My signature chicken soup bubbles happily on the wood stove as I load the .45 revolver at the kitchen table. It’s getting dark later now and the wind’s softening bite heralds a warm spring just over the horizon. I check the windows before sliding the hardened oak shutters into their cast iron slats.
Donald made the window treatments by hand in his little work shed when the electricity still worked. I lost him this autumn. His heart I think.
We don’t have a doctor in town anymore.
Donald wasn’t much for aesthetics but his sense of security has proven a lifesaver in these strange times. I’ve managed to sit out three, four, maybe half-a-dozen sieges since the world went to Hell in a hand basket.
Not bad for a gal of 71. Not bad at all.
I slip the pistol into the battered leather shoulder holster and fix my apron. The house smells lovely now, thick and rich. I stir the broth and pick out a handful of bones. I’ll grind them later for the chickens out back. Two bay leaves, a palm of salt, same with black pepper, and some thyme, rosemary, and just a few diced red peppers from the jar and it’s perfect.
I check the rest of the little house before settling in; living room, shuttered, bathroom, shuttered, cellar, locked and bolted, bedroom, shuttered. The oil lamp throws a dim circle on the still-frozen ground as I walk the stockade fence around the back yard. Donald built this too, back when all we had to worry about were wayward bears or lost hunters. Two years ago he buttressed each section with a 6-by-6 pressure-treated joist, two feet of which are sunk into the lawn.
We planted roses together along the fence, inside and out, and trained them up the buttresses and all along the inside surface of the stockade fence. Roses are so much prettier than barbed wire, but do just as well.
Chickens are counted and penned, 27, goats too, four.
Ivy, brittle and dead now from the long winter, creeps up over the south fence like slender fingers. I make a mental note to chop it down before the thaw.
In the darkness, over the occasional clucks and bleats of my animals, a soft moaning floats through the woods.
Phyllis Carlsen lays on the couch that Reverend Lyons and I dragged into the kitchen. Her fever isn’t as bad today, but without aspirin or antibiotics there’s no telling if she’ll get well. She’s just a little younger than me, 61.
“I heard them last night,” she says softly.
I glance at the Reverend and see recognition on his face.
“Seems like the season is coming early this year. We had a couple of warm weeks in April, so I’m not surprised the ground softened enough to let them out.”
Lyons gets the fire going. Phyllis only has a little stove, barely big enough to heat the kitchen, and it’s hard to cook on. I ladle two servings of chicken soup into her pan and place it atop the stove. By now the kettle is hot enough for tea and I make enough for the three of us.
The Reverend is nervous and doesn’t sit. Rather he fingers the trigger guard on his antique Winchester rifle and repeatedly peers through the door slat. “We should move her,” he says finally.
I drizzle honey (from my own apiary) into the teapot as the brew steeps. “Where?”
“You have room -”
I silence him with a sharp glance.
“I don’t want to go,” Phyllis’ voice is hoarse but strong.
“And you shouldn’t go.” I stir the soup. The wood fire is starting to soften the quarter inch layer of fat on top. “This would have been better if I didn’t run out of rice last month. Is there any left in the storehouse?”
“About five hundred pounds -”
“Twenty should do nicely.” I press against the door and look out. Thick snowflakes flutter down on the short walkway between Phyllis’ home and the street. She lives closer to downtown, it’s less safe but at least makes getting provisions easier. “We still have five hours of daylight, and it’s only just below freezing.”
“I’ll send someone -”
“Just hurry back. I can hold the fort here until you return.”
Reverend Lyons nods, but hesitates before opening the door. “You’re loaded, right?”
I show him the revolver.
“Okay. I’ll be back in an hour. Listen for the church bell. This close to spring means we need a headcount.”
I bolt and barricade the door immediately after he leaves but it’s more habit now than protection. The spring thaw will bring the zombies out, but we still have a few weeks of relative safety before that happens.
Phyllis eases up to sit on the couch. She smells like rotten fish but I can’t tell if it’s a festering wound or just poor hygiene. I hand her a teacup before checking the soup. The smell starts to fill her little house too. She isn’t much of a housekeeper.
The back bedrooms are nailed or locked shut, windows encased in brick that’s fitted then braced into the window frames. A few other windows are shuttered, like mine. Donald worked so hard helping to fortify the houses of we who stayed.
Dirty clothes lay heaped around dusty furniture and you can’t see the carpet for a layer of grit and dirt. I start to tidy things, drag the clothes into a manageable pile and get a pot of water ready to boil so I can wash them.
“Don’t,” she says.
“I’m just trying to save your some trouble sweety.”
“I’ll take care of it once I’m feeling better. I’m not an invalid.”
“Of course not.” I check her pantry. It’s down to seven jars of jam, three of pickles, four green tomatoes, and a bunch of rubbery undersized carrots. “Almost time to start getting the gardens ready.”
She sips tea and nods.
“Planting anything special this year?”
She pauses and stares at the boarded window over the kitchen sink for a minute. “Lilies.”
“Lilies are nice. Donald used to love them. I’m going to try and get a better yield from my corn this year. The Blight killed almost everything last season.” I take the soup off the stove and pour a bowl for Phyllis then place the wash water in its place.
She begins to eat slowly then, after only a couple of spoonfuls, breaks down into sobs.
“Oh sweety no.” I sit beside her on the couch and rub her back. “Those tears aren’t going to accomplish anything now.”
“Why did this happen? What did we do to make this happen?” She stares at me between sobs.
“The why’s aren’t important but perseverance is. We’ve done okay here, considering, and each spring it gets a little easier. In another five or ten years, who knows, maybe things will be just like they were.”
“You don’t believe that.”
I shrug. “Everyone has to believe in something. Now eat your soup before it gets cold.”
The church bell rings three times signaling the spring headcount in three days. We don’t ring it often because it’s not only the dead that pose a threat. Our little town is far enough off the highway that very few living people bother looking for us. I think most survivors of the comet strike, then the plague, are probably like us, insular, quiet, and unobtrusive.
Phyllis eats in silence.
We all lost friends, relatives when the end came. The cities took it worst of all. Within a month of the sky going permanent ashy gray the densely populated areas fell into anarchy. The President declared martial law, but with a finite food supply it wasn’t long before groups were at war over the contents of a supermarket, or tractor-trailer truck. Then the zombies came, millions of recent dead scrambling back from the grave in a never-ending quest for live food. Why can’t the dead rest in peace? I don’t know. Maybe there was something in the dust that choked the skies for months after the impact? Maybe the comet carried some germ or virus that we all breathed in and that lays dormant until we die?
We’ll probably never know for sure.
“I’m feeling a little better,” Phyllis says softly.
“That’s a girl.” I check the door and see Reverend Lyons with a 20-pound bag of rice on his shoulder crossing the street. “I’ll leave the rest of the soup for later, and come back to check on your tomorrow. Okay?”
I pour the rice into a plastic bin in my pantry just below the shelf of maple syrup and honey jars then limp into the kitchen. My hips aren’t so good anymore and they ache worst at the change of seasons. I used to take aspirin but that ran out over a year ago.
The afternoon sun sneaks through the bare tree branches and casts long claw-like shadows on the tan, winter-dried grass. I crank two handfuls of rice and the chicken bones together through the grinder then scatter it out for the grateful chickens.
The crisp air revives me as I milk the goats and gather half-a-dozen fresh eggs. The ground is still too hard to turn over in my three rectangular gardens. Donald was going get a rototiller but, well –
I shake off missing him and herd the chickens back into their pen then go inside to stoke the fire.
Headcount in three days.
We haven’t done a headcount since autumn. How many more of the survivors starved or went crazy over the fierce winter? We lose an average of ten a year, and none of the young girls seem interested in making replacements. Not yet. I had five kids before I turned 30, and while we weren’t dodging the undead back then, it was just as hard to keep food on the table and a house warm.
Don’t think about the past. The past is gone.
I sit beside the stove. The soup bubbles nicely. I pull my bible onto my lap and open it. I used to read Revelations. I used to wait for the end of the world to come, and Jesus with his arms open, to sweep us away to paradise. But Revelations wasn’t right, there wasn’t a many-headed serpent to devour us, and the dead weren’t taken to Heaven. I flip to a little note that acts as a permanent bookmark at Psalm 46. I read it aloud when I need strength, and today I need all the strength I can get.
I close my eyes and the warmth of the stove, the smell of apple wood and chicken soup, and buried in there a hint of Donald. He hides in those smells like a ghost.
I hack at the brush with my machete until only slender stems of ivy poke out of the ground along the outside of the fence. No matter what you do, the ivy comes back every year. Stronger I think, for all the abuse we heaped upon it, chemicals, fire, and tearing it out by the roots, but nothing stemmed the growth for more than one season.
The sun beats down through the leafless trees with such intensity that I strip my wool jacket and work only in two layers of sweatshirts.
Reverend Lyons skids his bicycle to a halt at the end of the fence. I can tell he’s been riding hard because his breath cloud is thick enough to hide his face. Most people don’t leave their property once the spring comes, even getting them together for headcount is hard. And right after that the door-to-door checks for the families not present. Reverend Lyons hasn’t become the de facto leader or anything, but he’s made it part of his mission to keep communication open between the two hundred or so of us spread out in and around Pleasant Hollow.
“Linda,” he yells, “Phyllis is worse. Come quickly.”
I slide the machete into a canvas sheath and hang it over my back. The strap pulls uncomfortably against my breasts and my hip groans as I hobble along the stockade fence through the maple and oak saplings separating the yard from the deeper, darker woods.
“Honestly Reverend, I can’t stop taking care of my problems every time someone has a fever.” I wait for his face to display even a hint of guilt, about four seconds, then start towards my gate. “I have some soup left. But I am not sure it’s worth bringing. You’ve seen her place. She’s given up -”
“But we can’t give up.”
“She’s eaten through her stores, stopped washing her clothes, herself. There are other people who can make better use of what we have.”
“When we count heads I don’t want to add another name to the dead for lack of caring.”
“Caring!” I unlock the bicycle chain on the front gate and shove it open. “I have 14 chickens left. I killed one just to make the soup. Shall I kill another one today? Maybe I should slaughter a goat too, just in case. God knows we don’t want to look like we don’t care.”
“That isn’t fair.”
I breathe deep and count to ten. Anger doesn’t solve anything. “I heard gunfire this morning.”
The Reverend closes the gate and slides the four-by-fours into the cast iron braces to seal the backyard. “The Hendersons shot three. Slow moving. I haven’t been over to see who it might have been. I checked on the Simmons’ over on North Farm.” He shivers for a second. “They must’ve died around Christmas. When I forced the door open Jolene was on the kitchen floor with her cat’s entrains dangling from her teeth. She couldn’t have been mobile for long. The rest of the family was still mostly frozen, but they were all -.”
“They were a young family.” We’d send a gallon of fresh goat milk, or a dozen eggs over to the Simmons whenever we had a little extra. They had four children to feed; the oldest boy was only seven.
“How could all of them just die like that? We loaded them up with food before the first snow -”
“They gave up. Maybe one of the kids died and they couldn’t bear to shoot it, maybe the weather did them in, we’ll never know.”
He leans the bicycle against the side of the house and follows me inside.
I slip the machete off and wriggle back into my wool coat. I double-check the revolver; it’s loaded and ready. I dip my hands into the bucket of water beside the sink and rub it over my face. The fire crackles away comfortably in the stove and will stay that way for at least four hours.
Reverend Lyons sits at the kitchen table. “How do you do it Linda?”
“What?” I’m blotting the cool water off my face with a hand towel as I answer.
I pause for a moment, just long enough to carefully word my answer. So many little groups of survivors wore out and turned against one another. We saw the results in some of the other little towns within walking and bicycling distance. Towns where dozens of survivors set up in supermarkets or shopping malls – it was worse in the suburbs of Concord or Manchester – but the food would run out, or they’d get on each others nerves, or someone would go insane and kill all the others.
Some groups have flourished, the militia people, or the religious fanatics, the ones with bunkers and assault rifles and two years worth of fresh water and food and gasoline. They prowl the highways and back roads throughout the winter looking for places like Pleasant Hollow and sack them.
“How do you keep on this well. I mean, look. Your house is clean and bright and happy. You have food, plenty of it, a more than useful garden, good fortifications, clean clothes. I thought most of us were doing okay, but compared to you we’re like Neanderthals. How the hell do you do it?” Lyons’ voice carries a touch of frustration.
“I was poor Reverend. I had to learn how to do all this before things went apocalyptic. Buying strawberry jam costs money, making it costs effort. Buying a dead chicken costs money, raising chickens costs a fraction of a cent per pound. You have to find cheap ways to make things work when you’re poor. And then, when you aren’t poor any longer, you keep doing those things because it has become a satisfying habit. I can teach the others to do it, which is what I wanted to talk about, I can take two or three apprentices at a time and teach them how to garden, and find edible berries, and can, and milk goats, and tend to chickens and cook from what you grow. We’re getting close to the point where whatever we can scavenge from the world before is all used up or it’s too dangerous to travel and forage. We’ll discuss it at headcount. I have some other ideas too. Let’s check on Phyllis first then we’ll come back here and talk. Leave your bicycle, I can’t ride and we’re safer traveling as a pair.”
I gather the last of the soup and pour it into a plastic canister then check walkway before opening the door. “Clear.”
Reverend Lyons leads me out to the street. Cracks in the asphalt stretch across the road to the gully that used to carry rainwater off the road. Three-years worth of leaves choke the gully now and every spring rain will bring a mini-flood almost to my front gate. We head north towards the center of town. The white and black steeple of the Baptist Church pokes up over the trees.
My hip aches, and walking over the hard, uneven pavement grinds away at the last bits of cartilage. I nearly stop as the pain overwhelms. We’re only a quarter mile from Oak Grove cemetery, the smallest of the three we have in town. Donald is buried there, in a concrete and marble crypt his family erected almost 100 years ago. I couldn’t bear to shoot him after he died, but I would have if we didn’t have the crypt. A few bicycle chains to hold the cast iron doors closed, and a dozen cinder blocks atop the casket means he can’t go anywhere.
I plant a little square of lilies in my garden every year to honor his memory. Maybe this year I’ll be able to leave a bundle of them at the cemetery.
“Almost there Linda.”
“Almost doesn’t matter Reverend. I wouldn’t wish this hip on anyone.” I grit my teeth and continue on knowing I can sit at Phyllis’ house until the pain ebbs. He offers an arm and for the last two hundred yards. I have to lean heavily on him.
He knocks twice. “Phyllis?”
“Phyllis? Open the door. I have Linda with me, and some soup.”
A scratching sound escapes through the heavy oak, then a thud, and the door eases open. Phyllis is shivering beneath an afghan knitted from rainbow colored yarn. She shuffles to the couch and groans as she sits. Sweat beads on her forehead and mats down her gray curls.
I draw a thermometer from my satchel and slip it beneath her tongue; count to 120, then read the result. “It’s not any worse than yesterday Phyllis. Are you in any pain?”
Her eyes plead for a second then she shakes her head. “I’m just cold and tired.”
“Do you mind if Linda, um, checks you over – thoroughly I mean?”
“Oh I don’t think that’s -”
“You’ve got an infection, somewhere. I can smell it. If we don’t find it, I don’t know if you’re going to get better. Now I’ll send the Reverend off for a bit so it’s just you and me, that way you don’t have to be embarrassed, and we’ll see what we’re dealing with.”
“Oh no Linda, please. It’s just a cold.”
“Phyllis. Listen carefully. If you don’t let me examine you I won’t come back no matter how bad Reverend Lyons says you are feeling.”
She stares at the Reverend for a few seconds. “I don’t want to.”
“There really is no other way. Come on, we’ll leave Reverend Lyons here to warm up your soup. It will only take a minute. Come on.” I have to almost yank her off the couch. “There’s no need to be frightened. If you’re hurt I might be able to help you -”
“It’s not that.” Phyllis’ voice cracks and she resists my persistent tugging. “Reverend. Please! Don’t let her -” She staggers against the doorframe and releases a flurry of wracking coughs.
I try to steady her but she pushes me away.
Phyllis coughs thick globs of bloody phlegm that splatter against the wall and drizzle down her chin. “Oh God!” She drops to her knees and continues to wretch.
“We can’t do anything for her,” I back away slowly.
“There must be, something?”
Phyllis shudders and sways until her head drags along the wall. “I’m already dead,” she says and begins to chuckle. “I always hated you Linda. Always. You and your perfect Little House on the Prairie life. Never had to work. Always had Donald there to make things easy for you.” She struggles to her feet. “You want to see my wound Linda?” She laughs again until another coughing fit nearly pitches her to the floor. She recovers slowly then drops the afghan, and her sweat pants.
The overpowering stink of filth and rotten meat explodes from her.
“While he was fixing my windows Linda. That’s when I had him first. You remember that? The Barlclay kids from down the road egged my house that Halloween. He was so nice to me. Getting Donald into bed was easy. I guess you just didn’t have the appetites he did.” She chokes up more blood. “All those weekday nights when he said he was going to lodge meetings, he came here and made love to me. I was easy Linda, because I was barren.”
“Get out Linda,” Reverend Lyons barks from the kitchen.
“No. I need to hear this.”
“Endometriosis stole my chance for a family. Ruined my marriage. Ruined it! But I was still a woman. I still had needs. And every time I saw you at the supermarket, or the post office I hated you more and more. Every time Donald left me to go home I cried myself to sleep. You did this to me Linda! You did this!” She leans back and shows her vagina, black and torn. Maggots and thick yellow puss drips out of the gray dead skin of her thighs and pool at her bare feet. Part of her pelvis is visible through the slick black rot. “And when he died I thought I’d lost everything. But I didn’t Linda! I didn’t! If the dead can walk, then they can fuck too! I waited all winter until the graveyard was safe. I forced the lock on his family crypt. He was out of the casket, slumped over and frozen, just like he was sleeping. I dragged him all the way back without anyone knowing.”
Reverend Lyons whirls around and vomits.
I slide the revolver out of its holster and thumb the hammer back. “Where is he?”
“All you need is a little duct tape Linda. Just enough to keep them from biting and getting away -” She dissolves into sickly maniacal laughter. “A little duct tape.” Phyllis slides down to the floor and groans. “I think he liked it.” She shudders twice then falls silent. Her chest heaves for a moment then ceases.
Reverend Lyons stumbles through The Lords Prayer.
She’ll start to move again in two days after rigor mortis begins to relax. “You can go,” I say.
“I can’t let you -”
“Go! Go goddamn it!” I slam the revolver down and wait for him to leave. Phyllis’ bedroom door is bolted from the outside. I contemplate shooting the lock off then stop and count to ten before searching her house for the key. This place is well secured and there is probably a family in town that could use this house and the garden out back.
The key is in a little box beside a vase full of withered lilies.
I open the room slowly and a swarm of flies surges out into the living room, the stink immediately follows.
Donald struggles limply against Phyllis’ cast iron bed frame. She’s tied his wrists and ankles to the head and footboards with wire that has rubbed away the skin and muscle until it bites into scarred, ivory colored bone. He’s naked, his flesh has rotted into the mattress top. Corrupted skin sloughs off his legs and the right side of his chest. His belly is black and gray and swollen. Two hand-shaped bruises sit on his chest.
Phyllis drenched the room, and Donald, with Aqua Velva so the place smells like an abandoned meat locker and whorehouse. The urge to vomit wells up almost without warning but I manage to stifle it. “Oh Donald,” I whisper.
His eyes soften at the sound of my voice. His quiet moans muffle behind a thick X of duct tape.
“I knew, you son of a bitch, I knew all along, but I never said a word. I kept quiet and prayed and did all the right things, but that wasn’t enough, not for you.” I’m surprised at my anger, and for a second it’s as if I am watching someone else speak, someone else place the revolver’s muzzle under his chin.
Donald closes his eyes and I blow his head off.
I do the same for Phyllis on the way out.
Reverend Lyons’ color is beginning to come back as we walk back towards my house. We don’t speak. A few curious faces, drawn by the gunfire, peer out through thick wooden slats, but no one comes out to see what’s transpired. That’s probably better anyway because I don’t know if I have the vocabulary to describe Phyllis’ madness.
Louder moaning echoes out of the graveyard and surrounding woods. The zombies will be back in earnest soon but at least Donald won’t be among them. I open the bicycle chains keeping my front door sealed. Reverend Lyons follows me in and helps put the heavy wooden bolts into place. I put the teakettle on and open the kitchen door leading to the garden. The chickens are happily scratching the cold ground, the goats bleat when they see me.
“Are you going to be alright?”
I step out into the waning sunlight and ease down onto a plastic chair. “I think so.”
“I can stay a while. I can listen.”
“The sun’s going down Reverend. It’s safer if you leave, besides, I don’t feel much like talking.” I pause for a second and read the relief on his face. “Or praying. I’ll see you at headcount tomorrow.”
He stands at the foot of the steps and collects his bicycle. I follow him to the fence and seal the gate after he pedals away.
I kick at the ground and it’s still too hard to turn over, but the top half-inch gives just a little beneath my feet. I put another log in the stove as my tea steeps on the table. I reflect on the day. Sure, things have gone haywire all over the world, but I’m still here, a little worse for the wear sure, but I’m still here.
Not bad for a gal of 71. Not bad at all.