Patterson, accustomed to nights at the movies with friends and weekends falling asleep in front of football games, had found his way here, to the field, where he could turn his back on all that was gone. The field, being windswept and barren, left Patterson in a bit of a bind. He had to get across it, this he knew, but the grayness of the dirt and the grayness of the sky had mixed together to eliminate the horizon and left him standing with nothing to run towards. Over his shoulder, the city was in flames.
The house was gone. He was sure of this. He’d seen the fire, known it was spreading towards his house even as he ran, thighs burning, down the familiar streets home. He had to get there. He’d packed a bag for a day just like today, packed it and set it down, carefully, ceremoniously, by the front door. If he could just get home, before the fire got to his home, before the fire got home, he could get the bag and then go on with the day. It had been, he thought, an extraordinarily nice day. And now this. He kept trying to run. The tightness in his hamstrings made him pull up short, sucking for air, and then fall to his knees to keep moving, crawling for a bit. Still, he made no progress. He imagined the bag he’d packed sitting by the front door slowly turning to ash. He saw his bed in flames. He felt the ceiling cave in, and then nothing.
There was a gap now, and he couldn’t go back. No, not a gap. Fire. That was all. There couldn’t be a gap where there was something, even if the something was nothing. Patterson was in a bind. One way: fire. The other: the river. Now: a field, windswept. Patterson thought. He took a tentative step towards what he imagined was the river. He could feel it, somehow, the coolness of the water, misting across his face at the same time as the fire behind began to burn his collar. He knew that if he didn’t find some way to run, the front of his body would heat up too, now, with the fire, no question, not just his back was in trouble.
Patterson was never an extraordinary man. He had imagined, when he was bored or not otherwise occupied, that deep down, he might have reserves of power, untapped, dormant, waiting for a time like this to rise up. He thought of himself in a tunnel, on mountaintops, bringing survivors together to stand together, on mountaintops, by the river. Well, it was time, he thought, and his instincts, what he had imagined, his powers, were gone. Turning back now, he saw again the orange, getting closer, licking, furling, whipping in the wind. The vastness of the field wouldn’t protect him for long. It occurred to him that there should be others there with him, but where were they? The world it seemed was empty of all but destruction. He had survived. Others had not, he was sure of that—but how could he be the only one? He was in no way prepared to carry on alone. The heat grew. He squinted into the haze of the city.
In his pockets were the following items:
He took out a cigarette and found it already lit. No, that was his imagination. He pulled out the lighter and with the briefest flash of guilt at the thought of adding to the inferno, flicked the cigarette aglow. The gray of the smoke faded into the non-horizon. He turned to watch it go, and then realized he couldn’t see anything, no smoke, or it was all smoke. Smoke in smoke couldn’t be seen, only felt, only known about, like the heat on his face now, from the fire, from the something that was nothing. He took another step towards his home. The grass crackled under his feet, dry, straw, broken, brown, gone.
He was a thinker, Patterson was, people had always told him he was a thinker, this had been important. He was a thinker, and so he began to concoct a plan. It would never work, this plan, whatever it was, he was sure and in quite a bind. The bag by the front door was ash by now, probably, definitely, no question about that. He thought maybe he’d like to find a bathroom somewhere. He knew that, in the other direction, if he could only find the horizon, he could walk towards the river and perhaps find more people, who would of course have more ideas, and they could collaborate. They could turn as a group back towards the ruined city, back towards the collapsed bridges and the skeleton trees and the husks of humanity and they could help. They could do something. They could stand on mountaintops. He couldn’t do it alone, and he was alone.
Patterson had been thinking, it was funny, he’d been thinking right before he saw the fire, about how he was getting sick of being alone.
He stopped moving towards the fire. He was alone and he was thinking, but not enough for a plan, especially now, what with no bag. God, why had he bothered with the bag? He could maybe have been seeing a movie with friends, but no, stupid, he had packed a fucking bag and set it down with great pomp and circumstance by the front door, confident in its protection, in its symbolism, in its ability to ward off the something that was now on fire, turning to nothing. He turned away from the fire. He didn’t want to think about the bag. He was no thinker. People had been wrong. He had stupidly packed a bag.
Without thinking, he sat down in the field, the dead grass poking through the cheap fiber of his slacks. From the ground, it was a little harder to see the flames, but strangely, a little easier to see the horizon. He put his hands down in front of him, and then stretched his legs out back, and then placed his chest and his chin on the ground, eyes level with, oh god, yes, a horizon. He inched forward. The heat beat against his shoes. He scooted just a bit more, just up to that rock, yes, there. He was moving again. He raised himself to his feet and using the ground as a guide, began to walk towards the river, he knew. He could feel the mist on his face.
He was alone, and that didn’t, no, not matter, not matter at all because he was walking, away, towards the river, his calves fried, his ankles shaking, his hands itching from the dirt. The cigarette ash had reached his lips and he spat out the butt, feeling another stab of guilt at adding to the ash, ash everywhere, now flaking through the sky, he could see that was why it was gray. The day had been, he thought, an extraordinarily nice one, before. The gray and, yes, windswept field was not a product of anything more than the day, after. Perhaps night would return it all to normal to normal to normal. The word kept flashing through his head and he wished he remembered more about the last movie he’d seen with friends, friends who were behind him now, in the heat.
He wished he had left the house with more than house keys, wallet, 3 sticks of gum, cigarettes, lighter. He had packed a bag. What good was it at home? He felt the ceiling collapse. There was only now this field, windswept, yes, but why did the wind not move some of the ash away? Good grief, thought Patterson, surely this can’t be normal. Is this how it goes now?
There was nothing redeeming he could think of to think about. Normal. Movies. Alone. Ash. Bag. Gone. Nothing. He kept walking, following the ground. There would be others, somewhere, a river, he was sure of it. Patterson was a thinker, or he used to be. Now he was in a bit of a bind.
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