1st Place – September 2019

After the Fall

By

Gary Christenson

 Rosemary gasped, “Mathew, I love you.” Oozing sores covered her formerly pretty face and most of her body. My wife hadn’t eaten in days. Her eyes were hollow glass marbles.
She died in my arms from the virus that killed our two children and nearly everyone in America. I buried her next to our daughters in the backyard of our home. I placed three crude wooden crosses in front of their dirt mounds. The grass in the yard was dead, like our family and hopes for the future.
That night I killed my last bottle of Jack Daniels and wept.
***
After the global economy crashed, everything I trusted failed. Government services collapsed and criminals ravaged cities. Then the global pandemic killed most people, domesticated animals and pets. A few survived. I call them Immunes.
Life for Immunes revolved around finding food after the fall of civilization.
***
Hunger made my stomach growl. My hands shook and my head throbbed, like a hammer had smashed my forehead.
Foraging is dangerous, but I had to eat. Lord knows little food remains in this dying city, so it’s forage or starve.
I dressed in dirty camo clothes which hung loosely on my skinny frame, strapped on a .22 in a shoulder holster, and added a Bowie knife in a scabbard on my belt. My backpack contained a bottle of water and first aid kit.
Walking the streets of suburban Dallas, I wore a mask because the stench reminded me of breathing downwind from a hog farm on a summer day. Garbage and dead animals rotted everywhere. Decaying bodies lay on the sidewalks. They were the only visible humans.
I knew other Immunes survived, but we avoided each other.
Months ago, I could find food close to my house. It wasn’t the clean, nutritious food that my wife used to serve, but it could sustain life. Now I must forage farther from home, and I find little edible food.
Since the fall of civilization hunger has controlled my life.
Water is usually available. The city’s plumbing works. I don’t know why.
I must find food.
Some days I’m hungry enough that flea infested rats look edible. Not today. I traveled a dozen blocks along the unoccupied Government Street, turned left and approached one of thousands of empty houses.
Eyes watched as I walked along city streets. I trusted they were too afraid to attack. I strolled beyond the target house, rested against a street sign and waited. Nobody appeared. The only sounds came from squawking birds as they scratched for food.
A skinny brown coyote meandered down the street, avoiding hundreds of rusting cars, hunting for birds, rats, mice, whatever a coyote will eat. Most streets smelled like stagnant swamps.
After waiting a few minutes, I slipped into the alley behind the target house, entered through the back door and descended into the basement.
I discovered this house weeks ago when I scurried inside seeking shelter from acid rain. Like every house on that street, it was unoccupied, owners long dead from disease.
Framed pictures hanging on the walls showed cheery scenes of a happy family before the pandemic. Their family was dead, as was mine. I could live in this house, but I’m not ready to abandon my home.
The motherlode was in the basement, a pantry loaded with cans of food. On that first trip I stuffed my backpack with what I could carry, scanned for hostile Immunes on the street, and hustled back to my house.
Over the past several weeks I had partially emptied that pantry. Today, I intended to pack enough food to last ten days before hunger forced me to venture out and risk being attacked. I was immune to the virus that killed almost everyone, but bullets, knives, typhoid, and dozens of other threats could kill.
I hurried downstairs and loaded my backpack with cans of food. A scratching noise made my heart jump. Another Immune? A predator? I grabbed my long knife and waited for someone or something to appear.
Silence.
After five tense minutes, I peeked around the pantry door. Seeing no one, I grabbed my heavy backpack and rushed toward my house.
***
That night I ate well, savoring the flavors of canned meat and vegetables warmed by a candle. A bottle of cheap red wine from my nearly empty stash helped me forget my beloved Rosemary and our daughters. Before the killer pandemic, I wouldn’t have drunk the stuff. Now the temporary numbness was a treat.
The next day my head hurt from the hangover. It didn’t matter. I was still alive, though I often considered suicide.
Whether I died from suicide, a violent attack or hunger, my life in the city was doomed.
***
Four weeks later the motherlode pantry was empty. My backpack held the last of the canned food.
I had to make life-changing decisions, even though they terrified me.
No food remained in houses within a several-mile radius. Looters had emptied stores. Abandoned cars clogged streets and rusted in toxic rain. Power failed a year ago. I hadn’t spoken to another human being since the pandemic devastated humanity and my wife died.
Food was more difficult to find. If I stayed in Dallas, I would become too weak to forage. Soon thereafter I’d die.
If I left the city, I could only guess at what might kill me.
I didn’t like the unknown, but I knew I’d die if I stayed.
My last bottle of bad wine gave me another hangover and no insights.
***
I escaped ten days later. In my weakened state I could walk only a few miles per day. I carried a club besides my handgun and knife. Food was scarce, but I found a little each day, including rabbits, crows, plants, berries and pigeons. Sometimes I killed an animal with a club and conserved ammunition.
Walking along paved roads littered with abandoned cars and trucks, I watched for hostiles. A few spotted me from a distance but left me in peace. My confidence increased as I traveled further from Dallas. Miles down the road I reached farmland.
The next day I found a young female Immune, emaciated and half-dead. She lay beside the road, so weak she could barely move. Her hunger-crazed eyes tracked me as I approached. Old bruises, purple and green, disfigured most of her face. Blood had spattered on her pants. She wore only one shoe. Her other foot dangled at a strange angle. A vulture circled.
My canteen was full of water. I swallowed some and offered it to her. She sipped and laid back onto the ground. Her eyes flitted about, unsure, maybe crazy. I gave her a piece of dried meat.
After she ate the meat, her mouth moved, but no sound emerged. She tried to say, “thank you.” A few minutes later I offered her another drink of water and a second bite of meat. Her wary eyes glared at me, but she accepted. I moved close to her only when I offered food or water with an outstretched hand. Otherwise, I stayed back several paces.
Her body smelled worse than mine.
I fed and cared for her. She spoke on the third day, but I understood nothing. By the fifth day she could walk a few feet using a crutch I carved from a tree branch. I foraged for food finding berries and small animals, sharing whatever I brought back.
Each time I returned she acted surprised. The bruises on her face remained ugly but the nasty green spots had shrunk. She screamed every night in her sleep. I didn’t ask why. She often whimpered during the day, sounding like an injured puppy.
Her name was Sarah.
A week later, while hunting birds, I found an empty cabin. Looters had damaged it, but we needed shelter. Days grew shorter and colder as fall turned to winter. I hoped we could survive the upcoming cold weather in the cabin.
Later I stumbled upon an undisturbed storage shack hidden several hundred yards behind the cabin. Inside I found a lantern and matches. A trapdoor concealed crude wooden steps that led downward. Using the lantern, I explored the underground cache.
Eureka!
The owners had been preppers. I smiled for the first time since before the pandemic killed everyone I knew. Caressing the blocks of concentrated survival food, I savored the fact that I had also found weapons, soap, clothes, batteries, medicines and a radio.
Sarah and I might survive the winter.
***
Two decades later the smells and memories from those traumatic events after the pandemic continue to haunt us.
***
Sarah and I survived that winter and many more. She smiles more often as she plays with our seven-year-old daughter. We found other friendly Immunes and created a tiny community that helped people stay alive after the fall of civilization.

Writers’ workshop and writing group