Hope

14

Linny also spoke of the dogs. We readied the bunker and I gave order they were to stay in it at night rather than the house, and for her to always lock the twins in if she had to leave them for any reason. She helped me with a patronizing air. I knew she was going through the motions, that she was humoring me because she knew I wouldn’t go otherwise. But I would. I did know. I couldn’t make her do anything. I couldn’t make her love me, or want me. I couldn’t make her stay when times were good. I couldn’t be with her any more than I could be with Anna. I couldn’t be with anyone, in any reality. I was no more alone now than I’d been then. Perhaps less, because there was Hope.

She spoke of them in passing, with a dismissive air.

“Don’t underestimate them,” I said.

“Jesus, Jim,” she sighed. “Everything with you.”

“You’ve been out here long enough to know what fear and hunger can do. Take conscience away and you have them.”

“So fucking dramatic.” She climbed out of the bunker and into the bright yard, taking my flashlight with her, leaving me in the dark. She stuck her head back in and called to me. “Next you’ll be saying to watch out for the rats. Or the cockroaches.”

I wondered how she could be so flip and unaware. How could she not know that these smallest of creatures would reclaim the planet? Who was to say the next species of intelligent life wouldn’t evolve from one or all of them?

Humankind was no longer running the show.


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Hope

13

The first time I saw the dogs we were what I estimated to be about three miles from the house. We were preparing for my departure by stockpiling as much as possible in the bunker. It wasn’t much, but hopefully enough to keep them alive until I returned.

I wasn’t sure of the shape at first. It was a distant spot on the horizon. Or it seemed distant; it looked like a dog, but small. First one, then two. They hadn’t seen us yet. But I lifted Hope onto my back anyway, her arms around my shoulders and legs around my waist. I hushed her humming. “Papa?” she whispered. I heard the fear in her voice.

“It’s okay, honey. Let’s just be quiet a while.”

Her arms hugged me and affection put a smile on my face. She needed me, my little girl.

We drew closer more quickly than I anticipated, and I realized they weren’t far at all. They were just very small. Lap-dog size. A chill chased the momentary relief. Here I was picturing Kujo, or snarling packs of powerful wolf-like animals. These were a ragged bunch of ankle-biters. I had the vague hope as I skirted them, that they were too domesticated to be organized. Bred to sit on cushions and eat out of cans, surely their pack behavior was long gone.

One lifted its tiny head and pinned us with bulging, tearing eyes. I kept my own forward and walked on. The dog went back to its sniffing and yipping, and we passed otherwise unnoticed. I counted half a dozen that time.

Once out of sight of them and certain they weren’t trailing us, I set Hope down. She walked slightly ahead of me, studying the smooth stone that was ever-present in her small hand. She’d been clutching it when I found her, and to my knowledge, she never put it down.

We’d walked almost an hour before I saw them again. Seemed to be slightly more of them, but I thought they were the same ones. Another chill ran up my backbone and lifted the hairs under my collar. Were they tracking us? Anticipating? Traveling parellel before drawing back into our sight? I called to Hope. She was too far ahead.

As I got a closer look I realized this was a different pack. The alpha was a King Charles, I guessed. Probably once silken waves of white and chestnut with large eyes and a pushed in snout to give an endearing look… now, lips drawn back to reveal broken and bloodied teeth, missing patches of fur and the rest a hopelessly tangled matt of dingy gray.

I called Hope again. She was still studying the stone, still walking ahead. I lengthened my stride, keeping one eye on the spaniel. The rest seemed uninterested, but this one trotted parallel fifty yards off our left, and I watched it’s swimming eyes move between me and Hope. I forced myself not to run. Not to shout.

A distant, high pitched howl. Another chill. The dogs all stopped and looked in its direction, as did Hope. She looked back at me, fear registering on her face. I thought she was going to run for me, and I held up my hand. The Spaniel was still stalking her, now closer to her than I. I slowly raised my hand to her, caught her eyes. Why did it not acknowledge the howl? Hope stopped as I instructed, stood very still and fixed the spaniel with a stare. Her face was set, and she suddenly looked far older than those years I’d attributed her.

Before I could register what she was doing, she drew back her arm, the one holding the stone. Her aim was true, her pitch deceptively strong. The dog was maybe twenty feet from her, and I heard the stone thunk off its skull. A small, hollow sound, like an acorn off a whiskey barrel. It was shortly followed by a yelp, but time was moving slowly. I was running now. For Hope.

But there was no need.


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Hope

12

She’d said nothing more since mentioning the dead man. I spoke to her, asked questions, but she always smiled and if she said anything, it was just “Papa,” as though the next words from her lips might be telling me not to be silly, or to stop teasing. But she started humming.

At first it was jarring. Not because it was loud, or unpleasant, but just because it was. It was in a land of nothing. She did it in a disjointed, broken sort of way so they were notes without melody. As we walked there were fewer breaks between, and songs began to emerge, and they were those that I sometimes sang to her. I found myself humming Proud Mary with her. She would begin the tune to The Odd Couple and pause, and I would join in and show her the missing bridge, and she would follow.

So we walked and hummed. I checked the compass frequently, as it seemed for all my walking we should have come to the city – a city. Would I know when we had? Or was everything decimated to the point that one was no different from another? Perhaps all that steel and concrete had been reduced to dirt and ash; which would mean there was nothing left to salvage. No food, no clothing, no hair conditioner.

“We may have to move,” I told Linny late one night. She was preparing to go into the children’s room where she now slept every night. To keep an eye on James, she said. Hope slept in the middle of our bed. This had been the arrangement since the night of her nightmare.

Linny’s sunken eyes widened. “What do you mean?” I realized she looked old. Thirty-two and she looked fifty. I wondered if I looked as old.

“There’s nothing left out here, and I can’t walk far enough. I’ve yet to find whatever’s left of Newton, or Chesterfield, Sioux… At the pace I walk, I should have at least come up on one of them by now.”

“We can’t move, Jim.”

“I think we should stay together.” Part of me knew that if we split now, things would never be the same. We would officially become individuals, and individuals were inherently vulnerable. “And if we stay here we’ll starve. All of us. Not just James.”

“You’re talking about sacrificing your own flesh,” she accused.

“No. I’m talking about fucking saving it. You.”

Her jaw knotted. “You’re an ego-maniac. You can’t make those kinds of decisions on your own. There are others out there, and they’ll find us.”

“There’s no one out there,” I said.

“Where’d she come from then?” She flung her hand in Hope’s direction.

I felt an unreasoning anger rise towards her, towards her refusal to accept the child. I bit it back, bit my tongue until my eyes watered and I wanted to sneeze. “I don’t know. But there’s no one else out there. And we need supplies.”

She shook her head. “You go. Do what you must. Take her with you.”

“Linny-”

“No. I’m not leaving my house.”

“You’ll die in your house. What’s left of it. And so will they. Is that what you want?”

Her eyes fixed on something that wasn‘t there. “Better than out there. Take Sarah and Evan. I’ll keep the twins here.”

I didn’t think she understood what it meant, the likelihood that I’d return, the likelihood that she could keep the three of them alive for the length of time it would take. But I couldn’t force her. I couldn’t make her see the foolishness of it, when her heart and mind wanted to hold on to the tattered scraps of her memories.

“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” I said.

She didn’t look at me again. Only walked from the room without any acknowledgment stronger than silence.

Silence was the strongest.


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Hope

11

Nebraska held few landmarks before the blast. We navigated then by corn and wheat fields, by the occasional mail box, the direction of the power lines, the heavy smog to the east that indicated metropolitan life. The road I took to work each morning took me straight in, no twists, no hills. It was a hike, but I wanted my kids to grow up in the open, to understand that life wasn’t about always being entertained.

Ellen used to take the water glass Linny would fill for her, and sip it. There was a dirt wallow in the side yard, beneath a spreading old hickory that had been struck by lightning twice during our tenure, and she’d sit in the dirt and dig down through the poor top soil. She’d dig until she found something like clay. Then she’d add some water and work it tirelessly. Sometime an hour or more, until it felt just right in her little hands. Swiftly it would take the shape of something she saw in her mind. A rabbit or dog. A horse’s head. A figure. A tree.

When she was done she would look at it a moment and smile, and then she’d squish it up and start over.

She never needed to show, only to do.

I told Anna about her as we lay in Anna’s bed one afternoon, sweat drying on our skin.

“You should get her some clay,” she said in her sweet, soft voice. It had a thick undertone that I knew I’d put there.

“Clay? Like play-dough?”

She laughed. “No, silly. Real modeling clay. Like this,” she climbed out of bed, the late sun sliding down her back and over her bare ass like honey. She crossed to the drafting table against the far wall, moved aside a blank canvas, an armature, a coffee mug full of paint brushes and printed with “I woke up like this” and found a package. She came back, and I watched the sun spill over her heavy breasts and rounded belly. I couldn’t hide my lust for her, or my admiration. I couldn’t be with her, and I couldn’t be without her.

“Give her this.”

I opened the folded waxed paper to find six little flesh colored blocks. Small, but surprisingly heavy.

“It’s called polymer clay. Won’t make a mess, and she can sculpt it over and over, or she can make something and bake it in the oven to cure it.” Her green eyes sparked. “You know, make it hard.”
The clay was forgotten when I reached up and clasped the back of her neck beneath a curtain of red hair, and pulled her mouth hard against mine. Because that was what Anna did to me.

Those kinds of memories never faded. They lived like bee stings under the skin, and as unpleasant the knowledge it was gone was the sweetness of what had been.

I tapped the compass and searched for East. There was no sun, no bright spot through the ash cloud, or whatever it was that blanketed us. The hickory tree was gone. And that side of the house was gone, as well.

Finally satisfied I was headed in the right direction, I set off, Hope following behind.


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Hope

10

I took Hope to bed with me for that night. Linny stayed with James. I knew we should be comforting one another in this, I knew from the beginning of the nightmare we should have been.

When the sirens went off that cool summer evening we thought it was a tornado. The skies were overcast and all was still except for some distant rumbling; but that is how tornados work. They drop like bombs, spin three minutes of wanton destruction, and suck back up into the belly of the sky.

I recalled grabbing Ellen and the twins, and shouting for Linny. But she was ahead of me, dragging Sarah and Evan across the backyard toward the bunker. She had the photo album tucked beneath one arm. She always grabbed the photo album.

I grabbed my phone. I sent a text, Tornado, love you, as I ran to pick up the boys. It never sent. The towers were already blocked, or down. We were supposed to meet within the hour, and it was my explanation for the inevitability of standing her up.

Hope sighed and twisted in my embrace. Her hair, finally dry again, tickled my lips and nose. She smelled warm, like I remembered healthy soil smelling. Clean and organic. “Papa?” She whispered.

“I’m here, baby girl. Right here. It was just a bad dream.”

“Papa.”

“Yes. Papa’s here. You’re safe.”

“Is he gone?” she said, clear as day.

My heart froze in my chest at the sound of her voice, at the clear enunciation, hardly the speech of a child muted by fear. I pushed her back to look in her face, her head resting on Linny’s pillow. “You can speak,” I whispered.

She stared at me. There were spots of color on her cheeks that showed even in the dimness.

“Who did you see?”

“The man.”

My blood ran cold. Was someone here? In the house?

“There’s no man here, honey.” I willed it to be true.

“The dead man, Papa.”

“I don’t understand.”

She moved back into my embrace and sighed.

After her breath told me she was sleeping, I slid carefully from the bed. I picked up the revolver from the table by the bed and walked carefully into the hall. I let my eyes adjust; dawn wasn’t far now. I moved down the hall and checked the bedroom where the rest of my family now slept.

The house was clear. Peaceful, even. My pulse gradually returned to normal, calmed by the weight of the pistol in my hand and the sounds of children sleeping… I sank to the floor in the hall, my back against the wall of the room where my Hope slept. I could feel her. I could see the stairs.

I waited for dawn with the revolver on my knee.


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Hope

9

Hope was screaming. The panic in her voice gripped and pulled me out of bed, out of darkness and toward her. In spite of our solitude the instinct was to keep quiet and not draw attention. I stumbled over something soft in the doorway of their bedroom, and went to my knees, using my hands to feel. I realized it was a small body. Hope kept screaming from somewhere in the dark. I heard Sarah’s voice, hushed, whispering Dad over and over.

I gathered up the body; it felt like James. Thin and hollow like a bird. I heard Linny coming, saw with relief she’d gotten the lantern lit. She set it on the floor and took the boy from me, and I went to Hope. She was inconsolable as Sarah tried to touch her. I reached for her, and she shrank back against the wall, still shrieking. Linny was yelling now too, desperate. “Make her stop, Jim!”

The unseen dangers weighed on us. Who was to hear? What? But for all we knew silence was the only reason we were left.

I grabbed Hope and pulled her close, muffling her against my t-shirt. She bowed her back and fought but I forced her. She smelled of sweat and fear. But she gradually quieted.

When I could be heard without raising my voice, I looked over my shoulder at Linny. “Is he okay?”

Sarah sat on one side of me, eyes like tar pits in her pale face. The other two boys huddled on the cot against the opposite wall.

“He’s hot.”

I looked at Sarah. “Do you know what happened?”

She shook her head. Hope was finally quiet, heavy sobs shaking her body. Her hands clutched at my shirt. I tried to push her back, look at her, but she clung tighter. I wrapped my arms around her, that now-familiar comfort washing over me.

Linny carried James back to the boys’ cot. She pulled up his shirt and shone the lantern on his pale, concave chest. “Rash,” was all she said.

“On his back?”

She gingerly turned him over. “Yes.”

Just like Ellen. Linny began to cry.


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Hope

8

James was sick. Of the twins he’d always been the frailer. Eli was robust, warm color in his pudgy cheeks, a spark of mischief in his eyes. James was born after his brother by almost three hours, and so silent that his mother and I briefly lost hope.

His first cry was not the fighting gasp for life of his brother, but a thin and plaintive wail that clawed at my soul. It was the kind of cry that made me question myself as a father, as a man, wonder at my selfishness for bringing more life to suffer humanity’s misery.

I’d tried to describe it to Linny later. She didn’t understand. But there was a lot about me Linny didn’t understand and never cared to.

As the two boys grew, even though they were identical, Eli surpassed his brother in height and weight and in basic skills, learning to crawl first, then to walk, run, and even finding his first words much in advance of James. Linny worried. She took them to doctors and specialists and healers. For once they all agreed. The child was below his growth percentile and likely always would be. But he was still within the norm. There was nothing physically wrong with him; they all called it a ‘failure to thrive.’ My grandmother, had she been living to meet him, would have called him poorly. She’d have also pointed out that I myself was a poorly child and no one put much hope in my thriving, either. Yet here I was. Quite possibly one of the last men on earth, barring my own sons.

“He needs a doctor,” Linny said desperately, her voice barely above a whisper.

I just looked at her.

Her dark eyes raked my face, and left me feeling exposed and somehow ashamed.

“What do you want me to do? I brought back all the medicine I can find. Isn’t there something here you can give him?”

Her arms were crossed tightly over what had once been a full chest. It struck me how thin she’d gotten. I had loved sinking into her soft curves. They were gone. “I don’t know what to give him, for fuck’s sake. What if I make it worse?”

He was headed for worse regardless. We both knew it. “I don’t know what you want from me. I’m not a doctor.”

“His fever is just getting higher.”

I handed her a bottle. “This will bring it down. It’s even grape flavored. And these,” I produced a bottle of penicillin tablets. “Half at a time. It can’t hurt him. We can hope it’s just an infection of some sort.” And not radiation poisoning I refrained from adding.

She nodded. There was something in her face, something that wanted to trust me but didn’t.

“It’s the best I can do, Linny,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

I wished she would move into my arms like she’d done so many times, so long ago. That she’d put her ear against my chest, and the world would slow for a moment. Everything felt right and possible when she was there.

She took the bottles and left the room.


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Hope

7

I had never dreamed in color before now. When I did dream, they were dreams filled with anxiety and involving colleagues, accounts due, my GP. But they ran through my unconscious mind like snippets of noir films, macros of a larger picture so terrible I was never permitted to see the whole thing.

Those dreams were in juxtaposition to what was a very comfortable, very colorful life. When I brought them up in therapy my shrink tapped his chin with his Cross pen and said, you’re very young to be having dreams that speak so loudly of mortality. And he would ask the next question.

Now I dreamed in color. Living color. Such living, screaming, swirling color the assault on my senses often woke me before anything happened inside the dream.

Sometimes when I dreamed this way I wasn’t even sleeping.

The human body – the primitive human body that is – is equipped with an auto pilot. Not the sleep walking cruise control of the non-primitive, safely civilized and socialized human. I clearly recalled instances in my previous over-wrought and over-worked existence of coming to somewhere and having no idea how I got there. Having driven my car, or taken three buses to arrive at my destination. Having even walked.

That state was one of muscle memory and luck. Had I been hunted I’d certainly have been caught and killed. We humans also go with the flow. It’s a natural herd behavior. We don’t need thought and wit to propel us within the relative safety of a group. Stop when they stop. Go when they go. We move through life in these unthinking mobs, like a school of fish or a herd of wildebeest.

Rewind… or fast forward, as the case may be… to primitive man. No one to rely on but oneself, and no learned reactions in this new world. A new evolution that hadn’t yet begun. I moved through it with a feeling of being utterly alone yet under constant scrutiny. The auto pilot here was one of waking unconsciousness. It was living in a memory while traversing bleakness. Otherwise the bleak might win.

I’d seen no other living person until coming upon Hope crouched on a crumbled curb whose once yellow paint was as colorless as everything else. I’d seen plenty of dead. And not only those caught in the path of terror. I saw a man hanging out a second story window with a bed sheet around his neck. I saw the bodies of a mother and a child, the child’s throat cut expertly and the mother’s wrists open from elbow to palm. I saw an elderly person, gender unknown, with no back to their skull and the barrel of the shotgun still resting on the bare lower gum. And I understood.

On this primitive auto pilot I moved through the landscape without seeing the desolation. The slightest sound or movement brought me back, though. Out of my waking dreams where my mind remembered a world my body didn’t mind moving through.


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Hope

6

I saw Sarah sitting with Hope outside the entrance to the backyard bunker. The thick steel door stood open, and the two of them sat with a space of dirt between them. Sarah drew something with a stick and said something to Hope I couldn’t hear.

Hope smiled at her. It wasn’t my imagination.

I watched them for a moment, watched Hope draw something and Sarah smile and nod her approval. The only color in the landscape was Hope’s yellow hair. I called Sarah over.

“Yes, sir?” Sir? They’d never been so respectful before. I was fortunate if every word I’d said back then didn’t get an eye roll and a sigh. Not now. Everything was different.

“Mom says you’ve been looking after the little ones on your own. That she’s been going out to gather.”

Sarah nodded. Her eyes were brown like mine. “Am I in trouble? Is Mom?”

I reached out and tugged her dark ponytail and smiled. “Of course not, Monkey! Why would you think that?”

She lowered her eyes and shook her head.

“Hey.” I tilted her chin up. “What is it?”

It took a moment, but she finally said, “You’re mad a lot.”

I sat down heavily on the bottom step of the deck. “But not at you, Sarah. You know that, right?”

She nodded but it was unconvincing. “I know.”

I looked out at Hope still drawing in the dirt. “You used to have that art set, with all the markers and pencils and paints. So many colors. Now you’re drawing in the dirt.”

“It’s okay, Dad.”

I smiled up at her. It felt forced. “No. It’s not. But it’s how it is.”

She smiled back. “We don’t need all that stuff. It’s not what’s important.”

I marveled at the difference in her. It was both sobering and impressive. I wondered if all children adjusted as quickly as my Sarah. “No. That we’re together is important.”

A cloud passed over her face.

“Listen. I just wanted to talk to you, make sure you’re okay taking care of the boys while we’re out. Do you feel scared? Do they listen to you?”

She dug her toe in the dirt. I heard a crow far off in the distance. It sounded like rain, but it hadn’t rained in months.

“Be honest with me, Monkey.”

“Yes. I mean, sometimes.”

“Sometimes what?”

“Sometimes it’s scary. But it’s the same when you and Mom are here.”

That crack in my chest deepened just a little.

“Eli is a brat sometimes. But Evan’s big enough to help.”

“Will you tell me if they give you trouble?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s my girl.” I pulled her into a bear hug. “You’re very brave, you know that?”

“But I’m scared all the time!”

“Me too. So is your mom. But being brave doesn’t mean we don’t feel fear.”

She sat back and looked at me like she didn’t believe me. “Then what is it?”

“It’s carrying on through the fear. Doing what we have to do.”

She appeared to swallow and digest that.

“What do you think of Hope?”

Such a strange thing, to see the lines of contemplation on a nine-year-old face. “She loves you, Dad.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. So I buried my bearded jaw into her neck until she fought and giggled and made her escape, back to Hope, back to their dirt imaginings.


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