This one’s been brewing for a while. Apologies to Cormac McCarthy, whose The Road I have most egregiously ripped off for this little allegorical piece…
_Where are we going? said the boy.
_Somewhere good, said the man. His hand closed over the boy’s and he gently pulled him along. Stumbling awkwardly, the boy followed in the man’s brisk, purposeful footsteps. So quick was the pace being set by the man, so insistent was the pressure of his grip that the boy did not have the time to stop and survey the land around them, although he caught fleeting glimpses of dead, blackened trees and cracked, bare earth. All he could really concentrate on was the simple act of placing one step in front of the other on the black tarmac road.
_What was that? The boy tugged on the man’s hand and he slowed, although he did not stop.
_What? the man said, smiling kindly.
_That sound… The boy’s voice faltered. What had that sound been? It was difficult to say now. But the beating of his heart, quick and urgent, told him that there had been something. He peered into the gloom, but night had fallen some time ago and the stars provided only enough light to render the stunted trees as uncertain shapes in his sight.
_Perhaps it was just your imagination, said the man. Perhaps…
The boy waited for a reply. There was no movement on either side of the road, as far as he could tell. If only he could stop and be sure. If only they would take the time to look around them!
_Perhaps what? the boy said. He was afraid to ask, but he had to know the answer. The man seemed to know where they were going. Perhaps he would know about the kind of things that made soft, careful noises in the darkness.
The man’s grip tightened for a moment.
_There are animals, he said. Animals in the dark. Desperate things. Lean, hungry. Vicious. You would not want to meet one of those things. They are why we must keep moving.
_So tired… said the boy and he could not keep the whining sound of complaint from his voice. When will we rest?
_We’re on a journey, said the man. We’re going somewhere good.
Howls split the cold night air. The boy moaned in terror. The man ran pulling the boy behind him, heedless of the boy’s whimpering, not slowing even when the boy stumbled and grazed his knee on the black tarmac road. Without breaking stride, the man hauled him to his feet and continued, his mouth set in a grim line, his eyes not leaving the thin black line of the road stretching out ahead of them.
_They’re right… right behind us, gasped the boy.
_Stick to the road, said the man.
_But they might not… might not… It was difficult to get the words out, to make himself heard above the howling in the darkness, the frantic rhythm of their steps on the road, the pounding of the blood in his veins.
_Stick to the road, the man said. To the boy, amidst his terror and the quivering of his thin, emaciated body, it sounded like the man was not speaking to him at all.
_Stick to the road, the man said, pulling the boy, almost a dead weight, behind him. They won’t step onto the road.
More howls. Closer this time. With difficulty, the boy glanced behind him. The view of the road shuddered and jolted with each terrified step.
_They won’t step onto the road.
But they had, the boy saw. The shapes were moving quickly on the thin ribbon of black tarmac road behind them and the meagre starlight reflected from their dead, hungry eyes.
_Where are we going!?! The boy’s desperate question hung quivering on the early morning air. The road and its surroundings were bathed in weak sunlight.
_I told you, the man said patiently.
_No! I don’t want to… don’t want to… His legs were bloodied where the dogs had nipped and scratched at him. How he had got away from them he still didn’t understand, but the fear that his encounter with them had brought now hung about him like a pall of foul-smelling smoke.
_We’re going somewhere good, said the man, his smile now more fixed than it was before, the glint in his eye less friendly.
_Where… With an effort, the boy pulled his hand free of the man’s grip and flung his arms out wide to encompass the blasted wasteland around them, its telegraph poles angled like drunken men photographed in the moment of their falling down, its trees charred and twisted, mockeries of the living, growing things that had reached green-budding branches towards the blue skies in the time before. Rusted motor cars dotted the landscape, islands of useless metal in a sea of ash and grit.
The boy felt tears streak his face. He remembered – although only dimly – the time before. He remembered laughter. He remembered colour. He remembered life.
_Where in all this, he screamed at the man, is ‘good’? Where?
The man did not reply. He simply reached for him and took his hand once more and the boy was too weak to resist.
The road began to turn, gradually at first and then in a more pronounced fashion. It was only when the light began to change that the boy noticed. He looked up.
_Where… He stopped himself. The man, he had come to realize, did not like that question. What’s happening to the light?
_It doesn’t matter, the man said. Stick to the road.
But the road was taking them somewhere the boy at last understood he did not want to go. The sky was darkening not because night was falling, but because the road was taking them downwards in a vast relentless spiral. The sky was darkening because on the left hand side of the road the earth rose up in a huge embankment that grew in height as the road descended. It was this embankment that partially obscured the daylight. It was this embankment that cast cold shadows over them.
The boy looked to his right and his stomach lurched. It quickly became clear to him that the road formed a spiraling descent into a huge pit, whose bottom he could not discern. The road was leading them down into a darkness more complete and more terrifying than even the night that he had barely escaped.
_Where are we going? he whispered.
_Somewhere good, said the man automatically, his hand squeezing the boy’s so tightly that the boy could feel his bones grind against each other under their thin covering of dirty skin.
_No, the boy whispered. No.
But the man did not hear him as he led them along the road, down into the waiting dark.