Day 37 Day 46 Day -2 Day 49 Day 50 Day 51 Day 54 Day 55 Day 56 Day 58 I think Day 60 Day 61 Day 62 Day 63 Day 66 Day 67 Day 68 Day 69 Day 70 Day 71 Day 72 Day 73 Day 78 Day 79 Day 80 Day 81 Day 82 Day 86 Day 87 Day 89 Day 112
Spring has sprung. The buds and blossoms sprout as in vain irony. They bloom while humanity wilts. Only ghosts are left now. They roam the lands like they did when they were alive, but none of us are, not anymore. The bombs left no survivors.
The ghosts can be divided into a few groups. First, there's the traditional ghost. I've never seen one of these. They're the ones that moan and rattle chains and teach us lessons about the spirit of Christmas. As near as I can tell, they don't exist, but of course there are those who argue. It doesn't matter; if they did exist, they would just blend in with all the others.
The second kind of ghosts are the ones like me: the unlucky ones who didn't die when the bombs went off. We're not dead, but what we have now is a long shot from living. There are those who would argue that we're not ghosts, just like there are people to argue anything, but I assure you, we are. We're only here to haunt the Earth with the memories of things we'll never go back to.
The third kind of ghost is the most common. These are shadows of the people who died in and since the explosions. They're the ones who are still washing their dishes in dry empty sinks and crowding through the ruins of shopping malls. They're incorporeal, but still living their lives as if nothing had ever happened. Most of the time they're easy to pick out. They tend to be cleaner than the rest of us and are frequently doing things that don't make sense, walking invisible dogs or wiping specks of dirt from the remnants of broken windows.
Sometimes it's hard to tell. You might see a person and start talking, they might even talk back in the strange not-quite-sentient way they have, but then disappear altogether at your touch. Other times, you could be ignoring a ghost when, surprise, it's a cannibal and they're biting you. Some people pretend to be this particular breed of ghost to lure victims closer. It's a dangerous game, as many potential victims will greet an unfamiliar ghost with violence before they're comfortable approaching. If you shoot the ghost and and it dies, you're safe. If you shoot the ghost and it disappears, you're safe. It's a win-win.
I mention it because I was attacked today. It's only been a month, but people have adapted to the apocalypse quickly and well. Most people seem to be functioning better after the end of the world than they ever could in the days of civilization. Life now is simpler; the only rule is to survive, and even that is pretty flexible. Now, without the hassle of bills you can't pay and people to disappoint, you can focus on what's important to you, whether it's reading all the pre-apocalypse books you haven't had time for or consuming your neighbors.
I walked into a house today looking for food. The house was relatively close to ground zero of some bomb or another and was half-fallen. While others have grouped together, I haven't really found any of my own people. I never had many of my own people in life, either. Being alone and vulnerable, this is one of the safer places to be. There are fewer people close to the explosions because there's less there to be had. I prowl the outskirts, the forgotten relics that can no longer stand but now kneel in submission to the cruelty of man. This is how I've stayed alive for the last month or so.
He was a man in a chair reading the paper. Ghosts are more common closer to the bombs. Newspapers are paper, frail, fragile, flammable; they're less common closer to the bombs. He seemed like an obvious ghost. I found the kitchen and started raiding the canned foods. There wasn't much left, and many were open and empty. Somebody had been here.
The realization gave me just enough warning to see the newspaper man rushing at me brandishing a long kitchen knife in one hand. I fell out of the way more than I dodged. The knife grazed over my upper arm as my attacker tripped over my foot.
I held a fragment of the man's shirt to my wound for a long time until I had mostly stopped the bleeding. I found some adhesive bandages in the home and used a few to hold the two-inch long gouge closed. In the old world, I would have gotten stitches for this kind of thing. I'm not sure I can do that myself, though, so this will have to do. I'm more worried about infection than a scar.
Meanwhile, there was my attacker. Brutally dead, just like most other people. He had tripped over my foot and fallen into the counter. His head snapped back violently with the collision and now laid twisted at an impossible angle. The attacker's knife was beneath his collapsed body, invisible, but I could tell from the growing pool of blood that he'd also impaled himself.
I can't say that I'm lucky to be alive, not now in this world of ghosts, but it was some sort of twist of fate that saved me today. I wasn't ready to fight off an angry cannibal. If I hadn't fallen, if he hadn't fallen, I'd probably be meat by now. My old world mentality makes me feel grateful and fortunate, but this is the new world; why didn't I let him kill me? I don't have anymore right to life than he does, do I?
I loaded up my pack with cans and left pretty directly after that. On my way out, I saw the ghost of the cannibal sitting in the chair, reading his newspaper, trying hard to look like exactly what he had become. I threw a can at him to be sure and watched him slowly dissolve then reform. I walked over and brushed him away with my hands to get my cream of celery soup. When I did, we made eye contact, at least as much as you can with a ghost. In his eyes I could see the hunger that sent him rushing to kill me, then he bust into mist and ultimately nothingness as my hands reached out and grasped the can.
The ghosts are unpredictable like that. Some people will never go ghost, others, it's like they were just waiting for the chance. This guy was like that. As soon as his spirit or what the hell ever left his body, it was right back to the chair, right back to the news of a forgotten world, right back to waiting for his chance to kill me.
Still, for a minute there, maybe just a few seconds, I wasn't alone. That was sort of nice. In a way, I'm sad that he died. What if he'd kept me alive while he carved off pieces of me to eat? I would have had company for the rest of my life. Of course, I probably wouldn't have liked him, anyway. I didn't like most people when they weren't trying to eat me; what should be so different now?
Now I only have ghosts again. That's really why I decided to start writing this today: because of the ghosts. Specifically, one ghost is troubling me. Most seem seem to linger near whatever they associated with in life. I guess she associated with me, because this ghost has been following me, talking to me, living with me. Of course she's not real, not solid or sentient, but she's always there. She says little clips of her past life to me and it seems almost real, then I touch her and she's gone.
I've never seen a ghost that follows another person like this. I've never seen a ghost communicate like this. I've seen enough of them to know she can't hear me or think for herself, but it seems like she does. She comes to me when I'm alone and when I need to see her. She shows me routes and goods I would have missed. When she recites the things she said when she was alive, they seem purposeful.
I said to her ghost today, “I miss the days when I could touch you. I'd be happy to touch anybody at this point.”
He ghost said back to me, “You never chose me. I could have been anybody. You were all I wanted, and you never once chose me above yourself or anybody else.” Then she vanished.
I said to the void, “Choosing myself is why I'm alive and you're a ghost.”
Her ghost was back then, standing beside me in different clothes, hair pinned up this time, wearing makeup. She looked nice. She said, “How can you just abandon me like this?”
She was right, of course, I did abandon her. That was the old world, though. In this new world, she's not even matter and doesn't even matter. She's just a ghost; less than nothing. There's nothing left to abandon. With all of this in mind, I wonder why I can't leave her behind. What makes this ghost cling to me?
She's with me now, even as I write this. She appears to be reclined and swiping on her phone, but I can't see what she's lying on or the phone she's entertaining herself with. She doesn't care about me or my words here, not really; she just wants to be close to me. You know what, though? It's not that bad. If it's the only company I get, I'm going to choose her and choose to be grateful for her presence.
I have been even more alone than usual. I haven't seen her ghost in a full week now. She didn't like what I had to write about her, I suppose, because all I heard after my last entry was, “How can you just abandon me like this?” over and over, like she was stuck on repeat.
Of course, that's essentially what they are. Every ghost is just the image, sound, scent of a person, stuck in a single scene of life, doomed to loop indefinitely until time ends like the world ended. Maybe they will fade out after a while. Who knows? It's been a month and a half and it seems like there are more than when everything happened, but maybe that's normal for Armageddon. Maybe this is all part of the plan.
Of course, I know there's no plan. Life is chaos, entropy, the act of psychosis. God is dead. God is a piece of shit and died in the bombings with everything else.
After days of saying the same thing on loop, repeating the same sentence, muttering that same phrase over and over, I brushed her away. She hasn't been back since. I've said I was sorry so many times, but I haven't been talking to anybody. I've been chased and shot at in the last week, and she still didn't show herself. Ghosts usually don't stay gone for this long, sometimes seconds or hours but never a week. Then again, I like to avoid them when I can, so I wouldn't know how long most stay gone.
I should be glad. She was the one ghost I couldn't get away from, the one who haunted me and only me. Now I was free to live and die alone, just like I wanted. What's not great about that? It doesn't feel great, though; it feels lonely and cold.
It's still a little cold for sleeping outside, so for tonight I found an empty garage to hide in. The house attached to it is rife with ghosts, a whole family of them who probably all burned up together singing songs in the family minivan. I can't handle them, but the garage is quiet and has a big lock. There's still the possibility of somebody coming through the house, but there's a cluttered table that should make me invisible from that angle if I sleep under it. It's not perfect, but in a worst case scenario, I get murdered and eaten, possibly not in that order. It doesn't sound great, but it doesn't sound all bad, either.
Two days before the bombs dropped, things were good. If they weren't good, they were at least normal. Really, things were bad. I was bad. I was in a bad place. None of that matters now, of course; the world is in a bad place. I can't really do much to fuck it up from here.
Two days before the bombs dropped, I was having lunch with Anna, a coworker. She was nice, smart, funny, and best of all, interested in me. We were just friends, of course; that's all they ever were. She was eating vegetable lo mien. I was eating sweet and sour chicken. She said to me, “What are you unhappy about with your marriage?”
We'd never talked about that before, a fact which I had previously been glad for. I said, “What do you mean?”
She gave one of those shitty wry smiles, the kind that are gently condescending. She said, “I just assumed you wouldn't be out with me if you had a happy marriage.”
She was right, but it wasn't that simple either. I wasn't trying to sleep with her and I wouldn't leave my wife for her. I wanted to consume her, to take all of her goodness and keep it all to myself, leaving her empty and barren in the process. I didn't know what to say and I don't remember what I did say. I don't remember what was happening before that, either. I don't think about it much. I think about her question a lot, though.
I went back to the area where my work had been, hoping if not expecting to catch a glimpse of her ghost. There were others on the streets, but I didn't see her anywhere. I've gone looking for other ghosts, and I never seem to find them, either. I'm still looking for her ghost, but I think it might just be gone.
I got lost in the waste today looking for her ghost again. The waste is what I call the uninhabitable areas. The buildings are all demolished there and the radiation is so thick you can practically hear it decaying. You can feel the division of cells in your body ramp up into high gear as soon as you enter one of those places. I, for one, like it; dying reminds me that I'm still alive.
It's a ridiculous pursuit, hoping to find any specific ghost anywhere. As far as I know, they only show up in one place and have a predictable routine. They're visible to everybody. They're real. All the signs say that her ghost isn't real, just some figment of my mutated imagination, but I can't accept that.
Her ghost seemed more real than her physical presence ever did. Of course, that might be more evidence that I've simply lost my mind. Even as I indulge my fantasy, I recognize that possibility. Still, I cannot allow her to be a fiction. I cannot cope with her ghost being only my imagination.
Actually, I think I can cope with that. I think I could handle knowing that her ghost was only in my mind if her ghost would just please come back to me. Even if she only came for a moment, long enough to say goodbye, long enough for me to know it would be the last time I saw her, that would be good. I'm not going to get that, though. I can feel it in my gut. I'll never see her again.
There's not really any reason for me to be so sad. I had committed myself to never seeing her again before I ever saw her ghost. Before I walked into our old apartment and she was there, idly looking through the cabinets. “What sounds good for dinner tonight?” she asked me, the old me that wasn't there anymore.
The new me answered, “let's just order pizza,” just like the old me had said, but her ghost was the only one there. At least, hers was the only intangible one.
“We can't afford pizza every night, you know,” she said back to me, even though her head turned in the opposite direction. Of course, she was talking to a version of me that died with the bombs; I was all that was left of that person, and I wasn't much.
“We can afford pizza one night,” I urged her. I knew the right words to say, but my voice cracked as I tried to say them. Before I realized, I was crying. Then she was gone, vanished into the mist, and I was alone again. I waited for her to come back. It took a long time. Two hours later, she walked into the the kitchen, opened the fridge, looked through the cabinets, and finally said, “What sounds good for dinner tonight?”
I watched her loop finish again, gave her the same sad responses which were not enough at the time and were completely useless now, then watched her disappear just like the ghosts always do. When she was gone, I went through the cupboards myself. They were mostly empty, already raided by some other ambitious survivor.
That meant somebody else had been in my home. Somebody else had seen her. Somebody else had seen her side of what was actually an intimate moment; a moment, however small and insignificant, that was supposed to be shared by two people and only two people. The thought made me angry. It still makes me angry. Somebody out there in the world has seen her, and probably just brushed her away like she was nothing. Admittedly, she's not much more than that now. If anything is left of her body, it certainly looks worse off than her ghost.
The wastes were abandoned, of course. Of course. Who would be there? I only saw one person all day, not even a single ghost. It seems strange to me that the ghosts aren’t thickest there, but maybe those echoes were obliterated along with their physical forms due to proximity to the blast. Maybe they were blown away and those ghosts haunt places they don’t belong. Whatever the reason, it’s more frightening without them there.
The person I found was wearing full camo, long brown hair tied behind his head with an even longer ribbon, crusty disgusting beard, taking bites of a charred rat, huge tumor dominating the lower left side of his jaw. I walked around a corner and practically stepped on him.
Rather than attack me like every other human I’ve seen, the man recoiled, snatching his remaining rat up and scurrying backwards muttering some sort of jibberish he must have hoped would sound like words.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I told him.
He seemed to understand and stopped scurrying for a minute. “Yuh cahbal?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “I’ve never eaten another person...and, no offense, but I wouldn’t eat you even if I were.”
He seemed to calm down at that. “Fuhnd,” he said and extended his hand for me to take it.
I declined. “Friends die. I’m just a guy on my way through.” Not through, actually, but lost in. This close to the blast zone, my tiny compass was worthless. North was all around me. Every direction looked the same. The sun was directly overhead and of little help. “How the fuck,” I asked him absently, “do I get back to 305 South Wheeler?”
Although it wasn’t really directed at him, the man grasped onto my question and spat out a response to jumbled and fast for me to understand. “Yuh guh duh sis fuh tree bluk den rye un,” he stopped for a long moment to cough, a deep cough that rattled in his check and flung flecks of blood into the air. “Den rye on hars en guh senen buks.”
“None of that made a damn bit of sense,” I confided. Then I added, “Thanks for your help,” and turned to walk away. As I started to leave, the man jumped to his feet and I got ready to defend myself.
“Nuh! Nuh!” he squaked, “Ull die.” His last word was painfully clear. Maybe we weren’t the only ones out here. Maybe some of them were cannibals. Maybe he had trapped the area and I was lucky to be here are all. Maybe he had trapped the area he was leading me to so that he could kill and eat me. You just never know with the world being what it is.
He gestured for me to follow and, despite my misgivings, I did. He led me through a maze of trash and refuse out to an ugly cluttered street. He said, “Iss id sis anew,” and pointed at a sign. “Sixth Ave,” the sign read. Then he pointed down the street. I already recognized where I was.
“Thanks,” I told him, and he smiled at me. His teeth were all jagged and broken and bloody. A single rivulet of blood was running through his beard from his mouth. I turned and started to walk away.
He followed me. “Shoo!” I told him and, “get the fuck out of here,” but he just smiled and followed me. I couldn’t be sure what he wanted, I’m still not sure, but he seemed harmless enough for now and as near as I could tell, he was unarmed.
I let him follow me all the way back to the remnant of my apartment. Most of the building was still in good shape, despite the destruction around it. It was too close to the blast for me to feel comfortable staying, but it seemed worth stopping by. I know what I wanted to find, but of course I expected nothing. I ordered my new companion to stay outside and headed in, up the stairs.
Nothing was exactly what I got. Things had been ransacked even more thoroughly since the last visit I had made. There was no food and much or the furniture had been destroyed or overturned. Only the couch stayed the same. My old mattress had been flipped over and was lying on the floor. I looked for her ghost, of course I looked, but I didn’t see it anywhere. I looked until it was too dark to see and now I write this, engulfed in defeat, lying on my misplaced mattress.
I awoke to the sound of a crazy man screaming from my living room. I grabbed my baseball bat, my current means of protection, and snuck in to face my attacker. The threat was minimal, it was just the mutant from before who had since found a way into my apartment screaming, “Ah wah meeloav!”
I didn’t care about him, though. I didn’t care that we broke in or that he was just a room away from there I was fast asleep. I didn’t care that he’d made enough sound to summon anybody nearby right to us. I cared about the other person, who was no screaming her response, only speaking cooly, “We can’t afford pizza every night, you know.”
He screamed back, “Ah wah meeloav!” and she faded away to nothing. She was still here. I hadn’t seen her last time, hadn’t seen her in more than a week, but she was still here waiting for me. She was gone just as fast, but I had seen her.
I couldn’t make sense of what that meant. Maybe this was her real ghost, what triggered me to start seeing her everywhere, and all the rest were just made up. That seemed to be the most logical conclusion, but that didn’t feel right either. She had an image and a sound and when I had brushed her away, she felt cool. I know I can imagine all of these things, but I’ve never had any kind of hallucination before, no family history of them; why now?
There are obvious answers to that, too. Why now? How about because the entire planet just experienced the greatest trauma since the Big Bang. How about because I’ve lost every single person I’ve ever cared about in a single act of unimaginable hatred from the unseens who governs my pitiful excuse for a life. How about because I’m wearing so much radiation that I should have fucking super powers. How about because I miss her.
If I had missed her like this when we were alive, maybe we could have died together. Maybe we could have seen the end together and rose above it and conquered it and owned this whole stupid wasteland. We could have been king and queen, absolute monarchs. Now we’re absolutely nothing. This whole story could have ended right there, apocalyptically ever after.
I stayed there all day waiting to see her again. I stayed up all night. What little bit of hope I had held on to quickly vanished. It wasn;t hope that held me in place for a full twenty-four hours. It was more of a vain expectation. I didn't really think I would see her again, but I needed to. I demanded to.
Then she emerged from the kitchen like the first rays of sun over the horizon in the old world. The new world changes ever metaphors; dawn means the cover of darkness is now gone. She looked both like hopeful new beginnings and like blown cover.The ghosts can’t see you, not really, but that morning, I felt seen.
“What sounds good for dinner tonight?” she asked again. How many times has she asked that question now? I’ve seen a few, but she’s been here without me all this time, asking that question to nobody in particular, to the raiders who came and took my food and supplies. She’s said it dozens or hundreds of time, maybe thousands, usually to nobody and sometimes to strangers.
I answered simply, “Pizza,” while my companion once again demanded, “Meeloav.”
I only stayed to see her one time today. When she informed me that we couldn’t have pizza every night, I informed her that I was sorry. With my piece said, I left. My new companion came with me, despite my urgings to stay. He said some words about it, but I was up to the task of deciphering them.
“Wheh wuh gun?” he asked as we walked. It must have been an hour, maybe two or three, of walking in silence before he spoke up. If he’d been a cannibal, he would have bitten me. That particular figure of speech used to involve snakes, but the new world changed things; I haven’t seen a snake in months.
I was so lost in thought that I jumped at the words. I had forgotten that I was not alone. I had gotten so used to my solitude. I had also forgotten to choose a destination. I hadn’t been watching where we were walking. I might be able to trace the way back, but we were effectively lost. I had forgotten, at least briefly, all the things that keep a person alive in the new world only to be reminded by a fucking mutant.
I took a look around, surveying to see what options we had for now before I was ready to answer him. There was a ruined convenience store and the apartment above it; that was probably one of the first places to get hit and the last place we’d want to go. There was a post office down the street a ways, which could be a good place to defend if we needed to hole up, but it was unlikely to have an useful supplies. Perhaps it should have given me some concept of where we were, but it didn’t look familiar and didn’t help map the territory much. The only other buildings were houses. All of them had busted latched and had likely been drained of food. I knew that because that’s how all houses are in the new world. Still, those would be our best shot.
“Wheh wuh gun?” he asked again before I pieced together an answer.
I said, “Let’s go through these houses and see if there’s anything worth taking.”
He answered, “Cuh wuh lif thuh?”
“No,” I told him, “We can’t stay. This area isn’t safe.” I didn’t tell him that nowhere was safe; he looked like he knew. What troubled me most was how well I was already beginning to understand him
We headed for the closest house first for no reason other than it was the closest. The door had been kicked in and, although it still stood in an upright closed position, was no longer attached to its hinges. This made it unlikely that anybody lived here, not having a solid barricade, but somebody had wanted it closed for a reason.
I lifted the door and moved it aside only to immediately drop it, letting it tumble and clunk to the ground and falling backwards. The door slammed down flat, narrowly missing my leg, but I barely noticed. All I saw was the man inside staring out at us. He looked dirty and rugged, not like most ghosts, but he wasn’t actually looking at me or my mutated friend, only staring straight ahead, intent on something that didn’t exist. Finally he said, “You don’t belong here.”
I wanted to question him, but I already knew it would get me nowhere. If he wasn’t a ghost, he wasn’t too far off. There was a look in his eye that said he was a few cards short of a full deck. Either way, I didn’t get a chance to ask any of my questions; he said his line and vanished into nothingness like only a ghost could do.
I stepped back, taking a moment to compose myself from the scare. I looked at my travelling companion, who also appeared to be a little shaken but had held his footing, and gathered what dignity I could muster. “Let’s go,” I said quietly. I drew my baseball bat for protection against any other ghosts we might encounter.
We entered through a small foyer and into the living room. Behind us, I could hear the ghost again already, “You don’t belong here.” His words were chilling, a warning that I wanted to heed, but I couldn’t let myself be scared off by a ghost. The house was in surprisingly good shape. Most houses I went in, things had been rummaged through a strewn around like the apocalypse had come. I suppose there’s good reason for things to look that way, though.
A book was still sitting open on the arm of a recliner. I looked down at the cover, curious what our ghost had been reading. “Le Morte D’Arthur,” it said in a fluid serifed font. “Volume 2” below that was in plain block letters, as was the author’s name. I picked up the book and deposited it in my own pack. The death of Arthur couldn’t possibly be as tragic as the death of the planet, so I thought it might be a nice feel-good read.
As I zipped back up, I heard the clangor of pots and pans being moved around from an adjoining room. I had known we wouldn’t be alone in there. There was no way we could be, considering the strangely contemporary ghost and position of the door. Still, I wondered what could have happened. The ghost wasn’t standing there in a way that said his door had just been ripped off the hinges; he had been greeting somebody he knew, even if the person was an unwelcome guest.
I peeked around the corner, ready to swing. A person in stained and ripped khaki pants was knelt down with his head completely emerged in a cupboard at floor level. Next to them was a pistol, close but untended. Not wanting to miss my chance but still afraid that I might be getting myself killed, I took the two quick steps in I needed to reach the weapon.
I managed to get the gun in my hand before the person in the cupboard even realized I was there. It wasn’t until I had the gun leveled at him and said, “Don’t fucking move,” that he began to withraw himself from the kitchenware. “You don’t listen very well,” I said. “Don’t fucking move at all or I’ll blow your brains out.”
He raised his hands and sputtered, “Sorry, sorry,” then, after a pause, “Please don’t kill me.” What was I going to do? Even now, this deep into the apocalypse, I had managed to not kill anybody. Was I really ready to start with this guy?
“I won’t kill you,” I finally decided, “just get the hell out.” I kept my gun trained on him but stepped away from the door.
“Please,” he said, more desperately than when he was begging for his life, “let me come with you. I can’t live here alone. They want to kill me.” His beard was caked with what looked like blood, but could have been anything.
I said, “Who wants to kill you? Besides me, I mean.”
He was shaking now, terrified that this might be his last day on Earth. I couldn’t see what he was so afraid of. Was he scared that his ghost might show up as a quivering sack of nerves huddled on a kitchen floor? The afterlife really can’t be any worse than the shit show we’re living in. “It’s the Mortem Angeli,” he said, “they protect the people who live around the Mini Mart.”
“So these death angels watch over the Mini Mart?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “they’re just people. They call themselves Mortem Angeli.” He didn’t seem like he had more he wanted to say, but I let the silence drag on until he felt more inclined. At length he continued, “They’re a biker gang and this is their territory; they kill anybody who messes around in this neighborhood.”
“People like you, then?” I spared a glance over my shoulder. My pet mutant had also produced a gun from somewhere and held it pointed at the man on the floor. “If you know about them, why are you here?”
“I thought, if Frank let me in, maybe he could protect me from them and they would protect me from everybody else.” He was probably too scared to be lying, but he still hadn’t told everything. The scenario was still lacking a few key points for it to really add up.
I had a lot of questions. I thought about it for a moment and decided to go with, “Was Frank the guy at the door?”
“Fuck!” the man exclaimed, “did you put the door back up?”
I had not. “Sure,” I said, “it’s fine.”
He breathed a labored sigh of relief. “If they see the door down, they’re going to come check on him. They’re close enough to see from the Mini Mart, and I’m not ready to die, so it’s really important to keep that door up.” I nodded to the mutant, who seemed to understand and walked off, hopefully to replace the door. “Oh,” the man said, “you didn’t put the door back up, did you?”
“Nope,” I said, “but I was telling the truth about blowing your fucking brains out, so I wouldn’t move.” He ignored the threat and stood up.
“I used my last bullet on Frank,” he said, “so you can put that down.” I didn’t lower the weapon, but I did adjust the weight of my bat. “If I attack you, your freak will come back and kill me, so you’re safe.”
“What happened with Frank?” I asked him flatly. I knew he was dead before the man had even mentioned the use of his last bullet; that ghost didn’t just come out of nowhere.
He let out a sigh that sounded like a mix of remorse and resignation. He sounded defeated. I was once more amazed that he was concerned with the preservation of his own life; it didn’t sound like the kind of life I wanted to be living. Then again, I don’t exactly want to live the life I have, but here I am.
“He didn’t want to let me in at first, but he knew they would kill me, so he let me in and closed the door. We had a fight. That’s how the door got broken. I was laying on the ground and I thought he was going to kill me, so…”
“So you put one between his eyes and moved into his house,” I finished for him.
“In his chest,” the man corrected. My travelling companion came back in and flashed a thumbs up. “I don’t know why they didn’t come then; I thought the gun shot would have then swarming like flies on shit.”
I would have thought so, too. I also would have thought the door being down would have attracted some attention. If I was to believe my mutated ally, however, we remained to be alone. “If you stay here, they will find you and kill you,” I warned.
“You just want him for yourself!” he hissed. That completed the picture for me. I could see why he didn’t want to leave in a flash of insight provided from his last statement.
“Where’s Frank now?” I asked him.
“You can’t have him!” he shrieked as he lunged at me. I put the butt of the man’s own pistol into his face and sent him sprawling backwards, blood now leaking from a fresh gash along his cheekbone.
“Where is he?” I asked again.
The man was crying now and either wouldn’t or couldn’t put together the words to answer my question. Instead, he gestured to a nearby door, likely a pantry. With a glance to my partner (and how had the strange cancerous man become my partner?), I let him know to keep an eye on the target as I walked over and opened the door.
The pantry was stocked full of cans, more than most people would have in the old world and just enough to survive on in the new. A whole shelf was dedicated to gallon jugs of water. There were even boxes of cereal, pancake mix, and macaroni and cheese. As far as I knew, the cows were mostly dead, and nobody remained to milk the ones still suffering through life, so there wouldn’t be milk to use for making any of the foods there, but it still seemed like some pretty gourmet shit. On the floor, along with all the other food, was a dead man with a hole in his chest and one missing arm.
I turned back to the killer. “What happened to his arm?” I asked. I knew, of course, but I wanted to hear the monster say it.
He didn’t answer the question exactly, but what he did say told the truth of what happened. “I’m not a monster,” he said.”
Despite my misgivings about cannibalism, I was inclined to believe him. I don’t know why, exactly, but I felt sorry for him. “Where’s his arm now?” I asked.
He pointed to the slow cooker on the counter. “I’m not a monster,” he repeated, “I’m really not. He was already dead; I wouldn’t have killed him on purpose. I’ve never killed anybody before, and I didn’t do it to eat him.” There was a long pause. I couldn’t think of the words for this situation. I was disgusted and appalled and a little bit curious. What kind of person was this? Was he a monster? “Isn’t it worse to let a person die for nothing, to just decay and rot and go to waste?”
“No,” I told him, “It’s not. You’re a fucking cannibal.” The man on the ground started weeping, deep gasps of pain with no sound at first leading into rapid wails of existential agony. “Give me one reason not to kill you,” I said. I didn’t want to kill him. I probably wouldn’t regardless of what he said. Still, I needed some reason to be okay with letting this cannibal go back to eating people like nothing had ever happened.
“My daughter,” he whisper sobbed. “She’ll die without me.”
“Fuck,” I answer. “Actual fuck. Where’s your daughter now?” He was crying too hard to answer, so I gave him a firm kick to get his attention. He cried louder for a moment then managed to quiet down a little bit and look at me. “We’re trying to help you. We can’t stay here and wait for Crock Pot Frank to cook. Where is she?”
He sniffled and said, “I don’t know. She was supposed to hide if anybody came in.” She was probably terrified and sad. The end of the world was traumatic enough without all of this, without murder and cannibalism and psychotic home owners associations that killed people for not keeping the neighborhood gentrified or what the fuck ever.
I stood there for a long minute thinking. I assume I looked like I was formulating a plan, I hope that’s how I looked, but that wasn’t it. I was thinking of my own daughter and how she would have handled the end of the world. She wasn’t like other kids. She would have been just as scared and sad, probably more of both than the average young person, but that wasn’t what defined her. She would have been devastated, but should would have coped. She could have coped with anything. She felt things so much more deeply than anybody else, but she was strong; she was stronger than the rest of humanity put together. If she had been allowed to live, she would have been the best of us.
Finally, I said, “We have to find her and get out of here. We they find out you’ve been making Frank kabobs, they’ll kill us all.” Then another thought occurred to me. “Does she eat...like you do?”
The man nodded. He looked like he wanted to speak but couldn’t handle the words he would have to say. I didn’t blame him. In a way, I almost related. Why shouldn’t the dead fulfill one last purpose? I couldn’t do it, couldn’t bring myself to it, but it was the only meat that wasn’t either freshly killed or completely rancid, and wildlife is a fair bit harder to find than a dead person these days.
“Let’s split up and find her,” I said, “and maybe we can all escape this shit show.” I said the words, but I wasn’t hopeful. Alone, I could escape everything, all the worst parts of the world, but I didn’t think I’d be able to run very fast carrying a mutant, a cannibal, and a child. We were all fucked.
Nody complained or even spoke at all. The mutant left to search the downstairs while I headed upstairs. I didn’t have to search long before I found the young lady cowering in the bathtub with the shower curtains drawn.
I looked in at her for a moment before I spoke. With those gentle rivulets of light brown hair. Her wide beautiful eyes, sparkling a shade of green that only one in fifty people of the old world could have had. For that one moment, I saw my own daughter, and knew it was her. “Ella?” I asked. Of course, it wasn’t Ella, and I knew that, but how could I see anybody else.
She stayed quiet but cocked the shotgun she had pointed at my chest. She wasn’t shaking or scared, only ready to do whatever she had to do to stay safe. She looked like the cutest Rambo I had ever seen. She was maybe 12 years old, the same age as my daughter, maybe even born in the chill of December like my daughter, and draped with a belt of bullets over one shoulder and a combat knife at her hip. If her dad had been equipped like this, I might have had some trouble.
“Come downstairs. You’re safe with me. I’m taking you to your father and then we’re getting out of here to someplace safe.” She hesitated, of course she did, anybody would, but she slowly climbed out of the tub with her weapon still set on me like the gun of trained killer. She might be one of the most frightening people I’ve encountered since the end of the world.
I led her downstairs to where my new tribe would be waiting. They were waiting, we could see they as we got halfway down the stairs, but they were not as alone as we had hoped. Three armed men stood in the doorway, blocking the others from going anywhere. They were all dressed as if they just jumped out of Mad Max with leather straps and gas masks under their old-school helmets. I wouldn’t have been able to take them seriously at all if not for the weapons. In this world, every weapon is serious. Threats died in the old world; this was a world of action.
“Don’t move. Tell us what we need to know and some of you may walk out of here.” There was a pause, a thick silence that made the air feel heavy. “Where’s Frank?” a man with an assault rifle finally asked.
The other two were less imtimidating, but not by much. One was covered head to toe in black, with only dark brown hands showing. Those hands gripped and unsheathed katana and looked like some kind of steampunk samurai with all the leather and metal strapped to him.
The second held short steel bars in either hand. He wore the traditional black pants, but his chest was exposed save for a pair of overlapping leather straps, showing his detailed pecs and abs. It also showed his scars. Some were old, most were new, and a couple were infected. Although he looked scary, he was the least troublesome.
The third seemed to be the leader of the group. He stood in the middle, he carried the firearm, and he did the speaking. “Well?” he said. “You can answer or I’ll kill you one at a time then find him myself.” Again, nobody answered. What could we say? We just stayed silent and waited to see what would happen. “Fine,” he said, “I’ll get my answers the fun way.” He rotated his weapon towards the stairs, aiming it at the little girl, at Ella who was not Ella. He said, “Maybe if the kid dies first it’ll loosen some…” He didn’t get to finish. The girl on the stairs leveled her shotgun and in the same fluid motion pulled the trigger, turning the man’s head into a spray of plastic, metal and brains from within his mask.
I stared in awe. We all did, even our attackers. It took a moment for anybody to move, but steampunk samurai went first, swinging his sword at my mutated comrade. As if he had trained his whole life for the moment, my companion caught the sword arm and brought his pistol under the man’s chin, sending a spray of brains into the air with the crack of his gun. It sounded dull with the blast of a shotgun still ringing in my ears. The other man was headed for me. The girl was a couple steps behind me, but she wasn’t shooting.
Panicked, I reacted purely on instinct, and brought my baseball bat into the man’s temple. He collapsed, rolled down the stairs, but was still conscious and already trying to get up. I ran down and swung again, this time more like a golfer than a baseball player, and smacked the man’s head with all the force I could muster. It left a deep dent to ooze blood over the floor. The man twitched for a minute, but was not getting up.
“We have to get all the food we can carry and get the fuck out of here now,” I told him.
“Nyuh,” my first companion said. I took it as agreement, but how can you tell? The four of us followed into the kitchen. I put as many of the best cans I could find in my pack. The mutant stuffed a few boxes into his. The newcomer gathered the contents of the Crock Pot into a tupperware dish; I didn’t even try to stop him. The little girl had her own backpack. She found some fruit snacks and crackers to take, as well as a couple small pieces of cookware. She was probably the smartest and most capable of us all.
Again, that made me think of my own daughter. How would she cope out here? She would be young, not old enough to make it on her own, but after a few years in the apocalypse, she would be set to rule over these Mad Max motherfuckers and Walking Dead retards like a fucking queen. How had I put her out of my thoughts for so long? I needed to find her ghost, to see her again, to know what she was and to assure myself she was gone, not just suffering through this alone only to die an even more horrible death later.
I had closed my eyes in thought but opened them when I felt something soft brush my cheek. It was the little one, not Ella, brushing away tears that I didn’t know I had shed. She didn’t say anything, but she made a face, a stern face that would never crumble, that would always stay firm, and it told me that I had to stay strong as well. “Thanks,” I told her then finished packing up. When we were done, all of our packs were heavy. We had a long way to go. On the way out, I took the samurai sword and its sheath from its former owner, leaving my baseball bat in its place.
“I think I can retrace my steps back to my old apartment,” I told them. “It’s close to the blast site and safer than out here. We should be alright there.”
“Let’s go,” the newest stranger chimed in.
“Meeloav,” the mutant concurred.
I wasn’t ready for this little girl to see my late wife’s ghost. More than that, I wasn’t ready for her ghost to see this little girl. I know they can’t do that, they’re just scenes of things already happened, recordings that can’t interact with the living, but I still wasn’t ready for it.
Together, the four of us exited the house and started walking back. We stayed to alleys and dark places as much as we could, avoiding going near the Mini Mart, and began the long hike back. It was longer than I thought; I must have wandered in abject silence for hours before snapping back to real consciousness, but we were able to trace the streets and arrived without being further accosted.
I wanted to ask their names, but I was afraid to. They would all be dead soon. I didn’t want to know them any better than I had to. Mutie, I decided, would be my cancer ridden ally. Cannie seemed like a good name for the cannibal. And for his cannibal daughter? I couldn’t think of anything. Rather, I could only think of one thing; I could only think to call her Ella.
I learned today that Ella had taken a box of teabags among her other goods. We all had chamomile tea and thought back to the days when we would have been able to do that anytime, back to when it was mundane. It tasted like the death of everything we had ever known or loved. It tasted like Mutie’s cancer and Cannie’s strips of human flesh.
For the past couple days, Cannie and Ella have been rationing the meat, trying to make last as though eating people was essential to their survival. It made me wonder what would happen to me once they ran out. Cannie is always polite and cordial. He hasn’t objected to his name or asked for mine. He calls me “Boss,” which feels strange. I’ve never been anybody’s boss. He cleans up for us and cooks food that I’m afraid to eat. He always promises that it’s people-free, though, and I think I believe him; he’s greedy with his human meat. I still don’t feel safe sleeping in the same small apartment, though.
I’ve known Mutie for about a week now, and I still don’t know any more about him now than I did when we met. He rarely says anything, and most what he does say is incomprehensible. Still, he seems like the most loyal and trustworthy of the group. Also, when we were going through food, I noticed that the bottoms of his pack was full of guns and bullets, making him our personal armoury. He had at least half a dozen hand guns and hundreds of stray bullets of various sizes. I asked him if that was safe and he shrugged, saying, “Eh gaw buh sur ha caher.” The growth on his jaw made speaking a painful experience with poor results, but I understood: it’s gotta be safer than cancer.
Ella has said even less. She hasn’t said a word since we met. According to Cannie, since the bombs dropped. He told me her name, too, which I won’t write down, and I said that we’re not using names to avoid attachment. He’s been calling her Ella since then, too. She hasn’t seemed to even register the change.
I call her Ella, but I know she’s not my daughter. Nobody else knows or has asked about the origin of that name, but I’m still ashamed to have given it to her. I won’t talk to her when the ghost of my wife is there. I can’t. I wonder if anybody has noticed.
Ella, my Ella, was there the night of the pizza debate. She was sitting on the couch and cast her vote for pizza. They look so much alike that sometimes it feels like Ella’s ghost is with me in our home, too. Sometimes it’s like she never died. Then there are days like today that make me question everything about Ella, both the old and the new, about how the ghosts work, and about everything this world has become.
After today, I don’t know what Ella is or if she’s even human. Something is broken in her, I think. Otherwise she’s got some obscure power the rest of us lack. She spoke today, though, and now everything is different.
She was sitting on the couch when it happened. She was sitting exactly where Ella had been sitting. The light played on her face the same way. It was such a minor event, but the sight brought every aspect of it back to me so clearly. She looked just like my Ella, and in that moment she almost was. Then the ghost of my wife stood in the kitchen and said, “What sounds good for dinner tonight?”
The scene was too perfect; I had to say, “Let’s just order pizza.”
Mutie shouted, “Meeloav!”
Cannie watched silently.
The ghost said, “We can't afford pizza every night, you know.”
Usually, that’s it; she’ll say that and disappear. In that second before she was gone, though, Ella spoke up. She said, “Can we please have pizza, mom?” That was all. She went immediately back to silence, just like Ella had done after she spoke those words on that insignificant night months ago.
Then the ghost didn’t disappear. Instead, she walked to the couch, sat down, and put a hand on Ella’s left. She said, “I guess it’s decided, then; Ella says we’re having pizza.” Only then, after unravelling my full grasp on reality, did the ghost disappear.
“What the fuck was that?” asked Cannie, who was the first to formulate the words.
“Duh gush cuh hee uh,” Mutie put in.
“The ghosts can’t hear us,” I said, “they’re just recordings from the old world, like the shadows burned on the walls at Hiroshima; they’re echoes of what used to be here.”
“Well, that echo,” Cannie said, “just got longer than it used to be and learned Ella’s name”
I couldn’t tell him that Ella was the name of a different daughter, mine and not his, and that she had been sitting there that day. I couldn’t say that it was just a recording after he’d heard her name. I felt frightened, like a rat in a cage, but I had to say something. “She’s still just a ghost. Don’t worry about it. We’ll leave this place in the morning.”
“We’ve gotta talk about what’s going on,” Cannie continued. “Is my daughter safe?”
“Ella’s fine,” I said, and got up to leave the room. I wandered into the kitchen, where she had come from, to be alone with my thoughts. Of course, I wouldn’t be so lucky. She was there, the ghost, washing invisible dishes in a dry sink.
“You look like something’s bothering you,” she said, looking directly in my eyes, “What’s wrong?”
“She’s not our daughter,” I told her.
“Of course I want to; I love our time together. Do you not want to go?”
I said, “We’re leaving in the morning and you’re going to stay here where you belong.”
“Okay,” she answered, “we’ll just go for a little bit and if you’re not having fun, I’ll get a migraine.” She smiled at me, a warm loving smile that I’ve missed, and faded away.
From behind me, Cannie asked, “Who are you talking to?”
Startled, I turned and said, “Sorry, I was just trying to work through everything in my head, I must have been talking out loud.” Had he seen her ghost? Could I bring myself to ask him? If he had seen her, I would be validated. If he hadn’t, did that mean she wasn’t there or that he came in too late? It would mean nothing.
Nobody else had much to talk about that night. We didn’t discuss why Ella had spoken or the significance of it. I couldn’t have really talked much about that if I had wanted to. What could I say? She had channeled the voice of my dead daughter to speak to her mother one last time? It felt like the real ghost of Ella had inhabited this living ghost for just a moment and, honestly, that might be exactly what happened.
I can’t conceptualize what’s going on with these ghosts. Do they hear us? Do they see us? Are the sentient but just stuck in some loop they can’t escape? Nothing makes sense to me now. The apocalypse doesn’t make sense. Why is all this happening and, more importantly, why is all this happening to me? It’s more than I can cope with. I feel like my head is splitting open from everything bouncing around inside of it. Then again, that could just be the radiation. I think the best option for me at this point is to sleep and hope I wake up tomorrow realizing this was all a bad dream. That’s been my goal for fifty-four day now, and I suspect I’ll be wishing for the same thing tomorrow night.
I didn’t wake up to discover everything was a dream. No, it’s all still the same. I was the first one up today and started gathering my crew immediately. “Don’t you think we should wait and see what the ghost does before we go?”
“No,” I said, “if that ghost is doing something unusual, that means there’s something unusual going on here. Based on how the world ended, I’d say it’s related to radiation. I think, unless you want your daughter to look like Mutie, we should start leaving as soon as possible.” It was a thin excuse for trying to get out, but one I had thought up ahead of time while tossing and turning and hoping for sleep.
“Ok,” he said back, “You’re probably right.” He didn’t argue anymore after that and of course neither did Ella; she was as compliant as ever.
Mutie didn’t argue much either, but said, “Shuh juh miz huh dagur.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” was the best response I could think to give him. He was right, though. There wasn’t any real evidence to it, but I could feel it the same as he could; she just misses her daughter. If anybody else understood, they didn’t say anything.
With all our packs full of as much as we could carry, we headed off, away from the blast and away from the Mortem Angeli. If all went well, we would find someplace without squatters, without cannibals, without biker gangs, and without ghosts. It felt like searching for Shangri La, for Atlantis, for El Dorado.
We headed away from the city, towards the suburbs, hoping for a simpler life. We walked for four hours to get where we were going and passed the odd scraggler, a couple random people, but nobody of any note. A small group of people eyed us hungrily, cannibals I suppose, but they must have decided our numbers weren’t worth the risk. Besides, it’s always easy to find somebody alone.
Most people did group up in this new world. There were huge gangs and groups that roved the cities and took what they wanted for themselves. Most of these groups had become fairly selective with new members, though, and none of the people out here alone were likely to make the cut.
Cannie was the only one who talked on the trip, small talk, comments about the weather. He said he used to date a girl who lived out here before everything happened. He said she had a nice small house and said maybe that would be a good place to hide out, since it was small, out of the way, and the residents were all likely dead. He said, “Her name was Rita, and she fucked like a tiger.”
I said, “I don’t want to hear anymore names. Names died with the bombs. If you need to call somebody something, make it up. Now I’m gonna be sad if we meet her and have to kill her.” It was true. I was trying to be over the top about it, trying to get my point across, but if she was still alive and in that house, there was a fair chance that somebody would end up dead. And yes, I really would be sad if I had to kill this woman whose name I knew and who I knew fucked like a tiger.
There wasn’t much talking after that. Maybe Cannie learned something. Maybe he just ran out of stupid things to say. Both seemed unlikely. Either way, we let him lead us to where he thought we should go. I didn’t trust him, and I don’t think Mutie did either, but at least he had an idea.
Once we found the area, we found the house in question. Many of the houses had broken windows and doors, but I was surprised to see just how much had not been damaged here. None of the houses we unscatched by the chaos of the apocalypse, but few were uninhabitable. The one we were looking for was short and squat, oddly juxtaposed to the larged homes in the area, with a large red door. Somebody had crashed a car into the side of the house, but it still seemed structurally sound. The car didn’t look too badly damaged, either, but I’ve never known much about cars.
Cannie went to the door first, since apparently having fucked this dead woman in the old world gave him some kind of authority here. Nobody else minded; being the first to go in is the most dangerous position. “It’s locked,” he said, after jiggling the knob for no less than a full minute.
“So?” I asked. I wondered how he’d survived this long in the new world for a moment, then I remembered: by eating other people.
“Behah juh ay doh ah duh!” Mutie said, throwing his hands in the air. I laughed, but the other two didn’t seem to get the joke.
“What’s so funny?” Cannie asking, turning towards us. Ella remained unphased. She was permanently stoic.
I said, “He says that we’d better just lay down and die.”
Cannie sighed, stepped back, and gave the door a kick. It didn’t budge and he tried again. It didn’t budge. “Fine, we’ll find another house,” Cannie muttered and started to step away.
“The windows are broken, dumbass,” I told him, moving towards one. I reached inside for the latch, then slid the window open. “Ladies first,” I told Cannie as I stepped aside and gestured toward the portal.
Cannie started to climb through, managing to squeeze his head and arm in, and said, “I don’t fit.” I looked around for a larger window, but they all seemed about the same size, leaving us only one option which I did not particularly like.
I said, “We can try to kick down the door, or we can find another house, or…”
“We can send Ella through the window,” Cannie finished. He seemed to undersand the implications, too. He was fine risking his own life, but this was out daughter we were sending in there. “I think it’s safe,” he said after a minute. “Nobody’s made a sound in there and they had the perfect chance to kill me.”
I could have argued, but we were already here, and it did seem like a good spot. I approached Ella and bent down to her level. I said, “Can you crawl through that window and unlock the door?”
She stared at me, saying exactly what she always says. She didn’t nod or acknowledge me, but I assumed she understood.
“Watch out for broken glass,” I told her. “As soon as you’re in, go directly to the door and unlock it, then we’ll all be with you again.”
Again, she didn’t offer response, but she clearly understood. She made straight for the window and slipped through like a hairless monkey. There was the sound of feet on broken glass then the turning of the lock on the doorknob and finally the dead bolt. The door swung open and there she was, unharmed.
“Good job,” I told her, running up to give the child a hug. Cannie said nothing, but gave her a hug as well once I had moved away. It occurred to me that maybe I was projecting onto this girl, but everybody seemed fine with it and it made me feel better. “We need to spread out and check for anybody inside before we settle down,” I said to my small group, “we don’t want any surprises.
It was a small house with two stories. We spread out from the first floor, each of us looking in our own places. Mutie found a door to a basement and looked down there. Cannie and Ella checked the ground floor. I went upstairs to look there.
The upstairs area was actually very small, consisting of a short hall leading away from the stairs and three doors. The first door I opened was only a closet, stocked with towels, toiletries, and an assortment of cleaning supplies.
The second door was the associated bathroom. There was no water in the bathtub, but a woman was lying in it, all the same. Blood ran from her wrists down the side of the tub and pooled on the floor, but she didn’t look like she had been there long. Her skin was pale enough that I didn’t think she was faking, but I approached cautiously and felt for a pulse. She was definitely dead, but not yet even fully cold. Whatever her reasons had been, she had just done this. If we had gotten here an hour sooner, we might have stopped her. That didn’t bother me, though. People die all the time now. It’s more common than living. I was happy for her that she got to exit on her own terms and at her own pace.
I left the corpse and closed the door, then went to the last one. This one opened up into a decently sized bedroom and sent me reeling back when I entered. There was a woman here, too, both more and less alive than the other. She didn’t react to the sound of the door opening or when I cried out, “Hey!” so I assumed her to be a ghost and entered. She was an attractive woman with firm round breasts and a few extra pounds, entirely nude except for a black strap-on dildo she was using to mercilessly drill some invisible person on the bed. I recognized her naked body from the bathroom.
“How do you like that, Howard?” she asked. “Do you like when mommy pounds your little faggot ass?” That was all I needed to see. I stepped out, closed the door behind me, and walked downstairs.
Mutie had found a single shot rifle in the basement and a box of .22 caliber bullets for it, but nothing else of note. “Duh uh suh tuhs dah thuh, tuh,” he offered. I think he was telling us there were tools downstairs, but I couldn’t be too sure and wasn’t too interested right now. They would be worth looking at eventually, but my current needs only required securing the home.
Cannie walked out next, Ella at his heels. “I don’t think anybody’s been in here lately. The ground floor is empty and everything looks clean.”
“Well,” I said, “I don’t think anybody lives here now, at any rate.” I wondered how much I should say about what I saw upstairs and decided to go with only the necessities. “Cannie, you’re gonna be sleeping upstairs. Rita’s dead in the bathroom; don’t eat her.”
“If she’s already dead,” Cannie protested, but I shut him up with a look. “There are two small bedrooms down here and big couch. It should be plenty of space for everybody.” We all agreed, seeking out our own spaces and placing our things down where we planned to stay.
I used the couch cushions to make a bed for Ella in my room; I didn’t think it was right for her to have to sleep alone out in the open, but her flat affect said that she couldn’t care less one way or the other.
I awoke to the smell of cooking meat. “God damn it,” I yelled as I stormed into the kitchen. Cannie was frying long strips of rita in a pan, while another arm sat on the counter behind him. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I exclaimed. “I told you not to eat her!”
“She was already dead,” he said, “and it seems worse to let that death be wasted.” He was entirely unapologetic and without remorse. What’s worse, I didn’t entirely disagree with his logic.
“I could have made eggs and bacon in that pan!” I said. “I could have made fucking porkchops and now it’s always going to be the people pan!”
“Well,” he answered, “good luck finding any of those things to cook in the first place; if you want protein, this is pretty much it.”
“God damn sicko,” I said, turning to leave, “eat some fucking peanut butter.” I didn’t know if we had any of that, either, but it at least seemed reasonable.
I had assumed Mutie was still sleeping, as I hadn’t seen him yet that morning, but then I heard the sound of a car sputtering to life from just outside. It sounded close. It sounded like the car that had crashed into the side of the house. I opened the front door and looked outside without even checking my surroundings or doing anything to protect my own life.
Luckily, the sound was the person I expected doing what I had expected; Mutie had managed to get the car running. It didn’t sound great, but it was running, and I watched him back it away from the house and onto the street.
“Good job,” I said to him as he turned off the car and stepped out.
“Eh hah uh buhd cahbuhah,” he called back. I didn’t even try to decipher; car talk wouldn’t have made any sense even if I had been able to hear him clearly.
“Well, now we have a way to get out of here when the time comes,” I told him with a pat on the back. Of course, I didn’t realize how soon we’d be wanting to leave yet.
I went back inside and Mutie followed. The smell of cooking human meat wasn’t bad, it actually smelled good, but it disgusted me and thinking that it smelled good disgusted me even more. Still, it’s not safe to sit outside. You draw attention to yourself and that’s the last thing I want. I already had more companions from the last week than I had hoped to have in the whole apocalypse. If I died, it would probably be because of them. Then I would probably be eaten, possibly by at least one of them, possibly by a child.
Ducking my head in the kitchen, I said, “Don’t you dare feed that shit to Ella.” He was already carving the other arm. “She’s a fucking child,” I added.
He said back, “She’s a child; she needs the protein more than any of us.”
I heated water to make oatmeal for breakfast, which we all ate. Cannie ate some, too, but balanced it with bits of his ex-girlfriend. Ella clearly wanted some, but I wouldn’t let her have it. I tried to explain that we don’t eat other people, that cannibalism is wrong, and she listened with the same blank stare she always has then ate her oatmeal. I found some sugar in a cupboard and added a couple spoonfuls to entice her, but the whole time she was watching Cannie eat.
By mid-day we were all done with whatever tasks we could find around the home and were bored in that restless frightened sort of way that boredom breeds after the end of the world. We were all tense already when the knock came at the door.
It was a powerful loud knock, the no-nonsense kind police officers used when there were still laws to enforce. “Open up, Slut; it’s your turn for the bacchanalia.” Mutie handed me a gun then produced one for himself before I even knew how to react. Silently, the two of us crept up to the door. Mutie risked a glace through one of the broken windows then looked at me and held up a single gnarled finger. “You know it’s just going to be worse if you fight us. You saw what happened to the last slut.” I could only imagine what horrors his little group had thought up for whatever poor woman had been the last victim.
I unlocked the door and swung it open quickly with my gun already aimed for the man’s face. He was young, probably early twenties, and had only a wisp of a beard from these last two months of being uncivilized. He wore an Iron Maiden t-shirt and ripped jeans. “Come inside,” I ordered him.
“They’re gonna kill you, you know,” he said as he stood in place.
“Think they’ll be able to do it before I pull this trigger? Come inside now.” This time he listened, and stepped inside without argument. “Sit on the couch,” him, “and keep your hands above your head.”
He did so with only minor protest. “They’re going to expect me back with the Slut any minute. When I don’t show up they’ll come looking.”
“If you shut your fucking mouth and listen,” I told him, “they might find you alive.” Now I knew I had to question him, but my mind was reeling. I had so many questions that I didn’t know how to start. I began with, “How many are in your group?”
“Maybe thirty,” he said, “maybe more. Enough to kill all of you.”
“Tell me about your bacchanalia,” I told him.
“It’s just a party,” he said, “we do it every week.”
“And I take it your party requires a slut?” He didn’t say anything. I pushed the barrel of my gun hard against his forehead while Mutie kept him in his sights from behind. “Tell me what you do with them.”
“We fuck them,” he said. “Does that answer your question? We pick a woman and fuck them.”
“And if they fight you, like the last girl?” I asked. “What happens then?” He hesitated to answer again. “Three,” I said.
“Wait, what?” he questioned back.
“Two,” I continued.
“Please don’t kill me,” he begged.
“One,” I said.
“We eat them,” he spit out. "We cook them alive and eat them.”
I pulled the trigger and the crack of the gun going off spread his brains everywhere. Looking at Cannie, I said, “Cannibalism is fucking wrong and sick.” Looking around to the other two members of our group, I said, “We need to get out of here before this group of his comes looking for him.”
Nobody answered. There wasn’t much they could say. In the apocalypse I had changed from a man who would never injure another person to one who had killed in self defense. In that moment, though, I had become a cold-blooded killer for no reasons except disgust and rage. Was I a monster? Did it even matter?
We packed the car full of our belongings and any other goods we could quickly gather after that, including a length of hose and a plastic jug so that we could later siphon more gas. Cannie also packed his store of human meat; I didn’t even protest. The car had only about an eighth of a tank of gas, so we agreed to find either more fuel or a place to make camp within a few miles.
“Wuh uh wuh guh?” Mutie asked as we hit the open road.
“I don’t know,” I said in reply, “hopefully to our new home.” I didn’t believe that, of course. Nobody did, not even the child, but they all looked up to me and I felt it was something I needed to say and that they needed to hear. Even now, lost in the trash left behind by what we thought was a civilized world, it’s the little things that count.
We stopped about thirty minutes later at a mall. The sign at the entrance read only, “Olympus;” the world “mall” had fallen and laid at the sign’s base. The structure itself was almost totally destroyed and uninhabitable, which seemed perfect. With more than half the mall collapsed on itself, it seemed unlikely that any large group would have set up here. The parking lot was littered with abandoned vehicles. Ours would blend in with all the others during the day and then we would be able to siphon all the gasoline we needed under cover of darkness. The only problem was that we had arrived in the early afternoon and had a whole day to kill before the sun set.
“We should go look around the mall,” Cannie suggested. It wasn’t safe and we had everything we needed for the moment, but it was a way to spend some time, we might find something useful, and there was still one more reason I wanted to go; when the idea was voiced, I could almost see Ella’s face light up. It was the closest I had seen her come to a smile since I’d found her.
“Alright,” I said to my small team, “we’ll go have a look, but we all stay armed and we all stay together.”
The main entry sat on the edge of the collapsed area, blocking the intended way in. We made our way along the wall a short distance and climbed some rubble to enter through an American Eagle Outfitters. There had been a fire, leaving much of the stock burned, but I was able to secure a couple outfits for Ella and the rest of us also found a couple salvagable items for ourselves. We gathered it all into a shopping car which probably had a wobbly wheel even before the world was blown to fuck.
Most of what was left throughout the rest of the temple of commerce wasn’t much good to us. A Spencer’s Gifts and a Gamestop had survived, but the novelty wasn’t worth much in the new world. Even Ella didn’t seem interested, even when I offered to let her go in and pick out anything she wanted. Then again, how could I discern interest from her blank affect even if were there? The food court was almost entirely untouched by the ruin, but much of the food was spoiled. We took a few large cans, but were at risk of taking more than we could manage, so we left most of it. There was a Victoria’s Secret which Mutie and Cannie both lingered at, but it didn’t do anything for me; I was still waiting for the return of her ghost.
As they stood observing the lingerie, Cannie asked, “Why aren’t there any ghosts here?” I had noticed, too, but I didn’t have an answer to his question. Mutie grunted, not attempting words, but showing his distaste of the abnormal lack of abnormalities.
There was only one other store worth looting, but we were all thankful for it. After two months in the untamed wilds of lost civilization, all of our shoes were worn thin. The sign reading “Shoe Show” had fallen and partially blocked the entrance to what seemed like a godsend when we found it. The obstacle was easy to overcome, and we each picked out new shoes, discarding the boxes and our old footwear in the process.
By the time we had seen the sights and taken what we wanted, hours had passed. The sun was still up but already fading. We walked back to our car together, pushing the wobbly shopping cart full of stolen goods, that is if it’s still possible to steal from a store after the fall of capitalism. We loaded everything in the trunk, using most of the space we had left, and used the dwindling light to start filling our gas tank from other nearby vehicles. It was full dark before we finished and gathered back at the car to make an attempt at sleep. I took the first watch, but there was nothing to see except my own notebook and the full moon, not even a single ghost.
We woke up with the sun the next morning to face a battalion of women armed with everything from shotguns to crossbows standing around the car. “Get out,” one of them told us, and what else was there for us to do? We stepped out of the car and one of the amazon warriors or what the fuck ever they were stabbed me in the neck with something. I remember the prick of the needle, but nothing else for a long time.
When I woke up again, I was hanging by my hands from the metal gate that locked the entrance to Hot Topic. Mutie and Cannie were there, too, hands bound to the same gate as if we were all being crucified by the ghost of corporate America. Ella was there, too, but unbound and armed with a revolver that looked comically large in her little pre-teen hands.
The warrior women were all there, too. “Good morning, sunshine,” said the one who had ordered us out of the car. “Once your freak wakes up, we can start.” Cannie was looking around frantically, looking to me for help or guidance or hope, but I had none of those things. Mutie still hung limp. I wondered if the sedative they’d used hadn’t been too much for his weakened immune system.
“MMph mmng?” I asked. I had been gagged with some length of cloth, but I had never known when to stay quiet before; why start now?
“Start what, you ask?” This time I said nothing. “Start killing you worthless pigs, that’s what.” Still I said nothing, while Cannie began to squirm and scream as much as his gag would allow.
A different woman walked up to him and thrust a semiautomatic pistol into his crotch. “If you’re quiet, you don’t have to hurt before you die.” It didn’t make him quiet, but he replaced his screams with wild sobbing and a river of tears.
“Mmmph mphmm,” I said to him with a roll of my eyes.
There was a grunt from my other side and I turned my head to see Mutie starting to rouse and look around himself. He mumbled something through his gag and I wondered if they knew they didn’t have to gag him to stop him from talking.
The woman who had forced us out of the car, who had promised to kill us, and who I took for the leader took two steps forward as Mutie struggled towards wakefulness. “Welcome to New Olympus, male scum. Unlike the Olympus from mythology, we don’t subscribe to the patriarchy here. Here, in the new world and in New Olympus, women rule. We, the Pantheon of the Chalice, rule this land and keep it clean from people like you.”
“Mmph mm mphlm pmmumpmmph, mmph mm?” I asked against the rag in my mouth.
The enforcer of testicular destruction came and thrust her gun into my balls next. I didn’t flinch. What good would they do me if I was going to die, anyway? I just looked the leader in the eye and waited. “Take his gag off,” she said, “I want to hear what he said.”
The enforcer obeyed, freeing my mouth. I said, “I just think names like New Olympus and the Pantheon of the Chalice are a little pretentious. I mean, what’s wrong with Amazons? The meaning is a lot more available to the average listener and it doesn’t make you sound like you’ve got a god complex.”
“Goddess complex,” she corrected. “We are all goddesses here. Every one of us has taken the name of different goddess. I am Athena, there’s Freya and Demeter and Venus and she’s Minerva…”
“Aren’t Athena and Minerva essentially the same deity?” I interrupted. “You’re mixing your mythologies.”
“You can put his gag back now,” Athena said to her enforcer, Freya. Freya did as she was told, then punched me in the face.
“Mmph mmp mmphm mm,” I told her. In truth, she punched like a boxer, but I tried my best to tell her she punched like a girl.
“So here’s what’s going to happen,” Athena went on. “The girl you brought with you, the poor little girl who’s suffered so much trauma with you that she can’t speak, we’re going to give her a chance to join our ranks. Every woman who came here with a man has joined the same way; it’s our tradition. In the next twenty-four hours, she’s going to make a choice. She’s either going to kill all three of you and join us, or we’re going to kill all three of you while she watches, then we’re going to kill her. We know she’s young, but she’s seen worse by now, and this will make her stronger.”
“Wmmph mm phmm!” I exclaimed. If you’re unsure, that’s gag-speak for “What the fuck!”
“Meanwhile, you’ll all hang there and beg for your lives. You’ll make it harder for her. When she finally does kill you, she’ll draw strength from the struggle you made her ordeal into. If you loved her, you’d beg her to kill you, but we all know you won’t; you’ll beg her to free you or kill us. If she’s weak, if she caves to the patriarchy, she’ll try. Then you’ll die anyway and she’ll die with you. If there are any questions, you can ask now.” She nodded to Freya who, going down the line, took off each of our gags. Then all the women walked away except Ella, who stood standing alone before us with a gun in her hand and the same blank stare she always wore these days.
Once they were all gone, I asked, “So what do we do now?”
“I was hoping you would know, Boss; you’re kind of the leader here,” Cannie said. He sounded hopeless. I wondered if I sounded the same.
“Wuh hurng huh ah huh shuh kuhs ush.”
“We hang here and hope she kills us,” I repeated aloud. It didn’t sound like the worst idea. I looked to Ella and said, “I’m so sorry I got you into this. Do what you have to and stay safe.” She said nothing but sat on the ground with the pistol in her lap, still just observing us. “Start thinking of how we’re going to get out of here,” I said to the others, “we’re not going to die like this.”
“Yes, we really are,” Cannie answered.
After that, we hung in silence for hours. We were bound low enough to stand, relieving pressure from the ties that bound our wrists, but my fingers still tingled with numbness. Hours passed in silence. We all wanted to speak, I think, but none of us had anything helpful to add. Eventually the sun went down. The mall, as it turned out, somehow still had electricity, leaving us bathed in cool flickering lights cast from odd angles, as many of the fixtures were less than a memory.
That was when she came to us. She looked young, but the creases at the corners of her eyes and the weariness in her pupils said she was in her thirties. “I’m Nemesis,” she said to us. “That’s the goddess of vengeance. I’m going to save your lives.”
“Some vengeance,” I said. “Why should we trust this deus ex machina?”
“When I came here, they made me murder my husband and my son. I didn’t give myself this name because I want vengeance against men. I’m helping you because you’re going to help me gather a tribe to retake this mall and kill every last one of these bitches.”
I thought for a moment. It didn’t sound true. Could they really convince a mother to kill her own son? Her husband I could see, but the tiny human that grew inside her body and fed on her milk? “Why did you kill them?” I finally asked.
“They were going to die either way,” she said, “I killed them so that I could get revenge against everybody involved. I’m going to kill every one of these women and then I’m going to...” She trailed off.
“I’m not a murderer,” I lied, “I don’t think I’ll be much help even if you free me.”
“Uhl kuhl ury un uh thus fuh mushuh,” Mutie added with a tone of fierce anger.
“What the fuck does that mean?” Nemesis asked.
I translated for her. “He says he’ll kill ever one of those fucks himself.” I didn’t doubt his willingness or ability.
“All three guards can see you from here. As soon as I try to let you down, they’ll kill all of us. They can’t see each other, though. I’m going to clear an exit and make a distraction, then I’ll be back.” She gave a final long look between us. “You fucks are not going to be able to help me, but I can’t let a child become a murderer.”
I didn’t tell her that I’d already seen her blow a man’s head off with a shotgun. I didn’t tell her that this innocent little girl’s favorite food was soylent green. “She’s quiet, but she’s smart. Let her help you.”
“I don’t really have a choice,” Nemesis said, “this is a pretty sensitive operation; we’ll need every ounce of help we can get.” With that, she handed the young girl a heavy pair of scissors. “As soon as you see ghosts, start cutting them free. I’ll be right back to help you.”
Ella didn’t nod or show any indication that she understood, but she took the scissors and returned her gaze to us, to me. Even a twelve year old girl should be able to cut through the thin ropes holding us. That was the hope, as long as she actually did it. Really, she might still kill each of us.
Nemesis left after that, towards the guard we could see posted directly ahead of us. The guard had, of course, seen the whole thing. Nemesis walked up to her calmly, said a few words as she gestured to us, then as the woman was distracted, tranquilized her with whatever sort of poison they’d use on us. The guard stood in silent shock for a moment, then toppled to the ground.
Then nemesis went off in another direction, ducking below the ruined arch of a Clare’s. For a moment everything was silent and there was nothing to be seen except the two remaining guards in opposite directions. I couldn’t help but doubt the plan, but I waited.
Nemesis had said something about waiting for the ghosts to appear, but how could she predict that? How could she control that? Yet somehow, she did. Only a moment later, dozens or maybe hundreds of ghosts started to flicker to life (or some semblance of) all throughout the mall. The air was thick with a hundred dead and misplaced voices, as well as those of a dozen women trying to figure out what was going on.
Ella was already cutting away at my bonds when Nemesis came back at a jog. Wielding a second pair of scissors, she began to cut free Mutie. Finally, the two worked together to free Cannie. “We could just leave that one,” I said while I waited. Nobody laughed.
Ella stopped cutting and turned to take a shot with her giant revolver. I watched a woman collapse amid the crowd if intangible shoppers. I hadn’t even seen her coming. The others would be coming, too. I made my way to the dead woman, trying not to disturb any of the ghosts we were using as cover, and took her weapon. By the time I stood, the others had all reached me and were rushing me to keep moving towards the exit. As we ran out, I saw the woman who had been guarding us once more standing at attention, this time overtop her own fallen body.
“They don’t go through your things until you’re dead,” Nemesis said, “Does that car you were in run?”
“It runs,” I assured her, hoping that it would. By the time we got to the car, shots were ringing out behind us. I returned fire with my stolen assault rifle, providing cover from most shots, but Cannie was hit in the leg. We loaded him in the car and drove off as quickly as we could, somehow avoiding any other injuries.
We’re two months deep now. Things haven’t settled down at all, but have settled into a particular brand of chaos. The human race has no more will to survive. There are enough of us that maybe we could, but I don’t think people will stop killing each other long enough to survive.
We went to Nemesis’s house. Only the downstairs was still inhabitable, but she had lived there in relative safety with her husband and son for some time before she murdered them. The house is almost an hour’s drive of open highway from the mall. It seems too open to me, too exposed, but it didn’t seem like there were many people around here to protect it from.
We slept that night in shifts, one of us always awake and watching for angry amazonians. None came, but on my shift I saw ghosts, and I knew they were her family. I wonder if she saw them, too.
Morning came uneventfully. She began the day with talking about how we were going to kill her old gang. She inventoried our weapons and bemoaned our inability to complete the task. I don’t think any of us understood how she ever expected us to take all of them out.
“They’ll come looking for us,” she explained, “and when they do, we’ll pick them off one by one.”
“They’ll come looking for us,” I rebutted, “with assault rifles and grenades. We’re all going to die.”
“Thuh buhs uh fuhn cuchuh,” Mutie put in
“He’s right,” I said.
“There are thirteen of them,” she continued, “and they’ll probably leave one at the mall, like we did the day you went there.”
“There was someone watching us?” I asked.
“Wuh kuhn kuh uh duhduh puhl,” Mutie added in his matter-of-factual way.
“I don’t think you’ve thought this plan out very well,” I said. It was true. She saw a group of people with good reason to want to kill her enemies and took a chance, but she didn’t have any idea of how she was going to make it happen.
“Then help me think it out,” she snapped back at me.
Cannie chewed a piece of person and contributed, “We really won’t be able to kill a dozen of them, but if we were at the mall when they were looking for us, we could probably kill one.” He passed a piece of meat to Ella.
“Man,” I complained, “don’t give her that shit,” but it was too late to stop anything; she was devouring it as quickly as she was given the morbid meat.
“Wait,” Nemesis said, “is that really…” Cannie blushed. Mutie grunted. I nodded. Ella chewed. “That’s fucking disgusting,” she finished.
“I’m not ready to go back there and starting killing women,” I said. “This isn’t some spaghetti western. We’re going to fucking die.”
She thought carefully. She wasn’t ready to die, either, but all she could think about was killing them. I couldn’t really relate. I didn’t hate them for our treatment; any group of new worth psychos would have done something just as dark and probably more immediately fatal. “I have to kill them,” was all she finally said.
We talked a while longer about plans to kill the Pantheon of the Chalice. For all the ideas we drafted, nothing really panned out. I asked about how she did her trick with the ghosts. She explained that there was an engineer among her old group who discovered that a certain frequency of radio waves outside of normal bandwidths disrupted them somehow. She said they had a transmitter that blocked the from appearing all around the mall. It was interesting, and told me things I didn’t know about what the ghosts were and how they worked, but didn’t ultimately help. Nothing did. There was no plan.
At the end of the day, we would all go to bed frustrated. We had not been able to come up with a good enough course of action to settle on. Nemesis could think only of murder. Cannie wanted to help, perhaps just for the meat, but was too frightened to agree to anything bold. Mutie, our group’s grizzled warrior as I think of him, contributed little. I think he feels obligated to perform a task he doesn’t want to do. I also think he’s something of a nihilist, though, so maybe he just doesn’t care.
Then there’s Ella. She didn’t say any more than she usually did, but she seemed alert today. When she ate the human meat Cannie gave her, it was with a darker hunger than I’ve seen. She was listening to everything. I think she wants to kill them, too.
When I awoke in the morning, Nemesis had pack our things back in the car with some measure of order we had lacked before. The organization made up a fair bit more free space. “Did you think of a plan?” I asked her.
“No,” she answered, “you’re all right; we’re going to die if we go against them. I just can’t stay here anymore.”
I had seen the ghosts here a few times. There was the man who paced in the living room, saying, “We’ll be safe if we just lay low; we can get everything we need right around here.” There was the little boy who snuggle against an invisible body in the recliner and said, “I love you,” his single heartwarming line on slow infinite repeat. I think I know why she wanted to leave.
“Where are we going to go?” I asked. Not that it mattered; we live in a world without goals. Only Nemesis had any plan, and it was just to murder people.
“I thought we’d go to Wal-Mart,” she said.
“Oh,” I answered, “Wal-Mart, of course.” Every Wal-Mart in the nation had probably been looted clean in the first week and would be home to violent squatters and cannibals. In short, they were virtually unchanged from the old world. She finished packing the last remnants of our things in the trunk and slammed it shut, either ignoring my sarcasm or oblivious to it. “Why Wal-Mart? You’ve gotta know there’s nothing there for us.”
“We’re not going shopping,” she said, “we’re going recruiting.”
I sighed. “Really? This vendetta of yours can only end with people dying.”
“That’s the idea,” she said.
There was no reasoning with her. “You can go if you want, but leave us out of this. We just want to settle down and live as long as we’re able.”
“That’s not going to be very long, either way,” she said. Thanks, bitch. I didn’t say it, of course.
“The car and the things in it are ours.” That was what started the fight. We argued over property and what we were going to do and where we were going to go and who we were going to kill and if any of those people would later be eaten. We agreed on cannibalism, but not much else.
The conclusion of our argument came after half an hour of bickering and waving firearms. In the old world, that would have been a little extreme, but shooting each other is part of any normal disagreement these days. We finally decided to put it to a vote. She said she knew the people who had run this Wal-Mart since before the bombs. I said we needed someplace safe to stay and eke out the rest of our lives.
If was when we were voting that I saw her. She was sitting in a chair nobody could see reading a book nobody could see. I remember, though. I remember her sitting just like that reading through the social disorder of a Chuck Palahniuk world. I remember discussion the book with her.
Cannie agreed with me. Mutie favored Nemesis. Nemesis was trying to coax Ella into a vote, but I had my eyes fixed on her ghost. She closed her book and stood up, disintegrating into the air as she did. I wanted to ask if anybody else had seen her, but I was still speechless. This was the first I’ve seen her since being back at home, and the first I’d seen her out of the home for three weeks.
Then Ella spoke up, my Ella with my Ella’s voice, and she said the same few simple words I’d heard her say a thousand times before, since she was a toddler. I’d heard it when her mother went to the store, to work, to family functions, when her mother went anywhere at all. She said, “I wanna go with mommy.”
It’s such a simple phrase. It has no significance, really. A million kids have said that a million times. I recognized her voice, though, and her intonation, and I know that she recognized the ghost. “That settles it,” Nemesis said, and for a moment, lost in my madness, I thought that she actually understood. “We’ll go to Wal-Mart tomorrow, since we wasted the whole day debating.”
I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t. I knew, looking around the room, seeing the faces as everybody took in Ella’s surprise speech, that they would think I was crazy. Being the only woman, everybody assumed Nemesis was the mommy in question. How can I say that the ghost of my daughter, who just happens to be named Ella, spoke through this little girl?
And how had it happened? Had she possessed this girl? From what I understood about ghosts, that wasn’t possible. They’re just echoes of people; they don’t even have free will to make a choice like that. The mall showed me that they had some form of energy or something that we could influence, so they don’t seem to be entirely supernatural. Something from those bombs had left the imprint of their victims in the fabric of time, like the silhouettes in pompeii or the nuclear shadows left in Japan. The ghost of my daughter was somehow imprinted on this quiet girl now, it seems. Did I do this?
I woke up this morning still upset that we were going with this ridiculous Wal-Mart idea. I was also still preoccupied with the ghosts of my wife and daughter. To get out of it, I suggested that it would be too dangerous for Ella, and that I would stay behind with her, being against the idea anyway.
Strangely enough, nobody disagreed with me. They even assured me they would come back for us, which was a courtesy I hadn’t really expected. One does not simply expect courtesies. That’s a joke from the old days of the internet; I guess it’s a little dated now.
They left a little before noon, leaving me only one gun and a pocketful of bullets, but it was more than I expected to need. I even believed that they would come back if they weren’t killed and eaten. I didn’t necessarily believe Nemesis when she promised not to be killed and eaten, but I didn’t say that in front of Ella. Then again, Ella was as likely as anybody to eat her.
We bade them farewell and were alone. I waited until the car was out of sight before I spoke to her. I didn’t want them to even see us talking. I said, “You’re Ella, aren’t you? You’re really her.”
She looked at me with eyes that were big and brown like Ella’s eyes and which shone out through locks of golden brown hair, hair that was the same color as mine at that age. She didn’t open her mouth to speak, but the look said something. Maybe there was more that I was missing. Maybe she never died.
“How did that fucking people eater get his hands on you?” I demanded too roughly.
She opened her mouth without a sound and pointed a single slender finger in. She was hungry. When she was a little girl, that was how she said she was hungry. That had been years ago, but she remembered, and so did I.
I took her hand and led her inside. Nemesis had a few cans of food, but there’s not enough to go around and the selection is slim. I picked out a can of beans and a can of peaches. By the time I got them open, I turned to find her eating a piece of dried human flesh. I didn’t even know Cannie had left it, but apparently he’d told her where to find it. He’s a piece of shit; he didn’t tell me because he knew I’d be pissed.
In my rage and disgust, I slapped the jerky from her hands. She leapt at me like some kind of feral beast and gnashed at me with her teeth, drawing blood on my arm before snatching her meat from the floor and scampering away. I ate beans and peaches alone, but saved some for her.
From behind me, I heard her voice. “How are you even eating that?” she asked me. I spun and there she was, just as she used to be when she was alive. “Isn’t it too hot?” I didn’t remember that scene. I reached out while she stood still and almost said her name, but it stuck in my throat and wouldn’t come out.
The thing is, I don’t even remember her name. I’m ashamed to say it, but I forgot her name the day she died. She was gone, away from me, closer to the city, closer to the bomb, and then she was gone forever. There’s nothing but wasteland there now, only rubble and shadows, not so much as a name. Maybe that’s why I don’t use mine, why I don’t use anybody’s. I use Ella’s, of course, but she’s not part of this new world like everybody else; she’s my Ella of the old world, the good old days.
Her ghost broke her silence with a laugh. “Stop,” she said, “Ella’s listening.” I looked to the doorway. She was right; Ella was listening. It wasn’t like that then, though. Ella had been a baby. She was sitting in her high chair. I had said something stupid like, “You’re too hot for me, but I’d eat you.” You threaten to eat a person one time and see how it impacts your children. I never expected that comment to turn her into a cannibal.
Then she was gone, the ghost vanishing into nothingness, Ella and I still staring at the space where she had been. “You saw her, didn’t you?” I asked her. “Didn’t you?” I demanded more loudly. “I’m not crazy; I know you saw her. I know you’re my baby. I know you left me but you’re back now and it’s all okay.” I hugged her close to me and cried on her shoulder. She didn’t hug me back.
When I let her go, she sat down to eat the rest of the canned foods I had opened, leaving me alone with my thoughts on ghosts. Today’s visit had been unique, but it seemed they all were. Today was just a retelling of a scene that had already happened, same as always, but every bit of it was directed at the current scene. She talked about me eating. She said Ella was watching and Ella was watching. Her ghost seemed unable to create new things, couldn’t speak sentences which she hadn’t already spoke, but she was sentient. She was still alive in some capacity and still trying to talk to me.
And what about Ella’s ghost? This girl has changed some, but isn’t she my same old Ella? Is it a ghost taking its course through her or is she just one of the ghosts that haunts the new world through life, same as I am, a survivor of the apocalypse? I really can’t tell anymore.
She finished her meal and went to sit in the armchair in the living room. She sat there like that silent for hours. I talked to her some, but she didn’t even acknowledge me. I worry about her.
I also worry, if somewhat less, about my team of misfits. As I write this, the sun is long set and they haven’t returned. I’m going to give them tonight and then tomorrow I’ll start thinking about what I need to do. I don’t think I can save them if something’s happened, but it might not be safe here anymore either.
When morning came and nobody had come back, I was a little worried. Trips to Wal-Mart always take longer than you plan, but they shouldn’t be overnight ordeals. I found a duffel bag in the house and packed it with what bare essentials I could gather then collected Ella. She was already up and had her shoes on when I came to get her.
We set off walking early in the direction the car had gone, hoping to find anything. The concern was that, if they were captured, they could tell anybody where we were. I especially didn’t trust Cannie. I don’t know if walking towards that possibility was the right choice, but if there was a way to save them, I’d have to find them first. Also, the Pantheon of the Chalice was in the other direction, and I was hoping to never interact with that group again.
For two hours we walked, seeing occasional homes but no businesses or anything of note, just an endless highway with a rare broken down car which would be of no use to us. Then, two hours into our walk, we saw it; the big blue sign of Wal-Mart, standing ever vigilant over the bleak landscape like a beacon of hope for corporate greed.
I stopped walking when I saw it and Ella stopped with me. How would we approach? Did we even need to? I needed to first make sure our people were here; otherwise, it wasn’t worth the risk. I moved forward slowly, as if there were a way to be stealthy in the middle of an open road, until I could see the parking lot.
There were quite a few cars, and I saw at least two that I thought could be the right one. I also saw one person pushing a cart around the parking lot. I assumed this person was not a friend and ducked behind an abandoned car on the highway with Ella.
“Fuck,” I said, “now what the fuck are we going to do?” I heard the cold sound of a gun being cocked and for a moment my heart froze in my chest. Looking over, I saw it was just Ella, who somehow still had the oversized revolver from our time incarcerated in the mall. “Where the hell were you hiding that?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
I gestured for her to wait, then stepped on ahead while the cart pusher’s back was to me. I ducked behind cars, slowly making my way towards him like an urban ninja. Within a few minutes, I had worked my way behind him, and moved in with my gun drawn.
“Don’t move and you won’t get hurt,” I said as aimed the weapon.
The man turned to me and said with a broad smile, “Well happy fucking birthday to me!” then did a little dance that seemed too spry for his fragile frame.
Then another voice said, “You don’t move, dumbass,” as the barrel of a gun poked into my back.
“Fuck,” I said. “Really? I’m just gonna put my gun down.”
“Good idea,” the voice replied as I did so. I turned to look at him and saw that he was actually four people in cheap makeshift combat gear. This one was holding a hunting rifle. Another had a gun aimed at Ella, who was only another five feet away and still held her revolver at the speaker.
With the smallest sigh of resignation, I said, “Put your gun down, honey. We’re really just here to talk.”
“Yeah?” the speaker asked. “Charlie over there seemed to think you were going to kill him.”
“Nah,” called old Charlie from behind me, “I knew he was a pussy.”
“I’m just worried about our friends,” I told him.
“We’re not your friends,” the guy said.
“No,” I replied, “you didn’t give that impression. They came here yesterday and the car is still here.”
“Oh,” he said, “you mean the freak show?” The small company of Wal-Mart warriors shared a laugh. “Yeah, they said you might come looking. They’re inside.”
“You mean, that’s it?” I asked.
“Yeah, we saw you coming way down the road,” he said. “We figured you were the only man and young girl who’d wander into our parking lot. We watched you stalk Charlie and everything, it was great.” The others all shared a laugh.
“You fucking assholes,” I said, and they laughed again. I picked up my gun and they led us inside. The aisles were dark and barely stocked on the grocery side of the store. I did see some Big Red gum by the registers I thought I might like to pick up on my way out, but there was little else of interest.
This included ghosts. Like our experience at the mall, this Wal-Mart seemed strangely devoid of the apparitions that seem to haunt almost every other imaginable place in the world. That didn’t seem like a coincidence.
“Our general manager will meet with you in the ad office,” the leader said.
“Wait,” I said, stopping mid-step, “you all follow...your general manager?”
The man I had been speaking to took off his hockey mask to look at me more directly. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I never even introduced myself. I’m Albert, and I’m the supervisor of Cap Two.”
“Cap Two?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “We unload the trucks, stock the shelves, and take care of parking lot security.”
“Great,” I said, “Nice to meet you, Albert.”
He went on, “I’ve worked here eight years. I started as a cart pusher, then moved in to Cap Two, and now I’m a supervisor. Elizabeth, our GM, has been with me every step of the way. She’s helped me grow. She’s a great manager.”
His explanation had not solved any of the problems I had with the idea of grouping around Wal-Mart’s general manager. I’d worked in places like Wal-Mart and there wasn’t a chance in hell that I’d follow any of that management after the end of the world. “Is all your management that good?” I asked, mostly as a joke.
“No,” he said as he gestured for me to keep walking, “we killed all the rest of the management. They only wanted to use and exploit us.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m glad you took care of them, then.” I considered how lucky Ella was to not have a voice to contribute to this shit show of a conversation.
They led us through swinging double doors into the back, through lines of steel shelves, to the office, which was a tiny room with a computer in the corner and a second door to a second even tinier room with a second matching computer.
Elizabeth was a slightly overweight woman with short hair and glasses. She looked like a Wal-Mart manager. Rather than waste time with greetings, she said, “If you had walked in here with those guns drawn, our plain-clothes security would have dropped you without batting an eye.”
“That’s good,” I said, “sounds like you have some great security between Cap Two and Loss Prevention.”
“We do,” she said, “and we’re done with your friend. You really came out here for nothing. I’ll have her meet you up front.”
I said, “There were three of them.”
She gave the shitty sort of smile that said she was waiting for me to ask about them and said, “We’ve decided to hire them as temps for the deli.”
You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what that meant. “You’re going to eat them?” I asked. I wasn’t even surprised. It was just Elizabeth and Albert in the room with us, and they were cocky. I have to wonder how they made it as long as they did being so careless. I still had my gun gripped in my hand. Albert’s rifle would be hard to use this close and wasn’t aimed at us. In fact, he was just picking his nose. Elizabeth had a pistol on the table behind her, but she would have to turn completely around to get it.
“I wouldn’t say it’s fair to say we’re going to,” she said. “We’ve already started.” I lifted my hand and squeezed the trigger. The bullet hit Albert just to left of his nose and he dropped. I was turning back to Elizabeth when a second shot broke through the ringing of my ears. By the time I had turned back to the manager, she was dead. Ella had shot her in the heart the very moment I made my move.
How can even a world like the one we live in bring out such cruelty in a child? I know she’s seen and experienced a lot, but what exactly has it done to her? Of our whole group, this innocent little girl should not be the most lethal and cold. She didn’t look sad at all, but I felt very sad for her.
“I was going to keep her alive,” I told her, but there was no fixing that now. “There are three more members of Cap Two to deal with and we don’t know who else works here.” She looked at me with understanding and for just a moment I thought she was going to speak, but a knock at the door interrupted us.
“Uh...yes?” I answered, mildly panicked and unsure what to say.
“Um...it’s Karl,” came the response, “from Cap Two...is everything alright?”
What the hell was I going to say to that? If anybody but Albert or Elizabeth answered, they’d know the truth. I lied anyway. I said, “Everything is fine in here. Please go away.”
Karl called but, “Well...um...are they dead?”
“...no?” I managed to answer.
“It’s just Cap Two out here,” he called back, “and we hate both of them. Open the door and we’ll help you get out of here.”
“Wait,” I said, “really?”
He said that he was serious. I knew it was a gamble, but if I didn’t open the door, I knew they would, sooner or later. They were true to their word, though, and showed Ella and I to Cannie and Mutie. They both expressed gratitude in their own ways, simple gestures and nods, but neither seemed up for much conversation. Mutie had been badly beaten and looked like he could barely see out of one eye. Cannie’s face was in much better shape, but he had been robbed of his left arm at the shoulder. I told him, “at least it was your left,” but he didn’t smile. You’ve got to smile at every opportunity in this world.
Nemesis was waiting for us at the front of the store. She explained she had put together a device similar to the one used in the mall in exchange for help eliminating her enemies. She seemed to have gotten through everything unscathed and had the car keys ready.
I asked Karl, “What are you going to do now that the last member of management is dead?”
He said, “Eat her,” and all three Cap Two members laughed. “Seriously, though, we pretty much own this place with those two gone. We’re going to enjoy doing whatever we want.”
“Our plan for the mall is still on, though?” Nemesis asked him.
“I didn’t make that plan,” he answered, “and I didn’t agree to it, and I don’t like it. You did make that machine for us, so we’ll put together what you need, but I don’t want to be part of that extermination. You can have the rest of your payment back and you can come back later for the goods.”
“Fuck my life,” she said. “Fine. I’ll be back in two days.”
“See you then,” Karl said, and that was the end of the adventure. We drove back home and started licking our wounds, whether physical or psychological, we all had some. It was a tense and quiet drive. I didn’t want to ask what happened back at the store. I didn’t want to know. Even not knowing, it’s obvious that our dynamic has changed.
Nemesis came to me in the night. She slipped beneath the covers and when I said, “What are you doing?” she shushed me with her mouth to mine. She is all soft and supple curves, gentle lines, and primal grace. I hadn’t failed to see how attractive she was with her body and poise and confidence, but I had mostly written it off. Last night, when she came for me, it was all readily apparent.
It’s been months since I’ve touched another person like that. Not long, in the grand scheme of things, but long enough to forget exactly what I was missing. No, it’s not even that; it’s like I never knew. I’d only had sex back then, when things were easy. Nobody tried to eat you then. Nobody tried to shoot you. It was comparably easy to have sex and, given the comforts of modern life, easy to get involved in good sex. With Nemesis, we were two animals wrestling in the wilderness.
I don’t want to go on about it long, but we experienced something deeper than traditional sex. I could feel it in the ways she quivered and clawed at me and in the way she bit me like she was going to eat me alive and in the way I wanted her to; I wanted her to consume me. Then we were finished, both spent, and she got up to leave.
“Stay,” I offered.
“No,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
She said, “We’re going to have trouble. I wanted to fuck somebody before that happened.”
I asked her to elaborate and she bade me go back to sleep. I didn’t have the energy to argue. It was finally Cannie who came to me to explain, waking me up again an hour before dawn.
He said, “Boss, you gotta get up. We caught Nems trying to leave; she’s been trying to get rid of us all along.”
“Nems, huh?” I said. “She got us out of there; why would she want us gone?”
Cannie’s eyes were welling with tears, but he kept his voice steady. “She sold us to cannibals and was going to take everything. Mutie was sleeping in the back of the car and caught her trying to take everything just a minute ago. We were just her ticket out of there.”
“She sold you?” I asked. “Like slaves?”
“Slaves don’t get eaten,” He answered. “It was part of her deal to take down the amazons. She said she’d build them a thing to keep the ghosts out and give them the two of us. Mutie tried to fight and they beat the shit out of him. I didn’t fight and they...they took…” He broke down in sobs.
“That is pretty fucked up,” I admitted. Cannie cried harder. “Alright, I’ll talk to her.” With that, I got up out of bed and put my clothes on. He led me out to the living room. Nemesis was there, arms tied behind a kitchen chair. Mutie was there, too, with a gun leveled at her.
Mutie gestured with his weapon and said, “Duhs bumph wuh kuh ush!”
“Damn it,” I said, “put that thing away. She’s tied to a fucking chair; it’s not like she’s going anywhere.” I sighed and pressed my face into my palms before saying, “What the fuck. Why would you do that? Why would you do that and not just offer to make the damn machine? Isn’t that enough? You’re a fucking sociopath!”
“They won’t do anything without a human sacrifice,” she said, “that Wal-Mart is like the fucking devil.”
“And so your first thought,” I spat back, “was to waltz over there and make a deal?”
“That’s why I wanted you and Ella to stay behind,” she went on. “I was trying to keep you safe.”
“Right,” I said, “you wanted to keep my safe while my friends were being eaten.”
“Kuh uh juh shmm huh?” Mutie asked.
“No, damn it, Mutie,” I yelled, “you cannot just shoot her!”
“Wuh nmph?” he asked back.
“Why not?” Cannie echoed.
I said, “Because we don’t just go around killing other people.”
“Yes we do,” they said in their own ways.
“Alright,” I conceded, “fine, we do sometimes kill people. Really bad people, and I know she qualifies, but we don’t just kill people in cold blood like this.”
“Uh duh,” Mutie offered, but Cannie didn’t have him on the cosign this time.
“I was only trying to leave so you didn’t kill me,” Nemesis half-pleaded. She didn’t sound very enthusiastic about begging for her life, but who would in a world like this? I imagine Cannie probably begged; he’s still alive, but I doubted it was compassion from his captors that saved him.
“Can we please just be in this together?” I asked. “No more trying to kill or escape from each other? Can’t we just get along?”
“Yuh bmmph cuh ush guh geh umph kuhmp,” Mutie said with resignation as he holstered his weapon in his belt.
“Come on,” I said, “let’s just untie her, and please don’t talk about her that way.”
“Thanks, sugar,” she said to me, coy and mischevious.
I was taken aback a little. “Really?” I demanded. “You can’t just be grateful to not be dead without making things weird?” I wondered if Cannie and Mutie knew. Mutie was outside in the car apparently but seemed to have some insight. Cannie was fairly dense in some ways, but I suspected that he must have known, too.
In a moment she was free and we were all still gathered in tense silence. Mutie stood with his arms crossed while Cannie sat in the recliner. Although her bonds had been released, Nemesis still sat in her kitchen chair.
“So,” I began, shattering the silence, “what exactly did you sell our friends for?”
“One of the Cap team nerds made an EMP bomb out of shit from around Wal-Mart,” she said.
“That’s actually pretty impressive,” I replied, “but what are we going to do with it?”
“I guess you can get anything at Wal-Mart,” she said, then settled back to begin the explanation of her plan. “The whole mall runs on solar power. They keep the outside cameras and lights on for security, but shut everything off at night to save power, since only some of the panels still work. That’s when I’m going to sneak in. I’ve been on security detail and I know where the blind spots are. Once I’m in, I’ll set off the EMP. Then you guys come in with night vision, also courtesy of Wal-Mart, and we start killing everybody. It’ll be easy.”
I nodded, scratched my chin and said, “That sounds like something likely to get us killed. Have you asked the others if they’re ready to do this with you?”
“Please,” she finally said, “it’s the only way I can think of get rid of them. We’ll be invisible. It’ll work and then we can have the whole mall to ourselves.”
Owning a shopping mall did sound appealing, even more now that I didn’t have to worry about the ever-present fist of capitalism waiting to crush me. On the other hand, I didn’t really want to kill those women; I sort of liked their “kill the patriarchy” approach to the apocalypse. Nemesis licked her upper lip as she waited for my response. “What do you guys think?” I asked my friends.
“Fuck her,” Cannie said.
“Fmph huh rugh eh duh ahh,” Mutie agreed.
She smiled. I did not. I said, “You’re literally insane. We’re not doing that.”
“What can I say to change your mind?” she asked. “What can I do?” She placed a hand on her inner thigh. Nobody missed the gesture. Everybody wanted to try her out. I wanted her the most.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but we’re not going.” The other two agreed.
There was a long pause. I’m not sure if she did it because what she had to say was so emotionally difficult or if she was just building dramatic tension. She finally spat out, “My son’s still alive.”
None of us spoke for another long moment. Cannie broke the silence. “We’ve all seen his ghost,” he said. We had, and everybody knew what that meant, but what about my daughter’s ghost, which I’ve seen inhabit a living body? I wondered if maybe it was possible, but I couldn’t voice my thoughts on the matter. I couldn’t say anything.
She said, “I’ve seen the ghost, too. I know what it looks like. The Pantheon kills men, but keeps boys secluded, raises them to be docile. I saw him alive the day we left the mall.”
“Hmph phump uh fugh duh nugh,” Mutie offered.
“What?” Nemesis asked.
I said, “He thinks they probably would have killed your son when you escaped.” I thought so. Cannie probably thought so. “Nobody saw his ghost until we were well gone from there.”
“No,” she said, “they wouldn’t do that. They’d keep him alive to lure me back and use that to teach him a lesson.”
“Then it’s working, isn’t it?” I said. “It’s only been a few days since they chased us out; they’ll be expecting us back.” I didn’t appreciate being told that we were walking into a trap.
“When they stop expecting me back,” she said, “they’ll stop needing him alive.”
“Fuck it,” Cannie said, “I’d do it for Ella.”
I said, “I guess you convinced them. We can’t take Ella, though, and we can’t leave her alone.” I was honestly hoping they would just let us stay home without them again. I didn’t even care if they came back this time, honestly.
Then there was her ghost again, just the briefest wave of her in coat and hat and gloves passing by on here way out. As she vanished, Ella’s voice came from the doorway, saying, “I wanna go with mommy.”
The other’s agreed she should go. I didn’t see any logic in that at all, but even so, I could hardly argue with whatever the fuck it was that had just happened. The sun was up by this point and our day had officially started. We spent most of the rest of it just killing time, maliciously cutting it down minute by minute. We saw the ghosts of Nemesis’s husband and son and we all wondered if she was telling us the truth, but it didn’t come up again all day.
Finally the sun started to settle again. Everybody was tense except for Ella, who might not even have a concept of what we’re going to do. We’re now twenty-four hours from our mall assault. Tomorrow we’ll go get our gear, get acquainted with it, and then we’ll go get our hands dirty. We’re out of time to rest, if that time even exists anymore.
To begin with, I want to say that I was informed that I had numbered my days wrong when Cannie recited the date from his digital wrist watch. I mentioned again how lucky he was that they took the left one, saying that he would have also lost his watch. He told me that he had recovered it from the left arm after it had been severed. I didn’t ask how he went about doing that or why he liked the watch so much. I’m more concerned that I lost track to two entire days. I regret not journaling all along.
I was the first to rise today for a change. I kept waking in the night, expecting to be assaulted in some way, whether with sex or information or weapons or teeth. I guess it’s not fair to call the sex assault, though; I was hoping for it. She didn’t come, however, and neither did I. Fuck, I know that was horrible. The point is that I wanted her company just as much as I definitely did not want anybody else to disturb me while I was sleeping. Nobody disturbed me, and I still didn’t manage to sleep. When dawn broke, I stopped trying.
I started by loading all of our weapons. Most were already loaded, so the task was easy. Mutie had his own guns, but I wasn’t really worried about him; despite his condition, even being recently beaten, he seems very capable. It will be harder to equip Cannie, I figured, with his single arm. He could only use small guns effectively now and wouldn’t be much use in close quarters. In the end, he took care of his own gear, and I didn’t ask any questions. Personally, I fished out the samurai sword I had looted a couple weeks ago for melee combat. Nemesis would or already had planned her own loadout, leaving only Ella to equip. She’s frighteningly competent with that hand cannon she’s been packing around, but is that enough?
My thought process: With that revolver, she had six shots. Her job would be simply to hide in the car. If everything went well, she wouldn’t have to fire any. If more than a couple of them got past us, we were probably all dead, anyway. I set an extra pistol aside for her, just to be on the safe side, and selected my firearms. I picked out two similar pistols and the shotgun. Why? Because I live in the fucking apocalypse, where you can be anything you want, and I wanted to be a gunslinging samurai. Of course, that didn’t work so well for the last guy.
Ella was the first one to join me. By that point, I was mostly just playing with the sword. I had used it to cut a length of paracord to make a strap for the shotgun, but now I was just slicing at an imaginary foe. I said, “Good morning,” to her and kept slicing at nobody.
Nemesis was the next one out. She said that I looked like a fucking idiot. I said that she was a fucking bitch and sheathed the sword. Mutie and Cannie came out together shortly after. Then, just as easy as that, we were all ready to go back to local cannibal-owned Wal-Mart. It was early still, maybe eight or so, but we were all ready for action; Mutie had a backpack full of guns, while Cannie had a pistol tucked in his belt and Ella, I just assumed she always had that killer. Nemesis, the bitch, had no weapons and seemed cocky and confident. We all looked at her, wondering at what part of the plan made her untouchable, and she responded with, “What?” She said, “Cap-Two won’t even wake up until almost noon.” I didn’t tell her what I thought of her that time, just walked around to the other side of the house to keep swinging my sword in peace. That’s how I spent the next three hours or so: Idly playing with tools made to kill people, not knowing or caring what the rest of them were doing, until it was finally time to go.
We left for Wal-Mart a little bit before noon. There wasn’t any conversation or banter about it; we just all gathered back at the car around the same time and left without any great ceremony. Nemesis drove while I sat in the passenger seat. “Do you really think this will work?” I asked as we settled in.
“Sure,” she answered, then pulled away with all of us and all of our things. That was all the conversation we shared on the drive over, too. It seemed like none of us were very confident in this plan. I wondered briefly why the fuck we had agreed to it, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering. Then again, Mutie didn’t seem to fear death, Ella never seemed to care, and then there was Cannie; what is his motivation? Not in this specifically, but what is his motivation to stay alive?
Nemesis isn’t quite like any of them. Life and death are irrelevant to her. If her son is actually alive, I doubt she ever cares much about him. She only wants blood, and she can’t be sated by anything less than all of it. I could see it in the dead stare of her eyes on the road and feel it in the way she fucked me, always just on the brink of killing me.
We arrived at the Wal-Mart without any further incident and parked in a handicap space near the grocery side doors. We got out and walked towards those doors, and I was surprised to see Karl step out to greet us. “I was expecting you to be here hours ago,” he said once we were close enough to talk, “is everything okay?”
“We’re fine,” Nemesis said, as cold and dry as ever. Except she wasn’t cold and dry when she was with me…
“Well, my arm still hasn’t grown back,” Cannie chimed in, “but she’s fine.” I was a little shocked to hear him speak out with such open aggression. Karl only laughed it off.
Nemesis broke down the pleasantries and said, “Do you have what we agreed on?”
Karl gestured and another member of his team came out carrying what appeared to be a desktop computer tower. He said, “This is the EMP. Hoppes made it himself, and he knows his shit, so it’ll work. Press the button to turn in on. It’ll take about a minute to boot. When it fires, it’ll knock every electrical device off within five hundred feet or so. Your gear will have to reboot, too, but they’ll need somebody to manually turn the breaker switches back on, buying you some time.”
Hoppes set the PC down and went back inside, emerging later with a shopping cart full of plastic helmets. “These don’t look like much,” Karl said, “and they’re from the toys department, but they’ve got decent night vision and can record if you have an SD card. Those cost extra if you want them.”
I said, “I think we can manage without.” I didn’t want to see that one time, much less immortalize it in video.
Karl said, “Fair enough,” and showed us how to turn them on and off, explained what we’d have to do once the EMP went off, and sent us on our way.
I said, “Is that it? This deal doesn’t come with fancy combat training or heavy weapons?”
Hoppes said, “Have you ever played video games?”
I wasn’t sure quite what to say; nobody was playing any video games now. I settled on, “Well, it’s been a couple months.”
He replied, “Good, then you have as much combat experience as any of us,” then walked back inside.
Karl said, “He’s right; the best any of us can do is pretend we’re playing Call of Duty and try not to die.”
I agreed that his assessment of our relative abilities was probably correct and thanked him. Nemesis thanked him also. Cannie did not thank him. Mutie, I noticed, was missing. Looking back, I saw him sitting in the back seat of the car with Ella. Had he even gotten out? I wasn’t too sure of that or much of anything. We headed back to the house together in renewed silence. I, for one, am fairly confident this will be my last entry and my last day living. Maybe we’ve all just resigned ourselves to that.
We spent hours at home just whittling away the time, one flake of seconds at time. I don’t know if anybody said anything all night until the sun started to set. Nemesis gathered us together and gave the breakdown of the plan: “I’ll go in first. There are three entrances. As soon as the lights go out, each of you moves in through a different route and takes out any woman you see.” That was the whole plan. I think we are all resigned to dying, and we leave for that fate any minute now. Why are we doing this again? Then again, why not?
We went to the mall late last night, expecting to die. Now here I am in another day, and I don’t feel much better than if I had. The moon was waning, a narrow sliver. I suggested we wait a couple days for the new moon, but Nemesis wouldn’t have it. When we got there, she told us how to find the three ways women were going to use to escape, and directed us on how to get as close as possible without cameras seeing. Then she unloaded the EMP device we had picked up at Wal-Mart and began a wide loop through the parking lot.
With the night vision on, I could see her as a bright gray ghost. What was stranger was that I could also see the ghosts that normally haunt this place as vaguely humanoid wisps of vapor. “You can see the ghosts,” I commented to myself; the others had already moved into position. I moved away to my own position, stopping my watch of Nemesis.
We waited for what seemed like a long time for anything to happen. I was nervous she’d been caught and that we were all next, but there wasn’t any alarm or attack or the sound of shots being fired, so I waited. Eventually the lights went out and I rebooted my night vision. With the interference knocked out, all of the ghosts were as clear as people now; it would be hard to pick out the real ones.
I rushed it, just as I suspect my comrades were doing, and shot the first armed person I saw at the door. I stepped in and quickly to the side to get out of the slim moonlight. I saw two more running through, dispelling ghosts as they went. I put two bullets in each of them and watched them fall.
Then I saw her. Even from a fair distance with my vision altered, I could pick her out of a crowd. It was the way she carried herself; not just with confidence, but a certain poise that put her apart from everybody else. She was the image of my beauty; how could I mistake her for anybody else? Then, as quickly as she’d appeared, her ghost was gone in the mob of shadows and shadow people.
I heard footsteps coming from behind me and turned just in time to shoot another blinded woman in the head. I waited for several minutes, hearing the occasional weapon fire in the distance, but soon that wound down to silence and there was only me and an army of ghosts in a darkened mall.
Then the lights turned on and those ghosts disappeared and I was left with only corpses. I ran outside as soon as everything seemed to be over and to the car. Ella was still sitting patiently there. Two of the windows had been shattered by bullet fire and one dead woman lay beside the car. I looked in, checked around, and asked, “Are you okay?”
She said, “I wanna go with mommy.”
I said, “Did you see her, too?”
She said, “I wanna go with mommy.”
“So do I,” I told her, “but she’s gone. We’ll still see her sometimes, but mommy is dead.” I opened the door, brushed glass out of the seat, and sat down next to her for a few minutes of silence while the team regrouped.
Eventually, they came back to the car. Nemesis was bleeding pretty badly on the side of her head and Cannie was still missing an arm, but they seemed otherwise unhurt. “We thought you were dead,” Cannie said, “We couldn’t find you anywhere.”
“I had to come check on Ella,” I told them. “She’s okay; only one made it to her and Ella killed her.”
“Good,” Cannie said. “That’s my girl.” I think I might have involuntarily growled at him over possession of his child. He didn’t seem to notice.
I said, “What happened in there?”
“I lost part of my ear,” Nemesis said, “but everything went great otherwise. They’re all dead; I counted.”
I asked, “What happened with the ear?”
“I was caught,” she said, “as I was activating the EMP. She was going to kill me, but the lights went out and Demeter isn’t the greatest aim.” She sighed, “I’m fine now. Let’s go get rid of the bodies.”
“What about your son?” Cannie asked her.
“He’s dead,” she said, “I shot him to save my own life. Sorry I lied to you.”
“You fucking bitch,” was all that came out in discernable words. The rest was all angry grunts and shouts. When he finished, we put the matter aside started discussing how to spend the evening. In the new world, lies and murder aren’t the worse offenses possible.
Nemesis wanted to begin cleanup immediately, but it was already midnight; I argued that we should go find a place to sleep for the night, either back at her house or in the mall or who gives a fuck where, and that we could start cleaning up the following morning. I was relieved when everybody else agreed with me; even Nemesis didn’t put up a fight.
We all took our beds in different places; the mall was a lot of space for the five of us. I picked a ruined Bath and Body Works; the ceiling was partially broken away, giving me room to see the sky and the moon and stars.
Nemesis came to me again last night. I wanted her to and I expected her to. She had experienced a lot today and would need more. I knew, because I needed more. Last time we had sampled each other and what love making was like in the new world; this time we explored every facet of each other.
We fucked for hours, violent hard sex that was so much more tender than I knew sex could be. It was just sex, and I’m not one to confuse that with love, but I could see her being a person I might start to love, despite my best interests and efforts.
She came for me again and again until I came for her. She used me like I was nothing but an object and I loved it. I violated her for it. I hurt her for it. I took all she was able to give for it. Then it was over, just like sex is always over at some point, and she left me with a kiss. I savored that kiss on my mouth until I fell asleep.
The 67th day actually started after all that, after the murder and the chaos and the sex, after her ghost. Today started early for all of us. Nobody could sleep well in such a foreign environment surrounded by the bodies of so many people, all of whom had wanted us dead. Even without the sex, the experience of spending the night here would have been surreal.
Once we were all awake, we still didn’t do much for some time. There was a lot of stretching and yawning and walking around the mall before we got to our first order of business: disposing of the bodies of our victims. After some chat on the topic, we decided to burn them. Our only other options seemed to be finding a place to bury them or finding a place to dump them.
“We could probably trade them to the cannibals at that Wal-Mart for some good shit,” Nemesis offered.
If occurred to me that Cannie and Ella had been absent most of the morning. I said, “We do not support cannibalism.”
She said, “Fuck your moral high ground; even the fucking kid eats people.”
She wasn’t wrong. Ella still wasn’t with us; she was probably eating a person at that very moment. I couldn’t think about it. I said, “We’re burning them,” and let that be the end of it. I was thankful when she didn’t argue, if only because she didn’t care. Mutie just threw his hands up. Cannie knew better than to contribute on the topic.
We started by building a funeral pyre from the bones of corporate America. The ruined stores gave us plenty of wood and other combustibles. We gathered up load after load of detritus, enough to pile a dozen dead women on, dragging it all out to a vacant stretch of parking lot. We heaped everything into one pile, rubble and bodies and anything flammable and unwanted, then doused the whole of it with gasoline. When we lit the pyre, the fire spread over all of it in an instant and rose high into a blaze that burned all through the night.
As it turns out, burning the bodies was not the greatest idea. We would have been better off taking them away and dumping them for the scavengers, both animal and human. Instead, we lit a beacon with a huge column of smoke pointing at it for the whole world to see. I’m still not sure how much of the whole world did see it.
At least one small group did see it, and arrived bright and early to check out the source. We had all stayed up late, despite our labors through the day, watching the bodies burn and talking of easier times. Cannie talked about life before the bombs with his daughter who had since become Ella. Nemesis talked about life with her husband and son since the bombs, but before she killed them. Mutie talked a lot and for a long time, but even I couldn’t understand him. It was almost dawn when we all went off to seek sleep, and not much later when I awoke to the first gunshot.
I awoke instantly and moved to look while staying low. I was hidden from view where I was sleeping in the Bath and Body Works and intended to stay invisible. From my vantage, I could see three people. One man was dead and missing a chunk of his head. A woman stood near him in shocked silence. The third was Mutie, who was not terribly well hidden in a rack of clothes perhaps thirty feet away from the strangers.
The woman cried out a belated expletive and ducked behind a plastic trash can. I could see her face from where I was, but she hadn’t noticed me. I looked around, not seeing anyone else, and called, “Throw me your weapons and walk out of here.” She turned to see me and fired off a quick shot. I ducked back out of view before the shot fired, and it went wide, but my heart pounded in my chest. Then I heard two more shots.
I was terrified to peek my head out again, but I knew what had happened and I had to see it. Looking around the corner of the wall, I could see the woman behind her trash can now lying dead, streaks of blood running down the waste basket. Mutie had fired two shots into it and they had gone through, killing her.
Despite my trepidation, after another look around, I stepped out into the open space. My heart was pounding so hard and so fast that I needed to act; I felt like I had to do something or the organ was likely to explode. Everything was clear and our enemies were dead. Mutie came out of hiding, too.
I heard fast footsteps from behind us and turned to see Nemesis. I told her, “It’s okay, killed the assailants.” It occurred to me that I didn’t even have a gun. I picked up the woman’s.
Nemesis said, “You didn’t kill any assailants, asshole; you killed ambassadors.”
“What?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“We’re fucking surrounded, you prick.” Her face had gone red and her voice was shrill. “There are twenty armed men out there waiting for these two to tell them if they should kill us or not.”
“Fuck,” I said. “We’ve got enough ammo to kill twenty people.”
“Fuck you,” she said. “They’ve got enough ammo to kill five.”
Mutie said, “Euh hah hungh guhnas.”
Nemesis said, “Cannie is watching the cameras, he’s going to let us know what happens, but right now they’re all at the south entrance.” I didn’t know which one that was.
I said, “Great, but…” The pause was just for dramatic effect. “Do you even listen to him?” The rhetorical question was also for dramatic effect; I knew the truth of the matter.
“I can’t even fucking understand him,” she said, annoyed that I brought it up at all.
I said, “Say it again, Mutie.”
He did: “Euh hah hungh guhnas.”
She said, “So what?”
I proudly translated, “He has hand grenades.”
“Oh,” Nemesis replied to the new information, “That does level the field a little.”
I said, “Let’s not try to use them. Maybe they’ll just leave.”
“Fat chance,” she said. I went with Nemesis back to the security room to see the cameras while Mutie went to guard whichever entrance was the South one.
I had to count between a couple screens to get them all, but after some looking I decided there were 18 armed men and women waiting at the door. They were all just sitting around in cars, on bikes, even on folding chairs. They were waiting to hear back from their scouts and they probably had a certain amount of time they were going to wait. We could put up a strong defence, probably kill quite a few of them, but we couldn’t stop them if they wanted to come in. With the two scouts, that made exactly twenty people. What if the whole group was only a scouting team? What if there were hundreds, maybe even thousands more, all gathered up waiting to hear from these twenty?
I said to the group, “We have to surrender?”
“They’ll just kill us,” Nemesis said.
“Or eat us,” Cannie contributed.
I told them, “We can’t stop them all. We need a plan.”
“We should have never burned those bodies,” Nemesis complained. “Even dead, they’re still trying to kill us.”
“Maybe,” I suggested, “we could try talking to them?”
“Oh, good idea,” Nemesis mocked. “Maybe their mothers just didn’t love them enough and all they need are hugs.”
Looking on the camera, I could see all of them patiently waiting, nobody so much as moving except for one person who stood. He was bald but compensated with a bushy white beard. He stood topless, waving a white t-shirt of a stick; waving a white flag for me to see.
I said, “I’m going to go talk to them,” and walked out of the room. Neither Cannie nor Nemesis said a word as I left. Ella was also quiet. I walked up to where Mutie was stationed, which happened to be the broken wall we’d first entered through, and told him my plan. I said, “I’m going to go talk to them and find out what they want. I’m going to try to get them to leave. Stay hidden, don’t shoot unless we’re getting shot at, and don’t do anything that’ll get you killed.”
I handed mutie the dead woman’s handgun and clambered through the hole by American Eagle. I exited into the sunlight unarmed and with my hands held high.
The bearded man lowered his flag and walked up to me. He said, “We’re missing two people. They went into your mall and haven’t come back.”
I didn’t know what to say, lies and truth both seemed dangerous, so I opted for a mostly truth. “There was a conflict and they were killed. I’m sorry. What do you want here?”
“I’m really sorry to hear that they’ve died,” the man said. “They were both good people. We’d like to take the bodies back, please.”
“You can have them, but tell me what you want.”
He said, “Of course,” and held out a hand for me to shake. Being somewhat outgunned in the situation, I thought it best to shake his hand. He said, “I’m Robert, and it’s a pleasure to meet you…?” He left the sentence open for me to answer with my name.
“Nice to meet you, Robert,” I said.
It wasn’t a slight against him, but he probably took it that way. Still, he didn’t react negatively. He said, “We’re here from Haven. We saw the smoke of a fire and thought maybe there were people we could take in. We’re peaceful; there no weapons inside the city and although there are some anthropophagi with us, but they only eat the dead. If you were to join us and we could get supplies from your mall,we could form a symbiotic bond.”
I said, “We’ll bring your dead to this entrance. Please leave with them.” I turned my back on them and went back inside, trying my best to not look like I was on the verge of pissing myself with fear.
As I was going, he said, “We’re east on the highway until you get to exit 42. It’s just a few miles from here, close enough to walk.” I ducked behind cover and leaned my head against a wall. I was sweating and shaking, but I hadn’t gotten myself killed. Mutie handed me back my gun. I exhaled, inhaled, exhaled again, and I was ready to go. I made my way back to the security office to explain exactly what had been spoken between us and discuss how to go forward.
I was still not confident that they weren’t going to kill us. Nemesis and Cannie seemed to share that sentiment. Ella didn’t seem to care. Regardless, we all mutually agreed that we would have to give them back their dead, so went about moving them. The floors had probably looked terrifying from our last massacre; these two probably expected exactly what they got. Now the next people to come in will be greeted with an even more gruesome scene thanks to these scouts.
I dragged the woman’s body, while Cannie and Nemesis worked together to drag the man. We took them to the hole in the wall near what had once been an official entryway and dropped them just inside, out of view from our non-combative attackers. Cannie and Nemesis were unwilling to expose themselves to deliver the bodies, and I didn’t think I could get them over the rubble alone, but with Mutie’s help we got them both out with only a modicum of hassle.
Mutie said, “Euh dunh nuh wuh duh fuh duyh wuh doh eh thmg.”
I said, “He says sorry,” and turned to go back inside.
As I was walking in, Robert called out behind me, “We’re just a few miles away if you want to stop by. East on the highway to exit 42. It’s hard to miss.”
Mutie stayed to guard the entrance while the rest of us rejoined Ella in the security office, but we all saw the same thing; without any other argument, murder, or looting, the group collected their dead and started leaving as a single caravan.
Cannie said, “They were just scouts. They said there was a larger group. They’re trying to get us to let our guard down so they can kill us and take everything.”
Nemesis said, “Probably.”
I said, “Probably.” We were all probably right. A group that size takes what they want. Maybe they haven’t taken anything yet, but it’s only because they don’t want to lose more people than they have to. Once they eat the two we killed, they’ll be back to eat us. I added, “They probably weren’t the only ones to see that smoke, either. They said they were miles from here; that means our fire was visible to everybody within miles.”
“Shit,” Nemesis said.
“Shit,” Cannie echoed.
I said, “How is any of this only just now occurring to you? We can’t stay here.”
“And where do you think we should go?” Nemesis asked.
Ella said, “I wanna go with mommy.” It was becoming something of a catch phrase for her. Cannie and Nemesis looked at her when she spoke, both caught by surprise at her words, and she looked back at them. I was more concerned with the screen she’d been looking at when she spoke. The monitors were behind the others, but Ella saw her, and so did I, if only for a moment. I only saw her for a moment, but it was clearly her, or clearly her ghost, walking through one camera’s field of vision. I saw the Bath and Body Works behind her. I knew where she was.
While the other two were still focused on the little mute girl who had mysteriously spoken, I turned and bolted through the door, letting it slam against the wall as I threw it open. I made a mad dash for what had become my room in this obscure home. I got there and there was nobody, but I kept going, looking everywhere, in every store, behind every counter and under every display.
After maybe ten minutes of searching, I heard Nemesis call out to me, “What the fuck are you doing?” I had been waiting for it.
I said over my shoulder, “There was somebody here. I saw her when Ella said that. I know she’s here somewhere.”
“Boss,” she called me; that was the first time I’d heard her call me that or really call me much of anything except the occasional insult. “We’ve been watching the cameras this whole time. It’s just you out here. Mutie’s still sitting by the South entrance. Nobody else is here.”
I sighed. I had also expected to hear that. I think maybe I’m going crazy, or else getting crazier. Only Mutie has ever seen her, and that was in my home, where she was stuck on repeat, acting like a normal ghost. I had heard Ella speak and my mind produced an image for me to fixate on. Of course there was nothing. There had never been anything in the first place. She was dead, real dead, the kind of dead that makes reliable boring ghosts.
“So where are we going to go now?” Cannie asked.
I answered, “I don’t know,” and it was true; I really didn’t. “Why am I the leader?” I was feeling some sort of way about having been appointed the title in the first place. I said, “How about if somebody else makes the decision for once?”
“Don’t go acting like we put everything on you,” Nemesis chimed in. “I brought us here and gave us the plan to get the Pantheon out, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did,” I allowed her, “and we could have all died if they had just had basic precautions like flashlights.”
Ignoring my negativity to add some of his own, Cannie said, “We’ve been chased or scared away from every place we’ve stayed.”
“Exactly why I’m done deciding where we go,” I agreed.
“Then I’ll decide,” Nemesis offered. “I think we should stay here. We’ll block off the other entrances and deal with whoever comes.”
“Right,” I said, “Like you dealt with the last ones.”
“You seemed like you had that under control,” she said.
“Fuck you,” was the best I could manage to say to her. I thought her choice was the wrong one, I thought we were likely to end up getting killed here, but it was the choice I wanted. I wanted to stay where I had seen her ghost and I wanted to see her ghost again. I wanted to interact with her ghost. I wanted Ella to interact with her ghost. I wanted her back in whatever limited capacity a ghost is capable of.
Except that wasn’t it, either; I didn’t want her back. I wanted our old lives back. Back when I didn’t have food because I didn’t have money, not because I was unwilling to eat a human. If I got her back now, even as a living breathing person, what would I do with her? We would just die together, at best. More likely, we would suffer together and then die. Whatever happened, it wouldn’t be good. They bombed everybody’s happy endings more than two months ago.
Cannie, oblivious to my internal plight, said, “It might not be a bad idea; we’re not likely to find a place like this again...at least, unless we intend to kill everybody who’s already there again.” He was right, too, and we all knew it. Even Mutie would agree. Despite my willingness to participate, taking that many lives had been hard on me. I don’t know how the others feel about it, but an act like that diminishes one’s humanity, a commodity already in short supply. I wasn’t sure I could handle another wanton slaughter like that. At the risk of sounding sexist at the start of a new world, knowing they had all been women makes what we did that much harder. How much humanity do I have left to spare?
“Well,” I said, “I didn’t want to make the decision, so I guess it’s fine. Let’s stay here and wait to see how we die.” I wasn’t actually bitter about the choice, just generally bitter. All these long weeks of trauma after trauma had worn my coping skills thin. There was a pause while they both observed my limited repertoire of coping skills, while Ella watched the monitors, and I finally said, “Sorry, that’s fine; I’m just stressed.” Nobody offered any platitudes, nobody said that’s okay, or asked if I needed a fucking hug, and that was fine with me, because I really didn’t need or want them. I said, “Let’s seal up the other entrances,” and left the room.
I walked over to Mutie and explained to him what we were doing. He said something I couldn’t quite understand, then went with me to help move displays and shelves and anything we could use as a barricade. We spent the next few hours fortifying our mall, working into the afternoon, but nobody else came. We set makeshift traps and alarms, but still nobody came. We waited until night, all of us ready to defend ourselves, but we were alone. Not even a single ghost showed up to disrupt our mood.
I awoke this morning to the sound of rain. How long has it been since I’ve enjoyed that sound? Of course, I still can’t enjoy it; my friends, my family, everybody I’ve ever cared about, they’re all dead. What is there to enjoy when you’re the only one left to experience it?
I’m not alone, though. I wish I were and wonder sometimes if maybe I wouldn’t be better off spending the rest of my months like I spent the first one in this new world, if I wouldn’t be better off alone. I’m not alone, though. I’m not. There’s Mutie and Cannie and Nemesis, and then there’s Ella. Is it fair to say all of my family is dead? She seems to exist in both worlds, definitely alive yet distinctly dead. She is a ghost with skin.
And then there are the ghosts. Will I ever be able to be alone? Her ghost haunts me no matter where I go. Ella sees her, too. I am going crazy in this new world, but I don’t see her because I’m crazy. She’s there, and Ella is the proof, but how do I turn that into something I can use? Am I destined to just stay on the fringe of her existence, even after we shared so many years being so close? Or maybe it’s because we spent so many years so close; how could I know?
The rain was calming even if I didn’t get to enjoy it, but it reminded me of all the hardest parts of being alive. No parts of living are easy, and none of them ever were, but the solitude that comes with needing somebody who’s gone from you life is oppressing and dismantling.
Nemesis came and slept with me again, and that helped, but her curves and scent and texture are all wrong. She comforted me like the rain did, but nothing I will ever feel for her will make her a replacement for what I’ve lost. There isn’t a replacement, and I don’t want one; maybe what I’ve got now is better.
Don’t confuse the matter; I would trade this whole world and everyone in it for a moment of my old life, but maybe it wasn’t so great. What I had was good sometimes, frequently even, but I’ve hardly been as sad since the world ended as I sometimes was before, frequently even. I guess what I mean is that the life I had was only suited to what the world used to be. After only days, Nemesis and I share a closeness that was impossible before the bombs. My friends, the mutant and the cannibal, are dearer to me than family. Again, Ella has transcended two worlds; she is both old and new. I care for her more than any of this.
Nemesis fucked me like only she can do, like can only exist in this new world ruled by ghosts and entropy. That was nice and fine, but then she laid with me, held on to me for a time and just let herself fall asleep, and for a few moments I heard the whisper of wholeness. What does that mean, exactly? What am I doing? Life didn’t make much sense when everything was done just as prescribed, but now everything seems like some grand fucking mystery. I don’t know what I’ll do tomorrow or where I’ll be or if any of us will even be alive. It used to be that I could make fairly accurate predictions about these things. I used to be able to say, tomorrow I will go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, eat dinner, watch TV, and probably not experience any deaths at all.
Nemesis was gone when I woke, replaced by the sound of rain falling hard above and around me. The roof was leaking here, slowly filling candles with water, but my corner of the store stayed dry. Some days I miss the old world, my old life, and of course her more than I do other days. Today is not exactly one of those days. Today I feel nostalgic, but I don’t think what I feel is a yearning. This is what the Portugese called saudade before the nations all died, I think.
The word refers to the love that stay behind when something is gone. It’s not missing somebody, it’s the sadness of having them gone and the happiness of having once had them. It’s reminiscence and regret and wistful remembrance. I worked with a Portugese man once who explained the word to me in regards to his pending divorce. It stuck with me and I suppose it always will.
When I finally got off my pallet of fabric, mostly clothes bundled into a pad for me sleep on, I wandered out into the open space of the mall. Cannie at least was already up, though I didn’t see any of the others around. He was sitting on a bench holding a book open with his one remaining hand. I couldn’t see the cover and wondered where he had found a book in the first place.
As I approached, I said, “What are you reading?”
He jumped a little. He was so lost in what he was reading that he hadn’t noticed me walking up. I miss that feeling, too. I made it a point to find a book to read. He said, “It’s just a book of poetry,” and held it up so that I could see the cover.
It read, “Collected Works of T.S. Eliot.” I said, “That seems appropriate.”
“What do you mean?” he asked back.
“We are the hollow men,” I said, “We are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw. Alas, our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats' feet over broken glass in our dry cellar.”
He looked at me blankly for a moment then said, “What?”
I snatched the book from him, losing his place to turn to the table of contents. I scanned quickly, then turned to page 96 and handed the book back to him. “Read this one,” I said. “It’s maybe not his best, but it’s probably his most famous, and it says more now than ever.”
“The Hollow Men,” he read aloud. “What does it mean to be famous these days?”
“I’ve wondered that, too,” I admitted. “Being famous now probably just means people know to avoid you. This was famous in the old world, but I guess we’re the only people left to talk about it now.”
Cannie wasn’t listening; he was reading the poem. I stood patiently for a minute while he scanned the five sections culminating in the end of the world. I watched the look of consternation on his face as he went over, “Let me be no nearer in death’s dream kingdom.” I saw the sadness when he read, “this is the dead land,” and as he read, “There are no eyes here in this valley of dying stars.” I knew the whole poem by heart, I could recite it from start to finish, and I could see it play across his face.
I had memorized it for extra credit in a college class I had all but totally ignored the work for, but I retained it out of love. I used to think Eliot had captured a human experience, used words as a sort of telepathy to convey and experience and an existence that was both universal and paradoxically unique. Finally, he read out loud, “This is the way the world ends.”
I finished for him, “Not with a bang but a whimper.”
“Ours sort of ended with a bang, didn’t it?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “I think the bombs changed everything, but this here, now, this is the real end of the world; humanity is dying out, squabbling over every scrap, killing and eating each other. This, our lives now after the bombs, this is the whimper.”
“I guess you might be right,” he said. We both knew I was.
I said, “Enjoy your book,” and walked away, leaving him to it. I left him to go to the security office, where I would be able to look for the rest of our group. Mutie was in there, quietly sitting and brooding over the monitors.
“Shush gung tuh camph unh cuhld,” he said as he gestured to one of the monitors. I could see Ella there in the picture, tiny and insignificant, standing out in the pounding rain. Water washed in waves over the pavement, and she stood still, taking it in.
“A cold really isn’t the worst thing that could happen to her out there,” I said. I glanced over the others monitors. There was Cannie, reading alone in the middle of the mall, struggling to turn his pages with only one hand. There was my empty pallet in the leaky Bath and Body Works. There was Ella, still standing in the rain. I couldn’t find Nemesis anywhere. I asked Mutie if he’d seen her.
“Shuh gugh uph urgle unh weh tuh thugh bahruh,” he told me.
“She’s been in the bathroom all morning?” I asked.
“Nyeh,” he said, which I assumed meant yes but sounded equally like no.
I said, “Thanks,” and walked away from him, as well. From there I went to Ella. I walked out into the rain with her, becoming instantly soaked, and put a hand on her shoulder.
She said, “I wanna go with mommy.”
I said, “So do I.” We stood like that for a minute or two, letting the downfall pound us to the brink of nothingness, then I said, “You should come inside. She’s not out here; there’s nothing out here but water, forgotten things, and dead things.” I gave her shoulder a squeeze and walked away. There was nothing else I could do to support her.
Inside, I went to my room of feminine fragrance and changed out of my wet clothes, hanging them over some signage to slowly dry. Nemesis was the only person I hadn’t spoken to yet, and I wasn’t sure how to talk to her. Did I hate her or did I love her? Is it possible to do both? I definitely didn’t have many feelings for her in between those.
Then she was there, and I didn’t have to seek her out. She came to my room, to my pallet, and stripped off her clothes. The sight of her in the daylight stopped my breathing for a moment and made my heart palpitate. She was beautiful. She wasn’t what I was used to, but she had all the soft curves of a woman. More than that, she was woman. Not just a woman, but the quintessential woman, the mold for all of her kind. She was woman and she had come to give me the gift of her sexuality. She said, “I turned off the monitor for this store, but Mutie is probably going to watch us.”
I said, “Even a mutant deserves some pleasure in his life, even if it’s only by proxy,” and then we made love, and although it was just as wild and hot and hard as every other time, it was different; it was making love. We spent the whole day like that, intermittently in each other’s arms and separated to recover. For not the first time, I doubted what I understood and knew about the new world and about myself.
I started this journal as a sometimes thing to help clear my head. It has become something more. Now I get anxious if I don’t make time to write, and each day takes up more pages than the last. I need to find a new notebook by tomorrow or the next day, or I won’t have anything left to write on. I don’t think that’ll be too hard, though; I doubt those were looted to the same degree food and tools have been.
Today started late for me. The sun was already high when I came out of my store. Cannie was not on the bench and Mutie was not in the security office. Nemesis was MIA again, though, and Ella was back to standing outside, this time standing in the sunlight. She stood in the rain all day yesterday, and the rain obliged her by not coming to a full stop until night had fallen. Cannie got her to come in and change into dry clothes at some point in the early afternoon, but she was back out in the rain within minutes. Only I understood the reason for this behavior, and I could relate; she wanted to see her mother again.
I still haven’t seen another attack on the mall, despite our smoke signals from the other day. I’m confused by this, honestly, and a little worried. If people aren’t coming here, there must be a reason. Also, we all recognize that every day we go without an attack brings us one day closer to one. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, but when. This world we live in now doesn’t allow innocent civilians.
I looked over the wall of monitors again. I couldn’t see Mutie or Cannie on any of them, either. Only Ella, standing outside, taking in the sunlight after a long day of rain. I looked next for the car, and it was still where we left it, so they couldn’t have gone far. Unless they had left on foot, they were either in the small blind spots between cameras, in the bathrooms, or in the ruined section of the mall. That half of things was represented on screen as darkness, half of the displays showing only “No Signal” when turned on.
With nobody else to speak to, I went out to Ella. She didn’t move or look up as I came and stood next to her, just kept looking off into the distance. I said, “Are you still looking for your mom?” but she didn’t have any answer to give me, not even so much as a nod. I said, “If I knew where she was, I would take you to her,” but she still didn’t respond.
I wandered back inside after that, but without reason or purpose. Everything I did, everything I had done for months or years, all of it felt without reason or purpose. I felt lethargic and morose, and took that to my pallet, where I laid back down and waited for the day and for my life to pass.
I don’t know how long I laid there, neither awake nor asleep, before Cannie came in with an armload of pillaged goods, which was not really an impressive amount given his single arm. He dropped them all on the ground and said with some excitement, “Some of the stores over on the other side aren’t totally gone, just kinda hard to get to, but I found some good stuff.”
I lifted myself to see him better and see what he’d brought. There were three vinyl albums, including Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and John Mellancamp. He’d also found a boxed set of Harry Potter books and a couple large boxes of assorted chocolates.
“Nice,” was the best I could think to say, and I doubt I sounded enthused; I was still working through the miasma of existence. He let the silence hang for a moment so I added, “I haven’t had chocolate in a while.” It was true. Stores are dangerous places and the quick easy carbs like candy are the first to go.
He gave a smile at my small gratitude and said, “There was an F.Y.E. over there that was practically untouched. Mutie carried over a record player for me since...well…”
“You didn’t have a free hand?” I asked.
Cannie looked at his missing arm with the same saudade I had been feeling recently and said only, “Yeah.”
Mutie came in next with a full backpack and what looked like a briefcase with built-in speakers in one hand and a Slayer record in the other. “Ung fumph shumph shtuh fuh ush tuh leshn tuh!” he exclaimed. Cannie’s excitement seemed muted by comparison.
“I never took you as a slayer fan,” I told him.
He said, “Whuh duh fugh duh hoo nugh ahb muh?”
“Good point,” I answered. “Where’s Nemesis?”
Cannie shrugged and said, “She came back over here before we did. She’s around somewhere. I’m sure she’s fine. Wanna listen to an album until she turns up?”
I looked over the selection again. “Desire,” I said, then laid back down as the other two worked to set up the record player and start some music.
Soon the air was full of acoustic guitar, fiddle, and Mr. Dylan singing, “Pistol shots ring out in a bar room night…” I closed my eyes and let the words play through me. I imagined our old apartment, where we laid on the floor listening to Bob Dylan narrate the way of our lives. For a moment I was there, singing quietly along. For a moment in the present, my body was indistinguishable from my own ghost, preemptively haunting the world.
When I opened my eyes, I could see all the ghosts around us, picking out lotions and body wash, vanishing as quickly as they came to make way for the next ghost to do the same. I had already seen that they weren’t entirely removed by our device, but it was more than that; they weren’t even phased by it, they were just invisible. Had they always been this way? Maybe the ghosts weren’t created by the bombs, just made visible by the fall of society the bombs heralded. Then again, maybe that was a stretch.
Dylan continued, “All of Reuben’s cards were marked in advance,” and I rubbed the ghosts out of my eyes. As my vision returned to normal, the shapes faded and were gone again. Mutie and Cannie didn’t seem to have noticed anything.
“I’m going to go find Nemesis,” I said as I pulled myself to my feet.
Cannie asked, “What’s your thing with her?” to my back as I ducked under the partially lowered gate. I didn’t have an answer for him. I didn’t even know the answer. I wanted her, I knew that, but I couldn’t define what she was to me. There aren’t words for these things because these things didn’t exist back when people were making up words.
The first place I checked was again the security room, not because I expected to find her here; I was hoping to isolate her position with the cameras. I didn’t have to. She was already in there. She didn’t look up as I entered, but of course the video feed had already told her I was coming. “Hey,” was her only greeting.
“Hey,” I said back. The simple hello has disarmed me. I stood and stared at the back of her head until she started to turn slowly around. She was wearing a smile that said mischief and a shirt which, somewhere between the open legs, said fuck me.
“Lock the door,” she said.
I said, “I’m not here for that.”
“Lock the door,” she said.
I locked the door and took her in the chair, neither of us bothering to underdress. It was sexy and simple, without obligations or complications, like it always is. It made me feel guilty. Guilty for what, though? For the memory of a woman and world which have both been dead for months? By the time I had pulled my pants back up, I had also gathered the nerve to say what I needed to say. I told her, “I need the car keys.”
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Not we,” I said, “just me and Ella.”
“So you’re leaving us?” she asked.
“I’ll be back,” I said, but that wasn’t exactly true. I didn’t know if I’d be coming back. It depended on what I found out there. “I need to go to my old place to look for something.” That was also a half lie, but she wasn’t so dense as to be decieved.
“Something or someone?” she said. Her voice and face were cold. I couldn’t tell exactly what she knew or what she was asking.
I asked, “What do you mean?”
She said, “Is Ella your daughter?” The way she put the question made it more of a statement which demanded affirmation.
I said, “Yes.” I wasn’t sure if it was true or not, but I knew denying it would be a lie.
“Well, Jack says that she’s his daughter,” she said, “and he seemed surprised that I thought she was yours because, you know, they really do look alike.”
I said, “Who the fuck is Jack?”
“Cannie is a stupid thing to call anybody,” she answered. “His name is Jack.”
“I didn’t want to know,” I told her.
“Do you want to know mine?” she asked.
I wanted badly to know her name. I said, “Don’t tell me, please.”
She didn’t say anything but reached over to a purse I had never seen her with before and pulled out the keys to the trashy car with the crumpled hood. She tossed them to me and turned back around.
When she turned, I knew the answer to her first question. I said, “I’ll be back,” and left the room. I didn’t stop back to Cannie and Mutie, just clambered out through our familiar hole in the wall to where Ella was waiting for me.
I asked her, “Are you ready to go?”
She gave me a look that implied understanding, and I led her by the hand to our car. We got in and drove straight to my old house, the one place I could reliably expect to see here, even if the topic was only ever pizza. Now the sun is setting and Ella is asleep. I haven’t seen her yet.
I haven’t written much about the way the apocalypse has changed people. I’ve mentioned the cannibals and violence, sure, but those are just symptoms of this man-made disease. There are also the physical changes, the cancerous tumors and strange growths, but that’s not what I’m talking about either. The biggest impact those bombs have had on people has been psychological.
People miss their homes, families, routines, they miss their whole lives, but the bombs have hurt them even more deeply than that. The few who survived without scars on their bodies were still scarred mentally. Something in those bombs ruined our minds. We all know the bombs weren’t normal; that’s why we have ghosts now, or it’s at least the only reason anybody can think of. Well, they also scrambled our brains. Nobody is right anymore. I mean, of course they wouldn’t be after an event like that, but we’re not just broken; we’re unwell, all of us. I haven’t met a single person who seemed sane in this new world, even by the new world’s standards.
I suppose our visitors from the big post-apocalypse city of Haven seemed to border on normalcy, but I don’t trust them any more than I trust any of the rest of the world. Really, there’s nothing sane about abandoning a mall full of sparsely defended supplies when you’re supporting a whole community of savages. I don’t think they really just gave up, either. If anybody just gave up, it was the members of our group when we decided to stay there instead of running for our lives.
Then there’s our group; we’re no better than anybody else. Cannie is a cold-blooded cannibal. Mutie is a violent murderer in addition to his mutations. Nemesis is a neurotic narcissist, and that’s a pretty gracious view of her personality. Ella can no longer use her mouth for anything but eating the dead or emulating them. Finally, there’s me. I’m not so far gone that I’ve forgotten to count myself among the mad. While everybody else in the world is busy with murder and mayhem, eating from the remains of people we’ve left in our wake, I have taken a young girl who is not my daughter to look for a ghost who only I can see and who is not her mother. I might be the worst of the bunch.
Ella sees her, too, though. This is strange, but everything about that child is strange, from the way she sees the ghost of my old life to the way she speaks with my daughter’s voice. They look alike, at least a little, but nobody could mistake them for the same person...and yet, they are. Is it my fault for giving her that name? I didn’t mean to attribute anything like that to her; I just missed my little girl so much, and I needed a reason to say her name.
We arrived at my former home and sat for hours, waiting to see her ghost. Ella fell asleep on the loveseat, still waiting for her mother, but I stayed awake until the early hours of morning, sitting patiently, wanting only to tell her one more time that I wanted pizza.
That’s not all I wanted from her, though. It’s never that simple. I wanted to force her to be real again, to be tangible. I wanted to will her back into existence and will the world back into the shape it had once been. I knew it was impossible, but somehow I thought it was something I had to do, something I had to try. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but I’m mad, aren’t I?
The sound that finally woke me was her voice. It was late morning, later than I usually let myself sleep, although I seem to be making a habit of it. She said, “What sounds good for dinner tonight?” from the kitchen, and I bolted awake.
“Let’s just order pizza,” I said without even thinking. Was that the right approach? I wasn’t sure if I should try to extend the conversation we had then or try to push towards new words, ones that weren’t spoken before reality crumbled into this disgusting mess.
She answered, “We can’t afford pizza every night, you know,” just like she had said once in solid flesh and bone, just like I had expected her to say again.
I waited for Ella to say her piece, but she stayed silent, staring straight ahead as if she hadn’t heard either of us. Looking around the corner to the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of her only in time to see her vanish like a mist on the wind. What had I done wrong? Why hadn’t Ella spoken? Was her lack of speech the reason the ghost didn’t stay longer, as she had once before? Is that why I didn’t see her come into the living room? At the time, I thought so, but I’m not so sure anymore.
I waited for a couple hours or so, staring off as blankly and silently as Ella, until she finally came again. There didn’t seem to be any pattern to her timing like you could expect from some ghosts. From the kitchen I heard, “What sounds good for dinner tonight?” once more. This time, inspired by my mutated friend, I demanded meatloaf. It didn’t seem to matter. Again she said, “We can’t afford pizza every night, you know.” Ella stayed quiet and she disappeared just like she always does sooner or later.
When she came a third time, I asked for pizza again, but the results were the same. Ella didn’t speak and her ghost didn’t stay. I was starting to wonder about my plan and how I could pull it off, among other doubts I should have had before we came here.
The fourth time I saw her ghost was different, and changed what I knew of her more than a little. This was less than an hour later. She came in through the front door this time, brandishing an excessively large assault rifle and wearing clothes I had never seen.
“Is it really you?” I said to her ghost.
“Who’s the kid?” she answered. Ella popped up and ran over to her, embracing her with more love than I’ve seen since the world ended. For a moment, my wife’s ghost was unbalanced. I could have sprung, could have gotten the weapon from her, I could have killed her and fed bits of cooked muscle to Ella. I didn’t want any of that, though. If she wanted to kill me, I wanted her to be able to.
The ghost regained her composure in only a moment and gave Ella a hard shove, sending the girl sprawling to the ground. I said, “Don’t you recognize our daughter? It’s Ella.”
She kept the gun trained on me while Ella picked herself up. “That’s not my daughter,” she said. From the kitchen, she said, “What sounds good for dinner tonight?”
I looked her in the eyes over the sight of her gun and said, “Let’s just order pizza.”
They both answered in lightly staggered unison, “We can’t afford pizza every night, you know.”
Ella said, “Can we please have pizza, Mom?”
One ghost came in and sat on the loveseat where Ella had once been, patting an invisible leg, and said, ““I guess it’s decided, then; Ella says we’re having pizza.” The other ghost stayed silent. Then one of them disappeared.
“What the fuck have you taught her?” said the one who remained.
“Nothing,” I said, “I didn’t tell her any of this; I barely even remember this moment.”
“She’s still not our daughter,” the ghost said, “but you seem to believe it.” She turned her gun to our child and added, “Maybe I should kill her like you killed my family.”
“I thought you were dead,” I told her. “I never would have done anything to hurt you.”
“You hurt me lots of times,” she answered, which I knew to be true, “but that’s not the family I’m talking about. I had women who loved and cared about me, women who were my sisters, and you came in the night and killed them all.”
I was speechless. Could she really be talking about the mall massacre? I hadn’t seen her when we were trapped there, but she could have been avoiding me. If she had been there that night, how was she alive? It either didn’t make sense or I couldn’t make sense of it.
She said a name, maybe my name, but I’ve already forgotten what it was. “Are you still with us?” she asked. I was, at least partially, but I was on a different topic.
I said, “Your name…” She didn’t let me finish. I was going to ask what her name was, what it had been before the atomic rapture.
She said, “It’s Artemis now, goddess of the hunt. Now I’ve hunted you down and you’re going to die.” She raised her weapon a little more, pointed it at my head for emphasis, but didn’t pull the trigger.
Ella said, “I think you and dad should get a divorce; you’re not happy together anymore.” That was a few months ago, less than a year. I hadn’t been there for that discussion, but she, the woman who was now Artemis, had told me about it.
“Damn it,” she said, “the girl doesn’t need to see this. Get rid of her. I’m going to kill you the next time we meet, whether she’s there or not.” She lowered her rifle in a confusing show of trust.
“She’s our daughter,” I said.
“She’s not,” Artemis answered, stepping back through the door.
As her mother moved to leave, Ella said, “I wanna go with mommy.” Artemis held out her hand. Ella took it. Then they were both gone and I was alone.
From the kitchen, her ghost said, “What sounds good for dinner tonight?” but I didn’t answer.
Everybody is crazy now. Everybody is insane. Everybody is mad. People started eating each other before the fresh food was all gone. People kill each other for sport in the remnants of city streets. People go out raping like...well, more often, but that’s otherwise about the same. Now my dead wife has kidnapped my undead daughter and I can’t even tell if she was real or if I was just seeing things or if I’ve always just been seeing things. For all I know, I’m dead and this is Hell.
I stayed in my old home again last night. I have expected the ghost with the strange name to come back and kill me. At least I had a name to give her, though. Of all the things to have forgotten, how could I have forgotten my wife’s name, after more than a decade at her side?
Then again, I’d spent even longer with myself and I can’t seem to remember my own name, either. I don’t like being named, “Boss.” I’m definitely not anybody’s boss. I’m not much of anything. I can’t even protect my own daughter; I’ve lost her twice now, and I don’t expect to see her again. The goddess of the hunt wants me dead, and can I even stop her? I don’t even know if she has physical form. I assume she does, but things are so strange now, I can’t tell. The door opened. Ella took her hand. She seems real. Either way, I believe that she’ll find some way to kill me before I see my daughter.
Her ghost was active all night, asking what I wanted for dinner on loop. I couldn’t sleep, but the apparition was only part of the reason. I awoke to ray of sunlight shining through the blinds and falling on my eyes. I was surprised I had slept at all. In the kitchen, I heard, “We can’t afford pizza every night, you know?”
I got up, gathered my things, and headed for the door; I had to report back to my crew of misfits on this. I had to get help finding Ella. When I opened it, a familiar ghost was there to greet me. It looked like Artemis, but I knew it wasn’t. I recognize the familiar clothes. She used to wear that outfit a lot, but that was years ago.
She said over her shoulder, “I hope it’s as nice as the pictures; this could be a really good place for our family.” I was behind her holding our daughter, Ella, who was just big enough to walk but still small enough to carry, but of course I wasn’t there. The ghost reached up and knocked on the door, then just waited. She stood almost still, occasionally sparing a glance over her shoulder to where I should have been. In a moment she looked up as the door should have opened. There would have been a person standing where I was standing and he would have said something. “Hi,” said the ghost, “I’m Liz and this is…” Then she vanished, leaving my name unspoken and our long-time home un viewed.
“Liz,” I said aloud. The name sounded unfamiliar and foreign on my tongue. Could that really be her name? It was probably short for Elizabeth, but I couldn’t imagine calling her that or much of anything else. Artemis felt more comfortable to say that what I assumed she had always been called.
I went to the car, got in, and started the engine. At least she had left in seemingly unmolested, which seemed strange. It was strange every time our car wasn’t looted; cars were always easy to steal from, and if you knew somebody was using it, you knew there would be supplies. I had gotten the impression that she wasn’t there for the car, though; she was hunting me.
The drive took almost an hour, although I could have gone substantially faster. I didn’t want to go do what I had to do. I didn’t want to admit that I had gone off on my own and lost a whole human, just a child, to a murderous dead woman. When I finally arrived, I sat in the parking lot for several minutes to build myself up to going in an explaining.
Nemesis walked up to the car before I had gathered that nerve. I turned it off and got out to speak with her. “Where’s Ella?” was the first thing she asked; of course it was.
“She was taken,” I said. “We have to get her back.”
“We?” she asked. “You lost her and she’s Jack’s daughter; I think you two have to get her back; all I have to do is relax and wait for the world to finish ending.”
“Please,” I said, “I need you.”
She seemed taken off guard with my sudden proclamation. She said, “I got this for you before you left; I was going to give it to you then, but when you left I decided to save it.” She held out a small package wrapped in brown paper. I opened it without offering thanks. Inside was a small black notebook, bound in faux leather with 180 ruled pages, all blank. It was almost exactly like the one I was using. She said, “You looked like you needed a new one.”
“I didn’t even realize you knew that I was writing,” I sputtered. It really was a kind gift, and suddenly I felt even more inadequate.
“I pay attention to you,” she said. “I need you.”
I turned the book over in my hands, then leafed through the pages. “Thank you,” I finally managed. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Thank you is enough,” she answered. “Where is she?”
I didn’t know how to explain what had happened, so I tried to keep the account minimal. “A woman broke in to my old apartment while we were there. She held us an gunpoint and took Ella with her. I think she was in the Pantheon of the Chalice.”
“Sounds like one of them got away from us and wanted revenge,” she said. “She must have followed you there. What makes you think she was one of us, though?” The way she said “one of us” made me wonder if she didn’t still harbor some love for her old crew.
I told her, “She said her name is Artemis.”
Nemsis nodded. “I know her. I don’t remember seeing her body, but I wasn’t counting them; I figured Jack kept a couple to eat.”
“She has my daughter,” I added to imply urgency.
“She has Jack’s daughter,” Nemesis corrected.
“Can you please stop calling him that?” I asked.
Nemesis didn’t answer, just stood in silent thought for a moment. When she did answer, it wasn’t his name she was interested in. She said, “Are you Paul?”
I thought about it. The name didn’t sound familiar. I said, “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?” she asked. “What’s your name?”
“Honestly,” I answered, “I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to remember since this whole thing started.”
“Artemis came to us with two men, she said they were looking for supplies for some kind of big party they were having, and she was going to be raped and murdered.” Nemesis took a pause, looking me over once more. “She also said she had a husband named Paul and that he had left her and their daughter to die. She never told me her daughter’s name.”
“Her name is Ella,” I told her.
“Damn it,” was all she said before she turned around and walked back into the mall. Now I just had to explain everything to Cannie and Mutie. I was worried that they would hate me for what I’d done, or at least that Cannie would. There was a fair chance he would try to kill and eat me, but I was hopeful he would at least wait until Ella was back with us and safe.
Cannie and Mutie were easy enough to find once I got inside; I just had to follow the sound of the Smashing Pumpkins singing, “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.” It seemed they had gone back for more music. There was a moment of hesitation before he asked it, but Cannie’s first question was roughly the same as Nemesis’s.
“Where’s my daughter?” he asked.
I said, “She’s okay, but she was taken from me and we need to get her back.”
“What?” he exclaimed, climbing to his feet. “How the fuck could you let that happen? Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. I was searching for the words to explain the rest when Nemesis appeared at my elbow.
“It was one of the pantheon women,” she said. “We missed one. Ella’s a girl, so she’ll be safe, but we need to track her down as soon as we can either way.”
Cannie glared at me, speechless, but seething with rage. He took a couple steps closers and opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out. He eventually closed his mouth, leaving the words unspoken. He decided instead to use his remaining arm to punch me in the jaw. I fell to the ground, immediately tasting blood, and felt my heart rate rise. I wasn’t angry, though. I understood him more in that moment than ever before. I wanted to be punched for losing her. Nemesis helped me to my feet as Cannie finally managed to speak. “Sorry,” was all he had to say.
Mutie asked, “Huh uh wuh gngh tuh fugh huh?”
I spit out a mouthful of blood onto the tiled floor and said, “We just look. We look everywhere until we find her.”
“Thugh nuh mph uh eh pungh,” Mutie pointed out.
Nemesis said, “Artemis will be back to kill him, or probably all of us. All we have to do is wait and try not to die when she gets here. She’ll probably bring Ella along when she comes.”
“What if she doesn’t come?” Cannie asked. “What if she comes but doesn’t bring my daughter?”
“She’ll come,” Nemesis said, “and she’ll want Ella to be the one to kill him. Anyway, if she doesn’t bring the girl, we can just torture her until she tells us where to find her.” Nemesis seemed far too comfortable with the idea of torturing my late wife.
I said, “No, Ella will be with her.” It was more a hope and a confession of belief, but they didn’t need to know that.
“Huh duy yung nuh?” Mutie asked.
“She won’t lose her like I did,” I said. “She won’t let her out of sight once she knows her like I do.” I knew that was true because I knew who Artemis used to be, but I couldn’t explain that to them. Also, that depended on her learning to know this new Ella like I did. I knew she wouldn't lose her little girl a second time, though. No, we were going to have to kill her if we wanted to get Ella back. Was I ready for that eventuality? No, I was not.
Cannie said, “She knows where we are; she won’t come here. We have to figure out how to find her.”
“No,” I said, I think she’ll come here. I don’t know if she a group, though, so we have to be ready.”
“What makes you think she has a group?” Nemesis asked.
I shrugged and replied, “She’s still alive.”
Cannie said, “We need to think of a way to find them.” He was more right than I think he even knew.
“Yes,” I agreed, “she won’t come here until she has a plan to kill us all. She’s not going to come here unprepared.”
“Is that why you think she might have a new group with her?” Nemsis asked.
“Or she will have one,” I said, “yes.” I didn’t want to say it, but there was another reason to find her quickly. People are different now. If she didn’t see Ella as our daughter, I thought there was a good chance that she might kill the girl. The Pantheon of the Chalice may have had some sort of code about preserving the sacred feminine, but they were dead; did this new Artemis still follow that same code? I doubted it very much.
I suggested we start setting traps and alarms while we each thought of ways to hunt the huntress. We littered the entire mall, inside and out, with secrets, surprises, and tripwires. We spent the whole day adding new fortitudes, but none of them made me feel safer for me or my daughter. I spent my time racking my brain for any plan that could lead us to her, anywhere she could be or anything she could be doing, and at the end of the day had thought of nothing.
This is my first entry in the new notebook. The pages are think and my swells of ink don’t bleed through. Holding it and letting my pen run over the paper feels like holding Nemesis and running my fingers over her skin. I once held the woman who is now Artemis like this, and in some ways her skin felt a million times better, but it never felt anything like this. Now I have to hunt her, now that I know where to go.
It came to me in the night as some amalgamation of things I had heard. It was the people from Haven, something Robert had said, the city by exit 42. It was something the ghost of my wife had said before she was a ghost.
She said, “I think I’m going to Merry Village,” as she started gathering shoes and a light jacket.
It was what Ella had said to me when her mom had said that. She said, “I wanna go with Mommy.”
Merry Village was a small amusement part and petting zoo a bit down the highway from our house. I had taken them both there one more than one occasion. It was just a mile from exit 42. I seemed impossible that this place had become some sort of commune but it seemed equally impossible that the commune could be anywhere else.
It wasn’t much to go on, and I knew that, but it was something. Artemis hadn’t said anything that hinted the would go that way, but Ella had, and maybe that would trigger something for her like it did for me while I was sleeping. I didn’t expect much, but I was hopeful. It was the only thing I had to go on.
Nemesis let me sleep through the night last night, too. I don’t know if I’m thankful, since I had time to sleep and dream that I might have missed, or if I’m hurt. She doesn’t owe me sex or anything, of course, but I thought she would want me again after having been gone. Then again, I came back with some fairly bad news; I couldn’t blame her for being a little turned off by me right now.
I thought about that as I made my way to Cannie. It’s strange the way thoughts of sex and permeate disaster and loss, but I tried to put Nemesis and her body, her touch, out of my mind. Cannie was her parent as much as I was, and he deserved to know what I’d come up with.
He was already awake when I got there, brooding silently on the ground. “How long have you been awake?” I asked.
“I haven’t been able to sleep,” he said. “I feel like a failure of a parent. I am a failure of a parent. How could I have ever let you take off with her in the first place?” Suddenly he went from calm and sulking to angry. “Why didn’t you tell me where you were taking her? We could have gone together. We could have protected her together!”
I said, “I’ve got an idea of where we can start looking. It’s not a good idea, but it’s a place to start.”
The anger subsided and his eyes lit up, if only a little. “Where? We have to get moving.” He popped up, instantly ready to go. His injury was still healing, but he moved like he was in perfect health.
I said, “We need to gather the others first, but I wanted to tell you first.” I gave him the space of a pause to know that he was paying attention. “It’s hard to explain how I know this, but I think they’ve gone to Haven.”
He said, “You mean with the guys who came here the other day?”
“Yeah,” I said, “The people we killed two of who already have a reason to dislike us and significantly outnumber us.”
“Shit,” he said, “we can’t fight all of them off. They could have a whole army.”
“We can’t,” I agreed, “we’d all die in the conflict if we were lucky or be slowly eaten if we weren’t.”
“So what are we going to do?” Cannie asked. He was nervous and scared. So was I; I understood how he must have felt, because I felt it to.
“We can’t wait for them to come to us,” I explained. “No matter how many traps we set, waiting here is a death sentence. I’m going to go to them. I think it should just be me. I’m the one she wants; there’s no reason we should all walk into the lion’s den.”
“She’s my daughter,” he replied, “and you can go get fucked if you think you’re going to get her without me. You were the one who lost her in the first place.”
“Right,” I said, “That’s what I thought you would say. We should go now, then.”
“No,” he said. “I’m not running off on the others like you did. We’re a team; it’s what keeps us safe and it’s why you lost Katrina.”
That was her name, or what her name used to be. I didn’t want to know it, but I supposed it hurt less to think of Katrina being gone than it did when she was Ella. I was learning a lot of names lately and I didn’t want any of them. I felt overwhelmed by knowing these people.
I agree to his demand and we gathered Nemesis and Mutie to tell them together. Cannie told them, “The Boss thinks they went to Haven. We think it’s going to be safer for us to go there than to wait for them to come to us.”
“No,” I corrected, “I think it’s better for me and Cannie to go; I want somebody here to keep track of things and to stay alive; this could just be a suicide mission.”
Nemesis said, “I’m going,” in a voice that was impossible to argue with.
I tried anyway. I said, “We need you here.”
“Mutie can stay,” she answered.
“Fungk yuh,” Mutie said.
“Fuck you, too,” she said. “I know Artemis, so I have to go. It’s Jack’s daughter, so he has to go. And Boss lost her, so he’s obligated, too. You don’t have any part in this.”
“Fungk yuh,” Mutie said again, then turned to leave. Apparently he was willing to stay, but he wasn’t happy about it.
I said, “We need to take only what we need, since they’ll probably take it from us anyway. Everything we don’t need stays with Mutie. We each take one gun, a little extra ammo, and a day worth of food. We’re going in, getting Ella, and getting back out.”
“Her name is Katrina,” Cannie said.
“Her name is Ella,” I told him.
“Her name is Katrina,” Nemesis said, and this time I didn’t argue. We went about the business of unloading the car. We kept going until the whole thing was empty and we were each equipped with nothing but a pistol and a pocketful of bullets. I went to my room, my little shelter in the Bath and Body Works store, before we left. I had to write this entry, because I’m afraid to take my journal with me. If I die on this trip, I want the documentation to stay behind.
We’ve been five days in Haven. It’s a little more malignant than they led on, but is generally just a bunch of people surviving together. I don’t know how sustainable it is; having that many people must burn through resources, but I didn’t question it. I was there with a goal, a mission.
I still don’t have Ella, but they were there. I had my shot at them in the town or whatever you call that sort of cluster fuck, but things never work out the way you plan, not that I can say I went in with any plan. It’s my fault that I don’t have her and it’s because I didn’t have a plan. She was better off with just Cannie. They were both better off without me.
It started on Monday, day 73, the last day that I wrote. Cannie, Nemesis and I loaded up in the car with the bare minimum of supplies. We headed out from the mall to the highway. We took the East-bound ramp and followed it to exit number 42. Turning left onto state route 85 takes you to Merry Village. Merry Village used to be a cute little amusement park with small rides and a tiny trail and animals wandering between little houses with straw on the ground inside.
Back then, it had been merry. Now it was barricaded and fortified. Spools of razor wire now topped the old fences. Sheep had been replaced with gun-toting sentries. It looked more like a prison camp than a petting zoo. We pulled our car up to the gate where one person waited with a long rifle and a pistol tucked in her belt. Even without the weapons, she looked like the kind of woman who would easily kick my ass.
When we stopped, she told us to turn off the car and get out. We did. She told us to give her the keys and our packs, so we did that too. She told us to give her our guns. We said no. She said that they were going to shoot us for them if we didn’t hand them over. We gave her our guns. She took our pocketfuls of bullets, too. She said, “Welcome to Haven.”
Inside was just like a little city of post-end-of-the-world hippies. Nobody had weapons, they explained to us, except the guards. They had all of the weapons. This was coming from our old friend, Mr. Robert. I asked why he trusts them so much, those few people with all the guns. He says it’s because he trusts all of us. I cannot even find the words to explain what bullshit a statement like that actually is.
I don’t trust him at all and I can’t believe that he trusts any of us much more than that, but he is amicable. He gives us rooms and food. There is meat that he promises came from animals. I saw one living sheep as we came through, so it’s possible they’ve rationed the gentle creatures. It’s possible they haven’t, too, and we were eating people. I tried not to think about it. I think I trusted him on that, because some people were eating people. Nobody seemed to object, but they ate separately.
Our first day there was spent being catered to. On the second day they promised us both work a leisure. I didn’t know what that meant and I didn’t ask. I had a goal and a mission. That day I could only watch. I was afraid reveal myself as an enemy to anybody right away, so I just watched for them, not sure what I would do if we found each other again.
The village or camp or whatever it was had more ghosts than residents and animals combined. Those who had been there knew which people to ignore, which people weren’t there, but I was surprised by several. I saw the same on my friends. None of us saw any ghosts we recognized that day, though, and slept in cots in a small shelter set just for us.
The second day came with our promised work. It wasn’t really much but going around maintaining the makeshift shelters and buildings with one of the residents. He would take us somewhere, describe what repairs needed done or changes needed to be made, then start working while we fumbled our way through understanding. That passed for help and a few hours later the man of few words let us eat a meal and rest.
This gave us time to split up and search over the camp. It was a broad area, but we decided we should between us be able to cover the whole park in a single day. We spent hours looking around and asking questions and nothing came up. When we gathered back at our shelter, we decided to give it one more day and, if she didn’t turn up, we would head back.
The morning came and the next day was exactly like the last. It was some strange effort to go through the motions of the old world by creating a routine. It felt artificial and contrived. I couldn’t understand how all of these people seemed so happy with living as a shadow of what used to be. The people here were even closer to being ghosts than the rest of us.
We began with our work, the same as the day before, doing the same things with the same person, our supervisor. We pounded nails and turned screws and wasted time until we were granted our freedom. Lunch was first, which we ate ravenously, not of us having eaten since the same meal the day before. Then we convened to continue the search.
Cannie said, “I don’t think they’re here,” and I knew he was right.
“I asked a lot of people,” Nemesis said, “and nobody had seen Artemis.” I had asked a few, as well. I asked about a woman and a little girl. The answer I got was that they didn’t allow children here. Nemesis didn’t say anything about that. It made me wonder what she knew.
I said, “We’ll spend the rest of the day trying to gather information, then leave tomorrow,” and the other two agreed with me.
That’s what we did. I would see them intermittently as we all wandered around, but we avoided each other and the people we had seen the others talking to. Still, there was some overlap. “The woman already asked me,” would say one man, while the next would say, “I already talked to the one armed guy.” There was little new information to gather.
I did learn one thing, which seemed to be somewhat guarded information; the children who came here were taken to some kind of camp at Lake Macamo State Nature Preserve. I’d lived close to her for years and had never heard of the place. I wanted to write it down. I was feeling anxious about having not written the whole time we were there. I guess I remembered it anyway.
The information was news to my friends. It wasn’t much of a lead, we didn’t have any reason to think they had even been through here, but it was all we had to go on. We decided we would try to investigate it the following day.
We didn’t get to leave on schedule and had to delay expanding our search. Instead, we were put in cages. Robert said that we had been sowing the seeds of rebellion. Cannie and I both said that we were looking for our daughter. This probably puzzled some of our assailants, but nobody asked about that. They asked why we were looking for Artemis. They asked about the little girl Artemis had taken on. They asked where she was.
They gave us water through the day, and buckets to relieve ourselves in. Nemesis emptied her bucket onto one of our captors and was beaten. Cannie and I were well behaved. What was the point in fighting? I wondered what they were going to do with us. I still wonder what they were going to do with us.
Artemis, it seemed, had come for only a couple days, then taken off again. They accused us of planning to do the same. They were right. They said an example would be made of us. They said it took dedication and commitment to keep a community functioning in the new world and that we threatened that foundation.
The next day passed just the same. We were given bowls of ramen noodles to eat, but otherwise sat in filth and hunger from sunrise to sunset. We all knew in our bones that we were going to die. It would be the next day, we knew. They weren’t going to waste resources on us, they just wanted us to suffer before we went.
Then, on the fifth day, they let us go. That was this morning. We were all confused. We thought our execution times had come when they first opened the locks. As armed guards led us out of the village, we felt like cows being led to slaughter. They took us through the gates, though, and closed them behind us.
Then we saw Mutie, standing alone, deformed, and beautiful in the distance, and we knew he had saved us. We weren’t sure how, but he was there and we were free; we knew we owed him our lives.
We we got close, I said, “How did you get us out of there?”
He said, “Euh hah tuh trnmph duh mmph fugh you.”
I asked, “What do you mean you traded the mall for us?”
He said, “thunh cumph ung seh thuh wuh gungh kuh yuh umph uh dngh gmmp uhd tuh dum.”
“Well,” I said, “they could have killed all of us and had it anyway, so I guess that was nice.” I was bitter with him. I still am. Even so, I recognize that there’s nothing he could have done. He was alone against their small army. When they came and said they would release us in return for everything we had, they were really saying we could choose to leave or die.
We took off walking back down the highway, our car being taken also. They had all our food, water, supplies and guns. They had our home. They had my notebooks. We had to get in and get our things. I said as much to my friends, and they thought I was crazy. They said as much, every one of them, as I pressured to go back to the mall.
The caravan of scouts had all come back together, though, bringing Mutie along to free us. The place would be unguarded, if just for tonight. They knew I was crazy, but I knew we had no other option. We walked all the way back to the mall, setting up temporary residence in a small home nearby which had survived much of the destruction.
Inside, a ghost told us about his work day, saying, “Tom at the office said our revenue this year is up thirty percent, so I should get a big bonus just in time for the holidays.” I brushed him away and kept talking about the necessity of getting some supplies. Mutie thought I was crazy, too, and he told me that, but he also confessed to being a little insane and offered to go with me.
Then we had a plan. Mutie and I would sneak in, take everything we could carry, and retreat back here. I would have my journals. He would have his guns. Everybody would be happy. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was what we had to do.
Infiltrating the mall at night was somehow even more stressful this time than when we exterminated the Pantheon. Nobody was there, and we didn’t expect anybody, but somehow the pressure of knowing somebody could be was overwhelming. We danced between cars, staying mostly hidden as we made our way in, checked the security room for an stragglers, and gathered what we could as quickly as possible.
The whole trip took maybe an hour. We left with four packs of goods and a few jugs of water. We had everything we came in for. We left behind so much more. Our home was theirs now, though, and it was safer not to linger there anymore. I bid farewell to my Bath and Body Works and we had the long slow trip back with our arms and bodies burdened with the weight of our loot.
There wasn’t much talk when Mutie and I got back to our temporary home last night. Nemesis said, “Welcome back,” while Cannie just rolled over on the couch to go to sleep. I could understand why they weren’t in high spirits; we’d failed our mission and lost everything we’d saved in the process. Still, these few packs of supplies came as some kind of win, didn’t they?
Nemesis came to me after I finished my entry detailing the past few days and fucked me for the first time in a week. It was good and she was good and we were close, but there was no speaking and she left as soon as we had both climaxed without any extra luxuries. She didn’t hold my hand or kiss my face, just sex and she was gone.
In the morning we divided the contents of our bags so that each person had their own supplies and weapons. There wasn’t as much as it seemed like. Cannie bemoaned the lack of meat. Protein was what he said, people was what he meant. One we were all equipped, it was back to the mission. It wasn’t over and wouldn’t be until we found my wife and daughter.
“We need to find Macamo Lake,” I told the group. I explained to Cannie, “it’s where they take the kids.”
“Ush yuh grng thuh?”
“Probably not,” I answered perhaps too honestly. “It’s the only place I can think to look.”
Cannie said, “I’ve never even heard of that. It’s possible they named it after the bombs dropped; we should consider any lake and in particular state parks while we look for it.”
Nemesis said, “You both realize she’s probably dead by now, right? Let’s just move on.” The three of us shot her a collective glare that got her quickly back on task. “There’s a gas station near here,” she said. “They would probably have maps that would should parks and lakes.”
“Good idea,” I agreed. In truth, it was the only idea. We knew we were probably only going to find bodies. The chances of her being both alive and at this children’s camp seemed remarkably slim. “We’ll look for a Macamo Lake on the maps and if we don’t find it, we’ll look for anything like it.”
“We’ll want to find a new car to help us look,” Cannie suggested.
“Sure,” I said, “you have the money for a down payment?”
“Don’t be a smart ass,” he said. “We’ll need some way to get around.”
“That piece of shit you were driving wouldn’t have made it much further, anyway,” Nemesis added.
“Fine,” I said with only a hint of bitter resentment, “but finding a running car with keys in it is pretty rare.”
“Euh cuh huhwur uh cah,” Mutie offered.
“What?” Nemesis asked.
“Why are we only just learning this?” I asked him.
“What is it?” Nemesis demanded.
“We could have been doing that all along,” I said.
“Doing what?” Nemesis pleaded.
I said, “Mutie can hotwire cars.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” Nemesis asked, and it was a good question. We were only wasting time, and we didn’t really have time to waste. Mutie led the way outside. There was a silver sedan parked on the street that seemed in good enough condition. We checked the doors first, finding all four locked.
“How do we get in?” Cannie asked as Mutie picked a sizable landscaping rock from an adjacent yard.
“Whush ugh,” he said as he hurled the rock through the passenger window. Glass sprayed over the inside of the car. Cannie jumped. Nemesis chuckled. Mutie unlocked the door. I went inside and looked for a broom.
Mutie was still taking the cover off the steering wheel column when I got back out with my broom. I swept the detritus onto the floorboards and out of the car while he worked. I watched him pull out wires, cut them and strip them, and by the time I was done, the car had shuddered to life. Aside from the window, everything seemed good with it, down to having half a tank of gas.
We got in, letting Mutie drive. He drove us over to a Sunoco convenience store. The electricity was off and the pumps weren’t working, but we only needed a map. The food and drinks here had been thoroughly raided, leaving only trash and rats behind, but the demand for maps diminished with the digital age and was all but gone in the post-apocalyptic age. We got what we came for and left to read our map somewhere less public. We decided on a stop just off the road only a mile or less away.
The map we got covered the whole state and didn’t have a lot of finer details; the mall wasn’t denote, of course, and neither is Merry Village, which I think is a name they should have kept. It did have state parks and lakes pictured, though, and it wasn’t terribly hard to find out where we should go.
The place we found was called Macaroni Lake State Park. The lake itself is literally shaped like a giant piece of elbow macaroni. It’s not the exact name I was given, but there aren’t any other places that seem as likely to be right. It’s several miles down state route 85, away from the highway. We would have to pass directly by Haven to get there. We all agreed that driving right in front of Haven would be a bad idea, but coming from the opposite direction meant more miles on the car and more precious fuel used getting there.
I said, “The might just leave us alone if we’re only driving past.”
“They’re going to know,” Nemesis said. “They’re going to know exactly where we’re going and they’re not going to like it.”
Mutie chimed in, too, saying, “Dunh buh stuphd.”
I knew I was being stupid, but we had already taken so much more time than we had to spare; how could I bear taking any longer? How could they bear it? Especially Cannie, who still thought of Ella as his own daughter. I finally said, “Let’s not shit ourselves,” as if I were the one who had been reasonable, then added, “Let’s take the long route.”
Cannie finally spoke up. “I agree,” he said, “we can’t find her if we’re dead.” We can still find her if she’s dead, though; that was the implication to me.
With little hope left to rely on, I said, “Let’s go,” and pointed to the westbound ramp to the highway. The trip took more than an hour, even flying down roads with no traffic and no speed limit, but we got there without any trouble. It’s May now, and the air is warm enough that not having a window on my side is almost nice. The map blew in my face every time I needed to pick out our next turn, but it was an almost nice ride all around.
I was the only one who spoke in the car, and then only to say things like, “Turn left of Possum Creek Road,” and, “Take 667 on the right.” Although the car ride bordered on relaxing, we were all tense. I’m not really even sure what had us all so stressed out. Artemis and Ella had a whole week to get away from us; our chances of finding them were slim to none. Children get dumped here, that was my understanding, and Ella was still a child, but that wasn’t exactly much to put your hopes on. I can’t help but feel like we’re only trying at all for lack of anything better to do. I’ve already mourned Ella and the woman who became Artemis once; I just wanted to be left alone to mourn them again.
That led me to think of Artemis. She seemed like a cold killing machine, with skin thick enough to repel bullets. She seemed like a huntress. She seemed powerful and indomitable. She didn’t seem like a Liz. Was she ever? I found it hard to believe. “Turn left on Macaroni Lake Road,” I said, trying to dispel my memories like I would a ghost.
“Euh cuh weah duh singh,” Mutie clapped back at me.
I looked up from my map. The signs for this road read, “BOAT DOCK,” “CAMPGROUND,” “BEACH,” “TURTLE TRAIL,” and “EAGLE TRAIL.” Signs pointing further down the road indicated, “PARK OFFICE,” “INFO CENTER,” “CABINS,” and “MOOSE TRAIL.” Mutie, I’m sure, was following the sign for the campgrounds. I had been told they were taken to a camp; that seemed the most obvious place to start looking.
The campground had two long buildings, both or which looked like they were probably empty before Hell broke loose. We searched both, and found footprints in the dust, but even those seemed old. There was nobody there. We searched the woods around the campsite, up and down hills and through trees, but there was nobody there.
We went down to the docks and over to the beach area. Neither had any signs of people. We had split up to search the area, but when we reconvened at the long camp buildings, everybody reported the same. If there were kids living out at Macamo Lake, they weren’t living here.
“We should check along the trails,” I said, “to see if maybe they’ve set up camp somewhere less public.” It was a stupid idea, but what else were we going to do? Ella wasn’t here. Our job here was to waste time until we thought of a better idea.
“Do you really think they would go out in the woods instead of just staying here?” Cannie asked.
“No,” I said. “I really don’t. I don’t think we’re going to find them at all. I think they’re gone forever. What the fuck do you want to do?”
He stared at me in shocked silence for a moment. Had I been too harsh? This was a stressful moment for all of us, staring ultimate defeat in the face. Nemesis woke us from our trance. She said, “Boss and I will take the Eagle Trail, you two check the Turtle Trail.”
“Yeah,” Cannie answered, “let’s do that.”
I didn’t say anything but followed after nemesis as she walked towards the sign denoting our trail. The Eagle Trail started by leading up a sharp hill then swooping out of sight. The Turtle Trail seems to go down towards the lake, but Mutie and Cannie were out of sight before I could really see where their path took them.
I asked Nemesis, “Do you think we’ll find them out here?”
She sighed. “I think you and Cannie need to keep looking to stay sane,” she said.
“I don’t think anybody has been sane since the bombs dropped,” I said. “They scrambled our brains. Didn’t you notice people were resorting to cannibalism in a week?”
She nodded, “We’ve all seen it. People aren’t just traumatized, they’re fucked all the way up. We just don’t talk about it.” After a pause she added, “It’s easier that way.”
The Eagle trail led us up to the crests of the hills around the lake, giving us a view all the way down to the water. We still couldn’t see our friends from this vantage, and we hadn’t seen signs of anyone else, either. The trail was largely overgrown and didn’t seem like a hopeful place to find a group of children.
“Why did you agree to this hike?” I asked. “Neither of us think we’re going to find anybody up here.”
She answered by sliding out of her shirt in the way a snake sheds its skin.
“Oh,” I said, and took mine off, too. Our mouths came together first as we shed the rest of our clothes. She took me inside her there on the dirt and twigs and leaves. For a few minutes, we were just animals in the forest.
When we put our clothes back on, nothing had changed. It was still just us alone in the woods. It was nice now, though. The sex had been good consolation for failure. “Ok,” she said, slipping back into her shirt. “Are you ready to head back down?”
I brushed some dirt from the back of her shirt and said, “Sure. You don’t think it’s worth looking further?”
“It just loops back around,” she said, “we’re not getting anywhere by going forward. I looked at the map at the base of the trail.”
I had seen it but hadn’t looked at it. I assumed she was right. “Alright,” I said, “let’s go.” We headed back down the hill. The hike was much easier and took only a few minutes with both of us hopping and running part of the way. Despite our speed, Mutie and Cannie are already waiting in the space between the shelter houses. The sun was falling low behind the trees. I wondered how long we had spent back there in each other’s arms.
Cannie said, “We walked the whole trail; there’s nobody out here. It’s all overgrown, it doesn’t look like anybody else has walked on it for quite a while.”
“Ours was the same,” I said, “we walked way out there and didn’t see any sign of life at all.”
“Do you think anybody is out here, child or otherwise?” Cannie asked.
“Probably not,” Nemesis answered, but I didn’t quite agree.
“Somebody must be out here,” I said. “Even if it’s just bodies, they wouldn’t have mentioned this place at all if there weren’t something out here.”
“They didn’t mention this place,” Nemesis reminded us. “You said they called it Macamo.”
“The guy did say Macamo,” I answered, “but this is the only place that makes sense.”
“So what do we do next?” Cannie asked.
I said, “We need to keep looking, but it’s starting to get late. Let’s bunk down in one of these buildings until morning, then we’ll check out where the other signs go.” Everybody looked at me somewhat blankly. Nobody expected anything to come from this. I didnt even expect anything. “They could be staying in the cabins,” I added, hoping to give some validity to my plan.
“Yeah,” Nemesis agreed, “or maybe they’re reading brochures at the information building.” Nobody laughed. We carried on amongst our selves a little more, but the plan stayed the same: we were done for the day and would search the rest of the land around the macaroni-shaped lake tomorrow.
We all woke up early in the morning. There were cots in the buildings at the campground, but none of them were exactly comfortable, even given the current standards of living. I don’t think it was just that, though. For me it wasn’t just that.
The forest makes fewer noises that before. The animals are all dead or insane now, too, most likely. Actually, I’ve hardly seen any animals, and it’s been nearly three months. I’m not sure if this is because everybody has been eating Fido and Spot and Garfield or if they were just more susceptible than we were, but they seem to be all but gone. I haven’t even seen any ghosts of animals.
The night sounds tell me they’re still out there. I hope that’s what the night sounds are telling me. Things were moving out there, and more than those things moved by the wind. There is life in the woods once the sun is gone. I hope the sounds are animal in origin, or our chances are slim, but I suspect they are; had there been humans out there, they would have killed us.
Nobody talked about the sounds when we got up. I’m sure they all heard what I did; I don’t think this is an instance of schizophrenia. We must have all come to the same conclusion; we’re not dead, so those were animals. It makes sense and it’s comforting when we’re about to spend the day lost in the woods.
We went back to the car and waited for Mutie to start it for us. With the column and necessary wires exposed, the process took moments. Then we were back in the car, turning left from Macaroni Lake Road and headed towards the park offices and cabins.
We found the office first and stopped to check there. The glass door was closed and locked, but apparently somebody else had wanted to get in here before we arrived; the glass of the door was smashed and a large rock rested on the opposite side amid the shards.
We stepped in one at a time, but it was already clear that we were alone. The building consisted mostly of a single room. There was a counter with a chair behind it. There was a smashed computer monitor. There was a rack of brochures and maps. Other than that, there were just the two steel doors. One went to a bathroom, which I checked, found empty, and then used. The other door was locked.
When I came out, Nemesis was bending a bobby pin back and forth to break it. Once she had two pieces, she put one in the lock and pushed to bend it then used the lock to bend just the tip of the other.
I said, “Are you really about to tell us you can pick locks?”
“I already told them,” she said. “It’s the only reason I carry these pins in my hair.”
She worked at the lock for a few minutes, withdrew her tools, then started again. She did this a few time, picking at it for a little longer each time. I said, “I thought you said you knew how to do this.”
She said, “I do, I’m just not very good at it; it takes time.” We gave her the time she needed, all of us sitting in silence for fear of breaking her concentration Finally, after half an hour or so, the pins turned in the lock and Nemesis opened the door.
The smell that came out was clearly death. That’s a smell which can’t really be mistaken for anything else and one which we have all grown familiar with in these last weeks. The inside was just a closet space, with brooms and mops and spare safety vests hanging about. The smell emanated from a single corpse lying propped up in the corner. The person had been dead for a long time, possibly since the first bombs went off. There was little more than a skeleton draped in vile rags left. I could see a hole through both sides of the skull and a pistol near one skeletal hand. Once, that would have been frowned upon; nobody blamed a person for that in this new world.
There was also a gun safe in the room. In his haste to escape this mortal anguish, our skeleton must have left it unlocked. Inside were a rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun, as well as boxes of ammunition. We took everything in the safe and the dead man’s pistol then left the stench of death behind us.
We’d gotten a good haul from the small office building, but none of us were satisfied. We would always need more guns and more bullets, but they didn’t mean anything unless we found what we were looking for. “Let’s check the info center next,” I said, “then we’ll check the cabins.”
“There’s another trail out this way somewhere if you want to walk it, too,” Nemesis contributed.
I thought about it. We had searched the others. Rather than narrowing the places we could find them, though, it seemed like each additional failure made finding either of the more unlikely. “No,” I said, “I don’t think that will help. We’ll look at the start of the trail and see if it looks like anybody has been there.”
“I think that’s fair,” Cannie agreed. “It’s best not to waste time.”
We had left the car running, given the process of starting it, and used it to travel only a short distance up the road. The information center for Macaroni Lake was a large open room with literature and pictures of the area displayed on all the walls. Pedestals throughout showed pictures of the local flora, while furry dolls around the perimeter mimicked local fauna.
There were two bathrooms, a long circular counter with a pair of chairs trapped in the middle, and a door to a single other room. This one was just an office with a desk and computer, with no guns and no bodies.
If both rooms, pamphlets and flyers had been thrown around carelessly, along with everything else. It didn’t look like the scene of a person searching for something so much as it did one sowing chaos. “Let’s go,” Cannie said. “There’s nothing here.”
Nobody argued. We went back to the car and followed one more turn out through the woods, towards where the signs indicated the cabins would be. They were fairly well recessed, but we found them easily, each nestled back in the trees with their own little driveway to give privacy.
“We’ll leave the car here,” I instructed as we pulled up to the first cabin. “We’ll walk through the woods between each cabin and check them all to circle back here.”
“We can search in opposite directions to get through them faster,” Cannie suggested.
I said, “We’ll just meet up at the furthest point and still have to come back. I don’t think it’ll take us much longer to stick together.” The truth that I didn’t say was that being out here in the woods was frightening. Being anywhere was frightening these days, but this was a place which would have been a little creepy even before death had a hard-on for humanity.
The first cabin was furnished with a sofa and a chair, with a bed and a television, but there was no food, and there were no supplies to be had. Everything looked like it had been used, but nobody was there using it. On the way to the second cabin, I swore I saw something move. We all looked and listened, but nobody else experienced anything, and I assumed I was crazy.
The second cabin was exactly the same, down to the patterns on the furniture. Again, the furniture was all worn and looked like it could have been used recently, but I wasn’t sure how to tell just how recent the guests there had been.
On the way to the third cabin, I know I saw something. The others did, too. We all paused and readied our weapons. We still weren’t prepared for the attack. As we stood there, two dozen children ranging in ages from probably five to fifteen poured out from the brush and logs and hills. I was frozen in place, unable to fire on them. I looked over to Cannie, and he was stunned as well. I looked at Nemesis, and her gun was raised at the charging surge of children, but she was shaking and powerless to act.
I didn’t look at Mutie. I didn’t have time to. I heard a shot go off then ducked to the ground as kids started to pile on top of me. There was another shot, then three more, and suddenly the children were retreating. Only Mutie still stood. The rest of us were down on the ground, bleeding from any number of bite marks on our arms and faces. Around us lay four dead children. I couldn’t look at them long enough to determine their ages or genders.
Then there was a sound behind us that I recognized. “So you found me,” she said. We all turned. Artemis said, “I came out here to be a mother to the children Haven discarded after the rest of the world discarded me. I came out here to protect them. I came out here to protect my children but you had to come and destroy my family again!”
“We were just looking for Ella,” I stammered. I didn’t know what else to say. Then Ella stepped out from behind her mother and looked me in the eyes. “Let’s go, honey,” I called, holding my hand out to her.
She said, “I wanna go with mommy.”
Artemis said, “Ella, that man over there killed your brothers and sisters,” and pointed at Mutie.
Before anybody could react, Ella produced a gun that looked like the same huge revolver she’d had for weeks and leveled it at Mutie. He started to move, either to shoot her or run, and she took the shot. The bullet pierced between his eyes and dropped him dead with a loud crack.
“Shit!” I screamed. “Fuck! That was my friend you fucking psycho!”
Nemesis recoiled, Artemis smiled, Ella lowered her weapon, but Cannie wasn’t phased. He knelt down to one knee and said, “Katrina, it’s daddy. You remember daddy? We have to go, okay? We can’t stay here.” He held out his hand like I had.
Ella looked at him and for a moment I think I saw recognition. Then she said, “I wanna go with mommy.”
“Well isn’t this fun,” Artemis said. “Our little girl has two daddies now. Are you two gay? Is that it?”
I wasn’t moved by her goading, but I couldn’t think of any way I could reply. Rather than answer her directly, I tested a new name out on my tongue. I said, “Elizabeth.”
“What?” Artemis asked. “What are you going on about? Who’s Elizabeth.”
I tried the word again, but different this time, the way I had learned it. I said, “Liz.”
This time she stopped. Her smile disappeared. She said, “You don’t remember my name, do you, Paul?”
I was sure she was talking to me, but that wasn’t my name. I had never heard the name before in my life. I didn’t even have a name. I tried the one word I knew again. “Liz?”
The name seemed to be some sort of magic spell that held her fast in place. Neither Artemis nor Ella moved. Finally, Artemis finished the word for me, fixed it, and made it sound somehow right. “It’s Eliza,” she said. Then, still looking stupefied, she said, “Kill them,” and Ella slowly raised her revolver.
I dove for Nemesis, tackling her and sending both of us rolling down the hill where the children had fled. I heard a second shot just as I saw Cannie come tumbling down behind us. The three of us stood and started running as soon as we could stop tumbling. None of us seemed to be injured. It was unlike Ella to miss a shot, and I wondered if she hadn’t just spared us.
As we ran for the car, there was another crack of gunfire, somewhat different from the last, and a searing pain shot through my right leg. I knew without looking that the shot had come from Artemis. From the top of the hill she shouted down, “I’m coming for you and I’m going to kill you,” and I could make out the words, but only barely. My eyes were blurring and everything sounded further away than it actually was.
Cannie used his remaining arm to awkwardly help me into the car while Nemesis struggled to recreated what she’d watch Mutie do. The process took a minute, but not other shots came. She wanted us to run. She wanted to hunt us.
Nemesis took us back to the house we had squatted at before raiding the mall for our things. The drive seemed like it took hours or days. The pain in my leg would not subside. When we finally made it, the two of them helped me limp from the car and into the home. They examined the wound together.
“It looks like the bullet went clean through,” Nemesis told me, “so we just need to keep it clean and keep pressure on it.” To emphasize the point, she dumped rubbing alcohol over a towel and wrapped it around the wound. The pain intensified and I thought I was going to pass out, but I stayed with it.
Now we are holed up in that house again, but we still don’t have Ella and now we don’t have Mutie. He had become a good friend to me over the past several weeks, and I’m sad to know that he’s not coming back. I hope one day I get to see his ghost and the ghost will be free of mutations and talking clearly. I hope one day I get to kill Artemis; she is not the woman she was before the bombs. Then again, I guess none of us are the same. Most of us are dead.
This war against the world has gone on long enough. I am ready for the finale. I am ready for it to all end. It’s coming soon. I can feel it, like my own ghost is tugging at my sleeve, like staring into a mirror and the reflection demands that it’s his turn. I wonder if this is new to the apocalypse or if people always know when they’re going to die. I wonder if Mutie knew he was going to die when he killed those children. I wonder if those children rushed into battle knowing they were going to die.
“What are we going to do now?” Cannie asked as we remaining three gathered in the morning. “If we go back there, she’ll have those kids on us again. She’ll kill us. She’ll kill Katrina.”
“She’s not going to kill her daughter,” I told him.
“Katrina is my daughter!” he roared, “Not yours! Not hers!”
Hearing her name like that made it seem true. There was power in a person’s name. I had known this all along, I had avoided using names to hide away from that, but I didn’t know why. I just knew it hurt to lose a person with a name. It hurt so much that I had discarded and forsaken all names, even my own.
“You’re right,” I said to his daughter’s name, “but Artemis still thinks of her that way.”
“Artemis isn’t her name, either,” Cannie mumbled. I let it go. He was right to be upset. Our friend was dead without a name to remember him by. Still, I guess Mutie is some kind of name. He just didn’t want to lose his daughter in the same way. Neither did I, but he was right; she wasn’t my daughter. She was just a ghost of my little girl being selfish with a body that wasn’t hers.
I’m still not clear on that and what is going on with Ella. I’ve heard her speak, I’ve heard Ella and not Katrina, but somehow I have to say that the voice of my daughter did not come from my daughter. I assume my real daughter is dead. If I survive saving Cannie’s daughter, I’ll dedicate myself to finding out. She was with the woman who became Artemis, and now Artemis is alive; couldn’t they both be? My former wife talked like Ella was dead, too. How could I know?
Nemesis said, “I don’t think we should go back, either; I think she’s going to try to find us.”
“So what do you think we should do?” I asked. I thought I could guess. Nemesis truly was a goddess of vengeance. She would want us to do whatever ended with Artemis dead. She has tried to kill her once already.
“We need to set a trap for her,” she answered, “We make ourselves easy to find so that when she does find us we’re ready to kill her.”
“We don’t really need to kill anybody if we can just get Katrina,” Cannie suggested.
I said, “I don’t think I can kill her.” I didn’t want to. If it came down to it, I would rather let her kill me. Yesterday I had wanted to; the passion had left me when I felt my own death creeping in.
“She doesn’t seem to have any problem with trying to kill you,” Nemesis said. “Maybe you should rethink that.”
I did rethink it, and I had several times already, but I kept coming to the same conclusion. I had to settle my business with Artemis personally. It was the only way to keep the other two members of my tribe safe. Mutie was dead. Ella was lost to us as long as Artemis was alive. I could bring her back as long as I was the only one to go. We couldn’t all die together.
I said, “I think I need to go to Artemis alone.”
“No,” they both said in perfect unison. I wonder if they didn’t shut me down just because they knew I was right. Now that they had a name put to me, they would suffer my loss even more. I wonder if that even is my name. It sounds so foreign in my mind’s ear as I replay her saying it again and again. I haven’t managed to say it out loud yet.
“That’s exactly what she wants,” Nemesis said. “We’ll lose you and have one fewer person to help get Ella.”
“Katrina,” Cannie reminded.
“Sorry, Jack,” she said, “it’s a habit.”
“Can we actually not use names?” I asked. “I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about this with both of you.”
“Paul,” Nemesis said. There was no more to her statement; just that stranger’s name.
“Please,” I begged.
“Paul,” Cannie said, imitating Nemesis’s start.
“God damn it,” I said and stood up. We had all been gathered in the tiny living room, Cannie and I on the couch and Nemesis in a chair. I left to one of the two bedrooms and slammed the door behind me. I could hear them talking in the other room but tried not to listen; I didn’t want to hear any more.
Here was the bed Nemesis and I had shared the night before. I think I knew my time was almost out then, because we made love like we were never going to get another chance. We might get to it again, it depended largely on how long my life held out, but the sex we had felt like a final punctuation.
I laid down in that bed and closed my eyes. It was still morning, but my mind and body were both exhausted. Just the simple act of limping in here had cost me most of my strength. I barely even thought about it when I got up, but the pain was intense. They both tell me it’s not that bad, as far as gunshot wounds go. I tell them both that it feels pretty fucking bad. I’m trying to cope, though. I’m trying to put on a tough face. What else can I do?
I let sleep take me while the others talked in the living room. I couldn’t hear much of what was said, only bits and pieces, names, my name and hers. Paul and Liz. Was that right? Yes, it sounded right, they sounded right together, but they didn’t sound like us. They didn’t sound like me and they didn’t sound like Artemis.
I fell asleep with those names on my mind and dreamed of her ghost. She was sitting on the couch sideways, her legs and feet draped over my lap. She was reading a book. Poetry. The kind with rough edges and pain that lasted for days that she had always liked. She didn’t say anything, but I looked away from the TV at her. She was looking back with sex in her eyes and a secret story of lust on her lips.
I could feel the blood rush through my body in the dream, but the passion wasn’t there, not quite. “I’m sorry, Liza,” I said, “I’m just really not in a good place for it.” I could remember that day. I had just lost my job. There were other things going on between us, too. Of course there were. We were two humans trying to exist in a single space. My dream self, however, was living that day as the present, just like the ghosts that haunt our world. I felt scared that I would hurt or offend her. I felt like a failure. Of course I wanted her, but I needed solitude.
“It’s really okay,” she said to me. “It’s just a job; you’ll get another one.”
“It’s not that,” I said, and that was a half truth; it wasn’t just that. I had lost my job because of an inappropriate workplace relation. It was the guilt and shame of that and the guilt and shame of telling my wife it was just corporate downsizing. I felt those things in real time through my dream. I told her, “I’m just going to lay down, I think; I’m sorry.”
“Paul, honey,” she called behind me, “please try not worry. We’ll be fine.” I started to stand to walk into the bedroom so that my sleeping self could sleep and pain shot through my leg, waking me instantly. When my eyes opened, I was surprised to find myself, not laying down, but sitting upright as if getting up from a couch.
Nemesis and Cannie were in the doorway, looking at me with strange expressions. “Who were you talking to?” Nemesis asked.
I rubbed away the sleep,but my eyes didn’t feel like they had been asleep. No, I had blinked, not opened them. I hadn’t been dreaming; I’d been a ghost. I had been what Ella is. I said, “I think I was talking to Eliza,” and just that one time, it felt right to say her name, because that had really been who it was.
“What do you mean?” she demanded, but I couldn’t produce an answer that would be good enough for her, and I didn’t particularly want to.
I said, “I fell asleep and I was dreaming, then I woke up and you were here.”
“No,” Nemesis said, “you were sitting up with your eyes wide open talking to somebody.”
“I guess,” I said, “but I’m telling you, I was asleep.”
“That’s not normal,” she said.
“What the fuck is normal?” I asked. Cannie actually chuckled a little.
Nobody said anything after that. What was there to say? I wondered if they both saw what was happening as clearly as I did. I wondered if they saw me dying. I assumed they must have, otherwise they would have had more questions; they would have insisted on talking more.
I laid back down to try to sleep again and they took the cue to step back out. This time I dreamed of Ella. There were no words in this dream, nothing to talk about, just our precious baby girl, only a few hours old. I was on a couch, lying across it with her snuggled into my chest. Liz was there, too, but she was asleep, just like Ella. They had earned it. Then, as quickly as it came, the dream was gone.
When I woke, the sun was gone. Nemesis was asleep next to me. I didn’t even know her real name. It wouldn’t do me any good to ask her at this point, at the dusk of my life. It was a shame that I would probably never get a chance to dream about her. I rolled out of bed to go write this: today’s story. Are the ghosts we all see now nothing but our dreams and memories? Are they images of those lost or of the memories we hold of them? Are they just excerpts of our stories? I wonder if all I’ve done in these notebooks is make more ghosts.
The first rays of sun woke me this morning. Nemesis was still there, still asleep. She looked peaceful. I’d never seen here look quite that way before. It’s been nearly three months now since I’d seen anybody spend a peaceful moment awake, and I’ve seen few enough of them from people sleeping. I left her there, still at peace, and hobbled into the living room.
“Good morning,” Cannie said as I came in. I was surprised to see him sitting out there so early.
“Hey,” I said back. He was in the chair. I sat on the couch.
He said, “So Ella was your little girl’s name?”
I sighed. I didn’t want to talk about this and I wanted to make that clear to him. “Yeah,” was all I said in response.
“You’re the reason for all of this,” he said. “You’re the reason she’s with that psychopath. You’re the reason she doesn’t know who she is. You’re the reason we haven’t had a moment of peace for weeks.”
Peace: how were we supposed to maintain that in this world? It was about then I noticed the gun sitting in his lap. “Are you planning to kill me?” I asked.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” he said. “The truth is, I’m still not sure. See, I actually think, despite everything, that you’re a good guy. You’re evil, but I don’t think you mean to be. You’re my friend when all my other friends are dead.”
“Thanks,” I told him. I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t think of any words that fit. Even the one word I offered felt like too much.
He went on, “I really hate you right now, though. There’s a part of me saying I’d be better off if you were just dead. Who knows, maybe Artemis would give me my daughter back if I gave her you.”
I shook my head. “She wouldn’t do that,” I said.
“Why do you think I haven’t tried?” he said. “I know that. Friend or not, nobody is worth as much to me as my daughter. If I thought for a moment she would go for it, you’d already be gone.”
“I can understand that,” I told him.
“I’m sure you can,” he answered.
Down the short hall a door opened and Nemesis came out to join us. She must have heard us talking. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“We were discussing how we’re going to get her back,” I said, avoiding both of the names the girl now had. I suppose it wasn’t entirely a lie. I’m good at half truths.
She came and sat next to me. “So what have you come up with?” she asked.
Neither of us answered for an uncomfortably long moment of silence. Cannie spoke first and said, “I can’t think of anything.”
“Same,” I said.
Nemesis motioned to Cannie’s lap and said, “Were you expecting them to show up here?”
Cannie didn’t miss a beat. “It was for him,” he said, “but I couldn’t do it. You wanna try?”
Nemesis ignored the sarcastic question. She said, “He just got shot once; that’s enough. We need to stay here for now. It’s safe, nobody knows where we are, and there are places to get supplies all around. We’ll have to get some supplies today, actually.”
A ghost I hadn’t seen before walked out of my bedroom and into the living room, holding up an empty hand. “Hey, I just won twenty dollars on this!” he said.
We all ignored him. I said, “Artemis will probably never find us here. Sooner or later we’re going to have to go back.”
“Why don’t you use her name?” Cannie asked.
“I did use her name,” I answered.
Nemesis said, “You think we can get past her army of babies without Mutie there to kill them off?”
“I don’t know,” I said. The sun was still rising and already I was overwhelmed with the day. My head was swimming. My vision was blurring.
Cannie saw it, too. “Are you okay?” he said.
“No,” I said, and that was the last thing I remember.
When I came to, I was alone. I was lying on the couch, covered in sweat. A note had been pinned to my shirt with a button which read, “SMILE!” I pulled the note free, leaving the button there.
The note was hastily scrawled in all capital letters. “WENT TO FIND FOOD WATER ANTIBIOTICS BACK SOON.” It would have been the perfect time to take off on my own, to crawl off to die alone like a dog, but I couldn’t walk and assumed they had taken the car. My leg burned and ached just lying there and I was suddenly surprised that I had managed to walk at all since being shot.
I was hungry and thirsty and hoped they came back soon. The ghost came out of my room with his invisible lottery ticket. It didn’t make me feel any less alone. “Good job,” I told him, but he was gone.
I don’t know how long it actually was before they got back. I think it was maybe three hours or so but can’t be too sure. It was late afternoon and the sun was significantly lower than when I woke. I had been inert and alone; the ghost hadn’t been back, either. They came back with everything they promised, as well as a set of crutches to simplify walking for me.
We ate and drank together. It wasn’t much, canned vegetables and beans with water, but it felt like a lot. It felt like having a family. Maybe it wasn’t the traditional family, the nuclear family, but it was a fine post-nuclear family. We were short two people, though, and all three of us were feeling the loss. Cannie looked angry all the time but also like he was holding back tears. Nemesis was so quiet and cold that I was afraid to speak.
We spent most of the night in silence. We all knew a plan had to be made, but none of us could come up with one that didn’t involve dying. Without something useful to contribute, any other words we could have used would have been insufficient.
For days we’ve just stayed here at the house while I regain my strength. The bullet wound doesn’t look so bad, honestly, but it took so much more out of me than I realized for the first day or so. I still feel feeble and crippled, and the crutches help me get around, but I worry about every step I miss towards strengthening that muscle. Nemesis says it’s too early, that I’m hurting myself more than it helps. Cannie agrees. I know they’re right, but I can’t stomach the thought; I feel like I have to be able to do something to recover faster.
The dreams are getting worse. Nemesis hardly sleeps at night, listening to me speak to nobody or watching me pace around the room. Those dreams are not dreams. I’m possessed by my own ghost, just like Katrina is possessed by Ella. I’ve known it all along. It never really felt like a dream, did it? It felt like being me as I used to be.
Nemesis says it’s the stress of everything going on coupled with being shot and unable to walk. She thinks it’ll get better as my body heals. Cannie doesn’t think that. He hasn’t said anything to me about it, even after these four days, but I’ve heard him talk with Nemesis. The ghost dreams scare her. He says I’m losing it and that soon I’ll be just like Artemis. He says I’m recreating my life with her and the family we had. He says I obsess over Ella because I think she’s my daughter. He doesn’t understand that she is. My daughter’s ghost is all that’s left of her, and it lives in that girl’s body.
We haven’t talked about much else this whole time. We’ve all been tense and we know that the longer we take to make a move, the more dangerous the game we’re playing gets. We don’t know what Artemis is doing. She’s seen our car; she could conceivably look for it and find us. She could be gathering allies. What if she went back to Haven and convinced them to make a concerted effort to find us?
There was one other idea I had, but it hadn’t been very well received. I brought it up a couple days ago and was promptly shut down. I brought it up again today. I said, “I think we should go to my old place. Artemis will look there sooner or later and we can be ready for her.”
“That was a fine idea before,” Nemesis said, “but that was before Mutie died and before you were crippled. She knows exactly how many people and what kinds of guns we have. She’s not going to just hand herself over to us.”
Cannie was suspiciously silent. “We just have to be ready,” I said.
“She just has to be ready!” Nemesis argued.
Cannie said, “Is the only alternative to that just going and handing ourselves to her?” For the first time in days, he didn’t look angry. He still looked very, very sad.
“Or we give up on the girl,” I said. “Every day we wait means less chance of getting her back.”
“Damn it,” he said back to me. “You know we can’t just give up. We have to make a move and we have to do it soon.”
“Alright,” Nemesis said, “you want to just go kill yourselves. Be my guests. I’m staying.”
“What?” Cannie said. “You can’t just leave us like that!”
“Why not?” she snapped back. “Why was this ever my problem in the first place?”
The silence after that was thick and it took me a moment to cut through it. “She’s right,” I said. “She shouldn’t have to deal with this.”
Cannie was angry again, but the resignation hung in his eyes alongside a renewed wall of tears bulging at his eyelids. “Nemesis, you’ll stay here. We’ll come back once we have Katrina.”
“It’s suicide,” she said.
I said, “It’s our only choice. We know the stakes.” That seemed to end the conversation. We did know the stakes, and we knew the odds. Neither of us expected to come back, but we knew not taking the risk was worse. I wanted to tell Cannie not to go; Artemis was my problem alone. I knew he wouldn’t have it, not with his daughter on the line. I was happy that I would have his company, anyway.
It was already afternoon when we made the decision. We agreed we would go the next day, leaving the bulk of our weapons and resources behind, once more taking only what we would need. I worried about Nemesis stay here alone in a dangerous world, but I’ve never met anybody more capable of handling themselves.
Now I’m finishing my first entry in days with something hopeful, the only news or change I’ve seen since the last time I wrote. Soon I’ll go to sleep. I’m confident that I won’t have the ghost dreams tonight, now that I’m finally going to face my ghosts and my fate.
“I don’t like this,” Nemesis said as we were getting ready to go this morning.
“None of us like this,” I said. “We’re doing what has to be done.”
“And you’re both okay with leaving me here alone,” she said, “while you two run off to die?”
“Nobody is going to die,” Cannie assured her. I knew he was wrong, and I think he knew it too. Still, where’s the harm in trying to comfort somebody with sweet white lies? Nemesis heard his words but looked at me. I could see on her face that she knew too. She had seen me speaking with the dead. I looked away; how could I meet her eyes after something like that? I felt like most of what was left of me were only memories, that the present had forgotten me. Cannie saw the look, I think. He said, “I’m going to put our packs in the car, then we’ll be all set to go. Just come out when you’re ready.” Carrying both bags with his remaining arm, he stepped out, leaving us alone.
I was grateful for those last few moments with Nemesis, but I didn’t really know how to spend them. Was I supposed to kiss her and hold her and tell her that I love her? I did love her in some strange new way, but I didn’t think I could just leave her behind after dropping that on her. It was probably best that she didn’t know how I felt. Now that I had to leave her, hurt her, I wish we hadn’t been so close. I wish she had never learned my name. I wish that I had never learned it.
“I know you think you’re going to die,” she said, “but you don’t know that.” She watched me for a moment, but I didn’t have a reply. She said, “That’s no reason to be so cold. If anything, that’s more reason to be close to me now.”
She was asking to be held in her own way, that’s what it felt like, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t help but feel like she still didn’t understand. I said, “I’ve felt it getting close for a week now. I know this is it for me. I think we should skip the sentimental stuff, the sad stuff, and I should just go.” I didn’t know what else to say so I added just, “I’m sorry.”
Then she hugged me. I was surprised at first, even a little scared, though I couldn’t quite place why. It felt good, though. I let one crutch fall to the ground and pulled her as close as I could. Once I had her there, once I was holding her, I understood why I felt scared. I didn’t want to lose this. I had found something real and true in a world which had killed everything but fiction, and now I was leaving it all behind. I was frightened of dying too, of course I was frightened of that great and final unknown, but somehow this was worse. This, leaving a loved one behind, was a fear I knew and which I knew I could not overcome. Ironically, it was that fear of losing a loved one that was leading me away from Nemesis now.
She saw it too. “Why would you leave me for her?” Nemesis asked into my shoulder. It was a simple question but carried a lot of weight.
I said, “It’s not like that,” but we both knew it was. I was choosing death over life. I was choosing the dead over the living. I was choosing Artemis over Nemesis. “It’s what I have to do,” I added, but that wasn’t quite right either. “It’s the right thing to do,” I said, and I thought there was at least a possibility that was true.
She said, “I already decided that I wasn’t going to try to stop you from going or to make you stay.” There was a pause; she had more to say, but the inevitability of tears froze her for a moment. “But I love you,” she finally went on, and the tears started to flow along with the words. I wanted to say it back, but how could I tell her that I loved her only to turn around and leave her there alone while I hunted after the woman who had been haunting me? I said nothing, only held her that much more tightly. I don’t think saying any three words would have helped, not even those three, not with the current circumstances. I felt guilty and powerless.
When she pulled back, it was with her mind and spirit (if such a thing exists outside the realm of memories) as much as it was with her body. She didn’t say anything else, didn’t tell to go or excuse my quest with a weepy farewell. She just turn, walked away, and went alone into the bedroom we had shared. The ghost of a lucky lottery played came out behind her; I left before he could say his line.
“Ready to go?” Cannie asked the very moment I stepped out. I had left in a hurry, leaving one of my crutches behind, but I wasn’t going back in for it.
“Yeah,” I said, and it was true enough. We rode back to my old home together one last time, once more to request pizza for dinner and then to meet our fates. On the ride, I thanked him for sticking with me through everything.
He said, “Shut up,” so I did.
We didn’t say another word until we were maybe three miles from my apartment. The word we both said then was, “Fuck.” We were almost there, both anxious for the coming war, however small in scale -- two cripples versus a woman and a child -- when I blindly ran us over something which instantly shredded all four of our tires.
I believe we both knew what was happening as soon as we felt the car jerk; that’s why we both said what we did. We stepped out and each put one hand up, me so that I could hold my crutch and him because his other had already been consumed and digested.
“Throw all your weapons over here, all your guns and knives and whatever the fuck else you psychos have, and you can walk out of here,” said one of a dozen or so men wearing ski masks. The masks seemed a little superfluous, but I wasn’t in a position to challenge anybody.
“If you take our weapons,” I said, “we’re going to die.”
The same man answered, “If you don’t give us your weapons, you’re going to die.” Cannie didn’t have any other arguments to add. We both handed over our weapons, nothing more than a pair of handguns and a couple pockets worth of bullets. “What else you have?” the man asked after we’d dropped them.
“Nothing, just enough food to last two cripples a couple days,” I told them. “It’s all we have left after the last group of masked bandits.”
“Search them,” the man said. Two other men approach the car, one in an Iron Maiden t-shirt, the other with no shirt at all. The searched us, searched the car, then finally searched our two packs. Finding only what I’d described (and ignoring this notebook), they handed the packs back to us. “Go,” was the last word any of them said to us. Again, we did as we were told.
We took the rest of the trip on foot. Although it wasn’t far, my leg slowed us enough that the journey took almost two hours. We didn’t speak a word between us the whole way. It was a comfortable silence; it wasn’t an unwillingness or inability to talk, but a lack of necessity.
The sun was nearing its apex by the time we reached my home where we found the was nothing left to return to. The entire building my home was been part of had been burnt down, as well as most of an adjacent building. Other structures, it seemed, had been far enough away to avoid damage. I didn’t have to tell Cannie that Artemis had done this; he already knew. I didn’t ask him how to deal with her without weapons, either. We both knew the answer to that as well; we were going to handle the goddess of the hunt however we needed to. We wouldn’t know what that was until we can face to face.
“We’ll sleep over there,” Cannie said, breaking hours of silence. The house he motioned to had broken windows and an open door; it wasn’t secure, but nothing here looked secure. It was a place to hideout until Artemis came back, and that was all we needed. “Can you take both packs and wait for me while I look around?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “just be careful.” It was a specious request; if there was any trouble, he was...well, he was unarmed, in more ways than one. I took his pack and went to our temporary lodgings. I entered cautiously, expecting an attack, but none came. When I wasn’t accosted, I began to fear for Cannie, but he returned safely just a few minutes later.
“If she’s here, she’s hidden,” he said as he came in. “We’ll either see her or she already saw us.”
“That’s hopeful,” I said. We spent the rest of the day keeping watch at the window, sometimes together and sometimes in shifts. There seemed to be no life in the world, not a single buzzing insect and certainly not anybody’s daughter. There was a ghost in the house, a young woman talking on some invisible phone. She would say things like, “Can you believe he said that to me?” and “She was so extra I thought I was gonna puke,” but I didn’t really listen to her, and I don’t think Cannie did either. The ghost was incessant, always chattering on and repeating herself, but easy to tune out.
Eventually we decided to rest. My shift to watch is second. I’ll sleep soon, but first, I’m writing today’s story. Tomorrow I’ll write another story or else...or else I won’t.
Jack made it back with Ella today, but you weren’t with them. You left me here just like I knew you would. You’re such an ass. What were you thinking leaving me behind? Didn’t you think for a second that maybe I needed you more than she did? She left you and tried to kill you, and you would make love to me like I was all that mattered, but when it came time to choose, I was nothing.
Jack said she got the two of you by surprise in the night. She came in with her guns and told Ella to kill both of you. You told her she wasn’t your daughter. You told her Artemis wasn’t your mother. He said that you called her by her name, and I know that was hard for you, and that when you did, her eyes lit up.
He said the next time Artemis said to kill you, she said, “You’re not my mom,” and killed her on the spot. You said something stupid, thank you or something, and then she said, “You’re not my dad,” and ended you the same way.
She’s been pretty upset about it since it happened. We’ve all cried a lot. Jack tries to hide it. I guess he thinks his being strong helps us. If I believed it, I would just think he was cold and heartless, but I don’t believe it for a second. You were the best friend he’s had since this whole mess exploded.
You were Mutie’s best friend, too, and the best friend I’ve had since I lost my family. I regret that I still don’t know Mutie’s name. I wonder if you had accepted yours by the time you died. I’ll always think of you as Paul. Calling you Boss was the stupidest idea I think any of us have ever had. Maybe stupider than calling me Nemesis.
I’m not a goddess of any kind, not anymore than Artemis was. Liz was her name, but I don’t want to remember that. I don’t want to remember her or the way you left me for her or the way you died for her. Jack says you died for Katrina, he appreciates you and respects you even more now, but I know that wasn’t it.
I’m not mad at you, not really. I would have died for my husband or our son in a heartbeat. I’ve wanted to. Now that you’re gone, I want to even more, but I guess Jack and Katrina are my family now. They’re not the family I wanted or asked for, but they’re more than a lot of people get. I’m both grateful and bitter.
We could have had a family, you know. It could have been the two of us doing something nobody in the world was still bothering to do. We could have carved happiness out of this misery. We could have lived longer together, because we were together and in spite of it, and then we could have died together. Maybe then I wouldn’t be so damned sad.
Jack came back walking when he did come back. He told me about how you lost the car, and how you weren’t intimidated or afraid. I think you weren’t afraid because you expected Artemis to kill you. I’m still okay using that dirty name for her. I’m glad she died before you; she never deserved to outlive you.
I know I’m supposed to write about what happened in my day when I do these, but I can’t think about any day but yesterday. Did you know I read your journal? I read it as often as I could. I read the things you said about me and about all the things we were doing. I read the things you said the day before yesterday, when you were leaving. I read about how you looked everywhere for her, and I’m still angry, and I’m still sad, but I don’t blame you for leaving. I just wish we had gotten more time together. I wish you had chosen me over Artemis, over Liz, and even over Ella. I know that’s an unrealistic thing to expect, but it would have been nice to have you, just the two of us.
Does this mean I’m a monster? I would have sent Jack off alone to be killed by his own daughter. Who knows what would have happened to her and her...mother? No, her kidnapper. But you kidnapped her, too. And as for Jack, I think he’s been eating you. Katrina has been eating the same meat. It’s either from you or Artemis, I’m sure. Does he eat you to keep you with him? Does he eat her as a final act of hateful aggression? Or maybe he’s just hungry. Still, even sitting there eating human flesh with his preteen daughter, I don’t think he’s a monster; it’s just me.
If I didn’t have your own words here with me, I would think that was why you left me. I’ve done horrible things. We’ve all done horrible things, and the worst of it is that nobody can say we did them out of necessity. When I led us back to the mall, that was just for self-gratification. Even when I killed my own family, if felt like shedding weight.
I can’t go on. I can’t go on with this writing. I can’t go on with life. Everything I’ve done for two days has had to be between bouts of weeping like an idiot. If I were just sad you were gone or just angry at you for you choices, that would be bearable, but I’m not just mad or sad, I’m not even just both; I’m more than that. I love you and I hate you. I need you but would die if I had you. I hate myself.
Tomorrow we’ll look for supplies. We’ll keep trying to live in the world you left us. We don’t need you to survive, but we can’t tell what survival is worth with the rest of the world in shambles.
Things are good. Jack and Katrina are both still alive. We’ve only had to kill a few people in the last few weeks. We’re staying in a place called St. Croix. We’ve been working our way West, trying to get away from our history and our ghosts.
Katrina is talking now. She still spends a lot more time silent than I ever knew girls her age to do, but she’s a rarity in this world, and it hasn’t been kind to her. She usually uses single words to express her needs, but I’ve heard her say a few sentences. She’s warm and kind until we’re threatened, then she’s just a cold and deadly as ever.
Jack has been a good friend to me, but there’s no romantic interest. I think he’s not interested in women. I don’t think he’s interested in anybody. He wants to survive and he wants us to survive, but that seems to be as far as his goals go.
It’s still just us so far, the three of us, but I have news you’ll never receive. I haven’t had a period since the bombs, so it was a shock, but not really. Somehow, I just knew. I took a pregnancy test today. I actually took about 6 today. They all said the same thing, which I’m sure you guessed by now. Well, you would have guessed if you weren’t dead.
I asked Jack if he thought you knew I was pregnant before you died. He scoffed at the idea. He said you probably did. I don’t think so. I think you might have stayed if you’d known. You probably would have gone just the same, but I like to think you would still be with me and our baby if you knew.
Your ghost travels with us. I thought you should know that too. He’s not always there, but I see him every few days, usually talking about some history I’ve never seen. Katrina has seen him to, but Jack still hasn’t. I wonder if I’m crazy now just the same as you always did.
I told your ghost about the baby, too, but he didn’t seem to care. I don’t care about him. He’s not you. He’s not even like you. He’s nothing but one more inescapable reminder of the things we’ve lost.
I guess that’s all I’ve got to say for now. Maybe I’ll write more in a few months if I live long enough.