August 15, 2024 - The high Pacific sea wind lashed softly against me, dancing across my light-burned face, playfully tossing my dirty, tangled hair. On the surf-beaten beach far below - a few hundred feet at least - I could see our fire, and perhaps barely make out the figures of Sarah, Daniel, and Aaron huddled around it. Along the miles of coast that I could survey from this vantage point, I saw several more fires dotted, flickering blobs of yellow-orange waxing and waning with the wind, appearing smaller and smaller with increasing distance.
I had climbed up here, perhaps recklessly, for many reasons. Or perhaps for no reason whatsoever. To see how many other groups of survivors were in the vicinity. To clear my head and try to make some sense of it all. To get away from Sarah for a little while - she wasn’t holding up well, and serving as her emotional crutch was starting to take its toll on me, as guilty as that made me feel.
“To jump?” I thought half-jokingly. No, probably not that. Not yet, at least. I would put one foot in front of the other for a few more weeks or days before being at that point. But who knows? In a situation like this, everything could unravel in an instant, and had more than once already. My toes on the edge of the rock, I surrendered for a few moments to the whims of the ever-shifting wind. At times it gusted violently, more than strong enough to take me if it wanted. I dimly recalled reading of some island tribe that, in order to determine a man’s guilt, required him to jump from a high windy cliff. If the wind blew him back, he was innocent. If not, trial and punishment merged into one short act. Such a form of justice had a direct and frightening appeal to me now. Perhaps I even leaned into the wind ever so gently, not minding if its pressure subsided for that one brief moment, letting me fall, and fall… But then I took a few steps back, to a safe distance from the edge. Not yet.
With my pocket flashlight, I found a patch of relatively rock-free sand large enough to lay down in and look up at the sky. What little light pollution there usually was on this part of the coast was now an afterthought, and the stars shone brilliantly down on me, the band of the Milky Way slicing brightly across the overweening sky. With the perspective of the nearby objects around me taken away, I imagined for a moment that I was looking not up, but down - that I was hanging from my back above the oceanic blackness of gigaparsecs - and my head began to swim as though I might fall into the cauldron of distant fusion reactors. In times past, this would have been a perfect moment - perched above the Oregon coast, alone at the solemn and noble end of the land, surveying so much of God’s creation.
But no more. God had abandoned his earthly children, at least for a while. Or were these the mysterious ways that everyone had always referred to so lazily? That seemed a miserable joke - there was nothing mysterious here. These ways were cruel and unsparing, enamored of destruction. This moment was now poisoned, figuratively and perhaps literally. Who knew anymore where the fallout was spreading? And this was not the only poison - more than one of the seals had been broken. In these last few weeks I had gained a direct and personal insight into that Cold War line that those killed in the nuclear war were the lucky ones, though the scenario had unfolded in a way never predicted by the Rand Corporation or the Soviet Defense Ministry.
How could it have happened? I didn’t have a very good answer to that question. The devolution had happened so quickly that it was difficult to reconstruct in any detail, even though the events were still fresh and immediate in memory. What else could you say? The shit had hit the fan. There would be no well-edited Encyclopedia Britannica version. The elaborately constructed facades of civilization had come crashing down with astonishing rapidity. Not long before all this happened, the informed concern had been that humanity only had a few decades left - and even this had been widely dismissed as pessimism, fear-mongering, or an outright hoax. These predictions had missed the mark - but by overstating how long was left… Virus. Fires. Storms and Floods. Collapse and chaos. We thought that we had conquered pestilence, plague, fire, water, and nature itself, but found that we are subject to forces vastly outside of our own power. Perhaps what is happening is simply Earth’s way of restoring the balance, of forcefully reasserting control over a species that had attempted to transgress all limits.
A fragment of poetry had stayed stubbornly with me in these last miserable days and weeks, like flotsam from an ancient ocean washed up on the littered shores of my so-troubled mind: “I feel those wheels rumble. I feel the sway of speed. The horses are mad and running faster. They ought to check. They ought to answer the reins. There out to be reins. But there are none.” I seemed to remember that this was from the Georgics of Virgil. Perhaps a liberal arts education was good for something after all. And what was that? Insight into the final catastrophe, an eloquent understanding of man’s folly and hubris? I’d much rather have a cheeseburger, thank you. With fries, fresh golden salty crispy french fries. And nice fresh lettuce and onions, on a pub bun with mayonnaise and...
Stop it! I commanded myself, and pulled reluctantly out of the all-consuming food dream. America’s greatest commodity, the hamburger, the most ubiquitous of all meals - and yet it was far, so far out of reach now. Maybe if we found a place with solar and batteries with a freezer that was still running. Just don’t think about it, it’s easier that way.
Perhaps I dozed, for the stars remained in view but became, in my awareness, a network map. Connections appeared, and I could see that pairs and groups of stars flashed in sequence, sending and receiving information across nearly invisible lines of fiber. The constellations came to life, morphing into vivid forms that began as children’s book images, but then began to turn horrible and… I sat up, jerking myself out of another sleeping dream or waking vision - the boundary was beginning to erode - and felt the HK45 in my waistband press reassuringly against my hipbone. How long I been dreaming, high up there above the ocean?... I could only indulge in so much astral revelry, for I was conscious of needing to get back to my companions. Aaron had a gun, too, but I was nearly certain that he and the others would hesitate to use it until it was too late. I had already proved to myself and my friends that such hesitation would not befall me. I had even pulled the trigger eagerly, having waited through years of wearying civilized abstractions - standing patiently in line, filling out endless forms, polishing my resume - to commit some primal act of death. There might be mountain lions watching in the dark - or worse, much worse, human animals. A hungry beast might kill and devour you, but would finish the job. A person might decide to take you captive, to use you for unspeakable purposes, to draw out purposeless suffering. Someone from the next fire over could make their way quietly down the beach and… Don’t finish that sentence, I told myself. Don’t torture yourself, just get back to the others… My mind would not wander as easily on the climb and walk back.
An hour later, after following the high coast road a mile downhill and hiking through rocks back onto the beach, avoiding any other people who were out there, I arrived back at our group’s small enclave on the beach. When I walked up on them, I made sure to signal my approaching presence so that I would not be shot in surprise and misrecognition. Sarah, in jeans and a hoodie, her long ponytailed hair bounding behind ran to me, put her arms around me, and said, “Thank God, I was afraid something happened to you.” She looked up at me with flat, listless eyes that couldn’t focus, the eyes of a person whose soul has retreated to safety, found that there is none in existence, and began to become untethered from reality. I kept my thoughts to myself and we all went to sleep.
That night I dreamed of wandering through an endless city in the desert, a place of extreme rationality and yet, simultaneously, total madness. There were palaces filled with splendidly architected corridors that led to nowhere, compounded mazes of intricate design - find your way out of one, but now you are in another. Libraries filled with shelves so high that most of them could never be reached, and these filled with books written in languages that were achingly beautiful but had never been readable by any mind. A Borgesian old man appeared wordless and guided me through the most tortured parts of the journey. For many lifetimes, searching for something I knew I would never find, or dared not discover, I travailed tormentedly among the inspired and carefully worked fructum of unlimited imagination turned unrecognizably back upon themselves; a hideous debasement of intellect, the work of fearsome, darkly humorous gods with every means at their disposal. But, despairing, I knew that no gods had been at work here - not Zeus or Isis, Shiva, Baal, or any of the rest of them. This was the work of humanity itself.
Then, after uncountable revolutions of the Wheel, a flicker of hope: the warheads rained down from the burning sky, screaming isotopic condors descending in their swoop of predation. For brief moments I waited, eyes turned toward heaven, exuberantly anticipating the glorious fireballs, the orgasmic release of energy which would deliver me from the yoke of this agonizing psychosis. But then, nothing - they fell with a sickening, impotent thud into the sand, their trigger mechanisms rendered useless by that same insane engineer who had so gleefully executed all the rest of this captivating deliration, their abominable rending fissions suppressed by some stronger force of impenetrable Magic.
I woke with a start to a vicious chill, like a hard, cold blade running up my spine. For a moment, I had the sensation of being awakened by a cry of fear or alarm, but then the wind surged howlingly and I knew, or wanted to know, that this was the culprit. Seeking elusive remnants of warmth, I wriggled down further into my sleeping bag, wary of the mocking dream that still felt so oppressively close. But for now, I had escaped its clutches, and the clutches of some other lingering thing. There was only blackness...
At first light, I opened my eyes, which fell on an ashy pile of dying embers in the sand. The fire had gone out. No matter - we would be moving on from this spot as soon as we could collect ourselves and get moving. I wasn’t sure if sleep of this sort, invaded by corrupted dreams, had much value at all. I heard Sarah moaning a few feet away, making the signs of a bad dream - putting her hands up in defensive posture, her feet moving as if to run away, fear in her voice - and put my hand on her back, shaking her awake. I felt the muscles of her back move under my hand, and the transfer of energy went straight to my loins. Under normal conditions of life, this was the sort of small trigger that would turn into arousal, but it seemed impossible to be aroused, or at least satisfied, under these catastrophic conditions. She sat up with a start, disoriented from passing through the veil too quickly, and her frightened eyes roamed around uncertainly for a few seconds before they settled on my face - those lost, distant eyes looking at me but also through me, seeing but not seeing.
“Sweetie, you were having a bad dream. It’s okay.” The instinct to reassure kicked in, but as soon as the words left my mouth, I realized how monstrously silly they were, that everything was colossally not okay. Her eyes searched around again, and I knew she was trying to decide what was real and what was imagined. Though they were now clouded portals into her shock and sadness and pain, those eyes were still mysterious and arresting and gorgeous, flashing metallic blue with wispy tendrils of green, shining like brilliant nebula hurling their light across the vast chasm of space, and I looked into them and thought of that day in college when we met to go up to the top of the parking garage and watch the sunset, and I brought my CD player, but it wasn’t working for some reason and I was so frustrated because I had wanted the moment to be perfect, and I kept fiddling with the thing and finally she said, “Mark, it’s okay”, and she put her hand on my hand and electricity passed from her body into mine and she smiled the softest smile I’d ever seen almost laughing at me for being so worked up and she said “We don’t have to have the music, I just wanted to be with you” and I looked into those bright eyes and I knew that she loved me too and the moment was even more perfect than I could have ever planned or imagined. And life had been perfect, like a warm soft blanket, like a good dream where all your mistakes are undone and things happen just the way they should have before you made a mess of them, and for a few moments you realize that redemption is real. But there was a kind of sadness along with the joy, maybe only because I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that life couldn’t always be like this, that the pain and sorrow would come back eventually. Yet it was more than that - it was some heavy forbidden knowledge that was encoded inside of me, though it was scrambled so I could not know the details, and yet I knew that it told of days to come that were terrible beyond imagining. And now I knew exactly what that feeling had meant, because the premonitions had been realized, but on that day on the parking garage fifteen years ago they had just been vague and easy to dismiss, though they would return to me again and again. But in that moment we had stood in the soft, slowly setting sun and looked into each other’s eyes and time had stopped and nothing else had mattered, and her eyes were so deep and shimmering with ancient light that had travelled an immeasurably great distance…
And then I was back on the beach, and disoriented because the memory had been so vivid and all-encompassing that adjusting to the present took a moment, and there were Sarah’s eyes looking up at me, and they were the same as that long-ago day but different, sadder and wiser and deeper and more distant but closer too, and she looked like she was searching me, and she asked, “Are you okay? You looked like you were somewhere else.” Then I realized that she was worried about me in the same way that I was worried about her, and I thought that for all my attempts to play the hero, maybe she was the stronger one after all, and I wasn’t sure what to say. She managed a tiny hint of a smile and said, “Thanks for waking me up.” We cling to the smallest of things for hope and sanity.
I listened to the soft crashing of waves lapping at the shore, smelled the fresh and yet sulfide smell of its microscopic inhabitants, and wished that we could stay there forever, just try to forget about what had happened and take care of each other, basking in the cool ocean wind. Of course that was not to be, but I allowed myself a few indulgent minutes of relaxation while Sarah went to make a puddle a little ways away. She seemed a little bit better today, not quite so adrift, like the washed-up clumps of seaweed scattered along the broad, smooth shore. And I felt a little better, not quite so angry and hopeless and uncaring whether I lived or died. She came back and sat down next to me and snuggled up close, and we sat there for a little while, not spoiling the moment by talking. I felt very happy, but still didn’t understand quite how happy I was. And now, looking back, I realize that it was the best moment I’d had in a long time, maybe years, or maybe my whole life. After the civilized world had come crashing down, I thought that maybe I could never be happy again, but I was wrong, because it’s hard to be happy when you have more, much more, than you need, when your bank account and 401(k) are measures of self worth, but even though they are growing every day life still seems empty somehow. When all those things are taken away, then spending a few tender minutes arm in arm on the beach with someone you love in the soft early morning is a gift from the universe, more amazing and precious than you could have ever thought possible.
“I was so worried about you last night,” she chided me quietly, not wanting to wake the others. There was a hint of accusation in her voice, or maybe I imagined it. “Worried you would fall, or that something or someone would get you while you were… out there, up there. Or that you went up there to...”
For a moment I felt irritated, but then I just felt good that there was someone to worry about me. And she wasn’t wrong - I had thought about making last night my last one on this plane of existence.
“But babe,” I interjected, not wanting her to finish the thought, “I came back didn’t I? I’m here, I’m okay”. There was that word again. I hugged her, nuzzled her hair, kissed her cheek. She hugged back, and gave me an innocent, clear-eyed smile which seemed direct and unclouded for the first time in a few days.
“I know you were worried, but I had to do it for some reason. Maybe just to prove to myself that I could.”
“I could tell.” Her tone of voice told me that she understood, perhaps better than I did. “But no more running off like that.” This with an exaggerated motherly sternness that I didn’t mind at all, that felt good, in fact. Someone cared about me. Someone was still left to care about me.
Sarah didn’t ask what I had dreamed about, and I didn’t ask what had made her thrash in her sleep. It was easier that way.
Covered in the grey-white blanket of soft sea sky, watching the others stir gradually as the new day dawned, I could almost pretend that we were simply on a camping trip, escaping for a couple of days to the bosom of nature, sleeping under the stars. Even the most cursory glance at the landscape, though, dispensed with this comforting fiction. With the benefit of building daylight, I could once again make out the many craters that lay strewn haphazardly across the beach, the road, the hills, and the villages - courtesy, I guessed, of some Chinese naval vessels on their way to Seattle. We had camped between two large ones that had somehow formed a haphazard, rubble-lined, and yet protected pocket where the last of the shore rose quickly to meet the road, which had fractured into chunks and upturned slabs. We had not seen any ships in days, and in the clear late summer air we could see nothing out on the ocean, but I knew that a person could only see three miles out to see with the curvature of the earth, and naval artillery could reach much further than that. It seemed that this threat had passed on for now, and we did not fear further bombardment, or perhaps I just did not care if it happened again. Dying in an instant, under an explosion while asleep, would be infinitely better than dying slowly, over days, weeks, months, which was what was happening to us otherwise.
”We’ve got to find someplace to stay today,” I said, trying to sound confident. “It’s dangerous sleeping outside like this.” After a couple of armed standoffs with home-dwellers protecting their property, we had given up on trying to find lodging for a few days. But the nights were getting cold, and it wasn’t safe to sleep outside. This part of the coast approaching Garibaldi seemed nearly abandoned, but we could not understand why - perhaps it was the artillery fire, but the damage seemed minor and localized, like a warning salvo fired to the side.
“Didn’t have much choice last night,” Aaron replied, wiping his glasses on his t-shirt, the beautiful ebony-black skin of his arms emerging from under a t-shirt that had once been white. “We made bad time yesterday, and nothing seemed to work out like it was supposed to.” That was a pretty good summary of the larger situation, I thought.
“It’s getting cold,” Daniel pointed out, looking down at us as always from atop his six-foot-six frame, two weeks of rough stubble on his face, now almost enough to call a beard. “This ain’t Southern California,” he added ruefully. Even in August the ocean water in Oregon is cold enough to make your feet go completely numb in half a minute or less.
Sarah agreed, “You’re right about that. I got such a chill this morning, after the fire died down and the sun hadn’t come up yet. It went all the way inside of me.” I thought of my sudden start from the schizophrenic dream of the infinite city. “The wind woke me up,” she said. “But there was something else too…” she trailed off, unsure, an uncomfortable gravity in her voice.
“I thought I heard a shout or something,” Aaron responded, and we all exchanged uneasy glances. Daniel said nothing, at least not with words - but his eyes said he had felt or heard something, too, and he didn’t like it much.
Before the tension could grow any more, I said, perhaps lamely, “Well, then, it’s a good day to find a place.” No one seemed to want further discussion, and we left it at that.
We had a day of house-hunting ahead of us - a type of house hunting that didn’t involve over-eager realtors or nit-picking about bathroom tile selections. I badly wanted some coffee - not instant garbage or stale shit made from old, worn-out beans, but a nice, rich cup of Portland coffee, proper pour-over style, with cream. You’re doing it to yourself again, I admonished, and tried to put my mind onto something else. The fire was out, and I didn’t wish to take the time to relight it. We all moved with a galvanizing sense of purpose, aware that we needed to get moving and secure some shelter. Yesterday had ended with our confidence at an ebb, each of us nursing our fears separately and hanging on by a ragged thread. In the new day, the group’s resolve seemed to be returning, and we got our supplies and our spirits together without needing much discussion.
The new morning routine of knife-edge self-sufficiency took over, and I took quick stock of my backpack - a few cans of food, first aid kit, antibiotics (I double-checked those separately), fuel cans, knife, ammo, smartphone. This last item seemed pointless now that there was no power or cell service or internet, but none of us could bring ourselves to get rid of them. After years of attachment to the things, they were hard to let go of. I told myself that perhaps the power would come back on and the phone would be usable again, but I knew it wasn’t true. Still, I held on to this object that was useless without the modern systems it relied on. Nosily, I checked the others’ bags. It would probably be obvious if we left anything behind, but I couldn’t rest easy until I made sure.
“Ready to go?” I asked when it seemed that we had all gathered ourselves and our things.
“Head ’em up, move ’em on!” Aaron called out with a put-on drawl, and Daniel came back with, “Rawhide!”
We set out south, a long tan-grey ribbon of beach stretching out into the distance for miles. The gentle sea breeze and cool clean air cleared the bad dreams from our minds and even gave us a bit of peace and serenity which was long overdue. Sarah and I walked together a little ways behind Daniel and Aaron, who were talking and getting to know each other. It turns out they had both lived, at different times, in the same little town in Louisiana, and they laughed about the coincidence, and Aaron said that it’s a small world, and I thought to myself, it’s a hell of a lot smaller now. We had known Daniel for years in Portland and had spent many summers camping together, exploring the mountains, forests, and rivers of the Northwest.
Aaron had only joined us a couple of weeks ago, after we rescued him from some trouble around on the 53 approaching Mohler, after spending days hiking towards the coast from our camping spot, trying to avoid trouble and figure out what had happened to the world in the few days we had been off the grid. Crashes in the road had stopped his progress, so he had gotten out of his car to walk, but before he could get too far he was stopped by a couple of rednecks in an old Ford pickup with a shotgun on the dashboard. They were acting menacingly, calling him a four-eyed nigger, about the time we came upon the scene, and I had intervened and escalated the situation by calling the two locals “fatass crackers.” When I saw the fatass cracker in the truck reach for the shotgun I got the drop on him and shot him through the windshield with the big .45, splattering blood and brains all over the back window just like the scene in Pulp Fiction when Vincent shoots Marvin in the face, and when his friend put his hands up and started to say, “Hey, man, I didn’t…,” I shot him right in the face, and then again for good measure. Two forty-five rounds to the head don’t leave much above the next, apparently.
Then Sarah and Daniel and Aaron had all backed away a little and stared at the bodies for a while with mouths open, and Aaron looked like he didn’t know if his situation had just improved or worsened, but then he managed a quiet, “Thanks,” and we introduced ourselves all around and shook hands awkwardly. He must not have been too put off by my trigger happiness, because he joined up with us. He told us he was a schoolteacher and going to the coast for the first time since moving to Oregon to teach in the new school year. The most recent non-digital pandemic had died down enough to resume in-person school in most places, and everyone was desperately hoping for a sense of normalcy to return. They would never get it. When Aaron left Portland, the “geopolitical situation” had been bad, though nowhere near apocalyptic, but on his way out the self-driving cars had started smashing themselves into other cars, and the power had gone out, and everything had happened too quickly to be able to piece together what exactly had happened. So here we were still trying to figure that out.
He told us that there had been reports of scattered internet and power outages in the days leading up to the collapse, and Russian cyberwarfare had been suspected. A number of companies, many of them with links to the Ukraine, had their operations crippled by some new kind of malware. But then everything broke down, news became scarce and unreliable, and a cloud of mystery and uncertainty had formed and was still lingering. Sarah and Daniel and I had been camping out in the remote forest for a few days, and that had been all it took for the world to finish falling apart. As soon as we got back to the highway after our camping trip ended we knew something was drastically wrong. We didn’t even get a mile before were blocked by one of the smash-ups, a bad one between an autonomous car and an old Clark Griswold-style Family Truckster station wagon with the puke green and wood panelling. All of us turned our phones on to dial 911 but there was no service, and then Daniel pointed out that the flies on the bodies meant that they had been there for a little while at least, so why hadn’t anyone else done anything? The realization that something big had happened started to set in on us, and then we had to decide what to do. Going back to the city was clearly a bad idea - we knew it would descend into chaos in a matter of days with no electricity. We had crossed the coastal range, and it was downhill to the coast from here, so we had headed west on foot, picked up Aaron, and were now approaching Garibaldi from the north.
I gave Sarah a playful smack on the ass, and she ran ahead exaggeratedly, crying, “Unwanted contact!” We all shared a much-needed laugh - some esprit de corps had returned, at least for now. It wouldn’t last long before being broken by a discovery that was grim even by the new apocalyptic standard, but for now we felt, what? Almost good? Almost...
As we walked, my mind roamed over jumbled thoughts of the past. Distant yet vivid memories of childhood - falling from the monkey bars and having the breath knocked out of me in first grade - mingled with recollections of my recent, jaded urban existence. My internal replay progressed to last night’s imaginings, to the vision of the network connecting the stars, and to its malevolent turn. The information fabric of modern life had turned against itself, been used as an instrument of chaos, and then had itself succumbed to the inexorable disease which it had so willingly hosted. Why, for Christ’s sake, did the light bulbs and cars and refrigerators have to be connected? Build a better, internet-connected, mousetrap, and the world (and its share-price-boosting sales revenue) will beat a path to your door - which can now be opened remotely by a halfway competent hacker.
As we rounded the point the road hugged the beach, and I could see another of the many innumerable wrecks had made the road impassable except on foot. Two cars had collided head-on, apparently at very high speed - it looked at is they had crashed nose-to-nose, but at a slight angle (as if one of them had veered out of its lane intentionally in order to hit the other), caving in the front ends and sending them reeling with reflected momentum to resting positions that lay obliquely across the road lanes. One of the cars, I could see by the hump of cameras on top, was autonomous. Autonomous, at least, until someone seized control of it and made it do their bidding... This scene, repeated thousands of times the world over, was like something out of Maximum Overdrive. Except this time, there were no possessing demon spirits needed - just some ill-willed hackers enabled by myriad security lapses and an ultra-modern 5G network. Or maybe the latter is just one concrete manifestation of the former.
The steel-blue ocean began to glint with the light of a single, newly exposed patch of baby-blue sky that broke rebelliously through the gloomy clouds. The rolling hills yawned under a supple, pillowy quilt of fog, only the farthest headlands exposed, like toes peeking out from beneath the covers. The unceasing waves crashed faintly with the metered rhythm of the moon’s invisible tug. The water, the sand, the moist air exuded that intoxicating salty smell that made them feel so alive, even amidst all-encompassing death.
That’s quite a big flock of gulls, I thought - and what were they feeding on? As soon as my mind had formed the question it had an answer, and the answer brought a sick feeling of sinking, sinking like the gulls whose paths I followed with my eyes down to the beach, and I knew somehow that their carrion was human. The low sun shone only weakly behind the cloud cover, and some piles of driftwood blocked my view of that part of the beach, but I knew.
”Everybody stay here,” I muttered. “I’m going to walk up and take a look.”
“I’ll go with you,” Aaron volunteered helpfully, and began to walk my way. “Never go alone, right?”
“Stay here,” I repeated, roughly this time. I was breaking my own rule by going alone, but I feared the worst and didn’t want any of the others to see it up close and personal. Before anyone could object, I walked quickly away on long, anxious strides.It took a few minutes to reach the driftwood, and I felt increasingly cold and hollow as I approached, slowing to a crawl as I came close enough to see what was on the other said.
“Holy Jesus,” I said under my breath when I finally laid eyes on the whole scene. Now I was glad I skipped breakfast. The gulls had already started working on the but hadn’t had a chance to strip much away. From the horrible, impossible angle of the head and the body, it was clear what had killed them. Their throats had been cut all the way down to the spine, so that the heads were barely attached any more. In the gaping wound, I could see exposed tendons, cartilage, muscles, arteries, and verterbrae. Two had been killed in their sleeping bags, and the other one, from the looks of it, as he was pissing over by the driftwood sculpture. Blood was sprayed in long spurts across the sand, and pooled under their necks where they lay. Whoever had done it had needed only one monstrously vicious cut per victim - I didn’t see any signs of repeated hacking or slashing. I wasn’t comforted to know that the killer’s hand was well-practiced.
A gull swooped in for a landing next to the head, and before I knew what was happening it had grabbed the eyeball in its beak and was tugging at it. I kicked at the bird and it flew off, dropping the eye which now dangled out of the socket, hanging by the still-connected optic nerve. I turned away and dry-heaved a couple of times, but there was nothing to come out. I walked back toward the others, thinking of what I would say, and whether we should bury the bodies, and wondering if I was even up to that.
We rounded the point and reached Garibaldi with the sun high in the sky, though still mostly hidden behind the clouds. None of us were wearing red shirts, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around to notice. The town, though displaying little visible damage, seemed remarkably deserted. We had hoped for somewhere quiet where we wouldn’t be disturbed, and it seemed like this place might fit the bill. The lack of people had been the subject of ongoing discussion between us for the last few days. Some of the villages seemed still inhabited, but we had gone out of our way to avoid coming across other groups like us, and they were probably doing the same, and this mutual avoidance made it difficult to judge the true level of human presence. Main roads, like the 26 and 101, were now largely impassable due to the many vehicle smash-ups, so movement was much reduced. Just before the communication breakdown there had been evacuations from some parts of the tsunami zone, so it seemed that most of the residents had left and then never made it back, but it was hard to tell whether that had happened here. Whatever the reasons, it was quiet here, and that was what we had been looking for - a reasonably safe place to hole up for a little while, get some rest, and piece together whatever meager semblance of a plan that these new circumstances would allow.
Houses were situated inland for a few blocks, and then a little ways up the hill. The highest ones were only at about fifty feet of elevation, but I remembered from overhearing my dad and uncle talk as a kid on trips to the beach that this was high enough, in this area, to be out of the tsunami danger zone. After days of worrying about finding shelter, it turned out to be much easier than I had anticipated, with no violence required. Looking up the hill from the main road, I noticed a small house set off by itself, perhaps fifty yards from the nearest cluster of houses, like a shy, thoughtful child sitting quietly away from her classmates. It wasn’t much of a looker, but it was off the main drag and would have a good view and no blind spots. Beyond that, something about the place just spoke to me, gave me a good feeling. I told the others to wait for me while I walked up to check it out.
Around the east side, the kitchen window was up a few inches, so I put my face to the opening and called out, “Hello? Anyone here?” There were no sounds or signs of movement - the place seemed deserted, like the rest of the town. In the back was a gravel-covered parking area, and by the back door was a big Weber gas grill with an extra propane tank and what looked like a whole cord of chopped firewood stacked neatly. That would do just fine. Following a now-familiar routine, I took off my hoodie and wrapped it around my arm to protect my elbow from breaking glass, but then something stopped me. It seemed a shame to break in that way - the plan was to stay for at least a few days and regroup, so it was worth not making a mess of it right away. And breaking the window might be unsafe for another reason - if the glass was broken, it would be easier for someone else to let themselves in unannounced. I thought of the bodies on the beach, and the icy cold feeling of death waking me in the night, and the hair on my arms stood straight up.
Where would the key be? I checked under the mat - nothing. I reached up into the soffit where the board made a little shelf, and didn’t find anything there either. Where had I hidden keys before? Ah yes, the grill; I took the cover off, opened the lid, felt around. Then I flipped up the cover on the side burner, didn’t see anything there, but I ran my fingers around the square opening and hit paydirt. There it was, one end wedged down in the crack where the metal pieces met at a right angle.
The back door opened into a small laundry room, and a hamper contained some towels and clothes that had never made it to the washing machine. The kitchen was small but tidy, and opened into a living room with a woodburning stove on one wall, a couple of small couches, and a rocking chair. On the way to the last room I passed the bathroom - tiny, but neat, like the rest of the house. Then I stepped into the remaining room, and couldn’t believe my eyes: it was filled with books, on floor-to-ceiling shelves covering all four walls, and in stacks on the floor. The room wasn’t big, but it was stuffed to the gills with books, a couple thousand of them at least. In one corner, by the only window, was a small table with a Remington typewriter, a small stack of newspapers laid beside it, one on top of the other, and bolted to one corner was a manual pencil sharpener with a crank. Whoever had lived here had been a writer, from the look of it. I ran back to get the others, and showed them around our new cardboard bungalow, saving the library for last. Everyone was excited, though maybe not as much as I was about the books. We lit a fire in the stove, and shared a bottle of wine - a very nice Rioja - to celebrate our good fortune. As night began to fall, I looked forward to the others going to sleep, which would give me some quiet time to explore the library.
After sleeping spots had been arranged and everyone said their goodnights, I lit a candle and sequestered myself in the book room, going first to the typewriter table.
In the newspapers someone had marked up stories: one, from several months ago, about a mysterious hacker who had been released from federal lockup; other, more recent ones about a virulent new malware that was spreading across key infrastructure with alarming speed and voracity. And for some reason my mind connected the two stories, though they themselves mentioned no explicit connection.
In the first story the following had been underlined:
The infamous hacker known as Zer0x, real name William Killbright, was released from prison today after serving three years for crimes related to his release of highly sensitive technical materials which exposed details of the NSA’s surveillance programs. Those programs, ruled illegal in 2020 after seven years of court scrutiny, were rumored to have continued, and Zer0x released documents and software tools proving that this was the case. Killbright was convicted in 2021 of crimes including espionage and theft of government property, and sentenced to ten years in federal prison, a sentence which was regarded by many legal and cybercrime experts as remarkably lenient, given the seriousness of his crimes. His release, which came after he served only three years of his sentence, raised further questions, and led some observers to speculate that Killbright had agreed to assist the government in its counterintelligence and cybersecurity efforts, in exchange for a reduction in his term of imprisonment. Reports that Winter and others associated with him possessed further highly classified documents which gave him leverage in the negotiations surrounding his early release added a further element of intrigue to the story.
In a second story, someone had highlighted:
A terrifying new form of malware is sweeping across the networks of a number of multinational corporations, damaging critical business infrastructure and disrupting, and in some cases crippling, their operations. Cybersecurity expert Zach Collins, CEO of InterSec, explaining that this new malware contains a number of disturbing new features, said, ’It constantly changes form to avoid detection. We have seen this in the past, but this new virus does so in a much more sophisticated way that we do not completely understand yet. Also, it appears to use artificial intelligence to identify new vulnerabilities and new ways to exploit them. Its capabilities are beyond anything we have seen before. It has demonstrated an ability to threaten systems which were previously thought to be highly secure against such attacks, and we are concerned that power and other infrastructure could be vulnerable.
A narrative of the recent events had begun to coalesce, though it remained sketchy. Against the backdrop of weakening democracies and the techno-economic system beginning to break down under its own weight, and in the midst of a pandemic and climate-change-fueled extreme weather waves, something had drastically accelerated the collapse. Cyber attacks had damaged key infrastructure, and these attacks had been interpreted by Russia, China, and other governments as the work of the US - which was perfectly plausible in light of the revival of cold wars in recent years and the rapid virtualization of warfare. The articles in front of me, read through the fluttering shadows thrown by candlelight, hinted at the possibility that these attacks were the work of one person, or a small group of people. What had started as virtual attacks, perhaps designed to give the appearance of state-backed cyberwarfare, had rapidly morphed into real attacks, as other powers responded not only with their own cybermeasures, but with physical ones as well. Russia was known to have a new class of hypersonic cruise missiles that could fly under ABM defenses, and of course they still had their nuclear submarines. China had stealth warships and effective anti-satellite capability. The list went on and on and on. We suspected that there had been nuclear attacks, though we weren’t entirely sure where (was fallout headed for us, or poisoning us at this very moment?). Why wouldn’t these countries, if they thought that the US or someone else was launching a first strike aimed at disabling their fighting capabilities, respond with everything at their disposal? Trust had broken down so far in recent years that what was unthinkable not too long ago had become a perfectly logical sequence of events. The breaking of one seal encouraged the breaking of the others. Why hold back, once the brink has been irrevocably crossed?
Was it possible that the acts of a small group or even a single person, some kind of digital supervirus, a Captain Trips for the information age, had given the decaying global order the final swift push over the edge? In trying to answer the question of how we had gotten to this point so fast, I thought over and over about the events of the last few years: the grinding recession that had entered its fourth year; the worldwide decoupling of economies as protectionism spread to most of the globe; the breakdown of US leadership and the alliance system; the economic and political trainwreck brought on the UK by Brexit; new cold wars with Russia and China; mass uprisings in major cities which required violent suppression, the beginnings of race war invited by demagogue politicians ; the ever-worsening worst case of climate change and environmental destruction; the return of diseases once thought eradicated, and new ones for which there was no cure. The challenges had been huge, and growing, but we thought we had a few more decades, or at least a few more years, to fix them. I grew up with the sense that all the big problems had been solved, and that the world was on a constant upward slope of advancement. No one had put it to me quite that way, but it seemed a sensible and attainable goal.
When the wall came tumbling down and communism collapsed, it had seemed that America was victorious over history, and that now things would just get better and better until… until what, exactly? Maybe technology would usher in a fundamentally new era of human existence, one in which our bodies and minds were enhanced with nearly Godlike abilities, and human lifespans would be extended indefinitely, and work would be unnecessary and we could simply exercise our vastly augmented creative abilities while robots did all the mundane labor, and all of this would be permanent because we would have established final dominion over nature and its limits through the application of our intelligence. And in the 90’s, to a ten-year old, that had seemed entirely reasonable. Sure, the climate had begun to change and the environment to degrade, but technology would find solutions to those problems, just like it had always found solutions. After centuries of suffering, we had solved most of the major problems and were headed up and ever up. Or at least that was the narrative we constructed for ourselves.
The idea of a scientific-technical utopia ushering in a new era of human existence wasn’t new, of course, but the collective memory of humanity is short. The communists had thought that Marxism offered a scientific understanding of history and the ability to channel its forces, but their new society had been an engine for suffering and debasement. Any why should we have expected things to turn out differently? There were no excuses - like Icarus, we had been warned not to fly too close to the sun. Only now, too late, did we catch sight of the feathers on the waves, and curse our inventions.
In my mind, I tried to restore some order to the tangled web of causality. Everything connected to everything else, uncountably many connections, a maddening complexity. But at the root, the causes were very simple. There were too many of us, and we wanted too much, too fast. We forgot lessons learned at such great cost by those who came before us. We failed to recognize the value of all that we already had. None of this mattered now, I guessed, but then I corrected myself. No, I guessed that maybe it mattered more than ever, that if there was to be any kind of meaningful future, preserving the memory and understanding of these world-shattering events was of the highest importance. The thought came to me: maybe I could do something about that. At least it would give me something to do to occupy my mind. I fell asleep trying, once again in vain, to think of something other than all the ways in which the world was ending.
In the daytime and with sheltered, things seemed much better. For few days, we were almost able to forget that the world had come unglued, and pretend that we were simply on a getaway to the coast. Aaron and Sarah discovered that they had both grown up in Memphis, and in fact lived just a few blocks of each other for about a year. Daniel and I drank whatever we could find in the house and made our best culinary efforts with what was available in the pantry. The ocean provided us with ample shellfish, and we feasted on oysters cooked every way we knew how. By the third day, when we had seen no sign of anyone else around, we made armed raids on a couple of nearby houses, and found some root vegetables, pickles, and a chicken coop. We managed to carve out an idyllic temporary existence, knowing that it soon must end but doing our best to enjoy every moment.
At night, by candlelight, I lost myself in books, reading voraciously, as when I was a boy of ten and had not yet encountered all the requirement of adult life which demand time and attention.I read mostly what fell to hand. After Pet Semetary and And Quiet Flows The Don, I was working on Crime and Punishment, and, when my few days of reading bliss were brought to an end, had just gotten to the scene where Raskolnikov toys with Zametov in the Crystal Palace, dementedly hinting at his guilt in killing the old woman and her sister.
One morning Aaron and I talked it over and decided to go hunting, as we were all getting tired of our diet of canned food and oysters. In the almost total absence of people, the wild things were already making a comeback, and we had seen rabbits hopping through the trees and around the house, so we felt sure we’d be able to bag a couple of them without too much trouble - if the 12-gauge that I had appropriated from the unfriendly Mohler residents didn’t didn’t blow them to bits, that is. We walked into the woods behind the house, our feet slipping on the dew-covered grass, and I lost myself in a few moments of reverie with nature. In doing so, wandered ahead of Aaron without realizing how far. It happened quickly, too quickly - just as I was crouching and bringing the gun to my shoulder to fire on a scampering hare, I heard a muffled shout cut short by a sickening wet sound, and I wheeled around to see Aaron crumpling to the ground and locked eyes with a wild-haired man in filthy clothes with a gleaming, long-bladed knife in his hand. I pulled the trigger, but my aim had drifted as I fell to one side, my balance wobbled by the quick spin. The Remington boomed through the pines, breaking the stillness of the hushed morning and knocking me back onto one hip, and I saw the shot strike his shoulder, whirling him around in a spume of blood like the foam blown from a breaking wave, and his arm whipped violently and the knife went arching through the air and landed a good thirty feet away.
Ears ringing, I scrambled to my feet and cycled the shotgun’s action. Jack the Ripper was trying to get up on his good arm, but he was dazed from the blast of buckshot and not moving very fast. I walked toward him, wary at first, and then more quickly as I realized that I had the advantage of him, and the thirty yards between us closed to only a few. Shotgun to my shoulder, I looked down at him grunting and struggling and tried to decide what to do. Some of the pellets had caught his neck and face, and blood was running into his grimy, disheveled beard. He looked up at me with eyes that were crazed but also frightened - he wouldn’t die immediately, but he was laced with pellets and would lose blood fast. I felt a pang of sympathy for him mingled with the hot hatred at what he had done to Aaron. Maybe the best revenge was to let him die slowly, I thought, but before I could think about it any more my finger pounced on the trigger, and this time the shot hit him square in the chest, blasting him down flat against the ground and opening a grapefruit-sized hole which exposed his lungs. Then I looked at Aaron just in time to see his fingers quaver as the last of the life drained out of him, and squatted down close to him, hoping to catch some last word. There was none.
Daniel and Sarah came running to the edge of the graveled parking area when they heard the shot, and as I approached I called out, “Aaron’s dead. Don’t go out there, there might still be someone in the woods.” I explained what had happened, somehow managing to find words, and together we fetched Aaron’s body, wrapping it in a sleeping bag and carrying it the couple of hundred yards back downhill towards the house.
I wanted to bury them, because it seemed like it was my fault, and I didn’t want Daniel and Sarah to see the mangled bodies. But Jim and Sarah agreed that Aaron had been their friend too, so we took turns with the shovel. Digging out the hard-packed, sandy ground was rough work, and it took us most of the day to dig two graves. When we were done burying them, Daniel and Sarah collected rocks and assembled them in piles for headstones. Probably we all said our own internal prayers, but none of us could bring ourselves to speak.
That night, wracked with guilt, I had to write in order to keep myself from going crazy. I closed myself in the library and worked away at the typewriter for a while, occasionally stopping to make corrections. I intended to talk about what had happened to Aaron, but ended up with something much different. This is one of the emanations from the typewriter:
When had it all started? When were the foundations of the current catastrophe laid? Well, at the beginning of course - in 1776 with the founding, 1492 with the discovery, 476 with the fall, 33 with the resurrection, 600BC with coin currency, 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. But this is facile, of course, a fallacious Zeno’s paradox applied to causality. Achilles most certainly can catch up with the tortoise, and the historian can identify a beginning, and an end. Nineteen eighty-nine seems as good a date as any - at least within my direct experience. But how could a moment of triumph for America, for “the western idea”, and indeed for the world - the falling of a wall physical, political, economic, emotional - be the beginning of the downfall? Because it was a moment of forgetting, the collective crossing of ameles potamos. Looking back on a time when someone could say, with seeming sincerity, that, “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”, we can now see that perhaps that was the most dangerous moment, the birthing of the end of history, an end much more literal than the essayist intended. A shared illusion that man had found a one-way road to progress, a prosperity gospel preached by technocrats more zealous than the most fervent inquisitor, a haughty exceptionalism that claimed exemption from the banal responsibilities of the unblessed nations - these, the failures of shared memory, were the soil nourished by the blood of our ancestors, a rich substrate in which the evil necessary for such total destruction could put down healthy, unobstructed roots.
I was not sure what it meant, but it helped to put the words down. The next day, we all sulked around the place and avoided saying much to each other. Daniel was out back, chopping wood, while I sat in the library staring at, but not reading, one of the newspapers. The quiet was broken once again by a yell from behind the house, and I ran to the back door, grabbing the gun on the way. I found Daniel, holding the axe, locked in a standoff with a racoon.
“Fucking thing bit me!” he said, annoyed, and I could see blood running from his hand down his wrist. I stood for a moment, looking back and forth between him and the racoon. It hissed and made an awkward staggering move towards him. He took a few steps back, toward me, and cried, “Shoot it!”
His anger was more then enough motivation for me. Again, the sound of the .45 shattered the calm of the quiet morning, and 230 grains of .45 ACEP sent the raccoon flying about 20 feet, then rolling into a messy, partially-connected heap.
Sarah, seeing the blood, got Daniel into the bathroom and began cleaning his hand and getting bandages ready. There was a deep, ugly bite on the flesh between his thumb and palm. I guessed that the raccoon had been hiding unnoticed at one end of the woodpile and had reacted defensively when he got close. It seemed odd that it had stayed around despite his movement and the noise of chopping wood.
“Did you see that thing?” he asked, eyes wide.
“Big fucking racoon, wasn’t it?” I answered, commiserating.
“No, I mean it didn’t look right,” he said, looking at me like I was dense. At first I didn’t understand, then I mumbled, “You mean, how it was wobbling around?”
“Yeah, and that shit on its mouth. Go look at it.” Not liking where the conversation was going, I took the opportunity to collect my thoughts alone and walked back out to the yard. What was left of the raccoon lay in a jumble in the grass. I couldn’t see the snout, and I was still afraid to get too close to it, so I grabbed the shovel and used the end of the handle to roll it over enough so that its face was showing. Sure enough, there was a foamy, crusty discharge around the mouth. My mind didn’t want to accept this new information, and I stood there trying to decide what to do for a little while. Finally, I decided there was no way to avoid the situation, and I returned to the bathroom, where Sarah was finishing bandaging Daniel’s hand.
“See what I mean?” he asked, and I saw his Adam’s apple wobble in his throat.
“Yeah, it doesn’t look right, does it,” I agreed glumly.
Daniel walked back toward the living room and out of sight, and I stayed in the bathroom with Sarah while she cleaned up and put the first aid kit back in order.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, having missed the details of our exchange while she was doing the bandaging.
In a near-whisper, I explained, “I think the raccoon might have been rabid. It was moving real funny and foaming at the mouth.” The r-word fell heavily between us, and she cast her eyes down at the floor. We both stood there for a while trying to decide what to say or do. Once my brain started working again, it occurred to me that there would be a doctor’s office or clinic somewhere that had rabies shots. I went to find Daniel to let him know that I’d go hunting for them, and on the way through the kitchen I noticed that the HK was missing from the kitchen counter. While I was standing there trying to make sense of what was happening, I heard the shot come from further up the hill, behind the house, and the feeling of the rug being pulled out from under my existence came rushing back yet again.
Daniel was lying crumpled up on his side, the gun still in his hand, most of the left side of his head missing. The .45 had done the job and then some, leaving a ragged exit hole the size of a large grapefruit and even more juicy. I tried not to look but my motor impulse had failed, so I stared dumbly into the skull-crater, watching the blood ooze from the grey brain pudding and into a pool, and his eyes open and staring at nothing and my eyes looking directly into his memories and hopes and fears now spilled out into the grassy sand. I thought of poor Jackie in the pink suit, climbing out onto the back of the limo to retrieve the big piece of poor Jack’s skull that had been blown out of his head that day in Dallas in November of 1963, and the thought came unbidden that the pink cloud of brain matter in frame [ ] of the Zapruder film was a good match for her pink suit.
The sound of Sarah’s quick heavy footsteps in the gravel behind me snapped me out of it, but I didn’t quite have time to turn her away or block her view. She began to scream so loud it made my ears ring, and I grabbed her and pulled her back towards the house, but she was pushing me away and kicking and yelling and sobbing at the same time. I knew her rational mind had failed completely and the scream was primal, animal. It didn’t feel right to restrain her like a little dog, but somehow it seemed worse to let her see the sight of Daniel laying there with his cerebrum exposed to the sky.
Once Sarah calmed down from her hysterics, she was borderline catatonic, lost behind a fixed thousand-yard stare and not responding to me at all. I got her to lay down on the sofa and she went to sleep, or at least closed her eyes, for a while. I wrapped Daniel in a tarp and dug another grave beside those of Aaron and his killer. The rough wooden handle of the shovel tore at my blisters from the previous digging, and the further I dug the more my hands cried out in pain with each new stroke, but after a couple hours of tortured work I managed to scrape out a big enough hole to hold Daniel’s six-feet-six-inches. The clouds had been dissipating as I was digging, and by the time I had finished the sun shone brilliantly on its descent to the flat sea horizon, in what seemed a mocking gesture from the heavens. I laid his hat carefully on top of the tarp about where I thought his face would be, and started to fill the earth back in. Sarah came outside, and we looked at each other for a long moment, and neither of us could find any words. She crouched down and began to scoop sand back into the hole with her hands, and I joined in with the shovel, and in a few minutes we had the grave filled in. Repeating her work from yesterday, she gathered some rocks and placed them into a pile for a marker, repeating the ritual from two days before.
I tried to think of a prayer, but nothing I came up with seemed quite right, and I wasn’t sure there was anyone but us to hear it anyway. Sarah said simply, “We love you, Daniel,” and that seemed about all there was to say, really. The sun was setting through a gradient of blazing peach and mauve, reflecting into fragments across the distant expanse of sea. I wiped my blood off the handle of the shovel and replaced it in the toolshed, praying vainly that I wouldn’t have to use it again anytime soon. I cleaned and bandaged my hands in the bathroom, and by the time I had finished Sarah had come around a bit and was standing in the living room looking out the front window at the bay. I put my hands on her shoulders and she said, unbidden, “Maybe it’s better this way,” and I couldn’t really argue with that. Rabies or no, I couldn’t blame Daniel for choosing that way out, for taking matters into his own hands. I think I even admired his bravery, for I certainly wasn’t sure that I had the resolve to follow the same course - at least not quite yet.
Sarah told me not to blame myself, and I told her I would try. She collapsed into a fitful sleep, shaking periodically, but I let her dream, thinking that even her nightmare might be better than the waking reality. As I had watched her fall asleep, I swore not to let her out of my sight, come what may, and I knew that my frantic desire to protect her, for all its intensity of feeling, was flimsy and pitiful, like waving a curtain at a hurricane. All night I held solitary vigil, afraid that if I closed my eyes Sarah would be taken from me, and I prayed with my whole heart, honestly and without bargaining, for just a little more time with her, even just a few more days. In the flickering candlelight I watched her breath rise and fall in a tranquil, undisturbed rhythm the whole night through. At the first whisper of daybreak I blew out the candle and lay down at her side, doing my best not to disturb her, and sleep came quickly.
Something woke me, some sound that was loud enough to wake me but not to startle me, and which was gone by the time I reached awareness. My hand felt around and didn’t find Sarah, but the bed was still warm on her side. She was probably in the bathroom. I sat on the side of the bed, unworried, clearing the cobwebs. Then I needed to pee, and I made it halfway to the bathroom before I saw a hand and wrist on the floor. I ran the last few steps to the door and saw her stretched out on her side, eyes closed, one arm above her head, like she was sleeping. But of course she was not sleeping. I grabbed her hand, shook her, said her name over and over again But I couldn’t find a pulse, so I sat dumbly on the floor for a long time, holding her hand and stroking her hair, as if to wake her gently. Maybe it was an aneurysm, or her broken heart just gave up.
My hands were already in bad shape, but I had to bury her. The old gardening gloves I unearthed in the shed were dried out and filthy, and they made my hands hurt worse than wearing nothing at all. I rummaged through the chest of drawers in the bedroom, found an old t-shirt, and tore it into strips which I wrapped around my fingers and palm. I felt like a caricature of a mummy from an old horror film, or like a gulag prisoner. Now I had become a prisoner of a terrible, barely recognizable reality that I still could not let go of. The digging was even slower this time, since I had to stop every few minutes to adjust my makeshift bandages. In the Kolyma Tales there is a story of prisoners burying the bodies of their fellow inmates in the rock-hard, frozen Siberian tundra, and digging them up later to find them perfectly preserved. I knew that this ground would not be so kind to my friends, and images of worms and maggots and the smell of rot invaded my thoughts.
That night’s silence was resounding, and it was nearly dawn before sleep finally claimed me. I dreamed that Sarah and I were on a lovely beach vacation, spending a few days away from the crowded city, and Daniel grilled oysters and salmon and we stayed up drinking wine and listening to Billie Holiday by the wood-burning stove, and when we turned in Sarah and I made love, a little too noisily, and as we feel asleep we laughed that Daniel surely knew exactly what was going on but he wouldn’t care, and everything seemed perfectly natural and peaceful, and life was swell and we still had a lot of good years ahead of us, and tomorrow we’d take a walk on the beach and watch people with their kids and their dogs running in the surf, and we’d go into town and have some pints at the local shanty tavern and share a laugh about the failed attempt to have quiet sex, and everything would be grand.
The dream was all the more convincing since the setting was so familiar and immediate, and I woke still thinking I was on vacation. The dream world lingered for a few seconds before the brutal reality of what had happened over the last three days and three weeks, and in that moment of experiencing the pain all over again, I knew I couldn’t stay there anymore, not even for a few minutes. The memories of my friends, and of a world irretrievably lost, would haunt me like a predator patiently stalking its hapless prey.
Before departing, I cobbled together four small crosses with pieces of kindling and twine, and stood them upright but not quite straight in the piles of stones that marked the resting places. Without hesitation, I left the guns behind. There were no more violent acts left in my tattered heart, and now I was resigned to whatever fate would come upon me.
Feeling perversely unburdened, I set off into the gloaming, not knowing where the winds would carry me, not caring that my roads were so few and my mistakes so many. On autopilot, I walked out to the beach and wandered around, not making any decisions.
Then, in a moment, everything became clear in my mind. I headed north, towards the point, and now there was resolve in my quick footsteps…
By the time I reached the viewing area , the arrival of darkness was nearly complete. The wind whipped up, just as it had that night a couple of weeks before, tousling my hair and stroking my face. Determined not to let the purpose go out of me, I didn’t waste any time. I found a spot perhaps a dozen paces from the low stone wall, crouched down and tied my shoes one last time. I rose up, drew a final breath deep into my chest, and pushed off with all my strength. I closed in on the wall at a full sprint, and like an Olympic gymnast, I hit my mark perfectly, stepping onto the wide flat stone, pushing up and out with all my strength, stretching my arms wide, and sailing into oblivion.
TO BE CONTINUED...