Cliff’s grandfather built Hook Run Farm on forty-two acres thirty miles east of the city, a half-hour’s easy drive most days. Now, when dirty winds shifted at night to flee the west, Cliff lay beneath beige-gray sheets and sniffed a once forgotten childhood memory: a decaying mouse he’d found inside a discarded soda pop bottle. Borne atop the newly bloating stink of Grandpa’s barn and paddocks, this recollected scent visited every evening. Rich, sweet, corrupt, ageless.
Each successive day launched its parade of sad, soiled clowns hauling their props. Laden with mattresses, chairs, luggage, even small appliances, a procession of cars, trucks, and buses passed Cliff’s farm. Motorcycles, too; sometimes with sidecars or pulling twee trailers. A few bicycles staggered through the ever-present dust. All wheeled traffic ended two days ago. In its fading tracks walked small groups, couples, individuals, their cargo reduced to little consequence. Stragglers — the scum dispossessed of respectable transportation options.
Pedestrian traffic…now, that was an opportunity. Cliff did not doubt it.
After he and the girl shared a breakfast of canned tuna and some pickles, he set up a card table outside the picket fence and right next to the mailbox. No postal service for days now. What letter would he send? What bank could cash a subsidy check? Failing elms bluffed at offering relief from an indistinct red sun. Some scrap plywood panels would do for signs. He let Sugar Snap letter and decorate them herself. His niece was only seven but talented for her age when it came to arty stuff.
“How much for lemonade?” she asked him, paintbrush in hand. Cliff set down the chair he’d brought for her. He crossed his arms and frowned.
“What did we talk about at breakfast?” he asked in reply.
Sugar Snap closed her eyes, puffed out her China-doll lower lip. Then she remembered.
“Twenty five dollars a glass!” she chirped.
“…and if they complain about it?”
“Screw ’em! They can pound salt!”
“My girl,” he said, grinning like a broken gate. She was sharp, this one, same as his sister back in the city. His younger sister who was possibly decomposing in her bed right now, or more probably the bathtub and with a bottle of cognac. The impulse to imagine those scenes caused him no distress whatsoever; realizing he didn’t care about this emptiness, well, that didn’t bother him either. Sugar Snap, who’d arrived only recently, seemed to adore him. Cliff was still getting used to it.
“Okay, kiddo, find your fortune,” he said, turning to go check his livestock. “Just stay out for a short while, though — I don’t want you breathing crap all day.”
In the dim, fetid pens Cliff could make out four more Holsteins had died overnight. A few survivors lurched about, tattooed with sores, trembling. Cliff weighed using his old Remington twelve gauge pumper to speed them along on their journey to cow heaven. They were no good now. You couldn’t drink their milk or eat their meat.
He heard Sugar Snap’s squeal and limped back around from the barn. Less than ten minutes had passed before the morning’s first prospect solidified out of the haze. Cliff stepped onto the front porch, shotgun cradled in his arms.
A man shuffled to a halt near Sugar Snap’s lemonade stand. His hair, beard, and garments were monochrome in their coating of dust. His haversack, which he slung earthward with a grunt, had split open and silver duct tape bound the guts. He pulled down the rag stretched over his mouth and nose, held open his jacket to reveal clothing dark with sweat, then raised both hands. Sugar Snap looked over her shoulder at her uncle.
“Hey there,” croaked the stranger, whose intent was unreadable through a skim of debris on his eyeglasses. “Do you mind if I rest here a minute? I’m not armed.”
“Seeing as how you are not and I myself am,” Cliff replied, “I don’t have any problem with that. How are things in the city?”
The man propped his elbows against Cliff’s fence and let his head droop.
“Very quiet,” he said to the withered weeds, and barely audible to Cliff. “Quieter than any city could be. I grew up there. Now all death and dying. But the smell — so thick, so nasty — I think the stench muffles all sound.”
He raised his head but the grimy lenses contributed nothing.
“Bad deal for everyone, I suppose,” said Cliff, glancing at Sugar Snap and then watching their visitor. “You want anything to drink?”
Cliff eased himself downward onto the porch’s top step and rested the shotgun’s butt next to his boot. His muscles vibrated from endless digging. Weepy blisters gloved ruined hands. Smaller animals he could deal with, but horses and all these cows — he was out of lime and couldn’t bear any sort of attention a fire would bring. Simply moving corpses was nearly impossible. Except for old Max, Cliff’s mastiff, who’d hobbled into his own grave, stared at the Remington, and that was that.
The stranger tried to reply but lapsed into a fit of choking and hacking. Sugar Snap wrinkled her nose and giggled.
“Yes,” he wheezed, “I could use something.”
With her dress hem Sugar Snap wiped a drinking glass before pouring the lemonade. No ice; Hook Run Farm had lost power five days ago and Cliff ran the generator sparingly. Hard to guess where more fuel would come from. He’d already drained his pickup’s tank when he realized he wasn’t going anywhere. Sugar Snap presented the glass and her customer lurched forward, coughing as he reached out.
She withdrew it and pointed to her still-wet sign. “That’ll be twenty-five dollars, mister.”
His fit passed abruptly. A gray toad of a tongue flicked across fissured lips.
“You’re kidding, right?” the man said to Cliff. “I don’t know you people — I can’t tell if you’re just having fun with me.”
Cliff resisted an urge to pump the Remington for effect.
“Don’t talk to me,” he said. “Your business is with my niece. She has your lemonade.”
“I’m not paying that. It’s bullshit! I need my money.”
Sugar Snap emptied the glass’s contents onto thirsty soil, creating an instant batch of lemonade-pudding.
“Twenty-five dollars,” she repeated with a smile.
Cliff stood up and pumped his gun’s action. One-handed, like in the movies he’d probably never see again. He was a smallish man and nearly tipped himself over but his message was clear enough.
“Jesus Christ, don’t shoot!” said Sugar Snap’s customer. “I’ll pay it, I’ll pay.” He dug beneath his waistband and produced a small leather pouch. Counted out a twenty and a five, set them on the girl’s table. Sugar Snap didn’t move.
“Alright. My drink,” he said. “Pour me — please, pour me another one.”
Sugar Snap shook her head and pointed at the lemonade puddle. Powdery soil was already trying to win back its own.
“That’s yours down there.”
His face glowed red from behind its shroud of filth. He might have sputtered but nothing escaped his parched mouth except a crinkly hiss. Cliff aimed a perfect gut shot and waited. The man grabbed his haversack and backed up, sobbing, stumbling on pavers. He turned and staggered eastward away from the city and Hook Run Farm, and back into invisibility.
Cliff’s niece waved her fists.
“I made twenty-five bucks,” she hooted. “Uncle Cliff, I did it!”
“Way to go, kiddo!” he called back. Grit and fatigue burned his eyes. “Keep it up, keep it up. There’ll be more customers coming any minute.”
Sugar Snap wandered in an irregular circle around her table, stopping at times to look out for more visitors. She sang improvised commercial jingles about her good lemonade. Cliff chuckled. Damn, she was a delight.
Gripping his Remington, he sat back down and slouched sideways against the porch’s handrail. So reassuring to see Sugar Snap learning lessons about life. She was going to be fine.
He awoke at dusk. Someone poked Cliff’s ribs with the shotgun’s barrel. A cold machete stung his neck. He could make out Sugar Snap’s table in the waning light but she wasn’t there. A dozen or so hooded figures stood in the road and his front yard, watching him, silent as shade. They carried rifles, bows, axes, and improvised spears. From somewhere out back a couple of Holsteins lowed the music of expiring woodwinds.
One of the intruders pressed the machete’s broad blade against Cliff’s head just above an ear. A hood, face mask, and goggles made it impossible to tell if this captor was a man or woman, young or old.
“We’re looking for children,” the machete-person whispered. “Do you have any?”
Banner Image: Pixabay.com