Copyright Cellar Dolls Pulishing 2021
“I can’t change what’s already been done.” John said, fixing his eyes on the foggy window. Watching the falling snow piling thick on the hill beyond the house, he felt the familiar unease, which he carried with him always, closing its cold fingers around his throat and stealing his breath. Winter was upon them. A season he had once loved, it filled him now with a nagging dread, the fear that never let him have any peace. The garden had done well this year, thankfully. The pantry was well stocked. But still.
He couldn’t bear to turn around and see Linny's face, to see the look which he knew she now wore. Not angry, but sad. Confused. Disappointed. Yes. That was the real hell of it. Her disappointment, their shared fear. What couldn’t be fixed.
“No,” She said at last, as if it needed reiterating, “You can’t.”
“I just thought…” he started, then stopped, torn between his love for Linny and the need to make her see what he saw. It was too important to brush over just for the sake of sparing her feelings, and he was tired of being the realist, tired of being cast as the mean one.
“He needs to know these things.” He said, too sharply, and then turned away, moving into the gloom beyond the living room. In the kitchen, he shifted about in the near-dark, going to the small table next to the counter to pour himself a second splash of whiskey.
“He’s only four.” Linny snapped at him from across the room, without turning her head to look at him.
John winced as he recapped the whiskey, remembering the boy’s screech of terror at the sight of the dead rabbit, the blood seeping from the bullet hole in its flank, warm blood melting white snow.
He crossed back over to the living room, to where Linny sat curled on the sagging couch before the fire, Henry asleep in her arms, thumb in his mouth, head on her shoulder. He had woken from a nightmare, weeping about the rabbit.
Their eyes met, and Linny grimaced as if she were reading his thoughts. While he loved Linny for her sweetness, in this moment resented her for it. Yes, the boy was only four. Yes, he was a child, but sadly this strange new world would not allow him the luxury of childhood, a fact she refused to accept.
“I know that.” He said, wanting to shout, but whispering instead for fear of waking Henry. “I know that. But he needs to know things. If something happens to us…”
He’ll be all alone, the thought crept upon him, cold and unbidden. He couldn’t speak the words aloud.
Linny opened her mouth to protest and he stopped her, lifting a finger to silence her. They’d been having this argument all night between restless bouts of sleep. Here, now, at God only knew what hour in the morning, he would speak his mind.
“When something happens to me, to one of us, Henry is going to have to be able to get by. He can’t be a four year old boy like I was. A kid, like we used to be. It just isn’t realistic.”
“I know that.” Linny said, the sharp edge of her tone softening just slightly, mottled by her fear. He felt a pang of guilt, seeing the fresh worry in her eyes, the pained surprise, as if in speaking of reality he’d prodded her with a hot iron.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last, and sighed. “Okay? Maybe it was…”
He shook his head. Maybe it was too much. Maybe? Rabbit hunting, at four years old? Yes. In the old world, it would have been ludicrous. But nothing was what it used to be. They were alone now. Did she think he wanted to have to teach these things to the boy? Did she think he’d wanted to horrify him?
John frowned into his glass of whiskey, as if answers to his complicated position might lie at the bottom of it. In the old world, he never would have been a father at this age. He never would have been dealing with the fears and needs of a four year old. He and Linny would have been barely more than kids themselves. It was hard to imagine now where he might have be at twenty four years old had the world not so abruptly ended. Would he have gone to college? Trade school? Once he’d thought he wanted to be a pilot. But those things were just silly, nonsense dreams now, things that would never come to pass. His life now was here, with Linny and Henry. His life was hunting and cutting wood and worrying and keeping them alive. Clutching the pair of them in his fists as hard as he could, yet still feeling that horrible, constant, dismal paranoia that it could all disappear at any moment.
“You traumatized him.” Linny accused him, in the same moment covering Henry's head of straw-coloured hair as if John might lash out and hit him.
They stayed like that for a long time, eyes locked, him standing over the two of them curled together on the sagging couch, Linny clutching at the boy as if he were in imminent danger. But wasn’t he? Wasn’t that the crux of this hellish argument? She wanted to believe that somehow things were going to be all right, while he lived in a never-ending state of anxiety, knowing that they weren’t going to be all right. Not in the end. At any moment something could happen to either one of them, or both of them. There were no hospitals to go to if he broke his leg or if one of them got a bad flu or appendicitis or whatever else, no dentists to pull a rotten tooth. Or maybe he’d simply disappear, like the rest of the world had. Worse yet, maybe she’d disappear, or both of them would. And then what? It seemed unlikely, but still.
He only wanted the boy to be able to feed himself, to live in this harsh world where there were no safety nets, no certainty at all except what skills you had, what you could bring home with your own two hands.
And yet, Linny was right.
The world had changed. But Henry was still only four.
“I’m sorry.” Linny said at last. In the flickering light of the fire, her face was aged, yet her eyes were impossibly young. A tear slid down her cheek and she crushed it with her palm. “I’m sorry. I know you’re right. I know you’re right, it’s just, it seems so unfair. He shouldn’t have to live like this.”
“I know.” John said. He took his pack of cigarettes from the little shelf beside the window and tapped one out. “None of us should, but we are.”
“It’s so unfair!” she whispered harshly. It was an assertion that she voiced quite frequently. Linny would never fully accept their reality. He could understand her struggle. Where had all the others gone? They – everyone – were so distant now, everything he and Linny had been through together felt like a giant chasm between the present and that past, but once, all the other billions of people on earth had all existed. His mother, Linny’s parents and sisters. Everyone.
The memory of that day was still bright in his mind. Waking up, thinking he was going to be late for work. He’d taken a year off between high school and college, a choice his mother had thought was sure to throw him off course of going to college altogether. If only she’d known. He’d rushed to shower that morning only to discover there was no water pressure. He went out into the kitchen to make coffee and discovered there was no power. Checked his phone only to discover there was no Wi-Fi. Then he went outside and discovered there were no people.
Linny sobbed quietly for a moment. At last John sat beside her. He placed a hand on her arm and she didn’t shrug him off. Their eyes met and the embers of their argument cooled to ashes.
“Do you forgive me?” he asked.
“Yes.” She said at once, and smiled weakly. He wanted to be glad, only he couldn’t help thinking that she had to forgive him, because they were trapped here together, because they were alone.
He lit his cigarette and took only a drag before she waved a hand at him, urging him to put it out, as he’d known she would.
“Not around Henry.”
He took another drag and then dutifully butted the cigarette out.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s put him to bed and try to get some sleep.”
Linny shifted Henry into his arms and John carried him up the stairs to the loft where they all slept. Henry’s bed was on the far left side, underneath the skylight. John laid him in bed and together they covered him with blankets, then crossed to the other end of the loft and got into bed themselves. There would be no sun this morning; the storm showed no sign of stopping anytime soon. They could all sleep a while.
Linny reached for his hand and he took it. She whispered to him in the dark,
“I don’t think I can sleep.”
There were so many things he wanted to say, but all of it felt stuck in his throat and for a long moment he could only squeeze her hand. He wanted to tell her that he didn’t think he could sleep, either. He often couldn’t, spending long nights awake listening to the two of them softly breathing, afraid that if he did fall asleep, he would wake up and they would have disappeared, too, and he would truly be alone. It didn’t seem likely; almost everyone had vanished on that one day in July five years ago. So far as he could tell, it had been an isolated incident. Nothing had changed again since then. But still, if something so inexplicably bizarre had happened once, couldn’t anything happen?
And what if it wasn’t actually the world that had changed at all? What if the world they had once been a part of was still carrying on just as it always had, and it was they, the few souls who populated this strange place that was only a replica of their old world, who were missing?
Instead of speaking of his terrible fears, he kissed her and said,
“I don’t want you to forgive me just because you feel like you don’t have a choice.”
Linny turned to face him, and placed her warm hand was on his neck.
“No, John. I love you.” Then, “...He’s probably going to have nightmares for a while, though.”
Again, John was too conflicted too reply. Terrifying the boy hadn’t been his intent, but of course that exactly what he’d done.
“Wait a minute.” He said, and got up from bed. Tip toeing down the stairs in his bare feet, he went to the living room. Beside the fireplace, he knelt and pried at a loose board, behind which were a few hidden items. He found what he wanted and carried it back up the stairs, where Linny was waiting, sitting up with the covers pulled up over her legs. He flicked on the oil lantern on the nightstand for a little illumination and handed her the container of hot chocolate. She turned it this way and that, then gave a little laugh.
“When did you get this?” she asked.
“On my last trip into town. I was saving it for Christmas, but maybe he could have it when he wakes up.”
She smiled at him. “He’ll love it.”
“It’s a few years out of date, but I’m sure it’s still good. It’s just sugar, basically.”
“I can’t undo what I’ve already done.” He said at last, apologetically, wanting her to forgive him, truly.
“I know.” She said.
He set the hot chocolate aside and flicked the lantern off again. They curled in bed together and he closed his eyes. He was tired, filled with relief, his emotions all spent after their long argument. He thought he could sleep now, perhaps.
Everything was all right.
At least, it was for now.
Copyright © 2021
Cellar Dolls Publishing
All rights reserved
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This is a work of fiction
Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination,
or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living, dead,
or undead, is entirely coincidental.