You would think at some point the stench would fade into the background of this reality. Like the howl of feral dogs, the screech of air sirens, the sight of limbs apart from their persons. How long had it been now? Not very, but there was no sun any longer. Just a weak and filtered light that was slightly stronger for half the day. I’d kept track for a little while thanks to a watch with a calendar on it; it kept working for three and a half months after all the electronics fried. Linny had always scolded me for wearing an analog watch when there was a perfectly good clock on my cell phone.
The stench never lessened. If anything it strengthened, carried in fresh on the occasional gales that blew through. I took cover when I heard the train coming. They were always straight-line winds.They could pass quickly, or last for hours. They leveled the landscape, driven by some unseen force that I suspected was entirely man-made.
A mixture of heavy metal and vomit, a sulphuric aroma that singed the mucous membranes. Was it radiation? I suspected that, as well. Radiation and its accompanying death and living rot. Because if you didn’t die, you rotted. From the inside. One couldn’t be certain if the constant nausea was a result of the odor or poisoning. It didn’t matter. Days were mercifully numbered.
It was all supposition. It happened so fast, the airwaves were silenced before any word got out. How little information the Information Age had to offer when it finally fucking mattered. One day watching CNN from the cross trainer, worried about Syria, about ISIS, about gluten and fascism and socialism and GMO’s… and a million other things we didn’t know would never have the time to kill us.
Hope clung to my hand when she wasn’t hanging on my back like a spider monkey. The others stayed with Linny, wanted nothing to do with me or her. They would only slow us down. As did Hope. But Hope wanted only me. The only word she ever spoke was papa.
I sang to her softly as we walked. Proud Mary. Stairway to Heaven, Beautiful Noise, Amazing Grace, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the theme from The Odd Couple; whatever came into my head. My eyes always moving over the charred and featureless landscape, always looking for a feature, something recognizable, something hopeful.
Her name wasn’t Hope. Linny asked how I knew, and I said I didn’t. I only knew what I felt when I saw her. “Well one day,” she said, “She’ll speak up and call you a fool for calling her by the wrong name.”
Was Linny jealous? The truth was that before the day that changed everything forever, we were headed into divorce. The papers were on my desk, awaiting my mark. Why was it so hard to dissolve what was barely there? I’d been looking at them for days, and going home at night to eat my dinner alone and sleep on the couch.
Those papers disintegrated with everything else that evening. It turns out that when your survival is at stake, when your children are at stake, a union becomes a precious thing.