Station Eleven (Page 27)

“You weren’t tempted to go there yourself, when you left St. Deborah?”

“The prophet’s supposedly from there,” he said. “Those people at the airport. What if they’re the prophet’s people?”

Kirsten and August walked mostly in silence. A deer crossed the road ahead and paused to look at them before it vanished into the trees. The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it? Perhaps soon humanity would simply flicker out, but Kirsten found this thought more peaceful than sad. So many species had appeared and later vanished from this earth; what was one more? How many people were even left now?

“His scar,” August said.

“I know. And where’s the Symphony? Why would they change the route?” August didn’t answer. There were a dozen reasons why the Symphony might have deviated from the planned route. They were threatened in some way and decided to take a less direct path. They decided upon closer consideration that another route was quicker and expected Kirsten and August to meet them at the airport. They took a wrong turn and vanished into the landscape.

August found a driveway in the early afternoon. They’d been resting in the shade when he rose and walked across the road. Kirsten had noticed the stand of young trees there, but had been too tired and heat-stunned to consider what it might mean. August dropped to one knee to prod at the ground.

“Gravel,” he said.

It was a driveway, so overgrown that it had nearly disappeared. The forest opened into a clearing with a two-story house, two rusted-out cars and a pickup truck slumped on the remains of their tires. They waited a while at the edge of the trees, watching, but detected no movement.

The front door was locked, an unusual detail. They circled the house, but the back door was locked too. Kirsten picked the lock. It was obvious from the moment they stepped into the living room that no one else had been here. Throw pillows were arranged neatly on the sofa. A remote control lay on the coffee table, blurred by dust. They looked at one another with eyebrows identically raised over the rags they’d tied over their faces. They hadn’t come across an untouched house in years.

In the kitchen Kirsten ran her finger over the row of plates in the dish rack, took a few forks for later use. Upstairs, there was a room that had once belonged to a child. The child in question was still present, a husk in the bed—Kirsten pulled a quilt over its head while August was still going through the downstairs bathroom—and there was a framed photograph on the wall of a boy with his parents, all of them beaming and resplendent with life, the boy in a Little League uniform with his parents kneeling on either side. She heard August’s footsteps behind her.

“Look what I found,” he said.

He’d found a metal Starship Enterprise. He held it up in the sunlight, a gleaming thing the size of a dragonfly. That was when Kirsten noticed the poster of the solar system over the bed, Earth a small blue dot near the sun. The boy had loved both baseball and space.

“We should keep moving,” Kirsten said after a moment. August’s gaze had fallen to the bed. She left the room first so he could say one of his prayers, although she wasn’t actually sure if prayer was the right word for it. When he murmured over the dead, he seemed to be talking only to them. “I hope it was peaceful at the end,” she’d heard him say. Or, “You have a really nice house. I’m sorry for taking your boots.” Or, “Wherever you are, I hope your family’s there too.” To the child in the bed, he spoke so quietly that Kirsten couldn’t hear. The only words she caught were “up in the stars,” and she moved quickly on to the master bedroom so that he wouldn’t catch her eavesdropping, but she saw that August had been there already—the boy’s parents had died in their bed, and a cloud of dust hung in the air above them from when August had pulled up the blankets to cover their faces.

In the en suite bathroom, Kirsten closed her eyes for just a second as she flipped the light switch. Naturally nothing happened, but as always in these moments she found herself straining to remember what it had been like when this motion had worked: walk into a room, flip a switch and the room floods with light. The trouble was she wasn’t sure if she remembered or only imagined remembering this. She ran her fingertips over a blue-and-white china box on the bathroom counter, admired the rows of Q-tips inside before she pocketed them. They looked useful for cleaning ears and musical instruments. Kirsten looked up and met her own gaze in the mirror. She needed a haircut. She smiled, then adjusted her smile to lessen the obviousness of her most recently missing tooth. She opened a cabinet and stared at a stack of clean towels. The one on top was blue with yellow ducks on it and had a hood sewn into a corner. Why hadn’t the parents taken the boy into their bed, if they’d all been sick together? Perhaps the parents had died first. She didn’t want to think about it.

The door to the spare bedroom had been closed, the window open a crack, so the carpet was ruined but the clothes in the closet had escaped the smell of death. She found a dress she liked, soft blue silk with pockets, and changed into it while August was still in the boy’s bedroom. There was also a wedding gown and a black suit. She took these for costumes. What the Symphony was doing, what they were always doing, was trying to cast a spell, and costuming helped; the lives they brushed up against were work-worn and difficult, people who spent all their time engaged in the tasks of survival. A few of the actors thought Shakespeare would be more relatable if they dressed in the same patched and faded clothing their audience wore, but Kirsten thought it meant something to see Titania in a gown, Hamlet in a shirt and tie. The tuba agreed with her.

“The thing with the new world,” the tuba had said once, “is it’s just horrifically short on elegance.” He knew something about elegance. He had played in a military orchestra with the conductor before the collapse. He talked sometimes about the military balls. Where was he? Don’t think of the Symphony. Don’t think of the Symphony. There is only here, she told herself, there is only this house.

“Nice dress,” August said, when she found him downstairs in the living room.

“The old one smelled like smoke and fish guts.”

“I found a couple suitcases in the basement,” he said.

They left with a suitcase each, towels and clothing and a stack of magazines that Kirsten wanted to go through later, an unopened box of salt from the kitchen and various other items that they thought they might use, but first Kirsten lingered for a few minutes in the living room, scanning the bookshelves while August searched for a TV Guide or poetry.

“You looking for something in particular?” he asked after he’d given up the search. She could see he was thinking of taking the remote. He’d been holding it and idly pressing all the buttons.

“Dr. Eleven, obviously. But I’d settle for Dear V.”

The latter was a book she’d somehow misplaced on the road two or three years ago, and she’d been trying ever since to find a replacement. The book had belonged to her mother, purchased just before the end of everything. Dear V.: An Unauthorized Portrait of Arthur Leander. White text across the top proclaimed the book’s status as a number-one best seller. The cover photo was black-and-white, Arthur looking over his shoulder as he got into a car. The look on his face could have meant anything; a little haunted, perhaps, but it was equally possible that someone had just called his name and he was turning to look at him or her. The book was comprised entirely of letters written to a friend, the anonymous V.

When Kirsten had left Toronto with her brother, he’d told her she could bring one book in her backpack, just one, so she’d taken Dear V. because her mother had told her she wasn’t allowed to read it. Her brother had raised an eyebrow but made no remark.

25

A FEW OF THE LETTERS:

Dear V.,

It’s cold in Toronto but I like where I’m living. The thing I can’t get used to is when it’s cloudy and about to snow, the sky looks orange. Orange. I know it’s just reflected light from the city but it’s eerie.

I’ve been going on long walks lately, because after rent and the laundromat and groceries I can’t really afford transit, found a penny shining in the gutter yesterday and decided it was a lucky charm. I’m taping it to this letter. Unnaturally shiny, right? For my 19th birthday last night I went downtown to a dance club with a $5 cover charge. Irresponsible to spend $5 on cover when I’m getting so few hours at the restaurant, but whatever, I like dancing even though I have no idea what I’m doing and probably look like I’m having a seizure. I walked home with my friend Clark and he was talking about this experimental thing he’d seen where the actors wore giant papier-mâché masks, which sounded cool but kind of pretentious. I told C. that and he said, you know what’s pretentious? Your hair, and he wasn’t trying to be mean but in the morning I made breakfast for one of my roommates in exchange for a haircut and it’s not bad, I think. My roommate’s in hairschool. The ponytail’s gone! You wouldn’t recognize me! I love this city and also hate it and I miss you.

—A.

Dear V.,

I dreamt last night we were in your house again, playing mah jong (sp?) with your mother. I think in real life we only played it that one time and I know we were both stoned, but I liked it, those little tiles. Anyway. This morning I was thinking about the thing I liked about your house, that optical illusion re: the ocean, the way it looked from the living room like the ocean was right there at the end of the front lawn but then when you went outside there was the cliff between the grass and the water, with that rickety staircase thing that always scared the hell out of me.

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