Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Ashen Stag - A short novella-in-progress

Chris turned the knob on the door handle and eased it shut to keep out the wind and cold. There was no reason to be quiet, because there was nothing else that cared about the sound, but there was something about the silence that comforted him. Loud noises scared him.
            He turned to face the room he had just entered. Light struggled in through a window mottled with dust and ash. A couch sat facing an immaculate TV, the cushions riddled with holes from small insects looking for a warm home at night. There was nothing of value in this room. He walked into the next room, a small foyer where two pairs of shoes sat next to each other under some shelves. He passed into the next room.

            The yellow walls were nearly grey with a thick layer of dust and ash, and the floors were so caked with it that he couldn’t tell if they were wood or carpet. The wall opposite the door he entered was shedding its wallpaper like some a reptile, and it was splotched brown and black with something. The bed below it was also caked in a thick layer of dust, but there was something big on it. He gently stepped through the detritus on the floor to the side of the bed. He reached down and began brushing the dust off of it with his sleeve. He saw two pairs of feet, two legs, bodies. He didn’t want to touch the faces so he leaned over and blew on them. The dust swirled around and got on his scarf and in his hair, but he saw what was beneath it. Two faces, one missing a jawbone and one with a hole in the side of its head. Both preserved, both missing eyeballs and both angled in towards each other. Their white skin was painted black with old blood. In between them lay a pistol, waiting to kill again.

            When Chris had first woken up, he awoke with a startle. He couldn’t move, and the glass in front of him was covered in so much dust that he couldn’t see anything. He struggled and struggled but he could hardly lift his arms. He tried to bring his head up, but he could barely do that, either. He felt pain in his elbows and realized there was something in his veins. He tried to pull the IVs out, but as he peered into the darkness he saw that his skin had grown around the edge of the tubes. They were a part of him now. He grabbed one and pulled at it. He tried to scream, but his voice wouldn’t work. He kept pulling, tugging, and there was a small sound as the IV came out of his left arm. Tears streamed down his face, and he felt something wet on his arm. He pulled the other IV out, and still he couldn’t scream. It took him a minute to get the straw out. He lay still afterwards, exhausted by his efforts.
            He worked up the strength to push up on the glass above him. With a cracking noise, the giant lid swung away. Light streamed into his casket. It was too bright and he closed his eyes.
            He slowly sat up and was able to open his eyes. He looked at his naked body first. It looked like a mummy’s, every muscle and bone pushing bleakly outwards against tight skin. His skin was parchment-white. His arms streamed blood out of too-big holes where the IVs had been. A catheter led out of his penis and something else led out of his anus.
            It took Chris nearly 20 minutes to unplug his body and ease it out of the container he had been in. He was in a small concrete room with a single skylight illuminating the box perfectly. Nothing else in the room but a door.
            He tried to walk but his legs wouldn’t work and he fell forward. He couldn’t catch himself and gave himself a bloody nose and a cut eyebrow from the fall. He crawled towards the door and pushed it open.
            In this other room another skylight illuminated a compact, moss green book on a flat pedestal. Dust swam around it, beckoning him to the thin ledger. He pulled it down and opened it.
            It told him that his name was Christian, and if he was reading this, he was one of the last human beings on earth. In 2009, he had been cloned from the body of another man, and placed inside of a chamber that would keep him alive, all in the event of the end of humanity. He was to go into the adjacent rooms to find a woman who had also been cloned and kept alive for the same purpose, and together they were supposed to begin the human race again.
            Before even taking the time to finish reading the book, he looked at the opposite wall and saw another door. He crawled towards it and pushed it open. Inside was a container similar to his own. He pulled himself up to look into it, but he saw that it was empty. A single handprint in the dust on the lid looked fresh, and through the glass he could see another book. This one was red, and it had been lain just right inside of the glass container. He tried to open the box but it wouldn’t budge. He looked around and to his left he saw an open door, with stairs beyond it lit by some natural light above. He stumbled to the door and looked up; above him were several sets of stairs in a concrete stairwell, and at the top, an open door. No woman. Just himself and a book and whatever the world was above.

            Chris looked at the bodies in the room a while longer. He could tell they were women, but nothing else. They could have been mother and daughter, sisters, lovers, friends… They might have been doctors or athletes or the grill cooks at the McDonald’s in the nearby mountain town. But whatever had happened that destroyed humanity had caused them to want to die. Chris understood it, but he didn’t. He was the last one. He was rare, like some fantastical creature, and he needed to be preserved. Maybe he’d learn how to procreate with himself.
            He walked out of the room and through the next door, which led into the kitchen. He walked over the bubbling linoleum to the refrigerator, and tugged on the handle until the door swung open with a snap. In the unlit space was a collection of things too shriveled with age to be recognized. Chris brushed these out of the way and peered into the back. Several cans sat in a cluster, their labels so old that they showed only faint stains of what they once depicted. He grabbed these and put them in his bag. He would find out their contents later.
            Chris walked softly out of the house and into the cold.

            When Chris had first come out of hibernation, he had crawled up the staircase and into this grim hell. He sat at the top of the stairs for a while, looking through the doorway at the winds sweeping ash and dust over dirt that blistered and peeled for lack of water. The sun was muted by dull clouds and did little to warm Chris’s boney body. After a while he stumbled into the cold and began wandering, determined to find clothes, food, water, all of the things he needed.
            He soon came on a forest; what had been one, anyways. Black and gray trees lay on top of each other like some mass grave, with not a single leaf to be found. Here and there, a solitary tree stood still, its base too swollen with bulbous growths to let the tree fall.
A pain punched his stomach like a sledgehammer, and he dropped to the hard dirt at his feet seeing double images. He tried to scream but all that came out was a raspy squeal. Suddenly he was not seeing what was in front of him, but-
            Honey will you marry me – do you take this woman to be your – Chris, I’m pregnant – I love you – Images of Chris and a woman sifted through his conscious as his body started to convulse. It couldn’t be him, he’d just woken up from hibernation, it must have been the man he was cloned from – when will you pick Sammie up from daycare – I love you – some day all of this will be gone – I love you – I love you… Chris twisted on the frozen earth as he saw his predecessor’s life. He cried and curled into a ball and the images stop and he lay there sobbing and hugging his pointy knees to his shivering chin. All of these experiences were ones he’d never have. He’d have dead forests, naked wastelands, a strangled sun and himself, himself just an imperfect, broken copy of a human.
Chris pulled himself out of the dirt, and pulled the frozen tears from his face. He tried to forget what he’d never have. He staggered through these trees for a while, wondering who would want to live in a world like this when he came onto a small pond crisscrossed with fallen trees and sludgy with ash and dust. He watched the liquid tremble with the wind. He dipped his finger in it and found that it was freezing cold.
            He looked around him. He’d not seen a single living thing in the hours he’d been awake. He looked at the bloodstains on emaciated arms, and down at his shriveled penis and his legs too weak to carry his own weight. He looked up at the sun and saw only a faint glow struggling through a charcoal sky. He was alone on a dead planet, a relic of a time when there was meaning to this world.
            Chris waded into the water and struggled through the gray sludge until he was waist deep. He let his legs collapse, and he submerged his entire body under the surface. As his face went under, part of himself urged him to go back up, but he pushed himself further under.
He would not bring a child into this earth.
His veins began to sting with his pulse, and his lungs screamed at him. He clutched at the soil at the bottom and struggled to pull himself lower. He felt regret.
Chris would not let anyone see this depravity.
He opened his mouth and began to take in the sludgy water, retching and breathing in at the same time. He vomited it back up and began convulsing and turning around.
But would he ever find love?
His feet pounded the bottom and his legs pushed him up and out of the water. He threw up again and gasped in the thick air around him and rubbed the water out of his eyes.
            Across the pond from him posed a large stag. It had a light grey coat and grayish antlers. Chris could only stare as the animal stood proudly amidst the destruction around them. It was the moment he decided he wanted to live. He felt almost embarrassed having this animal see him this way, puke stains running down his face and neck and black chunks of ash dotting his face from his suicide attempt.
            The animal turned slowly, and began to gently walk away into the maze of fallen trees. Chris waded back to the shore and began to violently sob and shiver. As he did, the stag paused and turned an ear towards him, and then continued on its journey.

            Chris never went more than a few dozen miles from where he had awoken; he didn’t have supplies to allow excursions that far away, and he figured that if his female companion-to-be was still alive, she’d not stray too far away either. He had found a small cabin that crouched against a steep rock face, surrounded by dead forests, and he had chosen this as his home. Inside the cabin were a bed, a small fireplace, and several other things necessary for survival.
            He spent most of his time wandering around. He couldn’t think of any better way to find this woman, and it kept him from sitting in his cabin thinking too much. He had searched some of the land nearby, but he continued his searches in ever-expanding circles, sometimes gone from his cabin for days at a time. Whenever he was gone, he’d leave a note on his cabin door:

Dear visitor, please come in and help yourself to some food
until I get back. We have much to talk about! Cheers, Christian

            To his knowledge, no one had ever entered his house while he was gone. Chris was always at least a little excited to get home, and his heart would skip a beat when he opened his door at the thought of the woman waiting in here for him. Something told him it might never happen.
            As he wandered, he would search the buildings he came across for food and other useful materials. He’d find these sometimes. He’d find lots of bodies. Lots of suicides. Sometimes what looked like homicides. He had lost any fear of seeing dead bodies. In fact, he had touched some of them: when he saw a piece of jewelry winking at him through the layers of dust, he would often take it off of the body and put it in his pocket. In a previous time it might have been grave robbing, but there was no one to care now. He did it for different reasons than greed, too: he would take these home and pin them to a map of the area he had found in a gas station, each item where he had found it. Some of the small mountain towns nearby were marked by huge clusters of jewelry on the map. Parts of it looked like a mosaic, with emeralds and lots of diamonds and turquoise and gold. His favorite – a lapis lazuli – hung in a solitary position, near a small lake in the foothills not far from his cabin. It was a man’s wedding band. Now it sat as a small halo in the center of the new world.

            Christian had traveled nearly 40 miles away from the cabin into the desert when he heard a gunshot. He heard it and froze in disbelief; a smirk edged across his lips, and he began walking towards where he thought it came from. The sand grabbed at his feet, slowing him down, but he walked faster and faster towards the dead forest to the north of him. He had never seen another living person, and only a person can fire a gun.
            His voice was hoarse and fumbling from years of little use. He began talking to himself, hearing how it sounded, and trying to form words. It was not as deep as he thought it would be.
            “Hello, my name is Christian,” he began, sounding like a pubescent boy. He kept trotting and eyed the clouds roiling on the horizon.
            “What’s your name?” He asked and then giggled. This could be her. His twin of sorts. He would begin shouting once he got closer. He was only half a mile away, maybe less.
            “I have a cabin southwest of here, with a fireplace and some beds,” he proclaimed. “A fireplace… and some beds.” It all sounded so funny to him, like it was too loud.
            As he got closer, Chris began yelling. “HELLO?”
            His heart thumped against his body from the jog and the thought of finding someone to talk to. He was lonely. He played a game of UNO with himself when he was at home. He needed a partner.
            “I’M HERE FOR YOU!” He yelled. “PLEASE COME TO ME!”
            He reached the first few trees and began to clamor over them. There was a small rocky hill above him, and he pulled himself to the top while he continued shouting. “I’M RIGHT OVER HERE! MY NAME IS CHRISTIAN AND I HAVE A CABIN FOR YOU!”
            Chris reached the highest point of the weathered rocks and looked at the scenery around him; many similar rocky hills splayed out in front of him, except they were much larger. The area in between was carpeted with decrepit trees and a matted, dry grass and several black pools like the one he had tried to kill himself in. He could just barely see a gray stag hopping over trees around the side of a black pool, running away.
            Several hundred feet away to his right, a person in black was dropping down a rock hill, lowering a rifle and then jumping down. She looked up at him and stared.

            The Fat Man that was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945, weighed 10,213 pounds and was 10.7 feet long. It killed about 75,000 people. It made a crater a mile wide. The Tsar Bomba was tested on October 30th, 1960 in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, weighed 60,000 pounds, and was 26 feet long. It had a blast radius of 8 miles. Windows were broken more than a thousand miles away. The resultant seismic shock was measurable even after passing around the Earth three times.
            Chris once found a crater in the desert far to the east of his cabin, about 70 miles away. He noticed the sand beginning to become harder and harder until he was walking on glass. The glint of the dead sun on the dead earth adorned his body and face with a soft light. The winds became furious and tugged at the scarves around his neck and the beanie and sunglasses on his head. As he continued the glass became an opalescent depth with the beauty of a transparent frozen lake. He saw the crater long before he got to it, but the glass began to slope down and soon he was looking into a window twenty, thirty miles wide. It was a giant glass bowl, a chunk of erased life. A space of nonexistence. For a while he wondered if there was some evil god who erased all the people millions at a time until they were a memory.
            He forgot a few.

            “MY NAME IS CHRISTIAN!” He shouted again as he jumped down the rocks towards her. He didn’t even think to keep his pistol in his backpack in his pockets. Didn’t even cross his mind.
            They drew nearer, he skipping and she prowling to meet each other near a slowly churning, inky pool of black water. Her black hair spilled from under a brown beanie and the wind wrapped it under her face. Her long black coat waved in the wind and her pale skin wasn’t even flush with the cold. She pulled her gun up and pointed it at his face. Chris stopped so fast he nearly fell down and the smirk disappeared.
            They said nothing.
            “Who are you,” she finally called from across the pool.
            “I’m Chris,” he shouted.
            “What are you doing?”
            “I heard a gunshot and – are you a clone?”
            “Are you a clone?”
            “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” She lowered the gun slightly, unsquinting her eyes to look at him a little better.
            “Nevermind. Who are you?”
            She thought about it, and dropped the gun more as she did, but she leveled it back at his chest after some thought. “I’m Isabelle. What are you doing?”
            “I’m looking for someone. A woman, she was supposed to be a clone –“
            “Quit fucking saying that to me!” She tightened her hold on the gun’s grip.
            “I’m sorry, it’s just that I… Never mind, I’m sorry. Will you put the gun down?” He asked, his voice getting a little more upset. This was not how it was supposed to happen.
            “Not until I feel like you’re not going to try and kill me,” she growled.
            “Why would I do that?”
            “You wouldn’t be the first one.”
            “You’ve seen other people?” Chris didn’t like this. He felt like a plaything.
            “Not for a few years. They’ve all killed themselves or died from radiation poisoning or murder or lack of water. It’s just you and me, from what I can tell.” She jerked the gun at him.
            “If it is just you and I, why would you be pointing the gun at me? I’m not going to hurt you.”
            She slowly lowered the gun but seemed tensed like a cat about to pounce. “What do you want from me? Food? Medicine?”
            “No, no, I’m fine. I want to talk to you. Do you want to talk?”
            She nodded. “Do you have somewhere we can go?”
            “Not nearby. I live about 40 miles from here.” He pointed south and southwest. “We can go there if you want.”
            She thought about it, and then shook her head. “Not today. Today is Sunday. I need to go home tonight. But I can come with you tomorrow.”
            “Wait, you live near here?”
            “You don’t get to know where I live. If you want to talk, we can meet here tomorrow morning at this same spot. I need some time to think about this.”
            Chris would have to camp nearby to wait, but something was intriguing about this woman. Maybe it was because she was the last woman on the earth. He didn’t think his twin still lived. Or maybe this was she and she wouldn’t tell him.
            “So is that a yes?” Her voice sounded a little softer. Less like a dog barking at an intruder and more like a dog barking at another dog.
            “Sure, I’ll see you here,” Chris replied through the wind. “It was really nice to meet you, Isabelle.”
            “Yeah I’ll see you then. You too, Chris.” She still scowled, and she kept her eyes on him and strutted away through the trees at the same time.
            Chris sat down on a tree and tried not to watch her retreat. Love burns, he thought, but somehow he still felt a little warm. He now had a purpose.
            Isabelle. I kind of like that name.

            Chris had only ever fired his gun once. He had found the gun on a man with chunks of his head missing, laying in the living room next to his wife and two young children. He had not seen a scene like this in a while; his stomach kept turning and he couldn’t look away. The setting sun made for an ethereal light inside the well-windowed house. Light shone from all directions and framed the death at his feet like a museum exhibit.  
            Something dropped on the floor upstairs and he heard a scratch, something dragging its nails against the wall or floor. Chris’s stomach did somersaults now, and his eyes rolled towards the stairs next to the kitchen to his left. He wasn’t alone in this evil house. He thought to leave but he knew he couldn’t without knowing who or what it was.
            “Hello?” his own voice frightened him, but the answer was worse. There came a series of bumps like someone was boxing against the wall. Or stomping towards him. He hunched down next to the man and held his greyish wrist as he pulled the gun out of a cold, hard, mummified hand. The steel was so cold it bit at his fingers, but he wrapped both hands around it and pointed it at the stairs. He slowly walked towards the stairs with the noise from upstairs getting even more raucous. Thump thump thump thump thump thump. He saw light sliding underneath the door directly in front of him and something stepping around inside with each bump. It was hitting the door.
            “Hello?” came his raspy voice again. He checked the kitchen behind him and then continued up the stairs. The gun in his hand shook up and down; he was so high on fear that he felt he might pass out and fall back down the stairs to sleep with the family in the living room. Part of a family. Something he’d never be.
            He reached the landing called out to the flimsy-looking wooden door in front of him one more time. “I’m not here to hurt you! My name is Christian!”
            The thumping didn’t stop.  Christian wanted to go home and pretend this place never existed, this solitary, flaky-painted house in the desert with broken windows and cobwebs and a family in the living room, but he knew this thing would find him some day. He just felt it.
            Chris opened the door handle and pushed it open enough to see inside. He could barely see a pile of bones on a bed in the middle of a dirty, bloody room, lit by the white-grey light from outside. He tried to close the door but something wouldn’t let him and he looked down and saw a dog pushing its head through and he stepped back. The dog – a greyhound – ran into him and he fell down the stairs. The gun discharged and he heard it puncture the house and slide from his hands. As he rolled over at the foot of the stairs, he saw the skinny greyhound ease its skeletal body down the stairs easily. It had several sores on its skin that was so tight, it looked like it was about to tear. The dog growled angrily, opening its mouth to show sharp fangs that looked oversized compared to the hollow face. There was something so human in those eyes. It looked like a boxer, bleeding and broken but able to kill.
Chris pulled himself towards the gun in the kitchen, and the dog paused at the foot of the stairs with its sunken eyes staring at him. It looked ready to pounce and he wondered if it wouldn’t rip his pale face off before he could get to the gun; it turned to the door and limped out.
            Chris stood and grabbed the gun from the ground and walked past the family to the door. The greyhound hobbled and stumbled in the sand. Chris closed the door and forced himself back up the stairs. Through the open door, he saw a bed with a wooden frame adorned with numerous chew marks. Bones lay everywhere, on the bed, the floor, coming out of the closet. The wooden floor was stained a dark cherry with old blood and the once-light bedsheets were now a scarlet-black. The room reeked of death even worse than the living room below. In the right corner a half-eaten, nearly mummified dog lay with its belly toward him. All the dog bones frightened him. He had just released a killer. It was death and he had opened the door for it.
            Chris took nothing from that house and did not mark it on his map. He slept with that gun for fear that he would hear the thump thump at his door.

            The night of waiting for Isabelle was not as long as he had thought it would be. His watch (a nearly indestructible Casio he had found in a ransacked department store in the mountains) showed him it never got below 0 degrees that night, and he had a warm sleeping bag and tent. He cooked baked beans over the fire and read an old National Geographic. White rhinos were being hunted to extinction for their horns, which Asian doctors believed could cure any ailment. The rhinos were beautiful and looked almost like something from this new, dead world, with their lack of pigmentation and vacant black eyes. He’d never see a rhino. Chris fell asleep.
            When he woke up, it was to the sound of footsteps outside his tent.
            “Chris?” came Isabelle’s voice.
            “Oh I’m sorry I just woke up!” He began pulling on his jacket and opened the flap to the tent. Isabelle sat on a stone outside, her rifle in her lap. She still wore the black coat and olive pants and black boots she had worn yesterday. Chris pulled on his shoes and looked at her closely for the first time. She had a slender nose and a perfect mouth. Her soft black eyebrows shaded green eyes that seemed to sum him up in a single glance. Chris wanted to keep looking but something about her gaze frightened him and so he focused on tying his boots.
            “Where are you from?” Chris asked as he packed his tent. It felt so good to talk to another person that he didn’t care if he sounded awkward. He could tell this wasn’t his twin, though. Now that he looked at her closer. There was something… older about her.
            “I lived in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Northwest of here.” She looked in that direction and watched, like she could almost make it out from here.
            Chris waited for her to ask him where he was from and realized he didn’t know how to explain it. He was a clone. He had the memories and the skills and everything else from a man named Christian, but he was just a copy. Would she accept that? He knew people had not been fond of cloning.
            Chris packed the last of his supplies into his backpack. “Are you ready for this?”
            “I wanted to tell you: if we want to talk, we should go to my house. It’s about 3 miles from here.” She seemed like she was confessing. “I’m sorry I made you stay out here last night when I was so close.”
            Chris laughed. “It’s completely fine. I would have been doing that anyways. Let’s get going.”
            Isabelle stopped before him. She held out her hand. “It’s really nice to meet you, Chris.”
            Chris shook her hand lightly. “You too, Isabelle.”

            On the way to Isabelle’s house, it began to rain. Isabelle explained what had happened that made the world this way.
            “When our country began to launch its nuclear weapons, Korea and China followed in suit. There were no sides; it was just like a restriction had been removed and they had all been waiting. Iran began to launch them at Europe and within 20 minutes Germany, France, and England had all launched weapons. India launched them at Afghanistan and China and Pakistan, and Australia and Canada and Mexico launched them. Nearly every country that had them used them. It all happened within a few hours, I think. No one ever knew exactly what happened after 20 minutes though because something happened to our phones and our TVs and our Internet. Everything just… stopped. I think that there were thousands launched. Something went wrong and no one knows what it was, but that was the day the world went away. I was with my… My husband. My son was at his grandmother’s house…” She stopped. Chris was walking behind her and saw her bring a hand up to her face. They kept walking.
            Chris thought he knew. Her son wasn’t here, after all.
            A few minutes later, she began again.
            “There were earthquakes for several days so strong that our house ended up collapsing. We left after two days because we could hear things cracking. We stayed in the Rock Springs High School gymnasium. Everyone had been told to go there. Even that early on, there were only a few hundred people there. We all knew that Rock Springs had not been directly hit, but people… couldn’t take it. You’ve seen all the suicides around. My husband brought it up with me one day when we left the gym to go outside to a park. A few big trees had collapsed. There was so much ash in the sky that it was nearly dark. It was cold and he held me and we laid against a tree and he asked me…” She stopped again and brought her hand up. She kept walking.

            Isabelle and her husband huddled against a fallen oak in the park.
The wind whipped between them and the tree. Carrying radiation.
            “Is this the world you want to live in?” He asked. He looked out at the darkness. The Earth groaning and cracking in pain, the sky gone, the sound of guns every half an hour as someone took their own life or someone else’s life for them. This world.
            Isabelle didn’t answer. Her son hadn’t been asked if this was the world he wanted to live in. That question was answered for him.
            “Thompson said we won’t be able to see the sun for half a year. Is that what you want?” He squeezed her shoulder when he asked.
            “What else is there?” Tears filled her eyes because he knew what he was asking and she had always known that was wrong. She missed her son.
            “Isabelle… I don’t want this. I’ve puked up everything I’ve eaten. My son is dead and-“
            “OUR son! He was my son too and I’m not using him as an excuse! You think I don’t miss him? You think I don’t-“
            “Isabelle, please…”
            “-want to go see him? You think I don’t want to take the easy way out? Look at yourself, you said you’d always be there for me and you weren’t there for me when I was pregnant and you were in some stupid war and-”
            “Isabelle, just think about it.”
            “-you weren’t there for me when I had to quit college and you weren’t there for me when MY second child only had half a heart and you weren’t there for me when Dad died and you WON’T BE THERE FOR ME NOW!” She broke into sobs and she pulled away from him even though she was cold and there was a black snow falling all around them. A disgusting obsidian snow.
            “Isabelle… Just think about it.” He said as he looked at her. He tried to put his arm around her but she pushed it away and stood and walked back towards the High School and the other people.

            Chris walked behind her in silence for another ten minutes. They were still in the same dead forest, and the dirty rain that fell all around them slickened the blanket of ash and the dirt beneath it. He wondered if Isabelle even had a heart anymore. Everything was gone for her. Why would she want to live here when she had known something so much better?
            “That’s it,” she said and pointed at a small house on the side of a hill ahead and to their right. It looked like a place of hurt. The siding of the house was falling off and the roof over the porch was collapsing in. Black water dripped off of the corners and streamed off of the windows. They looked like a woman’s eyes when she cried so much that her makeup ran.
            “It looks nice,” Chris lied. Isabelle looked back at him in disbelief. They both laughed.
            Chris couldn’t explain what he felt. Isabelle had only known hurt for so many years. He wanted to take it all away and he wanted to see that smile more. The unabashed grin she had just shown him. He didn’t know why but he was enchanted. The residue of death falling all around them and the angry sky above them made it all so surreal. The only thing he had wanted this whole time was right in front of him. He had memories of what love felt like from the man he had been cloned from. Isabelle could-
            “Take your shoes off, please,” she said as they walked in the ash-stained front door. He unlaced his boots and laid his pack next to hers at the front door. The living room they had just walked into had a high ceiling and several couches surrounded around a fireplace and an old TV with a cracked screen. “Would you like the full tour?”
            “Of course,” Chris said. She eased off her outer coat and scarves and began into the kitchen and dining room that was connected to the living room.
            “The kitchen,” she said and continued through the dining area to a set of stairs. “This was my father’s house. He died of lung cancer right before the Holocaust. My mother died when I was 22.”
            “I’m sorry to hear that. It’s a very pretty house on the inside,” Chris said as he followed her up the stairs, looking out into the living room.
            “That’s the guest room – your room,” she mentioned as if rehearsed as she gestured to their right. She pointed in front of them. “This was my son’s room.” They stepped to the doorway and looked inside. A small bed sat in one corner and a collection of Legos and a handful of toy cars sat on a rug in the middle. An empty fishtank perched in another corner next to a desk with a small collection of books on it. The room looked untouched except for the absence of any dust or ash. Isabelle moved on to their left.
            “And this is my room. It used to be my father’s.”
            This one was nearly as clean as her son’s. It had brown and green paint on the walls and open windows blurred with the filthy rain that streamed down them. He could make out some hills in the distance through one window and through the others he saw the clouds glowing a dirty gold. “That’s a very nice view,” he said, and he wasn’t lying. She turned towards him and they walked back downstairs. She began to light a fire.
            “Do you need help with that?” Chris offered.
            “I think I can handle it,” she said as she loaded blackened wood in and pulled out some newspaper and a lighter. “Did you have a family?” She said after a minute.
            Chris thought about how he should say this. “I’ve never had anything.”
            “What does that mean?” Isabelle said without looking away from the wood.
            He sat on one of the couches and rubbed his face with his hands. “This is really hard to explain, so I’ll just say it: I’m a clone. I-”
            “What?” Isabelle turned away from the flaming newspapers that licked the firewood.
            “I’m a clone. I was part of a government program to continue the human race in the event of something like this.” He watched her as she studied him now like some rare artifact, no longer a person. “I awoke from hibernation about a year ago and I was told that there was a female clone like me. She was gone by the time I woke up.”
            “Wait, who told you that? You’re really a clone?” she said in uncertainty.
            “Yes, I’m really a clone.”
            “You seem so real!” She said, and then the awe left her face when she realized she said it. “I’m sorry, that was rude. Who told you there was another clone?”
            “No one. There was a book waiting for me when I woke up.” This was less magical than he had thought it would be.
            “Have you found her yet?” She asked.
            “No. I think she may be dead because I barely survived. When I woke up my body was weak and useless after being in hibernation for so long-”
            “The Holocaust happened five years ago. It was May of 2012.” She told him this like he hadn’t been listening the first five times she told him.
            “I know. I’ve seen it in newspapers and stuff. My body was immobile for seven years, and when I first came out of hibernation and into all of this… I nearly died.”
            She was quiet for several moments. “Who were you cloned from?”
            “Another man named Chris. He had a wife and a daughter and I can’t quite tell what else. I have his skills and his abilities but I think they restricted the memories I inherited. I still get them sometimes though.”
            Isabelle just stared at him like she saw who he really was now.
            “Do you dislike me now?” Chris asked. He felt ashamed, and he didn’t like this feeling.
            “No, it’s just… something I had never thought of. I don’t dislike you.” Chris thought she sounded like she was reassuring herself.
            “Can we not talk about my past? It makes me uncomfortable.”
            “I can see. Tell me one thing though: are you still looking for her?”
            “No, I don’t think so.” Chris didn’t say it, but he didn’t think he was looking anymore because he found Isabelle. It was nice just to have someone.
            “OK.” She watched him for a few more moments and then turned towards the fire, which was fully lit now. “Do you want to eat something?”
            “I’d love to,” Chris said and reached for his backpack and unzipped it.
            “No, I have food,” Isabelle said and walked to the kitchen. She came back with a can of baked beans and a can of chili meat. “All I have is canned food.”
            Chris smiled. “It’s alright, that’s all I have too.”
            “Chris? Thank you for telling me about what you are.”
            Chris swallowed everything he wanted to say. What he was is a human.
            “Thank you for telling me about yourself too.” He smiled.

            Isabelle and her husband had moved into a small cabin in the mountains a few months after the Holocaust. They had learned that Rock Springs was one of the only towns not directly hit by a nuclear weapon. People all around them had been dying from the radiation poisoning in the water and the air, though, and there were over 3,000 suicides at that point. In a town of 23,000. Zachary Thompson, the principal of the high school, had taken a de facto rule over the town. He said there were more than 15,000 people dead in Rock Springs. That was when Isabelle and her husband left. They brought everything they could think of needing in their SUV, and drove to a cabin they had stayed at during a Valentine’s Day weekend once. The cabin was empty, but the kitchen was full of food. They thought it could last them through the rest of the summer and until the beginning of winter.
            They passed the time playing board games or trying to go on hikes, even though the skies were still dark. At that point the trees were beginning to lose all of their leaves for the last time. Isabelle’s husband whittled animals and tried to stain them to look realistic, but they always ended up looking like a child painted them. Isabelle read books. She read all of the books in the house and read them a second time. She read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein over and over. She had been raised in a very religious family and found the idea of man creating life so disturbing… so intriguing. The idea that man cannot control, cannot prepare something for this violent world, concurred with everything she had been taught by her father. A creation could never be completely pure. It would seek answers but all it would find is animosity. Even its creator would shun it and the whole thing would be so horrifying that it would be erased. God alone held the power to create and destroy.
            Isabelle didn’t want to have sex. When she told her husband he didn’t seem perturbed, but she knew it upset him. They had tried and tried but she couldn’t get aroused. She told him it was because they were drinking less water. Really she was worried about what would happen to them. They wouldn’t be here in several years. She knew it. Part of her was worried because she had been unfaithful to God in the past. Would she be in heaven with her sons? Did God care about theft or premarital sex? She had made mistakes and it worried her. That was why she didn’t want to have sex.
            Her favorite statuette that her husband ever made was a small ram. It had horns too big for the head, and the crude carving reminded her of some Greek artifact. He stained it an amber color that looked somewhat realistic. He gave it to her one night as they went to bed.
            He reached into the drawer of small animals he had whittled and the ones he had trashed or never finished and pulled it out. “I made this one for you.”
            She turned it around in the pale lamplight. “It’s really pretty,” she said and kissed him on the forehead.
            “Are you going to name it?” The comment surprised her. He usually wasn’t so touchy-feely. “It needs a name.”
            She thought about it. “I like… Paris.”
            “That’s an odd name. Why that one?” He seemed to be losing interest.
            “It’s in a book I’m reading. He’s a beautiful prince. Your name is in it, too!” She smiled but he was looking away now, thinking of something else. “Is something wrong?”
            “No… no. Will you keep it forever?” He looked back to her. He was acting very gushy. She liked it.
            “Of course,” she whispered, and pulled him in for a kiss. She soon had her shirt off and he was caressing her body, moving his calloused hands over her smooth breasts and down to her crotch. She moved a hand to stop him, but she brought it back to his face and kissed him harder. Something was different in him now. Sometimes he showed her everything might be alright. She tried to do the same for him.
            They made love that night and they both enjoyed it. She whispered in his ear in ecstasy: “I love you. No matter what happens to us, I will always love you.” He pushed into her harder and harder and held her close, and then every muscle in him relaxed and they lay entwined, bathing in the afterglow. They fell asleep right next to each other.
            The next day, Isabelle woke up feeling fine. For the first time in months. She couldn’t tell what time it was because it was always dark outside now. She looked at the watch on her nightstand and saw that it was late, one in the afternoon. She looked over to her husband but he wasn’t in bed. He had probably gone to get firewood or he could be whittling in the den. She put on one of his t-shirts, grabbed Paris in one hand, and lazily shuffled into the living room.
            From one of the rafters in the living room hung a rope. Her husband’s limp body dangled from it, spinning around so slowly. The swollen tongue pushed his mouth open and his naked body looked mottled with pale skin and dark spots. Isabelle screamed and fell to her knees. She pulled at her face with her nails and screamed again and again. She looked away and banged her head on the wall again and again. She should have known, she should have known. He wasn’t acting normally last night.
            She looked at him again and looked down to the small ram in her hands. In the bright light of the living room she saw etched on the stomach of the ram two words: I’m sorry.
            She should have known, she should have known.

            Chris laughed at Isabelle’s question. They had had some wine with dinner and were now playing a sort of grown-up truth or dare, without much daring. She had just asked him what his favorite band was and then burst into a fit of giggles.
            “You’re a funny one!” He said sarcastically.
            She got more serious. “Wait, what do you mean?”
            “I’ve never heard any music,” he said, a little sorry of the fact.
            “Oh… that’s right. I’m sorry! You seem like an Iron & Wine kind of guy.”
            “Is that a band?”
            “Yeah, they’re a damn good one, too. Anyways, your turn to ask!”
            Chris looked at the crackling fireplace reflecting off of his wine glass and thought. He had a burning question for her, but he wasn’t sure if it would make things awkward between them. The wine made the decision for him.
            “What was your husband’s name?”
            She bit her lip and held her wine glass up. She took a drink. “Achilles.”
            “That’s an interesting name.”
            “He was Latino. It was his grandfather’s name.”
            “Okay. I just wanted to know a bit more about him.”
            “Well now you know.” She seemed more upset by the question than she should be.
            “It’s your turn, you know,” he said cheerfully. She didn’t respond. “Please don’t be upset. I just want to know more about you.”
            She looked into her wine glass and picked something out of it. “It’s okay. I want to know something about you.”
            “What do you want from me?” She looked up from the wineglass and those apple eyes pierced his own.
            Chris was startled and didn’t know what to say. What did he want? Did he want to have children with her? Wasn’t that his purpose, to procreate?
            “I want a friend. I want something to look forward to.”
            “What does ‘something to look forward to’ mean?” Her intense gaze softened.
            “It’s the two of us, alone on this planet. Two people. There could be more. We don’t have to, but-”
            “How did I know that’s all you wanted?” She was defensive now.
            “It’s not. It just makes sense. I like you either way.”
            “What are we, fifteen now? You like me?”
            “Don’t be condescending to me. You’re an attractive person. Can you just accept a compliment?”
            She looked away and tucked her chin down slightly like a child pouting. Chris looked away, guilty. She was right, kind of. He wanted to have children with her. But he wanted to care for her too. “We’re all alone. We should take care of each other. That’s all I want to do for you, whatever that means.”
            She sat still but her brow became less intense now and she breathed a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I want that too. Sometimes this place just forces you into defense and it’s hard to let go of that.”
            “I understand. So we’re thinking of the same thing?” He looked at the wrinkles that were beginning to spring from the corners of her eyes and he knew that even now they might not have much time. Not in this world. Fifteen or twenty years was a long time in this world.
            “Yeah, we’re thinking of the same thing.”

            Chris slept in the guest bedroom that night. It was covered in a layer of dust but he brushed some of it off and laid his sleeping bag on top of the dirty bed. Outside the rain still streaked the window shades of charcoal. It was unusual for rain because the ash in the sky didn’t allow the sun to evaporate enough moisture to create rain clouds. It had rained maybe ten times since he had come out of hibernation, and usually it was snow. He fell asleep thinking about the rain. He wasn’t sure if he dreamt about himself, or the Chris who he had been cloned from.

Chris woke up to Isabelle shaking his shoulder. She was sitting on his bed in a sweater and some sweat pants. “Don’t you hear that?”
Chris blinked and looked to the window. A strobe light flash lit the room and a second later there was a boom so deafening that Chris was inclined to cover his ears and the windows shook in their sills. He didn’t know how long he had been asleep but he somehow had not heard that.
“I do now,” he said and chuckled.
“I’m cold,” she said and pulled at his sleeve. “Will you come keep me warm?”
Chris wanted to say no because it didn’t feel right. But he couldn’t deny those puppy eyes or the tired whisper of her voice. He nodded and stood up. They walked down the hall to her room and she lay on her bed. He noticed that she had built a small fireplace on one side of the room, with a channel for the smoke exiting through the ceiling. Her room was significantly warmer than his.
He lay down next to her and face the other way. On his side of the bed was a small nightstand. It had a photo frame laid face down, a cross on a plinth, and a little statue of a ram. Isabelle turned around and wrapped her arm around him. He could smell the wine on her breath but it could have just been his own, too.
“Chris,” she whispered.
“Do you think the world will ever go back to normal?”
Chris thought about it. He didn’t know what normal was. But even in the year he had been awake, he saw more sunlight. More deer and lizards and he had even seen a fox once. It seemed less normal to him but he knew it wasn’t. “Yes.”
“Will we get to see it?”
They would see it going to normal. They wouldn’t see it completely normal though. He told her that.
“Will the next generation get to see it?”
It seemed an odd question because he had never been part of a generation. But he supposed she was getting at something. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
She kissed the back of his neck. Her lips were dry but soft. Her hands pushed his face to the side and he turned around and pressed his lips against hers. She slid her tongue into his mouth and he did the same to hers. His stomach felt almost queasy with butterflies. She smelled like wine and something else… Something sweet that he had never smelled. Was that perfume?
She pulled his shirt off and he pulled hers off. He felt her breasts and fondled her nipples and squeezed her waist. Her body warmth felt so unreal and her skin felt perfect against his body. He wanted to study her beauty but her kisses kept drawing him in and he couldn’t stop. Her black hair created a curtain around their heads and nothing else mattered, not the cacophonous thunder or the dirty rain or the crackling fireplace.
He pulled her pants off and she pulled his down. She moved on top of him to kiss him and she grabbed his penis and pulled it into her and moaned. Chris gasped and pulled her closer to him. She started to bounce up and down and then she started sobbing. Chris didn’t know if she was crying and he pulled her chin up and looked at her and she had put makeup on and it was running down her cheeks and her mouth kept making one word silently: Achilles, Achilles, Achilles…
Her chest heaved with the sobs and Chris pulled her off and to the side.
“Isabelle, it’s OK, please calm down-”
She pushed his face away and stood up. She began pulling on her pants.
“Isabelle. What’s wrong? Talk to me!” Chris pulled his pants up and sat up.
            I miss my husband! I miss my son! I miss my father and Katie and I miss everything that is gone now! This is all just some ruse so you can get laid or you can have a child or something, and I’m not going to be that for you!
            “You don’t have to be that for me! I just don’t want to be lonely anymore! Isabelle, stop!” He had his shirt on now but she was now putting her boots.
            “I can’t be happy with you, Chris! It reminds me of all you’re not!” She finished lacing up her boots and stormed out the door. He struggled to get his boots on and skipped his coat. He ran out the door but the sky was so dark and the rain so black he couldn’t see more than twenty feet in front of him. The lightning flashed and all the rain was illuminated and the boom of the thunder shook his very being. He began running towards the forest they had come from earlier that day. He stumbled over rocks and he wiped the filthy water from his eyes.
            “ISABELLE!” He screamed. “COME HOME!”
            He could hardly hear himself so he continued chasing after where he thought she might go. She had never told him what happened to her husband but he assumed Achilles had committed suicide. Chris desperately hoped she would not follow her husband. He needed her not because he wanted a wife or a lover but because she was what he had lived for the whole year he had been awake. He might not know her very well but some part of him loved her. The only other human left alive and she was as broken as he was and he wanted to fix her, but she wanted the opposite.
            He tried to follow her for an hour but he never even saw a trace of her. He had screamed himself hoarse but she was gone. Chris found a large boulder pile and nestled himself under an overhang. He would find his way back to Isabelle’s house in the morning.
            Chris didn’t want to be lonely anymore. He was created to begin the human race again. He was lonelier now than he’d ever been and there would be no more humans without Isabelle. All he wanted was to take care of her.
            Chris cried himself to sleep in the biting cold.

            When Olivia awoke from hibernation, her body felt broken. She managed to coax it into carrying her, and she found her scarlet book on the pedestal. She read it all of it. She was to awaken Christian if she felt it was “safe” to do so. She had opened the door to his room and looked through the dust into his container. She had pressed the small green button on the side of the container and Olivia closed the door to the room and exited the bunker up the stairs. She opened the door and was shocked by the cold.
            She had once had beautiful hair, she remembered. Long blonde tresses. They were now nearly white from lack of sunlight. Her body looked anorexic and the blood streaming from where her IVs had been contrasted with the ghostly skin and bluish veins.
            Olivia walked south when Chris went north, although she did not know it. She shivered and shook as she stumbled through the freezing sands. The winds whipped the sand against her bare body like glass. In fact, after nearly two hours of walking, Olivia found she was now walking on glass. The earth itself had a dark, opalescent hue and the glass stretched as far as she could see in front of her.
            Olivia hadn’t thought about her world. All she had thought about was the thought that Christian could be following her. She didn’t know if she wanted him to find her or not. She didn’t know if he had a high voice or a low voice or if he was a good guy or a bad guy or if he was a warm color person or a cool color person. That’s all she had thought about. But she felt how her body started to give away now. She couldn’t feel anything in her arms and legs anymore from the cold. The icy glass at her feet beckoned her onwards but it struck her as she walked.
            She was alone with this twin of hers, who she was running from. She didn’t want to know him, though. Something about the idea of being with someone and not having a choice in it… Olivia knew there was nothing better than that. But she wanted it.
            Why am I walking on glass? Olivia thought. Why was I not given clothes?
            The glass sloped downwards like a crater. She had been walking on it for some time now. I wonder if he’ll ever find me? Will I find some place to go soon?
            She reached the center of the crater and found a giant lake of black water covered in a layer of ash. The winds had frozen the top with a thin layer of ice that seemed just a continuation of the glass. Olivia broke the ice and dipped her toe in it. This should do just fine.
            She waded into the water until she couldn’t touch the bottom anymore and she kept swimming. She knew she wouldn’t reach the other side. But she had been walking for a few hours now and seen nothing. A screw was loose. Something was wrong. Olivia didn’t want another man. She didn’t want another human being. She didn’t know where she was. This wasn’t Earth. This must be a dream or a hell; something she couldn’t control. So she kept swimming. Olivia didn’t know what was below her. The sky above her was dark and the sun was muted by the clouds enough that only a dull gray light showed the way for her. So she broke the ice and kept swimming. Somewhere behind her was her twin waking up, wondering where she was so he could find her and make himself happy. So she kept swimming. Something wasn’t right about all this. So she kept swimming. So she kept swimming. So she kept swimming.

            Chris woke from an uneasy sleep in the morning and found the rain had stopped while he had slept. He walked back to Isabelle’s house with clothes still damp. He finally spotted it on the horizon and despite everything he knew may have happened, he looked forward to a fire and some warm clothes. As he got close to the house, he heard a repetitive creaking sound. The squeal of metal on metal, over and over again.
            He looked around and finally walked behind the house. In the distance Isabelle sat facing away from him on a begrimed metal swingset, swinging back and forth. Next to it were an old car with no wheels and rusted paint, and a fallen tree that must have been 70 feet tall when it was still alive.
            Chris felt relieved that she was OK, and began to walk towards the swingset. As he got about 20 feet away, he heard her talk to herself.
            “But I don’t know how I feel about him!” She said, certainly not to Chris.
            Chris slowed his step and gently walked up to the massive log in between he and Isabelle and crouched behind it. She hadn’t talked to herself in the short time he had known her.
            “I just don’t know what to do, father. He said he didn’t want to be lonely. He didn’t seem false.”
            There was a pause like someone was talking. No one was.
            “He has feelings too, though. He said so.” Chris’s heart beat faster. Who was she talking to?
            “I understand he’s impure, but what should I do? He’ll surely come back to me.” Chris peered over the log and saw she was looking upwards.
            “I don’t want to do that, Father… I thought it was wrong to kill a man.” Chris started to feel scared. Could he make it back to the house without her noticing and leave without her hearing the doors? He began crawling through the wet sound to the house, listening still.
            Isabelle was sobbing now. “I just want Achilles. I just want my husband…”
            Chris froze and checked to make sure she was not watching him. She had gone crazy.
            “Please, if I do this for you... Can I be with him again?” She paused. “Please…
            “Thank you…” she sobbed. “Thank you!” Chris was nearly to the corner. He listened as she calmed herself with a deep breath.
“Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors; and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Chris ran for the corner of the house now, and heard Isabelle shout behind him. “Chris! Come back!”
            He threw open the front door, and ran up the stairs to the guest room where his backpack was. He ripped it open and began looking for the pistol, but he couldn’t find it.
            Isabelle came jumping up the stairs and blocked the door behind him.
            “I found this in your backpack this morning,” she said. Chris whirled around to see her holding his gun in both hands, pointing it at his feet.
            “Why did you take my gun?” Chris demanded, his chest pumping.
            “Why would you bring a gun into my house?” she retorted. “Were you planning on hurting me?” She lifted her eyebrows.
            “No! I take it with me everywhere! Who were you talking to out there?”
            “You wanted to hurt me. That’s what guns do, Christian.”
            “Who were you talking to out there?” He took a step towards her and pointed to the swingset out the window. She pointed the gun at his chest.
            “I was talking to the Lord.”
            “Isabelle, you were talking to yourself. There was no one there except you.”
            She laughed. “Of course you can’t see him. You’re not human.”
            “I heard everything you said. I am a human. Please, Isabelle, stop this.”
            “He says you’re a bastardization of humanity. You’re impure and unclean.”
            “Listen to yourself! You are hurt, Isabelle, I understand that, and-”
            “He says you cannot restart the human race, only create more deceivers like yourself. You’re-”
            “-I want to talk about what happened last night. I know you miss your husband but should you take that out on me?”
            “-a clone and a mockery of my husband and my father and my son and myself, and you need to be cleansed.” She was getting more upset now. Tears welled in her eyes and the gun began to shake in her hands.
            “Isabelle. Calm down, please. I’ll grab my bag and leave.”
            She was crying now and it looked like she was praying while looking at him. The gun pointed her onward. The trigger pled for a little squeeze.
            “I should have known,” she whispered. “I should have known.
            “Isabelle-” The gun thundered and Chris felt himself pushed back. The barrel flowered again and he stumbled backwards. Again it shot him and he thrust himself backwards as the fourth bullet impacted in his chest and he hit the window and it shattered and he fell backwards onto the roof of the porch and he rolled off into the sand below. Chris was dying.

            He woke up minutes later, maybe seconds later. He pushed himself off of the ground. Chris was blacking out every time he blinked. It was getting harder and harder to stay awake. He walked to the dead forest in front of the house. Down his front, blood had painted his shirt and his pants with a brown-black.
            Am I human
            He blindly climbed over logs, passing out in between. The blood now slickened his hands and his feet. The rains that had ceased last night began to fall again. Chris coughed up blood.
            Am I human
            He kept walking and crawling downhill and finally collapsed onto his bloody stomach. He woke up next to a pool of water. Chris saw a grey stag, majestic and pale, stride up to the water across from Chris. It studied him with an indifferent eye, a detachment from the troubles of this mortal man.
            “God,” he coughed. “God… is that you?”
            No answer.
            “Father… I’m s-sorry…” He sputtered up a sick black blood. The stag watched him closely.
            “I didn’t know…” Chris watched the raindrops drip off of the stag’s antlers. He looked back at the sky, the golden veins strangled by the black clouds casting their foul rain onto this angry world. The winds whipped between the mass graves of dead trees and carried droves of ash and sand. In the house on the hill, Isabelle sat missing her husband and the world she had known before she was relegated to this world. She cradled the gun that had killed, the gun that had seen the nightmarish greyhound and its massacre of dogs in the house Chris never marked on his map. Somewhere was Chris’s twin clone, dead or waiting for him to rescue her. Rescue from this wrathful world.
            The stag leaned down to gently sip some water out of the pool. Chris vomited a black blood in front of him.
            “God,” he said. The stag looked up at him. “Will I be in heaven now?”
            The stag paused. It turned and walked away.

No comments:

Post a Comment