Last Days – Joan Ray

When they took away Peter’s father he was raving. The end of the world was coming, it was coming soon, and we were all going to die. They knew, but they didn’t want the truth to get out. That’s why he was being silenced, and so on. In response to Mrs Hunter’s emergency call the operator had sent two burly paramedics, but they had not been enough and it had taken an additional four policemen to restrain him.

My mother delivered the news erratically, waving one arm as though she too was caught up in apocalyptic fervour. Then, on her way to the couch, she sank down to the hall rug and lay there, her face all concertinaed on one side, as though it had been the weight of Peter’s father’s revelation, and not a quart of vodka, that had been too much for her. June 23rd, she said and passed out.

I gave my brother Jimmy his bath and read to him for a while. He liked stories about families, stories in which there was a father and a mother, a couple of kids and maybe a dog. The father would work, and sometimes the mother too. At their most dramatic the plots would involve a kitten stuck in a tree, or a family trip to the beach. That was fantastical enough for him.

This one was about the Greens and I read it to him automatically, trying to imagine Mr Hunter going hand-to-hand withNewport’s finest while frothing at the mouth and threatening the End of Days.

Before we started going to the lake we’d go up to their place sometimes. It was a large white house with its own drive. Mr Hunter was a scientist and worked for an institute in the next town. Mrs Hunter stayed home, even though her two older children had gone off to college leaving only Peter to look after.

Reading Jimmy’s story, I realised that I had always thought of them as being somewhat like the Greens. Their house was quiet, hushed even, the lawn mown. Mr and Mrs Hunter were always very polite to me, Peter’s father calling me ‘young lady’ even after I had cut off my hair and taken to wearing baggy jeans and men’s shirts. Now he had gone mad. It made me wonder, mostly about Peter.

When we were finished I turned out Jimmy’s lamp, kissed him and went back down. She was still on the hall rug. As I rolled her onto her side, she opened her eyes blinking sleepily and then lashed out with a fist, the punch connecting with my jaw. In the kitchen, I put some frozen peas on it and stared out the window into the night. It had been a while since she had caught me.

I stood there for a while, finally becoming aware of my reflection on the dark glass. In the half-light it looked like there was a stranger in the yard, pale and malevolent, and after a few moments I turned away, in case looking invite her in.

The following day we went out to the lake. It was April and not yet warm but that didn’t stop us. We went there in winter too, only then we’d stay sat in the cars while they filled up with steam and smoke. Occasionally someone would open a window to talk, or get out and duck between them, staying low to keep out of the wind that shook the trees far away on the other shore and then came racing towards us, raising black ripples on the grey waters.

It was at its most desolate then, but even at the height of summer something of that desolation remained. It was the kind of place where you ended up listening to the sound of your own voice, as though through someone else’s ears.

Now we stood upon the gravel beach and threw stones. The trees seemed massed more closely than ever at the lake’s fringes and the wind breathed amongst them.

I liked the gulping sound the stones made as lake swallowed them up. They were too round to skim. You could only heave them out as hard and as high as possible and then watch them fall.

‘Is your dad going to be okay?’

Peter shrugged.

‘Was it all of a sudden? Or was he acting crazy, you know, for a while?’

Peter looked over at Davey.

‘Who said he was crazy?’

‘I just mean, all that stuff about the world ending.’

‘June 23rd.’

‘Yes. I mean-’ Davey’s voice faltered.

‘Who’s to say it won’t end? I mean, it’s going to happen one day. If the world had a beginning, it’s going to have an end.’

Peter stopped inspecting the stone in his hand and, as though it had failed a test, launched it. It went a long, long way. No one spoke. We understood this brand of loyalty. At the splash, Peter turned round and we followed him back to the cars.

After that nobody mentioned Peter’s father again, but for a time we began to talk about June 23rd as if it was going to be our last day on earth.

There was a lot of talk about stealing things, smashing things, racing cars off bridges and spectacularly imaginative acts of revenge. Woe betide the Principal, the police, and many other of the petty persecutors of our small world come June 23rd, since sunset would find them all hanging upside down from the big sign on the way into town, naked, with apples in their mouths.

Back at the lake, Mike outlined a plan to rob every jewellery store in a hundred mile radius until he had a bucket of diamonds, no, a wheelbarrow full of them, which he would cast in a vast, glittering horde at Claire Simmond’s feet in the hope that she would consent, for a moment at least, to hold his naked penis in her naked hand.

‘Soft or hard, Mike?’

‘Hard, of course.’

‘But she’s not…’

‘No,’ he said after chewing it over. ‘It’d kind of be like holding hands.’

‘Except it’s your cock.’

‘That’s right,’ he said, nodding gently.

‘What about you, Jules?

‘She’d push her old lady off a cliff, right?’

‘Wouldn’t be the half of it,’ I said, thinking of sacks and rivers, enforced marches off of high cliffs and then the freedom that would come afterwards. Short lived perhaps, but also the first I’d ever known. Freedom from the punches, but also freedom from the shame of her, the drinking and the coarseness; the freedom born of knowing Jimmy would be safe, safe from the things she was capable of doing, but also of letting happen.

When I looked up Peter’s gaze slid away. He had not contributed anything to the conversation but I had felt him listening, felt the serious quality of his attention as though the matter was of importance, and from out of nowhere I felt a jolting, electric thrill that drove me to my feet and took me as far as the shore where the lake lay thinly suspended, crystalline above its gravel bed.

We drove back in darkness. Between the streetlamps were fields of shadow; from the front seat I watched them passing over Peter’s hands as they held the wheel. He took me home last, killing the engine when we were still out of earshot. All the lights were on in the house. The will to go up there was missing and without it my body felt like it was made of stone.

‘What would you do?’ I asked.

‘I’m not sure. I’m thinking about it. I guess I’ll know nearer the time.’

We sat there a little longer.

‘Are you ready?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, but my voice was dry. He got out and came round to open the door for me. The gesture took me by surprise, as did my reaction because without planning to I leant in and kissed his cheek. My mouth glanced against his skin and in the same instant I felt his shock and it struck me like a smart backhander.

We moved away from each other, both melting backwards until he was back at the driver’s door and I was standing on the other side of the road. We said goodbye and I watched him swing the car around, catching me for a moment in the beam of its headlamps. Then he was gone and I had no choice but to turn and make my way up to the house.

Talk about the end of the world and our plans for it soon faded. Peter wasn’t around much for one thing. We assumed he was studying in order to pass the exams he needed to go to college in the fall.

Privately, the night that I had kissed him was giving me trouble. I dressed like a boy, spoke and acted like one. People called me a dyke and I let them. But it ate at me, his reaction. I felt his shock hit me over and over again, remembered the quick step back he had taken, and so I did not go looking for him.

Nor were things good at home. I could not say there had ever been an improvement in her, that the rickety lift that was lowering her – and us with her – down the dark mineshaft ever showed signs of reversing, but there were pauses in her descent, times of quiet. Now we were plummeting.

Rage became her predominant characteristic, nor did it seem to be her own, with which I was familiar. This rage was harder, deadlier. First I lost my exams to it, and then a tooth. I spat it out, took up the cast iron pan, raised it and heaved. The handle was greasy so I ended up hitting her on the shoulder. She dropped anyway but it wasn’t enough.

I got down on my knees to hit her. When I was small I thought she was beautiful, but now I hit my mother’s face and shoulders and arms. First off I hit her for my tooth, but it soon became about all the other things.

I only stopped when Jimmy came in. He was wearing his spiderman pyjamas. For a second he looked at me the same way he looked at her. Then he bent down to pick up my tooth.

‘Can I put it under my pillow?’

‘Course you can.’

We sat in front of the TV together. After a while I heard her go out. Later on the phone rang. Jim was asleep, dreaming of God only knew what. I picked it up gingerly from its cradle. It was Peter.

‘How are things?’

‘Not entirely good.’ I listened to him breathing and after a while I felt something lift.

‘It’s next week,’ he said.

‘What is?’

‘June 23rd. It’s next week, on Thursday.’

‘So you’re calling me to say goodbye, huh?’ It was hard to keep my voice even.

‘Is it goodbye?’ He waited for me to answer.

‘I don’t know,’ I said.

‘It’s your end of the world, Jules.’

When he was gone I sat on the couch waiting for her to come home. I always made sure I was in my room with the door shut by the time her key turned in the lock, but something kept me up, in case trouble followed her home as it had in the past, or simply because I could not summon the great act of will becoming indifferent to her required.

I fell asleep and dreamed of Peter, not as he was now but years back when he was skinny and shorter than me and had fluffy blond hair on his upper lip that sat there like the fronds of a fern. He was riding his red bike and I was running behind him and I was crying. I woke with a wet face to hear the front door slam shut, after which she didn’t come home for three days. I went to bed, slipping Jimmy’s tooth fairy money under his pillow on the way. He opened one eye.

‘You look funny,’ he said.

In my bed that night and over those that followed I thought about the phone call. It had felt like an invitation and I wondered what that meant. Then I took to thinking about the end of the world.

I imagined all the days to come: the fall and then the winter, a future in which Jimmy grew up and went to high school and I took a job somewhere, maybe got us a place, and then I tried to imagine, instead, nothing but darkness, a darkness without edges or end. Once or twice, I felt it approach but I could never quite grasp it and eventually I gave up trying, imagining instead one last day and how I would want it to be.

It began with a dawn, pale pink. The sun was still beneath the horizon, its rays turning the bellies of the clouds a luminescent rose-gold. I watched them for a while, listening to Jimmy breathing through the wall and then I got up, took the money from her hiding place and went to the store.

I was making her breakfast with Jimmy watching me. His plate was empty but for a pool of bacon grease and maple syrup. He ran a finger round its rim and sucked on it.

‘Why are you doing that?’

I had laid out cereal and juice, bread for toast, peanut butter, a boiled egg and a couple of aspirin. I folded her a napkin and set out a glass and a knife and a fork. Then I tuned the radio to the station she liked and left it playing quietly.

‘I want today to be a good day and that means not being angry with her.’

‘But you’re always angry with her.’

I ruffled his hair.

‘Go get your swim stuff.’

‘I’m not going to school?’ He looked at me, his face smeared with grease, wearing a hopeful doggy kind of expression.

‘Not unless you want to.’

‘But you always make me go to school.’

Before we went out I stood outside her door for a while, but I didn’t go in. Instead, I fetched a flower from the yard, a tall red poppy, and left it by her plate.

On our way to the pool Jimmy contorted himself trying not to step on any of the cracks in the sidewalk.

‘If today’s perfect, I can’t step on any of them,’ he said breathlessly.

‘Or maybe you can step on as many as you want. Maybe today it doesn’t matter.’

At the pool it was quiet. I lay sunbathing on the grass watching Jimmy run along the side. His belly stuck out below the narrowness of his chest. His skin was white, the two nipples like bee stings.

He had been born a year after my stepfather Denis left. I was thirteen and already I had my eye on the door. Sometimes I’d wondered if that wasn’t why she’d had him, that she’d caught the light of freedom blossoming in my eyes, found it unbearable, and put a stop to it the only way she knew how. But I loved him, he had made up for everything and I would never leave him while he needed me.

Later, he made me stand at the bottom of the waterslide to catch him as he came shooting out. He must have done it thirty times and always there was the same look on his face – eyes wide, nose wrinkled against the water, his expression a rictus of terror and delight. For lunch we had burgers and shakes at Lucy’s and then I took him over to Nate’s house and asked Mrs Siegler if he could stay the night. She said that was just fine as I had known she would, and I left him ecstatically at war, clutching a water pistol, half-hidden by one of the Sieglers’ firs.

In the restrooms at the bus-station I put on the dress I had bought – it was nothing fancy, just a yellow, cotton dress with spaghetti straps – and then I took the bus out of town. The driver let me off just before highway and I walked back down the road to the turning for the lake. When I got to the place where we usually parked the cars, I took the towel from my bag and sat down on the beach to look at the water. Then I searched out a whole heap of stones until I had a pile beside me.

I looked one over: it was blue-black with grey whorls. Little specks on gravel clung damply to it. Occasionally a breath of wind arrived from across the lake, warm on my bare skin, as though the forest was sighing.

Standing up, I threw the first stone and tried to let go. I threw all the stones I had collected and with each one I tried to let go of something, to let it leave my hands with the stone and disappear forever into the water.

At first I thought of things that had happened with my mother, and what had happened with Denis, but then when the pile was gone – as I ran about fetching more and hurling then just as soon as my fingers had seized about them – I thought only of the weight that I could load onto each of them; weight from my back and shoulders, from about my throat and heart.

I was done by the time Peter arrived. I heard his car but did not turn to greet it in case I was mistaken, in case it wasn’t him. My eyes closed. I heard the engine stop and the door slam and then footsteps coming over the gravel towards me. When I opened my eyes again he was standing a few feet away looking at me. He had jeans on and an old blue t-shirt. He was so tall and when he smiled his teeth were very white.

‘You look different,’ I said. And it was true, as though I had been expecting him to turn up ten years old and on his red bicycle.

‘You too.’

‘The dress?’

‘Maybe. And the tooth.’ For a moment he looked troubled and I touched his arm. I did not want him to be troubled.

‘What have you been doing?’

‘Saying goodbye mostly,’ he said.

‘Because it’s the end of the world?’

‘Because it’s the end of the world,’ he repeated, his voice light. ‘Hey, I brought us some stuff.’

We sat on a blanket and drank a couple of beers. He’d brought snacks too, but I had no appetite.

‘How did you know I’d be here?’

Peter looked down at his hands and then out over the water.

‘I knew you liked it. I know lots of things about you, Jules. Things you’ve told me, things you haven’t.’

We sat there watching the clouds getting blown across the sky and the light draining away. It looked like the water was wearing a thick, golden skin. When I shivered he fetched me a sweater from his car and turning, I saw the back seat was piled high with boxes. Almost idly, I wondered where he was going – college no longer figured in his plans, of that I was pretty certain – and then if he would be cruel enough to ask me to go with him. He laid the sweater over my shoulders and sat back down.

‘I come here at night sometimes. When my dad was still at home, I’d wait till they were both asleep and I knew everything was fine and they’d be alright and then I’d drive over. I think what I like about it is that it’s inhuman. It’s an inhuman sort of a place.’

I knew what he meant. It was desolate and unloving; it possessed neither people’s good qualities nor their bad, and being here you could be free of them.

‘Most of the time I thought that if I could be there, I could hold it all together. It wore me out trying, all that vigilance. You get so tired, right? And in the end it didn’t do any good anyhow.’

‘Is he crazy?’

‘Yeah, he’s pretty crazy. Right now, anyway. It was always there, always a face he had, but now he’s wearing it all the time. She’s crazy too, only they don’t lock people up for her kind of craziness.’

It was getting dark. The sky had taken on a greenish cast. The clouds were a few shades darker still. I knew I wanted to touch him very badly and I wanted to be able to allow him to touch me as well. It is the end of the world, I told myself. It is the last chance you will ever have. But I couldn’t do anything then. I couldn’t raise a finger.

‘You want to swim?’ I asked.

The lake was cold, so much colder than the pool. I lay on my back listening to my breath, my ears half in and half out of the water.

When I closed my eyes I felt something brush against me, something endless and black and full of gentle nothing. In that instant, the lakebed dropped away and the shore receded. The water surrounding me becoming infinite and for a long moment I touched it, knew the darkness I had tried so hard to imagine.

After it had gone, I swam over to his side. He was floating, sculling gently with his hands, his toes pointing towards the rising moon. I raised a hand out of the water and held it dripping to his cheek, and then I touched his throat and chest. After a time, he stopped sculling until we were both treading water, his face less than a foot from mine. I kissed him then and tasted the lake on his lips

The world ended with a fire. Ashore, we fetched the wood for it. Peter took a magazine from the car and then crouched down, bare-chested in his damp jeans, tearing out pages, twisting them up and setting them amongst the kindling. He did it carefully, methodically, the same way he did everything else.

‘I want to touch you,’ he said. ‘Is that okay?’

‘Yes,’ I said, but I had to wait for him to finish, for the match to flare and the pages of the magazine begin to blacken and curl, for the twigs to start crackling and the thicker bits of wood to catch, before he wiped his hands on his jeans and came over to kneel before me on the blanket.

‘You don’t have to make things okay. If it’s not okay…’ he was saying. I took his head in my hands.

The world ended with a fire. I didn’t see it because my eyes were closed but I heard the roar and felt the tongues of flame. Countries were laid waste, the cities razed; streaming magma spilled out of the ground to flow across the plains, filling the canyons and reservoirs, sliding down highways and through subways, while whole continents slid into the ocean.

My hair caught fire and my skin, laid against his, burned. The marrow bubbled inside my bones; I felt my heart and lungs blacken and char, as we fuelled the fire, as we were consumed, as we became powdery ash.

Peter woke me in the grey dawn. The world was renewed as it had to be; or maybe it was just that the game was over. If so, then it had been a good game. I had no regrets and it would always make more sense to me than the other one, the one in which we all pretend we will live forever.

A little smoke was snaking away across the grass. I felt so light, like I could blow away. He kissed me on the shore and behind my eyelids I saw him driving across deserts and through mountains, stopping for coffee at roadside diners, parking up somewhere with a view of the ocean. I wondered how long it would take him to shake off what living in that quiet house had done to him, and then, when he had, if he would turn round and drive back.

We didn’t say much. It had been said.

When he was gone and I was alone I stayed there for a while, aware of a new emptiness inside me. It was not a bad feeling and when I cried that wasn’t bad either.

As a child I remember crying and someone kind comforting me, saying that it wasn’t the end of the world and now I cried because indeed it wasn’t – and that was what I had wanted.

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