The Survivor Journals Omnibus [Books 1-3], page 39part #1 of The Survivor Journals Omnibus Series
I wanted to say something, but nothing was coming to me. What do you say in a situation like this? This was far beyond my paygrade.
King Francis turned his head to the side. He spoke to the empty air. “I know, children. I know. Mother will come back to us; I promise you this.” He turned to me. “The children—they miss their mother.” He turned back to the emptiness. “Settle down, all of you. The day is coming. The horns will blow, and Archangel Gabriel will bring her back to us just as he promised!”
I backed away from the room. King Francis began telling his children to clean the living room, like he asked them to do yesterday. I walked down the steps to the street where Ren waited.
“What do we do?” Ren was chewing on the corner of her lower lip. It was her nervous tic. “This guy needs help, but…there is no help.”
“I know,” I said. “We should bring him with us.”
“We should—but we’re not going to.” Ren was adamant. “Listen--I did an internship in a hospital, right? We had to go to all the wards and spend time. In the psych ward, they had this old guy—Mr. Blue, everyone called him. Mr. Blue was a jolly fat guy, kind of reminded me of a Currier and Ives Santa Claus. He wore old-fashioned pajamas, one of those Hugh Hefner robes, and leather slippers every day. Sometimes he had a paisley ascot. He was really smart, could talk about anything. Someone told me that he used to be a professor of physics at NYU. I don’t know if that was true or not. He was kind. He was sweet. You’d think he was the sort that wouldn’t hurt a fly. Turns out, he wasn’t taking his medication at night and the night nurses weren’t doing their job checking on him. One night, he had a break with reality, and he picked up a steel bedpan and beat a nurse almost to death with it, raging that she was trying to kill his wife. She had to quit nursing. She had severe brain damage. People with psychosis issues—they can turn on you. They can be dangerous. It only takes one little thing to trigger them, and then they snap like a rubber band.”
“I get it. I know.” I put my hands on my hips. “Moral questions like this were never brought up in my philosophy class in high school.”
“They weren’t in philosophy classes in college, either,” said Ren. Through one of the upstairs windows, we could hear King Francis raging at invisible children and their misdeeds. His royal inflection and syntax were still intact. Ren grabbed my wrist. “We should just leave.”
“Leave?” I didn’t like the sound of that. It felt cruel.
Ren was already drifting toward the alleyway. “We run. If he’s as far gone as I think he is, he will probably think we’re still here, just in hallucination form. Maybe he’ll think he dreamed us up.”
“But, he’s old, and he’s probably suffering.” The idea of abandoning him made guilt churn in my stomach. It made me queasy. I thought about Doug. Doug was probably the same age as King Francis. Maybe King Francis was a little older than Doug. He looked like he was in good health, still getting around well, able to wear a full suit of armor. Those things aren’t light. Upstairs, King Francis was screaming at the world, demanding to speak to the Archangel Gabriel or one of his messengers.
“I don’t like it, either,” said Ren. “But this ain’t the world we knew anymore. We have to make tough decisions like this now. Can we take care of him? No. I don’t even know what sort of anti-psychotics he needs to be on, nor do I know if we’ll be able to find them. It is hard enough making sure we’re okay every day. We can’t do it for him. Fish or cut bait, right? We have to cut bait, Twist.”
“But, to just leave him?”
Ren grabbed my arm at the elbow and started to pull me toward the RV. “It’s not like we were taking care of him to begin with. He’s gotten along on his own over the past year. He’s eating. He’s drinking. He’s definitely taking care of his excretory needs. What more could we do for him? Do you want to stay here in this alley with him? With the corpse of his late wife?”
“He’s not going to leave his wife without a fight. Mark my words on that.” That was a big trump card. Ren was right. There was no way a man who believed his wife was going to be resurrected by an angel was going to abandon her, and there was no way I was going to haul a dried corpse around in the RV. Ren stopped pulling at me and put her hands on my shoulders. She looked at me with her dark eyes. “We have to go.”
She was right. I hated that she was right, but she was right. There was still enough daylight left that we could get into the countryside beyond Atlanta before stopping for the night. If a year had gone by and no one else had found King Francis, I was willing to bet that Atlanta was empty. There was nothing there for us. We had to leave. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but later, after reflection, I realized it was our only logical choice.
“Come! Eat up! The feast recommences!” King Francis was standing at the door to his home.
I looked at Ren. I couldn’t even hide the pained look from my face. “What do we say?”
Ren stepped forward and curtsied. “My king! A herald has just delivered a message. He says there may be an army to the east!”
“My word.” King Francis loped down the steps and grabbed his longsword from where he’d left it on the patio table. “We shall be ready for them! Man the parapets, men. They’ll not take us unaware. Send word to their herald that I am willing to meet with their leader to parley. If he will swear fealty, there need not be bloodshed. If he does it quickly, there may be a province in it for him to lord over in my stead, provided he pays his taxes!”
Ren saluted by closing her right fist and tapping it over her heart twice. “My king, it will be done. Sir Twist and I shall deliver the message immediately.”
“Good, good! Go forth! Bring back any other survivors of the pox. We shall rebuild my kingdom together. I shall await your return.” I copied Ren’s salute, and we backed away. King Francis turned to the hallucinations of his children. “Did you hear that, children? Another army! The angels will be pleased. Your mother’s resurrection is nigh!”
Ren and I backed around the corner. I grabbed the shotgun from where I’d left it propped up against the wall. Then, we ran. We ran like scared rabbits back to the RV, jumped in, and started it up. I slammed the gear-shift to drive and tromped the gas pedal. The rear wheels squealed as the RV lurched forward. We got the hell out of Atlanta as fast as we could.
Neither of us said anything. We didn’t even look at each other; we just stared straight ahead through the windshield. The guilt we both felt filled the RV like a heavy, wet fog. It hung on our shoulders and pressed us into our seats. It made breathing a chore. I felt like crying, but I didn’t. I swallowed those emotions and tried to convince myself that this was for the best.
We set up camp outside of Atlanta in Fairburn, a good-sized suburban town along Highway 85. We stopped at a Shell station across a wide, four-lane main thoroughfare opposite one of the South’s finest institutions, a Waffle House.
While I dredged the ditches and the trees around the gas station for firewood, Ren walked off by herself, crossing the highway. She had no weapons. She took no supplies. She just walked away and hid somewhere nearby. I saw her shoulders shaking slightly as she walked away. I knew she was crying. It was for the best, I had to remind myself. It was for the best. I wonder how much absolutely horrible stuff has happened throughout history because someone convinced himself that it was for the best. No—scratch that. I never want to know the answer to that question. It would just depress me.
We could not have taken King Francis. As much as I wanted to, we just couldn’t. He wouldn’t have left his wife’s corpse. He needed more help than either Ren or I could give. I had to repeat it like a mantra, It was for the best. It was for the best. It was for the best. It was for the best. If you lie to yourself enough, maybe after a few decades you might believe it. That was my hope, at least. I did not know if I would ever forgive myself for abandoning the old man. I knew I would remember the moment we lied to him and scampered away for as long as I lived. It was burned into
Every good moment in my life is ephemeral, nothing more than vague passing thoughts. A first kiss. Dancing with my old girlfriend at a friend’s house. My first football game at Camp Randall. All just snapshots, fading afterimages. Every bad moment, every blunder, every stupid mistake and dumb thing I’ve done lives in a part of my brain that replays them constantly, without being asked, in brilliant 4K HD and stereo surround. This moment leapfrogged all other previous stupid moments to take the lead. As I gathered wood, my brain played the old man’s face on a loop. I saw his wagging beard and warm smile. My brain didn’t play the images of the decaying woman in his bed or his diatribes at his invisible children. It only played the parts that would make me feel guilty.
I crawled down a small slope behind the gas station and walked through the trees and came upon a farm field. The field had been a cornfield at one point, but now it was choked with weeds. Thistles grew as tall as the new corn plants. I dropped the wood I was carrying, walked into the middle of the field, and just sat. I hated myself at that moment. I hated everything about the world. I hated the fact that I had to make a judgment call like that. I should be a freshman in college. My biggest decision should be between going to a house party or a campus-sponsored alcohol-free event. My biggest decision should be whether or not I was going to try to chat up a blond or a brunette at the party. Instead, I had just condemned a mentally ill man to die alone, trapped in his own delusions. I hated myself. If there was a god, I hated him. If there wasn’t a god, I hated the universe.
I eventually went back to the campsite and made up the fire. I strung up my nylon Bear Butt hammock between the RV’s rear ladder and a tree. I lay in it with a book on my chest, Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It was a book I’d been meaning to read for months, but just never felt like starting it. On that day, the book would continue to go unread. I lay in the shade of the tree idly swaying, staring at the leaves in the tree above me and the sky beyond them. Fester came out of the RV to explore the surrounding area. He disappeared into the weeds for a while, but eventually emerged and leapt into the hammock with me. I picked a couple of burrs from his fur and cast them aside. I rubbed his ears and scratched his chin. He purred happily.
It was almost dark before Ren came back. Her eyes were puffy, her nose red, but she put on a brave face. She walked to the fire and sat in one of the canvas folding chairs. Neither of us spoke for a long time. I hadn’t made any food because I didn’t feel like eating. Ren didn’t ask about food. I think she felt the same way.
“We did the right thing, right?” she asked. “We could still go back for him.”
“We did the right thing,” I said. “It feels like the wrong thing, but you were right. We couldn’t have helped him. He wouldn’t have left his wife.”
She was silent for a long time. She put her face in her hands and rubbed her fingers against her forehead. “It doesn’t feel like the right thing. It feels like we just murdered an old man.”
“Maybe he was already dead. Maybe we’re already dead. I don’t know if there is a right answer.”
“I hated philosophy class. Did I tell you that? I hated it. Medicine was a science. Cause, effect. Philosophy was all gray areas. I hated that. I want a clear answer. I want a defined path to follow.” Ren stood and grabbed a stick to stab into the low flames of the campfire. She stoked the embers and added another chunk of wood. “We did the right thing, right? It was my idea. You were going to help him. You were going to stay with him, weren’t you? Like you did for the guy in Indiana.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. The old rules of humanity don’t necessarily apply to us anymore. We have to make our decisions based on the needs of self-preservation, now. That guy—he was pretty far gone.”
“How long until we break with reality like that? Is that our destiny?” Ren circled the fire to get out of the smoke. She ended up on the opposite side of it from me. In the light of the flames, she looked demonic. The shadows flitted across her face giving her low key-lighting like a horror movie villain.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think we’ll be okay.”
“Because we have each other?”
“And Fester.” The cat was still on my chest.
“What happens if I die? What happens if you die? What then? Twist, there’s a hell of a lot less people out here than I thought there would be. New York was a city of more than eight million people. Almost all of them died. Do you know what that was like?”
“It was like you’ve been hearing a rock concert your whole life, and suddenly that concert ended. Now, there is only deafening silence.”
Ren folded her arms across her chest. “Yes. Exactly. I was worried about myself last winter. It got so lonely that I was sleeping sometimes twenty hours a day. I’d wake up, go to the bathroom, eat a cracker, put more wood on the fire, and go back to sleep. At one point, I figured that I was dead and just didn’t know it, a full Cotard delusion. I started losing touch with reality. Is that going to be us someday?”
I got out of the hammock, much to the displeasure of the cat. I walked to the edge of the fire opposite Ren. “Yes. It might be.” I wasn’t going to lie to her. “I don’t know what tomorrow holds. I don’t know what five years from now holds. I certainly can’t look ahead to twenty years from now, or forty, or sixty. Who knows anything? All I know is that we’re still alive and relatively sane.”
“And that has to be good enough for now, doesn’t it?” she said.
Ren wiped the kernel of a tear from her eye with her fingers. “I hate this, man. I hate this whole situation. It’s bullshit.”
“Me, too. But, what other choice do we have? As long as we stay alive, we have the chance to make something of our lives. If we stop living, then that’s it. Game over.”
We were silent again. We stared at the flames, smelled the burning wood. Eventually, Ren spoke. “We did the right thing, right?”
“Even if the right thing was the wrong thing?”
Ren sat down in the folding chair. “I hate this world.”
We did not eat that night. Fester did. But, he was just a cat and understood little of the gravity of what Ren and I had just done to King Francis.
Eventually, we retired to the RV. We went through our nightly rituals. We pulled the curtains, just in case. I went to the back bunk. Ren went to her bunk. I lay in the queen-sized bed and stared at the sky through the screen of the roof vent, my hands folded behind my head. I felt small and insignificant. The entire scene with the King of New America replayed over and over in my brain. If there were any positives about meeting King Francis, it was only that any thoughts of Bigfoot had been pushed out of my brain. I had other, more important things to fear at the moment, insanity being foremost among them.
An hour or so after we’d retired, I felt the Greyhawk shift and rock slightly. Ren was climbing down from her bunk. I heard a knock on the narrow door to the rear bunk. “Yeah?”
Ren opened the door. Her eyes were puffy again. She was clutching one of her pillows to her chest. “Can I—I mean…do you mind if I sleep with you tonight? In your bed?” She buried her face in her hands. “Christ, I sound like a child.”
“No. Yes. I mean, yes you can sleep in here, and no you don’t sound like a child.” I moved over and made room in the bed for her.
Ren slipped into the sheets with me and lay on her back. She pulled the sheets to her chin. “I was just out there thinking about being alone again. I don’t think I could do it, you know. If I was alone again—like, if you died or disappeared or something--I think I’d probably just swallow a bullet. The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want to be alone ever again, even in that bed, if just for tonight.”
Ren reached over and patted my hand. Her hand
“I’m not going anywhere.”
She rolled over to face away from me. I lay on my side looking at her for a long time, at least an hour. Her breathing shifted into the slow, rhythmic breaths of sleep. Her body relaxed. I eventually laid my head down on my own pillows and stared at the vent in the ceiling.
I felt strange, though. Different. Was I falling in love with Renata?
Was I already in love with her and just hadn’t realized it?
Eventually sleep claimed me, but I thought about that question until it did.
The next day, Ren wanted to drive the RV. She guided us south to Columbus, Georgia. We explored that city. Neither of us said anything about the previous day. It just hung in the air between us, a massive elephant in the room, but neither of us dared verbalize any thoughts. It was as if we both just decided to let the day be forgotten.
In Columbus, we raided a bookstore because Ren didn’t like my taste in reading material. She got some books that I considered “too girly” or “too popular” for my tastes, mainly mass-market paperbacks like Nicholas Sparks, John Grisham, and Jodi Picoult, but she also picked up some things that I recommended that she hadn’t read, yet. Stuff like L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. We left with four canvas sacks of books loaded to the hilt. “This will keep me busy for at least a couple of years.” Ren stored them in the corner of her bunk.
We scavenged through a Sam’s Club, through a few odd shops, and through the remnants of two grocery stores, both picked nearly clean before the Flu ended. Judging from the settled dust, I could tell that no one had been in the stores in well over a year.
Ren scooped canned goods into bags. “It’s a good thing I really like corned beef hash.”