Patrick pointed out the man sitting on the hood of a burgundy Jeep on the outskirts of Baker, home of the world’s tallest thermometer. Maynard had been driving on the shoulder of Interstate 15, heading toward Vegas, when the boy poked him and showed him his discovery. As a result, he slowed to a stop behind and to the right of the Jeep which sat in the number one lane.
The lanes had been pretty clear between Barstow and Baker. More tractor trailers than personal vehicles, spread out about every couple hundred feet or so. After several days in the blistering sun of the Mojave Desert, most of the bodies they passed were pretty well desiccated. All except this guy, sitting on the hood of the Jeep, staring down into the desert valley and Baker. He didn’t move, even when the ATV rolled up, as if he were deaf to the world around him. Hell, maybe he was.
Maynard eased off the ATV and help Patrick down. He held his hand up and then pointed where they stood, indicating to stay put. Patrick nodded. Shifting his attention back to the man, Maynard eased the Beretta from the holster. Then he moved toward him.
If the man heard him, he showed no sign of it. Maynard approached, gun raised, slowly but not as quietly as he normally would stalk.
“Excuse me,” Maynard said.
The man twitched and turned his head. Middle-aged, by Maynard’s calculation, with salt and pepper eyebrows and a bald head. Sweat covered his face like a sheet.
“Oh,” the man said. “Hello. I didn’t hear you pull up.” The man looked further over his shoulder at Patrick. “That your boy?”
“Yes.” Maynard was surprised the man showed no fear of his weapon. “Why are you sitting on the hood in this sun?”
“I ran out of gas.” The man turned back to his view of Baker. “Thought I had enough to make it down there.” He chuckled. “Guess it doesn’t really matter.”
“Because I have no idea where the hell I would go if I did make it down and fill up. That’s what I’ve been pondering. What’s the point?”
“I see.” Maynard lowered the Beretta and moved to the left fender of the Jeep. “So you’re giving up?”
“I suppose. I ended up killing my wife the other day, when it all started. Ran a few others over racing out of my neighborhood. Thought I’d find help by now. You know, police or something. But there isn’t any. You two are the first survivors I’ve seen besides my reflection in the rearview. Even if I found others, we’d have to rebuild. Form new communities. Kick-start civilization all over again. Fuck that.”
“I can help you.”
“No, no.” The man waved his hands as if to shoo Maynard away. “I’m not going anywhere. You and your boy can venture on but I’m staying put. I got beer in the back. Figured I’ll have a few and die right here.”
“I meant I can help you die.”
The man turned his attention away from the view. His eyes fastened on Maynard, probing. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I have helped others on the road. Others who wanted no more of this farce of a world. And I’ve done it with mercy and compassion.”
The man chewed on his bottom lip for a while. Finally, he said, “Mercy and compassion?”
More chewing. “No pain?”
A few seconds of silence passed. Maynard looked away, off toward Baker. The abandoned buildings appeared ancient in the sweltering sun.
“Ok,” the man said.
Maynard turned back to him. “I’m going to need you to get off the hood.”
“The hood. Please get off it. It’s too high.”
“Oh.” The man pushed off onto his feet. He was short. No more the five and a half feet. “Good now?”
Maynard eyed his height and looked over to Patrick. No, still to tall for the boy.
“Would you mind sitting down? It’ll make it easier. You know, so you don’t fall and such.”
The man lowered onto his ass and folded his legs Indian-style. “Better?”
“So, how will you do it?”
“It’s better if you don’t know. That way, you’re not anticipating it. If you are, it my not be painless. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“Good. Now close your eyes. I’ll be right back. Just need to step over to my ATV for a moment.”
“Are you going to do it in front of your boy?”
“He’s seen it before.” Maynard walked over to Patrick and leaned into his ear and whispered, “Do you still want to hold the gun?”
Patrick nodded. “Why’s that man sitting on the road?”
“He wants to die.”
“Because he doesn’t have a reason to live. So, we’re going to help him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember when I said I could help you see your parents again?”
“Well, we’re going to help him see his wife again.”
“Oh.” Patrick nodded. Then he shook his head. “How?”
Maynard extended the Beretta toward Patrick, grip first. “Take this gun. Walk over to him, point it at the back of his head, and pull the trigger.”
“But that’ll kill him.”
“Yes. That’s what he wants.”
“But killing’s wrong.”
“Not if he’s ok with it. Do you understand?”
“I think so.” Patrick took the grip of the gun in both hands and slipped his right index finger between the guard and the trigger. “Is that all?”
“What’s taking so long?” the man said, hidden behind the front of his Jeep.
“You can’t rush this, Sir.” Maynard said. He leaned back into Patrick’s ear. “Do you see? He’s waiting for you.”
Maynard patted his shoulder. “Now go.”
Patrick moved away slowly toward the Jeep. Maynard followed close behind, staying within a few feet. As they approached, he noticed the gun remained steady in Patrick’s hands, even though he knew the weight of it was a bit much for the boy. A small part of him bloomed with pride, even though he didn’t know why.
They passed the front fender of the Jeep. When he was within a couple of feet, Patrick stopped and raised the gun and pointed it at the back of the man’s head. Maynard held his breath, expecting at any moment for the Beretta to recoil and a spray of pink mist to pop out of the man’s forehead.
But it didn’t happen.
The gun now started to tremble in Patrick’s hands. Maynard looked from the barrel up the boy’s arms to a face now staring at him with tear-riddled eyes. He mouthed the words, “I can’t.”
“What’s going on?” the man said.
Before he could say anymore, Maynard stepped forward, snatched the Beretta from Patrick’s weak hands, aimed, and fired a round through the back of the man’s head. As the pink mist sprayed and the body fell forward, Patrick screamed.
And everything changed for Maynard. He shifted from the lifeless body to the boy, standing next to him, crying and shaking. The boy he had thought he had been given as a pupil.
This isn’t Providence, he thought. This is satire.
“I couldn’t do it,” Patrick said around loud wails. “I couldn’t.”
Maynard gritted his teeth, feeling like a damn fool. How had he been conned into this? How had he let his reason fail him so?
“And you call yourself my son,” Maynard said.
Patrick’s wails ceased and he hiccupped and his wet eyes fell on Maynard. “But I’m not your son.”
Maynard raised the Beretta and shot Patrick in the forehead. The boy dropped to the ground, eyes still open and wet. They appeared to still search for an answer to all the craziness in the world. And at the same time, a giant weight lifted from Maynard’s chest. He could breath normally again.“Goodbye,” he said and walked back to the ATV.