The sign for the exit said FATE in blocky white letters, with an arrow pointing the way to town. The old woman laughed and drove on.
The highway unwound before her like a spool of frayed grey ribbon. Once the jewel of America, now the system was cracked and crumbling, its future stolen by children too greedy for the present. Not broken—not yet—but in time all things must come to dust. Or gravel, as the case might be.
Her youngest sister would argue, she reflected as the speedometer arced higher. “There’s renewal in decay,” the old woman muttered to herself, in uncharitable mimicry of her sister’s high, sweet voice. “They will repair it. Or build a new jewel. One that serves their needs better than this old hulk.”
The old hulk driving the car spat out the window. Age served a purpose. So did decay.
That purpose was to end.
She cackled unrepentantly at the sight of the next sign: HOPE, 14 MILES. The settlers of the American Midwest were a peculiar lot. Nobody quite like them anywhere in the world, at any point in history. That was true of every group, of course, and every individual; she had only to put her hand out the window as she drove to feel the strands running through her fingers. All the same, and yet no two threads alike. But this place…greed and aspiration and genocide and desperation and endless possibility that yes, could be called hope. A vivid mix whose pattern had indelibly marked the tapestry of the world. For good or for ill; she didn’t care. She liked the Midwest, with its silly town names.
Ghost towns, a lot of them. Seeds scattered by wagon trains, taking root where they could. A few flourished, watered by riches. Some few of those lasted when the water dried up. Then came the railways, iron threads linking them into a web. The iron rusted away, but the web remained, in the grey and black of concrete, asphalt, county highways and state and interstate, striped with yellow and white and occasional reflective dots, green signs sprouting along them like weeds. But it was only an image of vitality. The true life was the people, and when they left, the plant died.
Dead husks, all around her. Done in by the economy, by climate change, by accident and malice. She’d told the others she was going to look the place over, see what was out there before she made her decision. It was a lie. This was a farewell tour.
She hit another pothole in the road and wondered which would give out first: her patience or her car’s suspension.
The car was practically an antique. She’d found it at the turnoff for a dirt road with a sign jammed under its windshield wiper saying $100 OBO; judging by how weathered the sign was, no offers of any kind had ventured by in a very long time. She’d left the disintegrating cardboard by the side of the road, and her only regret was that the thing was a gas guzzler. Fortunately a sign up ahead promised fuel, though by its faded and peeling paint, there was no guarantee of a working pump there. Worth trying, though. She exited the highway without signaling and coasted to a stop at the station.
Charging station, ethanol, diesel, and regular gas. This was how the place stayed in business, by catering to all comers. Still, business wasn’t booming. The teenaged girl who came out from the tiny convenience store looked surprised to see a customer.
The old woman got out of the car. “Do I pay you or the machine?”
“Pay the machine,” the girl replied.
There was a town visible in the distance behind the station, but even from here, the old woman could see boarded-up windows and weed-tufted sidewalks. “That Hope?” she asked as the pump chunked to life and began bleeding gasoline into her tank.
The girl nodded.
“Doesn’t look like much.”
“Isn’t very much,” the girl said. “But it’s more than nothing.”
She sounded like she meant it, too. Where had her family come from, that the dying shell of a podunk town seemed better than the alternative? Her accent said “immigrant,” though it was faint enough to be hard to place. Probably came here when she was a kid. The accent would be gone if she’d moved to the city, had somebody to talk to other than her parents.
The old woman slid one hand out, feeling the air. Sixteen. Might be headed to college soon. “You looking forward to getting out of here?”
The girl shook her head. “Father needs my help with the ranch. We have horses,” she supplied, settling in against the post, kicking at a bit of broken concrete. “Breeding and training. Sell them all over the state. Maybe farther, soon.”
The old woman scowled at the horizon, swatting wisps of grey hair from her eyes. She’d been wondering since she first saw the signs; now she was sure. The town of Hope, and a girl with hope. Which one of her sisters had planned this? Or were they working together?
Didn’t matter. She wasn’t the Christian God, promising to spare a town of sinners if one righteous man could be found within its walls. A body still had plenty of healthy cells left when the body itself was ready to die. One girl with hope did not a land with a future make.
The pump shut off, and she re-racked the nozzle. Gasoline: it had killed many in its time, and now its time was almost done. That was the way of things. Nothing lasted forever.
“Where are you headed?” the girl asked as the old woman opened the driver’s-side door.
She didn’t even know which road she was on. Didn’t much matter.
Grinning toothily at the girl, she said, “All the way to the end.”
The car died not long before nightfall.
Stupid machines. They weren’t ever really alive, and it took a lot to break them so hard they counted as done by her standards. This one wasn’t that far gone; it had just…stopped working. Leaving her stranded along a Midwestern highway without so much as a cow in sight.
Cursing, she got out of the car and stood in the middle of the asphalt, breathing in the scent of warm tar. No need to be cautious. There weren’t any other people on the road, and in terrain this flat, they’d see her two miles off. If some jackass decided to hit her anyway, he deserved what he would get.
The sun was finishing its long summer descent toward the horizon, casting a deceptively soft glow across the plains. She sighed and planted her bony ass on the hood of the car, letting its fading warmth seep into her joints. Another day ending, and a sort-of-dead car by the side of the road.
Maybe she should just take the hint. What point was there in going further, seeing more of the same? She’d always been the pragmatic one. Just cut the thread now and move on.
She hopped off the hood and was reaching into the car’s glove box when she heard an engine.
The approaching truck was the first vehicle she’d seen since bypassing Hope, and she could easily have ignored it. But it seemed rude to shut off the power to somebody’s home in front of them, so she straightened—as much as her bent old spine could straighten—and kept her hands empty as the truck slowed.
He had manners, she had to give him that. He pulled over on the shoulder, a good distance away, and leaned his head out rather than opening the door. All very nice and unthreatening, if she’d been the sort of woman to worry about that kind of thing. “Need a jump, ma’am?”
Midwestern kindness would be the last thing to die. She debated telling him she’d already called for a tow—but from where, and with what? She didn’t have a phone, and there was nothing for miles around. “Need something,” she called back. “I don’t know what went wrong with the bastard.” She kicked one tire for good measure.
“I can take a look, if you like.” The man drove his truck in a sharp arc that left his front bumper close to hers, then got out. Nice-looking fellow, a weathered forty-two by the feel of him. He waited while she popped the hood, then went through the dance of hooking up cables. Didn’t do any good, though.
“You got gas?” he asked.
She jerked her chin over her shoulder. “Back in Hope.”
“Don’t know the place, but all right. If it ain’t gas, and it ain’t a battery that just needs a jump, then this is beyond me.” He scratched his fingernails through what had to be at least an eight o’clock shadow by then, though she didn’t have a watch to check. She knew when it was the right time for things. “There’s a garage in Angel River that can help, but they’ll be closed by now.”
“I guess I’ll find a motel,” she said dryly.
She meant it as a joke, but he came upright like his momma had spanked him. “There ain’t none of those around here, ma’am. But if you want—if you trust me, I mean—I could put you up for the night. Got a hitch on my truck; I could tow your car to my house, then drive you on to Angel River in the morning. But I’ll understand if you’d prefer not.” He looked around a little helplessly, like an alternative might pop up out of the dandelions.
He was a nice fellow. She wouldn’t turn his hair white by telling him what might happen if he tried anything untoward. “Let me just get something from my glove box,” she said.
“What’s your name?” he asked as they drove along in the growing twilight, her scrap-yard fodder rumbling behind them. “I should have asked sooner. Sorry, my manners ain’t what they used to be. I’m Bill.”
A sign distracted her from answering. The reflective paint had almost given up the ghost, but enough remained for her to read FRIENDSHIP.
“Something wrong?” he asked, and she realized she’d cursed out loud. “Bad associations with guys named Bill?”
“Not you,” she muttered, rubbing her brow. She should have known. Nice young men didn’t just come along at random. But which one of her sisters had arranged for her car to quit on her? That wasn’t their usual style.
Well, whatever they were planning, she would have none of it. Hope and friendship wouldn’t change her mind. And neither would whatever damnfool town name lay next along this road. She would drive straight past MERCY, wouldn’t stop even for KITTENS.
Bill had fallen silent. She hadn’t answered his question. After a moment, she said, “Call me Aisa.” It would take a fairly dedicated nerd to recognize that one, and he didn’t seem like the type.
“Pretty name,” Bill said. “Is that Spanish?”
He made small talk the rest of the way, amiable chatter that didn’t require her to do more than make the occasional polite noise, and didn’t mind when she didn’t. His house proved to be a decaying ranch on the outskirts of Friendship, well-stocked with frozen pizzas and beer. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a frozen pizza. The crust was terrible, and she enjoyed every bite.
It wouldn’t turn her from her path, though. Nothing did. Whoever was steering her along this all-too-relevant road, they ought to know better. There would still be terrible frozen pizzas even after she cut the thread, and nice men who helped grey-haired old ladies by the side of the road. Maybe not this one—stomach cancer would get him in about twelve years—but others. And other terrible-but-good foods, after frozen pizza went the way of kykeon.
Tomorrow she would get the car fixed, and drive out of Bill’s line of sight before doing what needed to be done. Tonight, she ate bad pizza, drank beer, and made small talk with a man who was going to die someday, just like everybody else.
The next morning dawned bright and hot, and Bill made good on his promise.
Started to, anyway.
She realized something was amiss when he suddenly swore under his breath and twisted to look behind him, down the long, broken ribbon of the road. “How the hell…”
“Problem?” she asked, with laconic resignation.
“I must have taken a wrong turn,” he said, in the bewildered and unbelieving tone of a man who knew there hadn’t been a turn to take, right or wrong, since they got back on the highway. “I don’t know where the hell I am.”
He twisted to face front once more and leaned forward, peering through the dead bugs streaking his windshield. “Can you read that sign up ahead? Uh, I mean—sorry, your eyes probably ain’t—”
Her eyes were fine. And this sign had been replaced recently, its simple letters standing out with bold clarity.
“Foe?” he echoed blankly. “Ain’t no town around here called Foe.”
She sighed. “You’d never heard of Hope, either, had you? Let me guess—‘Fate’ also doesn’t ring a bell.”
There still weren’t any other cars to hit. Bill had no compunctions about staring at her, while continuing to drive straight toward Foe. “What does that mean?”
“It means,” she said through her teeth, “that someone is interfering. Stop the truck.”
They kept hurtling forward at eighty miles an hour. “What?”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out the shears. Blades as long as her hand, and wickedly sharp; at the sight of them, Bill slammed on the brakes. “Holy f—Aisa, ma’am, you don’t need those to protect yourself from me. Or—” The truck had ground to a halt; one hand leapt instinctively to the door handle. “Oh God. Oh, Jesus. Tell me you’re not a serial killer.”
The best that’s ever lived. But he was a nice young man who didn’t deserve her mordant attempt at humor, and besides, there were quite a few powers out there who would dispute her claim to that title. But his fear wasn’t her problem. She had bigger things to worry about.
Her door creaked as she opened it, and her knees creaked as she got out. Bill was just going to have to live with what he was about to see. She was tired of being jerked around. She’d come out here to do something, and she was going to finish it.
She was good at that.
In the middle of the road, she stretched out her hand. Feeling all the threads—not just of people, but of things, places, ideas. Looking for the one that bound this land together. One snip and she’d be done.
Her fingers brushed against something…different.
She paused, frowning. It was deeply buried, like it was trying to hide from her—a laughable thought—but it was there. One gnarled pinkie finger slid along the strand, feeling it vibrate with a force that did not belong on a deserted road in a back corner of the Midwest. Tracing it. The other end wasn’t far away.
The other end was in her car.
“Unhitch that thing,” she snapped at Bill.
She had to snap a second time before he obeyed, scurrying like he thought she would waste her time burying her shears between his ribs. Gravel crunched as he pushed the old car back a foot or two. She strode to the driver’s side, popped the hood, and braced it up with its little rod. “Show me where the fuel goes into the engine.” That seemed like as good a spot as any to target.
With a wary hand, Bill pointed at a hose.
It looked like tough material. But she was tougher, and her shears were sharp. She wedged them in at an awkward angle, and was about to close them with a snap when suddenly a shadow fell across the engine compartment.
She’d suspected, ever since she felt the thread. But when she looked at that gaunt silhouette, familiar even after so many ages apart, she knew.
When mortals said their families were complicated, they had no idea what the word meant.
Plato claimed she and her sisters were the daughters of Necessity. Hesiod said their mother was Night, acting on her own—but then later he said Themis instead, and gave them Zeus for a father. Poetic fool couldn’t even make up his own damn mind. And Night had other children, too: Death, and Sleep, and Retribution, and Strife, a whole pack of damnations with a few nicer ones mixed in.
And Moros. The inexorable force that drove mortals to their doom.
Drove. She really wanted to kick him in the balls for that joke.
She advanced on him, shears at the ready. Moros didn’t retreat; he was no more capable of it than she was capable of turning away. “Sister,” he said. His voice sounded like the scrape of tires over a badly maintained road. “Why this anger? I’m only trying to help.”
“Help?” She almost snapped the shears to punctuate it, but held herself back. No point cutting some random threads early, just for dramatic effect. “This isn’t like you. All these towns with their cutesy—”
Her own words cut off like she’d snipped them short. FATE, to get her attention. HOPE—that wasn’t Moros’ style. Nor was FRIENDSHIP.
And the car had died before she saw that sign. Like he was trying to keep her from going there.
She glanced at Bill, pressed against the tailgate of his truck like the crazy lady with the scissors and the guy who appeared out of nowhere might forget him if he didn’t breathe. She glanced past him, at the sign for Foe, nine miles away.
It was a warning.
Moros stood his ground as she came close enough to plant the tips of her shears against his chest, just above his heart. Or where his heart would be, if any of their mother’s children had things like that. Close enough to kick him in the balls, come to that, but the sad truth was that he lacked those, too. Physically and metaphorically. It didn’t take any courage to face up to a fate that was going to get you anyway.
Or to laugh in the face of one that wasn’t there. “You won’t do it,” he said. “My time hasn’t come. But this place is doomed—you know that. I’m just helping you with the inevitable.”
She twisted the shears, letting the points dig in a little bit. He was right; she wouldn’t cut his thread. It wasn’t the right time. But she could make him hurt.
He’d interfered with her. Even Zeus, who did have balls, didn’t have a big enough sack to do that.
The Midwestern wind blew. All the way down from what was left of the polar ice caps, with barely a tree to stop it; she was neither a weather god nor a meteorologist, but she anticipated a thunderstorm at the least, and maybe a tornado or three. It would smash some things. Kill a few people. None of whom would deserve it…but that was how the world went. Deserving or not, sooner or later, everything died.
They still did their best to avoid it.
“Funny thing about inevitability,” she said, her tone conversational. “It’s always going to happen—right up to the moment when it doesn’t. And then it’s impossible that it could have ever gone any other way.”
Moros blinked at her as she stepped back and lowered her shears. Then he said, “But you have to. You can’t turn away from this!”
She laughed at him. “I don’t turn away from anything. You know that. But sometimes…I give the world a chance to turn away from me.”
Then she did kick him, right in the crotch. There wasn’t anything interesting there to hit, but it did what she needed it to: drove him backwards and out of this place, leaving the road empty.
There was a fluttering of feathers and a little ripple like somebody playing an arpeggio on a lyre, because of course there was. Melodramatic bastard. This one was her half-brother, too, if you took Hesiod at his revised word—but then again, who in their family wasn’t her half-sibling, when Zeus couldn’t keep his dick under his chiton?
Tall and golden and athletic, he leaned on his winged staff and grinned. “Enjoying your vacation?”
She glanced over and found Bill had passed out, sprawled on the gritty surface of the road. “Is he going to be able to get back home?”
“All travelers I guide will come safely home,” her brother said sententiously. Then the grin came back. “Thanks for stealing that car, by the way. That put you enough in my domain for me to send you where you needed to go.”
Down a road littered with messages—or rather multiple roads, she suspected. The angle of the sun was different, as if she was suddenly a lot farther north than wherever Bill’s town lay. How many states had this brother hopscotched her through, in order to make this work?
Roads, and thieves, and trickery. Or a blind determination to hurtle toward doom. Monotheism had its appeal, when the alternative was a family like this.
Then again, she was one to talk. Did she really have two sisters? Or was it all just her?
Yes. The answer to all of it was yes.
“I don’t promise anything,” she warned him.
“Of course not. And I’m not asking you to. I just figured…I like people to have a chance.”
More fluttering feathers, more lyre arpeggios, and the ghost of a laugh as he vanished. She sighed, tied back the long brown tail of her hair, and went to take a look at Bill.
He blinked up at the young woman kneeling over him. “What—what happened?”
“You fell and hit your head,” she said, helping him sit up. Then she tapped him on the shoulder with the distaff in her hand. “You should go to a hospital. And while you’re at it…have them take a look at your stomach.”
(Editors’ Note: “Fate, Hope, Friendship, Foe” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 47A).
© 2022 Marie Brennan
One Response to “Fate, Hope, Friendship, Foe”
Excellent. The exact lightness of touch and gradual spinning out (forgive me) of detail to earn the ending. Thanks.