L.J. Hasbrouck © 2019
All Rights Reserved
3/9, New Orleans, Louisiana, Orleans Marina, 12:37 a.m.
There are no happy endings. Because when a book ends, the story’s not over. The characters continue to exist in their illusory world, kept alive by the readers long after the author has moved on. Our own existence lacks such perpetuity. We’re born, we live, we die. I’m still wondering when my end will come. All I know is this chapter has ended and a new one is beginning.
Brian closed the journal over his pencil and slid his palm across the warped image of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. A real-life starry night twinkled outside the boat cabin. When he’d been behind the wheel and spotted the Louisiana shoreline, a surge of triumph had lit him with such heat he imagined himself glowing. But the realization there was no one to share the moment with had extinguished his flare of elation.
Flyers and photos stuck out from the pages of his journal. Brian slid them out, craving company in whatever form he could get. He swiped away a smiling man with a deer.
A pair of actors in ’20s garb facing off on a poster for Chicago.
A freckled girl bathed in light, young and beautiful.
A dark-skinned woman in a colorful robe and turban advertising psychic services while an orange tabby napped behind her.
His grandfather caught in a rare moment of laughter with his dog, Rocky, cradled in his lap.
A Polaroid of an Adonis crafted with the same perfection as the marble chiseled by the masters. And the same deceptive impenetrability.
Gone but never forgotten.
Brian swept a thumb over the photo and sighed, regret swelling within his gurgling stomach. He shoved the photos and flyers back into the journal.
After tearing into a tasteless strip of dried fish and following it with water that retained a faint seaweed flavor, he abandoned the kitchen table and descended into the cabin. He crawled into bed and tugged the sheets to his nose. The scent of suntan lotion and burnt wood transported him to a less desolate night.
Brian curled onto his side and embraced the bare pillow beside him. What a hollow victory, returning to the place I tried to escape from.
When Brian woke, he couldn’t identify whether it was day or night. A quick look at the watch he’d stolen from Louis told him it was 10:37 a.m. He glanced at the bedside table, making sure the revolver remained there, and got out of bed. After tugging a worn pair of jeans over his boxers, he pulled on a scratchy long-sleeved shirt, then slipped on a light jacket and zipped it to his neck. Gloves, socks, and cracked leather boots finished out the ensemble.
Brian tucked the gun into his waistband and returned to his journal. He flipped it open to examine the scant inventory list within it.
Inventory P.I. (Post-Island):
Backpacks, 2 (1 waterproof)
Journal (Starry Night), 1
Quiver with arrows, 7
Magnum Revolver (6 bullets)
Cans of assorted food, 16
Boxed food, 4½
Strips of fish jerky, 14
Coffee cans, 2
Bottles of water, 3
Empty bottles, 6
2 pairs of boots
3 pairs of socks
3 short-sleeved shirts
2 long-sleeved shirts
2 pairs of jeans
2 pairs of shorts
Pop-up tent, 1
Sleeping bag, 1
Louis’s map (even has all the old pencil marks)
Suntan lotion, 2 tubes
Bug spray, 1 bottle (half empty)
Matches, 2 boxes
D batteries, 8
Boat key, Orleans Marina
First-aid kit, 1 (missing some odds and ends thanks to Lou’s boo-boo)
“Murder Comes Knocking” (finished, predictable)
Flyers of D/Jonesy and Parker/Spike
Photos of Poppa, Henry, Eva, Louis
Brian closed the journal and tucked it into his bag before those photos tempted him again. He pulled on the backpack, bow, and quiver of arrows, and then put his second backpack on his chest as if it carried a baby, not invaluable supplies. Revolver in hand, he ascended the steps and left behind a cabin saturated with bittersweet memories.
When he stepped into the open air, the blinding light reminded him of the time he’d emerged from the tornado shelter into the wintry landscape of Poppa’s farm. A sheen of snow had hidden the hellish ruins awaiting him, such a brilliant white he saw red when he blinked.
Brian squinted, breathing in salty sea air as a seagull squawked nearby. The water lapping at the dock evoked a misleading sense of tranquility.
I don’t have Grimes to ride. I don’t have Louis to watch my back. No D, no Antoine. All I have are the skills Poppa taught me—and the lessons I learned from everyone else.
Beads of sweat pooled on his skin. His nerves tingled like pretest jitters times a billion. But this test would kill him if he failed.
I doubt Antoine and D are still at his house, but it wouldn’t hurt to check.
He sighed: he couldn’t avoid going through the city without taking a gigantic detour. Anything could have popped up while he was on the island. Stalkers would only hide for so long before their hunger forced them to follow the scents and sounds of their quarry.
The gruesome creatures were no longer as predictable as they’d once been. Brian used to think they’d been solitary, predominantly active during the day. But now he knew they worked together—even if they sometimes ate each other—and also hunted at night. They were adapting to the shifting patterns of their prey.
But the one on the ship spoke to us. And I killed it. So who’s really predator and prey here?
Brian didn’t look back at the boat, tried not to think of the island; he forced himself to stare ahead at the expanse of land and buildings beyond the docks. The snow and ice had given way to mild, pleasant weather.
Winter was over; spring was on the way.
He raised the bow and crept behind buildings, staying low to the ground. Everything around him remained still and silent. The world seemed to have frozen in his absence.
I need a bike. I’ll even take a pink tricycle. Hell, a unicycle, or maybe skates.
He suppressed a laugh at the thought of trying to brake on rollerblades while a Stalker jumped out at him. He’d taken numerous childhood tumbles on them and doubted age would turn him into some rollerblading prodigy. And Louis wasn’t there to snag his hand and stop him from careening into a wall.
Sweeping the buildings along the way would be too dangerous. But he hadn’t forgotten the sniper and her father; it was equally dangerous to be out in the open. One shot and it was all over. One bite, one scratch.
Brian continued through the streets, scanning cars for passengers before he slunk behind them for cover. He glanced at broken windows in the homes of suburban neighborhoods, searching for a flash of metal or the glint of a scope. A bird chirped as it flew overhead. With most of humanity gone, nature would thrive and reclaim Earth—the Stalkers would become another predator in the food chain.
Silence surrounded him once more: the bird had moved on. His boots crunched into the gravel. He avoided the Garden District, where they’d had the close scrape with the ambushing Stalkers in the condo. Instead, he took a detour he’d planned using Louis’s old map, following Robert E. Lee Boulevard to a golf course called Bayou Oaks.
It took us an hour to get here from the condo. It should take me two or three to make it to the cathedral.
Like pages in a photo album, his mind flipped to the image of the young girl’s body splattered on the cobblestone. Kill or be killed. I had to do it.
Escaping his memories and the suburbs, he headed for trees with budding leaves and hills coated with sprouting grass. The verdant vista reminded him of the golf course he’d gone to with D and Louis—and Grimes’s disappointment with the fake turf grass.
Brian shook the thought off and focused on traversing the course behind the sporadic coverage of trees. The exposure of the grassy hills put him on edge, but he preferred it to the clutter of houses and cars. The soothing sight of swans swimming in ponds reassured him life went on regardless of whatever calamities befell the world.
He cut across Filmore Avenue and passed a park surrounded by lush forest. It surprised him that natural beauty and open land existed in a once-bustling city like New Orleans. When a rabbit bounced by in search of food, he stopped to watch it, comforted by the simplicity of its routine.
It just wants to eat in peace and not be bothered by predators. I can relate.
He moved on, leaving the rabbit to pick at strands of grass. He had food—for now.
His passive jaunt ended when he reached a highway littered with cars piled into signs, light poles, and each other. Several had pulled over in the emergency lane or rolled onto the side of the road. Broken glass twinkled from the asphalt. A skeletal arm dangled out of one smashed doorframe, beckoning to anyone who passed by.
Brian sank an arrow into a face grinning at him from one of the busted car windows. Blood dripped into crevices between flesh-knotted teeth as he jerked his arrow out and cleaned it. The creature’s dying chortle faded into a final whimper.
Killing had become as thoughtless to him as lifting a fork to his mouth. As normal as eating salty canned food or drinking tepid water or dunking into a murky river for a bath. But Brian didn’t have time to mull over this unsettling realization—nothing about this life resembled the life he’d led before his mother’s infection. He’d bid that version of himself farewell while he stared into Poppa and Nana’s bedroom mirror, trying to ignore the intertwined bodies he’d put down moments before.
If I stayed the same sheltered, naïve kid I was, I’d be dead now.
Once he crossed to the other side of the highway, he followed Wisner Boulevard south alongside the river. He stopped beside a sign sent from the heavens: “Wheel Fun Rentals.”
“Cute pun,” he muttered. The absence of a reply reminded him he was alone, so he moved on.
Wheel Fun Rentals sat next to a lake. A bloated body floated within the algae-coated water, too decomposed to identify. The thought of some submerged Stalker leaping forth from the water’s edge made a shudder ripple through his flesh and kept him from lingering near the lake.
The inside of the building had been wrecked. Apparently, everyone else thought a bike would be a good idea too. He found only a tandem bike missing a tire and a cruiser with a deflated one.
But Brian had time on his side. Everyone had been in a panic, rushing to grab a bike and go, so they hadn’t stopped to fix the tire. Nor had they taken all the repair kits and pumps lining the shelves.
Brian worked quickly to air the tire and patch it with rubber and adhesive. Once the rubber dried, he rolled the bike out with a satisfied grin. He strapped the backpack from his chest onto both handlebars, relieved to ditch some weight.
Anticipation and trepidation dueled within him as he pedaled along Wisner and Carrollton. Carrollton took him to Conti, the road leading to Antoine’s house. Without Louis and D by his side, the enormity and silence of the city overwhelmed Brian. He continued past buildings and landmarks he recognized, including the cathedral and park where D and Antoine had reunited. Brian avoided the road where the body had fallen, not wanting to see what had become of it.
The pink house with the iron gate sent a swell of relief through Brian. The blue SUV remained behind it, and particleboard still covered the entrances. He climbed off the bike and leaned it against the fence before approaching the gate. It creaked open beneath the gentle pressure of his hand—but Antoine had locked it before they left for the Garden District.
It doesn’t look like someone busted it open. Maybe they made it back and left it unlocked for me.
Brian rolled the bike through the gate and closed it. He spied a small white object in the corner of the SUV’s windshield which hadn’t been there before. The door opened easily and sent the odor of leather and vinyl wafting into his nose. Another benefit of Antoine’s Powerball winnings. After inspecting the vehicle, he climbed into the seat, shut the door, and locked it.
He grabbed and unfolded the paper with eager hands.
To B from D: I left this just in case you got tired of louise and came back for us. We gone to evergreen, brought grimes and jones too. I don’t want to write it here in case someone not you is reading this but theres a way to get into Bros place here if you look for it. we couldnt take all the swag so feel free to crash and relax, eat up and such before you come see us at evergreen. If you readin this just know we love you baby boy and we been thinkin about you. XO Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Cowardly Kitty
Smiling, he folded the note and tucked it into his backpack. He scoured the SUV, shuffling through a book on self-defense, a box of Black & Milds, a pair of cheap sunglasses, and numerous empty fast food bags until he found a key wrapped in the napkin of a grease-spotted Arby’s bag.
His head flopped back against the seat cushion as he exhaled and held the gleaming key in front of him. It’s like I’m playing a video game and unlocked the next level.
He didn’t have time to sit and bathe in his achievement; he hurried out of the SUV and shut the door before rolling his bike with him to the side of Antoine’s condo. He tried the doorknob to see if it was locked and slid the key in. It twisted with a satisfying click. Enter, shut, lock.
The house still possessed a lived-in quality, but the space felt empty without the Etiennes’ boisterous chatter. Brian walked past the worn kitchen table they’d eaten at and slid his palm along the dusty wood. I hope they made it to Evergreen.
He performed a quick inspection of the house but was relieved to find it as pristine as the day he’d left it. Even better: he found a pantry filled with canned and boxed food and a gallon of water. Antoine had even gotten a shopping cart from a Piggly-Wiggly and loaded it with more food.
Brian tore into as much as he could. He’d grown used to suppressing or ignoring his hunger and thirst, and he’d lost several pounds because of it—but since he could eat as much as he wanted now, he was positively gluttonous.
After he finished, he unbuttoned his jeans and collapsed into the chair behind the kitchen table, gazing at the stairs. He’d bounded up them after Antoine and D with Louis behind him, Jonesy weaving in and out of all four pairs of feet. He’d lost his footing at one point trying to avoid Jonesy’s tail, but Louis had been there to catch him.
Brian retraced his steps up the stairs and set his belongings on the bedroom floor. He kept his gun in his hand as he flopped onto the bed and caught a whiff of Antoine’s overpowering cologne. Strong stuff. Louis wore something more subtle—or maybe it was just him. He always smelled good somehow, like burning wood and leather. And cinnamon…
He groaned and rolled onto his side, swatting a pillow with his arm and imagining who might have slept beside Antoine in the double bed. The space he’d once loved in his bed at home now seemed agonizingly bare. As much as he sprawled over it, nothing could fill the void.
Unable to keep his eyes closed, he stared at the cream ceiling and studied the cracks and stains. He was more content with moving, keeping his thoughts occupied with the possibility of encountering Stalkers or strangers, and finding shelter and food. This moment of repose transitioned into torturous languor.
I’m not tired. I have no one to talk to, my tablet’s low on power, I finished Nana’s book, and I’m scared to open my journal because I’ll just look at those damn photos.
Brian screwed his eyes shut and tried to force himself to sleep. It didn’t work. He wandered around Antoine’s home and nosed into every nook and cranny. He learned Antoine had an interest in gardening and cooking and found several jazz records beside an old-fashioned phonograph. Antoine’s DVD shelf had movies ranging from The Shawshank Redemption to Machete.
He stole back to the bed with several of Antoine’s books and flipped through them, but he gave up on reading after his eyes swept past the same paragraph a dozen times and his brain remained too occupied to comprehend the words.
After stacking the books into a pile on the table next to his handgun, he raked his hands through his bangs with an irritated groan. I’m not as good at entertaining myself as I thought. I got spoiled having Louis around to talk to and play games with. Among other things.
His anger toward Louis hadn’t dissipated, but neither had the desire for his company. Brian found this infuriating opposition of emotions impossible to resolve. He dug out his journal and gave in to temptation. He peeked at the perfect body preserved in the Polaroid and relived all the sensations he associated with it. But the image was a spectral echo of Louis’s presence, only catering to one of Brian’s senses when all of them craved appeasement.
He stuck his pencil between his teeth and gnawed on the eraser, then flipped to a blank page and pressed the lead tip against it. Dunno if I’ll ever read this again—or if anyone else will—but what the hell else am I going to do?
There and back again. I’m seeing the same places, doing the same things. Riding the same rollercoaster—but without anyone in the seat beside me.
On the boat, I felt free for the first time in my life. The ocean was around me, an infinite expanse of possibility. No one could tell me where to go or what to do. I was safe and happy.
Making it to the boat, to the island, was an accomplishment. It gave me purpose. I have a purpose now—to get back to Evergreen, to look for Eva—but I don’t feel the same drive.
It’s because he isn’t here.
I guess he was the first thing I ever wanted so badly. No, I convinced myself I needed him. And for some crazy reason, he wanted me too. But when it all went to shit, I ran away from him. Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing. He never abandoned me, but I abandoned him. Despite everything he did, I still worry he’s angry at me for leaving, and I still think about going back to him.
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? But it’s complicated. The entire thing still feels like a dream: the pandemic, the island, and everything in between. A nightmare and a fantasy twisted together. We went through so much together, first when we were growing up, then when we were trying to survive, falling into that bottomless pit of love… I guess I wish I’d stayed long enough to talk with him more, but I was angry, scared, hurt—
And deep down, I knew if I didn’t leave then, I never would.
So what now? We’re both alone, both miserable. The only way I can be with him is in my mind, in concrete memories and abstract fantasies. That’s the same way I “visit” my family, having imaginary conversations with them about things they’ll never know and reliving the times we shared before that awful Christmas.
I guess I’ll stop writing and go close my eyes. I might not sleep, but at least I’ll be with them all again.