After a brutal winter, spring was here and everything was melting. On the ground, large patches of plants were visible once again, emerging from the cold, muddy earth. The areas not covered by the shade of trees allowed the sunlight to dance off the patches of snow still left behind. Spring was taking over fast but winter wasn’t giving up yet, as we were still cold and damp.
Growing up in the hot south, I used to love the snow since I rarely saw it in person. Its novelty was something I looked forward to; I imagined those picturesque snowfalls throwing a white blanket over everything.
My family and I hadn’t lived up north for very long. My new job had brought us here and this was our first winter in the cold. What you don’t realize about the snow until you live in it is how it makes everything pause. That piece of trash is going to stay there, frozen in the snow until spring comes. That beautiful mound of snow is always going to make it hard to walk through. You can shovel it away but you’ll struggle with it the same way the next time it snows. When someone dies outside, their body becomes just a dead mass of flesh; it freezes to the ground and nothing is going to move it. It’s not going anywhere. My God, I hate the snow now. We have been cold for so long we have forgotten what it was like to be warm.
I stand here looking out over this cliff, gazing across a beautiful lake which seems to have been dropped in the middle of the woods below. The knife in my hand is a marvel. After everything it’s been asked to do there isn’t a scratch on it; it’s obviously one of those high tech metal blends that someone spent a fortune on. Its balance is perfect and feels so light. I’m absently running my finger over it, checking it to make sure it is sharp enough. Spine, point, tip, edge to guard, then over again. I’ve had so much time to practice sharpening I know my way around its edge without getting cut. It can’t get any sharper. I stop moving my finger across it, thinking it might force me to quit stalling, but all I end up doing is gripping the handle so hard my hand hurts. I resume my endless task: Spine, point, tip, edge to guard, then over again.
I am so lost in thought I barely even notice the scene before me anymore. It is so perfect it belongs on the cover of a tourism guide. In another life before the gates of hell opened up and spit its fury onto the world, anyone gazing on it would have found comfort in its majesty. But knowing what was out there ripped away the serenity. The horrors hidden under the canopy of trees made the beauty that much harder to look at.
I look past the lake and over the tree tops. Somewhere out there is our home, should it still stand. A bit to the left of the rising sun is my best guess, but I am not sure. Even after this long winter, seeing this lake over the cliffs, I am not sure where we are. Stuffing my cold, numb hand into my filthy pocket to warm it up, I shake my head, smiling at the thought of being so lost.
Smiling may seem a bit odd in a situation such as this, but you should know that being lost brings me fond memories of my departed wife, Anna. I have always been terrible with directions and it hasn’t gotten better even after living outdoors for so long.
During road trips or any other time I had to drive more than a handful of miles, Anna used to map out my routes.
On our first date, I was trying to be Mr. Romance and take her to someplace ‘artsy.’ I set off for this bar called The Electric Boogaloo or some ridiculous name like that. It was the type of place you only see advertised in one of those free weekly community papers. On the way I got us helplessly lost, but in the end it worked out perfectly. We spent so much time talking as we tried to figure out the roads that we got to know each other well. I can still picture her laughing face, lit up by the dashboard lights. Music had been playing over the speakers but all I had heard was her soft, murmuring voice. We fell in love that night, and by the time I got her back home it was time for breakfast. We ended up driving right past her apartment and went to a diner that I had been to before so I wouldn’t get us lost, again. She ditched school while I called in sick to work and we spent the day together. Our first date turned into 15 joy-filled years.
We hadn’t been apart one day since that night. One way or another, we somehow made time to be around each other, even if only for a few minutes to get high in my car as the first date carried on. Right after she finished up school we wasted little time and got pregnant. We sure as hell couldn’t afford a child but we figured out how to make ends meet.
Once Elise was older and started elementary school, I felt it was time for me to move on to grad school. Life was hectic but everything paid off in the end. After graduation and a few years spent putting my new degree to use, I landed a great job up here in the Seattle area. The locals called our part of town “Pill Hill” due to all the hospitals. It was a dream job, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Moving here was a huge change from the south but a welcome one. Anna and Elise couldn’t have been happier.
The home we bought made me proud that I was able to provide it. It was an older home but well maintained, and now it was our turn to take care of it. It had old-fashioned bay windows and a large back yard that faded into the trees. It was like nothing you could find in the south.
That life, all of it, is in the past. Home is now a broken fuselage belonging to some sort of military aircraft. That aircraft which once protected the land that was called America now shelters my daughter and me.
In a never-ending series of horrible tragedies, finding this structure was a miracle and the sole reason we are alive today. I’m guessing it ran out of fuel and crashed through the tress since so much was still intact. Had it been shot down, there wouldn’t be anything left. It wasn’t whole, of course, but there was enough structure left to keep out the worst of the elements. Inside we even managed to find a few supplies to give us a chance through the winter.
While the structure was military grade camouflage, I hadn’t taken any chances. I was so scared and so worried for the safety of Elise that I spent days covering it, obsessing over every leaf. I had used branches and as many needle-bearing tree limbs as I could find on the ground. Looking at the natural camouflage hiding our home, I allowed a bit of pride to sink in. It had obviously held up during the worst of the winter, needing just a few adjustments every few days. I had even managed to lay the branches in a way that diffused smoke enough to not give away our location. The only cutting tool I had is the knife that is in my hand right now. It is some sort of military blade. I am not sure what it’s called but it’s some vicious looking thing and is key to our survival.
When we first found the fuselage, winter’s grip was just taking hold and steadily getting worse. I don’t know how many more hours we could have made it without shelter. I was pretty sure we were safe here; the woods were so dense that anybody would have to accidentally walk right up to our refuge to notice it. But if we found it, so could someone else.
I had to hide us away from everyone. We couldn’t trust anyone. Not anymore. My beautiful Elise. She has seen so much, far more than anyone should, and she is only fourteen.
We used to travel in a group which was a mixed bag of people who just happened to end up together once everything fell apart. At first there were a just a couple of cars. Within a week we had a streaming caravan of driving survivors, but due to lack of leadership that didn’t last long. Movement was slow and wreckage was everywhere. Like everyone else my head was on a constant swivel looking around for them. My temples had a never ending throb from the stress, and every tooth was loose from grinding.
3 weeks ago
We’re stopped again. The lead car has blown a tire. With the roads covered in shattered machines, a blown-out tire is a constant occurrence.
“Man oh man, not again! I’ll get the roof.” With a heavy sigh Jessie got out of the car, slung his rifle over his shoulder and climbed to the roof. Every few cars had someone doing the same. Hours of jogging every morning in his previous life had made him the lighter of the two of us, so whenever we stopped he always climbed up.
Getting out of the driver seat, I look back to check on Anna and Elise. Elise has her head laid on Anna’s shoulders and Anna is giving me a look that dares me to make the “don’t go anywhere” joke again. I smile and get out to take my watch while the others fix the tire.
“I have a bad feeling about this spot, Eric. I don’t like this at all.”
“Stay cool, Jessie. Maybe this time it will be quick.” I looked up at Jessie as he scanned the sides of the interstate. He nervously kept checking the safety on his rifle as he did every stop. Jessie was a small man, just over five feet tall, and the M-4 Carbine rifle looked ridiculously oversized in his arms. Adjusting his glasses and looking down at me from atop the car he continued to complain. “Not. At. All!”
He had only been with us for five nights since we picked him up at a gas stop. His car had been surrounded by those things, but there were only a handful so we were able to easily rescue him. Had so many of us not needed the gas, I am not sure we would have stopped. Finding people was becoming a rare occurrence and Jessie likely would have starved in his family’s station wagon. Even though we had been taking turns driving my car ever since, I never found the right moment to ask him about the child seat I had seen in the back of his.
Jessie wasn’t the only thing we picked up at the truck stop. Our caravan also bore the remnants of a weapons cache from a bloody and abandoned National Guard checkpoint. A lot of people felt a bit more secure at being armed, but it made me wary. Untrained people carrying those high powered rifles seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. Fortunately, there was only enough for each car to be given one weapon to spread out the protection.
“I just KNOW someone up there will decide to camp here tonight.” He looked down at me again shaking his head. “Shit spot!”
Sunset wasn’t far off so I doubted we would travel any further unless we got that tire fixed quickly. That sounds easier than it is. Nobody had spares anymore. It was all about luck in finding a matching tire that could be found on an abandoned car.
The next time Jessie claimed any spot to camp was a good one would be his first, although looking around I had to agree with him. Off the highway was a large field that all of us could settle in, but it was in a crescent shape thickly walled with trees.
A whistle up ahead was quickly followed by word we would be stopping here.
“You called it, Jessie. “ I looked up at him standing on my car, not even wincing at the warping sounds the hood was making. I had just bought the car a few months ago and I quit caring about taking care of it around the time the satellite radio stopped picking up a signal.
Everyone was tired and hanging on by a thread. Little normalities from checking email to wearing clean clothes were gone. No more air conditioned everywhere or standing in your kitchen in your underwear eating raw cookie dough with a spoon. Every habitual thread was cut and nobody knew what to do anymore. Arguments were common, especially with those wanting a say over everyone else. The group returning from the front had been going at it since we had stopped for the flat. From what I could overhear it had something to do with our destination.
Losing interest in their argument, we passed the time talking about what we would do when we got back home. Anna would take up painting again, Elise would finish writing that play she started, and I wanted to put my hands around every neck that got us into this mess.
Suddenly the shouting increased as guns were drawn and shots were fired. We looked toward the front. Standing over a couple of bodies were two men who seemed to have won whatever it was they had been arguing over. By the time everyone in the camp gathered around to digest what had just happened, it became apparent that the noise had brought some of those things to our location. They came pouring over the road, not the woods. We were cut off from escaping.
Screaming came from every direction and I realized my voice had joined in. Gunfire erupted everywhere as civilians simply pointed their rifles wildly and fired. People who until recently had spent their days on keyboards and conference calls were now trying to accomplish what even the highly trained military hadn’t been able to do. Those who had picked a spot close to the road were being cut down by rifle shots faster than they were by our undead attackers.
Once enough people fell, those still standing with rifles ended up making some effective shots, but not enough. The sun hadn’t fully set yet, and through the growing dimness I saw a man a few dozen feet away from me freeze once his gun clicked empty. He had some spare magazines on him but he just couldn’t get his brain to switch out a full magazine with the now empty one. Panic had taken over and he simply stood there with wide eyes, shrieking in fear as he was knocked over. He seemed to recover from his shock just in time to feel his jaw cracking as it was ripped out of his head.
The only one of us quiet was Jessie. He just walked towards them with his rifle to his shoulder, firing coolly, dropping them one after another with accuracy. Obviously there was a lot I didn’t know about my traveling partner.
Were it a Hollywood telling Jessie would have sacrificed himself so my family could get away. Perhaps he would have been screaming for vengeance, yelling the name of whoever that baby seat belonged to. But that would be a lie. Jessie was just tired. He had seen enough of this new world and wanted out. Rifle empty he waded into the swarm, and although I didn’t see it, I heard the little man die.
As they continued to swarm us, ripping into everyone close by, some of us had time to run. Not many. Grabbing Anna and Elise, I pulled them to the woods away from the road. Others were running in the same direction as us but that was fine with me, as I still mistakenly believed in the safety of numbers. I hated that we were running from the cars but it was only a matter of time before we would have to leave them anyway. Cars were nothing more than a coffin waiting to run out of gas.
The thick Northwestern forests were both a blessing and a curse. Those things had a poor sense of smell and sight. They easily lost track of those who made it into the trees, disappearing in the gloom. But they were also able to easily latch onto those who had tripped over something on the forest floor.
Two nights later, after those bitten were given a final rest, there were just 24 of us left.
“I don’t like those guys at ALL, Eric.” Anna confided to me. I looked towards where she was nodding but I knew who it was already. Nobody in the group liked them from what I could tell. They were brothers and they had taken the lead positions. They were the same two whose guns had brought our caravan to an end after their arguing with the other would-be leaders. The brothers went out of their way to present themselves as the outdoor survivalist types. So far, the only skills they had shown were using up supplies and getting intoxicated. Not that we had a traveling bar with us, but they were popping some sort of pills as our group walked on. When we stopped at night it only took a few pulls from a bottle to have a big impact on them. When they drank, they got louder, meaner and more obnoxious. Crude, humorless jokes would follow every night, and uncomfortable laughter was all that came from everyone else. I agreed with Anna but kept assuring her, “The only reason we follow them is that they seem to know where the FEMA camp is.”
That camp was just a rumor but it’s all we had. The brothers were poor white trash but they weren’t stupid. They knew everyone was scared and so tired they could easily be controlled. So they controlled by fear and hope. They claimed even before the TV signals went out that they had seen a FEMA rescue camp just a few days’ walk from where we now stood. The first person to stand up and question them had been kicked out of the group and stripped of everything useful, down to his shoes. A death sentence. A few days later they had to make an example of someone else but this time they simply shot him. Had we any other options, I would have taken them. I hoped things would get better once we found the camp but “hope is the denial of reality.” I am not sure who first said that but, whoever it was, they knew what it was like to face the worst that life had to offer.
I lay there with my eyes closed, willing the pain to go away. I felt myself straddling the edge of consciousness, knowing how much easier life would be if I just let myself fall asleep. I wasn’t sure if it was moments or minutes before, but I had a flash of memory of one of those brothers grinning as he swung a bottle at my head. I focused on the great pain in the back of my head as it pulsated with a wracking throb down to my stomach. I had to take a moment to fight past this pain. Dizzy, I couldn’t make out anything but blurs that didn’t make sense.
After a few moments, I could finally focus on the cause of the noise around me. Struggling with my wife and daughter were the brothers. Trying to stand as the world was spinning around me, I saw that other members in our group shamefully looked away, indicating they didn’t want to get involved; paralyzed in fear. Their cowardice disgusted me, especially Chris’, whom I had pulled from a burning wreck on the highway. When I looked to him for help, his passiveness shocked me the most. It would seem as if my only repayment would be the bright, angry scars on my arms from the cuts and burns suffered while saving him.
I am no military man, nor have I had anything in the way of training, but when your wife and daughter are about to be raped you figure out how to protect them. Had these monsters of men not been soaked from the booze and pills, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. I rushed over and kicked the man on top of Elise in the head as hard as I could manage as he bent over her. My foot had connected awkwardly and exploded in pain but it seemed enough as he toppled over. Elise screamed as I searched the ground for any weapon. Spotting a flashlight next to her bedroll, I wasted no time grabbing it. I fell on top of him as he was beginning to recover from my kick.
I heard Anna cry out and quickly looked over my shoulder. The remaining group had finally gained the courage to help and was handling Anna’s attacker. They pulled him off and beat him without mercy as he tossed empty threats at them.
Enraged at the man below me, I looked down at the cruel face, his greasy and scraggly beard framing his mouth as he screamed up at me, “Fuck you!”
I began to bash his face in with the flashlight. As I brought it up and down savagely beating him, the light had flipped on. Arcs of light ran across the trees and survivors in a macabre strobe light of sweeping tracers. I felt bones crunch under my fist with repeated blows as his warm lifeblood sprayed on me with each smash. A completely new level of stress release pumped with each swing of my hands, not knowing when I began using them or what became of that flashlight.
A hand grabbed my wrist and I turned to see Chris telling me, “It’s over, man. He can’t hurt her no more.” Pathetic gurgles came from beneath me. He wasn’t dead yet but the blood and teeth filling his throat would soon finish the task.
Chris couldn’t meet my eyes for more than a moment. Whether it was from shame at his earlier hesitation or horror at my defending Elise, I did not care.
To my left, Elise was sobbing with her knees pulled up to her chin protectively. I noticed her pants were still on although the belt was loose. He had never gotten to her, at least not in that way. I lunged forward to embrace her but she cringed whimpering, “No, Daddy.” I was covered in blood and no doubt had a frantic look in my eyes so I couldn’t blame her. Physically she was safe, it seemed, but I wish I could say the same for Anna.
I stood up to go to Anna but my injured foot couldn’t support me. On all fours I crawled the dozen feet to kneel by her side. Her attacker’s body lay a few feet away with his head lying awkwardly on his shoulders. At some point in the struggle with the other campers, his neck had been broken.
Someone was holding a wadded shirt to Anna’s stomach and I realized that her assailant had stabbed her in the stomach.
The bleeding stopped that night. We had bandages and antiseptics for the wound. Someone in our group with medical training took care of her and seemed to be guardedly encouraged by her ability to walk around. She was going to be OK but we were told of a few things to watch out for.
Something needed to change. This group was worthless and had nearly gotten us killed twice. Sure, it seemed as if the major problem was gone, but I now knew this collection of cowards weren’t reliable.
As we gathered up our things to leave, apologies and excuses were aplenty as people tried to justify their late help. I ignored them. I grabbed a few items off the bodies of the men that had attacked Anna and Elise. Amongst the items I took were a shotgun and the knife I hold now. Any inventory had been strictly divided out up to that point, but as I packed them away I glared around, daring anyone to stop me.
What would have happened had I not come to in time? Just how long would everyone have stood around doing nothing?
The three of us set out on our own. Although pale, Anna could walk. I limped along, and Elise quietly put one foot in front of the other.
The prospects of blindly making our way through the forest weren’t the best.
By nightfall after our first morning alone, it became apparent that Anna was in serious trouble and our hopes of her injuries being minor were wrong. She was very pale but kept on bravely walking. I think she knew her time was coming but she kept strong so we could keep moving. She never complained; not once. She played “eye spy” with Elise to keep her spirits up. Elise wasn’t talking anymore but she smiled at the right times showing she was at least trying to play along. Elise wasn’t talking to me anymore, but she smiled at the right times the few times I spoke to her.
From the signs I was instructed to watch out for, I think Anna was suffering from it was internal bleeding, but we will never know for sure. As we walked on she coughed and I noticed blood on her mouth. She must have seen my eyes as she touched her hand to her lips, pulling them away damp with redness.
She looked at Elise who was a few steps ahead of us and shook her head at me, whispering “No. She doesn’t need to know this.” She wanted to hide the newest problem from Elise for as long as possible. Agreeing but recognizing its futility, I tore loose some of my undershirt and passed her the rag to cough into.
By the time she finally collapsed, that rag had long become useless it was so saturated with blood. It had long ago lost the ability to hold a single drop.
Laying her on the ground, I made her as comfortable as possible and then held her hand, praying to every god who was willing to listen to make her OK. My eyes streaming with tears, I stared at her feeling utterly helpless and a complete failure for not protecting her. What good was I? Anna was right to not trust those two but I didn’t get us away in time. She would not be laying here on the ground had I listened!
Anna looked at me and smiled, knowing exactly what I was thinking. “Oh stop it, this isn’t your fault. You’ve always been so dramatic,” she whispered. Elise cried out, hugging her and burying her face into her mom’s chest, weeping inconsolably. Cooing to her as she did when Elise was an infant, Anna patted her head trying to calm her. Gripping my hand harder, she ordered me to “Keep an eye on our little one.”
As her last breath left her body, I plunged the knife I had taken from her attacker into her temple. I made sure to pierce the brain so she would not wake up again. Little did I know that it would not be the hardest thing I was forced to do with that knife.
Elise saw it all. I wish she hadn’t but it couldn’t be helped. I would do anything to spare her further suffering and I chose that over seeing her mother turn into one of those things.
One of Anna’s legs twitched and Elise leaped back in fright. I braced myself for what might happen but nothing came to pass. It was merely a death spasm.
I looked around me through my tear-swollen eyes as if the answer to what to do next would appear. It was so cold I could feel my tears freezing to my face. The snow had kicked up enough that Anna’s body was collecting a snowy mask.
It was then that I spotted the fuselage, which would become our home. Once inside, Elise had fitfully slept for days from the trauma she had faced. Nothing sounded better than sleep, but I needed to stay awake to investigate every noise around us.
Winter was harsh and we barely survived. Despite a strict ration, the MRE’s and the little food that was left in our packs was barely enough to sustain us, and we were running out of time when spring began.
I didn’t know what else to do. I had isolated us to survive but now we had no help. Survival was all about risks and tradeoffs.
We were both so skinny now. Elise had always been a slim girl but now she was heart-wrenching to look at. I turned my head away from the cliff view to look at her. Despite months of tears and grime, I could still see that beautiful face of my daughter.
I watched her claw-like fingers brush her now thin hair away from sunken cheeks. I wondered if anyone else would be able to recognize the girl sitting by the meager fire. Not long ago, she had gotten into a silly fight with her mother, blaming her for the curse of thick unmanageable hair. Now I could see her scalp. Her hair looked so thin it seemed as if the wind might blow some strands right off. But she still had those beautiful green eyes.
She still didn’t talk much but she said enough that I knew she was in pain from starvation. The last MRE, some sort of pork lathered in a godless pink sauce, had been consumed days ago.
I gripped my knife knowing what had to be done. I looked at Elise and tried to gather the courage to stop her suffering. We were out of time and options. I smiled at her and told her, “I love you.”
She looked back at me with those slowly dying green eyes and then just turned away to stare forward again, lost in her own thoughts. She was so tired of me saying “I love you,” but I needed to say it each time.
I have to do this now and not hesitate. Now. I have to do it now while I still have the strength to do it. This won’t get any easier.
“I do this for you, Elise,” I mutter to myself as I wipe away a tear.
Gripping the knife, I squat down and take a deep steadying breath. I then grab the flesh and begin cutting into the newly thawed remains of Elise’s mother, my wife, Anna. I have no choice, we have to eat.
“For Elise” was originally published in 2012 for the Hunger Pangs: Dark Confessions Anthology by MayDay Collective Press.