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Short Story: The End of Eden


"End of Eden" was first published in 2010 by ResAliens


            The sound of the running engine was something I had not heard in over a year. It began low and throaty over the hazy horizon. At first I thought it was thunder or another earthquake but the sound continued. It sounded like a diesel engine, most likely a truck. Darlene squeezed my hand and we hobbled off into the forest of dead trees. We hid behind the skeleton of a rotten spruce and lay in the soggy bramble.

            I held Darlene’s hand as the sound grew louder. She pressed her face against me and trembled. I kept my head up, one eye peeking out from the side of the trunk. I needed to see.

            There were two pickup trucks. They rumbled along the road, thick smoke pouring from their exhaust pipes. Men with ragged clothes and long beards sat in the beds of the trucks holding rifles. They were silent, looking into the woods with dark, lifeless eyes like those of carrion birds. I dropped my head and waited for them to pass.

            When it was over, Darlene whimpered and said, “I wish you and I were the last two people on Earth, Henry.”

            “You may not have to wait long.”

            She leaned her head on my shoulder and I put my arm around her. I noticed how thin she had become. I could feel her ribs beneath the sweatshirt she wore. Neither of us had been eating enough.              We stepped out of the ashen muck and back onto the road. As we walked, I looked at the grey sky and suddenly wondered what time it was. I had not wondered about the time in weeks, or maybe months. There was little use for time; there were no more dentist appointments, business meetings or cable repairmen. I had worn a watch in the beginning but had tripped and smashed the face on a rock. There was hardly any difference between night and day; just different shades of grey. I’d not seen the sun in four years.



            When we became tired and the grey sky turned a darker grey, we walked a hundred yards into the woods to sleep for the night. We laid out our blankets on top of a tarp.

            “What’s on the menu for tonight?” Darlene asked.

            I looked in my backpack. “Green beans and chicken noodle soup.”

            “Yummy,” Darlene said.

            I opened the two cans with my knife and we sat on our blankets huddled around them. We scraped clean the insides of the cans with our spoons and then licked the lids.

            “Remember that hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant where you proposed to me?” she whispered.

            “Of course.”

            “They had the best chocolate mousse there.” Darlene pulled herself close to me and put her hand across my chest. “Do you think they’ll have chocolate mousse when we get to the coast?”

            “Maybe,” I said

            “Do you really think there are survivor colonies out there?”

            “That man said the fish populations had flourished since all the commercial fishing stopped.”

            “But don’t fish feed on plankton or something that needs sunlight to survive?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “How much food do we have left?”

            “Enough for another day or two,” I said. I didn’t want to tell her there was only one more can. We would need to try to find some more food the next day, searching empty homes and stores. It was always dangerous.

            Suddenly I heard a scream in the distance. I sat up and thought I saw the dim glow of a fire on the horizon. It was not long before I smelled smoke and then there were the two dull thuds of a gun being fired. Darlene shivered and I pulled the blankets up until they touched our chins.

            In the morning we shared the last can of food – peach slices in heavy syrup – and started walking. About an hour later, we came upon a barn that had been burned to the ground. There was a pair of brass bullet casings and tire tracks in the mud. There were two bodies – what was left of them at least. Their arms and legs had been cut off. I saw the white bones on the ground by the cinders of the barn, picked clean of meat.

            Darlene turned away and vomited. I rubbed her back until she had finished. “Can we go?” she asked.

            “Of course,” I said.

            She nodded weakly and we left the barn. It rained on and off for the rest of the day; a cold biting rain. We held the tarp over our heads and around us like a poncho. Through the mist, I could see a turnoff from the road just ahead. As we got closer, a large building appeared through the fog and dead trees. It was large and boxy like a hangar. I wondered if it had been some kind of industrial building or warehouse.

            “We should take a closer look,” I said.

            Darlene stared at the building without blinking. “I think we should keep walking.”

            “Maybe there’s a vending machine no one’s found. At least we can get out of the rain for a bit,” I said.

            Darlene looked at the building while her lips tightened for a moment. “All right,” she said. “But let’s not stay long.”

            “Okay,” I said. I held her hand and we walked down the road toward the building. I noticed that the parking lot was clear of debris. There were no fallen trees or piles of leaves that had been collected by the wind. There was not even a single rusted car with smashed windows. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach but I kept walking.

            The rain slowed to a drizzle as we circled the building. It was a rectangular structure surrounded on three sides by the parking lot. There no windows on the first floor and only a few on the higher levels but I could not see inside them. The forth side faced the woods and as we walked by it, I saw a door without any handle or knob. I pushed but it was locked from the other side.

            We walked around to the other side and tried a different door but it was also locked. “Hey, what are you doing?”

            I looked up and saw a black man leaning out of the upper level window pointing a shotgun at me. He had a trimmed beard and shaved head. He wore a black shirt with cutoff sleeves revealing his muscular arms. “I’m sorry,” I said. “We didn’t know anyone was here, we were just looking for food.” Darlene’s hand was trembling in mine. The man squinted at us and I wondered if this was how I would die.

            Suddenly another head poked through the window. It was an older man with wild white hair, curly beard and round glasses. “Are you two hungry?” he asked.

            “Yes,” I said.

            “It’s raining,” the old man said. “Come inside before you both catch colds. We’re just about to have dinner.”

            We waited until the door swung open. The old man and the man with the shotgun greeted us and motioned for us to come inside. My eyes on the shotgun, I held Darlene’s hand and we entered the building. The first thing I noticed was the lights. There were three of them, hanging from the ceiling and illuminating the room. They were not torches or lanterns but real electric lights. The walls were painted grey but the sheetrock was rotted and crumbling in places. There were leaves and old papers scattered across the floor.

            The man with the shotgun asked us to turn around. I hesitated but he said he only wanted to check us for weapons. He patted us down and when he checked my pocket, he pulled out my knife, looked at it for a minute, then gave it back.

            The old man handed each of us a dry blanket. “You two must be soaked to the bone.” I blinked dumbly at the old man, not sure of what to say. “I suppose introductions are in order,” the old man said. He put out his hand and said, “My name is Seymour Wallace the Third.” It took me a moment to remember to shake his hand. The gesture was alien to me. “Everyone calls me Professor.” He smiled and when I looked into his blue eyes, he looked much younger than I had at first thought.

The Professor nodded to the man beside him and said, “This is the Jerome, our Head of Security. I’m afraid he’s very good at his job.” I noticed that Jerome still held his weapon with an iron grip. He looked like an ebony statue; lean and unflinching. There was an anchor tattooed to his bicep and I read the word SEALS below it.

“This is so exciting,” the professor exclaimed. “Another couple in their child bearing years.”

“What is this place?” I asked at last.

“Forgive me,” the Professor said. “It’s just exciting to have guests. This is Eden, we’re a survivor’s colony.”

“A colony?” I asked dubiously. “How many live here?”

He smiled. “Come see.”

The Professor led us down a hallway lit with more light bulbs. It hurt my eyes when I looked at them and it reminded me of what the sun had looked like. We followed him through a door and into a large room that might have been a conference room once. There were four tables lined up in the middle with plastic patio furniture, computer chairs, and benches. A half dozen people stood up with open mouths when we came in. They were men and women of all different ages and ethnicities. There was even a young boy of about eight or nine and one of the young women held a baby wrapped in cloth.

Their clothes were tattered and shredded like ours but were covered with patches. Their faces were cleaner than ours and the men were clean shaven or had trimmed beards. They were also not emaciated which shocked me the most. When they saw us, there was surprise in their faces and some even smiled. They stood and introduced themselves and after several minutes of handshakes and hugs, they returned to their seats. Darlene cried when she saw the baby and was even allowed to hold it for a moment. I decided they were not the sort to eat other people and was relieved. But how had they survived?

  “Please, have a seat!” The Professor said. He brought us to one of the benches and put a pair of plastic plates and a set of silverware in front of us. “In medieval Europe, it was tradition for guests to break bread with their hosts as soon as they arrived.” Darlene sat quietly beside me. I wondered if she felt as if she had stepped out of her life and into a dream as well. Maybe she was afraid that if she spoke, she would wake up.

Everyone sat down and two women came in carrying large bowls. They set them down on the table and I saw that they were filled with salad. There was a tray of steaming cornbread muffins and another of hardboiled eggs. There were two plastic jugs of water and a smaller one of salad dressing.

“Go ahead,” the Professor said.

Darlene reached for the muffins and I grabbed the salad tongs. I put a heaping portion of salad onto my plate. There were leafy greens, thin slices of green and red peppers, chopped carrots and plump baby tomatoes. I took a muffin and saw that it was glazed with honey. I drizzled dressing onto my salad and smelled basil. I speared an egg with my fork and sat down.

I bit into one of the tomatoes and felt the juice run down my chin. I wiped it and licked my fingers clean. I ate all of my food, licked my lips and then looked eagerly back at the bowls and plates for seconds. But everyone had filled their plates and there was nothing left. I realized with shame that I had already eaten more than my share.

The Professor only looked at me and smiled. “I hope you’ve saved room for dessert.”

Darlene looked up, her thin lips gleaming with salad dressing. “Dessert?”

The Professor left the makeshift dining room and returned, cradling a steaming pie in his arms and I could smell the apples before he even set it on the table. He carved the pie and served a slice to everyone.

“This is incredible,” Darlene said. “It just needs a pinch of cinnamon.”

When everyone was done, I leaned back in our bench and rubbed my stomach. Some of the others talked quietly but besides a few wary sideward glances, we were left alone. The Professor looked rather proud for having fulfilled his hostly obligations.

“I don’t suppose you have any chocolate mousse?” Darlene asked.

“No, but wouldn’t that be wonderful!”

“How is this possible?” I asked. “The electric lights, this food, the whole colony.”

The Professor gave us another child-like smile. He leaned forward in his seat and whispered, “Would you like to see?”

We both nodded and the professor jumped out of his seat. “Then follow me!” He led us back to the hallway and then to a dark stairwell. We walked up one level and I light coming through the outline of a closed door. The whole ceiling was lined with bright lights and it took my eyes a minute to adjust. While I blinked, I noticed how warm the room was. The air was thick with humidity and it reminded me of growing up in Florida.

When my eyesight returned, I could not believe what I saw. The entire floor was a greenhouse filled end to end with plants, trees, flowers and bushes. I walked down one row and brushed my fingers against the purple flowers of lavender. There were fresh fruits and vegetables everywhere; fat ripe tomatoes, green and red apples hanging from trees, rows of peppers of all colors and shapes. There were stalks of corn and little trees drooping with lemons and limes. I picked a strawberry off a bush and ate it; green stem and all. There were olive trees whose tops touched the high ceilings and there was metal scaffolding with vines running up their lengths. I heard clucking and saw a fenced off area with two dozen chickens. “Eden,” Darlene whispered.

The door opened to the stairwell and Jerome stood watching us with his arms crossed. He no longer carried his shotgun, but didn’t look any less intimidating.

“We produce just enough food to sustain us,” the Professor said. “If you and your wife would like to stay, we could accommodate you though we would need to reduce our rations until floor three is ready.”

“No one gets a free ride,” Jerome said. “Every person here has a role to fill; we have security, a doctor, two agricultural specialists, foragers, a mechanic and a carpenter. We all work hard to get this.”

“We’re not afraid to work,” Darlene said.

“What is happening on floor three?” I asked.

“We’ve just finished building and planting a second garden,” the Professor said. “In two months, we’ll double our food production.”

“But without the sun or gasoline, how can you do this?  What powers all of these lights?” I asked.

“Wood,” the Professor said. “It’s the one resource we still have plenty of. When wood is heated to around four hundred degrees Fahrenheit, it creates wood-gas.”

“Wood-gas?” I repeated. I had never heard of such a thing.

“In Germany during World War Two, many civilians converted their cars to run on wood-gas. We only use it to keep our generators running. The generators recharge our supply of batteries. The batteries power the UV lights and the lights grow food.”

“Any food waste we have goes into the compost pile,” Jerome said. “And the worms turn it into fertilizer that keep the plants healthy. Everything is a cycle.”

“Running the lights is the easy part,” the Professor said. “It was finding all of the seeds that was difficult.”

I looked one last time at all of the plants and living things that only that morning I was sure I’d never see again. The professor brought us back down to the main floor and showed us to a supply closet that was empty except for some boxes stacked in the corner. “This can be your bedroom,” the Professor said. “We’ll get those boxes out of there tomorrow and see about getting you a lightbulb.”

We covered the floor with the blankets in our backpack and the ones the Professor had given us. Darlene kissed me goodnight and curled up in the blankets. I watched for a few minutes as she fell asleep, murmuring dreamily. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep and left to see if anyone else was still awake.

I walked down the halls and heard voices coming from dining room. I poked my head in and saw Jerome and the Professor sitting at the table. “Are you a night owl too?” the Professor asked. “Come join us.”

I sat down and they put a ceramic mug in front of me. “Would you care for some wine, Henry?” He poured some red wine into the cup from a plastic jug. “I made it myself though I’m still working on the recipe.” The Professor nodded for me to take a sip. “Have you seen many people on the road?”

“Some,” I said. “Other refugees going west or east, wherever they’ve heard there’s still food.”

The Professor nodded. “When our second garden is ready, we’ll be able to support twenty five people. In a year I could grow enough food for a hundred.”

“It’s a nice dream,” Jerome said and looked at me. “What the Professor forgets is that most of those people don’t want to be saved. Most of them can’t be saved.” I thought of the men in the trucks with the black eyes and shivered.

“Perhaps you’re right,” the Professor said. “But we must try.”

“We have to worry about the people here. It isn’t our responsibility to feed or protect the people outside of these walls,” Jerome said.

“We cannot rebuild with a dozen people,” the Professor said.

“You’re right,” Jerome said. “But, we need to take care of ourselves first. In lifeguard school they teach you to never jeopardize your own safety to save someone else. If you drown, who’s going to save you?” Jerome took a sip of his wine and half-smiled, probably hoping that would be the end of the discussion, I thought.

The Professor nodded. He leaned back in his ripped leather computer chair and look for a long time at the electric light bulb hanging at the far end of the room. “When the Titanic went down,” he began, “there were a dozen lifeboats that could have saved hundreds of people in the water. However, the crews waited to save the swimmers until they began to freeze because they feared they would capsize the boats. By the time they tried to rescue the people, they were all dead.” The Professor took a sip of wine and he suddenly looked much older than he had when Henry met him. “How many places like Eden do you think are out there? How many survivors’ colonies have you seen in your travels, Henry?”

Jerome and I looked at each other and finally we both shook our heads.

“We might be it,” the Professor said. “We might be the last lifeguards on Earth. It’s not enough to survive and let the rest of the world drown.”

Jerome looked through the table and sighed. “Okay, Professor,” he said. “Okay.”

 

The days that followed were long and exhausting but fulfilling as well. There was a routine that we followed. We woke up every morning and I joined the group of foragers. We left early and collected things to bring back. Sometimes we filled wheelbarrows with soil to bring to the colony or wood to be stockpiled by the generators. There was an old truck that had been converted to run on wood-gas and sometimes we drove to nearby towns. We scavenged for anything useful. We collected car batteries that weren’t corroded. We took blankets and clothes if they weren’t too rotten. We found the ashes of a library one day and found some books in the rubble that hadn’t been destroyed. The Professor was collecting books for a library. We found a rusted generator in someone’s basement and carried it out to our truck. Anything that could be useful, we claimed.

For breakfast we had eggs and flat cornmeal bread with honey and tea. Lunches were small but every night we ate dinner together. There was the sense of a community that I thought I would never feel again.

Darlene helped in the gardens. She told me how she watered and fertilized the gardens and learned to check the Ph levels of the soil. She picked fruit and trimmed trees. I told her about all of the things we had found that day. Her eyes became less sunken and regular meals began to undo what four years of malnutrition had done to her body.

One night Darlene and I went to bed and I began kissing her neck. We made love but at the end I was too excited and did not pull out in time. She sobbed in my arms while I tried to calm her down. “I’m sure you won’t get pregnant,” I said.

“But what if I am?”

“I’m sure you’re not,” I said. “And even if you were, would it be so bad? It’s the natural order of things and maybe it wouldn’t be so bad here, in this place.”

“There’s nothing natural anymore,” she said and finally stopped crying.

We began putting up the signs along the road the day after the Doctor told Darlene she was with child. The signs all said the same thing; Eden Colony Ahead: Food, Shelter, Doctor. Once every few days, we’d shoot a flare into the sky around noon. Jerome and two others protested and after a long, drawn out argument, the Professor called for a vote. It was funny; only a few weeks ago, Darlene and I were one of the refugees we were now arguing about saving. I wanted nothing more than to say ‘no’ and keep the colony our own secret. However, when I realized we would probably have been dead by now if not for the Professor, I knew I had to vote with him.

The first person arrived only a few days later. It was an old woman with bronchitis and she died the following afternoon. No one knew her name. We buried her at the far end of the parking lot and marked her grave with a cross made from a broken mop. The Professor had the idea that her grave should be a memorial for all the people that died without names.

It wasn’t for two more weeks that our fears of being discovered by those more malevolent than refugees came true. I woke with a start late one night and heard three shrieks of Jerome’s whistle. Darlene and I ran up stairs to the garden and looked out the window where Jerome stood. It was raining outside but I could see the flickering lights of torches in the distance and the groan of a diesel engine as a pickup truck bounced down the road towards us. Soon everyone stood by the windows and we all waited silently to see what would happen. They fired the first shot.

A window shattered and the women screamed. We ducked to the floor as they fired a few more times. Jerome pumped his shotgun and someone else aimed a hunting rifle out the window. It was not long before the first kerosene bottle smashed through a window. Flames spread across the floor and danced along the wooden pallets where the plants grew. The Professor grabbed a bucket of water and tossed it on the flames. The fire hissed but the plants began to catch fire as well. Two more bottles came through the windows.

“We have to get out of here!” I yelled. But the professor and most of the others were trying desperately to put out the flames. I watched Jerome fire twice out the window before he was shot in the chest. He collapsed to the ground still clutching his weapon.

“Grab our things,” I said to Darlene. “And meet me at the back door.” She nodded and left. I called to the others but everyone was either trying desperately to put out the flames, or writhing on the ground. I grabbed an empty backpack and stuffed it with fruits and vegetables and some canned food that was on the shelves. I zipped it shut and was about to run down the stairs but hesitated. There were several metal buckets of plant seeds sitting on the floor. I grabbed a handful, put them in my pocket and ran down stairs.

Darlene was waiting by the door. I opened it an inch and looked out. I did not see anything besides the rain. “We’ll run for the woods,” I said. Darlene nodded. We sprinted for the cover of the rotten trees just beyond the yard. When we got to the trees, we ducked behind them and caught our breaths. I watched as the pickup truck drove from one end of the parking lot to the other while the men inside shot at the colony and lobbed more bottles at the windows. The men in the truck howled and screamed like crazed demons. Smoke was gushing from the broken windows and the fire was beginning to crawl up the side of the warehouse.

The side door opened and the Professor came running out waving his arms. “Wait,” I heard him yell. “Wait, we have food. We can save you.” But when the men in the trucks saw him, they leaned over the side of the truck, shot the Professor and he died in the rain.

Darlene and I huddled together behind the trees shivering in the rain. We watched the warehouse burn even after the pickup truck and the half dozen men that rode in it had left. The roof caved in and the whole structure came down on itself, billowing smoke, flames, and ash high into the grey night sky. When the morning came – a lighter shade of grey – the rain had mostly stopped with only a few small fires burning in the rubble. Darlene was hypnotized by the wreckage of the colony, unable to look away. When at last she did, I helped her to her feet and we began our walk down the road.

 





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