by Ryan W. Bradley
The first week all I did was dig graves. I used to do construction, drove backhoes and bulldozers, but I dug the graves by hand. I started with my family. My wife and kids. Then I moved on to our neighbors. I didn’t mind the aching joints, my limbs feeling like Jell-O. I didn’t know what else to do.
At night I tried to find ways to distract myself. It wasn’t easy. After a week I’d buried three blocks worth of people. Hadn’t found a damn one alive. I snapped after that, couldn’t take the look or smell of the dead. Couldn’t stand the sound a body makes when it lands six feet deep in the earth.
It didn’t help that I’d barely slept. Something in me broke and I started dousing houses with gasoline, leaving trails across their lawns, linking them like the destinies of everyone I’d once known. I lit a few matches then drove to higher ground, watched the whole suburban sprawl go up in flames.
I slept like a rock that night, the sky filled with smoke and lit up like the heavens themselves were on fire. I needed to let go, to start a new life.
In the morning I gathered supplies and packed it into a hybrid SUV I took from the driveway of a McMansion. I was hoping to find other survivors, sure, but I was just as satisfied with the thought of being away from everything I knew. Everything I’d lost. Cars littered the freeway and I tried not to look in their windows as I wove between them. I put on a CD as loud as it would go and focused on the road.
It doesn’t take long to revert to the more animal side of being human. When you’re by yourself manners are the first shred of humanity to disappear. I took shits wherever was convenient, didn’t even bother with the simplicity of sponge baths or general hygiene.
I made it to Alaska in six days. There was no rush. I stopped in towns along the way and when I found no survivors I burned whole neighborhoods and city centers to the ground.
In Anchorage I stocked up on canned goods then retreated into the woods, found a cabin where I could hole up. I talked to myself out loud. I longed for a woman, for the feeling of another’s flesh, but I can’t say if I was truly sad I hadn’t found anyone else alive. Somehow it all made sense, like it was some genetic penance we’d been escaping for generations.
Of course I questioned my survival, tried to feel guilty. Tried to summon tears. It wasn’t that I was special, I knew that much. I wasn’t left behind to repopulate or I’d have found someone to help make that possible. I made the best of it, or tried to. For a while I reveled in the quiet, the solitude. I wandered empty stores, read plundered books, listened to music on battery operated CD players, drove for hours on empty roads just for a sense of movement.
In a matter of months, though, I was going stir crazy, pioneering a step up from cabin fever. I broke into a gun store and loaded up on firearms and ammo. I wandered through neighborhoods like a one-man militia. I shot decaying corpses in their cars, at their desks, in their beds. Idle hands do the devil’s work, they say, but the work had already been done, so whose bidding was left?
I guess it really hit me then, that I was alone and would be for the rest of my life. I realized, too, there was no good end in sight. Non-perishable food wouldn’t last forever, there was no way to retain a sustainable lifestyle without the help of others, without the efforts of a community. And if I ever got ill, developed cancer or some other disease, what could I do?
Maybe I was special, maybe I was singled out to remember how life had been eradicated. If a world ends and no one is alive to witness it, does it really end?
So, out of some perverted sense of posterity I wrote down my memories. Maybe civilization would start over, simple organisms evolving all over again, history repeating its cycle of self-destruction. It didn’t matter to me. Didn’t matter if my words were read or not. It was an out, a way to tell myself I’d done my part, been the witness to cosmic judgement. I filled page after page then drove into the city, placed the stack of paper on the steps of the public library with a chunk of cement on top. It was as good a place as any.
I watched one last sunset, sitting on a bench at Cook Inlet. Then I dug one more grave, lit one more fire.
Ryan W. Bradley is the author of eight books, including Winterswim and the forthcoming story collection, Nothing but the Dead and Dying. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.
Artwork by Alan R. Engstrom.