Robert opened his eyes. She was there. She was there, asleep.
It was still dark out. He turned off the alarm a minute before it began and draped his side of the comforter over Ellie.
A shower. Funny to think how much of what we find pleasant is just fiddling with body temperature. It was an old insight, Robert thought.
They had a pact for the mornings: he would wake earlier and she would get up and join him after he’d had his coffee. Then they could talk. Often, they talked about her work: Ellie was painting the war, as she had been for a long time now. She had used oil, acrylics, water colors. She had thrown the contents of their garbage can at a canvas plastered with glue.
She did not deny the repetition. She knew all her paintings hovered around the same events, the same images: when the power went out in the whole city and the looting began; when she had hidden in a cellar for a week; when her parents first went missing. When I don’t have anything more to say about those things, she told Robert, I will paint something else.
He rinsed his cup and put his overcoat on. Ellie stood up from the kitchen table, hidden inside her loose robes and the flare of dark red hair. They held each other before he left, this time a little longer. Robert heard her lock the door behind him and felt it coming up from his stomach, into his chest, clawing at his throat and eyes. It was the coffee kicking in, of course.
He walked along the quiet side streets, avoiding the highway intakes and the avenues. The city was lined with trees at this level, the leaves always seeming on the verge of turning yellow. As he walked he looked in his phone for music to sustain the knot in his throat. The songs he found felt stale, stained with the way he had once felt. He put his phone away and walked on in silence.
On his way back, almost dark again, he chose a different route. He walked parallel to the elevated highway that split the city into East and West, staring at the streetlights’ bluish halo on the grey concrete struts – a spine melting into the dark blur of rooftops. He could not see the vehicles moving along the highway surface above, but the intakes and out-channels were always backed up with cars returning to street level. The sound they made as they rushed above was like the roaring of the sea. Robert walked past an intake and stopped to look upwards at the tight concrete spiral.
He did not remember the war at all. He had been rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building after the first firebombing and had spent the remainder of it mostly unconscious in a hospital bed. Ellie had two sketchbooks full of portraits of him from that time, some full of sharp angry lines, some restive and flattering, but always asleep. He remembered when the new highways had not yet been completed and the sunsets had not begun reflecting their light, but when he was able to leave the hospital the world was already a different place.
A large truck rushed past him and up the intake, startling him awake. He went into the white aisles of a supermarket with a plastic basket in his hand. He did not need a list and he did not mind being surrounded by the advertising that many found suffocating: in the end, it was other people trying to get what they wanted, just like him, just like Ellie. He corrected himself- no, not like Ellie. That she would have been the first to admit so was precisely what allowed him this faith.
He realized he had been staring at the label on a large jar of baby food. Robert looked around and realized he was in the wrong aisle. A young woman pushing her cart from the other end smiled at him. He could feel beads of sweat start forming in his lower back, on his temples. He walked out of the store and headed home, thinking. When he came in, she was sitting at her desk with her laptop.
She could change so much between rooms, with her glasses. With her hair. The world was her makeup.
Robert took an apple, a cutting board and a knife and sat at the breakfast table. He sliced the apple in half, feeling the core resisting and then abruptly yielding to the knife, plunging him all the way through to the wood.
-Do you remember that time during our honeymoon, at the rose gardens? With that little girl?
She smiled without looking up from her computer screen. The light made her seem almost transparent.
-Stephanie, sure. I remember. Why?
They had found a little girl sitting by herself on a bench along one of the garden paths, her legs dangling a foot above the ground and almost in tears. The gardens were in full spring bloom and swarmed with busloads of tourists. Robert and Ellie had watched the little girl from a nearby concession cart as they bought water and had looked around for her parents, wondering whether or not to do something. Finally, Ellie approached the bench and asked the girl if she was lost.
She refused to answer until Ellie convinced her that she didn’t count as a stranger, at which point the girl allowed herself a good cry. Robert went back to buy apple juice for the both of them, making sure the transaction ended when the little girl had stopped crying. They sat and waited with her, talking and laughing, for almost half an hour until the parents, sweaty and dishevelled, ran up the path and spotted them. Robert stared at them, wondering, as they frantically thanked Ellie and hugged their daughter.
-Something reminded me of her. You know, you were pretty good right there.
Ellie gave a half smile and sipped her tea. She typed a few lines.
-I mean, you were really good with her. I remember people walking by and smiling at us like we were her parents. And she was laughing all the time…completely forgot she was lost.
She gave a soft hum in reply. That was his warning.
-And I was thinking that we never even had to baby-talk to her, we just chatted with her and she chatted right back, but her parents were totally ooing and aahing her – like she was a month old or something. It’s like they didn’t even know her. But you, you just…
She looked up again, taking off her glasses with one hand.
-Why are you…what’re you trying to get at, Robert?
-Nothing, nothing. I just saw an ad somewhere and it reminded me of it. You were just, well, just really good about it and I thought that it was funny, that we were… you know. It was just funny.
She stood up and walked to the breakfast table, sat down in front of him. She placed her palms flat on the table and Robert did not have to look up.
– Look, honey. I know you didn’t mean anything bad by it. And I don’t want you to take this as if I regret anything about where we are – I like where we are; I’m really happy. But please don’t do that. Don’t start getting nostalgic about that and then pretend like it’s a coincidence. It’s dishonest and it’s cheap but mostly it’s not fucking fair.
She stood up and walked back to her desk. Robert watched as she put her glasses back on, her eyes hidden by the glare.
* * *
It began outside their house. Robert was reading when the dull quiet of the morning broke with a single idle car engine, then another. Soon the rhythm of cars stopping and starting took over the living room. He opened the shutters and saw the usually quiet street now packed with cars, waiting for their turn at a nearby intersection. He finished his coffee quickly and left through the alleyway to avoid the noise, trying to spot any road work that might have deviated traffic to his corner of the world.
Once he reached the avenue, he saw it was jammed with cars. Steam rose from exhaust pipes, engines roared as lights turned red to green, green to yellow. Robert put his headphones on and took the first alley away from it.
Over the next weeks it increased, to the point where it slightly displaced sports and weather for conversation topics among his colleagues. Robert began listening to his old music on his walks to work. He walked with his hands in his pockets and manoeuvred with his shoulders to avoid walking into the increasing amount of people on the sidewalks.
Television screens, seemingly everywhere, showed the same short video clips of the refugees arriving at the airport, on the highway. The initial trickle of those who had managed to get away before the raids was now an official exodus. The dim roar of car engines, now subdued by the double pane windows Robert had installed, was now pierced with erratic car horns. Large moving trucks, desperately trying to turn into narrow alleyways, would frequently block traffic. When Robert walked out of his building he often had to press against the hallway walls to let movers and their boxes by.
In little ways, they yielded. There was no easy, convenient distinction between the refugees and the residents of the city – no skin colour or language to blame, and so the city carried on sullenly. After a week of headaches from the noise, Robert began driving to work and Ellie stopped going in to the magazine offices, sending out her illustrations by mail. After a few infuriating attempts at dining out, they settled on staying in, watching a film, cooking dinner.
After clearing the dirty dishes, Robert sat at the kitchen table with his book, listening. The heavy steps on the floor above came and went in flurries, then disappeared altogether. Ellie walked by and stared at the ceiling, then at Robert. He turned to her.
-What do you think they’re doing? They moved in like three weeks ago, they can’t still be arranging their stuff up there.
-I don’t know. People move around and make noise when they’re at home. We do. What’s the matter?
-Nothing, just in a bad mood. Come here.
She walked towards him and sat on his lap, her back to him. Robert held her while she found that old place between his elbows, with his lips against the smooth, round bone on the back of where her neck began. He was so full that way that he felt guilty that she had nothing to hold. He hummed the tune of a song, it did not matter which one, while he rocked with her to one side and then the other. Over the years the song changed but there was always a song that was theirs, another piece of furniture in their home. The steps in the hallway outside and in the apartment above them began again.
Ellie got up and walked to the kitchen sink, turned on the faucet. She looked up at the sound.
-God, what are they doing up there anyway?
Robert looked at her as the water gushed loudly onto the sink.
* * *
Robert felt the sheets drenched with sweat before he opened his eyes. He threw the comforter off and felt the sharp, cool air on his damp shirt. His heart was racing.
He looked over at Ellie, fast asleep, then at his watch on the night stand. It was hours before he had to get up. He sat and felt the moist sheets with shame, hoping they would dry before Ellie woke. He stood up and walked towards the window, making a gap between the blinds with his hands. He looked a floor down at the lawn in front of his building, at the balconies and drapes directly across the empty street. It occurred to Robert that he had not heard such absence of noise in months.
Three thick, rapid thuds on the front door. Robert looked at Ellie, still asleep, and walked out the bedroom door to the hallway. Three more knocks came as he passed the closet. He stepped lightly, almost on his toes, towards the door. He could see the interrupted line of light in the floor under it. Robert leaned towards the peephole, holding his breath. He felt his heart pushing and pulling inside him as he saw a man in an orange jumpsuit and cap through the fisheye lens. Robert could make out two cardboard boxes on either side of the man, maybe more.
The man in the jumpsuit knocked harder, six times pounding six times. Robert stepped back, startled, tripping with the welcome mat and falling backwards. He looked up at the door, lying on his back and raised on his elbows, waiting for the silence to break again. Then he heard Ellie’s voice call his name from the bedroom.
Robert got up and reached for the car keys on the hooks near the door. He ignored the knocks that now came more frequently. He could hear more steps on the other side of the thin plaster wall. He ran back to the bedroom to find Ellie standing next to her side of the bed in her night gown, her eyes half closed with sleep.
-Robert? Who is that? It’s two in the morning.
Robert shut the bedroom door, then ran to their chest of drawers and shoved it up against and below the doorknob. Then he began pulling on the right side, jamming it diagonally between the door and the wall.
-Robert, what’s going on?
While pulling, he turned to her.
-El, get some shoes and a coat. We need to get out of here.
Robert heaved one last time, scraping some paint and plaster off the wall with the edge of the dresser. Then he reached for his running shoes, pants and a raincoat in the closet.
– Would you please tell me what’s happening? Who are…
He grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to explain. His voice was cracking. They could hear the knocking turn into ramming, the thud now lined by the sound of crunching wood. He couldn’t breathe, the words were killing him as they came out.
She nodded and began putting on a trench coat. Her hands were trembling as she tried to tie the laces on her sneakers. Robert looked around the room, trying to think. They heard the sound of metal hitting the front door and the wood cracking as it gave way. Ellie looked at him and ran to the window, tore the blinds off with a loud clatter.
Robert picked up the wicker chair from the corner of the room by the back and slammed its four legs against the large window. Nothing. He stepped back and tried again, letting his weight flow behind the chair. The glass cracked in three small circles.
Ellie shouted “the mirror!”. He dropped the chair and ran to help her as she tried to lift the white full-body mirror from the spot where it leaned against the wall. Robert picked up the bottom end of the heavy metal frame and they carried it closer to the window.
The bedroom doorknob twisted and the door opened an inch before knocking hard against the dresser. The door began opening and closing frantically, slamming harder against the drawers.
Robert looked back at Ellie, tears streaking down her face as she held up the back end of the mirror above her shoulder. They counted to three together and hurled the mirror, Robert pulling the front end towards the window. He hit the wall below it with his knees as the glass shattered, his arms landing on the ledge. Still kneeling, he looked back at her.
-El, you go first. Roll when you hit the grass. Go.
She stepped up to the ledge and stopped when she saw blood-stained shards of glass. She looked wide-eyed at him as he got up, holding his right forearm.
-It’s fine, it’s just a cut. I’m right after you. Go!
She nodded and hoisted herself up on the ledge, stepping carefully over the pane and to the edge. She jumped.
Robert looked back at the door. The dresser had begun to slide backwards, scraping a line of peeled plaster. The door was half splinters as it continued to slam into the wood. He screamed back at the noise: at the roar of steps, the slamming door, the cracking wood.
-What do you want?
The door pulled back abruptly and was shut still. The noise stopped. Robert stared, breathing hard, feeling the hollow pain in his forearm creeping up to his shoulder.
Ellie shouted his name from the lawn below. The door cracked loudly again and popped off its hinges, landing diagonally on the dresser. Robert could see parts of the orange jumpsuit through the open doorway. He got up on the ledge and looked below, then jumped. He felt the grass on his face, the smell of it, and a dull pain in his feet. Then Ellie was helping him up and holding much of his weight as they rushed to the car.
He slumped in the passenger seat as she started the ignition, slammed on the accelerator and drove through the empty street. His head resting against the car door, Robert looked up through the windshield at the clouds. As they drove towards the avenue he could make out the blue light of the highway giving the clouds a slight shimmer, like slow motion lightning. Ellie was saying something.
She looked over at Robert and stopped the car. She was asking him if he was alright and he was nodding.
-I’m fine. I’m just a little fuzzy…I think I hit my head when I jumped. Don’t worry, just keep driving. But don’t get on the highway…they’ll look for us on the highway.
* * *
His eyes opened. He was staring out the car window at the street lights passing by, the highway in the background, above them. His arm hurt, but there was not the feeling of fading away that there had been before. Robert looked at his arm and saw that his shirt had been ripped, wrapped and tied around his forearm.
He sat up. They were driving along an avenue on the industrial part of the city, near its edges now. The warehouses lining both sides of the street were shut, trucks parked outside. They roared along.
-How are you feeling?
-OK. Arm hurts a bit but I feel fine. When did you stop?
-After we hit Boundary. No one was following us anyway.
The car was flooded with amber light, and then dark again. Robert saw her face, her eyes slant towards him and then back towards the road.
-Robert…what’s going on? Who were those men? What did you do?
-I didn’t do anything. They weren’t police. I don’t know who they were, except that they were dressed like the movers who have been walking around the building for a while now. It occurred to me when I saw them…did you ever actually see the people moving in or out of the apartments?
-No…no, just the movers.
-Me neither. I don’t know what they wanted but it can’t have been good. Good news don’t break into your apartment at 2 AM with a battering ram.
She was quiet. She had no idle silences, Robert thought. Unlike himself.
-So what do we do? Where are we going?
-I’m not sure. I don’t think going back there is a good idea. I thought we could get to Fort Davis or any other city and see how it is there, see if anybody knows anything about those movers. I’m hoping the old two-lane road is still there and we can keep off the highway.
They talked about it as they drove, not saying much. She wasn’t sure. They kept going; the buildings spread further apart, barbed wire fences sprung up alongside the road. A warm glow to their right made Robert look, then Ellie.
The cars on the highway were burning. From where they were, they could only see the tops of them, packed tightly against each other, vomiting flame upwards. The smoke curled and billowed into a thick dark cloud above, shining with the leaps of the flames. David followed the highway with his eyes while Ellie slowed down to look.
They sped up. As they drove they spotted several other clusters of cars on the highway, some charred completely, others simply abandoned in a ridiculous pile-up – like something a child would concoct after getting tired of playing races. The three lane avenue narrowed into an unlit two-lane road that wove through fields.
Robert felt strong enough to drive. They were quiet, mostly, glancing intermittently at the highway that was always to their right. The fences stopped and they were rolling through fields of tall grass, shining fluorescent green and yellow with the car headlights. After they had passed the last farm the road steadily deteriorated, and Robert slowed down to avoid the potholes and large rocks. As the sky began to lighten, the pavement ceased altogether and they were on a dirt road.
She saw it first. A grey mass, far ahead, swallowing the highway. It covered the horizon. As they drove closer, the dark blur congealed into distinct shapes – half demolished buildings, girders emerging from piles of rubble, light posts jutting out from the ground like toothpicks. Robert drove up to the first buildings, what looked like the remains of a gated community.
They drove around it, going very slowly to avoid the chunks of concrete wall on the road, and into what remained of the city. As they moved out of the suburbs, they saw the remains of larger buildings – strip malls, convenience stores, a public library. Through the mountains of rubble they could still make out the highway, its struts now swimming in stone. Robert manoeuvred the car through whatever openings he could find, trying to reach it. They did not have much gas left.
After half an hour of slow going they had to stop. The debris was too dense and uneven for the car to handle, and the collapsed buildings made it difficult to get their bearings. They had followed the highway, the only recognizable landmark, until they had mountains of rubble on all sides. Robert turned off the engine and got out to look. They were in front of a collapsed stadium, the highway almost adjacent to it.
Ellie clambered up the pile of concrete and wood that had once been a restaurant to get a better look. Robert was sitting on the roof of their car, feet on the hood, when she came down. She had rolled up the sleeves of her trench coat and put her hair in a pony tail. Robert stared.
-We’re going to have to turn back, Robert. It’s a solid wall of rubble as far as I could see on this side of the highway. Probably the same on the other side. It’s amazing that it’s still standing.
-Did you see what the highway looked like beyond the stadium and this? Does it go through?
-No, it’s too high up. It has to have collapsed, though – everything else did.
Robert turned and looked at the highway struts emerging from the broken stadium.
-Let’s take a look. We can climb up there.
She was quiet.
-It’s the only way we’ll know if we should keep going. We can’t just guess that it’s impossible and turn back.
-Look, we don’t have any food, we’re running out of gas. We couldn’t keep going even if we could get through.
-There’s got to be something on the other side – survivors, a camp. And we’re screwed for gas whichever way we go. Besides, it’ll only take a few minutes. You can wait for me here if you like.
Robert slid off the car and began walking through the parking lot towards the stadium, trying not to look back. He heard Ellie’s footsteps behind him and stopped, closing his eyes for a second, breathing. She stopped next to him, looking at the sunlight beginning to break over the jagged edges of the dome ahead. Robert took her hand. Then they walked forward, aiming at where the crumbled walls of the structure rested against one of the highway supports.
It was easy at first as they skirted the edges of the collapsed dome. It took longer than Robert had expected. They quickly learned to test each stone or concrete slab before they placed their full weight on it. After an half an hour they were only a few minutes from the crest of the rubble, climbing with their hands and feet, helping each other up the sharpening incline. A cold wind kept blowing the dust into their hair and faces.
Robert clambered up a concrete slab about his own height, grunting with effort. He made it up a ledge and caught his breath, looking blindly at the stone, then turned around to take Ellie’s hands. He pulled her up as she walked on the smooth surface of the slab in small, precise steps. Something rumbled and gave under her, and the slab slid under her feet and tumbled down. She fell but held on to his hand, smacking against the rocks underneath. He pulled her up with both hands as she kicked herself forward, until they were holding each other. She was pale and covered in dust, bleeding from a cut across her forehead.
She said nothing, breathing hard as he cleaned up the wound with the remains of his shirt. Robert walked around trying to find the easiest way up the last few meters to the top. He held her hand as he groped the pieces of concrete, pushing and probing. He found his hold in an exposed girder directly above him and pulled himself up high enough to put his feet on a jutting ledge and rest his weight there.
Robert reached down with his left hand while holding on to the ledge. He felt her take it with both her hands. He probed with his right hand, sliding it across the metal girder to the stone, then up a few inches, and then nothing. They were almost there. The wind was blowing so hard he had to yell down that they were almost at the top. Hearing nothing, he looked down.
Ellie was cradling his hand with both of hers, tears streaming down her cheeks. She was pressed tightly against the stone, almost sobbing. He tried pulling with his hand but felt her pull back.
-I can’t do it Robert. Let’s go back. I’m too scared, I can’t.
It wasn’t a surprise. He clutched her hand harder.
-I have to see it, El. We can’t go back. I have to see. Do you…
She looked up and cupped his hands with hers, holding them close to her face. She nodded once and placed her forehead against his hand, then let go.
-I’m so sorry, El. I’m so sorry.
Robert turned his head and saw the grey breaking, felt the heat of the light on his face. He closed his eyes and pulled himself up.
* * *
Robert stared at the sea, thinking. The lawn chair, designed for better weather, was icy on his back and legs. A nurse had given him two blankets when he insisted on going out to the beach again.
It was impossible to remember the sea or to forget the idea of it. That was how he liked to think of it, and how he would try to think of Ellie from now on – an idea of his, an abstraction from a stream of data that once seemed endless.
After he first came to, a doctor had been around to check on him in his room, but had been careful not to discuss the sequence. A week later, the psychiatrist had told Robert that even in successful treatments such as his own, the first days were fragile, critical. Hence the bare walls, the enforced silence, the sea.
He took the brochure from his sweatshirt pocket and unfolded it. Before agreeing to treatment he had laughed at the pretence of knowledge, the sheer arrogance implicit in places like this. He remembered when his parents invited him over for dinner and gave him the clinic’s information package. Robert had scoffed at the idea and had called the doctors butchers, using blunt tools to experiment with something so delicate, so poorly understood. They had a glorified CAT scan, a battery of personality tests and some LSD and called it medicine. It was amazing, he had said, that they didn’t just top it off with a lobotomy.
His insurance covered a whole week of post-treatment care, but the team of doctors agreed to release him after four days, offering him to stay on for as long as he felt he needed to.
Robert got up and tossed the brochure on the lawn chair before walking back to the clinic. As he approached the old concrete building the roar of the interstate merged with the sound of the waves. It was almost four and he had his last session with his assigned counsellor, a thin, bearded absence of a man. Robert walked past one of the uniformed janitors mopping up the stairs, feeling his hand against the stone railing, aware of the feeling of his feet inside his shoes, his clothes brushing against his body.
The counselling office was comfortable; it faced the beach and was sparsely decorated. They sat facing each other in identical Aalto chairs, discussing the weather, warming up. They were almost through discussing the sequence in detail. Today they talked about the end of it, right before he woke, when he had let go of Ellie’s hand.
-You said you let go of her hand to keep going. What was the feeling then?
-I felt terrible, obviously.
-No. Sad. Relieved and sad.
-Relieved because she said it was alright?
-Yes. At the time I believed it was her giving me permission, instead of…
Robert gazed through the large window, looking outside. A grey, cloud-ridden sky merged with the sea below. He could barely make out the face of the man sitting across the coffee table in front of him, haloed by the sunlight. Robert could feel him measuring the silence, evaluating it.
-Instead of just me giving myself permission to let go. On her behalf.
-That’s an interesting way to put it. Does that make you feel ashamed?
-Not really, no. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? She’s dead. She can’t give me permission to do anything anymore.
-But, don’t you think it’s what she would have wanted you to do? If she were alive? Or if she could see you?
He looked at the table between them, then at the man’s shape against the window, aiming for where his eyes would be.
Robert stood up and picked up the signed piece of paper from the coffee table. He turned around and walked out, not listening. He was a little bored now and wanted to get back to work.