There was always something about that old man down the road I could never put my finger on. Something elusive, dangling just out of reach, or on the tip of my tongue. Something about the way he was that made me feel as if a long piece of cold steel sat deep into my right side.
I rode my bike past his farm every morning, on my way to the liquor store, and he’d be sitting there on his porch, smoking a stogie: an ancient map of wrinkles and memories and sullen frowns staring out upon the dirt road—judging, wondering, pondering, I suppose. Always petting one of his fucking chickens, also.
It would be fair to say that my mother went to her grave highly disappointed in me. The look on her face in that coffin said as much. I grew up in my own way, did my own thing, and cared nothing for anyone else. And it showed. Most of my life I’ve spent as a strung-out addict, picking apart people until they died from emotional starvation. I live alone in a one-bedroom cracker box down a dirt road next to a speechless old man who raises chickens. I’ve tried to kill myself three times already, even failed at that. But after the end of the world had become an apparent reality, with five billion people now worm food, those looks that old Roy gave me seemed just a little bit too much for me to bear anymore. Seemed as if they came straight from my mother’s grave.
So, I made a personal promise to kill the son-of-a-bitch someday.
It started with a simple, “Hello.” As expected, Roy just sat there, not saying a word, staring into my eyes, rooster on his lap.
I brought him coffee and a donut one morning. Set it on his porch next to his rocking chair while he was in the house, taking a piss more than likely. I even left a note: Have a nice day. Then I kicked one of his chickens on my way out, which felt damn good. But the following morning, as usual, that old man did nothing but stare.
“You hear about the plague?” I asked him a week later. “They say it’s the worst one yet. No cure.” His gaze seemed to look right past me, disregarding my presence as if I were nothing but a scraggly weed needing to get pulled. “They say it came from some bird, in Asia. And that everyone’s going to die. What do you think about that, old man?”
A few days later, I bought the very last issue of Time magazine. On the front cover was a photograph of some airport in Bangkok. It was taken from inside a plane, looking out across the wing onto an empty tarmac where there should have been signs of life, people moving around, trucks driving, anything. But there wasn’t. There was nothing there, because nobody came to work that day. Hence, the title of the article: Signs of the End. I guess it’s hard to get an airport running when everyone’s dead.
I left the magazine on his chair, at night, so he’d get it in the morning. And the next day I rode by earlier than usual, excited to see Roy’s face.
“Did you read the article? Pretty fucking scary, huh?” But of course, he said nothing.
Ten days later, and I got my first symptom—a migraine headache. And since I read the article, I know that the last days of my life will be short, messy, and painful.
“I’m sick, old man! I got it. I’m going to die!” The second symptom is a burning fever, which I had at this moment. I was standing on his porch, yelling at his face. “Got anything to say, you dumb-fuck!?”
“Name’s Roy. Sorry to hear.” And with that, he shut me up. I wobbled back to my house and puked out a lung. I fell asleep on the bathroom floor, in my own waste, catatonic over the fact that this is how it’s going to end for me: Cold. Alone. Miserable. And in my final moments of existence, I can’t even compete with a God-damned chicken!
The next day I killed him. I killed Roy. I went over there and bashed his skull in with a shovel. I looked at his brains, his bloody thoughts. I watched his chickens wander the yard, not giving so much as a shit about him now, and I felt pretty damn good. I feel good, actually, never mind the fact that I’m dying a horrible death.
At least I think I feel good.
But then again…
Fuck you, Roy!
Chris Riley lives near Sacramento, California, vowing one day to move back to the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, he teaches special education, writes cool stories, and hides from the blasting heat for six months of the year. He has had dozens of short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and across various genres. His debut novel, one of literary suspense, titled The Sinking of the Angie Piper, has recently been published. For more information, go to chrisrileyauthor.com.