The world wasn’t ending quickly like a well-placed shotgun blast in the mouth, but rather like Dwight always figured it would—twisting and squirming, sucking in every last foul breath, hoping for just one more shot at life. Dwight knew his time was limited, but he was making an all-American effort to see how long he could last. Not out of any survivalist mentality. It was more plain old-fashioned curiosity. He wanted to hang on to the end to see how the world would finally blink out. Would there be a bang or just a pathetic whimper?
Even after it really hit the fan out there, Dwight never ventured far from the carnival grounds. His fellow carneys had all left in search of family members to spend their final moments with. But Dwight’s family was still here. The decaying façade of the carnival—its dust-covered rides, the derelict concessions and the rigged carney games—were the only family he needed.
The gaming area, where beaus emptied their wallets trying to win a badly stitched teddy bear for their wide-eyed gals, was the place Dwight had spent most of his adult life. So why should he leave simply because the world was ending?
By the time the girl had wandered into the carnival, Dwight could hardly remember how many weeks it had been since the world lost power. Had it been weeks? A month maybe? The girl limped over to a bench next to his venue—the Strongman game.
He had been watching her for a while. She staggered, fell, pushed herself up, then collapsed onto a wooden bench—its paint peeling in handfuls from the chemicals and unnatural compounds that had rained down from space—an event that CNN had christened “The Last Catastrophe.”
He waited until she sat up before he approached. She looked like she had been startled enough, so he approached carefully.
She did not raise her head as he neared. He purposely shuffled his feet, attempting to capture her attention, but her gaze remained downcast.
Perhaps she had fallen asleep. He stood waiting at the tip of her shadow. Her body wasn’t in great shape, but whose was these days? At least she still looked human. Mostly. Her clothes were threadbare, only enough left to cover the areas demanding concealment in the former modest world.
“Hey, you alive?” Dwight said.
Her head shot up with a start, eyes wide. It seemed for a moment she was going to flee. Her arms rose and then collapsed into her lap. Her terrified expression melted into a kind of acceptance and she sighed.
Dwight did his best to appear non-threatening. “Now, I ain’t that ugly, is I?” He smiled, showing a few missing teeth. In a world where most were losing teeth, hair, and the proper use of their limbs as appendages mutated into something less human-looking, Dwight felt pretty darn good about his appearance. End of the world or not, the bar on the scale of attractiveness had been lowered considerably.
“Bet you think it’s all ’bout strength,” Dwight said.
She managed to raise an eyebrow. “What…”
Dwight pointed to the Strongman game, where an oversized sledgehammer leaned against the launcher. “Smacking that bell between the lady’s honkers.” At the top of the game’s pole, some twenty feet above the ground, was a painted woman, her breasts heaving forward and the bell just covering the nipples. “It’s not about strength, ya know.” Dwight got down on one knee like a man about to propose. “It’s all about momentum. I know. I used to work this game. You know, when things weren’t so…different.”
The hint of a smile flickered in her eyes.
“What did you used to do? You know, before.”
She grinned as if what she was about to say was funny. “I was a mortgage analyst for a title company.”
Dwight ran his fingers through his greasy hair. “No idea what that is. Guess it don’t matter now, do it?”
She shook her head.
“Nice to meet you, Carrie.”
“I don’t mean to…” She leaned forward. “Do you have any food?”
Dwight looked around as if searching for listening ears, then said, “Not on me. But I got a place under the Fun House. Ain’t much.”
“Could you go get the food and bring it here?”
“Don’t trust me, huh? Hell, I don’t blame ya. God only knows whatcha been through. What we all been through.”
She sat back on the bench, averting his gaze.
“Look, it’s not safe to bring food out here, and besides, it’ll be dark soon. You know what that means, don’tcha?”
Carrie nodded slowly, seeming to relive some horrific memory.
Dwight slapped his hands together, and got to his feet. “Tell ya what, Carrie. If I can ring that bell three times using only one arm, will ya come back with me?”
She looked up at him. “I’m sure you can. You used to work here.”
Dwight walked to the game and picked up the sledgehammer. “Okay, you caught me trying to be sly. But I can’t pass up the chance to show off for a lady.” He held the hammer out as if asking permission.
She smiled and blushed. “Well, go ahead.”
With one hand, Dwight started swinging the sledgehammer around in big over-the-shoulder circles, each revolution building in momentum, until finally he brought the hammer down on the launcher, right on the sweet spot. The shot rocketed up and smacked the bell with a clang. “Like I said, nothing to do with strength.” He repeated the action and rang the bell again.
By the time the pang of the third ring had faded, Carrie was clapping, but not hard enough to make any sound.
Dwight dropped the hammer and held out his hand. “It’s all about momentum. Now we best get a move on, cause that bell tends to attract the ones that slither, and a couple of them suckers are awful fast.”
She nodded and took his hand. He pulled her up, amazed at how light she was. Couldn’t have been a hundred pounds. She walked most of the way, but needed to grab hold of his shoulders as they descended the stairs in the Fun House. Dwight sealed the door behind them, and then stuffed towels around the cracks of the door. The night wanderers had an acute sense of smell and more than once they’d stumbled down the stairs, following the aroma of Dwight’s flesh.
When Dwight finished, Carrie was looking around, candlelight flickering in her eyes.
Dwight reached for one of the middle-sized sledgehammers he had begun polishing just after the world started to go. He propped it on his shoulder.
“There is no food down here,” Carrie said with a worried look.
“There is now.” Dwight swung the hammer. It connected with the side of her head right on the sweet spot. Like a twig giving way to a heavy boot heel, her neck snapped cleanly.
Her lifeless form stood there for a beat, a marionette in the brief moment after its strings had been cut. Then it slumped to the floor.
Dwight held up the business end of the sledgehammer in his right hand, amazed at how little blood spotted its surface. He felt it was because he didn’t bludgeon his food like some wild animal. He swung the hammer artfully. A master of momentum.
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