|Map of the post apocalyptic Glenwood Springs, Colorado|
Back at the house that night, Paxton was trying to play the guitar. Just four days earlier, while working in the south garden, he’d felt the unexpected inspiration to pick up the instrument back up, something he hadn’t done in over a year. He’d stopped working that afternoon, instead spending the next eight hours playing almost continuously, running his fingers through every song he could remember, and even some he couldn’t.
But now his stomach felt heavy. He tried to sing a song he’d sung a thousand times before, but his mouth was too dry. After fifteen minutes of half-cocked effort, he placed the guitar back in its case and snapped the latches closed.
He threw down the last gulp of a whiskey bottle from the back of the dusty cabinet.
Paxton resumed his earlier pacing. Darkness had fallen. Culligan stood outside, his silhouette just visible through the window in the faint light of a waxing gibbous. He was staring in, watching Paxton. A pewter kettle swayed lazily above a low-burning fire on the western side of the room. On the wall above it hung various tools for carpentry, horse-shooing, and leather work. Some were antiques, not that that mattered.
Though Paxton had been home over an hour, his boots were still on. Each step dropped with a double-tap on the hardwood floor. He did not pace simply back and forth but in an erratic swirl, visiting nearly every corner of the one-floor, four-bedroom house. Several other lanterns were lit, the house alive with light. This, too, disturbed Culligan, who’d grown accustomed to Paxton’s self-imposed darkness.
A plate of boiled beans was growing cold on a table near the fire. Paxton stumbled upon them occasionally as he pace, pausing each time for a small bite with a wooden fork.
He was talking out loud. Or perhaps to Culligan, who he believed could understand him whether he heard the words or not.
“We shouldn’t go, Culligan. I hate that place. I swore we’d never go back.” He stopped pacing, his eyes blank in thought. “But maybe we need this. It has been four years….” He resumed walking. “I know, Cull! You don’t have to tell me about last time! Why do you think I haven’t gone back?” He returned to the hearth, ladling water into a ceramic mug for tea. “No, it won’t do any good. There is nothing for me there. We can manage, Cull. We got everything we need.”
Paxton sat at his dining room table, looking directly out the window at Culligan who stared back through the glass. He didn’t speak while he ate. He kept picturing the helicopter, combing his mind through the details. His hand trembled as he hoisted his spoon for a bite.
“Yeah,” he said out loud in a tone of reluctant concession. “We have to go.”
Finding some resolution, his hand steadied and he finished his meal.
It started raining half an hour later. Culligan swooshed his tail happily when Paxton stepped outside to organize their gear for the following morning. He slid a rocking chair against the wall, dropped his saddle onto a wooden chest, and straightened a rusting horseshoe upright against the porch column. Running his hand on Culligan’s side, he circled to the horse’s front.
“Summer solstice tomorrow.” He walked to the north side of the house to his toolbox where he snatched several items and stuffed them into a canvas satchel. Though town was only 15 miles, he hadn’t made the journey in almost a half-decade. His father had ingrained it into him over and over: it’s always best to be over-prepared. He added a hammer, wrench, multi-tool, three types of knives, measuring tape and several boxes of nails.
He loaded a smattering of tools into the saddle bags: saw, hatchet, matches, knives, can opener, nails, screws, shaving razor, screwdrivers, wrenches, ammo. The plan was to be back that same night, but things did not always go according to plan. “Always be over-prepared, Paxton,” he said out loud, mimicking the sound of his father’s drawl.
Once the usual accoutrements had been assembled, Paxton stepped out from under the eaves to glimpse the stars emerging behind the curtain of rain. The clouds split lengthwise across the sky, undraping a brilliant moon. The rain fell so lightly it was dry as soon as it touched his bare skin. He removed his hat—something he rarely did—and let the fine mist fall on his balding head.
There is one more place I have to go. He stepped out into the night.
It wasn’t far, just far enough to be safe had anyone come looking. And there was a time when they had. Of course, Paxton wasn’t in the mood to think about that now.
A half mile up the creek, the entrance was concealed in an insignificant copse of trees away from the trail and prying eyes. Paxton had to crawl to get in. There was an iron gate fitted precisely into a concrete bunker, locked tightly with a bolt-cutter resistant system. People had called his dad crazy for building it.
Eight steps led into the bunker, whose walls, Paxton knew, were two-foot-thick rebar-reinforced concrete. This was where his father kept his finest treasures. Paxton walked underneath row after row of canned gods, some five years beyond their expiration, to the middle segment of the 800 square foot structure. Paxton did not need to search; he went immediately for two ammo cans high on the top-right shelf. The sound of the rusty latches echoed like a firecracker when he flipped them open. Paxton gathered a dozen sets of primary-lithium batteries, testing each on a sleek silver flashlight before dropping them into his satchel.
“Just like new. It pays to buy the best of the best. Now more than ever, eh Cull?” He remembered the horse was back at the house. The rain was intensifying; he could hear it roar down above him. He grabbed a full 1-gallon gas can. Just in case. In the next room, he filled an army-green satchel with rice, jerky, dried fruit and beans and searched through the canned goods, selecting any less than three years past its expiration.
Paxton opened a gun safe in the very back. It was important, even on a short journey, to always have options. “Survival is largely who has the most efficient tool,” his father used to say. “And the better brain to use it.” Paxton grabbed a .50 caliber sniper rifle and his father’s sawed-off shotgun. Those paired with his grandfather’s Colt—which he kept always in hands reach—and a knife or two for the dirty, in-close work and he figured he had the edge in almost any scenario.
Back at the house, Paxton calmed an agitated Culligan and began organizing everything into taxonomized piles on the living room floor. His bedroom closet was lined with rows of nearly indistinguishable white, black or light-blue button-up shirts paired with a handful of vests. He grabbed one of each.
Paxton halted in front of the oval mirror on his mother’s antique apothecary table. Increasingly in recent years his own reflection had become hard to see, like his face had been smudged by a clumsy eraser. There was no logic to it. No reason his eyes—which saw everything else in near-perfect clarity—weren’t up for the task. But the longer he stared the more the details of his face dissolved away into nothing. But tonight every square inch was visible in full verisimilitude. His beard was coarse and uneven. He spotted a gray hair on the left side of his chin. Leaning in closer, he was alarmed to discover it wasn’t alone.
The rain continued and Culligan wandered to a grove of willows away from the house as he sometimes did when he was agitated. Inside, Paxton finally laid down for a few hours’ sleep in the comfort of his own bed. First light we’ll hit the road.
Almost immediately, he was fast asleep.
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