This is a story initially written, as I recall, during the summer of 1959, as I was preparing to leave Alabama for a boarding school in Vermont, although the version I’m posting here, most likely revised, was printed in the school’s literary magazine in June 1961, around the time of my high school graduation. I’ve done some light editing. The illustrations, which I realize are not always precisely congruent with the story, are gleaned from the Internet. This story is the last in a series of three to be posted this week on this site, all fantasies and all written when I was in high school . — J.R.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
It happened near the end of summer, which is when I guess a lot of changes take place. The three of us, Mickey, George and I, were out at Mickey’s family camp on the lake, swimming and doing our best to forget that we only had two more days before we went off to start our first year at college.
The sun was hot and white that day, but the lake was dark and cool. Mickey and George were swimming close to the dock, splashing water at each other, but I was far away from them, almost in the middle of the lake, feeling the cool water caress my skin and change my brown hair from dry hay to seaweed.
I heard the others call to me from the dock: Hey, come on, Steve, we better be leaving, it’s getting kinda late.
Okay, I called, I’ll be back in a minute. I lay on my back and let the waters gently rock me back and forth while I looked up at the clouds. It all seemed so peaceful that I felt like closing my eyes, so I did…
But when I opened my eyes a few seconds later, I suddenly saw that the sky was dark. Maybe it’s a dark cloud, I thought at first, but I soon realized that no cloud could make the sky that black.
It was night. The stars were all out, but there was no moon, and I began to become afraid.
Hey Mickey! George! Where are you? I called out across the dark water, but there wasn’t any answer, and I saw no one ahead of me, just the blackness of the night over the ebony lake.
I swam to the dock as fast as I could and called again, but there was no answer, no sound at all except for the chirping of crickets.
I climbed up the ladder of the dock and walked through the darkness of the dressing room a few feet away. According to my luminous watch it was nine-thirty. I changed into my clothes and then tried to get into the lake home, but found it locked.
There was no car. We’d come out to the lake in Mickey’s but now it was gone, so I knew I would have to walk down the dirt road leading from the lake home until I reached a telephone.
I began walking down the dark road, shivering because I was slightly wet and there was a soft night wind. As I walked I tried to reason out what had happened to me and why it had happened. Had I fallen asleep? No — that was impossible. But what could it be? And why had Mickey and George abandoned me?
To my left was the dark lake, lit only by the stars and a sparse sprinkling of yellow lights from the opposite shore; to my right was a forest that extended almost indefinitely to the west.
After walking over a mile without passing a single person or house, I noticed a blazing fire up ahead on the right side of the road, with about a dozen men sitting around it on logs. The men looked like hoboes; they were laughing and seemed very happy.
I walked up to them, feeling the fire’s warm glow pat my cheek as I approached. Say, I asked one of the men, have you seen a black and white convertible go by this road anytime within the last few hours?
The man thought before answering. He was old, as most of the men were, and had a full head of crisp white hair. No, he finally said. Can’t say as I have. But we wouldn’t see a car going by if one did. What seems to be the trouble?
I briefly told them what had happened to me, and as soon as I finished, the men broke into loud laughter. It wasn’t unkind laughter, but it frightened and annoyed me. Then the man that I had questioned turned to me, and said, Look boy, don’t you know yet what happened this afternoon? Haven’t you found out yet?
No, I said, gazing anxiously into the fire. What happened?
It’s the end of the world, the man said, and he turned to the other men and gave a rusty sort of cackle, and the other men fell into laughter again.
What do you mean? I asked the man.
Oh, nothing at all, boy, nothing at all. That’s just a joke of ours. Nothing’s really changed for us — just for you. And even for you it’s not the end….Why not sit down and have a hot dog with us? Or maybe some coffee —
No thanks, I said. I felt uneasy hearing the men laugh and seeing the strange look in their eyes. No thanks, I better be going.
Well, boy, the man said, you’re always welcome here — anytime, remember that. We always have a lot of good stories to tell about the old days, and there’s plenty of food to pass around. New folks are always welcome.
Do you come here often? I asked.
The man gave me a quick stare. Boy, he said, don’t you know? We’re always here — we never go anywhere else.
But what do you do in the daytime?
Daytime? he said. What daytime? Don’t you know it’s always night now — it’s the end of the world, remember?
At this the men started to roar with laughter, and I walked slowly away until their voices were distant whispers in the night, and the fire behind me was a faint and faraway glow.
Finally I came to another lake home. There were no lights, but I decided to try the house anyway; the next lake home was probably a long distance away. I stepped up on the old wooden porch, hearing the boards beneath me creak and whine under my weight, and I began to knock when I heard a voice come to me from the far right end of the porch. It was the voice of an old woman:
What do you want, young man?
I turned around to see the source of the voice. It was an old whitehaired woman in a rocking chair. I could hardly see her in the darkness, but I could tell her eyes were unfriendly. Could I please use your phone? I asked.
I got no phone, the old woman said. Get away now and let me be.]
Well do you know of a place nearby, I asked, a place nearby with a phone I could use?
I don’t know, the old woman said. Now git — I can’t be bothered none with your problems. Who do you think I am, your mother?
I looked into her eyes and they seemed to be saying the same thing: Get away, they seemed to say, you’re telling me something that I don’t want to know, don’t want to think of. Get away. Get away. Get away. I walked off the porch and onto the dirt road and then walked on, further and further, hour after hour, without seeing a sign of a house or person.
Finally the road led away from the lake and connected to the highway. I passed a closed filling station, and then a dark supermarket that looked like a huge phantom in the night. All the houses were shrouded in black. I decided to wait until I reached downtown, and then phone my parents from an all-night drug store
— but when, hours later, I reached the drug store, it was dark and the door was locked. So I walked home from there, thinking; Surely Mom and Dad must be at home.
But when I reached home, and rushed inside to Mom and Dad’s room, no one was there. I checked my brother’s room. The house was empty.
Days went by, weeks, and it never got light again. I stayed in the house, waiting for something to happen, cooking my own meals.
But one day, when the supply of food at home ran out, I decided to leave. I got into the car and drove through the dark town, out onto the state highway, to other towns. I visited other states. Everywhere it was the same. Every once in a while I would meet a person, but none was any more friendly than the old woman.
Day by day I grew more lonely, but at the same time I grew more independent. As I drove through many towns, I would stop at filling stations to fill my gas tank, and at nights I would sleep in empty hotels.
But gradually things began to change. People became more friendly, although none of them would explain to me what had happened. One day I asked a man I met in a hotel; why is it always dark? Where is everybody? When is it going to be day again?
‘Day’? the man said. What does that word mean? And what do you mean, ‘Where is everybody’? No one’s gone away. Maybe you haven’t been looking in the right places.
The words of the man at the hotel stayed with me for some time. By now I was completely self-sufficient, and no longer felt the need to find my family: I would have liked to have seen them again, but I was no longer dependent on them. From this I gained a certain self-respect that I had never had before. But the words of the man started me thinking: he had said I hadn’t been looking in the right places. What did he mean?
Then I remembered the old man at the fire. Would they still be there? It would be worth finding out.
I got into my car and drove through the many towns without stopping, and in twelve hours I was back in my home town. Then I turned onto the highway leading to the lake and finally onto the dirt road. I passed by the house of the old woman, thinking, I don’t need her help any more. I saw the faint glow of the old men’s fire ahead.
I drove on, faster. At last I was there.
I pulled up on the side of the road. I got out and saw the men seated around the fire, and heard their voices while I approached. Only now it appeared different; there seemed to be more people there now than before. There were dozens of all ages and both sexes.
Suddenly I saw Mickey and George in the group. I ran up to them.
Hey, Steve, how’re you doing? Mickey said when he saw me. You know we’ve been waiting for you here a long time. Where have you been?
Everywhere, I said. I was here once before, but you and George weren’t here then. I’m sure glad I found you — Say, are Mom and Dad here?
Sure, George said. So’s your brother. They were always here, but when you came through here the first time you weren’t close enough to the fire to see them. I guess that was it. Maybe you were in such a rush you just didn’t notice them.
I turned towards the fire and saw one of the old hoboes. Hello, boy, he said. Or should I be calling you boy now. Anyway, come and have a hot dog with us. Sit down and I’ll tell you a story of the good old days —
I sat down by the glaring fire, and looked around into the familiar faces. I realized then that I was home. Shadows were dancing wildly against the surrounding trees from the flickering of the fire, and when I looked around at all of my friends who were there, I wondered why I hadn’t seen them before. Had I been too preoccupied about other things, or had they been too far away from the fire? Well, now it was unimportant.
A soft wind stirred the fire, and a few sparks shot far up into the air and seemed to become part of the starry sky. I moved closer to the fire, and listened closely while the old hobo started into his tale.