Sea Change, an apocalypse
A novella by Stuart Baum
“I guess I’m a little less observant than you,” I begin.
She winces a little. I add, “Or just plain a sheep.” Nothing I said could match the horror of the Purge for her, but I continue on, assuming some normalcy is good. “I barely even knew anything was different until I was walking to my train.” She smiles. “Of course I woke up. I had felt some sort of click, as well. The silent click you mentioned. But as I live alone, I couldn’t have noticed that anyone was missing. I remember the time exactly. 3:32. That’s the thing about digital clocks. Our pain has exact seconds.”
She rolls her eyes. I assume it’s either because I use the word ‘pain’ or because I am being pedantic.
“I lost people in the Purge, too, you know,” I say. “Maybe not a husband or-” I stopped, realizing ‘husband’ was the wrong word. How could I lose a husband? In any other world, she would have laughed. But in this post-Purge world – or what should we call it now? ‘Finning’ world? – things like that are less funny. Laughter isn’t what it used to be. Anyone who has any reason to laugh, if even they do, is probably under water.
I continue. “I also heard some car crashes and noticed they sounded odd since there was no squeal beforehand.” I try to better explain. “You know that pause you feel as the tires don’t quite grip fast enough or the second the driver realizes that braking is too late and begins to cover himself. Just a thump as what we now know was an unmanned car hitting an empty house. No one to scream. No one to run out and assess the damage. And while there were still police, they weren’t arriving at many scenes so that it was a ‘thud’ and nothing more.” She was actually paying attention, hanging on my words. Maybe even trying to lose herself in what was a far less painful experience than the one she had gone through. Though, in my opinion, it pales in comparison to what our lives are like now. But the emotional attachment has become less, so maybe not. And lessens each day. For her, it’s probably even more so. Or maybe not. I think to ask but decide to finish my story.
“So, as embarrassing as it sounds to say it, I rolled over and went back to sleep.” This elicits a short cackle from her. Not quite a laugh. Not quite a gasp. I can tell she is appalled, but what can I say? Her brown eyes flash a touch black, cold. She is angry. But that’s the way it happened and I am beyond caring if she is angry. Perhaps anger is good right now. It’s an emotion. “When I woke up, I pretty much did what I did every other day. Took a quick shower. Brushed my teeth and combed my hair.” Or what’s left of it. “Had a quick breakfast.” I add a little spitefully, “Do you want to know what I ate?”
“No,” she says quickly and bluntly. But it does break the tension. She steps back and sits down on the green plaid sofa. Not mine. It came with the condo. Maybe it’s a retro thing. She crosses her jean-clad legs. Nice jeans. Just the right amount of distressed and in all the right places. She has very attractive legs. Or maybe it’s just the jeans. No, they are very nice legs. Her husband was a lucky guy. Her top is one of those- well I don’t know what they’re called. It’s black. It’s tight and has a low-cut front and short sleeves. The back has a strap running across another cut-out area. It was very fashionable before the Purge. Well, we’re all dressed fashionably now. Or at least in the clothes we want to wear, anyway, regardless of whether they were affordable or acceptable. I’m not sure where she got hers from, but the black short sleeved top and very blanched blue jeans likely would have set her back a few hundred dollars only a couple weeks ago.
Myself, I’m in khaki shorts and a t-shirt. Picked up at SportMart, actually. On the discount rack. Post Purge even, but they were what I wanted. Maybe that means I’m a little out of fashion. Not that it matters much anymore. Or likely ever again. At least I can wear shorts.
I notice she’s looking side-to-side, like an actress expecting an entrance. Wondering if I’ll ever continue my anti-climactic tale. She has nice eyes, even for brown. They seem to be a yellowish brown like that gem. And though her thin lips are pursed and there’s just a hint of wrinkles around the mouth, she looks very kissable. No lipstick. Tiger’s eye. That’s the gem! Very kissable lips, I quickly think and then continue the story.
“Where was I?”
“You were staring at my chest,” she says matter-of-factly. Her arms are folded.
“And your legs,” I say. “I was actually wondering where you got your clothes.”
laughs, not believing me. “New York and Company,” she says. “The top
I bought. The jeans and sandals I-” She pauses for the word, but adds, “Do
you want to know about the underwear?” She doesn’t unfold her arms or move
anything but her mouth.
‘Actually, yes,’ I think. “I continue,” I say. “Where was I, really?”
“Not telling me what you had for breakfast.”
“Oh.” I wonder if I should even bother, but I heard her story and now it’s her turn to hear mine. I didn’t lose any immediate family, but I had none to lose, so here we are at the same place. Why does that make my story so much less tragic? “So I walk outside in the morning and notice that there’s something very wrong. In most of those movies things are dead quiet, like even the birds and squirrels are gone, but it wasn’t like that.” I look at her and she is watching me speak. An odd expression on her face that’s not contempt or disgust or anything. The warmest look I’ve seen yet. “Do you know Pullman?” I ask.
“You told me about it,” she says.
“I guess I repeat myself a lot,” I shrug.
“Yes,” she says quickly and then warmly adds, “but that’s okay.” She wrinkles her nose and shakes her head slightly. I’m not sure why, but I like the way her shoulder-length black hair sways back and forth just once. Like Japanimation. “Please go on,” she prods.
“I got halfway down the block before I noticed that there wasn’t a soul around.” Did I just say ‘soul?’ There is definitely an apocalypse-speak happening now. Not a soul around. Not many soles either. Good one. She flashes me that quizzical look again and I continue, “And then I notice there is a car parked – and I specifically recall that I at first thought it was parked – in the middle of the house across the street’s front room. At this point I didn’t know what to think. But I knew the Reynolds. Nice folks. Were anyway.” I shrug. She grimaces. We think of the dead and gone in very different ways, Amanda and I. “I knew they were home, since they had gotten back from their vacation to her parents, he hates – hated them, the previous week. In fact, he’s usually out watering his grass in his suit in the mornings and he waves to me. And here it is, middle of the morning, there is a car smashed into his house and he is nowhere around. Then I look up and down the street and see that there is really no one around. Not a soul.” Not a sole. “Maybe the reason I didn’t clue in to what happened immediately is because I heard a baby crying. You know the way they cry when people are ignoring their crying? Insistent but no longer expectant?” Amanda nods. She is biting her lip.
I change the subject, continue, “I recall it hitting me at that moment. That the lack of people on the street wasn’t just a coincidence or a momentary or – what word am I looking for? Anyway, it was at that very second I realized, possibly the last guy in Chicago-”
“Possibly?” she questioned.
“Yep,” I said, “possibly – oh, I get you!” She had meant that I was the last guy to notice. “But I was one of the first to understand about the water,” I said in my defense.
“That was luck.”
“It’s all luck,” I say somewhat angrily. But the anger was unnecessary. She had meant nothing by it. Or something different. Luck was more apocalypse-speak. It means something new. Are we lucky to have survived the Purge only to, in many cases, have our legs suddenly ripped off? Are we lucky to have avoided the Finning or unlucky? Even so, I was unlucky to have had nobody in my life whose disappearance would have been instantly noticed. Or no one to call me first thing in the morning to see if I were still there. So I was blissfully ignorant of the Purge until I noticed that instead of Reynolds watering his lawn there was a car parked in his living room. Lucky.
A movie flashes into mind. A man saying: ‘It’s better to have loved and lost.’ A woman saying: ‘Try it sometime.’ Or was it the other way around? Either way, I think everyone on the Earth right now – with the exception of a few fanatics and the people who have yet to witness the Leggings or the Finnings, I wonder how many there still are? Plenty downtown Chicago so maybe there are cities that haven’t even seen any Leggings yet? What was I thinking? Oh well.
“Do you want to go?” I ask.
She looks around the condo. The previous tenant had painted the walls a yellowish green and filled them with very dramatic shots of country houses and horse farms. His own?
“To where?” she asks, but I can see she knows what I mean.
very hard at me and mutters, very softly, “If you were the last guy on Earth…”
Then she stands up and says, “Do you think we should bother packing or just loot
at every stop?
“Bother packing. It’d save time, I think.”
≈ ≈ ≈
And so we’re on the road, as it is. Only SUVs can drive the highways now and the higher clearance the better. There are just so many cars and trucks sprawled everywhere. Some flipped over obviously having collided with another vehicle, or two, when their drivers were Purged. Some caught on fire and their crisped shells sit where they lie, no one being able to clear them away. Or bothering. More cars, though, continued in the direction they were going when their drivers disappeared and when the highways jogged slightly to the left they continued straight until they ran into a tree or simply lost their momentum. No foot on the gas pedal prodding them forward ten or fifteen miles over the speed limit.
The Ohio tollbooth is just a few miles away and if it’s anything like either of the Indiana ones, it’ll have nearly a mile of cars stacked up on either side. I slow down, expecting a bumpy off road journey and a few fences. I was smart enough to bring wire cutters, but they were barely up to the task of cutting a hole large enough for the 4Runner. No matter. We simply stopped at the next Home Depot or Menards or Whatever big box store caught our eye – I can’t remember and who even cares any more? – to pick up the biggest set we could find. We took two. And why not? They were free. I could barely lift the set I grabbed, but it went through the next fence with ease, so it was worth its unwieldiness, if that’s a word.
Amanda is getting hungry so I take the opportunity to jump off the highway, figuring I’d skirt it until after the next main toll booth. The exit booths, though bad, would probably have been hundreds of times worse had the Purge not been so early in the morning. I wonder what they’re like on the other side of the world, in Hong Kong say, where it was midday when it occurred. You’re walking down the street – or driving your car and suddenly 99% of the people around you disappear. Or, more likely I guess, melted since their clothes and personal effects just dropped to the street. Personal effects. More apocalypse-speak. Or was I using that before? I can’t recall. Driving would have been more of a mess. Suddenly you’re in a rush of traffic zooming down the highway at 70 miles and hour and then, click, 99 percent of the cars are unmanned and going every which way. I’m sure most of the people on the road at that time that weren’t Purged were killed. I wonder if the powers that be realized that so many would be killed due to collateral damage. Collateral damage. That’s not apocalypse-speak. I was using that before.
She’s asleep now, head lolled to one side. So much for being hungry. I guess the bumpy off road adventure jogged her asleep. I bet she was one of those tough young Moms, helping hubby with the painting and dry-walling. Likely outside chopping the wood for the fire. Maybe not. She doesn’t look that physically tough. Firm, but not gristly. Soft and firm. Thin but not bony or model thin. She really is quite a beautiful woman. I would never have guessed that such a beautiful woman would ever be road-tripping it to the East Coast with me. I attracted the more… well, let’s be honest, I didn’t really attract many women at all.
She changed for the trip. I didn’t even notice. She has a sky blue skirt on now, with black, sort of textured, I can’t tell how, leggings.
Leggings. A word that wasn’t horrible until just a few days ago. Eight days. I bet advertisers will stop using that word on their products when civilization returns. What am I thinking? Fins don’t need leggings.
≈ ≈ ≈
It unfolded like a nightmare. At first very day-to-day and then surreal, that is, over-real in the true meaning of the word.
And, like a nightmare, things made perfect sense until – when you realized what you were seeing – they didn’t and though it was hard to believe, you had no other option. It was really happening.
I was walking across the street, LaSalle, by the banking area. Lots of tall building and, normally, lost of activity during the workday. I got down here every now and then before the Purge. Even though I wasn’t in banking. Or finance. Finance is what banker’s say they’re in. Now just big buildings with file cabinets.
Actually I cannot recall if it was a weekday or a weekend day. After The Purge, with not even a newspaper to push the day into your mind, you can never tell. Even on vacation, pre-Purge, you could tell what day is was by the size and configuration of the newspaper you received. Certain things came on certain days and you would find yourself saying, ‘It’s Friday’ just by how the morning paper looked.
So no morning paper. No workday crowd. No reason to go to work if it were a workday and one of the busiest spots in Chicago was fairly empty.
Let me paint the picture:
Empty means … The streets are a mess. The road is so packed with cars, that, in many cases, you have to climb over them to cross the street, especially near the intersections where suddenly unmanned cars thumped into each other or were dragged out of the intersection after the Purge so there’d be at least some way to get bicycles and motorcycles around.
Empty means … There is garbage everywhere. Not small bags full of discarded fast food containers and fruit rinds, like what we had before the Purge, but pretty much everything you would throw out the window if you no longer wanted it in your apartment. All the stuff that wasn’t your taste in the place you squatted, you would either drag into the neighbor’s apartment or just toss out the window. I don’t know why people did this. There were some people who were trying to mount a clean-up campaign as the city returned back to not quite normal but more of a new normal. Or a ‘stasis’ I think she called it.
Empty means … There are cats and dogs moving about – and fighting – as if they owned the place. And they do, I suppose. There’s an occasional horse, but most of those, I suppose, have gravitated out of the urban areas. Where did the horses come from? The police stables? Those horse drawn carriages that dragged tourists in a big circle downtown? Someone must have freed them all I guess. I don’t actually know. Maybe they were all in their stables. It was, after all, three in the morning here. Whatever the case, it wasn’t uncommon to see a horse grazing the small green spaces that the City took such care to keep alive even during the hot summer.
Empty means … Not more than ten or so people in view at any time. Usually walking in pairs, since it isn’t really safe for women to be out on the streets alone. Even during the day. Even with guns. Everyone seems to have a gun now. I do. They’re easy to get which is probably why everyone got one. It’s amazing how quickly you can get used to what you used to abhor. Usually the pairs you see are two guys or a guy and a girl. The women travel in larger packs.
Empty means … The cars and trucks obstruct your vision so much that even if there were a couple of people just a few yards away, you might not see them. And since they are speaking in hushed tones, due to the silence or out of nervous fear, you might not even hear them
But then, suddenly, in the middle of all this chock-full empty, a man appears hurrying down the same side of the street as me. Coming towards me. He is carrying – something. He is wearing the brightest red – unsure what kind of sarong-like thing it is. He is moving the air around him, sucking it down the street with him, as he hurries my way. I told you it was like a nightmare. I see that the thing he is carrying is a person – or half a person to be more exact. Just the head, arms and trunk. And the sarong-like clothing is drenched blood from his waist to his feet.
He was a stocky man with a brown and gray beard and a mustache. I look at his expression, but his face is clenched and his eyes are focused past me, determined.
He is carrying a young woman. Fourteen, fifteen? And slight. What’s left of her anyway. She’s convulsing slightly, or his movements are shaking her. No. The convulsing and the shaking are different motions. She is unbelievably still alive. The sight was so stunning I do not even wonder what might have happened to her. I only saw: A stocky man. A brown and gray beard. Cradling the top half of a shaking person. Her blood poured down his jeans as if he had spilled an entire can of red house paint down his front. I can see the ends of the white, mashed bones where her legs used to be. That’s where my mind freezes, captures that image and holds it. The man continues by me, red drips tracking his progress, but my mind has stopped on that one pictures, zoomed into the bone ends within the red pulp under her torso, through his arms where he cradled her. Those bones. As if someone had sliced her through and then, for good measure, hammered the ends of her leg bones to make them – and I remember this as well – what asparagus sticks looks like after you’ve taken a bite.
When the picture unfreezes: carnage. The bearded man was the first. More come towards me, cradling, carrying, dragging half-people. Some of them old. Some just babies wrapped in gory blankets. Some carried piggyback style, their arms wrapped around the carriers’ necks like sweater sleeves. Most dead. Some whimpering. Some screaming.
A man carrying a young boy – legs ripped off, limp, about the same age as the first young woman starts yelling at me. I cannot focus on his words, my mind has frozen on the image again. The same picture as before. The same cut off body. The same white gristle and smashed bone ends. My mind unfreezes as the man stops yelling at me and groans with frustration. He struggles past me like the first and leaves behind him, as well, his addition to the growing red pathway.
I understand his frustrated groan and snap into action. I hurry against the oncoming rescuers, winding through the cars and trucks and crossroads into the heart of the tragedy. An intersection. Half bodies everywhere, most in pools of blood, most left lying on the street. People carrying the cut-off bodies into the street and one person running from one newly arrived body to another, checking pulses and either nodding with big head movements or shaking his head slightly.
“Runner!” yells one man. He is matted with blood, red stripes across his forehead where he no doubt wiped his eyes with bloody hands. I do not understand what ‘Runner’ means. I watch as another half-person is carried into the intersection. ‘Where did all these people come from?’ I think. ‘I thought we were fewer than this.’ Another person runs over to him, this one is less blood-covered. It’s a woman. She grabs one of the cut-off person’s arms, now just half the total number of limbs, and nods up and down with great urgency.
“Runner!’ the carrier yells. Now I understand, but still I do not move. Cannot move. My body is frozen and my mind races to take in the entire scene. A third man runs over, grabs the cut-off body and rushes toward and then past me.
I am startled by a loud ‘Runner, help!’ Right behind me. This time I react. I turn and dash towards the two expectant people, one holding the half-body and the other holding one of the body’s arms. A package, not a person. I stumble on something that gives slightly beneath my feet – a half body? – as I move forwards, but do not fall.
As I replay this scene in my mind, I recall that I did not even think to look back to see what it was. I was simply moving to accept the package, eyes fixed on the bloody brown blanket cradled in front of a standing person. I try to open my memory to see what the cradler looks like, or what passed for a Doctor, and nothing. I see only the human offered out to me like a package. Unmoving but declared alive. Wrapped up impossibly small in the brown blanket. More like a half puppet than a person.
I carry the blanket person to a medical facility on LaSalle I never knew existed. I hand off the dead body, I am certain he – she? – is dead since he never so much as wriggled once when I was carrying him, and begin the trip back against the flow. Others are now going this way, also on their return trip.
A few people are trying to make sense of what is happening, but I am too numb to do anything but follow and hear. Not even listen, just hear.
I heard enough as it turns out.
“A hotel,” says Amanda thoughtfully, not as if she had just seen one, but like it would be a good idea for some reason. We are now cruising down an open part of I-80. Just over the Pennsylvania border. Or just before it. My mind has been alternatively wandering and scanning the upcoming roadway for empties.
“A hotel?” I ask.
She is leaning forward on her seat. I notice she isn’t wearing a seatbelt and I think to say something then decide against it. A compliment to my driving skill or just the opposite?
“We just passed a hotel, a nice one, that looked full of cars-” she begins to explain.
I explain, “The Purge happened at-”
“I know when it happened,” she snips. “But where would you go if you were out in the middle of nowhere and everyone but you suddenly disappeared?” Her voice becomes more reasonable, but gains a little talking-to-a-slow-child tone. “Wouldn’t you at least stop by the fancy resort hotel up the roadway? If for nothing more but to have a little look inside?”
I want to disagree, but I think she is right. I wonder why this didn’t seem to be the trend in Chicago. I imagine that the houses of the rich and famous know have lodgers. But I also think that any remaining islanders would likely make a beeline for a suite at that ritzy resort at which they couldn’t even find a job.
“Did you see one?” I asked. She says nothing so I risk a glance her way (the empties sometimes appear out of nowhere) and see she is nodding. She catches my eye and jerks her head slightly backwards.
“Back about a mile,” she says.
I sigh, thinking about the lost time. She releases a little mean-spirited laugh and, as if she were reading my mind, says sarcastically, “I think our precision travel plans can spare the few minutes delay.”
I slow the car and hang a U-ey at the first place it says ‘No U-Turn.’
We arrive at the Sheraton, after a few missed turns, but never having to go around any cars, and pull up right in front. There are people in the lobby. Many of them. Most are sitting in the fuchsia sofa chairs with drinks in their hands and cheese and cracker plates on their knees. We have wandered into what looks to be a festive night. I had braced my mind for what I would see here, assuming it would be very little indeed or maybe something that looked like a kill-floor, but even so, this makes me slip back into that half-dream state I was in right after the Purge. I notice there’s a cloud of cigarette smoke above everyone’s heads, but this has become common again.
Before we can do much more than take in the surroundings, we are greeted by an over-exuberant man wearing a tuxedo and holding a cocktail. He is red-faced and drunk. He slurs out, “Drinksh are by th’ pool. Key car’sh are behind the front deshk.” I eye him curiously and see that he is staring unabashedly at Amanda. I glance at her as well. She is certainly very attractive and if I were as drunk as him, I’d likely think she were the most beautiful thing on the planet. She might actually be for that matter.
“If you have trouble yoo-shing the card machine, just ashk the conshierge.”
We both laugh at this joke, which likely everyone else has heard a hundred times, and can’t stop ourselves from turning, in unison, to look behind the front desk. There is, in fact, a man in a Sheraton outfit behind the counter.
“You thought I wash kidding!” he chortles, slapping his leg with his cigarette-wielding hand. I’m unsure if the concierge is the punch line or if the concierge happened to make it through the Purge and simply continued doing what he did before. This was uncommon, but there were still people reporting to work, in Chicago at least, either unable to deal with the new reality or simply believing that this was the best way to deal with it. The man behind the counter looks a little simple, so I assume he’s the unable to deal type. Or maybe he never noticed.
I ask Amanda, “One room or two?”
She groans, rolls her eyes just slightly and asks the drunk, “How many people are here?”
He responds, “Couple hundred. There’sh no more milk, but there’s plenty of food. You misshed dinner, but I’m sure Rando will ship – ship? – whip you up some pashta if you are really hungry.” In the time it takes him to say this, his cigarette ash falls onto the floor. And here’s the oddest thing, yet: He notices it, says “Oopshie-daishie!” and walks over the front desk. The simple Sheraton man gives him a brush and a crumb tray and the drunken tuxedo man gets down on his knees to clean it up. I can’t quite put my finger on why this seems so odd, but it does. Not as odd as the Fins. But not much less.
The tuxedo man struggles with the ash, so Amanda kneels down to help him. I walk over to front desk and declare, as nonchalantly as I can muster in this dream-like world, “Two rooms, please.”
Proving that he is not simple, he shoots me a quick look that says ‘too bad for you.’ I shrug. What can I do?
He smiles a little conspiratorially and asks, “Adjoining?” He makes our key cards for us, and, incredibly, circles the location of our rooms on a map, which he folds, encloses with the two cards in a card holder and hands them over the desk to me. I begin to walk towards Amanda, who is talking to the drunken man and two others partygoers who have joined her when the not-simple Sheraton man calls out. “Wait!”
“Do you need a credit card to secure the room?” I say turning and am pleased at my own joke. The man laughs appreciatively. I turn towards Amanda, but she didn’t hear.
The concierge asks, “What sizes are you two? Do you need any clothes? We have plenty of suitcases full. There’s good chance you’ll find one in your size and, maybe even, taste.” The dream-like state dissipates. This is back to the new normal for us.
I say, “No Thanks” to the clothes.
Amanda and I, a unit if not a couple, move the car (the concierge actually requested that we do so!) check into our adjoining rooms (something I have never seen before. Amanda locks the door on her side.) and make our way poolside for a drink.
The pool is in a giant atrium with an indoor dining area and balconies facing the interior. Quite nice, actually. You and your wife can have a drink on your own balcony and watch the kids in the pool. Or talk to the people on the balconies next to yours. I imagine, anyway. I’m not likely to have any of the above in my lifetime. What little I might have left. Amanda was right not to wear a seatbelt. We have already rolled craps and are simply waiting for the croupier to scrape away our chips.
We join the cocktail party, fall into a few conversations together, she starts talking to some woman I find uninteresting about who knows what, and we drift apart from each other. It’s all very normal. Until the music starts.
The Finning music competes with the hotel’s muzak. People crane their heads to try to see where this new music is coming from. Amanda and I, from across the large atrium, lock eyes. Her face is pale dread.
From a balcony above us, a man screams “The music! Not the music! Oh no! Run!” The hundred or so partygoers in the atrium turn towards him. He is dressed in blue dress shorts and a tan polo shirt. Not the crazy person many of them were expecting.
I join in. “A lake!” I yell. “Where is the nearest lake?” Now all heads turn towards me. People are bewildered. Many are uncertain what the game is. Amanda runs over to my side.
Except for the dueling musics, the place is silent. Amanda is loud and calm. “You all need to hurry to the nearest lake!” No one moves. “Is there a lake nearby?” she ask-yells. People look around at each other, uncertain about what is happening and if there are any lakes. The voice level in the atrium picks up. The music can still be heard, more clearly now that the voices have drowned out the hotel’s muzak. But not the Finning music. It seems to be the same loudness no matter how much background noise there is. Like it’s both above you and inside your head at the same time.
A woman on the balcony across from the blue-shorted man yells directly to Amanda, “There’s a fishing lake just a little ways up Route 8. North,” she says, explaining her ‘up’ more clearly.
I take charge, my head spinning from the music, from the memory, “Run everyone. North on Route 8. Jump in the lake!” People look around, more frantically, but no one moves. “Run!” I scream.
“Flee!” yells the blue-shorted man on the balcony. Still no one moves. I feel powerless, wondering if we should leave them to their horrible fate.
I look at Amanda. She shakes her head ‘no’ again reading my mind. She yells, “Goddamnit! Do it now! Don’t you people have ears?” Now people start to run. In all directions, but most out towards the lobby. “Run!” she yells. “You have no time to lose!”
As people move away from the center, towards the various exits and, unfortunately, many to their rooms, Amanda grabs my wrist.
“What about us?” she asks.
I shrug. “I don’t know.”
“Might as well go,” she says. But neither of us move. She is biting her lip. “Maybe staying is better. Faster.” She is staring right into my eyes, pleading for something but I do not know what.
She is about to say more, but I interrupt. “Let’s run,” I decide.
“Okay,” she says. I look around, trying to figure out the fastest way, but she drags me the opposite direction most people are leaving. “Route eight is this way,” she says.
The music is familiar, though you know you have never before heard it. Like a soft pop song playing in the background, without the lyrics, that just barely escapes you. You know you will place it if you just listen closely and someone can supply a few of the correct words. But, as strongly, you know you have never heard it before.
They all say there was some kind of eerie music playing.
That is what I heard (without listening) at the first finning, which due to the absence of water or, I imagine, knowing that water would make any difference, was strictly leggings.
I used this information at the second finning, but not knowing what to do, I simply ran. Away.
We were at the condo. Many of us were in the hall, but I was sitting on the green plaid sofa in my borrowed home. It was about four or five days after I carried the half person to the medical center. I had a drink in my hand. I know that because many minutes later my hand goes numb and when I look down I realize I am still carrying the glass, gripping it so tightly I cut off the blood flow in my hand.
It’s possible I was also looking at a magazine, a few months old now, that came with the room. Mainly, though, I was watching the hallway through my door. The people standing there, walking past and past again. And I recall thinking that this isn’t so bad. Fewer people. More stuff for all of us. Sure there’s no fresh milk and fruit will be hard to come by in the Winter, but there’s canned food and wine and cheese to last us for at least many years to come. We can slack off until the Spring for sure and until then I get to live in an upscale condo I could never have afforded working at Robbs & Dunn Incentives.
Then I heard the music. It didn’t have the directed sound it should have if it were coming in from the hall, so I thought maybe some was playing it on the street. Not blasting it – you don’t ‘blast’ light instrumental pop music – but playing it really loudly. I walked over to look out the window, but saw that the window was closed and remembered that my condo faced the river.
They all say there was some kind of eerie music playing.
Does this qualify as ‘eerie?’ I wonder. Not quite wonder, it was more of a hope that it didn’t. The music itself sounded like light piano – I could hear the piano – and a sort of a mix of acoustic and electric guitar. There was also a sort of humming vocal sound that could have been a person humming rhythmically or some sort of instrument. I’m not very good at picking out individual instruments. Bu I did hear that there were no drums. All in all a sort of psychedelic, instrumental pop with a familiar sounding hook. It’s not at all eerie in itself. But that’s what makes it so eerie.
They all say there was some kind of eerie music playing.
No one outside my doorway had noticed the music yet or was paying attention to it. I ran into the hall, apparently frantic since many of the people there looked at me like I were a crazy, and I could hear the music there as well. Just as loudly. As if it were coming from everywhere. Not from outdoors, but from hidden speakers in the walls, ceiling and floor. I actually looked around for the speakers, no doubt confirming in the minds of the other residents that I was, in fact, crazy.
“It’s the music!” I yelled. “We’re all going to lose our legs!” But I didn’t stop to wait to see what they would do, I ran to the stairs and more like jumped down the two flights into the lobby and then barreled through the people there into the street. They looked back and I said, “The music!” I’m not sure they knew what I meant, but they would if they only stopped flirting with each other to listen.
But what to do next?
There were many people in the street, again suddenly crowded, just like at the last scene but without all the blood. Others were looking around, I guess like I was, wondering what to do.
Here’s what I decided: Run. Run fast. Run until I could no longer hear the music. For some reason, which I cannot remember, I started running East. I think maybe because others were. Towards the lake. Lake Michigan.
For some time, I ran with another guy (I caught up to him I must say) and we tried to decide what was happening and what we should do, but we were panting too hard to really hear what each other was saying. I stopped to see if I could still hear the music, I could, but he kept running East. I decided to head more North so I didn’t run out of room.
Soon enough, I wound my way to the lake. I was dizzy and nauseous, since it was such a warm and humid day I suppose, so when I got to Lake Shore Drive, I had to stop and catch my breath. I could still hear the music.
A few people were staring at me, a batch of rollerbladers in their tight black Lycra, and I panted, “The music! The music!”
They shrugged and shook their heads and rolled away, oblivious. Couldn’t they hear the music? Maybe not. Did it follow you?
“So, what should we do?” a voice asked. When I stood up (I must have been bent over to catch my breath) there was a woman standing right in front of me. Sweat was beaded on her face and the low-cut collar of her shirt was soggy with it. She must have run here, as well. She was stunning.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Can you hear it, too, or am I crazy?”
She smiled – ever so slightly – but the tiny change was enough to light up her face. “Yes to both, possibly,” she deadpanned. Why wasn’t she so frantic? Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks, already pink, brightened. This was my first good look at Amanda, whose name I didn’t know yet, and I recall what I thought very clearly: Angels don’t get their legs ripped off.
I decided that I would stick with her. Stick with her whatever was decided or whatever happened in the next few- however long we had until whatever happened next happened.
When I caught my breath, she helped me steady myself – I must have run two miles in the last few minutes – we looked around to see what to do next. There were others who were stopped nearby. Many were in the Lake, swimming East, which didn’t seem that odd to me. Seemed like the place to go.
“Shall we jump in?” she asked. Her voice and manner were in direct contradiction to her sweaty clothes and the franticness of the other people nearby. We were the only two, as far as I could tell, who were no longer moving.
I had an uncontrollable need to make the music stop. It wasn’t any louder, but it was becoming increasingly deafening. I nodded. I wanted to get my head under the water to see if I could block out the music that way.
“OK,’ she said and she started dragging me towards the stone wall that we’d have to climb down to get to the thin beach.
I climbed down first, assuming I’d help her down, but she just sat on the edge and let herself fall. “Don’t!” I yelled, but it was too late. I was worried about her twisting an ankle. It was further down than it looked.
She landed on her feet, but fell sideways onto her butt. Sitting on the beach, she looked up and seeing my concern, rolled her eyes.
“You do know what is going to happen, right?” she asked. I did and now knew she did as well. I wondered why she could be so unconcerned. She continued, “A broken ankle is the least of our worries.” This was the first time she read my mind, an ability she seemed to have.
I helped her to her feet and we started to run towards the Lake when it happened.
You know the feeling when you slam the car door and then realize your keys are still inside? Or when you drop something and your mind doesn’t even bother letting you try to catch it, since it’s simply too late, and you are forced to slowly, oh so slowly, watch fate transpire.
Well, we were running towards the beach, hand in hand, ready to take just a few more steps and then plunge or dive in, when the music stopped. And we knew, or at least I knew, it was too late. What was too late, I didn’t know, so my analogy breaks down at this point. The keys in car feeling was there, but I had no idea what the fate would be in this case. Just that, whatever it was, it was too late. There was no ‘click’. There was no shimmer of light. There was nothing to let you know that, suddenly, a barrier had been passed, that everything had changed. But that it’s to say you couldn’t feel it, just that there was nothing to feel.
I saw the lake and felt myself continue to move towards it, but Amanda fell to the ground and dragged me down with her, face first, inches from the water, the wet sand on my face as I hit the ground.
My mind said not to look, but my eyes looked anyway. I expected to see, I don’t know what, mashed bone ends where her and my legs used to be. I felt the blood rushing out of my body and my mind becoming dizzy with the loss, but when my eyes focused, I saw a woman, black skirt twisted around two tanned thighs, then looking down, knees, calves, ankles, and feet. Sandals. With heels. She ran here in sandals with heels!? Amazing what women can do.
I looked at my own legs and saw that instead of big pools of blood and empty pants legs, I was intact.
But I knew we were changed. I could feel it. I knew the world was changed. Or at least a part of it, as it turned out. I could feel it.
Amanda was sitting up now, flexing her legs beneath her. I sort of rolled to a sitting position as well.
We must have been deaf, or in some sort of vacuum pocket, since it took a few moments for the screams to start sinking in. And it felt very much like we were in between two waves of them, one wave coming from the lakeside and another coming from the beach side. Both waves were high-pitched, but the lakeside ones were confused, horrified. The ones coming from the beach side were gurgling, desperate, and guttural.
Again, I didn’t want to look either way, I held my head in place, staring down the beach, past Amanda. I didn’t want to look. I knew what I would see. Or at least thought I did. Not precisely, but I knew it would be horrible, whichever way I looked. I grit my teeth, felt the pain in my jaw from the effort, and willed myself not to look, not to even let my eyes twist either way.
The screams form both sides increased, the ones from the beachside became more and more primal. The ones from the lake became more pleading, but less horrified. A chorus of ‘Oh my God! Help me!” from both sides, in very different keys and urgencies.
Amanda snapped me out of my refusal to look. OK, I admit it, out of my frozen panic.
She said, simply, but compellingly, “We have to do something.” No emphasis on any words. Her arms were out, one angled towards the lake and one towards the beach and the street.
Finally, I allowed myself to look.
First I looked towards the lake, knowing this would be the less tragic side. At first I didn’t see anything odd. People were flailing and screaming as though they were drowning, but none looked as though they were having trouble keeping their heads above water. Just the opposite, in fact, they were bobbing up and own in the water as if they were propelling themselves upwards quite well. These were the people – people? – that caught my eye first. There were some that were truly drowning, flailing sideways, like fish that had lost their sense of balance and were swimming sort of on their edge. I thought to swim in and rescue one in particular, an oldish, somewhat heavy-set man, close to the beach, who simply looked puzzled, but was gasping as the waves rolled over his mouth and face.
Before I did that, however, I glance to the beach side. This scene I understood. Blood puddles alongside half people. Their screams, weakening yet increasingly prolonged, felt more like stabs to my temples than pleas for help.
On both sides, everyone was staring directly at me, at us, expecting help.
Still, though, I was unable to move. Frozen. This was a dream. The air was thick, hazy. My head was clouded. I was thinking slowly.
I watched Amanda, shaky like a newborn colt, struggle to her feet.
“Why?” she asked me. Her open hands gesturing downwards to her legs, yet arms open enough to, perhaps, indicate the whole scene around us. “Why?” she asked again, louder. I had no answers, nothing to say. Unsure I could speak anyway, so I didn’t even try. In fact, I didn’t even get up. I sat there on the beach, looking from one side to the other, watching the people glaring at me. They were appalled at my unwillingness to move. I was horrified at their very different predicaments.
I found myself watching the struggling old man. He had given up and was simply letting the lake drown him. There was something wrong with his legs. Something wrong with the legs of everyone in the lake. I couldn’t quite tell, but they seemed to work wrong. Stronger, less balanced. Flashes of dark instead of flesh when they struggled. But my eyes were focused on the old man who was watching me back. Our eyes meeting each other’s and locking. Everything else I saw was in a fish lens around that point and less distinct.
He was drowning and I was letting him. He didn’t want to live with whatever it was that had happened and I was too stunned to move. He was rolled towards the beach and I saw, clearly, what had happened. Below his waist, instead of legs, was one huge fin. A shortened, wider mermaid’s tail, I guess, would be the best way to describe it.
The lake rolled him into shallow enough water that he would likely no longer drown – or at least not quickly. I found myself walking towards him, unable to remember ever standing up and testing my legs.
Amputation victims, I knew, believed they still had the missing limbs and I figured that this was likely my case. I thought I was walking towards him, believing that there was a finned old man being washed ashore, but really I was feeling my phantom legs and hallucinating the scene from blood loss. I felt no pain, focusing on the dull giving thud of my feet on the beach and then the deepening water, so I really didn’t care.
I saw myself dragging this man further onto the beach. I heard a voice ask, “Can you breathe air?” It was an incredibly good question and I looked over to see the brilliant person who asked it. Amanda. She was standing next to me, soaking wet. I had no idea, at that time, how she came to be drenched, as the water by the old man was barely up to my knees. My knees. My working, impossibly present, knees.
I was staring at my knees and never heard the finned man’s answer, but whatever it was, when I looked back at him, he was drawing even breaths and sort of half-sitting in a U-shape by us, his fin up out of the waves and the place it was attached, which I wanted to see, under the cloudy, sandy water.
Cold and heartless as it might seem, and I am holding tightly onto the realism of our decision, we spent the rest of the afternoon helping the finned people and letting the legless ones simply moan themselves to death.
I dragged strugglers to shore while Amanda walked back and forth between the beach and Walgreens filling requests for drinks and, though it seemed odd at first, maps. She carried gallon bottles of water along the beach, letting the thirsty finned people drink their fill.
I must have dragged fifty people, of all shapes and sizes, but all the same really, to the beach. If other people came to help, and I cannot imagine this wasn’t the case, I did not notice.
It was all a dream. The last part of the day I recall is suddenly snapping awake with Amanda sitting next to me. She kissed my forehead and, with a real smile, said, “Don’t wake up. You did all that was required.” An Angel. The angel of my legs.
And now we’re in the car, driving north on route eight looking for the fishing lake. Amanda grabs my thigh, fairly high up, and, for a second, I feel a thrill. The second passes when I see her expression of desperation not lust.
“Promise me,” she says.
“I promise,” I say quickly, turning back to the road just in time to see an empty in front of me. I swerve off the road and down the embankment, hoping the car doesn’t get stuck in the wet ground.
She groans, but her grip on my thigh neither slackens nor tightens. “Really, Martin. Promise me that if I lose my legs, you’ll let me bleed to death.”
“I promise,” I say just as quickly as before. I knew what she had meant the first time and I am a little busy right now! The car’s tires seem to finding just enough traction, as we slowly grind back up the embankment.
“Really promise,” she commands. Her hand tightens on my thighs, her nails dig in. I’m sure they draw blood.
“Jesus!” I yell. “I’m driving here, do you want to get us killed?” She removes her hand from my leg and leans back in the passenger seat, arms crossed.
“Like it matters how we die,” she says.
“It does to me,” I say coldly.
“Really?” she asks, seriously.
I look at her and her expression is warm. Maybe even caring? I think about her question as seriously as she asked it, but before I can come to a decision, I see the lake appear to the right in front of us. Many of the people from the hotel are already there, most facing our way, recognition and hope in their faces as we approach. I pull the car off the road and stop.
Before we get out, I say, “I don’t know. But I guess I’d like to see how this nightmare ends.”
She smiles weakly. I hurry to the lake, to the crowd waiting for our advice and, I imagine, assurances. Amanda walks towards the lake. She is in no hurry.
Amanda is sitting on the lakeshore. I’m sitting below her, in the lake. The hotel guests, those that have made it this far and believed what I had to say, have all been coerced into the lake. The rest are either still at the hotel by the pool listening to the dueling musics and drinking, those stupid SOBs, or have come here, refused to get into the lake, and made their way back.
People here are pretty much silent or whispering softly. The music is the dominant noise.
I look around and see a couple sitting on the hillside about a hundred yards away, up, watching us and the people in the lake. I try to wave them down, but the female flashes me the finger. And a defiant expression. I shrug. Never has justice for rudeness been more certain.
“Martin?” begins Amanda, again with the serious voice. Now that we know what’s going to take place and are simply waiting for it, we are, actually, more afraid. “What do you think is happening?”
I know she doesn’t mean right here and now, but overall. I shrug. I ask a question in return, “Do you believe in God?”
She doesn’t miss a beat in her response. “I didn’t, really, until a few days ago. Until after Jenna and-, my kids, disappeared. Then I believed in God, but not very nicely.” A pause. “Now?” She waves her hands at the people in the lake. “Why would a God do this? But, on the other side, how could it happen without some sort of larger being or force?”
Amanda is smart. Smarter than me, I know. But I think her intelligence is getting in the way here. It seems fairly obvious what is going on to me. I explain my thinking out loud. “Whatever God or gods or, call them overlords, we have have decided that they no longer want people with legs. They want people with flippers.”
“Then they are not very nice about the way they are arranging it,” she says, angry.
“I’m not sure God has ever been that nice,” I say. “Noah’s ark and all.”
She rolls her eyes. “That’s just a story. A story that doesn’t make sense when you analyze it.”
Now, I roll my eyes. “Two thousand years from now, when the Bible or whatever book the new civilization writes, will-”
Suddenly everything changes. I feel nothing physical, like I did last time, but I can still feel the music stop. Not just hear it, but feel it. Like walking into an air-conditioned room from the hot outside, that wave of difference, only here the temperature remains the same. And, in my peripheral vision I see everyone in the water suddenly drop down a few feet, like water became suddenly deeper. And the couple on the hill, mocking us just a few seconds ago, collapse into a puddle of red.
Then everyone starts screaming.
Amanda gasps, but her legs are still crossed below her. I stand up. I’m fine as well. I still have legs. The people on the hill cannot be helped, but those in the lake will need transportation to a river. They cannot stay in the lake forever.
I walk out of the lake and offer my hand to Amanda, helping her up. I’m amazed that we’re both so calm this time. So collected. Just a short week ago, this same scene numbed me into inaction for at least ten minutes and then into a hazy, robotic rescue effort. This time, it’s like a movie you’ve seen before. No shock that the butler did it. He did it last time. And you know exactly how and where.
Amanda rocks back and forth on her heels a few time and sighs. “I almost wish-“ she starts, but doesn’t finish. She yells to the people in the lake, unmoved by their pleas for help or even by those who swam far out and are now seemingly struggling to stay afloat, “Stay here! Martin and I are going to get a truck to bring you to a river!” She turns on her heels and starts walking towards our borrowed SUV.
yells someone from behind us. “What did you say?”
I stop and turn to explain, but she grabs onto my shirt and yanks me forward with her. “They’ll figure it out,” she says, coldly. “Those who heard will tell the others.” I wonder what she is thinking. Before I can ask, she asks, “Do you have an Atlas in your car?”
It’s not my car, but I know what she means. “I’m pretty sure I threw one in the pack,” I say.
She says nothing. I know she is hurting, so I don’t interrupt her reverie.
We turn right at the highway, instead of left back to the hotel, since I know I saw a line of trucks at a rest stop a few miles back the night before. They’ll likely all have their keys in them. In the pockets of clothes that used to be drivers. We find a truck that suits our purpose. Not too big, so I’m fairly sure I can drive it, but large enough that we think we can pack sixty or so fish-people into the back.
“Think they need water to live?” I ask.
“No,” she says. But I’m not sure she has considered their welfare with any real empathy. “Let’s go back to the hotel for a second,” she says. “I left some of my things in the hotel room.”
“You can just pick more-”
She snaps back, angry, “No I can’t!” Then softer, defeated, she explains, “They’re personal.” The rest of the ride she sits knees drawn tightly into her chest, arms wrapped around them, silent. I can see the very edges of her underwear through her shorts legs.
Back at the hotel, the scene is horrifying. It’s like someone swabbed the atrium floor with the blood of the half-people. The dead are everywhere. I don’t remember the hotel being so full of people, but they must have been in their rooms when we arrived. They must have dragged themselves down the stairs and into the open. I imagine that the stairways have rivers of blood on them ending with pajama-clad half-bodies. I’m glad our rooms are on the first floor.
Most of the people – people? – laying in their blood circles are well dressed, like they were when we left less than a hour ago. As surreal as the scene was when we first got here, the partygoers celebrating when the world was collapsing around them, this is beyond surreal. If that’s possible. It’s like entering a gate of hell. What are all the gates again? Was there one for Disbelievers? That’s what they are. They wouldn’t take us at our word and had to see for themselves. Dumb Asses! I stop myself from yelling at them. I do not want to even pretend I notice their suffering, their stupidity. But they have been punished enough. I suddenly feel a wave of sympathy. Those that are still barely alive are certainly suffering, and those that died suffered plenty.
The ones that did listen are in a small lake awaiting their truck ride to the river. Maybe not much better off, but at least alive. I look down at my legs, glad to have them. I wonder why Amanda isn’t as thrilled, or at least relieved, to have been spared.
Amanda doesn’t stop or even slow to take in the scene. She is simply walking around the puddles of blood, giving the well dressed legless half-people a wide berth as she makes her way to our rooms.
“Just … some … water,” groans someone of some sex to my left, but I don’t look. I cannot. There is nothing I can do. Even spending the next hour fulfilling their last wishes would be a waste. There are living to attend to. Finned, but in all other ways, perfectly fine. Alive? Definitely. Human? Maybe.
I go to my room first and look around. It’s your standard hotel room. I am surprised it’s clean, the bed neatly made. Did I even come in here? Yes, I remember opening the doors between our rooms and having Amanda shut and lock hers. But that’s it. I don’t think I came back here since that time.
Was anyone here between the Purge and now? Did someone sleep here and leave and then, who?, make up the bed and clean the room. I wonder if they washed out the bathtub, let alone sterilized it. Maybe a couple of the maid staff are still plugging away at their jobs, like the front desk guy. I wonder where he is now.
My room is an oasis. With the door shut, with the darkness broken only from the yellowish light in the atrium, coming in subtle waves from the generators, I am away from the horror, alone. I sit on my bed and think to turn on the television, but that was before. There is no television now. No internet. No radio even. I bet someone somewhere has a working ham radio, whatever they are, and is contacting others with ham radios all across the world. Assessing the damage. We know the US is not alone, that all the world was effected. Or at least we think we know. Everyone seems to have heard it, and know it, and believe it as truth, but is it really true?
I open the mini bar and remove a pack of chips and a Sprite, ignoring the warm wave of sour milk air that pours out. I shut the mini bar. Normally, I’d grab the alcohol, but the last think I need now is a drink. Things are drunk enough.
Where’s Amanda? She must have been able to collect her things by now and I’m sure she knows I’d be in my room. She’s always a step ahead of me.
I bang on the door between our rooms. And wait. Nothing. I bang again and wait. Still nothing. Just to make sure, I turn the handle and push. The door swings open. Unlocked. Again, she’s one step ahead.
I peek in her room and see her sitting on the edge of her bed, staring at something in her hand. She is curled mostly into a ball and is rocking back and forth slowly, surely crying.
I go no closer. “Are you okay?” I ask. I know she’s not. Dumb thing to ask. Thoughtless, Martin. “Anything I can do?” Better.
She stuffs whatever she has in her hands into her pocket and rubs her eyes. She looks up, a hunted animal that’s too tired to fight anymore. She is wearing brown shorts now, and a red top. The top is the changed item. Her clothes don’t match for the first time since I met her. Or at least I don’t think they match. I know nothing about fashion. I’m still wearing my wet clothes, I realize.
“I’ll be back,” I say. “I’m still in my soaking clothes.”
“I’ll be ready,” she says with a sigh.
I have no dry clothes in my room, they are all in the truck- No they aren’t. I left the pack in the SUV. Crud! Unless Amanda grabbed it. I doubt she was thinking clearly enough to grab it either. Maybe she did. I hope she did. If not, we’ll just have to go back and get it.
The atlas is in it, plus all those nice clothes, and underwear, I grabbed from SportMart.
I go out in the hall and start looking in the open doors. I dread what I will find, but luckily the second room I try has a suitcase of clothes open on the bed that are close enough to my size that I snatch a pair of khaki shorts and the maroon, no the navy, no the maroon polo shirt. There are socks, which I take, and a few pairs of underwear that look clean, I wonder how, but since they aren’t in the wrapper, I don’t bother. It’s hard to be careful with your hygiene when running water means finding a river. There are boat shoes and sneakers by the side of the bed. Mine are soaking because I didn’t bother to take them off when I went into the lake. Neither pair fits, so I drop the socks. Wait, maybe I’ll need them, I pick them up again. Most people by the lake did take off their shoes, so there’ll surely be a pair that fits me there.
I start changing and hope Amanda interrupts me. I glance to the open door, knowing that the only one who could possibly walk by is Amanda and that’d be fine. If you were the last man on earth…
No Amanda before I finish changing, so I wander back to my room and cut through to hers.
“Nice shorts,” she says. I turn. She is sitting on my bed, her leather backpack half strung over her shoulder. She is wearing a tight gray knee-length skirt now and the new red shirt. Her hair is slicked back. Washed? But how? Women can find a place to wash their hair in the desert.
She slides off the edge of the bed, standing up. She says, “Let’s get this over with and continue our trip.” She seems almost enthusiastic.
“You’re all right?” I ask.
She laughs, a cross between sarcasm and scorn. “Oh, I am so perfectly fine,” she says. “My husband and children are dead. There are people with fins in a lake waiting to give us grief for trying to help. And there are more people without legs in a lake full of their own blood everywhere else we look.” She looks at me as if I were oblivious. “What’s not to like?”
I let her speak, but now I am annoyed. “If you want me to just go, I will,” I say as bluntly as I can muster. I hope she doesn’t take me up on my offer.
“You don’t mean that,” she says simply. Then, with just a hint of warmth, “I know you’re trying. I appreciate it. And, to be honest, am a little impressed at your ability to muddle on into the unknown and-“ she pauses to find the right words, “-probably unbearable future.”
She walks right over to me, her face gently raised towards mine, but her hands are on her hips, so it’s not an advance. She says, “You were great at the beach. Both of them. I respect you for that.”
“But?” I ask.
“There are no buts,” she says. “I am not going to apologize for my moodiness or mean-spiritedness. You cannot understand how much I have lost. Or how little I have left to live for.”
I start to protest, but she quickly shuts me down with a hard stare.
“Listen, Martin,” she says. “I am hoping that at any moment I wake up and you are gone and my life is back. I hate to say this, but if even only one of my kids were returned, if just one of them magically reappeared, Tessa or Matt, just one of them, I’d be able to, able to-” She is biting her lips and her eyes are swelling with water. “Oh, to hell with it. Let’s go back to the lake.” She turns quickly and begins to walk out of the room.
She might be right that I can’t understand her loss. It’s better to have loved and lost. Try it sometime. So it’s easier for me. I understand that. But it’s not better. And I’d give anything, the rest of my life, whatever that might be, for an hour of the easy family life she lost. One game of, whatever, Life, Monopoly, Risk, with my kids. I still hope that someday, somehow, I’ll have that. It’s still possible. If not Amanda, then maybe another woman. People have survived with less than this. I look at the hotel room and out the window to the atrium, careful to only look up and not at the horror on the floor. We have so much to build on. More than they had in the Middle Ages. So what if there is no electricity or running water. We have buildings and stores full of clothing and medicines and canned foods. All the animals are here and they should be fairly easy to kill and eat now, since most are used to seeing humans. Shit, many of them are likely starving in cages in the zoos. And the fields, though untended, are full of growing crops and the tools we need to farm them. Surviving, if we’re allowed, will be easy.
Amanda will come around, I think. But to her back what I say is this: “Did you remember to grab the pack from our SUV?”
She turns and her expression is blank. Her look is piercing. As if I understood nothing. “Yes,” she says matter-of-factly.
I bet she was a great wife. But I hope she was a little less moody back then.
At the bottom of the hill at the crossroads to route eight is a Speedway.
“I have an idea,” I tell Amanda, but she doesn’t so much look up from her reverie to ask about it. “Stay here a sec,” I suggest, as if she would follow me anyway.
I grab a flashlight, even though the moon is fairly bright, hop out of the truck, and enter the convenience store portion of the gas station. It’s one of those really nice ones, which I imagine would have made it very easy for travelers to pick up some snacks, fill up the car, and keep to their schedule, hurrying to grandma’s by dinner. Or breakfast if they traveled overnight.
The place has been pretty well looted, more proof that it was a convenient place, but I find what I am looking for. More maps and Ziploc bags. I grab a pack of the largest bags, then decide to simply take them all. If I had to swim for the rest of my life, I think Ziplocs would come in handy.
I look around the store before I leave. Someone has taken a dump on the floor in the corner. Jerk! There are two perfectly fine bathrooms not more than a few steps away. Maybe they’re not working properly, but port-a-potties are just holes in the ground as well. If you can’t find a spot in the woods, at least go in what used to be a working bathroom.
Never miss the opportunity to relive yourself, I decide, in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, and go to open the Men’s. It’s locked. I try the Women’s. Also locked. The guy couldn’t walk to the counter and get the key? Lazy bastard. I put my maps and bags onto the counter and hop over it. The cash register has been rifled. I chuckle. Like money has any value right now. All the batteries are gone of course. And so are all the cigarettes. This is normal. If I were a smoker, I’d certainly not be in a hurry to give up the habit anymore. Actually, I might. But then again, I’m not, so it’s a worthless discussion.
There’s no bathroom key. I guess if you have to go, you have to go and at least he went near the bathrooms. But he could have just broken the door down. I hop back over the counter and walk to the Men’s room. I kick the door, but it doesn’t give. I run my shoulder against it, there’s not a lot of room to maneuver, and Ouch! That was stupid! Damn it!
I lean my back against the Women’s door and slam my feet against the Men’s. I hear a ‘crack.’ I try harder once, twice and – the door swings mostly open. Oh my god! It smells like rotted death! I plug my nose and look in. I aim my flashlight. That’s enough of a look! I turn the flashlight away.
There are bodies in there. How is that possible? They would have disappeared during the Purge. This had to happen afterwards. Or before. They’re too rotten to be new legless. That was still just an hour or so ago. I check my watch. Not even 90 minutes. And though I did not get, want, a clear look, I could tell that there are more than one.
I can’t imagine how dead people would have gotten into a locked bathroom. A fight over batteries and cigarettes, perhaps? I guess I’ll never know. There are many things I guess I’ll never know now.
Normally this would have shaken me up for months, I think. Or at least made me run from the store, but I take walk up and down the four aisles to see if there’s anything I might need and decide to grab a couple gallons of water from the drinks case. The rotten milk smell rushes out at me and trades places with the corpse smell. This apocalypse is pungent!
I hurry outside and yank open the passenger side door of the tuck. “Amanda-” she’s gone! I knew she’d leave the first chance she got. I look around to see if I can still see her and she’s over by the diesel pumps. She has a pump in her hand and when she catches my eye she smiles and squirts some on the ground in front of her.
“It still works!” she yells. “I’m not sure how, but it does!” she seems excited at her find.
“Good work!” I yell back, unsure what else to say. An attractive woman, dressed in tight urban clothing, doubtful she has a bra on, with a diesel pump in her hands. Not quite my woman, but close enough. A feel a little pride and wonder if there will ever be anyone to admire my ability to attract such a female. This is a very strange world now.
We fill up the truck, still wondering how the diesel continues to flow when the unleaded has stopped. I know so little about how gas stations work. Or power or water for that matter. I don’t think I’m the right person to rebuild society. I’m sure we can’t be the only two people to still have legs. There must be places, like our hotel was earlier this evening, where the music hasn’t hit yet. Did we bring it? Are we the harbingers of doom? The ring wraiths?
“What do you think?” I ask Amanda, who is staring out the window of the truck as we slowly push the empty out of the highway – the one we went around with our SUV – so we can continue our way to the lake, “Is the music moving East with us?”
She doesn’t answer. I sigh. She is becoming more and more bipolar as we proceed.
I manage to slowly push the car off the embankment and as I am backing up, not such a simple task, I will give truckers far more room if they ever become a breed again.
Amanda says, “There’s someone, two of them, on the overpass.”
I didn’t even notice the overpass on the way here, but another road crosses over route eight and there is, indeed, two figures waving to us from the overpass. I roll the truck to stop in front of it and exit the cab. Amanda opens here door and follows.
“Ahoy!” I yell.
One of them yells back, “Stay there. We’re coming down!” It’s a man dressed all in black. Black muscle shirt and black pants. The other one is also a man, dressed in a red muscle shirt and similar black pants.
“Be careful,” Amanda says to me, not much more above a whisper. I, too, am suddenly nervous, remembering, but not planning to mention, the corpses in the Speedway.
“Don’t come down!” I yell. “Stay there and tell us what you want!” But the man in black continues to walk towards the edge of the overpass. “I have a gun!” I yell. It’s in the truck, but he doesn’t know that. I can’t believe I left it in the truck. I won’t make that mistake again.
The man in red laughs, overly loud. “We all have guns!” he says. “What we need is a little trust.” The man in black laughs as well. Amanda is watching me, expecting protection and without the gun I am useless. She looks like she is afraid of being raped. As low as she thinks she has sunk, I can imagine how her life can get worse.
“We’re rescuing some people!” I yell back. “We’ll come back this way on our way through.” I eye Amanda towards the cab, but she is already moving.
“Stop!” yells the man in black, but I do not. He starts to run towards us, but he has a long way to go and the hill down is full of skree, likely treacherous for fast progress. Even so, he makes it to level ground before our truck starts to move. He runs towards us, but we are too far and picking up too much speed for him to catch us.
I watch him in the rearview mirror, expecting him to draw his gun and shoot, but he only throw his arms in the air in frustration, gesturing towards the sky. The red man has crossed to our side and is on the overpass making the same movements.
“Thank god!” exclaims Amanda.
“I think they were okay,” I say, though I really can’t see any upside to taking them with us. I certainly don’t want them to have a chance with Amanda.
“Like I need any more grief,” she responds softly. And then, out of the blue, she adds, “Once we get rid of the fish, let’s find a bookstore.”
Eyes on the road ahead, watching the lake come into view, I ask, “What are you looking for?”
“Books,” she says. I turn my head, angrily, but realize she is completely distracted. On autopilot. She meant nothing by her obvious response.
I watch Amanda exit the bookstore.
First order of business, I guess. I wanted to stop off at a clothing store. We had passed a Kohl’s and I figured they’d have plenty to wear, or perhaps another store in that Mall, but Amada saw a free-standing Borders and decided we needed to go there first.
After what I said, I thought it’d be politic for me to remain in the van, swiveling back and forth on the seat, while she looked for books, but I wish I had followed her in. She made me cool my jets for quite a while. I wonder if she grabbed a coffee and a, what do the yuppies– did the yuppies snack on while they were supposedly book shopping? A scone? A muffin. No, there was something else. Sort of like those chew breaks they give to kids. What are those called? But with chocolate and hazelnuts and other crud baked into them.
I had decided that I wouldn’t mind a book either and was just about to go in, when I saw her coming out.
She doesn’t wave or even catch my eye as she threads her body and the large bags she’s carrying through the shattered front glass doors. She walks toward the van, glances around somewhat confusedly, sees me, and then nods as if she recalls what our car now looks like. Not even a smile. We’re not getting along. I’m frustrated by her coldness to me. I don’t know what her problem is.
I’ll probably dump her at the next town of people we find. If we find one. Not here. That’s for sure. This place looks empty. And it was a dump to start with.
She opens the sliding van door, steps in and slides the door behind her. So much for being social and sitting next to me. She sets her bags on the table between the second row of seats and climbs through the space between the front seats.
“Thanks for waiting,” she says as she brushes by me. Then she sits in the passenger seat and buckles herself in. “I needed that,” she says. “I really did.” She is smiling at me. She looks more relaxed than she has since I met her. “And I do appreciate your patience, though,” she teases slightly, “you could have come in. Only the books in the- Hmm, I can’t think of a good joke. Never mind.” She smiles at me and shrugs. “But you could have come in. It would have been nice.”
Now I’m fine with her. My anger is gone. I shrug. “I needed a few minutes by myself,” I lie. “To think.”
“I completely understand,” she says. She places her hand on my shoulder. It’s the first time she has touched me other than to drag me one place or another or threaten me. It feels nice. But I’m still dumping her at the next town. Maybe I’ll find someone else. So far I’ve managed pretty well and have kept her perfectly out of harm. Not that she appreciates any of this.
“There were half dead people in there,” she says. “It wasn’t a good place to clear your mind, anyway.”
“Half dead or dead halves?” I ask.
“The latter,” she says. Then, as if it’s part of the same thought, ads, “Let me show you something I found at Borders.” She climbs back, ruffles through one of the bags and produces a thin, black and orange book.
“I can’t read the title from here,” I say.
“On the Beach,” she says anticipating my reaction. Is it a joke? I’m not sure I get it. “On the Beach,” she says again, more slowly. “You know, that apocalypse story about the nuclear attack?”
I remember and laugh. It’s absurd to be reading books about an apocalypse when we’re pretty much living through one. But I do appreciate the humor.
“I saw that movie,” I say. And then I realize it’s where I got the quote that’s been running through my head. It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Try it sometime. I replay the scene in my head. An Australian female said the first line to the American sub captain. And he responded with the second.
“What?” she asks, concerned.
“Are you planning on reading it?”
“I was thinking of it. To see if there is any advice in it for us.”
“You might want to choose another one,” I say quickly. I don’t plan to explain any further and hopes she simply takes me at my word. She shoots me a curious look, but I refuse to get into it. It’s like shooting myself in the foot. To try to thread the needle, I ask, “Did you see the movie?”
“A long time ago,” she says. “But I read the book recently.” I can see her mind working. “Okay, so not that recently,” she says jokingly. She has never been in this good of a mood. It won’t last.
“Think about it,” I say.
She begins to recount the storyline to me, but I’m not listening so much as waiting for the moment where she realizes that she’s the sea captain in our true-life version. She winds to a halt fairly quickly, opens the van’s window casually, and tosses the book out.
I nod and look for the Kohl’s sign.
“Stop!” she yells suddenly. I think she wants to go back for the book, but she says, “There’s someone waving to us from that store. The Osco.” I stop and look. No chance anything is going to rear-end us.
I don’t see anyone. “Where?” I ask.
“Look,” she points. I follow her finger. “Behind the door to the liquor side.” I see what looks like an older woman, but something is wrong with her. “She’s in a wheel chair I think,” says Amanda.
I swing the van around and drive as close to the door as I can. The woman rolls away as we get closer. Likely just to buy herself some time in case we are dangerous, it’s probably nothing sinister, but I grab the gun anyway. I can’t find anywhere to hide it in the khaki shorts. I wish we had stopped for clothing first.
“She’s finned,” guesses Amanda. It’s a good guess.
“I wonder if she wants to be brought to a lake?” I ask not expecting an answer just yet.
“I doubt it,” says Amanda. “She probably just wants to die.”
“Not everyone thinks like you do,” I say before I can stop myself. She glares at me, but I continue anyway, “If she just wants to die, why did she wave us over?”
Not finding anywhere else to put the gun, I slide it down the back of my pants, like all the people do in the movies.
“Good point,” says Amanda matter-of-factly. “I wonder why she did call us over?” This is the first time Amanda has agreed with me. Is it? I think back. Perhaps I’m being overly cruel, but she does seem to think she figures out everything first.
Inside the Osco, we can see that it had been turned into a mini-hospital, as were many of the drugstores in downtown Chicago.
We hear the woman’s voice from somewhere inside and a bright light is being pointed at us. “Let me see you,” she demands.
Amanda steps fully into the light, but I’m a little more wary.
“We’re here because you waved us over,” I declare. “We’re not looking for finned people to hurt.” I suddenly feel tired. Why bother if even helping people is going to be this hard? “Either tell us what you want or I’m leaving,” I say. Actually, I think I might just leave anyway. I want clean clothes. I want a shower and a hot meal. It’s actually not so bad, this apocalypse, if it would just stop and stay in one place. Before I give her time to answer, I say “Well? What is it?”
“Be nice,” chides Amanda.
I sigh. Last woman with legs on the earth and she’s a nagger.
“I’m really getting kind of tired of this,” I say to Amanda. “They don’t want to be helped. They just want, I don’t know, to drag you down with them.”
“How much lower can we go?” she asks. “How much lower can they drag us?”
“Don’t forget the rapists on the overpass,” I remind her.
She turns full to face me. “We don’t know they were rapists,” she says uncertainly, unnerved, “but point taken. Point taken.” Then she addresses the finned wheelchair lady, saying, “We’re just here to help. It’s kind of what we’ve been chosen to do.”
The truth in Amanda’s words hits me like a fist. I feel the same change that coursed through me on the beach in Chicago. That is why we’ve been spared. She’s right! We’re supposed to help the people in the water. The finned. Give them water, maps, food. Whatever they want. If you don’t get into the water you lose your legs. That’s supposed to drive us into the water. If you get into the water you get fins. I don’t know why, but you do. If you are close to getting into the water, you get to keep your legs so you can help those in the water adjust. Save them from drowning. Point the way. To where? Point the way to where? And what happens to us, the handful of us, because there cannot be too many, who were close enough to the water to keep their legs, once the Fins are settled? What happens to us? And who is doing this? Or what?
I find myself getting into the van, but I cannot remember walking out of the Osco. I look back to see Amanda yelling to me from the door we entered.
“Martin.” Not a yell, just saying my name to get my attention.
What can I do? I ask her by putting my palms out in front of me.
“She’s coming with us,” says Amanda rolling the woman in her wheelchair forward.
I shrug. I don’t care one way or another and it’s not like anyone’s asking me anyway. I remove a seat (It snaps out fairly easily actually) while Amanda jerry-rigs a ramp out of store shelving. In this way, the woman, whose name is Beatrice of all things, is rolled on board. Amanda sits in the passenger seat, which is nice, but swivels her chair around facing the woman.
Beatrice is about sixty years old and has a red plaid blanket on her legs. No doubt an Osco blanket. She looks unwell. Seasick. But not glassy-eyed like seasick people usually look.
“I think you need to be in water,” say Amanda.
“I would like to go to the sea,” says Beatrice. “But I don’t think I’ll be getting into the water,” she says fatalistically.
Amanda looks over at me and winks. We were both right.
After a while on the road, the old woman asks, uncertainly, “Are you two married?”
“Ha ha,” says Amanda, not very generously.
“No,” I say. “But we fight like we’re married.”
“Yes, but you do not act like you are,” Beatrice says. She starts the first syllable of a word, but decides against it and says, “It would be too much to ask for, wouldn’t it? To keep both your husband and your legs.”
Both Amanda and I leave this comment untouched. I wonder how far we are to the ocean, even adding in the detours for empties and tollbooths. It’s been slow going. What used to be an hour’s travel sometimes takes half a day with all the obstructions.
It can’t be more than ten hours to Philadelphia and I think they have a seaside. I hope she doesn’t think we’re taking her to Cape Cod. I do not ask for the Atlas, since I think Beatrice will take it personally.
“What do you folks believe is going on?” she asks.
“You mean overall? In the world?” I ask. This is the conversation I want to have and I am glad there is someone else to ask Amanda what she has determined. I think she has a pretty well laid out idea, but I don’t want to be the one to ask her.
“To phrase it more concisely,” she says, “why do I have a fishtail now?”
I chortle, but I’m not sure she was trying to be funny. Either way, even through everything that has happened this last, has it been only two weeks since the Leggings and Finings began?, this type of question is not something one would expect in normal day-to-day conversation. Not that there is any of that anymore. Or ever will be. But even so, it still strikes me as funny.
Amanda explains her thoughts and they are pretty much what I expected to hear after her comment in the light at Osco. We’re just here to help. It’s kind of what we’ve been chosen to do.
She explains, “Whatever overlord there is has decided that people are no longer of use and he or she, must be a he because it’s so damn Pavlovian-“
“I disagree,” I say, but she continues on.
“He has decided that the best way to make us into the new toy is to teach us to get into the water once the music stops.”
“A live or die game of musical chairs,” I interject.
“I wonder if there’s anything to that,” says Amanda. She continues, “So we learn, the hard way, but we do learn, that we move to the water when, before the music stops. I assume when we get to the ocean, to the places where water is more of a day-to-day amusement, that we’ll find many more thousands of finned people and that there were fewer people who lost their legs. We just happened to have lived in an area where escaping to the water wasn’t our first resort. Don’t forget the world is two-thirds water. Add to that, the fact that big bodies of water are necessary for all life. Not many people live far from one.”
I think she must be right. I felt a pull to the ocean, but I used to live near Cape Cod, so we did “escape into the water,” as she calls it, every chance we could. Too hot? Jump into the water. Sweaty or dirty? Jump into the water. Just bored? Jump into the water.
“And then what?” I ask before I realize it.
“And then what what?” she asks back. “Do you mean what happens to us?”
“I got my fishtail in the bathtub,” explains Beatrice, apparently catching up slowly.
“Really?” we both say at once.
“Imagine my shock,” says Beatrice brightly, as if it were a far less shocking surprise. “I was soaking in the bath, reached to get the washcloth and felt as thought someone had shocked me with a buzzer or something. When I looked down, there it was. A fishtail.”
“Poor you!” declares Amanda with the first real chuckle I have heard from her since we met. Beatrice seems so comfortable with her fishtail that it’s hard to feel sorry for her. Or feel that Amanda is laughing at her in any way. Though Beatrice does get grayer and grayer every mile we go.
“And then what, Amanda?” I repeat. But Amanda has more questions for Beatrice.
“What did you have in the bathtub? Any salts or anything? I was under the impression that only large bodies of water worked. Not pools or tubs or anything.” And then she gasps, swiveling her seat to face mine. “Do you think there were any fins, I mean people with fishtails in the hotel pool?”
Like you cared. You were only concerned about getting whatever you stashed in your pocket and having a good cry, I think. But just thinking it makes me feel bad. She has done plenty. And she is still helping others, while I’m simply the chauffeur to her good Samaritan. “I doubt it,” I say. “I think the chlorine is bad for-” But I stop there, realizing that we have a Fin in the car and I have no idea.
Beatrice, nicely, changes the subject, by saying, “Just some salts. I always use baths salts when I bathe. Plenty at Osco.” We are silent so she continues, “Instead of tap water I used the bottled water from the back room. A bit of a luxury, perhaps.” She trails off, realizing that we’re not concerned about her bath time ritual.
We’re all silent for a while and then Amanda continues, “I think it’s just a jump start of an evolutionary change. Now, for some reason, ocean people are needed, so we get moved back into the ocean. Last one in has to help all the others.”
And if you don’t even try, or don’t get close, bang!, no legs.
“And then, to answer your question Martin, in ex number of generations we are breathing the water and eating the kelp. The ones that adapt fastest, they get to pass on their genes. The others become food for the sharks.” She has turned to face forward now, her voice slow, somber. “It happened when we moved to the land. It happens when we move back into the sea.”
“But why?” I ask.
She swivels towards me and says, angrily, “There is no why. Why do some people die of cancer and others, who smoke three packs a day, get to live to a hundred? Why are one parents’ kids run over by a car and another parents’ narrowly avoided?” Then, somber again, “There is no why to this. There’s just an is.”
“This sucks,” says Beatrice, stunning us both into laughter. I like her. I’m glad we stopped for her, even though we never did get clothes.
“Yes,” Amanda agrees. “This does suck.”
But she didn’t answer my question. Not fully. I want to know why we’re being forced into the sea. I understand the fact that people who live near the sea have more choice of living, just like those who happened to be born in first-world countries had a better chance of living to eighty, but I want to know why she thinks we’re being turned into fish. And who is doing it.
“What’s wrong with being land dwellers?” Beatrice asks Amanda.
Again Beatrice comes to my rescue. I wonder if she was put here to make us try to figure things out. But that would make this a personal journey and I really do not think it is. I think we, Amanda and I, are now just cogs. No, not cogs. Beatrice is a cog. If she chooses to move into the sea and mate, which she can’t. So she’s just unlucky. Or poorly timed, anyway. Amanda and I, we’re apes. Like the ones in 2001 that didn’t get the tools. But unlike them, we’re supposed to help those that do. On the plus side, we do get to live.
“I’ve been trying to puzzle that one out,” says Amanda. “I think it’s just time. Maybe we’re supposed to move back into the sea. Or move into the sea. People were never sea dwellers. And we just needed a push. Like I said. As to why we are supposed to go into the sea? Why did we come out in the first place? Why does anything happen?”
Amanda stops talking, but my mind, and I imagine, all of our minds, keep going. I think about ten generations from now when our great, great, great and more great grandchildren are living in a glorified Atlantis. Swimming to school and the supermarket. Driving our underwater cars. Studying the Great Purge and Finning. I’m betting there will be a Fin version of Thomas Jefferson or Romulus – Remus? – they’ll be praising for getting the underwater society going. And maybe monuments to the Legs who helped the first fins find their way. I wonder if I’ll get a statue. The great Martin Curren, last man on two legs. I start to write my own plaque. “He helped us find our way when we had the greatest need.” Or “He patrolled the shores helping those who lost their way.” Oh, wait. I’ve got it! “He walked so we could swim.” That’s it! That rocks! “He walked so we could swim.” Nice. Maybe they’ll have a Martin Day. And all the fins will wear pretend legs in their underwater parades.
I am startled from my daydream by a car horn. On our left is a Porsche of some kind and the man and woman are waving to us. Him enthusiastically. Her half-heartedly. But she is driving, which strikes me as odd. Amanda hasn’t once asked to drive. But, then again, I haven’t once offered to let her. I notice they aren’t quite waving, they’re pointing to the Southeast. We pass a sign which reads Binton - 3 Hollisvile - 21 and the man starts stabbing his arm towards the sign. I’m not sure which one they mean, but two miles down the road, the Porsche speeds up, moves in front of us and starts blinking right.
“Anyone in the mood to visit Binton?” I ask.
“Think we should?” asks Amanda.
“What do we have to lose?” asks Beatrice. Amanda and I know the answer to that, but neither of us say anything.
“They looked nice enough,” says Amanda unsurely.
“Then it’s a ‘yes,’” I say. I blink right too, not in case anyone is behind us, but to let them know we’ve accepted their offer for a visit.
I’ve never been to Binton before, but, looking around the small downtown area, it seems the Purge and the Finnings haven’t touched them that much. It looks fairly full of people. The stoplights are working. The stores are lit up. It’s not much of a downtown area, but it’s working.
Though it’s daytime, I can see a few lights on in some of the nearby houses. I rub my eyes.
“Amanda?” I ask.
“I see,” she says, her voice full of wonder. And then adds, a little amusedly, “but I do not believe.”
“Is it possible the East Coast wasn’t affected?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “There must be something else going on. But either way, this is the end of the road for me.” And then quickly, “But first we’ll drop Beatrice off at the seaside.”
“Thank you,” Beatrice says nervously.
“We will,” I assure her. “We promised. And, anyway, it’s our job.” I’m still staring in wonder at the clear street and the working streetlights. It’s impossible. It’s a dream. I dig the van’s keys into my hand to feel the pain. I do. I guess I haven’t fallen asleep at the wheel.
“A shower,” says Amanda dreamily.
“Electricity,” I say. “It’s been almost a month since I could switch on a light and expect anything to actually happen.”
We are waiting behind the Porsche at a stoplight. A stoplight! And cars go through the intersection! Cars with living drivers. This is too amazing. On their way to normal lives. And suddenly I am filled with dread.
“We can’t stop here,” I say.
“Why ever not!” Amanda is appalled.
“They have no idea of what’s coming. What we’re bringing.”
“We’re stopping,” declares Amanda with certainty. “Or I’m getting out and you can go on your own.”
Beatrice asks, “Do you mean me?”
But Amanda isn’t finished yet. “I never signed on with you. We are traveling as convenient partners. You watch my back. I watch yours.”
“No,” I assure Beatrice. “Not you, specifically, but the Finning as a whole.”
Amanda continues, “I have to stop here. You can do whatever you want. We’re not married. We were only thrust together by one moment. By one instant where neither of us could get into the water in time. One second. Two steps. For whatever reason.”
“We’ll stop already!” I say. “Just please-” I do not say ‘shut up’ out loud. “Just please.”
Amanda looks triumphant. She is no longer attractive to me, though I know that will pass. It’s hard not to objectify some one like Amanda. Especially when the choices are so limited.
“I know I do not get a vote,” Beatrice says ominously, “though I suspect this visit will not end well for us. Or many of them.”
I glance at Amanda, wondering if she is at all swayed, but her jaw is set, her fists clenched. The light turns green and I follow the Porsche.
“Your mother doesn’t look well,” says Jackson. She is, upon closer inspection, one of those over made-up, purse-lipped females you normally find at fancy salons or, I guess, leading civic committees in small towns. Which is where we are. She looked far more attractive tooling down the open road in a convertible. I eye her carefully. There is something sad about her, she has some of what Amanda has, but it’s covered up by frilly clothes and make-up.
“She’s not my Mother,” I explain. “We picked her up on the road. Not too far from here, actually.” I can’t remember the name of the town. “This side of Pittsburgh.”
We’re sitting in a garden behind an updated Victorian house. There are lots of flowers laid out around the patio. Some roses and some tall blue things with lots of small open-mouthed blooms. I don’t know their names. Plus all the standard garden flowers, but I don’t know what they’re called either. I’m not much of a flower person.
“Aren’t you worried about disease?” Jackson asks. Must be her family name. “We are.”
At the same time, Terrence, the guy who waved us into Binton, says, “What ever is wrong with her legs?” Terrence is wearing a somewhat dressier version of what I’m wearing, khakis and polo shirt. He is also wearing penny loafers, a shoe I think that says a lot about people, all bad.
We left Beatrice at a small motel by her request. She said she was tired and wanted to get some sleep, but now that I look back on it, perhaps we were compelled to do so by Terrence and Jackson. I try to recreate the whole scene in my mind, but Amanda interrupts my train-of-thought.
“Do you have any idea what is taking place around you?” Amanda is sitting up straight in her chair, perfect posture. She’s wearing a black low-cut top, which I think I’ve seen before. Or something like it. And maroon shorts, or is it a skirt? I can’t quite tell. When did she get a chance to change? A skort I think it’s called. Like spork.
ZZZ-aat! I am startled by a bug zapper. A normal sound only a little more than a month ago, but now the fact that there is a working bug zapper, when most people don’t even have legs, is startling.
The bug zapper seems to go through Amanda. She flinches as if she had been given a light shock. I can tell that as much as she wanted to come and stay in Binton on our arrival, she now wants more to leave. She is almost out of her chair and she has not taken a sip of her drink. A weak, but nicely flavored iced tea. A melon? Not cantaloupe. That flavor I know. With ice in it! I am sucking on an ice cube, enjoying the sensation of too cold against the roof of my mouth. An ice cube.
“Many people have disappeared,” Terrence says distractedly.
“Many?” says Amanda, appalled. “Try most.”
Jackson looks sadly, and yet at the same time distastefully, at Amanda while Terrence continues outlining last month’s events from his viewpoint. “The power seems to be off in most other areas. We’ve heard rumors about other problems like lootings and diseases. The random gang issue.” Amanda stares at him open-mouthed, in disbelief, so he adds a few more sentences. “And there have been reports, we think erroneous-” A smile curves on his lips and he eyes Jackson as if to say that people will believe anything. “-of sudden moments when half the people in an area lose their legs.” And then his smile disappears as he and Jackson exchange looks, comprehension.
“Your mother!?” declares Jackson. It is phrased like an accusation.
I am amused by their ignorance and play the savvy urbanite. I continue sucking the ice in my mouth and repeat, “She’s not our mother.” It’s better they believe she is legless than know the truth.
But Amanda has stood up. She senses their fear and seems wary herself. Jackson is on her feet now as well. Only us two men are sitting.
“You have no idea?” Amanda sort of declares and asks at the same time. “Are you completely cut off or are you trying not to notice?” But before they have a chance to respond, she asks, “Are you two married?”
This was the right question, but not in the sense of the one that makes the other couple friendlier for it having been asked.
Jackson’s mouth moves as if she is trying to form the correct sentence, but after a few stumbled half syllables, Terrence says, with false joviality, eying Jackson with a little embarrassment, “D-Day, Disappearance Day that is, was somewhat fortuitous for us, you might say.” Jackson looks less sure, somewhat sad and embarrassed at the same time. I can’t read the look.
She gives her head a little shake and then addresses me. “We promised Beatrice we’d get her to the-” Slight pause. “the cousin’s– her cousin’s before sundown.” And then to Jackson and Terrence, sweetly, as Jackson might say it, “We do so thank you for your hospitality, but we really must be going. It was very nice-”
Amanda was facing away from the back of the house, so she didn’t see the group of people coming towards us from around the side. She realizes we have stopped listening, so she stops talking and turns around.
There are seven people coming towards us. All men. The man in front, the largest by a fair amount, is dressed, incredibly, in a three-piece gray suit, odd for such a warm day, has his hand out in greeting. He is in his late fifties, jowly and fat and, if his smile were sincere, I’d call him jolly. Behind him are six others, mostly in casual clothes like jeans and t-shirts, but they are not even pretending to smile. On is I a blue uniform, though not a standard police one.
“We haven’t been introduced,” says Jowly man with a wider smile, revealing small white teeth, “I’m Jenkins. William T. Jenkins. The mayor in these parts.” These parts. A phrase I have only heard in movies, right before something bad occurs. I am wary. Amanda moves so she is further away from him than I am.
“I’m Martin Curren,” I say. I put out my hand and he shakes it. I do not offer it to his retainers. They don’t seem to have expected me to do so. “And this is Amanda. Car ska kowski.” I hope I got that right. She reaches out her hand and smiles graciously. The mayor shakes it, only just barely, and says, “Charmed.” Charmed.
“Well let’s get right to the point, shall we?” says the mayor brusquely, with his largest smile yet. And then as if he is imposing, yet expects nothing less, asides to Jackson, “Any wee chance we might get a small glass of your iced tea?” Wee. “For all of us.” Jackson hurries off into the house. The glass door slams shut behind her.
“You are not the first visitors- Oh, do please take a seat.” He is in charge though this is not even his home. I return to mine and Amanda, less quickly, finds hers. The mayor and his people each find one among the plenty. I notice the green floral pattern on them for the first time.
Mayor Jenkins continues. “Where was I? Oh yes.” Though the words sound like they’ve been freshly plucked from the air, his speech patterns are practiced, fake. I have trouble not watching the others in the garden while he is talking to see if they are also realizing this. “You are not the first visitors we’ve had since Disappearance Day. Is that what you call it, as well?” No pause for an answer. “There were a few more and Terrence is always driving around the highways in the Por-Sche-” Said as if it were two words. “-seeing if we can learn something, anything of tangible value, about those communities and peoples remaining around us.” Peoples. He looks at Terrence, who smiles and stops smiling quickly.
Amanda catches my eye, but I’m not sure what she expects me to do. I’ll hear him out.
“Yes, always looking for tangible value about those communities and peoples remaining around us.” Apparently we’ve come to the end of the prepared portion of his speech, since he raises his eyebrows in my direction.
I’m not sure what I want to say. I have a suspicion that the more I say, the more likely he will bar our exit. Or worse. Will they kill us? I think of the corpses in the Speedway bathroom and decide that this is a possibility. A time of death. When so much horror happens in a snap of the fingers. And we go out of our way to make more. I look up at the sky, wondering what will happen next.
No one speaks for a second, so I ask, “What have you heard?”
A man in the back, cigarettes rolled into his white t-shirt says, “Heard that people were having their legs ripped off by large gangs.”
All heads turn to me.
“Not quite true,” I say. I cannot believe that they haven’t even heard of the leggings let alone the finnings. That’s about to change. Amanda is glaring at me. But I’m angry and I want to tell them what is coming. “Remember what you call ‘D-Day’?” A few of them nod, but most of them stare with open dislike, distrust. “There’s worse to come. Far worse.”
Amanda mouths ‘Don’t’ and shakes her head at me.
I shrug. “In a snap!” and I snap my fingers to make this point. They are startled. “You’ll have no legs.” This gets their attention and most of them cannot help but look down at their legs and then at Amanda’s and mine. “The same click in time from above, or wherever you think it came from for the Purge and, snap, just bloody stumps where your legs used to be!” Now they are looking at each other, back and forth, unsure if they should believe. Their faces are still hard, but their eyes are scared. I’m enjoying this.
The same blunt man in the back, weathered face with stubble, asks, “So is that what happened to your Mother?”
“Yes,” says Amanda quickly, with a note of fake distress in her voice. I look around to see if anyone realizes she’s acting.
“She’s not my Mother,” I explain. “As I explained. We picked her up a few miles back.” Few miles back. Now I’m talking like them. “West of here about one hundred miles.”
Now the weathered man has stood up and is walking forward. He must be the real power in this town. Perhaps runs the construction business. His face is set, focused. He doesn’t even glance over at Amanda as he progresses towards me. Is he going to hit me? I stand my ground.
“Let me see if I got this straight.” He is inches from my face. Angry. Don’t blame the messenger. I can see his mind working under the stubble and behind the very gray eyes. He sighs. “I lost my wife and two of my three children on D Day.”
“You were lucky,” says Amanda. The hatred in her face takes me aback. Stubble man wheels on her, but before he can speak, she says, bitterly, “I lost all my children.” She grits her teeth and sets the hatred in her face, but I see her eyes fill with water.
I glance at the weathered man and can see his momentum has been stopped. Not quite diffused, but arrested. He says nothing. I will Amanda to continue. She has him, and all of them. They hate us for bringing the outside world into their lives, but they can see she is in more pain than they are.
She speaks to him as a teacher to a child, “You go home. You pick that child up in your arms and you love him. You spend every second you and he have left on this earth together.” Two people behind the mayor actually take a step back. We are all schoolchildren at heart. This is her mob now. “In fact, I think you and your son-“
“Daughter,” says the man. His voice cracks when he says it. “She’s nine. Her name is Sarah.”
“In fact,” Amanda continues, but all the fight is out of her now. Her mind is elsewhere. On happier times, I’m sure. The past. “You take Sarah to the beach. You play ball, swim. You do all the things you wish you did more with your other children. You-“ But she has run out. She staggers back and sits on the chair. She’s sobbing. No one has moved since the steps backwards. No one says a word.
Suddenly, Amanda’s head snaps back up. She is fierce. “You are lucky you have one left! And when you are holding her lifeless body, the blood drained from where her legs used to be, you will wish, you will wish that you didn’t spend one second, not one second, be-” She struggles to find the word. “Antagonizing! -antagonizing people who came here for a few moments rest after a month of hell. People who came here-” But she is spent. Drawn inside herself. Her eyes are out of focus and, while her mouth continues to move just barely, no words come out.
It was as if time froze and we can only watch her, slowly, mouthing words we would never hear. All of us, except the builder who strides purposefully up to me and thumps me in the chest with his index finger – he is short than me actually, though he looked so imposing earlier – demands, “Tell me about this! Let me understand what it is your wife is talking about.”
I sigh. I am tired as well. Tired of not just here in the garden, but of this whole thing. Life? Being the helper? I picture disappearing. I picture having white mashed bones and a puddle of blood. I picture having a fin and swimming off into the sunset. Then I shake it off. All other possibilities are worse. Even the fin.
He keeps poking me as I speak. I say, “You get fins if you are in the water when the music stops. She’s not my wife.”
His finger stops in mid-air, between us. “I don’t understand,” he says.
“Neither do I. But it’s what happens. If you’re in water. If not, then what Amanda said happens.”
He is quick. “But you have legs and you’ve seen this?” It’s an accusation. He thinks I am lying.
“Call me Ishmael,” I say before I can stop myself. His eyes widen and I know if I don’t explain something, anything, I’m going to be punched. My heart races. A shot of adrenalin. I explain, “We were just almost in the water when the change occurred. We got to keep our legs so we can help others.”
“Sounds like bull crap,” he says. “Sounds like big city bull crap.”
It’s a fish tail. I hope I didn’t say that out loud. He is still staring at me and not hitting me, so I must not have. I am more emboldened. I shrug. “I can’t help what it sounds like. Why would we lie?”
The mayor snaps out of his freeze and stands alongside the builder. “There does seem to be some, how do I put this gently?, discrepancies in your story,” he says, repeating the builder’s comment in different words.
I think of a few things I can say, but decide I have said enough. I see Jackson struggling to close the sliding glass door and I walk over to help here. I take the tray so she can close it.
She leans over to me and, almost apologetically, explains, as if we were still having the previous conversation, “I lost a child on D-Day.”
“It’s better that way,” I say as softly.
She glares at me as if I am some sort of uncomprehending monster. She’s the one who doesn’t understand.
She takes the tray away from me and starts hading out cold drinks to everyone. No one speaks or even moves while she plays the hostess.
She hands me a drink with a plastic smile.
“Thanks,” I say.
“You are more than welcome,” she says with just a hint of hatred in her eyes.
We have more than overstayed our welcome. I seize the opportunity provided by the refreshments.
“Amanda?” I call to her. She looks over, as does everyone else. She is still crying. All but the Mayor and the Stubbled man are staring into their drinks, still reeling from Amanda’s outburst. “I think it’s time we took leave of our new friends.” Amanda stands up, mechanically, and the two of us begin to walk towards the house, along the cobblestone path. No one moves to block us, but before we reach the edge of the house, I look back see that builder is running towards us.
“Wait!” he says. He looks worried, human. “I know I deserve nothing from you, but I’d like one favor.” He reconsiders. “Two.”
Amanda shakes her head, and grabs my shirt, pulling me backwards. I look at him, unsure what to expect. For some reason, I pity him.
“I will help make sure you get out of here without trouble-” he starts, somewhat threateningly, but quickly changes his offer, “I will provide all the food and gas you can take with you. And clothes. If you do me two small favors.”
Amanda is still pulling on me. “No,” she pleads to me. His offer has no value. We can take all we want from the next town.
“Please, I am begging you,” he says. “As a father. As the father of a nine-year old girl.” Amanda stops pulling. “And as a man who is taking care of a few children left with no parents.” Amanda’s hand goes limp against my side.
“What?” she asks. She looks softer than her words.
The rest of the crowd is coming our way now. If we do not leave soon, we might not be able to. Untrue. What this man says, everyone does.
He is relieved. “First, no matter what you say next, I will make sure no one bars your exit. I just want to know the truth. Is what you said the truth?” I nod. “Is the next event gong to be that we all lose our legs or grow fins?”
“Yes,” says Amanda. She is cold. Her arms crossed in front of her chest, fists clenched. “Favor two?”
He looks at me, seeing if I support her previous response. I nod. The fear in his eyes overpowers any dislike I had for him earlier. I imagine what it would be like knowing that the finning was coming. And what it meant if you were not by the ocean. And what it meant if you were. And having a child that you loved. At least it took me, us, by surprise. Sort of. Snuck up on us, anyway. He can se it coming down the highway and has no idea how to avoid it. And is protecting a little girl. Which he cannot protect. It will get her. One way or the other. I think maybe Amanda was lucky to have them simply disappear.
He is shaken. His voice is weak and unsure when he asks, “Can either of you play the piano?”
Amanda laughs. It’s an absurd question. “Why?” she asks.
“I can,” I say. Not very well, but enough, I think, to say that I play.
He looks at me seriously, somewhat pleadingly, “I want to hear what this music sounds like. So I can recognize it.”
“I’m not sure I can play that. It’s hard to get a handle on.” But I don’t think we’re going to leave without at least trying. “Is there a piano nearby?”
Amanda’s head sags. “This is a very bad idea,” she sighs.
“Terrence has one, inside,” says the Contractor.
The inside of Terrence’s house – I wonder what his wife was like – is extraordinary. Hard wood floors. Antique furnishings. A huge living room with a grand piano as the centerpiece. It strikes me more as a Southern house, or at least what we see in the movies, than an Eastern one. The only odd thing is that it seems many of the pictures on the walls have been removed. There are slightly darker areas on the walls where the pictures used to be. Shots of Terrence and his ex-wife removed by Jackson. Or shots of the whole happy family of which only Terrence remains.
I am sitting at the piano, the nicest one I think I have ever sat at. I’m not sure where to start, but Amanda, emotionlessly starts to hum the tune. I see the horror of the Sheraton aftermath, but shake it from my mind and concentrate on trying to capture Amanda’s humming with notes. Her humming doesn’t sound quite right, as if she almost has the tune. G. C. F. No. E flat. No Her slight miss is making it harder for me to capture the true tune and the Bintonites – Bintonions? – are losing patience.
Suddenly Amanda’s hits the true tune. G. C. G. Half note. F. Hold. Yes! She gets the pace right, replaces a few wrong notes with the correct ones. I follow her humming, anticipating the next few notes. G. C. D and…A. E flat. Hold. D. B. This is it! We’ve got it now.
It’s an eerie tune. It doesn’t quite repeat, but almost repeats. Just below the next time. Just above the following time. On the same key, but a few notes misplaced. I wonder if, after everything has settles, someone will score it and-
Amanda is white as a ghost. My fingers continue to follow her humming, but she is glaring at me, eyes large. She is not humming. The tune I am following is the real music, all around us. I hesitate. Voices erupt all around us, but I only catch four distinctly.
“You did it!” yells one man who hasn’t spoken before.
“Goddamn you!” The mayor, no longer using his politics voice.
“What do we do?” This from the contractor.
“I knew this was a bad idea.” Amanda, softer than all the rest.
The mayor, suddenly larger than before, drags me from the piano bench and pulls me right to his face. “Do something!” He commands.
Amanda takes charge, but lifelessly, like she’s leading a tour group for the umpteenth time. “Go home. Get your loved ones. Take them to, into the nearest lake. Ocean? River? What’s nearby? Then wait for the music to stop. You have ten minutes.”
Some people run. Others close in on us. Someone grabs me from behind.
“You’re coming with,” says the voice from behind.
“The longer you wait…” warns Amanda. No need to finish the thought. Everyone knows the threat.
The man behind me starts to drag me backwards, but the mayor has not yet let go and I fall. I hear a thump then feel the pain. I hit my head on the edge of the piano bench? Things are blurry.
“Damn!” says the man behind me.
“Let him go!” Amanda? I am unsure.
I am pulled to my feet. Those remaining are speaking all at once. The music filling in the tiny cracks between their sentences, their words. Snapshots of the Sheraton, the Chicago Beach, the first Leggings. Faces looking into my face. My stomach starts to swirl. My head starts to swirl. I touch my head and feel a sticky– blood. I show my hand to– in front of me. There are lots of small flashes.
“Let him go!” A slapping sound.
I am carrying a bleeding balled blanket.
“He’s coming with!”
A man with a mustache bobbing under the waves, a pale green something where his legs should be.
“Then, you’re coming with.”
I am stirring a drink in a hotel atrium; Amanda is talking with someone in a tuxedo.
“Let them go. I promised.”
The tuxedo man, inert, his legs melted into a pool of blood.
“To the devil with your promises! I am done listening to you.”
My street on Pullman. A baby’s exhausted wail in the background. All else silent.
A thump. I’m not sure where, when.
“Let me go! I’ll let you all die!”
The music swirling around like dancing spray from a curling wave.
“You’re coming with!”
I am pulled, struggle to my feet. The flashes lessen then grow. The contractor’s face in front of mine. Not the right man. Don’t touch her, I say. Does it come out? I start to fall and reach forward.
Angry men on the overpass. Taunters on the hill above the lake.
My hands are on someone’s shoulders. A face I don’t recognize inches away.
“Useless sod. I’m taking him with me.” I swing at the face, but nothing’s there. I start to fall again, but my hands close on clothing and I am lifted up. That same man’s face in front of me. Leave us alone! I swing. My fist brushes by his face. I am spinning sideways.
The face again. “Useless sod!” Out of the corner of my eye, I see something moving towards my face.
A baby’s insistent, exhausted wail in the background. I look up the street, north, trying to determine the correct house, window. The houses are small, none more than two stories tall, all have the same number of windows, two, on the top level story. I focus my ears, trying to determine where the baby lives. I listen intently. The white house? No. The blue house further north? Maybe. The white house north of that? No. Across the street, in the line of brick row houses? Nope. It’s the blue house.
I do not know who lives there. I try to walk through my memories, try to locate a memory with someone coming out of or going into that house. None. But there is one with a blue stork. A blue wooden stork in front of the house. I remember this because at the same time, though it appeared afterwards, there was a pink stork across the street. I try to focus my memory on the blue stork. Nothing. The pink one I remember. It was Rita’s baby. Four or so month’s ago. Emmaline Lin-, Lin- something. I remember thinking that the middle name started where the first name left off, but I cannot see it. Rita Gonzales’ baby.
The baby is wailing. A car has crashed into the Reynolds’ house and no one seems to care. I decide to continue downtown to work, to see if any normalcy exists there.
“Martin?” A Hispanic voice.
I am actually on my way to Marshall Fields to get some towels, since mine are smelling more than a little mildewy.
I look over and see a woman sitting on the ground. I’d think homeless if it were ten days earlier, but there are no homeless anymore. The few remaining ones have found places to live. Plenty of them. With all the stuff they thought they’d never have. The toy stores all have children living in them, snuggled up in piles of stuffed animals. Even the crackheads have found places. Places with unguarded stashes. Likely died happy with their habits. More than satisfied.
I do not recognize the woman,
I have stopped pretending I know people. I decided, almost the first day, that I would try to actually learn people’s names. It finally seems a handy skill. So many fewer people to know.
“Do I know you?” I ask. I assume I had met her just a day or two ago, so this wouldn’t be an insulting question.
She is downcast. “It’s Rita,” she says miserably. “I used to live up the street from you in Pullman.”
She looks terrible. At least ten years older. She used to take such good care of herself. Used to. As if a week was a long time ago. She used to dress well, albeit in not-so-expensive clothes. And big, intricate hairdos, even though she had a newborn in the house. The apartment. She lived upstairs from the old man who owned the tiny row house. I felt cramped in my little place and she had a baby in a space that was less than half the size of my townhouse. Does she have a husband? I never saw him if she does. Did.
‘How are you?’ I think to ask and decide against it. ‘How’s little Two-Liney?’ That’s the name I started calling her because her first name and second names both had ‘Line’s in them. A worse question. I cannot think of anything to say or ask her that wouldn’t be stupid.
“Oh, Rita!” I say, hoping that it’s enough to get her talking. Or not. “I did not recognize you,” I add, immediately wishing I had not.
“You still in Pullman?” she asks, also making conversation. She is still sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the building wall.
“No,” I say. “I grabbed a place down here.” I point north. “A few blocks that way.”
“Are you all right?” I ask. “Given the, uhh, the-” I can’t find a word for what I want to describe, so I leave it at that.
“Emma’s gone,” she says. “Just gone.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. Many people have lost many people and there is never anything to say.
Years ago, in our previous reality, I was at a funeral and overheard this conversation: There’s nothing I can say, said a visitor. The grieving widow replied, Then say nothing. When there’s nothing to say, it’s usually best to say nothing.
I help Rita to her feet. She looks weak, emaciated. Her plumpness, which she had long before she had gotten pregnant, was gone. I wonder how many people continued to go to health clubs. I bet business has dropped to almost nothing. Not that anyone is paying their dues. Unless some computer somewhere is still adding the charges to their credit cards, though they and the club owner’s are long disappeared.
“When was the last time you had anything to eat?” I ask.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says.
“It will,” I say. I decide to drag her with me to Marshall Fields, thinking we’ll find something on the dining floor. And we do. Plenty. It has been only about a week and a half, so it’s no trick to find food yet. The stores have not yet lost all their air-conditioned air. Some of the breads are even still edible, especially the bread sticks.
She tells me her story. I am surprised I did not see her that morning, but she had left before I awoke. I remember feeling a little insulted that she didn’t come by, but think I am being silly for even entertaining this thought. We are, at best, casual acquaintances. Her story is fairly straightforward. She wakes up and her baby is gone. Since she doesn’t mention the loss of a husband – or wondering if had had taken the girl – I assume she is a single Mom. She searches everywhere the baby, even looking outside, though she knows that a four-month old cannot get that far. She is distraught. The old man below her, named Llewellyn I learn, doesn’t answer his door, even though it is before six in the morning and he is retired.
The people next door, on both sides, are as unwilling or unable to come to their doors.
She goes back upstairs and calls her Mom. The phones still work. No answer. Her brother. No answer. She says she feels like it’s some sort of nightmare, but cannot seem to make herself wake up. “Someone has to help!” she yells, reliving the moment.
Rita keeps telling her story, and gets more and more upset by its retelling, but I have stopped listening, letting her distraught words wash over me. I am thinking about the baby across the street. The one who, four months previous, in a time of promise and hope, had inspired the rental of a blue wooden stork. An announcement to the world of the happy event.
On one side of the street is a Mom whose baby has suddenly disappeared. On the other side of the street is a baby that will wail and wail… A baby with no mother. No one around to help. One of many four-month old babies, hundreds of babies all over the world, thousands, crying with the belief that someone will come, as someone has come every day for the last four months. But no one will come and in a day, two days, their wails will stop. And then…
And I just walked away. Not realizing. I went downtown and gave the wailing, motherless baby no thought. Until now. Until it has been at least a week too long. I let that baby die. Just walked away as it cried and cried and cried for no one to come.
I interrupt her story. “Rita,” I say. And it’s the most heartfelt thing I believe I have ever said, and yet also the most heartless, “It’s better this way.”
Cold. Very cold. Not all around, but in one specific spot. On my head just above my left eye?
I awake to see a woman’s blurry face. Amanda. My angel. She leans back a little, letting me better see her. She pulls the ice pack from my head. Ice? I wonder and then remember we are in Terence’s house. The music is gone.
“How long?” I ask.
“The music ended ten minutes ago. You’ve been out for about twenty minutes.”
“Where are they?”
“Let me see if you have a concussion.” She covers my right eye with her palm and then removes it. “I’m glad you woke up,” she says warmly.
I smile. A wave of pain comes, like a brain freeze. When it clears, I ask, “Do I?”
“Do you what?”
“Have a concussion.”
“No,” she says, as if it were already explained. Maybe I missed it.
I start to sit up, but she holds me down. “Not quite yet,” she commands gently.
“Where are they?” I ask.
She waves her hand upwards.
I ask a more specific question, “At a lake or at a river? Is the ocean close to here?”
“Not our concern,” she says coldly. “They chose their own fate. Stupid people.”
But people none-the-less. Someone’s child. Someone’s parent. Not Jackson. No one’s parent. The Contractor is still someone’s parent. And a foster parent to more. Was he the one who hit me? I recall the face, but he had never spoken. It wasn’t the Contractor. The Contractor who is someone’s parent. A nine year-old girl’s. A nine year-old girl who, very likely, now has a fin.
“Just tell me, please.”
“The ocean,” she says. She’s lying. She looks down at me, exasperated. “Who cares where they went? Whether it’s the ocean or a lake or a river or a muddy puddle. They’re not our concern. They deserve to rot in whatever body of water they chose!” She is crying. “Can’t we just have a moment to sit? To mourn?”
I start to sit up and she lets me, but he lights start to both brighten and dim. Pressure grows as I move upwards. If I sit up I will pass out. I slowly lie back down.
“Good,” she says coldly. “You can’t save them anyway.” Then, in a new tone of voice, more thoughtful, further away, she says, “I’ve been thinking.”
A dangerous pastime, I know. From some Disney movie. I can’t recall the name. I wonder if I do have a concussion.
She continues, “What will happen to us when all the Finning is over? When the whole world has either had its legs ripped off or its fins attached? What’s next?”
I had just assumed things would stay the same. I wonder if there is a third shoe. If bad things do come in threes and if the expression is more meaningful than we believed.
“This is what I think,” she says. “I first thought the world would cover in water to make having fns more useful, but decided it didn’t cover up in land to make feet more useful. It is, after all, two-thirds water already, so there’s plenty of room for a water-based society. And the Great Lakes are at least as big as Rhode Island and, I think, the Congo.”
I hear the words, but am having trouble processing them. The more I try to follow her, the stronger my head throbs.
She continues, “So I then figured things could stay the same.” I hope she ends here, just her saying it makes me feel like it might happen. “But that doesn’t make sense either.” Damn.
“Why not?” I ask. I think I am following her, but this seems to make no sense.
“Why not simply start with the Finning?” she asks. “Likely enough people are in the water at any one time to make plenty of Fins for a society to begin. Odds are, they disappeared– purged as many people who actually happened to be in the water as now have fins. Don’t you think?”
I try to do the math, but nothing clicks. Something pops into my head, between the pulsing throbs, which seems to make sense. Seems to. I say it, wondering if she agrees it makes any sense. “But that’s luck. And it’s-”
“You said everything was just luck.”
“Let me finish,” I say and then think about the word finish. Finish. Finnish. I wonder if any of the Finns have Fins.
“Are you still with me?” She snaps my train-of-thought back to the conversation.
I gat a firm grip on the thought, and explain, “Wouldn’t you want some of everyone?” She looks down at me curiously. Her face is soft. Lips red. Too motherly for lust, though. I continue, “If, snap, suddenly the people, all the people in the water have fins and all the people on land are dead, or bleeding heavily enough to be dead in, in– whatever that word is. Then you’d only get Finned people from the places where it happened to be warm, and on a beach, and midday.” I see a scene on a random Caribbean beach.
She takes my thought and runs with it, “…but none from Chicago. Or the United States or anywhere on this half of the earth.” She nods, looking at me in a way I have never seen before. Impressed. “I never thought of that.” She is silent for a while. I close my eyes, happy to have the pain subside and the room stop spinning. Her voice: “I think you are right, but I like my way better.” And then softer, not to me, but just out loud, “If there is a third event, I might get to die quickly.”
We are back on the road, back in the van. I am driving and Amanda is asleep in the passenger seat. Beatrice’s wheelchair, with Beatrice, is strapped into the back. I am telling her about what happened in town. She says we ought to go back, ought to help them wherever they are, but half-heartedly. She had already broached the subject when Amanda was awake and Amanda was one hundred percent against it.
“Over my dead body or without me,” she said. I decided I’d rather go with her than help the Bintonites or Bintonians or whatever. Though I do want to go back to their town once we drop Beatrice at a beach. I figure at least one of the three utilities, electric, water and gas, would continue to work for a few days and I’d love to get a hot shower if I could. That would require water and one of the other two, I know, but it’s worth the drive and where else are Amanda and I going to settle?
If you were the last man on Earth. While I doubt it’s true, just yet, it’s a lot closer to being true than anyone who used the insult in a bar might ever have imagined it to become. Is it ‘I wouldn’t if…’ or ‘I would if…’? It’s I wouldn’t. But it always seemed like an empty threat. If I were, you would. That was always understood. Even though the line says she wouldn’t. I actually do not recall anyone ever saying it to me. Or hearing it said to anyone else.
We have decided to go to Atlantic City. There should be quite a collection of people there, so says Amanda, though this is the reason I do not want to go. Beatrice likes the idea. She weighed the idea of many people, which she did not like, against the nice boardwalk, deciding that the latter outweighed the former. I don’t care which beach we stop at. Atlantic City is fine with me At least the rooms will be nice.
I fantasize about a different reality. Amanda, not yet married – never married and no kids, though kids might be in our future – and I on the way to Atlantic City. Money in our pocket. Enough to get a luxury suite for at least one night. The fantasy includes running water for the bubble bath and a complete staff for the room service strawberries and champagne. I look over at her asleep. The worry and coldness erased by, I hope, a pleasant dream. A dream of her past life? Is that why she is so sad all time? Every morning, when she awakes, she relives the loss?
I shake this off. Atlantic City. I was there years before I moved to Chicago. During college. It is, was anyway, a nice place. A little seedy, but once you get inside the casino and get a drink inside you, the seediness disappears. The bright lights, buzzing slot machines, and adrenalin of losing just a little more money than you can afford, and the smell of that money, blurs the hard edges just enough that the seediness is smoothed over.
Once we drop off Beatrice, Amanda and I might be able to get a room with a huge heart-shaped bed and a balcony overlooking the boardwalk. The canned strawberries placed in a silver bowl and covered in whipped cream. The champagne in crystal glasses. Amanda and I on the balcony overlooking the ocean. Arm in arm. Beatrice, sitting in her wheelchair on the back many, many floors below, looking up and seeing us, she winks. She was young once.
I am distracted by something up the road. A roadblock? Army tanks? I can’t quite make it out in the fading light, but there are people about. A few men in khakis. And black headbands?
I nudge Amanda and she snaps awake.
“What is it?” she says.
“Stop!” she says, but my foot is already on the brake. The van squeals to a stop. The two, no… three, no… more! Five or six of them are … what? Certainly watching us. Readying to jump out of the tanks and vehicles? Hard to see them through the other cars and trucks. Or even figure out which ones are military. I try to quickly determine if they’re even moving at all. It’s so hard to tell if people are dead or alive.
“Turn around!” commands Amanda. She must have seen them move. I try to turn the van, but there isn’t enough room. There are cars on both sides of us. Empties? They look like they have people inside, but unmoving people. I start to back up, but steal a glance forward to see if the army men are gaining, but they haven’t moved. Still half out of their vehicles. I continue to reverse, watching the army people for any signs of life, but there is none.
Amanda starts to say, “They’re all dead, I thin-” Bam! Our van hits something and shudders to a stop. My head snaps back and I feel pressure on the front and back – where I hit it on the piano bench and where I was slugged. I expect more pain, but none comes. I glance at Amanda. She is turned around, looking at Beatrice.
“I’m fine,” says Beatrice quickly. We’re all okay. The car I hit was a small blue Toyota and was actually half off the road. I sort of angled into to it, not much impact. But you never know until afterwards, I guess. It felt like more of a crash.
Amanda and I get out of the van and look around. There are dead bodies, some looking like they’ve been there for a few days, others – I don’t know. What do dead bodies look like after a few weeks? Or a couple days? I have no idea, I decide. I do notice that some have legs and others have fins. None are legless. Something odd has happened here.
“I want to see what’s up ahead,” I tell Amanda.
She nods vigorously. “I’m coming with,” she declares.
I slide open the van door. “You sure you’re okay?” I ask inside.
“I’m fine,” says Beatrice. She looks terrible. Pasty and green. Less alive than the dead bodies on the street. “The accident barely woke me up,” she jokes.
“You don’t look very well,” I say as matter-of-factly as I can. If I didn’t hear her speak, I’d walk past her thinking she’d been dead for a while. Is she changing color? She’s flaky, as if she were peeling from sunburn. A green and white sunburn.
“I need to get to the ocean,” she says simply, surely. “I’m not certain I’m going to make it, to be honest.” We stare at each other for a few seconds. She smiles and adds, good-spiritedly. “The accident was no bother.”
I explain that we’re going ahead to have a look. That there is some sort of blockade, which seems to have been here for quite some time. And lots of dead bodies, of both kinds. I think it’s a good idea that she comes with us, just in case we cannot get the van by and need to hop a car on the other side.
“No matter how terrible life is,” she says, “there always seems to be people willing to make it even worse.”
Her summary of the blockade is how we judge what we see as we walk through it. The words fit. Along the way, there are cars pulled to the side of the road and some seem to be halfway through a U-turn. There are dead bodies, days – weeks? – old. They seem to get older as we get closer to the tanks. And more of them have legs.
Imagine getting this far only to be killed by the Army. We are certainly our own worst enemy. What was that dragon movie? Reign of Fire? The world was overrun by dragons, but the people lived more in fear of each other, especially the American military. Truth is not stranger than fiction. It’s the same. It’s just easier to swallow our horror as fiction. Beatrice is right. No matter how terrible life gets, there’s always someone trying to make it worse.
As we get closer, it becomes harder and harder to get Beatrice’s wheelchair past the carnage. I focus more on wheeling her around and lifting her over the car and body parts than on figuring out what happened. It seems pretty obvious, anyway. The military set up a blockade and, for whatever reason, killed anyone or anything that came to it.
We come upon a military. No legs. About a week dead? Certainly more than a day or so. The bloody circle around him is just a dark stain on the road. Perhaps everyone has been dead for as long as him.
There are more military by the tanks, but I stop to examine this one. He is shorter than the army personnel I remember. And not completely in uniform. Khaki pants which look too large for him, and a military-looking vest. Do they wear vests? Under the vest, a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. He doesn’t look like he fits either military or the Led Zeppelin type. If this were a month ago, this scene would stir quite the television debate. Did Led Zeppelin cause the army to kill civilians? We’re live on the scene. But no one is live on the scene.
The most interesting element of his wardrobe, however, is the headband. It’s black with a white patch that has been poorly sewn on. Can’t trained military people sew on a simple patch? The patch has a hand drawn picture of a leg on it. This makes no sense.
I ask Amanda, “What do you make of this?” I point to the patch.
She guesses, unconcerned, as if it is not an important detail, “They didn’t want any Fins to get into New Jersey?”
“But why did they kill people with legs then? And why are the legged people the ones that are closer to the blockade. Dead legged people, I mean.” I’m not sure she understands since she rolls her eyes and shakes her head. Or maybe she simply doesn’t care. This is important. This might be a clue. But a clue to what? Then I think I see Amanda’s thoughts. It’s people-made horror. We will learn nothing from this.
I concentrate on getting Beatrice past the blockade, into a new van, and to the ocean. I look around the wheelchair at her and see she is asleep. Or dead. I shake her. She awakes, feeble.
I catch Amanda’s eyes and whisper, “I don’t think we have much time.” Amanda nods in agreement.
“All the same, either way,” says Beatrice softly.
At the blockade, I send Amanda looking for a van or an SUV that has gas in it, while I see what might have happened.
“Suit yourself,” she says with a shrug as she wanders off towards the far smaller collection of vehicles that were stopped – why? – coming the other way.
It seems like the leggings caught the false army people by surprise. I am beginning to think they were some vigilante group that stole army uniforms. Or was made up mostly of army personnel. I think they must have been stopping everyone from coming into New Jersey, but then decided that the Fins were the enemy. Spreading disease? Contagion? The Bintonians certainly felt like we had brought them the Finning. I guess I’ll never know. I certainly understand the fear and the powerlessness, and the need to do something to help the bigger cause. Whatever that is. Protecting at least part of civilization?
So they killed pretty much everything trying to get into New Jersey and turned back everyone trying to get out. Then, suddenly, no legs and they all bled to death. Or something else similar happened. Amanda is right. Nothing to learn here.
I look up and see her walking towards us from the South. She is saying something; I cannot quite make out the words. She’s in no hurry, it seems. She seems pleased or amused. Amused.
Finally, I understand what she is saying. “Ever driven a HumVee?”
It’s our second day in Atlantic City. We expected to see hundreds of people, both Finned and Legged, but there is no one here but us. That’s not quite true. There are also the two crazies.
One of the crazies is in a wheelchair, like Beatrice, but he has no legs. Hasn’t had them since Vietnam. The Crazy Veteran has every reason to be nuts. Going sane in a crazy world. The Tick. I’m not sure he is the crazy one here. I look at him. Never mind. He is crazy. Right now he’s eating sand and choking on it. It’s an effort for him to reach down and get any, but he grinds his wheels into the sand so his fingertips can brush enough up to eat. He licks his fingers. I wonder what he thinks he’s eating. I bet he thinks it’s good.
Then there is the Crazy Fat man. I’ve seen fatter and crazier, but this is the highest combination of the two. He’s making farting sounds and skipping – ‘after a fashion’ is the way to put it nicely – in circles on the boardwalk. I’m not sure what he is pretending to be and, really, I have no interest in asking. Not after his violent outburst when we spoke to him when we arrived. He wants to be left alone. He is happy. I can respect that. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t crazy.
“Where do you think they went?” Amanda wonders aloud for the umpteenth time in two days.
“Where it’s warm,” says Beatrice. Then she adds, as she added the last few times, “Florida. The Bahamas. It’s where I would go.” She looks better now, not less green, but certainly less pasty. The salt air is good for her. Or maybe it’s the spray from the ocean. Either way, she’s okay now. Or as okay as she will be until she decides to join her people in the water. She has decided to stay here and simply exist. An extended holiday she calls it. And, she was firm to explain, she does not expect us to baby-sit her. When she cannot wheel herself back to the hotel, she will stay by the ocean until she dies. A decaying, though peaceful corpse in a wheelchair as the waves move back and forth in front of her. It’s a nice image, actually. Preferable to trying to make your own way down the coast only to, very likely, die of exposure or starvation. More probably thirst. They still drink fresh water.
Amanda and me? We’re at a loss. Staring at the ocean, watching the crazies, unsure what we should do next. If anything. I want to go back to Binton. She wants to… I don’t know actually. Do nothing. ‘Recover’ is what she says.
We expected far more people. We assumed that Amanda and I were not the only ones with legs left on the earth. That there had to be thousands more. There must have been many thousands of people who very nearly made it to the lakes or the oceans. Who were sitting on the beach, even if it was night, when the finnings came. We expected that many would already be here and many more would gravitate here. At least dozens of them. It’s a nice place. With lots of rooms and plenty of provisions. We would have settled for ten others. Ten people. Say three couples, two senior citizens so Beatrice had some company, and a couple kids. Not just the three of us and the two crazies.
Amanda actually thought it was possible the finnings might not have made it to the East Coast yet and, as happened in the Sheraton and at Binton, it would occur when we’d be here. I was considering trying to convince people to stand just at the edge of the ocean and maybe keep their legs. My thought was we could stay here, the whole crew, for a few weeks and then go back to Binton. Amanda was against it. She hated that town.
But when we got here, two days ago, it was just the crazies. We thought there were Fins in the tide, but by the morning, no one.
“Maybe Binton was the last place on earth that got the finnings,” Amanda said. And then, in true Amanda spirit, added the insult to the injury, “It certainly felt like the last place on earth.”
I thought about all the people, Fins left stranded in small lakes, unable to get out to the ocean, slowly starving to death.
Amanda said they’d find a way. People always do.
I walk to the edge of the ocean and say my line for the umpteenth time. It was Amanda’s line, but I seem to have co-opted it. “What next?” Neither Amanda nor Beatrice look over.
I sit down, remove my shoes, and put my feet in the water.
Though the thought has been running through my head for weeks, I never believed I’d really be the last man on earth. Except for the two Looney-tunes. The last man on earth. The fat man is on the boardwalk. The paraplegic is on a wheelchair. Every one else is in the water. The last normal man on earth. The last sane man on earth.
Amanda wheels Beatrice over and sits down next to me. Her shoes are already off.
After a few minutes, she smiles at me, warmly, kindly. “Maybe someday, Martin,” she says. “But I’ll need lots of time.” I’m not sure if she is finally answering my ‘What next?’ question or simply reading my mind again.
I watch her looking out to sea. She is beautiful, but, for some reason, there is nothing there I want any more. I wonder where this thought came from. Is this really how I feel?
She says with a nervous laugh. “Not that we don’t have plenty. Plenty of time.”
I stare at her, amazed at this lack of feeling. Here I am, the last man on earth with a beautiful Eve and I feel nothing for her. I must be– It’s coming.
“Can you feel it?” I ask her.
All this way, I think. Avoiding the Leggings and the Finnings. Hundreds of miles. And none of it made any difference. It makes no difference. Stand up? Why bother.
She says, “Martin?”
The paraplegic has stopped eating sand and the fat man has stopped skipping circles. They feel it.
She prods again, “Martin?”
It did make a difference. We saved some people. A handful in Chicago. A truckful in Pennsylvania. That’s not so shabby.
“Now I feel,” she says almost with a purr. Amanda opens her palms and lifts her lovely face upwards. “It’s coming fast. Faster than the Finning ones.” Her voice is soft, slow, not at all urgent. She doesn’t even lean away from it or brace herself.
I strain my eyes out into the ocean, wondering if I can see the pulse coming. Nope. But I can feel it, riding the waves inward. Faster than the waves, but only just slightly.
“You felt the Finning coming?” I ask. She nods. “All of them?” she nods again. And yet with our finning, she hesitated before going into the water. Then fell to the ground, dragging me with her. Before I can ask, she explains, “I tried to slingshot you in.” I replay the scene in my mind. She adds, “I didn’t know you then, but I was glad you didn’t lose your legs.”
“But you-” I stop, knowing the answer. I change the subject, feeling the pulse getting closer, but not knowing how I can feel it. “So what do you think will happen when it gets here?”
“Shhh,” she says, not unkindly. As if she doesn’t want a beautiful scene interrupted by words. Like we are watching the sunset and I am listening to a ball game. Then softer, with a smile, head still lifted slightly upwards, enjoying the feeling, “Shhhhh”
Beatrice is looking slightly upwards as well. As is the sand eater. I turn and see that the fat man is now holding onto the railing, eyes closed, as if he were enjoying the scent of the ocean.
Why am I the only one who is even considering fleeing? Could I? No. It’s coming too fast. And where would I run?
I watch Amanda enjoying the moment. She is strikingly beautiful. I feel no love or desire for her, just appreciation of her calm beauty. Like a statue from the past. Yet so much the picture of hope, promise. If I had my camera– Funny! There’d be no one to develop the film. No one to view it even if I had a digital camera. Beatrice looks beautiful as well. A new relic. A statue from the present. Odd that the old used-up person represents the future while the young mother represents the past.
I look from the two crazies to Beatrice to Amanda. No one is moving. My head, swiveling back then forth, the wave gently brushing against the shore. That’s the only movement.
The pulse is almost upon us. I wonder–
©2006Stuart B Baum