The Gulch at the End of the World | Francis Rosa

It was hot and getting hotter in the Hawaiian jungle. In the valley, Rob weeded through a rugged dirt floor, tanned forearms digging into cooled clay, cocooned by silent slopes of green where his banana, and macadamia, and mango, and rambutan trees rested. For a moment he felt at peace. Bundles of dirt, root, mud, leaf, and leftover pests were chucked aside, tumbling down the gulch, raining dew upon the hinterland. A shell slipped from his pocket. It curled like a flower in bloom, the edges smoothing out like newly minted glass, almost metallic. When it fell, he eyed it and left it there, gazing up the slope with a sudden uneasiness that he couldn’t pinpoint. 

Above him, through bamboo thickets, Travis was tumbling, making his way to the gulch. He flailed from place to place, sweating profusely in the heat, heaving down the hillside toward Rob. Rob kept calm, skillfully sinking bare hands into dirt and pulling up more weeds, attempting to pull a whole garden out of a wild forest; like a magician with a rabbit. The shell was lost in the jumble. 

Travis rushed forward. His boots, belts, sickles, binoculars, and tin-can bottles on his backpack all jingled when he crashed out from the bamboo trail yelling. 

“It’s the end of the world.”

Rob said nothing for a long time. Only Travis’ breathing, the heat, and the insect buzz of mid-morning in the sleepy town of Kapa’au filled the air. Rob frowned as he meditated on how far a papaya could fall from the tree. He was covered with sweat, topsoil, and clouds of gnats eating at his hairline. 

“About time,” Rob said. 

Travis moved in a whirlwind. He dropped some of the jangling items, waving his arms and stammering. He tripped over himself, pulling up the heavy gear strapped to his shoulders. He started to talk, to talk about the emergency, the missile, the tweet, the messages, Hawaii’s annihilation, but Rob wasn’t listening. Children were always too imaginative at Travis’ age. 

Rob’s tall frame hovered over Travis; this rounded pimple-faced runt squinting up at him. He thought of the dust, and drought, and unpaid bills, and the pang of separation, and California wildfires, and custody, and the long flight across the Pacific with dimes in his pocket, and the way sometimes his whole life just seemed to sit and collect dust.

“Spit it out, before you choke on it.”

“It’s Korea, it’s got to be.”

Travis pulled out a phone, tugging at Rob’s sleeve. When he opened the screen, its pixels gleamed in the canopy shade with shiny metallic lights and colors. Rob puzzled over the swirl of data and pushed the phone aside, ripping his hand away, instinctually raising it toward Travis as if he meant to really whack him.

“Keep that idiot-pad out of my face.”

Travis grabbed at Rob’s collar instead, but Rob shooed him away like a fly. He kneeled back down, running hands through fresh soil and its quiet, happy possibilities. The open endless skyway filled with sunlight that singed the land as final clouds of dawn emptied the valley, washing away the smell of nearby surf and beach.

Travis pulled out the binoculars, turned toward the sky and stumbled, destroying a sprouting line of crops. Yellow lilikoi were crushed to bleeding seeds and wet jelly, native hibiscus, with red nectarine tongues, arched petals, and thin stems crumpled into sad origami.

“Watch it!” Rob said, “You’re killing the plants.”

Travis stomped on another hibiscus.

“Forget the damn leaves, what about me?”

Rob wasn’t even looking at Travis anymore.

“What about you? You’re lazy and useless, what do you want from me?”

As if in response Travis’ strides turned frantic, pacing in his wide boots toward nothing, an escape that didn’t exist.  He slipped and crashed into Rob, another weed went tumbling and they both slammed against a tree trunk.

Rob didn’t bother to dust himself off.

“End of the world.” Rob glared at Travis, “I’ll end you.”

Travis was caked in mud. Leaves stuck out of his hair as bands of hovering insects circled and looped around his head like tiny vultures. Rob almost smiled, but his face twisted back at the plot of land crisscrossed with boot prints.

“Do we have a bunker?”

Rob turned to the crushed petals and didn’t answer.

Travis continued, “No joke. We need to get out of here.”

“You,” Rob said. “You need to get out of here.”

“No, really.”

“‘Cause North Korea’s comin’?”

“There was an alert, everyone got it! It’s gonna get apocalyptic out here.”

Rob returned to the rustle of weeds.

“You can’t feign WWIII to get out of work. Now go bother the rest of the hands with something less stupid, or try making a decent living for a change.”

Travis stared back up at the valley where the land flattened and grew spacious. A few dots in the distance marked where the lodgings were, and a few more marked where the fences and civilization started.

“Jesus, I forgot to tell them!”

“What do I always say about taking the Lord’s name in vain?”

Travis rolled his eyes, turning up to where the sun and perhaps some remnant of God was bearing down on the Big Island.

“You are like the boy who cried wolf.”

“Hate to ruin the surprise,” said Travis, “but at the end of that story, there’s a wolf.” 

A quiet kind of dread in Travis’ voice made the whole sham sound half-believable. Rob felt a slow uncertainty creep into his spine but then thought of this punk pulling the wool over his eyes and the feeling descended into a white-hot rage.

“I’m not one of your hipster friends. You get that? You want to swear like a heathen? You want to sell nonsense? Well, I’m not buying. You can go run to your mother if you want someone to pat you on the head for being a brat.”

Travis balled up his fists and cursed right into Rob’s face. He went on for a good while, his lips moving like fire, and when he was done Rob said nothing, pushed him to the dirt, and returned to the soil and its densely packed rows of life. Travis rose back up, but this time he was inexplicably bleeding. He clapped his hands over his nose.  Red dripped out slowly. Travis took heavy breaths like he might sob, or collapse from hurt, or both.

He spoke softly, “It’s true though, all of it.”

Rob dug around for a root that would not come out, and for a glint of the shell. He tore at the ground pulling in new directions, trying to uproot all of it.

“You’re a living headache.”

Travis sniffled red, “Really, it’s true.”

“A living headache.”

Travis fumbled through his pockets and pulled out his phone again. It was smeared with dirt, and sweat, and blood still filtering down from his bloody nose. He unlocked the screen, opening its message of ballistic death with its afterthoughts on seeking shelter, then shoved it into Rob’s face. Rob squinted at the bubbling flat cauldron of colors and glass, and stopped searching the ground. When his eyes adjusted to the sight he frowned.

“Fake news,” Rob said, “that is what they call it?” He went back to excavating the cooled clay.

The heat kept rising, the whole valley beamed gold with sunlight. “I know how those toys work better than you think. You get one of your friends to type some mumbo-jumbo into a machine so I can read it and you go gallivanting off for the whole morning.”

“I’m here with you,” Travis said.

“Well, go be somewhere that’s,” Rob struggled for the words, “not here.”

Travis handed him the phone insisting he comprehend this time. Rob just blinked, refusing to decipher the words. They were small and fuzzy.

He tossed the phone. It tumbled down the green thickets as a chunk of glass, metal, and buzzing light. Travis scrambled after it. A hush descended over everything for a moment, and his uneasiness returned. His hands searched the soil. He pulled up a rock and cursed. 

Suddenly, from the land out beyond the gulch, a bell tolled. It rang cautiously at first, like a whisper. Soon it went tolling out louder and louder from the center of town, until the bell transformed into a siren, a wall of noise stretching across the valley as a man-made thunder, informing the whole landscape of its impending doom.

Travis stumbled around searching for the phone, rifling through the green, darker spaces at the gulch’s steep edge. Rob’s eyes narrowed, and he stared up toward the blue expanse of sky. From the margins of the gulch, it was like looking up from the bottom of a glass bottle, or maybe it was all an empty shell. 

The siren continued snatching up precious seconds. Rob turned to the ground around him, then leapt into mud, searching. Over and over, he discarded whatever pebble, or buried can, or glass he had found, swallowed like poison into the valley.

Travis discovered the phone entangled in thickets and stretched his hands to it. He was deep in the gulch; rocks and dirt turned treacherous. He called out to Rob for help. From the top of the gulch more bells sounded, this time from the house and barn where the farmhands were panicking and the animals, all sensing a great disturbance, squawked, bellowed, and snarled until the whole cacophony rolled into the valley floor like a preemptive sound blast of the ballistic missile. Rob went rigid. Even his hands stopped their mechanical sweep, completely still amidst all the ruckus. He turned toward the fields, palms, coconut groves, and tin-roof homes above, and then back to Travis. Travis shuffled unsteady, clods of dirt falling behind him into oblivion. Rob gave a long heavy sigh.

“Damnit.”

Travis was nearly back on solid ground and reached up for Rob’s hand. Rob took the glittering phone from the grass instead, squinting to make out the numbers.

“Call for help!”

“No one’s going to come get us down here, they’re all hiding.”

“Call anyway!”

Travis lifted his hand out further but Rob was busy dialing, he kept messing up the numbers. They were so small and delicate. Travis pulled himself onto the flat land and eyed Rob. He went to tug on Rob’s sleeve but stopped an inch short and walked away, red in the face.

There was static, the phone’s ring was drowned out by the screech of sirens. It went to voicemail. Her voice told him she could not come to the phone right now and to leave a message. He imagined a Pacific beach, and waves, and sand, and gulls, and dry hills, and California sunsets, and crops going brittle and dying in the unforgiving drought. Rob reached into the pocket feeling at the place where the shell no longer was.

The sound of the marimba came from the phone. She was calling back. He answered, “Hey…listen.”

There was clatter and shuffling at the other end, “Hello?”

“Hey…Hey there. It’s Rob.”

“God, Rob, I’m hearing it on the news, no one knows anything. Are you alright, honey? Where are you right now? They say there are buses you can take.”

“We don’t even know where it will drop.”

“Still, you could take a bus to somewhere safer and maybe—”

“Listen.”

“What?”

“I lost it, the shell you gave me.”

“The shell?”

“I just didn’t want you thinking I lost it ‘cause I was bitter or nothing like that, I just—” 

“The shell? Honey, I don’t—”

“I know back then it was our link and all. I put it up to my ear most days. Couldn’t hear the ocean like you said, so I stopped.”

“For God’s sake, honey I don’t care about the shell, what’s happening to you two?”

“I’m fine, I’ll be fine.”

“Fine? Where are you? What about Travis?”

“Travis?” his voice hardened, “The farmhand?”

“Farmhand? Jesus Rob, our son! I can’t believe you! Is he there, I need to talk with him.”

“No, I think he’s busy,” he winced as he said this. “Doesn’t need his mother babying him anyway.”

There was a long bout of yelling on the other end of the phone followed by the repetition of the words “your son” then a much longer silence.

He frowned. Travis was halfway up the slope under the canopy, running away from it all.

“Travis.” There expectedly was no answer.

The sky grew much brighter. He closed his eyes. All he’d ever done was collect dust.

“Oh, God,” Rob said.

But only sunlight passed.

He hung his head for a long while and put the phone back to his ear.

“Hell Ellie, I’ve been a damned fool.”

There was only silence. Ellie had already ended the call minutes ago. He held the phone up to his face seeing his reflection in its black mirror for the first time. He placed it in his pocket and headed up the valley, not caring where he stepped. As he started up the bamboo trail, he murmured some Hail Mary’s and by the time he reached the outstretched coconut palms he was reciting the Lord’s Prayer. When he entered the tin-shed all was quiet. From the window out beyond the tree line, roads were filled with traffic of a million cars trying to escape calamity at once. The lanes overlapped obsidian fields, former plains of lava and heat, ghostly remnants of a more primal apocalypse already passed away. Rob shuddered.

The farmhands were huddled near the back of the storehouse. They put their phones away as he approached. The manager spoke.

“We were just taking a rest; we’ll get back to work soon.”

“I don’t care about that, what about the world?”

“What about it?”

“It’s coming to an end.”

“Sir?” Everyone was staring at him now.

“The bells, the missile.”

“No, no, it was a fake. Someone pushed a wrong button.”

“Not the nuclear button?”

“No.”

All the farmhands continued to stare. Rob was sweating from the heat, all out of breath. After a moment’s hesitation he composed himself.

“Well, stop standing there then, get back to work!”

The farmhands, a bundle of new age hippies and colorful hairdos, scattered out of the storehouse. Rob pulled the manager aside.

“Where’s Travis…my son?”

The manager blinked, hesitated, and then spoke.

“He left.”

“Left? Does he know it wasn’t real?”

“Yes sir, we told him.”

“What did he say?”

The manager would not look at Rob.

“He mentioned you, but that was it.”

“Well, when he returns tell him to come see me.”

The manager looked away again.

“He left with his bags.”

“Well, when he gets back with his bags, tell him I want to see him. I’d like him to help me with the planting of the new plot down there.”

“He, uh, left with a ticket. It appears he’d been planning—”

“Just tell him to see me,” he cut in. “Okay?”

“Yes sir.”

The manager moved uncertainly toward the fields. Rob headed back to the gulch. It was noon now. The sun had scorched the whole valley. Rob busted out from the bamboo trail and returned to the plot of weeded jungle. It was tracked with boot prints, spilled guts of passionfruit, coconut peels, and kicked up mud as if a pack of mongooses had surged by. There was no one else around. Rob picked a spot in the dirt and sat there under his own vines and koa trees checking Travis’ phone in the shade. The little cartoon rectangle at the bottom gave him news about the big mistake, and the flashing links urged him to disregard the talk of inevitable devastation. The phone was covered in something dry and rust colored, mud, or blood, or both. The phone died and he placed it in his pocket. He went to work weeding, but froze after several seconds, gazing toward the bamboo with a deep frown. Then he turned back, pulling at the earth, and throwing it up toward an uncertain sky.

Francis Felix Rosa is an editor and author of the children’s book Cryptidpedia. His prose has appeared in the Big Bend Literary Magazine and the museum of americana. His work is forthcoming in Hidden Peak Press. In 2018 he was the recipient of Wheaton College’s Helen Meyers Tate Memorial Prize for Original Verse. A wandering New Englander, he currently resides in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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