The road south from Nacogdoches is clear and straight, leading them over flat and rough-hewn terrain. In the distance ahead, the horizon is darkened to the color of coal by a long, thick line of clouds.
Looks like rain, Maury. To tell you the truth I wouldn’t mind a bit of coolin down.
The man stares out the window.
You ready for the big homecoming, Maury? Ready to deliver yourself from this crazy girl you got tied to?
His eyes are focused on the asphalt ribboning out before them.
Yeah, well, you ain’t ever been much company anyway.
By the time they get to the massive urban sprawl she assumes must be Houston, the clouds have crowded out the sky and a dense drenching rain drums resonantly on the roof of the car. She drives slowly, because the roads are unreliable and any puddle could conceal a fatal pothole.
The freeway she’s on, the one numbered 59, takes her straight through the middle of the city. Looking down over the guardrails of the roadway, she can see the slugs out there wandering in the rain—some looking curiously upward only to get rain in their eyes. Others sit in the overflowing gutters watching the small rivers of water course over them. Sometimes the dead can seem clownish or childlike. She wonders how people could have let such a race of silly creatures push them into the corners and the closets of the world.
She comes to a collapsed overpass, the rubble of one roadway fallen onto the surface of another, and she has to turn the car around and find an exit and navigate the city streets to pick up the freeway farther ahead. It seems there are no survivors in this city. The slugs crowd around her as she drives through the streets, pawing at the car when they can get close enough, lumbering behind at a snail’s pace, goaded on by instinct rather than logic. She wonders how long they continue after her once the car is out of sight. They must keep going until they forget what they are after, until the image of the car has evaporated from their minds. And how long is that? How long is the memory of the dead?
Downtown. The business district, towered over by monoliths of glass and steel. The rain continues, and some of the intersections are flooded, great urban seas as deep as the undercarriage of the car. Garbage collects in small flotillas—stained rags of clothes, plastic wrappers, and cardboard containers, sheets of old, withered skin, the follicles of hair still intact, fragments of paper, business documents by the thousands that have settled onto the streets like autumn leaves falling from the demolished offices in the skyscrapers above, thick gray fecal matter, gluey and bubbling, even a clump of fake yellow flowers, floating in the midst of it all like a nightmare bridal bouquet.
She looks up at the office buildings. The shattered windows leave black gaps like missing teeth in an old man’s grin. Out of one pours a miniature waterfall, and she guesses that the roof of the building must be caved in. She pictures the rainwater streaming through the structure, down the concrete stairwells, across the dense carpeted expanse of cubicles, finally finding its way to the exploded glass window. She would like to see it up close. She wouldn’t mind climbing up in one of these wrecked buildings and exploring. But at the moment she has circumstances.
She looks at Maury in the passenger seat.
You do keep a girl so she ain’t quite livin her own life. You know that don’t you? A big heap of trouble is what you are.
She looks at him. He’s fascinated by the way the rain circulates around the stationary city, the shapes the water makes as it finds its direction.
Maybe Jeb and Jeanie Duchamp will be able to make you eat bingberries, what do you think?
His eyes blink slowly, his mouth hangs open a little.
Maybe they know what to do with you, cause I’m at my wit’s end. Your granny must of been a woman of endless patience. I’m glad we gave her a right burial. What you chewin on, just your own tasty thinks?
His jaw moves in small slow circles like the jaw of a cow.
Anyway, she says, turning her attention to the flooded road ahead. Maybe I’ll stop here on the way back—put on my explorer’s hat once I unburden myself of you.
She comes to a big building like an opera house or something, and the streets become a confusing tangle in the deepest part of the downtown area. She turns this way and that with no time to stop and think. She has to keep the car moving so the slugs don’t have a chance to collect in one place.
The rain comes down hard and there is no sun by which to navigate, and she passes some buildings twice and even three times, and she looks for signs with the number 59 on them. Once she arrives at a large intersection and cannot decide which way to go. On the side of one of the buildings, she finds a fellow traveler’s message hand-painted in dull red. There’s an arrow pointing down one of the roads, along with letters scrawled as tall as a person:
What do you reckon that says, Maury? she asks. I wish sometimes people would write in pictures. A skull or a happy face or somethin. That alphabet, it just ain’t friendly to my cause.
Warning or invitation, she doesn’t like the looks of that sign, so she chooses one of the other roads and follows it straight down the rain-soaked avenues, and the desolate city towers over her and tolerates her creeping through it like an ant. Eventually, she begins to spot signs that say 59, and she follows them and finds the freeway that continues to take her south.
The city has seen other lost travelers like her, seeking safe passage from one end of its labyrinth to the other. Too far south, its population could not hold against the plague of the dead—and its inhabitants fled to other cities leaving this one a forgotten husk of a place. Some groups have tried to establish a foothold here and been overrun. Once, even, a band of twenty raiders made their home in a gutted movie theater in the heart of the city. They set traps for other travelers, painting signs on the sides of buildings to lead them toward dead ends where the raiders would attack and plunder their supplies and leave them to the neutral army of slugs swarming the streets.
If one were to follow these signs, one would come upon cul-de-sac graveyards, aged skeletons, whole or in pieces, hanging out the windows of automobiles, jammed partway into the gutters so that the rainwater has no place to drain, some even arrested in pathetic gestures of escape, clawing with wasted fingerbones at the barred doors of empty shops where their lower halves had been consumed while their hands had locked in moribund spasm around the door handles.
But now, in following the signs, one need not fear the hostilities of the raiders, for they too were overrun, years before, in the theater they had been using as their home, where they had learned how to run the projector, and where they had all watched the ancient reels of Gone With the Wind over and over until they knew the lines by heart and wondered, each individually, if it weren’t possible for such an era to come again on this earth.