In the time since Jackie’s death, Laura has learned the truth of existing alone. It isn’t so hard. It means keeping busy. The farmhouse is much too large for one person. Daily, there is water to collect and boil; there are tools to clean, greens to forage, rugs to be hung over the rail and swatted with an old badminton racket.
But now it’s cold—November in northeastern Canada. Too cold to stray far from the house. In her state of aloneness, Laura draws inward. She had expected this, welcomed the creep of solitude as it slipped around her. Every few weeks, she finds herself so lost it is like a shock, return from a blackout, as she is drawn out of the trance of a task—scrubbing the counter, scrubbing clothes in a basin, scrubbing dirt from under her nails.
On this day, she is taking inventory of the batteries. She is hunched over the stove counting C cells. Out of nowhere, it’s there again. The question she cannot escape from the game her firm, Merkl Associates, played each summer at the team-building picnic. If you had to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island, and bring only one item that fits in a suitcase, what would you bring? At the company picnics, when led by astute human resources professionals, employee responses tended to fall in two camps: purpose or pleasure. Purposeful answers were items like matches, shovels, first aid kits, water desalinators, solar-powered grills. All valid answers, of course, and more often than not contributed from employees in more pragmatic professions—risk management, legal. Pleasure dealt with what you would do to stay sane, to fill the silent hours. These were the answers from the communications department, the staff education department, and by most women: a pack of cards, a TV, a journal, a family photo album. At the final picnic, Laura said she’d bring the collected works of Faulkner. Not what she has since learned is the truth. What she would bring is an inflatable rubber raft. That way, when she’d had enough of the island, she could leave it behind.
Laura and Jackie hadn’t known each other. That was the strange part. Seven months after the attack, rumors that the border would close first began. Laura crossed the border three days before it closed permanently. Jackie already lived on the other side. They met at the northernmost stop of the train, back when the train ran. That was when it was Jackie and Laura and Amanda and Rob and Francis. And they all came together to form the original group because they were the only people around to find the little cottage at Royal Station at the end of the Montreal-Jonquiere line. The cottage was safe, but soon they had to leave. They moved north and grew fewer. It was worst with Amanda because she was first, but after that it got easier, and in a horrible way it was more manageable when it was only Jackie and Laura, only two to feed.
Laura dug Jackie as deep a grave as she could muster in the cold. Staring at the grave, she decided she wouldn’t dwell on what she could never get back. Since then, the farmhouse has become her companion more each day. Its noises, its life. Rasping pine floors, cupboards that close with a thwap. Jackie used to talk of the energy of the farmhouse, good vibes, happy souls. No city near. No neighbors. Safety in numbers no longer felt wise. Laura’s farmhouse, or the farmhouse she and Jackie found, sits at the base of the mountain in a low flat stretch of ground. It is remote ground in harsh country.
The house is large. The owners must have left right away because the place wasn’t ravaged or stripped clean as most places were. By the time Jackie and Laura got far enough north and happened to cut through a stretch of forest and see the farmhouse, the others had gone. It was only the two of them—Jackie and Laura. The farmhouse was tidy, well stocked with firewood, blankets, candles. There were chickens when they found the house, half-starved and rangy in a small wire coop. The chickens hadn’t lasted long.
The farmhouse was far enough north anyway, even before the war, that the owners would need to have a stockpile simply to survive the winter when the place was snowed in. Wood was chopped and stacked in the cellar. Laura scavenged the untended garden and saved the dry seeds. There were shelves of goods, green beans and vegetable medley, but also food they hadn’t seen for years like canned tortellini and corned beef hash. And there were jars and jars of homemade jam, which Jackie had eaten right from the jar with a spoon.
The house sits outside the pine forest, miles from the border, miles from the lake, and from the remains of the old country. Beyond that? She will likely never know. The point, as Jackie saw it, as Laura sees it, is isolation. Survival is an act of aloneness nowadays. Laura is used to it. Glad for it. When Laura hears pounding on the front door of the farmhouse, she is too surprised to be alarmed.
That first night in the farmhouse, Laura and Jackie slept upstairs in a child’s room on twin beds with matching patchwork quilts. The beds were stacked with little pillows and plush toys. There was a basket of stuffed animals in the room and a train set, and Laura wanted to wonder about the kids who lived in the house, wanted to wonder where they went, but she wouldn’t let herself do that. She had learned, since the war began, that sanity consisted of not allowing herself to think too much. Especially of loved ones or children. In the passing weeks, it grew much cooler and Jackie and Laura could no longer sleep without the fire, and so they slept in the leather, brass-buttoned armchairs in the sitting room.
Soon, it was late autumn, not yet freezing during the day. They had some hope still. Laura worried that the owner of the house might come back, but this never happened. They had not yet adjusted to their new life and they were irresponsible, gluttonous. They ate canned Alfredo sauce that they heated in the fireplace and poured over powdered mashed potatoes, they drank bottles of wine from the cellar, gulped bottled water, and burned through batteries to play old CDs on the portable stereo. There was dried meat in the cellar, which they ate along with pasta and rice and quinoa and lentils. Whoever stocked the house had planned to stay for a long while. There was some lettuce that had gone to seed in the garden, but they ate it anyway. The best part of those first weeks was the night they found one ancient bottle of champagne tucked high on a cellar shelf. The bottle was cocooned in cellophane, the neck wrapped in teal ribbon as though it had been saved for a special occasion. Halfway through the bottle, Jackie and Laura were rosy cheeked and almost relaxed as they huddled in the sitting room by the fire.
The knock comes again. Laura presses her ear to the door, feels a knot in her lungs. She is supposed to be alone, safe. Another knock, then a voice.
“Anybody here?” It is a man’s voice accompanied by a rumple of fabrics swishing against one another and the sound of shifting feet on the wood planks of the farmhouse porch. It has been over four years since Laura has heard a man’s voice. She finds the sound unsettling. She thinks of Rob. She and Jackie talked about this. What they would do. They had decided what to do. Laura bends, places her hand on the floorboard in the corner behind the door where the rifle is hidden.
“Hello?” His voice is louder.
Laura hesitates. “Go away.”
“Just need something to eat.”
“What’re you doing up here?”
“Same as you. Same as everybody. Please,” he pauses, coughs, “I saw the house.”
“How many others?”
She leaves the rifle hidden, opens the door, but keeps the chain latched. He wears a black parka and a knit cap. He’s not much taller than her, but he is thinner. His skull bones are prominent beneath the layers of dirt on his face. “My friend’ll be home from hunting soon,” Laura says.
“I’ll leave when you tell me.”
She opens the door.
“I’m Pat,” he says.
She tells him she’s Laura, then locks the door once Pat is inside, in case he isn’t alone. Pat stomps the ice off his boots and bends to untie them, but Laura tells him to leave them on. It is not much warmer inside. It is nearly dark and she has the candles lit, but it is still difficult to see well inside the farmhouse. She leads him through the dining room and kitchen and into the sitting room where she has a fire going under the brick mantle. Pat, she now sees, is unsteady. She helps him into one of the armchairs and wraps a quilt around him, tucking it over his legs and down between the armrest and the cushion.
The TV hangs on the wall in the sitting room, which Laura finds comforting. She feels comforted by lots of useless items in the house. The toaster, the cupboard with Blu-rays, the Wi-Fi router on the kitchen counter. She uses the laptop as a tray to eat lunch or as a portable table for writing, the weight pleasant on her lap. Normal life. Jackie had hated everything obsolete, and it was a constant battle for Laura to keep these items, but in the end Laura had gotten her way.
Laura leaves the door between the sitting room and the kitchen open. This is something she doesn’t do often because the heat from the fire escapes so quickly. It’s nice, though, to have warmth in the kitchen. She pretends to scrounge, looking for something to feed him. Really, she doesn’t want to show him where she keeps the rest of the food, doesn’t want him to see how much she has and not just the food but the batteries, wine, bullets, clothes and blankets, and shelves lined with tools. Every item a good choice for the deserted island game. As she moves about the kitchen, she keeps her gaze on the armchair. Jackie would never have let this get so far. Jackie had been tough about this sort of thing long before Laura realized there wasn’t much of a choice.
Jackie had been the one to shoot Rob. It was the humane thing to do, Jackie said afterward, and Laura supposed it was. Rob died while they were still camping, still wanderers. There’d been an accident with an axe. The handle splintered, the blade flung off as Rob swung. The result was a nasty slice in his upper thigh. The cut wasn’t deep. The infection was the problem. Days after, the cut oozed. His jeans would stick to the pus and blood and with each step rub and rub and make the thing worse. Finally, they had to stop. Rob couldn’t walk, couldn’t wear his pants. There was only water from the river to clean the wound. It festered. A fever took over his body. He hallucinated, went in and out of consciousness. First, he begged them to kill him, then he began talking to people who weren’t there, begging spirit people to take him. Jackie and Laura watched streaks of red meander from the wound up and down his muscular, pale thigh. Nothing left to do, but watch him die. Laura hunkered down for the long run, talking softly and singing to him, making him comfortable. He was unconscious for two days. On the third, Jackie stripped off his coat, his shoes, pulled him out of the tent by his feet. Laura heard the shot.
Pat looks so small under the quilt. From a plastic tub in the pantry, Laura fills a pot of well water that she carries to the fireplace and boils. She cracks the dried noodles and places them in the water. She pours the spice packet. She stirs. She listens to Pat’s breathing, steady now, and knows he is asleep. A perfect time to take care of things, Jackie would say. But to Laura, Pat’s presence is not unwelcome, though she recognizes the danger. She moves closer to the chair. He stirs slightly, snoring. He is not a bad-looking man, she thinks, and a small part of her wishes to climb onto his lap. His cap is gone, and she notices his hair is black, but his beard is gray and short enough to have been trimmed recently. He is not an old man, as she first thought. She leans closer. She places her index finger on his cheek. He opens his eyes.
“Food.” She ladles soup into a ceramic bowl then pulls the quilt down far enough to free his arms and places the bowl in his hands. Pat gulps at the soup, drinking it all without chewing the noodles.
“Where are you from?” she asks.
He holds the bowl out and she fills it again. “Where am I from? Or where did I just come from?”
“Both I guess.”
“From Indiana. But, I just came from the west.”
“Past the lake. We had a little place. Ran out of food though.”
“I thought you were alone.”
“Do you see anyone with me?”
She straightens her back, the heat of the fire now prickling through her sweatshirt.
“It’s just me,” he says. “When’s your friend coming back?”
“Bit dark out there to be hunting.”
“No,” she says as she stands and moves to the doorway, her back to the kitchen. Laura thinks of the lake, and of Jackie. No, Jackie would not have allowed it to get to this point. Pat leans in the chair, nestling his head into the cushion, but Laura knows he watches her as she steps farther into the dark kitchen.
The day Laura met Jackie it rained. They’d both had the idea to follow the train all the way north. Back then, they still wore their own clothes, still had the choice to style themselves. The luxury of choice. Jackie wore jeans, knee-high riding boots, a camel trench coat tied at the waist with a leopard print scarf. Her hair was still dyed blond, not the dirty gray-blond it ended up, and she wore it pulled back in a way that made it impossible to judge the length or to know that, when out of the bun, it fell past her nipples. She had a decorative type of Manhattan backpack, chic-looking, but no good for holding anything more than a spare pair of shoes. And she wore makeup, a retro sixties orange lipstick. Laura had long forgone makeup, hair dye, non-utilitarian accessories. She carried a sleeping bag, a legit hiking pack she stole from REI, boots, wool socks, layers of functional clothing, an anorak. Jackie was gorgeous. Even at the farmhouse, makeup and hair dye gone, she looked like a sailor, the preppy, New England kind, with water-shine eyes and wind-smacked cheeks that made her look wise somehow. Maybe it was her fierceness that made her beautiful, her propensity for living in the wild.
The fire snaps in the sitting room of the farmhouse.
“What’s your story?” Pat asks.
“I don’t really have one.”
“Who were you before?”
“An accountant,” Laura says.
“Good for you.” He uses his thumbnail to pick at his teeth.
“And you were a soldier?” Laura motions to the emblem on the shoulder of his parka.
“No,” Pat rubs his hands together. “Found the jacket.”
Laura nods. She stares at the parka and she knows he is not alone. Or, at least, it is unlikely. She and Jackie had seen the groups of soldiers, deserters. So many heading north just like them and always in groups, in trucks usually in the early days filled with loud men in body armor. Jackie, especially, didn’t like the soldiers. If they came across a stretch of road with the black parkas, she and Laura hastened their pace or slipped quietly off the road.
Several months after they’d found the farmhouse, Laura and Jackie began to develop certain plans of protection. It had been long enough that they knew no one was returning to the house, and they didn’t intend to leave, as long as they could manage and until supplies ran out. They took the logical precautions, didn’t store the food in one place, always had extra mason jars of water in the cupboards. At night the shades were drawn, doors bolted. They also planned for unlikely, but possible scenarios. What to do in the case of a trespasser, for instance.
Laura stands at the cold stove which is piled with the batteries she was sorting and counting before Pat arrived. She hears Pat coughing from the sitting room on the other side of the kitchen wall. In the center of the stove is one of the candles she made from string and melted Crayons and pieces of leftover wax drippings. It had been Laura’s idea to take inventory. Every Sunday, she and Jackie counted, tracked, planned. How many cans of olives or raviolis or creamed corn divided by how many potential days, months, years? How many ounces of wine could be drunk a day to last what amount of time? How many bullets, batteries, matches could be used? There was no room for foolishness, impulsive spells, or wasted anything. They were aware of all possessions once they decided they would not leave the farmhouse. Aware of the dwindling supply and the reality that most of it could never be replaced. At the stove, Laura runs her hands over the batteries lined around the burners. As subtly as she can, she pushes the batteries together close enough to hide them beneath a dish towel which she places over top.
“Have you heard anything? Any news? What about New York?” Laura asks Pat as she stands a comfortable distance from the armchair in the doorway connecting the sitting room and kitchen. The back kitchen door is close enough if she has to run.
Pat laughs, ruffles his shaggy hair. “I take it you haven’t left this place in a while.”
He runs his hand across his head, and in the firelight his eyes are black. “It’s bad out there. That’s all the news I know.”
Flashes of her escape six years ago fill her mind. The news the bomb would come. The empty places. The war shelters no one returned from. She pushes the thoughts away. She steps closer to Pat while he speaks though she doesn’t leave the kitchen, doesn’t pass through the sitting room doorway. Standing by the back door of the kitchen in the flicker of the candle, she studies Pat. He is so thin, so weak. Maybe he is telling the truth. And yet, in all these years, four years, not a single person has come to the farmhouse. It is too far from the city, too remote, too difficult to survive here without a decent shelter. She pulls back the blue flower