I drag a moist towel across my forehead and squint into the big brick oven. Hickory pops and crackles in the back corner of the deep fireplace below and keeps the oven at a stable 400 degrees. I double-check the little stainless steel thermometer, something I dug out from the charred ruins of Luigi’s Pizzeria.
The House smells yeasty, pungent and a little sour. Very slowly the aroma of crusty bread begins to claw at that sourness until it chases all but the last wisps of beery dough smell away. A sponge – that is a bucket filled with wet flour, sugar, salt, and yeast – bubbles and rises very slowly on the floor beside the table. I made this sponge with the last of our dried yeast a year and a half ago, but I’ve managed to keep it alive and flourishing, irrespective of the persistent chill, near constant rain, and perpetual threat of starvation urging me to cook the whole thing at once.
A little tin goat bell clinks by the top of the doorway. A length of old fishing line stretches through a small hole drilled in the top of the window casement, it runs crosswise into the woods and along the driveway, hidden of course, to a wide spring operated pedal buried in the soft ground at the driveway entrance. The walk from the bell trigger to the gate takes three minutes, that’s plenty of time to check fortifications and draw a bead.
A pair of silhouettes walks straight down the center of the overgrown dirt driveway – already a good sign as zombies tend to swerve. I unsnap the hip holster stowing my .38 snub and draw up Dad’s old muzzle-loader that leans loaded and ready against the doorframe.
One figure stands barely half the size of the other. Both carry packs strapped around their shoulders and push adult-sized bicycles with packs strapped over the back wheels. I hurry down to the gate and peer through the sighting slot. I know them, Big Bill’s square-cut black beard is a dead giveaway. Little Bill walks alongside and looks just a half-sized copy of his father.
I pull the pressure treated 4-by-4 gate-bolt and flip the “come in” sign over the stockade top, then head back to the house and return to the big slab of butcher block and my waiting dough. I start practicing my smile until my face muscles limber enough that I look genuinely like a social animal and not a yeasty hermit – even if I feel and live like one.
“Hi Dierdre. We got some flour.”
“Come on in.”
Little Bill is short, as his name suggests, and spindly with spidery long arms and legs slicked in persistent end-of-the-world grime. He stands at the door with a scoped .22 rifle hanging at the end of his fingers then slowly turns around.
Big Bill withdraws an open five-pound bag from Little Bill’s pack.
“It was open when we found it, but it feels like it’s about a good four pounds. I figured it’d save you a trip to town maybe. Not much left out to scavenge within comfortable walking distance.” Big Bill takes the little .22 and leans it against the wall beside my muzzleloader.
Little Bill wriggles out of his pack and takes one of the three wooden chairs against the wall. His legs dangle over the edge just enough that his feet only skim the hardwood floor.
I touch my finger to the white powder and swirl it between my fingers. “Feels like flour.” I touch fingertip to tongue tip. “Tastes like flour too.” They don’t say anything, nor do they eye me suspiciously as both were present during the big dustup last year when Jolene Simmons tried to pass off five pounds of Bisquick and plaster of Paris. I’m more careful now — double-check everything — because one catastrophic mistake and we’ll never have bread again.
Big Bill strips off a ratty wool sweater and knitted hat then drops into the chair beside his son. “How’s things?”
“I’m not one for small talk, Bill. You know that.”
He sits quiet for a few minutes while I work the dough to about half the size of a volleyball. “How far did you go for scavenging this time?”
“About twenty five miles north east up towards Moosefield and the big dam. Still hard to believe it’s all gone.”
“Most places are just burned up squares in the dirt now.” Little Bill cranks his knee almost to his chin and works the laces on a pair of new-looking, oversized hiking boots. A splash of dried blood stains the outside edge of the left shoe.
“See any shamblers?”
Big Bill shakes a little. He pulls a flask of cloudy blackish liquid from his hip pocket and pulls the cork with his teeth. “Couple.” He swishes the bottle around before showing it to me. “Went down easy. Slow. Still real cold for them. Wearing camo. Probably died at the end of last summer, they were all torn up.” He swigs then offers me the flask.
I sniff the bottle mouth. “Blueberry?”
He smiles. “You have a good nose. It’s mostly just juice now, but I like to think there’s some booze left in it.” Big Bill walks over to the wash bucket on the little table beside the fireplace.
I sip. “Uck! Too sweet.”
We both laugh just a little. He dips both of his skeletal hands into the washing up bucket then rubs wet fingers around the back of his neck. “Hey boy, why don’t you go have a look around the outside of the house. I bet you’ll find a couple of good squirrel, or rabbit runs along the stockade fence.”
Little Bill’s eyes catch the flames from the fireplace and reflect them back for just a second. He shoulders his rifle and disappears through the door into the grayish morning.
Big Bill’s voice swoops down like a crow. “I got more than flour for you, Dierdre. If your amenable.”
“Oh?” I make something like a frown, but Big Bill’s been good to me, and I squash it into a thin lipped smile. He found me salt and a couple of bottles of bread machine yeast last year.
“Nancy’s sick, real bad sick. I can’t take care of her and the boy.” Big Bill waits for me to protest, but I don’t. “Diabetes. No medicine left to treat it. And with so little food around, it’s really hard to manage with diet.” Big Bill falls silent but his eyes plead better than his mouth can manage. “She had two fits last week. Almost couldn’t rouse her out of the second one. The ulcer on her too has gone to running yellow.”
I fold the dough, punch it, fold it, punch it – The muted swoosh-swoosh-thump, swoosh-swoosh-thump, swoosh-swoosh-thump of the kneading punctuates our silence. I push the shaped loaf to the side and start to pick fast-drying clots of sticky dough from between my fingers and dropping them into the bucket full of tomorrow’s dough. I catch Big Bill’s eye again and glimpse the abyss that swirls behind them. “Why me?”
A tiny wriggle in Big Bill’s mustache suggests a slight smile. “You need help here too, so it works out. If you get sick or — you know — we’ll need someone to carry on with the bread.” Bill pinches a wad of tobacco into his pipe and tamps it down with the end of his pinky. “Found this last trip out,” he says, “whole cellar full of cigars and stuff. Water got in so most of it was wrecked and bug eaten, but a little bit of it was okay. You want some?”
A flash of goosebumps rides up my arms and across my shoulders. “No Bill. I gave up tobacco when I couldn’t scavenge it anymore.”
“Suit yourself.” Bill pulls a twig out of the kindling box and reaches it into the fireplace. “Little pleasures are hard to come by, seems silly to let them pass. Little Bill is 13 now, has good hands. Smart. Good with a hoe and shovel too. You keep him working on your garden when he isn’t tending to bread –”
“Stop being so goddamn practical.”
Bill’s face droops and he returns to the chair against the wall. He sucks slowly on the pipe and the smell of cherry tobacco briefly fights off the bread dough smell. “I don’t know what I’ll do without her. She needs all of me right now and that means there’s nothing left over for anyone else. Little Bill understands.” He pauses then whispers, “I hope he does.”
I used to envy the people who survived with their loved ones intact. How they always had that other person to stave off the loneliness and hold through the long cold winter darkness, or while the undead scratched and pounded at the door. The world got to them too, just slower, and they had to watch as their comfort wasted away, starved or got sick, then had to be dealt with. My grief came fast and early, when Greg couldn’t get out of Lowell as the undead rampaged through the larger cities and towns. We said goodbye on the phone. We wept together that night for the first and last time. He sent a final picture from his cell, in it he forced a smile but his eyes, glancing out of frame at some approaching horror, burned red with terrified tears.
“Why not bring him into town. I’m sure Linda can find someone better suited to –“
“They all have people. You need someone and Bill needs someone like you. Someone practical and smart. Someone with purpose.”
“You keep ladling on praise and I’m going to start to blush, Bill.”
Little Bill ambles back into the oven room and stands beside his father. “Couple good squirrel runs I guess.”
I scan over Little Bill, then Big Bill who hides his devastation behind a cloud of pipe smoke. “Normally I’d ask for a week to think about an offer like this but with so much dough to manage, and a permanent shortage of four to deal with – I don’t have accommodations so you’ll have to sleep in the root cellar or down here in the kitchen until I can get something more permanent set up.”
Little Bill shrugs then whispers, “That’s fine.”
“I knew I could count on your Dierdre.” Big Bill hugs his son, then wheels the boy’s bicycle from the dirt walkway to the porch. He unfastens a bedroll and some other basics from the frame and leans them against the door, Little Bill bolts the outer fence after his father passes through the gate.
These arrangements don’t warrant a long teary goodbyes or anything — not anymore.
“You ever make bread?”
“Nope.” Little Bill eases up to the floured butcher block. “Looks like when I used to make dinosaurs out of clay when I was a kid.”
“The dough isn’t all that different, really. Play dough doesn’t have yeast in it so you can make a stegasaurus but not a loaf of bread.”
A near silence descends on the oven room. Little Bill peers through the window slats at the decreasingly identifiable figure of Big Bill melting into the shadows of the long driveway.
Normally I like silence, but it seems unnatural with someone else in the room. “Do you like to read, Bill? I have a few books saved up.”
Little Bill shrugs. “I guess, maybe, I don’t know.”
“Games? I bet I still have some board games somewhere –” I have to think for a minute. I cannibalized most of that part of the house for plywood fortifications and fence repair.
Little Bill walks from one window to the other, to the other, to the other. He touches the iron brackets and wooden slats.
I rub my eyes, and for a second contemplate jamming my fingers in deep enough to touch my frontal lobes, as Tom Henderson and Reverend Lyons prattle on about the ancient sawmill at Old Man Orchard. Tom asked for me to participate in the discussion as it related to what I do. I don’t usually come to town for the more regular powwows where Linda and The Reverend hold court, not that I don’t think they are good for Pleasant Hollow or anything, but I never wanted to be involved in the day to day running of anything. I like my little niche and I don’t want it to get any bigger if possible. Tom keeps looking over at me like I should leap in and have answers, but I don’t.
Little Bill stands at the door like a bodyguard until one of Linda’s goats clip-clops up onto the kitchen porch and begins nibbling at the nylon strap to his red backpack. He drops to one knee and focuses all of his attention on scratching the goat’s chin. Linda says, “It’s a saw mill. I don’t know if the spindle can be adapted to grind wheat. I’m not an engineer –”
“Look, society has been growing and milling wheat since Babylonian times, for chrissakes, how can we not be able to do figure it out?” Tom almost pounds the kitchen table as he speaks. “We can’t have forgotten! We can’t be this fucking useless!”
“Calm down.” Reverend Lyons rubs the stump just below his right shoulder, where he took a rifle bullet about two months ago while on a scavenge, without antibiotics there was no saving the limb.
We don’t remind him that he’s lucky to be alive.
“I sketched what I think is the way the spindles work. Apologies for the crudeness.” Lyons pulls a crumpled sheet of paper from his side pocket and spreads it on the table.
Tom glances at me and sort of shrugs. “So?”
“I think we can simplify this whole thing and use the waterwheel to rotate a grinding wheel, or a hammer assembly, that’ll grind or pound grain into flour.”
Linda says, “No amount of water power or grinding ability is going to matter if we don’t have wheat to grow.” She waves at her familiar, Marjorie, a skinny girl of maybe 14 who brings a little jar of seeds from the top cabinet. “Start with this. See if you can triple the amount of seeds by the first harvest.”
Marjorie pours hot water over our used teabags and the final result is sort of like drinking hot water haunted by tea. Linda says, “Dierdre?”
“Nothing to add?”
“I make bread, that’s all. I’m not a wheat farmer or an engineer.”
“We all have to stretch a little, Dierdre –”
“I’ll stretch when I don’t have to make twenty loaves of bread every day.” My temper flares a little. “Bill and I are going home. I have too much work to be part of this little brain-trust.”
The room goes silent. Little Bill stands up and shoulders his .22.
“Calm down,” Reverend Lyons says, “there’s no need to argue over any of this stuff. Dierdre, we’re just trying to plan for next season. We can’t just sit here and wait to starve.”
Tom says, “Everyone lay off her, okay?” He turns to me. “I’m sorry, Dierdre, I shouldn’t have dragged you. I just thought you should be part of any decision that might effect what you do.”
I stare at him. I snap my fingers and Little Bill cranes his head away from the goat for a second. “Drop the dough on the table and lets go.”
Linda waves at Marjorie. “Honey and a little tub of goat cheese.” She glares at me. “We don’t take gifts, we trade, just so there’s no advantage.”
Little Bill places two jars of sourdough from his backpack on the table.
“Where did you get wheat seeds?” Tom turns the jar in the little bit of sunlight that sneaks in through the back window.
“Winter wheat grows wild. I sent the girls to find it with a picture of the stalk. We can find more, but we’ll save time and effort by cultivating a good field or two.” Marjorie helps Linda from her chair. Linda limps to the stove and dips her hands into a wash bucket beside the sink. “Time is everything and we don’t have much of it. Every day we get closer to another scout arriving. Every day we get closer to our stores running out. Henry and Abby found a pile of horse shit on the far south side of town when he was collecting his syrup taps. Other say they’ve heard a diesel engine on the highway late at night.”
“And that doesn’t even count the undead,” Little Bill says, “we’re into the thaw already. My dad thinks it’s going to be a long summer.”
Linda asks, “How is Big Bill?”
“I haven’t seen him since moving in with Dierdre.” Little Bill wriggles into his backpack and pats the little goat’s head before standing taking his place by the door. “Ready.”
Tom places the jar in my fingers and I stare through the glass at the little pile of seeds and into our future.
“Tom Henderson’s been around a lot. Is he your boyfriend or something.” Little Bill talks through chews of two-day-old bread skimmed with Linda’s traded goat cheese.
“No, though sometimes I think he forgets.” I pile six logs in the fireplace. I’d like to get fifteen loaves in the oven before lunchtime. “We used to have a thing but his work and mine weren’t on the same schedules and after a while he found a girl who was more amenable to his bowling and cards and movies, and I did the same, then I moved away.” The sky is almost dusk-dark and I wouldn’t be surprised if we drew some lightning and thunder by afternoon.
Little Bill struggles against the weight of a three gallon pail filled with dough.
“We have to bulk you up.” I sort of laugh through the end of the declaration.
“I’m not that small.”
“We’ll see if we can’t feed a growth spurt into you this summer.” I tear the first big hunk out of the dough and drop it onto the board as Little Bill slides a stool beside me and climbs up. He drags a five-pounder of all purpose flour close to the workspace. He counts out four cups and piles it into six nice piles.
We’ve got a semi-regular assembly line going before long. I punch the dough and he sprinkles in dry flour until I push the sixth cantaloupe sized loaf up into the line of dough balls that rest just off the work area.
He’s getting more confident with the dough and that confidence is key to making edible, well-risen, bread.
We both pound out three dozen roll-sized loaves and get those into the rising chamber last. It’s not even noon and we’re effectively done for the day. A load this size used to run seven hours, with Little Bill’s help we’re done in just a bit over four. Extra time is a luxury I’d forgotten.
I walk the perimeter of my little garden rectangle as the afternoon sun breaks through the dense clouds and creeps across the still muddy ground in irregular yellow-bright semicircles. One passes close enough for me to catch and the warm light washes over me. I stand like I’ve just swung the oven door open, but the sun’s heat is different, more comfortably warm. Then, like a nervous kiss, it’s passed and I’m left slightly chilled.
I concentrate on the garden where we’ve worked in seed tomatoes, potatoes, corn, zucchini, and green peppers – almost time to weed a little. We’ve dug out another big rectangle too, where Tom Henderson scattered half of Linda’s collected wheat seeds.
“Hey!” Bill sits on the porch, smiles wide, and wipes his hands across a too small tee shirt. He’s dug out an old Monopoly game. “Want to play?”
“Three, four, five. ” Little Bill fumbles through his small sheaf of cards and compares the little green and little red plastic buildings. “Why are the red ones bigger again?”
“Those are hotels.”
I pour hot water for both of us and season it with a dab of honey and half teaspoon each of nonfat dry milk. “Can I ask you something?”
Little Bill stops studying the railroad card and turns his attention to me. “I guess.”
“Aren’t you angry that your Dad dropped you here?”
He shrugs. “Mom’s real sick. He needs to help her. If I was real sick he’d drop Mom here and help me.” He drops the railroad card and pulls one of the yellow Community Chest cards and reads it silently.
“If you get angry. If you want to talk. Just say so, okay?”
Little Bill shrugs and puts his full attention back into Monopoly. “Can I buy Reading Railroad? I’ve landed on it.”
“For two hundred bucks you can.” I haven’t thought about money at all in three years and the colorful bills of the game threatens to pop a dam holding back three years of shit.
Little Bill counts out from his carefully sorted stacks and hands them to me. He catches my eye. “You okay, Dierdre?”
“I – I need to go for a walk. Just wait here.” Once I’m sure Little Bill hasn’t followed me out into the punishing afternoon rain I let the dam crumble and the despair sluice out.
The rain is good.
The rain carries away my tears.
Greg and I were just starting to make it. A couple of miscarriages resigned us to growing old together, alone. Greg’s gig as a human resources manager at Sylvania was rock solid, and I was settling into a full time position managing environmental impact surveys for a coalition of PACs and PIRGs. We had a house, a nice one, with antiques and computers and BMWs and yearly trips to France – one where I attended a week long baking seminar to learn that boulle meant “round” and baguette meant “long” – we both hit our forty five with enough in the bank to plan an early retirement, or work just a little more and tour the world.
But the world ended without us.
I cry for a good ten minutes, recover, then curse the little indulgence of weakness before walking back to where Little Bill waits.
“I have two hundred.” He drops the colorful paper money onto the board.
I hand over the card. “I don’t feel like playing anymore right now. Okay?”
Little Bill fumbles with his cards. “Okay, I guess. Do I have to put it away?”
“No. We can play later. It’s just – I used to – Before we –”
Little Bill scoots over next to me and places his thin, bony arms around my shoulders. “I understand,” he says, “I was kicking your ass anyway.”
Monday’s take the longest because the families come for bread from the furthest ends of town. I lay out the tally sheet and a pencil nub and glance over the names. Adams, Baker, Chatergee, Clemens, Duncan.
The goat bell clanks.
Little Bill peers down the road. “Five or six coming.”
I get the gate cleared and sign up with a full ninety seconds to spare. Little Bill has washed his face, arms, and head stubble and stands behind the table like a miniature store clerk. I double check the snub .38. Little Bill shows the .22 before leaning it against the butcher block. I check each person walking through the gate briefly against the list.
Little Bill makes happy smalltalk with each of the family representatives before handing over their bread. Normally the people come in, get their stuff, and leave after a short round of hi how are you, yes I’m fine, I heard so and so blew their head off, but Little Bill is a big chatterbox.
“How long have you got him,” Tom Henderson asks outside of Little Bill’s earshot.
“I dunno. Depends on what happens with Nancy. Big Bill says she’s falling off real bad now.”
Little Bill points out the Monopoly board, frozen mid game, with him about to become a railroad magnate. His mouth never stops moving.
Tom catches his eye and smiles. “He’s good for you. You should ask if you can keep him.”
“You’ve been alone too long.”
“Let’s not start that again –”
“I’m just saying it’s good that you’re being, I don’t know, friendly.”
I shrug. “Most of it’s him.”
Tom smiles again, this time at me. “You’re looking good, Dierdre. Sometimes I forget how pretty you are.”
I roll my eyes and walk back to my usual spot in front of the big fireplace and oven to watch the little congregation mingle until the families begin to drift out. I walk Tom to the gate. “See you next week.”
“I don’t have to go. I mean, I can stay and make some dinner or something.”
I pull the bolt open and Tom leans in and kisses me. I blush and pull back. “Go,” I whisper.
Little Bill slides in beside me. He unslings his .22 and hands a cloth bag filled with bread rolls to Tom. “Everything okay?”
“I was just leaving.” Tom backs out through the gate and bungie cords the cloth bag around the handlebars of his bike. We lock the gate. I climb into my loft and curl up fetal on the mattress. I miss Greg, and usually when I feel hollow and dusty his memory brings a little comfort. Today I can’t remember the color of his eyes, or which way he combed his hair. The harder I try the more I see Tom. He eclipses the past, swallows it like some black hole at the center of a collapsing universe.
Damn you Tom, damn you to hell.
Little Bill tends the garden and walks the perimeter fence alone. Later he bounces two dice over the Monopoly board over and over and over again.
We haven’t seen Big Bill in three weeks.
Little Bill works a loaf in silence, the dull throb of his hands kneading the dough drown under the crackle and pop of the fireplace. The tin goat-bell clanks. Little Bill steps back from the dough and begins a quick accounting of the room.
“Stay on the bread. We’ve got time. I’ll do the check.” I peer through the view-slat with his yellow binoculars to a girl pedaling hard on a mountain bike. “It’s Marjorie Whatshername from Laura’s house. That crazy girl is all alone too, jeez!” I run from the house, yank the bolt back and kick the gate open as Marjorie coasts past me and into the yard. She skids to a stop by the steps and drops a heavy backpack before leaning the bike against the porch rail. “Laura sent me with some stuff; tea and some honey and maple syrup a couple of jars of preserved potatoes too.”
“I don’t have spare loaves to trade. And what the hell’s wrong with you riding all the way here alone? It’s ten miles, kid, and we’re in the warm season. We can’t afford to lose anyone now, especially not to stupidity.”
Marjorie brushes her mop of straight black hair under a sweaty red kerchief, “I’m fast enough. Besides, I wasn’t alone for the trip. Tom Henderson’s on the way over too but he wanted to check on Big Bill.”
“Don’t say that to Little Bill, understand?”
Marjorie nods. “Where is he? I didn’t just come to trade, I came to see him.”
I lock up the gate then lead Marjorie inside. Little Bill brightens up as soon as he sees our guest. “It’s not your day for bread,” he says then pulls a roll from the cooling shelf and places it on the butcher block before her. “It’s mine, but I want you to have it.”
Marjorie blushes. “Did you make it?”
Little Bill smiles. “I make lots of bread now.”
Marjorie eases closer. She’s taller than Little Bill by almost half-a-foot but short of that they might as well be classmates. Bill finishes up the last loaf for the last batch and slides it into the rising cabinet.
“You have good hands,” she says.
“Laura says I should ask if I can learn how to make bread too because you can’t ever have enough bakers.”
“I can teach you,” Little Bill answers.
“You’re smart too, not just handsome,” she says. For all her youth, Marjorie’s clumsy flirtations aren’t lost on Little Bill who smiles and broadcasts almost adult confidence as she gushes and giggles.
I guess the world ending forces everyone to grow up a little faster.
Marjorie notices the Monopoly board. “Oh god, you still have this! Can we play? I haven’t even seen a board game in forever!”
“Sure! Dierdre was teaching me, but I’m too good and she doesn’t like losing all the time.” Little Bill glances over at me and winks.
“I’ll give you two a little privacy.”
The goat-bell clanks. Tom Henderson cruises slowly down the driveway on his old Schwinn three-speed and meets me at the gate. His face is pale and sweaty.
“Where’s the kid,” he says and looks over my shoulder at the house.
Tom begins to push past me. “He should know –”
“– Should know what! Tom, stop!” I grab his arm and hold him back.
“Nancy’s dead, Big Bill too, and both of them are gone.”
“Wait a minute, what good is it to tell Little Bill? You think he’s going to grab his squirrel rifle and go off hunting for his zombie parents? Are you fucking nuts or something?”
“He should know.”
“If Big Bill and Nancy walk into town they’ll be dealt with. This isn’t the end of the world – that’s already happened, remember?” Suddenly, I crack up laughing, I don’t know if it’s the phrase or the sarcasm I’ve let slip into my comment but I can barely stand as the laughter consumes me.
Tom steadies me. He smells filthy – not that I’m a rose mind you – musky and earthy. His arms radiate strength. I grab his matted shoulder length dreadlocks and bury my tongue in his mouth.
Tom pulls back, “I thought you didn’t want –”
“Do you know what one of the last things Big Bill said to me was?”
Tom shakes his head.
“He said it was stupid to deny little pleasures when they’re offered.” I scratch softly at the nape of Tom’s neck. I whisper, “And now he’s probably dead.” I kiss him again and this time he doesn’t recoil. Silence nuzzles in between us. I lean against Tom and let his warmth comfort me. My arms fit just right around his starvation-trimmed belly, not like when we were kids and he was two pizzas away from joining the 300-plus club.
Tom whispers, “We have to tell the kid.”
“I’ll do it. Just give me time. This is probably his first time being a little bit happy in as long he can remember, I don’t want to destroy that.”
I lay across the musty futon in the loft. It’s late, and usually the nighttime sounds – rain, peepers, owls – lulls me to sleep. Tonight I’m restless. Greg is there hiding in the darkness but the memories don’t want to come out and be massaged tonight. His voice is a mix of voices now, his face is a mix of all faces.
I roll over and sigh. Greg’s become an abstract, papered over by the new memory of Tom’s sharp features, warm hug and wet kiss.
The goat bell clanks – clank-clankity. I roll over and listen. Animals sometimes trip the trigger plate.
Little Bill shuffles out of his sleeping bag downstairs. “Dierdre?”
“Lay down, Bill. It’s nothing. That was probably a deer. You won’t get much sleep this spring or summer if you worry every time you hear the bell.”
“I’m getting my rifle ready just in case.” Little Bill shuffles to the door and slides the view slit open. “Can’t see anything.”
I sit up and yawn then slip down from the loft to the kitchen. “New moon, I think.” I peer trough the view slit into the relentless nighttime black. “No light at all.”
“Well, if whatever it is stays up by the roadway ・”
“I wish we could see something.” Little Bill reaches for the door knob but I push him away.
“Just let me go to the gate.”
“Dad says the zombies go someplace that had meaning for them before they died.”
“No one knows that for sure, Little Bill.” Tom’s words race back through my head. We gotta tell the kid, Big Bill’s dead and gone. Little Bill being here would certainly have meaning, and if Big Bill stumbled into more zombies they’d follow him.
Zombies tend to horde.
“He said we’d be safe back home because he didn’t have any friends and no one ever visited.”
“Shhhhh!” I try to unlock the door silently ・ zombies still hear, still smell, and still see, depending on decomposition ・ but manage to elicit a few tiny clicks as the bolt retracts into the housing. Soft misty rain swirls in the darkness. The droplets catch the tiny orange flicker from the dying embers in the fireplace and glow like dull sparks. The mist squashes down the usual smells, suffocating them in must and humus, but beneath that hides a vein of the sick sulfury air of flesh-rot. I draw up the muzzle loader. “Stay here. I’m just going to the gate. If I have to run back you might need to slam and lock the door behind me.”
Little bill takes my hand and squeezes for a second. “Wait. No.” His voice quavers. “Don’t go down.” He’s surprisingly strong and pushes me back from the door before slamming it and twisting the lock closed. I force him aside and even though I know he can’t see how I glare at him. All that noise is going to bring them for sure now. Then, as if on cue: Clankity-clank-clank. Bwoooooooaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Scratch-thump.
“Upstairs into the loft. Now!” I push Little Bill towards the ladder then quickly check each of the bolts, locks, and slats downstairs before climbing up and fumbling the ladder in behind me. “The dough should be safe. They won’t get in even if they get over the fence.”
Little Bill sits pressed into the corner. He holds the .22 like it anchors him to the Earth’s surface. He whispers, “Sorry I made noise.”
I glance out the window into the mist but can’t see anything through the murk. “We’ll just wait it out. It’s not big deal.” My mind races over the slats and bolts and lock and doors and everything else, then when I’m sure I didn’t skip anything, the race starts again. I slide the window open just enough to hear them.
Grooooooannnnnnnn – Thump-Thump-Thump – Mooooooannnnnnnnnn.
Little Bill crawls over towards the futon mattress.
“The only way in is the ladder that I pulled up. Don’t worry, okay. Just try and get some sleep. I’ll sit up until morning when we can see what’s what.”
He slides into the futon and pulls the quilts in tight. “I can’t stop shivering.”
I listen at the trapdoor but all’s quiet in the kitchen below. Morning won’t come for hours and hours. I drag my holstered .38 over and slip into the bed beside Little Bill. He scoots beside me, He shivers through the heavy layer of blankets. I roll over and wrap him in my arms until his breath falls into a relaxed and sleepy rhythm.
Sometimes I forget he’s only 13.
Whatever scratched at the gate moved on deeper towards Pleasant Hollow by sunrise.
Little Bill slides the Monopoly box into his backpack. He hasn’t stopped chattering all morning. “Marjorie and me are going to play, like, three games at least,” he says, “maybe we can get you and Linda to play too. There’s plenty of money and pieces and dice and stuff.”
I pack two almost stale rolls and the last nice crusty loafs from this week’s baking. I don’t usually take days off to mean I can actually go into town, but after last night we need a change of scenery and to let Reverend Lyons and the others know we didn’t get eaten.
“Do you mind if we stop by my folk’s place on the way? Dad hasn’t been back to the house and I want to make sure everything’s alright.”
I stare down into Little Bill’s eyes. “Bill,” I drop the Little this time, “What happened to Betty Crimmins?”
“Died from the flu two weeks ago.”
“Right. When people are sick, now when there’s no medicine except maybe chicken soup, there isn’t much hope –”
Little Bill picks up, and immediately checks his rifle. “You can come with me or I’ll meet you at Linda’s.”
He bungi-cords the bags to the flat rack over his back tire and shoulder-slings the .22. A moment later we’re both pedaling up the long driveway.
We slalom through felled old-growth pine and spruce and oak that lay across the state road. Little Bill has more energy than me and before long I’m almost yelling for him to wait up.
He skids to a stop right at the crest of Owl’s Nest Lane, throws his bike onto its kickstand, and unslings his rifle. I struggle to pedal up the steep hill where he waits.
“Slowpoke,” he says and there isn’t a hint of humor in his voice.
I scowl at him because I don’t have the wind to swear.
Little Bill pries his yellow binoculars from the backpack and peers down the hill towards a small brown house set against a big red barn. “Everything looks like how we left it.”
I see the bricked windows, the high fences, barbed wire, the useless pickup truck. “No chimney smoke.”
Little Bill asks, “You really think he’s dead?”
“I don’t know. If the dead come to places that mean something when they were alive, there’s no other good reason we had them at the gate last night. If Big Bill is dead and walking then he might have come to my house because of you.”
“I need something if I’m going be the last one. ” Little Bill swings his bike over the crest and leaps on before I can follow.
“Come back! Wait! Come back Little Bill!”
He hunches down over the handlebars and rockets towards the farm.
I coast down and listen for screams and/or gunshots but there’s nothing. Little Bill’s bike leans against the stockade fence a few feet from the open gate. A bicycle chain swings lazily from two iron loops bolted into the wood. I hop off my 10-speed and stand it by the road. I push the front door open and count slowly to three. My eyes struggle against the murky darkness. Cold white light leaks in between the the wooden slats and badly mortared brick that covers all of the downstairs windows. Footsteps echo from the upstairs rooms.
Almost-mid-morning sunlight floods the entry and the remains of the room beyond. Heaps of filthy moldy clothes clot on the water-warped hardwood floor. A pile of swollen, water-soaked books crumbles beside the remains of an overstuffed chair dotted with blooms of mildew.
I draw the pistol. The steps to the upper floor are sealed behind a metal door.
The entrance door throws a rectangle of light. The shadow of a human figure resolves in the sharp stretched rectangle. Tall – but that could be the light – no rifle. The figure shuffles up the last step into the house.
I raise the pistol. I pry the hammer back as the shadow looms, pull in one long, quiet breath, settle my finger on the trigger. The little bead on the end of the snub barrel blurs. I blink and squeeze off two rounds.
I know that voice! “Big Bill!”
“Oh my god! I thought you were one of them and I – I panicked – Oh my god are you hurt? Did I hit you!”
He steps past the door where two fresh bullet holes catch the sunlight and glow like cat’s eyes in the midnight dark. “No, but you’ll owe me for the years you’ve shocked off my life.” He looks different. His matted beard and thick ponytail, the hallmarks of post-apocalyptic hair, are gone. Big Bill wears a suit. The pants are crusted with dried brown mud.
I realize he’s cleaned up for a funeral. “You – You buried her?”
“I did the right thing first.” He pats the pistol slung at his hip. “Nancy asked to be buried near her mother and father. Near Littleton. I promised. I did a lot of thinking on the way there.” Big Bill pries a half-smoked cigarillo from his breast pocket and lights it from a kitchen match. “Where’s my son?”
“He ran in here before I could catch him. Upstairs I think. Tom said you were dead. I wouldn’t have come – I mean – Little Bill thinks you’re dead too.”
The two gunshots haven’t gone unnoticed as Little Bill slowly emerges from the upstairs stairway. He creeps and sees that I’m alive and unhurt, then sees his Dad also alive and unhurt. A blush races across his cheeks. “Hey,” he says as nonchalantly as a 13 year old can manage. “I heard shooting. Everyone okay?”
Big Bill says, “We’re fine.”
Little Bill throws himself against Big Bill’s chest.
“It’s okay, I’m here,” Big Bill says. He leads us all just up the road to where he’s set up a little caravan of carts with a shoulder harness. “I came back for you but I can’t stay here.” Big Bill glances past his son to the house and barn. “There’s too many memories.”
Little Bill opens his jacket and pulls out a picture frame with a portrait inside. The photo shows Big Bill dressed in a black suit, Nancy in her nicest Sunday dress, and Little Bill with a close cropped haircut and a wide smile. His eyes sparkle with innocence. He hands the photo to Big Bill and looks at me. “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want you to go either.”
“I can’t. You aren’t old enough to understand. But everything here reminds me of her.”
Little Bill sniffles then backs away and takes my hand. “Go then. Go and be dead.”
Big Bill shakes his head. He squats down and hands his son the family portrait. “Be a good baker.” His eyes well up a little. “Maybe I’ll come back someday.”
Little Bill’s face hardens but only for a second and he crumbles into his father’s arms. “Don’t forget me.”
“Impossible,” Big Bill straps himself into the wagons.
We watch him walk until he disappears around a long gentle curve.
Big Bill never looks back.
Little Bill glances over his shoulder only once at the little gray house and big red barn on Owl’s Nest Lane as we walk our bikes back up the hill.
“If you want to talk just say so.”
Little Bill smiles meekly up at me. “I’ve got you, bread, Marjorie, the future.” He slides up on his seat. “Come on,” he says, “I don’t want to miss my chance at beating all of you at Monopoly.” Little Bill pedals off.
I ride off in pursuit and remember that these arrangements don’t warrant a long teary goodbyes or anything — not anymore.