When the sky burned red above their heads and the ground ruptured beneath their feet, everyone went on their way. To live life to the fullest – or whatever remained of it…
Marilou, also known as Mariah Louise King, née Deschain, rode on what used to be a road. Lately she found herself referring to things as used to be. That used to be a nice neighborhood. Or I used to shop there before the lootings, she sighed. The Smiths used to be a very loud bunch, she hurried while a father, mother, and four kids swinged in the suffocating afternoon wind. Someone shared the same opinion, the woman shrugged.
She would sometimes stop to read a crumpled letter; dry the beads on her forehead before moving on again. Marilou took notice of the days getting warmer as the end approached; although the nights remained as freezing cold as the one her husband left her. To live life to the fullest!, the woman barked at the deserted road.
She did not need the end of the world to know her husband was fooling around. A travelling salesman! She spat. More like a travelling salesonofabitch. So, when the sky burned red above her head, she packed “light”: two changes of clothes, a canteen of water, and one of liquor, two cans of beans, and one of peaches – what her husband could not carry anyway. And the revolver her father had given her before marrying the bastard. He was also a man, so he knew but the heart wants what the heart wants so he gave her a warning and a loaded gift. Marilou hid it deep in her satchel.
When the ground ruptured beneath her feet, and everyone went on their way, Marilou decided to find the last house she knew her good for nothing husband would be frolicking with the floozy. Then she would make good use of her father’s gift on both. After all was said and done, Mariah Louise Deschain would wait for the end of the world – or end it on her own terms.
The rider would seldom catch sight of convoys or other lonely riders. When she did, some would share a fire, booze, directions, and regrets – but never bodies. Only once she had to use her gun on a toothless grandpa that wanted to reminisce the touch of a woman. It was so fast. She closed his blank stare out of the respect he did not show her and took his loot.
Marilou barely slept these days; not alone nor with other folk around if she could not help it and it showed. She would close her eyes for a second, doze off and wake up aching on her also weary horse. Dreams of dead trees, with its dried shriveled branches like old people begging for mercy; hills heaving up and down as labored breathing and wind wheezing cries for help haunted her respite. Still, the rider persisted on her mission.
Days dragged on until the dancing ghosts of houses finally loomed on the horizon. Tears pushed down the dirt on her face while Marilou pulled the crumpled letter again. She then caressed the horse before spurring it onwards. The animal protested but still took her to the old town, not long now, she hoped.
No longer a town where folks lived and prospered, went to church or school, laughed, cried, made love, and slept. It was now a graveyard of buildings, gaping doors and gouged windows that stared at beast and human crossing sad abandoned streets. Marilou was armed, even shot that man on the road, but against phantoms? The best thing one could do to defend herself was to ride fast and true, keep her head down and pay no attention to the whispers.
A small relief came when the main street was well past behind them. Marilou then passed a church with a crooked oak tree bearing strange fruit; the foul smell almost made her retch, but she carried on towards the last lonely house that came now into her eyes.
The woman noticed a waist high mended fence, and another tree casting a nice shade over the entrance. There were cans and buckets spread out on the dirt, some were tipped over – hollow, and rusty. A broom rested against the brown wooden wall and a little girl peered at the approaching rider. It took a while to notice her, Marilou only saw her from the head up, but she was not imagining her. It was really a child, real as real can be. The only, and maybe last child, she had seen since the end of the world – and Marilou had to stop teaching.
The adult halted. The girl did not move. Marilou slowly got down of her horse digging for the revolver in the satchel. If there was child here, then by rights there should be an adult. With some luck: the two adults she was looking for. But Marilou did not get far because there was someone else there – another woman with a rifle following her since she came into view.
“Nice day today, ain’t it?” the stranger greeted Marilou cocking her rifle. The familiar sound of danger froze Marilou in her tracks; even with the revolver clutched to her fingers she wouldn’t be fast enough to greet her back.
“You Jolene?” she questioned peering into the dark void of the barrel.
“Mariah. Mariah Deschain.” Marilou introduced herself noticing the little girl already behind the other woman’s long skirt. Even with the rifle raised to her face, Marilou could not believe how beautiful this woman was, with her auburn hair and ivory skin that almost convinced her to drop her gun and surrender.
“Do not know any Deschains, miss. State your business here and move on” she paused. “Or else…”
“Beg your pardon. Perhaps you have heard of my husband Josiah King?” and with that, she revealed her face.
“Darn it” she cursed under hear breath. “Yeah. I’m Jolene, alright.”
“He here?” Marilou asked raising her gun in turn. “Josiah! Come out this instance!” She waited but nothing happened.
“He ain’t here” Jolene barked. “Haven’t set these two eyes on the bastard for months. And if I caught him standing where you are standing this rifle here would be licking smoke” and there was this pause; the way Jolene spoke and put words in front of words somehow reached Marilou. “Your husband owes me money!” Jolene spat onto the wooden deck.
“We got something in common now!” Marilou agreed with a faint smile. “If it were him there, the yellow-bellied bastard would be smiling through the back of his head.”
Jolene cackled, “You planned on shoot me too?”
“You plan on shoot me now?”
Marilou denied, and her revolver pointed at her feet.
“Then we can be friends! Misery loves company and all that. Baby girl” she called the little one, “run up inside. Mommy will be right behind.”
When the girl disappeared into the house, Jolene rested her rifle against a trunk on the porch and sighed with an immense relief. She hurried down the porch to meet the other woman.
“Gosh, I love her so much, but a woman has needs! And this woman needs to talk to a decent grownup. You’re decent, right?” she hesitated before surrounding her with heavy arms. Marilou just took her in, gun still forgotten in her hand.
“Don’t know any more. Used to be a teacher before all this. Now…” she managed to breathe.
“You’re a man on a mission” Jolene stopped herself. “Pardon, a woman on a mission. Well, come on now, have a seat! I reckon we have a lot to discuss” Jolene invited with a voice that was now like autumn rain. Marilou did not put up a fight and followed under the shade. Jolene sat on the steps and made space for the other grownup dusting herself off before joining down.
“You came from the church?” Jolene asked now concentrated on rolling a small cigarette. Marilou grimaced remembering the foul stench of the hanged bodies that Jolene took as a yes.
“Wasn’t me. Been bothering some but it ain’t my business. It does turn folks away. But not you apparently” she offered Marilou the first rolled cigarette and resumed rolling another.
“The girl” she started after lighting hers. “Who’s the father?”
“My Clara? Her father Lenny died” Jolene dragged and blew the smoke away along with the memories. “Definitely not King’s. No offense…”
“None taken” Marilou lowered her voice. “I’m sorry.”
“Wasn’t your fault, dear. So how did you find me?”
Marilou pushed the cigarette to the corner of her dry lips and dug the satchel for the crumbled letter against the revolver.
“This” and handed it to Jolene.
“Oh!” she laughed with surprise, puffs of smoke coming out of her nostrils. “I had Father Swanson helping me with the handwriting and such. It was a mean letter we wrote, and not very clever since it led you here” she sighed. “Like I said, King owned me money and when I tracked him down… it opened a can of worms!”
“I’m sorry” she mumbled.
“Not your fault, honey. Looking at this very weird bright side, it led you to us.”
The women sat in silent, taking turns blowing out smoke while Clara ran to and fro inside the house and banged doors, the wood flooring creaking with life and childish routine. Against her will, she imagined what kind of double life her husband led here. What kind of lies he told them…
“Oh, Mariah. I swear I didn’t know he was married” Jolene interrupted her thoughts as if she was reading them. “Would’ve kicked his sorry ass to the dirt! Please forgive me!”
“It wasn’t your fault” she smiled faintly. “And please call me Marilou.”
“Marilou” Jolene bumped amiably into her. “Marilou, you’re staying with us.”
“You sure?” she stuttered caught by surprise.
“Absolutely!” the host slapped her own knees and jumped. “Bring your esteemed companion too!” Jolene mocked noticing the patient horse outside the fence. “Poor thing – but I believe we can salvage the meat” she grinned.
Later that night, after a hearty meal drowned with hot coffee and whiskey, the two women rolled cigarettes to smoke in a comfortable silence. Clara played alone and paid no mind to the guest; Jolene continued as if nothing had changed but Marilou was drowning in remorse. She had come here to kill her and now was having supper at her table with her daughter. She found both mother and daughter gorgeous, with a beauty beyond compare, flaming locks of auburn hair with ivory skin and eyes of emerald green. And when Jolene found her staring, she would smile, and it was like a breath of spring and her his and do you need anythings with a voice soft like summer rain disarmed Marilou into dozing off.
Jolene then took her to a room and parted ways to her own. Marilou now sat on a soft bed with clean linen. Her bones and joints cried and sang with joy after long days and long nights on the road. But she still would not allow herself to rest, to close her eyes and let her guard down. Not while her horse paced and sighed outside; not while the scent of tobacco crept under her door; not while the little girl giggled with her dollies. Marilou still found herself holding the revolver between her hands like a prayer for a good night sleep but falling asleep meant dreams of her husband whispering Jolene’s name, and there was nothing she could do to compete with her. She would just cry.
She had not found him in that house but the mere notion of his presence there in times past made her sick, and with a well of indescribable sadness and shame.
“You’re a woman on a mission” she remembered Jolene saying. She even failed that – her sole purpose at the end of the world where she would have her husband and lover shot. But after setting eyes on Jolene, taking her from this dying world would be a heinous crime. Marilou felt herself a monster underserving of hospitality; a mean spirit who did not deserve normalcy, warm dinners, rolled cigarettes, cool linen and the sound of children laughing, and there was only one path to redemption: ending her existence in this world on her own terms with a revolver that seemed heavier than she remembered when her father had it. The metallic clink failed to perturb life outside the room, her arms creaked upwards as if to pray for the last time, the cold barrel grazed the woman’s teeth. She was ready to take out at least one last villain in her life…
But a warm hand steadied her in the dark. Then, the slow movement of someone kneeling in front of her and the warm breath on her puffed face. Marilou was immediately surrounded by Jolene’s arms and surrendered herself to her. She was now sobbing on her chest until she ran out of tears, but Jolene didn’t push her away and let her rest there to the beating of her heart, with the scent of whiskey mixed with tobacco coming in waves.
Then Jolene broke the silence, “Turns out, we do have some bacon left. We’ll have a feast come tomorrow!”
Marilou laughed and put her arms around her, pulling Jolene in.
“I am so sorry honey…”
“I know” Marilou started with her face burrowed in the other woman’s shoulder. “But I have to say this: I came here to beg you to not take my man. I know he was rotten and all, but I don’t know If I could ever love again.”
“Now” Jolene pulled herself away to hold Marilou’s face. “Don’t you ever beg for no man. You hear me? We already made fools of ourselves. No more. Okay?”
“Jesus. We have – maybe a few days left. We got to live those for ourselves! Eat bacon, drink, and smoke. Piss it all way and repeat. That is all we must do, Marilou. And you are doing this with me. Alright?”
“Sure, alright” Marilou sniffed.
“Good, then we will see your beautiful face tomorrow at the table! Try to sleep now, darling. Please” and she took her gun away for the night, helping her lay down still fully dressed. That gentle caring voice was gone and back to its room leaving a teary tired Mariah curled in a ball so tiny she could disappear in the thin darkness. She finally fell asleep in the quiet of the hours.
When the sky burned red above their heads and the ground cracked beneath their feet, living just another day would be enough – and if the world were to end tomorrow, welcoming it with a such fine company, and with bacon, would be a blessing.
Mariah Deschain had a pleasant dream that night, and some more until the end of her days.