His father was the last person he’d seen alive and that was 3,394 days ago.
There was no reason to think about that now, standing alone in a Colorado meadow with a mattock in his hand and a hot wind exhaling against his face. He hoisted the iron high above his head and brought it down with a shoop in the soil.
High above, a lone cloud drifted between him and the sun. He closed his eyes, relishing the temporary reprieve. But as soon as it was there it was gone, and the full-strength of the June heat resumed.
Beads of sweat rolled from his forehead like tiny glass balls as he brought the iron mattock down again.
Paxton Raleigh had towed, with some struggle, a red wheelbarrow overloaded with seedlings, clones and tubers up the decaying trail. The rainy season was on him, and he would need better food stores if he wanted to survive another winter like the last.
Paxton and Culligan face the
post-apocalytic world alone
The horse snorted. “Don’t get too comfortable now. You know damn well we got ditch duty. And we have to check the traps.” The animal twisted his long neck Paxton’s direction. “There’s no putting that off any longer.” Culligan swished his tail half-heartedly. “And no back talking, Cull. I said I’d wait and see if it rained and it ain’t.”
The two had nothing else to say. Paxton worked on his lunch, chewing ravenously and washing it down with cold water from the creek. When the food was gone, he pushed himself stagnantly to his feet and stretched, his back crackling like a fire.
After mounting Culligan with a protracted effort, Paxton guided him slowly along a faint trail, switchbacking up a long slope until the valley floor was several hundred feet below. Paxton reined Culligan to a stop, and drank thirstily from his canteen.
“The next two months are going to be like this, Cull,” he said. “The heat takes the work right out of you.” He looked down on the ranch far below. The aluminum roof gleamed in the sunlight at the west end of the meadow. Behind it, wider and longer but not as tall, was the barn.
Paxton and Culligan stayed motionless for some time. A light breeze did little to oppress the vicious sun and the heat radiated back from the ground. Don’t forget last winter, he reminded himself. One more season like that I won’t be around for the next.
From this higher vantage, he could see a few scattered clouds building to the west: a welcome sign. Steering Culligan away, they continued up the trail, slogging upward for another ten minutes until they crested the long hill at last. Unseen waterfalls grumbled in the deep canyon below.
With easier traveling, the tandem made better time, and in just a few minutes, the trail returned to the water at a wide, motionless marshland. Paxton dismounted, loosened the mattock and a shovel from the saddle, and stuffed a small pinch of Copenhagen between his teeth and lower lip.
“I’m quitting! Down to one log anyway and it’s all dry.” Culligan turned away.
A strange wave of déjà vu flooded over him: the warm tickle of nicotine on the back of his throat bringing back the past in near-perfect fidelity. The sensation was so lucid and powerful, for a moment he felt as if he toed the border with one foot in both past and present.
Shaking off the sensation with a laugh, he turned away from Culligan and hauled his tools to the creekside.
His father had dug the old ditch when they’d first bought the ranch many years before, but disuse and time had steered the water back to its natural path. This spring, however, Paxton had laid out a plan for the fall he hoped would yield more food for winter than ever before.
But before he could start on the ditch, he had to check his traps. He laid his tools in the dirt and followed a faint trail upstream through head-high willows. His boots squished in the gluey marshland. At the head of the valley, the creek spilled from the scree of the high basin above. A small lake formed at the base of a tumbling cataract at the head of the valley. Paxton worked through the brush to the northwest corner where he’d set his trap on a well-beaten game trail.
“Nothing, Cull,” he said when he got there, forgetting that the horse had stayed behind. He inspected his handmade trap, tightening the knots, the noose, and replacing the bait. Farther along the trail, each of the six traps he’d set was the same.
He returned to the creek where Culligan was swooshing his tail lazily. Paxton swatted a mosquito from his ear and retrieved leather gloves from his pocket. He fired Culligan a glance from the corner of his eye.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he warned. “It’s all random, whether you catch something or not.”
Paxton took up the mattock, aimed an angry stroke and sunk it halfway into the mud. The earth here was tough: full of embedded stones, stubborn roots and dense clay. “This is gonna take a while, Cull.” He took another swing, striking something hard three or four inches down. “But a while is all we have, I guess.”
Paxton aimed another stroke but paused. A strange thumping noise suddenly surrounded him. At first he thought he was imagining it: the return of the déjà vu. It seemed to be coming from the very earth itself.
“Culligan!” he yelled. Dropping the mattock, he dove behind a thick tangle of scrub oak just as a helicopter exploded over the ridgeline with frightening intensity. Paxton surged with adrenaline. Somewhere from his periphery he saw Culligan bolt down the hill.
Even from his low vantage, he could see the helicopter was white with a navy-blue tail, bearing no other markings other than a serial #: N7-1482Z. The helicopter hovered not 200 yards north, its rotor wash jerking around the brambles where Paxton hid. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the strange machine drifted his direction until it was directly overhead. The sound was deafening, filling his ears and sucking the air from his lungs. He had never heard such a terrible noise, like the beating wings of a grotesque prehistoric hornet. Not for almost ten years had he felt such fear.
Culligan whinnied in the distance, a horrible sound unlike any he’d heard before from the animal. All Paxton could see through the branches was blowing dust and twigs. The helicopter was facing and drifting away.
Paxton’s fear was ebbing. The pilot! There has to be a pilot! But just when the thought crossed his mind, the helicopter spun west and rumbled down the valley and away. The wind and noise quickly subsided. Paxton forced himself to swallow a few deep breaths and sat up straight. The helicopter was hovering over the ranch. He watched it, still in utter disbelief.
“Culligan!” he yelled, yanking his gun from its holster. No longer afraid, Paxton jumped to his feet and sprinted down the trail, waving frantically at the tail rotor of the aircraft.
“Wait! Stop!” he yelled. His lungs burned. His feet tangled on something in the grass sending him plummeting forward. His pants ripped as his left knee absorbed his full weight. Paxton ignored the pain and bounced back to his feet. “No!” he yelled again. “I’m right here!” The helicopter hovered directly over the ranch for a moment. Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, it lifted over Storm King Mountain and vanished.
Paxton ran impotently, gasping and bleeding for another 200 yards before collapsing on the hard ground under a thicket of willows.
“Culligan!” he yelled again, breaking the new silence. A soft breeze whispered through the willow branches. On his stomach, he recovered his breath slowly.
So there are more.
But at the appearance of something so unexpected—something from another life long ago—his mind had been consumed by the possibility of danger. He hadn’t thought about the contact that could have occurred until it was too late.
I’d convinced myself that the new world was not only okay but actually better. But the prospect of more represented by that helicopter had provoked such a feeling that he knew now—lying face down in the cool grass in a world just as quiet and empty as it had been an hour earlier—he’d been wrong.
He became aware of the quiet shuffling of feet and felt a wet nudge on his back. When he rolled onto his back, he was looking down the twin-barrels of Culligan’s snout at shockingly close range. The horse snorted.
“So we ain’t alone.”
(Read next section: Gathering His Life)
(Read next section: Gathering His Life)
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