My biggest fear before the end of the world was not that the world would end; it was that I would die someplace no one knew me. That didn't happen. What did happen was that when the world ended, I was far from home.
* * *
There were no two ways about it. I was going to have to climb the water tower. This may have been the lifelong ambition of some younger fools before the world ended. It is not a thought that ever occurred to me.
There was no one to stop me now. No one to pick up the broken pieces of my old bones when I fell. If I fell. After the world ends, you learn to think in 'ifs.'
* * *
My wife's father died and after what seemed like an endless period of deliberation, her mother decided to move closer to her only grandchild—away from us. My wife wouldn't speak of it for days, but I knew what she would have said: if we had a child, her mother would have stayed. It was upsetting to her in the way many things were back then, which is to say it was silly in light of the fact that my wife would be dead along with millions of other folks in a matter of months.
My wife's mother spent a great deal of time selecting the perfect location for her new life. She decided on a soulless row of townhouses and though I am now in possession of ample time to contemplate such things, I still have no idea why this is what she chose. With my wife's help, she emptied out the house she had lived in for forty years. We packed what was left into a U-Haul. She spent six days filling that empty space.
On the seventh day, her son and grandchild walked in to find her dead on the floor. If the grandchild were still alive, I feel the sight of his grandmother's cold, staring eyes would have stayed with him for the rest of his life.
* * *
If, at the top of the water tower, I can see a power plant with two twin stacks and one fat one in the middle, I will know that I am almost home.
It took longer than I thought to get here. I did not pay close enough attention to the back roads before, and now they are all that's left. But they are difficult to navigate. Does 1226 run east/west or north/south? Does it intersect with 421 and on which side of the clear waters of Spring Creek? If I could go back in time, I would pay more attention to the spaces in between on the maps. I would drive through the smallest of towns. I would become intimate with the places that were never anything more than a scared clustering of houses.
Of course, you cannot travel the main roads. All the books were right. After civilization collapses, your fellow man becomes too dangerous.
That is not what makes me pause at the foot of the water tower, though. There's no one out here. It's just that I am old, and my hands tremble; I fear I will not make it to the top alive.
* * *
My wife's mother lived all of her life in the same town. She got baptized and married in the same church. Everyone she knew and loved was mourned at Vail-Holt Funeral Home and buried in Springdale Cemetery. But she went and died six hours away.
Her son didn't know anyone in the new town, either. That generation mostly didn't and now they won't ever need to. My wife said he found the funeral home online. I cried when she told me that.
I didn't have any great love for my mother-in-law. I just couldn't abide the thought of being buried in a place you didn't know.
"If I die someplace else, you bring me home." My wife sat at her card table working a jigsaw puzzle and she nodded, but I couldn't be sure she heard me. I called Larry Buck, who knew some law, and he was putting it in the will when everything happened. Vail-Holt Funeral Home. Springdale Cemetery.
I imagine the will, sitting unfinished on Larry's office desk right now, back home. Each morning the light from his front window traces its way across the words that mean nothing now.
* * *
I understand that the best strategy is not to look down. Everyone knows that. It works until I get to the big ball of a curve that sits at the top of the water tower. I stop there because maybe I can see from where I am, and I don't have to climb all the way to the top. I have never been one of those people who needs to finish things. My wife's mother thought less of me for it, I know. But if I can turn over my shoulder and see the power plant over the tops of the trees, that will be enough.
Only, my head doesn't turn so fluidly as it once did. Everything at my age is stiff. What I get is a view of a dark speck at the bottom of the ladder far below. That is the backpack, the special kind that mountain climbers used when mountain climbing didn't seem like the most idiotic thing you could imagine. What I'm getting at is, it's a large backpack, and I can barely see it. My arms start to shake and I pull in tight against the metal of the water tower. I press my wrinkled cheek against its side.
* * *
There was a bitter battle after the death of my wife's mother. All over a small, broken fiddle. The son heard stories of instruments being sold for thousands of dollars and so he wanted it for himself. He didn't want to keep it to give to the grandchild to play, though he kept describing the sound it would make as the song of angels. He didn't want to hear the song of angels. He didn't want the fiddle repaired. He wanted it sold, as-is, for as much as they could get. This was the errand that stranded me 200 miles from home when the end of the world came. I was selling the song of angels.
* * *
The birds arrive towards the top. I'm too scared to turn and look to see what they are. I feel them, though, the motion of their erratic dives and turns in the air. Their high-pitched calls to each other. It's dusk and time is of the essence. Soon it will be too dark, and I'll have to repeat the whole climb again in the morning, assuming I could.
I'm lucky. There's a small platform made of metal mesh at the top of the ladder. The sound of my boots clanking against it echoes across the soft hills. I pull myself up and look.
The birds are chimney swallows. They circle the water tower, feinting as if they might dive in a rusted hole at the top, then turning away at the last minute. They do this in a line, over and over again. As a child, I remember watching them at dusk do the same thing over the top of my uncle's barn.
I'm afraid to look at first, but then I get my bearings and turn in the direction where the river should be. On the other side is home and if I'm right, the towers. There's no bright, white plume of smoke on the horizon to help me, now. The towers will be quiet. Shut down and dead.
There they are. Two long, skinny fingers pointing into the heavens. One fat and round, built later to scrub the air clean, which did not matter one bit in the end. These towers have watched over almost every moment of my waking life.
I can see the towers. I can see the river. I can see the town. The devastation. Smoke from a few fires still burning. The elementary school gone. A church spire missing. The bridge mangled, but still passable, I hope.
Debris. Garbage. Huge masses of wreckage in the space where the cemetery should be. There's no need to imagine how it got there. I long since gave up on that. The thick bodies of vultures circle above and I try not to speculate about what they might be feeding on there.
I think perhaps I can feel the water tower below me sway. Maybe I am just exhausted from my climb. I grip the rails tight.
I am headed in the right direction. This is a relief. But the town has been touched. That hope is gone. For the first time I wonder if it might not have been better to stay where I was.
* * *
The funeral for my wife's mother was open casket. I left my wife gossiping with her cousin and snuck up to the old woman in a quiet moment when I hoped no one would see. I didn't want any witnesses to my grief, all out of proportion for a woman who blamed me for her daughter's unhappiness. I could not stop thinking about her dying alone.
"What kind of idiot moves away at her age?" It was my wife's oldest neighbor. She had made the long trip. She leaned towards the casket on her walker and wrinkled her nose.
The neighbor was at our wedding. At my mother-in-law's 70th birthday party. She was an ugly woman. She always asked my wife where the children were, long after we passed the age where that was possible.
The old woman pursed her lips and looked as if she might spit into my mother-in-law's face. "You old fool," she whispered. "Only dogs leave home to die."
* * *
It is tempting to stay up there on the top of the water tower and watch the way the setting sun changes the river—transforms it moment by moment into a thousand different rivers. This has not changed at all and it would be a good last vision to have of this earth.
The last chimney swallow circles again and again before it finally disappears into the gaping hole. I climb back down the ladder and turn my feet towards home.
BIO: Robyn Ryle started life in one small town in Kentucky and ended up in another just down the river in southern Indiana. She teaches sociology to college students when she's not writing and has stories in CALYX Journal, Stymie Magazine, Bluestem Magazine, and WhiskeyPaper, among others. You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.