Duncan B. Barlow

The Light for Both of Us

It was on the third year of executions that you and I renewed our vows. You had been so hopeful. You said no economic or political collapse would chase from us those elements of humanity that made us unique. Even after The Breakdown, when the infrastructures began to fail, bridges collapsing, reactors failing, police forces defeated. When we ran out of fuel resources. When people began burning whatever they could to stay warm, starting with wood and paper, and moving to plastics, chemicals, and fabrics. When the gangs came through our home, beating me, robbing us, pulling you into the yard to abuse and humiliate you, you pulled yourself together, mended your wounds, stitched your clothes. You said, “We are only stronger for having survived. Our love is a light that never burns out.” We held our ceremony among our surviving friends (who seemed more baffled by your optimism than by The Breakdown itself) on the furthest reaches of our sector, where the trees stood, the leaves weighed down by black ash. When the winds came, they briefly parted the pitch sky and we could see, for a moment, a pale orb of sunlight, obscured but present. We stood in silence until you said, “Our love will last as sure as that sun shines,” and we kissed, slipping new rings, fashioned from cans, hammered and polished, upon our fingers.

This was before the rains changed. Before the dogs began to turn, starving and mad. Before the carcasses of cats, then children, began appearing beneath bushes, pale and slimy, their eyes white and velveteen. Before the first reactor began to leak and poison the earth and kill the children. Before women lost their hair and men found themselves impotent. Before the gangs took total control of the towns. Before people began trading their dead for things to burn. You were in the garden when you first noticed it. The brown viscous rain drops. Some tore through the kale. Your garden began to wither. The things you saved, we tried cooking, but they made us sick. We began trading what little we had for canned food. You told me I looked thin. Tired. But I could see it was you. After the rains, something was gone. Maybe you started seeing what the rest of us had seen long ago. The inevitability of it all.

The neighbors joined an end of days cult. They began having meetings. The preacher spoke late into the nights. More and more people joined them. We found trouble sleeping. I asked them to stop. I swathed myself in plastic, slipped shop goggles on my eyes, wrapped a scarf around my mouth. I walked through the brown drizzle, made black by night, and said, “Please, my wife has grown so frail. She needs rest.” They would not. Soon I grew too tired. My tolerance thin. I struck a man on the cheek, my blow an eighth of what it had been when the world was green, when I woke before the sun to build homes, when the hot sun still burned skin. How I complained about those days. “Sunny days won’t last forever,” you said to me, your way of ensuring I took nothing for granted, fully aware of how unaware I was. The crowd fell upon me. Pounding me with their fists and their metal crosses. If I’d thought there was nothing left in me, I was wrong. My skin breached and blood poured from me in angry torrents. Had a roving gang not arrived and clashed with the fanatics, I’d not have crawled home. Alive, but barely. You rolled over and found me, breath rasping through my throat. Death lowering my eyelids. I remember waking as you treated my wounds. Using the remnants of our first aid kit to disinfect my wounds. Laying pieces of your shirt over them. I wanted to tell you to stop. To save your energy. But I was weak. Too weak. By the time I was well enough to stand, you’d been awake for days. Worried, you said, that I wouldn’t come back from it. That you would be left alone.

For a while, the rains came more frequently and then they ceased altogether. We were thankful at first. You hoped it would give the earth time to heal. But the rains never returned. Neither clean nor dirty. Those plants that had survived, died in the drought. We had heard rumors that there were parts of the country where they could still grow plants, still harvest food. Where dogs weren’t eating each other in the streets and where gangs weren’t pulling apart houses for firewood. But no one had proof of this.

People in our sector ran out of things to trade. For fresh food. For clothing. What had once been a suburb had become a collection of hovels that only offered protection as long as the gangs hadn’t dismantled them. Those without homes, left. We didn’t know where they went. They didn’t say goodbye. People with whom we’d grilled. People we’d helped with graduation parties, birthday parties, weddings. People we’d loaned tools and sugar to. All gone without a word.

Some days I thought you had come back. You’d sing a fragment of a pop song you’d once loved or tell a joke. You’d ask me if I remembered a television show, the one you liked with the skinny woman who married the bumbling fat man. But then you’d go away. Your eyes seemed to go dull and your cheeks hollow. I’d touch you. Stroke the back of my hand along the cut of your jaw or clavicle or arm. You were unmoved. It was like I was air. Or something less.

We received word that other countries were organizing relief efforts. Refugee camps. Displaced Persons programs. Israel had shut its doors to us. Cuba had initiated non-stop water patrols to stop our kind from crossing the ocean. China had attempted to help but found the effort too costly. They left some military reserves to help evacuate areas around leaking reactors. When that was finished, they left. Russia and Brazil pledged money for supplies. Ireland offered sanctuary for first and second generation Irish. You and I had nowhere to go. I asked you if you wanted to travel to the ocean and build a boat. To push away from our shore and attempt to drift until we found refuge. Perhaps some fishing crew would rescue us. Some island might take us. You said, “No, we are far too weak to survive more than a day at sea. And what if the rains return?” You were right. You usually were.

When the UN arrived to help quell the gang violence and erect refugee camps, we stood in line. “Look,” I said, “this is hope.” You didn’t answer. You made to nod, but you were so frail that your head fell and struggled to return upright. I helped, rubbing my fingers over your bare scalp that had once grown platinum hair, smooth like some impossible piece of moonlight. My hair had fallen out before The Breakdown. When I was still young. When we’d first started dating. How you liked to tease me about it. Called me old man. Brought me toupees and gag miracle grow. And how you would laugh. That sparkling giggle that was more harp than voice. What I wouldn’t give to hear it now.

When we made it into camp. The beans and rice and vitamins returned color to us. The purified water cleaned us. There were troupes of entertainers flown in to ease our minds. I had conversations with people from other sectors and we compared stories. Yet, it seemed the more I became human, the more you were reminded of how inhuman we’d become. “Remember the time we went skiing in Switzerland,” I said, “when you woke up to find it snowing and told me the world was playing out in slow motion and we danced beneath the street light?” “I remember when you killed the cat and peeled back its hide, cut from it the thin and stringy meat,” you said. “Remember the time your mother bought us those horrible matching windbreakers to take to Ireland on our honeymoon,” I asked. “Remember sitting in the house when the gangs took our neighbor’s daughter? How we heard her scream? How we heard the parents protest? How we heard them die? When we did nothing to help? How we gave up fighting when they came for us? For me.”

Maybe you were right. Maybe we were unable to return to what we were. Maybe the crimes of survival were irreversible. The rest of us sat there acting as if nothing had happened. Too scared to remember what we were capable of. Too scared to ask, “What’s the worst thing you did?” So, you and I fell silent. Days passed where we wouldn’t speak. I brought you our daily rations and you let them cool, go bad, be carried away by rats. You lay in the cot and stared at the apex of our small tent. Some days I would do the same. Just to feel closer to you, like we were doing something together, like when we used to sit on the floor of the living room and listen to our old 45s.

When you ceased to leave the tent, save for using the latrine, I took to staying in with you. I traded some of my rations for a ham radio. As not to disturb you, I’d use an earpiece. On my side, I lay and watched the ridge of your face and listened to talk shows from foreign countries. They brought survivors and Displaced People on to tell their stories. One woman spoke about the men who raped her. “One of the men,” she said, “punctured my eye. I’m blind in my left eye.” The host asked her to show the audience. The woman lifted her eye patch and the studio audience moaned in disbelief. The host gave his apologies. “It’s not your fault,” the woman said. “It’s humanity’s fault,” he replied. His answer was practiced. Even. As if he was simply ordering a meal. The woman then detailed how her husband killed the family pets to eat them. She cried more for the loss of the family dog than did she when detailing her abuse. “The dog looked to me,” she said between pauses, “as if asking me to stop it.” “What did you do,” the host asked, but stopped her just before she answered and said, “We will be back after a word from our sponsor.”

I thought about killing our cat. I thought about his run from me. The brick I’d used to crush his skull. How much I’d loved that cat. I thought about how tough the meat was. Bland. You couldn’t stomach it. You just let it sit there on the plate. I ate it later, cold. The host returned and rephrased his question. The woman said, “I did nothing. I cried. I fed the meat to my boys. I told them a lie, but their father corrected me. Told them the truth. He said that the boys needed to know the truth to survive after The Breakdown. They are more like him. They ate the meat without question. My oldest son said, ‘It’s either us or them.’ I prefer,” pausing for a moment as if she were gathering something from the air, “not to make a choice, if that choice is death.” With this, the audience erupted in applause. “Well said,” the host cheered, “well said, indeed.”

You began sneaking into the medical tent after you used the latrine. I followed you at a remove. They wouldn’t let me in to sit with you. I thought I heard your voice. If voices had colors, yours was as gray as the sky. It was the color of the new world. As if a mist of rain had crept into you. Had spoiled you like the earth. You sounded like you were rotting from the roots. I knew you were done. There was no light left in you. Whatever had remained in you when we renewed our vows had been extinguished. I returned to our tent. You were soon to follow, smelling of rubbing alcohol. I asked when the light had gone out. You didn’t answer. After a while, I said, “it’s okay, I’ll carry the burden for you.”

The days didn’t grow brighter. Low clouds straggled by, threatening to bury us. At first I thought it was affecting your vision. You began to stumble on your walks to the latrine. Your feet spread a foot apart, your knees and hips locked at joint. You staggered. No one noticed. No one noticed anything anymore. Still, somehow you would make it there and back. Until you didn’t. You collapsed in the gravel. Chunks of it tore your cheeks, nested in your forearms, dirtied your clothing. I ran to you. Pulled you into my arms. Wiped away the dust. Pulled the small rocks from your skin. Covered your wounds. It was all I could manage, to lift you, to carry you back to the tent. It was then that I whispered to you that I would keep track of the days. That I would recall everything that you forgot, everything you missed. That I would record our surroundings the way you once did in your journals. But I wouldn’t be so meticulous. The way you’d delicately drawn the flora, their data dutifully entered. My drawings are not as lovely as yours. I attempted to draw an MRE. It was lopsided, out of proportion, the light reflecting oddly. It was nothing like your illustration of the apple tree. The delicate valley along the leaf spine where you’d drawn gentle webs of green with your colored pencils. My data is prose. Not neatly categorized and tabled like your writing. It wanders, gets side tracked forever, loses itself in subjective digressions. You said once that I was the heart to your mind. That we were the whole. That we were worthless apart. It struck me that I was meant to be the heart but you were the one who saw beauty in everything. Until violence left your eyes dull and lifeless. You cried when the gangs found your journals. When they piled them in their rucksacks and pulled you into the yard. It was the last time I tried to fight them, raising my body from the floor, just to be kicked and bludgeoned with axe handles. Why they let us live, I’ll never understand.

When the gangs infiltrated the camps and we were pushed out, I gathered you in your sheet, careful not to disturb you. You’d grown so thin, I was able to bundle you, tie the sheet behind my neck, carry you as I walked west toward the shore. The thunder came. Endless rolling claps buried in the looming clouds. I feared that the rain would come. Poison our skin. Blind us in our last moments. But it did not. The grass broke beneath us. Sometimes when I stopped to rest, I could feel it needle through my thinworn slacks. I worried it would prick my skin. Pollute my blood. I saw no one on that walk. For days we journeyed without so much as a shadow. I asked you what you thought sometimes but you never answered. I took to singing to calm my nerves. To pass time. To feel something besides my legs moving. Mostly I sang the songs you used to ask me to play on guitar during those cold winter nights when we sat by the fire. “It makes me nostalgic for a time I’ve never known,” you had said. “It makes me nostalgic for a time we had,” I said as I rambled over a dry creek bed miles away from the refugee camp. You didn’t answer. “Perhaps both are true,” I whispered.

The weather began to turn. The nights growing longer. I held you in my arms, rocked you until I fell to sleep, shivering and exhausted. We wouldn’t last much longer. We wouldn’t survive the cold. I wished I could cut myself open, store you in my chest, keep you warm.

Some nights it was all I could do to crank the ham radio. To give it enough life to hear other worlds. Worlds that weren’t dying. I listened to a quiz show called Whose Cough is it? Contestants listened to audio clips of British Celebrities coughing and guessed who it was for cash and prizes. I was surprised to hear that Richard Ayoade had such a robust cough. He was usually so mousey. The game show host reported that pollutants from our country had traveled through the atmosphere and had made their way to Isles. “This,” he said, “creates optimal conditions for a hearty cough.” I listened to the program until I fell asleep. I thought I had seen a band of stars through a thin layer of clouds, but realized I was only slipping into a dream. I awoke the next day to find a seagull struggling to walk next to me. It spread its wings and splayed its feathers. When it couldn’t take flight, it pecked at itself, trying desperately to solve the problem. Eventually he gave up, puffed his chest, lay on his feet, closed his eyes. I’d not seen an animal in so long, I thought I was dreaming. The next morning, I awoke to find it dead. Frost coating its black eyes.

This morning I found myself unable to stand. My legs wouldn’t support our weight. They clinched, spasmed, collapsed. “It’ll be okay,” I told you. You didn’t reply. The night came on the tail of a cold wind. It whispered in the dead grass. At first, I thought you were trying to speak. I fell asleep again and, when I awoke, I was pleased to discover that I had enough strength to crank the radio. I listened to the radio show from England. They played a song from the eighties. I hummed along and rocked you in my arms. The juice began to run out. The radio losing reception and eventually falling silent. I felt a snowflake on my nose. Then another. When I held my breath, I thought I could hear the ocean in the distance­.

Duncan B. Barlow has one published novel and another forthcoming in 2017. He teaches at the University of South Dakota. When he’s not petting his cat, Monkey, he’s the managing editor of SOUTH DAKOTA REVIEW and the editor-in-chief of Astrophil Press.