When the worst of the bleeding stopped, Zelda hitchhiked back to the Bronx to say that she was sorry.
New York wasn’t safe for her even then. She crept in sideways, kept her head down, and did not think about possibilities, about spin or rot or all the other ways the skyline might have looked. Those thoughts were dangerous here. But she had to tell Sal’s mother she was gone.
Years ago, when Zelda and Sal and the others left to begin their time on the road, she had dreamed that one day she might come back to this city triumphant, to stride down her long boulevards as confetti rained from rooftops and bands played marches. They were young and proud, and they knew that if they tried, they could fix what was broken in the world. It was a stretching early summer then, the glass-walled streets casting the blue of the sky back up so they’d felt as if they were marching off to storm the gates of heaven. They were saviors. They were adventurers. They believed.
Zelda made her way back alone. The 138th Street subway station was a grungy straight tunnel tagged with graffiti in hard-to-reach places, a tired, worn station best used for homecoming, just as it had been when Sal first brought Zelda here to meet her mother, all smiles at her gawping, cornpone girlfriend. Zelda had never left South Carolina before she came north for college. She was used to backcountry roads and towns with two stoplights. More people crouched on New York’s few square miles than lived in her whole half of the state, all those lives weaving around and through one another.
She climbed the dirty stairs to a street that had not changed much since she had been what she’d then thought was young. Her mistakes climbed with her. Down on the platform, a girl cried, “Hey, wait!” Zelda almost did. She almost turned, and a nightmare voice suggested that if she had, she would have seen Sal.
She climbed instead, into the wet-dog heat of an August afternoon.
When she knocked on Ma Tempest’s door, she heard the old woman wailing upstairs. So, she knew. A premonition, a dream, or just word traveling fast. Ramón might have called her, or Sarah, or even Ish. Zelda knocked, and kept knocking, and no one came. She bruised her knuckles, broke the scabs on her fists, and left bloody prints on the olive-painted door. Her heart was a hairy, howling thing too large for the cage of her ribs. She had lost Sal. She had lost Ma’s girl, her favorite and firstborn.
She had gone off onto the road with her lover and their friends and ruined everything. She wanted to kneel at Ma Tempest’s feet, bow her head to those thick sandals, and let herself be beaten until blood flowed from her back and the white bones lay bare. The bloodletting might relieve the pressure in her chest and quiet the voice inside, repeating: It’s your fault.
It was her fault they’d left in the first place, and so was everything that came after, and the fact that Sal was gone. After all that, to need punishment or absolution from Sal’s mother, now, was a crime greater than any she’d committed in those road-bound years. Except, perhaps, for stepping out on the road in the first place.
But she had nowhere else to go.
So she stood there, a tired woman in her midtwenties, sobbing bloody-knuckled, slumped against a door on a sidewalk in the Bronx. The most natural fucking thing in the world. Dog walkers took no notice. Trucks rolled by on the Cross Bronx Expressway. A cop car blared its siren at her once and she jumped, turned, glared. They drove off snickering. A bodega cat sauntered out and sat across the street to watch.
She kept knocking. This had brought her across ten states, straining to outrun the shadows on her heels. After Montana, there had been nothing left for her in the world except for this olive door. If she could look Ma Tempest in the eye and say that she was sorry, that it was all her fault, if she could take the blow across her cheek, then she could go and find a cozy little hole to die in. Or she could leave—walk out into the Hudson and never, ever come back. There were pills she could take, needles she could slide into veins, and if all else failed, there was good old legal booze. She could rot her liver and die jaundiced, miserable, screaming. That would be worth it. That would be right.
One conversation, and then she could go away forever.
So she knocked, and sobbed, and felt the steel in her spine bend.
The door took her weight.
It opened. She stumbled, caught herself.
A girl waited inside. Skin Sal’s own deep brown, hair in puffballs. Cheekbones that with another ten years’ growth could mirror Sal’s, and big, dark eyes blinking behind glasses mended with masking tape, lenses thick enough for Zelda to see herself in the reflection. Not a sister but close to it—a cousin Ma had the raising of. June. Zelda had met her when she first came to visit during college. She was barely walking then.
June stood straight, silent, with the uncanny stillness of a child watching an adult (which Zelda had never, before this moment, felt herself to be) lose her shit.
Zelda trembled to see her, this girl who might have been her Sal long before it all went wrong.
Just say it, she told herself, just say, She’s gone, or I’m sorry, or anything with an ounce of blood in it.
But before Zelda found her voice, June said: “She doesn’t want to see you.” Precise and clipped. Zelda reached for her—just to touch her arm or the black hand-me-down Wu-Tang T-shirt—and the door closed in her face and left her out there on the sidewalk alone, with tears stinging her eyes and snot running down her nose and blood on her knuckles where the scabs had opened, and the sky uncaring and perfect blue, solid as a dome overhead.
She forced herself away from the closed olive door, away from Ma Tempest, as untouchable as the past.
Since she had not apologized, she could not now disappear to die.
So she took her first step away.
* * *
Every year she came back.
Every year she’d failed a little more. Every year she’d gained a scar or two. Road dirt worked into her skin. Every year the country grew a little darker.
She’d been told, back in college, that she and her friends were going to save the world. She’d been told they would seize its reins and turn it toward truth and light. No one said it in quite those words, no one would be so gauche, but the intent was there. You, they said, are special. You will help the planet, you will guide the nation.
They’d been out in the world a decade now or nearly, those bright young things—the fuckups like Zelda and the ones who got it right, the polished and prepared debate-team children, the masters of the college political union. They’d been out there in the world for ten years, and somehow there was less truth each year than the last, and the light was dying.
Even in the years of hope, she’d seen it. In the great cities of the coasts, there was a sidelong wariness, glancing out of the corner of the eye at something not quite there, a high-pitched laugh of desperation, almost a scream.
And in the heart—on the long open roads—the tension grew. Small-town cops dressed in black now and sported rifles like the ones they might have used before they got kicked out of the army, in one of the smaller stupid fucking wars. She got their sidelong glances—head to foot and back up, lingering along the way—a woman traveling alone, ratty and ragged. Their fingers twitched when they looked at her. The small-town diners and truck stops got hard, and they’d been no easy places before, America always quicker to call itself friendly than to make friends. The smiles, when she found them, seemed shallow and fragile. She felt hated there, in the dark that seeped through the fault lines in those lips.
Heat lightning flashed, silent in the gathering air.
The world moved on. Or had it always been this bad, and she just never noticed before? Facebookless, lacking mobile phone, and with no internet but the public library, she was left to feel out the moment on her own. Those false smiles soured and became the baring of teeth. Cop cars on grim city streets slowed when they passed her—the eyes behind the windows covered in dark glasses, reflective like the nighttime eyes of monsters.
Every year she came back and knocked on Ma Tempest’s door until her knuckles bled. The door never opened. The Bronx changed with the years: coffee shops opened and the young rich, or at least the young not-quite-poor, filtered in. But the important details did not change at all: the blood, the olive door, her memory of June’s dark eyes.
* * *
The tenth year after she’d lost Sal, Zelda was living in the back seat of a hard-used Subaru in a small town in Middle Tennessee, waiting for the end of the world.
It might happen any day. She worked as a checkout clerk at the local Walmart and slept in the parking lot with the other losers and retired mobile home people, and every day she felt the rot gather, the wet foul heat of it, the summer heavy as a guillotine in this time of change. She had followed the rot here across three states, guided by the hackles on the back of her neck, by yarrow stalks and the faces of upturned tarot cards. This was the place. There was a mystery here, and she would solve it, or she would die—which would solve one mystery at least.
A boy—eighteen, nineteen, in a black T-shirt, with a homemade tattoo of Thor’s hammer on his wrist, always staring at his phone—wandered up and down the fishing aisle. She’d pass him sometimes as she restocked. While she was around, he never, ever looked at the guns one aisle over.
Sometimes he’d glance at her, though. Never quite brave enough to match her eyes.
It might be him.
Or: Mona, her sometimes partner in the checkout line, her eyes deep-set and red, her shoulders down, her face bruised sometimes, or her wrist. She offered Zelda weed, and they smoked out on someone’s back forty under the stars, and Zelda coughed because it had been a while since she last smoked and when she remembered just how long and whom she’d been with, she began to weep and passed it off as more coughing. Mona wasn’t from around here either, she said, by which she meant she was from East Tennessee, Smoky Mountain country, not used to flatlands or the local flavor of dirty strip mall. When she worked her lighter, the spark caught reflections of something jagged in the depths of her eyes.
Mona’s husband drank and stayed up late into the night, typing on the internet and watching videos about how she was the root of his problems. He’d been a good man, she said, when they met, and he still was, just confused. Zelda said she didn’t care what was in people’s hearts. You only had to watch their hands.
Mona said that she had a secret place, a clearing in the woods out back of their small house, where she’d go when it got too much. She’d pretend that no one could find her there, and she’d lean against the rough bark of one tree and talk into a cleft, tell the dark space her fears, and sometimes, she said, she thought it whispered back.
It might be her.
You had to be lost to let the darkness in. You had to lie awake turning and churning around a coal in your stomach, body aching and mind alert to the whispers behind the door. You had to need something you couldn’t imagine, need it more than life or sanity, you had to pray not to some airy aftermath god of smoke and cloud and resurrection but to a grotesque wriggling belly-deep god of Now. No one comfortable could muster that razor need. But you never knew who was hungry. Or sick. Or curled around a fishhook of what he thought, or the TV said, the world denied him, or gave to someone less deserving. Everyone else was less deserving.
So where would the end begin? Where would the rot break through, and who would call it?
She never knew. She envied movie detectives the clarity of their cases. In real life, you never know what your problem is, unless someone loves you enough to tell you. Philip Marlowe just had to drink and wait and not even hope—sooner or later, a beautiful blonde with legs long and bright and curved as the swell of swift water over rocks would stride through his door, of all the doors in the world, with a mission. Zelda would never be half so lucky, with the mission or the blonde. And she was running out of time.
Every morning she crossed off another day on the calendar hanging in the Subaru, one day closer to Sal’s birthday, one day closer to her date with that olive door. One week left, and the drive would eat most of that if she wanted to do it safely.
She could give up. She didn’t have to sneak a third of the way across America and through the black hole orbit of Manhattan to stand on Sal’s mother’s doorstep and knock and fail for another year. This was her life now, had been for the better part of a decade: wandering alone, haunting back lots, shoring up the sandcastles of the country as they crumbled. Give up what was gone. Take the L.
She considered it, drunk, for the better part of an hour. Then she went hunting.
It was harder to do things this way than to wait for the rot to manifest. First she had to build spin. She circled the small town in her Subaru, to the extent there was a town to circle. There was a town square, at least, a city hall in red brick and a movie theater built in 1950, where she’d spent some of her spare cash to watch a forgettable action picture starring a guy named Chris. The other buildings on the square were shuttered and empty, except for the attorney’s office, and there the curtains were drawn. Vacant storefronts sported peeling decals: COLE’S HARDWARE, a liquor store, a pharmacy with a punning name, all gone now.
The buildings in the town square had been built to last three hundred years. They would stand while the stick-and-board houses she drove past rotted to dust. But they would stand three centuries empty. Why build anything to last when the whole country lived on borrowed time?
She drove circles around the city hall, drinking the strangeness of the shuttered place. The sun glanced off windows as haunted as Mona’s eyes. Turn and turn and watch it, feel it—suck the spin of the wheel and the suchness of the passing world down into the pit in your heart, where it gathers like cotton candy around a carny’s wand. She listened to the wheels of the Subaru on the seams of the road. And when the spin churned inside her, she popped the glove compartment without taking her eyes off the road, withdrew a handful of yarrow stalks, and tossed them onto the empty passenger’s seat.
The yarrow stalks told her that she’d almost missed the turn.
She heeled the car hard right, felt it tip, and slid through a narrow gap in the wide-open gulf of the two-lane road, onto the right track. Hunting.
Copyright © 2022 by Max Gladstone