I still enjoy writing these Halloween short stories every year. What I have always tried to do is to add a little depth to the tales. The significance of the names of the two protagonists shouldn’t be lost on readers. Perhaps the deepest criticism I could get for this particular story is, ‘Okay, but where are the monsters?’ Rivers are funny things. Most of them are lively and life-affirming. But the old stories also speak of a final river in this lifetime which must be crossed. A river which makes the human heart tremble…
“The river is everywhere.”
It had been a harsh summer. A summer to survive. Everyone else’s social media status had seemed happy, accomplished and carefree. But the brothers had lost all their grandparents that year. Life, like a wasp, had stung them and they were sore. There was no outlet for their grief. Even the funerals had been tedious, expensive duties and not offered any kind of healing. So it was their father’s idea. Their mother was grieving too deeply anyway. They were to go on an Autumn camping weekend.
Joel, the older brother was 19. He was wise beyond his years and everyone called him Joe. The younger brother, Danny was 16 and full of questions. His teachers would also say he was full of insolence and rebellion. But that is something that teachers often say about those who have too many questions.
The campsite was about three miles from the coast and there was a wide river nearby which headed towards the estuary. None of the brothers knew the name of the river. A river which seemed to call to them.
The site had a few facilities, a toilet block, water taps and electric ports for caravans. Few people wanted to camp so late in the year and so they were alone apart from a few other brave souls in warm campervans. But they were close enough to a town to be within easy walking distance and it was not so cold during the day if the sun was out. Danny was less enthusiastic about the whole holiday, but Joe seemed excited and took control of setting up the tent.
“Are you going to help?” asked Joe.
“What do you want me to do?” replied Danny.
“You can thread the poles.”
Danny was sullen. To be honest, he wanted to go and explore. The river’s voice seemed to beckon. The hills surrounding them were like new, honest friends.
They had selected a place on the campsite sheltered by some crab apple and horse chestnut trees, their leaves and apples fallen and beginning to rot. It was, in all fairness, the best and safest spot when it came to protecting them from the wind.
It didn’t take long to get everything in place. Soon the ground mats were down and the sleeping bags were inside along with all of their supplies, including their collapsible fishing rods.
The tent itself was reasonably large, big enough for four people at a push – it was a kind of standard mid-range family tent. It was orange.
They went to the river and decided that they would fish there the following day. The river itself was fast moving and wide. It looked healthy – full of liveliness rather than life. There were numerous places to fish from along their side of the bank. For that moment it looked as if the week-long holiday would go well. They would phone their parents and they would be able to have some time with each other engaged in a task which they both enjoyed. It would all be fine. Nothing could go wrong. The future was certain, like a written plan, like a movie already seen. Rest and healing.
When dusk arrived Joe and Danny decided that there was very little to do. So Danny took a bottle of vodka from his backpack and the brothers drank a little until they were pleasantly tipsy.
“I have an idea,” announced Joe.
“What?” asked Danny.
“What about a story?”
“Stories?” sighed Danny.
“U-hu, ghost story or something.”
“Are you mad?”
“No, there isn’t much to do here and stories are a great way of getting to sleep.”
“You’re mad. Who do you think you are, Scheherazade? This isn’t 1001 nights.”
“No, this is one week. Look, it’s just an idea.”
“It’s a crap idea and it’s boring Joe.” Danny sniffed and picked up his smartphone to look at the stories there.
They lay in silence for about half an hour until Danny said:
“Look, I’ll do a deal with you. We can do the story thing if you buy me a new fishing rod.”
“That’s a bad deal Danny. No.”
“Then forget the story.”
“It’s just an idea Danny, some people think that stories are interesting.”
“No, your stories are crap Joe and beyond that I think you want to convert me or something.”
The sad fact of this was that it was a little true. Joe had a fascination for all things to do with the end of the world. This fascination had led him to research everything he could find out about the way in which the end of the world may happen. It was a kind of obsession. It had also made Joe increasingly religious (or ‘spiritual’ as he liked to put it). It was a constant block between Joe and Danny. It caused tension and it caused Danny to always think that Joe was trying to evangelise him.
“I promise I won’t try to do that,” said Joe.
“You will, and I just want to fish. I don’t want any of your religious ramblings.”
Joe sighed deeply and then seemed to come to a decision.
“Okay, I tell you what, I’ll buy you a new fishing rod for Christmas.”
“Is that a bribe?” asked Danny.
“I don’t know,” replied Joe.
“Okay. Go ahead then.”
There was silence then in the heavens (and the tent) for thirty minutes. Then, unannounced, when Danny had thought his brother asleep, Joe began…
“I swear to you I’m not trying to convert you Danny. I swear to you that we are all going to be annihilated by nukes.”
“Can I interrupt?”
“Within reason. I’m telling you that if there is a nuclear strike against us right now that we will die, even here. You know why? Because things have moved on since our parents’ day in the 80’s. Not only has technology changed everything but nukes have also changed. No-one really worries about it these days but the fact of the matter is that a third world war will not see us surviving at this rate. And do you know why?”
“Because no-one has a sane plan.”
“About this story Joe. I’m just wondering when it is going to start? Are you just going to be preaching to me?”
“I’m not preaching, I’m just telling you what I know.”
“Then where is the story?”
“Alright, alright – Once there was a man who wanted to survive the third world war.”
“What was his name?”
“Shut up. His name was ‘Huckleberry Jordan’.”
“Seriously? What kind of name is that? Are you Mark Twain?”
“Shut up. Huckleberry had a plan to survive a nuclear attack. Before you interrupt again I can tell you that Huckleberry lived in the UK. With a name like Huckleberry where else are you going to live?..”
“Huckleberry wanted to survive a nuclear blast and there was only one way to do this. He would either have to bug-in, to dig-in or he would have to bug-out.”
“I don’t think you are using the right prepper terms there.”
“Huckleberry had this idea. He lived alone in a city. Err… say he lived in London. And he knew that with an escalation of violence in the Middle East that the situation was quite precarious. The eschatology of different cultures was clashing…”
“Hold on, hold on, what the hell is eschatology?…”
“What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know!”
“Eschatology is the study of the end of the world. Ironic really because for Huckleberry the end of his world was about to occur. He lived in London and he could see that the political situation in the world was going down the drain. Everything was hitting the fan.”
“Why don’t you swear?”
“Huckleberry saw only desolation coming to London and he wanted to survive. There was only one way the third world war would start and that was with one huge nuke in his back garden. Now, thankfully, Huckleberry had stored up a few supplies from his work as a civil servant. The civil servants are good at survival, they always survive no matter which party is in power. They know what is what. So he had saved a bit of cash and when he saw that the world was on the brink of war he knew that there was only one place he would be safe.”
Joe paused, the vodka had worn off a little and he took a swig from the bottle and picked up an apple. Then he continued…
“Do you know where that place is in the entire world Danny?”
“Ireland? Alaska? One of the poles?”
“No. Huckleberry knew his eschatology too…”
“…He was going to Jordan.”
“Err… I don’t think Jordan is going to be safe in a third world war. It is right next to Israel which would be blasted off the map one way or the other.”
“You can’t just talk about blasting Israel of the map…”
“Uh? Take your religion and stick it up your…”
“Anyway, Huckleberry decided that he would get a plane to Jordan.”
“Hold on, hold on, why again did Huckleberry go to Jordan?”
“Because the only place that is going to be safe at the end of the world is Jordan.”
“This is ridiculous and I swear you are trying to convert me. Jordan would be blasted into bits along with England. Huckleberry is a fool.”
“Huckleberry was no fool. As a civil servant he knew his stuff. He knew that according to scripture…”
“…there you go, just there!”
Joe relaxed and his voice softened. “According to scripture there is only one place that is going to survive the end-time war. And that is Jordan. Because in one of the books of the Old Testament and I may have forgotten which, but I can tell you that Huckleberry didn’t. In the book of the Old Testament prophet and according to the scripture according to the book of Hal Lindsey (which Huckleberry had read) the countries of Edom and Moab would survive the assault of the antichrist and…”
“Hold on, now you really are getting interesting. What’s all this about the antichrist?”
“According to the book of Lindsey, Huckleberry was aware that Moab and Edom corresponded exactly to the modern day country of Jordan. As a result our dear civil servant friend Huckleberry decided that he would ‘bug-out’ in Jordan. That’s kind of how rudimentary faith works. He had thought of going to Petra in Jordan where all the traditional eschatology says that people will survive. Except that Huckleberry was a clever man. He realized that a lot of people would be fleeing to Petra. The whole damned lot of them. Anyone with any sense anyway. And Petra these days is just a ruin with a few caves and anyone who is anyone knows that the only way to survive in those conditions is to have a decent plan and that most of the people fleeing there would have no plan. Worse, when you bug-out you don’t want to be around other people all the time. In a survival situation other people are a drain on your resources. That’s what Huckleberry thought anyway, he considered that there was only one way in which he would survive. And that was to survive alone. But he had made plans and he landed in a plane in Jordan. At the Jordan airport…”
“Which is called?”
“…at the main Jordan airport he relaxed a little. But instead of heading straight to Petra he decided that he would run to the mountains. There are mountains in Jordan and Huckleberry knew that there were places he could go to to survive. He had his backpack of resources and more money than you could shake a fishing rod at. He knew that the best place to bug-out would be in one of the obscure tourist attractions in the Jordan mountains. There is supposed to be a tourist site on top of one of the mountains where Moses was supposed to have surveyed the whole promised land. Huckleberry had seen pictures of it with a big arty cross there. And he had made his plans because there was even a shop there. A shop meant resources. Because of the escalation in tension the whole place had shut down to tourism. Half of those in the know had run to Petra. The other half couldn’t care whether they lived or died because they were just sheeple. And the rest were in some weird fight against the antichrist who everyone probably thought was the messiah anyway…”
There was a distant thunderclap at that moment and Joe was ridiculously pleased by the timing.
“…A story for another night. Anyway, Huckleberry set off across the barren wasteland of the Jordan desert. He was a man who was used to survival because he lived in London. It took him a while, a day or two and a couple of insane taxi journeys which involved bribery, but he finally got to the outpost in the Jordan mountains where there was a small, closed shop. The hot piercing sun shone down on Huckleberry and he wondered what to do next. There was only one thing to do. Break into the small tourist centre – up there in the mountains there is a little chapel too. But prayer was far from the mind of Huckleberry – he was only concerned with survival and he was thirsty and hungry and tired. So he broke into the shop and gulped down the cans of coke which were still in a fridge there. Then he found food, hundreds of bags of crisps and salted peanuts for the tourists. He was sure there was other food there but for now he needed sleep. So he holed himself into the chapel and slept on one of the pews. The next morning Huckleberry decided that he would try to figure out what was happening in the world. His smartphone wouldn’t work and he was a little worried about data roaming charges just in case he had got it all wrong and there had been no nuclear strikes. But he found a radio in the small shop around the back. First he started to store water because there was a tap there and he filled some buckets full of water. Then he tried the radio and found a BBC world service broadcast. The BBC get everywhere…
“This is not a drill. Everyone who is still alive, stay indoors. There have been nuclear strikes in all countries. If you are the praying kind then pray. The whole world is in chaos. This is not a drill. If anyone can help us, help us. There is nothing left of the British Isles. Anybody please…”
And the other broadcasts were silenced. Although there was some music for some reason on some of the channels. So Huckleberry went outside to look from the mountain and sure enough he could see mushroom clouds in the distance. And it seemed that the only place he was safe was in Jordan. And that was when the nuke landed on Petra. And the sun turned to sackcloth.
Petra was too close to his base. He saw the mushroom cloud coming. The strangest thing was that the nuclear blast looked different to all those he had seen on TV and in pictures. It looked more like… like an apple core than a mushroom. ‘They must have used a different kind of nuke’ thought Huckleberry pointlessly. He was too close and he dived to the floor. His eardrums shattered. The boom was so loud and burst his eardrums. He knew that he had a matter of minutes to shelter and he could think of nothing else to do but to run to the chapel. So he fled there and hid behind one of the pews praying for the first time in his life. But the blast from the nuke was that of a new nuke, one which the antichrist had sent. And before he could do any more, the mountainside received the fire from the blast. It was too close and neither Petra not the rest of Jordan was safe. In fact the antichrist knew the scriptures too so he had sent a nuke straight to Petra. And all Huckleberry could do was stay in the foetal position while the chapel was blown to bits and the heat of the fire entered like the Lord himself.”
Joe seemed quite pleased with himself and finished his story, placing his apple core down.
“In fact, that was the only mercy. That it ended so quickly for poor, misguided Huckleberry. It is the fate of all civil servants. The end of the world, the sun to sackcloth and the moon to blood.”
Danny was silent for a good while and then said, “It wasn’t really a ghost story was it?”
The next morning there was a storm. The summer storms had been intense that year and Danny and Joe sheltered in the tent, listening to the heavy rain which felt like it could flatten them at any moment.
Joe’s smartphone rang. Danny momentarily wondered why he had chosen a song with a trumpet in the intro.
“Hello – is that Joe? It’s Uncle Mark.”
“Oh, hi…” Joe wondered why his uncle was phoning.
“Joe, I have some bad news.”
Joe’s heart fell and Danny saw his face go white.
“There was a fire at your house Joe. Your mum and dad were both in it. I’m so sorry.”
“What, our parents are dead?”
Danny looked at Joe, listening, shaken.
“They’re both dead Joe, it was some kind of accident. It was last night. We need you and Danny to be strong right now…”
Joe burst into tears and his heart broke fully.
And the moon turned to blood. The sun to darkness.
Danny grabbed the phone, crying too.
“What happened!?” he shouted.
“It was a fire Danny, we don’t know how it started. I’m so sorry. Danny, listen to me…”
But Danny had thrown the smartphone down and unzipped the tent. He was running barefoot towards the river in the storm.
Danny became soaked in the cold rain and the rain pelted onto his forehead like a knocking. As if someone was knocking on the tent which was his own body. And he ran through the pouring rain under the sound of the thunder and reached the riverside. The river was gushing and swelling and alive. The river was so alive and the water was so fast.
And suddenly Danny looked back and there was his brother racing towards him.
Danny, without taking off any of his clothes, not even his trainers, jumped into the river.
Joe called through the storm to his brother:
But before he knew it Danny was in the river. Danny felt the water all around him, cold and dragging him along. Before long Danny had been swept out and down the river and still he swam against the current and towards the other side. Joe could do little but watch as Danny reached half way. And that was when Joe noticed that he was struggling and then not struggling anymore. The waters were too fast, the river was too deep, he was never going to make it across. Had he even intended to? And with this realisation, Joe jumped in to rescue his brother who was struggling for breath and still being swept along. Joe swam towards his brother who was just a head now, facing upwards, all his efforts taken in breathing, but not screaming, not seeming afraid even. For a moment Danny went totally underwater and Joe renewed his efforts to reach him. But he watched in horror as Danny was dragged under once again, his face looking up into the sky one last time. Then, strangely he smiled – the smile was so obvious but then he was gone, like a star falling from the sky.
And the emotions which filled Joe were pushed aside out of a wanting for him to save his brother who was now underwater. And he swam to the spot where Danny had gone underwater but felt the same pull, the same current dragging him under too. And suddenly he could neither save his brother or himself and the river seemed to tug him from beneath as it had tugged his brother, claiming him, wanting them both, embracing them. And Joe too felt the fight leave him and felt himself sinking. With one final act he took a last breath and looked up to the storm clouds above them. And the thing that he saw there filled him with wonder. There in the sky, hovering above the river was an angel. A huge, bright, beautiful angel which smiled down on him. The only thing he could do was smile back. And then he went under too. And Huckleberry’s world ended with that of the brothers.
And they crossed the river together.