Kevin thought he could take Wayne. At worst, it would be close. Wayne was pulling a hose across a dusty field.
“What are you growing?” Kevin asked.
“Right now.” Wayne kept pulling. “Nothing.”
When Kevin and Amy bought a house, their first, they inherited a garden so bountiful that they couldn’t finish the vegetables themselves. He stuffed peppers into Ziploc bags and left them in the mailroom for his co-workers. This was viewed, not uniformly, as hostile. Then he and Amy got a dog, who ate the peppers, though he seemed to hate them, and in retaliation or ignorance (Kevin suspected the former), the dog dug up the entire garden. The next spring Kevin planted grass. The ghostly perimeter of the garden remained visible from the guest bedroom, which he’d used as an office since the start of the pandemic.
“Too bad people can’t eat grass,” Kevin said.
“People can eat cows.”
Wayne didn’t stop pulling.
“I’m not really,” Kevin said.
“I have a guy who will buy the hay, and he has a guy who—”
Kevin nodded, as though he too had a hay guy. “My question is,” Kevin said and realized he had no question.
Wayne attached the hose to a black contraption that rose from the dirt like a robotic weed.
“Would it help if I turned on the hose?” Kevin asked.
Wayne pointed to the barn. Kevin began to jog there and instantly regretted it. He slowed to a brisk walk.
The barn was more elaborate than he’d expected. It smelled overwhelmingly of horses, or what he thought horses smell like. Kevin hadn’t seen any horses since arriving. After what felt like a long time, he found the spigot and turned it with three swift, satisfying turns.
“Where are the horses?” Kevin shouted on his walk back.
“I think we’ll get two,” Wayne said.
Kevin hadn’t seen any people since arriving to the rental other than Wayne, who observed the sprinkler with wonder, as if he hadn’t expected it to work.
“I was a vegetarian for a year,” Kevin said. “For thirteen months. Not a true vegetarian because I let myself have a hamburger once a month so the idea of meat didn’t get too big in my head.”
“Why thirteen?” It was the first question Wayne had asked Kevin.
“I missed meat. Plus, I felt like shit.”
Wayne looked satisfied. He returned to the sprinkler.
“What’ll you do with them?” Kevin asked.
“There’s nothing like a horse.”
“So ride them?”
Wayne stepped back from the sprinkler. Kevin looked up to discover not a cloud in the sky. He resisted the urge to ask about the weather. When the sprinkler turned toward him, he stepped aside, so the water just reached his sneakers. The water left black marks in the dirt. Wayne wore boots. Cowboy boots? Kevin didn’t know.
He saw Amy striding purposefully toward them. She was waving.
“You haven’t met my wife,” Kevin said.
Wayne removed his hat without a hint of irony. “We sure do appreciate you joining us,” he said like a TV ranch hand.
Amy didn’t buy it, but she enjoyed it. She beamed, standing in the future grass.
“We are paying you for the privilege,” she reminded him.
“Wayne’s growing grass,” Kevin said. “And buying two horses.”
“Oh,” Amy said with bright indifference.
Wayne said, “If there’s anything we can—”
“There is one thing,” she said.
The internet in the cabin was spotty. Worse than spotty. What she was saying was the internet didn’t work.
“I have a guy,” Wayne said.
On the walk back to the cabin, Kevin caught Amy up on his conversation with Wayne. When Kevin finished, Amy didn’t say anything, though he could tell she’d been paying attention.
“What do you think?” he finally asked.
“I think he’s a businessman,” Amy said. “He’s selling an experience.”
“What experience is that?”
“I don’t know. You booked the place.”
She wasn’t being a pain or wasn’t only being a pain. He had booked the place, which was over a thousand miles from where they lived in a forest that nobody had heard of and he was too timid to pronounce. But it was beautiful! He couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. The pictures hadn’t prepared him. He walked around stupefied, just breathing. At night, the stars were obscene. They made a mockery of a person’s time on Earth.
But stars weren’t the point. Kevin wasn’t sure what the point was, exactly. He knew he was mad—not mad, more like annoyed. He was bothered. No, he was mad. Because Wayne was full of shit. Because Amy, while recognizing that Wayne was full of shit, nevertheless found it charming. And what did she think of him? That he was the rube who paid to have his wife charmed by another man.
Sean slammed his hand on the table, as if in support of Kevin’s unspoken grievance.
“Everything okay, buddy?” Kevin asked.
“It’s not fair!” Sean said.
Kevin sat beside Sean on the bench. The table in the cabin had benches rather than chairs. Kevin enjoyed the novelty of these benches, though he recognized they weren’t comfortable and he would soon tire of them. It was like eating outdoors: fun until it wasn’t.
“You want to tell me about it?” he asked.
When Sean began itemizing the indignities of the video game he was playing, Kevin nodded, though he stopped paying attention. Nothing he could say would make any difference. He didn’t understand and had no real interest in learning. The important thing was to listen. At least, that’s what he told himself. The reality was he had a hard time maintaining patience as Sean droned on about bosses and OP. Kevin wanted to tell the kid to go outside and run around. Amy lost her patience regularly, which he appreciated. They took turns playing bad cop, worse cop.
“Where’s your sister?” Kevin asked.
“She’s not talking to me.”
But Sean had already disappeared into the video game, which he played on Kevin’s old laptop. In defiance of a basement full of toys, all Sean wanted to bring to Montana was Kevin’s dying MacBook. Kevin tried to admire this choice. It was almost anti-consumerist. The unreliability of the power cord was the central drama of Sean’s life.
Kevin knocked on the door of the bedroom the kids shared. When nobody answered, he opened it. The room was windowless, which seemed strange to him, but neither kid appeared to care. Maddie sat on the floor between the twin beds.
“Why aren’t you talking to your brother?” he asked.
“All he wants to talk about is Hippo.”
Hippo was among the most famous people in the world, on the level of Michael Jordan. Or Madonna, when she was famous. Hippo played video games on YouTube while making sneering comments. On several occasions, Kevin had sat in front of a computer screen, attempting to decode the appeal. Hippo’s comments ranged, in Kevin’s mind, from inane to incomprehensible. He wasn’t convinced Hippo’s British accent was real. Sean thought Hippo was the funniest person on the planet.
“Why is he called Hippo?” Kevin asked.
“I’m not a pothead,” Maddie said.
A pothead was someone who followed Hippo on YouTube. Kevin and Amy refused to let Sean do this because he was ten years old. It was a source of great bitterness.
“You want to play cards with me?” Kevin asked.
Maddie examined her father with bottomless pity.
“I’ll teach you how to cheat,” he said.
She stood. She was still so little. If he could freeze time, he would freeze it now, but he couldn’t freeze time. She walked out of the room. He followed her.
Amy and Sean were huddled at the kitchen table. They had a private form of communication, which Kevin and Maddie resented. Their resentment was a sort of bond.
“We thought we should have a family meeting,” Amy said.
They’d never had a family meeting. Kevin and Maddie sat on one bench, and Amy and Sean sat on another. Sean closed the laptop gently, almost remorsefully, as though he regretted having to take time away from his busy schedule.
What would become of this kid? Would he be some kind of lawyer? Kevin was a teacher turned administrator. Amy was a moneymaker turned mom.
“If we’re going to be here a while,” Amy said, “we should map out a plan.”
“How long is this going to take?” Maddie asked.
Kevin knew what would become of Maddie. She would be a dictator or at least an executive. She would be unflinching.
“As long as it takes,” Amy said.
“I like the cabin.” Sean would flinch.
“Okay,” Kevin said. “Let’s map out a plan.”
“We already did,” Amy said.
She unfolded a giant map, which tented up from the table. Maddie flattened the map with both hands.
“We’re here.” Sean pointed to a squiggly blue line.
“Is that the creek?” Maddie asked. “The creek is freezing!”
The creek ran behind the cabin. Kevin hadn’t been able to stand in the creek for more than a few seconds.
Amy opened a black magic marker. The smell was deliciously repulsive. She drew a large circle on the map. Kevin examined the circle, which covered all of Washington and parts of Canada, Oregon, and Idaho.
“Even Idaho?” he asked.
Amy drew a second circle, which covered South Dakota and Nebraska.
“I knew about that,” he said.
“Are we in Montana?” Maddie asked.
“We’re in Northwest Montana,” Amy said.
She looked to Kevin. They hadn’t decided what to tell the kids.
“Montana has open borders,” Amy said, “that’s how we got here.”
“It’s not forever,” Kevin said.
Maddie traced the circles with her index finger.
“So what’s the plan?” Kevin asked.
Amy looked to Sean.
“Dad,” Sean said, “hear us out.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Maddie said.
They would start by building up supply: water, canned goods, things that pretty much stay good forever. Only nothing stays good forever. It didn’t take long, for example, for plastic to leak into water. They needed medicine in addition to food: aspirin, antibiotics (how would they get antibiotics without a prescription?), band-aids. Amy had a prescription. Maddie wanted colorful band-aids. Next they would secure the cabin (with a gun?). Not with a gun. Amy would explain later. Then there was the hard stuff. She needed help with the hard stuff. Was Kevin willing to help?
For a while, before they left for Montana, he was high all the time. He wasn’t escaping his life. He was recalibrating it to what felt right. Outwardly, he was the same, maybe a little nicer and a little dumber. He got the feeling a lot of other people were doing the same thing.
When he was high, he sometimes thought there was something dashing about the top of his head. (Amy remained unambiguously beautiful, though she was unable to shake the memory of herself at twenty-five, three years out of college and in steady ascent through the universe.) He was invisibly vain about his eyebrows. His eyeballs got so red.
He didn’t drive high. He was sober when he picked up Amy’s mother, Izzy, from the hospital. Izzy was in the parking lot, a muscular nurse standing behind her wheelchair. She clung to each arm of the chair and stared ahead mercilessly. The nurse helped her into the passenger’s seat and whispered into her ear. Once he left, she slumped against the window.
“Any requests?” Kevin asked.
“Besides a cure,” she said.
“Besides a time machine.”
Kevin drove slowly. The traffic lights seemed very long. Sometimes he looked toward her, quickly, but most of the time he kept his eyes on the road. That he was driving Izzy to his house to die was its own presence in the car, occupying the space between them.
He thought about what he would do in her place, but who cared what he would do? Plus, he had no idea. All he could really think was I’m alive I’m alive I’m alive.
“The problem,” Izzy said, “is I’m not ready. I’m not against dying. I knew I was going to die, just not yet.”
Kevin wasn’t prepared for this level of frankness. “I wonder if anyone is ready,” he said.
“Of course people are ready. My father was ready. My mother was ready too. At least she said she was. She looked like she was. I would have been ready.”
Kevin bobbed his head up and down. Izzy politely ignored him.
“I don’t know what to do,” she continued. “Not that it matters. I’m go to die either way.”
“Maybe you can find peace.”
“Where would I find peace? There’s no peace on Earth.” Izzy sat up straight and pointed out the windshield with surprising vigor. “Look!”
The sun was a big orange ball. It looked like something a kid would draw. He’d never been able to see the shape of the sun so clearly, but the air had never been so smoky, even if it didn’t look like smoke he was driving into so much as a screen stretched across the sky. Or maybe a net. Maybe it would snatch them up and they would be carried off before they got home.
Carried where? It was a stupid thought.
Then there was the smell, which was almost pleasant, like a campfire. He had to remind himself what he was smelling. He’d downloaded an app on his phone to track the wildfires. The wildfires were everywhere.
“They’re not too bad today,” Kevin said.
“They’re horrible,” Izzy said.
She was right: they were horrible.
“I wonder how long they’ll last,” he said.
“This is the future,” she said. “They’ll last forever.”
Sean and Maddie were running barefoot on the deck of Wayne’s house. Although Sean was three years older, Maddie was nearly as fast. She’d grown so much during the pandemic. Would she develop into a middle-distance runner? Would there be a track team for her to compete on? Would there be a school, a planet?
Maddie leapt off the deck. “I won,” she said.
“I won,” Sean said.
“It was a tie.” Kevin always said it was a tie, though it never was.
He watched them from the invisible border that separated the property he’d rented from Wayne’s property. It was all Wayne’s property—fifty acres in the forest, according to the website Kevin had used to make the reservation—but he was only paying for the cabin part.
“Cool,” Maddie said, “you can see our footprints!”
Kevin walked to the deck. It was a familiar moment in parenting and administration, the sense that you had to do something you didn’t want to do without yet knowing what that thing was. It defined adulthood.
But in another way, it didn’t. He was thinking of the bursts of joy. Sean’s deciding without announcement to jump from the edge of the dock and then swimming back to do it again. Or Maddie’s asking him to play dolls with her on the floor of her bedroom. He didn’t like playing—he wondered if any parent did—but he liked her asking. Kevin was never as happy as when she asked him to play.
He’d been distracted during the baths, the swing pushing, the dance and gymnastic lessons, but he was there. Sean and Maddie looked up instinctively, and he was there.
The footprints were ghastly on the freshly stained desk. He observed them from the grass. Maddie and Sean observed Kevin’s observing the footprints.
“Are we going to get in trouble?” Sean asked.
“No,” Kevin said. “I’m going to get in trouble.”
This relieved the children.
“Sorry, Dad,” Maddie said.
“Yeah, sorry,” Sean said.
They examined the footprints as if they were a crime scene. Wayne appeared on the far side of the deck. He walked toward the children quickly.
“No,” Wayne said. “No no no.”
“I’m sorry,” Kevin said.
Wayne stopped at the first footprint. He got on one knee and placed a hand on the footprint, as if taking its temperature.
Kevin said, “I’ll pay—”
“Is our dad in a lot of trouble?” Maddie asked.
“We know he’s in some trouble,” Sean clarified.
Wayne stood. He almost smiled. It was a good attempt at a smile. Kevin liked Wayne better for this attempt at a smile.
“Are these your dad’s footprints on my deck?” Wayne asked.
Maddie looked to Sean, who looked to Kevin.
“I have very small feet,” he said. “For an adult man.”
Wayne stepped off the deck and began to remove his boots. Sean examined Wayne’s naked feet, which prompted Maddie to do the same. Kevin refused to look at Wayne’s feet, which he knew would be long and dusty.
“I can re-stain the deck tomorrow,” Wayne said.
“I’m sorry,” Kevin said again.
“Hey, did I tell you to be sorry?”
“So don’t be sorry.”
Wayne studied the deck for a few more seconds before walking to the sprinklers. It hadn’t rained since Kevin arrived with his family. He looked back to the cabin to see if Amy was waiting. She wasn’t.
“You want to go to the creek?” he asked.
“We should get the dog,” Sean said loyally.
“I don’t want to bring the dog,” Maddie said.
Nobody liked the dog, who followed Kevin—stalked him, really—with an attachment so complete it seemed ironic. The dog was a caricature of a dog in his fidelity to Kevin, but the dog wanted only one thing, which was to retrieve. Hardwired into the dog was the duty to retrieve. Everything else was distraction. Because the dog was naked in his intention in a way a person never was, everyone in the family understood they were merely ball-throwing apparatuses to the dog and resented him for it. Kevin admired the dog’s clarity of purpose, though he also didn’t like the dog. Kevin recognized his individual value as a direct function of his ability to throw a ball the farthest. For this he was rewarded with a torn rotator cuff: self-diagnosed, as the hospitals were closed to elective surgeries, let alone diagnoses.
“Let’s just grab the dog,” Kevin said.
Maddie hung back with Kevin, which he cherished but was careful not to spoil. She walked slowly, as if he might forget what they were doing if she took long enough. But Sean wouldn’t forget. He bounded up the steps to the cabin and hopped outside the door until Amy opened it, releasing the dog. The unadulterated joy the dog exhibited upon discovering his leashlessness, the vastness of fifty acres, the yellow tennis ball nestled into the grass like an easter egg was almost enough to distract Kevin from his annoyance at Wayne.
But nothing could distract Kevin from the condescension, so faint as to be undetectable to the untrained eye, that Wayne delivered in each interaction. In end times, he was the owner and Kevin his vassal—a family of vassals, even if they were paying for the privilege. Wayne possessed the most valuable commodity in the apocalypse: land far from anyone else. Evergreen trees formed a wall around his land, which Wayne was dutifully converting to hay, not to sell to a guy but to feed the animals that would feed him when the supply chains broke for good. Maybe feed Kevin’s family too, for the right price. But what would money matter when the supply chains broke?
The dog deposited the tennis ball at Kevin’s feet and barked a solitary bark. The dog’s name was dog. Nothing else had caught on, though the kids attempted various uninspired names. Kevin picked up the tennis ball and threw it. The dog took off, and the kids ran behind him. How long could they spend here? Kevin thought they could spend a long time.
Wayne pretended not to notice them on the walk to the creek, which Kevin appreciated. He stayed a few steps behind the kids and dog, who alternately dropped the tennis ball at Sean’s feet or Maddie’s. Sean threw the tennis ball a greater distance, but Maddie threw it with more gusto. She did a lot of things with gusto. Sean was more subdued, or maybe just depressed. Nobody threw the tennis ball past the creek, which was the border of Wayne’s property, something Kevin had unsuccessfully tried to confirm with the website he used to reserve the place before successfully confirming with the county, which possessed no record of Wayne. This detail Kevin kept for himself.
On the far side of the creek was spaghetti-thin black wire, three parallel lines squiggling above the grass. You had to look to see them, and on several occasions, Kevin had looked. Nothing interested him more than what lay on the other side of that wire. He had some guesses: live-free-or-die types, government testing sites, deer. Probably, there were just deer and whatever ate deer, if anything ate deer. Are there bears in Northwest Montana? He felt like he could handle seeing a black bear, but seeing a grizzly bear would be like seeing Godzilla. Wire and a creek wouldn’t protect him and his family.
As if on cue, Sean hurled the tennis ball over the wire and onto the other side.
“Dad?” Sean said.
The dog dove into the freezing creek and leapt out just as quickly, shaking his fur maniacally. Kevin could see the ball clearly. He bent to untie his sneakers.
“I’m not going in,” Maddie said. “No way.”
“Nobody is asking you to go in.” Kevin removed his socks and stuffed them into his sneakers.
His right foot sank immediately into the muck at the bottom of the creek, and though the water was startlingly clear, he couldn’t see below his ankle. Cold shot up his leg and injected itself into his bones. His left foot remained on the edge of the water. If he couldn’t deposit his left foot into the muck, how would he survive the apocalypse?
Of course, nobody would survive. That’s what made it the apocalypse.
“Thanks, Dad,” Sean said.
“This is the coldest my foot has ever been,” Kevin said.
“Sounds cold,” Maddie said.
He rolled his jeans up to his knees. He lifted his left foot, and he was standing firmly in the creek. He felt the muck between each of his toes. Water eddied around his shins.
“I can see the ball,” Kevin said. “I’m just going to grab it.”
He was relieved, stepping out of the creek, to find each of his toes intact, to feel warmth returning to his legs. Carefully, he stepped over the wire—not as barbed as he’d anticipated—and onto the other side.
He was officially trespassing now. Sean and Maddie watched attentively. Even the dog stood still. When Kevin bent to retrieve the ball, he saw a brown and white hawk perched on a low-hanging branch. Kevin didn’t say anything, lest he disturb this bird, who watched him with interest, as though he were a mouse the hawk might pluck from the grass. When Kevin straightened his back, the hawk didn’t budge.
“I thought you said you can see it,” Sean said.
“There’s something else,” Kevin said.
“I can see it,” Maddie said.
The enormity of the hawk, even in its compact form, startled Kevin. He’d thought of hawks as slightly larger blue jays or cardinals, but the creature before him more closely resembled a bear. He wondered if he was supposed to make himself big, which was his understanding of bear deterrence. He hadn’t received any guidance for hawks, which he’d heretofore observed only from a great distance.
“Hold on, Maddie.”
“It’s me, Dad!”
“Hold on, Sean.”
The whites of the hawk’s eyes were yellow. Its pupils were black and stationary. Only the bird’s breathing, faintly visible in the feathers’ movement, convinced Kevin that the bird was alive. He entertained throwing a rock at the hawk. Throwing the tennis ball! Could that be what had earned the hawk’s interest? Did it look like an incomparable yellow egg?
With a boldness that surprised him, Kevin stepped on the ball. But the bird didn’t blink. Kevin withdrew his bare foot and lifted the ball from the sharp grass.
He walked backward, so he could keep his eyes on the hawk. It was only after he’d tripped on a root and landed roughly on the ground that the bird shook its wings. Kevin released the ball and reached for something to defend himself, only how does one defend oneself against a bird? The closest he’d come was a seagull at the beach. He made a lot of noise and waved Sean’s toy shovel then. The seagull appeared more annoyed than frightened. Now Kevin gripped a mossy stick, but it was so rotten that it splintered as soon as he lifted it.
“Are you okay, Dad?” Maddie asked.
“I’m coming,” Sean said.
The hawk’s beak looked smooth and dangerous. It didn’t resemble anything in Kevin’s world. How long had hawks existed? Longer than people, he felt certain. Hadn’t he read that dinosaurs were just birds? Not when he was a kid. Then dinosaurs were lizards: green, scaly, sharp-clawed, sharp-toothed, small brained. But wrong: bird brained all along. When he was a kid, the extinction of dinosaurs was an unsolved mystery. Now the murder weapon and room were confirmed: a meteor in the Yucatan peninsula. The only remaining question was who, but that was philosophy, physics—subjects Kevin had long ago abandoned for the practical study of survival.
Survival the hawk understood. The hawk was an animal, same as the dog, same as Kevin. Surely the hawk realized this was the wrong fight to pick. Hawks weren’t above humans on the food chain: the absence of predators was how people got the world into this mess.
Sean, for the second time that day, was barefoot. He tentatively lowered one naked foot into the creek. Currents swirled around his ankle. Kevin and Amy, out of nothing at all, had created that ankle. Mostly Amy, but it wasn’t as though Kevin’s contribution were immaterial.
“I said, Don’t come!”
But Sean had other ideas. Maybe he didn’t hear Kevin. Or maybe Sean saw this as his moment. We’re all the heroes of our own stories. How often do we get a chance to save our dad? Even at the end of the world, we want the feeling that courage confers, the recognition of being seen by others as courageous. Kevin remembered that feeling.
For the first time, the hawk turned its head, and Kevin sensed what he was up against. This was no blue jay or cardinal. Before him was an evolutionary dinosaur, millions of years in the making.
“Stay with your sister,” he said in what sounded, even to him, like a distant voice.
Sean had both feet in the water now. He swayed a little, perhaps for dramatic effect. Nothing in the creek could harm him, save the cold. All the danger lay on the other side.
Sean seemed incredulous when he emerged on Kevin’s—the hawk’s—side of the creek. Sean looked first to Maddie, who waved earnestly, and then to Kevin, who lifted his arms, as if to say, Stop, though he didn’t say anything. When Kevin opened his mouth, there was no voice inside him. In its place was something new: fear but not just that. Gingerly, Sean walked toward Kevin. Sean was acutely aware of the absence of shoes, and he tiptoed around rocks, pinecones, specks of glass (left by whom?), animal bones (left by what?), roots poking rudely from the soil. When he saw the hawk, Sean stopped. Confronted with a circumstance unlike any he’d encountered, he needed time to think. Kevin could read this in the vacancy of Sean’s expression, as if all his physical reserves had been redirected to the production of thought. Kevin was proud and worried. The hawk shuffled its talons on the branch.
Kevin couldn’t find his voice, but he knew where his arms were. He pushed himself to his feet. His legs were also where he expected them. He was walking toward his son. Then he was running.
Sean stood still, aware that something was happening but unclear what. Kevin was clear. He might be diminished—closer to annihilation than birth—but he was taller. He was stronger than his son, faster (still), meaner. With bare hands Kevin would destroy anything that came for his son.
It was like that for all the animals in the forest.
Kevin Clouther is the author of We Were Flying to Chicago: Stories (Catapult). He is an Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha Writer's Workshop, where he serves as Program Coordinator of the MFA in Writing.