The end of my road turned out to be somewhat similar to the beginning; a fork with two paths, no signs, and a dark fog camouflaging the distance. My knees trembled as with any normal human. This, in and of itself, was something to be noted. When I first stepped on to this planet, wingless and bloodied, I hadn’t hesitated to choose a course and follow it, but eons had the propensity to change a person.
A person, humph.
I’d seen beasts become man, and then revert back to a perverted version of their origins. They used every means to destroy love at its foundation, cannibalizing gifts through high ambition and ever lessening compassion until the last of them fell. Though I tried to carry him here so this choice would not be mine alone, he fought as they all fought to push me away; and so I stand alone, deciding which road—allow them to begin again or send the whole of humanity, all the renewed promise of their future, to oblivion.
“No one being should be responsible for such a decision,” I said to an unresponsive sky, and then sat on a rock to eat the very last apple.
The road behind me had evaporated the closer I came to the fork. No going back, no way to figure out the course forward. A child cried in the back of my mind, a hopeless scream of sorts, eerie in its echo out to lifeless arms. No one had been left to hold her, so she lay beside the shells of her dead parents and wept. Soon after her tears ended the cold night blanketed her bone bare body, stealing one final breath.
As tragic as her passing, I envied it. She was the last child ever born and perhaps the final for this next cycle of eternity. Knowing the pain of her end made my choice a tearing and brutal one. If I allowed them to exist again, how could I be certain they’d be wiser?
In the hills many miles and years back, an elderly woman had invited me in to rest at her cabin for several days before continuing my journey. Deep wrinkles of her dark skin pulled and fell as she spoke each night, the fire light crafting her face into a mask of somewhat grotesque comfort. Comfort only in that she was the very last of her age to survive, and I hadn’t seen another human for some time.
“What of the wars,” I had asked. “Did you lose many?”
Her voice dropped in soft innocence. “Oh, those were some years back. I recall a husband and two sons, then a daughter stolen to the ravage, but it’s been so long.” She paused briefly to drink bark tea, and her face pulled sharp at its bitterness. “It’s been so long I can’t count those memories true. A story from a traveler such as yourself perhaps.”
Her ignorance of the outside world touched me then, and I wondered if she knew that no other soul would see as many days as she had seen. The dark creases of her face were the last to touch this world.
I struggled through a lumped throat to continue. “The, um, pictures in the hall show a family of five,” I had said. “That seems to fit with your memory.”
Her forehead pinched in pain or confusion. It was difficult to tell which. “Yes, but… I had a maw and paw once, too. Only, I can’t see them in my head anymore, or any siblings of recollection.” She dropped her head back and rocked away the struggle.
It was a Monday when I buried her, and though her passing tragic, I envied it.
The war on the soul came in too many forms to count. Of the victims, the elderly and youth suffered greatest in the battles. Ravaged by disinterest and contempt, the beasts of this world crafted the young into robotic soldiers, and then ate them whole; while simultaneously sucking the dignity of those who might lead with greater wisdom. They separated the hearts of men from everything of substance, fashioning them into the next generation of beasts for the feeding.
For my part, I bear the scars of too many long days, sharp teeth, and ferrying hope to those who could never grasp it.
I threw the apple core and watched it disappear into the fog. My decision grew closer with its encroachment, but not enough to choose a path. The weight of an entire race lay heavy and the memories I’d gathered too dark to reason anything positive. On one shoulder an angel wept with tears of pity and prayers of hope; on the other a devil snickered with taunts of continued destruction and torment. Both desired humanities return for entirely different purposes, but neither swayed in their argument.
In the fog, the voice of a man I’d once met called out. His suburban home had been neat, trimmed grass and kept cars. Two children rolled in the backyard, giggling and tossing leaves at one another. They eventually collapsed in a pile and watched the clouds, each calling out shapes as they floated by us. In the kitchen their mother hummed as she prepared dinner before leaving to work the night shift at a local factory, and their father sat next to me, packing an old wooden pipe with sweet tobacco.
“You see,” he had said, dragging in a puff. “It’s not easy, but we make it work. The kids get us both, and we try hard to spend quality time with them. Family trips and such.”
“Wouldn’t it aid them to have one of you home,” I had asked.
He took a swig of his fourth beer. “Of course, of course, but I was a latchkey kid raised by a single mom. She worked three jobs to make sure we had everything. That’s when I learned the importance of a good work ethic and quality time. We didn’t see her much, but she made those times count.” His eyes dropped, and the remainder of the conversation lost itself to furrowed memories.
Several years later, he died after a second heart attack, passing his ideals of a strong work ethic and quality time to the teenage children standing graveside.
And still, I envied his passing.
The war on families had been the most pervasive, a final deathblow being a core of common problems everyone faced, but none strong enough to break its cycle. Thinning wages and longer hours plated children up to the system’s wicked hand. Media and law enforced instruction raised them to be separate yet unequal, growing discord to such staccatos that parents were left shaken and unsure—self-doubt stalking as their own personal beasts.
By far, this war had taken more souls than any bullet could hope to gather. Each battle that had been raged against any form of comfort and love hit its mark with fatal accuracy, and separation was its primary goal. The vile roamed free to destroy innocence with silent abuse while the innocent pandered to institutions in an effort to avoid being caged. Sadly, they lived this lie for lifetimes behind invisible bars, waiting for the loneliest deaths on crisp linen beds.
The man who had traveled this path with me some ways back stumbled out of the fog as I sat lost in my struggles. He paused briefly, then staggered sideways, unable to keep his footing. A glint of red dripped from his nose from the effort of each movement and fell down to puddle between stones. Bones creaked and joints twisted in the way a marionette might stand with its strings slacked, and for a moment I thought he might join me by the path side, but neither of us moved.
“Not done,” he exhaled a pained whisper.
“With what,” I asked, digging my boot into the soil.
“Living.” Without hesitation, he lurched forward to follow one of the two forks ahead.
I watched in silent awe at the determination and spirit trailing him. For all the miles, all the pain, all the war and destitute, this one remaining soul pushed on to something no longer in my sight, and I envied the hope in his steps.
“To the right then,” I whispered to an unresponsive sky, and the fog enveloped us both.