Monday, July 23, 2012

Excerpt: When Gods Fail

This is the origin story for When Gods Fail. Enjoy!


When Gods Fail
By Nelson Lowhim
Copyright 2012 Nelson Lowhim.
*
This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead or otherwise, is purely coincidental.
***~~~***
I dug until my forearms knotted up and my fingers couldn't move. I had been stuck in the cave for weeks. Months perhaps. Wasn't my fault, really, I planned to spend a little more than a week in these caves, south of Portland, exploring new routes. Amazing, especially in these post-modern times, to go where no one else has gone, to be completely alone for even a few days. The plan was simple, go down, explore, map the caves and come out.
Then the earthquakes hit.
I was underneath and there were these sudden shocks. A lot of them. Stalactites fell from the ceiling above me; one crushed my watch as I protected my head with my hands. Then the slide started. I thought of running back up the route I had just come down, but dirt and rocks filled up my route up faster than I could think, and I watched as my only way out was blocked.
I wanted to cry, to scream, to be saved, but after a few hours of that I knew it was up to me. I rationed out my food, thanked the Lord that there was a running creek where I was trapped, and started the process of digging my way out.
I thought about what Carol would say if she found out what happened. She would probably ban my hobby; she never did like it. I couldn't blame her. After a few days, when the cup I had been using to scoop dirt broke, and I resorted to using my fingers, I was certain that I wouldn't want to look at another cave again.
Food was running low when I finally felt the dirt and rocks give way. I punched through to the other side and widened the hole.
I came out into the mouth of the cave. It was a room-sized, ball-shaped hall that led up to the cave's entrance on the side of a hill. I was expecting Carol to be waiting for me. After all, I was late, by several weeks, and she usually overreacted to everything. But there was no one. I didn't think anything of it, until I climbed out of the entrance.
At this point my stomach grumbled for food, and I felt weak. I knew I had a few energy bars on the dashboard of my car, and was looking forward to eating them. That's why when I saw that all the trees were gone—nothing but a few stumps and a coat of ashes coated the landscape—I couldn't fathom what lay before me. I looked to where my car should have been parked but there was nothing. I doubled checked the cave entrance. It was the right one. No doubt about that. The slope of the hill that tongued out of the cave entrance was the same shape as I remembered. The outline of the hills and mountains around me also seemed about right, except there wasn't a tree to be seen—though who really memorizes such things?
A forest fire.
Certainly conditions had been getting drier recently. That meant an accidental spark could have set this all off. How sad, I thought, that such a magnificent forest had been destroyed. I shook my head. Carol might not have been able to get out here, the place could have been closed down, or worse yet, she could have been mourning my death.
I looked at my map and made out the nearest town. I could make it there before nightfall and hopefully find a phone to call Carol. I thought of how she rested her head on my chest. I shuddered.
I walked for what seemed to be hours. I couldn't tell where the sun was because of a thick coating of clouds, but it seemed to be midday when I started. Nevertheless, as I walked through the ashes I noticed there was no burned wood smell. There really wasn't a smell, just clean air. No insects either. And, though I was certain it couldn't have been past August at the latest, it was bone-chattering cold. You would think that having been in a damp cave would have prepared me, but I was shivering by the time I saw the shipping container. It seemed to be located in an odd place, but I welcomed the sign of humanity.
I was hoping that there was some sign of life here, because I didn’t have the energy for another push over the small hill behind the container. I regretted leaving the cool waters of the cave. Never imagined I was going to want to go back in there.
I leaned on the container and jerked back when I heard a voice. It was distant, as if the container had a belly somewhere beneath the ground and I imagined victims sitting around chatting inside a beast, waiting for acid to eat them up. I rubbed my skin; it felt as if it had been burned in a full day of sun at the beach. I looked up, no way; it was dark and cold.
The voice tickled my ears again. It was in the container somewhere. It growled again; I heard distinctive fricatives and vowels of a man. I examined the shipping container. The door to the container was not locked, so I considered walking in. Perhaps not. I wasn’t certain of my precise location, but I was certainly in rural Oregon, which meant I could be infringing on someone's property without knowing it. Whatever had happened, however big the forest fire was, the people here probably wouldn’t take too kindly to city folk. I would have to be nice and polite. I knocked. The voice stopped. I waited, but nothing moved. I knocked again, this time louder. There was some movement, steps and the door moved slightly. My heart started to beat faster; it would be good to see another human being.
“Hey, shit head.”
I looked up and saw a man with a shotgun pointed at me. He was large, and was able to hold the shotgun with one hand; looked like he could fire it stiff-armed without any issues. His face was covered with an uneven bristle of dark brown hair, and his skin, though young, sagged with the signs of a man recently emaciated.
“Uhhh, hi,” I raised my hands as it seemed to be the appropriate thing to do. “Don’t mean to be trespassing on your property, sir, but do you have a phone or some food and water,” I stopped when his face broke into a sneer. I knew how sensitive these farmers could be about their property. “I didn’t mean to come here, on your property, I didn’t see any signs, and I haven’t eaten for days. So I...” I stopped again. His face had turned into a half smile. I thought that perhaps I should have introduced myself. If I just got the chance to call Carol, my wife, I could get out of here. But I needed to get to phone. “I’m Tom, I...”
He squinted at me, seemed to be looking over my body for something. Between the hard looks of this man, I could sense a kind of kindness, kinship.
The man took another moment to stare at me, then jerked and looked all around him, as if he was expecting a horde to come at him. In fact he looked around for so long, his eyes piercing every rock in the distance, resembling an archaeologist more than some country resident, that I was certain he was scared for his life. Then I thought that they must have been moonshine men, or worse, meth cookers. That would explain why he was so jittery. And if that was the truth I was in trouble. I got light-headed. Was this going to end well?
"Please," I said, exasperated that he was just staring at me like an animal.
He seemed to sense my inner plea. “Bill," he nodded his head, "pleased to meet you,” he placed the shotgun beside him and reached out his hand. I shook it.
“Tom, pleased to meet you, once again I’m sorry about trespassing on...”
“You really aren’t kiddin’ are you?” he asked with an odd expression on his face.
I looked at him. “About the trespassing?” he seemed nice, or at least willing to help.
“There is no trespassing nowadays, well,” he stopped to consider something, looking at the horizon. “Maybe territories, but that’s about it.”
“Like gangs?” I asked, incredulous that these people got into that, though with meth raging the countryside it made sense. What a shame.
He laughed at my insinuation. “Yeah, like gangs,” he snorted.
“Do you have a phone, some food, maybe water? Really, I haven’t eaten for months. Or I haven’t eaten all that much for a few months.”
Again he gave me that look. “No one has, not properly at least. You really aren’t kidding about the phone are you?”
I could not see where his questioning was going. Perhaps he was poor. If he didn’t have a phone what was I to do? “You don’t have a phone? Because if it’s money I’ll give my wife a call and we’ll reimburse you. Really, I need...”
He raised his hand to indicate that he didn’t want to hear anymore. “Where does your wife live?”
“Portland, she’ll be here in an hour and we’ll give you some money.”
I stopped because he was shaking his head, not at me but at something else that seemed to be tearing through his mind.
"You certain this isn't a joke?" he asked, staring at my eyes like I would reveal something to him.
I glanced at him, some anger boiling up. "Am I kidding? No. Are you?" I tried to tone my voice down, but something inside me wanted to scream. I took a deep breath and took my eyes off him. Another look at the shipping container and I noticed that all the paint had flaked off it and was on the ground around it. It must have been old. What was he doing living here? Meth might not have been the answer, though perhaps the chemicals did this to the container.
“Where have you been the last few months, buddy?”
I hesitated, perhaps he would hate a hiker, but I had no choice. “I was spelunking and man, you won’t believe the shit I’ve been through, but I went down some earthquakes started to shake up the ground, and wouldn’t you know it but I got trapped,” I shook my head, and could see Bill shaking his. Then he started to laugh.
“So you’ve been under a rock huh?” he shook his head in amazement, leaned his head back and roared out a laugh.
“Yeah,” I shook my head and smiled. “Luckily I had enough food to ration while I dug myself out, but I ran out a few days ago. I got out and soon I was walking until I was here,” I looked around as I spoke. “I guess there was a forest fire here? How’d it start?”
"You really aren't kidding," he laughed again. At this point, out of nowhere, I realized that I could smell him. Body odor, shit, old food. Smelled him very well. I also remembered that I hadn’t been able to smell anything else. As if the air was a vacuum; no smell of ashes—which is what I should have smelled after a forest fire—just pure air. I looked around again and thought that it was odd that not a single plane in the sky had come over in a while. My eyes rested back on Bill. His reactions were odd but he was still looking at me with concern.
“You better come in buddy, you’re not going to like what I tell you,” he reached out his hand so that I could climb up to the top.
I wasn’t certain if I should go with him. He hadn’t laughed at my misfortune, but at something unknown to me—that troubled me. Of course, once I got to the phone I could leave as quickly as possible.
“I can use your phone?”
He shook his head. “Sorry bud, there are no phones. Well, ones that work at least.”
He spoke with such a mournful voice that I felt bad for assuming that he had one. Perhaps I was being too cocky. “Sorry, I didn’t mean any offense. Then some food perhaps, and you can tell me where to get to a payphone?”
“Don’t know about the food, but... you don’t get it do you?”
I didn’t like this. “No, I don’t get it.”
He smiled. “There are no phones anywhere. Phones need a network to work; there are no more networks. Get it?”
“The networks? The cell phones?”
“Cell towers, satellites, land lines. All. Gone. Got it?”
“You mean in the area, from the fire?”
“Bud, that was no fire. Those weren’t earthquakes you felt,” he raised his eyebrows emphatically.
“No fire,” I looked around. Perhaps I had come out the wrong hole, mistaken it for the place I had entered and come out near the desert area of Oregon. Perhaps that was what he meant. No, I had seen some burned stumps. I raised my hands, exasperated. “Okay I give up, what do you mean?”
“War, bud. They, we, everyone went to war and now this is the result. Your wife, if she was in Portland, then she is probably dead. All cities got nailed. Not that it mattered; every square inch of land on the planet was covered. The radiation fallout killed anyone who was left. Well most anyone,” he looked back out over the land.
I felt everything spinning, and wondered if the hunger was finally getting to me. No way was I going to pass out to some stupid prank, but some part of my brain swallowed the story whole. The smell, the silence, in a part of Oregon that was never this quiet, all added up. I had seen other forest fires before and the beautiful thing about those was plants would start growing immediately after. There was nothing here, not a green weed to be seen. Not an animal or insect alive. Oh Carol. I started to dry heave.
“No bud," Bill's eyes softened up. "You're alive, be thank..." he seemed to choose his words, actions again. "Come,” he grabbed my collar and hoisted me up. He was strong. “Besides you’ve been exposed enough,” he led me down the trap door.
“Exposed?”
“Don’t you feel your skin?”
“The burning,” I remembered. Then I remembered Carol touching me next to the fireplace, the heat from her skin, her sex. No, a nuclear war couldn't be real. Too many stops were in place to prevent it from happening. Right? This was a joke, and I'd get to the phone soon. Don't be a sucker.
“Yeah, radiation, from all of the world’s nuclear bombs being used up. It's gotten better, used to be you couldn't come out here without a suit. But best not to stay out too long," he shrugged. "Though you made it so far.”
I had entered the container and realized that it was a bar. Across from it stood a man who seemed to be oiling a gun. He looked up with a sneer on his face. He was like a rat-faced, skinny version of Bill. He seemed much meaner.
“Who the hell is that?”
I looked at Bill. Everything was still hazy, plus down here, inside away from the pure air of outside I was having problems absorbing all the smells. For certain there was Bill’s unique body odor and liquor, but there was also burning flesh. I double-checked my skin to make certain that it wasn’t me. I couldn't tell. There was something insidious about the smell. What Bill had said, still seemed like a joke. It made sense, but I was waiting for a gotcha moment. I decided to be nice, even if they were joking and even though the man wasn’t looking at me with anything other than pure hatred.
“I’m Tom,” I put out my hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he didn’t look at my hand he just sneered at Bill.
“Where’d you find this faggot?”
I took a deep breath. Not exactly a homophobe, but I understood the implications of his words. I was a skinny guy with a meek posture; I had always known this. He wouldn’t respect me unless I said something, I was sure of that.
“Who you calling a faggot?”
He cocked his head, and as quick as lightning, he bounded across the cramped room and pushed a knife to my neck. “I’m callin' you a faggot, faggot. You got a problem with that?”
The knife was sharp and pushed dangerously into my jugular. One slide and I would open up to the floor, smile with my neck. And yet I still couldn’t feel my heart race; it was steady. As if the news of the nukes was still combatting my hope and taking up too much of my energy for me to worry about a knife. Under the red light that lit this odd place I could see scars all over the man’s face. He had been through some shit, and it seemed as if me dying would be the least of his worries.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I managed, and was surprised that not a tremor showed in my voice. This friend of Bill’s had cold eyes, as if they had been trained that way. But as soon as I spoke he jerked his head back, as if a kindred spirit had spoke and he stepped back, removing the knife from my neck. He still held it pointed at me, as if I was on probation. Faggot and all. I wondered if deliverance was based on a real story. Never did find out, because it never really mattered to me.
“Leave him be Paul. He’s cool,” Bill was shuffling through a closet for something. He turned. I couldn’t see what was in his hands as he was behind the bar. “Besides, he doesn’t even know what’s happened the past few months. Tell him, tell him where you’ve been.”
I told him the story.
Paul tilted his head backwards and laughed. “Under a rock huh?“ he looked at me with a little more respect, some warmth returned to his eyes. It was something he could switch on and off. That was a good thing. It showed he wasn’t completely inhuman. I took the joke in stride. “Lucky you, you missed some horrible shit,” he shook his head.
“He’s looking for his wife... she was in Portland.”
“Oh...” Paul gave me a look of pity. “Sorry bud, she’s probably...” he trailed off. “The city is gone.”
I looked at them. They seem good-natured underneath it all. Could this have been a joke? This was what I hoped, but why else would they live in such a dilapidated place? Wasn't anything to hunt here.
Again my mind started to walk without my permission. A nuclear war. The forest fire. The air too pure to be real. No smells out there. No life anywhere. It was too much evidence, but I hoped for another explanation. Could be these two men were involved in some practical joke. Yet something about their body language—how there was no hesitation, how there was real sympathy—pulled on my intestines and I felt ill again. Don't be a sucker. It felt like my body was trying to pull my mind into their trick.
“Are ya’ll serious? This isn’t a joke?”
They glanced at each other, again with a look of collaborative knowledge.
“Come on man, if it is a prank just tell me. I don’t wanna be rude, but I was hoping to see my wife soon.”
The mention of my wife seemed to sadden them both again.
“He’s not gonna believe us until we show some proof. I know I wouldn’t believe someone unless I saw it with my own eyes,” Paul gestured to Bill to open a case of ammunition.
Bill slowly meandered over to the case and opened the hinges. He pulled out a whole lot of newspaper clippings.
“We’re not joking bud. This is all that’s left of the world,” he thrust the newspaper clippings over at me.
I took them, some were old and yellow, others were a little newer. The paper was that familiar newspaper paper, and with the accompanying ads I was sure they couldn’t have created these with some everyday printer. Though these days who really knew? Somewhere in the back of my mind the realization that this was real hit me, and a lump formed in my throat. I flipped through a couple of them, read something about climate turning for the worse, major food shortages, famine, droughts, followed by floods that ripped off topsoil—a hopeless cycle. It seemed to be about the same before I went spelunking. This, however, was on a larger scale. Was there a tipping point where everything went out of control? Then something else about forest fires spreading. Then there were more clips about international summits breaking down. China and US blame each other for not doing enough about resource distribution. Typical I thought, part of the reason I was taking a break from the city, life was getting too stressful. Then the next one looked shocking. Dirty bomb goes off in Shanghai. China blames US, US blames terrorists. Then Miami hit by another dirty bomb. Then nothing else. I looked up, the ceiling looked like was going to cave in and I sat down on the ground. The articles were all printed on paper, random blogs, could have been written by anyone, but they seemed legit.
Bill shuffled around and came with a bottle of water and a piece of packaging.
“Here bud, drink and eat,” he handed them to me.
“No,” I shook my head, angry that this was what had become of me. I couldn’t handle not knowing the entire story. “Tell me Bill, tell me what happened. This can’t be,” I felt a few tears trickle down, though inside I was reminding myself that I had to stay strong. I had to find Carol. “Carol,” I shook my head, when I wanted to rip it out and end the hollow emaciation of my being. There was nothing.
“You sure we can afford the food?” Paul mumbled, but seemed to quiet down when Bill gave him a glance.
“Eat up bud,” he tore open the package and I grabbed the spoon he handed to me. I drank the water in a gulp.
“Fuck, we ain’t got much water left either,” Paul spoke, giving me a deadly look.
Bill ignored him. “Well, that was the last major story. Then all rumors. After the Miami bomb, a lot of finger pointing went around and the hawks on this side went off about needing to hit the Chinese. After all, we found that a Chinese triad was behind the supply of it. Same time suitcase bombs went off all over the world, and every country with a nuke started to launch them. Pakistan at India back at them and at China. For a few hours we stood by as millions died, then China launched at us, and we launched back. Russia came in and launched by default. Well...” he hesitated. “That last day no one was certain what would happen. Everyone was certain that the last nuke had been launched and people would resort to talking, you know? Within a few hours the world was done. That’s what we do know. We’ve tried to contact some city that might have survived this, but no luck. The first few weeks you couldn’t go outside without dying of exposure. Even with a radiation suit. We lost quite a few people that way. My mother, she had to go see the world, didn’t want to stay here. Found her a week back. Suit burned, skin peeled off, eyes burned. Buried her.”
Bill stopped and looked at me. “Portland is gone bud. Your wife probably...”
He didn’t finish but I knew what he meant. “Well how do you know that Portland is done? I mean there are no networks; maybe it’s just that the whole world’s cut off from each other and no one knows about the other, right? I mean have you guys left this area?” I stopped as they both remained silent, exchanged looks of death with each other. Suddenly, I felt unwelcome.
My words died; I finished my food and water, and stared into the red light that provided the illumination for the room.
“Electricity? How do you get it if there is no grid, right?” I was now looking for something, something to show these men that their pessimism was misguided. There couldn’t be nothing else out there. There just couldn’t. Seven billion people at my last count. So what if there had been a nuclear war? That still left a lot of possible survivors. A lot of possible places that wouldn’t be hit by a nuke. There had to be. I looked at them both, hoping that with all the gray matter in the room we would figure this out. I was a computer nerd. Loved programming, and lived by a rule of thumb: if you put enough brains behind any problem you could find a solution. Innovation was the saving grace of humans. Made us more than a bunch of chimps with tools. We were Created and thus could create. I searched each of their faces for a sign of what I was going for. They seemed saddened by my line of questioning.
“We have solar panels and mechanically rechargeable batteries. That’s all. Ain’t no grid.”
No grid. The words hit me, again I felt weak, alone, floating in a sea of nothing; like when I was a child and my father had given me a pea to represent the earth then walked me many blocks to tell me where the sun was, and then told me we couldn't even walk to the first star—I cried then and almost cried now. Thought of all the great innovations to make that grid and was hit with the fact that that very innovation had been destroyed. And for what?
“Then couldn’t we hook the battery to a satellite phone or radio frequency and keep trying to reach some people?”
The words seemed to hit Paul like a wooden bar. “Listen,” he jerked his finger towards me, his other hand still holding the knife. “You’re lucky I didn’t finish you off. The last thing we need is another mouth to feed. You better learn to earn your keep around here, and it sure as hell ain’t gonna be done with smart ass questions. You think we haven’t thought of all that? You think we’re a buncha dumb rednecks? Dontcha?” he raised his knife carefully. “You better learn,” he looked at Bill and walked behind the bar, lifted up what must have been a trap door in the floor and stepped into it.
There was still a desire to find holes in all this news I had been told, but I knew now that I didn't have that luxury. I wanted to go outside and not deal with Paul again. He had been nice, but only for a second. Now that I could see how easily he flared up, I wondered how I could tip toe around him. If I was allowed to stay. His last comment hit me. I couldn’t expect the same things as when I was back in Portland. I was in their house, I would have to listen to them. And I had to earn their respect again. Show them I was worth something. But what the fuck would a computer programmer be worth out here? I looked at Bill, hoping for some sympathy. Maybe I should mention my wife, but it seemed that the time for pity was over. Bill was staring at me with a stern aggression that I did not like.
“You guys low on water?”
“Yeah, not much left. We have a machine that purifies our urine, but it gets less and less each time. Besides,” he licked his lips, troubling me again. The others, what happened to all the others?
“Besides what?”
“Besides, I’m just sick and tired of tasting piss, you can taste it... once you notice it there’s no going back.”
“The cave I was in, there was plenty of water. Clean too, I’m sure. I was drinking it for too long for it to be contaminated.”
Bill’s demeanor changed. He smiled once more. “Nice, that’s just what we need. I’ll tell Paul,” and without any more words he walked down the small trap door.
Something about his smile was off, but I reminded myself that there were bigger issues at hand.
I tried to sleep, but all I could think of was my wife, her pretty lips, and how much I missed being in her arms, her belly slowly swelling in those weeks before my spelunking trip. I loved everything about her; she was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I shouldn't have gone on that trip alone, I could have picked something even she would have liked. I stared at the red light hanging from the ceiling. This was real. Everything I had seen: the burned landscape, no one around, not even a plane in the sky.
The thought of all those people and all those dreams gone, evaporated, filled me with a dread. It started in my extremities, spread to my heart, rushed to my head and paralyzed me. I wished I could have seen all those people just one more time. Seen Carol instead of trying to get away for another trip to be alone.
I sat there thinking about Carol. Her touch. Her laugh. I would have to go back to our house and see if Carol was dead. Even a shadow on a wall, like the ones in Hiroshima, would help.
I picked up the newspapers that lay before me. All alone; billions dead. Tears should have been forming, but they didn't. Inside, a piece of me was glad that I had gone into a cave. Survived. I felt guilty. Perhaps in this new world things would be better. I always thought that there were too many people in the world, too many problems that would never go away. I never believed annihilation was a solution—though it may have grazed my mind—but I knew too many people wouldn't lead to anything good. Now, people would be forced to rely on one another. They would care for each other. That would make it a better place.
Bill and Paul had taken me in like good Samaritans and given me a place to sleep. In the old world I would have just been kicked off their property. Perhaps this was God's way of performing another great flood. It had to be. Carol had always wanted something like this. The cruel modern world had been too much for her nerves. Her image floated up to me and as I tried to paw at her, take off her clothes and penetrate her and loud rumbling sound came over.
"Hey, wake up," I looked up to see Bill with a shotgun. At least it wasn't pointed at me.
"What time is it? How long did I sleep?" the room around me was still the same, my heart filled with dread as I remembered that the end of the world was still a fact.
"A couple hours. We figured it would be good to let you gather some strength," he looked over to where Paul was standing.
I rubbed my eyes. Something was different; I could feel the wake of being talked about echoing through my ears. Paul's eyes didn't seem angry, they seemed cold, like he was going to do something hard. I glanced at Bill's eyes and his seemed to have the same demeanor, however they didn't stay on me and darted off, he acted embarrassed.
"Get ready, you're gonna show us where the water is," Paul said, his voice wavering between hard and kind. He was concealing something. I wondered if perhaps I was just groggy.
"Sure," I mumbled and stood up and adjusted my belt. I had fallen asleep in my clothes so there wasn't any getting ready for me. "Let's go."
"You first," Bill said and pointed up the door.
When we got out it was getting darker. The sky looked a color I had never seen before. "Nuclear winter, eh? I had always had faith that mankind would never come to this. That cooler heads would prevail," I looked at Bill and Paul. They didn't seem interested.
"No talking, just move," Paul muttered.
Bill shook his head. Both of them pulled out a couple of sleds with empty containers strapped on them.
"You mind doing some work?" Bill handed me the reins.
I took his sled. It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. Within ten steps I was tired. "This is tough," I cracked a grin, feeling peeved that I would act so weak in front of these burly men. Neither of them smiled. Paul only scowled some more.
"You're lucky we don't hitch both of them on ya," he spat in my direction, though it didn't come close.
I wanted to say something smart, but alarms were going off in my head. Perhaps I had offended his sensibilities earlier. If so, now was the time to make amends. I stared in front of me and kept marching.
It took a few hours to reach the cave. I was exhausted. When Bill had said we would switch, he meant I would have one sled at all times. They got to rest. I was going to say something, but Paul's look told me to shut up.
I had yet to earn my keep, I reminded myself. These were, after all, men who had been tested in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Of course they wanted to see how much I could handle.
"Here she is, my humble abode," I pointed at the cave's small entrance, after we had made it up the side of the hill it was nestled in. "The water is down there."
"Show us," Paul said curtly.
I led them down to the small hole I had dug to get out of the cave.
"Down there?" Paul asked, suspiciously.
"Yeah sure, listen," I cocked my head and they both went silent. The sound of running water filled the air.
They both smiled.
"Can we make that hole bigger?" asked Paul.
I shook my head. "But I can slide through; you two pass me the smallest containers and I can fill them."
Before they could say anything I grabbed a flashlight and slid through, and waited on the other end. They pushed through a couple containers. I scooped water and handed it back to them. All the while I could hear them both talking. Bill sounded whiney while Paul talked in short hisses. They probably hadn't seen this much water since the nuclear war.
I slid out and as I pulled out my torso, wiggling like a worm, I looked up to see Bill, solemn-faced.
"We got all the water we need right?"
Bill didn't reply. I looked at his hands; he had the shotgun pointed at me.
"Bill, what is it? No," it hit me, their demeanors, using me for labor. All they wanted was the water. "Please don't. My wife. I have to see her."
"Shutup!" he used a tone I hadn't heard from him yet. It seemed transplanted from Paul. It is devoid of emotion.
I raised my hands. "Please don't."
"Your wife is dead. Everyone in Portland died. Not a single survivor. And now, you're dead."
"Please, Bill. Just let me go, I have to just see if she's alive, my house."
"You still don't get it. There's nothing. It was a H-bomb, there's only a large crater there."
"Just let me see," tears came down my face. "I really don't care about dying, but if I could see that she's gone. I would be happy," a tear rolled down my cheek.
Bill shuffled uncomfortably. "You promise not to bother us? Not to come around here?"
"Yes, I just want to see Portland."
"You do him in yet?" Paul yelled.
Bill's face stiffened, the emotion ran out of it again. He raised the gun to my head. "Sorry," he said in a raised voice. "Can't risk it."
"Please," I closed my eyes and felt urine rush down the side of my leg. It felt comfortably warm. I always thought I would face death with more honor than that. But I didn't, I was scared that I would die and be a nothing in the lineage of mankind, and I was scared to see the flash of the gun barrel because it would signify my end.
The left side of my head opened to a searing pain and as I fell to the ground I heard a loud shot. Everything went black.
I woke up to the sound of rocks sliding. It took all my energy to open my eyes. On the left side of my head was a pulsating pain. I thought I saw shadows. But I was in a corner. The amount of light leaking in through the cave entrance seemed about the same as when I came with Bill and Paul. My stomach rumbled. I felt light headed. I needed food.
I heard some voices. Shadows at the mouth of the cave moved. Was it Bill and Paul?
I reached and felt my head.
Dried blood.
"What do you think they did in here?"
"Probably buried someone, you heard the shot. And only two came out."
It wasn't Paul or Bill. I looked around for a place to hide. The last thing I wanted to see was another person who would try to kill me. Bill. Oh, Bill. How could he have been willing to kill me? And I thought they were being nice to me. I saw a pile of large boulders and got up, made certain I wasn't making any noise. The accents of the shadows above were tainted with twangs. I had to hide. By the time I wedged myself between two boulders a couple of flickering flames came down. My eyes adjusted, but all I saw was two dark figures holding the torches. In their other hands were rifles.
"You see anything?"
"Nope."
Both voices were gruff; the figures were large. I stopped breathing.
I wondered how I would survive on my own. There was no way around it. I had to ask for help. Where was food to be had in this world? How much longer could I survive without any energy? One month was the accepted science, but I would be worthless by the end of it.
"Nothing here," one of the figures started to trudge back out of the cave.
"It had to be something. You saw what I saw. They were in here for a long time. And who was the third fella with them?"
"Beats me. They probably buried him."
They seemed to know Paul and Bill. Yet they were talking as if there was some animosity between them. Perhaps my enemy's enemy was my friend.
Was Bill my enemy? It didn't seem to add up that he would have missed me from so close. What was my head injury from? Would these men show me mercy? They had to. Perhaps they'd be open to newcomers.
"Fuck this," the one who was still in the cave muttered and walked up and out of the cave.
My heart beat like a frightened mouse. There was no getting around the fact that if I didn't get help I would die here. No food. No way to get food or know how to get it. I moved out of the wedge. The smell of my blood was strong, sweet and I wondered if the two men, used to the barren wasteland, could have smelled it. I stopped to listen. Feet crunched over rock and retreated into the distance. I would be alone if I didn't say anything.
As I got out of the cave the sun was hitting the horizon. The solar rays had lit up the entire sky from west to east. I looked up in awe.
Click. "Well, well. What do we have here?"
I felt the barrel of a gun slam into the small of my back as I went flying into the ground. I turned to look. A large man, at least six and a half feet tall and four feet wide stared at me. The angle of the sun magnified the lines on his face like facture from a painting. He wasn't young, perhaps in his thirties, but he was mean. He made Paul look like kind.
"Hi, I... I come in peace," I blurted the first non-hostile phrase that came to my mouth.
The man burst out laughing. "Johnny come look at this weak fella," he stepped near me with his hand out as if he was going to help me up. I reached out my hand and felt his power as he picked me up.
"Thanks, I," I didn't get to finish. With a surprising amount of speed, he swept my legs and sent me flying to the ground.
"Easy Big Lee," a skinnier, even older man who looked a spry fifty said as he walked over to me. "You weren't trying to get the jump on us were you?"
"No, not me. I don't want to hurt anyone," see I showed him my hands. "I don't have anything. I just need help," the words spilled out of me like liquid, and they were just as unformed. Their eyes reminded me of how Paul and Bill looked before they tried to put me down in the cave. "My wife, she's in Portland, I need to find out if she's alive. I was in the cave, just came out."
"Easy, easy little man," he rested on his haunches next to me. I noticed that even in the relaxed state one hand was on his trigger and the barrel was still pointed at me. "It's not that I don't want to believe you, I do. But I," he looked over at the big man. "We, can't afford to trust you. Got it?"
"No trust?" I asked, it was simple statement but my head was spinning. I felt like vomiting; it was as if my body couldn't take any more shocks. Perhaps I wasn't made for this new world.
"None, bud. You come out of the cave after us, all quiet like. What would you think?"
"But I have nothing. I need some food. Just a little food so I can go to Portland, see my wife." I hoped that somehow I could beg enough to get some help. I needed to see a kind soul. I needed to see some empathy in their eyes. That was all I really cared about.
"Your wife was in Portland?" a hint of kindness crossed Johnny's eyes.
"Yes, I was in the cave. Spelunking."
"Oh, you one of them hiker fellas?"
"I was, yes."
"Never liked those hiking hippies, always too condescending. Never let us hunt where we liked," barked the big one.
"Not me," I raised my hands in innocence. It was somewhat true. I had never really cared what the hunters did, so long as they didn't shoot me. Now it seemed like I was going to suffer for every asshole they had met from the city.
"Of course you would say that now bud," the older man looked at me. It was getting dark so I couldn't see whether he was talking with sympathy or disdain.
"Just some food, Portland," I spoke, feeling the urge to piss again.
"Not enough food to go around fella. Can't give you any. Besides, if I did it wouldn't be for something as stupid as going to Portland. Your wife's dead. No one made it out of the cities. The few that did. Well," he looked at the large man who grinned sheepishly.
"Okay, okay. Sorry to have disturbed you. I'll be on my way. I'll make it somehow," I got myself up on my elbows, slowly, to make it seem as if I couldn't move. I don't know why, but somewhere in the back of my head a voice was getting louder and louder. It was a voice that I hadn't listened to in my entire life, that had given up speaking and was only now finding its volume again. It told me not to be so trusting with what I was doing. It told me to conceal everything. It told me to position myself so my body had some leverage to move.
The look on their faces as they exchanged glances, when I spoke, reminded me of how Paul looked at me before I entered the cave.
"Can't do that either, I'm afraid," the old man seemed genuinely sad. "Can't have scavengers in these hills. You'll just come back for us."
Big Lee smiled, he didn't seem so sad.
"It's the way of the world now. Nothing against you personally."
"Of course not, totally understandable," I said, the voice in the back of my head was speaking up for me. Cover your intentions. Dawn and dusk are the best times to attack because people's eyes are still adjusting to the light. I knew I was next to a steep incline of the hill. My hand clasped around a rock.
The old man looked at me suspiciously as he straightened his legs out.
I threw the rock at his face and I spun as fast as I could towards the edge. In a second I was hurtling downward on the scree. I slid; I rolled; I couldn't control myself. The crack of a rifle went off. There was a forest of rock formations that was coming at me. Dark, in the crepuscule, they looked like they could hurt. A bullet whistled past me. I was sliding in too straight a line.
"Git that bastard. Shoot him dead!" I could hear Johnny's voice over the scree I flew over, the sound like a freeway of trucks.
I got my hand one way and turned to my left, a bullet landed on my right. The first big rock went by and I dug in both hands so that I could slow down then grabbed the next boulder that jutted out from the side of this hill. As soon as I had grabbed the rock, and pulled myself behind it, I saw the scree where my ass had just been, burst into pieces. The skin on my fingers was torn off by the rock, but I didn't feel any pain. The sound of the shot followed.
"Git him!"
Why wouldn't they just let me be? I had to find a way to get them properly. If I stayed here they could find a way to approach my crop of rocks and finish me off. And in the end I knew that I had to get some food. They had been right about scavengers. I was going to have to come and get them. The sound of both of them skiing down the scree jumped my heart and stopped my thoughts.
I looked around. This group of rocks was the only place I could stand a chance of fighting. I grabbed a stone. It was big. I grabbed another one. It was sharp. There was a section of boulders that was especially big and close together. I ran to them. Before I jumped on it, I glanced behind me to see the two men only a few yards from where I had been.
"Come on out boy, you're just gonna make it harder on yourself."
"Yeah, it can be quick or we can eat you piece by piece, hippie," Big Lee added.
I faced a rock that was twice my height. I looked for a hold, placed the rocks in my pocket and down the front of my pants, and started climbing. Soon I was on top.
I looked down. Neither of them was to be seen. Night had fallen and, without the moon or the stars, there was hardly a shape to be seen on the side of this hill. I pulled the large rock out of my pants and laid it gently on the boulder. Nothing could be heard. I stayed still and listened. My heart was beating, the only sound in the night. The smell of my dried blood and sweat seemed overpowering. The temperature was dropping.
Crunch, c r u n c h. Separate. So it would be easier. I would take the first person that came below me.
Crunch, ten yards away to my left. Another crunch and I knew it was moving away.
Crunch. Right below me.
I picked up the large stone and tried to make out a figure, but in the shadow of the boulders it was impossible. Just use the sound. Crunch. I hurtled the rock down with all my might. Then jumped.
There was a satisfying crunch that sickened me, then I landed on a heap of flesh. My legs buckled and air was pushed from my chest as I landed on my side. I crawled over towards the body, which twitched a few times. It was Johnny. His head caved in. I reached for his shotgun. Pain streaked through my body. I couldn't take much more abuse.
"Johnny?" Big Lee's voice was very close.
I tried to make out the safety on the shotgun. Footsteps, in a hurry. Getting closer.
The gun seemed foreign to me. Footsteps closer. My heart was in my throat. The pain had gone. I found the trigger and pointed towards the footsteps. When a black shape formed I pulled the trigger but it wouldn't budge. Closer. Three yards. I put two fingers on the trigger, the butt on my chest. Two yards. Big.
"Johnny?"
I pulled with all my might because I didn't want this to be the moment I died.
The sound and the recoil knocked me on my back. I forced myself up, pulled the cocked the shotgun and fired into the lump that seemed frozen in place. Then again. I couldn't hear anything but the ringing in my ears. I stood over the man, placed my barrel on his neck.
He was breathing fast, loud, I couldn't see his face.
"Please." Big Lee said. More breaths. Like a hamster in my hands. I was God. A rush of blood to my loins. "Don't."
"Don't take it personal," I pulled the trigger. A splash of blood hit my face. I turned back to where Johnny was. His body was still. I pointed my barrel at him. Then I remembered I would have to save bullets. This was the end of the world after all. I picked up the rock lodged in his head and raised it above my head. Don't take it personal. I slammed the rock again.
Pain returned to all my limbs. I checked the men's pulses. Nothing. I took their weapons, bandoliers, Big Lee's backpack, a set of keys, and the few snacks they had. Switched clothes with Johnny. Then with my new gear climbed back up the boulder.
I woke up the next day wondering if my agony would stop. The sharp hurt of yesterday had turned into dull knocks that screeched every time I moved. I leaned over to see the two bodies where I had left them. Insects were doing a very good job of eating the corpses.
Insects.
From where? I hadn't seen any until now. Could be that they lived deep in the ground. They were always supposed to survive a nuclear holocaust. It was good to know the scientists were right about something. Insects could be food.
I checked myself for insects. There were a few. I held my breath and swallowed a few after smashing them. Some taste lingered in my tongue, an odd chemical taste that made me gag. I held it down.
I climbed down. Looked at the two bodies. With my finger I let some ants crawl up then swallowed them too. I looked at Big Lee, the lower half of his head gone. "Please...Don't." A man had begged for mercy and I had shown him none. What else could I have done? Why did I expect mercy when I was on the other side of the barrel and yet when I held it I gave nothing? My knees went weak. I tried not to look at Johnny's face. What had I done? The stench from the two was overpowering. I walked away. I had to get back up. In case Paul and Bill came back to the cave.
I slowly trudged up until I was at the mouth of the cave. I would have to find food. At least I knew there were insects around. The fact that the two corpses didn't attract any large animals was comforting. I looked around, at the shape of the mountains, at the landscape, so that I would know where I was if I was to return.
Big Lee and Johnny had left a nice set of footprints to follow. I kept my eyes and ears pricked and followed the path. After an hour the footprints disappeared into rocks. I walked in the same direction but found nothing.
What would I do in a cutthroat post-nuclear world leaving tracks could mean my end? I backtracked and walked at a sharp angle from where the footprints had disappeared. After a few minutes I found tracks again and was surprised to see a makeshift shack in between some boulders near the peak of a hill, only a few hundred yards later.
I retraced my steps once again and came at the abode from high ground. I lay down and listened. Ten minutes passed and not a sound. With my shotgun raised, I walked towards the entrance. I opened the lock with a set of keys, pushed the door ajar. There were a plethora of military rations stacked against the wall. Enough for one man to eat forever. I looked around. Nothing else. No hidden rooms. Just rock and piles of odd containers, things that didn't seem to matter in this world. After I was certain no one else was there I started to eat.
The food was amazing. A mix of spices and aromas overwhelmed my senses as I thought about how I was going to control myself from eating everything in sight. I would wait a day to gain my strength before heading out to Portland. There I would be able to see if my wife had survived.
A feeling of emptiness came over me. Perhaps I knew that there would be nothing to find in Portland. I should have been elated to know that I had lived, survived, and would now have food for the foreseeable future, but I had killed two men for that privilege. I smashed a man's head in, and killed the other while he begged for mercy. Please. Don't. The words rang in my head; some of his blood was still dry on my neck and face. I hadn't shown mercy. Why not? Shouldn't I have been the better man? What about God? Didn't He cause all this so that we could be better?
Why had they been so bent on coming after me? They seemed to have enough food to survive one more person coming here. Seemed foolish to run after me. I was not a threat. They must have known something. I should have questioned them—Big Lee at least. Not blown his neck and lower face out.
Portland.
Or get Bill and Paul?
They would both come back for more water. Perhaps in a week. If they did, they would see the two bodies, or whatever the insects left of them, and they would figure out what happened. Leave Bill alone. Though I wasn't entirely certain what had happened, Bill must have let me live. No way a redneck in a post-nuclear-everyman-for-himself-age misses a shot from that close with a shotgun. Even I hadn't missed and I hated guns.
A canteen fell to the ground and I spun around.
Nothing.
But I kept still. There was no wind. The canteen could not have fallen on its own. If it was a rat I could eat it. Never thought I'd think that. Then my nostrils lit up. Sweat, flesh, someone was in here. I glanced at the door on my periphery to make certain it was still shut. Check. On one side of the room there was a pile of boxes and ammunition cans that the canteen had been sitting on. Something could be hiding down there. I reached for my shotgun and pointed at the area. I heard something breathe.
"Come out whoever you are," I placed my hand on the trigger.
The breathing got louder; it sounded small.
"I said come out or I'll start shooting," my nerves were on edge, adrenaline swam through my arteries. Whatever was hiding was going to die soon. I couldn't risk them getting a shot off.
"Don't shoot," the voice said, soft, feminine, almost crying.
So this was what Big Lee and Johnny were so protective about. I hadn't seen any women with Bill and Paul.
I kept my shotgun out, after all a woman in this environment wouldn't necessarily be nice. "Come out, I won't hurt you."
She crawled out from what appeared to be a space behind the ammunition cans, still in the shadows. I could smell her more so than see her, and she smelled good. No perfume or any of that, but I could smell her sweat, body odor, her sex. My penis rose to the occasion, a libidinous and ravenous thought crossed my mind: take her. She seemed so soft and delicate.
How could I think such a thing? All women in such a lawless world were probably in the same situation. I wouldn't be another male to be scared of. I would be a male to look up to, to be in awe of for his self-discipline. That's what it was, I reminded myself, self discipline. If Carol were ever in this situation I would hope she came across another strong man who would treat her properly. The way a woman should be treated. I reached out my hand.
"Who are you?" she said, slinking towards me.
She was short, and I could see her hands, small and white, were empty. She wore a dress that was covered with dirt and grime. Her hair, auburn, seemed like it could be lighter with a wash, and matched her striking blue eyes. She had to be a teenager. None of that mattered as my eyes naturally rested on her breasts that pushed her dress out, firm, round, and her hips that swooped to a small waist.
The voice, the new voice, growled. Told me to take her there and then. No, I thought. I would start a new way, with new rules. "I'm Tom, your name?" I realized that I was speaking softly.
"Jenny," her voice had an edge of flintiness, flirting with my groin, a sexual marker that had never had a chance to learn how to do so properly and yet it was already enough for me.
Calm down.
"Pleased to meet you," I shook her hand, soft, limp, sensuous. I wondered if she had been here as a plaything for the two men. "What are you doing here? Are you friends with Big Lee and Johnny?"
She seemed to light up at the sound of their names. "No family. You friends with them?"
The spark in her eyes, the way she moved closer to hear something about them filled me with regret. I shouldn't have done what I had done. Now what could I tell her? Carol always joked that she had found the one man in the world incapable of lying.
"Yes, I am. They will be back in a few days," the lie felt so easy and natural that it surprised me. This made life so much easier.
She smiled, beautiful white teeth, full lips, as she came closer, trusting me so naturally that she couldn't have been more than a young teenager. "In a few days?"
"Yes, they just had to travel further out. They told me to take care of this area for them," I smiled back, the ease of which scared me. I would tell her in due time, for now it was best to treat her with kindness. I handed her a piece of cheese and crackers and she gobbled it down. "What's your relation to them?"
"Johnny's my pa," she swallowed her food.
"And Big Lee?"
"He's my brother," she took more food.
A ray of light hit her face and it was then that I saw that her eyes were much the same as Johnny's had been. Just kinder. My stomach churned. She would find out and then what?
"They usually don't take kindly to strangers. Not these days at least," she looked at me, without the slightest hint of mistrust. "Can't trust anyone, they tell me. We once let a man in here, but he tried to kill them in their sleep and steal me," she blushed at the word, as if she couldn't imagine what it was that made a man want to steal her.
"Yes," I would have to think of a story and stick with it. I hoped that none of my worries were coming to the surface. "I helped them find some water, good water. So we're friends now."
She nodded her head. "So you're staying with us?"
"For now, tomorrow I'll head out to finish some of my own work, then I'll be back."
She smiled at my comment then hugged me.
The sudden affection took me back and I froze for a second before deciding that I shouldn't miss out on her touch and held her tight, pushed against her breasts and let my hand rest on the nadir of her hip and waist. My cock gently brushed up against her, and when she didn't react, I pushed my hips further towards her. It was dirty, but it felt pure. I'm sure she smiled at me.
Tomorrow I would find out about Carol.
We spent the rest of the night talking about our lives; she nestled herself so close to me that I was certain I would explode. She talked about her high school and friends who were no more, and I talked about my job, Portland, and Carol.
I made sure we slept on different sides of the shack—I didn't trust myself. I remind myself that this was supposed to be the start of a better world, not a worse one.
The next day I looked for some topographical maps, and when I found them I marked out the journey. I remembered that I would need to travel under some sort of cover. I packed my food, extra ammunition, hid a couple handguns in my clothes, found a compass and headed out.
I hugged Jenny, she seemed sad to see me go. And locked her inside. I told myself it was so that no one could harm her. But in reality I wanted her waiting when I got back. I had found something innocent in this world and I wanted to hold on to it. I walked over the ridge and to Carol.
My walk to Portland started out well. Well in the sense that I didn't see anyone that caused me problems. In fact, I didn't see anyone at all. All I saw was charred ruins, usually just the foundation, and pieces of roads that were nothing but rubble, or washed away. The forests that had made Oregon so green were gone. It was depressing. I had always been a person who fought the overdevelopment that happened in my state, in the country. I wanted things left untouched by humans. This was nothing.
Human civilization, started with a lucky draw of certain seeds in the right conditions, blossomed, was now gone. The thought still seemed like a distant dream. The world, the apocalypse. Carol. What was I expecting to find? The more I saw, the more a gnawing feeling inside me said that there was no way she could have survived this. And if she had she wouldn't be the same, or I would never find her. She would be somewhere in the hills scavenging off the land.
The first night I slept between some metal sheets that I found under a layer of mud. My skin didn't feel warm. Was radiation was still an issue? Then I wondered if that even mattered. My life would be shortened by something. I woke up and kept marching. Around afternoon I got to where Portland should have been. I had seen pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and was expecting charred ruins, but there wasn't even that. There were several craters. The green hills all barren. I tried to think of where our suburb was, and couldn't quite remember. When I finally triangulated my neighborhood's location, with the side of the hill and angle. I found more of the same: some foundations remained and everything was caked with mud. As if the city had never existed.
I should have been ready for it, but I wasn't. Carol's image flooded back to the back of my eyeballs and I felt weak at the knees. I fell down. The sky seemed an ominous gray, lightening cracked across like a Martian snail.
Carol and I had met trail running a race only a few miles from Portland. It had been a typical Oregon summer day, and when I saw her she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen—all smiles—a body flagrantly showing skin in the summer warmth. Normally, I would have just looked, but she smiled and I felt warm inside. I talked to her and asked her out for dinner that night. The rest was history.
Now there was nothing. I looked around.
Absolutely nothing.
They had really done it; they had really decided that nuking cities, was the best choice. I shook my head. Had the people who pressed the buttons managed to stay safe? Of so where? I was angry and grasping at straws. In a world like this no one would have come out on top. I wondered if God would have allowed his entire creation to be destroyed. Like it didn't matter. I had always believed in the Bible, found hope in it. Now, however I could not see His hand in the world; was this His rapture? Not the way I saw it. Was there even any law now? Or was it just me and my thoughts? The wind blew, as if to say yes.
I still wanted to know exactly how it happened, but it seemed like a futile endeavor. The news stories Bill and Paul had shown me seemed either biased or unprofessionally done. But, I supposed, it didn't matter one bit in the end.
The smell of flesh hit me in this moment of weakness, but instead of freezing, my body relaxed and I gripped the gun in my hand. Two seconds later I glanced around. No one. But the smell was getting stronger. I was close to a rise on the hill. There were some large trench-like grooves from erosion and I ran into one. Lying on my belly I waited with my gun aimed at the direction of the smell. Two seconds later a man and a woman appeared. They were following my tracks. That was something I would have to be careful about. I could hear them over the wind:
"Did you see him?"
"I tell you, look at the tracks, they're new," the man said in a voice that sounded like glass scraped against rock. He was small and skinny, with a face that sagged from having lost weight recently. The woman was also small, though she was younger, maybe in her thirties. Her voice didn't match her look, as it was low and gruff. Both had rifles in their hands. Their accents were not filled with the twang of the countryside. My heart was in my throat. Meeting people, though it brought a sense of elation at having found another human being, had mostly led to violence so far.
Then, inside my head, the voice spoke up. If they were tracking me over a hill, one they could not see, why were they talking so loud? It seemed to defy common sense. The thought hits me too late and as I turned and saw a young man with a gun trained on me.
"I got him dad!"
The barrel was intimidating, even after having so many trained at me. His accent, however, was soothing, it too was a school-taught and affluent voice. I could reason with him. "I am not a threat," I got up slowly.
"Don't move," he barked. The man and woman had arrived and trained their guns on me. "He was going to shoot you mom, dad. He was going to shoot you both. "
A sneer crept across the man's face. "Is that right?"
"No," I knew I had to defend myself. They seemed paranoid, but with reason. "I wasn't, I just heard you two and was scared.
They all laughed.
It was sinister. Like they had done it before. I realized then that the parents walked as one to distract, then the son came from a hidden flank to finish off the other. "This was a trap?" I asked reflexively, and knew that I shouldn't have said it before anything was said.
The young man smiled. "Let's see what he has," he pointed at my backpack and I threw it down. He went through it like a rat. "Oh mom, dad, he has whole meals!"
"Are you guys from Portland?" I was trying to save my skin again. How could I have been so foolish? Yet something inside me said that a family like this couldn't be cruel. They couldn't. God please tell me there's another way. The universe seemed to stand still to my plea.
"Yes," the old man said, without a hint of emotion.
"My wife was here in Portland. I was out of town. I just wanted to see if she was still alive," I thought I saw a hint of emotion in the woman's eyes. But it could have been a secretion of moisture as it turned to a sneer. "Do you have any idea where she could be?"
They laughed, and sent chills down my muscles. I tensed up. There was only one way out of this situation. My intestines churned. I didn't want to do it.
"Anything else we can get from him?"
"I can tell you where to get more food," I said smoothly, trying to iron out all emotion from my voice. They had to believe me, give me some time. I had read in a magazine once that the best time to escape was in the initial parts of a kidnapping. If I didn't do that now I would be toast. I thought of making it back to see Jenny. For some reason that gave me strength to move on.
They all eyed me, trying to see through my mask.
"You don't say. How much?" the young man asked.
"Don't listen to him Anthony," the father said, in a tone that reminded me of my professor. "He's only buying time. Shoot him. It's your turn."
The boy looked at his father as if he had some other thoughts then pulled his rifle up to his shoulder and pointed at me.
"I'm not kidding you," I said, still calm as ever. "Water too, fresh, from a spring. I just shot two rednecks for it. You can't track it back. Only I know. It's hidden." The father looked at the woman then back at me as I spoke. "And enough food to last a few years," I shrugged my shoulders.
My apathetic ruse worked and the young man lowered his rifle and looked at his father. "It seems to be the truth."
"Listen," the father seemed angry with his son, but as he spoke his rifle lowered and his finger came off the trigger.
I pulled out my two handguns and fired them at the father, then the son a split second later. Not sure where, but I heard the bullets hitting something. Each fell back, dropped their rifles. I trained my two guns on the woman. "Drop it. Now bitch."
She looked around, scheming.
I fired a shot into the ground in front of her. "Last time I'm nice to you. Got it?"
She threw it on the ground, started to shake. "We didn't mean anything. Really. We were just going to take your food and leave you be," her voice cracked. Some tears formed.
For some reason, they stimulated a pleasant feeling inside me, like I could bathe in her remains and not care. I didn't like this. "Turn around. Shut up. Face on the ground. Hands on the back of your head."
She got on her knees and almost fell to the ground.
I moved over to her husband who seemed to be moving. A shotgun blast to his head stopped the movement. The son wasn't moving, but I added a shot to his face to be certain. It felt cruel, until I reminded myself that their wounds were beyond repair. I threw all my food back into my backpack and threw in the men's weapons as well. Then I searched them for anything useful. All I found was a knife. The woman tried to look up.
"Don't move bitch," I walked up to her. I searched her roughly, feeling her soft curves. She was old enough to have lost the firmness of her body. "Turn."
She turned to face me. "Please don't."
"Hands behind your back." It was a weird sensation: her tears, her pleas; they felt like power. I wondered if that was what my pleas sounded like to the others. It was at that moment that I thought there was no way that Bill let me live.
My survival was destiny.
"Please," she cried. "Please don't," she raised her hands to defend her face.
"Hands behind your back," she complied as soon as I spoke, and I enjoyed the feeling that gave me—a surge from my balls to my head. I scanned the landscape to make sure no one would surprise me. "How many others are there?"
"None," she stammered.
"I see more tracks," I lied and pointed the gun at her face.
"No, no one else, just me, my husband, my son," she let out another cry.
I felt she was putting on a show, that perhaps this was all just an act.
"You lot from Portland?"
"Yes."
"Why did you want me dead then?"
"I swear we didn't. Just your food."
The lie seemed like a taunt. I pointed the gun at her foot. "One more lie and I'll start hurting you. Got it?"
She nodded.
"Were you going to kill me?"
She seemed frozen with fear.
"What happened?"
"Where?" she looked confused.
I glanced around. "The bombs, when did it happen; why did it happen?"
She still seemed confused. "The bombs?"
"Yes," I muttered, annoyed, wondering if she was playing me for more time, for me to get jumped by another son lurking somewhere.
"A war broke out. China attacked us, so we struck back. The Russians too. It was too quick."
"What do you mean the Russians?" I said through my gritted teeth. She was really annoying me. Either she was dumb or she wanted to mock me. "We attacked the Russians?"
"I think so. It was all so quick. There wasn't much time to think. Then the nukes fell. And didn't stop for a whole day."
"That's it?"
"That's all I know. We were camping. We got lucky."
Worthless. "Okay show me where you live, keep your food and such." I motioned for her to get up.
On her feet, she looked at me wearily. "Does this mean you'll let me live?"
"Of course, I have no beef with you." In the back of my head I thought about how I had been lucky so far. By letting her live was I stretching that luck too far? A new beginning, I tell myself. Remember, it starts with you. The Bible comes back to me and I think about Jesus. I will have to win this woman over.
She glanced over at the bodies of the two men in her life and shook; tears fell from her face.
After a few minutes I nudged her. "Move," I said thinking of their laughter when I had mentioned my wife.
I marched her for a few hundred meters before she walked to a hidden trap door in the ground. I motioned for her to enter first. She seemed in a daze.
The place was a dug out cave. There wasn't much food. I threw some in my backpack, which was full to the brim. It didn't seem like they would have survived for much longer.
"Back out," I motioned at the ladder leading out. She walked out. I closed the trapdoor; covered it with dirt again; it would be a good place to know in the future. I marked the approximate area, judging from the terrain, on my map. A sense of accomplishment splashed over me.
We walked some ways away from her home.
"Are you going to let me live? At least just tell me. I want to live," she murmured, as if she knew her words didn't matter anymore.
A pang of regret. If someone had asked me what the first thing I would have done if the world was caught in a nuclear firestorm, I would have said: "Easy, get a group of people together and start building civilization again." What a fool I was. Who could I trust? This woman in front of me? Could I even trust myself? Part of me wanted to ravage her body, another part wanted to shoot her dead, and a small, almost silent part said to let her go. Maybe make friends with her. That last part seemed a fool's hope. I beat it down: this was not the same world; I couldn't trust someone who had just tried to kill me. No way. Don't be stupid, those are the ways of a world now gone.
"Can you talk?"
"Stop. Don't turn around."
She trembled in place.
There wasn't much else to do now. It had to be now or never. I felt warm; a tender wind caressed my skin. The sky seemed to have opened up, and some sun touched the ground. Looking to where it landed I saw a green shoot. Life was starting again. Was it a sign from God?
"Please," she was holding herself and shook violently.
This was a chance for a new beginning. Soon the world would need to strive towards a better future. It wouldn't be built on murder. Because that's what I'll have to do: murder this woman right here and right now. There were laws from before and they had been chosen for a reason. They worked. If people forgot them, then they forgot what it meant to be human.
"Please, don't," she broke into tears.
I remembered Big Lee. Now was my chance to redeem myself. "Turn around."
She shuffled around, her face contorted into a wail. I felt sorry for her. For the first time that day, I felt like she could have been Carol. If she lived through nuclear war, she could have been this lady right here, begging for mercy from another soul.
I lowered my weapon. "I'll give you two choices. Listen to me," I waited for her sobs to stop.
"You can join me, or you're free to go. You can go back to your house. Whatever. The choice is yours," I looked at her face, trying to make out what she was feeling. I could sense elation. But her face was scrutinizing me.
"You're not kidding me are you?"
"No," I tried to smile. It didn't come out right; at least it didn't feel like it did, because she seemed pained by it. Though she cracked a smile that seemed goofy. "You have to decide now, however, because I don't have time."
She looked around, then back at me, as if she was coming out of a dream. "I'll come with you." She stared at her hands. "I have nothing else now."
We walked in the direction of my shack for a few hours before she talked again. I let her be; after all, she had just lost her husband and son. I hoped that me sparing her life, after I had almost been killed, would show her the right way to live.
"So how come you don't know anything?" She slowed down and walked beside me.
I didn't trust her completely, so I walked slightly behind her, made sure my gun was out of her reach.
"I was spelunking," I smiled as I spoke. I must have been quite the character, coming into this world, not knowing what was going on.
"Cave stuff right?"
"Right."
"Your wife was in Portland when everything went down?"
"That's what I think. Don't know for sure. You found me near where our house used to be. There's nothing. I can only assume she didn't get far. After all, even the countryside," I swept my arm to the ash land that surrounded us. "Got destroyed."
"Yeah, they sure did put a number on us," she tsked to herself. "Only satisfaction I get is that they got it worse than we did."
"How do you know that?"
"Don't know, only hope. After all, if someone survived, you think they'd have made it out here by now. Right?"
"Right."
"Sorry," she said mournfully.
"About what?"
"You wife. I'm sure you came out here thinking you'd find an answer. But there isn't one."
I looked her over. She was a sweet creature. Whatever distrust I had for her wasn't warranted. "I'm sorry about your family. I really am."
She stayed silent for a second, looked away. "What's done is done. Now lets look towards something else," her eyes met mine and she gave me a brave smile.
I knew then that she had forgiven me. That plant had been the first sign. Her smile was another sign that things were on the right track. I placed my hand on her shoulder, squeezed it.
"You a big hiker?" she asked.
"Yes, love it. I was just getting into spelunking," I looked at the sky. It was getting dark and I wanted to find a place to sleep that was somewhat protected. "You?"
"I liked the outdoors fine, my son and husband couldn't get enough of it. Guess it saved us in the end," she seemed to ponder her thought over. "Can you spare me a weapon?" she asked me in a child-like voice.
"Well," I wasn't certain if that was a good idea.
"In case we run into trouble. I want to be of help, not be a burden. I can shoot pretty well."
"Yeah..." I looked at her.
"We're together in this right? So lets make the best of it," come on, she smiled. "After all you let me live, right?"
"I pulled out a knife and handed it to her. "This for now. We'll get you something better soon," I ran through a few more excuses to throw at her. "My other guns I'm too attached to," which wasn't a bad excuse; I was indeed attached to them because they had saved my life twice already.
I pointed at a pile of rocks that looked like it could protect us. The sky had darkened fast, and I wondered if it would rain. "We'll sleep there."
She nodded. "Good spot."
Her agreement seemed to come at the right time, and temporarily evaporated my suspicions. When we settled into the ground, I lay down in my jacket, my backpack to my side, hoping that it would provide some warmth. She lay near me, but not too far.
The sun was crashing into the horizon, the clouds lit up across the sky, a firestorm from the gods.
"It's beautiful isn't it?" I asked her, hoping the sunset would create a connection. Sunsets with Carol, had always been a perfect combination; a moment to stare at a dance of colors and assume that it was only for us.
"They're all beautiful," she said, as if it no longer mattered, or never quite did. "After the war, they were all great. As if the sun knew that a world of people could no longer see it."
"Yeah," I said stupidly, though I didn't agree. It seemed like a great sign of the possibilities that now hung around my thoughts.
"Tell me, why did you let me live?"
"Why not?"
"No, really. You were going to kill me at first, but something changed your mind. I could see it in your eyes," she flashed a smile as she pointed at me. "What was it?"
Her eyes at that moment reminded me, for some reason, of Carol's, especially when she tried to tease the truth out of me. "Believe it or not I saw a light from the sky touch the ground and where it touched, there was a plant. I thought of new beginnings. I think what happened to me was a mistake, a matter of circumstance. I shouldn't hold that against you," I looked at her face feeling somewhat foolish for opening up this easily. "I think we can start something great.
"I do too," she said, rather quickly. But I was happy to have told someone of the sign I saw. Night fell quickly and my eyes were soon drooping under their own weight.
"Good night," she said.
In the corner of my eye I could see her darkened form. The voice, the killer who was gnashing at my insides for ever letting her live, took the reins and told me not to speak too coherently. Speak like you're almost asleep. I mumbled an incoherent "goodnight."
With my other hand I grabbed the handgun, and held it tight. She had a nice face, I reminded myself, but the voice didn't care. I pretended to be in a deep sleep. But the rhythm of the air coming in and out of my lungs soon put a mask over my face and I was asleep.
The sudden noise cracked my eyes open with a sharp tug. Something had made moved. Or was it a dream? The night sky was black; the land was black. I felt like I was in a tomb. I didn't want to move for fear of waking some monster up; I was a child again. I glanced around with my eyeballs. Nothing. No shapes. It had been a dream. I shifted ever so slightly and tried to see the shape where she had fallen asleep. It was too dark.
The flash of fear that broke into my visual field scared me to paralysis, and in a split second—reflexive fire—I twitched and shot the black air coming at me—repeatedly. The knife in her hand cut into my jacket, but my shots hit their target and she was a soft bag when she collapsed on me. Her chest torn open and warm blood flowing onto me.
It was still too dark to see her face, but I heard her breathing, could feel it on my face, the smell of rotten garbage.
"A plant..." was all she managed to gurgle before her breathing stopped. Her voice sounded pleasant in that last moment.
I kept her body close to me for warmth, but I couldn't sleep in the end. When dawn came, I set out for the shack. My strides were full and though I scanned, I didn't slow down to observe any of the remains of civilization. I remembered that I hadn't even bothered to know the woman's name. I realized that I didn't care what she was called. I had been a fool.
Again.
When I saw the shack in the distance, I slowed down and slinked to the higher ground just above it. I observed it for several minutes. No sound. I wondered what I would tell Jenny.
"Hey," I said sheepishly. I was still covered in blood.
She looked me up and down before finding some clothes and handing them to me. Her eyes were no longer trusting.
"When did you say Big Lee and pa were coming back?" her eyes pierced me like a knife and it took all my energy to maintain eye contact.
Carol was gone. The nice me was gone. What I had been clinging onto was something I couldn't believe in anymore. If I did I would lose. Yet I knew how the wife had reacted, and so too would this woman if she knew the truth. But that didn't have to be. I let the voice, the balls, speak.
"They haven't come back?" I screwed my face at her. "They should have been here yesterday at the latest. Are you certain?"
She seemed stunned, as if I slapped her. I liked that in her, I liked weakness in her.
"You think, you think they're...?" she held her hands to her face; her eyes welled up.
I stepped to her and hugged her. "I'll go look for them soon. All right?"
She cried and hugged me. The firmness of her breasts, the small waist made my blood flow; I ravished her in my mind.
I made some food from the rations. Gave her some and she ate. I watched her pouting lips devour the meal.
I rolled out a blanket and made sure my gun was next to me. I looked at her. "Sleep here," I ordered more than asked.
Carol's image flashed. Be good.
No, don't.
She was more hesitant than willing, but when I lay down, she slid in next to me. Her body was warm under the covers. The blood started to rush, explode through my veins, my heart in a weightless state; my cock's skin was stretched to a point of pain. I turned to her. She put her lips next to my neck. It wasn't meant to be sensuous; I could tell that she meant nothing by it, but the voice wouldn't listen. This was not the path to a better world, where trust would be the glue amongst people; my thoughts whispered rather than spoke. There was a beat in my heart that even I couldn't control.
I placed my hand on her thigh. Supple, soft. She seemed willing. I slipped my hand under her dress and on her thigh.
She flinched, but didn't move.
She was innocent.
I was hungry.
Her fear I could smell, but something in me confused it—or wanted to confuse it—for desire of the unknown.
I gave myself another chance to stop. Part of me still wanted to stop, to take a measured approach to this, to be nice, to slowly gain her trust. The rest of me laughed, mocked this part and said take it, she is one of the spoils in the battles you have fought.
Was it the memory of Carol that motivated me? Her soft, warm body that I missed and wanted to taste again? Or was it the dead bodies of Big Lee and Johnny? Their twisted bodies being eaten by insects, punishment for trying to end me—was this one more strike at their folly? No, I didn't think of Carol or Jenny's family anymore.
My other hand slowly moved across her chest and barely kissed her breasts. Soft. My hands rubbed harder. Then pressed down. My heart beats like a drum, like a drum from an ancient ritual.
Mine.
All mine.
The reward would come soon. I rolled myself on her, my knees on her thighs, pinning her down, my hand now on her shoulders. Her mouth—that sensuous mouth—let out a slight wail of strain. That should have stopped me, that would have stopped me a few days ago, but I wouldn't, couldn't.
The voice wouldn't.
My cock was roaring and I flipped up, ripped, her dress. Her arms reached up trying to push me off, but she wasn't strong enough. Her legs, those amazing hips and thighs squirmed under me, but weren't focused on the right place. I pulled out my cock. I leaned in for a kiss.
Her head seemed frozen, as if she was asking for more.
A lie to make the moment better.
I kissed her slowly, for a moment I tried to seduce her. Rubbed my lips against her. Her eyes seemed to look at me in awe. It might not have been awe, but that's what I wanted it to be. And I kissed her and she seemed to kiss me back. But I couldn't be certain, so I kissed her again. The voice, my cock, growled at me, swayed like gorillas, told me to stop fucking around and start fucking. No one is here to judge, nothing is here to judge, just you and her.
She kissed me back.
I absorbed the taste of her saliva with a meaningful joy—she had stopped kicking. Her arms were around me. She had no one else, she had nothing else—not in this world—she knew this and knew that I was hers, as much as she was mine; she had realized this and come to her senses.
My hand felt between her legs, it was wet; I slid inside her, and she arched like a frozen gymnast, her mouth open, almost screamed. It took a few thrusts to get all the way inside her, and I was sure at this point she was a virgin, but not entirely sure, I believed more than knew; still, she was tight and when I finally got deep inside, the welcoming feel was so overwhelming, so everything that made my hips move, that made life worth it, that it only took a few extra thrusts before I came inside her.
I collapsed on top of her breasts. Slid off her with great effort and she rested her head on my chest, as if she had wanted it all along, but in her eyes I could see that she was looking elsewhere, thinking of something else. Maybe even someone else, but that didn't bother me.
Before I went to sleep I felt her up, still amazed at what I had, and entered her one more time.
The part that had told me to stop, not overpower her, was now the only thing that stood up and spoke inside me. It spoke and filled me with a horrendous feeling. What had I done? What had I become? I was a fool, a beast. Both. I wanted to apologize. Instead, I just stared at her as she averted her gaze and pretended to go to sleep. I would apologize to her in due time, I thought, but for that moment I had to sleep.
*
The next day I awoke to see her standing over me. My eyes darted to her hands. They were empty; they grasped her thighs, then each other. Something was bothering her. Something. Of course, I thought, you've acted like a complete animal. I got up and placed my hand on her shoulder. I wanted her forgiveness. She didn't react to my touch, to my look to my: "How are you feeling today?" I almost wanted to reenact the previous night, just to get some passion out of her. She stared at the bed we had slept in, as if it were some ghost speaking to her. What was it saying?
I pulled out some more rations, divided them into two and handed her half. She took it and ate quietly. I looked over at the bed again, and realized that it was covered with blood.
Oh. A pang of regret hit me.
This was not the way it should have happened. I should have earned her trust. But how? Was it supposed to be before or after she found out I killed her family? Don't be a fool. This was the only way. I remembered reading about ancient tribes, how volatile their societies were, wrecked with violence. Almost all, when they vanquished their foes, would murder all the men, take the women as chattel; a way to expand the tribe, to expand enjoyment, and expand genetic material. It had always seemed like the wrong way to live; yet here in a similar situation it seemed like the smartest route for me. There was no other way.
After I had finished my meal, I looked at her slowly chewing her food. It would take her a while, but she had to accept reality. She had to stay here, and as far as I was concerned this was my place. I had won it. It was my choice whether she stayed. I didn't say this as I looked around. There was plenty of floor space, but no place to eat a meal on, or to study. A sheet of metal lay on the floor. I grabbed it, scraping the packed dirt floor, and I leaned it against the wall. The ammunition cans were then piled into three separate, but equal in height, stacks, with the metal sheet over them.
"This is our table," I announced to her. "We will now eat here," she still was staring at the bed, the blood. It didn't seem right, as if she was in a shell. I walked to her and lifted her chin. I wanted some recognition. She looked up at me, not with fear, but without a sliver of recognition.
My heart sank. I had been a monster to her. What was I thinking? Time, she needed time.
I walked back to the new table and pulled out my map. I marked where we were, the cave, and approximately where Bill and Paul lived. I remembered that I wouldn't want all these places to be found by anyone with the map. So I picked a few other random places and marked them with letters. Every third letter was a legitimate site. I drank some water. It was horrid, like urine.
"Where did they get this water from?" I asked her. She looked at me then back at the bed. This was too much. There was a world to rebuild and she didn't seem to understand that. I strode over to her with a great force in my step, she jumped back, a startled deer, I grabbed the blanket, that was almost stiff from the dried blood, and threw it outside. We would deal with it later. For now I needed to get water. "Where did they get water from?" I raised my voice.
She looked at me, pleading. "I don't know. Some of it is from our piss."
I convulsed at the thought; then remembered that it wasn't so bad: water, some minerals, and ammonia. I'd get real water today. Clean, clear, water, that she would be amazed by. She would come around slowly. I was in the right here, I repeated in my head. Though the thought seemed hollow. I walked out of the shack, gun in hand, backpack full of containers, and a heavy weight in my stomach.
The walk to the cave was uneventful. The sky seemed the same bleak nothingness that it had always been. A few rays peeked out, but what I had considered wondrous was now banal.
When I came back she was sitting in the same chair.
She was taking this act too far.
"Are you ever going to get up and do something?" I half-yelled.
She looked up at me. No words; looked right through me in fact. Half of me wanted to plead with her, wanted to ask for something from her mind, but the other half was willing to drag her through this world, whatever the mood, without a care for anything besides her sex. I pondered this, took her shape in, took her mood in. I had expected that she would have been more conceding, that the way this world had affected everyone in it, including me, was something she would have to get used to; adjust her little moral world for, not the other way around. I would have to be gentle during that adjustment period.
The water. She would appreciate that. I walked over to her and poured some of the water into a cup. "Drink that up, it tastes great," she looked at the cup, then me. As if I was some monster. It hurt. Didn't she know what I'd been through? "Try it," I said firmly.
She took the cup and drank it all, one gulp, held out the cup for more. I poured more. She drank that up. I poured more. She sipped, stopped and looked at me. "Any sign of pa and Big Lee?"
Was that what was on her mind? Of course, I should have been more understanding. She was my only companion in the entire world. Universe. It was tough to think of it in that manner. And to think that she was going to hate me made it worse. I wanted to confess to her—as I stood there, staring at an abyss of nothingness between us, with the thought that the previous night had been completely negative, even though it had felt good—that I wished I could have taken it back. Not been a beast, a horrible man, an animal that preys on young flesh. There was a kindness left in me. I was still trying to find a way to her heart, and I contemplated falling on my knees, confessing everything, telling her what had happened, how I had been attacked, been ruthlessly targeted, for no reason. But I didn't, she couldn't possibly understand. Besides, being firm had worked so far. I had been honest the night before with that wife. That's what got me in trouble. Use what she fears, I told myself, use what she is frightened of and sooner or later she will come to see that you are her only hope.
Oh hope.
"Jenny," I lifted her chin so her eyes had to look at me, she stared downwards.
"The water was good," she whispered.
"Big Lee and Johnny," the truth was right there, a scary proposition, one that was almost impossible but still called me to speak it. "I will start a search for them, but you have to tell me everything you know. It will make it easier to track them. All right?" The lie feels better.
She nodded her head. Her face impassive as ever. I wasn't certain if it had inspired her.
"First, have you ventured out of here? This shack?"
She shook her head.
"Listen, you want to find your family, right?"
"Yes."
"Then you have to be more cooperative," the look she gave me when I said that struck at my heart like a knife. Be strong.
"I know you must not like me right now, but believe me," I put on the most earnest face I could manage. "I am trying to help."
Her eyes felt my face like a blind man's hands. "Okay."
"Have you been outside this shack?"
"Only to look around, once."
"They didn't let you out?"
"They did, once it was safe. But that was only a week ago."
"How did they know it was safe?"
"Rats."
"Rats?"
"Yes, in a cage. At first we had to wear suits," she pointed at some sinister looking plastic protective suits on the wall, masks next to them. "The rats died from something outside. Then they didn't," she shivered.
"Then they decided they could go out. They let me take a look, but it scared me too much."
I nodded and reached for her hand, but she shirked back from me. There was nothing between us. One step at a time, I reminded myself.
"And did they find anyone when they started to check things out?"
She shook her head.
"Do the names Bill and Paul sound familiar?"
"Oh... They mentioned them. But they didn't say much. Only that they were our neighbors. Not friends."
I nodded. That was my in. I could blame the murders on Bill and Paul and gain something in her eyes. "Anyone else?"
"No, it was the two men, only."
She still hadn't looked at my eyes. I would have to get over that. "What about places for water, or food? They mention anything that they found?"
She shook her head.
I nodded, perhaps feigning thought too well, but I had to make it seem like this was just coming to me. "I think I will try to find this Paul and Bill. Then we'll see. You want to come out with me?"
"No. It scares me."
"And what about this," I waved my hand at the inside of the shack. "This all you want to see everyday?"
"It's home."
A simple girl. And I had taken her away from it. I felt like meaning had been ripped away from my actions.
I remembered Paul and Bill. I would have to confront them. Sooner or later they would either come for me or we'd run into each other at the water hole. Then it would be trouble. Big Lee and Johnny had been right.
I thought about food, if we ever ran out I could set traps for insects and rats. "What about the rats, did you catch any recently?"
"No."
"Any reason?"
"Pa said they're dead too. That soon it would be our turn."
Depressing. I grabbed a rifle and two handguns and rustled through the ammunition boxes for more bullets. Paul and Bill. I opened the door and looked outside. Nothing. The sky was still covered in a gray texture. Some rays pierced through. They didn't seem so miraculous. I turned to her. "You know how to shoot?"
She nodded; her eyes were once again fixated on place where we had slept the previous night.
"You have a gun?"
She shook her head; she still refused to look me in the eye.
"You want one?"
"No."
"Why not?" though as I spoke I wondered if it was a good idea to give her a weapon in her state. I could very well find myself on the wrong side of the barrel.
"Why does it matter?"
Her dejection was contagious. In the back of my mind I knew that she hadn't been like that when I first met her. "Hey, I'll be back. I'm going to look for your family. Got it?"
She nodded. But that wasn't enough.
"Got it?" I said loudly.
That startled her and she looked up and once again examined my face with her eyes. "Yes."
I don't know what I had expected. For her to look at me like what happened last night was an amazing event? That we now had a connection? Yes I wanted that. If she didn't, she was somehow a fool who couldn't see reality for what it was. I shut the door behind me and locked it. It was for her own good.
When I got near the cave I approached it slowly, hiding behind rocks until I came to the mouth. I listened for some sort of sign of life. Nothing. I moved back to the satellite peak behind the cave and looked in the direction of Paul and Bill's homestead. A line was traced in the distant flat land. The sleds. Unless I watched this path everyday there was no way I could get them. I entertained the idea that I should leave them alone. No, they were running low on food and would soon be after me. This was no time to be weak. But I felt weak.
The land before me was desolate, a cemetery more than anything else. No wonder Jenny had looked at it once and stayed in the shack. She was more human than I. Please. Don't. And I had, over and over again. Who was to blame? Surely it couldn't be my fault? But the look Jenny gave me. What was that?
Silence. My thoughts got louder. What a land. What fruits could it possibly bear? I let my hands catch my face, as my head fell forward. I cried. Sobbed uncontrollably. It was a pathetic show, but without anyone around it didn't matter. I needed the release. Poor Jenny.
Big Lee and Johnny.
The other family.
All dead.
###
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