In the night, with only dim starlight holding back the true dark, I am alone. The day’s business is done, the traps checked and reset, water collected from the evaporation pits, the perimeter alarms set. My body uncoils, the thick ropes of aching muscles unspooling as I lay in the filthy sleeping bag. The once springy down filling is clotted with a foul smelling dampness, bunching into greasy clumps and knots. By winter I will need to strip the filling, and find something to replace it, but it will not pack down as light. By winter, I might be able to venture back into a city, and find a sporting good store. By winter, this might be all over, or I may be dead.
I drift away, the pinpricked night differing very little from the haze of sleep. When I awake and shake the gossamer film from my consciousness, I become aware of the passage of time. The spine of silken light behind the stars, the heart of the galaxy that I have become re-accustomed with in the past month, has twisted across a quarter of the sky. Small coiling tendrils of fog are coursing up the sides of the mountain. And behind the wet and living thrum of the brush, behind the shudder and shiver of the breeze, I hear the clank of glass and tin cans.
I cannot pick out the direction at first, so I spring from the sleeping bag already gripping the revolver, finger coiling around the trigger. I hold utterly still in a runners crouch, the pistol already slick with sweat against the walnut grip, despite the ragged cold of the night. My lungs burn with panic, but I wrestle control from my hindbrain and still the shuddering in my chest until my body is calm, still. My mind will follow.
In the stillness, the alarm rings again, a clumsy tremor of inorganic sounds against the night’s tapestry, just ahead of me now. I thrust the pistol forward, without thinking, and fire two shots, level with the horizon.
As the echoing of gunfire rolls down the mountain and is swallowed by the approaching fog, the night goes silent. I hold my body crouched and still, one hand splayed wide in the dirt, the other jutting forward, the gun forming the point of my spear. The alarm is silent. I count the beats of my heart. Somewhere shy of ninety, the alarms sound again, a violent surge that tugs and tears at the ropes and brush. In the darkness beyond perception, something crashes through the undergrowth. Away from me, away from the camp.
Dawn comes slowly as the waves of fog crash over the campsite, a smothering blanket of wet grey that chokes the thin sunlight. When the murky light reaches me, I pack down the camp, hissing with regret at having to move again so soon. The small clearing at the intersection of several winding deer trails had been perfect, and I’d just started to dream of building a more permanent structure.
When I have scrubbed the site clean, I go to retrieve the alarms. They are of the simplest sort, ropes strung and staked between the bushes, lashed to bundles of clattering trash. I can see at once where they were triggered the night before. The ropes are down and tangled, tugged free by the intruders wild flight. There is a tiny spray of dark blood across a few leaves, and I allow myself a moment of pride at the lucky shot.
I hide my pack beneath the brush and I follow the little network of trails, retrieving the clear plastic sheets and cups from the evaporation stills. I pull apart the little traps to salvage the springs and ropes, not looking forward the work of rebuilding the network of snares and cages at my next camp.
As I approach the final snare, something shudders in me, like a plucked string. My teeth set against each other, and I can feel the skin on my scalp crawling. I drop again into the practiced crouch, head down and eyes closed, surveying the woods with my ears. There is nothing, only the gentle patter of condensing fog. After a moment, the sensation passes.
It’s almost noon when I set out. The sun is a white disc picked out against the slate of the sky. I find the main trail, overgrown after a season of neglect, and press upward, towards the mountain ridge.
An hour later, the trail emerges from the fog and the forest in a steep ascent. To the West, the sea stretches away, infinite and placid as it mirrors the gray of the clouded sky. The cry of a hawk drifts on the cool breeze, and beneath it, behind me, I hear the cracking of clumsy footfalls.
I am ticking through my options even as I turn to the noise. I can’t run with the pack. I can’t leave it behind. And I can’t allow the intruder to get near me.
The pack clatters to the ground, the metal cookpot clanging out like a bell against the rock. I fumble, frantic, at the nylon cords encircling the rifle, my fingers numb and cold. I jerk it free and bring it up hard enough to jar my shoulder, and squint down the sights.
The mouth of the forest breaths fog, cloaking the trail in a gloom my eyes cannot pierce. The hawk cries again, somewhere far above us. There is no sound from the forest.
I wait. My left arm starts to burn, and I slowly lower the rifle, allowing myself a deep, cold breath. My heart is just beginning to slow, when I catch sight of a hand, pale and thin, slowly reaching out from behind a gnarled pine. It drifts outward, shuddering and twitching, trailing an arm in a tattered sleeve.
The man drifts into view with a measured slowness, his arms raised high. His eyes lock on me, pleading. His face is a gaunt mask of fear, weathered by hardship almost to vanishing. His clothes are filthy and torn and I see the thin ruby stripe where last night’s bullet bit into the flesh of his thigh. His lips tremor slightly as he opens his mouth to speak, and he lurches towards me.
I raise the rifle again, finger almost squeezing the feather trigger in panic. My heart returns, surging blood and pounding in my ears.
“Stop, godammit, don’t move!” My throat is raw from disuse and what I hoped was an authoritative bellow comes out cracked and reedy.
He stops with a jerk, and his mouth snaps shut. He’s shaking now, body wracked with little spasms. It could be from fear. It’s hard to tell. He starts to smile, a sad line on his dirty face, and the corners of his eyes tilt as he is wracked by a sudden sob. His hands fly to his face and I feel the electric currents of his shame; it wraps around my chest and squeezes. I inhale again, deep and slow. Something inside me wishes that I had shot.
He lowers his arms and slumps, defeated. When he speaks, his voice is the sound of a dry riverbed. I see the bleeding cracks in his lips, and I wonder if I look any better.
“Please,” he says, leaving it hanging, flapping in the air like a flag of surrender. “Please, I’m not… I’m not sick, I promise you. I’m not a carrier.”
His words rend me, splitting the stitches on my memory and spilling it open, wet and fecund. I remember the girl, streaked with tears and dirt, in the sickly glow of lantern-light, I remember those exact words spoken, amidst the charnel house evidence of her lies. I struggle to stay on my feet for a moment.
“You know I can’t trust you,” I say. He nods, eyes squinting shut.
“I know. I just… I need help. Can you…” He struggles, stuttering, a man unaccustomed to begging. “I need food, and water. I’m sorry, I was… I found one of your water traps last night, and I-”
He continues to talk, babbling, but I’ve stopped listening. My mind spins away on a chain of causality, starting with the infection in his body, through the pooled water, to my canteen, and into the cells of my body, rupturing and spreading. That dark little something inside me screams to pull the trigger and I do, unquestioning, while my thinking mind frantically orders my arms to move, jerking the rifle a few degrees upward.
The bullet hisses over his head and digs deep into the heartwood of the pine. He jerks and for a split second I think I’ve killed him. He drops to the trail, his limp body collapsing like doll, and covers his head in his hands. I can hear him whispering to himself, repeating some monosyllabic word in a panicked mantra. It might be ‘shit’ and it might be ‘god’ and I know they’re worth about the same. I tilt my head back and scream, my throat shredding with the sound. The wet air takes my cry and crashes it against the hillsides, returning as a pallid echo.
I’ve got about a day or two at most, before I’ll know. The son of a bitch.
I let him follow, as long as he keeps his distance. I tell myself that I have to help him, that its not his fault. The dark something chitters happily, and I know that if I wake up tomorrow with the shakes, sweating, leaking, delirious… I will still find a way kill him. I do not speak to him for hours. He keeps his distance, and I keep my rifle slung.
When we stop in the night, I gather wood and kindling, and build him fire. He stands apart from me at a respectful distance, watching with greedy eyes as I drop a handful of sun dried berries and a strip of salted meat to the earth. I take one of my plastic bottles, filled with fresh water, and place it with the food. Then I take 15 paces away, and build my own fire.
He has already devoured the food and is sucking at the water like a newborn at the teat. I feel a rise of bile in my throat, a wave of contempt for this helpless mewling thing that may have cost me my life in his ignorance. He doesn’t deserve this. Hasn’t worked for it. Cannot repay me. The dark something dances among these thoughts with giddy grace, ringing them like bells so that they will not fade. I have to shake my head, hard, to clear it.
When it has passed, I look up to see him staring at me, fearful and wondering, and I’m ashamed, knowing he can see my thoughts on my face. I know that I have forgotten how to disguise these thoughts, forgotten how to wear the mask. But that is only part of it.
“Thank you,” he says, “I can’t tell you… you saved my life and I just want you to know-”
I wave one hand, not wanting to hear him, wanting him to hold on to some shred of pride. He takes my meaning and only nods.
“My name is Javier,” he says, and waits. I suddenly wish he could take it back. His name feels like a smothering blanket. I don’t want to know the name of the man I will have to kill in the morning. I wait a long time before responding. My fire shifts, and the pyramid construct of small branches collapses, the coal bed already glowing brightly.
“Philip,” I say, at last. It feels strange to say it, strange to think of myself as anything but ‘I.’ Whereas only a day before I was only an id among the trees, tonight by our separate fires we are Javier and Philip. It makes me queasy, and I am suddenly afraid of what will come of this.
He takes my single response as a license to speak. At first, I want to reject this, want to throw a stone at him until he slinks away to sleep in silence, but the rolling notes of his voice are pleasant, and soon I am unable to shut them out, unwilling to ignore him.
“-two weeks at the least. I’ve hardly eaten since the captain died. Not sick, mind you, no, he fell. When we left the highway, he was sure we could subsist better in the hills and avoid any towns or cities on our way north, and… he just took a bad step, the third day we were out here. He turned to tell me the punch line of a joke, and then, he was falling. I couldn’t get down to the bottom of the cliff, could only look at the rifle on his back, and the tent, and the cans of food, some of them smashed open on the rocks. The tide came in eventually, and he was gone. I had what I was carrying, but no gun, and not a clue of where we had been headed, or what to do. I tried to head east, back to the road, but I’ve been going in circles. To be quite honest, I’ve no idea where we even are.” He chuckles as if this struck him funny.
“This was a state park.” I say, “The Lost Coast. South of Eureka, north of Grey.”
“Ahh…” he says, as if this somehow mattered now. “Anyways, I’m lucky I found you.”
I raise my head, giving the dark something a good look as it rages at his ‘luck.’ I see on his fearful face that I am wearing the predator’s look, naked and unhidden. With some effort, I soften my features, and return my eyes to the fire.
“Look,” he says, and I hear a note of creeping anger and indignation in his voice. “I’m not sick, and I’m not a carrier. I know I’m not. I was working with the bug, since the beginning, until it all went. We were tested daily.”
“You know what it is then. What is it?” I ask.
“The bug?” he asks, “We still have no idea. Patient Zero died in San Francisco almost a year ago, and then like clockwork, it appeared in large cities across the world the following week. It’s artificial for certain, a bioweapon, but every country was hit at the same time. It’s viral, and it looks like influenza may have been used to build it but some of it looks an awful lot like rabies… Do you know much about diseases?” He seems to realize what a stupid question this is for anyone still alive, but I nod.
“It’s well engineered. The goal seems to have been an asymptomatic latency period, in which the infected can spread the disease, and then rapid onset. It has an amazing lifespan outside the human body, a protein shield like a glass wall.” He laughs, a hollow, sad sound. “Quarantine was impossible. Almost everything that was said in the news was false, to keep the peace, but it all crumbled when people started fleeing population centers. They brought it with them. And it just became a race, outrun the sick. And the bug loved it, it kept right up. How long have you been out here?”
“I was at the head of the race,” I tell him, with a crooked smile thats half me and half the dark. “When it was obvious that it wasn’t going to blow over, we left Sacramento. It was stupid. We broke off of the main roads to try to avoid the quarantine camps, did okay for a while in the sticks.” My throat tightens and I struggle to bend my thoughts and words up and away from this dark furrow. “I haven’t heard anything official since we started moving, other than word of mouth, and it was all hysteria. Unless they really nuked San Francisco.”
He tilts his head in half nod, bobbing once. “I was on the deck of the USS Nimitz when they burned San Francisco. Wasn’t nukes. It was thermobarics. They wanted to sterilize it, thought they could hold the peninsula as a quarantine. The next morning, there were two sick on board, I think pressure seals on the hotlab failed, but it didn’t matter much. There was a… there was a goddamned mutiny on board, the XO shot the captain, I got off on a stolen helicopter with our military liaison, Jesus, this all sounds so absurd. At the time, it was just the logical thing to do. Just four of us got off. The city was still on fire, and most of us docs had argued against the bombing, we knew it wasn’t going to kill the bug fully. We just started going north. The Nimitz is still out there I guess, full of corpses”
“What else?” The dark is rapt at these images, entranced by the grand scale chaos and violence. I am too. It helps.
“There were some nukes, on the East Coast. That was the last we heard from any sort of formal authority. Probably Russian. Most people seem to think we fired first, but no one really seemed to have the heart for it, so it was small scale.
“Something massive hit Vallejo, right where all the freeways met. Not a nuke, some big kinetic weapon from orbit. We heard the impact from a hundred miles away. The captain seemed to think this was a last ditch effort at disrupting the flow of infected refugees, but it came far too late.
“It quieted down, fast. The bug was just… too efficient. No one recovers from it, and everyone is susceptible. Even carriers die, eventually.”
This fills me with an elation. A sense of cosmic fair-play at work. Javier seems to withdraw a little once he has said this, his eyes mirroring the dancing flames of his fire.
“It’s… it’s bad,” he says after a quiet moment. “It was designed to do this. Even the carrier immunities seem to be intentional, a long range vector to continue the spread.”
“Built by who?”
He shakes his head, and shrugs. “It’s got something else, inside of it, something like a chemical timer. There’s a little self contained packet of proteins, completely inert right now, but… It’s going to change.” He shivers and puts his hands up to the fire.
“Change, how?” I ask, but he’s done now, I can see it in his black eyes. He shrugs, his eyes suddenly wet, and I understand. When it was just me, on the trails, with only water and food to concern me, the global extinction of humankind seemed so pleasantly abstract. And here, we’ve torn back the bandages, and stared into the festering wound, together.
We’re quiet for a long time.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else out here.” I say, as the fires burn down to coals. “I’ve been alone for a long time. The little roads off the highway were empty, the main quarantine posts were further inland. I walked, with no one to stop me, right into the woods, and to the sea.”
“Where are you headed?” he asks.
“Nowhere. Away from people.” I say. “I’ve been ranging to the North, till I can see the Eureka quarantine camps, and then south again. It’s been a few months since I saw anyone alive there. The big fires are out, and the last of the power seemed to have faded away. It’s quiet and dark. I’m going to wait a few more months, and then… we’ll see.”
“It’s a better plan than we had. The captain thought we’d find another medical unit, and try to pool our resources, but… in the end it was just him and me, and I think he’d given up on anything other than staying moving. I was just following him.”
The dark begins to hum and vibrate in my skull and I stand up sharply. I kick dirt over the fire, watching the dry earth blot out the glowing embers. Javier rises and looks around him into the fire-lit trees.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing. I need to set the lines for tonight. And I don’t want to talk anymore. I like you, and that’s going to make it harder when I have to shoot you.”
He has forgotten his subservience, now that I have shared food and fire with him, and his fists clench. He doesn’t quail at my clumsy threat. He’s braver than I gave him credit for at first.
“I told you-” he says his eyes narrowing.
“I know. And I believe you,” I say. “But Megan didn’t think she was sick either. We’ll see. Keep your fire going tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll show you how to build a shelter.”
I find him before noon, drinking greedily from a small tributary that runs down the saddle of two small rises, almost on top of one of my camps. When he has drunk his fill, he stares at the silver flashing of steelhead trout in the stream.
I sit quietly, and with no small amusement, watch as he fashions a simple spear and tries for an hour to spear a fish. He cries out in frustration with every missed shot. When I can restrain myself no longer, my face split into a wild grin, I call out to him.
“What would you do with it if you did catch one?” I holler.
He jerks, his head spinning around, and although I am perched on the knobby roots of a redwood in plain view, he looks past me twice before his eyes truly see. When they register me, he lowers his body, as if to run, but the rifle is slung on my back, and he holds still.
“Eat it,” he says, with a hint of defiance. “I’ve fished before. Just not with a spear.”
I nod approvingly.
“Why did you run?” I ask. He snorts a laugh, and looks away from me, towards the ocean. There is a long moment before he responds. Then he turns back, to hold my gaze.
“You said you were going to kill me. It seemed prudent.”
This time it’s my turn to laugh. “If you are what you say you are, you’ve got nothing to worry about. What you need to do is adjust for the refraction of water. Aim below the fish.”
He doesn’t seem to understand at first, and looks at the spear in his hand.
“Or, you could just… shoot it,” he says. I smile wider. Somewhere, above us, a hawk screeches.
My river camp, only ten or so yards upstream, is a simple enclosure hidden behind a few woven panels of dry branches; one of a handful I have built across the coastline at strategic locations. We extinguish the cook fires, and head upstream, the forest illuminated only in wan blue moonlight.
I teach him how to build his own simple shelter near my own, instructing him to lean a dead branch, ten feet long against the crook of a tree, at the height of his knees. He gathers pine boughs to lay against the branch to create the walls, and packs the inside with dry oak leaves. Tomorrow, if I am well, I will show him how to create a more sturdy dwelling.
He tells me more about the last days before he and his captain broke from the roads to make a go in the wild. I tell him about the mad choking nightmare of the refugee columns and the cautious optimism of the small rural towns when we found ourselves alone. It’s on the tip of my tongue to tell him about our nascent survivor commune, and the barn, burning in the warm spring night. I can taste the ashes of it, can see the roaring whirlwind of fire. It wakes the dark up, to think about it, and I go sullen and quiet.
To his credit, Javier takes the cue from my furrowed brows and slides into his little lean-to. I spend the night with my teeth grinding and the dark whispering filth into my ear. It tries to tell me that the little tickle in my throat, the one I know is caused by speaking more than I have in months, is the onset of the bug. When I’ve ignored it long enough, it becomes content to slither back and forth, pacing on oily black feet until the sun rises.
Javier awakes with the rising temperature, and then catches my gaze. He must see it, behind my eyes, because he almost breaks into a run then and there. I shake my head, rattling the dark away and rise to meet him.
“How do you feel?” he asks, and there is confidence now in his tone.
“Well,” I say. “Tired. I didn’t sleep. But I’m not sick.”
We spend the day setting snares, and although there is no need for the evaporation traps this close to the small stream, I show him the general principal. The freshly dug pit exposes the water in the soil beneath the surface, and the clear plastic tarp catches the evaporation, condensing in the center and dripping into a canteen. I tell him with some relish that you can piss on the wet earth, to accelerate the process and reclaim more water. It is a testament to the times in which we live that he only nods at this.
“Why the traps, when you have a river?” he asks.
“There aren’t enough of these streams to provide water where ever I am, and I don’t have enough bottles to stockpile. When I’m at one of the other camps, or on the move, the traps make sure I’ve always got water at hand. I don’t want to die of dehydration just for twisting my ankle.” He nods again, and we go to sit beside the river, drinking from cupped hands. He looks up at my hut, nestled in the burned out center of a redwood tree, and carefully hidden from view.
“How many of these camps do you have?” he asks, waving one dripping finger.
“A half dozen, mostly by rivers, but a few in other locations. One on a bluff that gives me a good view of Eureka, north along the coastline. I was about to settle a new one where the deer trails crossed a few miles south of here, when you spooked me away.”
“You… you plan to stay out here. Indefinitely.” It’s not a question, and I shake my head in a maybe-yes, maybe-no gesture.
“If it’s as nasty as you say it is, maybe I’ll give it a year before I think of heading inland. Maybe then I’ll live like a king in some rich old fart’s mansion for a while. Joyride some cars. I don’t know. Powers gone, water pressure… But if the bug burns hot, maybe it will burn out. After that, who knows.”
“What brought you here in the first place?” he asks, and the dark flutters. I can smell the wood smoke of the smoldering barn. I take a deep breath of clean cool air, filtered by the evergreens and I exhale the chemical fumes of burning leaded paint. I close my eyes tight.
“My wife. My daughter,” I say, softly into the air.
He is content to let the rest of the day pass in silence.
It’s almost winter when I am able to tell him. By then I have to tell him, although I can’t say why.
We’re at our northernmost camp, picking the meat from spitted raccoon. During the day, using a broken pair of binoculars, he believes he saw a man walking slowly down the road to the North.
As we sit around the smoldering fire debating the wisdom of an expedition to the dark and silent corpse of Eureka, I begin, without preamble. Once I start, I can’t stop until I’ve spilled the story out onto the ground, drained it like an infection, purified by the air and fire.
“The farm was perfect. Walt had been a dairy farmer and was confident we could make it work, and it was far from the main roads. We’d been staying in the barn a week before we realized we didn’t have to run any farther. We’d seen no one for days since our convoy of vans ran out of gas, not a single car. The more we talked the more it made sense. The farm had made a poor attempt at modernization, but the barn still contained the old tools, the ones we could use by hand. The fences were high, and only a few of the cattle had starved before we arrived. We could set watch, we could plow the earth, and we could have a harvest. It was still early spring.
“For a month, we were alone, and we worked that dream like clay. We built bunks in the empty farmhouse, and carved dark furrows in the earth. Seeds sprouted, and we carried water in buckets from the stream that marked the line between the farm and the forest. We ate together, thinning our supply of canned goods, without ever worrying. We were going to succeed. My wife and my daughter, for the first time in months weren’t afraid. I wasn’t afraid.
“And then the girl came, walking right down the road. I was on watch, in the noon sun, and when she saw me standing by the fence, she ran towards me, weeping. She was beautiful, golden hair whipping in the breeze and she held out her arms as if to embrace me.
“‘I’m not sick,’ she yelled at us. ‘Look at me, I’m not sick. I promise you.’
“We made her stay on the far side of the road while we discussed. Some of us wanted to send her away, some wanted to believe her, but we’d all lost friends in the early days to misplaced trust. In the end, we brought her food and water, and told her to stay across the road, in the field, for three days. Just to be sure. She agreed immediately. For the rest of my guard shift, we talked, yelling across the road and getting to know each other.
“Her name was Megan. Megan Galloway. She was 17 years old, and everyone she knew was dead.
“I think we all fell in love with her a little, even the old married men. She was radiant. A country girl with a curving body, and a wit like a knife. She’d yell jokes to my daughter and the two other children with us, leaning across the fence to holler the punch-line with relish, her apple cheeks glowing in the sunlight. In the night, her jokes were bawdy and shameless. She sang like a bird, and promised to braid flowers into my daughters hair when she was allowed in.
“At noon on the third day, they let her into the farm, welcoming her with open arms.
“It was dumb luck that saved me. The morning her quarantine was to end, Tom Nilsen and I had left, heading down the road to see if we could find seed, or fertilizer, or a working truck at one of the farms at the next tiny unincorporated town. We waved at her across the road, as we left, and Tom told her he couldn’t wait to get back so he could meet her good and proper, once her three days were up. He winked at her, and she winked right back. I really don’t think she knew.
“Tom broke his ankle more than days walk down the road, as we searched the farthest farm. Hooked it right in a gopher hole and came down sideways on it. It swelled up like a basketball, and it took me a three full more days to haul him back to the farm, one arm hooked under his shoulder, without anything to show for our expedition.
“It was just after sunset when we returned, and we could hear Megan wailing in the distance. I wanted to drop Tom and run to her, comfort her, to make it right, but I held tight to him as we hobbled closer. Other than her cries, it was silent.
“She was on the porch of the house, her head in her hands. No one else was in sight. My guts started to twist up as we approached. I think I already knew. She stood up and raised her hands, and began to babble, pointing at the barn. The ice in my chest solidified, and I felt like I was slipping away, seeing it all at a great distance.
“‘Megan, honey, where is everyone, what’s going on?’ I asked but she just wailed even louder, hands tearing at her hair. On legs that were not my own, I approached the barn. I could smell it before I could hear it. That terror scent of shit and vomit and death that we’d been free of that last month. Beneath that fluttering miasma, was a single rasping, dead man’s cough. I knew, without any sort of evidence, that we were all inside there. Our whole little community. All of us.
“Tom had hobbled to Megan, and was stroking her back when I returned, she was telling them how they’d isolated the first to show symptoms, my daughter. How it had all happened so fast after that. Tom was telling her how lucky she was to be alive.
This was when the dark little something awoke, but I didn’t know how to explain this to Javier just yet. I’ve always had it with me, I’m sure, but until that night, it was as yet unborn, still wrapped in a black and greasy caul. I’d felt it before, an ugly little echo in the back of my head, easily banished. It was born that night on the farm, sliding wet and filthy to the cold ground, already hungry, already calling out to feed.
“What happened next seemed like a dream, like I was watching it from the end of a tunnel. I don’t think I could have stopped it if I wanted to, and to be honest, I don’t think I wanted to.
“I pulled the revolver on her, and told her to come to the barn with me. Tom was shocked, his square jaw hanging open, and he tried to stand on his ruined leg to protest. But she knew. She understood.
“‘I didn’t know,’ she said plaintively. “I didn’t.”
“‘I don’t care. Come.’
“By then Tom had figured out what was going to happen, and he’d already drawn his gun. He started to speak, and I shot him, once, in the center of his face. He sat down hard, and slowly tilted back onto the wooden porch steps. I’d known Tom since we met him fleeing Sacramento. He was a good man, but he was dead from the moment he held her. I knew it was a mercy, but that only occurred to me after.
“Megan started to scream again and I shot her in the arm. After that, she drifted like a ghost, moving where I pointed. She was in shock as I led her to the barn. She opened the door, and looked back at me once. I leveled the gun at her, and she slipped inside. Whoever had been coughing before was silent now.
“We’d kept our last small amount of fuel in a barrel by the barn, siphoned from a few lawnmowers and tractors. I kicked it over, let it flow under the door, and tossed a book of matches.
“The barn burned all night. I watched it leap to the farmhouse, across the drier patches of crops. I watched Tom’s body burn. I waited until the sun rose, until the roof beam gave way, and the barn fell on top of my dead wife, my dead daughter, and Megan. I burnt them all, I watched, and then I headed west, to the sea. I didn’t want to ever see another person, and made care to stay unseen.”
In the dim light, the cook fire crackles in counterpoint to my silence. I feel clean and cold, like being sober for the first time in many months. Javier is looking at me with an unreadable expression across the fire. When it becomes clear to him that I am done, he nods, eyes locked to mine.
“It’s different now,” he says after a time. “Things are different.”
I see reflected in his eyes the burning of San Francisco, the mutiny aboard the Nimitz. I see in the creases of his brow his own tragedies. I see they must rival mine. Anyone still living, now, will have their own special nightmares.
Despite his haunted eyes, he has lost the corpse-look he had when we first met. He is healthy and tanned. If I were to leave him here, tonight, and leap from the cliffs into the oil-dark sea, he could survive for a long time with the little things I have taught him.
The dark likes this idea, but I do not; it obediently goes silent.
“Tomorrow then,” my friend says, breaking me from my reverie, “We’ll move along side the roads, through the trees, and see if there has been any recent traffic. I know I saw someone, but we need to be cautious. We should know who they are before… if we decide to make contact.”
I nod, and I know I am no longer alone. We are Philip and Javier. We are two men, at the end of things. And we are determined to live.
Original Notes: Here is, at last, for better or for worse, my first draft of “One”, a story I’ve been writing intermittently for the last five months. This may be the roughest draft I’ve posted yet. At one time, when this story was plotted out in my head, it ended with a rather banal revenge-murder plot, involving deus ex machina villains that existed for no other reason that to be unlikeable fodder. The story surprised me by refusing this ending, instead asking for something else. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if the story is over here, but I know it won’t return to the wild west pastiche I’d originally imagined. For right now, I like where it ends, and what it portends. But I may hate it tomorrow. We shall see.
“One” is a little long in the tooth, and suffers from some disconnections and irregularites that stem from its long gestation and unpredictable plotting. I tried to clean some of the internal consistincies, but if you catch a flaw in continuity, please let me know. I try not to depend on you for editing of this sort, but let’s be honest; you are better at it than I am.