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One less friend to call on. I turned the shovel and tamped the earth over the grave.
‘Was it someone that I knew?’ Stearns had come up behind me with his usual silence. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of being startled.
‘You never met, far as I know.’
‘Odd. I thought I’d met everyone here.’
‘Fitzgerald wasn’t one of the regulars. He came in when he needed something for the cabin. Traded a few hours of work for what he was after, then went back out.’ I gestured toward the foothills that formed a bowl around what had once been a thriving city. ‘Mostly he stayed on the other side.’
[private]’It’s a lonely life out there.’ Stearns bent to examine the grave. ‘You do nice work. Experience tells.’
‘Way too much practice,’ I allowed. I set the shovel aside and started to fetch rocks. Without them, the animals would dig Fitzgerald up by next morning. Stearns draped his coat over a bush and lent a hand with the cairn. Together we made short but careful work of it.
Satisfied, I strapped the shovel behind my horse’s saddle and donned my windcheater. As I mounted, I looked over my shoulder at Stearns. ‘Drink?’
He hesitated, eyes drifting across the line of hills. ‘You done out there?’
‘Yeah. The place is set straight, and others have taken the animals and whatever else they might want. I had Mister Elliott come do the ritual.’
‘Then a drink sounds good.’
We rode without speaking from the cemetery to the edge of what was now barely a village. I was thinking about Fitzgerald and the ones before him, wondering how many more I’d have to bury before it was my turn. I didn’t know what Stearns was thinking. Most of the time, I was happier that way.
It’s not that Stearns was evil. Those of us who survived understood the distance between that and indifference. He was calloused, hardened in a way I hadn’t mastered yet, and when I was with him for any stretch of time, that scared me. I remembered what we’d been, and was afraid of what we were becoming.
Some children played on a pile of rubble, scrambling over the fractured concrete and twisted rebar while their parents loaded a wagon with scraps of lumber. Young and old alike, they were streaked with days of dust and sweat. Fresh water was for drinking and cooking. We’d bathe when the rains came.
I saw Mister Thomas’s wife off to one side, nursing her newborn. She waved to me and said something I couldn’t catch. I rode closer.
‘Sorry, Missus. Didn’t hear what you said.’
The title brought a smile to her face. Not many of us married, and those who did took it as a badge of honour.
‘I asked if you’ve been feeding the worms again. Who was it?’
‘That’s a shame. He seemed like such a nice man. Still, it happens.’ The baby wiggled in her arms, and I could see it had been born incomplete. ‘I know,’ she said, as if reading my mind. ‘He’s not right. Should have done him straight away he was born. But he won’t live more than another month or two, and in the meantime we’re happy. A little’s better than none, eh?’
‘No argument from me. We have to take what we can, and give what we’ve got. The days don’t get any longer.’
Her face brightened again. ‘You’re all right, Mister Halston. If I ever tire of that husband of mine, maybe I’ll get smart and look you up.’ We both laughed, knowing my Carmelita would never let her near the door. Like I said, some of us clung to our shredded honour.
Stearns waited by my shack, running one hand over its scavenged lumber exterior. The construction was typical, low and utilitarian. It provided shelter from the elements and a sense of rootedness. With the old buildings still collapsing from time to time in the city, it was safer.
‘Tie your horse up on the shade side?’ I asked.
‘Yeah. The water in the trough looked cool enough for him.’ Stearns was largely indifferent to people, but he cared deeply about animals. Not so odd, really. The Crazies never seemed to happen to animals; it was safe to care. ‘You said something about a drink?’
‘C’mon in. Brought some bottles last week from a trip farther in. You want vodka or twelve-year Irish?’
‘Vodka sounds fine, if you will.’ He ducked his head coming through the door. Holding his hat over his heart, he bowed to Carmelita. ‘Good afternoon, Missus. I trust you’re well?’
Carmelita smiled at him from behind the old treadle sewing machine she worked at. ‘And you, Stearns. Welcome.’
‘Stearns helped me take care of Fitzgerald,’ I said. ‘Do you want to have a drink with us, honey?’
‘That was kind of you, Stearns. This old man tries to do too much by himself.’ To me, she said, ‘No, but thanks. I promised Alva I’d help her with some chores. Guess I should get on with that.’ Before leaving, she gave me a hug and kiss. I saw Stearns blush and turn his face away.
‘Be back before dark,’ I told her.
‘It’s only two hundred yards up the way. I can run that almost as fast as you make love.’
Stearns snorted. Carmelita laughed. I just said, ‘Please?’
‘For you, Mister. Just for you.’
At first we drank in silence. I savored the alcohol’s burn and taste. It was a rare pleasure.
Stearns finally spoke. ‘I’m thinking about heading back out. I’ve already been here a week this time. Maybe down to Springfield, you know? Or out to Davenport. See what’s left somewhere else.’
‘I used to feel that way.’ I looked around the small space I called home. ‘Now I don’t much care to see.’
‘And then I see the life you’ve got. A good woman, roof over your head, community,’ he continued. ‘That’s when I know.’
‘That I’ve just got to head back out before I get trapped by caring again.’
‘I don’t know. Loneliness stops hurting after a while. Do you ever stop being scared of tomorrow?’
‘It’s not facing tomorrow I’m scared of,’ I told him. ‘It’s not having one.’
We toasted our separate fears, and settled into silence again. The shadows in the room deepened. I lit candles to keep the dark at bay.
‘Ever wonder what it was they set loose?’
He looked into the distance for a moment before answering my question. ‘Used to. Doesn’t matter, though. We don’t just call it the Crazies because of what it does to people when it gets them.’
‘Yeah. It was crazy people who created the Crazies.’
‘Amen, Mister Halston. Amen.’
‘So, why’d it take some people right away, but not everybody?’
‘We couldn’t all be lucky enough.’
To live, or die? Either way. ‘Amen, Stearns.’
He changed the subject. ‘You said you went farther in.’
‘Week ago. Looking for things we’re running short of here on the edge. Candles, cigarettes. Toilet paper. Books, especially kids’ books. If they live, they’ll need to know reading and writing.’
‘How is it in there?’ he asked.
‘Spooky. It’s been long enough that most everything metal has rusted. Bodies are done turning to dust. Fire took some areas, but I saw a lot of buildings down from old age and flooded foundation soil.’
‘Nobody in there, I’d guess.’
‘Not that I saw any sign of. That’s what made it spooky, Stearns. I kept thinking I’d turn a corner and see the old crowds on the sidewalks and traffic in the streets.’
‘It’s like that out there, too, you know. Only not so weird. The small towns were always quiet anyway.’
‘Crazy.’ We toasted again.
Carmelita came home as the sun finished settling below the horizon. She was safe, then. Night itself wasn’t dangerous; the world hadn’t become that twisted. The animals that prowled for scraps around the dump sometimes came closer in, attracted by cooking smells and the trash that would be carried off in the morning. Every so often one would have a taste for fresh kill. It was best to be indoors after dusk.
We ate dinner, the three of us, old friends sharing salad and a thick stew, morning-baked bread, and bark tea with a dash of whiskey to fortify it. Carmelita told Stearns of the progress being made in local agriculture, and I finished relating my latest brief foray farther in.
For his part, Stearns shared what he’d seen in Eau Claire, Madison, and Milwaukee on his way back down to us. While he gave us some things to chew on and consider, it was obvious we were in much the same position as what was left of other cities. I was saddened once again by how many skills we’d lost when the brief war came and went. Dismayed, but not surprised.
Catching up gave way to reminiscing. We’d been places together in a different life: San Diego, St. Paul, a small war decades before the final one. Moonlight finally filled the room. As a courtesy, we offered to sleep on the floor and let Stearns take our bed for the night. He, of course, refused by spreading his roll near the stove.
I woke before sunrise. A voice, cooing and cajoling, repeated Stearns’ name. Carmelita’s side of the bed was empty.
The silver light of the moon filled our single room. A dozen feet from where I sat on the edge of the bed, Carmelita knelt naked next to Stearns. It was her voice that had woken me. The tone beneath her calling of his name changed to frustration as he repeatedly pushed her right hand away from his groin.
Our hatchet was in her left hand. I saw blood, black by moonlight, on her arm. Had she hurt him, or herself?
It didn’t matter. I took my revolver from the nightstand and stood up.
She turned on her knees to look at me. There was the fire in her eyes, the swollen cheeks. Some of her hair had already fallen out.
‘Honey, please. Put the hatchet down and come here.’ I tried to sound soothing instead of scared.
My wife set the weapon down gently and crawled to me. She wrapped her arms around my thighs and buried her face in my stomach.
‘Carmelita, hold me tighter.’
She lifted her face and looked at mine. ‘Please?’
‘For you, Missus. Just for you.’
I put the barrel of the gun against the hair I so loved to caress.
‘Sure you won’t come with?’ Stearns, standing alone across the grave from me, stared at the fresh-turned dirt as he spoke. ‘There’s still life out there, you know.’
I tamped the earth as I had all the times before. ‘Thanks. Believe it or not, there’s still life for me here.’
‘Yeah. It matters to me.’ I went to the rock pile. Even the dead needed a roof over their head. Stearns didn’t help this time. Not that he didn’t want to. His arm would be in a sling for a few days while the shallow wound from the hatchet healed.
‘Yeah,’ he echoed. ‘I never saw somebody that early in the Crazies. It wasn’t what I thought.’
‘No. At the beginning, a couple of hours, they swing back and forth between here and there. Maybe that’s worse. She knew what was happening to her, how it was going to end.’
‘You were lucky,’ he said.
My fist stopped short of his face. ‘Think so? That’s not your woman under the earth. You didn’t pull the trigger.’ Looking back, it was maybe the third time in all our years I’d spoken to him in anger.
‘Of course not. Just my friend’s wife, and a friend by her own right. The crazy people put her there, not you.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Maybe I was, or not. It seemed the right thing for the moment.
He waved away the apology. ‘No need to be. I’ll say it again, though: You’ve been lucky.’
I looked at him, wondering if he had anything less enigmatic to say.
‘You loved each other enough to do what you did. Think about that when you’re ready to.’ He mounted his horse, awkward with the sling binding his right arm. ‘Save a bit of that twelve-year Irish for when I come back this way.’
I turned and fetched more rock for the cairn my heart lay beneath. When I looked again, Stearns was gone.[/private]
Lennart Lundh is a poet and military historian who turned to short fiction back in his mid-fifties. He saw service in Vietnam with the US Navy. His oldest grandson has served with the Marines in Afghanistan. The more things change, the more they remain the same.