Last Man Standing
The emptiness is resounding. I am looking around the dead, gray landscape from the cave opening. Utter destruction and oblivion all around. The politicians and writers and scientists have been warning about it for years and here it was finally come. Nuclear apocalypse.
I have to say, I’m not sure who was ultimately responsible. As a geopolitics and news junkie this seems odd. There was a lot of global tension and doomsday clocks hitting midnight ever since that North Korean and Iranian threat. “World War 3 looms” was the headlines of the New York Times the day it happened.
All I can remember from that day was sitting around with my buddies Joe and Jon and a couple of beers. We were a couple of lawyers whose favorite subject was politics. I don’t remember what exactly we were saying because the complete onslaught of dramatic world events was so overwhelming. I remember comparing it to the day the archduke was assassinated. Someone else, I think Joe, said 911.
I’m not sure when it happened but there was a sudden boom, blinding light and a really awful smell. We were frozen stiff. Then somebody mentioned jumping into a car and driving away, something about radiation and poisonous fumes. I honest to G-d don’t remember what happened after that, except that I woke up in a cave somewhere. I guess I was unconscious and they thought I might have been a corpse. I guess I could understand ditching a corpse. I probably would have done the same thing.
I was in the middle of nowhere. A wooded area bordered the cave with no signs of life. I was incredibly frightened. This was my first day at the cave, after the nuclear apocalypse. I was alone. I was hungry. And I thought I might have been infected by something. I didn’t think I’d survive much longer. That was when I met Hymie.
Hymie Shiffer is a neurosurgeon by profession and all around scientist by personal interest. He spends time alone in nature to meditate and relax from his daily job pressures. Fortunately for him, here he was when the bombs fell. Away from civilization. Far from the cross-hairs of North Koreans and Iranians. He knew something was wrong however and so went in search of a fellow survivor. That was when he found me.
I was lying on the ground, hungry and in pain and in a general state of depression. As I lay there feeling bad for myself, I heard: “Hi there.”
I looked up startled and then relieved and then excited. He had a bulky backpack on his back. In his one hand was a first aid kit. In the other a picnic basket.
I looked at him pleadingly and he obligingly approached and with a look of concern, examined me all over. I lay there content to be completely in his mercy as there was nobody else I would have rather been at the mercy of in that moment.
“You’re ok friend.” He said finally after much prodding and pinching and testing with a metal instrument. “No radiation, no infections. You’re clean as a whistle.”
I’m no religious man but at that moment he appeared to me to be an angel. He radiated comfort and good tidings in an otherwise bleak and hostile world.
“Would you like something to eat?” his even voice spoke gently and without waiting for an answer, he pulled out a sandwich and an apple juice juice box. “It’s chicken. The protein will help you.”
I weakly grabbed it and greedily scarfed it down. It was the most delicious thing I remember eating my whole life.
“Eat well my friend. I have food stocked for some time.”
“Who did it?” I ask.
“The bombing. Is there any news?”
He looked at me sympathetically as he gathered the empty food packaging. “There’s no news stations left to tell us what happened. Been trying to get an internet connection. Even been fiddling with my old radio. Nothing but empty white noise.”
I absorbed that with growing trepidation. “Must be other survivors like us out there, right?”
“Oh yeah, little pockets here and there. But I imagine the vast majority were taken by the bombs. Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a way bigger scale.”
My head started pounding. How was this possible? How did I manage to survive?
“And the air is breathable?”
“Luckily where we’re located is far enough from the impacted areas. I was truly shocked to find negligible levels of radiation. Thank the Lord.”
You know it would have been nice if he hadn’t made it happen in the first place. But I didn’t say anything. Who am I to question the Lord’s plans.
Today starts off much the same as yesterday. I lie on the ground in a weak state, huddled under the blanket give to me by the kind doctor. He sits nearby, smoking a cigar and meditating.
I cough weakly.
He looks at me with concern and hurries over to tighten the blanket around me. My head rests on his backpack, used as a makeshift pillow.
He pulls out a piece of cheese from his basket along with a thermos.
“Eat some breakfast, my friend, you need to keep up your strength.”
Grateful for the food, I lift myself slightly off the ground and gobble it down.
“Did you eat?” I ask suddenly.
He smiles. “Yes. I have enough in my basket for a both of us if I ration properly.”
“For how long?”
“A couple days. Maybe a week if we tighten our belts a bit. I have more at my shed, but that’s a ways off and I’m unsure about radiation levels there.”
I wince. “So what do we do? We’ll run out of food eventually.”
He nodded. “We will. But maybe in a few days the radiation levels will go down, reducing our risk.”
“So how do you know we’re not already irradiated?”
“Oh you would know. The abnormal formations on the skin would make it very clear.”
I laugh. “I’ve always said we’re a very smart species. Only we could be brilliant enough to blow ourselves up with nuclear bombs.”
“We never do seem to learn our lessons. One would think after the first two times.”
I stretched my aching body on the ground with a groan. “Well now what?”
“We wait to see if other people come by.”
I continue lying there for hours, thinking about everything and time just started going by. The doctor comes around every so often with something to eat and a kind smile.
A sudden noise breaks the silence and we both look up startled. Out of the dead, empty woods walk a few people. They come closer and I see two men and a woman.
“Come join us friends.” The doctor calls out.
“What if they’re irradiated?” I whisper quickly.
“They wouldn’t have made it here now.”
“Could you check them anyway with that machine of yours?”
He smiles at me. “Yes. Don’t worry.”
They come closer.
I see that one man is very large, towering over the others. His eyes are open wide and a big smile is on his face. The woman is crying, holding the hand of the big man. On the other side is a scowling, bearded man dressed in army fatigues and brandishing a hunting knife.
The bearded man stepped forward, when they were within proximity and regarded us both with a calculating look.
“It’s only you two?”
The doctor nodded. “Yes sir. I’m Hymie and this is — “
“Jim.” I called out from the ground. “How did you all survive?”
“Probably about the same way you did.” The bearded man once again spoke up. “Damn luck. Being at the right place at the right time. I’m George by the way. These are Mrs. Jimenez and her son Jose.”
The teary eyed woman blinks and attempts a smile. “So we’re the survivors huh?”
“That’s what it looks like for now.” I say. “Although there could be others out there.”
“Far as I’m concerned, it’s just us out there.” George interrupted. “Not a soul around.”
His eyes rested on the doctor’s basket. “Think we could have a bite? We’re all starving here.”
Jose, who had just been standing silently beside his mother with a smile on his face and a vague look in his eyes, suddenly seemed to perk up.
“Food.” He said softly, as if afraid to scare it away.
“We got food here, don’t worry folks.”
The doctor pulled out sandwiches and distributed them to each of the newcomers.
They grabbed them eagerly and started gulping them down, with the exception of the woman who was watching to see that her son was eating before she took a bite. She had no reason to fear. He seemed to breathe the entire thing down in an instant. His mouth salivated as he stared at the basket. The mother took off a piece and gave the rest to her son.
“You better eat also, you need to keep up your strength.” The doctor said gently. He pulled out some cheese and handed it to her. “Eat also, for your son’s sake. He needs you.”
She took it hesitantly as her son’s gaze shot eagerly to it. He started salivating. She quickly ate it with a guilty look on her face.
George was staring at them, an amused, almost mocking look on his face. “Your a good mom. But your boy had better get a reality check.”
The large boy didn’t seem to hear anything. He stood there oblivious, smiling and smacking his lips, eyes trained on the basket.
“He has a developmental disorder.” His mother said pleadingly. “He doesn’t understand what’s going on, he’s just hungry.”
“So are we all.” George shot back. “And you better keep a handle on him, I see where his eyes are. I don’t care how disabled he is, we’re not gonna starve for his sake.”
The mother gripped her son’s hand tightly and put an around around him, glaring fiercely at George, as if to protect her son from him.
“Have you no shame? How do you speak like that? What would you do if you had a son?”
“I would teach him the ways of the world. I would teach him that nothing matters any more but survival. And if he’s too thick to get it, well…” he let his words trail off.
The doctor raised his hand. “Ok. We have to cooperate if we want a chance to survive. And we will all help each other. As a great man once said, don’t do to others what you wouldn’t have done to you.”
“Screw religion. What G-d would allow this to happen?”
The woman stared at him. “Do you have any principles?”
He shrugged and laughed. “Survival of the fittest.”
Later in the day, when the sky started darkening, clouds started to gather over us and the first tiny pricks of rain splattered on us.
I got up weakly and made for the cave, followed by big Jose and his mother, while the doctor gathered up his gear and basket and George gathered up some wood for a fire.
Jose was staring straight ahead as if in a trance, mouth agape, hands on his ears. “Don’t worry baby, it’s only rain. Everything is gonna be ok.”
I watch as mother comforts son and I remember a similar scene from when I was a kid years ago. A certain feeling of warmth tugs at my heart and a smile can’t help but sneak onto my lips.
“Into the cave everyone.” The doctor calls out, waving his basket filled hand. “I don’t want anybody to catch cold.”
We all sat huddled against the wall of the cave and watched the now torrential rain fall outside the cave.
George had collected some wood and was now trying to set up a fire.
“Need any help with that?” The doctor says.
“Nope.” George shook his head as he worked. “I’m an outdoorsman. This is my job.”
He continued at it, rubbing pieces of flint together to create a spark.
“Say what skills do you all have?” He shot us a quick glance. “If we’re gonna live together, start over with human civilization, we’re gonna have to know what skills we got here.”
I spoke up. “Well we got the doctor over there. I’m a lawyer and historian. And…”
“I’m a teacher.” The woman said.
“Well there we have it.” George laughed roughly. We have five mouths to feed and only two useful people. Wonderful.”
“How dare you — “ the woman sputtered.
“Well you too I suppose because we need a woman.”
“If we are to rebuild a civilized society, we are going to need laws.” I say, offended. “And we will need to remember our history. I plan to write it all down. That will be my contribution.”
George glared but said nothing, continuing at his fire building.
A spark lights the cave. Then another. Soon the fire is roaring and we gather around it, basking in its warmth.
The doctor reached over and pulled food out of his basket: cheese, some smoked salmon, bread, a sandwich or two, a bag of Lays chips, some cookies and a bottle of wine.
“This is the last of it. Tomorrow we’re going to have to make a trip to my cottage to refuel.”
We all grabbed, passed around and enjoyed. For the first time in days I smiled.
The doctor, after having a few drinks of his wine, began to sing a song.
“By The Rivers Of Babylonnn
There we saaat
Aaand we wept
as we remembered Zion.”
We all joined in with clapping and singing and even big Jose jumped up and started hopping from foot to foot. We all laughed and enjoyed the moment. It was a memorable night.
I woke up with a hangover. I saw the empty wine bottle and wrappers and got confused. Didn’t we decide to save the cheese for breakfast? Why was the empty wrapper there? I glanced around and saw only Jose and his mother sleeping nearby. No doctor or George. I squinted and noticed something clenched in Jose’s fist. It was a hunk of cheese.
I coughed and they both stirred. Suddenly Jose opened his eyes and seeing me looking at his hand, he shoved the cheese in his mouth and swallowed it down, giving me a triumphant look.
“No!” I glared angrily. “That was supposed to be for all of us.”
“What’s the matter? “ his mother yawned, waking.
“Your son ate our breakfast. That’s all.”
She looked quickly at her son. “He’s so hungry, that’s all.”
The doctor and George walked in.
“He ate the cheese.” I said pointing.
George’s eyes flashed with anger. “We can’t do this anymore. He’s eating everything.”
“Please have some pity!” The mother cried out.
“It’s ok.” The doctor said gently. “We’re going to get more food from my cottage. Nobody’s going to starve.” He peered at Jose. “But it might be a good idea to try to curb your son’s eating.”
Jose smiled innocently and his mother took his hand and said, “Did you hear what the man said Jose? You can’t eat what you want here.”
I regarded Jose and decided that he didn’t understand a word.
I sighed and decided to start my history book. I debated between American and World History. Finally I decided people needed to know how everything started.
I began. I scribbled with my pen, Prehistory: The Infancy of Man. And I started writing. I wrote about the Big Bang, the infinite cosmos, the beginnings of life on earth, evolution, the dinosaurs and finally, man. I outlined it all sketchily, because I couldn't remember all the details off the top of my head. I put down my pen after describing homo sapiens and neanderthals and nodded off to sleep.
I was awoken by a shout. I snapped awake and saw George coming with the doctor from the woods. In their hands were big burlap sacks.
“More food!” George bellowed.
“You made it ok? No radiation?”
The doctor shook his head. “Down to safer levels, I hope. Anyways it was brave the outdoors or starve to death.”
“Yeah, and I’d hunt something but there’s not a beast in sight.” George added. “But luckily this man is well stocked up. He’s got a deep freezer in there, big enough to fit a man.”
“One must be supplied when spending so much time alone in the woods. As for the beasts, they must have all fled but the radiation will have likely caught up with them.” The professor sighed. “So we took all there was left there. Luckily I make my own food when I stay here. Cheese, smoked salmon, sour pickles, wine, we should be well stocked with all of that, until we figure out our next source of food.”
I involuntarily looked at Jose. Sure enough, his mouth was watering. I could see the drool on his chin, and he was watching the sacks movements like someone scouting for gold.
“Keep it all safe.” I said quickly.
“Yeah we are. We’re keeping it all mighty safe.” George said, making the same observation I did. “Don’t you worry.”
They hauled the bags away, out of sight, and Jose looked on hungrily. His mother held him and tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry my baby. We’ll all get to eat soon.”
I continued writing and shortly after we all sat down for a delicious lunch. There was the doctor’s homemade cheese along with his pickles which were tge perfect amount of sour. George had done a fire and cooked up some eggs, which I have to say were delicious. There was bottled water which the doctor had kept, because as the doctor said, “we can’t drink wine all the time.”
I ate very well and was ready for a nice, satisfying nap. As I was closing my eyes, I noticed Jose looking to see if there were any leftovers.
“You’re not full yet?” I said incredulously. If this couldn’t fill him up, nothing could.
“My boy’s a growing boy.” His mother said. “It’s hard enough. He’s used to eating on his own demand.”
“Yeah but not here. Here we can’t live like that.”
“You’ve all made that perfectly clear.”
I didn’t want to continue fighting. I tried to steer the conversation away from her son. “So how did you find George?”
“He was in the woods. We were running away from all the chaos and people were saying, run to the woods! So I brought Jose here and we bumped into that guy. He said he knew the woods, and we better come with him. I was scared and exhausted and I certainly don’t know the woods. So we went with him. I didn’t know what a cruel man he was though.”
I ignored the comment. “What did you teach?”
“Spanish, English, Social Studies. All to high school kids. You’re a lawyer, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah. I can’t believe this actually happened. Did you happen to hear who did it?”
She shook her head. “I don’t. And honestly who cares? Whoever did it, it doesn’t change anything.”
“I know but I can’t believe it actually — “
“Hey. Mrs. Um…” George stood there beckoning to the woman.
“Maria, could I talk to you?”
She looked carefully at her son who was preoccupied with the cave wall. “Could you keep an eye on him?” She said.
They left the cave and the two of us were left alone.
I regarded him curiously. He was a very big man with face of a prepubescent. His hairless, round face was surrounded by layers of fat below the chin. His head was covered with matted, blond hair which fell over his forehead and his face held the perpetual smile of a shy kid on his first day of school.
I gave a little wave but seemed completely out of his range of focus. I coughed and said, “hello” but he completely ignored me.
I gave up and resumed work on my book.
The bronze age. The iron age. The beginning of human civilization. Mesopotamia, the cradle of human civilization. The Phoenicians. The Sumerians. The Assyrians. The Egyptians. Polytheism. Monotheism. The Hebrews. I wrote more here, less there. It was inconsistent but there were no scholarly boards to dismiss my writings. My book was all we had to go on. Now if only I could find out who dropped the bomb by the time I reach the end of the book.
I put down my manuscript and stretched. I felt a pride in my project. Perhaps next I could write a book of laws. Maybe one day a religion may be inspired by my writings.
Maria stepped back inside the cave with George following behind her. “Think about it Maria. It could be advantageous for both of us.”
She smiled and nodded. “I will George. How’s my boy doing?”
I lifted a thumbs up. “Very well behaved. Didn’t move an inch since you left.”
She reached over and squeezed Jose’s hand. “Baby, George is going to help us for now on. You know George? The man who helped us through the woods.”
Jose didn’t give any indication that he knew or cared who George was.
“Well anyways he’s gonna help us baby. We’re all gonna help each other.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what arrangements they had made, but I assumed George wasn’t trying to help big Jose out of the goodness of his own heart. That was confirmed with George blowing a kiss and Maria reciprocating.
I turn back to my manuscript. Ancient Greece, the age of the epics. Homer’s Odyssey, The Trojan War and Helen of Troy.
Utter chaos. Screaming. Crying. Tears of utter madness.
I try to write but I can’t. The reality of what happened hasn’t really set in yet, but my heart is pounding violently and my hand won’t stop shaking.
All I can hear is George roaring and screaming curses about what has just been discovered. Maria is crying, sobbing and pleading. There will be no mercy this time though.
The doctor just stands there, hands hanging limply to his side, his face pale as a ghost.
I try to take a deep breath but find it impossible. All I can see are the big empty burlap sacks, strewn on the floor of the cave in front of me. The sacks that were bulging full with food just yesterday. All the food we have left.
“Where is he?” George screamed savagely. “I’ll strangle him myself with my own two hands, I swear.”
“Please. He’s disabled. He doesn’t know any better.” Maria begged and pleaded, through her sobs.
“You caused all of this. You. I trusted you. And you had to blab to that retard son of yours!”
“He was starving!” She wailed. “You can’t understand.”
George grabbed her arm. “I understand that you’re a liar. You promised and betrayed your word. Women!” He spat.
“Is there nothing left?” I said in hopeless dread.
“Nothing.” The doctor confirmed morosely.
“Not even in your cabin?”
His look told me everything. “We took every last bit of food.”
I leaned against the cave wall weakly. “Any sign of Jose?”
“No.” The doctor sighed. He must have gotten frightened and ran off into the woods.”
“As he should be.” George snarled. “I’m gonna track him down like the animal he is and kill him. I swear to you all on my life.”
“Please!” Maria ran to the doctor. “Stop him. Please don’t let him murder my son.”
The doctor gave her a sympathetic but firm look. “Madam, your son did condemn us all to death by starvation. I don’t know where we’ll get more food from, but I’m quite sure whatever we find will get eaten by your son. I feel for you, trust me, but we need a solution.”
“It was my fault. I told him where the food was. I will never do that again. Don’t ever tell me where the food is. Do whatever you want, but please don’t hurt my baby.”
She collapsed into sobs and the doctor glanced at me.
“What do you say?”
I shook my head without saying anything.
“Never.” George said. “I will never give that dimwit another chance.”
I cleared my throat. I had to say something. “Listen. All of you. We all have valid arguments. But we cannot just kill each other based on our feelings. Civilization may be gone, but as long as there are human beings around we need basic law and order.”
“Damn all that! There is no more law and order. We are animals just like anything else out there, and now it’s the law of the jungle that applies.”
“I agree with our lawyer.” The doctor said. “We all need to cooperate if we’re to survive. And that means not acting unilaterally but by consensus.” He paused. “We need to vote. We need to vote for a leader.”
“Vote for a leader? None of you are leading me. In your dreams.” George pointed to the doctor. “I’ll bet you wanna lead. You’re all gonna vote for the nice old man, huh? Never.”
I raised my voice. “George, the only fair system is secret ballot voting. No bullying, no bribing. If you want, vote for yourself, but I hope you think you’ll make a damn good leader.”
I took my paper and cut four pieces. “Secret vote.” I repeated. “The fairest way. Trust me, I’m a lawyer.”
Everyone is handed a paper and pen and I say the rules: “Ok folks, we have two options. We can do majority wins, with multiple rounds if nobody gets a majority. Majority is defined as three votes. Or we can do first past the post. The winner is the one with the most votes. That means if everyone votes for themselves and the vote is split, if one person gets one more vote, they win. Now if two people get two votes apiece, then there will be another round. Now as your attorney, I recommend we do the first option so the leader gets a clear, majority mandate. Any objections?”
George snorted. “Either way the thing’s gonna be tilted away from me, so do what you want.”
The doctor said, “Sounds fair to me.”
Maria nodded amid her sobbing. “Yes, yes, we’ll do it that way.”
The ballots are distributed, everyone goes to their private corner, we take a few moments to think, then scribble under shielded hand.
I collect the ballots, count them, then look up at everyone.
“Are you ready?”
I already know who it’s going to be because it’s quite obvious. Or is it? I realize that there is at least one swing vote among us if not two. Maybe it’s not who I think it’s going to be?”
They all look at me expectantly.
I sigh and flip over the papers. I squint. That’s funny. I clear my throat.
“Um, Jim.” The next one.
“Jim.” I won. Just for curiosity, the final one. “Jim.”
My throat is dry.
“You all voted for me? Why?”
The doctor: “You’re a man of the law. History. You’re experienced.”
Maria: “I was going to vote for the doctor but I figured he didn’t have enough support.” She glanced at George. “At least you seem fair. And you know the laws.”
George: “Yada yada. No way I was gonna win, so it’s all the same to me.” He shrugged and spit. “And you do seem to understand what needs to be done with the retard.”
“Enough!” Maria screamed, pointing at me. “We just elected you. Shut this horrible man up!”
“No no no.” George gloated. “If we’re gonna have laws, we’re gonna have freedom of speech.” He turned to me and said sarcastically, “Well dear leader? Pronounce judgement upon us dear father, oh wisest of men.”
I said, “Freedom of speech is inviolable. Everyone must be able to speak their minds.”
Maria threw up her arms, looked up and wailed her voice out.
The doctor looked at Maria with the look of a clergy at the palliative home. “Maria.” He pleaded. “Are you a religious woman?”
“I’m Catholic.” She whispered between sobs, her face now buried in her hands.
“Ok good. I’m Jewish. We both believe that everything has a purpose. G-d has a plan for everybody and everything. Even this horrible disaster. We survived the flood all those years ago didn’t we? And all the wads and disasters that have befallen us since? Take a lesson from my people. Forever suffering but always with awareness that all suffering, as impossible to comprehend and cast blame for as it is, is part of the Lord’s master plan. Is that not a comforting thought?”
“But why would the Lord have to do such a terrible thing to begin with? And why believe in such a Lord?” George mocked. “What I don’t and never did understand is how an intelligent doctor like yourself could be religious. You see all the science and the evidence. Are you just in denial?”
“I see all the science, yes, as evidence for my beliefs. Science only makes me appreciate the Lord more. It never once made me question my belief.”
“Ah phooey, all you religious folk. And you Jim?” He said turning to me. “Are you religious also?”
I shrug. “I seek proof. I listen to arguments. I respect all. Do I belong to an organized religion? No. Do I believe in a spiritual entity that created the universe? I veer towards yes.”
“What a lawyerly answer.” George sneered. “Positions taken with lots of words to cushion opposition from either side. Well veer away, dear leader. Keep us all happy while you can.”
I ignore him. “Ok so two things on the agenda. We need more food and the matter with Jose.”
Maria turned to me with eyes full of despair, hopelessness and dread. “Please. Even if you’re not a religious man. For the sake of all that is right. Please do not allow him to kill my son.”
“I hope I didn’t waste my vote on you.” George said. “Her son is the death of us all. He must be put down.”
“Stop SAYING that.”
“Oh, Lord help us from this woman.”
I feel my head swimming.
The doctor gives me a gentle smile. “You were chosen to make a decision Jim.”
I take a deep breath. “You know, in our history we’ve had some pretty bad moments. There have been massacres, genocides and torture. During times of war and desperation, certain norms are cast aside. The ideal is no longer afforded.” I glance at Maria with pity. “But through all the wars and murder, certain standards remained. And through all our ancestor’s misery and blood lust, children and idiots were never touched.”
All is silent.
Then, “I knew it. Damn you all to hell!” and George stormed out.
Maria ran to me and collapsed at my feet, looking at me gratefully. The doctor smiled. “Civilization may have gone with the bombs, but our basic value remain still.”
“Yes.” I said. “Let’s just hope George feels the same way.”
There is an uneasy feeling in the air.
George hasn’t been seen since yesterday. Jose hasn’t been seen since he disappeared.
I sit in the cave, trying to think of a possible source of food as my stomach growls. The doctor had suggested grass as a possible food source. I went to sleep hungry. In my dreams, the food was still here and I was feasting on the doctor’s homemade cheese. It was heavenly. Unfortunately, by the time I’m forced awake by my circadian rhythms the food is all gone.
What is left in its place is hunger and despair, in the impending doom of our own reality.
Maria lies weakly on the floor of the cave. “I’m so hungry.” She whispers, eyes barely open. “But I don’t regret what I did for my son. I would do it again.” She coughs weakly, a raspy cough. “When I die at least I’ll know I did right by my baby.” Her voice trailed off and all that could be heard is very light, shallow breathing.
The doctor comes in, pale and breathing heavily. “I think we’ll have to leave here. We’ll die if we stay.”
“And we’ll live if we go?” I ask glancing at Maria’s sprawled figure.
The doctor shrugs half halfheartedly. “It’s the only chance we got.”
The way I see it, and my mental faculties are terribly weakened from hunger, is we’re going to die. It was just a matter of where. And how.
I sigh and look at my manuscript. I was up to Hellenist Greek and Achaemenid Persia. I didn’t even do Rome yet. Oh well, if there are people out there who someday come across it, they can complete it. I close my eyes so sleep can take me away from my hopeless reality.
Suddenly a shout. An almost forgotten voice, our old companion George. Has he found food?
I look up as he approaches. He is lugging behind him something very heavy. It seems to be a large container.
“My freezer?” the doctor asks confused.
“Yup. You’ll never guess who I found.”
Maria stirred suddenly and weakly lifted herself up. Seeing the large freezer being pulled by George, she started moaning.
“No no no, you killed him didn’t you. You killed my Jose.”
George laughed. “Knew you’d say that. Wish I had, because damn if he deserved it. I found the dumb bastard laying dead near the doc’s cabin. Probably died of exposure. Figured you’d wanna see for yourself what became of him so I preserved the corpse in here and dragged it over. A thank you would suffice.”
“Murderer!” She shrieked, summoning her last bit of strength.
The doctor approached the freezer and lifted the cover. Sure enough, there lay Jose in his full glory, though a bit blue in the face and frosty.
Maria let out a piercing cry and crumpled to the ground in a faint.
“Good riddance.” George said.
The doctor leaned in to examine the body and rose almost right away. “No foul play. Probable cause of death seems to be either exposure or possibly an internal problem only confirmed by autopsy.”
“What did I tell you. Now that we’re all on the same page, how about some food? I’ve been starving out there.”
“There’s nothing here.” I say. “We’re starving just as you are.”
He stared at me, mouth open.
“So that’s it then? Death by starvation for us?”
He then burst into a mad, uncontrollable laughter which morphed into sobs after a few seconds.
“Oh no, I’m not gonna die like that on my knees clawing at my throat. Not me, no way.” He looked around at us wildly. “What are we to do?”
I didn’t have the energy to even reply. Then I noticed his gaze fall on the freezer, on Jose’s frozen corpse.
“You don’t suppose…” his voice trailed off.
“Cannibalism? Have you lost your mind?” The doctor said aghast. “That goes against the most primal human nature, the most primitive of humans would not think of this!”
“Damn your human nature! Damn your civilized society and damn your religion too. I care nothing for your morals, only my survival.”
“This hideous talk. Since when have we devolved to this state? Not even the beasts of the jungle eat their own! What say you Jim? Please tell me you are not of the same mind as this.”
I look at Jose and am ashamed to say that my stomach growls as he starts to appear less as a human and more as a source of meat. George’s arguments appeal to me, they start sounding quite rational. I look over at the doctor with hunger in my eyes.
“George does have a point doctor. Please try to consider the logic. It is simple. If we don’t eat we die.”
“And we aren’t killing anybody. He is dead already. It would be an awful shame to let him go to waste, don’t you think?” George added, his eyes gleaming with hunger.
I winced at his use of the personal pronoun. It increased my uneasiness and nausea about this whole thing.
The doctor gave me a mournful look. “I give up. I will have no part in this abomination. I will take leave of you now and wish you best of luck.”
I felt a thrilling feeling of terror as the doctor the cave along with what seemed our last link to human morals. We were now animals. There was no deterrent force preventing us from eating the frozen corpse a few feet away.
George gets to work at once. “We don’t want to defrost the whole thing, so I’ll hack of an arm I think. We need to preserve it till we find more food.” He says this all matter of factly like a butcher explaining his technique.
He takes his hunting knife and like an expert, carefully lifts a fleshy, pink frost covered arm out of the freezer and leaning over, examines where to make the cut.
I look at Jose’s arm, the human arm I was about to eat. It is covered in peach fuzzy sparse blond hairs, is freckled and has a number of pimples and blemishes spotting it. It is a typical human arm, no different than my own currently shaking one.
Maria is awake. “What are you doing to my son?” She has no more strength to scream and her eyes look dead. “Are you eating my son?”
George ignores her. He has the look of a man on a mission. Eyes intent on the flesh, he tests his knife on various spots to find the easiest entrance.
She looks at me. “Lord have mercy. Please don’t eat my son. Have you no mercy? I elected you.”
“We’re going to starve Maria. Can’t you see? Your son is dead. Can’t you see?”
She stares at me with those big dead eyes, seeming not to hear a single word I’m saying. “Please. Don’t do this thing. I beg of you.”
I glance at George. He shows no reaction, just going about his task with a serious look on his face.
“I want to help you.” I say desperately, the guilt gnawing at me, the nausea slowly growing within me. “I could, would never do this. But the circumstances.” I spread out my arms to her. “Do you not agree it is logical? Should we all want to starve to death? Please convince me otherwise. I would deeply like to do what you ask, if only I were convinced it was the right choice. But I ask you again — do you wish us all to commit collective suicide?”
Whatever her answer was, I wasn’t able to hear it because suddenly there was a loud noise and scream.
The doctor had returned with a large, heavy looking stick and had struck George over the head with it. A huge bloody wound shone from his head.
Yowling in pain, George swung his knife around like a mad man. “You old bastard will give us food for another few days. We’ll see what plan your G-d has then!”
I wanted to tell them to stop. I wanted to tell them we’ll all die well enough without our own help, why speed the process?
But as I tried to speak my speech failed me and my other faculties as I slipped into unconsciousness from deep, deep hunger.
I dreamed of wolves howling. Then I woke up and it turned out it wasn’t a dream at all.
There were wolves out there, the first signs of wildlife since that horrible day when the bombs fell. I look around. Maria lies on the ground, unmoving. The doctor lies a few feet away, a big gash on his forehead dripping blood in a little puddle beneath his head. His stomach seems to be heaving slightly.
I don’t see George anywhere.
Then I hear something. Voices.
I try to call for help in my weak voice but no sound comes out. No matter. Men come rushing in. Familiar men. Non familiar men. My two lawyer friends, Joe and Jon.
“Jim! Thank goodness you’re alive. Good thing we came back.”
“Jim. You should see what they have where we came from. A whole village of survivors. We have doctors, nurses, engineers, farmers, teachers. Hell, we even held elections. Recreated civilization and have a president and everything.”
“That poor fellow out there, ya know him? Completely torn apart by the wolves, right in front of us. If only we’d arrived a minute sooner we might have saved the poor fellow.”
“One knife against a whole pack of wolves? Those are pretty bad odds.”
“Those poor wolves must have been starving though. Imagine, nothing out there since they dropped those bombs, no wildlife to feed on. This poor fellow must have been a gift from the Lord to those poor beasts.”
“The Lord had nothing to do with this. Poor fellow should have known that there’s no more civilization. It’s the law of the jungle here now.”