Read Long After Midnight Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

Long After Midnight (8 page)

 
          
"Why,
ma'am," cried the man. "I
am?'

 
          
And
he was.

 
          
He
landed and fell rolling in the road.

 
          
Neva
banged the car into full flight.

 
          
Behind,
the man picked himself up and yelled, "You must be nuts. You must be
crazy. Nuts. Crazy."

 
          
"I'm
nuts?
I’m
crazy?" said Neva, and hooted. "Boy!"

 
          
"...
nuts ... crazy . .." The voice faded.

 
          
Douglas
looked back and saw the man shaking his fist, then ripping off his shirt and
hurling it to the gravel and jumping big puffs of white-hot dust out of it with
his bare feet.

 
          
The
car exploded, rushed, raced, banged pell-mell ahead, his aunt ferociously glued
to the hot wheel, until the little sweating figure of the talking man was lost
in sun-drenched marshland and burning air. At last Doug exhaled:

 
          
"Neva,
I never heard you talk like that before."

 
          
"And
never will again, Doug."

 
          
"Was
what you said
true?"

 
          
"Not
a word."

 
          
"You
lied, I mean, you
lied?"

 
          
"I
lied." Neva blinked. "Do you think
he
was lying, too?"

 
          
"I
don't know."

 
          
"All
I know is sometimes it takes a lie to kill a lie, Doug. This time, anyway.
Don't let it become customary."

 
          
"No,
ma'am." He began to laugh. "Say the thing about mandrake root again.
Say the thing about wolf-bane in my pocket. Say it about a pistol with a silver
bullet, say it."

 
          
She
said it. They both began to laugh.

 
          
Whooping
and shouting, they went away in their tin-bucket-junking car over the gravel
ruts and humps, her saying, him listening, eyes squeezed shut, roaring,
snickering, raving.

 
          
They
didn't stop laughing until they hit the water in their bathing suits and came
up all smiles.

 
          
The
sun stood hot in the middle of the sky and they dog-paddled happily for five
minutes before they began to really swim in the menthol-cool waves.

 
          
Only
at dusk when the sun was suddenly gone and the shadows moved out from the trees
did they remember that now they had to go
back
down that lonely road through all the dark places and past that empty swamp
to get to town.

 
          
They
stood by the car and looked down that long road. Doug swallowed hard.

 
          
"Nothing
can happen to us going
home."

 
          
"Nothing."

 
          
"Jump!"

 
          
They
hit the seats and Neva kicked the starter like it was a dead dog and they were
off.

 
          
They
drove along under plum-colored trees and among velvet purple hills.

 
          
And
nothing happened.

 
          
They
drove along a wide raw gravel road that was turning the color of plums and
smelled the warm-cool air that was like lilacs and looked at each other, waiting.

 
          
And
nothing happened.

 
          
Neva
began at last to hum under her breath.

 
          
The
road was empty.

 
          
And
then it was not empty.

 
          
Neva
laughed. Douglas squinted and laughed with her.

 
          
For
there was a small boy, nine years old maybe, dressed in a vanilla-white summer
suit, with white shoes and a white tie and his face pink and scrubbed, waiting
by the side of the road. He waved.

 
          
Neva
braked the car.

 
          
"Going
in to town?" called the boy, cheerily. "Got lost. Folks at a picnic,
left without me. Sure glad you came along. It's
spooky
out here."

 
          
"Climb
in!"

 
          
The
boy climbed and they were off, the boy in the back seat, and Doug and Neva up
front glancing at him, laughing, and then getting quiet.

 
          
The
small boy kept silent for a long while behind them, sitting straight upright
and clean and bright and fresh and new in his white suit.

 
          
And
they drove along the empty road under a sky that was dark now with a few stars
and the wind getting cool.

 
          
And
at last the boy spoke and said something that Doug didn't hear but he saw Neva
stiffen and her face grow as pale as the ice cream from which the small boy's
suit was cut

 
          
"What?"
asked Doug, glancing back.

 
          
The
small boy stared directly at him, not blinking, and his mouth moved all to
itself as if it were separate from his face.

 
          
The
car's engine missed fire and died.

 
          
They
were slowing to a dead stop.

 
          
Doug
saw Neva kicking and fiddling at the gas and the starter. But most of all he
heard the small boy say, in the new and permanent silence:

 
          
"Have
either of you ever wondered—"

 
          
The
boy took a breath and finished:

 
          
"—if
there is such a thing as genetic evil in the world?"

The Burning Man

 

 
          
 

 
          
"Sit
down, young man," said the Official.

 
          
"Thanks."
The young man sat.

 
          
"I've
been hearing rumors about you," the Official said pleasantly. "Oh,
nothing much. Your nervousness. Your not getting on so well. Several months now
I've heard about you, and I thought I'd call you in. Thought maybe you'd like
your job changed. Like to go overseas, work in some other War Area? Desk job
killing you off, like to get right in on the old fight?"

 
          
"I
don't think so," said the young sergeant.

 
          
"What
do
you want?"

 
          
The
sergeant shrugged and looked at his hands. "To live in peace. To learn
that during the night, somehow, the guns of the world had rusted, the bacteria
had turned sterile in their bomb casings, the tanks had sunk like prehistoric
monsters into roads suddenly made tar pits. That's what I'd like."

 
          
"
Thaf
s what we'd all like, of course," said the Official.
"Now stop all that idealistic chatter and tell me where you'd like to be
sent. You have your choice —the Western or the Northern War Zone." The
Official tapped a pink map on his desk.

 
          
But
the sergeant was talking at his hands, turning them over, looking at the
fingers: "What would you officers do, what would we men do, what would the
world
do if we all woke tomorrow with
the guns in flaking ruin?"

 
          
The
Official saw that he would have to deal carefully with the sergeant. He smiled
quietly. "That's an interesting question. I like to talk about such
theories, and my answer is that there'd be mass panic. Each nation would think
itself the only unarmed nation in the world, and would blame its enemies for
the disaster. There'd be waves of suicide, stocks collapsing, a million
tragedies."

 
          
"But
after
that," the sergeant said.
"After they realized it was true, that every nation was disarmed and there
was nothing more to fear, if we were all clean to start over fresh and new,
what then?"

 
          
"They'd
rearm as swiftly as possible."

 
          
"What
if they could be stopped?"

 
          
"Then
they'd beat each other with their fists. If it got down to that. Huge armies of
men with boxing gloves of steel spikes would gather at the national borders.
And if you took the gloves away they'd use their fingernails and feet. And if
you cut their legs off they'd
spit
on
each other. And if you cut off their tongues and stopped their mouths with
corks they'd fill the atmosphere so full of hate that mosquitoes would drop to
the ground and birds would fall dead from telephone wires."

 
          
"Then
you don't think it would do any good?" the sergeant said.

 
          
"Certainly
not. It'd be like ripping the carapace off a turtle. Civilization would gasp
and die from the shock."

 
          
The
young man shook his head. "Or are you lying to yourself and me because
you've a nice comfortable job?"

 
          
"Let's
call it ninety percent cynicism, ten percent rationalizing the situation. Go
put your Rust away and forget about it."

 
          
The
sergeant jerked his head up. "How'd you know I
had
it?" he said.

 
          
"Had
what?"

 
          
"The
Rust, of course."

 
          
"What're
you talking about?"

 
          
"I
can
do it, you know. I could start
the Rust tonight if I wanted to."

 
          
The
Official laughed.. "You can't be serious."

 
          
"I
am. I've been meaning to come talk to you. I'm glad you called me in. I've
worked on this invention for a long time. It's been a dream of mine. It has to
do with the structure of certain atoms. If you study them you find that the
arrangement of atoms in steel armor is such-and-such an arrangement. I was
looking for an imbalance factor. I majored in physics and metallurgy, you know.
It came to me, there's a Rust factor in the air all the time. Water vapor. I
had to find a way to give steel a 'nervous breakdown.' Then the water vapor
everywhere in the world would take over. Not on all metal, of course. Our
civilization is built on steel, I wouldn't want to destroy most buildings. I'd
just eliminate guns and shells, tanks, planes, battleships. I can set the machine
to work on copper and brass and aluminum, too, if necessary. I'd just walk by
all of those weapons and just being near them I'd make them fall away."

 
          
The
Official was bending over his desk, staring at the sergeant. "May I ask
you a question?"

 
          
"Yes."

 
          
"Have
you ever thought you were Christ?"

 
          
"I
can't say that I have. But I have considered that God was good to me to let me
find what I was looking for, if
thaPs
what you
mean."

 
          
The
Official reached into his breast pocket and drew out an expensive ball-point
pen capped with a rifle shell. He flourished the pen and started filling in a
form. "I want you to take this to Dr. Mathews this afternoon, for a
complete checkup. Not that I expect anything really bad, understand. But don't
you feel you
should
see a
doctor?"

 
          
"You
think I'm lying about my machine," said the sergeant. "I'm not. It's
so small it can be hidden in this cigarette package. The effect of it extends
for nine hundred miles. I could tour this country in a few days, with the
machine set to a certain type of steel. The other nations couldn't take
advantage of us because I'd rust their weapons as they approach us. Then I'd
fly to Europe. By this time next month the world would be free of war forever.
I don't know how I found this invention. It's impossible. Just as impossible as
the atom bomb. I've waited a month now, trying to think it over. I worried
about what would happen if I did rip off the carapace, as you say. But now I've
just about decided. My talk with you has helped clarify things. Nobody thought
an airplane would ever fly, nobody thought an atom would ever explode, and
nobody thinks that there can ever be Peace, but there
will
be."

 
          
"Take
that paper over to Dr. Mathews, will you?" said the Official hastily.

 
          
The
sergeant got up. "You're not going to assign me to any new Zone
then?"

 
          
"Not
right away, no. I've changed my mind. We'll let Mathews decide."

 
          
"I've
decided then," said the young man. "I'm leaving the Post within the
next few minutes. I've a pass. Thank you very much for giving me your valuable
time, sir."

 
          
"Now
look here, Sergeant, don't take things so seriously. You don't have to leave.
Nobody's going to hurt you."

 
          
"That’s
right. Because nobody would believe me. Good-bye, sir." The sergeant
opened the office door and stepped out.

 
          
The
door shut and the Official was alone.. He stood for a moment looking at the
door. He sighed. He rubbed his hands over his face. The phone rang. He answered
it abstractedly.

 
          
"Oh,
hello,
Doctor. I was just going to
call you." A pause. "Yes, I was going to send him over to you. Look,
is it all right for that young man to be wandering about? It is all right? If
you say so, Doctor. Probably needs a rest, a good long one. Poor boy has a
delusion of rather an interesting sort. Yes, yes. If s a shame. But that's what
a Sixteen-Year War can do to you, I suppose."

 
          
The
phone voice buzzed in reply.

 
          
The
Official listened and nodded. "I'll make a note on that. Just a
second." He reached for his ball-point pen. "Hold on a moment. Always
mislaying things." He patted his pocket. "Had my pen here a moment
ago. Wait." He put down the phone and searched his desk, pulling out
drawers. He checked his blouse pocket again. He stopped moving. Then his hands
twitched slowly into his pocket and probed down. He poked his thumb and
forefinger deep and brought out a pinch of something.

 
          
He
sprinkled it on his desk blotter: a small filtering powder of yellow-red rust.

 
          
He
sat staring at it for a moment. Then he picked up the phone.
"Mathews," he said, "get off the line, quick." There was a
click of someone hanging up and then he dialed another call. "Hello, Guard
Station, listen, there's a man coming past you any minute now, you know him,
name of Sergeant Hollis, stop him, shoot him down, kill him if necessary, don't
ask any questions, kill the son of a bitch, you heard me, this is the Official
talking! Yes, kill him, you hear!"

 
          
"But,
sir," said a bewildered voice on the other end of the line. "I can't,
I just
can't.
. .."

 
          
"What
do you mean you can't, God damn it!"

 
          
"Because
..." The voice faded away. You could hear the guard breathing into the
phone a mile away.

 
          
The
Official shook the phone. "Listen to me, listen, get your gun ready!"

 
          
"I
can't shoot anyone," said the guard.

 
          
The
Official sank back in his chair. He sat blinking for half a minute, gasping.

 
          
Out
there even now—he didn't have to look, no one had to tell him—the hangars were
dusting down in soft red rust, and the airplanes were blowing away on a
brown-rust wind into nothingness, and the tanks were sinking, sinking slowly
into the hot asphalt roads, like dinosaurs (isn't that what the man had said?)
sinking into primordial tar pits. Trucks were blowing away into ocher puffs of
smoke, their drivers dumped by the road, with only the tires left running on
the highways.

 
          
"Sir
. . ." said the guard, who was seeing all this, far away. "Oh, God ..
."

 
          
"Listen,
listen!" screamed the Official. "Go after him, get him, with your
hands, choke him, with your fists, beat him, use your feet, kick his ribs in,
kick him to death, do anything, but get that man. I'll be right
outl
" He hung up the phone.

 
          
By
instinct he jerked open the bottom desk drawer to get his service pistol. A
pile of brown rust filled the new leather holster. He swore and leaped up.

 
          
On
the way out of the office he grabbed a chair. It's wood, he thought. Good
old-fashioned wood, good old-fashioned maple. He hurled it against the wall
twice, and it broke. Then he seized one of the legs, clenched it hard in his
fist, his face bursting red, the breath snorting in his nostrils, his mouth
wide. He struck the palm of his hand with the leg of the chair, testing it.
"All right, God damn it, come on!" he cried.

 
          
He
rushed out, yelling, and slammed the door.

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