The Survivor Journals Omnibus [Books 1-3], page 24part #1 of The Survivor Journals Omnibus Series
He stood there for a moment, his hand on my shoulder to steady himself. Tears continued to leak from his eyes. He swiped at them with the back of his wrist. “Well, where are my manners? My name is Fisk. Doug Fisk. And it’s damn, damn good to see you.”
“Twist,” I repeated. “It’s really good to see you, too.”
“What kind of a name is Twist?”
“Nickname. My real name was Barnabas.”
Doug smiled widely. “I like Twist better.”
“It’s a lot more Mad Max, a lot more Road Warrior, if that makes any sense to you. Fits better in the apocalypse.”
I was surprised that Doug knew his Australian apocalypse films. “That’s what I said!”
Doug shook himself as if he was trying to wake from a dream. “Well, look at this—my first guest in more than a year, and I don’t even offer you a drink. Why don’t you come back to my place? I have food. I have water. Are you hungry?”
“No, I’m fine. I have food, too. I’m well stocked.”
Doug bent down to pick up his crutches. I kicked myself, mentally. I should have picked them up for him. My mother would have been mortified if she’d been there. She’s probably rolling in her grave. Doug didn’t seem to think ill of me, though. He said, “Well, what in the name of all that’s good and pure are you doing in Shipshewana?”
I felt no fear, no deception in the man. I felt safe with him, strangely. I did not, for one second, think he was going to steal my RV or try to kill me. I told the truth. “I was looking for survivors.”
Doug looked around at the empty streets in the tiny town that once held 700 people. “Here? In this town?”
I shrugged. I know that I looked sheepish. “Well, anywhere. I just came here because the name of the town made me laugh.”
The old man gave a short bark of a laugh. “I get that. I like that. You and me, Twist, we’re gonna get along just fine.” He started limping back in the direction where he’d been coming from. “C’mon, good sir. C’mon back to my place. I will put us out a feast! I’d kill the fatted calf if I had one. Chicken will have to do, instead.”
I started to follow. I didn’t want to break the protocols of new friendships and first conversations, but I knew I had to bring up the drugs. “Weren’t you headed to the pharmacy?”
The smile ran away from his face. He hesitated, and then nodded. “Yeah…I…” His voice trailed away, and he laughed again. “I’m dying. Got the big C.” He stood in profile to me. “You can tell, right? I was diagnosed just before the Flu hit. Did two radiation treatments, and then the world ended. I went from making plans to leave all my things to my family, to watching my family die. Isn’t that a kick in the dick? Everyone died, and I was still there. Ironic, isn’t it?”
“You were getting drugs to treat the cancer?”
“I was getting painkillers. I used up all the cancer drugs a few months ago. Maybe that’s why I lasted so long. Now, it feels like I got lightning in my crotch and it hurts. I have been making myself walk over there once a day to get a day’s supply of painkillers.” Doug looked at the crutches. “Maybe today will be the last time I do that.”
“Why not just bring the whole supply? You don’t look like you walk too well. No offense.”
Doug waved off my comment. “None taken--I don’t walk too well at this point. But, I leave those drugs where they are. If I brought them all back with me, I might just decide to take all of them at once. Plus, this forces me to keep moving. It’s not much, but at this point, it’s my whole day. It keeps me going. It gives me a reason to get out of bed. The day I can’t do it anymore, I know that I’m short-timing it. I figure I’ve got time enough for lying around and not moving coming soon enough, so I better do what I can while I can.” He gave me a smile. It wavered for a moment, but he bit back the sadness. “Enough about that! Let’s go back to my place. We can talk and eat. It will be good to talk to someone.”
“I have an RV—” I started.
“Bring it!” Doug called over his shoulder. “It’s the white house, just over there.” He pointed to a simple white rambler. No frills. It was the type of house that I’d seen at least a hundred of in every town. The lawn grass was overgrown and all the windows were dirty. It was the type of place I wouldn’t have looked at twice if I had only been passing through town. It made me wonder if I’d accidentally passed other survivors.
“To the feast!” There was a spring in his crutch-aided steps. As I moved to the Greyhawk, I realized there was a spring in my steps, too.
I parked the RV in Doug’s driveway. There were no shade trees in his yard, so I cracked all the windows for Fester, even the two front windows. I knew Fester wasn’t going to jump out, and I was certain that no one would happen by and snatch him. I still locked the doors to the RV, though, despite the fact that anyone could reach through the window and hit the power lock. Dumb, I know. Old habits die hard.
Doug’s house was much cleaner than I thought it would be. The living room was simply decorated, a brown couch and recliner, and a large, flat-screen TV with a thick layer of dust on it. There were old pictures hanging on the walls. I saw Doug as a much younger man, a family man posed with a wife and three children in the cheesy Olan Mills-type family portraits done for church directories. There were pictures of the three kids as high school and college graduates, and pictures of weddings. Around those bridal photos and altar shots were pictures of grandchildren, school portraits with bright, excited smiles and fresh-scrubbed faces.
“All gone now.” Doug’s voice startled me. I twitched. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s strange to hear someone else’s voice, isn’t it? I’m used to hearing my doddering old voice and that’s it.” He held out a glass for me. “Well water. Better than that bottled stuff you’ve been drinking, I bet.”
I took the glass and took a long drink. He was right. The mineral tang on the tongue was a pleasant change to the sterilized, tasteless bottled water I had been drinking for the past year. Plus, it was much colder than the bottled water I’d been drinking all summer. It wasn’t refrigerator cold, but it was much colder than room temp or RV-in-the-summer-warm. Nothing beats icy cold water when the temperatures climb, but this was an acceptable second-place drink. “It’s very good.”
“Had to hook up a hand pump to the well when the power went out, but it’s been worth it. I pump up a couple of buckets in the morning and it lasts me all day.” Doug gestured to his kitchen. I followed him, taking a seat at his kitchen table. There were stacks and stacks of word puzzle magazines on the table.
“It is how I passed the time,” he said with a sheepish grin. “I’d go through one of those things in a week. I ran out of my own supply, used up all the ones at the stores in the area, and had to take to rooting through my neighbors’ places for magazines with empty puzzles.”
“I read a lot of books.” I told him about holing up in the Sun Prairie Public Library for the past year and tearing through their collection, sometimes reading two or three books in a day—depending on the length and how badly my winter depression had been affecting me.
“Smart man,” Doug said. I don’t know why, but hearing him call me man made me feel really good. There was something easy about his nature, something overwhelmingly paternal. In the few minutes I’d known him, I already felt endeared to him. He was one of those old guys who felt like everyone’s Grandpa. I wanted him to take me fishing, for some reason.
Doug had a wood-burning cook-stove in his kitchen. It had not been there originally. Part of his kitchen wall had been cut so the heavy exhaust pipe could be threaded to the exterior. The stove was cold now, though. The summer days made it far too warm to bear cooking indoors. “This is how I survived the winter.” He patted the old stove’s flattop. “Pretty much sat in here all day, every day. Kept this place nice and toasty. I had a bunch of neighbors with wood-stoves. Stole all their wood. I cook outdoors in the summer, though.”
Doug sat at the other vacant chai
“Everything?” When someone asks you to tell them everything, where do you start? I hesitated.
“Tell me, how did you survive the past year? You’re a young guy. You must be mighty resourceful. Did you carve your existence out of the wilderness Iron John-style?”
“I don’t know about that.” I’ve never read Iron John. I had no idea what he was talking about. I took another long drink of water, and then I launched into my tale. I told him about burying my parents and my girlfriend, and then waiting to die under the big tree in my yard while reading Stephen King’s The Stand. I told him about realizing I was immune to the virus, and finding my dog Rowdy in the neighbor’s house, and then moving to the library. I talked about raiding stores and taking cars from the local Chevy dealership to explore the countryside. I talked about storing wood for the winter in the community room of the library. I rambled on and on, telling him every detail—except for three things: I didn’t tell him about how I almost put a gun to my head and ended myself, I didn’t tell him about finding two other living people, and I didn’t tell him about suffering hallucinations due to depression and isolation. I didn’t think I needed to start off our friendship by letting it drop that I might be nuts and that all the other survivors I’d met had died shortly after meeting me.
The whole time I talked, Doug never looked bored. His eyes sparkled. He smiled. He laughed in the right places. He was the best audience. When I finished my summary, at least a half-hour had passed, maybe more. I paused to finish the glass of water he’d given me. Doug leaned back in his chair like a man who’d just finished a Thanksgiving feast. He smiled broadly. “Man, it’s good to hear someone else’s voice.”
“It’s good to have someone to listen to me,” I told him. I meant it, too. I hadn’t realized how badly I’d needed to just talk to another human, just be heard by someone. Fester was a fine listener, but he wasn’t really what you would call an active listener. During the long days driving, I tended to make up Fester’s part in the dialog by filling in his commentary in a silly posh British accent, which is how I think Fester would sound if he did have a voice.
I tried to be a gracious guest and afford Doug the same opportunity to unload his past year’s activities. “What about you? What have you been doing?”
The smile was chased from his face. He shrugged and waved a hand at me. “Ahh, what I’ve been doing isn’t important. I’ve just been waiting to die. Literally. That’s it.”
“No exploration? No nothing?”
Doug’s mouth curled into a half-smile. His eyes took on a wistful sheen. “Went into South Bend once in the first month after everyone was gone, probably early June. I stole a Viper from the Dodge dealership—you know, one of those showroom models. I pushed it out, reconnected the battery, and then put the hammer down on it on the Interstate. That was fun for an hour, but after that, I realized I was kind of immune to the rush, you know? There were no cops, no traffic to dodge. It was just sort of empty, you know?”
I did know. I’d considered doing the same sort of thing at one point, but my own cowardice chased me away from it. I didn’t want to get in a wreck and die a slow, painful death bleeding out on the side of a road. “How fast?”
“Got it up to a hundred and forty before I chickened out and eased it back to a hundred.” Doug chuckled. “Hey, I’d like to show you something, if you don’t mind.”
“Lead the way.”
Doug stood up from the table and grabbed his crutches. He limped toward the screen door in the kitchen. “C’mon.”
We walked out onto a flagstone patio in his backyard. Weeds were creeping through the gaps in the gray-and-brown flagstones. The backyard was not overgrown, though. It was definitely shaggy, but Doug had mowed the yard a few times this summer. It must have been a real chore for a man in his state. I know why he’d done it, though. It was much nicer to look at a well-manicured lawn than the shaggy wild growth everywhere else in the neighborhood.
There was a row of tall lilac bushes along one edge of the yard, a sort of natural fence line. In the rear left corner was a large chicken coop with at least a dozen hens running around an enclosed wire-mesh yard. He paused at the edge of the flagstones and pointed to the rear of the yard. “I did this last year.”
There were two graves. One was filled in and covered with large stones to prevent predators from digging into it. There was a crudely constructed cross hammered into the ground at its head. The other grave was empty. It had been dug deeply and a large, weathered pile of earth sat next to it. Grass was sprouting in spots on the hillock of dirt.
Doug pointed to the covered grave. “That’s my wife Miranda. Lost her in the third week of the Flu, after they were telling everyone there was nothing to be done. Buried her myself. Only dug the grave a few feet down, though. It was rough going.” Doug started to limp out to the other grave. “I figured I was going to go too, so I dug my own grave. I didn’t think I’d actually get to use it, though. It was more of a metaphor, really. It was representative of my intent to lay by my wife’s side forever. Sounds corny when I say it out loud, but that’s how it is.”
I didn’t know how to reply to that. I’d buried my parents and girlfriend in similar shallow graves. I buried my dog Rowdy, and my friend Meri, too. I never dug my own, though. Was I secretly optimistic, or was that just effort after foolishness. Doug wasn’t talking, so I sought for something to break the silence. “It doesn’t sound corny,” I said. “It looks like a nice grave.”
Doug nodded. “Took my time on it. The first two or three feet was pretty easy going. After that, it was all a war of attrition against the ground. Rocks, roots—you name it. Had to use a pick, a shovel, and a chainsaw to get it to where I wanted it. I got it to six feet, though.”
There was a pause. Doug reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. “I need you to bury me in it, Twist.”
Doug laughed, his voice ringing out through the neighborhood. “No, not now. Although, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight if you had a mind to do it. I’m not long for this world. The way I feel, I figure I could check out at any time.”
Doug limped back to the patio and sat in a weather-beaten plastic chair. A grim look chased the smile from his face. “One of my biggest fears, and this goes back to my childhood, was dying alone. I’m scared to go, Twist.”
“I don’t blame you,” I said.
“It seems silly, doesn’t it, after being surrounded by death for so long? Dying alone was something I have had to work really hard to accept, and in some ways I’ve even been able to coach myself up to the point where I’m almost looking forward to it.” Doug gestured to his legs. “Feels like I got lightning hitting me in the ass half the time. Feels like there’s fire in my balls. I got no appetite anymore. I spend half my days in a drug-induced sleep. It’s no way to keep living. Death has its benefits, I guess. The pain will end, at least. That’s the only part of it I’m looking forward to, though.” Doug swallowed hard. Tears were brimming in the corners of his eyes. “I’d retired the year before I was diagnosed with the cancer. Almost forty-five years of selling houses, coaching youth baseball and basketball, doing a little residential painting on the side here and there for extra money—I’d worked hard. My wife, she was a school secretary. Worked the same job since she was twenty-three. Good job. A State job. We both retired and were finally going to travel to all the places we wanted to go. England, France, Hawaii, Japan…you name it, we were going. You know where we went?”
I shook my head.
Doug leaned toward me. “Canada. That’s it. We went to Banff. It was glorious. Beautiful, beautiful city. I wanted to move there. But, that’s all we got to do. The summer after I retired went by too quickly. One of my daughters had another baby, so we didn’t go anywhere that winter. Next spring r
Doug’s head snapped up, and he laughed. He wiped tears from his eyes with his fingers. “Life has a really bad sense of humor, you know? I had to bury her, and here I still sit, wasting away a centimeter at a time.” He used the edge of his t-shirt sleeve to wipe his cheeks. His stomach was wasted, pale, and sickly thin, and his ribs were showing through his skin. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”
There was a long silence. I was still standing on the edge of the flagstones. I hate to say it, but I had thoughts about running to my RV and leaving. All this time, I wanted to meet other survivors, I wanted human contact, but I’d come upon a man with days, maybe weeks left to live. He was right; it wasn’t fair. I cleared my throat. “Why didn’t you…”
He looked up at me. “Suicide?”
I nodded. “If you dug—” I nodded toward the grave. “Weren’t you going to?”
Doug blew out a long, slow breath. “Thought about it, sure. I had all the painkillers I could want. It would have been easy. I even went so far as to uncap the bottle of morphine tablets. It would have been really easy.”
Doug shrugged. He fell back in the chair, shoulders slumping. “I don’t know. Maybe because seventy years of Catholic upbringing told me suicide is a Mortal Sin. Maybe I was just too scared.” Then he flipped the question. “What about you? You must have thought about it, too.” I hesitated. He already knew the answer. At that moment, I realized that anyone who survived the Flu must have thought about it. I know of one man who had done it back in Wisconsin. It was only natural. Why keep living if no one needed you to keep living? “How were you going to do it?” he asked.