10-09-09 – Haunted
Everyone here calls it The Village.
The tents range from the very small to the extravagant, family-sized monstrosities that look capable of concealing a small circus. They have amenities here that I couldn’t even imagine finding at the apartment. Lake water, pump showers, water heaters, bandages and antiseptic wash, Q-tips, coolers, ice packs and tampons… Life is made significantly easier by things like this. You don’t realize until you’ve gone without Q-tips and tampons how instrumental they are to your comfort and sanity. Just knowing that I can wake up and clean my ears is a relief.
The Village is mainly separated into two areas: The Black Earth Wives and Everyone Else.
It didn’t take long for Ted and I to notice this split; the Wives tend to broadcast their differentness, their desire for separation like a lonely high school girl telegraphs her need for a prom date. They don’t do it with simpering smiles and awkwardly low-cut tops, they do it with their religion. Ted and I aren’t really sure what denomination they are, but it’s the very, very strict kind. Every morning at nine, like clockwork, a sign up clipboard gets passed around from tent to tent. The purpose of the clipboard is to solicit names for the prayer hour. The Black Earth Wives gather in a ring at the center of their tents and hold hands and pray, spending a moment on every single name on the list, praying for their souls or for their safe passage.
They’ve reached out to our side of The Village, mainly in the form of childcare. There are a handful of single mothers and fathers here, people who lost their husbands or wives, boyfriends or partners in the chaos and who have been left to raise a child or children on their own. It’s amazing to watch, the slow progression of the Wives as they infiltrate our half of the arena, oozing through the gaps in the tents, searching out the women and men who sit dazed, their eyes glazed over with a general mistrust of the world. But the Wives convince them, sooth them, show them that there’s nothing to fear, help them feed the kids and change diapers and sing lullabies. It’s amazing to watch. It’s our main source of entertainment.
Collin took me around today, introducing me to the families he knows the best, telling them that I helped get rid of “that bloody vermin.” It feels good at first but then it gets tired, played out. I’m not a hero and it feels peculiar to be lauded for a swift and cruel act of revenge. So I force a smile for each new face and shake their hand and listen to their stories. They thank me for getting rid of Zack and I bow my head shyly and try not to think of his agonized face and his raw, bloody stumps.
We visit the Wives last. I ask why there are so many of them, where they came from and why they are alone.
“I’m starting to think all of this started somewhere outside the city, that the suburbs went first and that’s why the city was overrun so quickly,” he says. He doesn’t go anywhere without a gun but no one here seems to mind; they look to him as their undisputed leader and protector. Today it’s a Glock tucked into the back of his fatigues. Collin greets everyone by name. “Black Earth got hit hard. One house at a time, the residents realized they had to do something. There were a lot of families there, a lot of children. They decided to round up all the kids in one van and get them out while the dads, avid hunters, went out to hold off the onslaught. It didn’t work, they were outnumbered too badly and the husbands went down ‘fighting like angels of the Lord,’ as the wives will tell you.”
“And the van?” I ask, knowing its fate already.
“They came across it when they left, heading toward the city. It was overturned in a ditch. Empty.”
It didn’t surprise me, the way their story unfolded. This is the land of hunting, of fishing and farms and Harley Davidson; I never felt close to that part of our state but I can’t help but feel for them, for the way they tried like hell to defend themselves. We cross the thin, empty strip of floor that separates the Wives from everyone else. There are plenty of people here that seem to ignore or outright dislike the Wives; they sense, correctly, that the Wives are proud of who they are and maybe a bit insane, taken to the extreme end of charity by the horrible losses they have suffered. Some children are cautioned to stay away from that side of the arena and some tents have purposely been set up as far away from the Wives as possible.
It’s a lot like West Side Story but without all the dancing.
Their tents are all gathered in a ring, the entrances facing the middle. You might expect to see a big bonfire there, but instead they’ve put up a cross made out of two-by-fours and duct tape. There is a strange kind of symmetry to it, their low hobbit holes all circled up like a string of wagons, the big, foreboding cross watching over them all. They emerge from the tents one by one, as if summoned by an invisible doorbell. It’s eerie to look at their faces, to see the wide, welcoming smiles spread beneath dead and staring eyes.
They’re hollow, completely empty, and trying so hard to be full again.
The Wives are bustling today, excited. A new family has arrived, the Stocktons. They’re not from Black Earth but that doesn’t matter; any and all families are warmly welcomed and invited to live among the Wives. The Wives are, across the board, turned down. But the Stocktons seem promising, or that’s the rumor. I don’t remember meeting them.
“They’re at the med tent,” Collin murmurs, “The father suffered a few minor abrasions, maybe a sprained ankle. You should meet them later. I’ll introduce you.”
But first I need to meet the Wives. It’s a daunting experience, a bit like parachuting into the middle of Stepford and being bombarded with questions and pats on the back. Collin, of course, tells them about my harrowing deed, the vanquishing of the evil Zack. Of all the villagers, they are the most impressed, the most thankful and awed. They stare at me as if I’ve just come to hand them the blood of Christ, their mouths forming wide O’s of shock. It’s their reaction that frightens me the most.
“Bless you, bless you, God bless you for seeing to that… rat.”
“God be with you – He must be. He must be.”
On and on it goes. I try to be humble, to look like the martyred hero they expect. But it doesn’t feel authentic; I just feel like I’ve committed a crime in the middle of a busy square while everyone had their backs turned, while the police were on their coffee break. Collin notices my discomfort and steers me away from the group, bringing me over to one wife sitting apart. She’s perched on an empty plastic crate, her hands tucked demurely into her lap. She’s wearing a gingham skirt and a loose blue sweater with daisies embroidered around the collar. Her permed red hair is matted and greasy. When she looks up at us I see that the front of her sweater is stained down the front with a broad brush stroke of blood.
“Marianne? This is Allison.”
She doesn’t extend her hand or really even show that she’s seen me. Her eyes go straight through my body, through my veins and bones and I can feel the steely chill. At first I think we’re done, that Collin is going to drag me away from this phantom, this ghost, but her eyes crackle to life suddenly and her chapped lips drop open.
“My son,” she says in a whimper, breathing hard as though she’s just noticed that he’s gone missing, “My son… My son ate my baby girl. My son ate my baby girl!”
She repeats it again and again, her voice rising until she’s screaming at me at the top of her lungs.
“MY SON ATE MY BABY GIRL!”
This is when Collin drags me away, shooting a look at the other Wives who hurry over to take care of Marianne. They enfold her in a tangle of arms, rocking her, clucking softly at her like a brood of giant mother hens, their foreheads all bowed to touch her face. Marianne disappears behind them, silenced, lost in the sea of their sudden and overwhelming care.
“Holy shit,” I mutter, shaking my head to try and stop the painful ringing in my ears. Collin nods.
“Marianne is… Well, she’s lost, I think. Lost to the world. There are a few people like that here but she’s the worst. I asked Susan about her once. She told me Marianne’s house was hit first, that she watched her son… Well… You know.”
I do. It’s hard to get that sound out of my head and when I blink I see her terror-stricken eyes. They look like Holly’s: vacant, swept under.
Collin takes me out of the arena and down a long, narrow corridor. We go outside into a fine October mist. It’s certainly brisk out here, but there are plenty of extra clothes now and the Wives have been busy sewing blankets and turning university away jerseys into thick, patchy sweaters. They’re not very warm but they do a decent job against the wind. As soon as we walk outside I hear gunfire. I’m getting used to that, to hearing shots every time I step into the open air.
The pale sun behind the clouds and their teasing hint of warmth has made the mist rise up on the horizon. Everything is gray beyond the close boarder of the arena yard. You can just make out a hint of tennis courts and a sidewalk, and a few yards in front of that a parked truck with a man standing guard behind it. There’s ash in the air and the strange, briny smell of warms. It rained last night but now the ground is almost dry.
Luckily, the nearest gunfire is just practice. Collin and his nephew, Finn, have set up a firing range out here. They’ve decided to take Ted and I and turn us into soldiers; Ted is still inside at the med tent. He seems far more interested in learning how to suture wounds and set bones. This interest does not extend to target practice.
“Where did they all come from?” I ask, nodding toward the gun he’s now aiming at a far-off stack of wooden crates. There are so many weapons, so many supplies, that I can’t help asking. It seems like something that should be left unsaid; it doesn’t matter where the guns came from, it only matters that there are people here who know how to use them.
“The police… They’re not trained for stuff like this. Maybe in New York or Chicago they would have experience with rioters and extraordinary situations, but here they just weren’t prepared. There’s a difference between keeping a cool head under pressure and being intelligent under pressure,” Collin explains. He must be immune to the sound of gun fire because he barely flinches as he pulls the trigger and the round explodes out of the barrel. I, however, am not used to this sound and its deafening and scary every single time. “They wanted to get citizens into the arena, to keep a safe, solid perimeter and have a central location for survivors to go to. That was a good step, a good idea. But then they set up a barricade right out front, right down the main artery. I’m sure they were thinking that a wall would keep the undead out. They were right, sort of, but it also kept citizens out. I don’t know if you can guess, but when you have panicking citizens with a barricade on one side and undead on the other… Well now you have a problem because you have three times as many undead as you did before. That barricade is coming down and your perimeter has gone to hell.”
“So the police, they left? They just left those people there to die?”
“No,” he says, lowering the gun, “They died too.”
“So the flak jackets and the truck and the guns… Those belong to the cops?” I ask.
Collin nods, reloading the gun slowly so I can watch and then handing it to me. It’s warm from his grip.
“Finn served in the RAF, so did I. It was a family tradition. I kept my uniforms around for, oh I don’t know, something like the sentiment, the reminder of being a young man. The uniforms are just for peace of mind, for show,” he says. “If you have a bunch of people flailing ineffectually, desperate for help, nothing creates a little order like uniforms and assault rifles. Once you have order you can organize raids on the corner markets, on the libraries and the pharmacies and the ambulances, and once you have supplies you have happy people.”
“You did all that by yourself?”
“Right… But you did it by yourself?”
“Of course,” he says, tapping my elbow. He’s impatient. He thinks I’ll make a good soldier if I can just learn to shoot without tensing up every time I squeeze the trigger. I can’t help it. I know that sound is coming, that explosion. “You don’t think in situations like this, Allison, you act. I think you know that already.”
“But you’re just so… So calm. How do you do that? How do you not just completely lose it?”
“Hold on,” he says, firmly pushing on my arms until the gun is pointed at the ground in front of us. “Did you lose someone? More than one person?”
“My mother. I don’t… I don’t know where she is.”
“I see. I lost my wife. I don’t know where she is either, but I can guess. I’m not invincible, Allison. I’m just doing the best I can. And really, that’s all I’m asking of you.”
Target practice goes badly; I can’t focus, I can’t stop thinking about my mom. Ted doesn’t come back to the tent until very late. He’s been taking care of the Stocktons. He really likes them, especially the two young sons. Dapper is my only company as I wait up for Ted and even the dog seems uninterested in my sulky mood. When Ted gets back he falls asleep right away, exhausted by a hard day’s work. I want him to stay up, I want to talk and joke.
Collin has asked if I want to have a drink with he and Finn. He wants his nephew to apologize, he wants us all to get on. That’s the phrase he uses, “Get on.” I politely tell him no, that I’m not interested, that I’m very tired.
Now I wish I had accepted the invitation because I’m sitting here reading what all of you have said. You’re alive. A few of you are doing more than surviving, and I can easily imagine your disdain for someone like me, someone who can do nothing but sit around and wallow. I shouldn’t be alone like this; I should be having a whiskey with Collin and his nephew, I should be letting myself live.
But then again, every time I think of Collin, of his voice and how I looked to it for guidance and peace, I automatically think of Zack. After that catastrophic misstep, how can I trust my judgment? How can I trust myself?
Tomorrow, Collin wants me to meet the Stocktons. They’re a very nice family, he says. A real, whole family.