This is how Mortimer Tate ended up killing the first three human beings he'd laid eyes on in nearly a decade:
A wreath of cloud lay smooth and still about the top of the mountain like bacon grease gone cold and white in a deep, black frying pan. The top halves of evergreens poked through the cloud, frosted from last night's snow. The final days of winter, not too cold-Mortimer Tate estimated maybe thirty degrees. The thermometer had burst in the third year, that most bitter winter when it had gotten to twenty below or more. The thermometer had been made in America by a small company in Ohio.
Nothing was made to last anymore, Mortimer's dad had been fond of saying.
Mortimer sat at the window of the cabin, which had been built directly in front of the cave. The cave stretched back deep into the mountain. Mortimer sipped tea brewed from ginseng and tree bark he collected and dried himself. The coffee had run out the first year. So many things had run out that first year.
Mortimer watched the men come up the mountain, had seen them rise up through the mist and had blinked at them, thinking he'd cracked up at last. But they were real, rifles in front of them, not trying too carefully for stealth, but neither shouting nor taking the mountain for granted.
He considered going back into the cave to the gun locker, maybe getting the twelve-gauge or even something deadlier, but then he'd lose sight of the men and he didn't want to emerge from the cave again only to find they'd gone or had spotted the cabin. And anyway he had the police special in the pocket of his army-surplus parka. That should be enough. He wanted to talk, not shoot, but of course he had to be careful.
He didn't figure they'd seen the cabin, obscured as it was by the pines and two months' snow. It was possible he could sit right there, and the men would pass by and never be seen again. Nobody had been up this far before, at least nobody Mortimer had seen. Maybe they'd hunted the game out farther down and were up after meat. Mortimer himself had killed a big buck three weeks ago and had eaten venison four nights in a row before drying out the rest for jerky.
Goddamn, he was sick of jerky.
I'm stalling, Mortimer thought. He didn't want the men to pass without speaking to them. Now that he saw them, he was desperate to find out, get news of the world below. But he was afraid too. There were three of them.
He could call out to them right now and be safe holed up in the cabin. They couldn't get at him there. Not even if all three came at once. They'd have to climb up the rocks and snow and he could pick them off easy with the police special. But then they'd know about the cabin and the cave. They could come back with a dozen or a hundred, and that wouldn't do.
He'd have to slip down the side and try to catch one on the flank, open up a dialogue, and then maybe they could find out about each other. Maybe things were back to normal. The portable radio had devoured all the spare batteries so fast, ran out even before the coffee, but it had all been bad news, and when the last batteries had finally given up the ghost, Mortimer wouldn't have replaced them even if he'd had more. He hadn't been able to stand it, couldn't stomach another minute, the play-by-play of the world shaking itself to pieces.
It had been a long time, and maybe things had stabilized. That was a thought, and it turned into a hope; Mortimer found himself sliding down the incline from the thick plank door of the cabin and ducking into a stand of trees. The leftmost of the men was just on the other side. Mortimer went through quietly, not showing a weapon. Strike up a conversation. Sure. Maybe they'd be happy to see him.
He weaved and ducked among the pines, finally caught sight of the first man, ruddy cheeks, dirty red hair with a red-brown beard. Patched denim pants and work boots, thick corduroy coat, also patched. A red band around one sleeve. He held a deer rifle, bolt action,.308 caliber. Mortimer was so close he could see the rifle was a Remington.
Mortimer had one hand in the pocket of his parka, wrapped around the police special. He raised the other hand in greeting.
"Hey-" Mortimer's own voice surprised and startled him, and he cut off the greeting. Mortimer marveled momentarily at the strange voice, his own voice, how loud and croaky it sounded in the still morning. When was the last time he'd uttered a single syllable? He only pondered it a split second, because the stranger had already turned, big-eyed, mouth a shocked O of surprise, and was bringing the deer rifle around.
"No!" Mortimer threw up his free hand in a "stop" gesture. "Wait!"
But neither of them could wait. The rifle barrel had swung even with Mortimer's belly, and he thrust the police special forward and squeezed the trigger. The shot split the winterscape with a crack, white down exploding from the hole in the parka's pocket. The bullet caught the stranger high in the left side of the chest, a splash of red arcing and spraying and landing around him, harsh and bright in the smooth white terrain.
"Harry!" Another shot whizzed past Mortimer's ear.
Mortimer pulled the revolver, moved sideways among the trees as the other two ran toward him, snow crunching. He huffed breath, loud in his ears, steam billowing from his open mouth, eyes and nose wet from the cold and exertion. He fired once and the two guys slowed into a crouch, one going to a knee and shooting. The shot rent Mortimer's sleeve, more down swirling in his wake. They got up again and ran at Mortimer, who ran back at them, throwing everything into the encounter, howling and jerking the trigger three more times.
Two shots went high. The third took the kneeling shooter in the left eye, which popped and gushed blood and goo and shredded eyeball. His scream cut off in a strangled gulp, and he fell back.
The last stranger turned and ran, and this alarmed Mortimer more than when they'd shot at him. He couldn't let him bring others. He crunched in the snow after him. "Wait!"
They both ran faster.
He didn't wait.
Mortimer fired. The shot caught the fleeing stranger between the shoulder blades. The man's arms flew out, the rifle tumbling into the snow. He fell face forward. Mortimer kept running until he was right up next to the body, dropped to his knees. "Oh, no." He turned the man over, but he was dead. "God damn it."
The first human beings he'd seen in nine years.
Using the sled he'd made to haul firewood, Mortimer took the bodies a mile or so away for burial. If the strangers had friends, Mortimer didn't want the blame for the killings. It had not been his fault, he'd convinced himself. He'd wanted to talk, and they'd drawn on him.
He still felt sorry about it.
Mortimer soon developed a little routine. He flailed at the frozen earth for a few minutes with shovel or pickax. Then he'd catch his breath by the small fire he'd built and search the pockets of the dead men. They carried precious little. One had a condom in his wallet and nothing else. That's optimistic, Mortimer thought. He discovered that each man had only one bullet in each rifle and carried no other ammunition. They could not possibly have been coming for him and must have been hunting.
All three wore red armbands.
He'd exhausted himself by the time he put the first two into shallow graves, covered them back over with dirt and rock. Another heavy snowfall would completely obscure the deed.
He leaned the third body in a sitting position against a young pine. He liked the look of this guy, the same brown-red facial hair except his moustache had been curled up into friendly handlebars. The face was pudgy and jolly in spite of the fact that all life had gone dark in the eyes, which were wide open, round and glassy.
"I'm sorry I had to do that," Mortimer said. "It was the other guy, almost got me with that deer rifle. Just wasn't anything else I could do."
Mortimer nodded and shrugged as if listening to the corpse's reply. "I know, I know. I should've yelled at you from the cabin instead of creeping up on you. But see it from my point of view. I had to make sure you guys were square first, right?"
The man's dead eyes appraised him unblinkingly.
"You were surprised to see me up here," Mortimer said. "A good place to hide, this far up. I'm probably the only fellow in East Tennessee who was ready for it."
The fire crackled. Mortimer put on another fistful of sticks. Nothing stirred on the mountain.
"If it hadn't been for my wife," Mortimer admitted, "I'd have never come up here. It took both the end of the world and Anne riding my ass to sign those divorce papers. One wasn't enough to run and hide. At the time, the divorce seemed worse. Can you believe that? I guess because it was personal to me."
Mortimer took the pickax and started on the third grave, stopped when he felt winded again and threw more sticks on the fire.
Mortimer resumed the conversation. "Her name was Anne. She wanted a divorce. I didn't. We were both angry. We didn't know why, just that our unhappiness had to be the other's fault, and damned if I was going to pay her one goddamn cent of alimony, you know? I was raised to work things out."
He got up, dug some more, came back to the fire.
"Anyway, you could see it all coming. I don't think anyone really thought it was the end, not the absolute final end, but just that it would be bad. And so I found the cave and started getting it ready. But really, I was leaving Anne. I was going to take the top of this mountain for myself and let her have the whole rest of the world, and all the trouble was just sort of an excuse. And I would just be gone, you know? And if she wanted those divorce papers signed, she'd damn well have to come find me. She'd have to earn it."
He finished the hole, but didn't put the body in right away. He still wanted to talk. He realized he was practicing. It was a time for talking again, and he wanted to remember how, wanted eventually to talk to someone who would talk back. The crushing loneliness had crept up on him so gradually that he hadn't even noticed it until he'd stood over the men he'd killed. He could have asked them so much, and maybe they'd have known some jokes and he could've laughed.
Mortimer laughed out loud to see if he recalled what it sounded like. It felt fake and tin in his throat, and he seemed to remember that a legitimate laugh came up from the belly. He decided not to practice laughing.
He conjured Anne's face in his mind, the sharp angles and bright, alert eyes, hair a rich brown. Skin so clear and white. "Huh."
Mortimer kept talking as he grabbed the man by the wrists and dragged him toward the hole. "I don't guess any of this makes a damn bit of difference to you. I wonder if you have a wife. I sure am sorry for her if you do."
Mortimer dropped him in the hole. "Again, sorry." He covered him up.
In back of the cabin was an opening four feet high and five feet wide that led into the cave. Mortimer stopped at the gun locker first, took the keys hung on a string around his neck, picked out the correct one and opened the locker. He reloaded the police special.
It was a big gun locker, long guns on top, ammunition and pistols in the drawers below. He had two more police specials in case something happened to the first and a thousand rounds of.38 ammunition sealed against the elements. He had a twelve-gauge pump shotgun, a lever-action.30- 06, a.223 Ruger Mini-14 with two thirty-round banana clips. There was also a 9 mm Uzi that Mortimer had converted to full auto with online information, when there had been such a thing as the Internet.
Mortimer had maxed three credit cards stocking the cave with canned goods and medical supplies and tools and everything a man needed to live through the end of the world. There were more than a thousand books along shelves in the driest part of the cave. There used to be several boxes of pornography until Mortimer realized he'd spent nearly ten days in a row sitting in the cave masturbating. He burned the dirty magazines to keep from doing some terrible whacking injury to himself. There were also books on survival, books showing how to use the many tools he'd brought, books revealing the secrets of the land, how to skin and dress game, how to produce various medicines from plants and animals.
In the farthest reaches of the cavern, an underground stream ran through a deep chamber. Mortimer had secured a ladder down to the chamber and had rigged a system of buckets and pulleys to haul water. The cabin/cave combination was fortress, refuge, sanctuary and home. He had been relatively comfortable and safe these nine years.
Nine years. It seemed an impossible amount of time.
He dug into a cabinet and came out with a shaving mirror. He didn't shave anymore and had put the mirror away. He took the mirror out to the cabin window so he could see himself in the light. He gasped at his reflection, the haunted eyes glaring red-rimmed from the bushy hair, and beard and eyebrows gone awry. He remembered he was now thirty-eight years old, but he looked like some old, wild hermit, streaks of gray in his black hair and beard.
Many of the books Mortimer had stashed in the cavern were novels. He'd anticipated having a lot of time on his hands. In Treasure Island, there was a character named Ben Gunn who'd been stranded on an island and had gone half insane lusting for cheese. Mortimer imagined that's how he looked. No wonder the stranger had swung the deer rifle on him.
He fetched water up from the stream and heated it with a Coleman propane stove. He didn't have much propane left, but he didn't build fires in the cave because there wasn't any way for the smoke to vent. He rummaged the storage boxes until he found a disposable razor and a can of shaving gel. Rust ringed the bottom of the can.
He splashed warm water on his face and lathered up, but the razor balked at his thick and tangled beard. He went back into the cabinet and found scissors. He cut away the beard in big patches. The hair collected around his ankles. He tried the razor again and shaved close, nicking himself around the chin. He wiped the blood with the bottom of his shirt. He cut his hair with the scissors. He surprised himself by doing a good job. Nine years had taught him patience with tedious tasks.
He went into the cabinet one more time and found the brush. He looked at it a moment like it was some alien artifact. In relearning these simple acts-shaving, brushing his hair-he was really learning to be human again. He planned to go down the mountain, and he was getting himself ready.
Mortimer brushed his hair and looked at his new sleek reflection and considered what he'd take. He would take the police special and the lever-action rifle. He wanted to protect himself but didn't want to appear hostile and thought the Uzi might be a bit much. He'd need food and a medical kit, but he'd also need to travel light. When first outfitting his refuge, he'd flirted with the idea of a horse, but he wasn't sure he'd be able to keep it alive. He'd sold insurance in a previous life and knew little of animal husbandry.
So he'd start down the mountain on foot. He'd go in the morning at first light with all his gear. He also decided to take three bottles of booze from the stock he'd kept unopened. Trade goods, if there was still such a thing as trade.
Trade goods. Weapons. He would not be able to get quickly back up the mountain if he needed something. He decided to pack the sled, extra weapons and the two cases of Johnnie Walker Blue, a third case of Maker's Mark. He could hide the sled at the bottom of the mountain, retrieve whatever he needed.
He realized there would be no McDonald's, no Holiday Inn, no Exxon station. Traveling would not be a lark. He did not know what it would be like except that it wouldn't be the same. He could not guess what awaited him down the mountain, but it was time to find out.
He dabbed at the blood on his chin.
Among Mortimer's books were science fiction novels, some of which supposed the details of the apocalypse. Mortimer had selected these with wry irony. Popular methods whereby the world would snuff it: aliens, collisions with comets or meteors, plague, nuclear holocaust, robots rising against their masters, various natural disasters and so on and so on. Mortimer's favorite: space bureaucrats demolishing Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass.
No single thing had doomed Mortimer's planet. Rather, it had been a confluence of disasters. Some dramatic and sudden, others a slow, silent decay.
The worldwide flu epidemic had come and gone with fewer deaths than predicted. Humanity emerged from that long winter and smiled nervously at one another. A sigh of relief, a bullet dodged.
That April the big one hit.
So long feared, it finally happened. The earth awoke, humped up its spine along the San Andreas. The destruction from L.A. to San Francisco defied comprehension. The earthquake sent rumbles across the Pacific, tsunamis pounding Asia. F.E.M.A. immediately declared its inadequacy and turned over operations to the military. The death toll numbered in the millions, and nothing-not food nor fuel-made it through West Coast seaports. The shortages were rapidly felt across the Midwest. Supermarkets emptied, and no trucks arrived to resupply them.
Wall Street panicked.
Nine days later a Saudi terrorist detonated a nuclear bomb in a large tote bag on the steps of the Capitol building. Both houses of Congress were in session. The president and vice president and most of the cabinet were obliterated.
The secretary of the interior was found and sworn in. This didn't sit well with a four-star general who had other ideas. Civil war.
Economic spasms reached the European and Asian markets.
Israel dropped nukes on Cairo, Tehran and targets in Syria.
Pakistan and India went at it.
China and Russia went at it.
The world went at it.
It was pretty much all downhill from there.
Mortimer Tate started down the mountain, a rope over each shoulder as he pulled the sled behind him, another army surplus tote over his shoulder, police special in the pocket of his parka like usual. He carried the lever-action Winchester across his body. His pace was steady, and he puffed steam and his naked face went pink in the cold.
The base of the mountain sprawled across a high pocket wilderness that had been a state refuge. If he kept going down, Mortimer anticipated crossing one of the old hiking trails. If they hadn't all grown over.
The slope eased, the descent becoming more gradual by midday. Mortimer paused, leaned against a tree and took water, ate jerky. He turned his head slowly, listening to the forest. Not a bird nor a whisper of wind. He was still within the limits of what he considered his own territory, but the simple knowledge he'd be going farther made the forest appear alien to him.
He rested five more minutes, then began hiking again.
By nightfall he had still not crossed one of the hiking trails. He spun in the waning light, tried to get his bearings. Had he veered in the wrong direction, or was the distance simply farther than he remembered? In the morning, he'd look again with better light.
He considered a small fire but was afraid it would be seen. He pitched a low, sleek one-man tent made of light synthetic material, crawled inside and wrapped himself in a blanket. He fell asleep almost instantly.
He dreamt he was trapped in the tent, flickering light casting hellish shadows on the thin material, the sounds of stomping feet all around. He tried to stand and run, still wrapped in the tent like a burial shroud, faceless assailants circling him. Tangled in the tent material, unable to reach the police special, hands grabbing him, lifting and twisting and bearing him away.
Mortimer awoke with a gasp, freezing, hair sweat-soaked. He crawled out of the tent, stiff, aches in every joint. He had not slept on the ground in a long time, the thin blanket under him offering little comfort.
He squinted, looked around. Color had been bleached from the world, the sky a uniform gray. Even the evergreens were stark black against the white snow in the weak morning light, making the land appear like a two-dimensional charcoal sketch. He packed up the tent and built a fire, didn't care if anyone saw the smoke. He needed to thaw the ache from his bones. He heated water and made a cup of tea.
When the light grew strong enough to distinguish individual pine needles, he began the day's hike.
An hour later he crossed the first hiking trail and followed its winding path to the entrance of the refuge. There was still a brown sign with yellow lettering guarding the entrance: NATIONAL POCKET WILDERNESS.
He parked the sled behind a stand of trees, covered it with pine branches. He put a whiskey bottle in his knapsack. He'd put it in bubble wrap to keep it safe.
A hundred more steps and he stood on paved road.
He stood there awhile. An unfortunate sentimental streak rose up in Mortimer and he considered the road with misty eyes. Here was the asphalt thread that wound its way down the mountain to civilization. Or, at least, where civilization had stood once upon a time.
Mortimer rubbed his hands together, stamped his feet in the cold and considered his options. If he recalled correctly, the road ran down one side of the mountain to Evansville and the other way to Spring City. His first urge was toward Spring City, where he'd lived before with his wife, where he'd sold insurance and gone to the Methodist church every third or fourth Sunday. He couldn't decide if he was afraid to find his wife or if he'd be disappointed if he failed to find her.
He'd left her. Abandoned her. His wife. Whatever their problems might have been, Anne was still Mortimer Tate's wife. And a man doesn't shirk that kind of responsibility and not feel it in his gut.
He turned and headed toward Evansville.
He felt strangely happy and expectant. He longed to see buildings, a town, and most of all people. But his heart sank at the thought of the three hunters he'd killed. Mortimer put his head down and hiked into the wind.
He paused at the first house, stood a long time hoping for someone to come out. The dark windows without curtains looked like the wide eyes of a corpse. All quiet. The same thing with the next five houses he passed, and the sixth was hollow and blackened from fire. No people.
When he reached the Luminary Firehouse, another memory surfaced. The first Monday night of every month, the firefighters had put on a spaghetti dinner fund-raiser. It had all seemed very down-home and Americana when he and Anne had come up the mountain a few times to strap on the feedbag.
Now the idea of hot pasta and meatballs and garlic bread dripping butter almost gave Mortimer an erection. He found himself unconsciously walking toward the firehouse, the memory of fat men in denim overalls slurping spaghetti drawing him on.
He stopped short, blinked at the pale face in the window. It didn't move, wide eyes unblinking, and for a moment, Mortimer mistook it for a face on a poster, maybe an ad for Pepsi Cola or Life Savers. It was immobile, so pale and lifeless. But then a hand appeared, a wan wave.
Mortimer felt something tighten and then flutter in his chest. This time he'd do it right. No accidental murders as with the three hunters up the mountain. He slung the rifle over his shoulder, held his hands palms-up and away from his body. "Hello."
The face withdrew into the shadow.
Mortimer fast-walked toward the firehouse, the small side door next to the closed garage. He turned the knob, entered slowly. "Hello? It's okay. I just want to talk." He pushed the door open all the way, the sliver of sunlight widening into a brilliant yellow cone, spotlighting the young girl backed into the corner of what must have been the firehouse office. "It's okay," he said again.
He looked about the shabby room. A calendar hanging faded and askew. The ratty remains of a desk against the wall. A pallet of rags and straw that must've been used for a bed. The girl herself was maybe sixteen, pale bruised legs coming out of a threadbare flowered dress. She stood in a pair of hiking boots at least two sizes too large. Frayed laces. A dark blue navy peacoat with holes in the elbows. Her full lower lip hung open and moist. Dark circles under green eyes. Dishwater hair. She was small and thin and the world had squashed her flat.
"I-I..." Mortimer didn't know how to start. He wanted to do it right, remake contact with the world, and he'd start with this girl. He trembled. What to say first? What to ask?
Something struck the back of his head. Bells went off. Lights flashed. He teetered, lurched forward but didn't go down. Another sharp shot below his left ear. He spun, saw a blur of boots, a big furry thing. Then his eyes went fuzzy and he hit the firehouse floor.