I walk down the center of the Appalachian Highway, studying my elongated shadow, my lone traveling companion, as it stretches out before me on the pavement, trying to see my former self in the wavering, dark outline—the one buried somewhere beneath the layers of dirt, ragged clothing, and gnarly, overgrown beard.
The eerily quiet roadway is littered with empty cars, parked haphazard, doors left open, as if the drivers suddenly decided to get out and continue their journey on foot. But the truth is that no one abandoned these cars voluntarily.
Haley’s car is not among them. Her little yellow VW is still parked in the driveway beside our home—a modest brick ranch we inherited from her grandparents and painstakingly remodeled. I returned to find the house in ruins, my wife gone. I shouted her name, stumbling over a layer of debris that wasn’t quite dense enough to obscure the ominous dark stains on the carpet below. Somehow, I convinced myself that she could have gotten away, that she was out there somewhere, alive. But the trouble with lying to yourself is there’s always that part, deep down inside, that knows you’re full of shit.
I stop at an older-model Toyota and circle around it. I’ve probably searched hundreds of cars—a time-consuming and often futile task. Imagine if everyone quit their jobs and went into the thievery business. That’s kind of what it’s like. The early bird gets the worm, and the first scavenger gets the flashlight and the bag of Cheetos stashed in the glove compartment. But, occasionally I’d get lucky, and it was worth searching a hundred cars to find that one with a hidden gem.
I open the driver’s side door of the Toyota, and I’d like to say that what I find inside is shocking, but it’s not. Blood is spattered across the dashboard and more is smeared on the driver’s seat in an odd pattern, a gruesome Rorschach test in which I can only see the face of death. I drop my duffle bag at my feet and lean inside the car. My usual routine is to start by pulling down the visors and probing beneath the seats, but not today. Today I haven’t searched a single car. If this one is the one in a hundred that contains a prize, I’ll never know.
I reach for the key in the ignition, struck by the irony of the keychain dangling below it. It depicts a man wielding a crossbow, and I recognize him as a character from that popular zombie TV show. Above his head are the words, “Bring on the apocalypse.” I remember how I laughed at the countless enthusiasts of the show who spent their hard-earned money on survival kits, preparing for the unlikely scenario of an apocalyptic world overrun by the undead. I guess the jokes on me, because the apocalypse is upon us, only what brought it on turned out to be far more frightening than shuffling, moaning cadavers.
I give the key a turn, and the old car starts right up on the first try. It’s been a while since I’ve heard the purr of an engine, and I didn’t realize until now how much I missed this sound that had once been such a part of everyday life. I reach down and pull a large, flat rock from my bag and place it on the accelerator. Then I stick my foot in and press down on the brake pedal. My plan is to simultaneously shift the car into drive, take my foot off the brake, and jump out of the way, like something you’d see in an action movie.
The reality turns out to be more like a scene from a comedy, with me landing ungracefully on my ass as the car jerks forward, nearly taking my leg with it. From my vantage point on the ground, I watch it travel in a fairly straight line, speeding right toward a tractor-trailer. I stand up, my eyes fixed on the retreating vehicle as I wait for the impact with a sick sort of gleeful anticipation, like an arsonist watching a burning match arc toward the trail of gasoline.
The car slams into the semi, the loud crash of metal on metal echoing throughout the otherwise silent landscape. I gaze at the delicate orange-yellow flames flickering near the crumpled hood and the trail of smoke spiraling into the sky with a sense of disappointment. I’d hoped for a fireball, or possibly an explosion. I hadn’t done it for entertainment, but it still would have been nice to see something spectacular.
I do a 180, surveying my surroundings. As I study the dark silhouettes of cars that dot the highway until it disappears into the horizon, I realize that spectacular had been right behind me the whole time. Strips of orange, pink, and violet stretch across the sky, blending where they meet to form shades Crayola could never come close to duplicating.
Some sensory organ, maybe my ears, or my skin, or the hair on my arms, detects a subtle disturbance in the air. Becoming attuned to the slight change in the atmosphere that always precedes the appearance of the ships is a vital survival skill, allowing one a moment or two to run and hide.
But I do neither.
I stand in the middle of the road, waiting. I close my eyes and my wife’s lovely face materializes. I see her tucking her long blonde hair behind her ears. I see my hand on her belly, following the curve of her growing baby bump.
I open my eyes, stare into that amazing sunset, and whisper, “Haley, I’ll be with you soon,” hoping the faint breeze carries my message from this fucked-up world to the better one where she waits for me.