No oil, no life.
“Did you see me bro?”
“Shut the fuck up Haz I’m trying to concentrate.”
I don’t bother to look back. I know, Harry knows, forty minutes tops, help or not, he’s gone. Staring down from the window of the empty apartment, I feel fear in the street, a kind of sepia-tone grit like the set of an old spy movie, lit only by the flicker of nearby firelight. Constant movement. I’m scanning, trying to figure out if anybody saw us enter the building, my senses heightened from adrenaline. Holding the butt of my carbine semi-automatic rifle, I can feel my veins tapping out against the skin of my wrist, as if the very life inside of me is trying to escape invisible assault. Every shadow is a threat. Any movement a potential bullet between the eyes. The lifeless streetlights are trees in a dead forest. The crumbling brick of adjacent apartment blocks taunt with the memory of firefights, scarred by misthrown molotov cocktails, tattooed black by panic and rage. The asphalt is a sea of dewy black, a river of tar, pocked with the hallmarks of evacuation, displacement.
We got separated from the rest of the group after our raid had ended up a bloody shambles. A guard from one of the Humvees wanted to play hero, pulled his sidearm and plugged Harry in the stomach. From there it was all instinct. We ran as the other four vans lit up. Our failed attempt had triggered a chain reaction, a clusterfuck of epic proportion. We made it two blocks before Harry’s legs started buckling in the street. I kicked in a door to my left and dragged him up three flights of stairs to this abandoned apartment, not the most sanitary place for a gunshot victim to be, but really infection wasn’t a worry- he was fucked. I just didn’t want them to get his body.
“Did you see me bro? I fucking got him.”
I turn to look and tilt the blind slightly to let in firelight from the street. A flash of silver and red catches my eye; Harry’s knife.
“After he shot me, I pushed the gun away and stuck the piece of shit right in his balls.”
He erupts into a kind of homeless, madman cackle. The kind of laugh that makes you wonder if it isn’t coming from some schizophrenic imagining conjured up out of your own strung-out mind.
“You’re a twisted motherfucker.”
He coughs into his hands, stares at them. Like a child holding snow for the first time. They are covered in blood.
“Well fuck him. Don’t reckon I’ll be making it back tonight mate.”
I spot movement down on the corner and motion to Harry for silence. He lights up a cigarette and pulls away on the blood-wetted filter.
Dad had always been a conspiracy nut, hoarding organic seed stocks in anticipation of a global crash. When it finally came and he decided to put his efforts into embracing the bottle rather than providing for his family, Ma took up the task of cultivating the crops. And she did good too, clearing out the attic, setting up the hydroponic systems and growing all of the food we needed to get by as slightly malnourished vegetarians.
Finding one of the neighbourhood kids setting snares to catch rats in the alleyway behind our house, she sent him home with a sack full of vegetables. From there it would be only two days before the door was obliterated. This provided my first lesson of the new age — kindness is weakness.
She hears them before I do. Thuds on the doorstep. Hushing me through the house, our creaking shuffle down the hallway creates urgency on the other side of the door, every loose floorboard shooting vulnerability up through my bare feet. As we move, I survey our home with new eyes. I notice the wallpaper for the first time, faded pink roses melting into an off-white background; patched browns, curling upward from the once seamless edges. There is a photo framed on the wall near the entrance to the lounge, black and white, Grandpa and his army buddies, smoking a cigarette on the back of an army transport vehicle; the painted frame is flaking, the glass split. She hurries me through the kitchen to my hiding place: a cupboard barely big enough to crouch in. I trip on the tack of the linoleum; Dad always said pick up your feet, I never really understood what he meant.
Through the slats in the cupboard door I watch dust float on bars of sunlight. Tiny fireflies.
I let them mesmerise me as the door is split open.
I let them mesmerise me as desperation and violence pours in.
I let them mesmerise me as my mother’s throat is opened, her life spilling out onto the hardwood floor.
As wolves raid the attic.
As hope leaves.
When all is finally quiet, I step over the body of my mother lying in the hallway.
I don’t bother checking her for signs of life, I just let the blood on the soles of my feet erase me.
Clear my soul.
The wood is deep red.
My father is passed out in his arm chair.
“I reckon I’m going to hell bro.”
I hear a jump in Harry’s tone of voice that I’m not quite sure what to make of — can’t be vulnerability, that doesn’t exist anymore. And yet I turn back to look at him, I guess in a kind of you’re ok buddy way. I don’t say it, and I sure as fuck don’t think it. But I think he gets the gist.
“Don’t be retarded. Now would you shut the fuck up, I’m trying to think.”
“Do you believe in God?”
Jesus here we go. Now I’m stuck consoling a dying man.
“No. I only believe in us. And doing what’s right for our people.”
“The perfect little robot sheep aren’t you.”
More rancid laughter.
The mixture of sweat and humidity gives the distinct impression that the walls are closing in. Olive-green in the dark. Our little box. I keep my position as if any change in stance would cause enough movement to rain condensation down on us. My knees are wet on the mush that I imagine was once carpet.
“You can’t tell me you believe in God Harry.”
“And why do you say that?”
“I’ve seen you scalp a guardsman alive in front of his friends. That’s not God fearing.”
“I didn’t say I feared him, I just think he’s there. Taking notes. Ticks and crosses and shit, mainly crosses. It’s like I said, I’m going to hell.”
The words sort of hang in the air. Curling. A slow dance of cigarette smoke licks and impending death.
Can’t really argue with that.
“You’re delirious. Why can’t anyone just die in silence around here?”
His laughter soaks into the blackened mush walls.
“You heartless bastard.”
We’ve been travelling together for a few weeks. She isn’t ugly by any means, and probably my age too — not that anybody cares how old you are anymore, the only thing anybody really cares about is that they are still alive. Her mousey blonde hair is clean, but not soft or feathery like girls’ hair used to be. She says that after a while your body produces oils that clean you, and that shampoo and soap were just ways for the government to keep us dependent, docile. I’m not exactly sure how, but I’m also not very talkative, so arguing the point seems more a burden than necessary. It is nice to have somebody to look at though, share the air with.
She says she’s from my old neighbourhood, says we went to school together. I don’t remember. We spend our days ransacking abandoned houses. Looking for food and kicking holes in walls. At night she talks and I listen, all about her family, and the way things used to be. How she misses television. All I hear is the crackle of the fire in the trash can, all I see is the way the yellow light flitters across her forehead, the sparks in her eyes. I am seventeen and she is my first. We make love for hours in the damp heat. We lie naked, sticking to each other. She tells me that I am hope and she never thought she’d find it again.
Her larynx pops under the pressure of my thumbs the night I catch her sneaking away with my rucksack, all my food. I followed her a while, refusing to believe it. Four kilometres before I took her down, pulling her over by my pack from behind. Straddling her and pulping her face up with my fists before choking the life out of her. I’m seventeen and she is my first kill. I’ll relive the moment every time my mind is idle.
This is the price you pay for taking a life.
Again I scan the street below, lifeless faces flash in my mind. I can smell the carpet, like a wet dog, the tang of mould and urine swamps to the back of my nasal cavity, something I would have gagged at as a child. I can hear Harry sputtering behind me.
Once it started it was a slippery slope. No oil means no modern civilisation. I think everybody just thought it might happen slower, like they might have contingency plans.
Now the nights are ink-black.
The streets are warm with car-fires.
I gained a second family when I was 18, other survivors, a kind of resistance. They found me after a demonstration, in an alleyway, shaking with pneumonia, holding a knife to the throat of a National Guardsman in a feeble attempt to get close and share his body warmth. Desperation and delirium does strange things to a man. For the first few months I was a burden, constantly sick, haunted by feverish nightmares. But when I came out the other side I was stoic, malleable, and more than willing to fight with the rest.
The group that I joined has no name, we cling to survival by raiding National Guard posts and stealing gasoline, which we then sell back to government insiders in instalments for food and fresh water. It is a tense and unpredictable process, a violent cycle sandwiched somewhere between necessity and the desire to chip away at crumbling authoritarianism.
Stealth is paramount.
Casualties are certain.
Tonight is one of those nights.
“I don’t want to die.”
Harry’s voice is now a gurgling whisper.
I stay staring out the window. It’s not enough to try and calm him. It’s not worth it. He’ll need the fear to push him through to the other side, if there’s such a place. He knows the drill, you suck it up. This is how everything falls into place. Death is a luxury. He will join the ranks of the fallen. He will become one more reason for the rest of us. I don’t comfort him, there is no comfort. I don’t tell him that he’ll be okay. He is better off dead and in one piece than alive and picked apart by this place.
“You’re not fooling anyone mate. We both know you do. If suicide weren’t a coward’s way out we’d all be dead right now.”
I don’t turn around. I’ve been through this before. It gets easier every time. Just another shadow in the crowd of ghosts at my back. The carpet is wet under my knees. The room is heavy with death.
I don’t turn around.
When the collapse of civilisation started we had no idea of the residual emotional turmoil that we were about to face. More than food, more than water, more than oil, a lack of motivation was the death of many a man after the fall.
We are violently bored.
This place has become a shell that is no longer our home.
Anarchy and blood.
And I will never turn around.
“You know this is the way it works Harry. You push and push and then it’s over. One way or another your ticket is punched. You can’t fight it. All you can do is hold onto the fact that you never took it lying down. And when it comes and you ask yourself all of these fucked up questions, like do I believe in God? Am I going to Hell? Well shit, God left us. He abandoned us out here. He saw our greed and our evil and he just fucking left. He saw his creation being raped and torn to pieces, strip by bloody strip. He watched us slowly turn this place into Hell and then he just up and left. We’re already in Hell and no amount of penance is going to change that. God left us. Still trying to control his dying creation. You say you don’t want to die? Well that counts for sweet fuck all, because we can fight and fight but death is coming to us all real soon.”
The room is throbbing in silence. Padded nothingness pressing hard against my eardrums like wet cotton-wool. It’s moments like this that you can hear your surroundings. The smoke from Harry’s cigarette coils upward with deafening nothingness. The whole room reverberates with the thrum of death. My finger shakes against the trigger.
Get it together
I shake my head, squint with fatigue and refocus on the street below.
Sun makes the street vibrate, a mirage of warmth and asphalt, children leaping in and out of the torrent of an open fire hydrant. I’m watching myself, nine years old frolicking in the deluge, the water cool on my back. I can’t make out the faces of the other kids, but they are a little older than me, ten, maybe eleven. The sun beats down and in the sodden street the child-me slips and falls, he scrapes his hands and his knee is bleeding. On the wet asphalt the child is awash with water and tears and that ephemeral childhood sorrow that comes only from a place of never having experienced true pain. The older children laugh like a pack of hyenas.
I aim my rifle, lock the child in my crosshairs and pull the trigger.