Last week’s entry is right here.
Always Coming Home
Let the old world die. Die like he should’ve. Survivor’s guilt. Why was he walking around when everybody he knew and loved died? Why had he been passed over?
Well, no longer. He was going to go back to where it began. Back on the couch, in front of the TV, gaping at the idiot news, watching the world come tumbling down. Then watching static. Then sitting in darkness staring at the dead TV set. Frozen in place till hunger pushed him to get up, to eat what remained in his kitchen and, finally, to venture out into the newly dead world. Scavenge, hoard, meet McGavin, have Parker come up and whisper to them over a bottle of scotch, and ten years in passive-aggressive Amishville.
Life has many paths. He could have been like everybody else. Could have stayed on that couch forever, mummified in a honeycomb suburban apartment, eaten by vermin and slowly falling apart on a moldering couch while day after day, night after night, the entire world passed by outside the clouding, cob-webbed windows. Forgotten forever. Finally free.
Surviving wasn’t freedom. It was even more responsibility. It was worse than 9 to 5 at the fucking office, and credit card bills jammed in with all the pleading, screaming junk mail, and wrestling dead-eyed soulless monsters at the supermarket check-out lane. All that nonsense, all the time desiring freedom, and, when it finally came, it was anything but freedom. It was the absence of control. Of uniformity. Of the vast cushion of life in the land of plenty.
So he destroyed the locomotive, left his friend of ten years lying dead and tangled with the corpse of idiot fucking Walter Murray, and just started walking east. He followed the interstates home – 68 to 70 to 270 to 495. Just like a thousand times before, except now on foot. Past towns long dead and through nature very much resurgent. He picked his way over the crumbling, scorched overpass spanning the blackened ruin of Cumberland, climbed the hills and gazed down at dead villages peeping from amongst the new forest. He climbed the long, slow rise to Sideling Hill – the ridge that had been blasted through to lay the 68 roadbed and forever make old US 40, weaving up into the mountain and down again, obsolete. A man-made marvel – a cut blasted in the mountain over 300 feet deep. But now I-68 was gone, subsumed by a decade of rockfalls and landslides. He scampered over the rubble, past the weathered visitor’s center, and started the descent down the other side.
Winter caught him at Hancock, where 68 starts as an exit off of I-70. An early December snow surprised him, though the nights had been increasingly dreadful. Just a decade without humanity’s control and the weather had started to change. Or maybe it was all part of the old climate change stuff. Super storms and colder weather. It didn’t matter now. Humanity’s time was over. The Earth would right itself.
There was no need to push on. He had a destination but, really, it didn’t matter how long it took to get there. He decided to overwinter in Clear Spring, 75 miles outside of DC. Mid-December found him ensconced in a house, positioned behind a hill and a screen of trees to keep the worst of the wind out. He covered the windows in plastic sheeting and boards, and burned every scrap of wood he could find. The remains of two people were in the upstairs bedroom, and he unceremoniously dumped the bones and papery flesh out of the window. Then he broke up chairs and table and beds and, as winter moved on, even ripped up some of the old hardwood flooring.
Clear Spring seemed to have avoided the worst of the looting. How strange that the toll of 10 years scavenging was less obvious the closer he got to the city. Everybody who could bugged out – got as rural as they dared. Perhaps he and McGavin were wrong to follow Parker after all. The city and suburbs were a fatted calf, abandoned out of fear. Fear of attack, fear of disease from the corpses… But, once deep in the country, there was no time for anything but simple survival. It certainly hadn’t crossed his mind to make the long trip to the city. Why bother?
Clear Spring was nice. Lots of canned goods in the stores and houses. Enough for a carefully rationed winter. The descendents of livestock roamed the forest, and deer were plentiful. Winter would take a toll…but they’d survived ten winters. He could make a go of it in Clear Spring. But that wasn’t the plan. Let the old world die.
He set out as soon as the roads were passable. The snow and the slush were gone, another season done. He marched down I-70 and, as he approached Frederick, the first storm of spring rolled in like a freight train. Dark clouds boiled on the horizon, and the cleansing rains chased him into the Hampton Inn right where 270 began, the corridor leading to the Washington Beltway. He hunkered down in the main office and devoured the last of his Clear Spring rations, trusting the upcoming suburban sprawl to provide enough for his needs.
He slept fitfully on a moth-eaten fold-out cot, the last of winter’s chill creeping around him. He dreamed of McGavin’s staring eyes, he thought he heard the sounds of Jacob’s flight into the woods and, as always, he saw Cumberland burning. Towards dawn, he dreamed of the old warehouse where he and McGavin had settled before Parker walked into their lives. A nameless, graffitied building along the rail tracks in Fort Totten. Still standing? Still stuffed with the shit they left behind when they attached their wagon to Parker? Maybe he could go back to where that all started. This new life. Pretend the last ten years were just a dream. That was the original plan with McGavin. Build a little empire on the train tracks. Maybe even find one of those hand-pump platforms that go on the tracks, like in the old westerns. Do they still make those? Surely there must be something like it lying around the Union Station railyard. Or was everything automatic now? Gas powered and rusting away.
Let the old world die. He woke up in the hours before dawn, shivering and crying. The impossible silence of the dead world filled his ears and every movement sounded like an echoing rockfall. He screamed. He screamed and screamed and then got up and pushed over a snack machine, the glass front long ago broken and the contents gone. He wrapped himself up, picked up the pack he had made in Clear Spring, and hiked out into the darkness, thinking about nothing. Letting his brain empty as he joined the clogged interstate and weaved amongst the rotting cars.