“Nothing Is Good, Everything Is Fine” by Ken Brady
You step out into the middle of the road and straddle the center line, because it’s easier than crawling over the rubble beyond the guardrails, stretching as far as you can see. Besides, you haven’t found a running car in twenty years, so why the hell not? You look along the miles and miles of flat pavement, toward your destination. Dead empty.
One foot in front of the other and it’s all worn shoes crunching over dirt and gravel, the mindless kicking of a rusted can as soon as it’s in range, counting steps when you’re bored, then stopping when you’re bored of that, then starting again when you’re bored of being bored. It’s a long way from here to the next town, if there even is a next town, and there’s not much else to do in the wasteland but kick shit.
Pondering nothing is when you trip on the stick. You stumble, windmill your arms, make an incoherent heh-fu-bleh noise, and regain your balance. You turn around, walk around the stick, survey it critically.
It’s about an inch in diameter, a little more than eight inches long, sticking up out of the pavement at a seventy degree angle. It appears to occupy the space where a reflector was once glued, the kind that guided cars back into their lanes when they crossed the line at night. Where was that reflector now?
You get angry.
That stick is everything wrong with the world. It’s the reason you are where you are, scraping the last bits of gunk out of old cat food cans scavenged from studio apartments that were probably lonely long before the apocalypse, drinking tainted water from old metal pipes and oily puddles, choosing clothes from corpses like you were perusing the racks at a thrift shop. It’s the mutants who threw you out of Seattle for being a little too normal, and the big-ass rodents in Portland who pissed acid all over your last pair of Tony Lama boots. The roving bands of clown-masked Californians who spoke in nothing but ever-more-obscure 80s movie quotes, yet still managed to make you feel so stupid and out-of-place that you left Oakland in the middle of the night and are now dragging your ass toward the east. It’s the useless in place of the useful, a broken piece of debris in lieu of a warning signal. Just another wasted reminder of a once-great civilization.
Fuck that stick, you think. You kick it, step on it, then kick it again. Harder and harder, until it’s all you can think about, all you see or hear or feel. Just fuck that fucking stick.
You’re so preoccupied with righteous indignation at the stick and its legacy that you don’t notice the car that comes rattling up the road behind you until it’s close enough to lay on its horn and brakes at the same time. When it does, your mind is like, what the shit?, and you turn around in time to see a bright blue and pink caricature of an early 1960s Volkswagen Beetle as it screeches, swerves, and slides around you, coming to a stop a few inches from the left-side guardrail.
The clown-masked Californians start pouring out, one after another, screaming, “Take off, eh?” and, “Could you describe the ruckus?” and, “I found my special purpose!” Before they can reach total incoherence, a gang of mutants jumps the right-side guardrail and rushes them. Big-ass rodents come from behind a chest-high barrier, and join the fracas. In the melee that follows, you have no choice but to jump the left-side guardrail, and run for the hills of debris that actually look a hell of a lot like grass and trees and unspoiled nature now that you look at them with your eyes open.
Next time, you’ll look both ways, just in case.
|Ken Brady‘s fiction has appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, Writers of the Future, and dozens of other magazines and anthologies.|