Ever since the bombs, since the apocalypse, I’ve become a sort of connoisseur of darkness. They say the Inuit used to have like fifty words for snow and I believe it because given enough time I bet I could come up with fifty words for the dark. It’s not just about the degree of darkness, though that’s part of it, but also the character of it. The absolute darkness of a new moon has a whole different feeling than the blinding illumination of a full moon off a blanket of fresh snow. And those same levels of light feel completely different if I’m observing them from the safety of home or while out on a scavenge.Tonight the dark feels toothy. It feels hungry.
I remember nights, back in Edmonton when my addiction still held me tight in its fist, which felt like this. Like the shadows were pregnant with potential–all of it bad–and no amount of candles could push back the darkness. There had been fewer such nights since we’d come to Drumheller but tonight was one of them.
I wanted to be back at home, in my little nest in the Dinosaur Hall, but no. Instead of curling up in a mass of blankets and pillows, surrounded by the bones of dinosaurs, I was out here. In the darkness. Surrounded by the bones of humanity.
Broken buildings loomed over me, their jagged shadows elongated and distorted by the light of the nearly full moon. My every step squeaked and crunched in the snow, sounding cartoonishly loud as the sound was amplified and carried by the cold winter air. My scarf was wrapped around my head, carefully so as not to cover my ears or my eyes. I was frightened enough already; to have that fabric distorting my hearing would be unbearable. Ty’s ears were covered, and he was comfortable with that, but I thought it was unsafe. If anyone found us out here it could get ugly.
I could hear Ty breathing behind me, see the cloud of condensation that was the physical manifestation of that breath. He was nervous too.
“Do you see it, Papillon?” he asked. His Quebecois accent was smooth, his whisper low.
“I see it,” I said. I took a step back from where I’d been peeking around the corner of one building, across the street at another. “Do you want to look?”
He nodded and we swapped places. While he took his turn scoping out our destination I adjusted my scarf to keep the wool that had been dampened by my breath from pressing up against my skin and freezing. After a couple moments he ducked back around the corner.
“Looks abandoned,” he said.
“I don’t trust it.”
When we’d arrived in Drumheller I’d been about as miserable as a person could be–an addict detoxing at the end of the world–but when I’d come out the other side I’d seen a reason to go on. To rebuild. Here, in this place where I could see my beloved stars and Ty could be surrounded by the dinosaurs that owned his heart.
After I’d recovered some strength we’d made forays into the city, to scope the place out. Creeping about like mice, darting from the cover of one building to another, we’d made our way through the city. It hadn’t been bombed as heavily as Edmonton and more buildings than not were still standing. Everything seemed well picked over though, and most of the people we encountered wore rags for clothing and harried expressions. They scurried about, much like us, with their backs pressed up against the wall. Those few who walked the streets openly were cloaked in bright colours and held long guns against their chests like soldiers from an old war movie.
It took us a good long time before we made it out to the museum. The walls were intact–either it hadn’t been targeted by the bombs or they’d missed. The cafeteria and gift shop had been raided, but the exhibits, the bones, they had been left alone. Perhaps the apocalypse had made people appreciate our past, our world’s history? Perhaps it was just out of the way enough to not be worth the hassle? Or maybe everyone had been too busy living day-to-day to bother looting the place.
A handful of people had taken to living there in a loose casual kind of companionship. They were comfortable enough that the guards let us in based solely on a patdown and our assurance that we meant them no harm. That was one of the first things Ty and I worked to change once we I decided to set up and make our home there. They were willing to follow our lead, more or less, because they had no other leader among them, and also because of Rex.
All the gasoline hadn’t been used or evaporated then, and Rex was the closest thing to a tank any of them had ever seen. Ty had created it back in Edmonton to get us safely out of the city —through the areas of wasteland, the packs of wild dogs and the gangs. It had served us well and now, in our new home, it continued to do so. With Rex we could venture deeper into the city on scavenging trips. Could bring home more.
Most cars and trucks couldn’t navigate the streets well because of detritus, other vehicles and man-made obstacles. Motorcycles could, more or less, but they weren’t enclosed and you couldn’t carry as much on them as with Rex which just rolled over most smaller obstacles and pushed the bigger ones out of the way.
It was ironic, I think. Dinosaurs were wiped out by a thing which fell from the sky and changed their climate so that they couldn’t survive. Then we built a civilization out of the oil they became only to be faced with our own climate changing so that we could no longer survive as we had. And then, instead of adapting, we reacted by dropping bombs–from the sky–onto each other until we could no longer survive.
And then Ty and I built our new lives among their bones.
I had a strong back and worked hard. Cleaning things up. Building up security. Scavenging what I could. It sure beat dancing for food, batteries and Bite like I’d done back in Edmonton.
Ty’s science background allowed him to put the laboratories and other facilities at the museum to good use creating a hydroponic system, getting the solar power system back online and collecting an obscene number of rechargeable batteries we could charge with solar power and store for a rainy day. Literal or otherwise.
And the other people and the museum came to trust us, and we grew together as a family. As a village, really. We became our own little fiefdom, I guess, like all the others that had carved up the city, but with fewer guns and no colour-coordinated clothing.
And as long as no one caught us scavenging in their part of the city they left us alone, and as we began to deepen our roots and build out infrastructure we needed to trespass into their areas less and less.
But this was important. The kids needed it. We all needed it.
I peered around the corner at our destination just across the street. The intersection looked empty, as far as I could tell. Pretty even. As I watched a light snow began to fall, big fat flakes that drifted slowly down, looking soft and fluffy in the moonlight. I didn’t trust it. It was too easy.
This was Big Zack’s territory and he guarded it ferociously. His men were usually armed with baseball bats, and more than a few of them also kept a pistol tucked into their waistband. I’d heard rumours they’d run out of bullets years ago but I didn’t want to be the one to test that out, and I didn’t want Ty to either. It didn’t make sense that he would leave a building unguarded, any building, but especially one that had escaped the bombs completely intact. And stocked. And yet, peering across the street, that’s exactly what it looked like.
“Can’t be, right?” I asked.
“Unless he’s emptied it out, maybe?”
“Maybe.” I didn’t try to hide my skepticism.
Had there been a visible guard or two I would have gone ahead with our super elaborate plan–namely, sneak around behind them or, if necessary, use the smoke bombs as a distraction and then sneak around behind them–but the absence of guards was setting off alarm bells in my head that I couldn’t silence. Going into a risky situation was one thing, walking into a straight-up trap was quite another.
“I kinda wish we’d brought Rex,” I said.
We’d left it back at the hospital halfway between here and the museum. In part because fuel was in scarce supply these days, but also because the rumble of an engine attracted a lot of attention these days, which was exactly the opposite of what we were going for here.
“Yes or no, Papillon?” he asked.
This was my idea. My plan. Ty was there to support me, because he was always there to support me, and if I wanted to back out at this point he wouldn’t hold it against me. But I wanted to do this. I still believed in it.
Connor and a couple other members of the council thought I was crazy. They didn’t think the risk was worth the reward, but I’m confident they’ll come to understand once they see. It’s not just a game.
I adjusted my scarf again, more to give my hands something to do than because it was necessary, and straightened my shoulders. “We’ve come this far. I say we go in.”
“Then we go in.” Ty said. I felt his gloved hand on my shoulder and turned to look at him. He peered through the eye hole of his balaclava, his eyes filled with warmth and a confidence I didn’t feel. The locations of his mouth and nose were marked by frosty circles in the black wool. “Bad news—this smells like a trap. Good news—at least if this snow keeps up it will cover our tracks.”
“Let’s do it,” I said, and grabbed the towrope for my toboggan. Ty nodded and wrapped the line for his around his wrist a couple times to make it easier to hang onto.
In the absence of Rex we could only take what we could carry on the toboggans. They were extra wide and had sides on them to help contain our booty but we were definitely going to need both of them so that we didn’t need to make this trip ever again.
We sprinted across the street. While we were out in the open any number of scouts and snipers (assuming they had bullets) would be able to see us so it was key to make sure we were back in the cover of a building as quickly as possible. Years of scavenging came to our assistance just then as we maneuvered ourselves and our sleds across the street and into the narrow space between two buildings faster than you could say “offside.”
Once there, we didn’t stop to chit chat but navigated quickly through to the back alley, and the rear door to the sporting goods store. It was locked, of course, but I kept watch while Ty did his thing and less than two minutes later we were ducking inside the store.
It was in remarkably good shape. Still somewhat organized and looking more like a store on stock day than most business which these days looked like they’d had a dozen chimpanzees let loose in them. All the guns and ammo, fishing and hunting gear, were gone, of course, but that was okay. That wasn’t what we were there for.
The dark inside was heavy, thick as a Hudson’s Bay blanket and just as scratchy. The sound of our sleds dragging against the gritty linoleum floor scraped on my nerves like nails on a chalkboard, and I kept hearing whispers and scuffling that could as easily have been real as imaginary. We found the section we needed soon enough though, and began to load up the toboggans.
Apparently Zack and his men weren’t hockey fans. It didn’t look like any of the gear had even been touched.
I stacked sticks and pucks onto my toboggan, while Ty grabbed skates, skates and more skates. He snatched them up in every size he could find, stacking the boxes carefully, tying them down with bungee cords and then strapping some more on. We’d decided before coming that we’d have to skip any kind of protective gear. It was just too bulky and we’d need too many sizes to make it feasible, but when I saw rack upon rack of jerseys I couldn’t resist. I grabbed two armloads and had just piled them on top of my toboggan when all hell broke loose.
I don’t know if it was a flare or a flashgun, but someone used something that turned the dark to a phosphorus white light. It blinded me and made me cry out, stumbling against an empty rack and knocking it over. I clambered back to my feet, eyes slitted against the light and fumbled around on the ground, blindly looking for the towrope attached to my toboggan. I couldn’t feel anything through my gloves so I ripped them off and pawed along on the ground.
I could hear the men, coming closer–there were two of them storming through the store toward us.
My fingers wrapped around the rope at the same time as I heard the gunshot. Without thought my eyes opened wide to see two big bodies, dark blotches against a field of white lumbering ever nearer. What they lacked in finesse and speed they made up for in bulk. And bullets.
Another shot rang out and I heard Ty grunt beside me.
“Are you okay?” I shouted.
“Out, out!” he said. He lit the smokebomb–a handful of wooden matches bundled together and bound with electrical tape–by scraping the matchheads against the sandpaper he kept glued to his belt, and threw it with his left hand. It flew awkwardly toward the goons charging toward us, but landed in a pile of boxes that had been stacked on the floor.
I was already dashing back toward the rear exit and the alley we’d entered through, but when I saw the boxes catch fire, little flames licking at their edges, I sped up.
Fire is one of the worst things about the end of the world–there’s no one around to put it out. Once, back in Edmonton, there had been a fire that started in a trash can someone had lit to stay warm. That beast had burned for two weeks before there was a snowfall heavy enough to put it out. No one messed with fire.
Once I felt the cold air slap my face–my scarf had come loose and been lost somewhere in the store–I opened my eyes. Both Ty’s toboggan and my own were miraculously still loaded. Not perfectly, and no longer neatly, but the bulk of the supplies we’d come here to get were still there. Still secured.
“Bad news,” Ty said. “I accidentally started a wee bit of a fire.”
“I saw that.”
“Good news, they were shouting about an extinguisher and now they’ll be too busy to follow us.”
Still, they weren’t the only people who worked for Zack so we darted down the alley, between the buildings and across the street as quick as bunny rabbits. From there we zig-zagged through back lanes and into Left-eye Leon’s territory as quickly as possible. There was no way Zack’s men would follow us in there, guns a blazing; it would be the same as declaring war. For similar reasons we couldn’t stay there long either. We skirted around the border between his and Zack’s territory, then cut across the no-man’s land near the Badland’s Motel.
By the time we got there Tyrone and I were both dragging our asses. It wasn’t surprising that I was exhausted, but Ty ran for fun, the weirdo; this should only have been a warm-up for him. As we leaned our backs against the dilapidated motel, gasping and panting loud enough that anyone with two ears could hear us, I turned to study him. He’d pulled his balaclava off at some point, and his face was pale, his lips thin.
“Bad news,” he said, gesturing to the upper part of his right arm. I could see that his coat was torn and the area around the hole glistened in the moonlight. “I got shot. Good news. Only barely.”
“Shot? Oh my god, Ty, you got shot!”
Until that very moment I hadn’t doubted what we were doing was right. Was worth it. But up until that moment I hadn’t recognized, really, the danger we were in. But Ty had gotten shot.
“Only barely,” he repeated. And I could hear a smile in his voice. I tore my eyes from the hole in his coat to his face and sure enough, he was grinning like an idiot. “Just a scratch.”
I held his hand as we made our way over to the old hospital where we’d parked Rex. Luwam ran that, but Ty had helped set up her hydroponic system last year so she owed us one and had promised to look the other way if we parked there tonight. We decided to push our luck a little further and ask her to sew up Ty’s battle wound.
As it turned out he was right. It was just a scratch. I felt better having it stitched up all the same though.
When we left the hospital the snow blanketed everything. Thick, deep. It seemed like there was more and more every year, but I’ve never bothered to measure it to find out. I’ve been too busy trying to survive. Ever since the bombs all my needs, all my concerns, had been very immediate. Very short term. Trying to figure out the new rules of society and survival didn’t leave a lot of time to think about things like weather patterns and snowfall.
The snow is both beautiful and treacherous. And not just for the cold that accompanies it but also what it can hide. Tucked inside with the heater going full bore I drove over something beneath the snow and Tyrone’s shoulder bounced off the passenger side door, hitting right where his brand new stitches are. I winced in sympathy. “Sorry.”
“Ah, Papillon,” Ty groaned. “This was so much easier when you were in the back and I was driving, eh?”
“Maybe for you, Tyrone,” I laughed. “I don’t remember that ride so fondly.” Detoxing tied up in the back of a veritable tank in the middle of an apocalypse is not something I would recommend to anyone.
“But in the end it was good, eh?” he said, shifting so if I hit another bump it won’t slam his shoulder into the door. “Happily ever after.”
“We’re still working on the ever after bit.”
Ever after is the hardest part. One thing about the apocalypse you can’t appreciate until you’re right there, in the thick of it, is how monotonous it is. How boring. Survival is boring. It is. It’s like the ultimate rut. Every morning we wake up and do the same things, the same grind, in order to survive. To eat. To stay warm. To stay civilized. Every day. No days off. Without exception.
Even the kids have to contribute. Have chores.
They have school too, of a sort, but they learn far different things than I did when I was in school. Back before the bombs. They learn the signs that an area is radioactive. How to slow the Wasting. How to maintain the hydroponics, the solar. What plants are edible. How to lay snares. How to raise chickens.
But it’s the same for them. Every day. Day in and day out. The same damn thing.
It was important, I thought, to give them something to break up the monotony. Something to look forward to. Something to do.
To give them hope, and joy, and something that is just pure fun.
To give them hockey.
We returned to a hero’s welcome–Ty especially once they saw his war wound–and it wasn’t even twenty-four hours later before we were watching the first game. Two hastily assembled teams in a mishmash of jerseys, stumbled and fell and basically just tried to stay on upright on their skates in the rink we’d made in the parking lot. There was not a lot of skill, and nobody looked likely to become the next Crosby, Cornell or McDavid but, as day slowly turned to twilight there were a lot of laughs.
No one ever talks about the good parts of an apocalypse. The end of one world, one civilization, is also the beginning of a different one. A new one. It’s a fresh slate to start building from, and it was important to me that this be a part of that foundation.
They played under the light of the full moon, and despite the fog that cloaked our breath the darkness felt warm and comforting. Like a down comforter. Like home.
Watching the game I elbowed Ty in the ribs. “Good news,” I said. “I think they are getting the hang of it. Bad news? We may need to go back and get some helmets.”