by Cliff Young
Mr. Worthington is hurling chunks of machinery at me from the third floor window of what was once the light bulb factory. He is weak with hunger, so he has very little chance of hitting me. Most of what he throws lands in the pond. A lathe handle makes a huge splash ten yards from the shore, which scares the geese, which pisses me off.
Mr. Worthington used to be my boss. He owned the light bulb factory; probably still does, technically, if anyone’s keeping track, which they almost certainly are not.
“My birds, you cocksucker!” he yells from the broken window. “Mine mine mine!”
He thinks he still owns everything on the island, but the truth is, nobody owns anything anymore. A flywheel bounces off a rock at my feet. If I thought it was worth the effort, I’d climb up there and ring his neck.
When the Canada Geese get scared off, they stay scared off, unlike the seagulls which come right back, as soon as you bring out some bait. I’m using a lizard femur attached to the end of a string. I toss it out into the pond, and when a gull swoops in, I stun it with a golf ball-sized rock. I dive into the water, and break its neck before it comes to.
In my former life, I was a Process Expediter at the light bulb factory, which occupied the building of the old Douglas Fir mill, on this island in the middle of Puget Sound. Of course, when I say the middle of Puget Sound, I mean that in the abstract sense, as in the middle of nowhere. I don’t mean the geometric center, which, in a body the shape of Puget Sound would be next to impossible to calculate. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it.
There is only one town on the island, consisting of about three hundred nearly identical wooden houses built in the 1890s for employees of the old mill, and more recently occupied by Ned Worthington’s workforce. Of course now most of the houses are empty, and the town has become overgrown. Some of those who remain have kept their houses and yards up, but mostly you can’t tell the abandoned houses from those still occupied.
I’ve got three lizards and two seagulls in my bag. People say the lizards taste like chicken, but it’s been so long since I’ve had chicken, I couldn’t say. It’s been so long since anyone’s had chicken, I don’t see how anyone can say. I guess they’re just trying to put a good face on it, and I can’t blame them for that. There’s so little meat on them anyway, there’s not much point in saying what they taste like. If you get enough of them, though, they make a pretty good stew.
The seagulls definitely do not taste like chicken.
The thing seagulls have going for them, though, is that there seems to be an inexhaustible supply. Unlike the Canada Geese, which are almost all gone, and the ducks which went first. The ducks never had a chance. In my former life as a Process Expediter, I never knew the origin of the term, “sitting duck.” Now I do.
I get home with my sack, and Viv is glorious. I want to take her right there, the returning hunter claiming what’s his, but Max is there as well, which makes me tense. I go around back, light the fire, and prepare the lizards and gulls. Viv won’t help, she’ll stay inside with Max. I can hear them laughing as I skin and pluck.
The next morning I wake up next to Viv, and I slide close to her. I trace the contour of her hip with my right hand.
“Norman,” she says, and brushes my hand away, so I leave.
On my way out, I wonder why I stay on the island. I’ve been going on the assumption that however bad it is here, it’s worse on the mainland, but sometimes I think I’d like to see for myself. I could build a boat, I could make it to the shore. Could it really be any worse? One of the last things I remember – from when we still had electricity – was images on television of nearly deserted cities and riots in the Food Camps. Anarchy and perdition on a truly terrifying scale. It looked as if food was just as scarce on the mainland, but with more hungry people fighting for it.
There has been no news in over a year, and no one who’s left the island in that time has returned. For all anyone knows, they’ve been eaten by hungry mobs.
But what meaning is there to an existence which consists of hunting lizards and seagulls, hoping to impress a woman who’s ass I’m no longer allowed to touch?
I spend the morning over by what used to be the diner, and catch five lizards, enough for a small stew. As a boy, I used to hunt these quick little reptiles with my friends. We’d catch them, hold them in our hands, turn them over and rub their blue bellies for luck. Catching something so wild and reptilian and holding it in your hand can make you feel that you are part wild yourself, and I remember finding a thrill in that.
As an adult, I would sometimes try to catch one of these things, just to see if I could still do it. I never could. I’d see one sunning itself on a rock by the side of the road, and I would recall the technique from my childhood. I’d sneak up as close as I dared, barely moving before I sprung. But before I made my move, as if it could sense what I was up to, the lizard would dart. It would happen like this every time. I had become too old or slow, or maybe it was something more primal, something I’d lost along with my childhood; the ability to move through the world as a wild thing, matching the natural rhythms of other wild things.
During the recent traumatic events, I had changed. Of necessity, I had become reacquainted with the rhythms of nature which I had known as a child. I could hunt, I could survive, I could kill.
I eat a lizard for lunch, then head over to the pond to try again for a goose.
There is a pond in front of the old light bulb factory, and the remaining Canada Geese can sometimes be found there.
The pond is wide, and back before people stopped tending it, it was nice, with fountains and manicured lawns gently sloping to its rocky banks. Now, of course, it’s reverted to a wild state, just like everything else. Long grass and leafy bushes choke its shoreline. If you look at it from the right angle, it could be a moat, and Ned Worthington could be the insane ghost of a long dead king, refusing to quit his abandoned castle.
I find three geese floating asleep off-shore a few yards, and I creep out from the trees. I find a rock the size of a rotweiler testicle, but as I’m about to throw, a barrage of ball bearings comes down from the third floor window. The ball bearings are not even close, but the geese scatter, back to Canada for all I know.
“Fuck you!” I yell up at the third floor, at the shadow behind the broken glass. All I hear is laughing.
Before The Collapse, I had hardly ever talked to him. Ned Worthington: owner and sole proprietor of Worthington Lightworks, the eighth largest light bulb manufacturer in the northwest. Not only did Ned Worthington own the factory, he owned the entire island. The mill had been closed for years when he bought the whole shebang, including the town and everything in it. He moved his father’s light bulb factory into what was the old mill, and rented houses to his workers, who had no choice but to shop from the stores he owned. Far from any local government, and surrounded by navigable water, he found the island a perfect location for a factory.
Of course now that there’s no electricity, light bulbs are useless, and Ned Worthington can go fuck himself.
I really wanted to get a goose, because it would impress Viv, and that’s still important to me. It’s the only way I can compete with Max, show them all who’s wife she still is. I think the only reason she sticks with me in this new paradigm is that I keep bringing home seagulls and lizards, which are at least better than what everyone else has settled for. At least they still look like seagulls and lizards, unlike the fish, with their lumps and appendages and extra fins. There are clams, but they’re disgusting. They ooze a sort of foamy bile, and anyone who has been desperate enough to eat one spends the next three days recovering. There are wild berries and mushrooms, but both are risky.
There were a small number of mammals on the island, but not for long. The last time I saw a squirrel, I ate it.
Eventually we turned on the dogs. They’re so trusting, they broke your heart. When they look at you with those eyes, and you see the trust replaced by hurt and betrayal, you could die. But you’ve got to eat, so there you have it. The cats were quick to catch on. They’re nervous to begin with, and most are one crisis away from a feral state on a good day. It was in the hunting of cats, driven by my own insane hunger, that I learned to survive in this new world.
Most people tend gardens. They grow the same things they grew before, mostly squashes and tomatoes, and there are still a few apple trees on the island. But crops are sporadic, and everybody is week from lack of protein.
I come home with four lizards and three seagulls. Viv has been in the garden. Her hair is up, but loose strands hang down around her face, which is flushed from work and sun. She is magnificent. She is what keeps me going. I show her the seagulls and lizards, and she is grateful, if not impressed.
Max walks in with an otter, holding it by the tail, its legs and head dangling. Now Viv is impressed.
Max is impressively large, even with the lack of food, and powerful. But I can’t see him catching an otter. I suspect it washed ashore already dead. Viv looks at Max the way she should look at me, the way she would look at me if I’d bring home a goose. I wish Max would stick to fishing, bringing in the odd mutant salmon.
I try hard to remember why Viv married me. Physically, she’s out of my league; statuesque, curvy, poised. But a Process Expediter is a catch, certainly more of a catch than a Furnace Boss, which is what Max was in his former life.
A Process Expediter oversees several Furnaces, so technically I was Max’s superior, although that distinction was only ever on paper.
Every week I would go down to Max’s Furnace on the factory floor. Max would give me his report for the previous week, and I would give him his agenda for the next. And every week, he would call me Nimrod in front of his crew.
I would routinely ignore this, and pretend I heard “Norman.” But one week I confronted him.
“Yeah, Norman. That’s what I said.”
“You said Nimrod.”
“Norman, Nimrod,” he winked at his crew, who were all hiding smiles.
“Look,” I said, “if you mean to insult me, you could do better. Do you even know what ‘Nimrod’ means?”
I waited for a response from Max, but he just kept smiling. So I continued.
“Nimrod was a great hunter from the Old Testament.”
I had meant this to be a stinging rebuttal, but Max’s crew seemed to think that this was even funnier.
“OK, boss,” Max said, smiling his contempt. As I turned and walked away I could hear snickering, which grew to laughter as I climbed the stairs. The factory floor is open to the ceiling, with open offices ringing the second and third floors. I could hear them laughing from my office. I kept my door open, to show that this did not bother me.
I guess Viv figured I was going places, places a Furnace Boss could never take her. But I always suspected that she had preferred a burly and handy guy like Max. She would visit Max on the floor during her breaks, and I could hear them laughing from my office. As she realized that I was not going places after all, she spent more time with Max, and not just at the factory.
After we married, she quit her job in payroll, and eventually things around my house started becoming mysteriously repaired. When our doorbell stopped working, I took it apart. It was more complex than I had expected, and I had planned to go to the hardware store the next day. But when I returned home from work, it was all put back together and working.
“Oh, Max stopped by,” Viv said with a smile. “It was giving you so much trouble, I had him take a look at it.”
Eventually, whenever something around the house needed fixing, Viv would wave me off, saying, “Leave it, dear, I’ll have Max take a look at it. He’s more, you know, inclined.” And when I got home from work the next day, it would be fixed. On the evenings after Max fixed things around my house, Viv would smile absently and hum.
One night I ripped the cord out of the vacuum cleaner. The next day, I snuck away from the factory and hid around the side of the house. Max came by at a quarter past noon, and for half an hour I listened to Viv moan through the walls of my own house. When I returned that night, the vacuum was fixed.
There are no secrets in a factory town, and every day I had to work with people who knew what Max was doing with my wife. The island had one market, one diner, one bar. I could go nowhere to get away. And at home, there was Viv, in all her splendor, not giving me the time of day.
The next morning, when I set out, it’s raining. I’m intent on impressing Viv, which means doing better than Max, which means I need to kill a goose.
The house at the end of the block is marked by large pyramids of pinecones in the front yard. David and Meg live there. David was a Mold Operator, and Meg was in filaments. Meg is gently stacking pinecones onto one of the larger pyramids, and David is slowly dismantling one of the smaller ones. When he takes a cone from the pyramid, he pulls it apart, removes the seeds, then tosses the rest onto a fire which crackles and spits smoke up into the falling rain.
David and Meg have convinced themselves that the world is in the process of ending. Since The Panics began, they have seen each event as a sign. As people left the island, Meg and David looked around at those remaining, with sadness. They referred to them as being “called home”, even though it was obvious that people were leaving by boat. And as the island’s population dwindled, they became anxious, like school kids on the playground as they realize they may be the last to be picked for a team. I’ve had my suspicions that Meg and David have not been too careful about which berries and mushrooms they eat.
As I pass the last house, onto the main road, I hear drumming. It’s loud, inconsistent and amateurish, as if someone with no experience were banging on something hollow. Without warning, Edna from shipping comes spinning from behind a hedge. She’s wearing absolutely no clothes and moving awkwardly to the rhythm of the drumming, and seems unaffected by the rain.
“Oh,” she says when she sees me, and stops spinning. “Hello.”
“Hi,” I say as I nod back to her. The drumming continues.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t expect anyone would be out in this weather,” she says, looking a little self conscious, but not nearly as much as you’d expect, given the circumstances.
“Yes,” I say nervously, unsure what else to say.
“We finally figured out how to make wine out of apples,” she says, laughing. “We’re celebrating our first batch.”
“Congratulations,” I say.
“Would you like to join us?”
She starts to move again to the drumming.
“Sorry,” I say. I’m thinking of Viv. “I’ve got work to do.”
When I arrive at the pond, it’s empty of birds, not even a seagull. I search the bushes choking the shore for sleeping or sheltering birds, but I find none of any kind. The rain has been increasing steadily, and the pond roils with drops. I look up at the factory, its weathered planks taking in the rain as they have for a hundred years. There’s no movement in the window, no silhouette, and no sound but the rain on the water.
I hear a clap of thunder, and I look up as the rain surges. I think about calling it a day, when I look across the pond and see a great swan. It’s pure white, and easily larger than any goose I’ve ever seen. I have no idea where it came from, I figure it may have been blown here by the storm. I grab a rock from the shore, and I stand staring across at the bird. The rock itches in my hand, but the swan is out of range. It turns its neck and looks at me, then with a flurry of its wings, it bursts from the water and flies through the broken window on the third floor.
I walk around the pond to the factory entrance. It’s not locked. I’m immediately confronted by the ruins of what was once so familiar. The factory looks like it’s been turned upside down and shaken.
Other than the rain, the place is deathly quiet. I walk up the stairs, which is strewn with debris. Broken glass is everywhere, some of it ground so fine it’s almost a powder.
I reach the second floor, and Ned Worthington is standing there with a conduit bender in his hand. A conduit bender is a substantial piece of steel, used for bending metal pipe. It’s a medieval looking piece of equipment, mounted on the end of a three-foot handle, and he’s holding it like a two-handed battle club.
“Get out,” he says.
“Get out of my way, Ned.”
“That’s ‘Mr. Worthington,'” he hisses.
“You’re lucky it’s still ‘Ned,'” I say, and I move forward as if he’s not there.
I can feel Ned coming at me before he even moves. I step aside, and the conduit bender whips past my head and crashes into the floor. Before Ned can recover, I’m on him. The rock that was meant for the swan is still in my hand, and I crash it into his temple. I know before he hits the ground that he’s dead.
I look down at him. How sad, I think. He had so much in his previous life, that when the world changed, he could not let go. He had clung to his factory as if it still gave him the power it once had. What a waste. He could have spent this new existence building a new life, rather than repeating the old life into meaninglessness.
I climb the stairs to the third floor, the rock still in my hand, dark with Ned’s blood. The swan is in Ned’s office, sitting on the sill of the broken window, overlooking the pond. It looks at me as though it has been waiting for me to arrive. It knows what I’m thinking, but it doesn’t move. We stare at each other across Ned’s office, well within range of my rock.
As I’m staring at the swan, I realize what I have to do.
As I walk back to town, the rain comes down harder. I hear drumming as I turn off the main road and into the neighborhood, but now the single drum has been joined by several others, all combining with the rhythm of the rain, which beats loudly on everything it hits.
I walk past David and Meg’s house, their pyramids of pinecones smoldering unattended in the rain, smoke rising and dancing with the wind.
I turn down a side street, and walk to the end. Max’s house is empty. I walk out back, underneath a wooden overhang which provides shelter from the rain. Beneath the overhang are concrete paving stones, set into the earth, as a patio. Weeds grow about knee-high between them. I find a shovel in Max’s garage, and as I wait for Max I dig. I dig up the concrete stones, and I set them aside. In the center of what used to be Max’s patio, I dig a pit.
By midnight the rain has stopped, and the pit is eight feet long and four feet deep. I line it with patio stones, and I tear down the overhang. By sunrise, I’ve reduced the timbers to firewood, and I’ve built a roaring fire in the pit.
Max returns in the middle of the next day. I’m sitting next to the fire, which spews smoke up past where Max’s overhang used to be. Max looks at me, furious. I return his look calmly. I know where he’s been.
“What the fuck are you doing here, Norman?” he yells.
“It’s Nimrod,” I say, standing.
Max is in a rage, almost unable to think. He crosses his dug-up patio, and I hurl the rock, still stained with Ned’s blood. It hits Max in the neck. He staggers, unable to breath. I’m on him before he can react.
By midday, the sun is out and the fire has burned down to coals. I use the shovel to spread the coals around the pit, and I add another layer of stones. I throw Max in, then another layer of stones.
It’s dark when I return home. Viv is startled when I walk in the door, but even though I’ve been gone for two days, she doesn’t ask me where I’ve been. I light a fire, and I feed her.
CLIFF YOUNG attended college at The University of California at Santa Barbara where he studied economics. Since then he has made his living (legally) as a waiter, ditch digger, cartographer, and software engineer, and (illegally) as an undocumented laborer in England. Cliff now lives with his wife, two children, a dog and a cat, in a house with a picket fence in Berkeley, California. Cliff’s stories have appeared in Tickled by Thunder and Bartleby Snopes. His favorite food is fried chicken.