What’s it like having a brother who’s the end of the world?
Not so hot sometimes, to be honest. But, full disclosure, I know it’s not always a picnic being _my_ brother, either.
When I show up on the doorstep of his apartment this morning, for example, I’m not there for a friendly visit. The truth is, I drop by out of the blue to try to get him to _kill himself._ Plain and simple.
And he _knows_ it. I’ve done it before. _Lots_ of times.
Call me persistent. Because when my brother, John Glass, dies, he will take the world with him. All _humanity_ will end when he finally does himself in.
And that’s something I’ve been craving for a very long time.
When the door creeps open after my seventh knock, I’m hit by the smell first. Body odor, beer, cigarette smoke, burnt popcorn, and some kind of incense or patchouli. Plus an overlay of feces?
Then I see his wretched face peering out of the shadows, somehow bloated and sagging at the same time. Hair the color of straw hangs in greasy flops from a pocked, gray scalp. Bloodshot eyes squint into the bright Los Angeles sunlight, shielded by one scrawny, upraised arm.
When he talks, his voice is as hoarse as any wino’s after a hard night’s hacking it up in alleyways between screaming cats. “Loogie? ‘Zat you?”
I have to admit, he does resemble the end of the world in human form. He looks like seven shades of shit, like death warmed over.
None of which changes the fact that he’s my brother.
“Hey there, John.” I smile and snap off my overpriced Oakley sunglasses–one of the status symbols that comes with my lifestyle as an ultra-successful media mogul. “How’s it hangin’?”
John’s attire is the polar opposite of mine. He scratches his chest through his yellowed wife-beater t-shirt, stuffs his hands in the pockets of his tattered bluejeans, and frowns at me like I just started using a foreign language. His lips move a little, though I can’t tell if he’s trying to form words or just trembling from the aftereffects of substance abuse.
“May I come in?” I shrug and keep smiling. “Or do you have company?” I shoot him a salty wink.
John shakes his head, but I think he’s trying to clear the cobwebs instead of telling me no. “I gotta pee.” He pulls the door further open and drifts off into the shadows inside the apartment.
When I cross the threshold, I nearly trip over an effing guinea pig scampering past. It’s running loose, dribbling turds on the filthy beige carpet. The mystery of the feces smell is solved.
As I walk the rest of the way inside, I want to leave the door open to let in some fresh air, but I guess I can’t do that in case the guinea pig gets out. Might not be the best way to get off on the right foot…though John looks so far gone, I wonder if he even knows that the animal’s there.
“Make yourself at home.” John shouts the words over the sound of buckets of urine blasting into a toilet bowl in the other room.
_Not a chance._ Even with blackout blinds keeping out most of the daylight, I can see by the TV’s glow that the place is squalid as a rat’s nest. There’s garbage everywhere–mostly pizza boxes, Chinese takeout cartons, beer cans, and liquor bottles. The battered gray sectional sofa’s covered with dirty clothes, some of which I could _swear_ are moving. Then there’s the big crimson stain on the carpet across the room, which could be anything from red wine to blood.
What with the smell, which is so much stronger inside with the door shut, it’s enough to make me gag. And you wanna know the tragic part?
It isn’t even the worst place I’ve found him in over the years. Not even close.
“Want a drink?” I notice the toilet doesn’t flush before he walks back into the living room. No hand-washing water runs in the sink, either. “You see a half-empty bottle of Mad Dog laying around in here, Loogie?”
I don’t correct him for the billionth time that my name’s not _Loogie_, it’s _Doug._ What difference would it make? “I’ve got a better idea. Put some shoes on, and I’ll buy you breakfast.”
The guinea pig runs over and stops between his feet. John leans down for a look, and his shredded blue jeans drop around his ankles.
He’s _that_ skinny at this point. He’s that ragged. Looks like he’s not long for this world. Like he’ll die soon enough without any encouragement.
But he won’t. Trust me, I know. He’s not going anywhere unless he damn well wants to.
For a long moment, he just stands there like he doesn’t realize his pants are down and his baggy gray briefs are hanging out. A blank, lost look hovers over his face, like maybe he doesn’t even realize where he _is_ anymore…and my heart goes out to him.
He may be many things, but he’s still my brother.
“Hey, John. Pants.” I point at his jeans. “I think they need a lift.”
John nods slowly and bends over. As soon as his jeans clear the floor, the guinea pig shoots out from under them and disappears under the sofa.
“Any chance you have a belt in here somewhere?” I ask him.
“A belt?” He says it like it’s something he’s never heard of or imagined.
Which is why I trot out the one thing I know will reach him. “What about your Tom Mix anniversary belt? The one with the commemorative buckle?” As I say it, I step over and touch his arm, giving him a little zap of my rejuvenating power–one of the perks of being who I am instead of the end of the world like him.
It’s just enough to blow away some of his fog. He blinks his eyes hard, and they come back into focus. “Tom Mix?” His slack jaw tightens in a smile. “Yes, I know I’ve got that around here somewhere.”
And just like that, he’s my old brother John again, the way he should be. I knew he was in there somewhere.
At first, I think I’m going to have to spoon-feed him his breakfast. He stares at the tray of McDonald’s hotcakes and sausage like it’s changing colors and doesn’t make a move to pick up his plastic cutlery and dig in. Then, he nods off and slumps toward it.
“Hey, John!” When my voice fails to wake him, I jump up from my orange plastic bench and lean over to give him a shake. “Breakfast time, remember?”
His eyes flicker open and find the food. “You can have mine, Loogie.”
“I can’t eat my Egg McMuffin _and_ your hotcakes and sausage, bro.” I jam the black plastic knife and fork in his hands and sit down at my side of the table again. “You gotta help me out here.”
He pokes a yellow hotcake with the fork and scowls. “I didn’t ask for this, Loogie.”
I smirk and unwrap my Egg McMuffin. “So you don’t think Tom Mix would eat a breakfast like that if someone put it in front of him?”
Even without a zap of my power, he perks up at the mention of that name. He always does.
Reluctantly, John cuts off a sliver of hotcake with the plastic knife. “He did believe in a healthy breakfast, Loogie.”
Does McDonald’s qualify? I admit, I didn’t want to take him somewhere nicer until I could get him cleaned up. “Most important meal of the day, they say.”
John forks the sliver into his mouth and chews it slowly. When he swallows, his Adam’s apple lurches like he’s gulping down half a porterhouse. “I just wish I could find that belt.”
He’s talking about his Tom Mix belt with the commemorative buckle. He looked everywhere in his shithole apartment before he gave up and let me cinch his jeans with duct tape. “It’ll turn up,” I tell him.
“I love that belt.” Tears mist his veiny green eyes. “Almost as much as I loved that hat.” He wipes his mouth with the back of a shivering hand. “Remember the hat?”
How could I forget? “Sure I do.” It was a white ten-gallon hat, a replica of the one Tom Mix wore in the movies. John wore it everywhere as a kid, though it was a few sizes too big for him and often fell down over his eyes.
John pinches the tears from his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. “God, I miss that hat.” He chokes out a sob.
I’ve heard it all before. I just eat my Egg McMuffin and let him cry it out, mourning for his beloved Tom Mix.
Now, you might think it’s odd for a middle-aged guy like John in the early 21st century to be obsessed with Tom Mix. To look at him, you might not think he’s old enough to remember an old-fashioned movie star cowboy like Mix, let alone to have seen his movies when they first debuted in the 1920s.
And guess what? You’d be so effing wrong, it’s not even funny.
Not only that, but _I_ was there, too. Saw the same movies when they premiered on the big screen, in fact.
But enough of the Tom Mix crybaby crap. I’ve got to get my big brother on track or I’m never going to get him to kill himself on schedule.
“John, hey.” I reach over and pat his arm. “Eat up. It’s gonna be a busy day.”
One last sob, and he lowers his fork and knife to the Styrofoam platter again. It seems like it takes a major effort to cut more slivers from the hotcake and push them into his mouth, but he forces himself to keep eating.
As for me, I polish off the Egg McMuffin and sip black coffee while I watch him at work. “It’s like old times, isn’t it? You and me having breakfast together?”
He nods and narrows his eyes at me. Suddenly, I feel like the fog has completely burned off, and his focus is back to laser intensity.
“So what do you want, Doug?” He cocks his head. “Why the fuck are you here, instead of tending your fucking media empire?”
He’s right about the empire, though I make it a point never to rub his nose in it. I own three cable networks, TV stations in five of the top ten markets, and a video streaming service that’s number seven with a bullet on the interwebs. Let’s just say I haven’t been resting on my laurels during all those decades of waiting for this Godot wannabe. “Oh, you know.” I smile cryptically over my black coffee.
“The usual?” His eyes get narrower.
I shake my head as I blow on my coffee. “Can’t I just spend some quality time with my big brother?”
“So you’re _not_ here to get me to kill myself?”
I let out a chuckle. “That ship has sailed, John. You need to get over it.”
“Bullshit.” He stares at me some more. “You’ll _never_ give up. You _can’t._” He spears his whole sausage patty with the fork and shakes it at me. “It’s your _nature_.”
I shrug. “People change, John.”
“Sure.” He nods knowingly. “But we aren’t _people_.”
He’s got me there. We might _look_ like the other customers at the tables around us, but we’re as far from ordinary people as they come.
And he’s right about my never giving up. My core purpose in life depends on him. I can’t truly come into my own until he finally lets go.
Because just as he’s the end of one era, I’m the start of the next. I’m fated to bring to life what comes _after_ the end…which I can’t do while he’s still kicking. He needs to perish, and I’ve got a plan to make sure he does.
But keeping all that to myself is part of the gambit. So is lying through my teeth.
“I’ve changed, John,” I tell him. “So has everything else. I can’t help it if you were too far up your own ass to notice.”
“Changed so we both get what we always wanted.” I toast him with my coffee. “Here’s to the happy ending to end all happy endings, my brother.”
After breakfast, I take him shopping at a discount store, picking up clothes and toiletries and a razor–a cleanup kit. He fades out on me a little, lost inside his own head, maybe considering the hints I dropped at McDonald’s about the way things have changed.
By the time I get him to the local YMCA, he’s back to shuffling like a hung-over zombie. Makes me wonder if he’s on hard drugs again, but I guess that’s irrelevant.
I send him into the showers with a bar of soap and a tube of shampoo, and then I wait. He’s in there a while, but I don’t mind.
The son of a bitch has already kept me waiting for decades. What difference will another couple of minutes make?
It might not look like it, what with the media empire and all, but I’ve kept my life on hold because of him for longer than most people have been alive. I’ve put off fulfilling my true destiny, becoming who and what I was always meant to be, because of that selfish prick dragging his feet.
But not for much longer, if things go according to plan.
Suddenly, I feel a wave of impatience. “Doing okay in there?”
He says something I can’t make out over the running water, but I’ll take it for a “yes.”
Turning, I catch sight of my reflection in a full-length mirror on the locker room wall. Tall, trim, sober, well-groomed, good-looking–the opposite of him. My tailored Italian suit–close-fitting, black with razor-thin red pinstripes and a crimson designer necktie–has nothing in common with his wife beater t-shirt and shredded jeans. With my jet black hair, brown eyes, and high cheekbones, I don’t even look like I had the same mother.
But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Considering who he is and who I am, it makes perfect sense.
As he waddles out of the shower naked, grabbing a towel off a hook on the wall, he doesn’t look at all like the end of the world. But that’s what he is.
Though, to be specific, I guess I should say he’s the end of the part of the world that matters to people. The end of all the _people_, that is.
As for me, I’m also a world-changing force in human form, but my essence–and the footprint it’s fated to leave on the face of the Earth–are very different indeed.
“Ready for a shave, John?” I gesture at the razor and travel-size can of shaving cream on the edge of the sink.
John finishes buffing the water from his chest and belly with the towel and gives me a funny look. “What’s the catch, Loogie? You’re not planning on taking me to a _funeral_, are you?”
“It’s a surprise.” I smack him on the back on his way to the sink. “You’ll thank me later.”
He scowls over his shoulder, suspicious. I can practically see the gears turning…but he won’t guess what I have in store for him. He’s my brother, we’ve known each other forever, but there’s always been a gulf between us that can’t be crossed. Because there’s always a distance between an ending, like the end of the world…
…and a _beginning_, like me.
When the first Dodger batter steps up to the plate in Dodger Stadium in the bottom of the first inning, I catch John grinning with unabashed delight. The suspicion he’s been oozing at my every word and action blows right out of him. He’s just glad to be here in an awesome front row seat along the first base line, watching a Major League baseball game in person for the first time in God only knows how long.
“Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” He’s sitting on the edge of his seat, drinking in everything except the ballpark beer he begged for (which I wouldn’t let him get). Seeing him like that, all cleaned up and clean-shaven, wearing a new black polo shirt, tan khakis, and black Oxford shoes, I can hardly believe he’s the same dirty, dead-eyed guy who answered the door at that rat’s nest apartment a few hours ago.
He cheers when the Dodger batter hits a single, smack between the shortstop and third base. The runner rounds first but gives up on second when the left fielder snags the ball in time to scare him off.
“Nice hit!” John claps and grins. For a moment, it’s like old times. I remember the two of us watching the original Dodgers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing at Ebbets Field in Flatbush. John and I side by side, laughing in the sunshine, cheering and pumping our fists in the battered baseball gloves we’d brought to catch any foul balls that came our way.
Did we know by then what we were? Did we realize where our preordained destinies would take us? Honestly, I forget. When you live as many years as we have, the details tend to blur. It’s like riding in a fast-moving car; you get a sense of the landscape passing by, but you don’t always know where you’ve been.
Days like this stand out, though. The ones where the surprises happen. The ones with the drama.
The ones where your heart beats faster because you’re in the stands at what’s probably the last ballgame you’ll ever see with your brother. What’s probably one of the last ballgames in the history of humankind, in fact.
And as much as you welcome that ending, as much as you’ve effing _longed_ for it, you still feel a stab of dread and nostalgia because of the change about to come.
Another batter smacks a grounder and lands on first, and John and I cheer and stomp. We _really_ get in the spirit when the next guy loads the bases, and the Dodgers’ best hitter comes to bat.
He whiffs twice, and we hold our breath. Then, with one mighty stroke, he blasts the ball out of the park. _Grand slam._ Just like that, it’s a four-to-nothing ballgame.
Everyone’s on their feet, including us, as the runners trot home. John elbows me excitedly, whooping and flailing as the grand slam hitter circles the infield.
“Oh my God, this is great!” He shakes my shoulder, his face glowing with pure, perfect joy. “I’m so lucky I was here to see it!”
“The tickets _were_ hard to get,” I tell him. “The Dodgers are having a hell of a season.”
“I’m not talking about the _tickets_.” John shakes me again. “I mean I would’ve _missed_ all this if I’d _killed_ myself! I would’ve missed _so much, _Loogie. So many of the little _surprises _that the world has in store! We _all_ would have missed them, because the world as we know it would be gone!”
I smile, but we’re not on the same page here. His not killing himself isn’t such a blessing in my book. Letting humanity continue to overrun and poison the planet isn’t much of a plus, if you ask me.
The stubborn bastard hasn’t done me any favors by sticking around. I guess the thousands of people in the stadium would feel differently about it if they knew. None of them would be here right now if not for him refusing to accept his responsibility and step aside.
But I’ll bet the _next_ ones, the creatures who are supposed to inherit the Earth and finally get it _right_ this time, would have another take on things. They might not appreciate that this asshole brother of mine has kept me from ushering in their brave new world–especially if they knew just how long he’s kept them waiting.
I see them clear as day in my mind, all squirming tentacles and suckers and inside-out, quivering organs. Their multifaceted eyes stare back at me accusingly, aching for their time in the sun. Pressing me to do the one thing I was made for, to usher in the golden age that will be the culmination of all Earth’s millions of years of time out of mind.
Humans want to believe they’re the end result, the apex of evolution. They’d never accept that they’re nothing but a stepping stone, a transitional lifeform laying the groundwork for the planet’s true success story.
John won’t accept it, either. He never has, though both of us were given full knowledge of its inevitability long ago.
And I’m the only one who ever calls him on it. “You’re happy to be alive. I get that.” Now it’s my turn to give _his_ shoulder a shake. “So why do you spend so much time getting _wasted_? Why do you insist on living the way you do?”
John shrugs as his eyes wander to the field, where a walked batter is taking his base. “Because why not? This world is so _fragile_ and _finite,_ as we both know. Why not do what makes us _happy_ while we can? Why bother putting on appearances and living the way other people think we should live?”
“Good point,” I tell him. “It’s all going to end sooner than expected, anyway.”
“No it’s not,” says John. “I’m not planning on dying anytime soon.”
“You still think it _matters_ what you do?” I smirk and shake my head. “Then you’re more out of touch than I _thought_ you were.”
Just then, there’s the solid crack of another hit on the field, but John doesn’t follow it. He’s too busy squinting at me with a confused look on his face.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” he asks me.
“The end of humanity is already in progress.” I nod knowingly. “Even as we speak.”
John’s confused look turns into an angry scowl. “You’re full of shit, Loogie.”
“Can’t you hear it?” I cup my left hand behind my ear. “The fat lady’s singing up a storm, Johnny boy.”
“Pretty sure _I_ would have noticed,” snaps John. “Seeing as how _I’m _the one who’s supposed to set it in motion.”
“Better check your job description, bro. I think it might have changed.”
“You’re not making any _sense_,” says John. “You and I are _constants._ The _end _of one world and the _beginning_ of the next.”
“Which was all supposed to happen _when,_ John? When was the Great Transition originally set to occur?”
That subject takes some of the wind out of his sails. “The Missile Crisis.” He mumbles the words. “The one in Cuba.”
“In 1962?” I shake my head. “That wasn’t the _original_ scheduled end of the world.”
Something makes the crowd cheer, but John’s too busy glaring at me to look at the field. “1942, then. The Second World War.”
Again, I shake my head. “You know that’s not it, John.”
He rubs his freshly-shaven chin. “1915.” He says it grudgingly, as if he hates to admit it.
“Ding ding ding.” I give him a little round of applause. “Give the man a cigar.”
“World War I.” He stares in the direction of the field but seems to look right through the players.
“Well, guess what happens when you delay the apocalypse a century?” I spread my arms and smile. “It happens anyway!”
John’s frown deepens. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure I do. I can _feel_ it happening. I can _feel_ humanity’s replacements rising out of the muck.” I shoot him a wink. “The wait is over, John.”
His eyes narrow. “I’m supposed to believe this is all happening without me? That it’s just happening _spontaneously?”_
“I didn’t say _that._” I gesture at the crowd in the stands around us. “It’s happening because of _them._ You can’t hold them _back_ anymore! They _want_ it to be over.”
His eyes narrow even more. “You’re talking about global warming? Climate change?”
“It isn’t _always_ about climate change, John.” I snort out a laugh. “I’m talking about extinction level shit you’ve never even _heard of_ yet. These dumb fucks are circling the drain, and there’s no turning back.”
Just then, as if on cue, the whole crowd moans and boos. Looking at the field, I see that the Giants are at bat and have just brought in three runners on a homer to left field.
Meanwhile, John’s oblivious to the game. I can practically feel the heat radiating from his overclocked brain as he processes what I’ve told him.
“So how long do we have, Doug?” His voice is even, impossible for me to read. “How long till the end?”
I close my eyes, pretending to tap into my mystic link with the end times and the reboot that will follow them. “Very soon, John. A matter of weeks.” I open my eyes. “The final stage is already underway.”
“Weeks.” Eyes still narrowed, he nods at me, measuring my words. “Then what? What happens to _me_, if humanity ends without me flipping the switch?”
“Live on as a remnant of the old world, maybe?” I frown. “Help guide the new kings of the Earth? Assuming you find a way to communicate with them, that is. They won’t be much like humans, I’m afraid.”
“Sounds like a blast,” says John. “What if I just fade away, instead?”
“I guess that’s a possibility, too.”
“So what’s the use, am I right?” John leans toward me. “Why not get out while the getting’s good?”
_Sarcasm._ The jig is up. Whatever substance-induced haze was clouding his mind, it’s burned off, now. So has any chance that this lame-ass reverse psychology of mine might convince him to off himself.
_C’est la vie._ It was only ever an opening gambit, anyway. The biggest trick is still up my sleeve.
“Want me to do it _right now?”_ John raises his hands, palms forward, and closes his eyes. “Just release myself in the top of the third inning and be done with it?”
“Up to you.” I shrug. “Or it might make for an interesting seventh inning stretch.”
He opens his eyes and sneers at me. “I _knew_ it. You _never_ change, Loogie.”
“Did you really think this would work? Did you think you could talk me into it that easily?”
“Nope.” I shake my head and get out my phone. “I thought _this_ might work, though.” I open an app and hold up the phone for him to see.
He scowls at the image of himself on the screen and the text underneath it. “What the _fuck?_”
“I was right, wasn’t I?” I can see it in his eyes. “Gotcha, bro!”
John grabs for the phone, but I jerk it away, then take a look at my handiwork on the screen. The word “TERRORIST” is emblazoned across his photo. The text under it tells the story of his plot to destroy Los Angeles. His _fake_ plot, dreamed up by yours truly.
“What kind of joke _is_ this?” Aware of the people around us, John lowers his voice. “I’m no _terrorist._”
“And I suppose you’re not a _serial pedophile_, either?”
“Of course not!”
I touch a button on the screen, and a countdown appears in red digital numbers above his photo. “Five minutes from now, you _will_ be.” I raise my eyebrows and nod. “This story, complete with the locations of damning evidence, will go out to every news organization and law enforcement agency in the country.”
John’s eyes pop as reality sets in. “_What?”_
“And did I mention the Jumbotron?” I point the phone at the giant video screen across the ballpark. “It goes up there _first_. So maybe fix your hair a little, there’s a cowlick right…” I reach toward his head.
He swats my hand away. “No!” Panic spreads over his features like a wine stain on a wedding dress. “You can’t _do_ this!”
“That’s one theory.” I waggle the phone in my grip. “But what if I _can?_ What if I _do?”
His mouth falls open, but no words come out.
“_I’ll_ tell you what. Life as you know it is _over_, that’s what. So much for enjoying all the little surprises that the future has in store. Starting in…” I check the countdown. “Starting in three minutes, you’ll be captured, ruined, imprisoned, and made to suffer for the rest of your existence. Your life will become a fucking _nightmare_. Everything you _love_ will be out of reach _forever_.”
“But I’m _innocent.”_
“Not for long.” I shake my head decisively. “Stick a fork in yourself, Johnny boy. You’re _done._”
“I _can._ Media empire, remember?” I waggle the phone in his face. “_One minute._”
“Oh God, oh God.” Doors are slamming behind him. All he can see is the darkness ahead.
When he woke up in his usual stupor this morning, he never imagined today would work out this way. Now here he is, and the clock’s running out. There’s only one thing left to say.
“All right.” He slumps in his seat, the picture of absolute defeat. “You win.”
I touch a button on the phone, and the countdown pauses at ten seconds. I shake the screen at him. “Back out, and I take it off pause. Capische?”
He nods brokenly, staring into space.
“It’s for the best, you know,” I tell him. “You put it off as long as you could.”
He turns his head, then, and meets my gaze. “I could have put if off longer. I _would_ have.”
_If not for me._ “Whatever.”
He sits up straighter. “There’s just one thing.”
I frown. “What’s that?”
“I have one condition,” says John. “A last request.” Somehow, he manages a small smile, and then he tells me what he has in mind.
John and I stand in the middle of Ventura Boulevard in the low late afternoon sun, facing East, and wait as the human race dies out around us.
Screams and sirens and gunshots fill the air from all directions. Flames lap at the blue sky above us as Studio City burns to the ground.
Thanks to John, who has flipped the inner switch that will soon end his life, the final chapter of humanity’s sordid story is being written at last. No more wars, no more poverty, no more endless murder and torture and violation.
We have brought down the curtain on a failed experiment, paving the way for something kinder and wiser and more viable by far. We’ve traded up for the kind of rulers the Earth deserves, the kind it should have had all along.
Now it’s time for me to live up to my end of the bargain. Time to grant the final request John made me promise to fulfill back at the ballpark.
“Where is he?” John sounds nervous, like he’s wondering if I’ll go back on my promise.
But I won’t. “He’ll be here.” It’s the least I can do, now that Armageddon is finally unfolding. Now that I’ve gotten what I want.
More than that, it’s the least I can do for my brother. It’s the least I can do for the one person I’ve known and cared about all my life, even as he drove me crazy and held me back from coming into my own.
When the action dies down, and the world of humans breathes its last, he’ll fade away. Soon enough, I’ll never see him again.
So I’m glad, this one last time, that I can make him happy again. That I can give him something he’s longed for as much as I’ve longed for an end and new beginning of the world.
“Is that him?” Excitedly, John points at a distant figure that appears down the street. “Is it?”
Low, roiling smoke clouds the view. “Don’t know.” The figure is unclear at first, bobbing and swaying in the murk. But a distinctive sound precedes it, high-pitched enough to penetrate the apocalyptic cacophony of dying L.A.
_Whistling._ The figure is whistling something…a song. The closer it gets, the more clear it becomes, until I recognize it for what it is: “Don’t Fence Me In.”
John steps forward, peering into the smoke. “Wait…wait…”
The figure resolves itself, pushing through the worst of the smoke, but I leave it to John to announce who it is. I let him be the one to say the incredible words he must never have imagined he would say or hear again.
“That _is_ him.” John’s voice shakes with gleeful anticipation. “That _is_ Tom Mix!”
_Fuckin’-A right it is._
As the man on the horse rides closer, I have to admit they both look great. They both look like they’re in their primes in the 1920s or ’30s.
Not bad for a pair of corpses that’ve been moldering in the grave for ages.
When Tom gets within thirty yards of us, he smiles and waves. He’s dressed in white Western garb–white shirt, white trousers, white chaps, white ten-gallon hat…and a white belt with a pair of pearl-handled six-shooter revolvers in white holsters, one hung from either hip.
Tom’s famous horse, Tony, is mostly brown, with a blaze of white extending along his face and muzzle. He tosses his head in the same jaunty way that Tom just waved, as if to say hello.
John’s eyes are huge. I can tell it takes everything he has to keep from racing over to greet his idol.
“Howdy!” says Tom when he gets a little closer. “Good to see you fellers!”
As soon as the words leave Tom’s mouth, Tony whinnies in agreement.
John raises a hand and waves. For a moment, he is dumbstruck by the miracle riding toward him.
I have to admit, I’m damn proud of my work. As a force of creation, of the beginning of a new species, I have the power to reenergize hungover brothers–or reanimate dead legends for at least a little while. It’s not a trick; that’s the real Tom and Tony over there. But it did cost me dearly.
Bringing them back took so much juice that the debut of humanity’s successor species will be delayed. A wait that has already felt like an eternity will be prolonged many months more. Mother Earth’s reboot will be put on hold until my weakened power recharges enough to kick-start evolution.
But it’s worth it. Worth every minute of additional waiting.
“What’re your names, pardners?” asks Tom as he rides up and stops a few feet from John and me.
John stays tongue-tied, so I speak on his behalf. “I’m Doug, but this man here is your biggest fan. His name’s John Glass.”
“Is that right?” Tom grins and tips his hat to John. “Well, good to meetcha, Glass. You half-empty or half-full?”
“Half-full.” John says it softly, like a shy little boy meeting Santa Claus.
I laugh. “Ain’t that the truth!”
John is beaming. He finally finds the words he’s been searching for. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to meet you, Mr. Mix. I’ve been a fan of yours forever.”
“Very kind of you, John,” says Tom. “And please, call me ‘Tom.'”
“You were always my hero, Tom,” says John. “I thought of you when I felt the most lost, and you helped me find my way.”
“Funny you should say that.” Tom tips his hat back with one white-gloved hand. “I’m feelin’ pretty lost about now myself.” He looks around at the blazing city, which continues to ring with screams and sirens.
“Could you use someone to ride with, Tom?” I ask. “Someone to show you around a bit?”
“Sure could.” Tom winks and pats his horse’s neck. “Got anybody in mind?”
Tony winks, too.
I look at my brother, as if there’s ever any doubt. “What do you say, John?”
John’s eyes fill with tears, and he wipes them away. His lips form a tight line as he clenches them against the sobs fighting to get out.
Grinning, I bob my head toward the man on the horse. “Burning daylight here, Johnny boy. What do you say?”
Suddenly, John lunges forward and throws his arms around me. _”Thank you.”_ He whispers the words in my ear as he holds on for dear life.
I pat his back. “_De nada_, pardner.” I think I’ve got a few tears of my own on the way.
“Sorry for keeping you waiting, brother,” whispers John. “I just couldn’t let go.”
“I know the feeling.” I’m having trouble letting go myself. Now that I’m faced with the thought of losing him, I hate to break the hug.
Fortunately, Tom intervenes. “Maybe I better hit the dusty trail on my own, fellers.”
John gives me one last squeeze and pushes away. “Not a chance, Mr. Mix. I’d love to be your guide.”
Tom narrows his eyes. “You sure about that?”
“I wouldn’t miss it in a million years,” says John.
“Then saddle up, pardner.” Tom pats the horse’s back behind him. “Time’s a-wastin’.”
John hurries over, and Tom reaches down to give him a hand up. Light as a feather, John swings a leg over Tony and lands in the saddle behind Tom.
“Seeya, bro.” I smile and wave.
John looks perfectly comfortable riding with Tom, as if he’s always belonged there. It’s hard to believe he was ever a hopeless addict and an obstacle to planetary evolution.
It’s also hard to believe that I’m never going to see him again.
“Aydios, pardner,” says John with a goodbye gesture–a salute of his index and middle fingers glancing off his left temple.
Tom tugs on the reins. Tony whinnies and tosses his head, then turns and trots off down the street.
“Hasta la vista!” Tom waves without looking back, then whistles “Back in the Saddle” as he and my brother ride west. A warm wind blows toward them, clearing a path through the smoke as if on cue in a Hollywood movie.
They are silhouetted by the setting sun as they sway off down Ventura Boulevard, outlines blurring against the bright golden disk as it melts like butter into the rippling horizon.
Robert Jeschonek is an American writer and author of essays, articles, comic books, and podcasts. He writes fiction in a wide range of genres, including fantasy, humor, literary, mystery, science fiction, and super-heroes. His work is intended for young readers, young adults, and adult readers. Fantasy author Adrian Phoenix has called him “…the literary love child of Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman.”
His young adult urban fantasy novel, My Favorite Band Does Not Exist, was published in 2011 by Clarion Books. It was named a Top Ten First Novel for Youth by Book list and won first place in the Teen/Young Adult category of the 2012 Forward National Literature Awards. His science fiction thriller, Day 9, won first place in the Fiction: Cross-Genre category of the 2013 International Book Awards. Jeschonek also won the 2013 Scribe Award for Best Original Novel from the International Association of Media and Tie-In Writers for his alternate history novel Tannhäuser: Rising Sun, Falling Shadows.
According to Mike Resnick, “(Jeschonek) sees the world like no one else sees it, and makes incredibly witty, incisive stories out of that skewed worldview.” Jeschonek was long-listed for the British Fantasy Award in 2007 for his story, “Fear of Rain.”
Jeschonek’s credits include Star Trek fiction published by Pocket Books and Doctor Who fiction from Big Finish. Jeschonek’s work appeared in three volumes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, winning the grand prize in Volume VI. He is one of a select few writers who have been invited to write stories in Peter David’s Star Trek: New Frontier universe. His story, “Oil and Water,” appeared in Star Trek: New Frontier: No Limits.