by Josh Rountree
The Last Picture Show came to the movie house on the square in the fall of nineteen seventy-one. We snuck in with warm cans of Pearl and sat on the back row so we could take quick hits off our cigarettes and snub them out before anyone noticed the smoke. I fell in love with Cybil Sheppard and figured she could wind me up just like she did all the guys in Anarene. I recognized that small town that had been something once but was now engaged in a battle with time. Every sandstorm, every gust of West Texas wind stripped away another layer of paint and vitality. That dying town was our inheritance.
When the movie ended we spilled out onto Front Street with our half-full beer cans stashed in our jackets. Dean Champion’s dad had been a big hat over at the refinery in Big Spring before he hung himself, so Dean had sprung for the beer. We piled into his Chevelle and I made sure I was in the back seat, squashed tight against Stacy Bell’s thigh. Once upon a time that prospect would have excited me, but that time had passed.
Dean hollered, “Pass it!” Jason or Holly or Gilbert had produced a pencil thin joint and when it made the rounds to Stacy and she held it out to me, straining to keep the smoke in her lungs a few seconds longer, I waved her off. Things were strange enough without it. The Chevelle’s tires squealed, caught the road, and we fled that nothing of a town square.
The night opened up and let us in. Half drunk, I pressed one cheek against the cold window and saw the stars collapsing down from the heavens. They looked streaky and smeared, like someone had gone at them with a washrag. I closed my eyes, felt the hum of the road, the jerk as the car found high gear. A mile or so on, Dean braked and cornered us onto a caliche road. Rocks rattled off the undercarriage. My brain latched on to the possibility of skidding off the road at this speed and flipping over into the empty cotton fields, then the rough scales on Stacy’s fingers brushed mine and I found I really didn’t care.
“Everyone out!” Dean again.
I hadn’t realized the Chevelle had stopped moving.
The car ticked to a stop and we piled out. If there was a moon, it was afraid to shine in that place. Our feet sank into the soil as we trudged into the fields. Nothing remained of the harvest but dead, crunchy plant husks. Rattlesnakes prowled the rows. It was far too cold for snakes, but that sort of thing hardly mattered anymore.
Dean found a likely spot, dropped to his knees and the others joined him, their hands already digging into the soil, turning it over like they were searching for arrowheads. Connecting with the blood of the place, I guess. Their forked tongues tasted the night. Hands in my jeans pockets, I stood apart, unsteady and unsure why the rattlesnake song affected everyone else, gave them a purpose.
I stared up into the boiling sky. All around us snakes coiled and hissed and rattled and my friends swayed in the blackness, doing their best to join the song. The wind tugged at my farm coat, iced the back of my neck. The desperate scent of Stacy’s Woolworth perfume joined the smell of stale beer. I imagined too that I could smell the snakes, musty and corrupt, and the whole cocktail brought vomit to the back of my throat.
Dean grinned like a fanatic. His brother had grinned that way once, and now he was in the state hospital. His father too, and they’d found his body swinging from a beam in the garage. Some things were too hard to wrap your mind around.
I couldn’t understand the attraction of staring into that terrifying sky, pondering the swirling stars and the coiling strands of colored light, not reds and greens but impossible, unimaginable colors. No human way to describe them without seeing them. But for those who could interpret the rattlesnake song it was a kind of worship. I tensed up when snakes slipped in and out of the circle, even though I knew they wouldn’t hurt us. They weren’t reptiles anymore; they were heralds of the gods.
After a time, Gilbert and Holly stood in unison, glassy-eyed and still swaying. Dean fished in the pockets of his letter jacket for his keys and Stacey grinned at me before jumping up and heading to the car. They called back half-hearted goodbyes as they got into the Chevelle, leaving me to trudge across the cotton field to my house.
I snuck through the front door, keeping quiet so I didn’t wake my parents. Force of habit from the days when they used to care whether or not I was coming in past curfew. On the way to my room, I opened their bedroom door a crack. They were still alive. I could tell by the hissing and heaving of their snores.
We’d made it through another day without the world coming to and end.
A week later I went to see the movie again. I figured I might not have too many more chances to watch movies so I’d better take advantage. The town was closing itself up.
The old men who liked to gather out front of the drug store with their dominoes and long-winded memories had retreated to their houses. Old women abandoned church socials, clotheslines and ironing boards to embrace the winding down of their lives. The new reality was harder on the older people. They’d had a good long time to dig in their heels on the whole God is Good thing, only to be shown that the universe was terrible and unknowable.
The Dickensons who owned the theater had left the building unlocked and I knew how to run the projector from the summer I’d spent selling tickets and serving popcorn. As the film flickered to life on the screen, I dug my fingers into a bag of M&Ms and wondered if the Dickensons were still alive.
Duane was up on screen, hitting Sonny in the head with a bottle when Stacey sat down beside me. “I was looking for you.”
“Here I am,” I said.
“How many times have you seen this movie now?”
“Lot of people having sex in this movie. Do you think everybody in this town is having that much fun?”
I was pretty sure nobody was having fun anymore.
“The movie’s not really about sex,” I said. “It’s about wanting to be somewhere else than where you are and being stuck. They’re all just having sex because they don’t have anything better to do. They’re bored.”
“Doesn’t sound like the worst reason why anyone ever had sex,” she said.
“Why were you looking for me?” I asked.
“Wanted to see if you’d drive out to the fields with us again. It’s almost dark. You want to come look at the stars? Maybe you’ll hear the song?”
The last thing I wanted was another reminder of the new world order and how poorly I fit in. Stacy cupped the side of my face, gently pulled my gaze from the screen and positioned it on her. I managed not to flinch. Her scaled palm was scratchy and cool against my skin, and the change from who she’d been to whatever she was becoming had picked up speed.
“It’s okay you haven’t heard it yet,” she said. “Don’t worry, it’ll happen.”
I wanted to scream out how I hoped to Hell it never did happen, and how I thought maybe I’d rather die than become like Stacy and the rest of them. How I’d have preferred even to join the adults in their slow insanity and rot. But she held me in place with those blue eyes that I had daydreamed about since middle school. Her stare was heavy and uncomfortable, like she was trying to fanaticize me by force of will. I realized I was afraid of how she might react if she knew how badly I wanted to look away.
“You go ahead,” I said. “Tell everybody I’ll catch up with ‘em later. I want to finish the movie. See if it ends the same way this time.”
Stacy gave me a cold kiss on the forehead. “We’ll say a prayer for you.”
I stared at the screen for another hour, but I wasn’t really watching the movie anymore.
That evening, I put my ear against my parents’ bedroom door. The house was quiet as a church. I remembered the tears streaking down their faces on that night when the stars changed, the way Mom had fallen to her knees like a load of laundry spilling out of the hamper, and the way the light had passed from Dad’s eyes like our new gods had puckered up and blown it out. Maybe the adults were luckier than the rest of us. I thought about opening the door to make sure there was nothing I could do. Instead I loaded up everything I cared to take into the bed of Dad’s pickup truck and moved myself into the lobby of the movie theater.
Within a month the rest of the adults in town were either dead or wandering the roads like children lost in a foreign country. A few of them might have left town, but I didn’t know for sure. I hadn’t seen anyone who wasn’t local in a long time and I’d decided that the outside world knew instinctively to avoid us. The flip side of that coin was that I didn’t think anyone of us was supposed to leave. I’d lived my whole life desperate to be anywhere else but now I was stuck.
The second story of the movie house overlooked the town square: the turn of the century jailhouse that had been built to hold cattle thieves and rogue Indians, the dusty stretch of stores that hadn’t been very lively even before their owners had abandoned them, and the art deco drugstore building that had developed a slight eastward lean over the years, as if it had grown tired of the constant wind and was preparing to give itself up to the world’s fury. The town’s lone stoplight blinked on and off forever at one corner, and the handful of old pecan trees had shed their leaves and become skeletal hands, fingers spread wide in an effort to hold up the falling sky.
A bonfire burned in the middle of Front Street, one of the only pieces of earth not swarming with rattlesnakes. My classmates strode across this sea of reptiles like Jesus on the water, assured in their new faith. The snakes themselves didn’t seem to care. Dean kept gunning his Chevelle up the street and back again, 8-track blasting Black Sabbath, a couple of other kids laughing and whooping in the backseat, and the snakes would part to let him pass every time. Someone had discovered a stale keg of beer in a stalled out delivery truck and the worshipers of our new gods had proceeded to get sloppy drunk. Gilbert and Holly both pounded on the movie theater doors and then called up to the window to invite me down, but I waved them off.
Jason and Stacy were coiled together in a kiss at the edge of the bonfire, and I felt a hot stab of jealousy in spite of myself. That could have been me for sure. But the sensation faded fast, driven off by the clamor of ten thousand rattlesnakes, rising up from the blacktop like the sound of bacon frying in a skillet. That couldn’t have been me. Not really. Would I have wanted it to be?
They hovered together in the crosshairs of my Dad’s old .208 rifle. I was pretty sure I didn’t intend to shoot anyone, but having it there reminded me that the universe hadn’t stolen all of my options.
Shooting them all before the world ended might be a mercy. Problem was, I wasn’t sure if they were the ones needing mercy, or if it was me.
I got in the habit of slinging that rifle over my shoulder whenever I left the theater. I had it with me one morning in the early hours, when all of my old friends had slunk back to their holes and the snakes had settled into an eerie silence. I picked out a snake that was coiled up on the step of the jailhouse and shot it in the head. The sound of the rifle rattled around the square for several seconds but none of the snakes stirred.
The morning sun was still an hour away, and the colors in the sky still held sway. They were smeared from horizon to horizon like a kid’s crayon drawing, and they felt so much closer than they’d been. Staring at those colors long enough, you could make out patterns. You could begin to see things that you didn’t want to see. And yet once you stared long enough, it became hard to look away, like if you didn’t keep an eye on the stars they would crash down and suffocate you.
I might have stared for two minutes or twenty, but I finally shook myself loose, lowered my head and saw every rattlesnake in the square with its head up, staring right at me.
That was enough to put me in motion.
By the time the sun was up, I had Dad’s truck loaded with my piss-poor collection of clothes and keepsakes, all the boxes of candy left in the theater, and a few dozen bottles of Dr. Pepper. The morning was cold but the heater cranked right up when I started the truck. The rumble of the engine and the way the seat rattled beneath me reminded me of riding with Dad out to the feed store on the interstate when I was a kid. Country music on the tinny speaker. Dad smelling like sweat and soil. On Sundays I’d squash myself between my parents in the cab on our way to church, Mom with some sort of casserole dish in her lap and Dad with the window cracked to let out the cigarette smoke. Dad only ever went to church to make Mom happy, and I’d quit going with them a few years ago because basically I was an asshole and was only just figuring that out. I closed my eyes and tried to smell that casserole and the fresh, flowery scent of Mom’s face powder.
Someone knocked on the truck window and I nearly pissed my pants.
I was pretty sure it was Dean. He wore his letter jacket, and a few patches of his blond hair remained. He used to wear it a little past his collar just to rile up his coaches, but now what remained of it clung in grass-like chunks to his scaled skull. The rest of him…well I couldn’t have told him from any of the others. When he spoke, it was still his voice. Mostly.
“Where you going, man?”
I rolled down the window and the morning cold chased away my fortress of warm memories. Dean’s tongue licked the air, but I’m pretty sure he was smiling. I resisted the urge to gun the gas pedal.
“I think I have to leave town,” I said.
“Oh man, don’t do that,” he said.
“Dean, you know I don’t belong here anymore.”
“I wish you wouldn’t leave.” Something in his expression changed and best as I could tell, he looked genuinely sad. “I know you can’t understand what the snakes are saying but it don’t matter. This is your place, man. Where else would you go?”
I had no idea, but I knew I couldn’t stay there any longer. It might have been my place once, but those days were long gone.
“How long before they get here?” I asked. “The new gods.”
“Won’t be long,” he said. “Hard to say for sure but I figure a week or two. We can’t change that, you know. Don’t matter if you’re here or out to California they’re still coming. Better you stay here and we can vouch for you. You’re one of us. They’ll understand that.”
“I don’t think they will,” I said.
Dean hissed. “We been friends since we were kids. Played Pony League together, you at second and me at shortstop. We worked our tails off last summer stringing that barbwire around old Jameson’s cattle acreage. I vouched for you to your parents that night you got drunk at Holly’s party and passed out in her back yard. Ain’t we friends anymore?”
“Yes, we’re friends,” I said. “But I still got to go.”
All that was kind and soulful suddenly leaked away from Dean’s lidless eyes and I thought for a second he was going to yank open the truck door and stop me from leaving. He could have done it. He had me by at least twenty pounds. But instead he backed up and threw his hands up in mock surrender.
“Go then if you got to,” he said. “But you got plenty of friends who at least deserve a goodbye.”
Might be he was right. But I dreaded the prospect of reliving this same conversation with the others, and I was dead certain that Stacy would convince me to stay. I put the stuttering old truck into gear, steered it past the flower shop, and made the left turn onto the farm road that would eventually take me to the main highway.
My tires rumbled along the caliche road as I accelerated, and for the first time I gave some thought to where I was going. I’d strained against the boundaries of my hometown ever since I’d been old enough to walk. There were a whole lot of interesting places on television and in the movies, and almost all of them looked better than where I was from. But my parents weren’t really vacation people. We rarely travelled farther than the next town over, and that was just because their grocery store served better cuts of meat than ours did. I’d only left Texas once. We’d driven out to the mountains in New Mexico when I was ten and I still held the cool pine-scented memories of that place with me through every miserable Texas summer. I still had a pinecone stashed somewhere at my parent’s house. If our world had two weeks, give or take, before the new gods arrived, I could think of worse places to spend them than those mountains. Or maybe I could head to the border. Drink some beers on a Mexican beach or check out some of those jungle ruins I read about in one of Dad’s adventure novels. It didn’t really matter. The prospect of being somewhere other than the handful of dusty streets I’d walked my whole life was right there in front of me, and there was no longer any reason to stay.
When the pain came, it was sudden and bright, like getting stabbed with an icepick. My body recoiled and my knees caught the steering wheel, yanking it to the right. Before I could correct, the truck barreled off the road and into the bar ditch. One wheel caught a fence post and my head slammed against the roof of the cab as the truck rolled over twice and came to rest on its side, wedged in a nest of angry mesquite trees. Blood colored my vision and my shoulder screamed like it had gone out of joint. The rattlesnake was still latched on to my ankle, letting every drop of venom seep in. I made a halfhearted attempt to shake it loose, but I was caught tight. Frigid wind blasted in through the broken windshield and I could taste the soil in my teeth. My red vision faded to black and I could hear Dean’s reptilian voice taunting me like a ghost.
This is your place, man.
Where else would you go?
I woke in an aluminum cattle trough in the middle of my parents’ abandoned cotton field. The trough’s brackish water had been emptied and replaced to the rim with rattlesnakes. The winter wind rushed freely across the plain, chewing away the last of the afternoon sun with icicle teeth, but I soaked in that cold reptile flesh like it was warm bathwater. The snakes kept completely still, even as I grasped the side of the trough and pushed up into a standing position. My left arm hung limp and a painful lump had settled over my ear, but I was alive.
My friends circled the trough, watching in silence with their unblinking eyes. That morning I would have screamed to wake up with them staring at me like that, but a surreal calm had taken hold and I realized what had changed. The rattlesnakes were singing, and I could hear their song.
Dean, Stacy, and the others swayed to the writhing, clattery rhythm and when I stepped out of the trough and trudged away through the soil, one ankle swollen twice its normal size, they made no move to stop me. A couple of them started to follow but I waved them off.
“Where are you going?” asked Stacy.
“Don’t worry. I’m not leaving. This is my place.”
Back in my movie theater perch, I studied the town square through my riflescope. Another sundown meant another round of hell-raising, children without parents singing for the end of the world. Thing was, now I could hear the song too, and I knew none of them really understood the lyrics.
My ankle burned like someone was holding a lighter to it, but the swelling had started to go down. That bite might have killed me under normal circumstances, but it was clear the snakes had a use for me. Fever burned up the back of my neck and I fell asleep there in the chair by the theater window, wondering if I was going to have to kill all my friends sometime soon.
I dreamed of stars and snakes, coiling and cold and reaching. They lashed around the earth, plucking it neatly from orbit and giving it a rough squeeze. Snakes beyond count, but lording over them all a giant reptilian face with supernova eyes. I realized that all those snakes were actually tentacles growing from that face. Our new gods were really just one great hungry god, and when he arrived we wouldn’t die, we’d never have existed at all. The world screamed in the thing’s grip and the voices sounded like my friends, my Mom and Dad, like Jacy and Duane and all the other flickering black and white denizens of small town Texas. The god squeezed harder and I could feel the breath leaving my lungs in a rush. Then it whispered its name to me and I woke up screaming and choking on the floor of the movie theater.
Through the window I could hear the voices of all those snakes with wonderful clarity, and I understood their intentions. They didn’t want the world to end any more than I did. The rattlesnake song was a plea for help. The rituals they’d taught my friends weren’t meant to summon a god; they were intended to keep us hidden, to cast a shadow over the world so that those horrible burning eyes couldn’t see us. Dean and Stacey and all the rest thought they were bringing on the end of the world, but their rituals were actually the only things keeping their dark god at arm’s length.
They were acolytes, wearing the skins of their god. But I’d been chosen the rattlesnake’s prophet, and I wasn’t ready for that god to walk our earth just yet.
I leaned my rifle in the corner, walked downstairs and joined my friends in a circle, our fingers twined together and hands raised up, and we danced, spinning and writhing and lifting up our voices in prayer. Time began to wind more slowly around us and the roof of creation shuddered overheard, but did not collapse. Angry colors spilled from one horizon to another like rivulets from an overturned paint can, but we continued to dance, and laugh, and celebrate what remained of our youth.
The movie never gets old.
Most nights we take our seats in the old movie house and settle in for the death of Sam the Lion for the countless time. We hate Jacy and we love her, and we root for Sonny to make better choices.
Gray threads crept into my hair long years ago and I have more in common with Sam the Lion these days than I do with all those celluloid teenagers and their desperate need to break away from their small lives. I’m okay here. It’s my place. And besides, where else would I go?
The others are like my children now, and I feel their pain acutely. They are acolytes in full, with little remaining of the people they used to be, and they ache for the coming of their god. If they knew the ways I work against them, they’d kill me for sure, but I quietly resist and swallow the guilt of all the misery I’m causing them. The movie seems to be the only thing that brings them calm, so we gather together in the dark and we watch.
The movie plays every night, the refrigerators stay full of ice cold Dr. Pepper, and the popcorn is always hot and buttery. I don’t know if my rituals have frozen us in time or if the rattlesnakes have found a way to provide for us, but our tired town continues to lumber on, desperate to die but unable to rest just yet. Sometimes I wonder what’s happening in the rest of the world, but it’s a useless daydream. This place is our reality. These are our routines. Wanting more is just a shortcut to unhappiness.
When the movie ends, my children drift back to their warm holes and hovels, and I pull a blanket over me and sleep there in the theater seat. I dream about burning universes, about small towns full of dead teenagers, and of course the angry colors in the sky. They’re always with me, asleep or awake, and they’re hungry for this place.
Every morning when I wake, I look out the window to make sure the world is still there, and I give thanks. One night, I know, I’ll go to sleep and never wake up.
I’m terrified of what’ll happen to all of us then.
About the Author
Josh Rountree’s short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Realms of Fantasy, Daily Science Fiction, and A Punk Rock Future. His work has received honorable mention in both The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Fairwood Press will publish his new short fiction collection Fantastic Americana this summer.
About the Narrator
Jairus Durnett is a middle-man: middle aged, middle child, living in the middle of the United States. After living most of his life in such exotic locations as Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, he relocated to Chicagoland where he spends time working in corporate America. Jairus is a lifelong skeptic who loves reading stories of fantasy and the paranormal – both silently and aloud.