By Andrew Wolczyk
The preacher walked alone down the dusty street, looking neither right nor left, his focus on the distant horizon line. He had walked for days, and he knew that he would walk for days more, maybe weeks, before his journey would end. It was important that he keep moving. To stop would be to die, a solitary figure on a lonely street in an empty world.
He knew he couldn’t be the only one left. If he had survived then surely others had too. He would walk until he found them, or at least until he came to the sea.
The sun hung low in the sky like a water filled balloon about to burst. The preacher had watched it rise half a dozen times or more, the dust clouds each day getting a little thinner, the light getting a little stronger.
He pulled his shabby woollen coat tighter around himself and was grateful for his now fully grown beard. It was mid-June but the temperature was barely above freezing.
Barren fields lay on either side of him, the crops a distant memory, the scorched earth blowing tendrils of dust across the cracked tarmac. And the road snaked ahead.
He caught himself muttering and wondered what he had been saying. Was he going mad? His mind was blank, no thoughts to interrupt the endless progression of putting one foot in front of the other. His only purpose was to get to the sea.
It was a fool’s errand, and he knew it, but with everything gone he had to give himself a reason to go on.
Before the world ended he had been a teacher, his life a mass of noise and bustle and colour and energy. Children everywhere. Then the bombs dropped and everything changed. Just like that. Sudden. Immediate.
There had hardly been any warning. Sure there had been mutterings on the evening news for the last few weeks but nobody expected… at least nobody thought that…
Then it happened.
Missiles from half a dozen nations crossed each other in mid-air. Who fired the first one? In the final analysis, did it really matter? There was no one left to lay blame. Except for him, and he didn’t care.
He walked on, his hands stuffed deep into the pockets of the woollen coat. He was travelling light, carrying only a bottle of water and a large chocolate bar that he had taken from a road side stall several miles back. The owner had laid dead at the side like an empty mannequin. There was no need to burden himself with belongings. He could take whatever he needed whenever he came across it. In some part of his brain he knew this was foolish, that he might find himself in a situation where food was scarce, but in a lifeless world there was enough food to keep him alive forever, providing forever ended before the expiry date, and in all likelihood it most certainly would.
The sun rose slowly into the sky, its fat belly giving off little heat. The preacher turned and watched his shadow shorten. He looked forward to the afternoon when his shadow would be in front of him, his only companion, a travelling buddy.
Ahead the road fell away into a decline and the horizon line shortened and became stubby. The preacher could not see what was ahead any more but that didn’t matter. He would find out soon enough. To the left was a mound of something that he couldn’t quite make out but it looked like something dead. As he drew up to it he saw it was a horse. There were no flies around it. They had been killed too. Idly, the preacher wondered if bacteria had survived. It was too early to tell yet. If the bacteria had not survived he wondered how long it would take a carcass to decay.
Why hadn’t he died?
He did not know a lot about nuclear fall-out but he knew that radiation poisoning was a painful death. Surely he should have started showing signs of it by now. He did not know how near the nearest bomb had been but everything else around him had died. And he should be dead too.
“Be thankful for small mercies,” he muttered to himself, the sound of his own voice startling him. Then he laughed. Was being alive in a dead world a mercy? He doubted it.
As he walked along the road he came to a steep drop and saw at the bottom of the decline was a house. It was a wooden cabin, small and in need of some repair but the preacher thought he might take a look inside, maybe rest awhile and let the sun climb the sky. There was no rush to get where he was going.
It only took a few minutes to cross the distance, the steepness of the hill hurrying his feet.
“Halloo,” he shouted as he drew up to the door. He did not expect a reply but even now, after days of being alone, it still felt wrong to enter a property without announcing himself.
There was no reply. He climbed the two steps onto the wooden porch and stamped his shoes to kick off some of the dust that coated them.
“Halloo,” he shouted a second time and pushed open the door. This was usually the worst part. He had no way of knowing what was waiting for him on the other side. He expected corpses but the condition of them was usually dictated by the activity they had been engaged in when the bombs fell. The fact that there were corpses told him that the bombs must have been some distance away. He seemed to remember reading somewhere in his childhood that the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima had been vaporised and it had happened so fast, and the heat was so intense, that their shadows had been burned onto the tarmac whilst the bodies just disappeared. He didn’t know how true it was and he had no particular interest in finding out.
He did know that at one of the first houses he had stopped by, nearly a week back now, the lady of the house had been cooking. She had fallen onto the open flame and her charred husk was propped in the corner as he walked in. The disturbance of the air had caused her ashes to collapse in a soft whump that had almost caused him to wet himself with fright. It didn’t occur to him until later that the whole house should have gone up too. It hadn’t and he didn’t know why.
Stamping on the floorboards didn’t just clear the dust from his boots.
The room, sparsely furnished, was empty. Nothing moved. A fine coating of dust had settled over everything, greying it out, making it look abandoned and unloved.
He was in the kitchen, a large room with a dining table against the far wall, next to a door that led to a cupboard built under the stairs.
To his left was a sink and a window that overlooked the road he had just travelled. Against the other wall was a cheap sofa bed with a thin mattress and two dusty cushions, which may at one time have been purple.
“Hallooo,” he called a third time. When there was no response the preacher took off his dusty hat and laid it carefully on the table. There was no sign that anyone had been here when the bombs had dropped. He crossed the wooden floorboards and made for the door that led to the rest of the house. It creaked slightly when he opened it.
“Is there anybody here?” he called across the small hallway and up the stairs. He paused, carefully listening for a sound. There was nothing. He walked back outside and strode quickly around the building. Maybe there was a vehicle he could use. If he could find the keys and get it started it would make his journey much quicker. Now he was on the open road a vehicle was a viable option. Back in the town all the roads had been blocked, cars and trucks tangled in a mesh of metal spaghetti that was impossible to navigate around. Back there he had looked for a bike but hadn’t been able to find one.
Not seeing a vehicle he sighed deeply and went back inside. What should he do now? He could rest awhile, maybe look through the cupboards and see if there was anything to eat. But he knew there was no point dawdling. It was just drawing out the inevitable. He had to get to the sea.
There was always the possibility that the next house he came to would have some form of transport. Hanging around here would serve no useful purpose. He decided to check the cupboards quickly and see if there was anything he could make use of. It would be time to eat in a couple of hours and he only had the chocolate bar he had taken earlier. If he could find a couple of tins of something and and tin opener….
It didn’t take him long to find a small tin of beans and another of tuna. He stuck the tins in his coat pockets and crossed the kitchen to the drawer under the sink to look for a tin opener. As he crossed the room his eyes fell on the door that led into the space under the stairs.
Maybe there was something in there he could use. It could be a larder.
He pulled the door open. It was dark inside, the poor light bleeding through the window was barely enough to light the kitchen and there was not enough to spare for this little hole. Automatically, he felt round the door frame for a light switch and was not surprised when he didn’t find one. Not that a light would come on anyway. The electricity had been down for days, permanently turned off. He looked around for some matches, anything that would create some light.
He found a half used candle and some matches in a drawer to the left of the sink and quickly lit the black wick. Cupping his hand around the sputtering flame he went back to the cupboard under the stairs.
Inside, directly in front of him, there were shelves of canned goods. To the left, underneath a couple of electrical meters was a small chest freezer. To his right under the slope of the stairs were some coats, thrown carelessly in a heap on the floor.
As he inspected the cans on the shelves a movement to his right caught his eye. Startled, he gasped and jumped back, instinctively thinking it was a rat.
The flame on the candle flickered wildly at his sudden movement and nearly went out. The preacher caught himself just in time and cupped his hand around the flame.
“I want my mommy,” the small boy said and he threw the coats to one side.
The preacher, shocked at discovering the cause of the movement, gasped again. The small voice was the first he had heard in a long time.
The boy stood up, his blond, sandy coloured hair tousled and unkempt. He had sleep encrusted eyes and the silvery tracks of dried tears on his dusty cheeks showed he had been crying.
“I… I don’t know where she is,” the preacher said.
“I want my mommy,” the boy said again.
“Is she in the house?” the preacher asked.
The boy shrugged.
“What happened?” the preacher asked.
“I dunno,” the boy said. “Mommy told me to hide in here under the coats and I fell asleep. I shouted for her when I woke up but she didn’t come. Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” the preacher repeated.
“Find her for me?” the boy said, his eyes large and blue. It was a question not a statement.
The preacher guessed the boy’s age to be around four. His head was slightly too large for his body and he still had that lair of puppy fat around his cheeks that all small children carry.
“Do you like chocolate?” The preacher took the bar from his coat pocket and offered it to the boy who took is quickly and greedily. “You wait here and I’ll go see if I can find your mom.”
He feared that the woman may be upstairs somewhere, dead and decayed, and he didn’t want the boy to see that.
“Don’t leave me,” the boy said.
“I’m just going upstairs to look for your mom. You wait here and eat the chocolate. I won’t be long. Don’t worry I’ll be back in a couple of minutes. Here there’s some water in case you’re thirsty.” He took the bottle from his pocket and handed it to the boy.
The boy tore into the chocolate and bit off a huge chunk. He sat back down on the coats and watched the preacher disappear from the doorway.
The preacher moved quickly. He didn’t want the boy to follow him and he knew the chocolate would only keep him occupied for a limited amount of time.
The preacher tore from room to room, his movements quick and sparing. The room at the rear of the house was sparsely furnished and empty. It was obvious this family did not have a great deal of money. He went to the staircase and took the stairs two at a time, each step creating a little cloud of dust as he stamped down.
He found the mother in the back bedroom. She was slumped across the bed, her dead eyes wide and staring. Her grey suppurating skin had drawn back tight and made her look old and wizened.
The preacher couldn’t tell what had killed her, radiation poisoning probably, but whatever it was had been quick. The posture of her body told him that much. She must have known she was going to die and put the boy under the stairs so he wouldn’t see it. His arrival here had been fortuitous. A few more hours and the boy might have gone exploring.
Swiftly he made his way around the bed and considered his options. It seemed wrong to just leave her here but he had no choice. He wouldn’t be able to bury her without the boy seeing and there was no-one left to call and pick up the pieces. Instead he threw the blankets around her covering her up. At least if the boy should wander into the room it wouldn’t be immediately obvious that his mother was dead.
Quietly closing the bedroom door the preacher returned to find the boy in the same position as he had left him.
“Did you find my mommy?” the boy asked, his mouth smudged with chocolate.
“No,” the preacher lied, instantly feeling guilty. It was the first deception in a brand new world. How easily it had come. How quickly. The preacher considered the deception and wondered whether this was the best way to start a new life but he wanted to spare the boy pain.
“Let’s get you some things together and you can come with me. We can look for your mother together.”
“Ok,” the boy said brightly and sucked the remaining chocolate from his fingers.
“Show me where you keep your things.”
The boy led the preacher through the house and showed him where his things were kept. The preacher picked out a change of clothes and stuffed them into a bag that he found tucked away at the bottom of the wardrobe.
The preacher picked up a teddy bear that was propping up a pillow on the bed and stuffed that into the bag too. Maybe the boy would want it later.
“Come on,” the preacher said and ushered the boy back down the stairs towards the kitchen. He would have to make sure he had enough food for two now. He hoped the boy was not picky.
After sticking a few extra cans into the bag the preacher helped the boy pull on some shoes and they set off into the dull sunshine.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked as they walked steadily down the road.
Startled that it had not occurred to him before to ask the boy’s name the preacher replied, “Joe. What’s yours?”
“Well, David, it’s nice to meet you.”
“You sound funny,” the boy said.
“That’s because I’m not from around here.”
It all seemed so long ago now and half a world away. The holiday had been carefully planned and saved for over two years. When hostilities escalated they had considered whether to postpone it. Nobody believed it would develop into an all-out war.
“Where are you from?” the boy asked.
“A country a long way away called England.”
“I’ve heard of that. Why are you here?”
“I came here on holiday with my wife.”
“Where is your wife?”
The preacher considered his answer. How much should he hide from this boy? Did he want to start out this new friendship with secrets?
“She’s… not with me anymore,” the preacher said.
“Oh,” the boy fell silent. They walked on a few more steps in silence, the weight of it heavy between them.
Presently the preacher said, “Where’s your dad?”
“He left when I was little,” the boy replied. “I don’t remember him much.”
“So there’s just you and your mom?”
“Yeah, and we get along just fine,” the boy said, obviously repeating something he must have heard a few times.
The preacher chuckled. “I’m sure you do.”
The silence fell between them again. It struck the preacher as odd that the boy was so quiet. In his experience children were seldom this subdued. He guessed that the boy must know, or at least have a good inkling about, what had happened in the world. His silence was probably due to shock.
After a few minutes of walking the boy said, “So, where shall we look first?”
It took a moment for the preacher to comprehend what the boy was talking about.
“Oh, I thought we’d walk down this way a bit and see what we can see. Your mother might have gone to find someone else. I thought we might try your neighbours.”
“We don’t have any neighbours,” the boy said.
“Well she might have gone outside for another reason.”
“She wouldn’t leave me alone. My mom loves me.”
“I’m sure she does.”
After a pause the boy said, “You’re not going to hurt me are you?”
“No,” the preacher replied, and wondered how true that statement was. It was true that he intended the boy no harm but taking him out into a decimated world wasn’t going to have either of them jumping for joy.
“My mom says I shouldn’t go with strangers.”
“That’s very sensible advice.”
“You’re not a stranger are you?”
“You know my name so I guess I’m not.”
“That’s okay then.”
The boy paused, considering then said, “It’s very quiet out here. It’s not normally like this.”
“How is it normally?”
“I dunno. It’s just not like this. You can hear stuff, y’know. Like, oh, I don’t know, the wind, birds, cars, stuff like that. I can’t hear anything.”
“Well there’s not much around here so maybe that’s why it’s so quiet.”
“I guess,” the boy said sounding unconvinced.
Suddenly, high in the sky, the preacher noticed something. A bird was circling above them. Apart from the boy it was the first living thing he had seen in over a week. It swooped and soared and circled and kept pace with them. It was so high the preacher couldn’t make out what type of bird it was but he could tell it was a large one. Maybe a crow.
“Well, I’ll be…” he muttered under his breath.
“What?” the boy asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I just saw a bird. I’ve not seen one in a while that’s all.”
“Since the bombs?” the boy asked.
So he knew after all.
“There was a bright flash when they went off. I was playing in the front room. Mom and me hid under the stairs until the noise stopped.”
“Then what did you do?”
“Nothing. Mom was crying a lot and she wanted to watch TV but she said it was broken and wasn’t working. She went on the computer but that wasn’t working either. Everything was broken. We had to have picnics and stuff because the stove was broken too. I don’t like it since the bombs went off.”
“I don’t either,” the preacher said.
“You think my mom went to find someone who could fix stuff?”
“Maybe… I don’t know.”
“I think a lot of people went away. We don’t have people come around any more like we used to. I think we should go away… once we’ve found my mom.”
The preacher watched the bird circling overhead as the boy spoke. It was keeping up with them as they walked, almost as though it was following. The preacher was fairly certain now that it was a crow.
They continued down the road apace the boy chattering then falling silent before chattering again. The preacher tried to answer his questions as truthfully as he dare without scaring the boy too much.
“You think the bombs made all the cars stop working?” the boy asked out of the blue.
“I guess they did,” the preacher replied.
“I’ve not seen one car the whole time we’ve been walking.”
“Well, we haven’t walked that far.”
“I know but cars go up and down this road all the time and I haven’t seen one. I bet the bombs broke the cars too.”
They rounded a bend in the road and came across the carcass of a dog. It was a German Shepherd wearing a blue collar.
“Oh,” the boy said, pulling up short. “That’s Mr Game’s dog. I bet he’s dead.”
“We’d better leave it alone,” the preacher said. “We can’t do anything to help it.”
“I want to go see.”
“But you don’t want to go look at it if it’s dead.”
“But he might not be. He could just be hurt or something.”
“But if it’s in pain it might get nasty and try to bite us,” the preacher insisted.
“No, he won’t bite. That’s Mr Game’s dog. He’s nice. He licks my face. I throw him sticks.”
The boy pulled away before the preacher could reply. He ran up to the dog and dropped to his knees. By the time the preacher had strode up to him, the boy was crying.
“He’s dead,” the boy said.
“I know,” the preacher said kindly looking into the dog’s vacant glassy eyes. “Let’s leave him alone and walk on.”
“But I can make him better,” the boy said.
“He’s dead,” the preacher replied. “You can’t do anything for him now. He’s not in pain. He’s not suffering. Let’s leave him alone.”
“But I can make him better,” the boy insisted.
“You can get diseases off dead animals. It’s best if you don’t touch him.”
Ignoring the preacher’s words the boy touched the dogs head. With a trembling hand he gently caressed the dog’s ears and muzzle.
“You really shouldn’t do that…” the preacher began.
The boy closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. His hand was resting lightly between the dog’s ears. The boy held his breath at the top of the inhale for two seconds, then grunted slightly, trembled, and exhaled slowly and carefully.
“There,” he said as the dog slowly lifted its head from the dirt.
The preacher cried out involuntarily and stumbled backwards. He caught one foot on the other and ended up laid out in the dirt.
“Jesus,” the preacher said, his voice sounding thin and reedy, “what did you do?”
“I made him better,” the boy said and ruffled the dog’s head. The dog licked his hand, then getting up, licked the boy’s face. “I made him all better,” the boy repeated.
Still sprawled on the floor, the preacher said, “You better keep away from him. You don’t know what he might do.”
“He’s a good dog,” the boy said and kissed the dog’s muzzle.
The dog stood up and after giving the boy one last lick he trotted over to the preacher, tail wagging.
The preacher tried to scurry away but in his panic his feet couldn’t find traction in the dirt and he slipped and ended up on his back again.
The dog came over and licked the preacher’s face. Terrified, the preacher froze in a tableau of agony.
“He likes you,” the boy said standing up and walking to the dog’s side. “You don’t have to be afraid of him. I told you he’s a good dog. Don’t you like dogs?”
“But… he was dead.”
“I made him better,” the boy repeated as though talking to a simpleton. “You’re all better now, aren’t you boy?” He stroked the dog’s head again.
“But how? How did you make him better?”
“I dunno,” the boy said. “I just wanted him alive and he came alive.”
He can’t have been dead the preacher reasoned. The dog must have looked dead, that was all. Yet in another part of his brain he knew differently.
Since the bombs dropped everything was dead.
And the boy.
And the bird circling overhead.
And now the dog.
He had seen more life in this dead world in the last half hour than he had seen in over a week. And it had all started with the boy.
He wasn’t sure what was going on here but he was badly scared. Yet he also felt greatly relieved that he was no longer alone in the world.
The dog just looked dead, that was all.
He had not had a good look at the animal before the boy had placed his hands on it.
Appearances can be deceptive.
But somewhere deep down he knew, he knew, the dog had been dead. He had seen the dog’s eyes.
And now it wasn’t. This was yet another thing he had been a witness to. He may well become a real preacher yet.
“Don’t be afraid,” the boy said. “He won’t hurt you. He can walk with us. He might know where my mom is.”
With painful clarity a thought sprang into the preachers mind: if the boy can make dead things come to life I should take him back to his mother. However if he was wrong about the dog being dead then taking the boy home would be a bad mistake.
What should he do?
“Hey, you don’t look so good,” the boy said. “You sick or something?”
“I think maybe I am. What you did with the dog shocked me a bit.” The preacher got to his feet and found his legs almost too rubbery to hold his weight. “You ever done anything like that before?”
“Like make dead things come to life again?”
“No. I never seen anything dead before ‘cept for insects and stuff, and I never wanted them to come back to life.”
“You sure the dog was dead before you put your hand on his head?”
“Yeah, he was cold and stiff, not like he normally is.
“So how did you know you could bring him back to life?”
“I dunno, I just wanted it so bad. He’s my friend. I didn’t want him to be dead.”
“I gotta tell you, kid, you kind of freaked me out a little there. I’m still a bit freaked. I’ve never seen anything like it. Do you think you could do it again?”
“I dunno,” the boy was playing with the dogs ears, who in turn, was turning and licking the boy’s hands, making him giggle.
“Well, I’m pretty sure that we’ll find something dead along the way. Just let me make sure it really is dead first. I need to be certain.” The preacher thought about the horse that he had come upon earlier that morning, and the boy’s mother, both of them were on the road that lay in the opposite direction.
He eyed the boy warily. Things had changed between them now. He had seen what the boy could do and he was no longer comfortable around him. The kid was a freak. But what a useful freak he would be in a world full of dead things.
The crow, which had been steadily circling overhead swooped in low and landed a short distance away. It was eyeing the boy carefully as though making its mind up about something important. The preacher empathised.
The boy didn’t seem to notice. He carried on petting the dog.
“We should get going,” the preacher said, although he wasn’t sure what direction they should be heading in. He needed to get to the sea but he didn’t know why. All he knew was that he was being pulled there. Yet the boy’s mother lay dead in bed behind them.
The boy looked up and spotted the bird. His smile widened.
“Hey,” he said softly, barely a whisper, “come here.” He stretched out his hand towards the bird who immediately took wing and landed lightly on the boy’s fingers.
The preacher stifled a small groan. This boy was special. There was no doubt about it. He could bring the dead back to life and he could call the animals to him. The preacher wasn’t sure what all this meant but he did know that he would have to look after and protect this boy. Radiation poisoning would no doubt settle in at some stage and this boy might be able to do something about it.
The preacher wondered again why he had not been killed when the bombs first dropped. His wife had died instantly, caught in the flash and searing heat. Yet he had walked away. In his initial confusion and panic he had walked away not thinking about how he could have survived. Maybe there was something special about both of them. He would think on it as they walked.
“We have to go back,” the preacher said.
“Because there is something back there that you need to see. I haven’t been completely honest with you.”
The boy eyed him warily.
“I was trying to protect you,” the preacher said. “We have to go back to your house. There is something there that you have to do.”
They retraced their steps down the dusty road, heading once again towards the sun, this time with the dog and bird travelling alongside them.