Spring came in with a vengeance this year. The rain hasn’t let up for almost two weeks. The wind sheared two thick boughs from my Golden Delicious apple tree, rain washed out the timbers for the raised vegetable beds, mud swamped my outdoor cistern.
The all-night roar of the thaw-swollen Pemegewesset River slapping against the underside of the cast iron bridge gnaws like the persistent scrape of fingernails on a chalkboard.
Marta lies beside me. Her breathing is measured and regular, like she’s asleep, but I know she awake. I touch her shoulder ands she recoils into an even tighter fetal ball atop the dingy quilt. I roll over and worry about the fortifications, the chickens, the gardens that can’t take much more rain. Maintenance is critical, let something go, like a bad roof shingle, and in no time it cascades into a rotted ceiling or wall, and the time needed to fix those new problems takes time away from keeping everything else in good order.
Marta sighs, wriggles down, and draws her legs in even tighter.
We haven’t talked much since the big thaw because I was so — wait — we, we were so busy getting the gardens ready, repairing the fences, and stringing barbed wire and coffee cans loaded with ball bearings through the back two forested acres of the property.
I never made it to the library. She asked and asked and asked, but the thaw came so quickly, then headcount, then door-to-door searches, then scavenging, and taking account of what’s left in Pleasant Hollow, and I just couldn’t get there. Sometimes at night I lay beside her and I can feel the resentment radiating off of her skin like feverish body heat. Sometimes too, I get the urge to apologize, but Marta should understand, and I shouldn’t have to.
I ease up on the bed and listen to the staccato of heavy rain on the shingles and the howls of spring wind tearing at the budding branches of the woods around Camelback Hill. I whisper, “It’s morning.”
“Don’t’,” she answers.
“Go. Don’t go.”
“I’m just getting some water.”
We’d only been married for six months before the comet strike three years ago, and it feels like we’ve lived ten lives each since. Today I realize I barely know her. I spin the cap of a repurposed 2-liter soda bottle and pour four ounces into a plastic cup on the nightstand then fill a washbasin with the rest.
A hint of sulphur wafts out of the metal bowl on the dresser. We’d always meant to get a water softener, but well —
“You’re going out,” she says. Her voice nearly drowns beneath the rain’s rhythm.
“Just for a bit. I won’t be outside the fence —”
I ignore her and splash a few palms-full over my face. The water drizzles out of my pioneer-length beard and spreads over the threadbare tee shirt I use for pajamas.
We ran out of soap nine-months ago.
I drain the cup and spit the last sips into the basin after a swish around my teeth then toss the empty bottle into the pile of empties beside the overflowing burlap sack. I make a mental note to drag the sack and bottles down to the basement for refilling. Before the second winter I rigged all of the gutter downspouts to drain into the basement where I placed ten fifty-five gallon plastic drums to use as a makeshift cistern. So, even if it stops raining for a year we won’t go thirsty.
“Come back to bed.”
I run my fingers through my beard before answering. “I think I’ll walk the fence first.”
Marta rolls over. Her ice-blue eyes shine out from the shadows of murky dawn, “the fence can wait, can’t it?”
I sit on the edge of the bed and listen to the old springs cry out in protest. We were going to buy a new mattress once, but things went so bad so fast that everything not tied directly to survival were thrown off the priorities list. We really needed a new mattress then though, really. Marta nicknamed it The Crippler but still, in relation to everything else, a decent night’s sleep is just one tiny nothing.
I ease back up. “Why don’t you come with me?”
She eases up on one arm. “We’re going to the library today.”
“Remember when I showed you pictures of the old shark fences they used to put up in Australia and said that crews used to ride out every week to make sure there weren’t any holes —”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m one of your fucking school kids!”
“You’re not a teacher anymore. None of that Australia shit matters —”
“The point is we have to make sure the fence is intact. If a bear or something broke through then the yard isn’t safe, the gardens aren’t safe, the house isn’t safe.” I roll over and stare at the matted black hair at the back of her head.
“The house is safe for now. You promised. One more day without something to escape into and I’ll go crazy. Keith? Keith answer me.”
The mattress groans as I struggle into a pair of to-small-work boots, Having a supply of decent shoes isn’t something most people think about at the end of the world. We stumbled on a cache in a tractor-trailer truck a year ago, but almost all of them were kids sizes. “I won’t be long. It seems pretty quiet and I think the rain is letting up some.”
Marta squeezes into a ball so tight I wouldn’t be surprised if she ceased to exist.
I slide a little .22 caliber pistol into my jacket pocket before clomping out towards the bedroom door. “Be back soon.”
Marta sighs but doesn’t speaks.
“Hun? Hun come on. Get up. I’ll make sure the stove is going good and strong. I’ll put on a kettle. Have some tea, you’ll feel better.”
She rolls over to face me. Her face is ashen gray and hollow, her voice is almost a moan. “Grab a large pizza on the way home.”
I flash a smile. “Garlic bread?”
“How do you want your pizza Ma’am?”
“Double cheese and anchovies.”
“I’ll be back with it in 30 minutes of less or the next one is one us.” I back out of the bedroom and smile. The pizza thing is a running gag, that little bit of gallows humor we’ve needed to keep us focused and vigilant.
I pause at the steps and listen as Marta’s weeping poisons the morning stillness.
Downstairs is just how we left it at sundown. The windows are still boarded, the doors too, and double bolted, and braced. I stuff three short sticks of dry pine into the Franklin stove and stoke the embers until the wood catches then fill a pan of water ready for tea. I shove open the French doors to the double living room and frown. A 60-inch plasma TV, useless now, hangs over a couple grand of audiovisual gear. The white leather couches are thick with dust. The glass coffee table is heaped with scrap wood. The built-in bookshelves sag from water damage when part of the roof collapsed last spring. A heap of crumbling paperbacks scatters away from the shelf towards the dining room.
We simplified when it was clear that heating would come only from one stove in the kitchen. I sealed the downstairs toilet, the dining room, the upstairs spare bedrooms too then cut four two-foot by six-inch vents in the bedroom floor to the ambient heat from the kitchen could at least reach the room where Marta and I would spend almost all of our time.
Morning spills through the heavy oak window slats like wet smoke. I pull my shoulder-length black mane back and fasten a ponytail with an old bread bag twist tie then remove the double bolts from the kitchen door. A wave of cool mist sprays in as the rain pounds down in the little walkway between the house and garage.
I wait a few seconds just to be sure I’m alone. A shotgun leans on the wall beside the door, but it’s hard to handle in the torrent that doesn’t offer more than a few dozen yards of visibility anyway. Besides, the .22 is better close in. I peel back a plastic tarp and check the apple press for rat-damage. The wooden barrel is intact, the handle too. I make a mental note to smear more petroleum jelly on the screw to stave off even more rust. Who cares, I think, not going to be any apples this year anyway. Stop it Keith! Buck up man! There will be apples, plenty of them, enough to fill the cellar with jam and sauce and preserves and still have plenty left for trading.
Think positive. That’s how we keep from going crazy.
I walk the north perimeter first. There’s no real good way to predict where the undead will congregate, but we didn’t know that when fortifications were a critical necessity. I put the best fencing, stockade, seven feel tall, on the three-hundred and ten feet closest to the road. I should have lined the backyard along the woods, that way I could just watch the window in case any unwelcome visitors were tangled in the barbed wire. But, hindsight is 20/20.
The fence makes the yard look out of place among the other homes in the Pleasant Hollow Acres subdivision. I bought in here because the neighborhood design was meant to emulate pastoral living so none of the yards are truly square, hummocks of birch and maple trees separated one property from another, and the roads curved and criss-crossed like they’d been drawn by an overenthusiastic child with a black crayon. I couldn’t have afforded the place in my wildest dreams, but an unexpected inheritance from my father’s death meant not only that I could move in, but that I’d never have to work again. You’d never have known my dad was almost a millionaire when he succumbed to cancer. He still lived in the rambling, falling-down farmhouse beside the ruins of a dairy barn where I grew up.
The comet struck three months after Marta and me closed on the house.
The back yard stretches into almost two full acres of old-growth forest. We clear a little out each spring for firewood but not enough to make a noticeable dent. I draw the pistol and creep in as far as the first coils of barbed wire and start to work my way east.
The fence is mostly intact. I’ve set up the defenses like the trench system of the Somme with a line of coils at the far end of the woods, then a short clearing, another line of wire, another clearing, then the alarms, and finally a double coil of concertina wire closest to the yard.
The defenses have worked well enough. Every now and then a bear or some other big animal works its way through and I have to refasten the coils to the trees and braces. A towering old oak has come down. The roots spike up out of the soft ground like pungi stakes and thick mud has rushed into the crater.
The tree will make good firewood if I can just get it out of here.
I whirl around as branches crackle and snap. The .22 comes up easily but there’s no target.
Calm down Keith, I think, get jumpy and get killed. I ease back behind the split trunk of a drowning birch and wait. “Marta?” My voice comes out hoarse and scared.
“Keith? Keith where are you?”
I step back into the semi-open. “Here baby. You scared the shit out of me. Jesus.”
Marta pushes through the saplings. She’s carrying the shotgun. “I heard something at the house.”
“You should have stayed put.”
“I know but —”
“Just stay close then. I’ll check the house over good when we get back.”
The wire is rusted to bright orange and mottled brown. The coils blend seamlessly with the underbrush now. I make a mental note to mark this line with strips of bright cloth.
“I smell one.”
The stink of sulfur and rotten meat suffuses from the mist and behind that smell the rising buzz of disturbed bluebottle flies.
“Oh God,” Marta turns away and shoves a wet rag over her nose and mouth.
We find two, a man and a woman, both snarled in the wire. The woman’s torso is torn almost to the spine. She claws slowly at the dirt but her legs are enwrapped and the barbs have cut all of her thigh and calf muscles away. She snarls and writhes as I approach.
They smell us, that’s how they hunt. “Stay back.” I keep a few yards between us, line up the .22, and fire two bullets into her head.
The man is in worse shape as the wire is wrapped around his neck. His head dangles as all of the ligaments and muscles are shredded away. His eyes swirl in sunken sockets but the rest of his body is ruined and still. I shoot him too.
“Come on.” I back away from the resting corpses and begin to push Marta towards the edge of the woods.
“We can’t just leave them there?”
“Just go. I’ll clean it out later —” Something else moves in the woods. I turn back and see a form shambling slowly through the brush. “Get back to the house. Hurry!”
We get inside and bolt the doors. Marta strips out of her clothes and shivers beside the stove as I feed wood through the door. “Did you see it?”
Marta shakes her head.
“The fence must be broken somewhere —” I struggle to catch my breath.
“I didn’t see anything.” She pulls a blanket off the pantry shelf and wraps up. “The fence will hold for a couple of hours. Let’s dry up then go, the library is an hour walk each way.”
“A shape in the woods —”
She pads out of the kitchen and shoves open the French doors to the living room.
“Marta?” I wait for ten seconds but she doesn’t answer. “Marta, honey? Come on baby, stay in here it’s too cold in —”
A crash followed by the tinkle of glass shards scattering across the hard wood floor. “It’s all bullshit! It’s all bullshit! I hate this place! I fucking hate it all!”
I scramble out of the kitchen but freeze when I see that Marta’s slammed a wooden chair through the entertainment center. A flash of rage wells up, but I manage to suppress it, she’s just smashing things now, old things, things that don’t have any meaning or value. “Marta,” I whisper.
She whirls back and flings an oak chair leg that clatters down beside me. “Six months of comfort! Six months is all I had! Six months! It’s not fair!”
I back into the kitchen.
“I just want to escape for a little while and every time I think of the TV or the radio I want to burn the goddamn house down!”
“Relax baby. Come on. Destroying our stuff won’t change anything.”
“We sleep and eat and sleep and eat and cut wood and the TV hangs there, teasing me, making promises. There are other people out there Keith, I know it. People with electricity, with lives. People who aren’t living like it’s the fucking stone age and you keep me here, locked up like some — some — some goddamn toy!” Marta collapses against the wall and sobs. Her slender fingers slap up against her eyes as if their very pressure can stem the tears.
I snake through the destruction and put my blanketed arm around her shoulder. I whisper softly that it’s okay and lead her back to the kitchen. She doesn’t resist as I lower her onto a chair. “You wait here baby. I’m going to break out the stores, you wait, we’ll eat and drink and laugh like normal people. You just wait.” I back to the cellar steps and fumble the combination lock before climbing down the mildewed steps into the basement. A little stream runs north to south, rainwater seeping through the foundation. No big surprise after so much rain, and with no electricity to run the sump pump in the corner.
The mundane thoughts threaten to distract me but I shake them off. There’s enough light through the cellar windows to get to the walk in storage closet that I converted to a bunker in case we were ever truly overrun.
I pull a battery-powered flashlight from a hook on the wall and creep inside. I squirreled away two cases of tuna, a flat of fruit cocktail, cases of canned potatoes, corned beef hash, and mixed vegetables. I grab two cans of each then push to the back and push the cot away from the wall revealing four bottles of Canadian Whiskey. “You there baby? I’m coming back up. I’m going to treat you right tonight, you wait —”
I see the shadow on the door at my periphery.
“I just wanted some books.”
“Oh now Marta, honey. Let’s eat and get some rest we can talk about the library tomorrow.” I push the tuna and fruit cocktail into her hands and turn around for the whiskey when Marta slams and locks the door to the bunker. “Marta? Marta, baby? Open the door. Marta! Marta what the fuck!”
I slam my shoulder against the door but it doesn’t budge. I fall back against the cot and just sit there. I’d built the room to be strong and safe and quiet but never though that would be a liability.
I switch the flashlight off and fumble one of the whiskey bottles to my lap and spin open the cap. She’ll be back. She’ll get lonely in a couple of hours, or scared then she’ll come back.
I measure the time in hunger pains and squats in the corner. Eight hours, give or take. I start to think. Maybe this is a good thing? Maybe this is karma or something — I’ve never been a believer in all that supernatural shit — but maybe this is, like, a sign or something. I wouldn’t be in the mess if I’d just let the fence go for one day and walked Marta to the library. Stupid. Selfish. The whiskey burn gets less and less with each swig until I’m sure the room whirls around and around and around though I can’t see a thing. The cot catches me before I pass out.
I wake up to silence. How long I’ve slept is a mystery but I didn’t pee the bed so it couldn’t have been too long. I pry the top off a can of hash and shovel it into my mouth two fingers at a time until I burp so hard it almost brings the food back up. “Marta! Marta let me out! I’ll take you to the library right now if you just let me out!”
“Marta! Maaaarta!” I cry out until my voice devolves into a gravely coughing croak.
Squat in the corner and relieve myself over a bucket of damp sawdust. She’ll be back. She can’t stay up there without me for much longer.
I finish the whiskey in silence and strain to hear even a single footstep or rattle of the outdoor chain.
I lay back on the cot. She’ll see, I won’t be mad when she opens the door. She’ll know I got the message. I have to take care of her too, just like the house, can’t let the little things grow and fester. I’ll be a better man. I promise.
My eyes flash open, at least I think they do but I can’t tell in the dark if the sound of muffled voices and scraping metal is some phantom, some delusion. I slide off the cot and grip the whiskey bottle by its neck.
My god she left the doors open. I want to scream out but my throat seizes and I can only mouth her name.
Chains scrape then rattle to the floor. I shove back as far into the bunker as I can manage. How the hell did they figure out a combination lock? Adrenaline washes through every cell in my body. I click the pen-knife open. They’ll get me sure, but I’ll take one or two with me!
The door swings open and I spring out swinging the empty bottle like a club at the two shadowy figures.
“Keith! Calm down man! We’re friends!”
“Get the fuck away from me!” I surge at the closest one and take a slap to the cheek so hard it knocks me to the ground where my senses slowly return. I fight the urge to attack again and stay down, panting.
“Jesus man, how long were you in there?” Reverend Lyons squats down beside me and offers a canteen of fresh water.
“Where’s Marta?” I don’t bother to hide the anger in my voice.
“We didn’t see her. You know your gate is wide open?”
I shake off the words and scramble to my feet. “Where is she? Is she upstairs?”
“Calm down!” Bob Halloway racks his shotgun. “He’s lost it Rev —”
“Put that thing down! He’s just disoriented —”
I shove past them both and clamor up the steps into the kitchen. “Marta! Marta baby! Answer me honey!” The dim sunlight burns my eyes like an oxygen torch.
“I don’t know how long you were locked down there Keith, but it’s got to be at least a couple of days. What’s the last thing you remember?”
“The door closing.” I blink until my eyes adjust to the light. “She wanted me to take her to the library.”
“Why?” Reverend Lyons rubs his graying hair and glances at Bob.
“She wanted books, what do you think?” I shake my head at the stupidity of the question.
“There aren’t any books there anymore.” Bob lowers his shotgun and begins checking the downstairs to make sure we’re safe. “Well, a few maybe, whatever we didn’t need to keep the fire pit going until the rain stopped and the wood dried up.”
I stare at Bob and the Reverend. “When?”
“I dunno? Two weeks ago after we had that big warm spell. Fifty or sixty bodies to burn —”
I grab the lapels of Bob’s plaid jacket and shove him against the cold Franklin stove. “Are you fucking kidding me? All the empty houses in town and you burned the books?”
He shoves me back. “Take your fucking hands off me! Like you have any idea what it was like? You and Marta hiding up here unless there’s a headcount. And a bunker full of food too! There’s kids in town, old people, that could make better use of it than you!”
“Stop it! Both of you!” Reverend Lyons steps between us. “We’ll deal with the hording later. Right now I think it’s more important that we find Marta. Put the gun down Bob or I swear —”
Bob lets the shotgun hang at his side.
“Take it. Take it all I don’t care.” I take the .22 from my jacket pocket and stuff it into my pants. “I’m going to the library. If she’s not there then — Just — just, I don’t know.” I get the bolts and locks off the door and shamble out into the yard. The rain has finally let up from a constant downpour to a thick rising mist. Bob’s and The Reverend’s mountain bikes lean against the fence. I throw my leg over one of them and pedal out onto the cracked pavement.
Frost heaves have done a number on the road and I can barely manage speed a little better than walking. I glance back as someone shuts the gate behind me.
I gear up and pedal through the ruts and potholes until I hit the main road towards town. The air is even more silent than it was in the bunker. Not even birds can manage a song in this mire. I keep my eyes on the horizon and pedal. Stay alert. Watch for movement along the wood’s edges. Pedal. Pedal. Pedal.
The main road snakes up at ten degrees towards Camelback Hill then down into what’s left of downtown. I coast and keep the pistol ready in my right hand. Our library is small, three stories, but it’s designed to look like it came out of a Christopher Wren painting. A heap of shattered marble catches the bike as I leap off and charge up the granite steps and slap against the surprisingly unlocked doors.
My breath won’t be caught. I catch a whiff of sulfur and whirl around but the street is clear. The door swings in easily and the high windows let enough light through that I don’t regret not bringing my flashlight.
The shelves are empty. A spill of three-year-old magazines stretches off the periodicals rack to three stories of empty shelves.
Pleasant Hollow never had much, but it always had the Mason Memorial Library. The shelves and a two yard-wide wrought iron balcony encircle the expanse and spirals upward towards the dome.
The library is stripped almost bare. The furniture is gone except for the big mahogany librarian’s counter. “Unreal,” I whisper and listen to the word echos and die in the empty marble tomb.
I shove the door closed and lash the bars with a length of torn velvet curtain. “Marta?”
“Marta, are you here?”
I nearly trip over the first body beside the magazine spill. A male. Headless. Another body lies a few feet away, also male. This one has only half of his head missing. “Marta!”
Flies surge as I ease past the corpses.
Another body lays sprawled at the foot of the spiral walkway, yet another a few yards up.
“Marta!” I kneel down and retrieve a red shotgun shell. She was here. She was here!
Then I see the two feet and slender legs walking on air high above the librarian’s desk. The image doesn’t make sense. I blink and rub my eyes but when I open them the legs are still there, still walking.
I stagger up the balcony until I can reach the ornamental windows at the base of the dome and tear the curtains free.
The body. The woman — Marta — Oh God Marta! She dangles from the small chandelier that hangs beneath the dome’s apex. Her eyes are closed, mouth agape, tongue stretched and lolling out over the left side of her bottom lip, the skin of her cheek and neck is clawed away. Her right arm hangs lifeless. A knot of torn velvet pushes up behind her right ear. A cloud of happy swollen flies swarms her face and body.
“Marta oh Marta honey —”
My eyes trace the length of knotted velvet up to where she’d tied it around the center stock of the shotgun and threw it into the fingers of the chandelier. The sharp sound of metal clattering to the floor below brings me back.
I’ve dropped the .22 pistol.
Run. Before I even realize the thought I’m sprinting down the walkway towards the library lobby. I see Marta on the periphery hovering there, rotating slowly as her legs against only gravity,
She must’ve choked to death and not broken her neck. The full weight of her agonized last moments thunders down on me. I did this. I did this to her. I did this.
Did she think of me? Curse me?
I shrink against the empty shelves and weep.
I did this. I did this. Oh god I did this.
Something smashes against the door. I skitter back as far as I can. They can’t get in, not easily, not yet. I stagger to my feet and walk down to the lobby. The pistol is there, if it even still works.
I hear my own voice, never forget the little things Keith, the little things are the things that will get you. “That’s what I used to say Marta. Remember? Remember how I used to say that?” I paw through the heap of magazines but the pistol is lost in the wreckage somewhere. “I used to say that all the time honey. Remember?”
Marta’s legs keep walking.
“Remember how I used to say if you let one roof shingle rot the whole place will fall down?” I stare up at her as I struggle to the door. “Remember honey? Remember how it was going to be so good for us? How we had a whole life ahead of us? Remember that? I do! I remember!”
My fingers strain at the knot holding the door closed as fleshy fists pound against the wood.
“Remember baby? Remember? I’ll make it up to you honey, I promise. I won’t forget the little things anymore.”
I get tatters of velvet loose enough that they won’t hold more than a minute or two then back away towards the librarian’s desk.
I think, Spring came in with a vengeance this year, and close my eyes as the doors burst inwards.