When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold and the ditch he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Not in a weird way. The nights dark beyond all reckoning of darkness, days endless gray. He rose from the reeking sleeprags and looked towards the east for a hint of light. Long ago snuffed by lowhanging dust, crusted and festering whoremouth. In the dream from which he’d wakened he and the child had wandered in a cave, scrounging for rotted batmeat. Shadows playing the walls like clownpuppets, the whitegloved fingers gnarled and ginshaken. Encircled by the dim, an abattoir lullaby. They came to a great stone room within which lay a longdead lake, its water stagnant and foul. And on the far shore a eunuch mime, naked save for a filthy gray cravat. Dead eyes milky and hollow. With a thin straw to its dirtscarred lips, it knelt, sipping from the brack. It heard their steps, craning its mimeneck to see what it could not. Skin translucent, ribs charbling and swortled, the heart beating tiredly. Facepaint smeared. It waved sadly in their direction, for it could not speak. Then it scuttled into the inky blackness. The man shook his head in the freezing predawn. No more peaches before bed.
With the first gray light he rose and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Godless and blasted. A madman’s timeshare. The trees dead, the grass dead, the shrubs dead also. The rivers dead. And the streams and reeds, the mosses and voles. Dead as well. He glassed the ruins, hoping for a shred of color, a wisp of smoke, a faroff Cracker Barrel. There was nothing but swirling gloom, a grasping murk. He sat with the binoculars and the gray, and thought: the child is my warrant. If he is not the word of God God never spoke, although he might have scribbled something on a paperscrap and passed it along. He bit hard on his blistered upperlip. If only I had thought to give him a name. If only.
An hour later they were on The Road, an Oprah’s Book Club selection. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks in case they had to make a run for it. Cannibal rapists, roving bloodcults. Greenpeace volunteers. In the knapsacks were essential things: tins of food, metal utensils, a broken Slinky, a canopener, three bullets, a picture of ham. He looked out over the barren waste, the scorpled remain. The road was empty, as was its wont. Quiet, moveless. Are you okay? he said, quotation marks dead as the reeds. The boy nodded. Then they started down the road, humming a sprightly tune. The tune was silent, and unsprightly.
In time they had arrived at a roadside filling station. It was still and precise, a blaggard’s assbath. Ashcovered and freighted with doubt. They stood in the road and studied it. The windows were unbroken, the pumps intact. I think we should check it out, the man said. There might be snacks. Cheez-Its, maybe. The boy looked on as he entered an open door. The man, not the boy. Nothing in the service bay save for a standing metal toolbox, a trash-filled wastecan. Waterlogged tittymagazines. In the small office, ash and dust, soot and flumb. A cashregister, a telephonebook, a metal desk. He crossed to the desk, standing over the phone. He picked it up and punched at the numbers. Three three three, three three three, three three five three three. The boy stood at the door. What are you doing? he said. The man hung up the phone. Jingle Bells, the man said.
In the service bay he tipped over the trashdrum and sorted through the plastic oilbottles. Then they sat in the floor decanting them of their dregs, standing the bottles upside down to drain into a pan. This reminds me of ketchup, the man said as he watched the slowdraining oil. The boy brightened. Can you tell me about ketchup, Papa? the boy said. Please tell me. The man stared, remembering another world entire, a world of jellies and mustards, of condiments boundless. Perhaps later, he said. I’ll tell you about ketchup later. The boy watched the slowing oildrip, chin in his hand. Okay.
On the far side of the valley the road passed through a fearsome charswath. Blackened and limbless trees, ashblown and dead. On a distant rise, the heatscorched ruins of a farmhouse. Tilted roadside lightpoles. Faded billboards advertising motels, the use of irony. An abandoned Vespa. Are you having fun? he said. The boy hesitated, shook his head. Are you sure? Yes, the boy said. I’m sure. The man looked out over the blasted land, the pebblestrewn waste. Impressions? the man said. The boy kicked at a small black rock. No, said the boy. The man’s heart ached. The boy used to love his impressions.
That night they lay beneath their filthy plastic tarp as rain fell from a godless heaven. After stowing the cart in a jagged roadside scarp, they had found a spot a good distance from the road. A thick copse of deadburnt spruce. The dirt underhead was hard, and with the wind and the cold and the running viscous ash it was difficult to sleep. Can I ask you a question? the boy said after a time, his teeth chattering.
Yes. Of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
Okay. Tomorrow maybe?
No. Not tomorrow. Not for a long, long time.
Oh. Why not?
Because we’re going to be okay.
The boy considered this. Okay, he said.
There was silence for a time. Then the boy spoke again. But could we maybe die the day after?
No. I will protect you. No matter what.
Okay. The boy paused. But what if we did? Or maybe just me? Could I maybe die?
The man laughed into the tarpgrit as thunder pealed across the wet, bleakened valley. And leave all this? he said.