SURVIVORS

SURVIVORS

I wrote this story last year after a road trip through the American Southwest. I haven’t written much science fiction, though I read it voraciously, especially dystopian and post-apocalyptic.The stark and desolate landscape and the vast stretches of unpopulated areas broken by small, isolated communities inspired me to write a tale about an even more desolate and isolated future. 

Photo by Stephen Shaiken

                               

                                                SURVIVORS

By Stephen Shaiken © 2017

     Jack pulled the file off the top of his desk. It was his only case where the defendant, prosecutor and judge were still breathing.

     He stuffed the file into his leather briefcase, snapped it shut, walked out of his office and did not lock the door.

     “Jack Feld, Attorney at Law” was stenciled in gold on the door’s frosted window.

     Jack had left his car in front of a fire hydrant.

     No chance of a ticket, he thought as he started the engine.

     He reached the courthouse within minutes, drove onto the sidewalk and parked at the foot of the courthouse steps.

     He grabbed his briefcase and charged up the stairs, pushing his way through the wooden  doors of the stone building.

     The metal detector at the entry was unmanned. A lone Deputy Sheriff leaned against a wall.The Deputy nodded silently as Jack passed by.

     At the end of the hall, Jack took the staircase to the next floor, two steps at a time. Courtroom Three was off to the right of the landing.He pushed open the doors, and hurried to the defense counsel table.

     The judge was on the bench, wearing his robes. He silently nodded as the lawyer dropped into his chair.

     The prosecutor sat at the People’s table. She smiled weakly at Jack, who smiled back.

     A minute later the deputy Jack had seen in the hall emerged from the door in the rear of the courtroom escorting a handcuffed male prisoner dressed in an orange jumpsuit. The prisoner wore a smirk on his face.

     What could he possibly find funny, Jack wondered.

     The deputy lead the prisoner to the counsel table, pushed him into the chair next to Jack and took up position behind him. He then called the case in a soft voice, not the boom of a courtroom crier.

     “Department Three of this Court is now in session. The Honorable Harold Fletcher, Judge Presiding. The case of the People versus James Kapp. Docket number 10356.”

      Judge Fletcher stared down at the assembled gathering, peering over the glasses that sat halfway down his nose.

     “Today is the day set for trial,” he somberly intoned. “ Ms. Howard, are the People ready to proceed?”

     The prosecutor slowly stood and replied.

     “No your honor, we are not. Subpoenas were served on all witnesses several weeks ago but none have appeared in court nor have I heard from any.”

     “Is there a motion from the defense?” the judge asked, looking at Jack.

     “Yes,  Your Honor,” Jack replied. “The defense moves for  dismissal of the charges for lack of prosecution under the Speedy Trial Act.”

     “Any opposition from the People?” the judge asked, looking at Assistant District Attorney Patricia Howard.

     “No Your Honor,” she replied. “In view of the circumstances, the People have no opposition.”

     The judge stared down at Kapp, still  wearing a smirk on his unshaven face.

     “Mr. Kapp, in accordance with the Speedy Trial Act, I hereby order the information against you dismissed and order that you be released forthwith.

     “Deputy Flynn will escort you back to the jail where your property and the clothes you wore at the time of arrest will be returned to you.

     “Please be advised that the People may refile these charges anytime within the next sixty days, so please stay in touch with your lawyer.

     “Anything else from either side?” Judge Fletcher called out.

     “Nothing, your honor,” the two lawyers responded in unison.

      “Then this court is adjourned,” he declared.

       “Let’s retire to my chambers for some coffee,” he said softly as Deputy Flynn led the prisoner away for release.

                                                           #

       Fletcher’s chambers were a museum of Native America. The walls were covered with drawings of chiefs and braves, bead and cloth garments, small wood carvings, and colorful weavings. A large peace pipe sat on a base in the middle of his large desk. Photographs of the judge visiting Navajo and Hopi sites sat in frames on his desk and atop his bookshelves.

       Fletcher’s maternal grandmother, a Navajo, died when he was ten years old and he barely remembered her. Nevertheless, it was her heritage he claimed as his own and he had once admitted to Jack over drinks that was most likely the reason the late Governor had appointed him to the bench. Jack had no idea whether the Navajo Nation ever claimed Fletcher as one of their own. He did know Fletcher to be a decent and unprejudiced man respected by all.

     “May as well enjoy hot coffee while we still have electricity,” the Judge intoned as he pored three cups of steaming black liquid from an electric drip coffeemaker.

     “You or Flynn ought to ride out to the power plant and see what’s going on,” he said, looking at Jack.

     “I’ll put some gas in my Harley and ride out there later today,” Jack replied. He had done this twice before.There were two dedicated workers maintaining the station.Jack did not know for how long they could continue to provide power. Neither did they.

     Jack studied Patricia as she sipped her coffee.

      She’s holding up well, he thought. Fletcher was a widower whose grown children had moved far away, and Jack was single, never married, and being alone was his norm. Patricia lost a husband and two children, and Jack intuited that she was not communicating the depths of her loss and grief. It showed up in the occasional redness of her eyes.

     “We have no further reason to hold court,” The Judge said, interrupting Jack’s thoughts.

    “ I think we still need to meet daily, if only to preserve our sanity. We have issues to address, like how to survive in this world without people.

     “Sooner or later essential services like electricity and water will end. At some point canned and packaged foods will be used up or spoiled.

     “And of course, not all survivors will be the best of people,” the judge continued. “Take your client Mr. Kapp, for example. He was a criminal before this happened and I am willing to wager he remains a criminal. Did you see that smirk on his face? He sees this nightmare as a lucky break.”

     “Well, from his standpoint, perhaps it is,” Jack replied. “But you’re right, there are surely bad people out there and all we have for protection is one deputy who rarely shares a word with us.”

     The Judge and Patricia nodded. Flynn had once been an outgoing, backslapping good old boy. These days he was quiet, withdrawn and sullen. He never smiled. Yet he showed up at the courthouse every day wearing  a pressed uniform, his weapon always at his side.

     “Flynn doesn’t look all that pleased about this situation,” Jack added.

     “Who among us is?” Judge Fletcher asked.

                                                             #

     It was hardest on Patricia. 

     She could not bring herself to dispose of or even cover the bodies of her husband and children.

     Most of the world’s people had turned into what Jack thought of as petrified wood. At first the bodies were solid and stable, weighing what they did when alive. As time passed, the bodies disintegrated, fingers and toes first, then, noses and ears, and entire limb. Eventually the  torsos and heads crumbled. Within a few months, the dead were were piles of dust, scattering to the winds if outdoors, absorbed into floors and walls if indoors. It was as if they had never existed.

     “I suppose it is better than having to deal with decomposing corpses,” the Judge remarked over a bottle of chablis a few weeks after the event, when the bodies started returning to the dust from which the Bible says mankind sprang. The Judge and Patricia professed faith in the Lord. Jack was a nonbeliever. Flynn said nothing about his beliefs.

       Patricia at first convinced herself that everything would reverse and her family would awaken and resume life. She clung to this hope even as they crumbled before her eyes. She would not allow the others to touch the remains as they dissembled. For weeks, she spoke of  her family as if they were still among the living, even when they began to disappear.

      When her family was reduced to three piles of gray dust, she reluctantly allowed Jack to dispose of them. She was not present when he swept them into small plastic garbage can bags, tied the tops, and buried them in Patricia’s back yard.

       Deputy Flynn, who had a woodworking shop in his garage, produced three wooden tombstones which he lacquered, assuring Patricia they would last a very long time. Those were among the few words he had spoken to her.

     “We will return to dust before these do,” he said after Judge Fletcher presided over a brief service.

     Patricia placed a personal item into each grave. A favorite toy of each child, her husband’s pocket watch, passed down from his grandfather.

     Patricia did not cry at the service.

       “I have no more tears left to shed,” she told Jack afterward.

      Patricia’s husband and children were the only petrified people they buried. For a long time afterwards they encountered piles of dust in houses, buildings and vehicles.They ignored them.

                                                                  #

         The Judge continued to hold court every morning in his chambers, despite the lack of any court business. Jack, Patricia and Deputy Flynn arrived each day at nine. The judge always had hot coffee ready. When  the electricity stopped working, he set up a propane stove on the small balcony outside the chambers window.

       On rare occasions a dazed and shocked survivor wandered into the courthouse. The few dozen others living in town were welcome for coffee but never came. Jack and the Judge had compiled an informal list of survivors. They estimated forty to forty five surviving citizens of a population of almost five thousand.

      “That’s a survival rate of about one percent,” the judge commented after they agreed the list was as exhaustive as it could be. Deputy Flynn had undertaken a survey of all homes and businesses. He rarely spoke about his sorties in town. The surrounding area were too spread out to survey. They might also be dangerous.

            Flynn brought food and water to any physically or mentally impaired survivors. Several died early on from illness or lack of medications or treatment.Those people did not crumble into dust and their remains required disposal to avoid disease and animal invasion.The task fell to  Jack and Flynn. At first they dug graves and held brief services. After a dozen deaths, they brought the bodies to the rocky shore of the reservoir and set them afire.

                                                                       #

        The survivors as a whole did not grow close or form a unified community. Most had not known each other very well before the change. Jack, Patricia, the Judge and Flynn had worked together for years, and formed natural bonds.They were open to fellow survivors joining them but none did.The others remained in their homes or gradually disappeared. Occasionally a body was discovered in a house or on the streets. At first this caused grief and disappointment, but soon became an annoyance to Jack and Flynn. They had to handle the chore and use precious fuel to burn the bodies. It was unspoken, but in their minds lingered the thoughts that the dead were stealing what the living needed to survive.

             “Might have to go back to shoveling them,” Flynn remarked after one such funeral pyre. “Need the fuel.”

          Much harder work but he’s right, Jack thought.

          Periodically, Jack saw a vehicle drive off into the distance. Sometimes he deduced who it was but most often without a body he had to guess if a survivor’s absence meant death or departure. He sometimes wondered what those who left discovered, if anything. The answer remained a mystery as not one had ever returned.

                                                                    #

         Deputy Flynn  borrowed Jack’s Harley to make the weekly check at the power plant. The plant was almost twenty miles outside of town and with the gasoline supply being finite, motorcycle was the most sensible way to go.

            “They tell me a few weeks at most,” Flynn told the Judge and Jack in a soft voice six months into the new world. “There ain’t going to be any more juice coming from the grid,” he added. “They say we’re living on borrowed time.” Two weeks later the electricity stopped flowing. Flynn rode to the power station and found no sign of the two men who had kept it going. The next day the Judge starting using propane to make the morning coffee.

         They began cooking at home with propane. Deputy Flynn and Jack frequently drove around the area looking for canisters divided them among themselves and a few survivors in town.

           They stockpiled propane for cooking and gasoline for generators, a lot of work for Jack and Flynn. They sought assistance from other survivors, but most were either too old, too frail, or too traumatized to help. Jack and Flynn sometimes left fuel and food at the front door off these helpless souls who almost always remained out of sight. If they saw that the offerings were gone, they figured the inhabitants were still alive.

          “Why won’t they ever talk to us?” Jack asked Flynn after one such round of deliveries.

         “Talk about what?” Flynn asked and Jack had no answer.

                                                                   #

          Eighteen months after the change, the town had its first visitor. Jack and the Judge were sitting on the courthouse steps drinking warm beer when they heard the drone of an engine.They turned to their left and watched a forest green SUV round the corner. It stopped in the middle of the street across. The driver opened his door and stepped out. He was a large portly man who looked to be in his late sixties, white hair down to his collar and a thick white beard. He wore round wire rimmed glasses and a camouflage uniform with no insignias.

          “Okay if I park here?” he asked in a friendly voice. “Have no quarters for the meter,” he added with a laugh.

         “That’s okay,” the Judge replied. “We never had any meters in this one horse town.”

          The stranger approached.

          “David Crandall, Ph.D,” he announced, extending a large hand. “Used to be an epidemiologist over at the Prevention Research Center at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Been driving throughout the Southwest trying to figure out what the hell happened.”

        “Harold Fletcher, used to be a judge. Call me Hal. We’re kind of informal these days. And this is Jack Feld, the finest criminal defense lawyer in the County. Not too busy these days,” the judge added.

      “And what did you find out?”  Jack asked, excitement tinging his voice.

     “Not nearly as much as I’d like,” David Crandall replied. “But the statistician in me was able to take the facts I gathered and run some numbers. They may not be completely accurate, but my experience as an epidemiologist tells me they’re pretty darn close.

     “Wish to hell I was wrong,” he added softly.

      “What is the bad news, Dr. Crandall?” the Judge asked, as if posing a question to an expert witness at a trial over which he was presiding.

      The epidemiologist reached into a large pants pocket and retrieved a small notebook. He flipped through it and stopped when he reached the page he wanted.

     “Based on the information I picked up along the way, it looks like just no more than one in a hundred people survived. I relied upon library references giving me pre-epidemic population, accounts from survivors, and my own observations of petrified bodies, later piles of dust, abandoned vehicles and homes, and whatever medical records I could get my hands on. Ran the numbers through some standard formulas and equations and I feel pretty comfortable saying that not more than one percent of mankind survived this phenomenon.”

      “How do we know this happened everywhere on earth?” Jack asked.

     “We don’t know for sure,” Crandall replied. “There’s been no contact that I am aware of with anyone outside of the U.S., and precious little within this country. From what I could gather from the newspapers that printed up to the end, it was happening everywhere. As an epidemiologist I have to believe that it affected all of mankind the same way and that the one percent survival rate is universal.

      “So out of seven billion people we have seventy million left?” the Judge asked.

      “Not really,” the epidemiologist answered.

       “There did not seem to be any degree of selection involved in the survival or death of individuals. Some were better suited than others for life in this new world of ours. Most were not.

      “We lost many survivors within days of the affliction,” he continued. “Some within hours.Think of infants, the very elderly, the very ill, those who depended upon medical apparatus or drugs to survive.Those who were disabled in one form or another. People who were locked up, people who were in cars, planes or buses when the the pilot or driver petrified.” They all knew that the transformation from flesh and blood took less than a minute. Every survivor had seen it happen, often to those they loved the most. Over a three day period, ninety nine percent of the human race became blocks of petrified wood that crumbled into dust several weeks later.

      “And there were those who were emotionally unequipped for this,” Crandall added. When you see a dead body these days, it’s usually for that reason.”

      Jack and the judge nodded. They had seen that all too often.

      “Are we seeing any births?” Jack asked.

       “I have seen a few and heard of a few more,” Crandall answered. “But don’t get your hopes up,” he added. “In a world without inoculations or doctors, where food and water is always in short supply, few survive very long and I suspect not many will reach adulthood.”

      The three men were silent for a moment.

     “So I suppose then that mankind will soon be extinct,” the judge said, more as a statement of fact than a question.

     “My professional instincts inform me that that is the most likely scenario,” Crandall replied.

                                                               #

     Dr. Crandall stayed in town for three months, busying himself with inspecting medical and police records such as there were, and attempting to extract some information from reluctant survivors hiding amidst the desolation.To the surprise of Jack, Patricia and the Judge, Deputy Flynn willingly shared any information he had gathered with the epidemiologist and they got along quite well.

     One morning after coffee, Crandall announced that he was leaving. “Got to find out what I can while I’m still able,” he explained.They were sad to see him go.They enjoyed the wit and knowledge he brought to their daily gatherings and the Judge seemed pleased to have someone close to his own age in the group.They gave Crandall some food, water and fuel for his journey and just before he left Flynn handed him a rifle, a pistol and ammunition.

     A few weeks after Crandall left, Patricia did not show up for the morning coffee, for the first time in the  two years they had been meeting. Jack and Flynn drove to her home. The door was unlocked.They saw her hanging from one of the beams in her garage.She had slung a rope with a noose over the beam mounted a ladder, and kicked it aside.

     “Hope it was quick, broken neck,” Flynn said softly. “She deserved better than slow strangulation.”

     “She’s with her family in heaven,” the Deputy added. Jack said nothing.

     Flynn used the ladder and cut her down. Jack caught her limp body and held it tightly for a moment before laying it on the cold cement floor.

     “Bury her next to her family?” he asked Flynn. The Deputy nodded and an hour later she was in the ground. Flynn promised to prepare a tombstone to match the other three.

     It was Jack who informed the Judge. He feared that the loss of both Crandall and Patricia in so short a time would devastate the older man, but the jurist showed minimal emotion when he received the news.

     “We are in a bad streak, Jack,” was all he said. “I will pray for her,” he added.

     The Judge stopped by the small white Baptist church every eventing before sunset. Jack had no doubt he would keep his promise.

     “And I will pray for the rest of us as well,” the Judge added.

                                                            #

     Jack, the Judge and Deputy Flynn continued to meet every morning in the Judge’s chambers. By the fourth year, the lack of serious maintenance began taking its toll. Deputy Flynn brought his tools and did the best he could in the chambers, tackling cracking wood and plaster and broken furniture and managing to replace several broken glass panes. The building was too large and the scope of work too daunting for one man to maintain, and outside the chambers, ceilings were caving, walls were crumbling, floors buckling, roofs caving..

     “It’s only a matter of time until the staircase isn’t safe and we’ll have to move to the first floor,” the Judge told the other two one morning.

     “Maybe we can meet over at my place,” Flynn offered to the surprise of Jack and the Judge. “I’ve been able to keep it in shape. And it’s only the three of us,” he noted. “Don’t need a whole courthouse.”

     He was correct. the small trickle of local survivors had grown to almost nothing by death and departure.It had been several months since they had seen another soul in town.After Dr. Crandall departed they hardly ever saw or heard vehicles in the distance and that had ceased months ago.

     Jack and Flynn rarely drove out into the surrounding areas after year four.They had picked clean any supplies they might fancy and had stockpiled propane and gasoline, canned and dried foods, and bottled water.Water was collected from what little rain fell and Flynn grew some vegetables in his garden using a drip system he had rigged up. Jack estimated that if they were careful the the three of them could last another four years without having to search for anything. They drove their vehicles regularly to keep them in running condition but were conscious of the need to use gasoline sparingly.

     Jack and Flynn allowed themselves one motorcycle ride each per month.During the colder months Jack passed, but Flynn rode no matter how inclement the weather. Jack preferred to ride in warmth when the air brushed against his bare forearms he could briefly forget what the world had become. 

                                                             #

     When the Judge became ill, Jack and Flynn took turns at his bedside, watching helplessly as he burned with fever and drifted in and out of consciousness. One morning the Judge collapsed after coffee and they kept him at Flynn’s house the warmest place in town. None of the antibiotics they had did any good and after several days it was obvious he was not  going to heal himself. He lingered for weeks in a struggle between life and death, with life gradually losing ground.

     The Judge died on a cold winter dawn. Jack was alone with him at Flynn’s  house. The Deputy had taken Jack’s Harley to what once was a small Native American settlement an hour’s ride away, hoping to find medication that might work. In the weak light of early morning Jack understood that the Judge was trying to speak to him, though he could not hear a word. He pressed his ear close to the older man’s lips.

     “You were the best, the best lawyer and the best man I ever knew,” the Judge told Jack, and then he died.

     “So were you,” Jack said, knowing the Judge was beyond hearing his words.

     An hour later Jack heard the Harley’s engine in the distance. When Flynn arrived, Jack told him of their loss.Flynn said nothing but bowed his head.

     “The ground is so cold this time of year that we might not be able to dig a proper grave,” he said after a moment of silence. “We ought to think about cremation.”

     They  drove out into the desert in a pickup truck, the Judge wrapped in sheets and gently placed in the bed. A pile of wood and a can of gasoline were tied down in a corner. Flynn drove and Jack sat next to him in silence. The stopped ten minutes outside town.

     Flynn laid down a bed of wood. He and Jack carefully carried the Judge’s body and laid it on the pyre.Flynn placed more wood on top of the body and poured gasoline over it. They stood in silence for a minute, heads bowed. Jack could hear Flynn mumbling prayers. He himself remained quiet. When Flynn was through with his benedictions, he lit a match and threw it on the pyre. Within ten seconds there were large and growing flames licking upward toward the stars.

     Jack gazed at the expansive terrain before him. Barren dessert as far as the eye could see in all directions, the emptiness broken by the occasional shrub, cactus or boulder. Flat ground interrupted by gullies carved by rushing waters eons ago. One highway, two lanes in each direction, and smaller roads that faded much quicker than the highways.The desert was brown, tan, mauve, and sand, all stillness and silence.The sky was filled with endless stars, some twinkling, others shining brightly. A sliver of moon peeked out in the darkness of space.

     When the fire died down, Flynn took a shovel from the bed of the truck and chopped the charred remains of the fire into small piece, pushing and scattering them about.When he was done there was little evidence that a cremation had taken place, only bits of grit and rubble on the desert floor. They drove home in silence.

                                                               #

     Eight years had passed since the world turned inside out. After the Judge died, only Jack and Flynn remained in town.They no longer met every morning but checked in with each other two or three times  a week. Flynn occasionally stopped by Jack’s house with game he had killed or trapped. Animals had not been affected and the desert yielded jackrabbits, squirrels, javelinas, and once, when Flynn had taken a pickup and been gone for several days, a big horned sheep. Flynn made any needed repairs on Jack’s house. Sometimes they had dinner together and afterwards shared shots of whiskey. Flynn was helpful and generous, but still taciturn. Jack spent much of his time reading, listening to music on battery operated devices, and dreaming of more human companionship.

     Shortly after the eight year mark, Flynn disappeared. He gave  no warning, left no note, and there was no evidence of an accident. Flynn could have taken any one of a number of vehicles, so Jack could not even confirm a departure. Jack searched ever inch of town, and rode his Harley into the desert looking for signs of Flynn. He found nothing. He’s not here, he thought, so he must have left.

     Jack knew he would never teach himself to hunt. Hopefully the traps Flynn had set would catch enough small game to provide protein. He could hopefully maintain Flynn’s garden.

     After several months of total isolation, Jack realized that he had to leave in search of people. None who left had ever returned; either they had found other survivors or had perished. He would take his chances.

     Jack packed clothing, food and weapons and loaded them into the pickup he and Flynn had used when they cremated the Judge. At the last moment he decide to load his Harley into the bed of the truck. He could not bear to abandon it.

      As he readied himself to leave, he paused to study his face in his bathroom mirror. His beard and hair were turning gray and his face was deeply lined. He had observed the changes over the years and accepted that he had long ago ceased being the suave lawyer with a silver tongue. He was just a survivor.

                                                                 #

     As soon as the pickup truck was out of sight, Flynn emerged from his hiding place in the basement of the courthouse. The pain from deep inside him burned more fiercely than ever before. He could barely stand erect or walk. It had been hard keeping it from Jack, but worth it. Jack would have stayed and tried to help. He would have eventually been devastated and trapped. There was now a chance his friend would find others. If not, he’d be no worse off.

      Jack did not hear the shot.

                                                               #

     In two years on the road, Jack did not encounter a single person. He was on his third pickup, the Harley always with him. That morning, he rode it into the green hills where he had camped. The sun beat down on his face and the smell of pines wafted through his nostrils. Am I the last person alive, he asked himself. He knew it no longer mattered. He smiled as the vibrations of the engine coursed through him like electricity. He could not be defeated. He was a survivor.

THE END       

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: