Milestone and the Fifth World

by Marissa James


The Doorstep


I was sitting below the Rib, thinking to shoot one of those damned vultures that kept congregating and scaring the respectable birds to greater heights, when Catalina came up on the swaybacked mare, urging even them out of range. Knew it was her by the smell of watered perfume and sarsaparilla. Knew it was the swayback because we’d called a meeting and shot the mule for meat last week.

Which was maybe why the vultures were starting to look good.

I put aside my double-barrel as she dismounted, fighting her skirts. A pile of rope came sliding off the saddle with her, so she snatched it up, strode close, and shoved it into my chest. None of the townies would come looking for me without reason, so I knew this wouldn’t be good.

“We’ve got company, Pearson, and it’s your turn to play welcome committee.”

I let her hold the rope though I noticed her arm shaking with the weight. “Always seems to be my turn.”

She shoved it at me again, good as a punch in the ribs. “Hurry. Fellah’s been out there on the Doorstep screaming for a half hour.”

“Yeah, and ain’t Milestone famous for its hospitality?” I took the rope, hefted it over one shoulder, shotgun over the other, and took the horse because she could walk back to town fast as I could ride to the Doorstep. “You just get the boys and Tanner digging a hole now, those vultures don’t need to be encouraged.”

I didn’t hear her reply. Made my way around the shacks and outbuildings of Milestone. Its heart of once bright storefronts and knocked-down signs and busted glass lay so still and quiet it’d easily be mistaken for a ghost town if anyone else were to see it. But the few of us who remained had grown used to the silence and ruin. The harsh, unhappy truth that, thanks to the drop-off ringing us on all sides, we were likely what remained of humanity.

Excepting, of course, the rare climber. Milestone only continued to exist because its little patch of earth had got stuck, by divine providence or infernal jest, to the outer curve of the Rib like some damned piece of gristle. Standing at the edge you saw nothing but the Rib curving below into the mist and all the way up into the thin blue sky.

Nothing else existed anymore.

Those climbers who made it this far did so by scaling the Rib until the foundation of Milestone interfered, then shifting over to try their luck on our little clump of dirt. No matter how they tried, though, the closest they could approach was a couple meters down, on a ledge we called the Doorstep.

Tanner had gone out for the last climber, said by the time he got there, wasn’t no one waiting. Had jumped off, maybe. I wondered if the unfortunate soul just hadn’t had anything more to offer than misery, regrets so painful they’d been eating him alive, chewing like a termite through soft wood. We had more than enough misery ourselves so why bring up more?

Maybe Tanner thought that way but I’d made the climb myself, when you could still climb all the way without having to rely on townsfolk to haul you up. It wasn’t as steep or impossible then but just as murderous. Oblivion’s cold claws sinking into my shoulder blades, ghosting voices whispering to let go and drop off into the mist because they’d catch you—catch you just fine. The fact I’d survived the climb made clearing the Doorstep my business over anyone else’s now. That was more than six months past and still I remained the newcomer to Milestone.

Maybe I would’ve ended up in the mist, too, if I hadn’t had a loaded shotgun to make me worth keeping. After me, only Pastor Cray still had ammunition. Either because he had a vision for using it or no stomach to do so.

Even at a distance, I caught the fellah’s screaming, high and thin. The voice of desperation.

I dismounted and tied the nag to the post there. Rescuing was once a serious operation in Milestone, back before the actual chance of saving a soul proved to be a fiction. No breeze—a good thing, as that would keep the voices down. They never went silent, but I’d gotten good at blocking them out even when, sometimes, the wind carried them all the way through town. Which was why I was still whole in mind and body, still alive. It only took the slightest slip—a pause to hear a familiar voice, to envision the familiar shape of lips forming those words—

I leaned over the cliff edge and the fellah reached bloody hands up like I was the answer to a life’s worth of prayers. And when another man looks at you like that how can you turn away? I wished I knew how Tanner managed it.

I held one end of the rope and let the rest unspool at my feet. Didn’t look too hard at him after the blood. “Quit hollering and don’t listen to anything but the sound of my voice, you hear?”

“I’ll give you anything—”

“I said to quit.” I walked back to tie the rope at the post; he whimpered like a lost pup. I dropped the rope to him, watched him wind it round one arm, then went to hauling. He felt like bones and air. When a bloody hand clawed up over the edge, I grabbed it and dragged him to flat ground. He lay in the dirt gasping and muttering thanks. I went to the nag to see if Catalina had left a canteen or bandages, which would’ve bordered on saintlike behavior. No such luck. Before turning back, I braced myself for the inevitable sight.

He was a scrawny fifteen years or so. An Indian kid. I rolled him like a ragdoll to his back. Blood ran from his hands to elbows, the result of barehanded climbing. I pulled up his buckskin shirt to see ribs and flesh, no wounds. Slapped his shins and they were whole. Fine.

If nothing was eating him alive then he was like me. Hadn’t looked back. Hadn’t listened to the voices creeping after him.

Had believed he was doing himself a favor getting here.

“Don’t thank me,” I said. Sounded like nastiness even to my own ears, though I didn’t mean it to be.


Milestone

Back in town I met a less than enthusiastic response: another mouth to feed if he hung on and lived and didn’t we have enough trouble feeding ourselves? Another man, which meant tipping our balance to fourteen fellahs and just the two ladies. Sure he was young, but why did that matter? There wasn’t all that much we might need him for, huddling on this last scrap of the world. The oldsters sat on the saloon’s porch like they were part of it, while the O’Malleys, all four not much older than the Indian kid, spat and said hadn’t the ruin of the world been the fault of his kind in the first place?

They couldn’t understand what it meant to leave someone there. Would it be any better for him here in Milestone? I couldn’t speak to that.

I dragged him from the saddle on my own, as none of the boys jumped to help, then crouched to put him over my shoulder when a pair of hands came into view and took his legs for me. Jenny. I was surprised she came out of the saloon at all, and just as surprised at the help. She lifted, stone-silent as ever, and jerked her head inside. Led me to a closet of a room and we laid him on a cot in there.

I glanced back into the bar to see the boys at a table, digging through the Indian kid’s bag and coming up with bits of pemmican, flints and twine and—with a chorus of whoops—tobacco packed and wrapped in nice little bricks. He’d expected to have to pay his way up before he started the climb. They decided to split and hide the goods before Tanner showed up for the lion’s share. Which should be mine for hauling him up from the Doorstep, but I hadn’t yet won that sort of argument with the boys. Or Tanner.

Jenny started to clean the kid up. I gave her a hand by wrestling his boots off. Kicked them under the bed so no one would try them on for size.

She washed blood off the kid’s hands, careful as a mother tending to scrapes. I moved to thank her for the help but got stuck watching her face, the silver strands coming loose in her dull brown hair, until she drew her shoulders up and winced.

“Stop,” she breathed, so I turned away. Six months and I hadn’t figured her out yet. Catalina was easy; when she said yes it meant yes and no meant no. Jenny just pressed her lips together and like a dog you had to look if her head was up or down and even that didn’t always mean what it ought to. She avoided all us men, hiding behind the bar or Catalina or cold silence, but me especially. Because I was the newcomer? I’d thought so, but she didn’t hesitate to touch this Indian kid.

“He’s as old as my boy would’ve been,” she said, and her unused voice sounded strange, like it even surprised her. “I think. I don’t remember time anymore.”

I never knew she had a boy.

I wanted to tell her not to get too attached, but Tanner and Cray joined the others in the bar. Tonight was shaping up to be a real get together. “Find me if he comes to.”

Her eyes remained fixed on the kid. I met the growing crowd. Looked like most of us, as Catalina had turned up too.

“An Indian, Pearson? And you brought him up?” Tanner demanded.

“Sorry to make you do all that digging for nothing,” I said. Knew he hadn’t, really. Aside from me only Cray cared for burying the dead rather than pitching them back over the edge. “I don’t think he looked back. Ain’t nothing really wrong with him.”

Tanner folded thick arms over his chest and did his best to look down on me. If nothing else, at least I was the tallest man in Milestone. “And you brought him up?”

“I wasn’t going to climb on down and join him,” I said.

I strode halfway to the door, to return to the shack at the outskirts of town I called home, then stopped. The Milestone Hotel always had a vacancy or two. I figured I may as well stick around and see what conspired with the kid.


The Fifth World

Next day I sat on the saloon roof, using shingles from the dentist’s office across the street to patch holes from the last rain of brimstone. Didn’t have a dentist anymore so who’d miss them? The youngest O’Malley trotted into the street to holler that the Indian kid was up. I stopped work and came down.

Half the town had congregated: Jenny and Catalina arm in arm, Tanner leaning against one end of the bar, Cray and the three oldsters sitting in a row like county lawyers, all four boys crammed at a table sharing a smoke. The Indian kid sat cross-legged on a bar stool, facing everyone, eating a bowl of corn grits with bandaged hands, long hair washed and combed out neat. I entered as Cray was asking his name.

Kid answered with nonsense; Tanner scoffed.

“Don’t speak English,” he said.

“I do but that’s my name,” the kid said. “It means shooting my bow with the opposite hand.” He mimed.

“Lefty,” Lewis O’Malley translated, which brought some dry laughter.

“Southpaw,” I said.

Kid looked up at me and didn’t argue and that was that.

Cray gestured at me with his good hand. “Son, this is Whit Pearson. Whit’s the one who brought you up.”

Southpaw already knew that. He gave a nod so slight maybe I imagined it.

“You didn’t look back,” I said.

“There’s nothing to see.”

There was everything. When you started to climb you left everything behind and that was the problem. That was why you looked back. And lost not just everything you had but everything you still were.

Cray and the oldsters put their heads together as though to decide how you talked to an Indian. Tanner glared at the side of his head like he wanted to crack it open.

“Exactly what’s that mean?” I asked.

“Nothing means nothing.” He wiped the bowl out and licked his fingers clean. “Everything is dead, plants and animals and people. The world is rivers and lakes of fire.”

In the back of my mind fluttered the image of a beautiful woman I refused to think of. With enough refusal, she faded away.

“I wouldn’t come here if there was somewhere else,” he said.

“Then tell us your story,” one of the oldsters said, once they’d reached consensus.

Southpaw set his empty bowl on the bar and the whole room settled back.

“The world,” he said. Frowned into the floor thinking what he’d say. I didn’t understand why until he started. “The first world was an island in the middle of four seas. That’s where humans came from. When the people argued it stirred the waters into a fury that drowned the world. Most of the people died but some of the people were swept up into the sky. Into the second world. The second world was trees so tall their tops vanished in the clouds. There was nothing to eat so the people made tools of wood, and rope from bark fiber, and they climbed. For generations the people climbed, and many died. Those who lived reached the third world.

“They reached a place of no trees and no water, only dragging mud and sharp rocks that cut them so they bled. This was the third world, and the people had no way to get to the fourth world above. For countless years they bled on the sharp stones and suffered in the mud. One day one of the people took wood from the second world, and sharp stones from the land, and fashioned a bow and arrows. He shot them into the sky, each arrow striking the tail of the last. He made a ladder of arrows reaching into the sky. The people climbed the ladder of arrows until they came to the place of water and trees and stone and earth that was the fourth world.” He looked up. “This is where we are now and if none of the other worlds could sustain us then why should this one?”

The room was still, waiting for him to get to his story. Maybe I caught on first that that’d been it. What more could he say about the world left behind if he’d truly left it behind him?

“He meant tell us where the hell you come from and how the hell you got here,” Tanner said.

Southpaw frowned at him. “You don’t listen. I climbed.”

Tanner’s slack-jawed response was too much; I laughed. His expression shored up into a glare for me.

“You oughta listen, Tanner, he climbed. They’re a tribe of climbers so he climbed.” I was still laughing around the words. “You thought maybe he swam?”

“Shut your mouth, Whit, you knew what I meant.”

“But how could you not know what he meant?”

“I knew what he meant,” Jenny said and moved a little closer to where Southpaw sat. “Not just his tribe. All the people climbed.”

Tanner pushed away from the bar and stalked past. Jenny stiffened like he’d smack the kid on his way out. “Well if that’s all he’s got, I’m done. Storytime ain’t my thing.”

The boys screeched their chairs out and finished their smoke and followed. Southpaw’s novelty had worn off.

Catalina’s voice rose after him. “Tanner, what about the pump, you said you’d work on it—hey! Lewis—Charles, get back—you lousy—”

The oldsters swiveled their heads to her. “The pump?”

“Yeah, the pump.”

“No water again?” Cray said, but was it much of a loss? What we caught in rain barrels stank of sulfur. The water we hauled up tasted metallic like blood. It didn’t make sense that we could still pump water, anyway, unless we’d tapped into the Rib and some wellspring in that monolith of bone sustained us. If so, I suspected it wasn’t exactly water we’d tapped.

Most all the eyes in the room converged on me.

“Not this time,” I said, making for the exit myself.

“Pearson, you’re a reasonable man,” Cray said.

“How’s it reasonable to pick up after everyone else? Look, have Southpaw do it, we all work for our meals around here, don’t we, and I ain’t done with the roof.”

“He’s only just arrived,” Jenny said.

“Funny I didn’t hear that excuse when it was me,” I said and strode out.

The kid needed to prove himself as smart as he looked—smart enough to be useful.


The Rib

He worked at it for a long time, Cray helping with his one good hand and Catalina watching to tell them what they did wrong. I could see it from the roof. Jenny came out long enough to frown up at me then went in again.

Catalina threw her hands up after maybe a half hour. Cray went next, to see if the boys remembered how they’d got it to work last time. I didn’t know shit about pumps but how could the kid even know that much?

The sun was turning when I gave up on being on the roof.

“Give it a rest now,” I said, coming up to Southpaw. “It’ll work if it wants to.”

He wiped his forehead with a bandaged hand—bandages spotted with fresh blood—and retreated to sit in the shade of the boardwalk. I joined him.

His dark eyes studied me. “They didn’t all have to climb. It’s easy to see in their faces that they don’t understand. But you did.”

“Don’t mean I understand it. You have your story about the way the world goes and we got ours. Ask Cray if you want to know it right, he used to be a preacher, I just remember the part about how the dead rise up on the last day. I’ve heard them out there, so I know it’s for sure. Something about the bones of the world and Leviathan, I don’t know.”

He chewed his lip. “I’ve heard about the fire coming from the sky and people turning to dust.”

“Dust?”

“When they look back.”

“Salt,” I said. “But it’s just a story.”

“But it’s happening.”

He was right, in a way. Looking back could destroy a person, crumble the flesh off their bones. Turn them to dust because that’s all any of us were and, someday, what we’d all return to.

And that day had come.

Or had it? I thought of Southpaw’s story. Could there be another world, another place for us to go where we could keep on living? This sure wasn’t much of a life.

He took a pouch from the inner waistband of his trousers. Opened it and proved himself clever enough to stash some tobacco where it wouldn’t get stolen. He started to roll a smoke. “There is a fifth world.”

“Is there?”

I shouldn’t’ve been surprised when he pointed across town, to the Rib vanishing into the limitless sky. Devoid of birds today. I had to wonder where they’d gone.

I considered, scratched the stubble on my chin. “You gonna climb up there and shoot yourself a ladder of arrows?”

“Those other fellahs have my bow. If you could get it back for me.” It wasn’t a request but a hope.

“We’ll see. But you won’t really—”

He licked the cigarette paper and twisted the ends. “I think it’s just a story.”

“Then why climb all this way?”

“To be sure.” And he offered the finished product to me.

I patted down my pockets. “Ah, we ran out months ago, I don’t carry matches anymore.”

The boardwalk creaked behind me and I froze, expecting Tanner or one of the boys. Instead, Jenny held a box of matches down to me. She’d been listening from the saloon’s side door. I accepted and she sat beside me, comfortably enough.

I made to give the matches to Southpaw, but he still held the smoke out for me. “Go ahead. Those others took everything else, so I guess we share.”

So I did the honors and took the first drag. Wasn’t anything like I remembered but then, nothing was these days. Jenny declined with a smile, so it went to Southpaw. I wondered about her smile, and the way she sat beside me now when she couldn’t bear my eyes on her a day before.

“How long have you been here, Whit?” Southpaw asked.

“Half a year or so,” I said. “Which is more than enough.”

“I remember it,” Jenny said, gazing forward—or backward, I thought, into the past. “My husband brought me to Milestone a couple months before, when it was still possible to get to, hearing it was safe though everything else was crumbling. Falling. Our son was in the next town, so he left to get him. Should’ve come right back in a few days. The way turned impassable, but I waited at the edge every day.” She turned to me then and amazingly her face held wistfulness rather than the rejection I’d learned to accept and ignore. “When I first saw Whit climbing, I thought it must be him come back to me out of the pit of hell.” Her smile held on until it looked painful. “But he’s just Whit.”

She said it lightly. Distantly. I understood then why she hated the sight of me, but not why it had changed.

We ate dinner in the saloon kitchen, the three of us standing around the cook’s table like some absurd family. Jenny smiled the whole while, bright-eyed and seeming happy, though I didn’t know what happiness looked like on her face. Seemed as though telling her story had put her ghosts to rest. When Southpaw went to bed, she stayed with me. Put her hand on my elbow and I had to ask myself if I’d put my ghosts to rest, too.

When the saloon emptied, she led me to her room. Called me by someone else’s name but who was I to correct her?


Voices

The stink of scorched grease woke me; someone had started breakfast and then forgot. Thumping feet and raised voices followed. Jenny was already up so it seemed a good time to take my leave. I stepped out of her room shrugging on my shirt and almost ran into Catalina—she sidestepped with a wide-eyed stare.

“What’s burning?” I said, hoping to wipe that look off her face.

Instead she took another step back. “What the hell did you do to her?”

Below, one of the boys was blurting something to the oldsters about the Rib, and the tone of his voice, and the silence that met it, and the abandoned stove and Catalina’s stare told me all I needed to know. I shot down the stairs strangling on the mad beat of my heart.

The other O’Malleys were already there, and Tanner, and some others. I saw Southpaw scrambling up the Rib as fast as he could.

Jenny clung on above him, on the sheer side that would see her drop into endless shadow if she fell. Her skirt flapped in a high, scolding wind biting with the voices of the lost.

Charles or Peter or both of them grabbed me before I skidded to the edge. She saw me below, rather than Southpaw climbing for her.

“I knew it all along,” she said, and the regret in her voice reached me like a bullet. “You were always just Whit.”

She let go and fell backward into oblivion. The nothing that was everything else.

I screamed her name, helpless. Mariah fell the same way, though I hadn’t seen it happen. My Mariah, and when did I last let her name echo free in my mind? Halfway through the climb to get here she let go, and I’d put my face into the stone and screamed for her. And wept, and then went on.

I made it to Milestone.

I didn’t look back.

I fell on my knees at the edge and stared into the blankness below like I expected to see her. Like that whispering wind might’ve blown her to safety. I was trembling on the verge of being sick and wondering why. Why, if she wanted to be with me the night before—

Someone hauled me up by the arm and I caught the twist of Tanner’s face and he knocked me down before I saw it coming. Got a faceful of dust and then my ribs groaning under his weight. His hands in my collar forcing me toward the edge.

“What did you do to her?” he shouted. “What did you do?”

I didn’t know and at the moment it wasn’t her face ghosting through my mind, not her dark hair and eyes, not her lips. She wasn’t the one whispering so deep in my mind that I didn’t even hear Tanner screaming in my face.

A gunshot split the air before he could throttle me. Cray strode forward, pistol in hand. From the corner of my eye Southpaw descended the Rib like a cat backing out of a tree.

“Let him be,” Cray said, forcing calm into his voice. “No one’s killing anyone here.”

“Then what do you call that?” Tanner demanded, motioning over the edge.

“She looked back,” he said, and pointedly holstered his gun with both his good hand and withered one. “We all know what that means.”

“That’s not good enough,” Tanner said, but his voice had given in, his hold loosened. Southpaw ran flat out to meet us but by the time he got there he didn’t need to. Tanner stood refusing to look anyone in the face, rubbing the knuckles he’d hit me with, then slunk off back to town.

I sat up trembling at her loss, the whispers flooding my mind to fill the raw hole she’d left in my gut.

“Get back to town and tell the rest of them what’s going on,” Cray said, shooing off the boys. Southpaw stayed, frowning silence at the lost preacher and me.

A vulture shrieked overhead, the echo of my screams.

“If there was anywhere else for you to go, Whit, I’d suggest for you to leave town,” Cray said as gently as he could.

I could still leave, she said in my mind. Two steps away from the edge, and what was two steps but a million miles?

And what was death but a different fall?

“You stay out here,” Cray went on, talking over my misery. “I’ll speak what reason I can. Tell you what they decide. You staying with him, son?”

Southpaw nodded.

Cray left. We sat in the sun, waiting for it to turn around enough that the Rib would cast its shadow on us, me with my face in the crook of one arm hoping to block out the doubled vision of Jenny falling, and Mariah, which I’d never seen but God could I imagine it. Six months of refusing to think it once, surely the inside of my skull was branded with the vision.

The wind, a hundred thousand voices, rose up as a constant reminder. Falling wasn’t much different than climbing. I almost believed it.

A hand settled on my arm and I started. I’d forgot about Southpaw, and when I raised my head, I realized I’d been rocking on my haunches since Cray left.

“Whit, who is she?”

“Jenny?”

“Mariah.”

He shouldn’t’ve known to ask as I’d never mentioned her since reaching Milestone. Unless hers was the name I screamed when Jenny fell.

Unless I was talking back to the voices whispering in my mind and I of all people should know better. Of all us trapped fools, I knew the dangers of regret.

“She’s nobody,” I said. Neither of us believed that.


The Blessing Hand

It was mad to think she might come back but everyone who ever lost someone believed it. Everyone looked back and everyone waited for the impossible to happen because someday it must.

Besides, hadn’t it already? Here we were, a last fleck of gristle clinging to the Rib. Only the bones of Leviathan remained since the world’s flesh of dirt and stone had crumbled away. The world was dead, rotted like a carcass into whatever pit waited below. One of these days God would remember Milestone and scratch us out of existence too.

The first time they sent me to the Doorstep was for a dead woman and a child. A girl, maybe five years, round rosy cheeks and darkening blonde hair. And she’d looked back. What more could you expect from a kid that age? By the time I got there the regret was eating her alive: one leg a stump, one hand falling apart as though rotted lace, not flesh, bound those bones. The raw bloody holes in her little cheeks must’ve hurt, so she cried—and cried harder at the salty pain of tears through them.

Standing there listening to those cries, Mariah rose up in my mind before I could help it. I backed away and retched in the dirt, forcing myself to see that little girl and not her. Thank God she’d fallen, hadn’t looked back and suffered like that, thank you God—no, I had to forget her. If not, I’d end up on the more painful path of being consumed by memory.

I had to forget her if I wanted to stay alive.

I hauled the girl up and somebody helped me get the woman’s body so it could be buried. The little girl hung on for a few days that were really an eternity of dying.

That’s when I understood why Cray oversaw the burials but didn’t pray at them—and that withered hand. He had, once, but praying for the dead meant another kind of regret. You couldn’t live like that. The best thing was to put the past behind and not speak of it. Like Jenny had done of her family. Like I had done.

In the afternoon Lewis stopped a dozen paces from us and spat to the side.

“Catalina says you need to get the pump working.”

Which meant I should forget Jenny too. Move on. Milestone would, if it meant survival.

I didn’t give a damn about surviving anymore. I might like the taste of regret, seeing as I’d never tried it.

The bar still smelled of burnt food when I entered. Silent but not empty, all the eyes in that place avoided me as hard as they could. At least Tanner wasn’t there.

When I headed to the stairs Catalina stiffened behind the bar. Southpaw hung back down below.

Jenny’s room was first on the landing. The outline of her body stood out in the tangled sheets, and mine. The air stale with last night.

I stood in the doorway reliving her. She’d mistook me for her man or decided I was as close as she’d get in this place. If I’d looked harder, I’d have seen it.

And maybe I refused to see it in her because I was doing the same thing—thinking of Mariah. You couldn’t fall in love a second time without remembering the first.

“Mariah.”

I’d already screamed her name over the edge how many times today? After I’d swore to myself to swallow it until I forgot the shape of the word. The room didn’t change but the hair rose on my arms. She was here with me. Had never left, maybe. I’d simply been refusing her memory so hard I hadn’t noticed.

My hat hung on the back of a chair and I realized that’s what I’d wanted. Nothing else for me here.

When I came downstairs a half dozen heads went back to their own business.

Catalina froze again when I came behind the bar and reached under it where I knew she kept the best drink in reserve. Wasn’t much left but I grabbed myself an unopened bottle not bothering to read what it was. When I leaned toward her, she leaned away.

“Tomorrow,” I said, and meant the pump, and she made no show of caring.

On my way out the only eyes to meet me belonged to Southpaw. He came over from where he’d been waiting.

“So here’s the thing,” I told him, and checked the label—whiskey. Sounded just fine. “You can stay here with them or you can come with me, no one cares. Because Milestone is a place for people who don’t care.”

The concern on his face almost made me laugh. When had anyone last concerned themselves with me?

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Nowhere,” I said, tasting the bite in every word, “Because there ain’t nowhere to go.”


Stay or Leave

It was Mariah. Or Jenny. The half bottle of whiskey across my vision made it hard to tell but she stood over my bed. Dark, silent. A half year without someone was long enough to forget anything you didn’t like about them. And after one night you couldn’t have found any such flaws. So whoever she was, I felt nothing but love for her. Called both names but didn’t get a response.

I reached out and like moth’s wings felt the flicker of her, couldn’t catch hold. The harder I tried the further she moved away. I got up, almost tripped over Southpaw snoring on my floor.

She slipped through the hanging blanket that passed for a door to my shack. I caught her arm on the other side and shuddered—seemed wrong any physical thing should be able to stop her. Then again, maybe she wanted to be stopped.

Her face, blank and shadowed, suggested a blackboard, a clean slate. I peered through it trying to make sense of her. Couldn’t. Because she was Jenny, and Mariah, and all the ghosts of Milestone. Jenny’s man and her grown son and my two sisters, so long lost they shouldn’t count. The little dead girl with her ruined face, her mother. The ancestors and families of the few townsfolk left.

“I can stay or I can leave,” she said, in her dozens of voices. “You can stay or you can leave.”


Climb or Fall

I did get the pump working. It helped that some of the voices now living in my skull had advice to give. I told Southpaw my intentions concerning the Rib, so he followed me to town, disappeared for a while. When I saw him next he had his bow and arrows, and his now-empty shoulder bag. He sat in the dirt alongside my shotgun and waited.

I worked with enough purpose that soon he wasn’t the only one watching. After all, I had no business knowing what to do or couldn’t I have done it before? If anyone asked after my method I wouldn’t’ve been able to explain it to them.

Not much longer and we had water again. Looked like piss and smelled worse. But it was water.

“Well, hell,” Lewis said, watching a bucket fill faster than ever before while Southpaw worked the pump. “And why didn’t you do that a long time ago?”

I opened my mouth to answer when Cray hollered. I heard his pistol being cocked close behind my ear, and then Southpaw ducked behind the pump, lot of protection that would give, and Lewis scrambled away.

No surprise who held that pistol. And with the ghosts crowding the corners of my vision I had to turn to face him. Cold steel inches from my face.

“If he’d done it before he’d’ve outlived his use that much sooner,” Tanner said through set teeth. “Which means he’s useless now.”

“Is this about Jenny?” I asked through the whirlwind voices roaring in my skull. “Or you got something else eating you?”

“Me?” His teeth came unset and he sneered. “You’re the one that messed with her—”

“I mean you ever think about your boys?”

He twitched the gun to Lewis and Pete up on the boardwalk. “They take care of themselves, don’t they, why would I have to—”

“I said your boys. Didn’t you have two? You were married once, before the world fell away. And you had a fine pair of boys.”

He raised the gun a little higher, a little closer. I saw nothing but bloodshot eyes and the lines of regret etched around them. He made an effort not to look at the others. “Who told you that?”

“They did.”

He understood but didn’t believe. Even believing wouldn’t stop him putting a hole through my skull.

“They’re here,” I said, tapped my temple. “I figure that’s what was eating Jenny. She used to go to the edge every day and God knows what she got in her head but now I’ve got it. She’s here too. Funny it don’t bother me very much, isn’t it?”

“Because you’re crazy, Whit.”

“I’m telling you, they’re all here,” I said. “Your boys, and the O’Malleys’ pa, and all the people we’ve buried who we never knew by name. The moment you put a hole in my head they’ll get out and they’ll be your problem. Presumably so will I.”

To my surprise he lowered the gun. Stared at it in his hand.

“I don’t want to see pa again,” Lewis said on the boardwalk, quiet and terrified. “He shot himself through the mouth to get out of here and I don’t want to see that again, Tanner.”

The other three O’Malleys echoed him.

“Their names,” Tanner said, hoarse. We stood close enough to breathe each other’s breath and I couldn’t say if I feared being stuck with these ghosts forever in me or, more, for him to make me one of them. “Tell me their names if you know.”

“Samuel and Jacob Tanner.”

“Tell ’em I’ll see ’em soon,” he said, and raised the gun to my belly and fired.

Then I was lying flat on my back, both hands bright with blood. The boys were screaming after Tanner—his boys, and the O’Malleys on the boardwalk, too. He stumbled back, put the pistol to his own head, and it clicked on empty. I didn’t see where he went but he had nowhere to go.

Like all of us.

Cray appeared on one side of me checking the wound, Southpaw slumping slack-faced on the other.

I turned to Cray. “Am I gonna be all right?”

“Alive,” he amended. “For a couple hours.”

I closed my eyes, focused on Mariah’s voice until the pain faded into the background. You could only die or fall, and they amounted to the same thing in Milestone.

Southpaw looked sick. He’d said there was nothing left of the world. Nothing to regret leaving behind. His face didn’t say that anymore.

I had one last job, then. “You still climbing?”

“What?”

“For your fifth world.”

He made his face steady. “Yes. I will.”

“I’d like to see that,” I said, and offered a hand so he could get me up. “Only a couple hours, you better climb fast.”

“What are you talking—”

“Get me up. Someone bring that horse.”

Cray moved back. His eyes closed and his lips moved halfway to forming a prayer before he realized what he was doing and stopped.

I breathed deep and it hurt, and the hurting made me want to gasp for breath, which hurt even deeper, grinding its way into bone and nerves and the backs of my eyes.

They got me up and into the saddle, I don’t know how. Southpaw picked up my shotgun. I focused on Mariah standing in the corner of my mind. Waiting.

“Why are you doing this?” Southpaw asked when we were halfway there, only the two of us. Because who among them wanted to see me die and have that regret, small as it might be, on their conscience?

“Because if we’ve been wrong about this place it figures maybe you’re right,” I said. Winced when the saddle horn stabbed under my ribs. “I’m thinking there’s only one way out of Milestone and that’s to go up.”

“You can’t climb.”

“You just do it for me, Southpaw.”

He didn’t talk the rest of the way, so I worked harder to hold down the pain that jolted with every step the nag fumbled.

He helped me down when we got there. Handed over my shotgun and, of all things, took out his pouch and rolled the last smoke he had. His hands were steady—good thing.

“You’re gonna hate me for a while, I guess,” I said.

He shook his head. “I can’t hate you.”

He gave the finished cigarette to me like he didn’t care for smoking and struck a match from his bag. I took a drag and that bullet bit into me; I choked on the smoke and spat to the side.

“Sorry,” he said.

“No, I’m sorry.” I opened the breech of my shotgun, checked the loaded round, then took a breath. Jerked it shut and thumbed back the hammer and leveled it at his chest. “Tanner was right, you made friends with the town crazy. Now I want you to get out of here. Climb. And if you look back even once, even partway, you ain’t getting to the top. One way or the other.”

He stared, deciding if I would or not. I drew a little more carefully on the cigarette. When the gun barrel followed him getting up, he nodded, understanding me. There wasn’t nothing here for him to look back for.

“Trust me it ain’t the best way to go,” I said. “Nor this the best place to be stuck in.”

He backed away, watching me to the last second. When he finally turned and started up, I sagged in relief and lowered the gun. Even reaching for the smoke between my lips was a struggle.

I put my head back and watched him, vision darkening with ghosts. Mariah at one shoulder and Jenny at the other, and I wondered, if he looked back, if he’d see them.

I drew the smoke in deep. Not the same as I remembered, but sweeter than I could have imagined.



Marissa James has worked as an editor, veterinary assistant, and arts professional. Her short fiction has been published by a number of venues including Daily Science Fiction, Dream of Shadows, Parsec Ink and, most recently, Mysterion. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be found tweeting about all things writing at @MaroftheBooks.


“Milestone and the Fifth World” by Marissa James. Copyright © 2021 by Marissa James.

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