertips, the chill he emits. Misty cradles him to her breasts, pulls his torso up to her, head lolling back onto the crook of her shoulder. Ira takes him by the calves, surprised by the weight. The back door slams behind them. The pit is at least seven feet deep by now. There’s no way to put him in gently. From the house, there is the sound of the others screaming, watching them through the window of the bedroom, inconsolable. Misty tries to put Eric in the dirt with some semblance of ceremony but the hole is too deep and first her hands slip, then the rest of her, and then she is cursing and lying in the grave with Eric. Ira stares down at them, dusty and shaded, next to each other. This perspective must be heaven. They look at peace, except for Misty’s cursing, dragging clay onto Eric’s face. Ira pushes a pile of dirt into the hole, and then turns, puts one foot in front of the other.
She walks away from the house and keeps walking. Trooping. The sun overhead is a Nevada sun, the highway a Southwestern highway. She waits for a country song to play, for the camera to pan out, for the credits to roll. An elderly trucker gives her a lift to Omaha, a woman with a VW Camper full of fairy garb for the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival picks her up and takes her as far as Pittsburgh. Then she gets a bus home to her family in Brooklyn, who are hesitant to remove their dark clothes, to accept her alive. Ira understands. “I was at the edge of a grave,” she says, when she is sitting in her childhood bedroom, looking at the US Army recruitment pamphlet that got her into the mess in the first place. “But I didn’t fall in.”
She will meet her surgeon boyfriend after she sprains her ankle on ice on the stairs of a New York City Housing Authority apartment. He will wrap her in a splint, ask her to coffee, buy her a camera when she says she wants to get back into art, support her when she says she wants to go back to school for it, never ask why she stims or shakes or stutters because he will know what a TBI looks like and she will be so immensely glad, so safe and so sure that yes, she wants to move in with him.
“Do you think the world will ever end?” she will ask him one New Year’s as they return back from swing-dancing. They will be pressed together on a 2 train they had to run to get, a transfer.
“Sure, but not soon.” So self-assured and well-educated. All the men in his family have been doctors for generations. “Not soon at all. I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.”
She will scan the faces in the train car, unable to imagine them unbloodied. Unable to stop visualizing their death. It will be righteous and cruel. “I guess not.” She will imagine her surgeon as a martyr, a savior. He will accept this because all Good Christian Boys want, on some level, to be Christ. “Not for years?”
“I always think about it during New Year’s.”
“Morbid.” He’ll kiss her forehead. She won’t feel it, the scar tissue a veneer of impenetrability. They will be pressed so close together that she will feel his heartbeat. She will listen to the thump of it, the clatter of the rails, and be glad he exists, but she will wake up at night screaming and when he asks what the matter is, what can he do, what happened, she won’t be able to answer him, because somewhere in herself, still, always, she is watching her city burn, and she is on the way to the Army Recruitment Center, and then folding under the weight of a drunk driver on the Eastern Parkway, and she is walking along the side of the highway with her thumb out and her face sunburnt and she is in love with a woman who is in love with a Prophet and the End of the World is coming.
Brendan Williams-Childs is a writer from Wyoming. His work has appeared on NPR, in Midwestern Gothic Literary Magazine, and in the Lambda-award-nominated "Meanwhile Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers."
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