And the Peddlers Never Really Change
y Oscar Deadwood
forum: And the Peddlers Never Really Change
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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And the Peddlers Never Really Change


           I 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 sons.

           But damn, I was hungry.

           Her 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.

           Hell, 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.

           And 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.

           My 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.

           But it’s been far from peaceful.

           Anyway, 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.

           Now, 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 the end.

           The 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.

           Not 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.

           She answered the door immediately, practically as I was knocking.

           That 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.

           I 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 Monday.

           “Can I help you?” said a little voice from somewhere around my waist.

           I 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.

           “Uh, 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.

           “Oh, 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 a peddler.

           “Right,” 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…”

           “The 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?” 

           The 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.

           “Well, food is the product of choice. Are you baking in there?”

           She laughed. “That’s not possible now is it?”

           I nodded in agreement.

           “I really have no food that I can spare. Tell me, what did you used to do, before all this happened?”

           “I was a teacher, my wife and I, we were both teachers.”

           “Wonderful,” 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. 

           “Okay,” I said. “What do ya got?”

           “A wish, a dream, a wish granted, a dream fulfilled all for a bottle of water.”

           “Whatever,” 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.

           I handed her the water.

           “Fine,” she said. “And what do you desire, what dream can I help you realize?”

           I 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.

           And my sons, Benny and Billy, their faces leaner than boys’ faces should be, their stomach’s swollen, their ribs sharp and perpetually pronounced.

           “I wish I didn’t have to worry about my family anymore,,,” I said, and I wanted to continue, and be more specific.

           “Fine,” 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.

           I 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.

           In 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 house.

           Now, 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.

           But on this evening, there was no one at the door to greet me.

           I walked through the house that was so eerily quiet, going from room to room, finding not a soul.

           And 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.

           I 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? 

           I 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.

           When I got to her house, I knew it was futile.

           The 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.  

           And there were countless rats scurrying across the carpet.

           I closed the door, and walked slowly, slowly home. 



copyright 2005 Oscar Deadwood.

Oscar Deadwood is a writer living in Royal Oak, MI with his wife and two small boys.  He has worked as a sailor, a journalist, a miner, a mechanic, and a salesman.  He was first published twelve years ago in a small literary magazine called Renovated Lighthouse and took a decade off of writing as he was busy trying to be the next Hemingway.  He was recently published in the December 2004 edition of Dark Moon Rising.