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Red at the End of the World

Lynda E. Rucker's fiction has appeared in such places as F&SF, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and Black Static. Born and raised in the American South, she travels as much as she can and currently lives in Dublin, Ireland. She occasionally blogs at lyndaerucker.wordpress.com.

The man is tapping out a tune with one foot, a tune that is a mystery to everyone but him. The tune goes something like this: tap tap tap pause tap tap tap pause tap tap tap tap pause tap tap tap tap pause. It's worse than having a pop song stuck on repeat inside your head because instead of trying to shed it you keep trying to capture it, and the only man who knows the secret is still tap-tap-tapping but he isn't going to reveal a thing.
He's not; and you know it by looking at him. You know it first by looking at his shoes, which are brown leather, scuffed and laced up wrong with floppy worn tongues. Above the shoes, a flash of thin ankles: he's lost his socks. You feel sure "lost" is the right word, not "forgotten" or "not worn." He had socks at one time and now, for whatever reason, they are gone. Above the thin ankles, frayed denim hems. The jeans (Granny still calls them dungarees; you do not know why this piece of information rises unbidden in your thoughts) don't fit the bare ankles and the battered shoes. You think: normal. That's it; the jeans are the attire of a normal person. The shoes are things a crazy person would wear, shuffling through the city on their broken-down backs, talking to people who aren't there.
It occurs to you, then: he has lost his socks, and the shoes do not belong to him. He has scavenged them from somewhere.
Traveling upwards, a buckskin vest--really!--is draped over a plain black T-shirt. He has a weak chin, a perturbed mouth, a handlebar mustache. This, too, is not normal, but the shoes of crazy people are not normal in a careless way, while there are few things so deliberate as a handlebar mustache. Above the mustache, a substantial nose, topped with medium-sized dark eyes, a thick brow, a brush of graying hair last cut with indifference.
You stomp your foot. "Eureka!" you say. "Three Blind Mice!" Three blind mice. Pause. Three blind mice. Pause. See how they run.
The smile breaks across his face as slowly as any you've ever seen. His teeth are perfectly straight, if yellow near the gums, and that's the moment you know. His hollow face; his lupine grin.
You experience a number of conflicting emotions:
1. You feel annoyed. You have found yourself in a similar position too many times before. You should have known it was coming to this once again, and yet somehow, you did not.
2. You feel fear, naturally, because however jaded you may otherwise be, this is a situation that would engender fear in anyone.
3. You begin to feel sorry for him. Clearly, his plans have gone awry. Something has caused him to lose his socks and his shoes--something chased him, perhaps?--and he's stuck in a crowded and smelly urban bus station in a broken city tapping out sinister nursery rhymes to the indifference or irritation of everyone around him.
4. You feel glee. He has been frightened, perhaps even bested. You can't help noticing how he's planted himself in the most crowded part of the station, and how his gaze crawls over dark corners, over shadows, over the blank rectangle of night framed in the doorway marked "Exit."
5. You feel hungry. After all, you are carrying food to Granny, and the smell of it is making you deliciously, deliriously hungry. Him, too: his nose is twitching. You draw back against your seat when you notice this. You sink into your hated red shawl. You wait.
A man comes out and announces that the bus is running late. Someone asks him which bus. He answers, "All of them."
Amid the grumbles you think to yourself that it is unfair to complain. There is, after all, an apocalypse on. You're lucky the buses are running at all. As for Granny's irradiated and now rapidly cooling supper--well, that, like so many things, cannot be helped.
Because there is only a delay, and not an outright cancellation, the buses do arrive eventually. You and all the other passengers dutifully file aboard. As you pay the driver, you lean close to him and whisper about who you are, and the wolf. You point to the wolf so the driver will know not to let him on. You whisper because you don't want everyone knowing who you are. But when you're finished a big grin breaks across his face and he says, "Sure thing, Red!" And he glances up into his rearview mirror to address all the other passengers. "Guess who we've got with us tonight," he announces. "Hi, Red!" chorus the bus passengers, and you try to get to your seat, keeping your head down the whole time. Someone grabs your arm and says, "Here, sit next to me"; it's a kid with a pierced lower lip and a pale complexion under a shock of black-as-a-moonless-night hair.
"Seriously," the kid says. "Sit here." He shifts to make more room. "I could use the company." He sticks out his hand. "I'm Snow White."
The armed guards have taken their posts on the crudely installed running boards on either side of the bus, and the vehicle goes rumbling out into the street. You try not to look out, because you always see terrible things. Last time it was a child hung from a lamppost, a sign round its neck proclaiming it "Jack B Nimble." Things not-human have taken the streets. Your mother has a hand-crank radio especially for disasters--not disasters such as these, for who could have foreseen such things?--but for more prosaic horrors like earthquakes and terrorist attacks. The voices on the windup radio used to give statistics about the best and worst times of day to try to travel through the city, but they have mostly fallen silent now. You were always taking your chances anyway, no matter the time of day or night.
Snow White says, "You're taller than I thought you'd be."
You aren't sure if he's trying to be funny or not so you don't say anything. You notice that he is kind of cute. And suddenly the notes of a popular electronic dance tune shrill the air.
"Sorry," says Snow White. "My mobile." He digs in his pocket. "Yes," he says. "Yes. Yes." You can hear a tinny voice on the other end of the line. "Okay," he says. "Okay. Okay. Okay." He clicks the phone shut. "That was Rose Red. He never gives me a moment's peace."
You nod like you know, even though you don't.
"So," he says, "I guess you're on your way to your grandmother's."
You nod again. "As always."
"How is she these days?"
Things are weird, sure, but this question seems like the weirdest thing of all: so ordinary, dropped in from a time of small talk and inquiring after people you didn't know or care about as though you did.
It's so weird you decide not to answer it, so you look out the window instead. After a while Snow White takes your hand. There's something comforting and exciting about that at the same time, so you let him.
It seems like a long time later--though you can't be sure, you are never sure of anything any longer--that the conductor calls out, "Here you go, Red! Granny's house!" As you're getting up you feel Snow White scrambling to his feet beside you.
"I'm coming with you," he says, "don't argue about it." So you don't.
"All clear!" the conductor hollers, flashing the doors open and shut, and the two of you leap off the bus and sprint the short distance to Granny's front porch. Off to one side lays the Woodman, hacked to death.
"Ew," says Snow White.
"Yeah," you say, determinedly not remembering. "Yeah, that was a bad scene."
"But look," says Snow White, and you very deliberately don't--you've seen enough, thanks--and Snow White is pressing the Woodman's axe into your hand. "This is still here."
The shadows are starting to move and gather. "We better hurry," you say. "Granny's key is under that flowerpot."
You're glad Snow White is still with you, because the flower is dead and covered in gore and there are bloodstains on the flower pot and frankly, you're sick of looking at it. Snow White retrieves the key and slips it in the lock. You follow him into the darkened hallway.
"Granny, I'm here!" you call out.
No answer. Your fingers crawl along the wall to the light switch and flick it to no avail. "That's not a good sign," you say. "Granny has a generator."
You feel grateful when Snow White takes your hand again. You proceed down the hall like that--like Hansel and Gretel, you think, although you met the two of them once and they were nothing like you and Snow White. They were nothing like you expected, come to think of it. But most of all, they were siblings, whereas the feeling you get whenever Snow White touches you or even looks your way is distinctly non-siblingish.
You've got a firm grip on the Woodman's axe with your free hand, and you're determined to avenge Granny, should it come to that, although you hope it doesn't, not because you object to bloodshed, but because you do love Granny. And at that moment you realize that if you have Snow White by one hand and the axe by the other that you've lost Granny's food.
"Don't worry," Snow White says. "I've got Granny's dinner right here." His mobile jangles again but in order to answer it he must let go of either you or Granny's dinner, and he does neither. You take this as proof of his love for you, and your heart swells. His mobile trills one more time to let him know he has voicemail.
"Rose Red leaves the longest messages," he confides.
Through all of this the two of you continue to creep down the hallway, but you have reached the end at last, a door closed up tight, no sign of light leaking through, no sound, but this is, after all, Granny's bedroom, so perhaps she has simply gone to bed early.
You give the door a good shove, bracing yourself for what you expect to see: the wolf atop the bed, maybe devouring Granny alive, maybe already tucked up under the covers obscenely draped in her nightie which is tied shut with lace at his neck, although of course, you remind yourself, you won't see anything at all, because the lights are out.
The door swings open and you hear, and most of all, smell the wolf, in a way you couldn't smell him in the bus station. And you cry out, you leap and you spring blindly toward that smell of wet, decadent fur and the sound of snapping hungry jaws, swinging the axe, and as it finds purchase you are simultaneously sure you've buried it in the wolf's neck and in Granny's. But from the other end of the axe there is neither a sickening feeling of life draining away nor a gushing of blood--there is instead an absence, as of something winking out of existence. And suddenly the lights blink and flutter back to life and there's Granny, bound and gagged in the corner, but none the worse for wear.
The first thing she says when you ungag her is, "Well, this will never do," and you notice she is looking past you at Snow White, but you remember Granny was always stingy about praising your accomplishments. "Pride goeth before a fall" was one of her favorite sayings. So instead of getting mad you just keep on untying her, and Snow White helps you unpack Granny's dinner, which is still warm and turns out to be Mussaman beef curry with a steaming side of tom yum soup. Snow White loans you his mobile so you can call your mom and tell her you vanquished the wolf, and at first she doesn't believe you, but Snow White and finally even Granny get on to convince her otherwise. Up to now there's been so much to think about you haven't reacted to killing the wolf, but now you feel a surge of adrenaline mixed with delayed panic, so you have to sit down and put your head between your knees so you don't faint. Granny says there's enough Mussaman curry to go around, so you all end up sharing it, and Rose Red calls two more times, and you all agree that the killing of the wolf is a sign of better times ahead: this is reinforced when you turn on the TV, which is not only working but features a reporter standing in front of a burned-out shopping center and claiming that in some quarters of the city, things seem to be getting back to normal for the first time in months--years--well, nobody really knows how long. You and Snow White look at each other and grin and talk about how you don't remember what normal is any longer--is there even such a thing?--and you take off your red shawl and wonder if you can go back to just being yourself now (but you can never go back, only forward). And maybe it doesn't matter, and you are feeling so happy and generous you suggest inviting Rose Red over. You feel a bit sorry for Rose Red, left out of the story's main action and portrayed as a shrew. You have enough Mussaman curry and tom yum soup to feed a fourth person, you reason.
It's only then that you remember your first sight of the wolf in the bus station, and the knowledge that something had been chasing him--something is still out there that is wicked enough to frighten the now-vanquished wolf, and you decide that this is not a line of thought you care to pursue. You reheat some of the jasmine rice in Granny's microwave while you wait, all the while reservedly hoping that, this time around, all of you manage to live happily ever after.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, October 31st, 2012
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