The remnants of our expedition stood in a half-circle around the body of Selene. Her face was a pale blue in the bitter cold. We had made sure to wrap her up in the warmest clothes we could spare to give her a proper send-off, but even that wasn’t enough. Perry had done his best to save her, but the black rot was too much. She passed long after everyone had turned in and the fire had turned to smoke. I wondered what Adelaide would think of all this. Would she blame us for the death of her daughter? She knew the risks and so did Selene. Besides, this expedition was Adelaide’s idea. It just seemed like a cruel twist of fate that her daughter would die on the eve of our return. Adelaide and Selene’s relationship had been rocky over the past year, though, they were still family. Perry did make sure to relay Selenes’ wish to be buried here instead of in New Canada. She loved the Bay, and she was always independent. I imagine she preferred a graveyard of one than just another headstone in a countless sea of others.
Bart and Hailey both opted to say a few words. They talked about Selene’s bravery, her willingness to always offer to lend help, how she was a natural shot with a rifle, and how she would always be remembered. They mentioned her mother, Adelaide, and how she would be heartbroken to hear the news.
Neither Bart nor Hailey’s faces showed any sign of emotion, no flicker of feeling as they delivered their impromptu eulogies. I’m sure they’d both say that there was no time for grief. I worry I will one day become as desensitized as them. As I peered down at Selene’s face, her body serenely posed as if she were sleeping, I felt a pang in my gut. I saw a peace that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I’m sure most of this “peace” that I saw was merely a result of Perry’s previous work as a mortician, but it still felt real. I privately hoped that wherever Selene was now, it was as peaceful as her visage now made it seem. Before long, Selene was just a pile of gravel and a small wooden cross marking her resting place. I insisted we all pick a memento to leave at the site. Hailey looked a bit skeptical. Being a Community Defense Group (CDG) member, I’m sure she felt such an act of commemoration was silly, but after minimal urging she obliged. Bart wasn’t too thrilled either, but being the appointed leader of the group, he didn’t want to look like he didn’t care about another member of the expedition.
Perry left a couple of hand-picked flowers from the forest, nicely arranging them in front of the modest wooden cross now marking Selene’s resting place. One was bright purple with thin elegant petals, another was a more muted yellow with a thick stem, and the third was crimson with a bunch of leaves bunched together. It’s incredible how much nature had roared back in the decade following the war. The trees were as vibrant as ever. The wind whistled through the forest’s branches in an almost musical way. Of course, the war had left its scars everywhere, but in those ashes, new life flourished, a life that was permanently marked for better or worse. Just on the edge of the trees splayed out around us, a deerling poked its head out of the treeline. It’s two sets of eyes anxiously peering back and forth, every so often it bent its head down to nibble on a few sparse tufts of dillweed, more curious than fearful of us.
I took a book titled The Land Down Under out of my bag and arranged it on top of the pile of rocks just in front of the cross. I had only managed to skim through it, but from what I could gather it tells the sordid tale of a subterraneous race of rock people who emerge from the Earth’s caves and invade the land above. A band of adventures must journey to “the land down under” and stop them. I found this book a few years back trifling through the rubble of an old gas station. I had to scare off several canids who had already picked the place clean of any animal remains. Thankfully, they were already full, or else that fight could’ve ended a lot worse.
I saw Bart fashion a pair of dog tags around the cross. I always wondered whether he served in the war or not. He was about the right age and had the temperament. He never talked much, always opting to keep interactions practical and efficient. Whether that was a result of Ariana’s passing a few years back, military service, or how he was, I couldn’t say for sure. He always seemed like he was somewhere else in his mind. Looking around, I couldn’t blame him.
After the funeral, Hailey and Bart agreed on the idea that we camp here for the night and opt for reaching New Canada tomorrow morning. We were stopped a few miles southeast, on the banks of the Bay, with an amalgam of thick pine forest surrounding us on all sides. The sun was setting, and it was dangerous to travel by night. Camping out in the open was preferable. We were more visible, but so was anything else that looked to give us trouble. Hailey and Bart immediately set off to gather firewood, while Perry began prepping some deerling meat and canned beetroot for dinner. I offered to help but he said that keeping his hands busy was his best way of keeping his mind distracted.
I opted to set up our tents for the night. Prior to this expedition, I had never been camping once, but after a year of traveling, all the little things became second nature. In an hour, four neat grey tents were set up facing each other around a small fire pit. Hailey and Bart had come back with a handful of driftwood in each hand, and Perry was hard at work, cooking up the same meal we’d had almost every day of the expedition.
I spend most nights just staring into the fire, but on some evenings, when I feel less melancholic than usual, I bury myself in a book. I brought with me on the trek several worn novels: a few Stephen Kings, a couple of pulpy late 1900s fantasy novels, and my current read, The Black Death 1346-1353: A Complete History by Onheil Mackenzie Smith. I found the compendium a few months back while scavenging the remnants of a school in northern Dakota. Most everything had been burnt out and turned into rubble or ash, likely due to a decade of lightning storms in the area or a raid by the local Ember chapter. Somehow this treatise on the Black Death had survived in what can I only assume was a school library. It seemed fitting. Reading helped to sort me out on nights like tonight when the thick, murky gray clouds have dissipated and a few stars are able to peek through.
Every time I pick up a book, especially while I’ve been gone, I imagine Caterina with me. Smiling. Always inquisitively peeking at the books I would bring back from scavenging. She lived a few dwellings down from me in Pavillion. I had caught her reading Marx on her stoop one day, I joked about what the Council would think if they knew we had a Communist in our midst. She was clearly a bit embarrassed, but I immediately followed with a solemn vow that her secret was safe with me. She looked at me for a moment and then went on this long diatribe about how capitalism was inherently exploitative and that we need only look at how the establishment responded to Marx and Lenin to know how true their words were.
She had a point, but even those old arguments had turned to ash twelve years ago like everything else. I asked Caterina, right then, if she wanted to help me start a local library. I lived by myself and most of my dwelling was just piles of books on the floor and on shelves that I had found while scavenging. Her eyes lit up at the thought. A week later, we were loaning out books all over the settlement for a modest fee. She would usually manage requests while I would be out most of the time looking for new inventory. I wondered what she would think of my newest find. She’d probably see the morbid humor, I hope. She was so sad when I told her I was leaving. I could see some measure of disappointment. I reassured her that we had plenty of stock for the year, and at this point, she barely even needed me to run the library.
It was only until a few months in that I realized just how much she had grown to care for me, a dewy brown-haired grizzled depressed dope. I considered almost every night since whether I should ask her out on a date when I got back. She was almost ten years younger than me, but after turning thirty-six, age means less and less right? After I work up the courage to ask her out, I remember that maybe I’m misreading the situation or maybe we’re just co-workers or maybe she’s found some other less depressed, charming gentlemen to whisk her away. Then, I think about where would we even go. New Canada wasn’t so much known for its romantic hotspots, as it was for its efficient use of limited resources to ensure the survival of the fifteen hundred souls under its purview. Inevitably, I wonder if Caterina would even be there when I got back. Maybe, the two years we had spent building that library was a lie. Maybe, she never really cared at all. Finally, the night ends with a cigarette and a drink while I try to convince myself that I’m not crazy.
The caricatures we draw of people are always worse than the truth, even if the truth still hurts. I can’t remember what cheesy rom-com that line comes from, but I remember watching it in high school after I had gotten dumped. The main character’s gay best friend dramatically delivers it after the main guy gets dumped by the love interest. It’s funny what things bubble up when you least expect it. I wondered how long that line would continue to stick with me. Every vision of the old world eventually fades. I remember the shapes and some of the contours, but the people, their faces, they are gone. Their smiles, their bodies, and their hearts have faded, and I know, one day, I’ll wake up and any trace of them will have fully disappeared. I fear this lapse to be permanent, and with time, it’s only going to get worse, the faces of my parents, my brother, and my neighborhood eviscerated by the need to survive. Pretty soon, even the monuments will be gone as well. Whole towns that I have a memory of driving through back then have been taken either by the bombs, the bitter cold, or a mix of both. Not even the rubble remains. The old world was a distant memory, a mountaintop only visible through a thick mist.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. Looking up, I see Hailey perched next to me. No words were exchanged, just a simple nod telling me that she was taking my place to keep watch for the night. After a year, the group had developed a rhythm, an unsaid language that covered all the little details that would keep most of us alive for the year we were down south. I gathered my book and proceeded to my tent. Looking back briefly, I notice Hailey leaving what looks like a small piece of paper underneath a small grayish-blue rock beneath the wooden cross that marked Selene’s grave.
I entered my tent so to make sure Hailey didn’t notice me viewing what I presumed to be a very private moment. The notion that Hailey and Selene’s relationship was far more robust than I thought kept me wide awake into the early hours of the morning. In some sense, it was expected. Being a CDG member had become a way of life. You had few if any friends. You were dedicated to honing your craft in service of protecting those who can’t protect themselves. You were the soldiers of the new world. I made a mental note to come back here and read the note at some point. I had to know more.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. This piece consists of two scenes from a potential book-length project that I’m working on. I hope you like it. I would love to know any feedback you might have. Also, as always, thank you to everyone who has subscribed. I’ll talk to you next week!