Michelle rounds the corner, crosses the small wooden bridge over the creek, steps over the tripwire, and arrives home. It's been raining more or less without pause for about two weeks now, and the wooden planks of the bridge are slippery. She wonders whether or not their integrity might be so compromised by the water soaked into the wood that the planks would give way. That she might be plunged a metre or so into the ankle-deep water that flows beneath her.
Not deadly, she thinks, ruefully. I'd probably only sustain some real nasty grazes. Maybe scar my legs. Michelle is justifiably proud of her legs.
She walks up the driveway, looking as she passes at the concrete foundations on which the house seems to float. The cracks sketched there casually by the earthquake's old violence are still not repaired. And what would you do anyway? Paint over them? It hardly seems worth it to lift the house and rebuild the square stone wall on which it sits, only to lower it again and wait for the next seismic incident to crack them anew.
There are more fissures in the concrete beneath her feet too, filled by twists of newly growing grass. An old gap is best sealed by new growth, she thinks to herself, and it's all only temporary anyway. Everything is. She's given to bouts of fatalism, with everything that's happened. Her small efforts have always seemed so inadequate in the face of such enormous events. And there's a hole in her sock as well. She can feel her heel sticking to the synthetic sole of the quarter-high shoes she's wearing. Those buckles, always uncomfortable. In one position too tight, in the other, too loose.
She knocks on the door.
After some organising noises from inside, a shadow approaches, visible through the lenticular glass, and the door is answered. A young man, barefoot, wearing most of a once-warm and once-chunky jumper, stands in the doorway. Through the several holes in its coarse knitting, patches of his pale body are visible.
"Hi." He moves back into the house, and she enters. "You're late."
"Yeah well, I had shit to do, didn't I?" Her reply isn't unkind.
Together they walk into the living room. The TV's silent of course, blackly reflecting the dark window.
"Jesus, open the curtains, can't you?" She lets light into the room. There's dust hanging in the air, and some small discarded evidence of hasty inadequate meals partly eaten on the table, but it isn't squalor, just a day or two of laziness. "I've got us dinner. How about you get dressed Kevin."
"This is clothes. I am dressed."
"You're a slob is what you are and that jumper belongs in the bin. Throw it out." Her words are harsh, but again, her voice is gentle enough.
"I like this jumper," he protests. He's had it for ages, although for quite how long he can't remember. Since before she arrived here, anyway, he's sure of that. He doesn't know how long ago that was either, but it seems like a long time.
The light disturbs him a bit. It makes the place look untidier than he thought it had become.
"Fuck Kev, it's like only been two days."
"Sorry." He hurries off — although not too fast, he doesn't want to appear too eager to do what he's told. After allowing light into other, remoter parts of the house, he returns still wearing the jumper. He's put a blue t-shirt on underneath it.
"Funny Kev. Funny." But there's no sarcasm in her voice, she's genuinely amused. She could almost laugh.
He doesn't notice her tone, thinks he's in trouble, whatever that might mean. He doesn't want an argument, but it's been two days since either of them ate properly. The leftovers on the table were themselves leftovers to begin with. "What did you get?"
"Wasn't easy. There's less out there all the time. Got some cans — fuck knows what — probably cat food or something."
They no longer have a cat. It isn't something they talk about.
"And," she reaches into her bag with some theatre, "rice!"
"Really. Wow. Rice."
"Don't be a dick Kev. This'll keep us going for a month, I reckon."
Before their lives had been reduced to this house, and their findings, they had barely known each other. Or, at least, Michelle had barely known him. Kevin was a regular guy, and Michelle was at least the third most beautiful girl in highschool, and so he had of course known her. This was his house, or at least, his family's house. Not that any of them needed it anymore. Michelle had arrived at the door one day, dishevelled and partly naked, but not crying, too proud for that. He'd let her in, given her his Mum's clothes, some of his t-shirts. And they had started their strange life together.
It's sometimes possible to focus on the precise moment that things change, but usually that moment becomes apparent only much later. In the case of what had gone before, a few newspaper headlines, of the type favoured by apocalyptic cinema as a foreshadowing of a future catastrophe, were an opening bracket. The closing one came with that first rain. The full stop came later.
Together they light the fire — being careful with their limited supply of gathered wood. Companionably they watch some rainwater slowly boil, and together they cook the rice. They don't open the cans, they probably are cat food anyway, and besides which, they should be saved for an emergency. For more of an emergency. It's not an emergency if it goes on every day.
If it goes on every day, it's just life.
A silent meal, and then bed. Once the sun goes down, what else is there to do? They sleep together, of course, they had even that first night. For warmth, and for comfort. No-one should have to face the night alone, she'd said to him, as they sat together on that first evening. They'd dragged a mattress onto the top of the garage roof, and they'd watched as the sun's glow turned orange, becoming the same colour as the distant fires that had still burnt back then, warming the dying city. Neither of them told the other what they had lost — and what would the point be anyway? That they were both alive was all that mattered.
MYSTERY OF DEAD LIVESTOCK CONTINUES
WHAT'S KILLING ALL THE INSECTS?
INDEPTH REPORT: WHAT WILL WE EAT IN TEN YEAR'S TIME?
These were the first headlines. Newspapers are always filled with apocalypse; they're fuelled by disaster, thrive on the worst possible outcome. No-one reads good news — as though the human heart is best nourished when it understands that a cataclysm is approaching. Or perhaps, if our surroundings are comfortable enough, the disaster seems just a fiction. Was our specie's peculiar love of fiction our undoing? So many people have enjoyed so much calamity between the safety of the covers of a book, that when a real apocalypse arrived, we treated it as just another story.
It seemed to come in the rain, although it took many months for this important discovery to be made. At first it looked just like an allergic reaction, an inexplicable skin rash. And who's allergic to rain? It must have been in your food, the first sufferers were told. Or maybe you have a virus, those invisible usurpers of our own body's capacity for life.
Kevin's father was one of the first to go. His habit of cycling everywhere for his health became his ironic undoing. One evening, the fatal rain took him. The first great dying, the first time the rain fell deadly enough to kill. They didn't find him until days later, after the panic had subsided. He lay next to his bicycle, an unruly heap, eyes open, exposed skin eroded to gaps, through which the white of bone could be seen. When he thinks of it now, with so much loss in every memory, it seems almost like a small event.
At the time, its magnitude was greater than he thought he could bear.
STAY OUT OF THE RAIN!
The news implored everyone, and everyone did. At the first gathering of white clouds in the sky, people scuttled indoors, like insects exposed after moving a rotten log in the forest. Large rain-shelters were constructed, under which safety could be sought in the event of unpredicted downpours. Life continued, but the poison in the rain was quietly, beneath our feet, seeping into the aquifers from which our once-pristine drinking water was sourced.
It took far, far too long for this danger to be fully understood. People drank unwittingly the same poison that they hid from when it fell from the sky. Scientists took samples, tried to determine what collection of chemicals were responsible for its effects, but they found nothing. Believing that whatever it was decomposed into harmless by-products, and not wanting to make their ignorance a story in itself, they pronounced that the rain, once it had fallen, was safe.
For a few people it was, though this was entirely by luck. For everybody else, it was an undetectable and unavoidable death sentence.
It took a long time for the population around Kevin and Michelle to be reduced to just the two of them. For a while, before Michelle finally found an occupied house, Kevin had believed himself quite alone. Certainly he had seen plenty of people die, and be taken away in those white vans, that became increasingly frequent, and then became trucks, before finally stopping altogether, giving up. Later, his mother would go out, in search of help, and food, a trip from which she normally returned with something within a day or so. And then, one day, she didn't come back. The neighbours had left some time ago, or perhaps they had just died in their homes, they didn't look inside those until much later.
There was enough canned food in his house for Kevin to survive for the first week, and enough collected rainwater to avoid dying of thirst. By the second week, things were more desperate, and a black hole began to open in Kevin's heart. It grew quietly, as darkness does in the absence of company. It took his hope. It took his energy. It covered the sun, and hid the moon's pale face. It showed him the peace and calm beauty of death.
And then, one day, he simply lay down and waited, unable to imagine hastening his end, but equally unable to believe escaping it was possible.
This was the day in which Michelle had knocked on his door and saved his life.
Kevin wakes first. As is his habit, he gets up as soon as his eyes open. He wants her to continue to sleep, feels that some fraction of comfort is found there, in allowing her peaceful sleep to continue. He doesn't realise that she hates to wake alone. She's never told him. And how would he know?
The morning has brought no new surprises. Kevin had always imagined that a world as reduced as the one in which they both found themselves would be more dangerous that it had turned out to be. No news had ever arrived from much beyond the ruined city, into the ashes of which they never ventured. They had erected some rudimentary defences — tripwires attached to tin cans as early warning. Chicken wire nailed to the windows. But no-one came.
Never a soul.
"Morning." She gives him a quick smile. "Sleep ok?"
In this morning exchange. Things might almost be normal. They cover some cold rice with soy sauce — god bless nonperishable condiments — and munch an unsatisfactory breakfast.
"You know I don't. I've never tried it Kev. Do you ever listen?"
"I know, sorry. I was talking to myself I guess. God I'd love some coffee."
She doesn't reply. She unlocks the back door, and walks into the garden.
The spring sunshine, bright through a clearing sky, draws long shadows across the sparkling lawn. Steam is beginning to rise from the thicket of weeds that they've allowed to colonise the fence line — imagining that it affords them some additional protection. The grass isn't mowed, of course, the sound of the petrol-powered mower that lies unused at the back of the garage would surely attract unwanted attention. And in any case, there's no fuel to be found anywhere anymore.
A set of six parallel ropes run across the width of the garden, on which the red flowers of their runner bean crop are blooming. Potatoes grow in unruly patches beneath them, inexpertly cared for, but nevertheless apparently thriving. Carrots sprout there too, in uneven rows, mostly thinned out to individual plants. They've both mentioned to each other that a few chickens would be of enormous help, but they have been unable to find any, and in any case, neither of them have any idea what chickens actually eat.
"Lettuce, maybe?" Kevin guessed.
"Maybe, dunno. Scraps?"
"We don't really have scraps though, do we?" There was too little food to waste any, of course.
Their rudimentary rainwater collection system is filled to capacity now. Barrels and boxes and plastic sacks supported on improvised wooden frames constitute its storage capacity, into which scavenged drain pipes and guttering channel water from the roof of both the garage and the house. Recovering the collected water from it is an unsolved inconvenience, requiring one of the other of them to use a pail, or a saucepan, to dip it below the cold shifting surface of the gathered rain.
Kevin walks into the garden too.
"Nice to see some sunshine," he says, and looks up with a squint into the patch of brilliance. "At least the sun still works," he adds.
"Yeah, for now." Michelle is busy with the weeds around the potatoes. She crouches over the moist earth, a strip of her bare back visible where her jumper and jeans have parted. Each removed weed is carefully cast into one of their saucepans. Later they'll lay them out to dry, before adding them to their compost.
In his head, Kevin tells Michelle that he loves her, that he's so happy that she found him — that he's sorry for all that's happened but at least they have each other and that's got to count for something.
He bends down and joins her at the weeding.
When she's finished, Michelle straightens up, her hands on her hips, and stretches her body backwards. The movement earns a series of cracks from her bones.
"Done," she says. "What's next?"