I can’t hear most things anymore, but the thwunk of the bowstring is near enough to my ear to register. It has become as pleasing a sound as I can ever remember hearing. Ever, that is, since the world changed. But another sound follows, loud enough that it screeches like burning rubber against my eardrum.
“Goddamn, Old Man, what’d you aim at?” Freddie yells, already running toward it. He bounds over a stone wall residing uselessly among the looming trees.
My breath comes fast and short.
I can’t keep up with Freddie, who’s more than forty years my junior. By the time I arrive he’s kneeling deep in dead leaves, sobbing, covered in the blood of a woman. A woman we don’t know. A woman whose glassy, light brown eyes show death as clearly as the autumn sky reflecting off them.
My arrow rests in her neck.
“F-f-fuck.” I breathe the word out, but can’t seem to draw in the next breath. I never could tolerate the sight of blood.
Usually Freddie and I get by fine here in the lush, former bedroom community of Darien, Connecticut, because of Freddie’s crazy-smart intelligence. Asperger’s, his parents told me years ago. Guess they were glad to have a name for it since he would never rise up to their standards. He’s not too great with people or authority, but he can build whatever he envisions. In other words: ideally suited for this do-it-yourself world.
I’m 87 years old and just happen to live next door. I do the cooking.
Our families are long gone.
He enters the sunroom through the sliding door at the back of my house. It’s Tuesday, the day we hike out to check sections of the perimeter barriers. Mondays, we hunt. A schedule helps us keep track of the days.
“Morning,” I say from the kitchen island where I’m cleaning grease from the pan. “It’s ready.”
Long before the coastlines flooded, when the grid first got sketchy, Freddie installed solar panels on my house. He’d done his first, right after his perpetually disapproving dad died of a stroke. Between the two houses, we have enough power.
Freddie picks up his plate and I notice dried blood in the creases of his fingernails. It’s from the woman in the woods and seeing it there makes me sick to my stomach.
He sits down at the table and eats.
“We’re due to go up to the Merritt to check the Mansfield exit,” I say, joining him.
Freddie doesn’t answer.
He finishes and then gets a glass of water from the cistern faucet he rigged. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, turns to face me. I can usually make out what he’s saying if I have a clear view of his mouth.
“You fucking killed a person.”
I’d fainted at the sight of her, so Freddie had to deal with an unconscious me and a dead woman. I guess he needs to talk about it. “I know. What do you want me to do?”
“Ya think the incident might bear mentioning? Reacting to? Expressing some regret?”
“So much death.”
“So much. Yeah. And now, one more. But this one,” he jabs a finger at me, “is on you.”
“Shit.” I rise and pace from the kitchen into the sunroom and back. “It could just as easily have been you, you asshole! What were the fucking chances of me killing anything? What were the fucking chances that she’d be there at that moment? What are you trying to do to me?”
“Nothing. I’m just trying to stay human.” He says this slowly, emphasizing each word. His bearded chin slumps down to his neck. His curly hair, beginning to grey, is long and unkempt. His t-shirt in tatters. I’d been watching it fall apart for years. It had once shown a picture of Chewbacca on a skateboard. He looks up at me. “It’s hard, isn’t it? To stay human? But, goddamn it! Doesn’t killing another human being at least justify altering the fucking schedule?”
“How I deal with this is my business. I know I’m still human.”
He leaves. I watch him walk the well-worn path to his house almost a half-acre away. Freddie enters the strip of woods between properties and disappears.
He’s back the next day as if nothing happened. I knew he would be, but breathe a little easier once he arrives. I need him because, for some reason, I still want to survive.
Wednesdays are scavenging days. Freddie charts our excursions on a collage of old Google satellite images that he taped to my wall years ago. He circles each house on the map after we’ve looked through it and chooses our next destination.
Today, it’s Camp Avenue—south of us, north of I-95, just at the edge of the swampy morass that’s coastal Connecticut.
At the door, I hesitate, and then pick up my bow and quiver, same as always. Even though the hyped hordes of desperate refugees from New York City never came, paranoia is as much a part of the new world as rising oceans. People are scarce, but we never venture out unarmed.
Freddie usually leads, but today he walks alongside me. He’s changed his t-shirt. This one’s black and has a picture of some band that I never knew and now can’t make out.
“I got a link up last night,” he says.
“Hear anything important?” I ask, looking at his mouth.
“My buds are tracking another Atlantic mega-storm. Won’t hit us directly, but we’ll get another surge. Camp Avenue could be soggy by the end of the week.”
“What should we do?”
He shrugs. “Hunker down at home, as usual. We live like fucking kings.”
I snort, and then realize he’s not kidding.
We go through three or four homes, putting our finds in backpacks. We’re selective. If there’s more than we can carry, we make note of it and come back. It’ll wait. We wear masks and gloves scavenged early on from the box stores. Mold has taken over these once showy homes.
We wrench open the front door of a small, at-one-time red, saltbox-style house. The smell of recent human death assaults us. I rear back, out to the porch landing, covering my nose, eyes watering.
Freddie yells a quick, “Anyone here?” and then, gagging, comes out too. “Jesus.”
“Maybe there are others?” I look over both shoulders as a shiver shambles up my spine, but I see no movement, hear no footsteps or voices.
There’s no way we’re going in that house.
It sits on a high ridge above the road, so we start back down the curved, sloping, overgrown path that was once a black-topped driveway.
Freddie stops. “What was that?”
“I didn’t hear anything.” This means nothing, of course. I look back, but can’t see the house because of the curve of the driveway. I walk halfway up the incline and see a woman standing outside at the corner of the house. “Freddie!” I say in a stage whisper.
She slips out of sight.
Freddie calls out. “Come back! We’re no danger to you.”
But we know she won’t.
“I’m going to find her,” he says.
“She’ll run. What are you going to do? Chase her down?”
“The storm’s coming. Should I leave her here to die . . . like that person in the house? “
He drops his backpack, jogs up the rise and around the side of the house.
I take in a deep breath. Freddie’s changing. He used to be way more paranoid than me. He wouldn’t have gone out of his way for a stranger in the beginning.
When was the beginning?
It wasn’t supposed to get this far in my lifetime, that’s for sure. Catastrophes piled up; one damned disaster after another, each coming before we could recover from the last, with no money to repair anything.
Freddie set to work, building his insular world. When TV and the Internet still worked, we heard ominous predictions which fed his fear of others. Like those refugees who never came. I still don’t know where all the people went. You had to get used to not knowing things. So many just died.
A woman screams so loud even I hear and then shouts words I can’t make out. Then her screams become horrifying howls.
Freddie . I run up the hill, bow in hand. So many died. Not Freddie. Not Freddie.
Before I can get to the house, the woman runs around the corner pointing backwards and screaming, “Get him! Get him!”
I’m not built for emergencies. My ordered mind leaves me.
Somehow though, my body works anyway.
I see an enraged man running toward the woman and my right hand reaches up and back for an arrow. I see that the man wields an ax. My hand moves away from the quiver and down, toward the unused gun I always tuck into the waistband along my spine. I pull it out; drop the bow; undo the safety; straighten my arm; steady the gun with both hands; aim; take a deep, slow breath; correct the aim; and shoot.
A four-inch gash gapes in Freddie’s skull. He’s unconscious, but breathing. The young woman—who seems quite capable of coping with an emergency—tends to him while I try not to faint.
“What’s your name?” I ask, while she’s putting pressure on the wound. I’ve already told her I don’t hear well.
She looks at me. “Muriel. Yours?”
I indicate the unconscious man. “Freddie calls me Old Man.”
“Very post-apocalyptic of you. I’m up with that. Where do you live?”
“North, not far from the Merritt. Is there anyone else here who might . . . attack us?”
“He’s the last of this bunch. Got any semi-clean fabric?”
I give her a shirt I’d scavenged earlier.
She searches for a weak spot, pulls it against her teeth and tears strips. “We—” she stops and starts again. “I, um, I’ve been surviving in these parts for a long time with . . .” she hesitates again, ” . . . friends. We stayed put when we could, took what we needed and moved on. But people kept disappearing. Or . . . oh hell, I’ll tell you later. Can we get him to your place?”
“I’ll make a travois.”
She wraps the fabric tightly around Freddie’s skull.
Freddie and I learned how to put together sleds from limbs to pull home our deer carcasses, so I know what to do. First though, I have to wrench the fucking ax out of the dead man’s hand, but—whatever—it’s been that kind of week.
I pull, plastic rope around my shoulders padded with bits of the torn shirt. Muriel helps me when I hit a rough spot or have to go uphill. Otherwise she walks beside the sled watching that Freddie doesn’t fall off. He’s more responsive now. We stay on the roads, which takes longer, but is easier than cutting through the fields. The land rises gradually as we go north.
I have to rest many times.
When I do, Muriel immediately bends over to check Freddie’s pulse and bleeding. She might be twenty, probably younger. I watch her and wonder what she’s been through—born into this broken world.
That asshole is the second person I’ve killed this week. The third person I’ve killed in my life. But I can’t be bothered to care about this last one. If that makes me inhuman, so be it. My transformation is complete.
“Who was that guy?” I ask.
“The devil. My friend went out to scavenge one day and didn’t come back. I found her. Miraculously, I found her. But . . . shit . . . she’s dead. My fault. I’ve been trying to rescue her without getting caught.”
I put a hand on her bony shoulder.
Muriel gives me a look full of complications.
I turn back to the travois and we trudge home.
With us supporting him, Freddie walks—stumbles, shuffles, is dragged—inside. He almost passes out twice and groans continually, but we finally get him to the couch in my den.
“You have a nasty head wound.”
“That, I knew.” He grimaces and closes his eyes.
“Do you have clean water?” Muriel asks.
Freddie opens his eyes again at the sound of a strange voice. “Hi,” he says and drifts off.
I bring washrags and a dishpan of water from the passive heat trough in the sunroom.
She marvels at the warm water. “How do you have so much?”
“Freddie’s good at this survivalist stuff. I’m along for the ride.” I’m trying to stay light, but the words feel like dry kibbles dropping out of my mouth one by one.
“I did this,” she says, not looking at me.
“It was my ax.”
Muriel takes it all in. All the deteriorating luxury of my house. There are six bedrooms. I let her pick where she wants to sleep, only then realizing how dirty everything’s gotten.
Tomorrow, I’ll clean.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, I feel like talking.
“This was my daughter Leila’s lavender refuge. She grew up and had three daughters. They lived in Australia when we lost touch. My granddaughters talk like Aussies! I picture them tall and willowy like their grandmother—my wife. They’re in their 30s and—who knows?—maybe they have kids now.”
I smile up at the cobwebbed ceiling. “I try to envision Leila with graying hair and wrinkles. Maybe she’s put on weight. God willing, they have food. But she’d be okay, because, well, obviously . . .” I spread my hands to indicate myself, “she has good genes.”
Muriel smiles. It looks weird, as if her muscles have forgotten, or never knew, how.
“Anyone else we need to find back there?”
She sighs deeply. “They’ve all died or disappeared. Usually I didn’t know what happened. They just went out and never came back. This one. This last one. Her name was—” Her lips close in a tight line.
The stench from the red house floods back to me. “Tell me. Tell me her name.”
“Isla. We loved each other. I staked out the house, but couldn’t get to her without being captured. There were two of them and they never left her alone. Then I heard one say that Isla was dead, so two days ago I killed the other guy and went back today to finish off the asshole you shot. Oh, what I wouldn’t have given for a working gun!” She pauses for a moment and then looks me steadily in the eyes. “When Freddie came around the corner, it distracted me. That devil came up from behind and wrenched the ax out of my hand.”
Her green-blue eyes are tear-filled, vivid against tanned skin. They remind me of the Caribbean waters I saw on a vacation with my wife . . . before the world changed.
“He bashed Freddie! I ran. You know the rest. I’m sorry.” She pauses, gulping hard, licking dry lips. “He wouldn’t have killed me . . . unless he had to.”
My heart breaks. Again.
“None of it is your fault. Nothing is your fault. Sleep. I, um, I should check on our patient.”
Downstairs, I dish up soup and take it to Freddie.
“I think I’m okay,” he says, between sips of the broth. “If it doesn’t get infected.”
“Muriel cleaned the wound,” I say, knowing I could lose him.
He nods. “Probably has a lot of experience.”
We stare at the fire and listen to the wind. The storm’s arrived.
“Did you know that my given name is Freddie Mac?” he asks. I do, but I let him talk. “My dear, departed mother thought it would be shits and giggles to name us Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.”
I detested his mother: a hawkish woman who chose to name her twins after the two largest mortgage companies at the height of the millennium’s dash-for-cash just so she could laugh about it at cocktail parties.
“I know it’s not the worst thing a kid ever dealt with, but it’s so—”
“Shitty,” I finish for him. “You had shitty parents.”
“David . . .” he says.
I start at the sound of my name. I haven’t heard it in many years.
“That woman in the woods the other day—God, it just killed me to have her bleed out all over me. I keep losing it.”
I nod. “I can’t cry anymore. But I think about her. I wonder who she was, what she was doing there. I wonder who’s—” I clear my throat and make myself say it. “I wonder who’s waiting for her to come back.”
“That’s why I never left,” Freddie says, sounding like a little boy. “The off-chance, the hope that Fannie will show up one day.”
“Freddie, listen. It’s time to take a chance on sharing what we have. To find and bring in good people. Fill up the beds.”
Maybe he’s just weak, but he doesn’t argue. He only nods, and then, nods off.
And so, it all begins again.
I check on Muriel and feel a tugging in my chest at the sight of her. How easily one life becomes infinitely important.
In my cool, darkened bedroom, I sit near the window and watch the violently swaying trees and marvel that most of the branches don’t break. Most of the trees don’t uproot. Most survive.
My thoughts drift to my wife as they do whenever I’m in our bedroom. She was the first person I killed. My secret, never told. Back then, it was illegal—no matter how much she suffered from bone cancer. Now, millions have died deaths that I—that everyone—assisted in. And yet, for some reason, I still want to survive. To find out what happens. To die knowing there is hope.
I touch the shuddering window pane and plan my tomorrow.
© 2016 by Nancy Waldman
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