By Gary Reddin
Erica leaves tomorrow. But right now, we are a hundred miles from home sitting outside of a 24-hour Korean supermarket, somewhere between Tulsa and the end of the world. I am alone in the predawn with only the steady dinging rhythm telling me, politely, that the driver’s side door is open. I run my hand over the back of the broken compass she gave me when she arrived. It won’t find north, but it will keep you a step ahead of your misery. The supermarket door opens. Erica comes back to the car holding a brown paper bag. I still have the compass in my hands.
“What’s it telling you?”
She takes a bottle of clear alcohol with a foreign name out of the bag.
“A step ahead of your misery,” she says, passing it to me.
I take a long drink. Its warmth spreads down my throat and through my body.
“The guy at the counter told me about a place nearby where we can watch the sunrise,” she says.
When she closes the door I feel a space in my chest hollow out where the ‘I’m open’ noise had been. We pull out of the parking lot, crunching gravel under our wheels like broken dreams.
“Tread softly,” I say, remembering an old poem.
The road is weather-worn and cracked. It dips deep into the earth, then crests like a shark’s fin. Graffiti coats the waves of asphalt like constellations.
The car noses into the emptiness and my stomach disappears for a moment. We ride the wave up the other side, surfing on obscene stars, and discover a million miles of flat earth marching into the pink horizon. She parks on the shoulder. We get out and sit on the hood together. She laces her fingers through mine, and I surrender the bottle. She drinks an ocean’s worth.
“How’s that?” she asks.
“Something my mom used to say. After dad died, a verse she used to recite to me. Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive.”
“Is that from the Bible?”
“The Art of War.”
I take out the compass again, holding it to the sky. The needle rotates twice before deciding that we are facing west, which I know is impossible since the sun is rising in front of us.
“What’s it saying now?” She asks, resting her head on my shoulder, the half empty bottle hanging loosely in her other hand.
“I think—I think it’s telling me I’m lost.”
She lets go of my hand, takes the compass in hers, and inspects it like a precious stone.
“It’s telling you that direction is your enemy.”
The edge of the sun rises on our wasteland. She puts her forehead against mine and whispers a prayer. She says it is for good luck. Her eyes are an abstraction. Caught somewhere between blue and grey. In some empty pocket of time after the prayer I decide on silver. They’re not hungry but starved. Waiting for the end of some secret fast.
“Where to now?” She asks.
“Direction is my enemy, remember.”
I watch her slide off the hood and step into the middle of the road silhouetted against the flat oblivion. She pours out what’s still left of the alcohol, places the bottle at her feet, and spins it. I watch light glance in and out of my rotating future until it stops, the neck pointing straight ahead into the horizon.
“A step ahead of my misery,” I say, and she nods.
We get back in the car and drive toward the rising sun. I can see mirages forming on the concrete. They wash over us, tides untethered from the pull of the moon. Aching for it, chasing it, and yet never able to meet it. We pass through towns with names like Daisy, Antlers, Blanco. As if the people naming them were as drunk as we are now. Erica keeps the car on the road. We pass no police and by noon we are sober again.
“Eufaula, that’s where the compass is taking us.”
She points to a green sign advertising skiing, camping, and recreation. Lake Eufaula, twelve miles. We turn off the highway and onto another lonely backroad. I watch the world untie itself for us through the windshield as we snake a path toward the lake. There is a moment at the apex of every curve where I believe we will meet another car head on. I tense with each bend that rolls by. But the impact never comes, and the road straightens out. A dirt path runs down to the shore of the lake and we follow it to its conclusion.
She steps out of the car and walks toward the water’s edge. I watch her through the windshield. She takes off her shoes and steps barefoot into the lake. The compass needle spins but cannot find us a way forward. I sit it on the dashboard, step out of the car, and join her in the water. She takes my hand, and we walk out into the shallows until it rises to our waists.
“It’s not real,” she says.
“The lake. Its manmade. One of the largest. All of the lakes in Oklahoma are like this, artificial.”
She covers her silver eyes with her hands as if to hide from this truth.
“Take off your shirt,” she whispers.
I obey. The water is cold against my skin. She lowers her hands and takes hold of me. Her grip is strong.
“Are you prepared to face your enemy?”
She positions herself beside me. With a surprising amount of control, she lowers me backward and submerges me beneath the waters. I open my eyes but cannot see her through the murky haze. Her grip loosens and I sink away from her until my back finds the silt of the lake floor. This is my annihilation. The space left in the wake of the world’s end. But it is an artifice. A creation meant to contain, to control. It is the gloss between two versions of myself.
My chest tightens. My lungs constrict, begging for breath. I close my eyes.
The water is quiet. Calm. Directionless.
* * *
Gary Reddin is a writer, poet, and recovering journalist from Southwest Oklahoma. He is a current MFA candidate at Lindenwood University. His work has most recently appeared on Essay Daily and in the Dillydoun Review. You can follow him on Twitter @andrewreddin for more of his work.