1998. March. Maine.
The rain started falling heavier and Fay decided to risk it.
“Oh, what the hell”, she said and started jogging down the hill towards the house. The others followed her suit and the four of them slipped and slid down the muddy road. Before reaching the house, however, they slowed down. When there was no sign of life, Fay stepped onto the porch and out from the now pouring rain. The others joined her and stood there shivering, giving the door wary looks.
“Okay”, Fay said and breathed in. “Okay.” She reached for the handle and pulled carefully. The door opened easily as she had expected. The lock wasn’t broken, however, but that didn’t mean much in the end. She and Daniel took off their backpacks and set them down quietly. Nicole mouthed ‘be careful’ and Minh nodded with the nervous smile the boy always wore. Fay pulled the door open enough for her and Daniel to slip in.
The air was stuffy and there was a strong smell of mould. Fay fingered the gun in her coat pocket. The cold metal felt comforting in all the wet and stale and soft. She and Daniel moved further into the house, their footsteps muffled by the decaying carpets. They walked through the first floor together and saw nothing. Most of the furniture looked as if they hadn’t been touched at all and none of the windows were broken. In a way this serenity was more unnerving than the typically overturned tables and smashed glass over the floor. But here there was nothing.
“Up or down, big guy?” Fay whispered, giving a hopeful glance at the stairs leading to the second floor. Daniel motioned towards the door behind him and Fay nodded. She started walking up the stairs while Daniel descended to the basement.
Ah. Here was something at last. Unmistakable, rust-coloured stains on the white floorboards, leading to one of the two doors. Fay kept her hand on the gun and stepped inside. A bathroom. Some more stains on the floor, a shower curtain with pale yellow ducks, and mouldy hand towels. Nothing else. Fay tried the other door and found a nursery. Nothing. She let out a long breath. It was shaky and shallow. She tried again, breathing in and out slowly until her heart had calmed down and her shoulders relaxed.
“Clear”, she said as she walked down the stairs to find Daniel waiting. The man nodded with a very tight smile, his face pale in the dim light. “You?” Fay asked, her hand quickly back on the gun.
“Safe”, Daniel said with his low, gentle voice. “But don’t let the others go down there.” Fay shuddered.
“Ooh, make-up!” Nicole said and limped to the vanity table with her cane. She picked up a lipstick and tried it on the back of her hand. The surface was dried but after rolling it on her skin for a while, Nicole managed to get some colour out of it and brought the stick to her lips, dabbing at them with the bright red. Fay watched with amusement as the women tried out the other products as well.
“Let an old woman have her fun”, Nicole said as she caught Fay’s grin from the mirror
“48 isn’t that old”, Fay said.
“It is in this world”, Nicole said. Fay shook her head with the grin still on her face and left the other woman to her business.
Daniel and Minh were in the kitchen, checking the closets in silence the way they always did. Daniel was quiet either by nature or trauma and Minh too shy. Fay hadn’t figured out yet how much the boy understood English, but assumed it was more than he showed. He and Daniel had piled canned food on the table and Fay set to checking out the best before dates. It didn’t matter much, of course, but Fay wanted their first meal at the house to actually taste like something.
“Beans and tomato soup, boys? We’ve still got that bread, too”, she said. “SpaghettiOs for Nicole, I think. She only eats beans when there’s no choice. Cherries for dessert.”
Daniel started preparing the food while Fay and Minh picked a few buckets and took them outside and placed them on the soft grass. The rain was still pouring and the buckets filled steadily. The two of them carried these back inside and into the kitchen. By this, they were dripping wet themselves and went to put on fresh clothes.
“O ho!” Fay shouted as her eyes caught a whisky bottle in the bedroom where she had been changing. “O ho!” she cried again to annoy Nicole.
“What now?” Nicole, still at the vanity table, snapped.
“It’s going to be a right feast tonight, grandma!” Fay said and got hit in the face with a lipstick.
A feast they did have. The still soft bread was heavenly and the beans and soup were better than most of what they had been living on lately. The whisky was saved for dessert. Fay dropped a couple of canned cherries into her glass to get a laugh out of Minh. The boy complied with that same small smile of his. Everyone raised their glasses.
“Anyone know a good toast?” Nicole asked.
“’Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the bible says love your enemy’”, Fay tried.
“Nice”, Nicole said. “’Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker’?”
“’Here’s to staying positive and testing negative.’”
“Fay, don’t ruin this.”
“’May we be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows we’re dead.’”
“’May we get what we want, may we get what we need, but may we never get what we deserve.’”
“To absent friends.”
The laughter died and everyone cast their eyes downward. A moment passed during which the only sound was Nicole murmuring a prayer under her breath. Then they raised their glasses one more time and drank in silence.
The sun was setting and the four of them moved to the living room with the backpacks and sleeping bags. There was a large sofa and mismatched armchairs with a low coffee table between them. The small tv was in one piece as was the stereo set by it. Fay inspected these and made her second great discovery of the day: a small cassette player that worked on batteries.
“Hand me some AAs”, Fay said eagerly to Daniel who dug into his backpack, bringing out a handful of assorted batteries. Fay picked out the right ones and set them into the player.
“Golden Oldies”, Fay read the name of the cassette inside the player. The others gathered around her and they sat down on the moist carpet. Fay fiddled with the thing, her hands shaking with excitement. It wasn’t often they found a piece of working technology.
“Got it!” she cried out when the tape started rolling. Suddenly the room was filled with a clapping sound, soon joined by music and then female voices singing in harmony.
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen
Fay felt something tighten around her chest.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard music”, Nicole whispered from somewhere far away. “Must be two years. Ever since the first attack.” Fay nodded absent-mindedly, barely registering that the older woman was speaking.
Sandman, I’m so alone
Don’t have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
The song ended far too quickly. Fay made a move towards the player, but a new song followed.
So darling, darling
Stand by me, oh stand by me
Oh stand, stand by me
Stand by me
When a string instrument started playing, Fay’s breath was taken away. Like Nicole, she couldn’t remember the last time she had heard music. She raised her eyes from the little player and looked at the others. This group of complete strangers clinging to each other as their one and only anchor in the shattered world. She watched Nicole sway and quietly sing along, Minh with his small smile, Daniel with his eyes closed. They were all crying and when Fay felt something cold drop on her cheeks, she realised she was crying too. The tears were welling in the corners of her eyes where they pooled, cooled down, and then rolled down her face, cold as ice.
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world
Fay felt a sob build up, but it never made its way out. Instead the cold tears kept on rolling down her cheeks. She reached her hand to Minh’s and grasped it tightly. The boy’s hand was small and warm. Fay gave it a squeeze and Minh stroked hers with his thumb. She wanted to say something. Something to convey the feelings that were swirling around inside of her, but she found no words nor voice and as she glanced around she could tell she didn’t need to explain.
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you
Fay didn’t want the music to ever end. She wouldn’t be able to bear it if it did. But it did. For a moment, there was nothing but the sound of rain outside. Then Fay silently reached for the cassette player, rewinded the tape, and the songs began anew. Fay kept on holding Minh’s hand while Nicole rested her greying head on Daniel’s shoulder. Fay closed her eyes.
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself what a wonderful world