The Survivor Journals Omnibus [Books 1-3], page 26part #1 of The Survivor Journals Omnibus Series
He looked even older than he had the day before. His hair was still wild from sleep. His eyes looked even more tired. He grimaced and clutched low on his stomach. “Find me some painkillers, would you?”
I grabbed pill bottles from the small pile on the nightstand. Most of them were empty. I plucked them by the lids and shook them until one rattled. Hydrocodone. That would work. I opened the bottle and gave him a pill. He held it in his hand and looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “I look like a baby to you? I’ve been taking this crap daily for half of the past year. Let’s pretend we’re playing blackjack, and maybe you hit me again. Pretend I’ve got a three and five showing. I’m gonna need a few more cards, dealer.”
I shook two more pills into his hand. He popped the pills into his mouth and crunched down on them. I passed over a half-full glass of water he’d had on his nightstand. He drank and swallowed the pills. He grimaced again. “It’s getting worse. It takes about twenty or thirty minutes for those pills to kick in. I considered shooting this stuff, but I hate needles.”
“Liquid medicine spoils faster than pills,” I said. “Liquid stuff might be bad by now. Maybe lethal.”
His head fell back against the pillows, and he inhaled slowly through his nose. “You won’t go anywhere, right?” He closed his eyes. “I don’t know how long this takes, but I can promise you that it won’t be too long.”
“Hey, somebody has to bury you, right?”
Doug smiled at that. His eyes popped open again. “You have no idea how much it means to me that you showed up.” He reached out a hand and patted my forearm.
How do you respond to a comment like that? Thanks doesn’t cut it.
Once the pills kicked in, Doug slept. I brought Fester in from the RV. He immediately found a sunbeam crossing Doug’s legs and made it his own. I brought a chair from the kitchen to the corner of Doug’s bedroom. I picked up a book from Doug’s floor, a pulp spy thriller from the 1960s, sort of like James Bond, but not nearly as slick.
Doug woke around noon. I made us a lunch of eggs from the hen house. Doug only ate a few bites. “Waiting to die isn’t fun, man.” He stretched his arms over his head and arched his back. I could see the hollows of the gaps between his ribs through his shirt. “The worst about dying slow is the pain. It’s not like a cut, where there’s a localized pain, it’s all just a constant dull ache that slowly intensifies until you can’t handle it. I’m tired of the pain, man. I guess it’s just a matter of deciding what’s worse: the pain or the fear of death.” He was quiet for a moment. “What do you think happens when we go?”
I’d considered this many times over the past year. I vacillated between the two extremes of Nothing and a classical version of Heaven complete with angels, harps, and all my dead relatives waiting for me to arrive. I envisioned every sort of thing in between, too. I even considered different concepts of Hell, but I didn’t like to think about what could be worse than being left alive after the apocalypse killed everyone I knew. “I don’t know,” I finally said. “I hope, whatever happens, we get to see the people we loved that died before us and make up for lost time.”
“Miranda. I miss her. A lot.” Doug reached out an arm and stroked a picture of a woman next to his bed. “Do you know how I knew she was the one?”
“Tell me,” I said.
“She had huge boobs.” He held his hands in front of his chest. Then he broke out laughing. “Nah, just kidding. I loved her because she wouldn’t let me get away with anything. If I fed her an empty line, she just rolled her eyes. She was immune to stupid romantic gestures. She wanted honesty and openness. She wanted an equal partner. I bought her roses. She liked them, but it didn’t impress her. I took her for a walk in the hills near our college, and while we were walking, I told her a story about my childhood. That she liked. I’d dated girls in college. She was a woman.” He smiled at the memory. Then he winked at me. “The boobs helped, though.”
Fester woke up and crawled up Doug’s legs to demand attention. Doug idly stroked the cat’s head. The cat twisted under his touch. “I miss my kids, too. They better be waiting for me on the Other Side. And my grandbabies.” He reached for a handkerchief on his nightstand and wiped away his tears. “My oldest grandchild, Serena.” He pointed at a small picture on the wall. “She was only eleven. She was the first of my family to pass. Died at a hospital in Indianapolis during the first week of the Flu.” His voice cracked. “None of them got to grow up. They didn’t get to have dates, or fall in love, or marry, or…” He trailed off. A sob wracked his body, but he bit back any others. He sniffed and wiped his nose with his wrist.
After a prolonged silence, I asked, “What do you think happens after we…” I couldn’t say the last word. It felt too heavy for the small room.
“After we die? You can say it. It’s not news to me.” Doug mopped at his eyes with the handkerchief.
“Where do we go when we die?” I asked him.
“Heaven.” Doug said it in a plain, matter-of-fact voice. “We go to Heaven.” I started to open my mouth to ask him why he was scared to go if we go to Heaven, but he continued. “Maybe if I keep saying it, I’ll start believing it. We go to Heaven.”
“What’s your version of Heaven?”
Doug thought for a second. “Oh, I don’t know. I want to see my family. A perfect Heaven has a golf course and a movie theater. How about you?”
“I’d like to see my parents again. And Rowdy, my dog. I’d like there to be an awesome roller coaster, too. One with no line that you can ride over and over again.”
“Oh, that’s good. Can I put your roller coaster in my Heaven, too?”
I smiled. “Go nuts. Maybe I’ll take a vacation from my Heaven, come over to yours, and we can ride your roller coaster together.”
“I’d like that. I’d like that a lot. You do that. When you get to your Heaven, you come find mine.” Doug groaned and breathed through gritted teeth. “Find me some more pills, would you?” I handed him four more hydrocodone pills. He tossed them back and drank more water. He nestled into his pillows. Fester curled up on his chest. “Tell me something.”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I just want to hear someone’s voice. Read to me from those journals you say you’re writing. Tell me your story, Twist. I want to hear your story in your words.”
“They’re in the RV.”
“Go get ‘em.”
By the time I got back in from the Greyhawk, Doug was asleep. I read from the journals, anyhow. I figured he just wanted to know someone was in the room.
We were both waiting for the inevitable. For Doug, it was a slow journey from constant pain to constant, debilitating pain, and further on to pain that reduced him to a barely-conscious, pill-dependent husk of a former human. For me, I was stuck in a limbo between waiting for him to finally give up the ghost and pass away so I could bury him as he asked, and getting back on the road to continue my journey to the South. I wasn’t going to abandon him; I didn’t have that sort of cruelty in me. However, after three days of reading to him in the ever-shrinking moments of his lucidity, I sort of felt the way I did when I visited my grandma’s house—there’s a sort of comfort of being there, but I couldn’t get comfortable the way I wanted to be comfortable. I didn’t want to venture too far from Doug’s side in case he passed, but I was quickly growing tired of sitting in a chair in his room. Geez, I feel guilty about even thinking that.
It was the truth, though. He was a fellow human being, a good guy. A family man. He was suffering. I wasn’t going to just ditch him, but at the same time, I wanted him to move on. I hated seeing how much he hurt when he was awake. I had to help him to the toilet, which was in the backyard. I eventually broke down, went to the hospital in nearby LaGrange, and got a bedpan to make his life easier. I had to help him clean himself. It was humiliating for him. He hated his dependence, I could tell. His moments of wakefulness were becoming shorter and shorter. When he did wake, it was usually because he
The Flu was horrible, but the period from health to symptoms to death was usually less than five days. It was an efficient, brutal killer. Cancer, on the other hand, was sloppy and lazy. It murdered people in increments, robbing them of seconds of their life instead of leveling a single, painless blow. I hated Cancer before the Flu, and I hated it even more now. Watching Doug waste to nothingness was making me realize that if I ever got to a point where I was stuck in bed dying slowly, I was going to have to somehow end it quickly, take as many pills as I could and hope I never woke up again. As much as I didn’t feel like dying, I really did not feel like dying slowly.
In the middle of the night halfway through my second week with Doug, I heard him gasping. I was sleeping on an inflatable camping mattress in the hallway outside his door. I woke up immediately and rushed to his side, flipping on the small camping lantern at his bedside.
The light made him blink his eyes. They were wide open, scared. He was gulping for air, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. His hand twitched. He tried to raise an arm off the bed, but didn’t have the strength. I gripped his hand and held it tightly. “I’m here.”
Doug’s face relaxed slightly, but he couldn’t breathe. He was going, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was nothing I wanted to do about it, either. It was time. He needed to go for his own sake.
I put a hand on his forehead. I put my head near his so he could feel my presence. I whispered into his ear. “Relax, Doug. Relax. It’s natural.” That didn’t seem to help. He was still panicked, still tense. “Think of your kids. Think of your wife.” I plucked Miranda’s picture from the bedside table and held it in front of his face. He instantly went slack, his stress breathing reduced. He rested his head back against the pillow, and the tension fled from his neck. His eyes closed halfway. His head lolled to the side and we looked at each other. I heard a strained gurgle in his throat, as if he was trying to say something, but he was too weak to form words.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “You can go. Rest now.”
He exhaled, a long, slow breath that must have been every last molecule of oxygen in his chest. He sniffed a slight inhale, and then that was it. Doug Fisk left this world.
I was alone again.
The next morning, just as dawn was breaking, I carried the skin-and-bones body of Douglas Raymond Fisk to his grave. I took time to wrap him in the sheets of his bed like a shroud. I made sure his Rosary beads were wrapped around his fist as I had seen at Catholic funerals in the past. I didn’t want to drop him haphazardly into the grave, although he’d told me once that I could just drop him at the edge and kick him in with my heel; he wouldn’t mind. Instead, I laid him on the edge of his grave, right next to his wife’s grave, and then climbed down into the grave so I could drag him down with me. It was awkward, trying to get him situated in a narrow grave while my big feet were in it with him, but I managed to do it. I had to grab the edge of the grave, pull myself up as far as I could, and then brace my feet on either side of the hole to keep from falling back into it.
I used Doug’s shovel to toss the whole pile of dirt back on top of him a shovelful at a time. It took a good hour and change to fill in his grave. Then, I placed a pile of fieldstone over the grave to prevent scavengers from digging into it, not that they would with him being so deep. I just wanted it to match his wife’s grave. I made a crude cross out of wood in Doug’s garage and hammered it into the head of his grave to match Miranda’s. Then, I sat back at the foot of the graves to rest. The sun was over the neighbor’s roof and the backyard was bathed in light. It was going to be unbearably humid that day, as it had been since I’d first entered Indiana.
I didn’t know what to say. Doug had been so easy to talk to when he was alive. Now that he was finally gone, I was speechless. I stabbed the shovel into the dirt and left it standing. I wasn’t raised in a religious house, so I didn’t know anything Catholic to say over the grave. I stood there for twenty, maybe thirty minutes just staring at the dirt. I hoped Heaven was real, and that Doug had found Miranda. Anything less would an injustice to a man who deserved eternal peace with his family.
I was alone in the world again, but I was glad to have had company for the last week and a half, even if that company was barely awake for most of the last five days. It was comforting to have had human contact again. I felt complete again, or at least as complete as I could feel. I thought about what he’d told me about there being a difference between living and surviving. I was definitely surviving. I don’t think I was sure how to live anymore.
I opened the chicken coop and released the remaining hens to the wild. I couldn’t take them with me, but I hoped they’d be okay. They could return to their coop at any time, if they wanted. I made a mental note to raise chickens when I finally settled. Having eggs would be a good thing. I didn’t know how to catch wild chickens, but I’d have to figure it out. I plucked the few eggs from the nests in the coop for my own supply. I didn’t have refrigeration (I’d unplugged the tiny RV fridge because it took too much power to maintain), so I’d have to eat them soon.
I took the RV over to neighbor Jim’s house and raided his shelves of water, food, and toilet paper. (You can never have too much, am I right?) It took forever to carry cases of bottled water one-at-a-time up a 12 foot ladder. I filled the Greyhawk’s storage holds and stored extra in the overhead bunk.
I started to consider the future. At some point, would I run out of toilet paper? What then? Corncobs? Newsprint? People like Jim and Nancy, these “Doomsday Preppers”—what were they actually preparing for? So they survive the apocalypse. What then? They bought themselves an extra ten, twenty years? So what? What do they do, next? What’s the point? Do they just live like pioneers for the rest of time? Do they ever start to try to rebuild civilization? If so, how? There is an existing blueprint, sure. But where do they start? If a toilet paper factory wasn’t high on the list, I’d want to know why.
I wasn’t hungry, so I skipped lunch. I treated myself to a Coke from Jim’s stash. There is nothing better than an ice-cold Coke. A lukewarm Coke is acceptable, but not nearly as life affirming. Right after the toilet paper factory, I’d want someone to bring back refrigeration.
Days into Days
I put Shipshewana in my review mirror and continued east. I tried not to look in the side mirror too often as the little town dwindled behind me, but I did. I could not stop seeing it. It’s hard to describe my feelings leaving there. On one hand, I was terribly excited to get back on the road. It felt good to feel the air moving through the window of the Greyhawk again. It felt good to see Fester sleeping on the top of the dashboard again, his furry body wedged against the glass. I felt more optimistic again. I had found four people who had survived the Flu at this point in my travels. Granted, all were dead now, but the sheer odds told me there had to be more. I was more optimistic that I would find them, too. On the other hand, I was alone again and the tiny taste of companionship left a deep and painful want for more of it. Fester was great and all, but it wasn’t the same as someone actually responding to my stories. I just hoped the next person or people I found would be younger and last longer than thirteen days.
While I drove east winding through the small communities looking for signs of life, I tried to piece likelihoods together. Where would there be people? Where would I want to go? Obviously Disney World was the first place that I thought of because it made perfect sense. I could hear the announcer’s voice on the TV commercial: Hey, Twist! You’ve just survived the apocalypse! What are you going to do now? And I would look at the TV camera with my biggest, cheesiest grin and tug on my Apocalypse Survivor Championship ball cap and say, I’m going to Disney World! Just the thought of that image made me smile. Disney World might be the happiest place on Earth, but I’ll bet in the post-apocalypse landscape, it was creepy as hell
I thought about New York City. I wanted to go there. There would be cool buildings to go through. There was a massive population of people. If someone was going to survive in an urban setting, I had to believe it would be in New York. I also thought that if survivors were going to conglomerate after something like the apocalypse, it would be in places like New York City or Washington, D.C.
Thinking of D.C. made me think of the White House. I had to go there. I could sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom and steal a portrait of Martin Van Buren from the wall. I had no reason to want a portrait of Van Buren, but I just thought it would the most illogical choice. Most people would go for Washington, Adams, Jefferson, or Lincoln. The pranksters would probably go for Nixon. I’d go for Van Buren because the dude had some awesome windswept hair.
I know there’s a secret bunker somewhere in Virginia beneath a mountain where the Secret Service will hide the President of the United States during a crisis like the Flu or a nuclear attack. I wondered if the President was in there right now. I wondered if he was still alive.. A lot of the conspiracy nuts went crazy during the first days of the Flu, claiming it was a government plot to erase humanity so they could start over, and that the best and brightest of Americans were being hidden in bunkers around the United States and were given anti-virus shots to counteract the Flu. It was so far-fetched that it might even be plausible. I decided to go looking for the bunker, but then changed my mind. I was content to let politicians stay underground as long as possible. They could do less damage that way.
I thought about the major landmarks and cities I wanted to see. As far as I knew, calendar-wise, it was late July. I had at least two or three months to hit them all, no problem. Four months if I wanted to stretch it. That was plenty of time to get around to everything and still be in Louisiana before snow flew in the north, typically late November or December.