The Survivor Journals Omnibus [Books 1-3], page 45part #1 of The Survivor Journals Omnibus Series
I met Twist in Brooklyn almost a year ago. He seemed like a decent guy. Real simple. Real sweet. Easy-going. He was non-threatening. He looked scared, like me. There was something about the fear I could see in him that made me think he understood me and what I was feeling. It made me think that he’d keep me safe. And maybe I thought I could keep him safe, too. It drew me to him. I can’t explain it.
Since then, we’ve grown close. Very close. I love him. I do. I’m confident that he loves me, too. But, what is love? It’s a chemical reaction two people experience influenced by proximity and hormones. He’s barely twenty. His hormones are crazy. I’m a healthy young woman. My hormones aren’t to be trusted, either. Just a pair of crazy kids with no rules and no supervision, I guess. Things happen. I wonder about love, though. Sometimes, you hear people say, I wouldn’t love you if you were the last person on Earth. For all intents and purposes, he and I are almost literally the last people on Earth. There are at least a few other people out there, but we don’t know them, and they don’t know us, and we’re trapped in our own little world like Adam and Eve, or the Swiss Family Robinson.
When I was younger, I used to believe in soulmates. Every person had one perfect person out there for them. I blame Disney for that. One too many princess movies, right? Obviously, as I got older, I stopped believing in that stupidity. I used to laugh at girls in my neighborhood who called their boyfriends their soulmates. Eight billion people roaming the Earth and the one perfect person for you ends up living in your neighborhood and going to your high school? What are the odds? I learned that relationships were work, and there was no such thing as a perfect mate. You should for someone who meets a lot of your ideal checklist points, and then round up to perfect. If it hadn’t been for the Flu, Twist and I never would have met. I’m confident in saying that. He would have stayed in the Midwest. I would have stayed in New York. Our paths never would have crossed, and if they did, it would not have been in a meaningful way where we would have ended up falling in love.
So, of course, being a naturally insecure mess, despite the fact that insecurity is stupid (especially in this post-Flu world), I wonder about this whole situation that he and I have going on. Would he love me if there was another woman around here? Would I love him if there was another man around here? If it hadn’t been for the Flu, would he and I ever have matched with each other in the normal world where we would want to cohabitate or marry? I lay awake at night torturing myself with these thoughts. It’s stupid, I know, but this is a journal and you’re getting the best and worst of me. I’m not gonna sugar-coat it for you.
Twist seems endlessly decent and good. I hate that about him, sometimes. He wants to do right, always. He wants to be a good man. He wants to provide. He wants to make me happy. It makes me feel like I can never be his equal in that department. Is that just how people from Wisconsin are, or is he special that way? When I think about it, in my darkest thoughts, I think that he would love me if there were other women around, but because his goodness intimidates me at times, I don’t know if I would love him if there were other options, and that makes me feel like crap, like he deserves better than me.
It also bothers me that I’ve taken peeks at his journals, and he doesn’t obsess on this stuff like I do.
Stupid, Ren. Don’t be stupid.
Anyhow, I’m trying to be positive about this whole situation. That’s what Twist does. He looks around and says, Hey, it could be worse. And then he tries to make whatever is wrong better. I’ve been trying to do that, too. I don’t know if I can do it as well as he can, though.
At least we have a nice house.
When I was little, I used to dream about having the sort of house I live in now. When I was little and growing up in Brooklyn, we lived in an apartment. When I got older, we moved to a row house. It wasn’t too bad, but when you would see pictures of those luxurious McMansions in Better Homes & Gardens or HGTV Magazine, it just never felt like it was any good. We used to mock those suburban castles. We used to make up stories about how all the people who lived in them were lottery winners or something. We were just jealous. There’s something to be said for living in the city, don’t get me wrong, but you always want what you don’t have, I guess. I wanted a house with a sprawling yard, and maybe a place for animals. I have that now. I have all the space and land I’ve ever wanted. It makes me deliriously happy. I wake up in the morning and look out over an actual yard. Maybe it’s not a fancy, manicured lawn, but it’s not overgrown, either. And it’s mine. Ours, I should say. Me and Twist. I’m not used to speaking of us as a couple in the plural. Usually, you only do that to your girlfriends, and I don’t have any of those anymore.
The loneliness gets to me sometimes. I remember one time when I was a kid, I was feeling lonely. I was crying in my room, and I told my mom I didn’t have any friends. She laughed. You got your sister. That’s the only friend you will ever need, she said. I know what she meant by that. It was a nice notion about the importance of family. My parents were big on family. They were especially big on how sisters should treat each other, and how my sister and I should be best friends. We were, in a way. We liked each other, but I don’t know if we were truly best friends until after the world fell away. I miss her a lot, now. I wish she was here with me. I wish she could see the house I live in, because she always wanted one just like it. I wish she could see the lake. I wish I could tell her about my boyfriend.
Boyfriend. That doesn’t feel like it’s the right word for what Twist is to me. It doesn’t fit. He’s not my husband, either. I don’t know what to call him. I guess boyfriend and girlfriend are words you use to introduce someone you’re seeing intimately to your other friends. This is my boyfriend, Twist. Without someone to hear that, it seems stupid. He’s Twist. I’m Ren. That’s what we are to each other. Me and him against the world. Literally.
We’ve been sharing the same bed for months. It’s nice. I like having someone next to me at night. I know that neither of us sleeps particularly well. We both have bad dreams. There’s a lot of tossing and turning in our bed at night. A lot of panic sweat and fear. The dreams—they’re horrible. Given what we’ve been through, I would not expect them to be anything but. We had to watch our families die. That’s bound to mess up your neural synapses.
Twist never talks about his dreams, claims he doesn’t remember them. I remember mine. I remember mine all too well. My dreams are always the same. Death. Sadness. Death. Sadness. Death. So much death. I watch my parents die all over. I watch my brother die again and again, powerless to do anything. My sister and I buried all three of them. Then, I watch my sister die. Watching her murder replays in my head often. I’ll be out in the yard digging out weeds or planting something in the garden, and bam! I’ll see her death in my mind. It just pops in without warning. I can never unsee it. I can be doing something innocuous like brushing my teeth, and my brain will say, Your sister can never brush her teeth again. And then I see her death in my mind. When it flashes in my brain, it usually plays in drawn-out slow-motion. It drives me crazy. I cannot seem to escape those images. I do not believe I ever will.
Twist doesn’t seem to carry the sadness of loss like I do. Maybe he does, and he just is better than hiding it than I am. Maybe he made his peace with it. I haven’t. I’m mad as hell about it all, and I can’t get past it. The only time I’m sure he’s sad like me is at night. He moans in his sleep sometimes, or he thrashes and it sounds like he’s crying. When that happens, I try to press myself close to him, and he seems to relax. I like to be the Lit
Jeez…this journal seems really pissy, doesn’t it?
Now I have a whole new point of insecurity. I’ll probably spend at least half an hour thinking about the hypothetical reactions of future civilizations reading this and trying to make scholarly assumptions about me, and about Twist. They’ll love Twist, but that Renata girl—she was a real piece of work, just look at her whole basket of issues. That’s just what I needed to round out my struggle in this world.
My personal bundle of neuroses aside, I have been spending most of my free time going through all the homes in the area for supplies. Twist doesn’t like going into homes where people have died. He says it makes him feel like he’s grave-robbing. I guess I get that, but I also get that those people are dead, and I’m still alive. I always try to think about these sorts of things by putting myself in their place. If I was dead, and someone who was still alive could benefit from my house, my supplies, or anything else I might have, let ‘em. That’s my motto. I was nearly done training to be a nurse when the Flu hit, only two weeks shy of graduating with a four-year degree. I know how valuable blood, plasma, bone marrow, and organs were. I had my donor card signed when I was sixteen. If I died, and my organs could help someone else, then by all means—take my organs. I don’t see any difference between that and scavenging someone’s home, regardless of the location of the bodies of the owners of the house.
I try to be respectful of the bodies. Most of them have devolved into a desiccated, near-mummified state. The insects had their way with the corpses initially, and then the liquids dried up and the bodies, subjected to that Texas heat and arid climate, became bricks of slowly decomposing carbon. I wrap the corpses in sheets as makeshift shrouds, and then Twist and I carry them out to a small handcart that we found. The cart is only about six feet long and four feet wide, but it has large wheels and a pair of joists off the front that make it easy to drag the cart along, or push it, if necessary. The handcart is one of those things that I didn’t know we needed, but after we found it, I couldn’t believe we didn’t build it first thing.
Once the bodies were loaded on the cart, we carry them out to a large pit we found in a field a couple of miles away from the lake. At first, it seemed like such a long walk. Even in New York, a couple of miles was a bus ride or getting on the subway. Now, a couple miles is just the standard. We walk miles every day without thinking about it. I’m in pretty good shape because of it. I am vain enough to wish I had looked like I look now before the Flu.
The pit is about four or five feet deep. It looks like someone was trying to make an inverted pyramid. There are four wide sides that narrow to a point. The sides are lined with white, coral-like rocks for some reason. The bottom of the pit is dust. All around the pit is dirt and maybe a few blades of scrub grass, nothing that is going to burn. We line the bottom of the pit with scrub wood. We carry the bodies into the pit, lay them on the wood, slather them with jellied gasoline (burning is about the only thing gas is good for anymore), and add a few more pieces of scrub wood over them. Then, we light it. It’s a strange funeral pyre, but it works. I’m not too religious, but I always try to say a few words for the dead. I try to thank them for what they are unknowingly giving us. I try to tell them that everything they’ve given us will not go to waste. I hope they understand.
Once the bodies are taken care of, the house that remains is ours, so to speak. Twist lets me scavenge the homes because I’m way more methodical than he is, and he knows I like doing it. It might sound cruel or strange or sick in some way, but I love going through other people’s homes. I feel like some sort of archaeologist entering an ancient tomb. All their secrets are there for the taking.
There are the normal, trivial things: food, for instance. You learn a lot about people by going through their pantries. Like, for instance, in one house, I found over fifty cans of Star Wars-branded chicken soup. Who can eat that much Jabba the Hutt-shaped pasta? I like going into really large, expensive homes and seeing how little food they have in their pantries, like they were sacrificing eating to be able to live in a nice house. You find out who likes Japanese food, who likes Tex-Mex, who likes Little Debbie snack cakes—you name it. And there are always houses filled with rice cakes, protein bars, and other cardboard-tasting health food, and those houses almost always have a hidden cache of candy bars, fatty snacks, and other tasty treats that give a big, metaphorical middle finger to the healthy eating. I wonder if that was one spouse’s secret stash; I wonder if both spouses had weak moments. I like to envision the dynamics in the homes based on the pantries.
I box up all the canned goods that Twist and I can eat, or that we can use to feed the chickens or the cows. I take the cat food, because our loyal house cat, Fester, likes his chow. It is a long and laborious process to clear the houses of food. Anything we’re not going to eat, I open and spread in the woods for the wild creatures. We will eventually eat most of what we find, I reason—but there’s no way I’m going to figure out what to do with sheets of dried nori, so those go to the squirrels.
After going through the kitchens and basements for food, I start a very careful, methodical investigation of the rest of the house. I go through all the furniture. Sometimes people hide things like wads of cash (not like cash is worth anything now) or books or magazines inside of ottomans or couches. I go through the magazines and books. Any books Twist or I might like to read comes back to the house with me. Any that we won’t get put into plastic bags to keep them dry, just in case we ever need tinder for burning. I stack them in the living rooms of the homes so I know where they are if I ever need them. Anything that might be future-valuable gets stacked in the living rooms, actually. If I ever get to a point where I need something, I want it easily found again.
The bedrooms are always the best part of house-sacking. Clothes, of course, are valuable. I spend time going through the clothes and bagging them to keep them dry and vermin-free for the future. The clothes go to the living room. The linens may someday be necessary, but covers and blankets are blocky and hard to pack away, so I store them on high shelves in closets and hope for the best. Chances are, we will never need them all, so they’re not that important. In the back of my head, I tell myself that someday I’m going to make a seriously kick-ass blanket fort. Who knows? Maybe that will happen.
The bedrooms are where you really get to learn about the people who lived in the homes, though. You find out their likes and dislikes. You find their secrets. Journals, porn, drugs, hidden caches of booze, stashes of Twinkies—all the guilty vices are in the bedrooms. If I find a handwritten journal, I will read it word-for-word. I will savor those words. It’s the best window into people’s lives. I’ve read journals that would break your heart—adultery, domestic violence, spouses thinking about leaving their longtime partner because the spark has gone out—you name, I’ve seen it. Without soap operas on TV, it’s as close as I can come to watching telenovelas with my mom, again.
The bathrooms are what I save for last. I take great care to painstakingly bag all the toilet paper I can find. Empty wasteland or not, I do not want to live in a world without toilet paper. When Twist hitches the handcart to his bike and we go on runs to nearby little towns and houses farther away, he is under explicit orders to get all the toilet paper he finds. Spare no roll. Same thing with razors, deodorant, and feminine products. Twist sometimes jokingly calls me the Queen of Pads and Tampons. Screw him. He doesn’t need that stuff once a month like I do. The house nearest to the nice two-story we chose to live in has become my store. It’s where I stash all the stuff we’re going to need long-term like that. I want it nearby and available when necessary.
We don’t have a standard water toilet anymore. That’s a pipedream for when/if Twist gets the house up to running off of solar power and can tap the well pump. For now, we have to use
It is a strange existence, me spelunking houses for supplies, and Twist trying to turn himself into a combination of gentleman farmer and hunter-gatherer supreme. What Twist and I have managed to carve out is not the life I had dreamed for myself, but it is a life. And the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a good life. That’s the most important thing.
In the house I scavenged this morning, I found the remnants of what was once a happy, young family. They did not die in the house, thankfully. Finding the dried corpses of infants is always difficult. Every time you see one of those babies, it takes a piece of you. You never get used to it. I doubt you ever could, and if you ever did, that meant that there was probably something deeply wrong and unsettled within you.
The house was clearly a starter home. A very nice starter home, but a starter home. There were still toys scattered around the living room, covered in a fine layer of dust. A large TV sat on a credenza, a pile of Muppets and Thomas the Tank Engine DVDs next to it. The posed, professionally-taken pictures on the wall showed a very nice, young family. The dad was holding a toddler. Dad was all toothy grin and polo shirt. The toddler looked like something straight out central casting, perfect round face and chubby cherub cheeks. A small boy, about four or five, was leaning against his mom’s knee, a big, cheeky grin on his mug. He was dressed exactly like his dad, red polo and khakis. Mom was a beauty, with a perfect body despite pumping out two kids. She had expensive salon-maintained hair and a Texas beauty queen’s sense of make-up and fashion. She wore the feminine version of the boys’ outfits, a khaki skirt and a V-necked red sweater that displayed her impressive cleavage in a classy yet just sexy enough manner to not be distasteful. They were the perfect suburban, wealthy young family. I was immediately jealous of them. I grew up poor, the middle child of two lower-income, blue-collar, working immigrants. The only pictures we had laying around were school photos and the badly composed Polaroids that my tia took anytime the family was gathered for a meal. Cell phone photos? Not until my sister and I got jobs as teens and paid for our own bottom-of-the-line Samsungs.