They built the house out of scrap lumber and blankets, using trees to help support the walls. Mom dug a cooking pit within a knot of roots; Dad made them beds out of leaves and moss. They asked their seventeen-year old daughter, Hester, to make the place pretty, so she strung feathers across the door and drew a mural of the ocean on the plywood. The whole house was no larger than a room. “Not much like home,” Mom said. “No,” Dad said. “But at least this one’s not burning.”
In the mornings, Hester woke first, stepping out into the wet woods and listening to the noises shift from the night twirls of bugs into the coo and chirps that came with the light. All her life, she’d awoken to the sounds of fishing boat engines and unreformed men. They’d lived on the edge of the land in a failing town. But even they weren’t spared the fires.
“Everything’s so quiet,” Mom said, stepping out through the blankets of their new home and cradling one of the cups they’d saved. She’d made an herb drink out of roots and grasses. She sucked it down in the same way she once went through wine. “I feel like I might just drift away,” she said, and her hands shook so hard, her wedding ring banged against the ceramic of the cup.
In the evenings while Mom sat shaking and losing her hair, Hester went hunting with her father. They’d whittled sticks into spears and crafted a few crude traps. So far, they’d only killed squirrels. “Bet we get a deer today,” Dad said as they picked their way down an embankment. He made that bet every day — the bartender in him still slipping out in bursts of assurances he intended no one to believe.
“Dad,” Hester asked as dusk crawled into night. “Are we ever going back?”
Dad leaned on his spear and looked out into the woods. “Back to what?” he asked.
“There must be something left.”
“Hester,” he said and put his hand on her arm. “The whole world burned.”
The news reports had started on a Sunday afternoon. Fires rising up in Athens and New York and London and Hong Kong, spreading outwards from the biggest cities, following the roads, the towns, the phone lines across oceans, consuming whatever man had made. Judgment. A quantum accident. The Earth shaking them free like a bad case of fleas. Everyone had a theory. By Tuesday, the fishing boats outside Hester’s window had taken to the waves while those who owned no boats built sandbag walls, the snowing ash collecting in their hair. “Pray,” people said. But Hester’s father said, “Run.”
“Maybe there’s something left,” Hester said as Dad checked each of their traps, finding nothing but leaves and beetles. “I’m sure we’re not alone.”
Dad picked a fat black beetle from the dirt and held it tight between his fingers. “I hope we’re not,” he said and then crushed the beetle with a crack. He handed one piece to his daughter and held the other close to his mouth. “This is no way to live.”
As the days went by and they lost track of the months, Dad and Hester stopped their hunts for deer and began their search for other survivors. Mom had stopped her shaking — stopped moving altogether, turning the color of roots, of things that have no thoughts or dreams. Her eyes sat deep in her face and what hair she had left looked ready to blow away with the slimmest gust. Dad and Hester weren’t much better, their clothes fitting only with vines looped as belts around their waists. Their breath smelled of dirt. Of rot. Hester could feel her bones trying to puncture her skin. She did not know how much longer they could continue to search, but she had no thoughts of giving up. In the years before the fires, she’d seen plenty of movies — apocalypse stories — where there was always a safe zone, a walled city, an outpost where the last stragglers had regrouped and started again. “There has to be that place,” Hester said.
And Dad said, “Maybe we’re that place.”
One morning, after summer had gone, Dad and Hester awoke to cold and fog and left Mom with strips of squirrel meat and berries and a glass of herbed water. They were going to hike all the way to the shore. “Two days,” Dad said and touched his wife’s cheek. For a flash of a moment, there was a hard light in Mom’s eyes, an echo from their former life — a crosswise glare that dropped Dad to his knees. For weeks, Hester had watched Dad help her mother eat, and clean herself, and crawl under the blankets at night. Often, he’d lean in and whisper into her ear “What’s your fucking problem?” in that same mock-angry way he used to do when she corrected his count of the register or pointed out when he’d forgot to lock the bar at closing. But now, in their wooded hovel of a home, he said nothing as he placed a hand on Mom’s thigh. His face seemed to soften, to smooth as if returning to a state long forgotten even before the fires, a time before Hester and obligations, when he’d measured futures in something more splendid than cases of whiskey and the number of fishing boats docked in port. “Sweetheart,” he said, his gaze locked on Mom’s. But whatever light had moved through her had gone cold again. She was as she had been. Blank. Rooted. Hester took a step back at the sight. And listened to the air collapse from Dad’s lungs.
Without a word, Hester left her father within the plywood and damp blankets. She walked far enough into the woods so she’d hear nothing from the house if there was anything to hear. All her life she’d seen her parents move in circles around one another, rarely touching but always together, at home, at the bar, their conversations so brief Hester’s friends thought she was the daughter of foreigners. “I bet you can’t wait to get out of here” her friends said. And she said, “Yeah, I can’t,” because that’s what they all said. That’s what any kid would say in a town where the docks sat half empty and entire rows of houses looked out through boarded windows. We’ll go to New York. To Hollywood. We’ll go anywhere. “Anywhere,” Hester would repeat, unable to admit she had no desire to leave. Unable to put into words the feeling she got when she sat with her parents for dinner and the entire world sat solid around them. Why would she ever want to run? There was no reason to. Not then. And, it had seemed to Hester, not ever.
Amidst the trees and morning fog, Hester heard her father’s footsteps approaching from the direction of the house. Before she could ask him anything, he said, “She’ll be fine,” and headed off in the direction of the sea, his pack strapped to his back and a spear serving as a walking stick. Hester hurried after. She wanted to ask if Mom really was fine. If Dad really wanted to make the hike. But she knew the answers to such questions would be so brief as to be meaningless — or worse, they’d be lies. So she said nothing and, for hours, neither spoke, the two of them picking their way through the thick coating of leaves, brambles clawing at their shoes. In the past weeks, they’d gone only as far as they could travel in half a day, turning around when the sun sagged above them. They’d found beer cans and rifle shells and the detritus left by men who’d come and gone before the fire. They saw no planes. Heard no engines. They finally decided if there were survivors, they’d be at the shore, fishermen come back with their boats and others coming out of the woods to live off of fish and crab. Hester had thought they might not make it to the sea in just a day. But as the shadows thickened with the arrival of night, she stopped and realized she heard more than just the wind in the trees. She heard the murmur of waves. Hester grabbed her father’s hand and he squeezed back hard. Together, they ran, spears held to their sides. The trees opened up as grass replaced the leaves. And then, there it was: the flat blackness of the ocean stretching out until it touched the lowest stars.
“Look,” Dad said and pointed down the rocky beach to where the shadow of a shrimper sat tilted on the shore. Winded and slowed by the absence of the sun, they did not run so much as trot and then stop and then walk and then look at one another, Dad’s face thinned and bearded, unrecognizable from his earlier self except for those barman eyes, wide and waiting for the truths people wished existed.
“Do you think they have food?” Hester asked.
“They could have a lot of things,” Dad said.
As they approached the shrimper — just a silhouette in the dark — they both began calling out, saying they were unarmed, asking if anyone was there. They shouted and shouted. But the ship sat in a hulk of silence. And the closer they came, the more Hester feared they weren’t going to find anyone. The wind kicked and the air tasted of char. Then she realized the blackness of the hull was due to more than mere shadow. The ship was burned. The metal pocked and bubbled, the backside already crumbling into piles of glinting ash.
They could not climb aboard. They saw no sign of survivors.
“How?” Hester asked as they sat in the sandy grass, the ocean rolling in without care, without answer as to how a ship untethered to the world could meet the same end as everything else. Could burn in the water alone.
“Maybe it was an accident,” Dad said, ripping off chunks of the cooked squirrel they’d brought. They’d hoped for fish and shrimp and clams. But they could catch none of that in the dark without nets or poles. Neither of them ate much. Hester pulled her thin blanket around herself, feeling as if there was nothing separating her bones from the roughness of the wool. “We’ll look more tomorrow,” Dad said. “I’m sure there’s something more.”
When morning arrived, they sat where they’d slept and tried to force down more of the tough meat. Together, they collected their few things and worked their way back up the embankment to see in the sun what they’d been unable to see in the darkness the night before. The sight caused Hester to reach for her father. There was, of course, the burned-out shrimper where they’d slept. But the boat was not alone. All along the shore lay the blackened wreckage of fishing boats, thirty or forty of them, their overturned hulls like the wash of a fish kill, the ocean bringing back its dead.
“Dad?” Hester said, wanting him to tell her that it was all some accident, that the fires hadn’t found ships on the sea. That the flames weren’t still roaming, still seeking out everything built by man. That surely such a power would never find a makeshift house in the woods.
Dad continued staring at the carcasses of ships. “We have to go home,” he said.
“But,” Hester said. “What if there’s ”
“We have to go home,” Dad said louder and tugged Hester hard enough to turn her around, away from the shore. “Come on,” he said and hurried forward, spear swinging as he headed back into the woods. Hester struggled to follow, her legs sore and her mind hazed with what she’d just seen. She remembered those two days as the fire neared their town, the TVs going out, the radios going to static, the whole sky hanging gray as if reaching down to suffocate them. The churches couldn’t contain the people. Nor could the bars. Hester’s father poured every drop he owned into the cups of the waiting. Hester helped as best she could, collecting money that already seemed worthless, making men move their friends who’d collapsed on the floor. One man, an old shrimper with whisky eyes, took her by the wrist. She tried to break free, but he pulled her closer. He said, “How does it feel to be a flea?” and then he laughed until he coughed and choked and released his hold of her. She did little the rest of that day, spending most of it on the low brick wall by the school she’d attended since the sixth grade. Classes were canceled. Her friends were in churches or on boats headed out into the ocean. All those plans — of Hollywood and big cities and her own simple plan of going full time at her father’s bar, of meeting a man who came from somewhere far, who thought their town to be the perfect place to settle down — all of that seemed so stupid. So foolish. “You’ll have to move away someday,” her mother had said just a few days before the fires. And Hester had said, “No, I don’t.” As if such choices were hers to make. As if anything was ever solid and she could be content to sit unmoving.
Walking back from the burned-out boats, Hester drifted into a numbness, not noticing her own hunger or the way the limbs of the trees scraped across her face. She followed her dad as if attached by a rope, veering when he did, speeding up when he did. By late-afternoon, they had come within a mile of their makeshift home, the trees familiar in their mesh of branches, interwoven to form their own unique language. You are here. And nowhere else. Dad hadn’t slowed all day, but now he came to a stop, leaning his weight on his spear. Like a beggar. Like a leper, Hester thought and watched his sharp ribs expand with heavy breaths. She thought she should say something. But she said nothing, waiting until Dad lifted his head and looked back her way.
“We shouldn’t have left her,” he said. “We didn’t need to see that.”
Hester looked out into the woods, unsure what her father meant. It seemed to her that they needed to see those ships. That they needed to know what was to come.
“Let’s go,” Dad said and raised his body up — what was left of his body — his clothes filled more with air than man. They made their way slower now, the sounds of daylight waning, the birds letting out their last chirps as here and there crickets gave sharp cries, testing the readiness of the world. Hester didn’t know what to expect. She knew her father thought the worst. A burnt hovel. A woman’s body charred where she’d sat unblinking. But when they arrived, they found no smoke or fire. Just their home sagging and damp and Mom sitting where they’d left her. The meat was untouched. The berries crawled with ants. Dad stopped in the doorway and held the blanket to the side. He seemed about to speak, but the words never came. Instead, he moved inside and propped his spear against a tree just as he always did. Slowly, he picked the berries from the ground and tossed them outside. Then he smelled the meat and returned the pieces to a can by the cooking pit. Hester hovered behind, watching her father move in circles around Mom, touching her knees, her last bits of hair, her arm.
“Are you going to tell her?” Hester asked, her pack still on, her spear in her hand. Dad sat on the ground beside Mom. For a moment, they looked almost as they had in the years before the fire, sitting in the kitchen with their whiskey and wine, not speaking but not looking anywhere except at each other. The sight of them acting so calm made Hester take a step back, feeling the feathers around the door brushing the top of her head. “Are we just going to stay?” she asked.
Dad looked down at the cup of water he’d left at Mom’s feet. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
“Don’t we?” Hester said.
Dad lifted the water and held it up to Mom’s cracked lips. She drank, her throat rolling with the effort. “We can’t carry her,” Dad said and then reached forward and patted the ground. “Sit,” he said, his eyes taking on that barman’s look again, the promise that there was nothing a seat and drink couldn’t cure.
Hester rested her spear against the door and knelt in front of her parents. She put one hand on Dad’s knee and the other on Mom’s. Even through the denim of their pants, they both felt cold and brittle. “We can’t stay,” Hester said and looked at her father and then her mother. “We’re going to go,” she said. “I’m going to start walking and then you both can follow.” She stood and looked at them until she couldn’t bear to look anymore.
“It’s okay,” her father said as she pulled back the blanket. “It’s okay.”
“Just follow,” Hester said, taking her spear before walking out the door and into the night. She did not move quickly, but she did not hesitate either. She told herself again and again that her parents were not so rooted as to think they could avoid what was sure to come. Even Mom would stand when she had to. Hester was sure of it. As she moved through the leaves and brambles, she listened for footsteps following behind. She listened and listened as the night moved deeper. She was sure she’d hear them coming. Even when she turned and saw the glow of fire above the trees, she knew she wasn’t alone.