Live from the End of the World
by Frank Oreto
Highway 28 vanished and reappeared as the windshield wipers fought a losing battle against Hurricane Francis. This storm was Harriet’s big chance. She only hoped she’d live through it. The news van hydroplaned for a heart sickening moment, then the tires caught asphalt again. “Maybe this wasn’t my best idea.”
Pete, Harriet’s cameraman, sat hunkered low behind the van’s steering wheel, eyes slitted, chin jutting forward in concentration. He shook his head. “You wanted to be in front of the camera. Now you will be. Though I still don’t know why. Behind the camera is where the action is, and you’re good at it.”
“Everybody needs a dream, Pete.” Harriet had started working for WRBC a year ago, her communications degree still warm. She rose rapidly from intern to assistant producer. Her coverage of the Hansen High Lunch Lady Strike was even up for a Murrow Award. But they never put her in front of the camera. And despite her achievements behind the scenes, in front of that camera was where she wanted to be.
When other girls were dancing around their rooms singing Katie Perry songs, Harriet had read news articles into a hairbrush-microphone in her best anchorwoman’s voice. Strong and confident, speaking truth to a world hungry for answers. She’d never lost that little girl’s dream, but desire and good elocution weren’t enough, at least not for the management of WRBC. You had to look the part. At almost six feet tall, with thick features and hair that frizzed at the barest hint of humidity, Harriet did not.
Then came hurricane Francis. Standing in gale-force wind and rain was the one on-air opportunity no one wanted. No one but Harriet Connors.
The wipers swished, and suddenly they were out of the rain. A battering gust of wind reminded them this was still a hurricane, but at least they could see now. Dare Cove, with its barbecue joints, bars, and beach shops stretched out before them under a dark and menacing sky. The roads, usually bumper-to-bumper with beach traffic, held only rolling garbage cans and whirling dervishes of paper and plastic.
Pete steered the van straight down the main drag, past plywood covered windows and empty parking lots. A few hundred yards from where the boardwalk gave way to sand dunes, Harriet shouted for him to stop. In the distance were half a dozen news vans.
“Shit.” This wasn’t going to work. Harriet refused to be just another reporter shouting over the wind. “All right, Pete, change of plans.”
“We got thirty minutes before your first live feed. I don’t know if there’s time for plan changes.”
Harriet had an idea. Why settle for being meteorological comedy relief? Give the viewers a story instead. “Turn around. I think I saw an open bar a ways back.”
“We talking interview?”
“Yeah, the human spirit undaunted in the face of nature’s fury.”
“You mean people too stupid to get out of town? Might do. If they’re characters.”
“I think it was called… Castaway?”
“The Getaway.” Pete was already putting the van through a three-point turn. “Yeah, I saw a couple of cars parked out front.”
“And the sign was lit up,” Harriet said, not really remembering.
A minute later, they pulled into The Getaway’s small gravel lot. Harriet let out a sigh of relief at the glow of neon in the windows.
Pete grabbed his camera and equipment bag. “They’ll be drunk off their asses you know.”
“It’ll be great.” Harriet walked up on to the bar’s porch, wrestled the door open against the wind, and stepped inside.
“I’m sorry, but we’re closed.” The woman speaking was thickly built and looked to be in her mid-forties. She wore a too-small Getaway t-shirt and clutched a smoldering cigarette.
Harriet had handled reluctant interviewees before. She approached the bar and launched into her spiel. “So, you’ve decided to tough out the storm? Looks like a great place to do it.”
Actually, The Getaway stank of spilt beer and shrimp boil and looked abandoned. Tables and chairs were pushed against the walls, and graffiti like something off a Black Sabbath album had been scrawled all over the floor. A middle-aged couple sat at the only upright table sharing a bottle. The man was dressed in a western suit, complete with bolo tie and ten-gallon Stetson. The woman wore a sequined gown.
Well, I wanted characters.
The woman behind the bar narrowed her eyes, “You’re from the TV, aren’t you?”
Harriet heard Pete push his way in. No doubt his camera already on his shoulder. “Yes, we are. I’m Harriet Connors from WRBC News and I’d like to tell your story to the world.” Harriet extended a hand to the bartender. “And your name is?”
The woman ignored the proffered handshake. “The name’s Wanda Reed and I ain’t no looter.”
Harriet shook her head- “Of course not.”
“I know how it looks, but Billy Simmons gave me the key. He said since I was staying, I might as well keep an eye on the place. On account I been tending bar here the better part of ten years.”
“That is so interesting, Wanda. Do you mind if I have Pete here film our conversation?” Harriet gestured to the cameraman.
Wanda seemed to think it over. “Fine, go ahead. So long as you know we ain’t breaking the law by being here.”
The couple at the table drank and watched Pete set up. Wanda offered Harriet a cigarette, which she politely refused.
“All right, I’m going to say a few words just to set levels.” With Pete ready, Harriet took her position in the shot. “This is Harriet Connors coming to you from The Getaway Lounge in Dare Cove, North Carolina, as Hurricane Francis—”
The door opened, letting in a howl of wind along with a muscular man dressed in jeans and a leather biking vest. The man shook rain from his untidy mullet and glared around the bar. “What the hell, Wanda?” In four long strides he reached Pete and landed a looping roundhouse to the side of the cameraman’s head. Pete went down hard, turning instinctively to protect his camera.
The biker brought up his other hand and Harriet found herself looking into the barrel of a very large handgun.
“Roy!” Wanda shouted from behind the bar. “You goddamned idiot.”
“Get on the floor,” Roy yelled at Harriet.
Harriet knelt awkwardly; her hands still raised.
“Come on Wanda. The time draws nigh and all that shit. It’s zero-hour, baby.” Roy kept the gun pointed in Harriet’s direction but didn’t object as she crawled to where Pete lay. “Ain’t no time for strangers to be dropping in.”
Wanda shook her head. “Here’s what was about to happen, Roy. I’d tell Harriet over there how my grandad survived hurricane Hazel back in ’54 alone on his shrimp boat. Give her all the god damned local color she could stand. Then she and the fella with the camera would go away. Do you know why that plan won’t work now?”
Roy blushed as if in answer.
“That plan won’t work because you came in all ‘Captain Badass,’ hitting people and pointing guns.”
Pete gave Harriet a weak thumbs up. “I’m okay.” He got to his knees and examined the camera. Roy’s gun was still out but pointed only at the oddly decorated floor.
“So, what do we do with them?” Roy asked.
The older couple walked over, the man in the suit holding a bottle of gin. “Oh, why not let them watch. Film it even,” said the man. The words dripped from his mouth in an unhurried low country brogue.
“They could interview us before the ceremony,” said the woman in the sequined gown. “Kind of a keepsake video of what we were like before we became lords of the earth.”
Harriet was ready to jump at any opportunity, even one from an obviously insane person. “We’d be honored to record your event. Wouldn’t we, Pete?”
“Sure,” Pete said, rubbing his jaw.
The woman in the gown ignored them. “If they act up, Roy can always shoot them.”
Roy’s eyes were riveted on Wanda. It was obvious who was in charge. “You think I should just shoot ‘em now?”
Wanda came out from around the bar. “Put the gun away, Roy, and help that fella up.” She crossed to Harriet and extended a hand. “Sorry about that.”
Harriet stood with her help.
Wanda held on to Harriet’s hand a moment longer, as if to make sure she was steady on her feet. “Listen, I know you think we’re crazy and that’s fine. But we’re going to need you to stay here with us until we perform our little ceremony.”
“And become lords of the earth?” asked Pete.
Harriet thought Roy might hit Pete again, but instead the man nodded so hard his mullet bounced. “You got it, Mister. Sorry about the punch. I get a little excited sometimes.”
Wanda went on. “We have around fifteen minutes before we get started. You can interview Roy and the DeBors. I think they’d like that, after keeping things secret so long. Or you can get drunk. Just don’t try to leave.”
“And don’t mess with the ceremony,” Roy added. “Cause I will shoot you dead.”
“What about afterwards?” asked Harriet
Wanda gave her a sad little smile. “Afterwards, nothing much you do will matter.”
“Me first,” yelled Roy. He ran a hand through his greasy black hair. “I am ready for my closeup.”
Pete hoisted his camera. “Could you step back a couple of feet, please?”
Roy shifted position.
“Yeah, that’s good.”
Harriet passed a wireless mic to Roy. “I don’t even know what questions to ask. Better you just tell your story in your own way.”
“Hell, yeah,” Roy said. “Me and Wanda, we get the whole western hemis…” Roy scrunched up his face in concentration but couldn’t find the rest of the word. “We get America and all them Mexican countries.”
Harriet only half-listened, her mind searching for a way out. She went behind the bar and perused bottles. Maybe she could start a fire with one. Cause a diversion. She picked up a bottle of vodka marked “95 proof” in proud red letters.
“You gonna drink that?” asked Wanda. “Might as well let Roy shoot you.” She reached over the counter and pulled up two tumblers. “There’s OJ in the cooler behind you.”
Harriet got the orange juice. A moment later two screwdrivers sat on the bar.
“Here’s to the end,” Wanda said, lifting her tumbler.
Before Harriet lifted her own drink, Roy’s angry voice split the air. “You think I’m funny?” The gun was still tucked in Roy’s waist band, but his hand was on the grip.
“Whoa.” Harriet put her hands up. “Hey, he didn’t mean anything.”
Roy turned on Harriet. “You think I’m funny too?”
Harriet shook her head. “I didn’t even hear what you said.”
“I was just saying how, when Wanda and me start running things, we’re gonna move to that castle in Orlando.”
Harriet’s mind blanked for a moment then she got it. “The Disney World castle?”
“Why not? Don’t we deserve to live in the happiest place on earth?”
“No, that’s a great choice. And you’ll have the rides, you know, if you get bored.”
Roy glared back at Pete. “See, she gets it.”
Wanda picked Harriet’s glass up off the bar. “Have a drink, Roy. And calm your ass down.”
Roy bristled for a moment, then took the drink. “Fine.”
The older couple crowded into Pete’s shot, anxious to take their turn. “I think these journalists want a more holistic version of our story,” said the man in the western suit.
Roy blew a raspberry. “Well tick-tock, Jerry. We ain’t got all day.”
Jerry pushed back his silver Stetson. “I’m aware of the timing. After all, I created the ceremony.” He turned to face the camera. “My wife and I have been students of the occult for decades.”
“Him and Sheryl teach English at Beaumont High,” Roy said. He did not blow a second raspberry, but his tone implied one.
Pete adjusted his frame to include the conversation’s back and forth.
“Of which you were a poor pupil, Roy Swafford,” Sheryl said. “Our true studies are of a more esoteric nature. Are you familiar with Frazier’s Golden Bough, Jung, Joseph Campbell?” Her eyes were glassy with gin and zealotry. “The convergence of humanity’s mythologies, both greater and lesser, hint at a great coming. Not some banal messianic savior, but something beyond mere Godhood. An entity truly worthy of worship. So, when Wanda’s gift showed her the arrival of this dread divinity, Jerry and I were well prepared to help fling open the gates and take our reward. Weren’t we, dear?”
Jerry nodded. “Wanda was blessed above all mankind,” he said with the fervor of a country minister. “Chosen by this God of Gods to be its ambassador over the earth, with the help, of course, of three trusted lieutenants.” He gestured to himself and his wife. “She chose well, for the most part.”
“Wanda Reed?” Harriet gave Wanda a closer look. “Flight 109 Wanda Reed?” The plane crash had been big news two years ago, a hundred-and-twenty people lost. A smaller story had made the rounds also. This one about a North Carolina bartender who had called the airline numerous times, warning them to not let flight 109 leave the ground.
Wanda took a sip of her screwdriver and grimaced. “Yeah, that was me. Didn’t do no good. I tried to warn ‘em, but they wouldn’t listen. Nobody wants to hear bad news.”
Roy laughed. “Well, after today, every-damn-body’s gonna listen to you, Wanda.”
Wanda finished off the last of her drink, then leaned forward and gave Roy a lingering kiss. “Let’s get’er done.”
Roy gave out a whoop. “Disneyworld, Baby!”
Harriet stepped over to Pete. “Did you get all that?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
“Crazy, but kind of compelling too, right?” Harriet was already editing segments in her mind. Maybe she could make a documentary. Netflix would kill for something like this. That is, if she and Pete survived.
The would-be rulers of the earth arranged themselves on the floor’s strange designs. Jerry and Sheryl stood hand-in-hand in a large circle near the entrance, Wanda and Roy in their own circle near the bar.
“Y’all stand over there where I can see you,” Roy said. He gestured to a spot halfway down the left wall. His other hand patted the butt of his gun.
When they reached their places, Pete adjusted the camera, panning across the floor, then from one couple to the other. Finally, he focused in on Wanda and Roy.
We have to go. Harriet’s thought was almost regretful, but she didn’t want to be around when the miraculous event these loons were hoping for failed to take place. She put a hand on Pete’s arm.
He gave her an annoyed glance. Harriet had seen it before. The lens gave some cameramen a sense of detachment to the point of foolhardiness.
Harriet leaned in. “We have to make a run for it.”
Pete nodded toward Roy. “The biker’ll shoot us.”
As if on cue, Roy opened his mouth and sang what sounded like Latin to the tune of the Lion King’s “Circle of Life.” He wasn’t bad.
Harriet spoke a little louder as Wanda and the DeBors added their voices to Roy’s. “We run for the old couple by the door. Roy won’t risk shooting them and spoiling his precious ceremony.”
“I don’t think he’s that thoughtful.”
“You want to wait around for the human sacrifice portion of the show?”
“All right. Just give me the word.”
Harriet took one last look toward Wanda and Roy. The gun was still tucked in Roy’s too-tight pants. She shifted her gaze and found herself eye-to-eye with Wanda.
Wanda looked to the doors, then back to Harriet.
Shit. She knows. Harriet ran anyway. “Go, go, go!”
Pete went, shifting his camera from his shoulder to use it as a club if needed.
The singing stopped and everything seemed to go into slow motion. The DeBors hunkered down like elderly defensive lineman, blocking the door. Behind Harriet, the pistol roared. Her feet tangled and she went down in a heap. She waited for the next shot, but that shot never came.
Roy, the would-be ruler of the Magic Kingdom, lay on the ground, blood pouring from what was left of his head. Wanda held the gun in a shooter’s crouch aiming in Harriet’s direction.
A crunching noise came from the doors as Pete slammed his camera into the side of Jerry DeBors’ head. The old man’s Stetson flew across the room as he toppled. The pistol rang out again, and a red flower of blood blossomed on Sheryl DeBors’ chest. The English teacher looked at the wound, her eyes full of surprise and betrayal, then fell to the floor.
Pete reached the doors, but they wouldn’t open. Harriet ran to his side, adding her own strength to his effort.
“Watch out,” she yelled.
Jerry DeBors had gained his feet and staggered toward them. Then the back of Jerry’s head exploded in a geyser of blood and bone.
Pete and Harriet turned to face Wanda, their backs to the unyielding doors.
“Screw it,” Pete said. There was an almost imperceptible electric whine as he turned the camera back on and pressed his eye to the viewfinder.
The gun was in Wanda’s hand but not aimed at them. “You have to slide the deadbolt.”
“What?” Harriet asked.
“The door, it’s got a floor-mounted deadbolt.” Wanda gestured to the bodies of her friends. “Truth is they’re better off this way.”
Pete lowered his camera and examined the door.
Harriet heard a bolt slide, followed by a blast of cold wind. She tore her gaze from Wanda and stepped outside. Pete was already unlocking the van. A moment later the engine started, and he leaned on the horn. Harriet didn’t move.
The passenger side window slid down. “Come on! We’re outta here.”
Harriet shook her head. “I need to talk to Wanda.”
Pete launched himself out of the idling van and ran to where Harriet stood. He looked ready to drag her back by force. “It’s time to go. Now!”
Wanda stepped out of the bar. Instead of a gun she carried the bottle of gin the DeBors had been drinking.
Harriet stared at Pete. “Get your camera.”
“Shit.” Pete turned and went back to the van. “Fine, but I’m calling 911.”
Wanda sat down on the step and took a long pull from the bottle.
Harriet approached slowly as if Wanda was a dog that might bite, but the woman didn’t look dangerous any longer, only tired.
“People don’t like bad news,” she said. “And that’s all I ever gave ‘em.”
“Why did you kill them, Wanda? Roy liked you. Seemed to me, he loved you.”
Tears ran down Wanda’s cheeks. “Roy was an idiot, but he could be sweet.” She took another swig of gin. “And God, he was good in the sack. Killing him, all of them, that was a mercy.”
Pete had the camera up on his shoulder again.
“I’m sorry Wanda. I don’t understand.”
“The whole thing was bullshit.”
That, Harriet did get. “You mean your predictions, the coming of the—what had Sheryl DeBors called it—the dread divinity?”
“They were my only friends,” Wanda went on. “I’ve had the sight my whole life, but I only ever see bad things. I try to warn people. You’d think folks would be grateful. But they just hate you for it. So, when I saw the end, I figured why not try to dress things up a little. Nothing to lose right?”
“The end of what?”
Wanda looked up to the sky then at Harriet. “Don’t ask me to describe it. You’ll find out soon enough.”
“But it’s all over, right? You stopped the ceremony,” Harriet said.
“No, I told you, the ceremony was bullshit. I knew the DeBors were into the whole spooky magic thing. So, I told them what I’d seen, but I made it sexy.”
“You told them they would be kings of the world?”
“Yeah, I said I’d been chosen to run the earth, and they were supposed to help me.”
Wanda smiled a little through her tears. “My beautiful dumbass. He believed anything I told him. You should have heard him talking about bossing mankind around from our thrones in Orlando.” Wanda sighed then went on. “You know, I didn’t even mention a ceremony. Jerry and Sheryl just assumed we had to have one.”
The three survivors from The Getaway Grill stood in silence for a moment while the wind battered them with stinging bursts of cold rain. “I should have shot you like I did them. It would have been kinder.”
“All right, that’s enough,” Pete said.
But Harriet only leaned closer. “Wanda, the world isn’t ending. This is only a storm. A bad one, but still just a storm.” As the last word left her mouth, a peal of faraway thunder split the air. Instead of fading, the thunder morphed into something more resonant. Something between a choir of steeple bells and radio static turned all the way up. The strange noise grew louder. But that wasn’t right. Bigger, not louder, like God’s version of a stage whisper. So big Harriet felt herself bending beneath the weight of it all. Then the noise stopped without even an echo.
“Wanda, what was that?” Harriet followed the woman’s gaze upward. Red fissures appeared in the slate gray sky. The fissures spiderwebbed out in crazy jagged patterns like cracks in a mirror. The cracks grew until they stretched from horizon to horizon. Through it all the world remained quiet but for the wind’s low and constant moan. This was the fact Harriet couldn’t get past. How could the sky shatter above her head and not make a god damned sound?
Wanda took another swig of gin. “Go ahead and blame me if you like. People always do.”
“What’s happening, Wanda?” Harriet asked.
Wanda shook her head. “Let’s just say, nobody’s going to Disney World.”
“She’s nuts,” Pete yelled. He pulled the camera from his shoulder and pointed a finger at Wanda. “You’re a psycho. Come on, Harriet. Let’s go. The police can deal with her if the storm doesn’t.”
Harriet was about to head to the van when Wanda put a hand on her arm.
“I saw you, you know. On the beach.”
“In my vision, I watched you on TV. Everybody did. The whole world was watching you, right up to the end.”
The whole world was watching. Harriet stared up at the shattered heavens. The rain falling on her face was warm now and smelled strangely metallic.
“Come on Harriet,” yelled Pete.
“I need to do a live feed,” she said.
“What? No. We’re leaving.”
Harriet shook her head. “The freakin’ sky broke, Pete. We can’t outrun this.”
Pete only stared at Harriet; his eyes begging her to join him in denial. “The feed won’t even work. Everything will be too jammed.”
Harriet shook her head. “The broadcast will go through. Wanda saw it happen.”
She took out her phone. There were still two bars of service. “This is Harriet.” She didn’t have to shout. the wind was dying off. “Yeah I saw the sky. I know what’s causing it.”
She looked at Pete as she spoke. “We’re heading to the beach now. We’ll need to go live in…”
Pete shook his head, but said, “Ten, maybe fifteen minutes to get there and set up.” He looked at Wanda. “That too long?”
Wanda’s gaze got far away for a moment, then she blinked. “Should be about right.”
Harriet relayed the timing to the station and pocketed the phone.
Pete tilted his head toward the bar. “You know, we don’t have to go. Fifteen minutes is time enough for a few drinks, maybe a phone call to your folks?”
“Or yours,” Harriet said. But what would I say? She saw Pete thinking the same thing. “You know I always wanted to be in front of the camera. Live, breaking the big story.”
Pete nodded. “I guess it doesn’t get bigger than this.”
“What channel?” Wanda asked.
“News 9 out of Salem.”
Wanda turned and walked back toward the bar. “I’ll be watching.”
On the beach, Harriet helped set up the equipment. The other news vans were gone. Either they’d been evacuated earlier or took off when the sky broke. An ABC affiliate had left a remote camera behind. Pete smashed it with a piece of driftwood. “Our shot. Nobody else’s.”
Harriet, mic in hand, stared out to sea. The shattered sky stretched over a black ocean as still as pond water. The wind and rain were gone. The world silent, holding its breath.
“I’m ready when you are, Harriet.”
She waited, staring out at a vista that already seemed alien. Her dream of addressing the world from in front of a camera seemed small in the face of this approaching end. But the dream was still there, and Harriet was glad.
From the flat black waters rose a mountain of shifting flesh the color of rainbows that had died and gone rancid. In that flesh, vast tumorous eyes bubbled into existence, swelling huge as they gazed on the world, then bursting with a waterfall of ichor as more rose to the surface. Canyon-sized fissures—mouths, those are mouths—gaped wide, offering glimpses into an abyss full of shape and substance Harriet’s brain refused to even try to understand.
Harriet turned away before her mind could shake loose from its moorings. Pete stood a few feet in front of her. His body trembled but the camera on his shoulder was steady. He held up a shaking hand, fingers extended, and counted down. Four, three, two—then pointed at her.
A feeling of pressure hit Harriet from behind. The weight of something arriving, something completely and terribly other. Pete’s face went slack. Blood dripped from the eye pressed to the viewfinder, but the camera never wavered.
Harriet opened her mouth, half-expecting a scream to come pouring out, but the words were there, as strong and confident as they’d been when she was sixteen, practicing in front of her bedroom mirror. The world, after all, was watching. “This is Harriet Connors coming to you live…”
About the Author
Frank Oreto is a writer of weird fiction living in the wilds of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His strange tales have appeared or are upcoming in InDarkness Delight: Fear the Future, Flame Tree Press’s Beyond the Veil and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But the first story he ever sold was to Pseudopod. And the second story he ever sold was to Pseudopod. And for those early encouragements he is forever grateful.
About the Narrator
Katie Gill is a librarian and budding horror writer/performer who’s got strong opinions about dead explorers, Eurovision, and public domain works. She has previously published at The Singles Jukebox, Anime Feminist, and Women Write About Comics.