To Take, To Leave
(1) You were lonely, so you took in the boy. No matter how much you try to justify your role in this whole thing by how much you love him, the apocalypse is your fault.
Speaking of the apocalypse, death is coming, and it’s coming at you fast—so fast that you won’t escape it if you don’t do something. Soon. You better do that something soon.
There’s a lake of fire burning through Ms. Jackson’s brand-new cut and loop carpet just across the way, and no matter how much baking soda or salt the old woman tosses at those wet, angry flames, they are only spreading—quickly.
Wooden planks, concrete bricks, and bird carcasses are cascading from overhead. Outside, for now.
You know this because you look out your living room window and see your yard. Well, not really so much your yard, but the multiple layers of death and destruction that continue to pile on top of it.
You think of Alex and Caleb, the stoner kids who mow your lawn. You, like their own parents, are mad at them. You want this to be their fault. You want this to be anyone else’s fault.
But it’s not. It’s yours.
A creaking sound above your head steals your attention, and it’s now that you realize you should’ve acted on one of those postcard advertisements the roofing company’s been leaving in your mailbox for the past two springs.
Oh, and there’s a smell that’s about to hit you. Just wait. It’s a bad, bad smell.
-If you had rather give up, stop here. Death certainly won’t be long.
-If you want to try to fight, proceed to (2).
(2) You should know more about that smell. It’s gas. There’s a leak in the den. It’s firing up, too.
The odor hits you, and you imagine the coming explosion. Then you don’t. You don’t really imagine a lot. You actually start to feel kind of woozy.
Despite the gas, you close your eyes and take a deep breath.
You choke. You choke some more. Then you calm down, surprisingly.
You count to ten. Sort of. You forget six, seven, nine, and ten. It doesn’t matter.
Things start to feel pretty good. Great even.
– If you’ve changed your mind and want to embrace this “great” feeling, stop here.
-If you are sure about forging ahead, proceed to (3).
(3) You yell a word. Two words. “Nine!” “Ten!”
Maybe you didn’t forget.
Regardless, you persevere.
You tell yourself to get a grip. Literally. “Get a grip,” you whisper.
You hear yourself, too. The quiet echo of your voice. It startles you because it’s now that you realize you are, of all things, in this room by yourself.
The reason for the current apocalypse can be traced back to you not wanting to be alone. You shouldn’t be in this state now, especially with the end of the world coming.
You need to find him.
You need to find your son. Your “little man.”
You scan the room just to be sure he isn’t hiding, but you don’t see him.
You walk to the hallway, and he’s there. In plain sight.
He’s on the wooden stairs. Waiting.
He’s holding your battery-powered radio in his small, gloved hands.
Your spacesuit-wearing son is sitting, properly helmeted in his purely white suit, as always, in the comfort of his swirling indigo breaths of fire.
He seems so peaceful, maybe eager.
You want to talk to your son. To tell him it’s okay. To tell him you forgive him. To tell him you love him no matter what. But you can’t because something else captivates you. It’s a voice, and it trembles over the radio’s broken speakers. You know it, although you can’t place exactly how.
“World exploding,” the voice says, choking back tears. “Lava flowing.” “Islands sinking,” it says.
At this moment, you look to your son. To meet his eyes so you are reminded why allowing this to happen is okay. As soon as you meet his gaze, though, your roof collapses. It collapses on you.
A haunting buzz of static takes over the airways, takes over your now burnt-orange, crushed shell of a house. What’s left of it.
You, through the rubble, run to your son.
No, you don’t really run. You jump. You climb. You go to him.
He’s still on the stairs. Untouched, unmoved. Miraculously, you think, but you realize quickly this is no miracle. No, no. This is prophecy.
You reach for him. You grasp him. You don’t stop until you fully embrace him. Through a slick material you’ve never recognized, behind a glass that keeps you from ever touching his face.
Although you don’t know how exactly to say it, you want to talk to him. You want to tell him you don’t care. That it has all been worth it. That he has.
But you don’t. Instead, he speaks. He knows the perfect words.
“I will save you,” he tells you. You struggle to hear him because the helmet blocks his words, but you still make it out. You do because you want to. Or need to. No, you do because you have to. “I’ve always told you so. Since you saved me. We are going to be okay.”
-If you want a second chance at preventing the apocalypse, proceed to (4).
-If you believe your son, skip to (7).
(4) It’s three years earlier and, like all days since your parents abandoned you for their Caribbean island condo a decade ago, you are alone.
You are also something else, strangely. You are hopeful.
For the first time in four days, you are out of your bed and looking out your window.
You are—yes—hopeful, wishing for something. Anything, really. Anyone.
It is your lucky day because you get your wish.
It comes first as a squirrel. It’s drinking water out of the dirty, chipped birdbath you’ve been intending to clean. The one you swore to your mother you’d take care of when she and your father left you. But you disregard the filth. You smile. You even sort of laugh.
You stay at the window, and a family of bumblebees flies by, eventually brushing against the tops of yellow flowering weeds that suffocate your sidewalk.
Being up is going well for you—so well that you want to watch the sunset.
You never do this. Never. You haven’t been outside in over a week. Not since you went to the Stock N Save on that Thursday nine days ago and broke the last hundred-dollar bill your parents left you.
Today, though, you do do this—you do watch it. For a long time, you do.
You finally turn away from the tangerine glow behind Ms. Jackson’s bungalow just when it’s almost gone, and you glance at your mailbox and, then, at the end of your driveway. Your wandering vision-trip continues down your sidewalk and to the very glass in front of you.
You sigh and step away from the window.
You’ve only taken a handful of steps when something tells you to go back.
You have nothing else to do, and today has been surprisingly okay. So you listen, and you go.
You lean so closely to the glass that the tip of your nose sweats and the window fogs. You see something. Something in your driveway. Something small. Something burning.
You stare at the light, at the purple, smokey sparks of flame that burn at your end of your driveway, and your heart skips a beat. It skips a couple of beats.
You need to go out. You need to go out now.
You look for your shoes, but you don’t know where they are. You decide you don’t care.
-If you’ve decided all this adrenaline is too much, go on back to bed. Your journey ends here.
-If you can’t pass up this opportunity, proceed to (5).
(5) You step out of your front door with no shoes on, and you sprint down your sidewalk. But you only make it a few steps like this—only until you cut your foot on a jagged, stray pebble from your chipped cement path.
You leap to the grass, and you brush off the sole of your foot. There’s blood, but you rub it against your shirt. It’s a white t-shirt, but you don’t care.
You run atop the clover and weeds all the way to the edge of your driveway. All the way to the indigo flames.
When you look down, you can’t believe what you see. It’s the very thing you used to pray for. The thing your parents used to say you needed. The thing your former coworkers suggested over and over again. The thing that they all said would heal you, would save you.
You don’t even have to see its face to know what it is. You already know, and you know for certain.
On the ground is a child.
Your child, you already think.
It has fallen. You know this. You know it. Something inside you knows it.
The child is facedown, but it’s breathing. It’s definitely breathing. Cloudy, purple breaths that time perfectly with the rise and fall of the child’s back puff slowly down a tube that travels into a translucent purifier attached to the—your—little one’s back.
You roll your child over, and you see its face. His face.
The smoke trapped inside his helmet makes it hard to see his eyes, but you finally glimpse them—his sparkling, ocean-like eyes—when he exhales deeply.
You put your hands to his helmet. To take it off. To tell him he will be okay. To tell him you will save him. But his hands meet yours just before you touch it, and he shakes his head.
You don’t even feel the heat radiating from the helmet. You don’t care. All you can think about is him. His presence. His arrival.
A raindrop sizzles as it falls onto the boy’s helmet. Then another. And, then, another. You look up and see storm clouds. They are coming.
-If you leave the child outside, your journey ends here. You go back inside and crawl back into bed. The day, you decide, has been too long already, and you’ve stepped way too far out of your comfort zone.
-If you take the child inside, proceed to (6).
(6) When you carry him through your door, you place him on your couch. Your arms brush against his searing helmet as you let him go. You don’t scream. You don’t say anything at all. Instead, you run to your refrigerator and stick your red, burning arms inside your ice maker.
You want to cry, but not from the pain.
You go back to the boy, this time with two towels. You fold them and place them under his head.
You do this for his comfort and not for your couch’s protection, although you realize you’ve done both.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
Whether his apology is for the inconvenience, your burnt arms, or your toasted couch cushions, you don’t know. Or care.
“It’s okay,” you say.
You take his hand, and you hold it. These are the first hands you’ve held in years.
You, finally, don’t feel alone. Not now.
When he falls asleep, you don’t let go. You don’t do anything all night except stare at your boy. You don’t go outside and look for parents—or spaceships or fire-breathing kin or anything or anyone else that might belong to him.
You don’t do this because you claim him as your own. Immediately, you do.
He sits up in a few days, and he thanks you. He thanks you for helping him. For being good to him.
He says, “You are going to be okay. I will save you.”
You don’t ask from what. You never do.
You just believe him. You believe him because he already has.
-If you want to prevent the apocalypse, it’s not too late. Head back to (4).
-If you love your son and just want to be with him at the world’s end, proceed to (7).
(7) Your son stands and reaches for your hand.
-If you take it, proceed to (8).
-If you—no, no—you’ve already made your choice. You take your boy’s hand. Proceed to (8).
(8) You follow him as he makes his way from the still-standing staircase and leads you over the broken, dying world. You go with him all the way out into your yard. You tell him it’s not safe. You tell him to be careful. You tell him you should both go back inside. Or what’s left of inside.
But he doesn’t listen. He, with his hand tucked into yours, continues on, and you never physically resist. You go right with him. Perfectly in sync.
You don’t understand what he’s doing. Truthfully you don’t. Not as he takes you to a clear spot in your backyard that’s somehow still alive and beautiful. Not even when you are standing perfectly safe under a tree. Your oak tree. The only tree in your entire neighborhood still remaining. The only tree in your whole word still remaining.
You still don’t understand as the shouting and crying and sirens blare around you. As the sound of hissing tears falling onto the decaying world sizzle.
You still don’t understand when you look into the sky and see how the clouds have already gone elsewhere.
It’s not until your boy speaks that you finally start to get it. “You might not want to watch this,” he says as he takes off his helmet. Your boy, the boy you saved and loved after he crashed on his quest to end the world, gulps in one giant breath. The longest breath you’ve ever witnessed.
When he opens his mouth, he releases the fire.
You really, really get it when he releases the fire. When the wild flames smother everything surrounding you. When you imagine the disintegration of Ms. Jackson and Alex and Caleb and your old coworkers and your parents and the beautiful beach they live on. When he holds you in his arms and you blast off, with him, happily into the sky.
Bradley Sides is the author of Those Fantastic Lives: And Other Strange Stories. He is an MFA candidate at Queens University of Charlotte, where he serves as Fiction Editor of Qu. He lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife.