Short Fiction ~James W. Wood
Dedicated to Emmanuel and Beatrice
Jonah Buitschafer remembered what he’d been working on when old Johnson clattered down into the bunker. He’d been framing an extension to one side of the old man’s survival chamber, reaching into the dark earth with his nail-gun to join two pieces of timber.
Old man Johnson had big sweat patches under the arms of the baggy white T-shirt that engulfed his skinny frame. Holding a length of two-by-four up against the rocks and mud, Jonah watched as the old man barrelled towards him. Leaves and filth skittered off the old man’s boots, his thin chest heaving.
“It’s happening. I’m locking myself in. You can stay or go,” Johnson’s breathing slowed down a little as he spoke. Jonah stifled a laugh. Play along. He said he’d stay, thinking the old boy would realise his error before the day was out and he’d earn himself another few fifties, cash. Old man Johnson climbed back up and made the place airtight, turning the upper port-hole lock he’d stolen from a decommissioned Russian submarine until it squeaked shut against its metal casing.
Jonah wanted to get home at the end of his work day, but it turned out Johnson had a shotgun hidden in his bunker. Fully loaded.
“I ain’t lettin’ you out, boy. Not for nothin’,” - the old man’s gun barrel shook as he aimed it at Jonah’s chest. As the hours went by that night and the next day, it became clear what had rattled the old man. A series of mass poisonings in major cities around the world. People collapsing in the street, dying in violent spasms, their bodies twisted into absurd shapes where they fell – on the street; in bars; in their beds, as they worked, slept or ate. Most governments exercised well-rehearsed emergency management plans. But they had no blueprint for dealing with super-massive extinction spreading through their villages and towns. Whole populations reduced to bands of scavengers. The rank perfume of decay in the air.
Within days, curfews were established and security cordons set up, according to their radio. Reports over the internet told Jonah and the Old Man that cholera and typhoid proliferated among those who were left. Children lay weak from dysentry beneath the golden domes of the Place Vendôme in Paris; cities such as Sydney, Toronto and Leeds succumbed to lawlessness. Only some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, from which there had been no reporting, might have been saved from whatever was happening. To Jonah, it sounded as though human civilisation had putrefied, and now lay dismembered on this rock that continued to circle the sun to no obvious purpose.
Jonah and the old man ate cans of beans and franks heated up in the bunker’s microwave, the thrum of the generator they used six hours every day in the background. They listened to the radio telling the horrors that were unfolding above them as they drank distilled water from the crates the old man had stockpiled. They pissed in a chemical toilet, and slept in Army surplus sleeping bags. They barely ever washed. They read the internet, their expressions blank, and played interminable games of chess without exchanging a word. After a while, the internet reports reduced in frequency until finally they heard nothing more.
Years later, the old man was long dead and Jonah was still underground. Jonah remembered the day old Johnson died. A few months after they’d enclosed themselves against the poison that spread across the world outside, or “upstairs”, as they called it. Jonah came out of the chemical toilet at the far end of the bunker and saw the old man leaning forward against the kitchen table. He was too far away – maybe fifty feet – for Jonah to see what was going on.
As Jonah got closer, he called out but there was no reply. Knowing Johnson to be somewhat deaf, Jonah raised his voice. Johnson’s legs remained motionless, feet covered by the same boots he’d worn for months since he’d closed them in, the same scabby pair of jeans cladding his legs as they leaned over the table.When he got to the worn oak table, Jonah found the old man slumped against it, hands cupped in an attitude of prayer, blue eyes wide open and staring at something clutched between his blue, mottled hands. Jonah prised those hands open and found a picture of the old man with his mother, taken when he was a little boy. It must have been eighty years old.
Some months later, Jonah reached the end of his supplies. Little fresh water left, almost no food. Time to get out, find God knows what upstairs. Upstairs: A reverse heaven, a place that held nothing he could remember clearly any more. He pulled together his workbag and tools, switched off the computer and generator, then put his foot on the first rung of the ladder that led up to that old Russian submarine hatch. He was leaving home to go home.
Outside, the air was cold and bright, an April day like any other he’d known in his first thirty-eight years of life. He was 49 now. Old. Or older, at least: dark hair that ran to his shoulders with full-flowering grey streaks spreading out from his temples, lines around his mouth and eyes, dark rings not just from being underground, but from age. His body had slowed, fat accreting round his middle. He looked for his truck, which he’d parked – unlocked – about fifty yards from the supposedly “secret” entrance to Johnson’s bunker. At first, as he’d expected, he found nothing.
But as he searched, the outline of his old Ford flatbed became discernible through a thick mess of brambles. There was no way he was getting through that. So he slung his toolbag over his shoulder and started walking the three miles of dirt road back down to Lytton, its buildings emerging as murky shapes from the mist in the valley below.
When he reached Lytton, he found emptiness. Everyone either dead or gone. The old sign that adorned the town’s only pub – it had barely hung on even when the place was open – lay broken beneath the entrance. The windows smashed in, window frames half-rotted away. Looking around the main street, Jonah found the same story. Not death, but the destruction of property that follows death, with no-one around to claim their rights. The pharmacy at the end of main street had taken a particular battering. Jonah went inside its mildewed, dust-streaked entrance and found thieves had long since stolen all the drugs: there wasn’t a scrap of inventory left in the place except for baby clothes. Jonah guessed there wasn’t much need for those any more.
After a few hours rambling around, Jonah stopped for a drink from his canteen and the last few long-life biscuits from the bunker. Then he found his way back to what was left of his house. The eavestroughs he’d hung so carefully from his roof lay half-collapsed against the ground, one corner still clinging absurdly to the roof. His windows had been staved in, of course: from outside, he could see what was left of his belongings jumbled up in piles in the centre of his living room. Unpainted for ten years, his old home now resembled some sepia photo of a decayed building, dark patches blotching the ancient paintwork. Rotting cladding hung half-on, half-off the interior wooden studs and joists that made the guts of his home. Mice and rats had nested between the joists. Jonah went inside.
The looters hadn’t taken anything precious or sentimental. The pictures of him with his girlfriend in the pub of the local Royal Canadian Legion were still there. He thought of her briefly, certain she was dead. Remembered walking with her up at the riverhead, holding hands that summer when they’d first met fifteen years ago. The plans they’d made together – all gone. His vinyl records remained, though his stereo had been looted. In the kitchen, no tins or bags of food remained, cups and dishes smashed, but the refrigerator and stove stood silent watch, inert. No electricity supply to bring them to life existed.
Jonah turned the tap at his kitchen sink, but nothing came out. As he looked through the window, he thought he saw something in the neighbour’s yard, then dismissed it. Then he looked again. Someone was watching him from inside his neighbour’s ruined house.
It was a dark shape, moving in the shadows inside his neighbour’s property. The person was scrunched up against the wall of what used to be Tommy’s kitchen. Buitschaffer ran out through a ripped-out hole at the back of his kitchen on to the remains of his back porch. He shouted over the collapsed cedar fence at the figure:
The shape disappeared. Buitschaffer called again. This time the shape came out from the darkness. A man, about Buitschaffer’s height, skinnier though – and younger. Dressed in a filthy black hooded top with some rock band’s name from decades ago on it, a mad yellow logo Buitschaffer dimly remembered seeing on walls and posters over twenty years ago.
“What up, G?”
The youth took out a cigarette and lit it from a cheap plastic drugstore lighter.
“Want one of these?”
Buitschaffer shook his head.
“You new around here?”
The young man pulled back his hooded top to reveal a thin, stubbly face, pale from lack of sunlight. Eyes so deeply sunk in their sockets their colour was hardly discernable. Dark green? Hazel? Buitschaffer looked around him. “I live here. Or used to, anyway.”
“Ain’t nobody live here, brother. We all live underground.” The youngster emphasised the word “all” and Buitschaffer understood he meant tens, hundreds, maybe more, of survivors. “Come on. Better get before anyone sees you. They shoot on sight.”
The young man turned and started walking at speed towards the back of Jonah’s neighbour’s garden, vaulting what remained of the three-foot cedar fence, long since swallowed by weeds. He stood in the access road behind Buitschaffer’s property.
“Come on, man!”
Buitschaffer followed without thinking. The young man led him to another burnt-out property on the other side of the access road behind Buitschaffer’s house, and then inside and down a flight of stairs into a cellar. The air stank of human faeces and rotting wood. Decomposition of some kind or other. Jonah caught up with him as the young man banged on a grimy, rusted metal door.
“Open up! Incoming!”
Buitschaffer heard the squeak of rusty locks turning, and the door rolled slowly to the left.
Inside, a digital sepulchre. Rows and rows of screens emitting an ethereal light. Tech devices of every kind: TV screens, cell phones, digital readers. Buitschaffer walked a few paces behind his new friend with the hoodie, taking in how he strode with confidence among the chairs, desks and mattresses that filled this cavernous space, each slouch-station filled with a person of indeterminate sex and age. All transfixed by their screens.
“Hey everybody!”, Hoodie shouted. “This is – oh wait, I don’t know your name.”
“Jonah”, he answered.
“Jonah”, Hoodie repeated. “De profundis clamavi, Domine. Am I right?”
Buitschaffer stared at him. He had no idea what the guy was talking about. Hoodie just snickered to himself. “Don’t worry about it. Relax. We have everything you need. And maybe you have something we need? We’ve been watching you. We know you know how to drive a nail like a man. And cut wood like a pro.”
Buitschaffer looked at him, trying to read that thin, nervous face. “What do you mean?”
“Which bit? The bit where I said we have everything you need? Oh, that bit’s easy. See, we get supplied by the Government. A big drop, once a month. Everything. Cigarettes, medicines, food, electricity, water, propaganda – the works, my man, the works!”
Buitschaffer picked up the mad glint in the youth’s sunken eyes. He must be full of shit. Jonah decided to get out as fast as he could. But he was curious. Who were these people? What were they doing here? Hoodie strutted a few paces further, behind the last row of Lay-Z-Boy chairs. A morbidly obese man with thick glasses, a dark T-shirt and five-day stubble slumped in the chair nearest Hoodie, his fingers flying over a controller as he played a video game. The fat man reached a pause in the game and popped half a cake bar in his mouth. Reaching downwards, Hoodie pulled up a flat pack of half-litre bottles of mineral water.
“These doing it for you, O patience in distress? Or how about these?” He banged on a hatch on the back wall and it fell open. Inside the hatch was a freezer compartment full of frozen steaks, burgers and chicken. “Feast ye, Jonah! Break your fast, homeboy!” And with that, Hoodie handed Jonah a bottle of water from the flat-pack and grabbed a pack of frozen chicken breasts and a box of frozen pork ribs.
An hour later, Buitschaffer had finished eating. He felt drunk on the cheap food, quickly and poorly roasted in an old electric oven powered by a diesel generator that belched filth into the sky. Jonah was struggling to stay awake, his belly straining, full of grilled meat. Buitschaffer had not eaten meat since he’d been locked in the bunker, and its effect was intoxicating. Hoodie licked his rib-greased fingers and belched indelicately.
“Here’s the problem we have.” He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and eased one into his mouth, lighting it with a rainbow-coloured Zippo decorated with a space alien face on one side. Then he offered Jonah a smoke. High from the meat, Buitschaffer accepted the cigarette this time in the hope the nicotine would keep him awake.
“We’re as comfortable as it comes,” Hoodie said. “As survivors, the government gives us the basics. And through the internet, we have access to all the knowledge we want. So we could leave our compound any time, Jonah. Just like you left your little burrow up there in the hills.”
“But what about the” –
“The people who I said would shoot on sight? The armed gangs marauding around the Okanagan, in fact the whole planet, looking to kill survivors? They don’t exist. End of. They are non-individuals in non-homocidal groups, my man!”
Hoodie paused, watching as Jonah drew tentatively on his cigarette, coughing a little as he exhaled the smoke. Jonah had quit smoking in his mid-twenties. What he was smoking for now, God only knew.
“Did it ever occur to you that the whole thing was a set-up by governments, man? There were too many of us, and we were getting restive. We stopped voting the way they wanted us to, so they had to take care of us – and blame it on someone else. Kill us all, and let God take care of us. Well, they did a good job. Trouble is, they did too good a job. Now there’s not many of us left – and they’ve decided they really do want to look after us, after all. Otherwise, who’s gonna do the shit jobs? Who’ll be the pigs on their data farm? They need someone to govern, right? As they appear to have belatedly realised.”
Hoodie smirked and drew on his cigarette. Jonah put his empty plate down beside him and tapped the ash from his cigarette into the meat grease on his plate. The rest of the figures in the cavernous room kept watching their screens, faces fixed on whatever they were doing – playing games, watching TV, surfing the internet. Even the big guy in the dark T shirt hadn’t asked for any food. Jonah sat upright and looked at Hoodie.
“So what is it you want me to do if you already have everything you need?”
“Simple”, Hoodie replied, eyes gleaming in his sallow face. “We want to know how to make things. You know, buildings. Trenches. Fix things for ourselves. Get this place going again.”
Early next morning, Buitschaffer stood with an open toolbag in front of a bunch of disinterested onlookers. He’d met the rest of the crew he was supposed to train as they bedded down for the night yesterday – mostly the ones who’d spent the day in front of their screens. A few others came in from foraging expeditions just before nightfall. The ones who had been out foraging returned with rickety shopping carts stuffed with junk of every kind – old clothes, technology, stuffed toys.
Now Buitschaffer faced the whole group on a grassed, flat area outside their bunker. First he taught them how to prepare a piece of ground. Then he showed them how to cut wood to length. How to use a plumb-line for corner cuts. He explained that future lessons would cover framing, flooring, and siding. Hanging doors. Drywalling – or plastering, as the old trade used to be called.
After the lesson that day, Jonah put Hoodie, the fat video games man and a few others to work for him as labourers. Within a week they had their first building up – a long shack. No-one was sure what to use it for, but it was there. The gang were mostly young, unkempt, and of every ethnicity and gender. Buitschaffer noticed three of the women, one barely a teenager, were pregnant, and he feared for the world these children were being born into. But now was no time for fear. He had to teach them how to fend for themselves.
He taught them how to dig trenches and repair siding and plug drywall. He showed them how electrical connections work, and how to repair plumbing. As the days went by, Buitschaffer could tell the gang’s fascination with him was fading, their opinion changing. Where they previously treated him with deference, Jonah sensed growing resentment. Resentment that he was more capable than they would ever be: able to drive a nail straight, tell good wood from bad, and mend and repair his own house.
Buitschaffer moved out of the gang’s compound. He slept in his old, newly fixed, house. There was still no water or electricity, of course. But he’d mended the roof and switched out the rotten siding, covering it with some paint stolen from the gang’s lair. He’d found some emergency candles he could use, as well as digging himself a latrine in the yard. He preferred being alone to sitting underground in their cavernous bunker, watching them stuff themselves with processed food, mooning over re-runs of old TV shows on YouTube, playing video games, or consulting with other survivors in on-line chat forums. Buitschaffer had his library of books and his vinyl records, even if he couldn’t play them. In the mornings, he liked to get up and run through the town’s deserted streets, then come back and take a shower with rainwater from the makeshift boiler he’d rigged up in front of his house. After a simple breakfast, he’d check the crops he’d planted in his freshly-dug vegetable beds and read while he waited for his pupils.
Mostly he read the tatty copy of the Bible he’d been given as a schoolboy thirty-five years ago, the stories of Daniel and the guidance of Leviticus. He lost weight, and cut his greying hair into a severe crew-cut. He now resembled a monk as much as a labourer, like a figure from the Old Testament with power tools. Jonah had plans. Plans to use these people to rebuild the town. Get the generators working again and secure the water supply from the reservoir. Grow fresh crops. Repair the roads.
The few members of the crew who agreed to work for him showed some improvement. Their flabby limbs took shape, and they began to take an interest in gardening, even if they struggled with the basics of carpentry. For the most part, though, he couldn’t get them interested in anything. They were content to sit with their video games, packaged cookies, sports drinks and muffins doled out by the government. In another age, you might have called them useless: in this new world, they were normal.
The day they came for him, Jonah woke up with a sore head from the red wine he’d discovered in a neighbour’s basement. He had zero interest in trying to show the gang how to do anything except recover from a hangover. He turned up anyway because he’d promised he’d show them how to fell trees – use saws, mauling axes, wedges. How to judge the way a tree would drop from the twist in the trunk – and how to allow for that in the angle of the cut.
As he pulled on the starter of his saw, he noticed that blank look in their eyes, the same passive anger he’d seen when he met them. They probably couldn’t wait until break time, Buitschaffer thought, when they could go back down below the earth and sit in front of their hand-held screens, fading into digital oblivion with cheap entertainment and shrink-wrapped snacks. They sprawled on the ground, watching as he cut into one side of an Alder at 45 degrees, removing a thick triangle of trunk. Then he steadied himself behind the tree, spread his legs and started the back cut. One minute later the hundred-foot Alder lay on the ground, ready to be bucked. By now the sun had risen to the point where Buitschaffer could feel its heat on his neck and forearms, a thin rivulet of sweat slipping down his spine. He had acquired a serious thirst and needed some water.
He asked for a drink and a girl looked at Hoodie, who nodded and handed her a bottle of water from his bag. She walked over to Jonah with the bottle, which looked like any of the rest from their compound, GIFT OF THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT on it in white letters. As he twisted the cap off on the bottle, Buitschaffer noticed some of the gang were playing a gambling game on their mobile phones. He raised the bottle to his lips, seeing their faces lit up with excitement, their minds closed to everything except what was happening on their screens.
Buitschaffer drank long and deep. As he closed his mouth and drew the bottle away from him, he felt the burning begin in his throat and tear through his trachea. He fell to the ground and saw the fat man in the black T-shirt heave towards his body wielding a knife. As if some spirit had taken him, it seemed to him that he now stood outside his own body, watching the fat man pierce his side with the knife. Then he saw his life’s blood leave his veins as the gang kicked and stomped him. And he saw them turn from his corpse and slowly trudge back to their computer screens, their video games, internet and junk food. His arms lay sprawled at the side of his body and his spirit flew away from the scene: it was finished
A 2018 recipient of the British Columbia Writer's Award in Canada, James W. Wood’s work has appeared in leading journals around the world, including The Times Literary Supplement (UK), The Boston Review (USA), The Fiddlehead (Canada), Poetry Review (UK), and others. Wood has authored six books of poetry, including Building a Kingdom: New and Selected Poems, 1989-2019 (High Window Press, UK, 2019) and a pseudonymous thriller selected for the Rome Film Festival in 2011. He has been nominated or shortlisted for nine literary awards, including the Bridport Prize and T.S.Eliot Prize. www.der-jimmelwriter.com