The phrase they kept using was “mortality over ninety per cent.” Then they said it was more. It didn’t matter. It was airborne and it killed you. Peter was just waiting to die.
Peter was in Providence working as a tax attorney. He’d been there two years and still didn’t really know anybody. He started off working sixty hours a week so he didn’t have a lot of time for friends. Now he was working ninety, straight through the weekend. He didn’t have to, but he didn’t really have anything else to do. Six more years and he would sure as shit make partner.
Things got messy fast. They closed the highways. Too many sick people got behind the wheel. They closed the roads. There was nobody to open the stores. Peter called his parents a lot for a few days, then they started getting sick and he could’t do it anymore. Then the power went off.
He had some great Scotch in his apartment, birthday Scotch and Christmas Scotch that he hadn’t had time to drink. He drank it. Pretty good few days, drunk on the couch, wishing the TV worked, drinking until he didn’t care anymore. Didn’t die. When he ran out of booze he was starving, he went outside and there there was nobody. No noise, no movement. He walked three blocks to the 7-11 and saw two bodies on the street.
A car had smashed into one of the gas pumps. Couldn’t have been going very fast. Peter looked in and there was a dead guy in the front. He looked pretty bad. Peter threw up. Then he opened the door and pulled the guy out and it smelled terrible, he threw up liquor on the hood of the car and it burned his throat. He got into the car, backed it out a bit and turned around, then gunned it in reverse right into the 7-11.
The car went right through the glass. He was waiting to feel some impact and it didn’t happen. He slammed on the breaks. He kept going into the store and got bumped around a bit. He put it in drive and drove out again and left the car idling next to the pumps. Got out and took a minute to get his breath. Went inside.
No alarms went off. No lights on inside, no hum of the fridges. The car had knocked over a shelf of magazines, a rack of phone cards. He got away from the broken glass and walked around the counter and grabbed a bunch of thin plastic bags. Took all the granola bars and protein bars they had, and a few bars of chocolate, and the organic beef jerky they kept next to the register. Put it in the car and drove it home. Both rear tires had picked up glass and gone flat but it didn’t really matter. He left the parked in the middle of the street. Brought the stuff upstairs, one of the bags broke and he had to go back for what had spilled. Then he hung out for a few days and waited to see if he died.
He didn’t die.
He went through his building and knocked on every door. No answer. Had to check. He went outside and walked for an hour and didn’t see anyone, no cars moving, no lights. Some dogs on the street, he stayed away from them. He went back to the 7-11 but nothing had moved, the corpse was still on the ground and had flies on it, he kept his lunch down and stayed away from it. Got some water. Got some iced tea.
He went for a long walk, three miles to downtown. Didn’t see anyone alive. Saw a bunch of dead people. Crashed cars. Broken things.
Saw a bunch of big white tents set up next to the Statehouse. Ambulances all around, some had their back doors open, and police cars, and two things that looked like tanks. He couldn’t quite believe that they were tanks. He went closer but it smelled bad when he was still far away. There wasn’t any wind to go up and so he just stayed away.
He went over to the highway. The roads were barricaded. There was another tank. He walked up to the I-95 cloverleaf, took the long walk up the onramp, weird feeling not being in a car. It was early afternoon in April, sky was a little cloudy, not a single car on the highway, nothing in the sky. He was alone.
He walked over to the Superman building, the tallest in PVD. It was locked. No cars on the street, nothing. There was a bike locked to a parking meter, he pulled the quick release on the seat tube and took it out. Tried to smash in the window but it hardly dented. Bank of America must have made it riot-proof.
There was a window-cleaning scaffolding about fifteen feet up. He walked all the way around the building. No ladder. So he went back to the tent city and held his nose and found an ambulance with the back open. Nobody in the back. No keys in it either. He walked through a makeshift hospital that was full of corpses, dead people on stretchers, a dead doctor in a chair, people on the ground, children. He found guys in EMT uniforms who’d blown their brains out with police-issue Glocks. He took a pistol, and their keys. They worked on the fourth ambulance he tried.
He drove to the Superman building. Backed up right to the scaffolding, rear wheels on the curb. Got out and climbed onto the hood, then the cab, then the roof. Pulled himself up to the scaffolding and was about to smash a pane of a lattice window, cleared the glass out of the frame as best he could, and wriggled through. Ripped his coat a bunch but didn’t draw blood.
No lights inside made for a very dark place. He used the tiny light on his keychain to get downstairs and opened the front door, propped it open with his wallet. Got a big Mag-Lite from the ambulance and went into the building. Went to the stairwell and climbed 26 floors. Peter wasn’t in very good shape and he had to stop for breath a few times. Not a bad workout. Better than lying on a couch and drinking Scotch.
He got to the observation deck. The sun was heading for the horizon. Peter stayed up there for two hours and watched a pretty good sunset. Didn’t see anything moving but some waves on the harbor. The city was dead.
He thought about spending the night to watch the sunrise, but he didn’t have any food and wasn’t sure if he could just sleep on the floor. So he went back down the stairs and out to the ambulance. Drove back to his apartment. Took him a while because a lot of the streets were blocked off, by roadblocks or by cars.
He was almost out of gas. He went to his apartment and grabbed some food and then drove to three different gas stations, but none of the pumps worked. So he ditched the ambulance next to the other car he’d taken, had a Scotch, and went to bed.
He spent the next morning in bed just thinking. So the world was fucked. He probably wasn’t the only person alive but he didn’t have anything to base that on, he sure didn’t see anyone. He didn’t have anything he needed to do in the universe. And he was getting sick of granola bars.
So he could just hang out in his apartment forever. That was already getting boring. And he didn’t want to live in a hot city apartment all summer, and he probably couldn’t live it in through a winter. And he couldn’t really cook anything. Couldn’t grow anything, guess he’d have to do that soon.
So maybe he was the only person in the world but it sure looked like he was. So he could do what he wanted. So long as he could do it alone. He could steal a boat and sail to the Bahamas. Guess it wasn’t really stealing now. He could break into the evidence room at the Brown campus police station and do a really very large amount of drugs. He could move into the White House. He could hike the Appalachian Trail. He could take up painting and be the best painter in the world. He could find a fiddle and burn down the world.
He could. But there wasn’t anyone to share it with. No one to talk to. And if he got hurt he was fucking dead. Probably not worth a bear attack on some mountain somewhere, or a broken ankle and a shallow grave. And it would be winter before he knew it. And he’d still run out of food.
What he should do is get somewhere safe, somewhere where he could plant a garden or try to find some animals, make a real go of it, try to stay alive. Not just scavenge. Stay alive.
Where should he go? A farm somewhere. Somewhere far enough away from things that he wouldn’t worry about a lightning strike burning down the entire neighborhood. Somewhere close enough to things that he could go scavenge for parts and whatever. Near a hospital. Near a Wal-Mart and a Home Depot all his own. Someplace warm. Someplace with mild winters so he wouldn’t have to worry about chopping wood. Someplace with mild summers so he wouldn’t want to die for half the year. Somewhere without hurricanes. Or volcanoes or anything like that. Somewhere with enough water for him to grow things.
New England had winters. Most of the country had winters. The whole East and Gulf had hurricanes. Hawai’i did too, even if he could get there. No, the answer was that California sun. Except not the south part which was a desert. Or the middle part which was basically the same thing but colder. The north part of California, up through Oregon, that was a very good place not to die.
Peter didn’t have a map anywhere in his apartment. There was an elementary school about a mile away. It was rainy so he drove over in the ambulance. Stopped at a hardware store on the way, smashed his way in with a tire iron and grabbed a sledgehammer. Got into the school pretty quick. The alarm went off for about three seconds and then died. Still nearly gave him a heart attack.
He smacked the doorknobs off five doors before he found a social studies classroom with a map. So from San Francisco to Astoria Oregon, somewhere in there. That was about six hundred miles of coast. He probably needed about a quarter acre.
He found the school library. Something smelled bad, he hoped it wasn’t a kid. Never found out. Found an old little book about The Weather, looked like it was All 60s All The Time for the whole northern coast. Looked like it rained the most around Eureka. With the drought on, he should probably go there.
How would he get there? He could drive. Well, no, not really. No gas. And he doubted that he could get the car through all the roadblocks and smashed cars and dead cities. A motorcycle might be enough. Still needed gas. Maybe he should just stay on the East Coast and learn how to chop firewood all summer long.
Or he could bike. People bike across the country every year. It takes a month or two. He had all the time in the world. It was a cool thing to do. If he was the last person on earth than he didn’t really have to worry about much, he could do cool things for the sake of it. And along the way, who knows, maybe he’d find some people.
Peter found a phone book in the school office. He hadn’t used one in a decade. He looked up bike shops. Found a bunch. Ripped out the page and went driving.
He had trouble getting to one of them so he went to another. A big bike store with beautiful displays in the windows. He smashed his way in. There was a tiny little kiosk of brightly-colored books. One was about bike touring. He sat outside in the springtime sun and read it cover to cover.
It had a packlist. He acquired it.
He found a long, lean titanium touring bike with racks mounted fore and aft. Cost as much as his first car. Or rather, three times as much. It would do.
He put on big waterproof panniers, front and back, either side. Added a handlebar bag and a trunk bag too. Grabbed a bike multitool, and a frame pump, two spare tires and a bunch of spare tubes. A little pocket-sized book about bike repair. A spare chain, some chain-grease. A smartwool jersey. And some lights. On second thought only front-facing lights. There’d be nobody coming up on him from behind.
There were some touring maps printed by a bike nonprofit. Nice fold-out laminated things. The big cross-country routes seemed to start in Maine or Virginia. Maine was closer. Looked like Peter’d have to ride north over a hundred miles in order to pick up the trail. He was about to bike three thousand miles. Time to stop being fazed by distance.
He’d need camping gear. He went outside and got on his bike. Took him a while to figure out the shifting. Got the hang of it. Fought the urge to stop at stop signs. He knew where the camping supply store was, he drove by it on his way to work. He pulled the sledge out of his trailer and made himself an entrance.
He could afford to take the best. He got the best multitool, the best ultralight cook set, the best little one-person tent, a nine hundred dollar sleeping bag that weighed about as much as a sweatshirt. He got a compass from Finland and binoculars from Switzerland and a water filter from a tech startup in Seattle. He added a raincoat and rain pants and a pair of lightweight hiking-boots to go with his cycling shoes. And it all weighed less than the flannel sleeping bag he’d had as a fucking Cub Scout.
He threw in some fuel for a stove, a bunch of instant camping meals, and four three-liter water bladders. Had to take it all out and pack it proper to get it to fit. Forgot that his handlebar bag was still empty. And his trunk bag. Ah well. Sometimes extra space is a great thing to pack.
He got on the bike and almost fell over. Downshifted to shit and had still broken sweat by the time he’d gone a mile. This was going to be a workout. Well, he needed a workout.
He went home and was going to take it all upstairs and then realized, why bother. He spread it all out on the street and repacked it tight. Plenty of room left. Didn’t want to add any weight. Not when he’d already be carrying water and worrying about when he’d find more.
He left the panniers on the street and rode back to the 7-11. Got some bug spray and sunscreen. Got a hi-tech lighter with a pot leaf on it. Then he went up to his apartment and looked for what he wanted to bring with him. What he couldn’t get on the other coast. What was worth pushing across the entire country.
He settled on a few photographs. That was really it. He had some stuff with sentimental value but the world had just died. So he climbed into a bottle of Scotch and in the morning he had a nice breakfast of dry cereal and bottled tea. Stretched, got dressed, and rode out.
He had trouble getting out of Providence. 146 was blocked off and he had to turn around. Backtracking sucks when you have to pedal every foot. He took 7 through the country and across into Massachusetts. Stopped for lunch and was exhausted. So he hung out for two hours and just watched the clouds go by.
Rode into a little town called Douglas. Found a gas station that had been sacked to shit. Nobody’d taken the little laminated maps. He plotted his route. Rode slow about two more hours and then stopped, ravenous, and ate another huge meal. Forced himself to ride a bit and got his second wind. Kept riding until almost dark. Pitched a tent and slept like the dead.
Woke up and wished he was dead. Sore as hell and as thirsty as he’d ever been in his life. Drank two liters of water. Biked through a terrible headache until he came to a small town. Pulled out his sledge and smashed a vending machine open. Filled up on water. Headed north.
Crossed into New Hampshire and then Vermont. The world felt small. Then he hit the hills. He made it to Brattleboro and was totally exhausted. Realized he had aimed for a city because his instincts were tuned to a dead world. Biked two miles out of town and pitched his tent near a pen full of pigs. In the morning he opened the gate for them and then rode off.
It took him a day just to go over the Green Mountains. He got off and walked five times. Got off and just stopped even more. When he got to the top he lay on his ass on the road until he realized that it was all downhill from there. Coasted into Bennington. Lay down on the sidewalk and woke up under the stars.
There were deer on the streets. Not the far away from him, wandering around. He rode around town a bit, just stretching his legs, and found a hardware store. He sledged his way in and traded his sledgehammer for a hammer-headed demo bar. Shaved eight pounds off his kit weight, and he could tell.
He pitched his tent and tried to sleep. Couldn’t sleep. Too hungry. He tried to fight through it. Couldn’t. Eventually he made some food. That left him too jazzed to eat. He broke camp and packed his bags and leaned his bike against a building and he sat on the sidewalk and leaned against his bike. Sat like that for two hours until dawn broke. Then he got on his bike and rode off.
He crossed New York State without trouble. Stayed to the country roads. World didn’t look much different, apocalypse or no. He veered off south to avoid Buffalo, then Cleveland. Didn’t see a soul. Saw a lot of dogs out on the street.
It was May. He was on the plains. The towns got farther and farther between. He’d break into farmhouses looking for food and almost always found it in supply. He carried less and less. He streamlined his equipment. He realized he hated his sleeping bag and he went into Madison to get a better one. Tried out two dozen on the floor of a sporting-goods store. Took the one he liked the best. It made his life better.
It was June in Deadwood. The weather had been rough but he didn’t feel like stopping. There wasn’t anything to do when he wasn’t riding. He took a big detour through Yellowstone and it was everything he imagined it would be. Better, too, because he was the only one there.
He got on 84 and rode on the highway. Stopped in Boise to get clothing that fit him better. He’d lost some weight and he felt really good.
Portland was ablaze from miles away. No one to put out the fire. He broke into cars until he found a gazeteer in a trunk, the car alarms were the first man-made noise he’d heard in weeks. Went around the city. Made it to Astoria bay.
It was colder in Astoria in July than it had been in Providence in April. So he got on 101 and burned straight south, riding his heart out, following the sea.
He was looking for a place to call home. Anywhere around here would do. Mild summers. No winters at all. Sunlight and good soil. Cities nearby.
He rode up and down for half a month before he found it. A little island called Cock Robin, in the middle of the river, two miles from the sea. Connected to the mainland with a sturdy one-lane bridge. A square mile of land ringed by trees. One big farmhouse in the middle. Fresh water flowing to either side.
He called out “Hello” all around the house. No one answered. He had to be sure. Then he opened the door – it wasn’t even locked – and looked around.
Smelled bad. Nothing new there. Found a dead dog on the floor and two dead people on mattresses. Wanted to open the window but didn’t want critters coming in. Found a shovel and got rid of the dog, at least.
Didn’t dare open the fridge. Found some kitchen twine and tied the door shut just to be sure. Got rid of some moldy loaves of bread. Took out the trash. Took out the recycling. Realized he couldn’t just leave it at the curb. Put it in his panniers and biked to the next house, left it there.
Lovely house. Two stories, looked like it was in good shape. Little garden out back that needed a weeding. Birds in the trees.
He checked out the barn. A dozen dead cows, absolutely awful. So he got the bodies out and the mattresses and put them in the barn. And then half furniture and all the crap from the previous owners. Poured on some rubbing alcohol, then thought better of it and waited until night-time. Drank a bottle of their crappy wine and lit a match and watched the barn burn.
The next day he went out into town. The streets were pretty bad. He went from house to house until he saw one with a big truck in the driveway. Went in and got the keys from a bowl next to the door. Had to put in a fresh battery, not much fun riding with that on your bike. Then spent the day driving around Eureka and nudging or towing cars out of the street. Got to be pretty good at it. Got low on gas. Got a hose and siphoned a few cars dry. Filled the truck right up. Easy enough.
He found a mattress store. Got himself a goddam ten thousand dollar mattress. Took a rich leather love seat from a chocolate shop’s foyer and a brushed aluminum executive’s chair from behind a lawyer’s desk. Got some bottled water from a dead fridge in a car dealership’s waiting-room. Got a pair of fifty-pound flower sacks from a bakery. The next day he went to an appliance store and got himself a bread-maker.
He had an interesting decision here. He could rough it or he could roll. If he roughed it he would try to be self-sufficient and eschew the things that he could scavenge. This was probably a much better long-term solution. If he was still alive in fifty years most everything around him would have rotted or rusted. Put it another way: there would no longer be any bread-makers. On the other hand, it seems silly to revert to barbarism when there was so much free for the taking. He could always be forced to adapt to a more natural life as it became necessary – while doing everything he could to retain the fruits of civilization.
So he brought home the breadmaker. And a little generator from the Wal-Mart in town. The thing could easily power the lightbulbs in his house, and a big fridge and freezer, and a stove too. Then he found a phone book and found a solar supply company about ten miles outside of town. Set up a bunch of solar panels on the lawn next to his house, and had about ten times the power he’d ever need.
He had an interesting idea. Drove around town in his truck until he found a Tesla. Didn’t take that long. This was northern California. Drove it home and charged it off his solar panels. The thing had a three hundred mile range and wouldn’t use a drop of gas.
Then he biked around town and found four more electric cars. Drove them back to his house and juiced them up. Would they all still work in fifty years? He thought so, if he maintained them. If he learned how to maintain them. He would try.
He found a tanker truck near the marina. Brimmed full of diesel. Three thousand gallons of burnable fuel. Didn’t bring it onto his island, left it on the mainland, nice and cautious. Still good to know that it was there.
He brought over a bunch more solar panels. Didn’t set them up. Just left them there in case the others went dead. He even set up a home theater system. Dragged over a ninety-inch OLED, tower speakers, woofer and tweeter. Filled two bookshelves with Blue-Rays. Couldn’t quite bring himself to turn the TV on. Other people, other voices… they’d just make him feel alone. Whereas so far he felt like the king of the world.
He raided a kitchen supply store. Set up his kitchen like a master chef or at least a very rich one. Went to a bookstore and set himself up with all the books that were ever going to be written. Got some books on farming and started to read. Got some book on greenhouses and set up four, right in a row.
He found a gun store. Got a lot of guns. And a whole lot of ammo. No real reason to, but it couldn’t hurt. Then he realized they could in fact hurt and he got a lot of protective gear and a good long book on firearm safety and use. Then he spent the rest of the day having fun with guns.
He found a telescope and set it up in his backyard. Wasn’t a lot of light pollution anymore. Got a big fancy camera and all sorts of lenses and a professional printer from a store downtown. Set it up in his basement. Ink wouldn’t last forever but it would last for a while. Then, hell, he could move to film and make a darkroom, if he wanted.
He set up a computer. Strangest thing to turn it on. No internet, of course. But he did assemble a pile of computer games in case he got the urge. Then he put them in a trunk because he didn’t want to live the last life on earth playing video games.
He got a few more bicycles. Started to ride just for fun. On a sleek carbon Pinarello. On a full suspension MTB. He took to carrying around a camera. Documenting the dead city. Documenting his little life. Filled up whole SD cards with photos. Went to the camera store and took a few hundred more.
At a store in town he found a robot garden, something he’d never heard of. Apparently they were a Thing. He mulched a ten-by-ten plot behind his house and lay steel rails above and below it. There was an arch between the rails that could move back and forth. Up there was a camera and a watering can and a little trowel. It would water them when they needed, destroy weeds that weren’t supposed to be there, and let you know when things were ready to harvest. Peter set up four of these little gardens. At which point he realized he might not quite be roughing it anymore.
He needed water. He was five hundred yards away from the river. He got a bunch of pipe and a pump. Worked well enough. Then he built a little water tower. Took him weeks and weeks of reading and planning and working. Then several more weeks figuring out a better way to get water from the river. Until he had good shielded intake valves, inline purification, automatic backflushing, and a house with running water.
He installed a dishwasher.
There were farms around the outskirts of town. It took him a long time before he found one that had any animals left alive. He brought home twenty sheep bleating loudly in the back of a horse-trailer. Drove all around and found three dozen more, and a pair of horses, and a couple of skinny little cows. Couldn’t find a bull to breed the cows, and didn’t think of what he could do with the horses. But he figured there were enough sheep that they might last a while. At least until they got inbred.
He read a book about slaughtering sheep. He slaughtered a sheep. Very tasty. He froze the other thirty pounds of meat and ate it for two months. Not bad.
His garden started to yield. This was California, it would never stop. He’d soon have more food than he could eat. He was okay with that.
He set up a dozen little pre-fab sheds and used them for storage. One was full of spices. Things he couldn’t grow himself, like cinnamon and clove, vanilla and orange oil. One was for household goods, cleaners and glues and paints. One was for stuff from the pharmacy. Couldn’t hurt to have that nearby.
One he filled entirely with the best Scotch from all the liquor stores. Threw in some Napoleon brandy just because he could. He could take drink a day for the rest of his life without having to go to mid-shelf. The next two sheds were full of wine, the kind of wine that they kept in glass cases in the stores. Some of the bottles would age for fifty years. Some wouldn’t. He’d drink those first.
He broke his way into a jewelry store and got himself a goddam Rolex. He didn’t bother setting it. There was no time anymore.
He found a tree nursery. The trees were all dead. He found a hippie store that sold all kinds of seeds and he planted trees that would take twenty years to bear fruit. He planted a lot of them. In two decades he’d have orchards. How about that.
He lined the kitchen with recipe books. Did a lot of cooking. Cooking for one wasn’t all that much fun. He’d go for a long bike ride and work up an appetite and then it was worth it. Had to fight the urge to take pictures of his meals.
He started biking more. Got a weight machine, surprised himself by using it. Not a girl for 12,000 miles and he still worked out. Couldn’t decide if this was the bland outgassing of societal conditioning or the proper adherence to the civilized code. Whatever. He liked to exercise. It made him feel good. It made the lettuce crisper, and Chateau Petrus more a sin.
Got a big rainstorm. The roof leaked a little. He got some books and some tools and did a little work on it. Did a little more. Got some lumber from the Home Depot. Got a lot. Got some more books. Got some graphing paper. Designed a house. Dug a foundation. Built a house. Took him the better part of half a year. Big windows, hardwood walls, a big turret in the middle for looking all around . Used the old house for storage. Then built a proper storage, and burned the old house to the ground.
Went fishing. Caught fish. Big fish. Nobody else was catching them. Six months later the fish were bigger. He wondered how long the trend would go on. Figured he would probably find out.
Went on a wider ranging. Found a dozen small, thin cows in a pasture. Brought them back. Had to build some pens. Got a bunch of fence. Built pens. Killed a cow. Filled a freezer. Had meat.
Had a life. A lovely life. Had everything he wanted. Needed something more to want. Decided to travel more. Sure it was dangerous. No point in life without living it. Nothing so sweet as a nice warm bed and a monarch’s wine-cellar to come home to.
He went into the forests. Went hiking. Hiked Mt. Shasta. Did it again with more food and stayed three days at the summit until he finally got a view. He rigged up a big trailer and filled it with solar panels and went for a long drive, spreading them out and recharging every other day. Saw the Grand Canyon. Saw the Hoover Dam. Went back to Yellowstone and spent three weeks just hiking around. Saw a lot of deer. A lot of fucking deer. Did a little bit of hunting. Bagged a ten-point buck. Figured that in ten years no buck would have less than ten points. Kayaked across Clearlake. Kayaked back. Because he could.
Started listening to music. Had great speakers, records and CDs. Stuck with instrumental. Classical. Jazz. Then played something with a voice part and heard a human voice for the first time in years. How many years? No idea. The face in the mirror looked about the same.
Tried a movie. Saw a face. Watched a miniseries. Started watching a little every day. Started to miss people. Really missed them. Decided to go looking for them. No matter what.
Set up a battle rig. Stocked a Model S with survival equipment, water and food, two rifles and a 12-gauge and a pistol. Brought a bicycle and a Rokon with extra gas. Dragged a trailer with a solar array. And his camera and some lenses. If he saw nobody he would see what there was to be seen.
Tried to get to San Francisco. All the bridges were blocked off. Went around to Salinas and north on 1. Still had to bike into the city. Didn’t see a soul. Shot a dog. Didn’t like that. Broke into a wine store and took few bottles of Yquem for the ride.
Went down to LA. Fire had swept through. Must have been a roaring majesty. Not much left. Tried Phoenix and Tuscon. Nothing, nothing. New Orleans was under water. Gainesville had gators in the streets.
On the way out of Florida he saw a billboard with white paint splashed all over it. Spraypainted on the white: PADUCAH HAS SURVIVORS. Worth a shot. So he went.
Saw more signs. Made it to Paducah. Nobody there. Big sign had an arrow on it. Followed the arrow.
Crossed a bridge and drove a little ways and he passed a car on the road. Person behind the wheel. He basically blacked out. Pulled over and stopped and got out and just stood there. Had to suppress the urge to run. Other person knew it. Had seen it before. Rolled down their window and waved at him. Gave him some time and then said, “Hey.”
There were two hundred people in the town of Ledbetter. A spit of land between two big rivers, bigger than Peter’s but the same idea. They’d gotten the Kentucky Dam producing power, they had crops in the ground, they were clearing up the cities nearby and sacking them nice and proper. They had people of all ages but mostly young people or middle aged. They weren’t more likely to have survived the plague. They were more likely to have survived since.
They had a doctor. They had two nurses and a shrink. They had five teachers and two professors. They had a bunch of teens who hadn’t been anything yet. They had an acrobat. They had a set of triplets who liked to fence. They’d found other settlements, one in Boulder, one in Kennebunkport. There were over a thousand people on PEI.
There’d been a lot of pairing up and a lot of having babies. The town was already struggling to get everyone together once a week. Peter hung out for a few days and then joined the town meeting. Another new fish was there, he’d been in the Bahamas but sailed out after a very bad hurricane. He had a kid with him who was seven years old and was totally freaked out by people. Peter said he thought he was the only one, he’d been in California, living in a paradise he built for himself.
“Did you find the people on Lake Tahoe?” someone asked.
“Or Vashon Island?”
“There’s a good thing going there.”
Peter turned pink, and couldn’t even shake his head.
Most people had gone to the biggest cities. Banded together there. Gone to find places to live. Some did it right off, some scavenged for months or years first. There’d be other stories later. Right now, there were people.
Peter met a girl. Beautiful. Young like him. She’d been a grad student at the University of Saskatoon. Tried to stick it out but it had gotten too cold. Traveled with two other survivors. One kept drinking and got a gun and then they shot him. The other was out on a motorcycle looking for survivors. Putting up billboards. Honking her horn and seeing what she could find.
He said, I live in California. I like to bike. I like to hunt. I like to cook from my garden. She said, I think the socially responsible thing would be for you to get me pregnant and keep me pregnant for two decades. I’ll try to let you have some time to bike. Not so sure about the hunting.
He had a choice, then. Go back to solitude. Go back and start a family. Start one here with people all around. It was no choice. He couldn’t leave teachers and doctors and people. They lay claim to a nice big farmhouse. Had power and water. Had it fixed up nice by the time their first came alone.
He kept her good and pregnant. It was the thing to do. In a decade there were two hundred adults with eight hundred kids. Set up a school for them. Sports for them. Chores for them. Lives for them. Weddings for them. Houses for them. They weren’t that old but how could you tell them not to go take an empty house for their own?
Peter was almost sixty. He had grandchildren, more coming all the time. People were spreading out. Founding new towns. Repopulating the country. When the last kids left home the two of them went out to his house in California. But they couldn’t stay there. They’d live the rest of their lives surrounded by their families and they would die.
Peter thought about a funny story. A tax lawyer in Providence – except the world hadn’t ended. Just kept spinning on. He’d just kept living his life. He’d work himself silly for a few years, a decade. Live well. Buy things. Buy Scotch and wine. Buy guns and cameras and cars. Buy a goddam Rolex. Work a little harder than just taking what he wanted. But in exchange he’d get health care and services. Not a bad trade.
One day the tax lawyer would get bored. He’d travel. Buy a weekend house. Plant a garden. Realize he needed more. Find a girl. Raise a family. Do it in the suburbs because it was easier that way. Work less. Buy less. Be happy. Have a good life. Then retire. Put up his feet. Realize he’d lived a good life. Had good times. Lay himself down to die.
Peter thought it wasn’t all that different. And he died.