Near the end, we sleep in snatches, grabbing zzzzs as we go, rolling over what’s left of the roadway to what’s left of the city. We think, maybe, there will be something to come back to. What choice do we have? Whence we came cannot be revised. The road vanishes behind us, broken by greed and false hope. Our homes in ruins, we travel day and night as if on a mission, drawn magnetic across time with no star to follow, no moon to give guidance. It’s the very dead of winter, just the worst time for a journey—the way icy and visibility nil and the roads encumbered and directions askew. Vicious toll takers of evil disposition dicing for coins in their booths for long hours and low pay. Of accommodation, there is none. Motels and inns all say NO. Service stations are bereft of fuel. Towns and villages we skirt are aflame in the driving snow, and the animals, better off than us now, have returned to lurk and forage. Hoarding what little food there is, we go on fighting fatigue and despair. The children have the worst of it, and when they die, the mothers lose their minds and fall away into the ditches and throw themselves from bridges. The fathers go at each other’s throats with tire irons and sharpened pipes. Then, coming to the place, finally — poor city so blighted, once a beacon of light and prosperity, arriving in whiteout with hostile drivers moving too fast or too slow and the signs plastered with sleet smearing out all sense and direction, the roadway pockmarked and scared, the compass needle spins — and we search for the exit, an exit, any exit while directions on our devices time-out. Batteries are dead and signal towers toppled, and we come, at last, to the destination. Surprisingly, there is one. Dire neighborhood as quiet as a tomb. We pass through streets unplowed with house numbers obscured and scrawled inaccurately in our logs. The shared driveways pile-driven with new snow atop old, ice hanging from gutters, incandescent under streetlights inexplicably still alight. We are watched for certain. From dark windows, furtive eyes reflect off our headlights and duck away. The top floors loom over us as we go on without volition. We stop in the road, finally, lost without hope, sitting ducks, a quotient group indivisible, and we ask each other—we speak out loud: “Is this it? Could this be it? What we’ve come for?” And we see before us, the hand raised, beckoning from safety, we think. As it turns out, a beast’s belly hot and inviting. Out of desperation, we take the bait. We plunge to the consolation we’ve longed for, heat from a generator running on fuel squirreled away. We huddle around, grateful, relishing it, thanking God in weakness and forgetting for the moment that this, this, was how it all started.
Richard Schmitt is the author of The Aerialist, a novel, and, Living Among Strangers, a short-story collection. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Arts & Letters, Blackbird, Cimarron Review, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, North American Review, TriQuarterly and other places. His story, “Leaving Venice, Florida,” won 1st Prize in The Mississippi Review story contest. He has been anthologized in New Stories of the South: The Year’s Best, and The Best American Essays, 2013.