Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
“...If you’ve prepared an emergency bunker for your family, now may be the time to use it!” a reporter quipped jauntily, voice buzzing from the television. “In fact, now is definitely the time to use it. The attacks being staged against our country right now are most assuredly a fast-approaching doomsday.” The static sounds faded against Lewis’s skull, replaced by a single, very disgruntled voice.
“What a shitty way to announce the apocalypse. Just tell us the world’s going down in flames and be done with it.” Ansel leaned back against the threadbare sofa and poured another Sprite into a glass. Despite the end of the world, Ansel refused to drink his sorrows away. Lewis didn’t know if he was brave or just picky. Then again, Lewis didn’t know much of anything these days.
“It’s the scarecrow, you know.” He knew that much. He knew the silhouette that stood dark against the shifting fields of wheat, knew its hay-stuffed arms would strangle any neck that came too close, knew its coal-black eyes carried more hatred than it knew what to do with. Nothing else could hate like that. It had to be the scarecrow. “That’s behind this whole doomsday.”
Ansel turned to face Lewis, softened eyes setting into his. “Why do you think that?”
“It hates me. I told you that.”
“I’m sure it just doesn’t know what to think of you.” He stopped, sipped at his Sprite and glanced around. “Atom bombs. Coming any day now. No place to run. The people who still have something to live for are trying anyway.” Another pause, and an apology. Like it always had been. Lewis couldn’t bring himself to appreciate it; he liked Ansel more when he was real.
“I guess,” he conceded. “But it’s the scarecrow that sends them. I don’t trust it. It wants to kill us.” He sounded crazy, surely. Ansel was used to crazy, but in the wrong way. Ansel would comfort him and tell him as gently as he could that he was wrong when Lewis knew he wasn’t. “Please just listen to me for once. It’s the scarecrow.”
“It’s worse when you agree with me to shut me up.”
Ansel shifted again, his eyes moving to look out the window. Young eyes. Dark. Patient. It was his job to be patient. Job, he hated the word job. It reminded him that Ansel was only here for the pay. It was his job to deal with crazies like Lewis. “What else am I supposed to do?”
He knew this. He knew Ansel would leave the moment he could. Lewis just wanted him to care—he wanted him to believe. Lewis wasn’t crazy. He knew this, too. “Listen.”
“But you didn’t believe me.”
Ansel paused. “You didn’t say I had to believe it.”
“You know I wanted you to.”
“I’m not—I’m not here to believe you. I’m here to take care of you.”
“Is there a difference?”
“Yes. Just— trust me on this. Believe me. It’s a sack of hay. We’re safe here until the bombs explode. A safe final day.” The conversation was over. Ansel never had to assert this; Lewis knew he was done talking.
Ansel stood and nudged open the crickety screen door, taking a seat on a wicker rocking chair with a creak. The sun was growing lower in the sky, casting a golden haze through the fields and making the other man’s dark eyes dance in its light. His eyes closed; his eyes opened. His brow was slight and eyelashes long and fluttering to cast out the blinding sunspots. Lewis thought he was like an oil painting, too still, his chest frozen and unmelting in the heat. It was as if time thickened and dripped like sorghum around him. The end of the world was coming, Lewis thought, and yet it couldn’t feel farther away.
The feeling was the same as when Ansel had first arrived, though Lewis had settled into it more comfortably by now. The world, though not on the verge of its end, felt very much the same for Lewis then. He was alone, he had no hope, and the scarecrow watched him every day. He would wake in the morning to see its glinting eyes watching him through the window. Though he was not a crow, he was frightened by it. It haunted him even at night when he couldn’t see its drooping arms and lumpy burlap face. A stranger arrived one day; dark eyes, dark hair, but a bright glimmer behind it all that looked like something new, something Lewis hadn’t seen before. He thought it looked an awful lot like hope.
Right now, though, Ansel didn’t seem to have much hope; he was sad. He looked sad often, Lewis noted, but in this moment it was potent, escaping and seeping out in each slow blink. His dark hair was oily and unwashed, curls flattened against his forehead with the force of despair. His eyes had no tears, but they were dry in the way that suggested that they’d already cried too many. Lewis sat beside him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Ansel laughed, and though there was humour in it, it was the self-deprecating and bitter humour of the hopeless. “The world is ending, and I’m here.”
“What’s so wrong with this? With here?”
“I’m… I have no one to spend my last day with.”
Lewis paused. His heart squeezed and dropped into his stomach like a too-heavy stew. “I know I’m not much, but I’m here.”
“Ah,” Ansel said, voice breaking, falling into a whisper. “I’m sorry. You’re right.” But his face told a different story. His hands did, too, in the way they drummed on the chair’s arm and reaching slightly, ever so slightly for the sun. He was here out of necessity and maybe even out of pity, but he would never be here because he wanted to be. He wanted more.
Lewis did, too. Not from this house or his too-old rocking chairs. He liked his chairs; he liked his house. He wanted Ansel to be a friend, not a caretaker; he wanted himself to be a normal damn person.
He could at least try to make it bearable for him.
Lewis stood from his own chair and rolled up his sleeves, marching with purpose to the unwitting field. He saw its stupid, ugly, contorted face, its sloppily-stitched mouth, its cruel, hateful eyes, and broke into a sprint. “You bastard!” he shouted, voice cracked and screeching as he tore it from its stake and ripped at its already-tattered flannel. It was trash, it was garbage, and it didn’t scare the crows in the slightest—they sat around in contempt now, satisfied at a grisly end for the eyesore they scorned. It only scared one person, and that was Lewis, and he knew, among everything else, he knew it had to die.
He screamed, he yelled, he kicked, and he tore its stupid head from its shoulders. “You stay away from him!” he screeched as he drove his fingers into its eyes and gouged them from its drooping head. “Leave me alone!” He ripped the hay from its head and let it scatter to the wind with his breaking voice. He hated it, he hated it—
A voice, from behind him. Gentle, soft. “Stand back.”
“I’m protecting us,” he said in a whisper. “I’m protecting us.”
“Stand back,” Ansel said again, laughing softly. He met Lewis’s eyes and held up a match. “If it’ll make you feel safe.” He struck it, let it fall, and it caught on the violently fraying threads of the scarecrow’s disgusting trousers. The flame spread and overcame Lewis’s nemesis and he laughed, he laughed at its demise. He couldn’t even bring himself to care when the fire diverged its path and ate up the waving fields in its blazing fury. He was fire, and it was something made to be set to flame. The world was ending; who had a care?
Ansel’s laughter joined his, and the fire spread, and the fire spread, and the fire spread. It licked at Lewis’s ankles and he wouldn’t care, he couldn’t. He looked to Ansel, to the fire that danced in his eyes as the sun had, at the grin that ate its way across his face like flames, and behind them, unknown to them, the bomb went off.