Edition 31: Pevel Was Here by Michael Stroh
The gull watches Pevel with tired eyes and Pevel watches it back.
“Hello there,” Pevel says.
The gull hops a little closer along the blackened phone pole. Lets out a meager squawk and cocks its head suspiciously. The gull is a scrawny, dusty thing with bent feathers and patches of gray flesh laid bare by harsh winds, maybe worse. The bird is a sorry sight, but still Pevel smiles.
“Do you know what that means, my dear?” he says. “Means we’re getting close. Unless this poor fellow’s far from home.” He watches the dust roll over the distant ground as if pushed by giant unseen hands. “Like us.”
Pevel reaches out his hand and the gull blinks, hops a little closer. Pevel reaches into his coat and pulls out the folded, glossy paper. Unfolds it, holds it up so the bird can see.
“Have you seen this place?” he says. “Are we close?”
The gull looks at the paper, blinks. Pevel folds it up again neatly and tucks it away. He unzips his pack and pulls out the old canteen, tilts it back, lets his tongue catch a few drops and puts the lid back on. The gull hops closer.
“I don’t have anything for you,” he says. “Wish I did.” Pevel lets out a long breath. “I need your help.”
The gull is close now, close enough to eat from his outstretched hand, but his hand is empty. Pevel snatches up the bird in a blur of speed with one hand and breaks its neck with the other as if wringing water from a rag. Pevel sighs. A few gray feathers fall without sound. He holds the crumpled bird in his hands.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Two days without food, I need to make the coast. Thank you.”
Pevel brings the twisted bird up close to his forehead, closes his eyes.
“Dust to dust,” he whispers, but no one hears.
“We need to leave town,” he said.
She just looked at him, the voice of the newsman chattering in the background, spouting off what was coming like the weekend forecast.
“… the ground below Yellowstone continues to warn us, yet scientists fear the eruption will only be the beginning. Their word? Catastrophic…”
Then the ground shook beneath them and she grabbed his shoulder. An empty glass fell and shattered.
“…chain of devastating earthquakes could reach as far as…”
“Pack a bag,” he said. “It’s not safe in the city. We have to leave tonight.”
“Where is it safe?” she said. “You heard what they’re saying.”
“We’ll be trapped in the city if something happens. Our chances are better somewhere else. Don’t know where, maybe south.”
“What’s south?” she said as the ground shook again.
“I don’t know. Just pack your bag, okay? We leave tonight.”
Pevel walks along the road, his pack bouncing on his back like a record stuck on the same endless beat. He looks up into the forever gray sky. Ash drifts along the surface of the ground, settles and moves again. He knows the sun’s up there, somewhere. He can see its faint glow peeking through just enough to make midday look like dusk, but he can’t feel it. He wonders if he’ll ever feel its warmth again.
He stops, scans the road ahead. Another fault line, this one splitting the road straight across. A handful of cars are sitting before it, the other side raised up too high to let them pass. Their drivers now long gone, and Pevel wonders how many of them are still alive. He walks over slowly, watching for any sign of life in the cars. Hears only the wind and the sole of his left shoe flopping on the cement. He comes up to the first and pulls the rear door open. An inch of dust and ash drops from the frame and whispers into the breeze. He looks both ways, peers inside. Empty bottles, dirty rags, a dead rat belly up on the seat, too long-dead to eat.
The rest of the cars the same. No food. The place had already been searched. He would see about climbing up on one of the cars to make it over the fault line, and continue south on the road. Maybe see about a fire and cooking up his dinner.
The smoke rose for miles and seemed to climb higher into the sky every time she looked back. The darkness rose and spread like a curtain being pulled over the face of a corpse. Pevel fiddled with the radio as he walked. Still only static. He saw her looking at it in his hands.
“No local signals is all that means,” he told her. “I’m sure we’ll pick up something soon.”
It was their eighth day on foot and their packs still pulled on their shoulders. They had driven as far as they could, until they saw a line of cars plunge headlong into a massive fault that opened in front of them on the freeway. They didn’t talk again about it. About the screams they heard from those falling and the silence afterward.
“Pevel. Look,” she said quietly and pointed ahead on the road. Looked like three men sitting there in filthy clothes, as if waiting for something, a bus that would never come. “Do you think they need help?”
A few minutes later their packs were gone and the two of them kept going. As they walked, he wiped away the blood running down his cheek with his sleeve. She held tight onto his hand and cried.
Pevel watches the bird blacken on a stick over the fire. He wouldn’t be getting much meat from the thing, but it would be enough to keep him going another day or two, maybe more. The twigs crackled and he sees her making bacon for him in the kitchen, wearing one of his shirts. She turns and smiles.
Pevel hears nothing but the fire. He throws some more brush and a few branches on and watches the flames dance there in the dark. He keeps it low to avoid drawing attention. But it’s been weeks since he’s seen another soul, alive anyway. Bodies scattered like leaves in the towns, starvation or the smoke took most, others fighting for what’s left. But where the smoke was thickest, the people didn’t have time to starve.
He wonders how many are left, why he of all people should be spared so long. A blessing or a curse, he wonders. He tries to laugh but coughs instead.
He peels away what’s left of the bird’s feathers with the hunting knife. He eats more skin and bone than meat, but lets nothing waste. He tells himself it was a mercy to kill the gull. It was dying a slow death already. Pevel looks into the fading embers and then at the knife, turning it over slowly in his hands.
“Why don’t you wait out here? Let me go have a look. Maybe there’s still some food.”
Pevel walked up to the gas station. It looked empty, the windows were broken and the open sign hung eerily on the door. He knew the pumps had been dry for a while now, and there was no more fuel coming. The shop had surely been looted but it was worth a look. They were hungry and he told himself there wasn’t anyone left in town to worry about.
The door opened and a bell jingled over his head, alerting the bare shelves to his presence. And even from the doorway he could tell the place was empty, at least of food. He stepped past a few aisles, wishing he didn’t have to tell her they would stay hungry a while longer when he heard a noise. There was a man standing behind him, watching her through the window. He was balding, wore large glasses.
“That’s a nice looking woman,” he said and didn’t turn to look at him. “She yours?”
“We don’t want any trouble. Just looking for food, we’ll be on our way.”
“Who wants trouble?” he said and coughed deeply, adjusted his belt. “Maybe we can work something out.”
Pevel looked to the door but the man was already blocking the way. He tried to run but the man was on top of him, hands around his neck. Sweat ran off the man’s forehead and dripped onto Pevel’s cheek. Pevel was already weak and the world was fading fast. He batted his arms uselessly against him. Thought about his wife standing outside. Unable to protect her. Then his hand found the handle of something in the man’s vest pocket. He pushed, twisted, and the world faded reluctantly back to color. He felt the warmth cover his hand, run down his arm. To Pevel, the man looked surprised to see the long hunting knife sticking into his side. Just stayed frozen looking down at the knife, his hands still on Pevel’s throat. Pevel pulled out the knife and stabbed the man once more, twice more through the heavy coat and into soft flesh until he was able to push him off. Pevel struggled to his feet, gasping for breath, his hands slipping in the blood. He looked down at the man, who looked up at him with blank eyes blinking, holding onto the handle of the knife sticking from his side.
Pevel gave the shop one final glance. Nothing left of value. His eye caught the vivid color on a metal rack as he passed by. A wall calendar sealed in plastic with a beach on the cover, blue water, palm trees. He blew the dust off and the colors flashed brighter in his eyes. He tucked it under his arm and turned for the door. Then turned back. Stepped over the man still holding the knife. Pevel bent over, moved the man’s hand aside. It fumbled back to the knife but Pevel brushed it aside again. Gripped the handle and pulled it out of the man. Wiped the blade on his shirt. Took the man’s pack from the counter, put the knife inside. Walked out.
She put her hands to her mouth when she saw the blood.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
Pevel walks along a field that once was an orchard stretching for miles. He tries to imagine the fruit the trees once held, its shape, color. Tries to remember the last piece of fruit he tasted, but nothing comes to mind. An orange? It seems so long ago. The old orchard is now only death, trees bent and twisted black as far as he can see, a thousand withered hands forcing their way out of the dry earth. He tries only to look ahead to the cracked road but the branches seem to reach for him as he walks.
He feels another tremor but it fades as quickly as it started. He feels them most at night when he is lying still on the ground, looking up, imagining the stars that still exist, somewhere out there, above the black. Sometimes they wake him, and sometimes he wonders if the ground will open beneath him and swallow him in fire. It doesn’t keep him awake as it once did.
He was happy for a while seeing people less and less. It meant less of a threat. But now he thinks he would gladly risk his life for even a look at another person, or a fellow traveler to share a mile or two of the empty road. He wants some reminder, some sign that he is not alone. He walks the dusty miles under the dusty sky and feels like an astronaut stranded on a distant planet, forced to wander. Every day he wonders if he will make it. Every day he wonders if he will have the strength to reach the shore. The days run together, time holds no meaning when you can’t see the sun. But still he walks.
And then a sign ahead. It juts out of the earth proudly. He walks up to it, brushes the dust and ash from its surface, painting long swathes of bright colors with every brush of his hand. Beneath the ash is a wide mural, children smiling, playing together in the sun. The colors make him smile, and so do the words written there: CORPUS CHRISTI BEACH. His eyes surround the words, search them deeply as if it’s all a trick and a truer look might bring other words instead. But they remain even though faded and worn. They remain, and Pevel feels tears forming in his dry eyes.
“Well, my dear,” he says. “We’re almost there.”
They sat beside a small fire and shared a can of beans. Pevel poured a few beans into his hand, passed the can to her. She reached for it, but pulled her hand back as if she had touched the flames instead. She lurched forward and coughed deeply. Wheezed the breath back in and coughed again. She pulled the rag back from her mouth and he saw blood there. A fresh wet stain of black in the near dark. She tossed the rag aside as if to hide it, and he said nothing.
Beside them, propped up against the log was the calendar with the beach on the front. She reached for the can he was still holding out for her and took it.
“How much longer?” she said.
“I don’t know. At the rate we’re going now, maybe a month or two. Hard to say, but soon.”
He looked at the photograph. In the firelight the water seemed to move, its surface shimmering under foreign sun.
“There will be food there,” he said. “I can fish, cook it right on the beach. We can find some shelter. Maybe a little house by the water somebody left behind. When I look at that picture I can almost feel the warmth of the sun. Can you? Can you feel the sun?”
“I want to, Pevel. I want to feel it, but it’s so cold.” She coughed some more. “I don’t know if I can make it much farther.”
“Well, we can’t be far now.”
“This cough,” she said. “It’s getting worse, Pevel.”
“All this ash we’re breathing. Taking a toll on me too.”
“No, not like this,” she said, her voice straining against the words. “Can feel it in my bones.”
Pevel grabbed a stick and poked at the fire. Sparks crackled and rose, disappeared. “It’ll pass,” he said. “It will pass.”
Pevel takes off his shoes and throws them. Climbs up the sandy ridge and stands at the top, raising his hand to cover his eyes but the sun’s glare off the water is only imagined. The earth is no brighter over the ridge, nor any warmer. The air is gray and thick like a frozen fog. So too the sand beneath his toes. He can’t see far enough to see the water, but he can smell the salt, can taste it on his tongue.
“I think we made it,” he says, and stumbles down the other side of the ridge, laughing. He picks himself up, weakly but eagerly. Runs down the gray beach toward the smell of the water. He reaches out his hand as he runs, holds it out, half expecting to feel the warmth of her fingers. To share the moment.
Can you see it? Can you feel the sand, hear the water crash down and retreat? Can you feel the shade of the Palm leaves stretching out over our heads? Can you see our little home by the sea with our name written there?
Yes, Pevel. I can see it.
Pevel slows as the sand drops down, feels a seashell scratch his heel. The mark of the tide, but there is no water. The sand is bone dry and the shells cracked and scorched. He walks farther, the gray shells bared like rows of uneven teeth. Skeletons of fish and birds scattered, smiling up at him.
Then his foot sinks into a spot of damp sand and his eyes widen. Is that the whisper of the moving tide? It is. The sea remains – somewhere ahead – a quiet remnant and pushed away from its former place but it remains. He steps in a puddle and the water washes over his toes, cold as ice, clean, cleansing. He bends down, scoops up handfuls and splashes his face. He dances in the water. The shells scratch and cut him but he doesn’t care.
“We made it, my dear,” he says. “We made it.”
“Come closer, I’m cold,” she said. And she was.
Pevel held her that night by the dying fire. Covering her with his poncho and his arms.
“I don’t think I can make the coast,” she said. “So tired. So cold.”
“You have to make it,” he said. “We will together. See the waves, feel the sun. Can you hear it? Can you?”
He listened to her breathing in the dark, felt her side rise and fall. In and out, in and out. He shivered there and said to himself he would stay awake all night and listen. Listen to her breathe.
But he woke in the morning to the cold and the silence. And she lay still. Slipped away in the night while he held her by the dying fire.
“No no no,” he said. “I was supposed to stay awake. I can’t do this alone.”
A massive shadow ahead. The form takes shape and banishes the fog, a misshapen skyscraper fallen on its side. Closer he sees it’s a huge warship, an aircraft carrier leaning crooked in the sand. The tail of an old fighter plane sticking straight up from the ground before it like a bird with its head buried, trying to forget what’s become of the world.
Pevel stares at the massive, lonely monument behind it. Even through the shifting haze lying still as a tombstone. Another sign that the sea that once carried it had fled. Along the beach an army of lesser ships and fishing boats lay scattered in their sleep. He wonders if any still hold food or supplies but he sees something closer and tells himself the ships can wait.
A small palm tree. Lying on its side, sleeping in the sand. Its once green fronds shriveled to bare stems. He tells himself that’s okay. I won’t be needing the shade after all. He drops his pack to the sand. Tries to lift the fallen tree from the end. It doesn’t move. He scoops sand away along its sides. Tries again, forces it up. It balances and topples, makes a hollow sound when it falls. He grimaces, tries again. He makes the tree stand and it does for a moment, then falls. He doesn’t have the strength to lift it again.
“Fine,” he says and drops down, leans against it. He pulls the hunting knife from the pack. Looks at it in his hands, turns and stabs it into the tree. The bark is hard as stone but he stabs the knife into its surface, drags it down, over and over carving thin trails into its surface. When he is done, he is exhausted and the words are barely readable.
Pevel was here.
He smiles, takes a slow sip from his canteen. He reaches into the pack again, and finds it: a half rusted coffee can. He runs his fingers over its cold surface, rests his forehead on it.
“I’m sorry it’s not what we hoped,” he said. “But we still made it.”
He sat by her body for a long while. A thin trail of smoke drifted up from the fire that gave no more heat. His poncho covered her face. He didn’t shiver from the cold, didn’t move.
I can’t make it without you. We were supposed to go together.
The wind moved slow through the bare trees.
I’m not leaving without you.
Pevel woke to a snapping twig, approaching breath. He jumped up and the dogs were thin and gray and snarled at him, teeth flashing like daggers. Three of them, sniffing, surrounding them. He ran at them screaming and swinging the knife. He chased them away from her body and they slinked away hesitantly into the dark.
I won’t leave you here.
Pevel wiped the tears away with his sleeve and watched the tiny winding trail of smoke still climbing from the cold embers.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
He gathered the wood, as much as he could find, and arranged it around the body of his wife. He piled it higher and higher until she was covered in a cocoon of twisted branches that hid her from sight. He sat a long while beside the pile before he lit the fire.
If I’m going, you’re coming with me.
He walked out into the dark woods while the fire burned behind him, the flames leaping high into the night. Pairs of disembodied eyes burned from the darkness, keeping vigil. Pevel stood with the heat at his back that pulsed against him like a beating heart. Leaned against a tree and wept.
It was the rain that woke him, big drops pattering on his face. He was face down, clinging handfuls of the warm ash. The fire had not consumed everything and he tried not to look at what was left. There was some ash and that would have to do. But the rain threatened to wash it away. He jumped up and scrambled through his pack for something. Found the coffee can, emptied it. Filled it up again, scooping her ashes from the ground with his hands.
Pevel lifts his forehead from the rusted can.
“I couldn’t have made it all those miles without you,” he says and stands.
He looks out toward the beach, gray and gone, imagines what it must have been. What they dreamed it to be. He smiles and opens the lid.
“Ashes to ashes,” he says. “I think it won’t be long and we’ll be together again.”
He holds out the can and lets the ash pour out. The slight wind holds it, carries it along lazily and then it fades into the gray.
“Goodbye, Helen,” he says.
Pevel exhales, coughs, sits down again beside the fallen tree that bears his name. He reaches into his pack and finds the folded paper. The glossy picture is cracked and the colors worn away like a memory. He tosses it aside and it tumbles away down the beach. He rests his head against the tree, closes his eyes.
Can you see it? Can you feel the sand, hear the waves all around?
Oh yes, my dear, I can see it.
When he wakes he sees a gull on the tree beside him, its feathers white and a tiny fish wiggling in its beak.
“Hello there,” Pevel says, and coughs.
The gull leaps up at the noise and flutters away out of sight.
“I don’t blame you.”
The fog had thickened on the beach and a pale light from the hidden sun hangs on the air. Pevel pulls himself up, the damp sand soothing to his bare feet. First he thinks the ships had vanished but they take shape and fade before his tired eyes like immaterial vessels of the dead.
He stands there a long time, thin in his dirty clothes. Listens to the lonely call of gulls and the distant hush of the sea. He looks down at the coffee can resting on the fallen tree, rusted, empty. Nothing to distinguish it from any other useless relic he had passed on his journey without thought. No hint of its value, the treasure it had carried. Such knowledge is bound up in him alone, and with him it will pass.
Pevel kneels, checks the contents of his pack. Satisfied, he fastens it again. Shoulders it up, lighter than before.
Then he disappears into the haze to search the ships and chase the retreating tide.
Michael Stroh has been writing stories for as long as he can remember. A pastor by day, he is drawn to telling stories that explore the beauty and darkness of the human condition. Before placing third in the 2016 Story Quest Contest, his short fiction has appeared most recently in Shoreline of Infinity, and he is currently at work on a YA sci-fi novel. Michael lives near Dallas, Texas with his wife Libby and their three children.