How sour sweet music is
When time is broke, and no proportion kept!
So it is in the music of men’s lives.
—William Shakespeare, King Richard II
“Giroux,” says David, surprised. David waits for the man holding the rifle to say something. He waits with a force and attention that starts occluding his sight, the vision at the edges of his eyes misting into gray, the sky above him turning dark, until he realizes, with a start, that the sky is dark, in great angry bands of black that race over the tops of the buildings before him, dark bands that stripe the bright overcast sky. He glimpses a dark bird cartwheel over the roof of the vibrating brown of the brick of the building to his left and he starts, his head jerking, he sees that the bird is a piece of paper, or plastic, fluttering down into the street behind the man.
“Uh,” David says, lost in tracing the trash’s movement, while some part of him manages to repeat, “David Giroux.”
“Hey,” says the man, keeping the rifle tilt toward David, but the man is turning his head slowly to look behind him, to where David’s eyes have followed the trash down to the edge of the curb.
“Huh,” the rifle man says again.
David’s attention crashes back to the rifle. David stares at the barrel end, which moves up and down, up and down in brief sloppy arcs, swaying and bumping ten feet in front of his belly.
“Uh,” David says again, and his attention is sliding away again, sliding to other things around him: the telephone wires sloping across the street, a No Parking sign, a dirty red sweater rolled with mud and trash against the curb. And then David is fixating on the small beads of sweat that are dotting across the man’s forehead.
And now he can feel the spot on his belly where the gun barrel would be if it were a little closer to him, and he sees the rifle move again, the spot on his belly is like heat and then the spot is feeling like a laugh before it starts. Somewhere in his mind David realizes he doesn’t want to laugh.
David clears his throat. “Ah,” he says, feeling shaky with an effort to do something he can’t remember, but knows is important, and then there it is again, he remembers, and he is blurting out, like a string of a magic chant, “Je retourné chez nous!” once, twice, and again, until his voice wails high into a skidding stop, his voice growing tighter, his throat piercing and tight, and at that inopportune moment, he vomits.
One the asphalt, on his knees, he stares stupidly at the wet Rorshach test beneath his face, and he hears laughing, until another wave of vomiting chokes it off.
Abruptly, Giroux tries to disengage himself from his crouch, but the old Econovan’s front bench is pressing in on him, a jumble of equipment spilling over the top of vinyl seat onto him. Someone in the van is saying shit shit shit shit, and then Giroux stops with a grunt or a sob. Someone else moves in the dark and a loose cymbal shifts, slips, and rings for a moment, before deadening, rolling wedged up tight against something else.
Giroux can move his head and shoulders and looks over toward the driver, Joel is stirring, dimly in the dull green light of the dashboard. Giroux understands that at least one of the van’s headlights is still on, still working, and that the van is pitched up, tilted oddly on his side, bushes and brush making odd shadows of the headlight pressing up into them.
“I can’t see shit,” Joel is saying, sounding calm.
In the back seat, Giroux can see, as he pushes the things falling against him, he sees that Ann has her arm around Rich, that she’s scrunched up against him against the van side door.
A brilliant white light cracks the sky and bleaches the tops of the hills Giroux sees through the windshield, but the van and the surrounding low area remain in relative shadow, but then Giroux’s sight goes purple and black and orange again, and no one is saying anything, anything at all, and the only sound is of small things hitting the roof and sides of the van, sticks and sand, and his ears are popping and then a great rushing wind and tide of a million bits and pieces of hell are raining, pinging against the van.
The shit staticking against the van’s steel skin quiets, stops.
“What the fuck,” Giroux says, out loud.
“Get a flashlight,” Joel says, although Giroux only half-hears.
Ann is kicking at the back of Giroux’s front seat.
“Ricky’s really hurt, I think. Ricky’s really hurt,” she says, sounding very calm, Giroux thinks, although his attention notices how her words about Ricky, matches the cadence of her kicks.
“We’re going home after a shitty gig,” Giroux says, funny, but the funniness of it keeps rising up through his chest, up, hard, into his throat, a panicked core of a laugh that is turning into something, has turned into something, his heart following up into his throat, filling his head like an icy stone.
David and the rifle man walk past a two-tone pickup in the street, the truck is pitched up, front crushed against the corner entry of an old variety store, a flattened corner of a yellow, posters-plastered newspaper box peeking out from the side of the truck’s grill. The man is holding David’s arm just above the elbow. David responses to the pressure of the hand exactly, his whole mind now back focused on this, his whole attention collapsing back to this responding, David’s legs move stiffly, jerking through each step.
Then he and the man are stopping before a dam of cars blocking the street, dusty cars jammed together at an intersection, pushed on to the sidewalks, wedged up against the cement block face of the side of a rug store, a solid push of one car on top of another. Another car, right up against the stacking, is tipped up on its side, showing its roof. David realizes there are others here, he sees that there are people, men, behind the stacked, pushed together wall of cars. One of the men waves a club, a metal table leg, and David starts to wave but stops when he sees the rifle man wave back.
“C’est un ultra,” the rifle man calls past the windows-cracked Toyota that forms one side of a small gap tight between the cars piled toward the wall of a two-story brick office building. Lowell Professional Services, reads David. He sees that the glass front entrance doors are empty frames. He smells old house fires in the air.
The rifle man pushes at David’s arm and nods past the Toyota, and David at first thinks the man is telling him to go, and then he realizes that the man has said, “Allez.”
David moves toward the club man, and the others behind the jumble-stacked cars, through to the other side of them.
Rifle man and club man talk, but David can’t follow what they’re saying. The smell of wet house ashes are now overwhelming him, filling his nostrils with the memories of particles, of other moments he tries not to think of with any particular sense, and he feels himself starting to fall back into senselessness, but he’s snapped back when club man pushes him down to sit, pushes him roughly to sit up against the rug store wall, with a growl that David can’t make out.
The club man is nodding past the car wall, and looks to the rifle man, and then turns toward David. “Are any others with you?” and “Tu es seul?” and David is nodding, shaking his head, no. The guy with the rifle shifts it to one hand, the barrel drooping as he fishes through his shirt pocket behind his windbreaker, coming up with a balled-up kleenex.
“Who do you know here?” the rifle man asks, wiping his nose, sounding far away.
David is shaking, and he is struggling to hear the man, trying to work past confusion, trying to figure if the man is speaking French or English.
The man nods his head, pointing behind him. David gets up and follows him, past three other men that are sitting inside the rug store’s back door. David notices that the club man is gone, and then, two buildings down from the car pile, David and the rifle man are standing before a door. Over the door is a small painted sign that says, P & J Receiving. The door is set in an expanse of brick, a wall with tatters and pulpy residues of old billboard ads, in strips and layers.
The man unlocks the door. David stares at it. The door is painted a dark green, a steel door, and then David is elsewhere, his reeling mind being swallowed, rushing, with memory. The water door, he thinks, somewhere inside himself, as he slides back, back to the jitter and flash of the van’s one headlight and the crack of a green steel door as it is rammed, in sudden dark.
David is stumbling through the present dark doorway, not seeing, not hearing the rifle man. David is stumbling through, into his looping images, dreams.
Giroux manages to muscle open the van’s passenger door.
The roar that had filled the sky and hills has settled into a rumbling, fading bass note.
Ann is shouting from the back of the van. Giroux straightens himself up, slowly, his body tight and working against him, but he decides that he is basically alright, and notices, all in the same instance, that the light rain they had been driving in continues.
The van is halfway off the shoulder of the road, half-turned into the woods, the passenger’s side headlight is broken, the right front of the van pointing up the start of the sloping side under the bushes and roadside weeds. Ann wants to get out.
Giroux pulls at the side door slide, but it is stuck and so he starts pulling a guitar case out from the nearest back passenger seat, and then a cardboard box of cassette tapes and copies of their demo disc that fan, half-spilled across the floor, and Ann is scrambling over the jumble of things, over the top of the front bench, clipping Joel, the back of his head with her big clunky shoes. Joel remains strapped behind the wheel as she clumsily leaps, clipping him, and then she is slipping, out of the van, falling on to the ground beside front tire.
“What happened,” Ann asks, straightening up. She’s holding her left arm.
Joel calls from the inside of the van, “What is going on?”
Giroux sees, in the dim reflected light of the one remaining headlight, that Ann’s nose is bleeding.
“I think Rick is,” Ann says, then she stops.
“I’m okay,” says Rick, from the back seat, muffled by the things jumbled around him and by the split lips he is just discovering.
Joel is holding up his cigarette light, flicking it on, the modest flame going on and off as he keeps flicking the wheel.
“My lighter’s not working,” he says. “Get the flashlight,” he says, “get the flashlight.”
Giroux reaches past Ann and fumbles open the glove compartment, which spills its contents of papers and maps, and he gets the flashlight, turning it on, and turning it to Joel’s face.
“Get the flashlight,” Joel says, again.
David wakes with a cry to a man who speaks to him, is standing over him, holding a weak flashlight beam on David’s face. Behind this man, David thinks he glimpses someone who he thinks might be the rifle man, standing outside the door in the glare of a Coleman lantern, with the pitch of night behind him. Another man is squatting by the door, holding the lantern.
David sits half-way up, blinking against the light in his eyes. Panic is surging in his throat, his mind racing to reply in French, the same language of the question. “Uh, I, je m’appelle David Giroux,” David says, struggling to sit fully up.
“We don’t have to speak French,” the man says, in English, with what might be a tired smile.
David feels stupid, and tries to say something, but only manages, “Uh, uh,” when the man with the lantern barks out a laugh. David turns toward him. “Jesus, kid,” the lantern man says, and then the lantern man gets up from his crouch and steps inside with the lamp, stands next to the man in front of David, the man dressed with a dirty, bulky sweater over another sweater, both are looking down at David. The lantern man asks, “Where did you get this French shit?”
David is looking at the other man, see that the top sweater’s sleeves are rolled part way up. He sees that the man’s face is dirty, with an oily sheen in the lantern light, and his beard looks like the beard of Christ.
In a panic, David’s mind goes blank.
“Jesus,” the other man says, snapping his fingers in front of David’s face. “Hey,” he says, and then more quietly, “Hey. How do you know about this place?”
David looks back at him. “Lowell?” David asks, his voice tight and high.
The man nods. The rifle man has come in and leans over to the asking man and says something David can’t hear and then the rifle man leaves.
The lantern man places the lantern up on one of many large cardboard boxes stacked around the room. He says to the other man, “What do you think?” but the man only scowls.
“He doesn’t look Greek,” he then says to the lantern man.
“Uh,” says David.
“Who sent you?” the other man says.
“Uh,” says David. The lantern man laughs.
“Uh,” says David, “A woman who told me about this place, she said, uh,” he says, stopping.
“Jesus, he’s from outside,” says the man to the sweater man.
Giroux sits in the shadows.
Shadows he had sought, a hunger for them, an instinct for inside of them, for shelter.
Giroux can’t get over the shadows, even when no light exists, when the black inside the granite and brick water house is pure and he moves his hand to sift it. The shadows play in Giroux’s mind, in the small space he and Joel and Ann and Rick huddle in, and then a trickle of light begins to seep in again through the two tiny high windows blocked with junk of broken, bent-up cases of the guitars, the cassette shoebox, that they’ve tried to fill with dirt and sand.
That he had tried to fill with sand.
Sometimes Giroux thinks that he is thinking clearly and in those brief flashes when he feels strong and clear, moments when he considers what has happened only as a set of problems, thinking about what he has read, what he remembers of facts, picturing, imagining graphs and illustrations, he creates a litany of information for his concentration. In these moments he believes he is the strong one.
But these moments of strength are as ephemeral as the flicker of the small fire he has had trouble keeping lit, a fire that had leapt like joy, like comfort, until there was nothing more to burn, no scraps of paper, no more bits of twigs and branches he had collected in the dark, in the manic rush before they closed the door. These moments are the nagging of illusion, the glimpses in the shaking breaths he takes as his calm begins again its crash, shifting back to shock, his own thoughts that come rushing to a state of burning static, his heart slamming inside him, his body trembling.
The dimmest of light brings shapes to Giroux, the big pipes from the reservoir, with their values barely cracked open, offer a supply of water, water that slowly builds as it drips through the tee shirt Giroux has insisted they wrap around the giant valve, the drops falling into the tom-tom lined with a black plastic trash bag. The sound of the dripping comes in and out of Giroux’s hearing. The sounds of Rich’s moaning often take over.
Joel is nearest Rich, second nearest to the door where they had put Rich, and even blinded Joel knows the exact location of the small moans that come like breath.
Straining to see, to keep awake, to keep from slipping somewhere else, Giroux keeps the special words to himself, caressing them at times like magic words, fallout, footprint, words that spiral through his mind like a fever delirium: the mind’s map of the building they are in, the stone walls the armor, the slate roof like a shield, the ticking away of gamma and beta rays bouncing and floundering on the ground outside them, rings of the swirling mote, drifting and blowing like snow in his mind, filling and blanketing his thoughts with odd comfort, an out of focus control that helps shutter his inner thoughts, until he begins to sense, again, the world beyond them, with a dark and terrifying ringing, his mind going too far from this world of the four of them, too far from the walls of rock and brick and the dark and shadows, too far from the others’ bodies as they group together to keep warm, before they split apart, recoiling, like now, in what has already become their own spots, before animal comfort re-asserts. But Ann had once again repeated, again and again about getting help for Rich.
Giroux wasn’t going to explain it all again. Not about why inside, not about what’s wrong with Rich, not about having to stay goddamn it! and he reels again, falling into shock that makes his mind as blank as rock, that seems the only place of welcome.
“Where’d you come from?” the sweater man is asking. David, suddenly full of panic, looks at him and doesn’t understand. A tremor sweeps through his body.
“Hey!” the sweater man shouts, loudly clapping his hands together. “Wake up!,” he shouts and David thinks I am awake and looks at this man, who is sitting close by on his haunches against the cinderblock wall painted a dirty white. The man’s shadow looms against the upper wall. David realizes that this man is asking him a question. An answer, David thinks, He wants an answer. The man, whose dark hair lies curly and dirty across his forehead and over his ears, asks his question again.
“Uh…,” says David, through the traces of a dream. “Cambridge,” he says.
The sweater man laughs. “Not where you lived, asshole!” He is still looking at David. “Where you were when this shit happened, get it?” David nods. “Next you’ll be telling me your place of birth,” the sweater man says, shaking his head.
“Central Falls,” David answers.
The man is staring at him. “You didn’t come up from Central Falls,” he says, frowning, and then he laughs. “I wasn’t really asking you where you were born,” he says, “Jesus.”
“Uh,” says David. “Sudbury, near Sudbury.”
“All right, ” the sweater man says. “He walks, he talks.”
David is silent.
“So, I take it you were living in Cambridge, but were somewhere out near Sudbury.”
“Uh, yes,” David says, a feeling like a wave of sickness rises in him, starting him shaking again.
“What were you doing?” the man asks, then adds, “What did you do for work?”
“The Hairy Khrushchev’s,” David answers.
The man’s look goes blank.
“It’s a band,” David says, quiet, but then a sudden rage is blazing up, replacing the hunger, the nausea, the panic.
The sweater man is laughing.
Giroux wasn’t thinking. He wasn’t thinking about not burying Ann, Joel, or Rich, he wasn’t thinking about what had happened, he was simply hearing the pop of the guns over and over and over, until the sounds had taken on a wet and lulling quality, it was rain, a heavy rain, and then he slept, slept there in the half-burned house where they had gone looking for food.
Where he had gone in, looking for food, while Ann kept Rich and Joel company out on the side of the road.
Giroux hadn’t heard the big truck, inside, but he heard the guns go off. He was frozen standing, making sense of what he was hearing, Ann’s first Hey! Turning from the attention she was drawing, but then it became a different Hey!, as the shots rang out, but Giroux found himself in a dark corner. Against dark burn ash, closed up into himself, until somehow it was dark and he went out to see their corpses in the dimmest of moonlight that barely found its way through the dense overhead sky.
Later, when it was daylight again, and Giroux had been walking down the road that ran through small rises of woods, and the whole area was changing, in places bushes and trees were starting to bud, and other places looked like late fall, dried leaves, and others that had partly been burned.
Then Giroux came to a stone railroad bridge jammed up under with cars. The first car, a big Ford Explorer, looked like it had gone sideways into the abutment, and the car behind had rear-ended it under the over pass, and another had run into them both. They were all empty. There was a long line of cars behind these, with some looking untouched, except for streaks of dirt or thrown open doors, but the others, toward the end length of the long, long line of cars, had caught on fire, and then Giroux saw the ash-blackened bodies, inside those ashen metal frames, or fallen away from them.
The house is aslant. The kitchen, all the cabinet doors are open, hanging from sloping walls. Giroux sees a box of Hostess Donuts, the variety dozen, grabbing it up from the floor, it was full, not opened. He starts with a cinnamon one, dry, but wonderful.
Standing, the man holds up a finger, but says nothing for a few moments. “Okay?” he says, after a while, quietly.
David manages to nod, but his shaking grows.
“You think you can tell me your story without fainting or trying to pull your own head off?” the man says, his smile gone. “Can you tell me how long it’s been since…well, since this all started?”
David stares up at him and tries to answer. “I really don’t know how long its been that it took me to get here because things, uh, all the days,” he is saying, but it remains confusing, run all together. “I didn’t keep track,” he says, but then he shuts his eyes and is silent. “Thirty-two days?” he asks, in a whisper, after some time.
The man bows from the waist and silently claps his hands. “Bravo,” he says. “I’m impressed. Now tell me what happened and then you’re going to tell me what you saw on your way here, okay?”
“We had a job that night, at Ju-Ju’s in Worcester, pretty good for us. We were heading back, taking our time coming back, Route 20 instead of the Pike. Joel was driving the van, Ann…,” David stops again. “She’s dead,” he says. “Everyone else is dead.”
The sweater man is holding up his hand, stopping David. “Okay, we’ll get to that. Let’s try to keep this sensible, okay?” David nods.
“Oh,” David says, after some silence, after the man gestures with his hand for him to go on. “I was kind of asleep, Rick was talking with Ann—”
“—You were driving when a blast went off?” the man says.
“Uh, yeah, Joel was. There was some traffic, a weird time for it, but we didn’t think anything about it, we were listening to a tape.” David wipes his nose with the dirt smudged sleeve of his jacket. “The van went off the side, swiping a pole or a tree, none of us said anything when it went off.”
The man is quiet in the silence of the room.
“Do you have a cigarette?” David asks.
The man stares at David, then reaches back into his knapsack. “What the hell,” he says. “I’ll stop by Seven-Eleven on the way home for more.” The man holds a cigarette out to David, shrugging. “Sorry. Just my way of being a shit head,” he says. “Come on, take it.”
David takes it and lights it with matches he pulls from his torn jacket pocket. After inhaling the smoke deeply, after fixing a small tear in the cigarette near the filter with spit, he says, “Rich had a couple of packs in the van, low-tar ones, but I wasn’t complaining.”
After then it is a while before he says, “Huh. It was playing house almost.” He gets up and then sits back down, against the wall. “We had some big Pepsi bottles we used for water, we had valves off the big pipes that fed right into the place. We blocked up the small windows. The sand, dirt, but we got it okay after we closed ourselves in, stacked all our stuff against the door. There was a ventilation thing, a louver, in the roof, the roof was,” David says, gesturing with his hands, “was like a pyramid, steep.” He gets up and starts to pace.
“I figured the roof was definitely the weak point,” David says, after a while, very quietly. “Still, everything was pretty thick, one side of the building built right into the dike or whatever, and it rained a couple of times early on, so maybe the fallout stuff washed down.” David stops pacing for a moment, and looks at the man. “Nobody got really sick, it could have been a bug, the flu for all I know, not that we had much to eat. Crackers from Ann’s bag—she’s one of those who is always taking restaurant things like cracker packages, napkins, you know, those mints—we had some homemade spinach stuff, fettucini? that a friend of hers had brought to the gig, homemade shit,” he says. “I had a half-full bottle of Wild Turkey I clipped from the bar.”
“How long you stay there?” the man asks.
“We didn’t make the two week wait, huh,” David says. “We weren’t even sure how long we were in there. At one point Joel—I think it was Joel, maybe not—someone asks how long we were, we couldn’t agree if we had been there three or four days, we were all starting to feel kind of lousy. It was mostly dark, you know, the windows all blocked up and all, and the time just seems to run all together, sleeping a lot, piled together because it was so cold. Huh!” David laughs, or gasps.
“How long were you there?” the man asks, impatiently.
The refrigerator was still up, a big one, silver side-by-side doors open, bottles inside, lit in the dim daylight light from the crazily popped kitchen door. Giroux sees that many of the bottles are cracked, emptied unto a larger mess, the milk gone, bad, but there are two Rolling Rock bottles whose caps were popped but still have beer in them.
Giroux reaches for them, leaning against the fridge door, and then the whole ceiling starts shifting downward, the corner of the second floor having had settled on the fridge, and with his weight against the fridge the corner everything starts moving again, even as he’s moving back outside.
Giroux has never tasted beer so good, the first bottle rushing through his throat in a racing excitement and a flood of glory, being swallowed so fast that when its gone, his tongue, buzzing, probes his teeth and cheeks and finds gummy donut clumps still there. He takes a mouthful of beer from the other bottle and swishes it around his mouth, pushing at the food until his mouth is clear. He burps, a long, sour burp, like a joyous song.
Sure,” the sweater man says.
David laughs, or tries to, but it is more of a sob. “I know a lot about this shit. I read a lot, for a song I wrote.” The sweater man stays quiet. “You want to know what it was called?” David asks.
The sweater man shrugs.
“Pretty funny, huh?” David asks, quietly.
“Sure,” the man says.
David stops, his eyes closed, he looks asleep to the man, David’s face is streaked with dirt, an old growth of beard is scraped and partly scabbed on one side of his chin. David’s eyes pop open and he is looking right at the sweater man. “Can I stop for a sec?” asks David. Maybe because he is crying.
“Take five,” says the man.
“Brubeck,” David says, crying.
The next house up was either less exposed or better built, in better shape. Giroux finds a lot of food there, eggs, cheese, some thawed things from a freezer. Pie once frozen, Table Top.
Later, sitting on a couch in the basement room, he is again awash with gratitude. He surveys the treasure he has found in his first sweep of the basement, heaping it all at his feet: sleeping bags, a Coleman stove, a huge tent, nesting pans, a big battery lamp, rope, other camping equipment. There is a bathroom down there, water even runs from the taps when he tries them, twisting them slowly, delicately, getting a steady dribble, but he doesn’t flush the toilet. Even the one basement window, small as it is, is unbroken.
He gets up off the couch and goes to the corner of the room, to see if the bar cart is still there. It is. He thinks to himself, Of course.
He takes a deep breath and pulls the Canadian whiskey bottle from it and settles back on the couch, pulling the afghan back on top of him. He unscrews the bottle, tips it back, and drinks slowly, pulling the liquor slowly into him, the warmth of the liquor is a dizzying comfort, the burn in his throat, his stomach, feels like pleasure and surprise. Hours later, in an earlier morning dimness, he wakes with a lurch and a pounding, buzzing head, but he remembers where he is and slips back to sleep.
The first full day there Giroux ventures up the stairs only into the kitchen, and he finds a lot of food. He eats and sleeps in the basement, first from cans, without heating, and then, after a day of not eating because he has been vomiting, he starts to use the Coleman stove to cook, eating lightly so he won’t get sick again and so his gums won’t start hurting again. He spends most of his time sleeping or prowling around the basement, in a storage room, the laundry room, collecting things he wants, arranging them, counting and listing things over and over. He finds a gun cabinet at the back of the storage room, empty except for two boxes of bird shot.
Sometimes he jumps, hearing sounds, starting like a hand is reaching into his chest, grabbing at his heart. Once, he hears the sound of people nearby. He steps up onto the couch, peering through the tiny window, silently, his mind growing thick with panic, his knees jumping in his legs, the giving, quavering springs of the couch he crouches on like proof that the world is dream, unsteady, and then he sees them, his body clamping into a locked stillness. Two women and a man on the edge of the street that runs behind the back yard.
The man, Giroux sees, is pushing a black lawn cart, and then the man is turning to look at one woman who is being half-carried by the other. Giroux thinks he sees him say something, and then he hears the stumbling woman scream back a reply, a high, piercing note that carries through the bushes and the distance that now half-obscures them from him, a sound that wails up toward a half-choked note as the man drops the cart handles, turning, slapping at her again and again. The other woman, still holding the collapsing woman, silently pushes at the man and the three of them move on past Giroux’s sight, leaving him racing with fear for the rest of the day.
Giroux wakes to the hint of acrid smoke, the smell far enough away so that it is more a curious sensation, like an unsettling visitor now gone. He ventures outside in the gray light and sees an orange light flicker and it expands through the trees and the wind shifts and smoke and sound come drifting to him. His pulse jumping through him as he staggers down the basement walkout stairs, where with shaking arms he sweeps cans and boxes of food into a large canvas rucksack.
He is trying not to panic. He climbs toward the second floor, into the front rooms, kicking past kid toys and crunching glass underfoot from the cracked and shattered windows. Down the hall he moves, opening another bedroom door, his actions driven by the blooming terror of the approaching fire. His nostrils flare as he steps past the jamb, his breath catching and then stopping in the burst of the spunky stink, his movement still as he sees the children on the bed, swollen in their pajamas, their heads ragged-holed by shot, black and swollen, the mother dead thrown over them, the father, slumped back and sideways in a corner rocking glider chair, lit by the broken window, his head half torn, thrown back against the chair back, the shotgun against the thrown out soft and rotten leg against which it had fallen from dead fingers, balanced, waiting, embraced by the bursting flesh. Giroux backs out, slowly, trying to push the corpse smell out of his lungs.
“So you ate okay,” says the sweater man, “you seem pretty good, considering the radiation.”
David’s eyes fly open. He carefully jumps down from the box stack he’d been sitting up on.
“So how did you hear of here?” asks the man. His eyes are closed, his body, slumped against the wall, relaxed.
“Radiation,” David says quietly.
The man’s head turns toward David, eyes still closed. “Hmmm?” he murmurs.
“A girl, a woman, named Jenny, she told me,” says David, quietly. “I found her on the road, I was heading northward, she was in bad shape, burns on her feet, hands, she was from here, she talked a lot the first day, said she was with a truck, some others, talking about looking around.” He looks at the man and sees the man is looking at him. “She said survey.”
“Yeah,” says the man. “Fuck that. They sent a number of people out after. They were supposed to give us an idea what was, what’s around.”
“Yeah,” says David.
“A stupid idea, it was too early, things are still too crazy here, but they didn’t ask me. I tried to tell them that we could just wait and get the same information from people coming in, which is how I end up holding hands with guys like you.”
The man laughs. “Don’t get moody,” he says to David’s silence.
“Shit, I’m beat,” the sweater man says, after more silence.
After a while, David says, “She lasted three days. Just kind of crumbled, just…” David shuts his eyes and her face appears to him, blood welling into her smile, or grimace. “Shit,” David says, looking over toward the man.
“She tell you where she picked up the burns, what happened to the others, anything?”
“Well, she told me about here, didn’t she?” David says, growing angry again.
“Please,” the sweater man says, quietly.
“There was no way I could move her, she was bleeding a lot, I think she was infected, out of it mostly, fever.”
The man looks like he’s asleep.
“We holed-up in a house. I got her that far.”
The man grunts.
“I buried her.”
The man grunts again.
David, crying silently, looks up at him. “I’m safe?” he asks, his voice soft and breaking.
Shit,” says the sweater man, listening at the opened door. An overcast light pours in bright against the dim room, bringing the peal of the bells with it. “Sounds like another fucking all-out.” The pop of guns come drifting through the door, the sounds muffled with distance.
“What’s going on?” asks David with a quavering voice.
The man turns to him. There is no grin, no expression on the man’s face, except exhaustion. “Maybe even the big one we’ve been waiting for from the Greeks,” he says simply.
“Fuck,” the sweater man says, after another moment. David just looks at him. He turns to David. “Grab my bag,” he says. “I have to go on duty, I’ll bring you in on the way.” The man mutters, reaching over and turning off the Coleman lamp, pushing the door all the way open. “Let’s go,” says the sweater man.
They are walking along the solid brick side of the building, staying close to it. They hear some gunfire that is closer by. “Come on,” the man says quickly. He takes David’s arm. They sprint across the street and duck around an old bakery front. The man coughs a burst of air from his throat, his left hand flutters near an arrow shaft sticking in his chest, he turns slightly toward David, David sees the sweater man’s eyebrows flying up, eyes popping, the man stumbles, then takes a step, and falls forward, the shaft of the arrow snaps cleanly on the concrete sidewalk. David looks up from the body and sees three men standing by the next street, one is re-stringing a bow, but the two others start toward him.
David drops the knapsack and runs. Down the street, racing in the tunnel of his panic, his mind thundering with his slapping footfalls. He runs, stumbling into a wall, twirling, he turns a corner, running deeper into Lowell, running, growling in terror. From the corner of his eye he sees movement, a flash. He turns toward it and it becomes a sharp clear bark of sound that is pinching his abdomen and throwing him backward on the pavement. He is surprised by the hot numb feeling in his gut. He stares into the sky.
He hears more gunfire. He hears a scream. That’s not me, he thinks at one instant, and then he notices how the sky is streaked, a band of black that fills half the sky above the edge of the buildings he can see. Two faces appear above him.
One is a man who holds a rifle. He says, “No weapon, hey, no weapon.” The other man David hears grunt. A third man joins them, outside of his sight. “Come on,” this man says, with an accent, “They’re coming over Canal!”
This man’s face floats over David’s. It’s the rifle man! thinks David. He tries to blink, to move, to take a breath, but his eyes stay open into the fade.