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art by Stephen James Kiniry

Free Lunch

Will McIntosh is a Hugo award winner and Nebula finalist whose short stories have appeared in Asimov’s (where he won the 2010 Reader's Award for short story), Strange Horizons, and Science Fiction and Fantasy: Best of the Year. This is his second story in Daily Science Fiction. It’s a companion piece to his debut novel, Soft Apocalypse, which has just been released by Night Shade Books. A New Yorker transplanted to the rural southern U.S., Will is a psychology professor at Georgia Southern University. In 2008 he became the father of twins.

It took a moment to place the sound, because no one should have been making it in their house. It was the soft, rhythmic squeal of a mattress and the wheeming of a woman approaching a stifled climax. The sound sent an icy blast through Phoebe's stomach. She had begun to suspect, but only in the abstract. The shift to concrete was jarring.
He wouldn't humiliate her like this, would he? In this tiny house, with his mother home?
"Whatever happened to Julie Geller last Sunday, I wonder?" his mother Theresa said. "She wasn't in church, but on Monday I seen her at the Seven Eleven, canning preserves."
Phoebe did not want to see who was in the bedroom with Stephan. And she didn't have to--she could act as if she didn't hear it, just as Stephan's mother was doing, and had been doing since Phoebe came in. But if Phoebe did that, it would be understood that she knew Stephan was sleeping with another woman, and that she accepted it. And she didn't. She would not add her silent assent in this house-wide collusion.
"She didn't look sick or nothing," Theresa said.
The tempo of the squeaking got faster, and to Phoebe's ears it got louder, until it seemed she could barely hear Theresa nattering over it. Phoebe felt herself blushing, hated how easily and extravagantly she blushed, how her emotions got pasted on her face like it was a billboard. As soon as Phoebe turned toward the hallway Theresa shut up. She went back to her corn shucking as if it required every drop of her attention.
Once Phoebe was outside the bedroom door, she wasn't sure what to do. She put trembling fingers on the doorknob, but couldn't bring herself to throw open the door, to see Stephan and whomever he was with scurry beneath the blankets like cockroaches. She dreaded this confrontation; the thought of having it while Stephan and his lover were naked was too much. But she couldn't knock; she did not need permission to enter her own bedroom. And what would she say when Stephan answered?
The familiar sound of Stephan finishing, made utterly foreign by the distance and the closed door between them, made her dilemma moot. Phoebe took a step back and waited. She heard straining mattress springs, whispered conversation, the rustle and snap of clothes being put on. The doorknob twisted.
Vickie came out of the room, her t-shirt half tucked, sneakers dangling from two fingers.
"Sweet Jesus," Phoebe said.
Vickie put her hand over her mouth. She spun back toward the room. "Stephan," she called, half statement, half question.
Stephan came to the door. He didn't seem surprised to see Phoebe, but why would he? He could have had his tryst in any of a hundred abandoned houses in town if he wanted to hide it from her.
"Go on home, kiddo," Stephan said, putting his hand on Vickie's head. Vickie scurried down the hall. The screen door slammed.
"'Kiddo.' That's wonderfully apropos," Phoebe said. She took a deep breath. She didn't want to cry in front of him.
"It's wonderfully apropos of you to use a ten-gallon word like apropos in this situation."
"She's fourteen! You're a pedophile!" Tears squeezed free despite her efforts.
"Bullshit. She has the body of a woman, so she's a woman. That's how it works now."
"How what works now? Adultery? And she's one of my students!"
"One of your students." Stephan let the word drip with sarcasm. "When are you going to realize that this isn't the world you grew up in? Kids work now. Everybody works the fields, or we starve. Nobody's applauding your little night school, you know."
Phoebe shoved past him, into their bedroom. The sheets were tangled, the bedspread on the floor. Phoebe sobbed, pulled her old backpack out of the closet. She started with the things on her dresser, the photos and figurines, stowing them carefully in the side pockets: her little stuffed piglet, Sir Francis Bacon; a photo of her grandmother as a teenager, standing on a dock in her swimsuit; a creased and faded postcard of a water tower; her great grandmother's wrist watch.
"Don't be an asshole. Just deal with it." Stephan said from the doorway. "We'll still be together. Vickie will just visit once in a while."
She wheeled around. "Are you kidding me? Do you hear what you're saying?"
Stephan folded his arms across his chest, probably thinking it looked manly and forceful when it only looked defensive.
"Where else are you gonna go?" he asked.
Phoebe returned to her packing. She would just pack. She wouldn't think about what came next, she would just get through the packing. There was a picture of her and Stephan propped on the nightstand, their heads close together, their mouths wide with laughter. She tore it in half and in half again, wheeled and hurled it toward Stephan. He wasn't there to see the pieces flutter to the carpet.
There were too many books for her to bring them all. Five, she decided. All paperbacks. She pulled Pride and Prejudice off the shelf, stuffed it between two t-shirts. That would be calming; women drinking tea on green lawns. Beautiful, flowery language. What else? Breath Like Twigs in Winter, by Joy Carroll. And something funny--she pulled down a Sidewise Follies comic strip compendium. Some poetry--a collection by her favorite, David Starnes.
The reality of what she was doing hit her. Where was she going to go? She didn't know anyone outside of Waynesboro any more, and she couldn't stay here. Could she? She wavered. She wanted to stay here, in her house, where all of her things were, where she felt safe.
She thought of Vickie standing in the doorway, with her child's hips and woman's breasts.
Vicky will just visit once in a while.
No, she had to go. It would be sick to be part of this.
There wasn't much food, but she took what was there. A jar of blueberry preserves, a hunk of leftover pork, a big Tupperware container of peanuts, half a loaf of buckwheat bread.
The last thing she packed was a handful of maps, a tacit acknowledgment that she was going to unfamiliar lands, a crossing over from just packing to really leaving. With a deep, shaky breath she donned the biggest, widest hat she owned to protect her from the sun, slung the huge pack over her shoulders, and squeezed out of her bedroom.
"You're making a big mistake--" Theresa began as Phoebe crossed the living room, but Phoebe walked right on past, out the door, into hot, cloudless sunshine.
Vickie was across the street in her driveway, sitting in a wading pool.
Phoebe stormed a few steps up the driveway. "Does your mother know what you're doing?" Vickie looked at her, wide-eyed with fear. Phoebe wanted to push the brat's head under the water and hold it there.
But it wasn't the child's fault, it was the man's; she shouldn't lose sight of that, shouldn't blame Vickie. It was so hard not to. Phoebe willed herself back into the street.
She passed a group clearing a new field. They'd finished digging the ditch and installing the rhizome barrier, and were readying a bulldozer to tear up the bamboo in the reclaimed area. They watched her pass, making her feel self-conscious. She suspected most of them were not distraught to see her go. She was not one of these people, didn't know what to say to them even after sweating in the fields with them for the past two years. These were Stephan's people, always had been.
As soon as she was out of sight she left the road and crossed a field, careful not to damage the crops, and walked along the scar that marked the rhizome barrier until she found an opening where the bamboo was patchy. She pulled the machete out of her pack and headed into the dark forest alone. With each swing of the machete she cried harder, until her tears rendered the bamboo a smudged green and yellow kaleidoscope.
She stopped, set her pack down. It was time to think about where she was going.
No, it was time to admit where she was going. She already knew where she was going; she'd just compartmentalized that piece until she was ready to deal with it.
If you go with that man now, don't ever come back here. You're disowned if you go, do you understand what I'm saying to you?
Those words had been burned into her memory, right down to the peculiar preacher's lilt her mother had given the word disowned. What was the statute of limitations on being disowned? Maybe it was less than seventeen years, if the world had changed enough that it seemed a thousand. Maybe they'd be happy to see her, if they were still alive.
A mockingbird twittered nearby, running through its long repertoire of songs.
"Showoff," Phoebe said, smiling wanly, happy for its company. She unfolded a map of Georgia, used her thumb to estimate the distance between Waynesboro and Siloam. Eighty miles, give or take. She folded the map, picked up the machete from the bed of fallen leaves and sheaths that carpeted the ground, and headed west, winding along the areas where the bamboo was loose and patchy whenever possible, occasionally forced to plow into a tight weave and hack her way through.
Whenever she had to hack, she found herself cursing the people who had set the bamboo loose. The last word (before the TV had gone permanently black) was that the bamboo had been engineered by a group of rogue scientists intent on slowing the escalating violence brought on by food and energy shortages, not by pimply bio-hackers. According to some, the world had been on the brink of nuclear war when the bamboo clogged up the gears of war. They were the same scientists blamed for the advent of the Doctor Happy virus, which was, admittedly, a lot less harmful than the rest of the home-brewed viruses that had been released over the past decade. Maybe their intentions had been good, but Phoebe cursed them as she hacked. A blister was already rising below her index finger.
"Doesn't anyone in this state read?" Phoebe muttered as she poked her head into the bookless master bedroom of the abandoned house. It had a waterbed, so it was out as a place to spend the night even if the room hadn't been filled with dark, brooding wood furniture. She hated waterbeds.
The next house had bookshelves in the living room, hugging a fireplace, and while the little library was heavy on espionage thrillers there were a few more interesting things, including a leather collector's edition of Les Miserables. Split firewood was stacked in front of the fireplace. A fire would make the room hot, but it would allow her to read after dark.
There were clean sheets in the linen closet. When people fled their homes on foot, you could count on them leaving behind things like linens, clothes, and books. Phoebe stripped the tangle of old ones off the bed and remade it, then unpacked her nightstand items from the pockets of her pack and set them out, just as they'd been at home, with Sir Francis Bacon in the center.
She returned to the living room, flipped all the cushions on the moldy white couch, and opened Les Miserables.
It was difficult to get absorbed in the book. The solitude would have felt good if she weren't so afraid. She was afraid of starving, of being raped, of getting lost, but mostly of walking up the steps of her parents' house and knocking on their door.
Phoebe rocked gently, one foot planted on the wood porch, the other tucked underneath her. The porch swing squealed at the top of each arc. It reminded her of bedsprings, so she stopped. She could see much of downtown Twin City from her vantage point. The dress shops, antique stores, pawn shops huddled together in a row of red brick buildings made this place feel safe and old-fashioned.
There were people foraging in the music store across the street, their voices and the clatter of things being strewn around drifting out of the broken store window. She came across more people every day.
The new President is dead. The cities are hell. The same news from any of these new refugees that she asked. People had been fleeing the country for the safety of the cities in droves for the past few years, now the cities weren't safe either. But there was nothing out here to eat. There was nowhere to go.
How had they gotten to this point? Every expert had pointed to a different cause for this slow collapse, leaving the average person a cornucopia of suspects from which to choose. Global warming, overpopulation, the advancement of biotechnology (making it possible for just about anyone to engineer twisted viruses in their basement), the economic meltdown of 2008-11 (hard to believe it had been only twenty years since then--to Phoebe it felt like fifty). It had probably been a combination of all those things--death by a thousand cuts.
Five or six people were relaxing on the wide white steps of the courthouse, their heads propped on their packs, a water bottle passing among them. They were young, and seemed at ease despite their situation. They reminded Phoebe of her tribe back in the early days of the depression, riding the tracks on sail cars, selling pot and working odd jobs to survive, certain that things would turn around soon and they could carry on with their lives and start careers. If they'd known that fifteen years later things would be even worse, would they have been so carefree back then?
Music bleated in the distance. It was familiar. It grew louder, and she recognized it as a classic rock tune by the Young Mozarts: "Carry My Heart Around With You." The song was a little too hard and driving for her taste, but under the circumstances it gave her a warm feeling as she watched the sun reflect off the shards of broken glass in the upper window of the Dragon Fire Tae Kwon Do studio. The music got louder still.
Phoebe stood, laying Breath Like Twigs in Winter face down on the swing so she wouldn't lose her place, and peered down the street in the direction of the sound.
There was a placard bobbing up out of the bamboo, the person carrying it hidden. The banner read "Free Meal! Ask me how!" That sounded just a little too good to be true. The kids in front of the courthouse were standing and staring at the sign. One of them shouted; the sign changed directions, heading toward them.
Two people appeared on the steps--a man and a woman. The man laid the placard down. The kids formed a semi-circle around the couple and listened.
Hungry as she was, with only a couple of days' nuts and jam remaining, Phoebe wanted to stay where she was, reading her book in the quiet morning. She climbed down the porch steps and slid between the waxy bamboo with well-practiced ease, one hand perpetually raised in front of her face to block spider webs, the weight of her scarlet 'I', her introversion, heavy on her chest as she headed toward a crowd of strangers.
"Sounds like we've got another visitor," Phoebe heard a woman say as she approached. "Hello in there!" the woman called.
Phoebe called a greeting in return, pushed the last few yards and broke onto the white marble steps. The crowd was warm and welcoming, especially the couple with the sign. They told Phoebe and the six kids (who Phoebe could see, now that she was closer, were actually quite young, mostly in their mid-teens) how to get to the empty Bi-Lo where their tribe was camped, that their tribe would indeed provide a meal, no strings attached. Phoebe probed them with questions, not wanting to seem ungracious, but skeptical despite how kind and well-intentioned the couple seemed.
The couple explained that their tribe was looking to grow, to create a larger community and carve out a new town where they could all be safe and live a civilized, enlightened life. It sounded wonderful, and these were good people--Phoebe could see that clearly, and she deeply trusted her ability to judge character (except perhaps when it came to romantic relationships). She headed off with the six teens toward the camp.
They could smell pork barbecue before the Bi Lo was even in sight. A man with the kindest eyes greeted her as soon as she came through the door, and introduced himself as Rumor in a singsong voice. He was dressed in a pair of tattered blue jeans and a green t-shirt.
"You look hungry. Let me prepare you a plate," he said, guiding her toward a plastic chair with a gentle hand on her shoulder blade.
"Thank you so much," she said as she accepted a paper plate of pork with a side of corn. She started to cry. She couldn't help it; she'd grown so unused to kindness that this act was overwhelming.
Rumor shushed gently. "Please, enjoy your food. When you're feeling good and plenty we can chat a little about what we have to offer you."
She willed herself to eat slowly, to savor the wonderfully juicy meat, despite the urgent cries from her stomach that she eat faster. The concrete floor of the Bi Lo was scattered with tents and sleeping bags. Here and there people sat conversing in white plastic chairs, always in twos, one person holding a Styrofoam plate and mostly listening.
"How are you doing, lovely Phoebe?" Rumor said, swinging a chair around and sitting so their knees almost but not quite touched.
Phoebe thanked him again, and they chatted for a while, small talk about food, and where they were from. Both of them had spent quite a bit of time in Savannah. Despite being on guard about what this was about, there was something about Rumor that made Phoebe want the conversation to go on. He listened so intently when she spoke, looked at her with wide, interested eyes. His demeanor was so calming.
"I miss chocolate," Phoebe said as the
conversation looped back toward food. "I mourn it, deeply, like a lost friend."
Rumor laughed merrily.
"I'm not joking," Phoebe said, laughing with him, wiping laugh tears. "I have a deep emotional attachment to chocolate. It's difficult to convey just how terribly I miss it."
"Are you happy, Phoebe?" Rumor asked. The question threw her a little.
"No. Of course not. I'm hungry and scared, and people are dying all around me. How could I be happy?"
"Good question," Rumor said. "I can help you get happy, if that interests you."
Very slowly Phoebe put her empty plate on the floor as everything came clear.
"You have that virus," she said.
Rumor laughed merrily. "Yes!"
"No, no. Relax." He held his palms out as Phoebe flinched. "I can see you tensing, like a lovely doe who's just heard a branch crack. You're safe here, I promise."
"You lure people here so you can infect them?" Phoebe looked around. She didn't see any signs of needles, but they could be hidden anywhere--between fingers, in gloves.
"We invite people here and offer them an opportunity to join our tribe. If we were going to introduce you to the virus by force, wouldn't it be easier to surprise you as you walked in the door?"
Phoebe didn't say anything. If this was so straightforward, why hadn't the people with the sign told her they were infected with Doctor Happy right up front?
"Can I give you my patter?" Rumor asked. "Then if you decide not to join us, you can fly away with food in your belly."
Phoebe nodded. "Sure. But I doubt you're going to convince me."
"That's fair enough." He leaned back in his chair, put his hand across his mouth, considering for a moment. "Phoebe, despite what you might think, this virus wasn't made by terrorists or bio-punks. It was engineered by scientists." His eyes opened wide, as if he were telling her a fairy tale at bedtime. "They realized that if we're going to survive--we have to take the next leap in evolution ourselves. What do we need to survive? We don't need more hands, or two heads, or to fly. We need to be healed. Our violence, our sadness, our loneliness, our fear… they are a sickness--a sickness that's killing us."
The cadence of his speech was mesmerizing. It was like listening to a good sermon.
"Look at what's become of the world under yesterday's people." He swept his hand around the room with a flourish, as if all the suffering and death in the world were spread out before them. "What do you think? Shall we let the same people have another try?" He laughed. "Would you like another helping of the same rotted stew?"
Phoebe just smiled.
"We're the future, Phoebe. We're going to build a world based on love and kindness, not power and ego. It's your choice. We offer you food, companionship, a safe home. We offer you the future."
Rumor spread his hands. "What questions do you have? Tell me your doubts."
"I don't want to change who I am, even if it's for the better," Phoebe said.
"It won't change who you are. I'm still me." He pointed at his chest with both hands. "I'm more me than I was before I felt the needle's song. Only in my case it was not a needle, it was a water gun!" He giggled. "The virus freed me to be far more me, far less of the streets I grew up on. I'm still me, just a much friendlier copy of me."
But he wasn't the same person. Even without having known him before he was infected, that seemed obvious. He seemed happy, sure, but also just a little bit crazy. All of the Doctor Happy victims seemed just slightly off. Given the alternatives, though, it was still tempting. "So, if I'm introverted, I'll become more outgoing after I'm infected?" She asked. Rumor wasn't using the word infected, but that's what it was.
"Most definitely. You'll feel such love for people, for all humanity and every sliver of it walking beneath blue skies and grey clouds."
There had to be a catch--it sounded too much like one of those cults that promise to solve all your problems if you'd just empty your mind for them. In any case it was a huge decision, not one to make on the spur of the moment.
"You're a gifted speaker, Rumor. I'll think about it." She put her hands on her knees and leaned forward. "Now, is that your patter? Can I go now?"
Rumor sighed. "Phoebe, your wings can carry you wherever you like, after my patter or before. You are a free bird." He put his hand over Phoebe's; she resisted the urge to pull away. "We mean well. I hope you believe that. Think about it, and come back. I'd like to see your green eyes lighting up our little store again."
"I will think about," Phoebe said. "But for now, there's someplace I need to go."
"Ah," Rumor said, "I thought I sensed there was a torch behind your eyes. A lover you've lost and need to find?"
Phoebe smiled sardonically. "Hardly. I've had enough of carrying torches, thanks. I'm going to find my parents."
"It's all the same." Rumor shrugged. "More love, a twist of the dial by a few degrees."
"I hope so."
Rumor walked her to the door. "I'm disappointed. I was hoping you'd stay." He frowned dramatically, then brightened. "But the disappointment is okay. What is, is."
Phoebe grinned. Rumor was being subtle about it, but she was pretty sure he was sending out signals. It was flattering--he was a charming and attractive man, and she was caked with filth. She didn't have the least bit of interest in dating anyone, but still, it was good for her battered self-esteem.
There was a path of sorts through the bamboo--Phoebe squeezed around three people heading toward their free meal and patter.
"Good luck," Phoebe said as they passed.
There had been a lot of coverage of Doctor Happy when it first appeared--footage of crowds partying in the streets, like caricatures of nineteen sixties love children sans the beads and tie dye. It would be nice not to be alone, though.
After a few hours of walking, the bamboo thinned noticeably. Phoebe was able to steer around it on wide, open patches that resembled honest-to-goodness forest floor, though in places new bamboo growth was pushing up, eagerly filling the gaps.
Through the boughs Phoebe spotted a larger clearing ahead, maybe a pond, or a farm. As she got closer she saw that it was bigger than that.
She broke into an open field of tall yellow grass, and cried out with pleasure at the feeling of the sun on her face and room to swing her arms.
She pushed on, passing a vast field planted with peanuts, circled by a fence topped with shiny coils of barbed wire. Dozens of people--a mix of black, white, and brown people--were working the field with hand tools. Beyond it was a paved road. She headed north.
As she walked, her thoughts turned back to the happiness virus. The things she tried to teach her students were consistent with what the Doctor Happy people were advocating--for people to act in a civil and humane way. But wasn't it also important for people to remain human in the full sense of that word? She believed in the fundamental integrity of the human experience, the visceral and spectral feeling of humanity as both good and bad, yin and yang in balance. It would be nice to not have felt the pain at discovering Stephan cheating on her, yet pain was life too, as Fantine discovered in Les Miserables. The idea of having some of her emotions eradicated meant she would suffer less, sure, but would she also miss out on some of the juiciness of being alive? The painful stuff was the juicy stuff too, much as she sometimes hated it.
She had time, in any case. She could choose infection later. There seemed to be plenty of blood to go around.
There was a rumbling in the distance--a truck, growing on the horizon until it roared past her. Phoebe walked on until she spotted a little white house that looked abandoned. The front door had been kicked in. She ducked inside and changed into the clean clothes she'd been saving, a pair of jeans and a loose blue shirt.
Back on the road, she hitchhiked, but vehicles didn't pass often. She found another house, and spent the night.
On her third day out of the bamboo, an elderly couple picked her up, and suddenly the miles flew by until she spotted a sign for Bobby Jenks Road. She knew that road. She was close. The road widened to two lanes. They passed the remains of Daughtry's Used Cars, the big, corral-like sales office jolting Phoebe with a feeling bordering on déjà vu. The white stone Sandersville Primitive Baptist Church passed, followed by the graveyard.
Molly Peavy's house was on the corner of Route 15 and Elleville Road. A flash of memory struck Phoebe: Molly asking Phoebe if she could take a hint, then walking away with two of her new cheerleader friends. That had been seventh grade; she and Molly had been best friends their whole lives up till then. People were tending rows of crops behind a high fence in Molly's front yard. The house looked deserted. And suddenly, there was Rush Street. Phoebe cried out for the driver to stop, thanked him profusely and stepped out on the corner.
She turned down Rush Street, and felt a flood of memories. She silently named the families that had lived in each house she passed--big houses, in the best neighborhood in town, now all in various states of decomposition. Some looked deserted, some not: the Morris' three story Tudor had a line of laundry hung to dry between the street light and a longleaf pine tree; a dog barked behind the NeSmith's Victorian.
Eleven Rush Street was bald of paint, run down beyond hope of repair, but there was a truck in the driveway. The long rectangular hedge in front of the house obscured much of the front windows, but showed signs of having recently been halfheartedly trimmed.
The walk down the long driveway felt like an eternity. She knocked on the front door, smoothed her t-shirt and waited.
There was no answer.
She knocked again, then tried the door. It was locked. She walked around the side of the house to try the back door.
Her mother was on her hands and knees, digging in a pitiful garden with a little garden trowel. Her hair was white, her hands age-spotted, but she didn't look much different. She'd always been an old woman, even when she was young.
"Hi mom," Phoebe said.
Her mom looked up from her work. "What?" she said.
"It's Phoebe." Phoebe took off her hat.
Her mom propped herself on fists and looked at her. "Phoebe? Oh my God. Phoebe?" She struggled to her feet. "My God, where have you been all these years? Why didn't you call?"
"Mom, because you told me not to."
"I did not. What are you talking about? Are you married?" She looked past Phoebe, toward the driveway. "Are your children here?"
"No mom, I'm not married."
"Oh, Phoebe!" Mom said.
"Is dad here?" Phoebe asked. She wasn't going to let this conversation go in that direction.
"He's gone. He died. Two years ago."
Her father was dead. Phoebe tried to absorb it. "How did he die?"
"He choked on a chicken bone." Suddenly her mom's arms were around her, squeezing. "On a chicken bone. I missed you so much. My Phoebe. My Phoebe's back."
"I missed you too, Mom." She was so relieved that her mother, at least, was here and happy to see her. All those imagined scenarios melted away--of finding the house empty, of her parents asking her what the hell she was doing back there.
"Do you have any food?" mom asked. "I'm so hungry. I haven't eaten in two days."
Phoebe let her mom go and grabbed her pack. "I only have a little." She unzipped a compartment and pulled out what was left of the peanuts and preserves. "Here."
A cocktail of emotions hit Phoebe as she watched her mom try to look dignified as she stuffed a finger into the jar to get at the jam--joy that she was helping her mother, pain at her mother's hunger, deep disappointment that her mother was in no position to help her.
"What had you been eating up until two days ago?" Phoebe asked, hoping it was a temporary thing, that food was coming from somewhere other than the yellowed plants at her feet.
"The Morrises had been bringing things over, but they disappeared a few weeks ago without a word. I don't know where they went. One day I knocked on their door and they were just gone. I've been trading pieces of my jewelry at the farmer's market, but that's all gone now." Her mom grasped her arm. "Phoebe, what's happened? How did this happen?"
"I don't know, Mom. I don't know."
"I'm so glad you're here. Please don't leave me again."
"I won't," Phoebe said.
They went inside and sat in the living room. None of the furniture was familiar, but she remembered the picture over the piano, an old fashioned ship in a storm, the clouds flat grey anvils, tiny sailors running windblown on the deck.
Mom caught her up on all the marriages, the deaths, the mass desertions to Atlanta, Savannah, Athens, Augusta.
"Why did everyone go to the cities? They're filthy and violent. And now they're so crowded! My goodness, before the TV went out they were showing it every day. There are people everywhere! I don't understand why anyone would go there."
"There's food there," Phoebe said. "And jobs. The gas it costs to ship food to all these little towns is more than the food is worth."
"How are we going to eat?" Mom said. "No one will share with us. I've asked. I walked all over town asking. The people at the farmer's market said there's too many hungry people, they can't feed them all. I told them I'm just one hungry person, but they didn't give me anything."
They had no more food. Phoebe felt a surge of resentment that her mother had eaten the last of her food without sharing it. She tamped it down--her mom hadn't asked her to give her all she had. Still, it was ironic: she'd sought out her mother to take care of her, and it turned out she needed to take care of her mother instead.
"We'll figure something out," Phoebe said. "Don't worry."
"What do you mean, 'Don't worry'? We'll starve. What should we do? Oh God, I wish your father was here. I told you to find a good man, a white man, and get married, but you didn't listen. Now do you see I was right?"
Evidently some things besides the painting of the ship in the storm hadn't changed in this house. Phoebe suddenly longed to be back in that Bi Lo, having a sane and rational conversation with Rumor. Warm, polite Rumor. Maybe she should go back, try to find them. Give her mother the same choice she'd have. Maybe it was exactly what her mother needed and wanted.
"I know where to find food," Phoebe said.
"Where?" her mother asked.
"There's a tribe, east of here. They fed me pork and corn, big portions. They're nice people--if we can catch up with them they'll feed us." And maybe fix her mother. She felt uneasy thinking that way, but Doctor Happy might be a blessing to her.
"Do you know where we can find two bicycles?" Phoebe asked.
"Bicycles? I can't ride a bicycle! My leg…"
"Then we'll have to walk."
Phoebe led her mother around a riding lawn mower, tipped over and rusting in the street. What town were they in? It was difficult to keep the names straight as the days passed and she got hungrier and more dehydrated.
"I'm not sure how much farther I can walk in this heat. My leg is aching, and my feet are swollen." Phoebe cringed at the tone in her mom's voice, that familiar whine, the undertone of accusation.
There was a row of houses set in a treeless field just off the road.
"Come on, we'll wait out the heat," Phoebe said, heading toward the closest house. Behind her, her mother quietly whined with each step. The brave trooper.
Phoebe knocked on the front door, called hello, then tried the knob. The door was open.
"Wait a minute!" mom said. Phoebe paused. "What are you doing? You can't just walk into somebody's house!"
"Mom, most people are long gone." Or dead, she left off.
"But it's still their house, not ours," Mom said.
"We don't have a choice. Do you see any hotels around?" They'd stayed in abandoned roadside motel rooms the last three nights. Phoebe went inside, left the door open for Mom to follow. She pulled open the drapes in the dark living room.
"I just don't think it's right," Mom said, peering in, a hand on the doorknob. Phoebe shrieked.
There were people on the couch--a woman, two children curled against her in their underwear, their heads enormous on shrunken bodies, their bones clear beneath the skin. The woman stared at her, but didn't move.
"I'm so sorry," Phoebe said. "I thought this house was empty. I didn't mean to intrude." She headed for the door.
"Do you have any food?" The woman's voice was a dry whisper, a hot draft under a door.
"We don't have any. I'm sorry, I'd give you some if I had any. I really would."
"Can you get some?" the woman asked.
"I'll try," Phoebe lied. "Come on, Mom."
Outside, three men and a boy passed on bicycles, all of them carrying plastic shopping bags filled with something Phoebe couldn't see.
"Excuse me," Phoebe said, "there are children in here who need help…."
They kept going, acting as if they hadn't heard her, even though she was close enough to reach out and grab one of the plastic bags.
"We have to keep going," Phoebe said, taking her mother's elbow, hating the loose feel of her old, freckled skin.
"Were you lying when you told that woman we had no food? Couldn't we have spared a little?" her mom asked.
"We don't have any left," Phoebe said. "How many times do I have to tell you that?"
"None?" her mother said. Phoebe felt guilty, as if she'd wolfed it down while her mother slept.
"I'll get some."
"Where? Where will you get some?"
"I don't know," Phoebe snapped, picking up her speed. "I'll figure it out." Her mother went on muttering under her breath.
On the main drag they passed a parade of dead fast food restaurants: Arby's, Popeye's Chicken, Crystal, McDonald's.
A cardboard sign hung beneath the big dead neon golden arches: OPEN it read, the letters outlined in black magic marker, each filled in with a different color.
Phoebe peered through the grimy windows across the street, shifting her head back and forth to try to see beyond the glare and reflections.
"What?" her mother said, looking at her. "What?" It didn't seem possible, but there was movement behind the counter. Phoebe unslung her pack.
"You stay here and watch our stuff." She set the pack down under a shady tree, on a slope facing an overgrown school soccer field. "I may be able to get us some food."
"Why can't I go with you?" Mom said as Phoebe sat her down under the tree.
"I'm not sure it's safe."
"It's a McDonalds, what's safer than a McDonalds?"
"There is no McDonalds any more," Phoebe said.
She stepped off the curb and crossed the street.
The door was open. The man behind the counter wore a paper McDonalds hat and two name tags. One read "Al Vogel, Manager," the other "Trisha Wildeman, Assistant Manager." Behind him the menu board danced with pictures of Quarter Pounders and Toasted Deli Sandwiches. Cups and lids were stacked by the empty bubbles of a juice machine.
"Are you really open?" Phoebe asked.
"More or less," he said. "I got burgers or plain buns, no ketchup, no fries." Phoebe didn't like the way he was looking at her, his gaze wandering down to her legs, but he wasn't a big man, and he didn't look to be armed, unless the gun was behind the counter. She kept her distance.
"How much are the burgers?"
"I can't take U.S. dollars," he said. "I take gold, energy, ammo, or other things of value."
She thought of the stuff in their packs. None of it had much value. She had her grandmother's necklace--it would kill her to part with it, but she had to get them food. She unclasped the necklace, held it up. "I have this necklace."
"Bring it over, don't be shy. I ain't gonna bite."
She went to the counter and handed it to him. He held it up, grasped the dangling pendant between two fingers.
"Sorry," he said, handing it back to her. "It's mighty pretty, but the chain is gold filled and there ain't any precious gems to speak of."
She put it in her pocket. "My elderly mother is outside waiting for me. We haven't eaten in days. Can't you take some cash for one hamburger? I'll give you forty dollars."
He shook his head. "I can't do it, ma'am. Them bills is worthless out here, and I can't afford to give handouts or I'll starve myself."
Phoebe nodded. "Well, thanks anyway. I understand." She turned to go.
"Times sure are hard out here," he said.
"They sure are," Phoebe said, turning.
"Lost my son a while back. Lost me wife last summer. It's lonely."
"Oh, I'm sorry about your son and your wife. That's got to be so hard." Her hopes rose a little--maybe he'd have second thoughts.
"Mm hm. Sure is. I cried every day after my wife went. Nearly starved--I was so blue I couldn't barely get out of bed. It's better now, but I still get lonely most days."
"I worry about my mom," Phoebe said. "My father died. She's all I have left."
He nodded. "That's a real shame about your dad." He motioned toward a booth. "You want to sit a while, rest your legs?"
Phoebe glanced out the window. Mom needed to rest anyway. She slid into the booth, took off her hat. The man came through a door, sat across from her and slid a Styrofoam cup in front of her, half filled with water.
"Thank you," she said. She took a sip. There was a huge poster of a Big Mac on the wall facing her.
"You ever get lonely?" he asked, one arm propped on the back of his chair.
"Sometimes, sure."
"Mm." He nodded. "Sure would like to help you out with those hamburgers." He glanced at Phoebe, then away.
Phoebe grabbed her hat and stood. "I should get going. My mom is waiting." The comment had been subtle, but she was sure she understood what he was implying.
The man stood as well. "Okay then. Sorry we couldn't find some way to get hamburgers…." He trailed off.
Phoebe pushed open the door.
"I could give you four hamburgers…."
Phoebe let the door close, cutting off the rest of what he said. She paused, looked up the road at the line of broken signs and empty restaurants. She thought of that woman and her children. They were a week away from that, she and her mother. She looked back through the glass door. The man was wiping the table. In a way, her mother was right. She probably should have gotten married to some solid man she didn't really love. She had to be more of a realist, let go of the romantic images she clung to, her Pride and Prejudice notion of life as tea and crumpets and courting. The world wasn't like that any more. Maybe it never had been.
She opened the door. "If I give you company, will you give me five hamburgers?" she asked this man whose name she didn't know.
"Yes, ma'am, I will."
Phoebe went back inside. "Where would we go?"
"This way, there's a nice spot, very comfortable." He led her behind the counter. There were sofa cushions on the floor beneath the soda dispenser, where he napped, he said, when business was slow.
She lay on the cushions. He knelt beside her and undressed her.
"You're so pretty. Your skin is so soft," he said as he ran his hands over her body. Phoebe tried to say nice things back, but they choked in her throat. She wanted to tell him to stop, to take his hands off her, that she'd changed her mind. She tried not to cry because it didn't seem fair to him, but she couldn't help herself.
"Just think about how good those burgers are gonna taste," he said when he saw she was crying.
"What took you so long?" her mother asked when Phoebe handed her the bag of burgers.
"He had to heat up the grill," Phoebe said. He'd microwaved them for two minutes. The ding the microwave made when the burgers were done had startled her. Her heart hadn't stop racing since. She couldn't catch her breath.
"What's the matter? Are you sick? You don't look good," her mother said.
"I'm fine," Phoebe said, forcing a smile.
"What kind of meat is this? This doesn't taste like hamburger," mom said, making a face as she chewed.
"I don't know mom, it's all they had," Phoebe said. She unwrapped a hamburger and took a bite. Her stomach revolted. She waited a moment, not chewing, letting her stomach sit, allowing starvation to loosen the grip of guilt and disgust, to blur the images of a man on top of her, cooing to her about how soft she felt. She chewed, swallowed. She'd done what she needed to do. She would take care of them, no matter what it took.
Move, damn you! She felt guilty for thinking it, but Phoebe was sick of moving so slowly. Her mother's stiff old-woman steps, each a distinct event that seemed to require a new mustering of effort, was cutting their progress to a quarter of what Phoebe could accomplish on her own. It was hot, she was hungry, the gnats were all over them. And then there was the tangle of bodies they had passed a few miles back, streaked with black mud, piled in a culvert. Five or six, maybe more.
The road ahead never seemed to change. Shouldn't they have reached bamboo by now?
Up ahead was a front yard packed tight with cars and trucks, mostly expensive vehicles like Mercedes and Jaguars. A plume of smoke rose from behind the doublewide trailer set behind the makeshift lot. Phoebe caught a whiff of meat cooking. As they approached, she spotted a man in the back yard, leaning over a grill.
"Stay here," Phoebe said.
Mom frowned, her shoulders slumping in annoyance. "Again? Why do I have to keep waiting in the road? Why can't I ever go with you?"
Phoebe's heart was thudding, her stomach cramping. "Just stay here. I know how to talk people into giving us food, and you don't. So stay here and let me see if I can get us some food."
Mom gave Phoebe one of her looks, then opened the door of the closest car, a BMW, and flopped into the passenger seat with a loud sigh.
"Fine. Go work your magic."
Phoebe circled the yard until she found a breach in the phalanx of vehicles.
"Hello?" Phoebe called when she was still fifty yards away. The man's back was to her and she didn't want to startle him.
He turned, watched her approach, a two-pronged fork in his hand. He was wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt and green shorts, his silver wire-rimmed glasses seemed out of place on his thick, sunburned face.
"What can I do for you?" It looked like beef sizzling on the grill, eight or nine thick brown strips. A bottle of catsup and a stack of corn tortillas were set on a white plastic table beside it.
"How are you doing?" Phoebe said brightly.
"I'm doing. What can I do for you?" He was not going in for any small talk. Best to get right to the point.
"I was wondering if you'd be interested in trading for some of that meat."
"What have you got to trade?" He flipped of few of the beef strips over.
"Um, how about sex?" Phoebe said, looking at his thick boots, feeling herself blush.
"Well now." His tone was friendlier. He put the fork down. Phoebe could feel him looking at her, trying to ascertain the shape of her body under her filthy, baggy clothes. "How much meat are we talking about?"
Phoebe eyed the grill, counted nine strips. "Six pieces, with tortillas and catsup."
"Aw sweetie, now I gotta have some for myself, don't I?" He paused. Phoebe didn't answer. "I'll give you three. I'll fix 'em up nice for you."
"Four. I have to feed my momma, too. She's waiting for me out front." She hated saying 'momma,' but thought it best to sound like she was from around there.
"I think we got ourselves a deal," he said, clapping his big hands together.
"Can you make the food first, please?" She didn't want to have to hang around afterward; she hated the smug look they had after they'd done it with her.
They haggled a little over how much catsup each should get as he wrapped the meat in tortillas, then he set them in a pile.
"Now why don't you strip out of them clothes nice and slow, and let me see what I traded my hard fought meat for?" he said.
"Here?" she said. He nodded, his gaze glued to her chest. "Can't we go inside? My mother could come by."
For a moment Phoebe thought he was going to insist, and she was sure she couldn't take off her clothes outside in broad daylight with her mother a hundred feet away. Finally, he nodded, and led her into the house through a sliding glass door. His living room was a mess--magazines and old-fashioned DVDs were scattered across the floor, thousands more DVDs piled on shelves that pressed in from every wall. A drum set and cobwebbed artificial Christmas tree took up most of the remaining space.
"Yeah. Oh yeah. That's niiice," he murmured as Phoebe undressed. He was leaning back in a recliner, his hands cradling his head. She kept her mind on the food, on how good it looked, willing herself into the future, past this moment to that moment.
When she was naked, he pushed out of the chair and wrapped his arms around her.
"That's a good sweet thing," he whispered. He licked her neck, squeezed her thigh like he was testing the seaworthiness of an inflatable raft. He turned her around, angled her to the arm of a couch, swept papers and DVDs off it. "Why don't you lean over, just right here." He bent her over the arm. Her face was pressed into a musty cushion; she turned her head sideways, heard the fumbling of his belt buckle.
"Can't we go to the bed?" Phoebe whispered.
"I don't need no lice in my bed, thank you very much." He kicked her ankle lightly to push her legs further apart.
She'd keep them fed. Whatever it took, she would keep them fed.
When it was over, the man went to the tortillas lying on the table. He held two of them out. "We agreed on four," Phoebe said. She was still naked, desperately wanted to put her clothes back on.
"It wasn't worth four. Turns out it was only worth two." He drew the two tortillas back slightly, his meaning clear: In a second it would be one, or none.
Phoebe snatched the tortillas from his hand, gathered up her clothes and ran. She dressed at the corner of the house, just out of sight of the front yard, then wiped tears off her cheeks and headed out at a calm pace.
She handed a tortilla through the window of the BMW. Her mother took it without a word. Phoebe went to the back of the car and ate leaned against the fender, trying to mask the tremble in her hands by pressing her elbows tight to her sides. It was difficult to chew--her jaw muscles felt like they'd been wound tight.
Phoebe swallowed her last bite, which went down like a fist clutching her throat, and started walking. She heard the car door slam behind her, the scuffing of her mother struggling to catch up.
"You're walking too fast," mom said.
Phoebe slowed, turned and waited.
That's right, that's a good little horsie. She was afraid those words were going to burn into her memory the way her mother's words had the day she left home. Her thigh ached where he'd slapped her.
"I figured out what you're doing, you know," her mother said. "I don't know why it took me so long."
She would not cry. She would not cry. She was no longer a little girl, burned by each nasty, hateful thing her mother said. She'd walked through the flames of hell and the burn scars were too thick for her mother to penetrate.
"How could you?" mom hissed.
There was no seam her mother could dig her fingernails under.
"I made sure you had all the things I didn't have, and you threw it all away to go off and find yourself. And now you're right where I worked so hard to keep you from being. No--you've gone even lower."
"You're right here with me, mom," Phoebe said. "You married an orthodontist, you did all the right things, but what did it get you? You're still walking right beside me."
"I wasn't beside you in that house." The words hung in the air. Why didn't her mother just say it?
Phoebe started to cry. "Would you rather starve? That's the other choice we have. Do you want to starve like that woman and her children?"
"Yes. I'd rather starve."
They would starve now. She couldn't do it again, not if her mother knew what she was doing. They would end up like that woman and her children, like the bodies along the side of the road.
A car passed--a little Volt. Her mom called out, waving for it to stop, to help them. Phoebe pinched her eyes shut as a swirl of dust kicked up in the car's wake.
They walked in silence. Phoebe's throat was sore from thirst, her clothes soaked with sweat. She thought about the Bi-Lo cum Doctor Happy recruitment center, wondered what Rumor was doing right now. Probably fixing someone a tall Styrofoam cup of iced tea.
"I need to rest," her mother said, her tone suggesting she'd been carrying Phoebe on her back.
Phoebe scanned the landscape for a shady spot. "There," she said, pointing. There was a little house with a tiny garden in front--a bench, a dried out plastic pond, and a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary dressed in blue robes, her arms outstretched.
Phoebe led the way, her mother's labored breathing at her back. When they got there her mother dropped to the bench with a sigh. Phoebe didn't want to sit next to her mother, so she stood, staring off at nothing.
She heard a mockingbird calling from behind the house. She wandered back, wanting badly to see something beautiful.
The mockingbird was perched on the branch of an elm tree. A man and a woman were hanging from a low branch of the tree, beside a picnic table. The woman twisted slowly in an imperceptible breeze, the rope creaking. It looked as if they'd been dead about a week. The mockingbird went on singing.
Phoebe turned, headed back to the front yard. She passed her mother. "I'll be right back," she said.
"Where could you be going now?" her mother called after her. "Are you going to find…" She didn't finish, She was probably confident that Phoebe could fill in the blank.
"I think I know where there's water," Phoebe muttered, although that made no sense, because she'd never been in this town before.
As she walked down the street, she imagined spotting the "Free Meal, Ask Me How!" sign. She thought they probably moved their operation around from town to town, drawing in the hungry and resigned. Was she resigned yet? She wasn't sure.
It reminded her of her first college boyfriend, Rob Linderman. He had wanted to marry her, and painted an idyllic picture of their life: a house with a picket fence, a big sheep dog asleep on the porch, an extra room with a big dormer window. The picture had been perfect, except every time Phoebe imagined sitting on the porch of that perfect home with Rob, her stomach clenched. Imagining it made her feel like a caged animal, made her body scream, "Wrong!" right down to the bones.
She had gone about a mile when she thought to ask herself where she was going. She didn't find an answer, and kept walking. It felt good to walk. She carried on an imagined conversation with Rumor.
"If I chose to be infected, would it happen right now?" she would ask.
"Time is nothing but a line of now's," Rumor would say, patting her hand.
She would give him a skeptical look.
"It's a transformation, Phoebe. The virus doesn't just make you happy, it opens a third eye; it puts you in direct contact with the infinite. Phoebe, it's wonderful! I can't even begin to describe it."
"It sounds like an LSD trip," she would argue.
Rumor would shake his head sadly. "So many rocks in your shoes. Isn't it time to empty them?"
Phoebe would gaze toward the back of the grocery store, at the faded signs painted on the back wall. Bakery. Meats. Seafood. "I've done a terrible thing," she would say. "I'm not sure you'd even want me to join your tribe if you knew."
Phoebe stopped short.
She turned, looked back at the heat-riddled blacktop, the broken and burned houses lining the road. A dog howled plaintively from behind one of the houses.
She continued walking. Toward the Bi Lo, toward the sign in the bamboo, if it was still there. Rumor would shrug. "In my past life I did many terrible things. The virus can bring you peace, whatever it is you've done."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 14th, 2011

Author Comments

This story is a companion piece to my novel, Soft Apocalypse. After finishing the novel I felt as if I wasn’t finished with Phoebe. I wanted to tell her story--the story of what happened to her before she met the other characters in Soft Apocalypse. I hope you enjoyed it. Well, maybe enjoyed isn’t quite the right word….

- Will McIntosh
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