Image by Bryan DeLae © 2016
The title is his as well – Take a look at his fantastic artwork here.
It had rained for days. There were rainbow colored halos in the sky, strange circles that looked ominous, but beautiful at the same time. The clouds wove strange patterns in the sky, creating a lace doodled ornament that looked like it had been misplaced.
He walked the road. It was easier than wading through fields of broken flowers, old unattended crops and mud. The road wasn’t the safest place to be though, he would probably be safer in the fields, treading the path less worn but he didn’t care anymore. He walked for the sake of walking, walked for the sake of getting there.
He knew where that was, but he wasn’t sure he knew the way. Maybe in the old world he would have been able to find his way, would have been able to walk the roads, read signs and find certain places he knew existed. The world had changed since then. It wasn’t predictable, it wasn’t the way it had been. It was filthy and futile and, to him at least, it wasn’t logical anymore.
He hated that. The one thing he could always count on was gone and if the world was ugly before things broke, it had just been the foretaste. The way it rained wasn’t normal. The way you could sometimes see a regular rainbow, even without the sun present, wasn’t normal. He had seen one in the night, right in front of him as he was cuddled up to a brick wall. He had reached his hand out to touch it and it had broken into a thousand pieces, like a car window shattered by a stone shot from underneath a tire, or a bullet.
The only thing left of it the next day was a considerable headache and a wet spot on the ground where it had been the night before and he contemplated the idea that it had been a dream, but dismissed it – he knew better.
He always had his hat on. It didn’t shelter him from the rain, but it helped when the sun was blazing. There had been warm days, days when he considered just sitting down on the road and let the sun bake him dry, dehydrate him completely so he could become a mummified corpse with dusty brown skin and lifeless limbs. But when he imagined himself sitting there, thirsty to the point of death, hungry and desperate he realised he wouldn’t be able to do it. He would always get up again, always get up to move forward on that pathetic road, because he did have somewhere to go, though he didn’t quite know how to get there.
He remembered her best in the kitchen fighting fruit flies with a spatula, turning in circles while waving the thing around with that angry look on her face. And he remembered so well how the anger had turned to softness as soon as she saw him, it was one of the many signs of love he had known and appreciated, though he had rarely said so out loud.
“Some day,” she’d always said, “We’ll pack a bag and we’ll go to Paris.”
They never had. There was never time, never enough money to do so and when she died, along with so many others it had been just one of the many things he regretted.
Regret hadn’t been an important part of his life at first after the big breakdown, sorrow had been the deepest aspect, self loathing had been a big thing too, but in the end after all the fights and after the sickness had subsided or transformed, he didn’t know, what was left was just that: the regret.
He regretted many things, but the only thing he knew how to correct was the trip to Paris, and so he set himself a goal. He would walk and he would walk until he reached Paris, whatever it was now, he would get there or die trying.
And he had started walking.
The world wasn’t anything like it had been. Most things that had been built had vanished in slings of creeper plants, most manmade things were now completely destroyed, gone from the world that had reformatted itself to look complete different. The few monuments that were left of the old world stood out odd and ridiculous.
But the road was still there, and he walked it and he would be damned if he would give up. He had his hat on and he had all he needed in his rug sack and from time to time he left the road to find springs of water or some food. It wasn’t particularly difficult, if you didn’t count the hostility you met on the way. The plants were aggressive, but he had a sheath he used to protect himself with and he had won every battle so far, whether it was with plants or men.
When he met the woman on the road, he was sure she was one of the fiends. They often came in the form of desperate people trying to take away from him what they thought they needed to survive. He knew it was the hunger talking, sickness or the last remains of the survival instincts that had partially broken down, but it didn’t matter to him – not anymore.
She was different however, she didn’t seem to want him dead necessarily. She just looked lonely as she sat on the road in her polkadot dress, chewing the raw bone of a ferret. She looked at him as he carefully approached her. He had been hoping he could pass by without any interference, hoping she wouldn’t attack him and he wasn’t one to attack first.
“Do you want some?” she asked him, waving the meat at him. it startled him so greatly he almost lost his balance and fell on his face. It wasn’t just that people hadn’t spoken like that to him in what seemed like decades, it was the genuine hospitality and kindness in her voice.
He didn’t actually want to eat ferret meat, but he couldn’t let the woman’s kindness go unnoticed, so he thanked her, profusely and accepted some of the meat. It was tough, but surprisingly good.
She smiled at him and he noticed she lacked a front tooth in the upper jaw. It would have revolted him, back in the days, but now he just wondered what had happened to her. There was a scar too, to match, on her upper lip, a scar so deep the wound had created a gap in her lip. It wasn’t decorative, but it wasn’t unbecoming either.
“Where are you heading?” he asked her, realising how long it was since he had a polite conversation with anyone. All the conversation he’d had for too long where a few grunts when he’d exchanged necessary commodities with people who were as suspicious of him as he was of them.
This woman didn’t seem suspicious of him, maybe she just didn’t care.
“Heading?” she asked, rather surprised, “Towards heaven,” she said and cackled with laughter. It was a rather crude laugh, one he didn’t care for but he smiled and let her laugh herself dry. When she was finished she became serious and looked at him, “Does that mean you’re heading somewhere in particular?” she asked.
“I’m going to Paris,” he said. “My wife always said we’d go there one day and I wouldn’t want to disappoint her.” It was the honest truth, the only one he knew to tell.
“Can I come with you?”
Her plea was simple and yet ever so surprising. He hadn’t enjoyed being on the road alone, but it had been simple and he imagined being on the road with someone else would be complicated and even more hazardous, especially with a woman who was vulnerable, he imagined, to all sorts of attacks he hadn’t had to fend off so far.
But he couldn’t say no to her. He knew his wife would forgive him for letting her tag along, even pat him on the back for doing the right thing. Because though she hadn’t wished him to go to Paris without her or with another woman, she wouldn’t have wanted him to go there alone either. She wouldn’t have wanted him to be cold hearted and she certainly wouldn’t have wanted him to be so alone that he’d become half crazy, talking to stones he picked up of the road and named Steve, or Joan.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked him, as if she chanced upon his thoughts.
“John,” he said.
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders, “Peculiar, I’m Joana,” she said and stretched her hand out. They shook the old fashioned way and before he knew it they were trudging down the dirt path together, while he was wondering if she was a figment of his imagination come to life – Joan, Joana, it was strikingly similar.
The days went on in a non-distinctive way, or as much so as the world allowed. It wasn’t easy to get used to the quick exchange in weather conditions, snow one day and blazing heat the next. It wasn’t easy to be indifferent to the beasts he occasionally saw in the distance. He had seen a half lion, half scorpion the size of an elephant and became afraid his perception was failing him. These beasts didn’t approach though, never came anywhere near the road, but were strange enough to still make him very uneasy.
Joana didn’t seem too concerned with the lay of the land or the things they encountered on the road. Instead she was busy talking, she talked constantly about the life she used to live and about the people who were in her life before shit hit the fan. She never touched on the subject of their demise and he never asked, thought it would be inconsiderate of him to remind her of the horror he was sure she’d had to endure.
He tried to keep her away from the parties of raiders and dishevelled men that he sometimes had to approach in order for them to survive. It didn’t hit him until then how few women were in their midst and the thought bothered him. He didn’t think women were any less capable of defending themselves, or care for themselves in this new world, and so it baffled him what had happened to them.
Perhaps the world had a different path for the women? But then why was Joana here? Constantly talking about her past as if it was as tangible to her as the rock beneath their feet? Perhaps it was, perhaps it was just he that felt that a fog was settling on his mind, blurring the moments he’d had with his wife, blurring the life he’d lived before – perhaps it was just him.
Then one day his biggest fears came to pass.
They were strolling down that same dirt road, the sun was shining, a few clouds browsing the sky and it wasn’t all too uncomfortable to be alive. They had been walking since early that morning and she had been telling him about her daughter’s cat and how she had got engaged because of that cat.
He noticed them before she did. A pack of he-wolves prowling for trouble, and he realised right away that he wouldn’t be able to stop them, wouldn’t be able to make sure they couldn’t do what they meant to do.
What was worse was that far, far off in the distance he saw the tower. He could see the symbol of love, the symbol that he had been looking for standing there like a minature figure in the distance, mocking him, and he wondered if he was to give up his goal and defend whatever integrity he had, or give up and run with his tail between his legs.
He wanted nothing else, but he couldn’t. When his mind told him to flee, his body walked straight towards the pack of men and told them to buzz off. The men just cackled at him. Joana didn’t seem particularly bothered by them. He figured that either she had been incredibly lucky so far, or she was delusional and if he was to be honest with himself he would have put his money on the latter.
The leader of the pack had a grey beard, long hair and wore an old, worn leather jacket over a dirty tee. His teeth were bad, some were missing and the rest were dark and his compatriots didn’t look much better.
In his mind he regretted comparing them to wolves, it wasn’t fair on the wolves but then they started howling. He noticed that one of the men furthest back was wearing a woman’s bra, a pair of nickers and had a collar around his neck. The sight didn’t puzzle him as much as it should.
“What do you want with us?” he asked them in his most polite manner. He had been a door-to-door salesman for a while and he knew how to approach people reverently but still with his dignity intact, or at least most of it.
The leader cackled, “What do we want, men?” he yelled.
“Beer, meat and pussy,” the men yelled loudly.
“When do we want it?” the leader asked and turned around to face his men.
“NOW!” they all yelled.
“But you see,” the leader said and turned to him again, “We have very little meat left and no beer, but I see you are able to provide us with the last thing on our list, and I’m sure in the spirit of the pack you’ll share. Am I right?”
“I’m not in your pack,” he told them bluntly, regretting his words as they came out, but he couldn’t stop himself, “and she is her own woman and not under my saying, she does as she pleases.”
“How very old-fashioned of you,” the leader said and laughed so his whole body shook.
Joana didn’t look the least bit bothered by this, it was as if her entire posture changed a little and she became lady-like and determined at the same time. “I am on an important mission,” she said, “and you are not allowed to stop me.”
“What mission is that little lady?” The leader asked, grinning.
“I am on a mission of hope, this man needs to get to Paris.”
John cringed at that. It didn’t only put their attention on him, it made him look ridiculous in their eyes and wolves don’t bend their wills to those who look ridiculous.
“Paris?” the leader said, surprised and not a little baffled. “How on this godforsaken planet are you going to find Paris?”
“We will find it, it’s up ahead if you’ll just let us pass,” Joana said.
He looked up again and wondered if anyone but him saw the monument decorating the horizon in the distance.
The leader walked closer to Joana and grinned, “You see, little lady, I will do no such thing because you, in your short polkadot dress, are just what we need to raise our spirit, and we really do need that”.
What happened next shocked John to the core. He had seen a thing or two since the world started to boil, but this was beyond anything he had ever experienced in his long life. The woman, who called herself Joana, suddenly changed shapes. It wasn’t instant, but it was so strange that his senses didn’t quite register what was happening until it was all over and before him stood a beast so large he couldn’t fathom it. She looked like something out of a bad werewolf movie, with her hairy breasts sagging, her entire body reminded him of a wolves body, but she was standing upright and her jaws, though enriched with big, sharp teeth, wasn’t as big as he’d expect of a wolf her size.
Because she was huge, at least 3 meters tall, towering over the men who started to scatter quickly, running away, some even screaming. She ran after them, glancing his way as if to say goodbye or perhaps it was a see-you-later. He wasn’t sure. He watched them go and when they all vanished, one after the other, behind some tall creeper-filled ruins in the flat distance he continued on his way. She would find him if she wanted to.
The tower was there, he could see it clearly now by the horizon. It looked a bit crooked, like the leaning tower of Pisa used to look, looked like it was tipping over, or perhaps it was slowly being swallowed by the earth. He didn’t worry about the woman anymore, she would be able to defend herself, it was he that needed protection and so he didn’t follow the sideshow, but continued on the road, towards the tower.
He could hear the screams of men and then their sudden silence became the intolerable noise.
He didn’t know what he would do when he’d got to the tower. Maybe he would be able to climb it? See the lay of the land from far above and up there he would be able to decide what to do next. He would say a little prayer for his wife, although he had never been particularly religious, and maybe he would say a little prayer for Joana too and then if he didn’t find anything else to do he might take the easy way out, the easy way down.
He didn’t know, but it was good to have his goal in sight so he trudged forward marvelling at the twirls of clouds above the tower. There was no rainbow now, no colorful circles in the sky, but the sky did look promising.