found her street just as the sun began its slow descent into the
west and I only had the vaguest notion of time, but I had to hurry.
My wagon was still more than half full of bottles of water and I
had traded it for nothing of consequence, really. I had acquired
a bag of wormy apples that came from some backyard somewhere, two
squirrels that needed cleaning and some asparagus. Food for a day,
maybe two if my wife and I did with less and saved more for our
damn, I was hungry.
street was like any other street in greater Detroit, or in what
used to be called greater Detroit, but now, ever since the motor
of the world stopped, ever since the caretakers of this planet disappeared,
boundaries mean nothing. There are no more towns, cities, states
or even countries for all I know. Boundaries mean nothing and property
is only as secure as your grip.
its been at least three years since it all went down, whatever it
was. Billy, my oldest was still in diapers and Benny my youngest
was inside my wife’s swollen stomach that Monday morning when we
woke up and all the power was out and nothing but static came over
the battery operated radio we kept in the pantry for emergencies.
the power never has come back on. We have never heard the spoken
word ever again over any kind of electronic device. It was as if
someone pulled a cosmic plug and the lights went out, even gas-powered
generators failed to work. The people we always looked to for help
- politicians, police and men of business and industry - disappeared.
wife and I had managed to hang on to our house through all of this,
basically by refusing to leave. People that used to live in the
city started to fan out here into the suburbs but they found it
was no better and by and by people retreated into the houses and
neighborhoods they called home.
it’s been far from peaceful.
I found her street. I guess it’s in what used to be Detroit because
the houses were much older than those in what used to be the suburbs,
and the trees that used to cast shadows over the street were stripped
of their branches for use as firewood and what remained looked like
monolithic toothpicks; taller than the remains of the trees in my
neighborhood. All the streets really look the same anymore, especially
in the summer. Grass has overtaken everything and all the lawns
are beyond unruly save those that belong to the industrious few
armed with sickles and old-fashioned push mowers, trying to keep
their yard the way it used to be.
this lady’s house was one of the nicer ones I saw. Her grass was
practically mowed and she had flowers planted in front of her house.
Flowers! No one had taken the time to plant flowers, at least no
one I knew. Survival was hard enough; if you had managed to survive
after the first year of riotous chaos and looting that came after
sight of flowers should have alarmed me, but no, I had to knock
on the door, I had to hurry up and trade more stuff before the sunset
and before I walked the long miles home, a walk I didn’t want to
make in the dark.
if I wanted to make it home alive.
I knocked on the door in my usual forceful knock, making sure whoever
was inside could hear me.
answered the door immediately, practically as I was knocking.
too, should have been a red flag. I am one of a million peddlers,
as there really is no market anymore, no marketplace and no use
for money. Men and women such as me keep this ancient economy going
by knocking door to door, trading this for that. But most times,
people don’t have anything to trade back, so they ignore the knocks
on the door, even though we knock and knock until someone points
a gun in our face or thrusts a small piece of fruit into our outstretched
and callused and grimy hands.
saw the inside of the house before I saw her and I was shocked.
The inside was immaculate, just as if the house had been recently
vacuumed and it was clutter free, and I could swear I could smell
fresh-baked cookies floating from the kitchen even though no one
had been able to vacuum or bake anything ever since that fateful
I help you?” said a little voice from somewhere around my waist.
looked down and then I saw her and she was very short and looked
like a sweet old lady dressed in a house dress like the kind my
grandmother used to wear. Her hair was silvery blonde and tied up
in a bun and her spectacle free eyes had no wrinkles even though
I could detect no makeup on her face. She smiled sweetly. And though
she was short and seemingly old she seemed to exude this sort of
vitality. She stood erectly, not like the old people I see walking
around these days, all hunched over and miserable as no one had
pills for anything anymore.
yes,” I said, taken aback. “I uh, got some water, boiled it over
a fire myself so you can drink it without worrying.” I have
a big catch in my backyard for rainwater, and I boil it in pots
over a fire pit I use for cooking, mainly squirrels, raccoons, rabbits,
whatever I can kill.
you’re a peddler. How fun!” she said laughing and smiling and I
had never, ever seen anyone smile at me before in my capacity as
I said, automatically smiling back, a reflex I had long forgotten
even existed. “I got this water here, and if you have something
you want to exchange…”
last peddler had mulberry wine, but I don’t drink, but I gave him
something anyway,” she said in a voice so soft and quiet and almost
surreal. Most voices these days are raspy, as if they had gone without
water for days at a time. “I don’t really have any use for water,
but I will take some, what would you like in return?”
smell from the kitchen was becoming stronger, and I craned my neck
to look into the house, trying to see what was in that kitchen.
food is the product of choice. Are you baking in there?”
laughed. “That’s not possible now is it?”
nodded in agreement.
really have no food that I can spare. Tell me, what did you used
to do, before all this happened?”
was a teacher, my wife and I, we were both teachers.”
she said. “Well, I was a teacher myself way back when, and I will
give you something for a bottle of water, and you may laugh, but
really what do you have to lose?” she asked, pointing at the fading
sun, as if she knew my anxiety about walking home in the dark.
I said. “What do ya got?”
wish, a dream, a wish granted, a dream fulfilled all for a bottle
I said with no small degree of exasperation, thinking to myself
that the lady was just another whack-job. I went to my wagon where
I retrieved an old wine bottle full of water. I had nothing to lose
and it was getting late and what could it hurt? I decided that it
was okay if she was a little loony, a lot of people had become a
little loony. But how could she keep her house and yard so wonderfully
kept? And besides, this world was now so different, nothing seemed
beyond belief, maybe she really could grant me a wish.
handed her the water.
she said. “And what do you desire, what dream can I help you realize?”
immediately thought of my wife and two small boys, probably huddled
in a corner room of our house, away from the street, worrying about
me coming home safely. I thought of them, sweating in this stifling
and humid summer heat without the aid of fans or air conditioning,
and then I thought of my shivering family in the winter, huddled
underneath piles of greasy clothes and blankets.
my sons, Benny and Billy, their faces leaner than boys’ faces should
be, their stomach’s swollen, their ribs sharp and perpetually pronounced.
wish I didn’t have to worry about my family anymore,,,” I said,
and I wanted to continue, and be more specific.
she said, “consider it done!” And with that she closed the door,
she practically slammed it and I had no choice to hurry home as
the daylight was becoming dimmer and dimmer.
ran home as quickly as I could, pulling my wagon behind me, trying
not to let the bottles of water topple over and break. I had about
four miles to go and I was almost hyperventilating, I was so anxious.
I knew my wife would be at home wringing her hands, worried that
I wasn’t home yet.
my panic and in my rush to get home, I had forgotten about the lady
and the trade we made, until I got home to my little brick ranch
with a rusting minivan with four flat tires sitting in the driveway.
I unlocked the door and walked into a silent and nearly darkened
my boys used to come running to me as soon as I got home, wanting
to see my day’s trades. Sometimes I would bring home discarded toys
and nothing could make them happier.
on this evening, there was no one at the door to greet me.
walked through the house that was so eerily quiet, going from room
to room, finding not a soul.
then I found them, when I walked down into the basement. I don’t
want to get too gruesome, but my wife and two boys had been stripped
naked and decapitated, and someone drew strange symbols on their
bodies, symbols that seemed to have been written in their own blood.
I let out a loud and agonizing scream, a scream that probably intermingled
with a million other screams in this bizarre and cruel world. I
ran back up stairs and realized that the kitchen had been ransacked,
all the food that I had managed to set-aside for the winter had
been stolen. There were, and still are, bands of vagabonds drunk
on mulberry and dandelion and rhubarb wine, wandering around the
area, robbing and killing and raping and torturing the helpless.
immediately thought of the trade I had made with the old lady. Was
it a coincidence? Had I really wished away my wife and two sons
dead in an attempt to shun responsibility?
went back out into the street, not caring about the now dark and
moonlit sky. I had to go back to her house. I thought I could undo
the deal, get my bottle of water back and maybe, just maybe, my
wife and children could be somehow returned.
I got to her house, I knew it was futile.
house was not at all like it was just a few hours prior. The grass
was overgrown and there was no evidence of flowers anywhere. The
porch that had looked firm and freshly painted was sagging near
to the point of collapsing. I didn’t bother to knock on the door;
I just barged right in.
No one could have lived in that house. The smell of decaying flesh
hit me as soon as I opened the door and in the moonlight I could
see all the furniture had been knocked over and chopped up for firewood.
there were countless rats scurrying across the carpet.
closed the door, and walked slowly, slowly home.