Penultimate


by Paul Edward Costa


 

…following that the concept of colour died out. The world became shades of black, white and gray. Now skies always looked too dark for day-time and too light for night-time.

The Gunman walked into Dry Stone City while hunting John Oak, the man who bombed his partner. The Gunman walked for years to get there. He progressed slowly over deserts and plains, under mountain ranges and isolated rocky outcroppings. The Gunman came from an urban coast somewhere with water and civilization in a sprawling metropolis. Through the sweeping dust storms behind him that place became vague and broken images. He just barely remembered how lightly the agency’s superiors took his partner’s death since all the vanishings began. With everything systematically disappearing into thin air, the Gunman clung to a solid and archaic sense of duty.

On dusty abandoned one hundred acre ranches near the borders of Dry Stone City, the Gunman saw horses. They wore black, white and gray fur. The Gunman didn’t know if they’d always been those colours or if they just looked that way now. The horses slouched slowly over the plains. They kept their necks bent so low their faces dragged in the dirt. Both nearby and in the far distance massive antique accordion style cameras as big as mountains dotted the desert landscape. They emerged half buried from shifting sands.

Dry Stone City consisted of four dirt roads intersecting at four points like a number sign. Two ran parallel to each other north-south. Two ran parallel to each other east-west. One and two story buildings constructed from wood beams and glass windows made up the town. Less than fifteen lay along the short streets. Walking these streets the Gunman saw a bank, a saloon, an inn, several houses, a restaurant, a sheriff’s office and a useless railroad station. The station’s windows rested broken and cracked in their frames. In the wide expanse of this arid place large sections of rail either lay beneath shifted sands or, torn up, stretched skyward like arms twisting with agony. Very rarely a face peered out of a window. The click of the Gunman’s boots disturbed old still and silent air. A few people sat slumped against posts. Their cowboy hats covered their faces. They didn’t look up when the Gunman passed. At the gallows a hooded man stood with a noose tightened around his neck on the platform’s unreleased trapped door. Dust covered his clothes. Despite his slow movements the Gunman turned sharply when the inn’s door swung open. A gaunt emaciated man wearing baggy trousers and an oversized shirt ran out into the town square. He grimaced as he entered the dull white midday sun. Falling to his knees he hunched over and clenched his scraggly hair. Then with a sudden jerk he arched his back and stared straight up. He screamed out at a disturbing volume:

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!?!”

The Gunman stared at him. The town’s atmosphere returned to its persistent silence. The man collapsed into the dirt weeping between loud and desperate gasps for air. After a few moments a clerk from the inn and a woman wearing a dress came out. With bowed solemn heads they pulled the weeping man to his knees. They dusted him off, patted his shoulders and quietly ushered him back into the inn.

The Gunman walked into Dry Stone City’s saloon. The bartender tilted an empty whiskey bottle over empty shot glasses spread across the bar. Patrons sitting on stools always kept one clenched fist on the counter. They used their other hands to lift the empty glasses to their lips. They’d slam the shot glasses on the counter after shaking them upside down over their mouths. They’d squeeze their eye lids shut, grimace and repeat the process. Before the next round one patron said “no, no more of that one, use the green bottle. I like that one better. This one is disgusting.”

The bartender shrugged, put away the empty clear bottle he’d been making drinks with, and picked up the empty translucent green one. He went about preparing the next round of invisible, non-existent and make believe shots. This time the patrons grimaced a little less.

Gamblers played poker around a green felt table on the far end of the saloon. The men bent their arms in and rested their hands on the table’s edge. They pressed their thumbs against the insides of their curled fingers. They held nothing. Still they made tossing motions over the game table while moving real poker chips. Each man declared his hand verbally, speaking louder than the man before him. In the cloudy dimness of the saloon’s oil lamps the Gunman sat at the edge of the bar.

“Can I get a whiskey?”

The bartender came over, set up an ounce glass and tilted the empty green bottle’s spout over it. The Gunman looked around. He lifted the hollow glass to his lips and tilted back his head. The Gunman’s mind dazzled his taste buds with the smoked hickory sweetness of a perfect western whiskey. He spoke to the barkeep:

“You know anything about John Oak?”

“Of course. He’s an outlaw around these parts,” the Bartender said while preparing other drinks.

“He been here recently?” the Gunman asked.

The Bartender looked at him. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but not much has been coming in here or arriving recently. Most has been leaving quiet and steady.”

“Yeah,” The Gunman said, “I noticed…so that’s a no?”

The Bartender nodded.

After a moment the Gunman spoke again. “I’m here to bring John Oak in.”

The Bartender chortled. “Why?”

“You said it yourself. He’s an outlaw.”

The Bartender leaned forewords “uh, where you gonna bring him in to? Our jail’s got no bars anymore.”

“Then I’ll have to bring him back to the coast,” The Gunman said.

“The where?” The Bartender twisted his face into vague confusion.

“Over the mountains, through the dust storms,” The Gunman explained. The Bartender leaned further forewords. The Gunman continued “out there there’s this, you know, clear liquid falling sometimes. It’s called…damn it, it’s on the tip of my tongue…there’s also these tall things, not mountains, we made them of glass and cement, I just can’t seem to…oh I don’t know anymore.” The Gunman went slack after tensing during the effort of explanation. “It’s getting harder,” he said. The bartender sighed, shook his head and turned away to serve the others. He turned back to the Gunman.

“You know there’s no reward either right?” As he said that a man dumped a handful of sand on the bar next to his empty shot glass and walked out the front door. A crash shook the smoky saloon. The Gunman swung around on his stool. The poker table lay on its side. A large bearded gambler stood over a smaller player beating him bloody. After he finished the larger Gambler reached into the small players pocket and carefully removed four jagged stones.

“Pay what you owe next time,” he spat. Then the large gambler kicked the smaller player and left the saloon.

“Well, that seems to be the case,” the Gunman said to the Bartender. The Bartender laughed.

“So you aint sure where your gonna bring him, and you know you aint getting nothing for it so why you gonna bring John Oak in?”

The Gunman clasped his hands together on the bar in front of him. He closed his eyes as he said “because I have to bring him in. That I do know for sure. No one’s going to say he hasn’t killed men. He bombed my partner. On that basis alone I have to bring him in. That’s what I do. I don’t know what else matters. It doesn’t seem anything does. He has to come in, no matter what’s going with the world. Everything else is nothing. He has to come in. That’s it.”

“Okay then, whatever you say,” replied the Bartender who raised his eyebrows and shook his head. He started wiping the bar with his sleeves. Right then the piano player came back in from the jakes. He started playing a lively piece of dissonant music. With no fingers he could only use his palms to bash the keys in four note clusters.

The Gunman left Dry Stone City later that day. He walked out into the surrounding sepia landscape. His feet led him in the direction of John Oak’s mountain hideaway. Where it lay existed as common knowledge in the city but no one ever sought him there. Most citizens pretended they didn’t know. Some part of them felt that a lack of thought would give way to a lack of reality. Every passing day granted that wish in a more twisted way. The Gunman couldn’t wait any longer to leave. Soon there might be nowhere left to go.

The Gunman walked over pale burning salt flats. Soon he felt dizzy. He wondered if balance would vanish next. He stopped thinking that when moving one foot after the other during slow deliberate concentration steadied him. A wave of nausea subsided when the Gunman focused on distant mountain ranges or one of the towering antique cameras to keep his balance. He kept moving forwards over the desert. The Gunman approached one of the mountain sized cameras stretching high up. Soon it loomed large and occupied most of the sky to the Gunman’s left. Its rear section film holder rested in the sand. Its accordion pleated box extended up vertically. The glass lens axis collected all the light coming down on it and reflected it into a beam shooting skywards. The Gunman didn’t stop as he passed due to a fear of blacking out. Still, he looked in subtle awe at this colossal mechanical tower in the expansive desert shooting up a beam of light. The Gunman passed through its huge cast shadow as he crossed the enormous white salt flat plains. He began to shiver a little as he walked through this patch of ground without direct sunlight. His heart started to race. With increasing frequency the Gunman glanced quickly at the massive camera looming over him. He felt like it vaguely looked back at him. In its long and wide shadow the Gunman felt a smothering fear of suffocation rushing over him. He felt an urgent need to escape the camera’s intimidating height. The Gunman broke into a stumbling run, desperately trying to keep his balance by focusing on fixed horizon landmarks and concentrating on his footsteps. When he covered a distance greater than the towering camera’s height and left its shadow he stopped. He stood erect and tried to walk with dignity again, trying to hide his heavy panting. The Gunman felt a brief, glorious and indescribable sense of relief. No one else existed on the dry plains with him at that moment. He moved on.

After crossing the huge desert of salt flats, the Gunman came to a mountain range stretching for several kilometers both left and right. The Gunman looked back across the enormous plains. The massive towering cameras rose occasionally from the flatness. Dry Stone City just barely rippled on the horizon. The sandy landscape behind him blared white. The mountain range ahead looked shadowy and black. Looking down on himself he saw his cloths appear in shades of gray.

Coming up to the mountain range, the Gunman saw a rocky path leading up to a cave entrance in the central cliff. He pulled his revolver out from the holster beneath his vest. No bullets sat in its six slot cylinder. Still, a direct view of the empty gun’s barrel was enough to freeze and destroy the mind of a marauder who accosted the Gunman on his way to Dry Stone City. At this late stage of the world the mere thought of induced loss could be enough to scramble the human mind. The Gunman trusted his revolver could have the same effect again. He crept up the rocky path.

The Gunman saw a makeshift wooden watchtower near the cave’s entrance. On top of it sat unfolded machine gun ammunition belts behind a tri-pod holding nothing. The Gunman looked around. He saw no one. As he entered the cave only light from the doorway behind him lit the Gunman’s way. He saw a metallic mechanism covering the floor ahead. A look around this entrance revealed two large boulders suspended by ropes from the ceiling. One had been pulled to the left and one had been pulled to the right. After a moment of intense thought the Gunman figured that stepping on the mechanism would cause both boulders to swing down, crushing between them whoever stood on the trap. The Gunman picked up a stone and threw it at the mechanism. It pinged off the trap and bounced further into the cave, echoing all the way. Nothing happened. Edging closer, the Gunman saw that passing time had rusted the trip mechanism solid. Because of the mechanism’s size, he faced no choice but to step across it. He felt his heart leap up to his throat as he crossed that threshold. A nightmarish thought of losing his task and one solid purpose flashed through his mind. The Gunman moved quickly across the trap. When he made it he spun his revolver on one finger trying to keep cool and let his heart re-settle in his chest. Then he furrowed his brow and moved through a narrow passage into the second part of the cave.

The cave’s next section consisted of a long corridor filled with stacked bundles of dynamite. Light came in through holes in the cave’s ceiling. Empty chairs and cots lined the hallway as well. The Gunman shook his head as he walked. Something looked wrong with this set-up, but he couldn’t figure out what. Knowing that he used to possess the ability the deduce things quickly added to the Gunman’s frustrations. When he finally realized that every red explosive stick lacked a fuse to set off its blasting cap, he felt no satisfaction at deducing the missing thing because of the time it took him to do so. People were also missing from the cave. People! Where were the people? Why did the hideaway have no people? Why has it taken me so long to notice? At the end of the rocky mountain hall stood a heavy reinforced iron door. Chains criss-crossed it and multiple locks covered it but the door had no hinges connecting it to the surrounding doorframe. The Gunman pushed the door over.

Walking through, the Gunman came into John Oak’s personal quarters. A bed rested against one wall, newspaper clippings describing his exploits covered another and the remains of his possessions lay scattered around the room. Frustratingly, the thought only struck the Gunman then that John Oak may not be here. Did he leave or did he vanish? The Gunman kept looking with burning obsession.

He found John Oak on the bed. Initially the Gunman only focused on the messy floor, but when he searched the bed for the sake of completion he found his target. More accurately he found all that remained of his target. On the bed’s pillow sat a bare dry skull, with two live, juicy eyeballs in its sockets. Ten toenails sat in a row at the foot of the bed. An unexpected wave of pity overcame the Gunman. So you’re one of the unlucky ones he thought. The Gunman looked around and also thought about the world outside the cave. He laughed with a sad, quiet desperation. He resolved to keep to his resolve and still bring in John Oak.

The Gunman stopped in Dry Stone City’s saloon on his way back to the coast. He didn’t know what might vanish next. Head down, he slouched through the bar’s doors, intent on again tasting an imagined sweetness with no base in reality. Without fingers the kid on the piano pounded out a jumpy ragtime number leaping towards the sounds of pure chaos but never quite arriving there. The Bartender acknowledged the Gunman with a silent nod. The Gunman returned the greeting. He sat at the bar and unfolded the sheet which held all of John Oak. The Gunman placed that skull housing two eyeballs on the counter before arranging its ten toenails in front of it by size. The Bartender poured the Gunman a drink from the empty green bottle. For possibly the last time the Gunman drank from the empty glass. His mind made his taste buds dazzle with the smoked hickory sweetness of a perfect bourbon whiskey. From the corner of his eye the Gunman saw John Oak’ eyeballs rolling wildly in their sockets. Increasingly agitated and unbearably tense, the Gunman finally lost patience and took two shot glasses from behind the bar. He pressed them into the eye sockets of John Oak’s skull, giving him distended glass goggles. The eyeballs immediately stopped rolling wildly. They calmly peered dead ahead through the shot glass’s thick bottoms.

Following that the concept of self awareness died out.

“You! Pour another drink,” The Gunman said to the Bartender.

The Bartender gave no response.

After a few moments the Bartender asked on his own “do you want a drink?”

The Gunman gave no response.

The Gunman said “someone wants a drink. Someone should pour it.”

A moment of silence ensued.

“Why can’t they ask for a drink themselves?” the Bartender said to no one in particular. He lamented that “people used to say what they wanted. Now they leave others to guess what they really think.”

Behind their shot glass goggles, the eyeballs in John Oak’s skull started rolling back, their pupils looking further and further up. Soon it became apparent that they weren’t trying to look up, but were trying to look inward, into the skull that housed them. John Oak’s pupils bounced repeatedly against the tops of their sockets, frantically trying and failing to look inside their skull, which had no mind at all, no brain stem, cerebellum or cerebral cortex.