‘Must be near Christmas,’ Warren said not meaning to speak the words out loud.
The fire in front of them glowed a hot orange in its center with charred, blackened wood cooling on the outside. He stoked it to get the flames going again then sunk down onto the floor next to Kristen, using the sofa as a backrest.
‘I was thinking the same thing.’ She looked past him out the darkened window.
Warren followed her gaze. Snow hugged the corners of the panes looking every bit like a Christmas card, except there would be no Christmas cards this year. Maybe there would be some celebrations at the government emergency shelters, if you could call it a celebration. For Warren it would be just another day like it always had been.
He doubted anyone was celebrating since the end of the world two months ago. He knew that’s what people would be saying, that it was the end of the world. For most people it was, he supposed, but not for him. Holing up in a cabin and living off the land wasn’t new to him. He could adapt to whatever life threw at him. He’d learned to survive. But most people? He figured they were hurting pretty bad these days.
It had started with a virus. The death toll worldwide sky-rocketed. He remembered seeing a live news report where the correspondent started coughing up blood on air. News reports had been replaced by government emergency broadcasts after that. Then there was no media; no more radio, TV or internet. Government emergency broadcast messages had ended weeks ago.
By the time he had stumbled across Kristen he was getting ready to retreat into the woods to wait it all out. She had been outside of her aunt’s house panicking about getting back home to upstate New York from where they were in Vermont. Her aunt was his neighbor; a nice old lady who cooked him dinners and left them on his front porch in exchange for him mowing her lawn or plowing her drive in winter. Kristen had flagged him down and told him the news of her aunt dying of cancer, not flu, and wanted to know how she could get back home with the roads being blocked by military vehicles. Warren didn’t want a permanent tag-a-long but there was a part of him that couldn’t leave her to the government shelters. He’d heard those places were getting to be like detention camps full of sick people and once you were in you weren’t coming out.
She had stopped in her tracks when he led her in to the cabin. He could see her thinking that maybe she should have risked the government shelter after all. The cabin was winter proof but looked in a pretty sorry state. A worn sofa and cabinet with a door that never closed filled the living area. The small kitchen had a few broken cupboards and camping equipment to cook with.
Warren had brought plenty of food to stock away but went out hunting every day just to have some space. One day she dressed up to go out with him but he shook his head and said, ‘No.’ A simple rebuff but she didn’t try again.
Some days he came back and knew she’d been crying. He pretended not to notice. When she grimaced at the canned fruit or fresh rabbit, he ignored it. What could he do for her? She needed to get it figured out on her own: either be stuck with some stranger in a crappy cabin or risk the shelters where they were rounding up everyone who might or might not be sick. They didn’t have much to say to each other but he knew where he’d rather be.
They were safe in the cabin in the woods for now. He knew that wouldn’t last forever but if it could at least get them through the winter then maybe things would have changed for the better out there.
He glanced at Kristen as she turned her head toward him and curled up to keep the heat of the fire wrapped within her. She gave him that weary smile of hers that was full of uncertainty and disbelief at their situation.
Warren reached over to the broken cupboard and took out a bottle of bourbon. He drank straight from the bottle and handed it to her. ‘Merry Christmas to Jim Beam.’
She took a careful sip and coughed. Her brown eyes watered and she waved a hand in front of her throat as the burn hit her.
He smiled and shook his head, ‘You city girls are weak.’ He teased. ‘You shoulda’ done more drinking in college.’
‘How did you used to celebrate Christmas?’ she asked ignoring his jibe.
Warren accepted the bottle from her and took another swig. He looked in to the fire and wondered how to reply. A Christmas memory from when he was about twelve flashed through his mind.
He crept down the hall past his father’s bedroom and peeked through the gap in the door. His father lay there in a deep sleep, snoring. Warren caught a glimpse of the woman next to him. He didn’t know her name but recognized her from the local bar. Her yellow tinted hair was messed up and her face looked grimy with makeup. Warren snuck downstairs half hoping he would walk in to the living room to find a Christmas tree lit up with presents underneath it. That train set he had seen in the window of Mr. Gregory’s pharmacy had caught his attention during his walks home from school the times his father had forgotten to pick him up, which was most days.
The living room greeted him with black silence. He flicked the light on and stood in the doorway surveying the same objects he saw in there every day of the year. Christmas Day was nothing special. Through the beer bottles and ashtrays full of stale butts, Warren spied something that wasn’t usually there. A woman’s bag. He glanced back up the stairs. There was no way his father or that woman would be awake for hours yet. From the look of all the booze they’d drunk here, and at the bar, where his father had been last night, they had a lot to sleep off.
His heart beat faster as he picked up the bag and opened it. There were a few envelopes stuffed inside, some with red notices on the front. Warren felt around until his hand hit a smooth solid object. He lifted up the wallet and grabbed out a wad of ones. He shoved the purse back in and took the gum stuffed in the corner pocket. As he placed the bag back down he knocked over a bottle sending pale, flat beer all over the already stained carpet. He maneuvered around the mess and went in to the kitchen to get food. He spotted his father’s shotgun standing in the corner of the dining room, a room that never saw any family dinners and was only ever used to store stuff. Warren grabbed a box of Lucky Charms cereal and the gun and slipped out of the house.
He spent most of the day in his favorite place, a deer hide in the woods outside of town. He passed the time pretending to shoot whatever wildlife passed by, mainly birds – bright red cardinals, blue jays with their blue feathers and black breast stark against the snow. When he became bored of that he ate cereal from the box and threw some out onto the white ground for the birds to peck. He wondered why their colors were so obvious against the winter snow. Shouldn’t they be dull colored to hide better? He knew he would be. Warren stepped out of the hide to head home when a deer tiptoed into view sniffing at the snow searching for food. He shifted and the deer snapped its head up to stare at Warren with its huge eyes. They both stayed frozen for a few seconds until the deer got a spooked look in its eyes and darted away.
‘Run.’ He thought as it disappeared into the trees. ‘Run away from this place and be glad you did.’
Warren hoped all the way home that no one would be there. As soon as he opened the front door his father hauled himself out of the creaking old green recliner and loomed at him.
‘Boy, you’s in a heap o’ trouble.’ His father grabbed his arm and twisted it. ‘You best have that cash you stole from Wendy.’
His father wrenched away the shotgun. The flat of his palm connected with the corner of Warren’s head with a hard thud sending him to the ground. The denseness of his father’s work boot connected with Warren’s spine shooting agony around his body.
Wendy bent over from the couch to get in his face. ‘You little shit, that was all my tip money for the week.’ She spit in his face causing him to recoil back into another kick from his father.
His father searched his pockets for the money and grabbed out the wad that couldn’t be spent today of all days. ‘Piece o’ shit.’ His father sent home another kick before he and Wendy left the house to whatever boozy hole would accept them.
Warren eventually dragged himself up to his room to avoid another kicking from his father when he stumbled home. The last thought in his head before he drifted off to sleep was of the deer he had seen in the silence of the woods.
‘Much the same as you, I expect.’ He shrugged at Kristen. He wasn’t about to unload any of that on to a near stranger. He didn’t want her to know his secrets.
‘Huge family get-togethers, endless carol singing and playing board games if your family was anything like mine,’ Kristen said staring in to the fire.
He watched her eyes water, her mind back with her family just as his had been.
‘And so much food you could burst.’
‘Something like that.’ Warren replied and took a long pull on the bottle of bourbon.
‘Well, I won’t make you sing any carols.’ She sat up and turned to the side of the sofa and dragged a bag between them. ‘And I can’t promise you dinner will be anything great, although we do have that can of Spam. But I got this for you.’
He looked at the bag. ‘How?’
‘When I went out searching the other cabins I found them and thought of you.’ She grinned, her eyes shining with pleasure.
Warren rubbed the stubble on his face and stared at the bag unsure of what to do. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had given him anything. No one had ever sat in front of him and handed him a present just because they had thought of him.
‘Go ahead, open it. It must nearly be Christmas,’ Kristen said, her voice light with excitement.
Warren set the bottle of bourbon down and opened the bag. A hot flush crept up his neck and face making him uncomfortable. He pulled out a pair of work boots and stared at them unable to look Kristen in the eye.
She seemed to mistake his silence for disapproval. ‘I know they’re not new. They were in good shape so I cleaned them up. They were your size so I figured you…’
‘No,’ he said softly. ‘No, they’re just right.’ He kept his eyes on them. ‘I didn’t think to get you anything.’
‘You’ve given me enough. I don’t know what I’d do without you.’ Her eyes were large and serious. She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek. Her brown hair fell forward and brushed against his face.
Warren was grateful for her deliberate movement. He saw the kiss coming, braced himself for the contact and accepted it without flinching.
‘My family is so used to a big get-together for Christmas. I bet they’re all safe at some government shelter making sure everyone is feeling festive. They pestered some poor worker into finding them a piano and they’ll be badgering everyone to join in singing carols.’
Warren watched the change in her expression from smiling when thinking about her family like these were normal times to clouding over when realizing where they were now.
‘This is probably the most peaceful Christmas I’ve ever had. I shouldn’t say that, should I?’ She stopped talking.
‘No, it’s good. It’s kind of nice.’ He shrugged and risked a half glance at her. He couldn’t tell her it was the best Christmas he’d had and the safest he’d ever felt with another person.
Warren watched as she blinked back tears. Silence stretched over the cabin as the unknowable outside their fabricated world took hold. He knew she would need time to accept that her world had ended and another reality had begun.
Kristen reached for the bottle of bourbon and took a swig, swallowing against the harshness of it again.
She handed him the bottle.
He let his fingers touch hers for a fraction too long hoping it would be some comfort. ‘Merry Christmas, Kristen.’