Thanksgiving, 3:00 AM, End of the World
by Robert Hinderliter
Six months later our city is still burning, dark beasts still shuffling through the streets, and last week you came home with a forked tongue. Bifurcation, you called it, your voice husky with painkillers, your mouth struggling to form sounds with its new mangled occupant. You stuck it out for me to admire: ragged stitches down each side of the newly peninsula’d flesh, blood beads slowly forming. Soon, you told me, you’d be able to move both sides independently, watch them curl around each other, dart out to taste the air like a serpent. I turned away.
“You’re as bad as the creatures,” I said.
“Oh,” you said, “I’m much worse.”
This is the life that is left for us. Six months ago the earth split open with a terrible roar, and the horrors from below spilled to the surface. Savage creatures as big as cars, black-furred, razor-clawed, mouths packed with teeth made for sawing and piercing. And with the beasts came a poison wind, a deathly exhalation from deep in the earth that erupts into flames in the lungs, burning its victims from the inside out.
The weak and indecisive died quickly. You were neither. You loaded your shotgun, strapped on a gas mask, and joined the Hunters. When the goal of fighting the beasts proved hopeless, the gang turned to pillaging and robbery. The old laws, you told me, were for the old world. You bring home food, and I cook it silently. I don’t ask where it’s from.
During the day, when you’re gone, I sit by the window in the living room and look out over the ruined city. Smoke in the distance, pick-up trucks with beds piled with bodies passing on the street below. Sometimes a black shadow stalks across the sidewalk, claws clicking on the cement, head twisting from side to side, sniffing the air. In the evenings you come home always drunk, often high, occasionally with a new tattoo, red and raw, on your back or arm. And finally your tongue. Your voice, now wet and lisping, is hideous to me.
Today is Thanksgiving. Or rather, yesterday. It’s 3:00 AM, and you haven’t come home. It’s raining. The only light in the city is a fire in the window of a distant building. A cat is screaming wildly, as if it’s being pulled apart.
I remember our first Thanksgiving, eight years ago, when your parents flew in from Maine and your dad kept spilling rum on the reclining chair and making comments about my weight. I suppose I was a little heavy then, but you told me I was carrying it in all the right places. Your mom had picked up some sort of virus on the plane and was blowing her nose every ten seconds and stuffing the tissues between the couch cushions. It was the first time I’d met them.
In the kitchen, I had a terrible time getting the turkey into the oven. I’d bought a new pan to accommodate a large bird, and it turned out to be an inch too wide. I had to tilt it to make it fit, but then the turkey started to slide, and in my panicked overcorrection I burned my arm on the oven door. I cried out, and you stopped mashing the sweet potatoes and rushed over to help. Together, we managed to cram the pan into a stable position and slam the door shut. It took you a minute to realize I was crying.
You took me by the hand then and led me past your belching dad, past your sniffling mom, past the window where I am now, and into the bedroom. You shut the door behind us. From outside, we could hear your dad grumbling over the sound of football on the TV.
You lowered me onto the bed and lay down beside me. You pulled me close against you, pressed your cheek to mine. I was sobbing by that point, great silent heaves. You stroked my hair and whispered in my ear. “It’s okay,” you said. Your voice was so gentle then. It was a sound I longed for. “I love you,” you whispered. Again and again. “I love you, I love you. I’ll love you till the end of the world.”
Grady “Golden Arm” Ramirez came out of nowhere at age 19 to take the ’73 season by storm. A late growth spurt turned a scrappy kid with middling potential into a tall young man with a left arm like a rocket launcher. Twenty-five wins, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young Award, a 102 MPH fastball, 83 MPH change-up, and a knee-buckling 12-6 curve. He had a crooked nose, bright brown eyes, splotchy cheeks from acne only recently cleared up, and was just cocky enough to seem genuine instead of arrogant. Everyone loved him. Seeing his face made you feel good things about baseball, and even about the country, and that ’73 season it was impossible not to see his face.
His rise was as unexpected as it was remarkable, and he swung a lot of money the wrong way for a lot of dangerous people. A dozen preseason prop bets were busted before July. There were threats of violence. Those were discordant times. One day he found a crude sketch of a severed arm taped inside his locker. A week later, a hacksaw was delivered to his home. The fear got to him. He didn’t try to hide it.
After a few off games, his coach suggested he see a clonologist. They took his DNA, grew a replacement arm in the lab. Muscle strength and fast twitch fiber measurements came back identical. A perfect copy. They kept it on ice in a secret location, and Ramirez played on with a little more peace of mind. For the rest of that season and all of the next he was lights-out. Nearly unhittable. By then the money was riding on him, so he had no more amputation threats.
But in his third season his arm began to give. Same old story – too many innings too young. The losses started to pile up, and his ERA was strapped to a jetpack. The dangerous people were not pleased.
Ramirez’s mind turned, inevitably, to that arm in deep freeze. He made inquiries at the League Office, but they informed him the replacement could only be used in the case of foul play. His on-field decline continued. He told reporters he felt like his life was ending at age 21. He lost weight. His brown eyes weren’t so bright anymore.
One day mid-season he missed two practices in a row. An assistant coach went to his house. Ramirez’s car was in the driveway, but no one answered the door.
The police found him in the bathroom, left arm tied with rubber tubing, hacksaw on the floor. He was slumped in a chair with vomit down his chest. Preparing for a home amputation, he’d overdosed on pain pills.
Grady Ramirez is discussed today mostly as a cautionary tale, but I still sometimes go back and watch highlights from that ’73 season. He still holds the records for most wins and lowest ERA for a rookie. His third game of the season, a one-hitter against the Mets, is one of the most joyous athletic performances I’ve seen.
There he is, this 19-year-old kid fresh into the Majors, just blowing smoke past one of the best lineups in the game. Grinning after every out, knowing he’s got his whole career ahead of him to make batters look like buffoons. In the ninth inning, even the Mets fans were cheering. We were all feeling good about baseball, good about the future. That left arm whipping through the air. It was beautiful.
Robert Hinderliter’s writing has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Hobart, and other places. He teaches English at Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea. Another story set during the same events as “Thanksgiving, 3 AM, End of the World” has been published by decomP and can be read here: http://www.decompmagazine.com/athousandfires.htm