© 1998 by the IrReverend Friday Jones
In the back seat, Tony coughed. When he coughed he coughed up tiny little pink chunks: not bloody, but clearly little chunks of Tony. In the three days that Dave and Jeff had known him, he already seemed to be about twenty pounds thinner. And getting thinner all the time. "How far is it to this place?" groused Jeff, pushing his greasy hair back from his forehead. Jeff hadn't bathed since the end of the world, which had been about two weeks ago. No more wife, no more working - so who needs to bathe? The other two men put up with the smell, because at least you could tell by the smell that he was another human being. "My cousin Bill Blattroot told me about this a few years ago, just before he disappeared. About these weird freaks who had some sort of secret meetings up in Sherman. They said the world was going to end. And they were right. I'm just hoping that I can get my hands on one of them." Preferably one that he could make scream. Dave clenched his fists on the steering wheel, unable to feel them or the blood that ran down his wrists from the nail gouges in his palm. He was numb ... numb.
The three men in the battered car crawled along the highway. Almost all of the cars they passed were burned or broken in some way. Tony pointed out one with the elongated, burnt shadow of the driver stretching away from the open door, as though he'd tried to run away from the car before he incinerated from the inside. Animals roamed along the verges of the highway, fearless. A snake coiled and prepared to strike at a toad, which spouted a brief gout of fire from its nostrils and sent the serpent fleeing. There was something terrible up in the overcast sky, behind the clouds that never parted and were always bright, something that none of the men wanted to look at. The world had ended with a bang, and before the last vibrations died away, they were going to see what was left of Sherman, New York.
Even before they got to the campground, they saw the Heads. Dave slammed the car to a stop at the first glimpse of the blue-black pompadour looming over the trees - a pompadour of hair that would not have looked out of place on the head of Paul Bunyan. All three of the men sat frozen in the car, waiting for the Head to turn, waiting for it to come pumping towards them on its three legs, waiting for the Fire of the Pipe. But there was nothing.
Dave could see what looked like the top of a second Head behind the first. He'd seen the Heads burning through New York City, dancing on the flaming bridges as they herded the swarms of people to and fro. Wading across to Manhattan, their Pipes shooting up fountains of pure light that lit up the land for hundreds of miles around, shining off the Atlantic. But these Heads just seemed to be - sitting there. Waiting? Resting? Slowly ... ever so slowly ... Dave turned the key, started the car, and backed it behind the shelter of a covered bridge. In hushed tones they conferred, and decided to camp back along the road a ways. If the Heads hadn't moved in the morning, they would chance it. At least it showed they were on the right track, said Jeff, and the others agreed. In the brush they huddled that night, not like frightened rabbits but like frightened men. They did not dare to build a fire, and passed around cold cans of baked beans and peaches. Dave was very careful to put the can of beans down on the ground, and push it within Jeff's reach, and then jerk his hand away before Jeff touched it. It looked weird, but none of the men even noticed it by now. And then Jeff picked up the can, and a miracle occurred.
What had been a half-full can of beans turned - in the twinkling of an eye! - into a can, still labeled beans, but filled halfway with dog food. Cheap dog food. The gray kind, with chunks of gristle, that you buy for a dog you don't like, and still feel guilty when it eats it and looks up at you, miserable to its guts.
Sullenly, gagging, Jeff took out his own spoon and started eating the dog food. It could have been a can of beans, or a jar of caviar, or a roast turkey sandwich. It would still turn to dog food as soon as Jeff touched it or the container it was in. All of the food the men carried had been packed in the trunk, and Dave and Tony took turns carrying it when they switched cars.
Tony coughed out another tiny lump and hurriedly flicked it away into the darkness; he had felt it squirming in his palm before crushing it. It was quiet. The dew seemed to be falling hard and wet all around them, and they slept in the car, mellow in the stink of Jeff's body and breath. Every sip of air Dave took in seemed to leave another cold stain on his heart. The quiet was terrible - not even a cricket or an owl. Although in the distance, at the Brushwood Folklore Center, there seemed to be a shiver of noise leaking though the air.
The Heads were still, one standing on each side of the dirt road. Their terrible eyes were open, but they did not move. The morning sun gleamed off their immense, perfect teeth, each one the size of a king-sized pillow. The Pipes smoked only a little. They weren't really rocking back and forth to the vague music that seemed to be coming from the campground; it just seemed that way.
Dave, Tony and Jeff had left the car behind them and walked up to the Brushwood place. They didn't think of the car as protection: they knew that nothing could protect them from the things that were loose in the world now. Tony was muttering, very very faintly, to Jesus as they passed between the giant Heads and went up the road. There was a low building on their right, with an open front, and blowing out of it was money. Quite a lot of money. Jeff looked inside and saw tables literally piled with loose money. He bent and picked up a five hundred dollar bill, and then dropped it. It was just paper now. Trees obscured their view over the rest of the campground, but once they got out of the trees they could see that they were definitely in the right place. The dirt road under their feet had turned to yellow bricks - bricks of gold. Ahead of them was an open field, with a terrible light burning over it. The grass writhed like a cat in heat, every blade seeming to twine with the next. Shards of tent fabric blew over the writhing greenery. A praying mantis the size of a small dog sat in a tree and stared over its shoulder at them. And right in front of them was a pavilion, with practically its entire roof burned off as though a giant flaming hand had wrenched it loose. The three men knew those burn marks: the marks of the people who Went Up that day. But so many of them ... so many ... They went to the pavilion. The earth was scorched into hundreds of bowl-shaped depressions, each one presumably where a person had been standing. Scattered among the seared grasses were cups of Kool-Aid, clear gelatin capsules, more money, and pipes. Lots of pipes. Dave went up to the front of the pavilion, where a low stage was strewn with weird musical instruments. An atonal music still seemed to be humming in the air, through the balls of his feet, as though the stage had soaked up music and was releasing it bit by bit. He carefully stepped around a guitar that was slowly turning itself round and round like a top, and came to a podium. It was piled with notes, and behind it lay a scorched white tuxedo. Long, loose locks of gray and brown hair were tumbled around the stage. Dave picked up a lock of hair absently, maybe because it reminded him of his mother's, and started reading the notes on the podium. They were some sort of a speech - something about an Escape Plan. He didn't notice until he went to turn the page that the lock of hair he had picked up was twining around his fingers, sinking into them, and already bringing blood from under his nails. His fingers were turning purple and he couldn't feel anything, anything as he awkwardly opened his Swiss Army Knife with the wrong hand and his teeth, and started slashing away at the predatory strands of hair. They parted reluctantly, and Dave was left to look at the bloody gashes he had put into his own flesh. Suddenly he felt cold: he had cut a ragged "B" into his palm, complete with quote marks.
"Shit," said Jeff, followed by "shit shit SHIT!" He was holding a piece of paper that looked like a ticket. It was, in fact, labeled Saucer Ticket. Furthermore, it informed the incredulous Jeff that the Bearer was entitled to a One-Way Trip From A Doomed Planet if redeemed by July 5th, 1998. Tony was staring up at the pool. He had to stare up because the water had formed itself into a twisting spire that was held up by - what? The water flowed, up and down, now a pointing finger, now a unicorn's horn, now a throbbing penis. It was at least fifty feet high. It was beautiful - probably the most beautiful thing Tony had seen since the end of the world. The grass beyond was cut into a pattern of circles within circles, and lines, and shapes. The water pointed, now at the sun, now at the Heads, and now at him. He cringed.
Tony and Jeff were sitting, exhausted, in plastic lawn chairs that they had dragged down from under the gaze of the Heads. They sat in the low building, watching Dave pace back and forth, kicking up the money in little flurries like autumn leaves and waving a book full of papers in one bleeding hand.
"These fuckers KNEW the end was coming and they ESCAPED!" Dave was literally frothing; he'd bitten his tongue in his anger and didn't know it, and he sprayed little pink drops on the page as he read from it. "'And the Pleasure Saucers of the Sex Goddesses will be here in just a few short hours, taking us away to Planet X, while we leave these Pinks behind to fry in HELL ON EARTH.' They knew that ... all this ... was going to happen! They KNEW and they didn't TELL ANYONE!" "Who would they tell?" said Tony, whose sides were starting to billow like a sail in a slack breeze. "Who would believe them? Lots of people used to say the world is going to end."
Dave kicked Tony in the stomach and his foot sank in, sickeningly, as though into a deflating balloon. He hopped back as Tony clutched himself and fell out of the chair, writhing. But still alive. His gut had a dent in it the size of his head, and Dave felt sick just looking at it. But he kept on trying to say the endless babblings in his mind, tried to spit it out in words, while trying to forget the noise that had come out of Tony when he hit him.
"But ... They..." Dave was speechless, and he turned on Jeff where he sat in his chair, rocking back and forth just a little bit, staring at two pieces of paper he had picked off the table. "One," Jeff mumbled. "One WHAT?" screamed Dave, not caring if he waked the Heads or anything else in this damned place.
"One dollar." Jeff held out the two pieces of paper - one was a pamphlet that he had been reading. It did indeed say that The World Will End July 5th, 1998, and only the members of the Church of the SubGenius would be saved. It went on and on, for page upon page, about the Conspiracy and the End Times and the Superior Mutants and "Bob" - the man whose face was worn by the terrible hell-machine Heads, they could all see that. On the top right hand-corner of the pamphlet was written '$1.00.' The pamphlet was © 1981.
And the other piece of paper was a one dollar bill. Jeff dropped it, and it fluttered out the door, folded itself neatly into a smart green butterfly, took wing and floated away.
Jeff swept his arm though the stacks of money, standing up now, and dug up necklaces! And books! Videotapes! Piles and piles of audio tapes! The other two men were helping now, finding press releases and marketing plans and stickers and buttons and CD's and medals and plates and inflatable squid and DVD's and pipes and everywhere money, calculators, coin stackers, money wrappers, sales lists, mailing lists, membership lists. Dave picked up this list and read the first page. His lip trembled faintly. "Eternal Salvation $30 - Or Triple Your Money Back." It was stamped on the top of the page.
"Thirty dollars. That's what they were charging. Thirty dollars to escape the end of the world."
Tony had just coughed onto the classified ads section of the New York Times dated July 1st, 1998. Around the twitching specks of his own flesh, he could see ad after ad that said "the world ends july 5th 1998 send $30 to po box 140306 dallas tx 75214 and you will be saved!" There were lots of the ads, all written differently but all saying basically the same thing, crammed in with the prayers to St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary and the Great Spirit.
The men were so intent on what they had discovered that they didn't even hear the faint creaking of the roof's nails being bent, ever so slowly, out of their seating. Not until the roof itself was torn off, and they all looked up screaming.
The Heads were there, and their Pipes were twin swords of energy jutting from their jaws. And above them in the sky, the clouds had parted and they
could finally see what was up there, the thing they hadn't wanted to look at.
It was an Eye.
"WELL IF IT ISN'T BIG JEFF TREMAINE!" said the Voice from above, a Voice so loud that it shook the trees and send the papers flying everywhere and drove all three men to their knees. "REMEMBER FOURTH GRADE? REMEMBER MAKING ME EAT THAT CAN OF DOG FOOD? HOW DO YOU LIKE THE TASTE OF DOG FOOD NOW, EH BIG JEFF?"
Jeff seemed to cringe inside his skin, shrinking, cowering from the Voice and the Eye. His voice was the squeak of a mouse in a trap. "Who ..." "OH YOU PROBABLY DON'T REMEMBER ME JEFF, BUT I REMEMBERED YOU! " And then another Voice was shattering the sky, bringing blood to their ears. "TOO BAD YOU PINK BOYS MISSED THE BOAT!" it bellowed, a woman's voice grown as loud as a brass band. "I TRIED TO SELL YOU SALVATION BUT YOU JUST WEREN'T INTERESTED! TOO LATE NOW!"
Dave was clawing at his pockets with his numb fingers, looking for his wallet. Then he snatched up a fistful of money and waved it at the sky, tears running down his face. The other men were doing the same, leaping, pleading, tossing money upwards towards the Eye, weeping in terror as the Heads bent over the shell of the building. The men's tiny voices ran together, sounding like one endless begging. "Please ... we have the money ... we want to be saved ... please ... we'll join ... PLEAASEEE!"
But all there was in the sky was laughter. Giant, booming laughter, that faded away into the distance. Very far away. As far away as the stars. The Pipes came alight.
Dave, Tony and Jeff screamed.
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