All that's left of that old world, the one that still lingers in memories as if it were once so real, is a tattered 5x7 taken with a $1.99 pocket disposable and developed at the drug store's one-hour photo. He keeps it in the inside pocket of his double-breasted trench coat, a savior of brown suede--for the nights are bitter cold nearly all year round, and only the top tier dare light a fire.
He sits 2,000 feet at least above the sea on the ruins of an old bridge that once transgressed a cove of the Atlantic. From shore to shore, folks used to travel this bridge and take for granted the ease it brought to them--safely speeding across the surface alongside 50 or 60 other drivers high above the raging ocean... perhaps the human race became too ambitious.
But the bridge still serves him well. The thing is cracked and split in several places. It gnarls and curls like old, drawn, arthritic hands. He's made his camp among the highest points of the bridge, simply because, in order for anyone to trifle him up here they'd have to be crazy and lucky. And typically, in this day, if a crazy fellow has luck on his side you're screwed anyway.
It’s so far above everything that he often imagines clouds floating all around him, though he knows this to be false. But the thought reminds him of fairy tales, giants at the top of bean stalks, or angels with massive wings and golden harps.
He can sleep without fear of falling over the edge. The surface runs to a corner and tilts back slightly into a solid plate of steel where he can rest his back and look out across the ocean before sleep takes him. The whole floor is only about four and a half feet wide, and then it splits and drops off into the angry sea.
When first he came, the space was filthy with thick mud and gunk caking the floor and walls, likely from the flood, or perhaps the storms. He cleared it all away, scooping slimy handfuls into the sea below for the better part of an entire afternoon, watching them fall for ages before making a distant inaudible splash. When finished, he rested and slept, for the first time in months without fear, nestled into the back corner where the surface tilted into the remains of a wall.
Now, his pastime is gazing out over the raging sea. It reminds him of two things, both in some way pleasant.
The first: waking to a chilled morning in a beachfront hotel, 12th floor, feet propped on the concrete slab railing of the balcony.
The second: the night all of this began. They sat together that night and he held her, not her picture. Together, they watched the ocean rise up level with their 16th floor apartment in a furious wave off in the distance. It seemed to hang there for a moment, suspended like the anticipation born at the peak of a roller coaster. It lingers to threaten. And then the inevitable, it came down hard upon the city and they watched it slaughter thousands, maybe millions, in a single rushing swoop. The streets flooded quickly and soon became rivers that ran with purpose to the doorstep of their apartment building.
They continued to watch until the building became unsafe, and together they left to brave the filth that washed through their streets. But they had waited too long. Corpses floated by face down, level with the second floor window where they stood. Cars sped by being tossed about on the ferocious waves, useless metal lifeboats that would surely sink eventually. It wasn't long until he lost her, not to raging, supernatural (or perhaps hypernatural) seas, but to a vagrant with bullets to waste. Ha! But vagrants are everyone. We are all the scum of yesterday now. We have been dethroned.
Yet this memory is still pleasant, for it was the last time he held her, breathed in her scent during a deep embrace, and tasted her lips when she clung to him out of fear. He thinks of this and smiles and withdraws the photo from his interior pocket to gaze upon. He holds it up to the sun setting off to his right. He holds it there for a moment before snuggling down into the corner and draping the worn coat over his body, and then hugs his knees tightly in hopes to endure another night.
About once every three weeks, he treks into the interiors of nearby cities, hoping to scavenge some supplies, and most of all food. The climb down from his roost is extraordinarily taxing, yet not the most dreaded part of the journey. Sometimes, depending on destination, it can take days to reach anything of value. His longest trip as of yet was 8 days--long days and nights of camping, starving, and worrying that any moment could be his last. No cover on the road ever leaves him feeling as safe as his home on high.
He wakes early, takes out the tattered picture and kisses it good morning, eats a can of potted meat, gathers his few belongings--a cross-shouldered pack, a pistol and a small rusted hand mattock--and then leans haphazardly over the edge of his nest and begins the long climb down. Hand below hand and foot below foot, each movement is made with shaky limbs, obviously malnourished, and extreme nervous precision. He reaches the first horizontal beam and sits to rest, as the air is heavy and burning in his lungs. He peers over the edge at the water below. It rushes in a way he'd never seen of an ocean. "It's in a hurry," he'd heard folks say long ago of rushing rivers and rapids, but never of an ocean. It seems the ocean finally has somewhere to be.
He could imagine falling into the flailing water, much like the same water that took so many lives, only this is a pearly white roll and spray while the other was a hideous roar of sludge and mud, brown from the filth dredged up from the conditions of humanity's everyday norm. Still, that water is murderous. It would take him just like everyone and everything else if he gave it the chance. Such thoughts are dangerous and send a quiver from the base of his spine to the curve of his skull. He shakes it off and secures his pack before lowering himself carefully over the edge--still quite a way to go before he's level with the mainland.
His bones throb by the time he reaches the lowest point above the ocean. He gazes up to the perch and traces his trek down with his eyes. Before it all washed away, these tall beams and supports served no purpose aside from holding in place the steady bridge. Hold it up, safe for everyone. Now it serves as home.
He pulls his coat tight around his body and hugs it to his chest to shield from the intense cold carried on the water. He can sporadically feel the spray on his face as he crosses the shattered bridge. In the places where chunks of concrete are missing and the steel structure is busted and curled away, he believes he could lie flat and touch the water. Of course, the pressure would probably drag him in so he dare not. He meanders on, sidestepping jagged metal and scaling the remains of rusted automobile hulls as needed. A long burnt king-cab pickup lies with more than half of its body dangling over the edge, but by some grace hasn't fallen yet. He keeps waiting for it to, and with each trip he makes to the mainland he is surprised that it still yet perseveres.
Yes, things on the bridge survive stubbornly.
The last obstacle before he reaches firm ground is an overturned school bus. Four feet or so dangles over the side of the bridge, but there is enough bulk in the safe zone to where it is stable. He had considered making the bus his home when he first reached the bridge, but decided it was much too close to the mainland. He eases onto the thin familiar path at the rear of the bus where there's just enough space to walk between it and a totaled SUV.
The mainland, stuff of nightmares. He remembers seeing a similar visage on the big screen back when movies and money were important. The asphalt is cracked and laden with mud and silt. Occasionally, he sees a bit of hardtop or a painted yellow line and it reminds him of a full belly and a soft bed. Some buildings have crumbled, some still stand, though they have withstood their share of damage. Windows are broken. Doors lay in the street. Trees are strewn about like grass flying from beneath a lawnmower.
He stands silent and shivering in the ubiquitous wasteland--a skeleton of a fallen empire that seemed as though it would thrive forever.
His feet are heavy but venture on out of necessity. He cradles his pistol and shakes violently against the cold. The tail of his jacket whips in the wind. It keeps getting colder, colder than any winter he can remember, or at least it seems so. This trip needs to be quick and he knows it. If not, he is sure to frostbite.
He sees no one, thankfully. One of his greatest fears next to the frigid elements is the few people who are left. Not that humanity is steeped in evil and aching to destroy each other, but everyone needs to survive. And sometimes surviving means the doing of evil deeds. He knows this first hand.
When nighttime arrives he enters what's left of a ruined restaurant through a busted window. He's been here before, but it looks different now. Someone else has been here since his last visit.
He knows the place is void of anything useful--has been for months. Still, it’s shelter. He creeps into the kitchen careful not to make a sound just in case someone is here. He sees no one. He curls up tight inside his coat and pulls the ends over his legs. He removes his pack, which is filled with what little food he has left, and rummages through it for food. He settles on a can of pork and beans and shoves the blade of his dulling knife into the top of the can, works it back and forth until the lid is open enough for him to eat the contents. He scoops them out on the blade of his knife and eats. He wipes the juices away on his sleeve and drifts off to sleep.
He wakes before there is any light outside. The nights are so much darker now, darker than he can ever remember. He takes out her picture and kisses it, tucks it away and sighs.
A mist covers the street and trails off in each direction. He squints, but can barely make out the buildings, let alone any significant dangers. He's still situating his pack when he walks into the mist. It reminds him of the flood.
The sun never really shines, at least not like it used to. A constant overcast shields its rays from reaching the earth. His eyes adjust slowly as daytime approaches, gently lifting the blackness but leaving behind a somber gray. The mist still hangs and in the breaking day looks whiter and thicker, making it even more difficult to see than before.
He hears hollow taps and shudders. The sound of boots on ruined pavement. He looks in all directions but sees nothing. He listens closely, placing his sole hope in tell-tale audible signs. The taps are uneven and slow. This person is likely injured or dying of starvation. And more importantly, he only hears one set of feet. The feeling in his chest reminds him of when she died. They were defenseless and meant no harm. But it didn't matter. The man--he doesn't even know the name of the man who shot his wife--shot her as they backed away. He tried to save her, drug her to safety after the man fled. And he could swear he heard him laughing, though admittedly, the details are more than fuzzy now. It diminishes like the dissipation of a vague dream.
She held on through the night, but her breathing became more and more shallow. He unknowingly drifted off to sleep and when he woke she was gone. He buried her body outside the city that day and has been alone since.
These thoughts echo with each resounding footstep. He retrieves the gun from his coat pocket with a trembling hand and tries to locate the source of the sound. Since her death, everyone he meets wears the face of the man who took her life, even though he can't remember what it looks like.
He has three bullets. He fires once. The taps accelerate and grow louder. He fires again and they stop. The smoke from the barrel mixes with the morning fog.
He runs in the direction that he fired the second shot. His body is convulsing from the cold and the fear. He sees legs first. They're clad in thick purple sweat pants, filthy. She's so small, couldn't be more than 10 years old. Her jacket, much too large for her, is stained red near her left shoulder blade, surrounding a ragged entrance wound.
His legs fail and he falls to his knees and then to his side. He can see her face, eyes blank and cheek pressed into the filth of the street.
He's not sure if he can't stand, or if he just doesn't want to. If anyone is within two or three miles they definitely heard the shot. But what can he do if some assailant should come. He only has one bullet left.
He quivers and drifts off.
He wakes and the chilled wind bites at his cheeks and for a moment he believes he is high in the nest safe from the terrors he'd just witnessed. But his waking eyes are met by the young girl’s lifeless gaze.
He heaves himself upward as if witnessing it for the first time, and then sits back on his legs and cries.
After a time, it begins to snow and his tears feel cold on his cheeks and in the thick puddles of his eyelids. He wipes at his face with filthy gloves--something he would have never done before the flood--and rights himself. He gazes down at the lifeless body and mourns her passing, though in his mind he believes death is probably best for all. However, she would have at least been a companion, someone to talk to, to care for, and perhaps, one day, providing they lived long enough, someone to inflict his most carnal desires upon. He shudders at his thoughts.
He rolls her over to her back. Her face is filthy. Thin clean lines run in several streaks down her darkened cheeks. He kneels at her side and for a moment considers stripping her flesh, but figures she is so malnourished that there would hardly even be three meals on her whole body.
He shudders again and gathers her up to bury.
He carries her to what used to be Garrison Park and digs a hole not three feet deep and barely large enough for her body. The soil is hard and frozen, but he breaks it with the rusted mattock. He places her tiny frame into the hole and curls her knees up to her chest so she'll fit, and then begins to cover her with dirt thinking the whole time that dirt does not belong on such a face.
After the mound of dirt has been packed tight, he stands broad-legged and stares toward the shoreline. It is far in the distance. He wouldn't even be able to tell it was the shore if not for the bridge protruding up into the sky like a bottom row of disgusting tarnished teeth. He can barely discern which peek is which and fancies the highest one is his home. He squints and tries to figure if someone could see him up there should he light a fire at night, for the cold is becoming unbearable.
He casts a longing glance at the small circle of packed dirt, sighs, and moves on.
Night is approaching quickly and he is still without food. He hurries along away from the shore looking for an untapped resource, but his surroundings all look familiar. His legs progress in haphazard, sloppy strides, yet present an air of urgency. His toes scrape the ground with each step.
Night falls fast and it's snowing much harder now. The darkness combines with the snow to limit his vision to only a few feet. He feels his way to a building that seems to still be for the most part intact and enters. Once inside, he is unsure where he is, and strangely, this gives him hope.
The place is dank and smells of mold and rot, but at least it protects him from the snow. There are rows of metal shelves with debris cluttered about their tops. In the back of the room there is a long countertop. The floor is sticky with sludge that engulfs his boots with each step. He scans each shelf with hungry eyes, hoping to find something to eat. With his stomach clenching, he meets empty shelf after empty shelf until he spots a tiny object midway down the aisle on the next to last shelf. It is merely a hump beneath the mud. He picks it up and cleans it off. It is a bottle of Tylenol.
He falls to his knees and clutches the tiny bottle to his chest. He knows where he is now--the drug store on Ayeland Street. Remembering the layout of the store vaguely, he scampers through the sludge, which is at least two inches deep, with a fervent, renewed hope. He remembers the staircase in the back of the store that leads up into Macy's department store and down into a vast food court.
He finds the stairs and descends. Down below, the sludge thickens and gets deeper. The steps are dangerously slick with it. He eases himself to the bottom on shaky legs and then sits on the last step despite the sludge. He sucks at the putrid air and gazes about the room.
The scene is dismal, or at least what he can see of it, like the underwater remains of the Titanic he'd seen in a documentary once--several tables scattered about the room, some toppled, some bolted fast to the floor, all hung with thick clumps of seaweed and ooze.
He gets to his feet and lights a match, which brightens the room only slightly. His first thought is that anything edible here must be ruined. But that too gives him hope, for maybe others had thought the same if they had discovered this place.
He rounds the first counter he comes to and searches frantically. He finds a few bags of potato chips, but they are opened and the bags are soaked in sludge. He can't even tell if any chips remain in the goo. He continues. Next he finds a cupboard beneath a prep station. Inside he finds three muddy cans of chili. He checks and the seals are unbroken. His match dies, but it doesn't matter. He cracks one can open and eats with his hands, and then stuffs the other two in his pack.
He returns to the stairs and ascends to the drug store and then on up to Macy's. It is far too dark down below and he can't afford to waste matches. He shall return in the morning, though he's not sure how much better it will be.
He finds a place to sleep in a ruined dressing room and covers himself in coats. He sleeps and can't remember the last time he felt so warm.
Dreams visit with wicked intentions. He's naked but for a tiny cross that hangs about his neck on a taught silver chain. He's in an empty room he doesn't recognize. But he isn't alone. There is a woman in front of him clad in gray slacks, a silk purple blouse and a thick brown coat with clean white fur lining the collar.
She offers him a single can of muddy beans for his cross and he accepts without hesitation. He kneels at her feet and opens the can with his fingers, and then begins to eat, gnawing the cold, soupy beans from his fingers. His hand is bleeding from opening the can, but that doesn't matter. The blood mixes with the beans and adds a warm iron taste. He doesn’t mind. He keeps eating. He keeps filling his mouth and scraping with his teeth until the can is empty. He now realizes he's eaten a portion of two of his fingers.
He cringes when the woman's icy hands grasp his neck to remove the cross.
He wakes and eyes his hand, still with all its fingers. He checks his neck for the chain but realizes he's never owned a cross necklace.
The store is much brighter and it lifts his spirits. He stands on shaky knees and returns to the food court in the basement.
After a few hours of searching, he discovers 7 cans of chili, 12 cans of lunch meat each with a pull-tab, 3 cans of cherry pie filling, 2 butter knives, a small steak knife, and two hams still fresh in sealed plastic. He doubts the ham is ruined since the temperature probably hasn't risen above 30 since the flood. He stuffs his pack and is glad to see that it is nearly full to the brim.
He had found so much more but it was all ruined and stinking.
He gathers a few more coats and layers them on, and puts on a few extra pairs of socks and pants before stepping outside into at least 6 inches of thick wet snow. Again, he can see the ghost of the bridge in the distance, barely visible in the morning mist and flurries. He desperately dreads the journey.
He takes steps, dreadfully beginning his trek, and finds his thoughts dwelling on the girl and wishing with his most earnest desires that he hadn't killed her--though his reasons for wishing so aren't clear and that scares him almost more than prowlers and the flood and the cold and starving to death.
He trudges through the snow and can barely feel the cold's harsh bite in his toes. He is thankful for the extra layers, for the food in his pack, and his home atop the bridge, though he fears he doesn't deserve any of it.
© Kenneth Harris 2014