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?”