The time prior to the first year is hard
to remember; at least for Sara. Most of it is a blur of thoughts and
images when she stops to recall anything about Life Before. She can
keep looking forward in the daytime, but at night, after the fire is
banked and Grissom wraps around her, the dreams sometimes come, vivid
Death. Seeing it, hearing it, trying to work around it until it wasn’t possible to ignore the truth and then, even now, feeling choking breathless panic at the sound of a sneeze or a cough—
They both still wash their hands at least three times a day.
He’s let the beard grow back; it’s the least of his worries, and it comes in handy in keeping his neck warm. Out here the days can be hot, but nights are unforgivingly cold in the winter, and any natural edge helps. Sara teases him about it once in a while, toying with the curls along the edges. Grissom doesn’t mind—it’s good to hear her laugh, and her own hair is over her shoulders now when she lets it down in the evenings.
Sometimes she gripes about cutting it, but he’s talked her out of it each time. He likes her hair because it smells good, and feels good when he buries his face in it. It smells like life.
It’s the best cabin of the ones up here. It’s got an empty stable, a storage shed and a ground well. Grissom remembers hearing all about it more than once, including where the keys were kept. The lake is about a mile down the road, and from where they are they can see both the road and across the lake. No electricity of course, and while they’ve got some running water, Grissom predicts that will probably stop within a month or so.
He’s right, and when the last few drops trickle out three weeks later, Sara stares at the faucet, feeling her panic rise again. Water. God. Who remembers water?
There isn’t a lot of spare space in the cabin anymore, so they’ve rearranged the furniture to make room for the priorities. The guest bedroom is full of books, carefully stacked from floor to ceiling, in piles arranged by topic. The most important ones—the medical and first aid ones—are right by the door, even though both of them have the important parts memorized. In the early days they would quiz each other in the firelight. Sara remembers it well.
The field guides are next; well-thumbed, along with the maps. After that the novels are piled up along with the beat-up encyclopedia (missing the T volume) textbooks and one bible. Once in a while Sara is tempted to look through the cookbooks, but the photos always make her hungry. Sometimes she uses one of the fashion magazines to restart the fire.
They brought Bruno. He learned. The first week after the fifty pound bag of kibble ran out, he brought back half a rabbit to the back porch. Grissom took it and looked at Sara. She shrugged.
Bruno hunts for himself most mornings and comes back when his stomach is full. He sleeps in the cabin and still wags his tail when Sara calls him. They both worried his collar would snag and took it off, but he whined until they put it back on him. Sometimes in the middle of the night he paces to the door and growls, even though neither Grissom nor Sara can hear anything outside.
The dream always starts out the same way—a sense of unease and normal things all around. This is the evidence. This is the flashlight. This is the case.
Then things rip at the edges. Sara hates the dream, the moment when she KNOWS she’s dreaming and still can’t stop the images fluttering through her mind like a shuffle of cards in a casino. News. Emails. Warning. Shots. Panic. Death. Death. Death.
When she opens her eyes she can’t see because of the tears, but Grissom’s arm around her is what she clings to.
Grissom never in his life thought that toilet paper was the epitome of civilization, but it is. Living with it has always been an unrecognized luxury. Life without it is—well it’s not the life he imagined with Sara. Raids to the other, empty cabins have given them a bit of a stockpile in the first months, but even so, it’s the Nevada Yellow Pages for now.
The yellow bucket stands in the stable, away from the house. At first both of them were self-conscious about stepping out, but the practicalities of life overcame that damn quick. First chore of the morning is taking it to the creek and dumping it out, rinsing and bleaching it. Putting the seat back on it.
The cabin faces the lake, and they can see other, empty cabins along the opposite shore. Both of them have been looking for smoke, and listening for engines. So far, nothing. As far as they can tell, they’ve got no neighbors.
It’s possible anybody who had a place up here is dead, or has chosen to go elsewhere; after all, it’s desolate and uncivilized in 80 percent of this state. Every night Sara cranks the radio and patiently goes through the dial, listening for news while Grissom sharpens the ax, or washes the dishes. They get the EBS, which hasn’t changed in months, and sometimes snatches of other broadcasts.
When it’s music, they both listen until it fades away. Grissom tells her some stations have their own generators.
Propane. The stove runs on it, and out in the storage shed there are twenty six canisters. Grissom’s confident they’ll last for at least two years, maybe longer if they’re judicious with it. He wants to scout some of the other cabins and bring back any tanks they have. Sara agrees—they may not have running water, but being able to cook is a hell of a luxury.
Beans and rice. A hundred pound bag of each. Sara stores them in clean, galvanized garbage cans to keep the vermin out of them. She knows that beans and rice make a complete protein. It’s not the most exciting food, but mixed with canned soup, or chili powder, it's fuel for the body. There are enough cans in the pantry to flavor the carbs as needed.
She’d kill for some yogurt through. Or pizza.
Grissom wonders who’s left. Sometimes he thinks about it when chopping wood and stacking it. Not Wendy—she was one of the first to topple over at work. Not Warrick, damn it, who never made it out of the parking lot a week later, coughing and choking. Not Ecklie, rotting in his office. Grissom hopes like hell that Jim made it through, and is out somewhere surviving. He wonders if Catherine and Lindsay made it to Montana or not. If Nick managed to get back to Texas before the highways were shut down by the National Guard.
He wishes H5N1 hadn’t happened, and when he feels his anger well up, Grissom gets back to chopping wood, going at it mindlessly until the rage drains away. They have a lot of wood piled for the winter.
The first couple of raids are easy; the people who vacationed here tended to leave an extra set of keys somewhere around the porch or front steps. Grissom shows her how to find them and get inside. Taking the good stuff feels like stealing, but hey—they’ve got to live. Soap, yes. TP, yes. Dry goods, medicine, clothing that fits, bedding, batteries, knives, bleach---
If they find bodies, though, they pass by those cabins, and leave the dead alone.
In the first month, they moved the bed out to the living room, because that’s where the fireplace is. When the sun goes down, Grissom tends the fire, and they’ve both adjusted to working in the limited light. Sometimes he reads aloud. There comes a time though, on some nights when one of them will look at the other with that painfully sweet expression of lustful need.
Out of clothes and into bed, touching, kissing, taking and giving in a way they never used to, Before. Now it’s more than just making love, and they both know it. They get angry and excited and demanding in bed. This is life and this is good.
Grissom keeps the calendar, marking off the days in his thoughtful fashion. He’s waiting; her last injection was nearly half a year ago, so it’s bound to happen soon. It does. One morning Sara is cursing as she comes into the cabin, and her look is murderous. She crosses to him at the desk and he looks up.
He takes the red pen marks the letter P on the calendar.
The goats are a happy accident. Bruno herded them in, circling around, keeping the three of them moving forward, their jumpy reluctance clearly a challenge to the dog. Grissom manages to snag the male by his horns and sees the faded collar: Bucky. Someone’s pet. Someone’s 4H project maybe, but not now. The other two have no names, apparently.
The 1978 World Book Encyclopedia doesn’t have much to say that’s helpful about goats. Sara sets about domesticating them anyway, keeping them in the stable at night and staking them out on long tethers of old phone cable—the one thing they won’t chew through. Bucky re-tames nicely, and the other two begin to associate Sara with leftover beans and rice.
Sara hates the damn laundry. Even though Grissom helps her, it really is an all day affair, and despite what the old TV commercials used to claim, line-dried clothing is stiff and rough, they do the towels and underwear every week, and the bedding and anything else about once a month.
The Nevada sun dries it all quickly though. The line runs from the house to the stable, and each laundry pin is like gold. Grissom adds them to the scavenging list, right under ‘socks.’
Bucky’s nickname is now officially “Horny Bastard” and Grissom smirks every time it rolls off of Sara’s tongue. She’s taken to staking Bucky out by the creek and keeping the nannies on the far side of the storage shed, but Grissom is pretty sure the damage is done and in about three months they’ll know for sure.
He reminds Sara that kids will mean milk. Sara reminds him that goat’s milk is incredibly gross.
They make treks, mapping out the area, scouting their territory. The lake is to the north of them. Major hills to the East. Lower hills to the West. On the map, Sara marks the cabins they’ve visited and crosses on the ones with the Dead. Grissom suggests one last two day trip around the lake before winter sets in and she agrees.
They lock the goats in the stable with enough water and food for a few days. Lock up the cabin doors and windows. Pile Bruno into the pickup and take off. Sara keeps looking back at the cabin until it’s out of sight.
End of the first day: Jackpot. An untouched drugstore and Seven Eleven down off the road around the lake. It’s like Christmas, and for a while neither of them can talk. They walk in to the Seven Eleven and even though the whole place stinks, Grissom goes straight to the glass cases and pulls out a beer. He cracks it open; not a lot of fizz, but he drinks it in, the foam spilling on his beard.
Sara has one too, laughing softly at the flat, wonderful taste.
So much. Grissom suggests caching some of it, and Sara agrees—farm it out, keep it safe. They start loading the truck—canned goods, the entire First Aid aisle and the pharmacy.
Sara catches Grissom eyeing the condoms, and both of them pause. He holds up a package and points out the date on the back. In a quick monotone he talks about being eighty percent effective but they’re going to have to rely on rhythm eventually. They’re going to have accept that unless they stop having sex, within the next few years, it will happen--
Sara tells him to take a few boxes and look for more sugar. Grissom sighs and stuffs them into his pocket. Thoughtfully, he cleans out the supplies of tampons and pads, then goes to look for arthritis medicine and sheets. Sara already has loaded up the chocolate into as many Tupperware containers as she can, and is scooping up packets of yeast from the upper half of the baking aisle. The last thing they load onto the truck is kibble.
Bruno is thrilled to have rawhide. Sara is thrilled to have Nestlé’s. Grissom is thrilled to have toilet paper.
They find a deep freezer in one of the nearby cabins, and emptied out, it makes a pretty impregnable storage bin. Into it go as many of the cans and rice and medical supplies as they can fit. A good cache for the coming winter.
The rest of the stuff they stack in the stable loft. It’s hard work, and afterwards Sara suggests they bump up bath night. Grissom agrees, and is damn glad they’ve got Ben-Gay now.
Bath night. Here’s how it goes: They pull out the galvanized wash tub from the barn and set it up in front of the fireplace. Grissom boils water on every burner on the stove while Sara pours in water from the well and adds a little bleach. Once the hot water is added, someone gets in the tub. Usually it’s Grissom, and Sara kneels at the side, helping him scrub up. In the firelight it’s warm and intimate and they both enjoy it a lot more than they’ll admit.
Once Grissom’s done he dresses and drags the tub to the porch to dump the water off the side. Sara heats more water and Grissom fills the tub with well water, adding bleach. When Sara gets in, Grissom soaps her back and washes her hair, rinsing it with warm water from the tea kettle, because he loves to hear her purr when he does. They both dump the water for the last time, bank the fire and Grissom braids her hair sometimes.
They always fuck like fiends after bath night.
One dawn they hear the goats bleating loudly. Grissom grabs the rifle and heads out. Sara hears a shot and runs out to him. The blood trail leads off into the woods, but Grissom is sure that the wolf won’t make it. He spends the day reading up what little they have on wolves.
Afterwards, Sara laughs at him urinating on the corners of the stable. He reminds her that not only are there wolves, but mountain lions too and that thought stops her.
Sara hears an engine. She turns from the layer of goat shit she’s hoeing into the garden and looks fearfully towards the lake. Grissom, who’s been building a bookcase, joins her out in the yard. Across the lake, along the ribbon of highway, they can see the truck moving slowly. Sara runs for the binoculars, and once she focuses on the truck she says nothing. Grissom takes the binoculars and looks for himself.
A man. A woman. A kid. People. They watch the truck until it disappears among the trees on the far side of the lake.
That night they crank the radio and search carefully. EBS has changed its message. The numbers leave them stunned. Grissom makes a note on the calendar. Sara puts beans on to soak, and later, when she goes out to pet the goats and give them leftover mash, she finds herself crying.
Only three million left. In the whole damned country. Only three million.
They don’t hear the engine again. They don’t see any smoke in the sky. A week later, Sara tells him to throw away the condoms. Grissom blinks, but doesn’t argue. After she’s had him, sweet and hard, she tells him that she decided when they first ran to the mountains that if he died, she’d probably kill herself. But if there was someone else depending on her . . .
He nods. Grissom gets it, because he’s the same way. Life without Sara wouldn’t be worth it. Life with a little piece of Sara though, that would make the difference. That would be life, and it would be good.
End of part one