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- Paranoids Survive -

I jumped at every noise, even the familiar ones like the cracking of wood-frames on the roof, or a gentle breeze rustling tree branches. Almost each time, a dog howled.

The dog. Was there more than one? In the complete eerie silence, I believed I detected two different barks, lamenting their desperation to the night. I would have looked for those dogs in the morning.

At times, Mary and I whispered a few words to each other. She'd had an agitated night herself, and we both checked on Annah often. She whined at times, or had some jerky leg movements that kept us awake. Apart from that, Annah had a full night of sleep, thank God. The resilience of children...

We all needed to become resilient now. Dawn came; I heard birds sing as they used to do every morning since the temperature had risen again. I was tired, but happy we were still alive.

Life! The world wasn’t dead. Nature assimilated the apparent extermination of the human race with a shrug of her shoulders. In a few decades, if humans disappeared as the dominant species on Earth, Mother Nature, no longer pushed back by countless human opponents, would absorb many of our artifacts. Vegetation would take its place and plant new roots. It would be weird to watch this transformation happen.

I got up slowly, trying not to wake Annah... or Mary, who appeared to have at last found some peace in her sleep. I went to our home office and, with trepidation, opened the Facebook ads management page.

“Yes!” I pumped my fists. The ad campaign status had finally turned active! Our message in a bottle had already reached some fourteen thousand home pages. Fourteen thousand… Didn’t seem such a good start when I needed to reach hundred of millions. This would take years!

Maybe ads began slowly; maybe their rate would pick up soon. Dear God! The Internet will not last that long.

I prayed for those across the world who were in our same situation; those whose lives had turned into the equivalent of a tiny island of pseudo-normality in an infinite ocean of human vacuum and deaths. I prayed they had access to their Facebook pages, too.

I took the binoculars, and scanned outside through the two windows. Empty roads in the distance and, further away, a couple of villages perched on low hilltops. Nothing moved, and the same truck that ended its run on a field. Like yesterday. Too distant to distinguish any details, but I was sure a body rested in that truck’s cab.

I could see nearby houses. No vital signs from roofs, no white smoke from chimneys, no one preparing breakfast. And only the sounds of nature.

It must have been that way thousands of years ago, when human colonization of the planet was still confined to small groups of huts. A bunch of frail humans helping each other, fending off daily dangers and surviving. Year after year.

I sighed; we had no human companions. Maybe we were more isolated than anyone had been in history. Maybe. I doubted the first humans ever experienced this kind of solitude. My mind faltered and my heart sank. Alone!

I couldn’t allow such thoughts to weaken my resolve and determination. Resilience! I had to be resilient and think positively... For Mary, for Annah.

What would I’ve done if they were dead too. Probably I would've committed suicide. Resilience! Stop thinking about this stuff!

Mary suddenly appeared in the office. “What are you doing?”

I jolted. “Oh, you’re awake…”

“Well, I guess, since here I am. Sorry if I startled you.”

I didn't reply. I put the binoculars down, and turned to hug my wife.

“Good morning, love. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to tell you that, today.”

She nodded and looked gravely at me. “We cannot leave Joe and Beth on their bed.” Mary raised her chin a notch. She put a hand to my chest, over my heart. “We just can’t.”

She was right. I couldn’t bury the entire village, or those other friends who lived in town, but I would take care of Joe and Beth.

“Okay, first thing this morning. But I'm hungry now, aren’t you?”

Resilience. Act normally, don’t divert too much from usual routines; normality will help us survive and find new paths to walk and live without going insane.

I deactivated the alarm. Annah was still sleeping. We left a note on the pillow saying we were in the kitchen, and then went downstairs to fix breakfast.

I opened the shutters, one by one, and the morning light flooded all the rooms. Another sunny day, with fresh air, like yesterday, before we learned of all the deaths.

Spring peeked out, winning over the last weak remnants of winter. The smell of freshly brewed coffee invited me to start the day.

Breakfast with my wife. Such a normal thing, just like any other day, and yet it felt so weird. Apparently, skin deep, the world had not changed. The billowing black smoke, toward the airport, had disappeared during the night. No visible signs of disruption around. At least from our place, everything was peaceful and quiet. Birds sang in the warming sun of that early spring weather. No ominous signs, apart from the blank TV screens and the white noise from most radio channels; nothing screaming everything had gone terribly wrong. And the silence, of course. Yet from our kitchen, the world was beautiful, and yesterday only a very bad dream.

I had a Mephistophelian experience. The demon of the Faust legend, Mephistopheles, has its name derived from the Hebrew mephitz, meaning destroyer, and tophel, meaning liar. Indeed, I had witnessed destruction, and from what we had seen on the Internet, it was happening all over the world. Still, looking through the windows, the scene screamed at me ‘it’s a lie; everything is as it has always been.’

I shivered, knowing that was the true lie.

Mephistopheles did not search for Faust, did not search for men to corrupt. His ultimate task was to collect the souls of those who were already damned. Who condemned us humans, and who collected all those souls?

“I have to go back to the mall. There are lots of things we still need.”

“What things? You said we were fine for a month.”

“Yes, if everything stays as it is now. But I can't guarantee things will keep working. Electricity, for example. What if a branch fell and cut a power cable? We would be in the dark, and I can't repair that.”

“We come with you.”

“Then…you need to learn how to use a gun. And Annah, too.”

Mary backed off, putting distance between us. “No.”

So I told her the full details of the dog attack that I averted only by luck. “Soon there would be more than one, and other animals might become aggressive, too.”

We lived in a rural area and woods extended not far from our place where wild beasts had been spotted a few times before. Foxes, badgers, and wolves were known to thrive in the region. Not in large numbers, but they would soon realize the major contender for their habitat was no more, and nothing would block their path. They would start to venture further down to the plain and extend their hunting range.

I couldn’t protect my wife and daughter from a pack of wolves or wild dogs by myself. They needed to be able to defend themselves; they needed to become self-sufficient.

“Besides, we might not be alone after all. Whoever could be out there, near or far, how could we be sure they’d be jolly good fellows coming to help us?”

Mary shook her head. I had instilled fresh fears in Mary’s mind and I hated myself for that. I didn't want to frighten her, but we needed to start shedding a bit of our own civilized crust. Find some primeval instincts and skills for survival, and the sooner the better. “Think about it.” I left to get ready for Joe and Beth’s burial.

Joe had a small vegetable garden, so I went straight to his tool shed. I found his shovel and started digging the grave, and then another. Following Mary’s advice, I chose an area of the garden under a cherry tree, and decided to place Beth next to one of her flowerbeds. The ground became harder to excavate as I dug about a foot deep, and the task took me all morning to finish.

Annah made two crosses, using small wood planks, and inscribed their names. We weren’t sure of birth dates so she put the current day, along with their approximate ages.

Before going into our neighbor's house, Mary and I donned the protective masks I’d found at the mall the previous day. I had no experience with dead bodies and didn’t know when the decaying process would cause them to smell heavily. It was emotionally difficult enough without having to factor in physical repulsion.

Annah waited downstairs, while Mary and I went to Joe and Beth's bedroom. Mary cried softly when we reached their room and saw them on the bed. “Oh Beth, Beth…”

She did not stop helping me, though. Dealing with the bodies proved hard on our fragile emotions, especially when we had to force their limbs into a better position to carry them.

Beth, a petite woman, wasn’t heavy at all and we took her out first, into the trench nearest to the flowerbed, as Mary suggested. Annah followed us to the garden without saying a word. Joe was heavier, of course. Mary had to stop three times to rest. Finally, we completed the gruesome task and laid our friends to eternal rest beside each other.

I did not feel religious, but Mary insisted we needed to say something. “Beth goes to church every Sunday.”

Therefore, I spoke. “Beth, Joe. I don’t know what fate has snatched you so brutally from life. I hope you can rest in peace. The Lord, if you meet with Him, will perhaps explain His plan and why all this has happened.” I sighed. “Please, pray for us. Amen.”

“Amen,” repeated Annah and Mary.

I started to fill the graves. Shovel after shovel. When I finished, Annah helped me put the crosses in place, and she arranged some flowers she had picked. We stood in silence for a moment. It felt so absurd and so monstrously abnormal. Yet, abnormality was the new normality, and we had to get used to that.

After a shower and a light lunch, I checked the Facebook campaign again. Thirty-two thousand impressions. No clicks. No wonder. What did I expect?

The dogs howled again. I planned to go find them that afternoon. Of course, Annah wanted to come along, but Mary helped me convince her that really wasn't a good idea.

“We’ll stay in touch with the cell phones.” To our surprise, the connections still worked fine.

Although the dogs could not be too far away, I took the car and put Joe’s pistol on the passenger seat. If the howling dogs were the ones I’d met in the neighborhood, they should recognize me. Still, I didn’t count on much of a welcoming party. I had brought some food with me and made a mental note to get dog treats at the mall in case all went well and looked promising. If not…

I wanted to win their trust with the food, and then visit them every day. They only had one chance and I hoped they took it. If I decided it was worth the effort, fine; otherwise, I was resolved to kill them both. First, to keep them from suffering or starving to death; second, for our own protection in case they turned out to be aggressive. In that case, it would be out of the question to set them free.

Following their barking, I soon found the house. There were indeed two dogs in the fenced yard, and I remembered seeing them before. They looked like German Shepherds but they both had a curly white coat. I had once asked their owner about their breed, but I couldn’t remember what he said. I stopped the car on the left side of the road, in front of their house.

This street, too, was desolate with no signs of people. No corpses either as if everyone had been caught in their sleep. In a sense, I felt lucky. If what struck us had happened hours later, bodies would be everywhere, many more than the few early commuters dead on the streets and in their cars. Thinking of this last point, why hadn’t I seen corpses from the webcams? Another question with no answer.

I stepped out of the car, the gun in my hand. Both dogs barked at me from the other side of the fence. They sensed death. I know little about animal behavior and psychology but I understood they were not raging dogs. They were nervous and scared.

I tucked Joe’s pistol into my back waistband, and got the food. I showed my hands, slowly opening the wrapping. They still barked but had smelled the meat and their eyes went from me to my hands. I started to talk, almost whispering, in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. I stepped forward a bit more.

They got excited, jumping, running toward the house and back. I reached the fence and put down two large handfuls of food on the low brick base that supported the fence.

Mary had prepared a delicacy of minced meat and rice. I thought in was a waste but she said the first impression had to be stellar, “Works with humans, will work with dogs, too.” I didn't complain much; with an entire mall at our service, I had no reason to worry yet about food supplies.

I knew the dogs had to be hungry in addition to being scared. I kept talking and chanced getting close enough to allow them to sniff at me; they showed no aggressive behavior.

Then they started eating. Weird, I thought, as if they decided it was okay to take food from me only after they had sniffed and assessed me. These are not stupid dogs. Good. They took their chance and scored a point. I gave them the rest of the meat and rice and stepped away.

“Okay, guys. I'll be back tomorrow. Stay dry.”

By the end of the week, Mary and Annah had started practicing shooting with the pistol at plastic bottles filled with dirt. I put them on the stonewall we shared with the local cemetery so, if they missed, no one would complain. The wall was high enough to hide tombs and crosses from our sight, and the little church with the tall cypress tree had become a familiar presence. The church received a visit from the priest once a month, on the first Sunday, and the streets filled with vehicles. We liked the sound of the bells calling for mass. Bells, I missed them.

Every Halloween, Annah liked us to organize a sleepover with her friends and the wall was an integral part of the celebration. The kids would sit on it, their backs to the tombs, and squirm at every little sound. I loved to read scary stories to those little girls, excited almost to paroxysm at the idea of having tombs only a few yards away from them. Even better if it was a bit windy; waving and swaying trees at night can be quite frightful, especially with me making gruff voices when reading the most scary passages of the story.

All those moments rushed through my memory, stinging my eyes like a sudden strong gust of wind, startling, and making you wonder where it came from. They exploded like mortar shells in my mind when the first bullet hit the stonewall and chipped a sharp edge away. The first straight hit came days after that, and Annah scored it, bursting into cheers. She pounded fists with me in laughter. It had taken only a few hundred bullets.

The dogs now waited for my visits, cheerful when I showed up. I started to do regular trips to the mall and got replenishments of dog food and treats. I also visited the hardware shop a few times, and the ‘Earth Adventures’ store.

In a week's time, I collected jerrycans of gasoline and filled Joe’s tool shed with them—I did not want the equivalent of a bomb at home. Each jerrycan contained twenty liters of fuel and I collected forty of those. I equipped us with two portable electric generators with standard gasoline engines. They both rated for five thousand watts and gave me the peace of mind I wanted in case our power went out. The nicest part was that I did not need to put a price tag on them.

At Earth Adventures, I had to break in and silence the screaming alarm bell. There, I found hunting knives, two wind-up radios and flashlights, portable water purifiers and solar cell chargers. All of this could be of help, too. The best find had been the wind-up walkie-talkies with a nominal range of two miles. Better not to be relying on mobile phones to work indefinitely. Also, our property fence was now secured with barbed wire to keep animals away, just one more precaution. And I got real binoculars too. Paranoids survive.

We listened to the radio daily, scanning channels, and we kept sending emails and browsing the Internet. Time seemed to have stopped digitally as no site received any updates. I even tried to join online forums to post messages but most of them required an authorization to do that. I received plenty of automatic emails and, within hours, I would receive the approval, or not, by the moderator. Of course, no moderator ever sent me anything. The Facebook campaign had reached almost a million people. Great results, but no clicks.

I guessed it was time for me to head to Geneva and have a look around town. I knew of a gun shop, and having only one pistol in the family was not enough.

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