Wrote this in September of ’09 for and independent fiction study class. Not sure how good it is, you’ll let me know.
The line about the inscription is a shout out to my grandmother, who came up with that phrase, as far as I know.
The sun lifts itself over the eastern hills, greeting chapped earth as dry and cracked as the chalky houses. This is cow country, or it used to be. The one road that leads through town is a stretch of pavement that used to carry three hundred people daily to and from… wherever. Now even those with their health brave enough to venture out onto the burning tar that used to be Main Street will avoid most of the houses. Those from which people entered and never left have a particular, easily identifiable smell, which permeates the air for almost fifty feet around them. One such house lies at the end of the road, where an elderly couple used to live.
Perhaps the story began two days earlier. Coffee grounds, two porcelain dolphins, a record, several bills, a family photo, and one piece of stale bread hit the floor as Eric Sanders cleared the kitchen counter. The utility company had just shut off everyone’s water. The cupboard held several gallons of water, but in the incredible heat, he was forced to preserve his precious resource, and wonder what measures he would be forced to take to keep Rebecca and himself alive. He moved onto the bed, next to her, naked. She never stirred, but her old wrinkled lips, cracking open asked, “How much longer, Eric?”
Her voice was hoarse, a pleading tone was prevalent in her whimper. He offered to get her some water but she refused. She would die later on, and he would never stop wondering if it might have made a difference, made her more comfortable, should she have accepted. He let his head hit the pillow in the dark room.
Opening her eyes, she looked towards the curtains, “It shouldn’t be so hot during the nights. Open the curtains, will you Eric? That’s nice, thank you. Morning already, huh? How long is this supposed to go on honey? I thought the police were going to bring us somewhere else. Like Alaska…” She sighed a deep shaking sigh, thinking of the cool air and snow. Her throat burned and she sat up, coughing and tearing until the discomfort subsided. Eric offered water again, she refused. He shifted nervously.
“What are you saving the water for?”
“Well,” she said, “We might need it later if we’re in trouble.”
She sounded almost as if she believed it. He asked what would happen if they weren’t around later. She avoided his question by coughing again. He spoke.
“The police couldn’t take everyone honey, and hey, I hear Alaska isn’t what’s it’s cracked up to be.”
She gingerly touched her tender broken lips as he said the word “cracked.” It echoed through his mind as well and he looked her up and down. Her feet were pale, and she moved slowly. It was hard to imagine this is what had become of the beautiful Katherine Sanders.
She waited for a moment, then, sitting up, “It isn’t hot there too is it?”
“No…” He whispered as a child might when sharing a secret with another. “I mean, honestly, I’m sure you wouldn’t much like it there.” He rarely lied to her, but occasionally denial was the best remedy for panic. “I’m sure it’s life as usual up in the north.”
“Well, why don’t we go? We could make it!”
Eric knew that she was aware they wouldn’t be able to. Two gallons of fuel in a ’97 Ford pickup wouldn’t get much farther than thirty miles, and there was nowhere to refill the tank. He smiled a broken smile, his lips bled. His tongue felt the upper portion of his mouth, and he scrapped against the dryness. He stopped smiling. Eric was now very stiff, sitting upright in a chair, in the partially lit room. He considered lighting up, but there was only one cigarette left, and the necessity to keep the windows shut would have left smoke in the room. He coughed at the thought.
Outside, he watched a sparrow soar into view of the window, and land gracefully on a leafless tree. It peered through the glass, looked at Eric, swayed on the branch, and plummeted to the dirt below. A hot wind blew across the farming town, which had been transformed into the set of a bad Hollywood movie in a matter of days. There was a moan from across the street that filled the air, and then silence. After several minutes two men came knocking at the door of the house with guns, there was no answer. From Eric’s window he watched the play, protected by the fourth wall.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before he turned from the presentation to look at his wife of 40 years, and he found that little separated his reality from the events unfolding outside. His thoughts were punctuated abruptly.
There was a knock at the door. Then a pounding. Before Eric had even considered answering the call, the door snapped open, swinging into the room on its bent hinges. A young man, sweating, but in altogether decent condition, moved into the apartment. His shirt was covered in a thin red paste. He fingered the trigger of a long rifle, the barrel gleaming in the light from the open window. He pointed at Eric, then Rebecca, and back to Eric. He grunted, angrily.
The man’s accent was foreign, to be sure. He shook slightly, pupils dilated. In another world he would have been another person, maybe somewhere else reading about the hell that was burning its way across North America but, ultimately, not caring, or at most, being too overwhelmed to be able to react. Perhaps his emotions were very much the same now as they might have been were he living in another world. Too overwhelmed to react.
Eric looked at his wife. The man made his demand again, but abruptly lowered his gun and started pacing, scratching the back of his head. His hands shook and he frequently twitched and then screamed. He spoke violently in sentences that were less than coherent. Eric stood, and, for the first time in the week since the temperature had so drastically increased, felt a cold sweat, and it was relieving.
Light crossed the man’s face. He couldn’t have been older than nineteen or twenty. Bullets may miss their mark, and loose their lethality, but desperation is a guaranteed killer. A haze gathered outside as the sun climbed, man’s eternal savior, man’s greatest damnation. Armed with two feet of lead and fire in a neat lock, stock, and barrel package, he approached the window, slowly, moving past Eric, who slid out of the way and went to fetch a bottle of water. What it was like to be trapped in a place where he knew not the language, Eric could not have understood. To be there during a bout with apocalypse? Eric shook his head. Days ago when he still had his strength he might have been panicked, but he enjoyed what he could only describe as an unnerving calm. The young man’s nose dripped with sweat.
Katherine had been staring during the proceedings, and she, being more or less ignored by the gunman, reached for an ashtray to throw at him. She moved slowly. Her old fingers gripped the warm glass surface of the diner-style tray. An aerosol can fell from her bedside table, and the man turned to look, still mumbling to himself. The reflecting light from her shallow ash tray hit the mans eye, and he stepped backwards. The object struck him in the nose with a resounding crunch.
His gun was lifted quickly, and as Eric began to run, or stumble, with a bottle of water in hand, a shot was fired, and Katherine fell backward on her pillow, her stomach shredded. Blood spattered the walls and mixed with that which was already on the man’s shirt. The gun turned to point at Eric, a shaking old man who dropped what he had been holding, and ran to Katherine’s side. He knelt but did not touch her. His knees hit the wood floor. Outside, the two men who had entered the home across the street exited, and one wiped his mouth. They began to run towards Eric’s home. He heard them beat on the door.
Panicked the man raised the weapon to shoulder height, and screamed in his broken English, “Water!”
Holding out his hand, offering the bottle to the man, who then grabbed it violently, Eric looked into the kitchen, towards his dwindling water supply, which had now effectively doubled with the death of his companion. Twenty years ago he had gone on a health kick and redone his kitchen to match his new lifestyle. He had changed the paint, and the appliances. He gave up on exercise four or five months later, but the kitchen stayed. He had bought an enormous stainless steel fridge to keep fruits in so he could eat one after a workout. The fridge was stainless steel because he liked the aesthetics and the idea. He liked being part of the modern world, and looking forward to the future. Those had been his emotions when he saw his fridge. Now it was empty. Now there was now future to enjoy with his fridge, and now even the modern world was gone.
Naked, on his knees, he gestured towards where he kept the water. This man was good looking, unnaturally so. His perfect face, symmetrical, became more beautiful by the second as, bewildered, Eric watched him back up slowly, but with a hurried nature. His good looks were a blatant insult to the destroyed beauty on the bed. Eric wanted to scream, to kill him, but didn’t. Instead he watched, thinking that it would all be over soon, that he would be joining Katherine very soon. The gunman pulled open the cupboard and crammed as many of the bottles as he could into his pants, shirt, and pockets. There were footsteps on the stairs down the hall. The gunman ran from the room, into the hallway, and heading towards the stairs on the opposite side of the building.
Moments past. An eternity. A fraction of a second. With the mangled corpse of his dream girl next to him, time was virtually irrelevant. Eric wanted to bury his head in her breasts and cry. He didn’t save her, he didn’t keep her safe. Her wedding gift to him, a framed picture of them, her inscription reading “Always and All Ways.”
Two men passed the door, one doubled back.
“Eric?” It was one of the farm hands. Likely one of the few people living or dead left in the town. Most had left early on when they still could. The man was silent, looking at Katherine’s remains.
Several gunshots follow in the street below. Eric woke up from his stupor. He went to the window to watch Katherine’s killer run off into the emptiness outside of the small village. His pursuer stopped and spoke towards the window.
“He won’t last long out there.” He said it with a quiet certainty, “Won’t last long anywhere I reckon.”
Eric shook his head. This was Cow Country, or it used to be.