In Powell’s rearview, a dismal black expanse, like a cancerous fog on a chest x-ray, occupied the space where a sunrise should have been.
Yesterday, the news hit that everything was ending. There was no stopping the storm. Everyone fled indoors, praying for it to be painless: a quiet ending, like a doctor’s whisper as he turns on the gas. Don’t be afraid. There’s nothing more to be done. Just let it happen.
How strange it was to see the end so clearly and reduce the number of tasks he had left to accomplish in this life to just three: drive to Scottville, find Mr. Ben, and kill him. Having a plan made him less afraid.
The gas gauge thumbed the E. He rolled down his window and smelled the air. It was still sweet and cool and reminded him of being a child. He began to cry.
Ten years earlier, just after Powell’s mother had died, Mr. Ben had come to his town and made everyone feel like they were capable of moving mountains. When you entered the same room as Mr. Ben, you made sure your tie was straight and your hair was combed. When Mr. Ben spoke to you, you held on to his words like they were gold coins. Powell’s father, especially, had wanted Mr. Ben to see in him the promise he felt in his heart he had always had. Mr. Ben had taken Powell’s father into his confidence and then, one night, murdered him, vanishing with everything they owned.
It had taken Powell eight years to find him again, and he wasn’t going to let the end of the world stop him now.
The engine began to fail as he entered Scottville, and he eased to a stop outside the fire station — the place where he had learned Mr. Ben might be. The black cloud, like a bodybag zipping up over the world, was now nearly above him.
As he exited the car, a voice called out: “Son!”
A shrunken, silver-haired woman poked her head out of the fire station doorway.
“You alone?” she yelled over the growing wind.
“Come on in here with us!” Her eyes darted up to the black cloud. “We have supplies in here. We can last for a while, we think.”
“Do you have a man in there with you named Ben? About six-and-a-half feet tall. Shaved-down-to-the-skin bald.”
She considered his words. “You mean Mayor Davis?”
“Does he have a mole right here?” he asked, pointing to his chin.
“That’s Mayor Davis. He’s with us.”
The ache in his heart pounded furiously. This was it.
She touched his shoulder as he approached and then he followed her inside and down the steps to a large, cool, cement basement. There he saw them all.
A rangy woman with long black hair, coarse as lichen, and two small children at her feet. A teenager crouching in the corner clutching a tattered backpack. A young couple sitting cross-legged near the bottom of the steps. An elderly man, probably the old woman’s husband, hunched over a card table.
And there, in the center of the room, watching over it all like an idiot god, was Mr. Ben.
The teenager stood up first.
“Who the hell is that?”
“He was wandering through town,” the old woman said. “I told him he could come stay down here with us.”
Mr. Ben’s hooded eyes were calculating black pools.
“The hell he’s stayin’!” the teenager hissed.
The old man stood up and shuffled over to them.
“Dear,” he rasped to his wife, “we really don’t have much to offer.”
“Chances are ain’t none of us going to make it very long anyway,” she said to him. “So, why not let him stay? Just look at him. Doesn’t he remind you of Peter?” She turned away from her husband and toward Powell. “Peter was our youngest. Died six years ago in the first storm.”
“Yes. He reminds me of someone, too,” Mr. Ben said slowly as he stood, head nearly scraping the ceiling. “A boy I once knew long ago. He was unusual. Very smart but very angry.”
Mr. Ben walked toward him.
“Did he have a good reason to be angry?” Powell asked, fixing his gaze on Mr. Ben.
“Real good reason.”
From out of the waistband of his pants, Powell pulled a gun and pointed it at Mr. Ben, who continued to walk slowly toward him, unperturbed. The elderly couple backed into the corner with the teenager. The mother grabbed her kids and pulled them close. The young couple crab-walked toward the wall.
“We shouldna let him in here,” the teenager muttered, unzipping his backpack and reaching in.
“I did you wrong,” Mr. Ben said, continuing to approach. “Nothing can fix that. But what are you doing here at the end of all things? What does it even matter anymore?”
“It’s the only thing that matters,” Powell replied, cocking the gun and focusing it between Mr. Ben’s still-hooded eyes. The ache in Powell’s chest throbbed.
“Revenge is a currency that doesn’t have a value anymore.” Mr. Ben, continued, soothingly. “You get nothing back for cashing it in. Look, I’m sorry for what I did to your daddy. I was a different man then. But killing me won’t bring him—”
“He deserved to die!” Powell said, eyes wet with tears. “Just not cause-a you. He killed my mama. And killing him was my job. Mine! I loved her. And you took away my chance to do right by her!”
A gun’s report. The tang of metal and sulfur.
What’s Mama doing down here? Powell wondered, his eyes focusing on a dark corner.
Above, the black rain began slithering out of the sky and falling like a eulogy against the roof of the station.
James Hadley Griffin is a teacher who has lived, at one time or another, in most of the Southern capitals. Currently, he’s in Alabama where he lives with his wife and two hounds. He has been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Popcorn Fiction. Connect with him on Twitter @JHadleyGriffin.