Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed” Mahatma Gandhi
Jack slowly opened his eyes.
He had trained them to gather in his humble digs after his brain became functional. If he had not learned to slow down his visual perception, the room would seem foreign to him.
He knew that his brain could no longer keep pace with his eyes. This affliction did not bother him; he had reconciled his entire life in the same manner. He told himself; whatever the situation, just give it time to sink in, and you will come out fine.
His internal voice continued its discourse, another day in paradise, yet another day of foraging town and country for food and goods. He had the world at his command, at least what remained of it.
For most of his adult life, he wanted people to leave him alone. To satisfy this proclivity, he spirited himself away in the sawgrass prairies of Florida, far from nosy neighbors and government intervention. Sometimes he had no human contact for weeks. He had his two pets, his books, and his thoughts to keep him company.
Despite his innate need for independence and self-sufficiency, there were times he had to go to town for supplies. For these rare events, he shaved, and put on his best clothes in an attempt to cloak his true recluse persona.
One balmy spring morning a few days earlier, Jack and Clyde piled into the old station wagon and made the ten mile sojourn to town. Jack told Bonnie to hold down the fort, Clyde chimed in with his usual farewell bark to the cat as they rumbled down the old dirt road to the highway.
As they drew near the town, Jack noticed Clyde acting queerly. Instead of his usual posture of hanging his head out of the window, the dog attempted to sniff something in the air, and then looked back at Jack as if for guidance. The odd behavior broke Jack out of his usual rapture, making him realize he had not passed by even one other vehicle on the road. Such a busy road held some traffic at that hour.
Nothing. Jack stopped the car on the narrow shoulder, and then stepped out into the road to look and listen. The desolate landscape provided no comfort to his growing discomfort. He could hear the faint twittering of birds in the distance, accompanied by nothing but silence. He walked back to the car to stick his head in the window.
“Whad’ya think Clyde, a little bit too quiet, doncha think?” Clyde cocked his golden head as if to echo the question.
“Well, I guess we’ll be getting nowhere real quick if we sit around here scratching our heads. Let’s get back on the road.”
A few miles out of town, they encountered some abandoned cars strewn about the road. They had to slow down to negotiate around them on the shoulder, as they drew nearer to town; the eschewed vehicles were commonplace, every one of them mysteriously abandoned. One vehicle, a new SUV, had its passenger door hanging open, as they approached it, Clyde began to bark with conviction. Jack stopped his vehicle next to it and tried to look through the tinted glass into the vehicle. There seemed to be something hanging out of the passenger door. He pulled behind the vehicle to improve his perspective.
He could not be sure, but it looked like the remains of a corpse spilling out into the shoulder from the passenger seat. Clyde increased the tempo and volume of his tribute. Not a curious sort by nature, and realizing that he could be of no assistance to a corpse, Jack again proceeded down the old road with a bit more urgency. Clyde discontinued his angry song until they encountered another and then a third similar tableau.
He dared not imagine what had caused the dismal plight of these unfortunate people. Their half-eaten bodies proof positive that they had been meals for scavengers.
With a sudden trepidation, he realized that all of the vehicles were traveling out of town. It occurred to him that the road carnage he witnessed seemed a preferable end to those late souls, to whatever dwelled ahead. He slammed on the brakes.
“So why the fuck am I going there?” He said aloud. Clyde pulled himself up from the floor with an inquisitive expression that suggested he shared the same thought process.
It became Jacks turn to cock his head and gaze at Clyde. “You know what boy, I think we need to find out what happened to these people, else we may end up like them.” He eased the accelerator, and they were again on their way to the town Jack referred to as Fresco, he had forgotten its real name.
Twenty years ago, he had met Jacques Fresco and considered him a kindred spirit. Even though Fresco had forty years more experience, their philosophies and ideologies were the same. The iconoclastic ideas they shared worked to keep them both at odds with society, it provided Jack with a perverse pleasure that they lived only a few miles apart.
Jack had no idea what he would find in the small town. Although he concealed his apprehension better than Clyde, he could feel the short hairs on the back of his neck prickle with dread as he rounded the last curve.
He found Main Street littered with vehicles parked at obtuse angles. There were no people, no corpses, only sidewalks littered with bones. Jack envisioned a carrion convention that ended some time ago, all the bones picked clean, and drying in the merciless Florida sun for weeks. He recalled it had been at least two months since his last visit, whatever happened in the town could have occurred that long ago. With Clyde at his heels, he sprung from the car to assess the situation.
He spotted a lone vulture circling high overhead, hoping to score some forgotten scrap of meat, perhaps with thoughts of Jack and Clyde as his next meal. Jack looked up and shouted, “Over my dead body, you parasite.” He glanced down at Clyde, who returned his gaze with nothing but an inquisitive stare. “Well, I thought it was funny. You have no sense of irony. Come on; let’s see what’s going on here.”
Jack went door to door, searching for any sign of life, while Clyde sniffed through the bones and cars. He encountered only locked doors until he found a Radio Shack that accommodated his swift search, so he strolled inside. The stench of death overcame him over as the stagnant air billowed from the room, he made a rapid retreat and then slammed the door as Clyde came bounding up.
“We don’t want to go there Clyde.” He looked up at the looming vulture. “I am sure our friend would love it if I left the door ajar.” Jack looked up and down the street for an alternate venue for his explorations. His perusal gathered in two small figures approaching from the distance, Clyde eyed them also and began a muffled growl.
“Easy boy, we come in peace, stay!” Jack started to walk towards them. As he approached, he made out the silhouettes of two canines, a bit smaller than his Golden Retriever. He turned to Clyde and repeated; “Stay!”
One of the mutts stopped as he saw Jack approach, the other continued his approach, albeit with great caution. From a few feet away, Jack could feel the dog's fear and hunger. He took one of Clyde’s doggie treats out of his pocket and tossed it beside Fido. The dog looked at him with contempt, then grabbed the milk bone and ran back to his companion. Jack tossed another one in their general direction shouting, “don’t forget your friend”.
Jack eyeballed Clyde still sitting in front of the Radio Shack, he waved him over. When he padded up, Jack spoke to his face. “I believe I can be a bit more diplomatic than you, so let me handle any new ambassadors we may encounter, deal?” He stuck out his hand, Clyde thrust his paw into it. “Alright then, don’t think I’m not going to hold you to that.” He tossed him a treat.
They continued exploring Main Street, discovering either locked doors or ghastly smelling crypts, until they came to a an unlocked hair salon which had no smells outside the faint traces of beauty accoutrements.
“Let’s check this one out, c’mon Clyde”.
The heat in the salon approached unbearable. No electric power equates to no air conditioning, in Florida that meant Hell on Earth. Jack had become used to it. Being his first visit to a salon, he insinuated that everything appeared normal; salon chairs, nail polish and other vanity fortifications populated the place. Jack chuckled when he thought of how much money, time and energy people would spend on vanity. The fact that people built an entire industry around plastering poison on your fingernails seemed incomprehensible to him. He performed a swift search and began to proclaim to Clyde that the search had been fruitless when he discovered a cell phone in one of the drawers.
Technology fascinated Jack, from a distance. He wanted little to do with it, but before he fell off the grid, he made it a point to know as much as he could about it. The phone had some battery power left. He turned it on, and then hit the function button to bring up voice mail.
“Please enter your password”. The squawking startled him, he had not heard a voice other than his own for ages. He heard a series of tones, which he knew to be the password being generated by software in the phone.
“You have three messages, first message, sent Friday, March twenty third at two forty two P.M.”
“Marlene, call me. I’m tired of playing these games with you. Nobody should treat their mother like this. End of message.”
“Next message, sent Saturday March twenty fourth, at nine thirteen A.M.
“Marlene, PLEASE CALL ME BACK, RIGHT NOW, THIS THING IS FOR REAL! End of message.”
Next message, sent Saturday, March twenty fourth at ten twenty seven A.M.
“Marlene, your father and I are screaming down the road to Tampa, they say we’ve got about 7 hours before it hits us. They say they have enough antidote for everyone, but only if you can make it to the nearest distribution center. If you’re closer to Miami, then get there, NOW. OH MY GOD I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING. Please honey, we love you, no matter what. PLEASE GET TO A CENTER! End of message. There are no more new messages.”
Jack looked at Clyde. “What the fuck?” Clyde cocked his head.
“I guess that’s what we get for not keeping up on current events. Looks like we don’t get to find out what happened, but on the plus side, we’re still alive, I guess that counts for something, huh boy?” For the first time in hours, Clyde wagged his tail. He could sense Jack's joy, even if he had no clue where it emanated from.
For the next few hours, they both sniffed around for evidence of what had occurred. They found a few more shops that were accessible sans stink, but nothing to give them a clue of what had transpired. They saw a few random scavengers that fled at first sight, but not much more. Fresco had become a ghost town.
Jack picked a few locks to access the stores he needed, and then secured each one before he departed. At the small town grocery store, Clyde discovered a fat cat that had been feeding on the rodents there. If it were not for the kitty, rats would have consumed most of the dry goods, so Jack tried to convince Clyde that the acted as an ally. Clyde acquiesced, but not without a few rounds of chase the kitty. Jack made sure the sink in the back dripped a little harder, and plugged the drain so the feline had ample water. A strange form of conservationism, he thought.
When he had packed the wagon as tight as he thought possible, he told Clyde it they were leaving. He waved goodbye to Mr. Buzzard and wheeled the wagon eastward, he wanted to make it home before dark.
“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” Ann Landers
Now that he had shed his sleepy head, he motivated himself to collect some food from the garden and forage for wild berries. This is what he did for a living. He thought it odd that people used to do something like “accounting” or “secretary” for a living. How can a ledger or a typewriter provide food and water? Now farming, that is a living.
Since the day he went to town, Jack had been hypothesizing about what happened to all those people. He busted his old transistor radio out of storage, found some still-in-the-package batteries and persuaded the old box to work. He raised nothing but static.
Once he thought he may have heard a distant explosion but dismissed it as echoing thunder. Storms could be isolated in this region, but so could he. He felt secure that any impending danger would have a difficult time locating him. The idea that the world around him may have come to an abrupt end did not upset him as much as it would a ‘normal’ person. He could not find it within himself to shed a tear for society. For the most part, he looked at modern society as an animal that chased its own tail, and made a lot of fuss over insignificant issues and objects, too bad so many people had died, but as always; it is what it is, not much he could do about it.
Habitually, he went back to his old routines and rarely gave the situation much thought. He could only guess there must have been some ass-kicking virus that wiped out the entire population damn quick. Jack had the chilling sensation that he could be the last man on Earth, with the possible exception of a few lonely souls wandering some far corner of the Earth. He sure as hell could not motivate himself to go to Africa or Micronesia to reach out to them, he felt fine being right here doing what he always did; ignoring the rest of the world. He would go to town every few months to stock up on supplies and the rest of the time just chillax at the crib. Bonnie and Clyde were good with that also.
He had liberated some canned goods and other sundries from the stores in town, but he preferred the fresh grown garden items right outside his door for daily sustenance, for “living”. He took into account that wild creatures would pilfer some of the fruits of his labors, but this problem had gotten worse. With increasing frequency, his fruits and veggies were missing from their vines and trellises, even before they were ripe. Without humans around, nature’s creatures may be beginning to thrive, maybe they were becoming smarter too, avoiding all his fences, traps and other devices he built to keep them out of his farms and gardens.
He went to his garden to pluck some ripe tomatoes when Clyde bolted into the underbrush. “Where do you think you’re going you crazy mutt? There's nothing back there but swamp, you’re going to get swallowed up by a gator.” Clyde did not falter, he continued on his quest, barking into the palmettos.
“Damn dog”, Jack muttered as he followed him into the foliage. He heard Clyde stop barking, followed by a plaintive yelp. He began to worry, and then he broke into a run, a tricky maneuver in the Florida underbrush. He came into a clearing where Clyde had barked a girl to the brink of the swamp.
“Don’t hurt me sir, I was only taking a little food. I am so hungry!”
“Clyde, back off!” Clyde receded with his tail between his legs, Jack rarely spoke to him with that tone.
“No one is going to hurt you young lady, Clyde’s just a big pussycat, his bark is much worse than his bite.” He gave Clyde a blank stare, which made the dog cringe a little lower.
“I’ll be on my way then, if you’d like, I can return the food I stole.” She murmured with her head bowed.
“That would be just fine with me.” Not a suspicious man by nature, Jack still looked around to see if there were others in this raiding party. He turned to Clyde and said; “It’s okay boy”, which jump-started the dog out of his deferential posture. Jack wanted Clyde’s eyes and ears attuned to the environment, not to him.
The girl started to creep around them and back to wherever she came from when Jack said, “Stop!”
She froze in her tracks, turned to him and said, “What?”
“Who did you come here with, and I want the truth, I mean it.”
“Nobody, just me.”
“Whad’ya think Clyde, is she telling the truth?” Clyde stood up and wagged his tail, grateful he had emerged from the doghouse.
“Alright then, if Clyde believes you, I believe you. Let me ask you this; where are you headed?”
At this, she began to bawl. Jack rolled his eyes. “It’s not any kind of dramatic question, pretty straightforward, let me re-phrase, where do you call home?”
This time she just fell to the ground, sobbing and heaving. Clyde walked over and sniffed her face, pricked his ears up, then whimpered in bewilderment. She reached up and rubbed behind his ears.
“Oh Jesus”; Jack said and walked over to her then held out his hand. “Get up off the ground, you’re soaked in mud”. She looked up at him and said, between tears; “Please don’t hurt me sir.”
“Jesus fu…. Uh, oh shit, no one is going to hurt you. Clyde, have I ever hurt anybody?” Clyde wagged his tail. “There now, if I can believe him about you, can’t you believe him about me?”
“He doesn’t talk, he didn’t say anything.”
“Oh man, if you can’t understand dog, then you’re dumber than you look.”
“I don’t look dumb!” She protested.
“I dunno, you’re sprawled out in mud, crying, talking to a dog, looks pretty stupid to me.”
“I’m not talking to the dog, you are.”
“I saw you scratch his head, don’t tell me you don’t know what that means to a dog.” Her expression softened as she looked at Clyde; “I have a dog, err, I used to have a dog that looks just like him.”
Jack decided to change his tact, “You know, there are alligators creeping around here. They’ll bite anything lying on the ground.”
The girl leaped from the ground, into Jack’s arms. She pleaded; “Can we get out of here?”
Jack glanced down at his dog, “See her Clyde, she’s becoming smarter by the second.” He pointed the way out and followed her to his garden.
When they reached the opening she turned to him and said; “I guess I should be going now. Thank you for not hurting me, sir.”
Jack watched her walk a few steps, then shouted at her back, “What’s your name?”
She turned to look back at him, “Gillian.”
Jack laughed and looked down at Clyde as if this were an inside joke. She put her hands on her hips; “what’s so funny about my name?”
“Your name is fine, but the fact that we are Jack and Jill struck me as funny. We have plenty of water, so we don’t have to go up the hill to fetch a pail, and there aren’t any hills around here anyway.”
Jill furrowed her brow. “You are an odd man.”
“Thank you, but you may be mistaken on that, I may be the only man in the world, which would render me, I hate to say it but, normal.”
He spread his arms and said; “How about we put all our cards on the table, it occurs to me that you don’t have a lot of choices. It is obvious that you need some food, you’re one skinny little chicken...”
She objected;”I am NOT a skinny little chicken!”
“…on top of that, I believe you don’t have anyone else to call, text or even talk to. In addition, I am guessing you don’t have a decent place to stay. Now don’t start blubbering again, it takes the entire troll out of me, damn it.”
She wiped the tears from her eyes. He moved towards her. “At least let this old troll feed you, I promise I won’t poison you, Clyde will testify to that, won’t you boy?” Clyde wagged his tail then ran under Jill’s caressing hand.
For the first time in months, she smiled; “Well, if Clyde thinks it’s okay. I do trust him, he doesn’t judge me the way you do.”
“You like chicken? I raised some that weigh more than you do.”
“I am not skinny. You’re just fat and think everyone is skinny compared to you.”
“I’m sure they are. Everyone, at least the ones I've encountered so far.”
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. Winston Churchill
“It’s been quite some time since I cooked for anyone, so don’t expect anything fancy.” Jack could sense Jill falling back into a gloomy mood in the aftermath of their confrontation outside. At least she did not appear frightened anymore. She sat on his old sofa, staring at the wall and twirling her long dark hair.
“I know the place is a dump, but the bathroom is nice. The place is complete with indoor plumbing, if you want, you could go clean yourself up a bit, even take a shower if it suits you.”
She sighed, slumped over and said;”what’s the use, my clothes are filthy. I’ve been wearing the same rags for the last few weeks.”
“It may surprise you to hear this, but I had a girlfriend once. She left in a big hurry, without taking half her shi… stuff. They may not be your style; she is a wee bit bigger than you are. You want to check the dresser in that spare room over there. I think you could find something that would work.”
“I guess;” she said with resignation. She waited a minute, and then slouched off to the spare room. He heard her shuffle through the drawers for a few minutes, then she emerged and said; “So, where’s the shower?” Jack pointed to the bathroom door. Jack heard the door lock and then the gentle cascade of the shower.
He went outside to fire up the grill. He did not have any chickens, could not bring himself to slaughter an animal, but he did have some canned meat, spam or something like it. Along with some home grown veggies, he thought he ate well; surely it would be a feast for a girl who needed to pilfer tomatoes from his garden.
It had been about ten minutes since she went into the bathroom, Jack could hear the water running from his patio around the corner from the bathroom window. She stays in there too long he would have to make a propane run in the morning. The calm and comfort of a hot shower remained a concession he could not relinquish to his Spartan subsistence
Beneath the sound of the showerhead, he could hear her humming a gentle melody. A minute later, her humming intensified, until she broke into song. He even recognized the tune but could not name it if his life depended on it. Clyde perked up his ears when she came to the chorus.
“Girl’s got some decent pipes on her, eh Clyde.” Clyde cocked his head for a better perspective then went around to the corner to garner a front row seat. “Guess that’s a yes.” Bonnie began rubbing against Jack’s leg, purring. “Yeah, right, I know, you like having a female around the place.” Maggie left Bonnie behind when she took off. The cat never quite became acclimated to life without her. “Let me tell you right now Missy, you don’t get a vote, and this isn’t a democracy.” She went around the corner to join Clyde.
“Bitches, they’re all alike,” Jack stated to nobody in particular.
As his culinary concoction simmered, Jack went to the garage to fetch a folding chair and a box to store the clutter from the table. Most times, he pushed it aside to eat, but now he figured he should clear it off for his dinner guest. He had wiped the table, thrown some silverware on it, and brought the food back into the house by the time she came out of the bathroom sporting one of Maggie’s old tops and shorts with tousled hair and a towel around her neck.
“I kinda like this retro look.” She did a pirouette, and then sprinted up to Jack and began hugging him.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you! I feel a million times better. I’d forgotten what a hot shower feels like.”
Jack found himself balancing two plates behind Jill’s back; “I know, it’s great, but you’re gonna have to let go of me or we’ll be eating this food off the floor, which would be a damn shame, after all the trouble I took to clear off the table.”
“Here, let me do that, it’s the least I can do.” She ducked from his arms then snatched the plates away from him and set them down on the table. “Sit, let me do the rest. We got something to drink?”
“There’s some juice and RC in the ice box.”
“”You have a fridge?”
“No, it’s an old ice box, I just don’t have any ice.”
“Okay then, room temperature juice it is.” She scurried to the icebox and grabbed the jug of apple juice and a couple glasses from the cupboard, then sat across from him at the small table.
“So, what are we having for dinner here?”
“Meat and potatoes.”
“What kind of meat?”
“I’m not sure, but it’s what we got, so let’s eat it.”
“Amen, not the best prayer I ever heard, but I guess it’ll do.”
“And amen to that.” Her presence reminded him of his distaste for the irritating courtesies society demanded of people. Jack started to shovel his food into his face, and then remembered his long forsaken manners, he decided dust off a little of his forsaken courtesy in front of the girl.
Even though he knew she must be ravenous, she ate in a delicate manner that reflected her upbringing. For what she must have gone through the last six weeks, she seemed serene and calm, yet bordering on merry. He knew zilch about her past life, and she did not seem eager to reveal any of it to him now, so he decided to let that sleeping dog lie. He guessed her to be about seventeen, cute kid, well mannered or so it seemed. This new world must be hard for her…
“Don’t fall for it Jackson”, he heard his conscience scold him. Every time you open up a soft spot for some female, young, old or even a damn cat, you always get the shaft. Hell, he could not profile females, everyone sucks, and that is why I have been content here, alone for, for, shit I can’t even remember, a few years anyway.
“So, what’s your last name Jack?”
“Jack is my last name, Jackson if you want to get technical, and don’t even ask me my first name, I never liked it, discarded so long ago that I’m not sure I could remember it if I had to.”
“It’s probably on your driver’s license.”
“PI wouldn't doubt it, but I never look at it, I know who I am and where I live. I am sure the damn ID tag has expired by now anyway. So what’s it say on your license?”
“I don’t have one, not old enough, just a permit.”
She’s younger than she looks; ”They don’t put names on permits these days, just general issue for anyone that happens to pick up a box of Cracker Jacks?”
“Ha, I passed Drivers Ed, on my next birthday… shit, oh excuse me for swearing, but my birthday is April 29th and I didn’t think about it til’ now. I know it must be past that now, isn’t it. What day is it today anyway?”
Jack looked to the wall at his calendar;”May 7th, I think.”
“Last time I knew, it was March 20, the first day of spring, because I remember my dad explaining the vernal equinox. It was that same day that…”
In a heartbeat, the light went out of her eyes and they began to well up. Jack knew that whatever happened to her that day she had repressed since taking a shower, he could see it rushing back to her now. Despite himself, he could not but help to feel compassion for this little lost creature. He tried to choke the words back into his gullet, but they fell from his lips anyway, much to the chagrin of his inner gremlin, “Would you like to talk about it?”
She pushed her plate to the middle of the table, and then put her hands in her face. “I don’t know;” she murmured through her palms. “No”; she decided, then with little conviction;”Maybe”.
“You must think I’m pretty weird.” She arose from the table and walked to the window where she could see the ochre sun sinking into the horizon. Jack liked to stand there watching it during the twilight hours, he felt it must soothe her soul as it did his. He knew she needed to finish thinking out what she had to say, and right at that moment, she commanded the ideal spot to do that.
“I get you Jack. I know how you feel. All my life I wanted to run away from all the mean people. I would just go to my room, lock the door and think. I would think; why do people have to be so mean? I mean, I would like a boy at school, and as soon as I let him know, he would walk all over me, take advantage of me, try to use me.”
“It got so bad I asked my parents to put me in a new school, and they did. I talked to a few counselors, they told me that I acted too nice to people, that I should not be so open so soon, maybe be a little mysterious. Okay, so here comes mystery woman to her new school and all the kids think I am stuck up, then this one creep decides he is going to teach me a lesson. He’s like, real nice to me for a while then asks if he can give me a ride home, Dad warned me about this, but I thought; what the heck, he’s a nice boy.”
“We get into his car and take off, in the wrong direction, I tell him, and suddenly he turns into this a-hole saying he’s going to teach me a lesson. The crazy look on his face scared the livin’ daylights out of me, so I just sat there and hoped he’d gotten enough scare out of me to take me back. That never happened, he drove us out of the city and into the sticks for about half an hour. We pulled up to this beat up old shack and he dragged me inside, then chained me to the bed with a dog chain and a padlock and said he’d be back with a few of his buddies and they would all show me what it REALLY meant to be stuck up.”
“He never came back. He left enough food and water there to last maybe three weeks, but it ran out. I kept beating on the handcuff to try to free it from my wrist, but I ended up breaking everything I used. After a while, it seemed to loosen up enough, or maybe I just got skinnier and I managed to slip it off.”
“I ran outside and screamed for help, nobody could hear me. Everything seemed so…empty. All I could see was this;” she pointed out the window to the stark landscape; “and the more I walked the more of this I saw. Every day I would go down the dirt road that went to the highway and walk up or down the highway looking for something or someone. I found a few wild berries and fruits to eat, but not much. I heard a lot of thunder in the distance and heard quite a few animals in the bushes, but before it got dark, I made sure I could make it back to the shack. Not the nicest place I’d ever seen, but I didn’t think Tyler would be coming back, and it sure beat sleeping in the open with all those critters rustling about.”
“It didn’t take me long to figure out that something terrible must have happened to everyone, not just me, I know they made roads for a reason, so at some time in a few weeks there should be at least one car driving down it. I have been camping before and even from out in the sticks you can see the lights of the city in the sky, but not anymore. I thought about my mom and dad, and everyone else I know. I thought they must be dead or they would have found me. I thought about my beautiful dog, I love her so much, dead.”
She stared out the window for a few moments, trying to gather herself to continue. When she spoke again, she possessed a much darker and subtler voice.
“I thought about killing myself, but I didn’t have the guts, or even know how I would do it, hold my breath? I could always offer myself up as a meal to the animals in the bushes, but the thought of that kinda repulsed me, so I figured I would just keep walking a little farther every day. Then I found this place. I didn’t see anyone around so I grabbed some food.
“The next day I saw a car out back, I got too scared to come around, until I couldn’t stand the hunger anymore. I think I’ve picked every little bit of food there is between the shack and here.”
“I’ve been too afraid to ask, but, what did happen to everybody?”
Jack did not want it to be his turn to talk. Nothing other people had to say ever interested him, most of what people said had no bearing on his life. He shut them out, had been doing it for years. Maggie left because of this; she may have even told him as such when she left. Gillian’s monologue had him riveted, hanging on every word. He could not remember how long it had been since he felt that. Jill came back to the table, sat across from him and laid her head on her arms.
“I’m sorry. I usually don’t talk that much, I'm sure it bothers you.”
Jack didn’t know how to respond to her misconception so he responded to her question instead;”I don’t know what happened to everybody, but I’m pretty sure they’re gone.”
Jill started to look pale; “I think I ate too much”, she ran into the bathroom and began to vomit.
By the time she came out of the bathroom, the sun had sunk below the horizon, leaving the house in darkness. Jack had made up the bed in the spare room and hit lit a few candles around the house.
“I think it’s been quite a long day for you young lady. Doctor Jackson prescribes a good night’s sleep. You’ll feel much better come morning. There’s a nightgown next to your bed.”
“My bed?” She said, already half-asleep.
“Those types of questions can wait until tomorrow. Neither one of us is going anywhere right now.” Jack resumed his reading.
“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution” Kahlil Gibran
The dawn light pouring through the window prodded the sleep from his brain. Even while the ubiquitous golden spray of sunlight throughout the room massacred his slumber, Jack’s eyes refused to acquiesce. His sub-conscious knew the recent changes would disorient him.
He ingested what had transpired the evening before as a means of gently synchronizing his psyche with actuality. It had been four or five years since he had to be concerned about another human or he must interact with them. He doubted that he could resurrect the social graces he once knew, to the level needed to relate to another human being on a consistent basis. A few occasional stanzas of it were all he had to manage for the last few years.
He knew he could not just turn the girl out. With zero resources at her disposal she would not last long out there, he would be issuing her death sentence.
Shit! He had maneuvered his life to a high level of non-involvement that he enjoyed and embraced so well. With the quirky path the world had taken, he now had to be the most responsible person in the known world, not a job he cherished. However, it is what it is, so let’s see if the little ragamuffin is hungry.
Last night she had plodded into the bedroom and plopped on the bed. With the door still open, Jack could see her sprawled out on the bed. “She could be dead for all I know”, Jack thought, she sure looked it. He began to check her for a pulse when she snored and rolled over into a more fetal position. “Not that lucky Jack, you have to deal with a live one”; his smart-ass side said to himself, as he walked into the bathroom.
While thinking that, he glimpsed himself in the mirror. “Did you just really think that, you jaded, miserable fuck?”
He splashed water on the mug of the curmudgeon peering back at him without remorse. He looked deep into the steely blue eyes of the man he had become. “Really?”
He smiled. “Not really. Come on; give yourself a break, Jackson. Not so long ago, folks said you had a sense of humor. You shouldn’t let a trivial matter like Armageddon interfere with that.”
“True that”; he said and remembered that he should shut the door for modesty’s sake before retreating to the shower. He turned to the door.
Gillian stood in the doorway.
“I had to pee;” she said, crouching in lieu of performing the pee-pee dance. He did not want to waste the smile he had conjured. “You look like someone that has to pee.” He squeezed out of the door. To his surprise , she didn’t run into the bathroom, she instead turned to him and said;” just what is Armageddon anyway, I have a vague idea that it is something bad, but I have no idea what it means.”
“I’ve got an idea. You pee, and then we’ll talk about Armageddon, and then I can take my shower.”
“Okay, sorry.” With a newfound urgency, she ducked into the bathroom, only half closing the door.
I’ll have to stock a lot more toilet paper now, he thought, as he listened to her tinkling, it is an undeniable fact that women use ten times as much as men.
She strode from the bathroom, combing her hair with her fingers;”Armageddon. It’s like the end of the world, or something like that, isn’t it?”
“Something like that.”
“So, is that what happened, the end of the world?”
“Yes and no.” Jack looked out the back window at the sun beginning its ascent along the ecliptic. “The sun still comes up in the morning, it still rains, and girls still use a lot of toilet paper, so some institutions have not changed.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be so obvious if your TP roller didn’t make so much noise.”
“I’d find out in the end, even if the dispenser were deathly quiet.”
Jack’s timeworn habit of eluding intense issues by diverting the conversation into triviality bothered most of his former friends and acquaintances, but Gillian seemed to be eager to play along. He found that refreshing, not to mention utilitarian in helping her to avoid the abysmal morass she plunged into when discussing the aforementioned ‘apocalypse’.
“That’s okay though, I am sure we can find warehouses full of the stuff, so we won’t run out.”
He did not mean to do that. He found himself discussing Jack and Jill as a unit, a topic they had yet to broach. He thought it might be a good time to take his foot out of his mouth and let them both examine the elephant in the room.
He decided to use an uncharacteristically direct approach. “I’ve been thinking that you might be stuck staying here for a while. You are a little lean when it comes to supplies and shelter, I’ve got plenty, and anything I don’t, I can find by taking a short drive.”
She started to speak, but instead put her hands over her mouth.
Jack felt abashed by her lack of response, so he felt it necessary to resurrect a fragment of his independent stature, “Of course, it’s up to you. If there’s somewhere else you want to be, I will take you there, no problem”
She took her hands away from her face. “I know this sounds stupid, but I never thought about it. It seems like I have only thought about how to get past each minute since, you know, that time.”
Jack rubbed the sweat from his neck;”What it boils down to is this; I’m used to living like this, I think you need some help adapting to it, and right here is a good place for you to do that.”
“You don’t mind then?”
“Now I wouldn’t go that far missy. I’m a crusty old bastard, set in his ways, so yeah, it ain’t easy for me to take in a waif, but I can’t very well throw you to the wolves, could I?”
“There’s wolves?” She looked out the window.
He chuckled. “I know that you know what I mean.”
She walked over to him, hugged him and said;”I know. Thank you. I didn’t know how to ask you. I think I’m pretty independent for someone my age, so mooching isn’t easy for me.”
Jack felt he could breathe a little easier now that he had dispersed the elephant, yet at the same time his conscience nagged him shouting; “what the hell are you getting yourself into now, old man?”
He grasped her shoulders and pulled her off him, then looked into her eyes; “one peculiarity, among many, you’ll discover about me is that I’m not very comfortable when people start acting too sappy.”
She looked hurt, then puzzled, then she smirked; “We'll see”; she said.
“See what?” Jack had no idea what she meant by that.
“Oh, I don’t know. I think it feels good to be a little ‘sappy’ as you call it, every now and again. What could it hurt?”
He found himself hoping she had posed a rhetorical question, because he did not have a clue how to answer it.
Gillian wanted to learn about gardening and tending the crops. Jack found her to be a quick and earnest student. “That’s a pretty big barn out back, you have any livestock?” She inquired, as they were gathering cucumbers.
“More of a shed then a barn, there’s just a lot of junk I’ve accumulated in there, no sheep, cattle or horses.”
“What kind of junk?” Mind if I go have a look?”
“How old did you say you were? You got more questions than a 3 year old. I don’t care if you go look, let’s finish the task at hand first, okay?” He nodded towards the cucumber bed.
“Of course. I’ll get some tomatoes, spinach and whatever is growing over there;” she motioned towards the end of the garden; “Then I’ll check out the barn. Think there’s any creatures lurking in there?”
“Probably, but you are already over your quota of questions for this minute, I feel like I’m on a quiz show.”
“My dad always said that natural curiosity is a good thing, that stifling it created lazy thinking.”
“Well, I can testify that his daughter didn’t turn out to be a lazy thinker.”
“I’m not lazy at all.”
He feigned impatience by scowling at her; “That’s great; now prove it by shutting up and picking some more cukes.”
They hauled their harvest into the pantry. When they were done putting everything away, she turned to him and asked;”will you come with me to the barn? I may need your help with the wolves.”
He sighed, his plan of quenching his thirst in the cool of the kitchen disintegrating, he responded with resignation; “All right.” They made their way through the gardens and citrus trees until they reached the barn. At the entrance, Jill stepped aside for Jack to access the door. He looked at her, drew the door open and said, “ladies first.”
“You don’t even bother to lock it?” She did not move.
“Why should I? I would guess that none of the wild creatures around here have learned how to open a door, besides there’s nothing in here worth stealing if they did.”
She still did not move. He grinned and said;“oh, I get it, you want me to check for lock-picking wolves, okay then, let me scope it out, if I’m not back in five minutes, call the cops.” He went in and shut the door.
He waited about ten seconds then shouted through the door. “Coast is clear, wolves are gone, only the carcass of little red riding hood and the boy who cried wolf.”
“Funny man”; she said as she opened the door.
“It’s too dark to see anything in here;” she said as he shut the door.
“Let me fix that”; he said as he flicked a switch next to the door and a couple of lights flickered on.
She looked around and then back at him with a quizzical expression;”you have electricity in the barn?”
“A little, easier than pumping the water by hand, but I own one of those too if I need it.”
“Why on Earth would you have power in the barn and not the house?”
“Because the well is out here.”
“What do you mean, why can’t you power the house as well?”
“Because the house isn’t a well, so why should I power it as if it were, as well. As wells go, it is better to have one in the shed, and not the house, as well. As they say, all’s well that ends well.”
He had grown accustomed to the unique stare she gave him when he started acting strange; “Did I ever tell you that people who end every other sentence with ‘as well’ are a pet peeve of mine?”
She looked around at the barn; “I guess I haven’t known you long enough. Some time you’ll have to show me this pet peeve of yours, I thought you only had a cat and dog.”
She turned to him, folded her arms and said;”why can’t we power up the house?”
“For the same reason these lights are going off in about three minutes, not enough battery power. So if you want to look around, I suggest you quit your quibbling and take a gander.”
She stifled a long breath of exasperation and whirled towards the center of the barn. Boxes littered the entire building. She inspected one up close. “Solar panels, I know what these are for, electricity! There are windmill kits here also, and all these other gadgets seem to go with them. I’m guessing you could power up the whole house!”
“Probably, if I were so inclined.”
The look again, she spoke sin a deliberate tone;”And you’re not inclined because…”
“I’m not inclined because there aren’t any hills around here, but we could’ve brought pails anyway, there is water in the well.”
“Jackson, be serious for once. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a refrigerator, air conditioning, electric lights?”
Jack ran his palms through his long grey/blonde hair; “Do you know how much juice refrigeration units pull? Lights, maybe, but it’s still a lot of work to putting them together, I never saw the need for it, when it gets dark I go to sleep.”
“What if I did all the work?”
He tilted his head forward to gaze down at her, “You an electrician?”
She looked sheepish and coy at the same time; “no, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you knew a little about it.”
He cocked his head, “so how does that fit in with your plan of you doing all the work?”
“You could just supervise. I am very good with my hands.”
He smiled and said; “somehow I feel I am losing this debate so I might as well join your side; I never thought of supervising as work, so okay, just don’t ask me what a schematic is.”
“I promise, I won’t, because I already know, I had it in a spelling bee in the 4th grade.”
“Okay, miss smarty-pants, let’s see how all that book-learning carries you through next week. Keeping with the theme of ‘I’ll do all the work’, you can start by hauling all those boxes up to the house. I need some OJ.”
“That’s a long way!”
He threw her the keys to his car. “I know, the wagon is empty, you’ll need at least three trips.” He ambled back to the house and could not help but smile. For now at least, her debating victory must feel very hollow.
Contrary to his objections, Jack assisted Jill in delivering all the energy hardware to the house, after the first load. Her diminutive frame could not negotiate some of the bigger packages, he had known that all along, maybe she knew it too. Some pieces would not even fit in the car, they had to throw them on top and Jack had her balance them as he eased the wagon down the path.
Once everything they needed had been stored in the Florida room, Jack proclaimed that construction would not start until the next day, Jill had no issue with that.
“You know, what we don’t have here, I’m sure we can find at some store… out there;” She said.
Jack looked at his warm glass of RC cola. “Yeah, maybe even enough panels and batteries to justify a refrigerator.” He swigged down the remainder of his drink.
“Oh no, not again;” he interrupted her.
She ignored his editorial;”why did you buy all that equipment and not use it?”
“I didn’t, it came with the place when I bought it. The old guy that lived here before considered himself some sort of recluse survivalist.”
“What happened to him?”
“He didn’t, survive that is. When he found out he had only a few weeks to live, he thought it would be a good place for me to have. I didn’t disagree, so he sold it to me dirt cheap right before he croaked.”
She sat on the couch, staring into space as if she could no longer hear him.
“Touching story, I know. I can see you were moved by it.” He had grown so used to her staccato questioning, that it disrupted him a bit when it ceased. It disturbed him to think he had to fish for a response. After mulling it over, he decided he could live with her silence just fine. He began to pick up one his favorite old tomes when she spoke.
“What is it like…out there?”
He had been wondering when she would begin pondering this. He knew he could only blame himself for her denial of the rough reality outside the sanctuary of Jack’s place, he knew it would have to surface eventually.
“It’s not pretty”; he stated as he set the book back in the bookcase.
She walked over to him to address him up close; “I want to go. I need to see with my own eyes what happened.” Jack blinked and nodded. “I know.” He could no longer think of something clever to say.
“I think I need to go back home. I know that there is probably nobody there, but I need to see it, to experience it to understand it. I don’t know why I do; I just know I have to. Can you understand that?”
Jack looked deep into her eyes to underscore his earnest tone. “I do, I really do. We can leave tomorrow, I need to pick up some supplies anyway.” He touched her hand, and then reclaimed his perch on the couch.
“By the way, where are we going to find your old digs?” Jack tried to be nonchalant with his query.
“Tampa”; she said as she began her vacant stare once again.
They each sacked out before the sun that evening. Due to the unusual exertion he subjected his aging physique to that afternoon, he slept profoundly. While engulfed in a sweet dream, Jack became startled from slumber by someone shaking his shoulders. He sat up so abruptly he almost knocked Jill over.
“Jack! There’s someone outside! I heard them at my window!” She shrieked.
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch;” he could not help saying that because that is all she had on. It surprised him that he did not awaken disorientated.
“I’ll get to the bottom of this”; he said as he marched towards the bedroom door. He looked back at her, “you stay right here!” He glimpsed his naked body in the mirror. He grabbed some shorts off the dresser, donned them on the fly, while heading for the front door where he had a baseball bat handy.
He heard an animal take flight as he opened the door. In the pale moonlight, he thought he caught a glimpse of something about the size of Clyde or a bit smaller. He listened for a minute or so, then satisfied there were no other creatures present, went back into the house. Jill had lit a couple candles to assist the ambient moonbeams streaming through the windows. Clyde lounged on the bed with his head in Jill’s lap.
“Where were you during all this commotion?” He pointed the bat at Clyde. Clyde cocked an eyebrow as if to say, “you talkin’ to me?”
“What a waste of golden fur you are, some watchdog.” He set the bat down on its end, realizing how ridiculous it made him look, trying to be intimidating while his belly lopped over his boxers.
“And you”; he looked at Jill stroking Clyde’s head;”if you weren’t bopping around with your boobies bouncing maybe the wolves wouldn’t be trying to force their way through your window.”
“There’s wolves?” A playful smile caressed her lips as she recited their reprise.
“Metaphorically speaking, yeah, in this case I think it may have been a panther”; he lowered his voice.
“Oh, that’s better.” She looked at him, then at herself and began to laugh;”and yes when it’s ninety-five frickin’ degrees I tend to not layer my clothing. I don’t want to drown in my own sweat. Like you should preach, mister bare-ass naked.”
He felt a little sheepish and hypocritical, but most of all; that cat had stolen his tongue, maybe he should find her and wrestle it back from her so he could give the little feline a tongue lashing.
She continued; “during my childhood, my parents would take me to this naturist retreat, so being au natural doesn’t bother me. I dress up to suit your values, sorry I offended you, but I was too scared to dress for the occasion.”
“That’s fine. Before you arrived, I walked around naked half the time. I didn’t think you’d care for that much.”
“Doesn’t bother me, I’ve seen guys older than you unhampered by clothing.”
“You know, I’m not a fossil, I’m only forty eight.”
“Oh man, I thought you were like forty, you really that old?”
“Let me check my driver’s license.” He feigned reaching for his wallet. “Hmm, I must have left it in my whitey-tighties.” He came and sat beside Clyde and patted him on his haunches, stared into his eyes and said; “maybe I should have adopted a real guard dog.” Clyde flashed him that Gillian stare, but with his eyebrows fluttering up and down.
“Just kidding boy, don’t get offended.”
Jill put her hands between her knees and hunched over. “Jack, I’m scared. I am afraid of that world out there, afraid of what we will find. The last few weeks I haven’t been frightened. I wasn’t even scared to die because it seemed to be the only thing left to do, but now…now I feel like there is a reason to go on living, that there is some kind of hope that, I don’t know, just hope I guess.”
“There is always that”; disappointed in himself that he did not have some gem of wisdom to proffer.
“Everything is going to be fine girlie, you should hit the hay, tomorrow is going to be a long day. Since he had launched himself into platitude mode, he figured may as well spew them serially.
She tilted her head back and gave him a long stare;”I guess you’re right;” she blew out the candles which rendered the room dark enough for her to sneak a kiss on his stubbly cheek. “Good night Jack.”
“Night”; he responded as she padded from the room.