It was late in the day.
The waning light of the unseen setting turned the dust in the air into an eerie orange-pink mist which bathed the valley below in a melancholic timelessness that stretched backwards to the moment Life had first flickered into existence and beyond, into the twilight of its final extinction.
Ian held his hands out in front of him and stared at them absently. In the evening light, they appeared darker than he had remembered them. He wondered if somehow he was regressing to an ancient ancestral life form, a Neanderthal-like cave man, the missing link between then and now, as if evolution were a cyclic event, and that from the nuclear ashes a new revolution of the wheel was about to begin. He expected to see hair sprouting from the backs of his hands and the front of his face to assume ape-like proportions.
He shivered at the flashes of metamorphosis that cut into him like stabbing knives, and clutched at his face, and squeezed his head tightly to stop himself from mutating. His mind reached out desperately at the memories of his past life fluttering through his thoughts like transparent butterflies, dancing tantalizingly beyond his reach. They were no longer real, and belonged to another time and place.
As darkness swallowed his world, Ian's fears grew. He returned to the gut-wrenching night-time helplessness of childhood, the primordial fear of the dark which every human being suffers, must learn to deny, but can never forget. Crouched in the cave, Ian realized how very little his race had changed. It was as though he had experienced the rise of civilization from the Stone Age and back within a single lifetime.
Nervously, he fumbled with the small propane camping lamp, placed it directly in front of him, and lit it. He stared at the frosted glow of the lamp for a few seconds, then began to fidget. He couldn't find a position in which he felt secure. He wasn't safe. Finally he reached forward and pulled the lamp toward him, and sat huddled over it with his back firmly pressed against the cave wall. He lifted the cover on the lamp and lit another cigarette. Protected by the tiny circle of light from the lamp, Ian relaxed and let his head fall back against the rock wall behind him.
As the nicotine surged through his system, he tried to pull the Otherlife around him like a warm and comforting blanket, but his thoughts drifted to the afternoon he had lost Dog.
He had just finished loading the last of the supplies into Pete's rubber dinghy. Dog sat whining on the beach.
“Don't make such a fuss, Dog. It's your turn next.” he told her, but as soon as the words left his mouth, Ian knew he wouldn't have the energy for another trip across the lake. He had been ferrying supplies across the lake since he had woken up that morning. His muscles were stiff and threatened to seize up at any moment.
He unloaded some of the boxes from the front of the dinghy, leaving enough room for Dog to curl up in. He carried her to the boat and put her in the bow.
She stood shaking in the confined space, unable to balance on the undulating floor, then jumped from the boat. A box toppled from the dinghy into the shallow water.
“Oh shit!” Ian picked up the dripping carton, and tossed it disgustedly back on the beach. Dog slunk back to shore.
It took a long time for Ian to convince Dog to lie quietly in the bottom of the dinghy, but finally and reluctantly, she curled up in the space Ian had cleared for her. Awkwardly, Ian pushed the dingy clear of the shallows and climbed in. With a rhythm which, although ungainly, pointed the small rubber boat in the general direction of the far shore, Ian paddled out into the lake. Three-quarters of the way across the lake, Dog began to whimper.
Ian stopped paddling.
“What's up, Dog?”
He was worried. It sounded as if Dog was trying to stifle her crying. Ian couldn't see her from where he was sitting because the boxes between them obscured his view. Laying the paddle down carefully and balancing himself by holding both sides of the rubber boat, Ian stood up. Unsteadily, he leaned over the boxes to see what was bothering Dog.
“Holy...” he whispered, “Oh no!”
A slimy small, half-formed newborn puppy lay motionless in half an inch of water at the bottom of the boat. Dog gazed up at him helplessly. Her sides constricted from labor contractions, and she whimpered. Ian couldn't reach over the boxes to help her, and the rubber boat was too unstable for him to climb over them. He looked toward the shore.
He sat down shakily and picked up the paddle. Plunging the paddle into the water, he pulled as hard as he could. He was painfully aware of his aching muscles, but he forced stroke after stroke, his eyes squeezed shut from the effort. Every time Ian pulled the paddle back through the water, he counted the strokes to himself...
one, two, three, stroke... one, two, three...str-
Ian's hands slipped on the paddle and his elbow banged against a box. The box shifted, causing the dinghy to list. He reached over quickly to readjust it, but his movement combined his weight with that of the box, throwing the tiny dinghy completely off-balance. The boat rolled over with agonizing slowness, tipping Ian, Dog, and the supplies into the water.
Ian managed to keep hold of the dinghy, but Dog had been pitched into the water. She swam in circles, desperately trying to stay above the surface. He called to her, and after a few seconds of erratically swimming in different directions, she headed toward him.
He encouraged her, talking non-stop so she could use the sound of his voice to keep her bearings. When she swam close enough, he grasped her by the scruff of the neck and tried to haul her up onto the overturned dinghy, but his arms were too weak. He couldn't lift her completely from the water and she slid off the boat. In her frantic efforts to climb back onto the dinghy, her claws ripped a hole in the gunwale. Ian tried to seal the large tear with his hand, but he couldn't stop the rush of air escaping from the boat. Within seconds the dinghy had collapsed. The rubber still floated, but wouldn't support either him or Dog. Dog began to swim back toward the beach.
“No Dog!” he screamed, “You're going the wrong way!”
Ian swam after her, but after a few strokes, he knew he wouldn't have the strength to swim all the way to the beach; the cave-side shore was closer. He tried to whistle to her, but his clothes were beginning to weigh him down, and his mouth filled with water. Reluctantly, he turned and swam toward the cave-side of the lake.
Ian lost sight of Dog long before he reached the safety of the shore and crawled out of the water. He gasped for breath for a few moments and lost consciousness. It was dawn before he awoke, and Ian had no recollection of the events that followed his turning away from Dog.
He had gone back to find her that morning, and spent all day searching the shoreline and along the creek which flowed from the lake. Dog had disappeared without a trace...
Such a strange word.
As if by magic something is there one moment...
I wish it were so clean. Somewhere out there Dog is alone and dying, and I can't find her.
Who am I kidding?
I'll never see her again
But I don't want to give up the hope she's still alive. I know the odds are against it. She had been really sick. Radiation sickness. If she was close enough to an explosion to have been blinded, she probably would have been irradiated as well.
Or she could have eaten contaminated food...
Ian glanced at the dark rows of boxes from his little circle of light. What could he do about it? Nothing. Nothing at all. At least he had food. He leaned back against the cave wall and wondered about the rest of the world.
He wondered about what the war had done to the people who had survived, but all he could see in his imagination was darkness. He had been lucky to have been in a position to have escaped the city before it had been destroyed, and far enough from the circle of fire and wind to have avoided being surrounded by the thousands of its inhabitants struggling to escape from the ruins.
He had seen the dying gathered in groups, seeking out others who would die with them. For a moment, he decided only the dying had sought comfort in numbers, and that those survivors who were, like him, unharmed by the war, had fled to safer, more remote places, but it wasn't true. Bill and Pete had gone back, and as he sat thinking about them, he had to fight the compulsion to leave the safety of the cave and seek them out.
The picture of the little yellow rubber dinghy floating in the middle of the lake, Bill and Pete lying back drinking beer, ignoring the fishing rods dangling over the sides of the boat appeared in front of him. Ian stood on the beach watching them, listening to the faint echo of their laughter, and was annoyed by the sound. Laughter had no place in the unnaturally silent wilderness. He resented their enjoying themselves when he had gone through so much suffering. Ian was left out of the joke; he couldn't hear what they were saying, and irrationally thought they were laughing at him.
Bill spotted him and waved. Ian half-raised his hand in acknowledgement but couldn't summon the energy to wave back. Dog sat beside him, her head cocked to one side as she listened to the voices of Ian's friends that he couldn't hear. The two men reeled in their fishing lines and paddled toward shore. Ian stood like an old man waiting for two mischievous grandchildren who were unaware that their happiness was about to be shattered. In all the time he had known them, Ian had never thought of them as being innocent, but the experience of the war had aged him, and now his friends seemed childlike and irresponsible.
As they paddled into earshot, Dog barked at them. “Where'd you get the dog?” Pete yelled at Ian, “She's better looking than most of your girlfriends!”
Bill and Pete laughed and Ian grinned in spite of himself. The dinghy scrunched up onto the pebbled lake bottom, and his two friends rolled themselves out of the boat. As they hauled the boat through the shallows, Bill slipped and fell, still clutching his beer in one hand. The splash gave Dog a start and she began barking in the general direction of the noise. Bill and Pete barked back, laughing. Pete tried to help Bill stand up, a feat made all the more difficult by the fact that each of them held a beer in one hand.
“Jeez, Bill, you're a klutz!” laughed Pete. He turned to say something to Ian, and his smile faded instantly.
“What the hell happened to you?” he asked soberly. Ian held his hands out helplessly, opening his mouth to speak, but the words stuck in his throat.
“Same thing as usual," sighed Bill, who lay in the shallows, with his head back and his eyes closed, “He got wrapped up in some weird shit, and decided to abandon his buddies, right?”
The silence that followed his remark made Bill open his eyes and he rolled over to look at Ian.
“It's a forest fire, right? We figured it must've been because of all the smoke-”
“No,” said Ian firmly, “It's worse.” Amazed that his two friends had no idea of what happened, Ian asked, “What time did you guys go to sleep last night?”
“Early,” said Pete, “It was still light out. We were drinking all the way up here and passed out in the back of the truck. So, what kept you?”
“Nuclear war,” Ian announced solemnly.
Bill gave a snorting laugh and Pete grinned. “What?” asked Pete incredulously.
“They dropped the Bomb last night,” Ian said quietly. He was aware of a hollowness in his voice, and wondered how he could prove there had been a nuclear war. It was already over.
“No way!” declared Bill, recovering from his initial shock at hearing Ian's answer. “No way! If there had been a nuclear war, we would have heard it-”
“I did hear it.” Pete turned to Ian. “I did hear it,” he whispered. “Remember when we saw the clouds this morning?” Pete asked Bill. “I said I'd seen a thunderstorm last night. You said it must have started a forest fire-”
“Yeah, but-” Bill protested, but ran out of words. “No way... No way!”
He walked away shaking his head.
Pete looked at Ian. “I only woke up for a second or two. I was pretty groggy, but I heard rumblings and a flash of light. I thought it was a thunderstorm, and went back to sleep.”
“I don't believe it,” Bill said, more to himself than the other two. “How could we sleep through a nuclear war?” He walked over to the rubber dinghy and pulled a beer from the cooler in the bottom of the boat. He popped the top and swallowed a large mouthful.
“You're serious?” Pete asked Ian, “This isn't a joke?”
“No,” answered Ian, “It's no joke.”
In a fit of anger, Bill threw his beer into the lake and whirled, glaring at Ian. “Well, this better not be a joke because it's not very fucking funny!” he shouted. “I got a wife and kid back there!”
Ian stared at Bill helplessly, not knowing what to say. He heard a choking sound behind him, and glanced back. Dog was spitting up blood.
“What's wrong with the dog?” Bill asked nervously. Neither Pete nor Ian answered him.
“Oh Jesus!” moaned Bill. He turned away, looking out across the lake. “Jesus, Jesus...”
“How bad is it?” Pete asked Ian softly.
“I don't know,” Ian answered. “The city's gone. The people coming out of there were pretty bad. I... I didn't go back. I just figured I'd come out here. There's no other place to go.”
Pete shook his head and stared off into the distance. Ian looked at Bill. Standing in the shallows, Bill stared down absently as he swished the water back and forth with his foot.
Ian walked toward Bill, stopping at the water's edge. He stood idly pushing the pebbles around with his foot, as if by imitating Bill's actions, he could reach out to his friend where words could not. He crouched down and picked up a small, round pebble, turning it over and over in his hand. The small piece of his planet was hard, solid, and complete in itself.
Ian threw the pebble as hard as he could out across the lake. He glanced over at Pete who stared into the distant hills through the trees. Dog had recovered from her sickness and wagged her tail feebly, then wobbled unsteadily over to Ian. As she sat beside him, Ian put an arm around her. He sat, stroking her absently with one hand, listening to the hollow thunking of the dinghy as the waves lapping the shore lifted and dropped it in a slow, steady rhythm.
He lay back, his hands behind his head, and stared up at the clouds. Thick and oily brown-black, they swirled silently in a graceful abstract ballet. A constantly bubbling, soupy mass, they changed shape at a speed which amazed him.
A large drop of rain splashed on his arm, leaving a black sooty mark. Ian sat up quickly. He had seen rain like this before.
“We'd better get under cover,” he told Bill and Pete, who were staring unbelievingly at the black spots appearing on their upturned palms. “The rain is radioactive.”
“The tent's just over there,” said Pete, pointing down the beach. Ian hadn't noticed the tent, which was half hidden by bush. It faced out toward the lake, and Ian could see the nose of Pete's four-by-four behind it. He looked up towards the road where he had left his truck.
“I'll bring my truck down,” Ian told Pete, and ran for the trees, hoping he could get to the truck before the rain became too heavy. Dog followed on his heels, but ran into a tree that Ian had easily dodged around. She yelped and crouched in front of the tree, afraid to take another step. Ian stopped and walked back to her. As he picked her up, he could hear Pete talking to Bill.
“Come on, man, we have to get under cover. The rain's radioactive.”
“Leave me alone,” snapped Bill, shrugging Pete's hand off his shoulder.
“We have to get under the tent,” Pete said firmly, “It's not safe out here.”
Bill sighed, and turned to look at Pete as if he were seeing him for the first time. “Okay” he said softly.
Suddenly, the rain cascaded down in a solid sheet of black water. Bill and Pete broke into a mad dash for the tent. Ian thought fleetingly of following them, but decided that his truck was closer.
By the time he hoisted Dog into the truck and slammed the door shut, Ian was soaked, covered in a speckled black film. He stripped off his clothes, his movements confined in the space of the cab. He washed his body with water from the canteen, drying himself with a blanket. He poured what was left of the water over dog, but there wasn't enough to clean her off properly.
“Sorry, Dog,” he apologized, “I'll do you later-”
A brilliant white flash lit up the cab, and a sudden shock of air shook the truck with a terrific roar. Instantly, Ian dived for the floor, the hair on his body standing on end. Dog whined and pushed up against him, and they shivered in the shared memory of the Bomb.
“Oh no! Not again!” Ian pleaded, “Please, God, not again!” There was another crash... a series of flashes... distant rumbling...
A thunderstorm! Ian laughed in relief. “Talk about a couple of scaredy-cats!” he said to Dog, “Afraid of a little thunder! C'mon, let's get off the floor.” Dog ignored him; she wasn't going to take any chances.
“Suit yourself!” he said cheerfully, but as he grasped the seat to haul himself up, Ian knew that he didn't want to look out the window any more than Dog did. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, resting it against the door. His stomach ached terribly, wound into a hard, calcified lump inside his chest. He was tired: tired of running and of the fear, of the loss of control. He wanted the war to stop. He wanted to go home and crawl into his bed between clean sheets, and forget everything that had happened. He wanted to cry. It's all gone, he thought sadly.
It's all gone...
Finally, Ian opened his eyes, pushing the sense of loss to the back of his mind, and crawled out from under the dash. He groaned as he looked out the windshield.
The lightning had knocked a tree down onto the truck. Branches and leaves pressed against the windshield, and he couldn't see past the foliage to tell how much damage had been done to the truck. A long crack stretched diagonally across the glass, and water had begun to seep in where the crack touched the top of the windshield. He leaned back in the seat and took a deep breath.
Ian fished in his jacket pocket for the truck keys. They weren't there. Frantically, he checked every pocket in his discarded clothing. He threw his jeans onto the floor in frustration. “Damn!” he swore. The moment the word left his lips, Ian noticed the keys dangling from the ignition. He hesitated a moment before turning the key.
“Please, God,” he breathed, “Make it start.”
The starter whined, and for several agonizing seconds, Ian held the key down as he pumped the accelerator with no results. Finally, the motor coughed and spluttered, then chugged into life. Something in the engine rattled noisily -it sounded like the fan was bent- but at least it ran.
“Thankyou for small mercies,” he whispered. Hesitantly, Ian pushed the gear lever into reverse and slowly let the clutch out. The tires grabbed for a second, then began to spin, and the truck slid sideways. He shifted into first. With a groan and the sound of creaking branches, the truck crept forwards about a foot. He rocked the truck backwards and forwards.
“Come on you bitch, get me out of here!” Ian yelled at the truck. Miraculously, with the crackle of breaking wood and the squeal of scraping metal, the truck pulled clear of the tangled foliage.
Ian turned on the windshield wipers, but bits of debris caught under the wiper blades prevented the rubber from making contact with the glass. He couldn't see ahead of him. He rolled the side window down quickly, and, reaching around the windshield, pulled at the wiper, letting it go with a snap. Each time the blade came within reach, he repeated his action until the wiper was finally freed from the clutter.
Not that it did much good; the visibility through the dark curtain of the rain was only a few feet. He followed a line of ruts toward the beach. The tracks were full of black, murky water, and Ian tried to drive alongside the ruts fearful that if he let the truck slip into them, the truck would bog down in the mud. He drove slowly, but every once in a while the truck scraped against a tree or a jutting rock. The truck bumped up and down and slid sideways at times, but he managed to keep it moving. Dog crawled onto the seat and insisted on pressing up against Ian as he drove, forcing him to keep pushing her away as her head and his arms became tangled while he tried to steer around the worst potholes and larger rocks.
Despite his efforts, the truck slid into the rain-filled ruts, and the tires lost their traction in the mire. Ian thought that they would lose their grip altogether, but the trail suddenly dropped steeply onto the beach, and the truck lurched forwards.
Needlessly using his left-turn signal, Ian steered toward the tent, and drove the rest of the way without incident. Bill and Pete were sitting on unfolded lawn chairs under the tent canopy. Ian reached behind the seat and pulled out Sam's oilskin, and wriggled into it. “Stay here,” he commanded Dog, and in one motion, opened the door, jumped out, and slammed the door shut behind him. He ducked under the canopy of the tent.
“What took you so long?” asked Pete, “We were beginning to wonder if something had happened to you.”
“A tree hit me.” Ian couldn't help grinning. He was happy to be with someone he knew. The familiarity of the heavy drumming of the rain on the canvas and the wet-smell of the woods washed away some of the anxiety that had plagued him since the war began.
“So, you guys figured out what we're going to do?” he asked cheerfully.
There was a long uncomfortable silence. Bill and Pete exchanged glances, their eyes avoiding Ian's. Ian crouched down, squatting aborigine fashion. “Well?' he asked pointedly.
“I'm going back,” said Bill finally.
Ian stared at Bill. “Okay...” his voice cracked and caught in his throat.
“We're both going,” added Pete. For an instant, his friends' decision didn't make sense, but a calmness wrapped itself around him as Ian realized that things were the way they were supposed to be. Not for any reason he could think of, but somehow events were beginning to balance, as if a huge wheel of infinite mass had turned full circle and come to a stop. He was meant to be alone...
I should have gone back with them to see what was left. But then I already knew. There was nothing left.
Bill and Pete had gone back to see WHO was left. Pete went back to find Lisa. Bill went back to find Dorothy and his little girl. Elizabeth was such a cute little thing...
Dorothy's dead too.
I wanted to tell Bill they were dead. I wanted to tell him he didn't stand a chance of finding them, but I didn't. He wouldn't have believed me.
Now Bill's dead.
It's been two weeks since they left. They should have been back by now. Pete's a survivor, though. He might make it back. But he wouldn't come alone. And I know for sure Bill would never come back without Elizabeth.
Deep down inside they knew.
And they wanted to be dead, too.
And now they are.
Dorothy, Bill, Lisa, Pete and Elizabeth.
They're all dead. All dead.
If it hadn't been for Pete, Ian would have died as well. It had been Pete's idea that the three of them spend the long weekend fishing. Ian hadn't been keen when the idea was first presented to him; in fact, his skin crawled at the thought of it.
He had only gone fishing once before in his life. When he was seven, his grandfather bought him a new fishing rod for his birthday, and took him down to the river that very morning. Ian's grandfather had a wonderful time showing Ian how to bait the hook and cast the line properly, and Ian dutifully feigned interest in the procedure so that the old man wouldn't be disappointed, but he really wanted to be playing with the new football his father had given him.
Thankfully, Ian didn't catch anything.
But his grandfather did. Ian lost count of how many fish were hauled in. The sight of the poor fish asphyxiating on the muddy bank was bad enough, but every time the old man landed a fish, he deftly grabbed the fish by its tail and smashed its head against a large nearby rock. By the time Ian and his grandfather left the river, the killing rock was spattered with blood, slime, and dislodged scales. Ian never used his rod and reel after that day.
So, when Pete had suggested a fishing expedition, Ian declined. Pete argued that Ian wouldn't have to actually fish; he could sit around the lake, drink beer, and suntan. Pete conjured up such an idyllic picture of three, long, lazy days of lying in the sun, drinking beer and frying fish for supper, that Ian couldn't refuse.
Ian didn't mind cooking and eating fish as long as he didn't have to catch and clean them. Without their tails, fins and heads, the fish bore little resemblance to the live fish swimming in the water, and Ian could ignore the fact that they had died just to satisfy the whims of his appetite. He would go with Pete.
Bill had also resisted the idea at first. Being newly married, he didn't go out as much as the other two, and the thought of taking off for three days horrified him. But Dorothy decided it would give her a chance to spend a couple of days alone with her mother. It would give her a break, she told her husband, and so, with his conscience clear, Bill accepted too.
They had planned to drive up to the lake together in Pete's four-by-four, and get back sometime Monday evening. Ian had arranged with his boss, Dupont, to leave work at noon that Friday, but just as he pulled his time card from its slot, Ian heard the hiss of air brakes outside the building. Before Ian could jam his card into the clock to punch out, Dupont called him from the office. Reluctantly, Ian stuck the card back into the rack and poked his head around the corner into Dupont's office.
Ian's boss resembled a manic pack rat, busying himself amongst the stack of paper that crowded the tiny cubicle. Dupont was searching for something hidden in the clutter on his desk and looked up from his nest.
“That's the truckload of oranges we've been waiting for,” Dupont told Ian. Dupont didn't have to say anymore; Ian knew he'd been elected to unload them, even though Dupont had known for two weeks that Ian was supposed to leave early that day.
“It's twelve o'clock,” said Ian pointedly. “Can't let them sit over the weekend,” Dupont said matter-of-factly. “It'll only take you an hour or so.”
Right, thought Ian. Fuck you, Dupont.
Ian saw a gleaming semi through Dupont's window. A big man in a cowboy hat, his fist full of invoices and waybills, had climbed down from the tractor and was walking over to the warehouse door.
Ian phoned Pete at work. He had just left, Pete's secretary informed Ian, and asked if he would care to leave a message and Peter would get back to him Tuesday morning. Ian told her it was nothing important and hung up.
He caught Bill at home. He could hear Elizabeth screaming in the background and Dorothy trying to shush her so Bill could hear the telephone. Bill was already packed. He was excited about the trip. It was the first time that he was getting away from the house alone since he'd got married. Looking forward to some time out with the boys, he said, laughing.
“Look, Bill, I have to work late. A truckload of stuff just pulled in and I have to unload it.”
“How long you going to be?”
Ian wasn't certain, so they decided they'd meet later at the lake. Bill and Pete would drive out to the lake and set up camp, and Ian would take his truck and join them when he could.
“And bring some beer,” Bill added before he rang off.
The afternoon was hot, and the wave of outside air that rolled in when Ian opened the loading door blew away the little will to work he had left. There was something about summer that made him lazy. Ian could see that the trucker felt the same way. They both stood for several seconds, staring at the mountain of boxes in the back of the trailer.
“I'd rather be fishin'” the trucker drawled dryly.
Ian looked at the big man dejectedly.
“Yeah, me too.”
“Well, better get movin'”, the trucker said and handed Ian the waybills for the load. “It ain't gonna unload itself!”
Holding out his huge hand, the trucker introduced himself. “Doug's the name.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ian.”
After the formality of exchanging names and shaking hands, Doug stepped toward the trailer and climbed up onto the boxes to check his load.
Deja vu. Ian thought this had happened before: the sunlight filtering through the gap between the trailer and the loading doors, the conversation between himself and Doug. He shook his head. I've been working here too long, he thought. He stuffed the waybills into his shirt, and climbed onto the forklift. He moved a stack of empty wooden pallets beside the door. Doug pulled the top pallet from the pile and threw it onto the concrete loading dock.
Halfway between stacking the second pallet on top of the first, the forklift stopped running. Out of propane. The rest of the load would have to be moved with the manual pallet jack.
It's going to be one hell of a day, thought Ian wearily.
Actually, unloading wasn't as bad as Ian had expected. He and Doug hit it off pretty well. They set themselves a relaxed pace and Doug talked about trucking and his family, and about buying a small farm one day. Ian told Doug he'd like to be a writer.
“What kind of a writer?”
Doug looked at Ian quizzically. “You mean like Star Trek?”
Ian nodded. “Yeah, only more realistic. With real people.”
“Like you and me.” Doug added.
“Yeah, that's it.”
“Cowboys in Space!” announced Doug, dramatically marking the title in the air with one hand.
Ian smiled sheepishly and pushed the box he was holding forcefully into Doug's arms. He had never told anyone he wanted to write before. His writing was a secret. A fantasy.
A world of dreams...
All in all, the afternoon was quite pleasant. They still hadn't finished unloading by one o'clock, and Dupont buzzed onto the loading dock and in an unbroken machine gun staccato of words told Ian to hurry it up, reminding him that normal quitting time was at two-thirty Fridays and he wasn't going to pay Ian any more than a half an hour overtime and to make sure that Ian locked everything up before he left.
Ian played the faithful employee, assuring Dupont that everything was under control, and placated, his boss left.
“Phew! What was that?” asked Doug staring after Dupont, “I never heard anybody talk that fast in all my life!”
“You get used to it,” he said philosophically. “One of life's little pleasures is old Dupont. He's not as bad as he sounds. Gives me a Christmas bonus every year. We just like to bitch at each other. What say we take a break? You're not in a hurry, are you?”
“Nah,” Doug answered, “I can't load until tomorrow morning, anyway. Hey, you wanna beer?”
Doug fetched a six-pack of canned beer from his sleeper, and by the time they finished their break, they'd downed all six. Ian was beginning to feel pretty good about having to work late.
It didn't take long to finish off the last of the load. After Ian locked up, he and Doug walked across the street to the bar opposite the warehouse.
Benny's Place was a typical small bar, dark, lit by a row of low-intensity lamps with red velvet shades spaced along oak-stained wooden panelled walls, a mirror behind the bar lined with liquor bottles of all shapes and sizes, and a colour TV on a high shelf at the far end of the room. The bar was run by a balding middle-aged bartender called Benny and a loud fat woman named Sandy.
Benny stood by the bar watching the television when Ian and Doug walked in, and Sandy was serving two men in the far corner of the bar.
“Hiya, Benny,” Ian greeted the bartender, as he slapped a five down on the counter. “Two beers!”
He and Doug sat up at the bar. Benny pulled two glasses of draft beer and plunked them down on the bar and picked up the five that Ian had dropped there. As he walked to the till, Benny turned up the television.
The man with the studied grave face talking on the screen was familiar to everyone in the bar. The deep voice of the President of the United States drifted over to where Ian and Doug sat:
“...and should this flagrant violation of the agreement between these two nations continue, I shall have no choice but to ask Congress to...”
“Hey, shut that damn thing off, will ya, Benny?” shouted Sandy as she walked up to the bar. Benny turned the TV off.
“Okay if I play the jukebox?” Doug asked Sandy.
“Sure, it's a free country, mister.”
After three or four hours, and a few more beer, Doug, Sandy and Benny were gabbing away to each other as if they were old friends. Ian realized he should leave for the lake as it was getting late. Ian said his good-byes, and told Doug to look him up the next time he rolled into town, and they'd tie one on.
But there never would be a next time. Ian hoped that the big friendly man had survived, but found himself wondering how Doug would have died. It could have been instantly. He could have been vaporized by the searing heat flash or smashed by the shock wave into a bloody mass against a concrete wall. Or cut to ribbons by flying shards of plate glass. Impaled on a twisted metal girder. Crushed to death by a collapsing ceiling. Or by a combination of all of those things.
Or it could have been slowly. From massive burns to his entire body. Bleeding to death from huge holes ripped from his body by flying debris. Or dying within the hour from intense irradiation. He could have been trapped under tons of concrete, unable to move while the nuclear firestorm baked him alive. Or sucked the air from his lungs. Or by a combination of all of those things.
Or by starvation. Dupont's warehouse was full of food, but it would have been vaporized or cooked into charcoal residue. The small amounts of food that remained intact, would have been poisoned by the fallout. The thought of Doug gobbling down a poisoned apple in the belief he was gaining nourishment caused the hair on Ian's neck to tingle unpleasantly. The longer he gave Doug to survive, the closer Doug's death was linked to his own.
The image of the Earth as an apple, turned dry and wrinkled, formed within his mind and clogged his throat with a suffocating claustrophobia. The world had turned sour. The elements that had once given life would now bring death. Even the rain was radioactive. If the rain was poisonous, the rivers were poisonous. And the lakes- the lake would be contaminated! The water he took from the lake would be radioactive. Boiling the water before he drank it wouldn't destroy the radiation; it would serve only to concentrate it. Ian was helpless, and he knew it...
He knew the world wasn't safe outside the cave.
The Earth was changing, and the difference reached into his bones. The clouds hanging dark and brooding above him no longer floated in the sky: they appeared solid and unyielding, an extension of the cave. The sky was the roof of a vast cavern from which there was no escape. It gave Ian the impression that he was permanently hunched over, and that the roof above him was slowly closing in around him, that the world was solidifying; grinding to a halt.
The war had distorted everything with which he was familiar and the world become a dreamlike and alien place. High above him chemical changes were eating away at the thin layer of ozone which blanketed the Earth. For millions of years the ozone layer had screened most of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun that would otherwise bombard the surface of the Earth. And life had evolved upon the planet, adapting itself to a relatively constant dosage of ultraviolet radiation. All life on Earth had grown under the ozone barrier, and as a consequence, none of the life forms on the planet needed to develop protective defenses against the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.
But now, after the heat of thousands of nuclear detonations had ignited tons of atmospheric nitrogen and wafted thousands of tons of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, through a series of chemical processes, the oxides were combining with the ozone, decreasing its filtering effects, and the level of ultraviolet radiation striking the surface of the planet had begun to increase. Eventually, the level of the rays would be strong enough to blind every living animal on the Earth. The burning effects of the rays would scorch every plant on the Earth's surface, and would be strong enough to kill whoever wandered into the sunlight for more than a few minutes.
The air had become dry and stale; the atmosphere clogged with dust that settled quietly everywhere. A thin gray film of powder. He washed the dust off as often as he could. It had the consistency of talcum powder, and it seemed that once it made its way into the fabric of his clothes or the pores of his skin, it became impossible to remove. Everything he owned took on the same shade of Grey as the dust that no amount of scrubbing could destroy.
He had a silk scarf he had found, and he wore it over his mouth and nose to keep the dust from his lungs. He wore gloves as long as he could, but at times he felt so isolated from his environment, and he slipped them off even though he knew he shouldn't, just so he could touch something.
So he could feel the direct contact of his skin with another object.
The world was so different.
The sun had set and the air was cold. The breeze raised goosebumps on Ian's flesh and he stood up and walked to the entrance of the cave. Bill and Pete are out there somewhere, Ian thought. For some reason, he had trouble picturing their faces, and suddenly it became important for him to remember what they looked like. Ian closed his eyes and forced his thoughts back to the last night the three of them had been together.
He stared in terror at the spectacle of the dull red-orange disk of the setting sun burning on the horizon. The clouds emitted an unearthly orange glow, reflections from a thousand uncontrolled fires that still raged across the continent. As the light of day slowly dimmed, the world was lit by the angry flashes of lightning which crackled across the sky. Thunder rolled in on him in waves, an almost constant roar from the distance, broken only by a terrifying crash when the lightning exploded above his head. He absorbed the electricity through the hairs on his body, and the hot, erratic breeze pushed the strong pungent metallic smell of ozone into his nostrils and down the back of his throat.
The entire sky writhed in agony above him, split by gigantic forks of lightning flashing between the clouds. As each flash ripped through the reddened sky, the force of the angry discharge made him gasp in awe. He couldn't help it; the spectacle simply took his breath away.
Ian looked at Bill, trying to focus upon his friend's face, but all he could see in the dim light was a dark form. A flash of lightning like an erratic strobe suddenly illuminated the campsite, bathing Bill in an eerie blue-white light which stripped the color from Bill's skin. As if he were a ghost, thought Ian. As if he were already dead. In the few seconds following the burst of light, Bill's after image floated before Ian's eyes, shimmering and changing form until it had become merely a blur. Ian had visions of terrible forks of lightning ripping down from the sky and striking them down one by one. If they weren't destroyed by the next flash, they would be hit by the next. Or the next...
We are doomed!
The thought echoed inside Ian's skull, and at first held him enthralled, but the archaic expression began to seem somehow ludicrous, and he let out a muffled laugh.
Ian's outburst broke both Bill and Pete from their own silent thoughts, and they turned and stared at Ian in amazement.
“What's so funny?” asked Bill.
“Nothing,” Ian answered, then began giggling. Suddenly, Ian was in a crazy mood. He wanted to laugh and to dance and to act the fool.
“This is crazy," he shouted at them, “We're alive! We survived a nuclear war! What the hell have we got to be gloomy about! We made it!”
Ian grabbed Pete's head and kissed him on the forehead. “We're alive, man!” Ian laughed, “We survived! We should be celebrating! We're alive!”
“C'mon, quit being so gloomy, you guys!” Ian flipped open the cooler and grabbed three cans of beer. “Let's have a party!” he yelled as he threw a beer to Pete. “We're the three musketeers and we just beat the odds! Here, Bill!”
Bill caught the beer Ian threw at him and stared incredulously at Ian.
Ian opened the third can, and held it up as he ceremoniously proposed a toast.
“All for one and one for all!” he declared triumphantly. He drank half the contents of the can before he realized that neither Bill nor Pete had opened theirs. His mood vanished instantly.
“I'm sorry,” he said quietly. “It's just that...”
“Hey,” said Pete softly, and stood up and put an arm around Ian's shoulders. “Hey, it's okay, man. It's okay...”
Tears welled up in Ian's eyes, and he buried his head in Pete's shoulder. “We're alive!” he whispered weakly, “We're alive...” Ian banged his fist in frustration against Pete. Bill's hand touched his shoulder, and Ian turned to look at his friend.
“Okay,” Bill said gently, “A toast.”
Pete let go of Ian and opened his beer. They held the three cans aloft in a silent toast to each other.
All the love that Ian had held for them but somehow never acknowledged before, rose to the surface. They gently touched cans, pressing them tightly together. The bond of friendship that had held them together since they had first met in school seemed magnified by their ritual act, and for a few precious seconds and for the first and last time, they became as one. Ian knew that it would be the last time they would be together, and he saw the same thought in their eyes.
“To us...” whispered Pete hoarsely.
“The future...” said Bill simply.
They drank as if in devout communion, savoring the liquid in slow mouthfuls until all three cans were empty. Pete crumpled his can in his hand; Ian and Bill followed suit, and, in unison, they threw the cans into the fire. They stood silently watching as the flames discolored the printing on the cans, listening to the hiss of the last few drops of beer evaporating from the heat of the glowing embers.
“I think we'd better get some sleep,” said Bill finally.
But they didn't sleep. All three lay awake for hours, each lost in private thoughts, each trapped in their own personal nightmare. Dog pressed up against Ian as he lay staring up at the sky. The heat of her body comforted him as she lay quietly beside him.
Ian didn't want Bill or Pete to leave, but he knew why they were going back. Peace of mind. They were committing suicide by going back to the city to achieve it. They would rather take a chance on dying than live the rest of their lives haunted by the vision of those they loved dying slowly amongst the ruins; Dorothy and Elizabeth calling for Bill, Lisa for Pete. They found it easier to die than to live with the horror and guilt spawned by the nuclear nightmare.
But he also knew that he would never see them again.
It seems so long ago, he thought sadly. How many times had he looked down toward the truck hoping against hope that he would see Pete's four-by-four trundle down the trail from the road and onto the beach? He had gone over their arrival a thousand times in his imagination. He could feel the joy at seeing Bill and Dorothy climbing out of the four-by-four, helping Elizabeth to the ground. Pete and Lisa hugging each other as they got out. Then the five of them looking up toward the cave, waving as they caught sight of Ian. Him, waving back, then breaking into a mad dash down the mountainside to join them.
He spent hours staring at the opening in the trees, convinced they'd drive onto the beach at any moment.
Ian knew the truth. They wouldn't be back.
But he couldn't stop looking for them just as he couldn't stop looking for Dog.
He was lonely and missed his friends. Strangely, he missed the things he used to take for granted more than anything else.
Faces in a crowd.
People standing beside him on the sidewalk while they waited for the traffic light to turn green.
The press and determination in rush hour crowds.
The living sea of the fans at the football game.
But the crowds were gone.
And all those people were dead.
The world he lived in now was silent except for the unsettling eerie hiss of the dust which permeated his world, a sound he had never heard before the War, the sound of the desert when the winds begin to shift the sand, creeping like a solid slow-moving sea across the dry land. Since the bombs dropped, the hiss had grown slowly, at first below the threshold of his hearing, then gradually increasing so that the first time he was conscious of it, Ian realized it had been there for some time. Once the dust settled on the ground it became liquid. It flowed down the mountainside when the nooks and crannies where it collected became full. The dust snaked into the valley in tiny rivulets, hissing like a living menace from a science fiction movie.
As insidious as its fictional counterpart, the dust covered the ground foliage. The plants it engulfed withered and died, turning brown as the fallout took its toll. When the wind began to gust, the pitch of the hiss rose, and the ground dust filled the air. The plastic screen Ian had constructed across the mouth of the cave wasn't enough to keep the dust out. It filled his mouth and nose even with the scarf pulled double around his face. After a dust storm, and usually every morning, Ian rinsed out his nasal passages, mouth and throat with water, but he knew he didn't get rid of it completely. He hoped the dust wasn't radioactive, but he didn't see how it could be anything else. The dust was a part of the residue of the countless nuclear explosions that had burst in upon his world. Ian wondered what the dust was made of...
The connection suddenly registered in Ian's mind. The dust! A familiar dream image of people crumbling into dust bubbled into his consciousness then evaporated. His subconscious had made the connection before he was consciously aware of it. He had been surrounded by the remains of thousands of human beings and never known it. No wonder it's so quiet, he thought grimly, I'm living in a gigantic graveyard. All those crowds had been cremated as they died and turned into dust...
How many cities have been reduced to rubble? Does New York still exist? Is there still a London? A Paris? Moscow? Leningrad? Berlin?
Are there any cities at all?
Without any radio broadcasts coming through, I have no way of knowing how much of the world has been affected by the holocaust. Did the War reach everyone?
Perhaps it was only a localized war. What was that term I heard so often? Limited. Yes, that was it. A Limited Nuclear War. At this very moment there might be thousands, perhaps even millions of people whose only contact with the War is through their newspapers. And here I sit like some mad hermit. Like those Japanese observers isolated in the Pacific for over thirty years, waiting for some contact that never arrived and wondering what had become of the world and the War. They would have lived in a constant state of siege for years after the War was over and the old enmities long forgotten. Am I doing the same thing? Should I go back?
It's too dangerous.
I can't afford to gamble on being right.
I will have to wait for people to discover me before I can accept that the War can't destroy the world. One person wouldn't be enough. I would have to see everyone I know alive, before I could accept my world is safe, and I can end my vigil.
I can see myself thirty years in the future. A ragged decrepit old man blinking in amazement as a silver ship descends into the valley, landing gently beside the lake. Disgorging men and women in silver suits. Being told that war had been abolished and that the world would always be safe.
Being taken home, greeted by a white-haired Bill and Dorothy. And Elizabeth, all grown up standing beside her husband. And her two teenaged children!
And old man Dupont! Dupont hadn't changed a bit. As cantankerous and crotchety as ever, Dupont's yelling...
“Thirty goddammed years! What kind of a vacation is that? Lucky for you I'm up to my ears in work!”
Dupont waves a fistful of invoices in my face. “Get those trucks unloaded!”
I stare in wonder at the line of trucks that stretch off toward the horizon. All waiting for me. And, there, at the head of the line: Doug, grinning his head off.
“How about a beer?” Doug asks.
“Sure,” I answer. I grin back. “Sure, why not?”
We walk across the road to Benny's and proceed to get drunk, laughing and talking with Benny and Sandy and all the regulars...
Yeah, sure, thought Ian. The War never happened. It's all a bad dream and I'll wake up any second, and forget any of this ever took place. He stared absently into the glow of the propane lamp for a few seconds then smoothed out a wrinkle on the page of the notebook in his lap.
Ian's hand slipped from the page. His head nodded slowly forward and his eyelids fluttered and closed. A deep, heavy sleep washed the tension from his body and the pen clattered on the rock floor. Like a squat metal soldier, the propane lamp stood guard over Ian's sleeping form, burbling and hissing to itself, and was the only witness to the almost imperceptible jerk in Ian's body as his dreams silently swallowed him. As if the lamp knew it was no longer any help to him, it spluttered and died, plunging the cave into a black silence broken only by the flapping of the plastic barrier in the wind, and the hiss of the drifting dust.