Holton had come a long way from the city. He hadn’t seen another person for three days. For the first time in longer than he could remember, he felt at ease in his surroundings. He sat down on a riverbank underneath a tree and looked at the sky. The clouds had lifted and the sunlight glinted in gold on the water. There was still beauty in the world.
He took a tiny sip of water from the canteen. He didn’t have much left and he knew he was going to have to get more, and soon. He could go for a long time without food but water was a different matter. He would never get thirsty enough to drink from the river. If drinking from the river didn’t kill him, it could make him sick enough that he might never recover.
He took a tiny bundle from his pack and unwrapped it carefully; it contained the last of his food—a carrot, a piece of bread, a chunk of dried meat, and some candy. He wrapped the bread around the meat and began taking tiny bites. He chewed slowly to make it last longer.
Would building a fire and boiling some water from the river make the water safe for drinking, he wondered? If he was going to build a fire, he might as well stay the night. He was weighing these considerations in his mind when a sound startled him. He looked up to see a man walking toward him and he realized the sound he heard was the man singing. He grabbed for his pack and thrust his hand inside to where his gun rested on the bottom.
“I don’t have anything you want,” he said, when the man was close enough to speak to.
“Don’t worry,” said the man, who went by the name of Clement. “I’m not going to bother you. I only want to rest here for a while.”
“I’d like it better if you were to move along. There’s nothing here for you.”
“No doubt,” Clement said with a little laugh. He took off his boots and lay on the ground with his feet toward the river, just to the right of Holton. He was wearing clean white socks.
“I have a gun here and I know how to use it,” Holton said. “Just in case you have any ideas about trying to steal what I have.”
“I’m not going to steal anything. You have nothing I want.”
“What do you want then?”
He looked at Holton as if studying him. “I don’t want anything from you,” he said. “I’m not going to do you any harm.”
“What’s your game, then?”
“I don’t have one. Maybe I just want to hear the sound of a voice other than my own. Is that too much to ask?”
“I’m not much for talking. I really ought to be on my way.”
“Where exactly is it you’re headed?”
Holton relaxed a little and forgot about drawing the gun. He didn’t have bullets anyway. “I got out of the city and just kept going,” he said. “This is where I ended up. I don’t know where I am. I don’t even know if I’m in the same state or in another one.”
“Geographical boundaries don’t seem to matter much now.”
“Everybody in the city was dying. I knew I would die, too, if I stayed there. Once I left the city, I just kept going until I ended up here.”
“How long ago was that?” Clement asked.
“A week. Maybe longer. I seem to have lost some time and I don’t know how much.”
“Are you sure you don’t have the sickness?”
“I know what the symptoms are,” Holton said, “and I don’t have them yet.”
“But you expect to have them?”
“We heard the enemy dropped bombs with the sickness in them on every city. The people in the city would die first and then the sickness would spread to the spaces between the cities and the people there would die too.”
“You had family in the city?” Clement asked.
“I was new to the city. I have a wife and child but they’re far away in another place.”
“Are they all right?”
“I don’t know. There’s no way for me to find out now. I had in my mind that if I just kept going as long as I could I might come to a place where the sickness hadn’t reached or couldn’t reach for some reason, and there would be people there like me.”
“People without the sickness?”
“Yes. Or maybe people who know how to keep from getting the sickness.”
“You’re witnessing the death of the human race,” Clement said. “Not just the decline but the end. God brought it into existence and now He’s ending it.”
“You believe in God?”
“Yes. Don’t you?”
“I don’t know what I believe. If there’s a God, why is he doing this to us?”
“He’s not doing anything to us. It’s just something that happens. Do you know how many extinct species there are in the history of the world? There’s about to be another one, that’s all. Man is no more important than any of the other species that have become extinct. We’re important to ourselves but that’s all. This planet was here a long time before we came along, and it will be here long after we’re gone.”
“There might be places where people will survive the sickness. We don’t know yet.”
“They might survive for a while, but it will eventually catch them in the end.”
“How do you know so much about it?” Holton asked, suddenly suspicious.
“I don’t know any more about it than anybody else. I’m just repeating what somebody else has told me.”
“Maybe they’re wrong,” Holton said. “Maybe you’re wrong.”
“It sounds like you want to go on living,” Clement said.
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have left the city.”
“Maybe we’ve reached the end. Maybe there’s no point in going on. We could go on for another day or another month or even longer, but the end result is going to be the same. Why prolong it?”
“You haven’t told me yet where you’re going or where you’ve been,” Holton said.
Clement cleared his throat and looked out at the river. “I’m staying a couple of miles from here, over in those hills,” he said, as he pointed over his shoulder away from the river. “I stopped running shortly after the bombs fell. I figured there was no use trying to outrun the sickness. I wanted to spend my last days in relative comfort.”
“You have shelter?” Holton asked.
“Food and water?”
“Food enough to last for as long as I need it and plenty of water. There’s a well there. It has the coldest, purest water you ever saw.”
“And there’s nobody else around?” Holton asked.
“It’s so far back in the hills nobody would ever find it.”
“How did you find it, then?”
“It’s a place I’ve known about since I was a child.”
The sun was going down behind the trees beyond the river and there was a sudden chill in the air. Holton thought about moving on but was too tired to even get up off the ground.
“I need clean water,” he said carefully. “I was just thinking about boiling some water from the river when you came along.”
“Don’t think about drinking that muck,” Clement said. “It has enough contaminants in it to kill the entire population.” He laughed at the irony of his remark. “I doubt if boiling would ever make it safe enough to drink.”
“I might have no other choice,” Holton said. “If I don’t get water soon, I’ll be dead from something other than the sickness.”
“You can come to the place where I’m staying,” Clement said, “if you don’t mind tramping a couple of miles through the woods. There’s as much water there as you could want.”
“I have nothing to trade for it.”
Clement snorted with amusement. “It’s not my water,” he said. “It was there when I came along and it will still be there after I’m gone. You might as well get yourself some of it while you can.”
Holton agreed to go with Clement, so, without another word, Clement put his books back on. When he had them laced up, he stood and motioned for Holton to follow him.
In a short time after they entered the dense forest, Holton was sure they were lost but Clement kept going without hesitation. The terrain was rough and rocky in places and they seemed to be going upward most of the way, as if they were climbing the side of a mountain. Finally, after what seemed two hours or more of very difficult walking, they came to a clearing with a little cabin in it.
Clement took Holton inside the cabin, which was two little rooms, and pointed to one of his two canvas chairs and told him to sit down and rest. While Holton was taking off his shoes and socks, Clement brought him a pitcher of water and a tin cup. Holton drank most of the water in the pitcher so Clement filled it again.
Clement had a little cook stove in one corner of the cabin that served as the kitchen. He told Holton to go out behind the cabin and get himself washed while he prepared the food. He gave Holton a shirt and pair of pants that were like new to put on after he had washed and told him to keep them because he had no use for them.
After Holton had made himself as clean as he could and put on the clean shirt and pants, he went back inside the cabin. Clement was just putting the food on the little table. He gestured for Holton to sit down.
They dined silently on canned soup, beans, spinach, and tomatoes. Holton ate his fill and leaned back in the chair with contentment. He was thinking that he should leave and not prevail too much on Clement’s hospitality, but he knew he would never find his way back down the mountain in the dark.
“You’ll want to stay the night now,” Clement said, as if he was reading Holton’s thoughts. “The forest is not safe at night if you’re not familiar with it.”
“Not safe,” Holton said. He thought about those words and then laughed.
After they were finished eating and Clement had cleared away the food and washed up the dishes, they went outside and sat on the step of the little cabin. It was so dark they couldn’t see more than five feet in front of them. Clement offered Holton a cigarette but he declined it, not liking himself in the role of the taker who had nothing to offer.
They talked about pleasant things that they knew before all the trouble came about. They talked about dogs and cats they had owned and books they had read and music they liked and trips abroad they had taken. Holton told Clement about his ten-year-old son and about how he and his wife planned to divorce, but if she was dead now, as he figured she was, there would be no need for the divorce. He said this with irony as if the thought amused him, but then he began to cry uncontrollably.
“It’s all right,” Clement said, unembarrassed, putting his arm around Holton’s shoulder. “I think you just need to let it out and then you’ll feel better.”
When they were back inside the cabin and Clement had rolled himself in his sleeping bag on the floor and Holton was lying on the cot, Clement started talking about the end that he knew was coming. He didn’t mind dying so much, he said; he had had a good life, what there was of it. He had seen the world and known true happiness. His greatest fear now was that there would be no one to bury him properly when he died. His body would be left lying out to rot in the open air where flies and other insects and starving animals would feast on it down to the bones. He could see himself, he said, one week after he was dead, one month, one year. It was too horrible to contemplate. He had seen and smelled rotting corpses in the war and he believed there was nothing worse. If he had a way to make himself evaporate in the air, to no longer exist, he would do it.
“I was hoping to find somebody I could rely on to bury me when the time comes,” he said.
“Maybe you won’t die,” Holton said. “As long as you’re alive, there’s hope you’ll go on living.”
“No, I’ve got the sickness in my bones. I can feel it. It won’t be long now.”
To humor him, and to repay Clement for his kindness and generosity, Holton agreed to stay for a few days and, if Clement died during that time, he would see that he was buried properly, in as deep a hole as Holton could dig. He would pile large rocks on the grave to make sure no animals could ever dig it up. He would even read some verses from the Bible if that’s what Clement wanted. In his heart, however, he was sure that things would not play out that way.
They slept soundly that night and the next day had a pleasant time relaxing in the sun-dappled shade outside the cabin, talking and laughing and forgetting the terrible state the world was in. By the evening, twenty-four hours after he had arrived at Clement’s cabin, Holton was starting to show symptoms of the sickness. His vision was blurred and his face wore a deathly pallor. He was vomiting blood and babbling incoherently.
Holton passed a very bad night on the cot in the little cabin. Clement tended him the best he could, but there wasn’t much he could do for him; he had no medicine. He gave him drinks of water, bathed his face in cold water, and tried to soothe his fears the best he could. Toward morning his body began turning black and he died just as the birds were waking up in the trees outside the cabin.
As soon as Clement realized Holton was dead, he went outside and began digging the grave under the trees in the clearing, in the spot he had set aside for his own grave. When he was satisfied the grave was the appropriate depth, he went back inside the cabin and put Holton’s body in the canvas bag that he had planned would contain his own body when the time came. Then he carried the bag outside and carefully arranged it on the floor of the grave so Holton was facing up. Gasping for air—realizing he was no longer as young as he once was—he said a silent prayer for Holton and, when he was finished, he filled in the grave.
All day long and during the night he expected to begin to see the symptoms of the sickness in himself, but the symptoms didn’t appear. When he awoke the next morning, he felt fine and was very hungry. He ate an enormous breakfast, washed himself at the pump and put on clean clothes.
Two days later he still felt well and healthy. He looked at his face in the mirror for any signs of change but saw none. He felt as well as he had ever felt in his life, in spite of the reduced circumstances in which he was living. He began to think that he was being spared the sickness for some reason or another.
That night a voice seemed to speak to him in a dream. He didn’t know if it was Holton’s voice or somebody else’s, but it was a voice he knew—maybe a voice from his distant past. The voice was telling him to go to the river and follow it south all the way to its end where it emptied into the sea—hundreds of miles. At the end of that journey he would find some kind of answer—perhaps not the answer he wished for—but an answer nonetheless.
He awoke in the morning with a resolve he hadn’t felt in a long while. The resolve had taken the place of the resignation he had felt since the bombs fell. He put as much food as he could carry into his pack, two canteens of water, and a change of clothes. He took one last look around the cabin and went out its door for the last time. With the slap of the screen door still in his ears, he looked toward the mound of dirt under the trees in the clearing and gave a little salute of farewell. Then he was gone, melding into the trees of the forest as if he had never existed.