Water splashed up the side of the vehicle as it plowed through the deepening water, the brown droplets hitting the windows and jolting Harry out of his nap. They had been driving for hours and he had passed out against the door, the imprint of the seatbelt standing out on his face. The heat was on full blast to counter the chill from outside, the darkness full of cold.
“Where are we?” he muttered to Paul, blearily gazing out of the window.
“About ten miles outside of Amber Grove.”
“Amber Grove? Christ, what a shithole. Why are we here?”
“It’s where the food is,” Paul said, not taking his eyes off of the road.
“Some reason,” Harry said. The telephone poles whipped by outside, the moss growing heavily on the outside of them. Everything was damp, decaying, and the rain fell constantly these days. Pools of water were building up everywhere, it had been happening for months now. The Bible-Belt was soaked, drowning in its own soaked crops. The panic had not taken long to settle in, with food already being hoarded in basements and cellars. Paul had tried that with his family at first, but when the rain never stopped the cellar eventually flooded and a lot of the food was ruined. The cans were okay, and they were in the trunk of the car with the gas canisters, but Paul’s family was no longer in the picture.
“I came here a lot with my family when I was a kid,” Harry heard him say. “We used to visit our aunt. She was a tour guide for some local attraction or something like that, a real weirdo, but she was a hell of a cook and she had this house on a lot of property. Used to go four-wheeling and things like that, cook weenies on a fire.”
“Sounds nice,” Harry said. “My family didn’t do stuff like that.”
“Where they from?”
“Sweetwater, place in Texas.”
“That’s cool,” Paul said. It was the first personal question he had asked since picking up Harry outside of Chicago four days before, needing to be reminded of his name. They had been students together at the university and had a couple of classes. Teachers had lectured them on the brilliance of Ginsberg, on operational properties of quantum loop gravity theory, on the role of the electoral college in American politics. Now the smart ones were those who stayed mobile, people like Paul and Harry who drove south. Rumor had it the rains were not as bad down in the badlands, in the heat. It still rained a lot, but the stories the students had told each other told of heat, of dry desert, and the magic of the southwest and even further. According to legends, which had already started popping up, Mexico was doing just fine in their heat.
“Would your parents be up for taking us in?” Paul asked.
“I can’t imagine they wouldn’t be,” Harry said. “You’re bringing me, the least they could do is let you stay with us. You didn’t have to pick me up and they’re good, God-fearing Christians. They have to.”
“I didn’t think people just worked that way.”
“They don’t, but mine do.”
“Well we’re in Kansas. Let’s hope they do too.”
“Amen brother,” Harry said, “Amen.
They sat in silence for a bit after that. Harry looked out into the darkness. Outside the window, illuminated by the headlights, a sign showed that they had reached the small, Midwestern town of Amber Grove. “Home of The Hole”, they’re claim to fame, was on the sign. Harry and Paul had no idea what this was, but it was some urban legend that had rippled through the area a few years back. The specifics were a closely-guarded secret, at least that was the story, but you could take tours to the site and see it so it was unlikely that it was something noteworthy. Buildings rose in the distance, a small area that had to qualify as “downtown” to the residents. One building was illuminated, down one of the side-streets, and Paul flicked on his turn signal.
“Why?” Harry laughed. “What possible point could that serve?”
“Makes me feel normal,” Paul said with a smile. “You know, like nothing’s changed.”
They drove on, and in the headlights a new phenomenon presented itself. Outside of the old brick building there were several women. Around a dozen of them stood outside, all ages, and they were dressed like the prostitutes you saw in old western films. Bright pinks and blues, dazzling to the eye, stood out against the darkness under the lights from the windows. As the boys pulled up they began to smile and wave. One girl, no older than twenty, had her breasts out and leaned out to them, wiggling back and forth seductively. A woman who was at least sixty stood next to her and turned around, shaking her ass at the approaching vehicle.
“What,” Harry whispered, “the fuck is this?”
“It appears to be a cathouse,” Paul said, his smile widening.
“What are you so excited for?”
“Don’t mistake what we have stumbled on, my friend. This is an tradition, a part of every country where there’s a dick to be serviced. Sure, they’ll want food or gas or something, but we might be able to relax for a bit. Hell, we might be able to spend the night.”
“You mean we wouldn’t have to sleep in the car?” Harry asked.
“Been a bit, yeah?”
“Like….a bed and sex? Sign me up!”
“That’s the spirit,” Paul replied. He pulled over and unbuckled his seatbelt.
“I don’t know about this,” Harry said. “Seems too good to be true.” Paul clapped him on the shoulder and reached across him, opening the glove compartment. Inside was a collection of pocket knives, six of them. He took three and put one in each pocket and one in the inside of his jacket.
“I never said we wasn’t going to be careful,” Paul told Harry. “Just because I’m dying for a little strange doesn’t mean I’m suddenly dumb about it.”
“So why stop here then?” Harry asked.
Paul looked at him, confused. Then he chuckled, holding his head in his hands. Harry reached out and touched his shoulder, afraid the guy was cracking up. But as Paul sat back Harry saw that he really was laughing. “It’s the end of the world, bro.” He opened the car door and got out, heading for the women. The young one with her breasts out thrust them at him and he reached for them. She smacked his hand away, then grabbed the sides of his head and pulled his face into them. Harry saw that Paul’s hand was in his pocket, probably gripping the knife just in case.
He looked at the open glove compartment, the three remaining knives almost glowing under the bulb. He took one and put it in his pocket. Reaching for the window crank, he cracked it and listened in.
“Ya got food, honey?” the older woman asked.
“We might have a little,” Paul said, muffled between the tits. “That what you take in trade?”
“Sure thing,” she said, with a smile. Then she raised her arm high above her. The young girl did the same. Glints in the light revealed knives of their own, and Harry screamed for Paul. The young man came up for air.
“Now!” the elderly woman shouted, and the knife came down.
Paul was not fast enough, the knife catching him in his neck. She whipped it out and the blood spurted out, mixing with the pouring rain to run down to the ground. Red shot out in little bullets, splattering all over the younger woman as she also swung her knife down. It caught Paul in the back, sticking up out of him. She twisted it and pulled, and the young man swung around and stood straight up, blood spraying everywhere. The other women descended on him, the shining of rain-wet knives flashing in the light. Harry locked his door and shoved over to the driver’s seat, locking that door as well. They were already headed for him.
He turned the key, the car roaring to life. Throwing it in reverse, he slammed on the gas. “Get the food!” someone shouted. The car was refusing to move, and the tires were smoking as they put rubber to the pavement. He glanced down and realized that the emergency brake was still on and threw it. Sweeping back and cranking hard as the first of them hit the hood, he spun the car backward and threw the attacker to the ground.
He slammed into drive and rammed his foot on the gas. The car squealed, the tires spinning in the water flowing down the street, then caught and slowly pushed him away. Gaining speed, he looked in the rearview mirror to see most of them still leaping on Paul, running him through with their blades as his life eked out into the gutter to mix with the rushing water. Harry kept the pedal to the floor and the car rushed up to eighty miles per hour. He slowed at the corner, pulling the brake and twisting the wheel hard. The car skidded and turned, barely keeping its grip on the pavement. He slid on the puddle.
As it finally gripped road he threw the e-brake off and the car began to gain speed again. In the mirror he could no longer see the women, he merely sped away into the night. Harry was crying, screaming to himself, and he slammed his fist against the steering wheel over and over. The buildings rapidly vanished and he was driving away into the night. As sign appeared in the headlights.
“Thanks for visiting Amber Grove, we’re so glad you came!”