by: Chris Thompson
Part Four of Chris Thompson’s cautionary environmental tale, Perla, approaches its dramatic end…. ((The art used throughout this series is by the prolific and talented Anders Tomlinson.))
Van died a few days after our confrontation with the Scrappers. It wasn’t savagery that killed him, but a tiny virus just nanometers in length. A toxic menagerie of proteins and DNA that had slipped, unnoticed, past his body’s defenses. It was Christmas Eve, 2079 and we were having a low-key celebration, trying to forget for one night about the specter of violence that had been cast across our good fortune. I was also trying to forget about the dull ache that had taken up a permanent residence inside my heart, and the anger that I still visited upon Van.
We had dried fruit and spice cake from our closest neighbor, The Buskos. They were a stubborn Polish clan who traced their history in the town back four generations and it was going to take more than all this rain to get them to leave. They lived three miles away, across from the old laundromat, and their backyard had become a massive river that had swallowed up the southern part of town. I had traded a jar of pickled eggs and some tinned salmon that Van had brought down from Alaska for the fragrant cake, and I had to reject on multiple occasions the Buskos offer to stay. But not before the family’s patriarch, Jozef, let it be known to me what he thought of everything that was going on. That Mother Earth was just fast-forwarding natural selection, trying to root out all the weaklings in our billions-strong gene pool and toughen up humanity for life’s next phase. He was a crack-pot, with too much time spent watching all the gun-nut and conspiracy theory tabloid programs that were popular on TV. But as I drove the jeep home I wondered if he didn’t have a point. That maybe this was all just some elaborate experiment and we were the test subjects. But mostly, I just thought that we had been given something beautiful and sacred and then messed it all up. Defiled and raped it for all its resources and now it was finally swinging back.
Van and I took a run at my last bottle of good rum too. The one that I had picked up in St. Thomas back in ’49 when Helen and Sarah were still alive. Back when labels like “father” and “family man” and “husband” still held meaning for me. I was feeling either nostalgic or in the mood for further punishing myself – I couldn’t be entirely sure as the emotions often coincided – and had pulled an old wool sweater out from the bottom of my dresser drawer. It was one of those sweaters you’d find people wearing around ski lodges or during the holidays. It had once been a deep grey color but the dye had faded with age and the fabric was thinning at the elbows. Into its front were woven two antlered deer and a repeating pattern of snowflakes in red wool. Sarah had given me the sweater for Christmas one year back when we were still dating and it had made my daughter laugh whenever I wore it around the house. I cherished the sweater for its link to the two of them but the memories cut both ways, their loss hanging around my neck like a dead animal and weighing heavily on me as I entered the den.
“You look ridiculous!” Van had called out cheerfully as I came into the room. He was leaning on the mantle, his elbow besides his glass of rum, minding the fire with a cast iron poker and making sure that the furniture we had taken from the houses down the street continued to burn. He had on a pair of my dress slacks from when Sarah and I would go out dancing and a crumpled-looking blazer that was probably as old as him. He had tucked a red handkerchief into the blazer’s pocket for a flourish of color and there was a look on his face of contentment. Like he hadn’t a trouble in the world. Watching the glow from the fire radiating all around him I suddenly wanted to punch him in the face.
“Sarah bought me this sweater…” I said coldly. I walked further into the room, my fists clenched into tight little balls with my every intention to strike him.
“I’m sorry. You know I didn’t mean it like that,” Van said, turning to face me and offering up an apologetic smile. Glaring at him, I happened to notice a picture of Helen and I hanging behind him on the wall. It had been taken after we had brought her home from the hospital. This was after the doctors had thought she had beaten the leukemia that had robbed her of her childhood. The same leukemia that had resurfaced several months later to take her from me for good. She had such an enormous smile on her face in that picture and I did too. I was so happy that she had come home and that we could get back to living the lives that we had put on hold.
“It’s okay. I do look ridiculous,” I said, the thought of Helen’s smile calming the storm of anger that had manifested inside of me. “Helen thought the same thing too. I remember how she used to laugh out loud when I wore this thing around the house.”
“That was a bad hand your little girl got dealt,” Van said, laying the poker against the wall and walking over to put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I should have been.”
“It’s okay. Alaska….I get it. You were just too far away.”
“No, that’s no excuse. I should have done more. I should have come down to visit you. Maybe taken you out so you could get your mind on something else. Gotten you drunk or taken you out to see a ballgame. That was selfish of me. I’m truly sorry for that.”
“I’m just glad that you’re here now, Van. That’s good enough for me. I don’t know if I could’ve made it this far without you,” I said, pressing my forehead into his shoulder. He smelled like soap mixed with faintly rotting leaves and the forest underbrush that I remembered from our youth.
“It’s not just me you got, you know? Perla’s here too,” Van said, pushing me back so he could look into my watery eyes. “And Sarah and Helen. They’re everywhere you turn in this house. From that sweater you’re wearin’ to all these photos of them you have hanging on the walls. They may be gone, but the memory of them lives on in this house, and in you.” Van pushed his bony finger into my chest above my heart as he spoke, his words syncing with the pounding of my heart.
“I could use another drink,” I said, pushing down the hurt and offering up a weak smile.
“Me too!” Van declared, wiping away a solitary tear of his own. “What’ll it be? Rum or rum?”
We had been listening to some old records, The Doors, Nirvana, The National; anything that aligned with how we felt, and half-talking of our plans to leave the house. Each successive pull of the rum chased away our trepidations as we sunk deeper into the soft leather of the fireside chairs. We eventually stopped talking, letting the music wash over us in numbing waves, when Van had suddenly leaned forward and looked at me curiously, like he was trying to figure out if I had just spoken. His chest spasmed a few times followed by a trembling of the hand that held his drink and I was sure he was about to say something when he burst into a fit of uncontrollable coughing. It was relentless, wracking his body with spine-crushing spasms that threw him violently to the ground. It took all my effort to pull him up from the floor and onto the cushions of the worn leather couch. I threw a heavy blanket over his shuddering frame and sat fully on top of him, pulling off my leather belt and placing it between his mouth so he didn’t bite off his tongue. Helen had had seizures like that towards the end and the ghost of that memory filled the room as I tried to comfort Van.
The disease progressed fast. It was less than forty-eight hours between the onset of Van’s symptoms and his death. It was the Haven Spore and it was all over the newscasts for weeks. It was an exceptionally virulent outbreak whose origins had been traced to Tijuana, to that fetid, churning maw of humanity that was the Scrapper Cartel’s homebase. You were either immune to its effects or you died. There was no middle ground with the spore and it had burned itself all the way up the Pacific Coast before the Centers for Disease Control could finally get a handle on it. But the damage it had caused was measured in the millions of deaths, and Van was included in that number. So were the hundreds of thousands who had perished in the close quarters of the relocation center’s spread out across the Northwest.
Illnesses had become a huge problem and were compounded by all the rain. There were no seasons anymore. Just one long deluge. An endless, graying flood. Oh, there were high and lows, periods of time when you could say “It doesn’t seem to be raining too much today,” but that was just balanced out by all the days when you felt like you were living in a Biblical flood. When the rains were just so strong that you couldn’t even go outside. When the winds came in so savagely that anything that wasn’t steel cable bolted down was flung around like it was made of cloth. The water was just everywhere. You couldn’t stop it. It was omnipresent, like a liquid deity, and it always found a way in. Into your shoes. Into your roof. Down your back to soak your shirt. It got stuck in places that it should never be. It festered and boiled and mixed with all the chemicals and sewage and runoff until some piece of land eroded away or a huge storm blew in and washed the entire witches brew out into the lands, and then it was all the scientists and doctors could do to scramble and stay ahead of the disease. There had been a few bad ones in the past. Back in ‘77 it was the Hentaflu. The year before that it was the Jakarta-Tokyo Endemic. Back in ‘41 it was the Kansas City Blight that had wiped out thousands across the Midwest. And then, finally, there was the Haven Spore that had taken Van.
It had to have been one of the Scrappers, most likely the one that Van had shot with my Winchester. I figured that he was a carrier. He had probably brought the virus with him from Tijuana, as his crew had made their way North along the coast. And when Van had reached down into the mud and touched the blood with his fingertips, the virus’s long journey to infection had come to an end. I, on the other hand, appeared to be immune to the disease. But there was no joy to be found in that perverse gift. Death had come again to my home and it was painful and difficult to behold just like all the other times. I had always thought that the loss of my daughter and my wife had prepared me well for death. That when the time came to visit with it again, I would stare it down like the fool that I thought it was. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was like feeling all that pain again for the first time. Like putting your head underwater and forgetting that you needed to breathe. There was no slow goodbye like Van and I had discussed. No preparations. No mutual pact of doing each other in if it all got to be too much. Van was simply there one day and then he was gone. And just like that, I was right back where I started, alone.
Perla growled again, rousing me from my recollections of Van and realigning me with the present. I shook my head and focused my eyes back on her pen. I figured she was better off out here than in some perverse zoo or out in the wild by herself. I watched her intently as she devoured the chicken scraps I had thrown at her feet. At least within these metal walls she had a life. Out there, amid all that sickness and ruin, where madness and chaos reigned and the world was in the violent throes of death. Out there, she didn’t stand a chance.
Perla growled again, this time deeper, more threatening. It startled me and I dropped the bag of chicken meat onto the ground. It was a threatening snarl in a tone that I hadn’t heard before. I cocked my head and listened through the rain, through the numbing drone of its perpetual fall, until I became aware of a low, sputtering sound like an off-road vehicle struggling to shift its gears. Perla’s growling became deeper, more throaty, and as I turned away to look back down the road, she inched herself deeper into the furthest corner of her cage.
I searched out the sound with my senses but the persistent rain was too heavy to locate its source, the dull sheets of grey preventing me from focusing on anything that wasn’t a few meters away. I pulled my cap down tighter against the wind and rain and turned around to more fully face the washed-out street. I listened intently for the new sound, struggling to separate it from the droning rain and as I looked to the road I watched a double-row of headlights emerge from within the watery haze. The penetrating, high-powered lights were heading my way, making their way up the street and instinctively my hand went to the .45 I in my pocket. Van had only been dead a week and the Scrappers hadn’t yet made their move and I was jittery as hell.
I followed the headlights with my eyes, Perla growling from behind me all the while as the vehicle approached. As it got closer, I could make it out more clearly. It was a high-end SUV, weather hardened against whatever Mother Nature could throw its way. The vehicle had enormous, black textured tires and a suspension system that rivaled a monster trucks. When it reached the bottom of my driveway, its massive engine let out a protesting whine as it shifted into a lower gear and the driver hit the gas. Fearful of the fast-approaching interloper I walked quickly backwards into the garage and out of the driving rain, coming to a stop behind the fender of my old jeep, the one that I had been packing-up with the remainder of my supplies.
The SUV howled across the gravel of the driveway and slid to a halt in a gray, muddy spray as thick as oatmeal. It’s high-grade wipers were flapping swop, swop, swop in the driving rain and the piercing xenon floodlights were blinding. I held up my hand to cover my eyes and pulled the revolver from my pocket with my other hand. The darkly-tinted glass of the SUV’s windows were thick and covered with a metal cage that could easily stop a bullet. I flicked off the revolvers safety with a trembling finger and wished for a rapid death if the SUV’s passengers had come for a fight.
“Howdy!” a woman dressed head to toe in a slate blue rainslicker shouted as she jumped down from the towering SUV. “You Winston?” she asked, pausing to check a waterproof clipboard held in her left gloved hand. “Winston Estrada of 344 Bellevue Lane?”
“Depends!” I yelled back over a clap of thunder, “Who’s asking?”
“The United States Postal Service is asking. Are you Winston Estrada or not?” she said, walking towards me and the sanctuary that the open garage door provided.
“I’m him,” I quickly replied, a feeling of relief washing over me. I stood up and walked out from behind the jeep, stuffing the .45 into my jacket. “Sorry, we don’t get a lot of visitors anymore. Winston Estrada, that’s me. What’s your business out here?”
As I got closer, I could tell she was a woman of twenty, twenty-five years of age. She had streaks of blond poking out from beneath her Postal Service hat and a series of piercings that ran down one ear. The freckles across her nose reminded me of my daughter Helen and for a moment that familiar ache in my heart made itself known.
I was going to ask her her name but before I could ask she spoke. “Hey! What’s that, a dog ya’ got back there?” She said, craning her neck to see past me to Perla’s pen. She pulled a pair of expensive-looking goggles up from around her neck and peered through them, her fingers dancing across a set of buttons at its side. “Carlos says it’s some kind of wolf? I ain’t seen an animal like that in ages. Man, I thought they were all extinct.”
“Oh, that? That’s uh, that’s just my dog. Had her for awhile now. Just letting her out of the house so she can stretch her legs.” I spoke rapidly as I moved sideways, trying to position myself between Perla and the nosy mail carrier. “Like I said, what business do you have out here with me? And who’s Carlos? Is someone else back there in the truck?”
“Carlos? Oh, he’s my eyes and ears. He tells me everything about the world,” she said smiling, tapping her finger on the goggles as if calling attention to them. “And I’m here because the delivery drones are all messed up. Official line is that the sun’s entered a new phase of activity and it’s blasting all the satellites with charged ions. But my take is that the entire system got hacked. Maybe some group out of China, or what’s left of Russia, trying to make some noise. But that really doesn’t matter. What does is that the Postmaster General has to keep delivering the mail. ‘Cause once the mail goes down everything else is as good as lost, am I right? Can you imagine an entire country no longer able to stay in touch? So the big honcho’s are taking the mail old school, recruiting people like me to take over deliveries until the techs can get everything back up and sorted out. It’s kinda become a modern Pony Express and your town here is part of my area.
“Damn. That’s going to get expensive.” I said.
“Fuck yeah, it is!” she exclaimed, slapping the side panel of my jeep with her hand. “What with having to pay all us drivers, the cost of petrol and retrofitting the delivery trucks. Plus the fact that half the roads around here simply don’t exist anymore. It’s an impossible task, man. That’s the whole reason we leave the mail up to the drones. But it’s all smoke and mirrors these days you know? It’s all about perception and spin. The entire world’s going along like everythings fine when really that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I figure someone’s gotta get fired for this screw-up. I mean, can you imagine a swarm of postal workers out there, out in this kind of weather, actually trying to deliver the mail? It’s nuts!”
“Nuts, yes. But somehow, here you are. So I guess on some level it’s working. Or maybe you’re just lucky. I don’t know. I always thought we should just hand the mail system over to AmazonUPS and privatize the whole thing. We already do it with the prisons and the police, why not the mail?”
“I don’t care who runs it, as long as they continue to give me the hazard and overtime pay. I haven’t seen money like this before in my life. The world may be going to shit, but that doesn’t mean a girl couldn’t use a few extra bucks.” As she spoke she unzipped a diagonal zipper across her chest and pulled out an envelope. “Here, I have a letter for you.”
“A letter for me?” I asked, shocked that there was someone out there who still knew I was alive. “Who’s it from?”
“Dunno, just sign here,” she said, indifferent. She passed her clipboard over to me and I placed my finger on the touch pad in the corner. The sensor glowing blue for a second as it verified my identity.
“Right. Winston Estrada. 344 Bellevue Lane. Opportunity, Washington. Delivered, 10:22:53 am. Okay, here ya’ go.” she said, handing over the letter.
I reached out and grasped firmly the plastic bag sheathed envelop, burying it deeply in the inside pocket of my flannel coat. She took one last look over my shoulder, shook her head back and forth in disbelief, and then headed back to her idling truck. Before she disappeared into the hulking SUV, she turned back to face my way.
“I won’t tell anyone about your wolf, man. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with Carlos and me. Oh, and I almost forgot. The United States Postal Service thanks you for choosing it to handle the delivery of your mail.”
“Wait!” I shouted.
“How’s it going out there? Out in the rest of the world? Are people still going to the relocation centers like they’re saying on the TV? I was going to head to the one in Seattle, but I’m not so sure anymore after the spore outbreak.”
“Honestly? The world’s fucked. You’re not missing anything out there. I just came from Seattle. Place looks like a bomb went off. There were riots for weeks once the CDC closed the gates and wouldn’t let the people leave. The relocation centers in the Midwest and the East that weren’t affected by the spore aren’t any better off than you are here. In fact, they’re worse. Too many people and too little food. At least here you’ve got plenty of open space and some room to breathe. In there the people are piled up one on top of the other like cords of wood. Just keep your head down and keep doing what you’ve been doing to survive, and you’ll be fine.”
“Thanks.” I said weakly, half to myself and half to the rushing wind. I stood and watched as she disappeared into the SUV, wishing I had taken the time to ask her her name. That I could speak the name of someone that I knew who was still alive. The SUV roared to life as she gunned its powerful engine and its massive, deep-grooved wheels carved a set of wide gashes in my washed-out yard as she turned back down the hill. Her red brake lights were visible for a few moments as she climbed the rise in the road and then they were gone, swallowed up by the endless falling rain.
To Be Concluded…..