October the 14th – The Good Soldier

I’m worried about Corie.

I think – no – I know she’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. This is like those first critical days of junior high when you’re just learning the ropes, tempted by different groups; am I more of a jock or more of a stoner or should I align myself with the unsavory drama types? Corie, I’ve found, has quickly and sadly gone the way of the dodo. I use dodo in the sense that she is simply no longer around; when Evan needs her she’s hard to track down. He scraped his elbow yesterday playing with Dapper and Mikey and it took me almost forty-five minutes to locate his mother. It turns out she was up on the roof, sitting up there in a semi-circle with the Black Earth Wives.

In a way, I saw this coming. Maybe it’s my fault; I feel like I’ve completely commandeered her husband. Ted and I have been monopolizing his time, encouraging him to put us through back-breaking work-outs until we’re crawling on all fours, panting like dogs dragging ourselves across the desert. I think he likes that we do this; he seems to enjoy being in charge, giving order and directing us around the gym. There’s a bit of a natural leader in him and it’s emerging more every day.

Corie, on the other hand, is a completely different story. I thought at first that she would be a leader too, that she and I would bond over the strange roles we’d been forced into. I was never much of a boss or a manager and I’ve always depended on myself to get things done. In undergrad I cringed inwardly at the dreaded group assignments, the inevitable all-nighter that would come when my classmates managed to shirk their minimal responsibilities, leaving me and my conscious to complete the entire presentation. I was hoping to find strength in Corie, in her obvious talent for survival; she managed to get two little boys across a wilderness of burning wreckage and flesh-eating monsters. She deserves, at the very least, my respect. But I haven’t found that partner I was hoping for and I’ve watched her drift away, inching out of my reach until her allegiance shifted completely.

The clipboard is no longer taken from tent to tent in the morning. The Black Earth Wives are contracting, drawing their considerable numbers up and inward, curling up like a crab dead on its back. They are rarely sitting outside of their tents and no one seems to bother checking up on where they go. There’s no one to spare and there’s no time; between spending time in the gym with Ned and Ted (ha, that rhymes!) and check-out duty, I haven’t been able to keep tabs on the Wives. Everyone else seems immune to their existence, so over it that they hardly bat an eye when Mariane has another episode in the night.

But this afternoon I had to find Corie. Mikey and Evan wanted her to teach them about geometry (they’re determined to continue having school despite the recent events – I need hardly mention that they are odd children), but Corie wasn’t in their family tent and she wasn’t in shouting distance. I was given the thankless task of tracking her down while Evan and Mikey ate string cheese and threw a ratty old tennis ball for Dapper. I’m not even sure he’s my dog anymore; I think he’s officially defected.

At last I find her; she and the rest of the Wives are being herded back inside by a very distressed looking Finn. He’s grimacing as he tries to gently shove a particularly rotund old woman back inside the building. They’ve tried to go out the northeast exit to the parking lot. There’s a perimeter set up there and a few people standing watch but it’s by no means safe.

“You can pray in the gym with everyone else!” Finn grunts, slamming the door shut behind him. He physically plants himself in the way, making sure they can see the beefy assault rifle locked across his chest.

“But the damned! We must pray for them! To them!”

“What a bloody nightmare.”

“Corie!” I shout, wading into the sea of floral cardigans and Clinique Happy-scented tennis bracelets. I grab her by the elbow and extract her from the angry mass of housewives. They stay to pout at Finn and his black mood. It’s not hard to pull Corie away; her elbow fits neatly in my palm. “Evan and Mikey were hoping you could do a geometry lesson.”

We slowly make our way down the dark, low corridor. There’s muted gunfire from outside and the buzzing of soft voices at our backs. I know the Wives are watching us, glaring at me as I take Corie away from them. Corie trembles a little and then draws herself up; I can see the mother, the warrior, creeping back into her face. She’s so terribly gaunt now, it’s a miracle any hopeful light can radiate through her sallow skin.

“I should teach them,” she says obtusely, nodding to herself. Her black hair settles in a ripple down her back. “Are they very lonely?”

“No, no I don’t think so. Dapper is good company,” I say, smiling for her, “They’re all worn out by the end of the afternoon.” She knows all of this and I’m not sure why I have to remind her. Something is up; it’s all too obvious that hanging around with the Wives has sapped her. I’ve tried to broach the topic with Collin but he thinks they’re harmless, even helpful.

“Is everything okay?” I ask.

“Oh? Yes, everything is fine,” she says. We stand in the doorway just before the opening to the arena. The empty pipes over our heads sing in the chill of the hall. If we go much further we’ll run into the stream of survivors being brought in from the cold.

“It’s just… You haven’t spent much time with the boys lately, or Ned.”

“Hmph,” she says, tossing her hair, “Right.”

“I… Sorry? Didn’t mean to touch on a sore spot.”

“No it’s okay… I just… Forget it, it’s not important, not anymore.”

I jerk her a little back down the corridor, making sure she can’t escape. It feels awkward to be doing this to a woman older than I am, a woman who should be vigorous and fearsome. I want so badly for her to wake up, to shake off the fog she’s fallen into. It dawns on me that she hasn’t been making friends at all but hiding.

“Is something going on with you and Ned?”

“No.”

“Corie… Come on.”

“We… We were…” she glance around, her dark blue eyes darting over my shoulders. With a shrug she bites down a little on her lower lip; she’s so beautiful, it’s difficult not to cave and comfort her. I can imagine her as a young girl running in the sunshine, her arrow-straight black hair flying in every direction. She must have been stunning, a heart breaker. “Things between us… We were going to try a separation. I wanted to divorce him but he convinced me to go for a separation first.”

This is incomprehensible to me. I’m not some huge proponent of marriage necessarily – my mom got along well enough after my dad died and never felt like remarrying – but I can’t for the life of me see the point in divorcing someone like Ned. I want desperately to take Corie’s side but it’s hard to sympathize when Ned is still energetic and engaged and Corie is looking more and more like an extra from a Tim Burton film. Her skin is ashy around her lips and eyes and I can’t help but wonder if she’s getting enough to eat.

“Ned seems like a great guy. I’m sure it was just a bumpy patch. All couples go through that.”

“He is a great guy, that’s why we’re still together. I don’t know… I feel like such a coward, but I can’t stop thinking about… About the separation. I mean, I just can’t believe it! I almost left him… And then, well everything just went to hell and I couldn’t leave him, not then, not like that. I don’t know why I can’t stop thinking about it, Allison.”

It starts to make a disastrous sort of sense – the distancing herself, the religion, the malnutrition. I’m sure a divorce, especially now, would be more than enough to test anyone’s faith.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay. We all go through tough shit and ya know, people change their minds. They can do that and there’s nothing wrong with it. No one has to know, no one. And look, there will be time later to think about all this, about marriages and futures and all that stuff. But right now, well, I think we should all just focus on hunkering down, making this place livable and safe, okay?”

“Okay,” she says in a very small voice. I let go of her elbow after rubbing it a bit. It doesn’t seem right to let her go without a small gesture of solace. She brushes past me with her eyes red and puffy and her fingertips worrying along the edge of her chin. If she just trusts, if she just looks at Evan and Mikey, if she sees what she has, how lucky she is…

“Everything alright here?”

I turn around to find an enormous bandoleer of ammunition staring me in the face. When I tip my chin up I find a pair of startling green eyes above the bullets. It’s Collin and he’s smiling apologetically. Wonderful. I do not like when large men make this face. It is entirely too charming.

“Collin!” It comes out in a squeal even louder than the shade of scarlet my cheeks are turning. I shouldn’t be surprised but I can’t help noticing the way my stomach does a horrific little dance of nerves. “Everything is fine, just having a chat with Corie.”

“Is she alright?”

“I think so,” I mumble, “Yeah… Getting there.”

“I see.”

It’s getting awkward; I can tell he’s about to give up on this particular failed conversation, I can feel his shoulders hitching up as he prepares to leave.

“Can we go somewhere?” I ask, “To… To talk?”

“Now?”

“Sure.”

“Not now, I’m afraid,” he says, looking crestfallen. He’s shaved his hair down short and he’s developed a habit of running his free hand over it as he thinks. It’s a bit like watching a hopeful dreamer rub the belly of a lamp and I wonder if ribbons of blue smoke will coil out of his nose. But there’s no genie, just a snort of frustration. “Later? Could we do this later?”

“Yeah.”

“Come by after nine.”

I do, all the while carrying around a queasy knot of tension. I can’t stop worrying about Corie. I can almost feel the Emma compulsion, the forceful desire to make sure she and Ned stick together, to scheme and plot and make them dance a dainty dance of courtship. But that’s a fantasy. There’s no room for that kind of frolicking, no room for risk. They have to stand by each other, if not for Evan and Mikey then for our general survival. We’re a flock now, all of us here in this place, and if any one of us starts to stray than the rest of us suffer. And then of course there’s Collin and the dreadful anticipation of the “talk.”

As planned, I go to his tent at nine. I feel like a crook, tiptoeing through the deadened air, the cold just beginning to creep back in over the sleeping, sweaty bodies sprawled out in tents and sleeping bags. I can almost feel a hundred pairs of watchful, suspicious eyes on me as I navigate the labyrinth of tents. I don’t know why I feel so stupid and guilty; I’m just a normal adult, out for a late-night stroll through the slumbering gymnasium. Nothing to see here, nothing out of the ordinary.

His tent, not surprisingly, is black and lit up with the gently muted glow of an old fashioned lantern. When I climb inside I can smell the slowly melting and congealing bee’s wax rising in thin, black stripes from the flame. The floor of the tent is a mess of pillows and old blankets and an open sleeping bag, the poor man’s harem. It’s not a very big tent so I sit close to him, cross-legged and growing extremely warm from the lantern.

“Thanks for coming,” he says, his voice just above a whisper. There’s plenty of extraneous noise outside the tent but I can’t help thinking that everyone in a ten-foot radius is listening closely.

“It’s no problem,” I reply. It was a bit of a dilemma getting dressed for this. It’s not a date so there’s no use looking nice, but I didn’t want to show up in pajamas. I settled on a long-sleeve thermal tee and my usual pair of jeans. Collin is out of his fatigues and it’s rather nice to see him in a soft shirt open over a tee shirt. He’s wearing scrubs too, or what look like loose, lightweight pants.

“It’s a bit cramped in here,” he says, laughing quietly, “I didn’t think it quite right to take one of the big tents just for myself.”

“Don’t worry,” I tell him, “It’s a big upgrade from snoring and dog, I promise.”

“I think I owe you an apology,” he says, grinning in a way that makes his dimples stream down his face toward his jawline.

“I was just about to say the same thing.”

“Really? What on earth are you sorry about?”

“Well… Avoiding you for one, and not being totally honest for another.”

“Not totally honest?” he repeats and the dimples vanish into his frown.

“I just… I should have told you that Ted and I aren’t together. And I should have told you that you make me sorta nervous,” I say, feeling my throat grow dry and lumpy.

“Meaning?”

“It’s nothing you did, not anything bad. I just thought maybe I should, ya know, not try to move in on you.” It sounds even worse than it looks. My words are so jumbled up and ridiculous that I cringe even as they fall out of my mouth. I’m a god damn adult and I can’t even say what I mean to say, which is obvious, because Collin looks befuddled. I scrunch up my face, preparing for the big one, one end of the knot that’s been living in my gut for days now… “It’s your wife. It weirds me out. It weirds me out that you lost her and… It just seems wrong… and too soon… and weird.”

“You mentioned the weird bit.”

“Sorry.”

“A few times actually.”

“Fuck.”

“Allison,” he says, and it’s not a voice coming through a radio but a voice right there next to me, close and warm and skimming across my forearms. He puts a big, heavy hand on my knee and I can feel his palms sweating even through my jeans. “Is that all?”

Is that all?”

“You have a right to ask questions and you have a right to the answers, too. I don’t want you to worry about her or about me, is that clear? I think perhaps you’ve failed to notice, really notice, that I’m quite a bit older than you are. No – let me finish. I’m older than you are, I’ve seen a lot more than you have and I can safely say that there is nothing in my life that even begins to compare to this monumentally fucked up situation. I can question it, I can hate it, I can rage against it all I like, but the fact remains: This is who we are now, this is the life we must live. I don’t need to tell you that every day here is fleeting, every a moment a gift, and so I won’t have to prove to you that I am quite capable of making up my own mind about what and who I want in my life. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes.”

“What am I saying?”

“You’re saying I should stop being such an idiot, that I should stop over-thinking every shit, piss and breath I take from now on.”

“Yes, I think you do understand.”

“So… It’s not weird?” I ask, noticing then that his knee is touching mine. I’ve almost forgotten that we’re surrounded, hemmed in on every side by people just like us – survivors, humans. It’s not hard to imagine that none of it exists, that we’re sitting together at the perfect center of all things.

“It’s not weird,” he says.

“It’s not weird.”

I don’t return to the other tent for hours. It’s nice to think that I have two tents now, that I can have two homes. I think maybe I’m a bit of a nomad now. I think perhaps we all are.

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