I PUSHED THROUGH the thinnest part of the brush, unaware of what loomed ahead. I couldn’t see more than a few feet, but right after I parted the last of it I saw the house. It blended into the background. It surprised me. I’d found an intact structure, a two story affair with a peak roof. Covered with green painted clapboards the identical shade of the greenery surrounding it made the owners’ intention clear.
I eyeballed the place for several minutes before moving. It appeared no one had been in the house for a long time. It stood alone in overgrown forest miles from anywhere. The narrow strip of waist high lawn surrounding the place lent credence to its sense of privacy. From where I stood, no paths led to it.
I muttered under my breath, “But what about the other side?”
I’d taken to quiet conversation in the past two years, ever since I realized how few peopled the Earth after the war. How did I know? Hundreds of miles of walking with few encounters, that’s how.
Occasionally I saw a person at great distance bumbling crazily, mindlessly, through overgrown vegetation, sick with radiation plague, on the verge of death. Other encounters had come out well for me, so far.
I discovered I needed to hear my voice. I needed humanity, in other words, me.
So I talked to myself. Sure I got depressed. Who wouldn’t? Survival instinct be damned, accepting the challenge of staying alive kept me going on. Whenever I closed my eyes to get needed sleep and opened them at some later time, I counted it as success.
Hope? I had little. I thought maybe someday I would have a reason to and I couldn’t have any—dead.
Right after the hostilities stopped, the bombs having wiped away the seats of government, leaving a decimated and rudderless remnant of the population to survive or die; no one to care, the rule of law became survival of the fittest. It required cunning, the ability to hide and the ability to act fast. To overcome without the niceties of a rule book kept the remainder alive…maybe.
The other thing, those who initially saw only horror and deprivation ahead chose suicide. The coward’s way out? I don’t think so. They made a choice. What they knew, the comfort of their lives disastrously yanked from them left them facing a hard, maybe impossible life and the promise of death from any corner, radiation, wild gangs of men and women trying to create individual power bases, the lone wolf like me; not a pretty picture.
With wide swaths of America and its enemies destroyed directly by titanic blasts, clouds of radiation moved across populated areas west to east, jumping continents, poisoning everything, what reason would many have to continue. Millions must have made that choice in the weeks after the bombs stopped raining from the sky.
“I don’t blame them,” I said in sound that didn’t carry much beyond my lips.
I approached the house with caution. One never knew in the latter day devastation what anyone would find and often things were not as they seemed. A few sane ones lived. They’d become predators and killers. The law of the land? Kill or be killed. Most were soldiers like me, probably a few hunters or other clever people who had picked up on the coming war and prepared to live off the land. No compunction about murder, any of them. Them or me, like I said.
The two story structure appeared much older close up than from a distance. With the sagging porch and ornate filigreed lattice work also painted the same flat green, clear evidence of post-war painting with purpose, I put it in the 1920’s construction era. It had age, but did not appear damaged beyond its chronology. Unusual, the first one I had come across unburned or otherwise destroyed.
Not being familiar with this part of what used to be Connecticut made it dangerous. I knew a few people still lived and I knew that whoever I came in contact with would try to kill me. I considered me sane, but automatically accepted that anyone I would come across would be insane, either from the sickness I had avoided so far, or from loneliness.
Trained to it, being alone didn’t bother me. I reached inside my worn fatigues and scratched an itch on my chest I didn’t feel good about. The war got rid of all but a few people, but the insect population proliferated. They carried many diseases and didn’t seem bothered by radiation. My med kit almost depleted, I needed to find an antibiotic salve to treat it. Maybe here?
I emoted in a whisper at my thought, “That’s a laugh.”
I approached the green porch and mounted decaying steps. I noticed the front door ajar. I stood to the side and pulled out my cell phone. I held it low so I could see inside by the reflection on its face. No cell service anymore, no infrastructure, no people to talk to, I grimaced at the thought of the use I put it to now.
I could see hardly unexpected shambles. I sniffed the air. No telltale odor that shouldn’t be there. I took a step in and pasted my body against the inside of the outer wall. Think defense, always defense. I’d stayed alive that way.
Acclimating my eyes to the darkness, I inspected the interior. I could see that someone had lived in it recently. It put me further on guard. I reached down to grab my five cell flashlight. The batteries had died months ago, but it made a great bludgeon.
Almost too late I caught a flicker of movement to my right. Clever, the man, holding his breath, now came at me. I didn’t have time to raise the flashlight, so I brought it up from my belt position hard and caught the man under his chin.
Not good enough! His desperate roundhouse caught the side of my head and we both went down. My eyes tunneled and blackness appeared around the edges. The man had powerful arms and snatched for my flashlight. If he could wrest it from me, it might be all over. I kept the heavy thing for a brain buster. I twisted and he missed his grab.
We rolled over and he got on top of me. His hands reached for my throat. One chance! I brought up the flashlight again, but the savvy man released a hand and knocked it away. Up for grabs, he went after it. That gave me a second chance. I shook the cobwebs out of my head, lunged over the top of him and pummeled his back, neck and head as my closing argument.
He stopped moving, momentarily stunned. I retrieved my flashlight and bashed in his brains. When I got my thought processes back to normal I knew he would be alone. The kill or be killed world demanded it.
I wiped the blood and brain matter on my flashlight off on his clothing. Now to check out the house. I went through it systematically. I found nothing of value until I descended the rickety stairs to the cellar.
Rummaging through piles of discard, I found a book. Wrapped in plastic and preserved from whoever else had gone through here and buried deep, the family Bible contained a sheet of paper with the names of the owner, his wife and the names of his children. At the bottom of the page I read its one cryptic handwritten note, dated January 26, 2031, eighteen months after the war ended.
It said, “We are leaving this Earth. You will find the cemetery plot in the woods behind the house. My final duty to my family is to send them to God. You will find me on the ground above. We have witnessed the end of civilization and expect the end of all human life. It goes back to the bugs. They will survive. Maybe in ten million years, another intelligent race will appear. It will know nothing of us and the mess we made of the world through greed, corruption and self-interest. Although we believed deeply, this book did not help. The lessons it taught were not learned.”
At the bottom of the page in flowing cursive...it seemed an afterthought, i read, “The height of my folly is a belief that someone would find these words and read them and be moved by them.”
“I read them,” I told the book. I pocketed it. I found the cemetery and the bones of the owner. I gazed at the scene for a time…and then I moved on.
Where? Didn’t matter.