13 November, 2016 — Mendota, Illinois
Calming himself, Mike Marek walks out of the restroom, looks at a map, and discovers with some surprise that he is in Illinois. “Mendota” is such a familiar place-name that he almost felt that he had returned home. But in Wisconsin it’s a lake. Here it’s a town, and it’s well south of the state line. South of Chicago. Of course. Whatever has controlled him these last two hours didn’t want to attempt a drive through Chicago. It led him around the big city rather than through it. The upper right corner of the map shows the wide blue intrusion of Lake Michigan. Marek knows that that’s where he is headed: somewhere beyond that great inland sea of a lake. He has always known.
His mouth tightening, he pushes back out into the cold sunset and hurries toward his car.
After some indecision he actually chooses to drive a little farther in the direction he was going, but only because the town of Mendota is close and, judging by the fact that there are some aging billboards advertising businesses this far away, the town seems likely to be large enough to have at least some kind of a motel.
He finds it just as he hoped, after only another fifteen miles. A worn-down boxy little place called the Super 8 Mendota. He wonders if the owners even know that Super 8 used to be a kind of movie film, back when there was such stuff.
He gets an odd look from the young woman who checks him in, but doesn’t bother wondering about it. The events of the day have left him more exhausted that he can ever remember being in his life. He feels like he has a kind of semantic tunnel vision: able to perceive the next step on the path he has chosen for himself and almost nothing else. He manages to get into his room—the lock and key are old-fashioned, mechanical and metal, which makes him feel obscurely safer—and falls to the bed still clothed.
Michael Marek sleeps through the night, then wakes up the next morning.
And the weeks and years go by, and the rest of his life passes.
He never goes back to Sacred Hearts. After that farewell speech, how could he? He finds work in Mendota for a while, just odd jobs, but when the Famine comes all that ends pretty fast.
One day, after standing in the EBT line for three hours, he finally gets to the front and gets away with his bag of cheese-powder and flour, three pounds of each. And just in time! As he hurries away, he hears the gratings in front of the counters clang shut, and a man shouts No more today, citizens! You can come back tomorrow! There will be plenty tomorrow! The groan, or moan, arising from the hundreds of people in the building is like a soundtrack from Hell.
Then he gets outside and sees that the line not only continues out of the building and onto the sidewalk, but stretches away into the indefinite distance under the heavy gray sky from which large flakes of snow has begun to fall like negative manna from Heaven.
Hugging the bags, he tries to walk grimly past the long line without looking at anyone, but he feels dark eyes in pallid faces watching him. He remembers a time when he spoke every Sunday to this many faces, and he did his best to give them hope. That was a long time ago.
Two years older now than when he first came to Mendota, Mike Marek pauses in his walking-route near the end of Monroe Street, thinking of the wider world and looking out over the bedraggled skyline, if you can call it that, of his adopted hometown.
He has taken to living in the rectory of the old Holy Cross church. It’s boarded up now, like many buildings. Or rather “Tyveked up.” People have pulled down the old plywood from all the ground-level windows for fuel. Nothing blocks off the gaping holes in all the unused structures now but Tyvek(tm), white fibrous-plastic stuff that never rots but that does eventually shred in the wind if it’s not stapled enough around the edges to keep it secure.
After another year, the EBT food has become sporadic. The power is off about half the time and people are living on occasional aid shipments from the state capital, plus whatever scraps they can grow in secret. Open gardening will be confiscated by city redistribution workers if it isn’t simply stolen by neighbors first.
Many people have moved out to the countryside where there is never any power, but at least they can get a piece of land and try to grow something. Perhaps because of this, the population of Mendota has fallen quite a bit. But there are rumors that it’s not all migration. Rumors says that some of the fires out at Lake Park on the edge of town are bodies burning.
Rumors say worse things than that.
There’s nothing but rumors now. There hasn’t been any real news for more than a year. Sometimes it seems like the last part of the government that’s still functioning is whatever part it is that enforces the National Morale Recovery Act. That will be the last part still telling people that All Is Well just before the lights go out forever. Like a speaker on the radio mast of the Titanic, declaiming the Government Gospel: the Good News of Great Progress. Celebrating vast repairs brilliantly executed by the brave engineers of society and deriding naive and irresponsible conspiracy theories about collisions with icebergs and icewater below the decks.
In the last few minutes of its perpetual harangue it is broadcasting to the empty waves: its only applause their slap against the hull.
People hear things anyway, of course, and whispering news from afar is one of the only forms of entertainment remaining. There are whispers that the Chinese have defeated the FC in Africa and Japan, that the FC has invaded the US East Coast, and that US forces have kicked the Russians and Chinese out of Eastern Europe. There are rumors that nuke plants in the east have had catastrophic meltdowns that the Feds have completely hushed up, but people are getting sickall over the northeast, with hair loss and thyroid cancer. There are rumors that the snow from last winter never melted in Montreal and Maine, and now more is already falling. There are rumors of a new kind of flu that kills two out of every three people who get it.
He supposes that it’s just good clean fun, this talking about various versions of doomsday. Maybe it’s a way for people to feel better about their own situation, or a way to keep believing that a larger world at least still exists out there somewhere. Or maybe it’s just the way that people wish for their long suffering to finally end.
In the end none of this News of the World matters a damn, though. What matters is that people in Mendota, formerly of the State of Illinois, formerly of the United States of America, don’t have enough to eat.
Looking northwest, Mike watches smoke rise in the distance. Then turns and pushes open the door of the apparently-abandoned apartment building he’s been standing in front of. He has gradually developed kind of a route he follows, and this morning it’s Millie Jacobsen’s turn. He knows that something’s wrong as soon as he pushes the door open.
Most of this westernmost block of Monroe has been abandoned for more than a year. The remaining residents of Millie’s building stayed probably because of the building’s courtyard: a spot with enough sun to grow vegetables, yet not visible from the street. Even so, the residents long ago adapted to the realities of life by leaving the lower floor unoccupied while carefully fortifying the entrances to the upper floor, and arming themselves.
His breath coming faster, he hurries up the stairs and pounds on the metal door that’s been installed there.
“Millie?” he shouts through the thick slab, “it’s Mike! Can I come in? I have some stuff for you!” He shouldn’t say that where people can hear, but he’s afraid she won’t respond. After so much experience, there is a kind of atmosphere that you learn to detect in a place. A kind of scent, or vibration, or sound, so subtle as to be detectable only by the senses of the spirit.
When Millie Jacobsen at last opens the door, that atmosphere strikes him like a blow. And you sure don’t need the senses of the spirit to detect it. It might as well be printed on her face.
“Millie, is, um, is everything—” no, you damned idiot, everything is not okay “is—it okay if I come in?”
She turns away and leaves the door open, letting him follow her into the small kitchen. She sits at the yellow linoleum table that looks like it might be a relic from the last Depression, and he almost stammers again when he looks at her face.
Once she must have been a beautiful woman. Now her eyes are sunken and dark, and she fixes her gaze upon him.
Once, long ago in seminary, Mike Marek attended an exorcism. It was the real thing, complete with blood dripping from the ceiling. It was the most disturbing experience of his young life. Right now, looking into this woman’s eyes, he wishes he could be back there, facing the thing that inhabited an innocent. It was simply a hostile, deranged spirit. It was less terrible than this.
Demons do not feel despair.
“Millie,” he says, taking a seat and taking a breath. “Is—” Say what you fear to say, you goddamned coward. “Is Jamie okay?”
Her eyes, as she looks at him, are as dry as death.
On the table, there’s an old towel with something substantial and solid underneath it. Something about the size and shape of a revolver. She might have dropped the towel there if she had been washing dishes when he knocked at the door. But she wasn’t washing dishes.
Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord,
But Thou wouldst not hear my supplications.
Rather hast Thou marked my iniquities,
And remembered my transgressions.
How then shall I stand
And in whom shall I hope
If there is no forgiveness in Thee?
She brushes her dirty-blond hair from her eyes. Even in the worst of what has come, she has kept herself and her boy clean and well-dressed. Not anymore, apparently.
“Do you remember,” Millie says, “when everything changed?”
“You know,” she smiles a kind of smile that does not reach her eyes, “people are calling it the Troubles. Like in Ireland.That’s funny, though, isn’t it?” she looks at him. “A few people shooting each other way back then, and they thought it was Trouble.”
She laughs a little, then looks down at the table top and puts her hands to her face.
“Do you remember—” she gasps for air, “how we thought for so long that things would at least change? That maybe everything would just fall apart, and then at least things would start to get better?But they never did.”
She looks back up at him, with her empty black eyes. “Why, Mike?”
If the foul spirit from the exorcism were here, it would fall silent. If its task on Earth were to inflict the greatest possible pain upon human beings, then it would feel no need to act. There is a limit to the pain that human beings can feel.
“Millie,” he begins. But when he reaches for the towel, she puts out her hand first and presses down on it, keeping the weapon beneath it concealed.
“Father,” she says, and smiles grimly. “That’s right isn’t it? You used to be a priest?”
“Yes,” his mouth tightens.
“You know, Father,” she says, smiling and frowning in equal measures. “You’re staying so healthy. You never get sick.” Momentarily, her eyes aren’t empty anymore, but uncomfortably perceptive.
“Mike,” she says, “I don’t think you’re even getting older.”
“I don’t—” he tries to speak, but his throat is so dry. “I don’t—”
She nods as though he has spoken, but looks away, no longer interested in seeing him.
“I begged Jesus for Jamie’s life,” she says. Her face begins to contort again, but she controls herself. “And when I was done with that, I begged Satan,” she smiles thinly. “But nobody cared. We’re not important enough, Father.” Her hands work on the table top, bunching the towel. “Jamie wasn’t important enough.”
At last tears come to her eyes. Reaching forward, he grasps her hand. She looks up at him one more time and her face becomes perfectly calm.
“You have to leave now,” she says.
“Leave, please,” she says. “What can you do?”
He goes back out the metal door, walks down the stairs, walks out to the front steps, but can’t force himself all the way to the sidewalk.
He remembers that once, long ago, he talked a woman out of suicide.
He sits down on the cracked cement steps and waits for the gunshot.
After a while he hears it, faint inside the large building.
Years later there isn’t any gasoline left in the city, and Michael Marek is no longer fully human. The last person on his route has left Mendota, or left the Earth, and he has decided, without being able to remember why, that he should walk back to the place where he first entered this town where he, too, will finally exit this life.
What good is a priest without his people?
It’s such a short distance, finally. Five or six miles. The distance an old man (Why don’t you ever get old, Mike? What do you have inside you, Mike?) can walk in a couple hours.
The old hotel is still there. The Super 8. He just walks in, through rotten doors, and looks around. After a while, he lies down and and sleeps in a rotten bed. And dreams of the world that might have been.
In his dream, he sits up in bed, feeling something warm and magnificent inside of his chest.
He puts his hands to his breast and pulls forth a small cylinder of the blue-white light that struck Saul on the road to Damascus. The light that resides eternally at the heart of the Sun, and from which all life, all hope, and all glory forever springs. He stares at the small cylinder of perfect light in his hands for a time, and slowly realizes that there is a similar light coming from the other room.
Standing, gripping his pieces of warm light, he steps carefully into the front room.
The Shining Man is there, holding out his hands as he did so long ago in Blessed Hearts. But his hands have holes in them, in the exact shapes of the light that Michael Marek is holding.
Marek wakes up, weeping, in an earlier version of the same room. Rushing to the mirror he sees that his face is just as young, or just as old, as in the last moments of the dream. But very much less weathered. Twenty years less. He feels a rush of relief so profound that he thinks he might faint and puts his hand down on the back of the hotel room chair to steady himself.
Already, standing back in this blessed old room, the bizarre double image of two worlds, two lives, is fading. He has not been miraculously transported into the past that he lost. The twenty years whose memory is already fading—they never happened. That terrible world that was somehow the consequence of his own failure—it hasn’t happened. By the grace of God, it has not yet happened.
He doesn’t even mind that the Shining Man has somehow manipulated him into doing what is necessary. To have this chance again is more than sufficient recompense for any amount of influence. It is still his choice, but now he knows what a fool he would be to turn aside. A little frightened child who for some strange reason holds the key—or perhaps one of many keys?—that is necessary to a work far beyond his understanding.
Michael Marek goes outside into the bitter-cold air and bursts into the motel office. The same girl from so many years ago is still there.
“Father?” she asks. “Is everything all right?”
He puts his hand to his collar and smiles. He will have to change the shirt.
“Yes,” he says. May it be that you will not starve. “Yes, thanks. And I got some rest. But I should pay you now.”
Outside the wind blows, in the prematurely cold month of November, 2016. He smiles at the girl.
“I have a long way yet to go tonight.”