He walked down the Western Road, the sun a constant companion which could only listen and never speak. If asked, he would have said that the worst part of traveling is not the loneliness; it is the getting used to it.
He had never been a solitary man in his old life. He’d had children, a wife with a sunny disposition and full, white breasts that welcomed him after a long day of work. The constant noise of life had kept his mind from delving too deeply into any one matter; his was an existence of surfaces, with no fathoms to keep him from a good night’s sleep. Now he had nothing but time, nothing to do but walk and think about his existence and how arbitrary it all was. He had come to think of his old life as Back Then, as though it was a set of years in which the best things had happened, before he got old and outlived everyone he loved. Truth be told, Back Then was a warm memory that felt like the kind of comfort a man creates when he’s cold and alone, perhaps sleeping rough under the stars. He couldn’t have any assurances that it had really happened other than the fact that he had little imagination. The surface life isn’t one for deep thinking.
He was tired of walking. Being a leader was exhausting.
He looked up now to the sun as it made a slow descent, like a woman lowering herself into the bath. The sky resembled a giant bruise, all reds and purples in shades that hurt his eyes. It was the sort of sky that brought on too much rotgut, but it wouldn’t last long. Night was drawing near on swift cat’s feet.
“The river is always watching,” said the dead man on the side of the road.
“What else is there for a river to do?” he asked, irritated as he always was when one of them tried to befriend him. The only thing worse than getting used to being lonely is the companionship of a dead man. They can only look back.
“Do you think it ever tires of constantly moving? Does it ever want to go in a different direction, do you suppose?” the dead man asked.
He sighed heavily and kept up his pace. He could hear the dead man shuffling behind him. That was another thing about the deceased: they always dragged their feet.
“I don’t have a care one way or the other about the river,” he said. “My only care is about this darkening road, and if you had any sense it would be yours, as well.”
The sun began to slip out of sight, leaving a hushed violet gloom in the air around them. It smelled like rusted metal, a scent he associated with blood. He turned and looked at the dead man fully, drinking him in. The eyes were cloudy white, blinded by the traumas of the In-Between. His nostrils flared like those of a bloodhound; he was trying to make sense of the world around him the way a living man would. But the dead man would find no solace in his remaining senses; the Western Road would see to that. Hidden in the brush were small but ruthless creatures, waiting with eyes glittering. They made a feast of the dead ones who showed reluctance to reach their destination. Here, you either accepted your fate and moved along or you stood still and stopped wasting everyone’s time.
He thought of his daughter and ached, hard and suddenly, in his chest. She had been the time-waster, the dreamer who colored pictures on the walls of their home. He had never imagined any of them–Sarah, Ethan, Joshua, or his Molly–being caught on this road, but now he could see them stuck and scared, Sarah doodling pictures in the dust, Joshua trying to be strong with trembling chin betraying him. He had never worried for them Back Then, had never seen the horrors that some other parents conjure up. Now he considered that they might have ended up someplace entirely different than he, on the road to a great utopia filled with white light, or that he might find himself leading them one day down the Western Road to the End Place. It was the not knowing that hurt the most.
“You can’t follow me any further,” he said gently. He had seen so many dead ones cracked by the world like a set of knuckles, yet this was the softest he’d been with any of them. He didn’t quite know why, unless it was that he knew what this one had been thinking of as he shuffled off the mortal coil: his girl, no more than five, pale hair flying behind her as she ran through a field. It had reached him in a way that no special pleading had done thus far. The humanity left in him was both a blessing and a curse.
“I can smell the river,” the dead man said. “I hate that smell. Just turn around and let me go with you.”
“Why do you want to go back?” he asked, genuinely curious. “What do you think awaits you there? Some love that didn’t exist before? The forgiveness of that little tow-headed girl?”
The clouds were rolling across the moon. A nimbus tide.
The dead man tilted his head up, as though surveying the sky. A single tear slid down his ruined face and stopped at the corner of his mouth. “I thought I had more time.”
A soft wind began to wake the trees with a hush; a lullaby for the damned, an admonition to the wicked. He stood in the middle of the road and scrubbed a hand over his face, suddenly incredibly weary. There was still so much more road to go.
He took out his pouch, lit a cigarette. The strike of the match lit a sulphurous glare in the near-dark.
“No such thing,” he said.
Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in publications such as Barren Magazine and Eastern Iowa Review and in several anthologies, including Beyond The Hill and Two Eyes Open. She is the author of two novels, The Fireman’s Daughter and Ghosts Of The Imperial. Her first chapbook of horror-inspired poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow, was shortlisted for a Bram Stoker Award nomination in 2015; her story “A Shimmer In The Parlor” was a finalist for the J.F. Powers Prize in Short Fiction in 2019. Amanda’s middle-grade fiction book, The Darkened Mirror, will be published in the summer of 2019 by Riversong Books. She currently lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children.