A Short Story
Her eyes streamed hot tears down her soot blackened face, half on account of Maisie being dead, but half to do with the fires still burning up the city. All the cities. Always. Fires she had set, and fires she hadn’t.
Gusts of icy wind carried ashes on its breath like hellish snowflakes alighting on Cora’s face and shoulders. The perpetual smell of smoke and gasoline fumes had long since burned out the old woman’s olfactory sensitivity, but the noxious fog that had become her countryside atmosphere still stung her eyes like dish soap. Not to mention she had been coughing up bloody phlegm for two weeks now.
Still, failing lungs or not, she had to find the will to carry on. She had to dig.
She didn’t have to dig very deep, but the work was still tiring. Cora wasn’t the young woman that she had been 20 years earlier. And even back then she had been lying through her teeth about her age, feigning mid-20’s youth when she knew **** well that she was looking at the far side of 35. Eric would always smile knowingly whenever she gave her “age” and he’d even play along, basking in the fantasy of being married to a significantly younger woman. Eric had always made her feel stronger and more confident than she thought she really ought to be. He had that way about him. And now, with 60 staring her in the face, her lungs failing as her own cells turned against her, compliments of the fallout radiation wafting on the easterlies…. Cora didn’t feel so strong. Alone, without Eric to place a loving hand on her shoulder in comfort…. Alone, without Maisie to lick her palm affectionately, Cora felt weaker than she ever did.
Stupid ****** dog. Wonderful, stupid ******* dog.
Perhaps the tears weren’t strictly caused by the smoke lingering from the fires. Cora took time to brush the salty rivulets away with her grimy sleeve, blinking back a barrage of new ones before they could form. There was work to do. On the horizon, 50 miles to the east, a storm rumbled over Denver in a swirling black vortex of nuclear lightning. Cora shivered.
She knelt in the stale radioactive dirt and dug the rusty trowel’s blade into the earth. After nearly an hour’s worth of steady work Cora was sweaty and her arms and finger joints were sore. Finally sitting up to scrutinize her efforts, unbending her tired back, she felt satisfied that she had scooped out a hole big enough to bury Maisie in. A new pit opened up in the old woman’s stomach and rose to catch in her throat. Staring into the hole, she felt the hopelessness crash upon her like an icy wave. The entire world was a graveyard now.
Maisie’s grave rested at the feet of an acacia tree in Cora’s petite backyard. The branches of the tree had long since been stripped forever of their leaves, the heart of the once proud monolith poisoned to death by careless Men. It had happened so fast, too. The bombs hadn’t fallen more than a month before the last leaf fell withered and brown. The sight of it always sent an immediate wave of overwhelming shame roiling through Cora’s bloodstream, like the cancer that ate at her organs. The culpability she felt beat on her heart with guilty hammers. But Maisie had always loved the old acacia, lying happily, tongue wagging lazily out of her mouth beneath the bowed, sparse branches even after they’d been disfigured skeletal. The whole country was skeletal now, so maybe this was as good a place as any.
If it was good enough for Maisie, it was good enough for Cora. And it was certainly better than the grave of complete obliteration that her husband and children had received in Denver.
Cora had no coffin to bury her dead Labrador in. Instead, she had wrapped Maisie in an old crocheted blanket that had been passed down to her by her mother. It was the nicest consideration Cora could give the poor animal, owing to her extremely limited resources.
After digging the hole, the act of carrying the bundled up dog from the foyer of her home back out to the tree exerted nearly all of Cora’s remaining energy. Once Maisie had been interned in her grave, Cora felt so worn down that she considered laying down and dying right there with her dog, just as Quasimodo had with Esmerelda in Paris. There was a time when a more wistful version of herself might sigh at the idea of never seeing Paris, but that wistful version of her had died when the bombs fell. Now there wasn’t even a Paris to see.
Cora didn’t lay down and die, but she did sit with her back to the tree and her feet dangling slightly into Maisie’s grave, catching her breath as sweat ran from the nape of her neck, trickling down the back of her shirt. She fanned herself slightly out of habit, even though the air was far from warm, fires or not. July was already well underway but the sky boiled with overcast grey-black clouds blotting out the sun completely, lending the wind an arctic chill. She had read about such phenomena when she was younger. A nuclear winter was what it was called. There hadn’t been any snowfall yet, just ashes masquerading as sleet, but that dreaded weather couldn’t be far off. No doubt the snow would fall poisoned like the rest of everything else.
Pushing herself up off her palms, one knee in the dirt for balance, Cora unceremoniously began bulldozing the mound of loose earth she’d dug up back into the grave. Clods of mephitic soil caked onto the sleeves of her flannel shirt up to her elbows and another throbbing hum began to sound off at the base of her spine long before the work was finished. But eventually she stood and looked down at her handiwork, the grave once more filled.
“Well,” she said to Maisie, to the wind, to all of the ghosts of everyone who had once been, “I’ve done it. I’ve done my best.” Her voice caught in her throat so she swallowed hard and continued, committed to the eulogy. “I hope this is okay. I hope that this was enough.” The tears would not be denied now and her sleeves were too dirty to be used as Kleenex.
Absentmindedly, Cora smoothed the dirt on top of the grave with her left shoe. “I just want you to know how badly I’m going to miss you; how badly I miss you already. I never got to say goodbye to any of you. I said it when you left the house, but I didn’t know that this would happen. Nobody did…. But I wish to God that I could have known.” Her words were near gibberish amidst the sobbing. “It wasn’t supposed to be a real goodbye….”
Snot congested her nostrils. She sucked back on the phlegm and coughed a racking expectoration, spitting a gob of bloody mucus into the dusty earth. Even with no one to witness it, she still felt embarrassed by her spitting. And then she felt embarrassed at her own embarrassment.
After standing over the grave for a few minutes longer, half to pay respects to her dead dog, half to catch her breath, Cora walked back to what used to be the garden on the west side of her house to the shed that connected to the Atrium. Inside she found the old salvaged generator sitting as lifeless as Maisie. Not a naturally mechanically savvy individual, it had taken Cora quite some time to figure out how to operate the old piece of machinery. But necessity had turned her into an aficionado. She checked the fuel levels; enough to last the rest of the evening and partly into the night. Perfect. She flipped the fuel valve to On and moved the choke rod from right to left. Satisfied with her work Cora turned on the ignition and pulled the recoil cord four times until the genny thundered to life with an earthquake of noise that exploded through the eerie quiet of her uninhabited world. She set the choke to Run and when all was said and done she stood back, wheezing once more, coughing up another bout of blood. She had a thought that she might die right there in the shed and no one would ever find her. She was fairly certain that there was no one left.
The last living person Cora had seen had been Dawn, and eight year old girl who had outlived her parents only to die of radiation sickness two days later. That had been over a month ago. The girl’s throat was so ragged that right before she had passed her cries had become nothing more than lamb’s bleats muffled by her decaying esophagus. More than once, late at night when the screams kept Cora awake, she considered finding a gun and doing the merciful thing for the child. But no, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. As quickly as the urge developed, her cowardly nature bashed it back down within her.
Cora still felt guilty for not giving the girl a proper burial. The fear of contracting the same sickness that had killed everyone else in Grant had driven the spinelessness that controlled her and for the first month after the bombs had fallen she had refused to even leave her home. But then her food ran out.
She had found the girl crying on her stoop eating a pack of saltine crackers, the radiation already turning her into a gaunt caricature of what a healthy child should resemble, ****** sores oozing all over the spots of skin the girl’s clothing didn’t cover. She may as well have been a zombie the way that Cora had treated her, scrambling away up the hill back to her house, locking and barricading the doors and windows. Dawn, however, had not followed her. The little girl had been all skin and bones and lacked the strength to simply leave her parents property. And what would she do if she could? An empty world would be nightmarish for a child her age.
Cora knew that the girl had died the evening that the screaming stopped. She didn’t sleep that night either, though. Instead, she thought about Dawn dying alone in pain, surrounded by the bodies of her mother and father, confused and frightened. She thought about the radiation that had poisoned all of the families around her. She saw it as an airborne infection sliding into her own home through the cracks and eaves, irradiating her with the same time lapse slow death that had done away with every last one of her neighbors.
The next morning Cora burnt down Dawn’s house and every other house on her block except her own. She did not know that the radiation had already begun to corrupt her body. She did not realize that fire couldn’t kill away the Devil. All she knew was her own fear; the fear of becoming like them; cold, lifeless, rotten things, decaying in the darkness, coagulated black blood oozing from every orifice. The smell had been putrid.
Back inside of her home, the first thing Cora did was add several small logs to the coals still glowing red hot in the fireplace in the den. Soon a blaze crackled to life and began flooding the house with incandescent warmth, defrosting the chill that reminiscing had sent through Cora’s body. The old woman allowed herself time to stand before the fire, warming her bones for several minutes before the itchiness of the dirt and sweat on her body compelled her to get herself cleaned up.
The water still worked just as fine as it ever had, but Cora hadn’t trusted it for months now. It had been a difficult sacrifice at first, abstaining from baths and showers for fear that radiation had somehow poisoned the water mains; but in her mind it had been necessary. A dark part of her couldn’t help but imagine coming out of the tub, her body glowing radioactive green, the skin on her arms and legs and back boiling with blisters and sliding off her bones wet and sick the way meat slides off the bones of boiled chicken legs.
Instead of bathing she had taken to using baby wipes salvaged from the local supermarket. There wasn’t much food or water to be found there, but there was a stockpile of Wet Ones in the childcare isle that no one had thought to ****** up when everyone began looting in the beginning, a week or so before they realized that no amount of supplies could change the fact that they were all doomed. Cora had filled an entire shopping cart with as many wet wipes as could fit and in doing so was able to keep a moderate amount of her dignity intact.
Today, however, wasn’t a wet wipe day. Today was a day for funerals. Today was a special occasion.
With an acquiescent sigh, Cora turned both faucet knobs to full blast. The pipes rumbled, taking their sweet time to rush water through their months unused canals, but after a few seconds of reluctant groaning clear lukewarm water came blasting out the faucet into the polished porcelain tub. Cora engaged the drain stopper to allow the tub to fill and then poured in nearly an entire bottle of children’s Mr. Bubble that she had taken from the Value-Save specifically for this occasion. Rainbow sheened suds and the smell of bubblegum scented soap quickly filled the tub and air and brought a euphoric sense of nostalgia to Cora’s heart, warm and pleasant, but not without a heavy measure of sadness. The scent absentmindedly reminded her of her children when they were toddlers, splashing in the bathtub, using the bubbles to give themselves moustaches and beards and laughing at how old they’d made themselves look. Little did they know that they would never get the chance to see an age even close to what their imaginations helped feign.
When the tub had filled more than half-way, Cora stripped out of her dirty clothing and sighed as she slid into the bath. Instantly her muscles contracted and relaxed in a way that had become completely alien to her over the past few months. Removing a loofa that had hung unused over the mouth of the tub’s faucet for as long as Cora hadn’t used the tub, she began to methodically scrub her body down, erasing the grime that caked her arms and legs. The feeling of becoming clean was almost enjoyable. Dolloping a liberal amount of shampoo into the palm of her hand she massaged it into her scalp. Much more hair than she would have liked came out on her hands, compliments of the radiation poisoning, but Cora ignored it. The time for worrying about such things was over now. Now all that mattered were the terms of her comfort.
She drained the tub and held her head under the running faucet to rinse the shampoo out of her hair and thought twice about conditioning for old times sake. On second thought though, she went against it. She still had much more to do that evening and did not want to spend more time in the bathroom than she absolutely had to. Hair thoroughly rinsed, Cora turned off the faucet and stood up, reaching gingerly for a green fluffy towel hanging on a nearby rack, patting her body dry with it before wrapping it around her hair, twisting it at the top and stepping out of the tub onto the bathmat.
Despite the lukewarm temperature of the water, the cold of the house had caused the bathroom mirror to fog up a bit so Cora wiped it clear with her palm. The emaciated face of an old woman stared back at her, flushed from the bath. That wouldn’t do at all.
Padding softly down the hallway to her bedroom Cora found the black dress she had worn on her first date with Eric so long ago laying spread out on her bed waiting for her, the pearls she’d inherited from her mother when she was only a child laying next to the dress along with a pair of diamond earrings that Eric had given her on their 20 year anniversary. She had never really cared for the earrings much, believing that they were just too **** expensive to wear when she and Eric occasionally went out, but if ever there was a time to wear them, she thought, it was tonight.
Cora stepped into the dress and clasped the pearls around her neck and fastened the earrings to her ears then went to her vanity and opened a makeup pallet that she hadn’t used in so long that she was afraid the makeup might be dried up and unusable. To her delight it wasn’t.
She started with a primer, then worked her way to a foundation that brought out the glow in her cheeks and eyes. An outline with a mascara pencil made her baby blues pop vibrantly and a little bit of eye shadow gave her a rogue, smoky look that she couldn’t help but admit to herself was a bit ravishing. Cora opted to leave her eyelashes alone, but compromised by painting her lips a gorgeous bright red. There was not much to be done with her hair, but a few expertly placed bobby pins and a generous spray of MegaHold at least tamed the mess. Standing back to look at herself in the mirror, she felt a comforting sense of pleasure.
Downstairs the fire was burning greedily and the house smelled of earthy smoke. It had taken some time and more than a few breaks in which she doubled over to cough up blood, but the night before she had found her old record player and the trunk containing her teenage record collection in the attic and had lugged it all downstairs into the den. She might have cried if after setting it all up she had discovered that the player didn’t work, but there had been no need to cry because on a test run the old record player worked just as it had when she was sixteen. Her unlikely favorite singer had been Marty Robbins and she still had several of his vinyl records as a testament to that fact, and it was Marty Robbins that she chose.
“Tonight Carmen” crackled to life through the record player’s speakers and Cora sunk into the comfortable cushions of her couch. Standing on the coffee table in front of her were three pictures propped up in their frames: the photo from hers and Eric’s wedding, where they were mashing cake into each other’s faces, flanked by a picture of Sammy and James as children playing with Legos on the floor of their bedroom, Sammy staring into the camera smiling his goofy smile while James seized the opportunity to reach for the castle that his older brother had been constructing. The last photo on the far left was of Cora’s parents, June and Robert, her mother kissing her father’s surprised cheek at a barbecue before Cora had even been born.
Next to the pictures sat a large wine glass and an old bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that Cora and Eric had been saving for after their children moved out of the house. That day would never come, or had come in a way that neither of them had expected, and so today was as good a day as any to drink the wine. Cora uncorked the old bottle and poured herself a full glass. Before she drank the wine she unscrewed the childproof cap from an orange prescription bottle of Valium spilling out about 27 pills into her palm. She tossed back about half of the handful at once, chasing it with a couple gulps of the wine, before finishing the handful on the second try, as well as draining her glass. She refilled the glass and sipped it, her heart racing with adrenaline from what she had just done. Half of her couldn’t believe that she’d done it, while the other half of her was glad she had.
Several minutes later the wine began to make her feel drowsy. Or at least she thought it was the wine. Surely the valium would take a bit longer than that, even at such a high dose? She did not really know. She did not really care. Tipping back her glass and abandoning it to instead drink directly from the bottle, spilling a little bit down her front in the process, Cora kicked her legs up onto the couch and lay on her side staring at the pictures of her dead family. I’ll see you soon….
In the background, as if coming from far down a tunnel she could hear the voice of Marty Robbins singing gently to her:
Have I told you lately when I’m sleeping
Every dream I dream is you somehow
Have I told you why the nights’re long
When you’re not with me, well darling I’m telling you now…
Cora’s eyelids felt heavy and the cold of her empty house sent a chill across her skin in pulsating waves of goosebumps. She pulled a blanket over her and tried to focus on the faces of her children and parents and of her husband. She felt as if she were sinking into the couch, falling away from her world with each second.
From down the tunnel of darkness that she found herself dissolving into she heard a knocking noise. At first a gentle rapping, then a more unsubtle pounding. At first she thought it was the sound of her own heartbeat, but then she recognized it for what it really was: someone knocking on the door to her home. Well, she thought to herself as she allowed her eyes to close, giving herself to the darkness, Maybe I’m not the last one after all.
The sound of music that emanated from the house was what brought Derek to Cora’s home. He had been traveling along back roads, avoiding the main highways and major cities for the past two months and hadn’t come across another living person. The only music he had heard during this time had been when he hummed songs he used to know to himself to calm his nerves in the heavy quiet of every night. Hearing music for the first time in so long was almost frightening, but it awoke in him a hopeless longing for normality and he found himself trekking with more deliberation than ever toward the direction of Cora’s cottage.
He was not a looter. Standing on Cora’s doorstep he had the manners to at least knock first. Plus, these days, you never knew who was waiting behind any door, possibly holding a rifle or a shotgun ready to kill you without hesitation. Derek had not seen any such person, nor any person at all, but he was of the mind that he could not be too careful. After a minute of knocking to no response however, he tried the door handle to find it unlocked. He opened the door tentatively.
“Hello?” he called into the house. No answer. He tried again. “Hello? Is there anyone home? I heard the music…. If there’s anyone here, please, don’t be alarmed. I’m not going to hurt you.” Apart from the continuing music his calls were met with silence.
Moving cautiously through the house he finally made his way into the den where he found the old woman. At first he thought she was only sleeping, but then he saw what she was wearing, saw the bottle of wine and empty bottle of pills. It was then that he knew. The sight of her was saddening, but the pictures on the coffee table were what truly broke Derek’s heart. Poor woman, he thought. At least there was a small smile on her face. At least she hadn’t died screaming like so many others. Still, he couldn’t leave her like that.
He found the shovel next to the dead acacia tree near what looked to be a freshly dug grave. Maybe she had buried her husband or child there, Derek wasn’t sure. Whoever it was had been important enough for the old woman to make the effort to bury, so Derek decided to dig the woman’s grave next to the tree as well. She would be in the company of her loved ones.
Derek was young, only 21 years old and still very fit, but the work was tiring and the ground was nearly frozen. Digging the grave gave him a swollen respect for the old woman. The strenuous work involved in his own digging made it hard for him to believe that she had done it herself, but the earth did not lie.
Derek wrapped the old woman in the blanket that he had found her curled up in and gently laid her down into the hole. He filled it in in a matter of minutes and patted it solid and smooth with the blade of the shovel. He had no words to say to the old woman’s body. He did not even know her name. Instead he just hoped in his heart that whoever she was, she had found peace.
Turning away from the grave Derek headed back up to the house and stood on the lawn to survey it. He had traveled so far to find himself here and suddenly he felt very tired. He did not really know what he had been searching for that entire time, but perhaps he had found it finally.
This seems like as good a place as any…. He thought to himself.
He wiped his nostrils with his sleeve. His nose had begun to bleed again.