On the Eve of the Eve of the End of the World
by Marla Cantrell
I’m sitting on the shoulder of the highway, two days before the end of the world. I slipped a Xanax in Loyal’s soup at supper or I’d be in the storm cellar with him, stacking sacks of pinto beans onto the shelves we put in this summer.
Loyal and I live off a straight stretch of country road, by a white church that’s been here since 1901. There are a lot of speeders that zip by here, in a hurry to get someplace else.
I’ve always liked watching cars go by. When I was a girl, my brother and I used to play a game where we’d guess the make and model of a car just by the sound of the engine as it topped the hill and then slipped down into the valley where we lived. We’d stand side by side and wait for them to get close enough for us to see. I almost never won.
The biggest win in my life is Loyal. I met him two weeks after Sid Preston broke up with me. I was a wreck but Loyal kept telling me I was wonderful. After a while I started to believe him.
Sid’s the mayor of Halfway now. He’s caught up in a scandal because he put his girlfriend on the payroll and his wife found out. And then the news caught wind of it and interviewed the girlfriend, who looks like me twenty years and ten pounds ago. Blond hair to her waist, green eyes, a little top heavy.
They asked the girlfriend what she’d learned from her disgrace and she said, “A lot. For instance, my grammar’s better. The mayor taught me how to use ‘seen’ and ‘saw’ properly. For example, I’d never say, ‘I seen Mayor Hawkins slipping tax money into a sack he took directly to his safety deposit box down at City Bank.’ No sir,” she said, “I know better now.”
I think about what Sid taught me. I couldn’t repeat any of it on TV.
Sid was a party waiting to happen, and he knew everybody. You’d go in a restaurant and you couldn’t eat for the people coming over to say hi. With Loyal, it’s different. He’s a solitary man who likes the country, doesn’t trust the government, and thinks the world is ending on Friday.
You probably wonder if I think the same. The short answer is no. But when all this started Loyal and I were drifting a little. He works the graveyard shift at the steel plant and I work days at a law office in town. On weekends, when we’d go for a drive, we couldn’t talk for more than five minutes. I thought I might lose him, and then he heard a radio program about the Mayan calendar, which started five thousand one hundred and twenty-five years ago and stops cold on December 21.
“Only the strong and the true will survive,” Loyal said. “I believe an asteroid will hit the earth, or something will happen with black holes in space. Either way, we need to get ready.”
And then he said this. “You do believe I’m strong and true. Don’t you, Leigh?”
That broke my heart.
We spent days talking, figuring out how to get ready. He asked if I’d be willing to use some of our savings to deck out the storm cellar and I said yes.
And then one day in the spring, I saw him unload his truck. He had eighteen jumbo packs of disposable diapers he’d bought from Sam’s Club and he was taking them into the cellar. We’ve been trying for a baby for three years now, and nothing, not even one false alarm.
I watched through the screen door and I imagined Loyal and me hunkered down underground and him pushing our two army cots together and us finally making it happen.
That’s why I go along with him. Even though I figure some Mayan just got sick of recording time, the way I get sick of my own job, when the big wigs down at the firm snap orders like I’m a fast-order cook and turn on their heels to take a three-hour lunch.
So sometimes I forget just how real this all is to Loyal. Three weeks ago I made the mistake of asking Loyal what he wanted for Christmas. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Honey, nobody’s celebrating Christmas this year. You’ve got to give up your old way of thinking.”
I do have a Christmas tree in the living room. Loyal says it’s better if we keep up appearances. He figures the fewer people who know what we’re doing, the safer we’ll be when folks have exhausted all the supplies in the Walmarts and Quick Piks and migrate to the country looking for food.
A car is coming. From the sound of the engine, I believe it’s an SUV or a pickup. Like I said, I’ve never been too good at this game. I stand up and move back off the shoulder. As it gets closer, I can hear something else. “Santa Baby” is playing so loud it sounds like I’m in the good seats at a concert, and I realize the driver must have a speaker system on the outside of the car.
The SUV is covered with Christmas lights. There is a lighted wreath on the front grill.
The driver slows to a crawl. He rolls down the windows and shouts, “Merry Christmas.” Beside him is a woman, dark haired and smiling.
In the back, a boy, four or five years old, sticks out his stockinged head. His face is awash in the light from the car and he looks otherworldly, like an angel sent down.
They look painfully happy, like actors selling toothpaste. I flash my best smile and wave at them as they pass. I want them to keep all their happiness. I want a world of happiness to descend on their car and ride through the world with them.
Tomorrow, Loyal wants to go into town and get matching tattoos that read, Loyal and Leigh Mankin, Married 3-24-2006. May we never part.
I don’t believe in marking my body. But I’ll go just the same. I’ve spent the last year doing things I didn’t believe in, just so I could stay close to Loyal. If the tattoos make him happy, so be it.
I head for home, bending to dip through the barbed wire fence. It’s been too warm a year and still my antique roses bloom.
I stop near the pond, the moon reflecting on its surface, and look up into the navy blue sky. I try to see this place the way Loyal must, a beautiful, doomed oasis.
A shooting star swooshes across the sky, flaring above me. Just then, another star whips by, and then another. I count ten in less than thirty seconds, more than I’ve ever seen, even in an entire night.
It is enough to cause my chest to tighten. What if Loyal is right? What if this is the end of everything? I run, past the barn and the pond, past the grapevines that tangle near the fencerow. The sky is growing brighter, with hundreds of shooting stars that sweep and arc and then turn to nothing.
I stop, my breathing raspy, and squeeze my eyes shut. Should I try to make it back to the barn or sprint the quarter mile home? It’s too much, and I am shaking more than I ever have. I can feel my toes tremble inside my boots. Just then I see the porch light flicker on, the glow yellow on this troubled night. Somehow Loyal has awakened, pushed his way through the Xanax and found me missing. I run even faster, aiming for Loyal, who is strong and true, and who will know what to do, who has always known exactly what to do.
Marla Cantrell is the managing editor/senior writer for Do South Magazine, based in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and recently won an Arkansas Arts Council 2014 Fellowship Award. She loves writing about the great people of the South, particularly in the short story form. This story was originally published in @Urban Magazine. Read her past stories Carry Me Over here and Driving Snake River here.