After burying Anna in that lye-filled grave, I wanted to do nothing else but to stay holed up in the house. I preferred to stay downstairs; the torn down bath curtain and the mess of our bedroom reminded me too much of her untimely end. But I knew I had to continue to keep going. Anna would have wanted that. I knew I had to maintain the farm as usual.
If I had it my way, I would have let the livestock starve to death. It may have meant that I would starve eventually, but at least I would not have to see them staring back at me with those vacant eyes. But I brought them out to pasture, and spread out the grain for the chickens.
I started to turn over the soil in the field when I noticed him. The young man seemed hardly out of university. He was lying out along the side of the road; from a distance I thought he might be dead. But I dared not approach him immediately. He could have been easily part of a ruse from a pack of marauders hidden from sight. Still, I knew I eventually had to address him, at least to check if he might be sick or injured. After attending to my wife and the stricken livestock, I had no fear of this disease. I had nothing to lose at this point anyway.
The hunting rifle was the closest thing I had to a weapon. I made sure to keep the safety off for the walk from my house down to the road. Coming out of the security of the house, I almost imagined the gentle sloping hillside to be a descent into hell. As I kept my eye on him the whole time, the stranger never moved. Up close, he appeared even younger than when I first noticed him.
He appeared healthy enough, and showed no sign of any of the visible symptoms that I saw with Anna. I could see that he was breathing from the natural rises and falls of his chest. He carried only a backpack with him. I was never very confrontational; I had to gather my courage before jabbing him in the ribs with the end of my rifle to wake him up.
“What?” He murmured as he woke.
“Who are you? Where did you come from?” I said with as stern of a voice as I could muster.
It took him a moment to focus on the rifle, but once he did, he immediately put his hands up.
“I mean no trouble,” he said. “I was traveling throughout the night and I just needed to close my eyes for a spell. My name is John.”
I kept a constant glance around me, checking if John might have had any hidden friends approaching. But the surrounding fields remained still. John looked harmless enough. He hardly carried any confidence on his scrawny frame. And his eyes were naturally wide and round, as if he lived in constant worry.
“Please, sir, I am unarmed. I mean you no harm.”
“Move away from the backpack, now.”
John crawled awkwardly backwards on his elbows, putting in some distance from him and his bag. I looked inside while keeping an eye on him. He carried only the basics: a change of clothing, a canteen of water, and a half eaten bag of biscuits.
“You’re travelling alone?”
Logically, I reasoned that there’s no reason for me to befriend him, let alone to trust him. But if I were to die, even at his hand, at least I would not be alone. Besides, something about John reminded me of myself. “We better get off the road. Who knows who else might be travelling this way. Come with me.”
“No, I have to go. There’s no time.”
“The world is at its end,” I said. “We have all the time we want. You need some rest anyway.” I made my way back uphill without waiting for John. If he knew what was good for him he will follow me. I could hear his steps behind me.
“I didn’t catch your name, sir.”
Sir. At least he is respectful. “Lawrence. Lawrence Fulton. This is my farm. Say ‘hello’ to the animals.” That last remark probably made him think that I’ve gone bonkers, but at this point I don’t care. As we trudge by the cows I gave them a spiteful look. You won’t get the satisfaction of seeing me die just yet.
Inside, I pull the sheets off the couch where I had been sleeping. “Have a seat. I'll bring some food.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your hospitality. I haven’t had much to eat for days.”
“So, John, what were you?” I ask him.
“What do you mean?”
“I assume whatever you’ve done before everything went to pot is longer around. So what were you? What did you used to do?”
“Oh I still do what I’ve been educated to do,” John said. “It’s why I'm in such a rush. I have to get to Hartlepool.”
I can feel my face become flush, and I try not to reveal my thoughts. Still, my thoughts head in directions I cannot control, and I shudder at the very name of my former hometown. Hartlepool. It was nice knowing you, John.