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July 15, 2024

What We Think About When It Comes to the End

By Mika Nadolsky

We found this house tucked away in the hills. Caroline, Patrick, and Seth took the upstairs bedroom with a view of the rutted dirt road we came up on. The reason they got that room is that most of the inhabitants of the house were either unable to get up the stairs, or were afraid. Either way Patrick's shotgun would have been enough no matter who was there.

I stayed in the living room. I could have climbed the stairs and I wasn't scared, but the other rooms up there didn't have beds.

I slept on a busted up couch. An old woman with smelly feet slept under the couch with a girl named Hazel on the floor next to her.

It seemed as though there were about ten kids in the house age seven to sixteen; then five old people. The children took instantly to Patrick and Caroline; their own parents obviously caught up in the battle over all sorts of nonsense, or already a casualty of it.

A day after arriving the sky to the east changed to the color of charcoal. Patrick thought it was a sign. I encouraged him. I was not at all surprised that he wanted to go back. I was surprised when Caroline, my ex-wife, said that she would go with him, bringing along our twelve-year-old son Seth.

I wasn't the only one then that did not want them to go. The children clamored around the jeep. They cried out and said they did not want to be alone again. They looked in my direction, but I admit I inspire confidence in few.

I took up residence in the master bedroom after they left. No one objected.

Then it was Hazel, who at fifteen would have already been wed in some parts of the world. I don't mean that as an excuse, or maybe I do.

Hazel has large egg shaped eyes that sit on either side of a rather broad nose, and under that a pair of tannish, shiny lips.

Hazel followed me upstairs. I didn't ask her. I heard her calloused feet on the stairs behind me. I looked back into those large eyes and realized they matched her name.

The room smelled of Caroline. It was a smell I could never stop longing for.

Hazel stood beside the bed with her big eyes closed. I picked her somewhat damp hair off her shoulders. I studied the blue straps of her tank top looped over her shoulders. She wore no bra, not that she really needed one. There were dark bruises on her thighs the size of fingers. Her knees were dotted with auburn scabs. The nail of each of her big toes was an ugly shade of yellow.

The bed was uncomfortable. Hazel climbed atop me and I knew this was something that Caroline and Patrick had not done in years.

"I love you," Hazel whispered. It sounded practiced.

"Clean yourself up." I said pushing her off me gently. She used her underwear to wipe at the spot between her legs.

"Not the first time you have done that, I suppose?" I ask.

"Does it matter?"

"No," I said and watched her pat around the bed for her tank top. "No. I would prefer it was not the first time."

She shrugs, and suddenly I am very sad.

"Come here." I said. She looks at me with an expression I hope is appreciation. Then the window closest to us shatters.

The rock is the size of an orange and looks like part of some meteor. It bounced on the hardwood once and struck me in the ankle of the foot I had just slipped out from under the covers. The pain stole breath. I fell out of the bed both hands gripping the pulsing bone. I lifted one hand tentatively expecting to see blood, but there was none. Hazel giggled.

"Please don't laugh at me." I said with gritted teeth.

"You just look so silly."

I stood up careful not to put too much weight on my damaged ankle. I slapped the bed looking for my shirt. Once located I fought with the fabric pulling it over my head. I hobbled over to the window.

There was a skinny, shirtless boy below the window. He made no move to hide when he saw me. He wore a pair of denim pants cut off at the knees and cinched up around his waist with a yellow extension cord. On his feet he had on a pair of clunky looking black boots.

"Ponce!" the boy shouted at me.

I smiled at him, and nodded, then I stumbled back toward the bed to retrieve the rock he had launched through the window. He was still there when I returned. I smiled again with the rock tucked behind my back, then I lifted my hand and threw it. He was fast. The rock hit the dirt several feet away from the pair of black boots he slipped quickly out of.

"What the hell?" I asked turning back and addressing Hazel. She was sitting on the bed. She looked at me, then she leaned back and let her legs fall apart.

We had brought a stockpile of food along with us. Patrick had for many years been preparing, and I think hoping for a time such as this.

After I finished I sent Hazel downstairs to get us something to eat. She came back a few minutes later and said they would not let us have any.

It was the same little bastard standing sans boots by the door of the room Patrick deemed the supply room. He held a thick piece of wood in his hand.

"You get nothin' until dinner like the rest of us," he said, and he was seconded by an old geezer rolling down the hall in an ancient wheelchair; his head wobbled on his skinny neck and his jaw moved like a cow.

"What about him?" I asked pointing at the old man and his chewing mouth.

"It's grass."

"What?"

"He's eating grass, and you are welcome to that if you can find any."

"I just want some cheese." I said feeling like a reprimanded child.

"No."

"I brought it."

"Oh, then go right ahead," he said, the words stuffed with sarcasm.

"You little bastard," I took a step forward and he moved the stick in his hand like a short sword and made ready to plunge it into my gut.

"I'll take that twig from you and stuff it up your ass," I said, anger cutting through my initial embarrassment.

"I'm not Hazel."

I jumped at him, and he whipped the stick down hitting me on the shoulder as he slipped around the wheelchair.

"What's going on here?" One of the girls shouted. She was an older girl, even older than Hazel, yet with none of her redeeming qualities, meaning she was ugly. I had not noticed her before.

"This ponce is trying to lift some cheese," the little bastard said, pointing his stick at me. The girl nodded looking at him, and it was obvious that she was someone able to take charge of the rabble.

"I'm sorry," she said in a stern tone that was obviously directed toward me. "We decided some time back that we would adhere to specific rules. One of those rules regarded meal times and snacking in between, which is not allowed for various reasons."

"I didn't know," I said, feeling the child once again.

"That's all right. You do now."

I looked at Hazel. She provided me with a look I was used to getting from all the women in my life.

When it was finally time to eat, they had one lengthy wooden table with a few mismatched chairs where they sat the old people and the children. The rest of us stood.

We had sour apples and split a couple boxes of stale raisins. No cheese.

The little bastard stood in the corner with his stick and two other boys flanking him. He hardly ate more than one slice of a mushy apple. His gaze never left me.

I smiled at him. I wanted to let him know he didn't bother me, which was a half truth. He did seem to bother Hazel, however, who spoke up after passing me a few of her raisins.

"Richard, stop." she said stomping her little foot.

Richard responded to her by tossing another small box of raisins onto the table for the children and the oldies to do battle over. He then turned with the othe other two boys and headed for the door.

"Go collect your boots, Richard," I said, unable to stop myself. I knew it was a mistake when he stopped.

"You know, mister crack-head-zipper-face, we had a main line dupe, similar to yourself come through about a week back. He wasn't able to keep his danglies to himself either, so me and Meter here crept into his room one night and chopped his danglies right off." He smiled. I tried to imagine that I looked as if I had no idea what he was talking about. "Show him, Meter." One of the boys beside him reached into the front pocket of his sticky looking overalls. He pulled out a closed fist. When he opened it two rubber balls bounced off the hardwood. They had a good long laugh.

"Is he your boyfriend or something for shit sake?" I violently whispered to Hazel when the three of them walked outside. Hazel did not say anything. The ugly disciplinarian girl seemed to have overheard my question to Hazel, and as most people with her particular talents she was unable to keep quiet.

"You didn't tell him?" she asked with her face glowing with as much joy as when she was reciting the rules.

"No, Barb!" Hazel snapped.

"What?" I was looking at Hazel, not the other one, but again she could not contain herself.

"Richard is her brother."

I took Hazel by the hand and was going to head back up to the bedroom, but Barb was not finished.

"Sir!" she called out saying it without any of the respect it is normally supposed to carry. I stopped anyway. "I think we need to talk."

"About what?"

"The possibility your friends are not coming back."

"Knock yourself out." I said unable to think of anything better than that.

We stayed in the room for two days. Her brother and his cohorts kept up quite a racket below the window, but we ignored them the best we could. At mealtimes I'd send Hazel downstairs to collect our portions and I would stand at the window and just stare down at him.

He had a great thick jaw for such a young man. It would make him look dangerous when he was older. His eyes were recessed, either that or his forehead was abnormally large. From the window I could barely even make out his eyes at all. His hair was closely cropped, and there were cuts and scratches visible through the short blond hairs.

I envied that ugly noggin. I envied his lack of fear, and his ability to say just what he was thinking. I envied the fact that a kid like that, when he got older, would have women fawning all over him, and he would ignore them all.

I wondered if I had a sister if I would protect her like he tries to. I knew that I wouldn't. I knew if my sister looked anything like Hazel, I would have vied for my place in line just like the rest of them.

We heard the jeep on the third morning. I took a sliver of glass just under my right big toe nail as I ran to the window.

It was Caroline and Seth. They were alone.

"Where is Pat?" I shouted, stumbling down the stairs, careful of my toe. Caroline did not look at me. She moved up the stairs passed me. Seth stood by the door. His frizzy red hair was as unkempt as ever; his body so thin. He shook his head.

"I'm sorry, son," I said as a couple of the girls took his hands, leading him toward the kitchen. I knew they were going to feed him even though it wasn't meal time.

I wasn't sorry. Patrick had been a self-righteous asshole who regarded himself as the most intelligent life form no matter what company he found himself in. Had the circumstances been different I would have been glad he was gone.

I went upstairs. Caroline had gone into the big bedroom, and closed the door. Hazel waited for me on the stairs her face a mask of questions. I moved past her, addressing none of them.

I knocked on the door. There was no answer. I opened the door. Caroline sat on the unmade bed with her legs drawn up close to her chest. Her chin rested on her knees as if it had been placed there after being sliced off her neck.

I slipped inside, pushing Hazel back in order to the close the door. I held my foot against the door while she fought to gain entrance. Finally she stopped.

Caroline moved off the bed and walked over to the window. The sun does nothing for her thin hair, or the outline of her familiar, and awkward body. I am not sure what makes me want her so horribly.

"We saw Heather," she says, tilting her head slightly. Her profile is visible to me, and I look at her silly little upturned nose that makes me think of a ski jump. It is that nose that will forever afford her the appearance of youth.

Poor Heather; ugly, stout, little Heather. I saw Heather five or six times when Caroline and I were still pretending at marriage. I was never able to keep anything from Caroline. She sniffed it out of me with that little upturned nose, and when she found out about Heather it was the excuse she had not really needed, but used anyway.

She took Seth and I was alone except for Heather presenting herself to me like something you could not bring yourself to toss out, but could never figure out the reason why you kept it around.

I cursed her in the parking lot of a bar one night as we stood surrounded by coworkers. She spilled tears onto the asphalt as she walked away from me, and it might have been sad and romantic if I was not so repulsed by her.

"And?"

"She was with them," she said, which did not surprise me. Heather never liked to be alone or left out, or stand out for that matter. I could see her being swallowed by the crowd. I could see myself there as well right along side her.

"Was she any good?" Caroline asked. Her question startled me. I wondered what relevance it had at this moment. I could not help but ponder it, since thinking of any women I have ever known, the first thing that comes to mind is what they allowed me to do with their bodies, and she had been more willing than most, and unashamed of it. But she was not good. Caroline was good, because goodness is when a person causes you to contemplate suicide after copulation.

"No," I said.

"You lie."

She was weeping when she came to me. We kissed for the first time in four years. She would not say what happened to Patrick, she stifled any further query with a cold hand over my mouth.

The war of fiction, or half truths had not touched me, none of the deaths or suffering I had witnessed, or heard of had touched me. Nothing touched me like Caroline.

"I love you," I said afterward. She snorted as she slipped off the bed. I moved up behind her. I put my arms around her. She pushed them away.

Hazel looked up with her dirty face drying when I opened the door.

"You don't love me anymore?"

I didn't answer her. I had enough of tears.

Seth sat at the table with the little ones rolling rotten crab apples along the uneven wood. Richard and the two boys with him stood at the end of the table watching them.

"Roof has a leak," Richard said when he saw me.

"Interesting."

"Gonna rain maybe. Rain ain't so safe now, no?"

I touched Seth on the shoulder. I motioned for him to follow me into the other room.

"Might could patch it up," Richard called out. "We got the supplies."

Seth stopped. I looked at my son and his face full up of the disappointment I had grown accustom to seeing.

"What do you want me to do?" I asked.

They had come up with some stinking tar-like substance they had used to patch other areas of damaged drywall. The one on the roof, however, was too high for any of them to reach, being without any type of ladder.

I stood at the top of the stairs on a five gallon plastic bucket and two cinder blocks as a base. Seth steadied the bucket as I trembled atop it. Barbara handed me a stick slathered in the smelly goop, and I in turn leaned as far as I was able to and extended my arm with stick in hand. I was even then hardly able to reach the growing slit in the ceiling.

"Enjoy the show!" I shouted at the giggling mass that had gathered at the bottom of the stairs to bear witness.

I felt the bucket shift. I yelped like a child, my arms swimming in the air.

"I got you," Seth reassured me. I looked down at him, and his face was now full of emotions that his nature would not allow him to vocalize. I was glad of that.

The ceiling dribbled the goo I wiped onto it and the damaged area seemed to be covered for the time being, although it would not matter, as five days later the house would no longer exist when the difference-maker in the great, silly conflict would be dropped from the sky onto the neighboring city.

I wanted to tell Seth something as I teetered on that bucket, something a person would read in a greeting card, or see in some commercial, and feel the tears swell up under their eyes. I wanted him to be on my side for maybe just a moment, but I didn't get the chance.

Hazel scurried down the hallway toward me with her callused feet scuffing the hardwood and her little stick arms held out in front of her, stiff with damaged feelings.

I caught myself on the banister and stalled there for a second looking like a marionette with one severed string. Then I fell.

They were all very nice to me afterward. Richard and his friends helped carry me upstairs to the big bedroom. They even took the time to cover up the window Richard had broken.

Two days later Caroline told them that it was time to go. I didn't ask her, or any of them to take me with them, and no one offered.

Hazel and Seth were the only ones to say their farewells to me, and there were more tears from Hazel than from my own son.

Then in the end Hazel refused to go, and none of the pleading or anger they used against her decision was enough to sway her.

I told her she should go along with the rest of them, but I was happy that I would not be alone.

When they were gone I apologized to her for the way I had treated her, and I believe I actually meant it.

It was nice to have her there when all we could do is talk. I felt as though I connected with a woman in a way not associated with sex for the first time in my life. I just wished we had more time, as do we all.

Article © Mika Nadolsky. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-06-09
Image(s) © Lydia Manx and Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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