Sailor’s Knoll

I

The looters came in mobs, raiding homes and stores. At first, wakes of broken glass and the occasional vehicle fire. Then the cops stopped patrolling, and now there are bodies splayed in the roads and doubled over fences. No coroners in navy blue windbreakers. Instead, dogs tearing at the flesh. Rats and racoons. 

All of this has been very difficult to accept, even as the hardest hit neighbourhoods literally turn to sand. I’m up early this morning and picking lint off the collar of my blazer, but there’s no office to manage, hasn’t been for weeks. I’ve just been waking up and picking at the lint with trembling hands, peeking out the window and thinking about the farm, remembering the knoll. It’s time I visit. Outside, a man with a long beard shouts at an empty water bottle in the middle of the road. It moves. He runs. I put on a pair of cargo shorts and a Superman T-shirt I liked wearing to the gym. I throw some things in a backpack: toothbrush, boxer shorts. Some cologne. In the mirror, my face is pale. Bit of grey hair around my temples, the spread of which I’ll be spared. I wink at myself. What I’ll say is: “Hey, Sharon. Long time no see.” 

Driving out of the city, I watch in my rear-view mirror as levitating water obscures the skyline. I stop checking the mirror as I make my way into the country, where the grass is still green and the highway is deserted. I was raised in a farmhouse five hours away. My mom had this little blue blanket she spread over her lap while she smoked on the cedar porch. After dinner in spring and fall, as the cool night air fell across the fields, her and my dad sat in camping chairs and rolled tobacco with their knuckly fingers. She covered herself with the blanket and sometimes stray embers from her cigarette burned through the fabric. My dad wore the wool sweater she’d made before I was born. He rolled his smokes tighter than she did, but there were still burns, just not as many. Anyway, they didn’t care about stuff like that. They listened to the cackling crickets and katydids. Sometimes they talked about our animals and sometimes they said nothing at all. In the summer, Walter Willis took my mom’s seat on the porch and drank whisky with my dad. Because of this, a silence grew between my parents during the warmer months, but it wasn’t resentful. My mom empathized with Willis because he was a youngish single dad, his ex-wife lived in another country, and he always went home before ten so he could get up early and farm his canola with a few hired guys. 

From spring to fall, I sat on the step and felt bored and lucky. I wished for a different life, but not that different. On weekends, after I finished my chores in the barn, I bundled up mom’s blanket and ran to Sailors’ Knoll just beyond our property line. If I was wearing pants, I rolled them up so I could feel the bunchgrass scratch my legs. From the top of the hill, I could see our grazing lands and some of the Willis property too. I lay in the grass and covered myself with the blanket. I pretended I was a scuba diver swimming in a lake. Little flashes of light came through the burn holes and I imagined I was swimming through sunbeams. The weather was always nice around my lake. It was always peaceful. 

More often than not, Sharon Willis would see me from their property and run over to play. I was a couple years older, but we found common cause in scuba diving beneath the blanket. She squeezed her nose and blew out her cheeks. I lifted her black hair over her head and made it sway in a current. Occasionally, I’d run out of oxygen and she’d have to blow air into my mouth. But it wasn’t kissing at that age. It was kissing when we got a bit older. And then, after a year or so, it wasn’t kissing again. It was awkward adolescence, first for me and then for her. We didn’t have friends in common. Later, I went to university in the city. There was nothing harsh about it. I saw her at my mom’s funeral and a year later at my dad’s. We didn’t talk much. Her dad hired some people to work my parent’s farm and I gave him half the profits. Then, after it became clear I’d never really look in on things, never really lend much of a hand at all, I gave him three quarters. When he died, Sharon took over. We exchange emails sometimes, and I’m quietly embarrassed by her spelling. 

II

Three hours outside the city, a landscape of cattle and canola, and the smell of manure comes through the open window. There are no bandits or anarchists. No one at all, really. But it’s hard not to worry about an occurrence of the thing itself. I’ve seen all kinds of footage online: grainy security reels, high-def journalism, jerky cell phone vids, and satellite footage from space. It happens to different people at different times. Different places. There isn’t much of a pattern, except for the creepy announcements of its arrival: floating water bottles, a cloud of sweat rising over the neighbourhood gym, a mid-afternoon mist on the river. At first, people didn’t notice these little harbingers. They were too busy working and playing and screwing and eating. Now there’s no denying it, and people panic. They run this way and that. They crash their cars and throw trashcans into storefronts. But it doesn’t matter what we do. The itching always comes. People always fall to the ground and claw at their flesh as it dries in scales.

Early in the crisis, I saw this happen to a college football team practicing at a school near the office. A thick mist fizzed out of the yellowing turf, and then their bodies too. It rose into the atmosphere and into space, where it boiled and froze into millions of tiny crystals. Then, inexplicably, like a flock of interstellar sparrows, the crystals flew out of Earth’s orbit and into the darkness of the galaxy. The first time the International Space Station released footage of that, it was midday, and people were in tears at the office. Then they were afraid of their tears. I had to send everyone home.

How will it feel, when it happens to me? I coach myself as I drive: stay calm, be brave. I don’t want my last seconds to be defined by terror. I want them to be as comfortable as possible, under a blanket on Sailors’ Knoll.

A little after noon, I turn off the highway onto the bumpy access road that leads to the family farm. On the one side, the Willis crop, canola golden and overgrown. On the other, my parents’ grazing lands, also a little overgrown. When I get to the farmhouse, I hear a generator rumbling from the backyard, and I sit there with the window down looking at the grey porch planks and weather-beaten siding. It’s smaller than I remember. Behind it, just visible over the rotting shingles, Sailors’ Knoll gives the prairie a little bump of contour. 

When I was a kid, Walter Willis told me that millions of years ago, the prairie was the floor of a vast ocean. A group of sailors set out on a raft with a tree trunk for a mast and a mammoth hide for a sail. They’d left their homeland because they were curious or maybe they were fleeing an oppressive ruler. No one knew for sure. Their bravery and determination were the only certainties, and they sailed for years, fishing and drinking from the plenitude of the ocean. 

“I’m concerned with the science of this tale,” my dad said, leaning into the bug-besieged porchlight, legs crossed as he rolled a smoke. 

Willis took off his ballcap and a curtain of black hair fell across his face. “What, like now you’re Alfred Nobel?” He squeezed the frayed brim into a sharp peek, swept his hair back, and jammed his hat back on. The sailors’ journey was as endless as the sea, and eventually they died, old and contented with each other and their surroundings. Their raft was so well made, it floated for hundreds of thousands of years, until the sea dried up and became a desert, and the winds blew hard across it, burying the raft in sand. Then came the rains, then the grasslands, and later the farms around the knoll. “You dig into the hill, Benny, you’ll find the top of the mast at least. Hand to God.”

My dad snatched Willis’s cap, flattened the brim, and slapped him all over the bulk of his shoulders. “Shit, Walls, he’s up there enough as it is!”

Next morning, I climbed the knoll with a garden spade and Sharon came too. We took turns throwing dirt over our shoulders for an hour or more, clump after clump, but no mast. 

A woman now steps out of the farmhouse and points a rifle at the car. 

Sharon. 

I wave and she lowers the gun, but reluctantly. 

III

“Figured you’d come.”

She looks me up and down and snickers at my Superman T-shirt, then she leads me inside. The front door opens onto the kitchen, and I can smell the woodstove. There are dishes in the sink and a pitcher of well water on the counter, clean and fresh. She takes two glasses out of the cupboard and from behind she doesn’t look much different than when we were kids: long hair, black as her dad’s, hanging down to the middle of her back. Thick waist. Strong, freckled legs in knee-length shorts. She pours the water and we sit at the same table my family used all my life. 

I pick up my glass and look at her through the contents. She’s only slightly distorted. I take a sip. “It’s weird to drink now, eh? Knowing what we know.”

She shrugs, swallows half her glass, and wipes her lips with her dirt-scuffed wrist. “I think it’s the same as it ever was. More or less.”

We’re quiet for a bit, listening to the generator. 

“You’re living here? Not at your dad’s place?”

“Here,” she says. “Not there.”

There’s a challenge to her tone, but I just nod. “You mind if I stay?”

“It’s your house too. In a sense. You can have your old room. I’m in your folks’.”

I go to the car and get my bag, and she follows me onto the porch and leans against one of the columns. “Have you seen it? Like, have you seen it happen?”

“No,” I say, trying not to think of the football team. “Not in person.”

She turns and leads the way back inside.

We move down the hall. “Shouldn’t we lock that door?” 

“Why?” The floor creaks under her feet and there are framed photos of my parents on the wall, a few of which I don’t remember. 

“You know. Maniacs.” I stop to look at a picture of my parents posing in front of the house. My mom’s hunched and her hair is thin and short and my dad’s wearing baggy overalls and leaning on a shovel, looking too frail to use it. 

“Nah,” she says, pressing her palm into my bedroom door. “It hasn’t been like that. No one’s out here trying to survive, really.”

“Maybe no one wants to.”

“Yeah.” She pushes the door open and it scrapes against the floor. “Sounds about right. And if not, I got that rifle.”

I step inside and look at my little bed and the bare walls and the nightstand with a reading lamp but no lightbulb. She closes the door, and I lie down for a nap.

IV

At dinner, the atmosphere is better. The evening sun shines through the kitchen windows and throws soft shadows on the wall. Sharon has made pork chops and I can smell she’s been drinking. There’s a bottle of whisky in the middle of the table, no label, and I decide to join her. 

“Homemade,” she says. “Dad left me a still.”

She watches me take a shot. I try not to wince, but wow, and she smirks the way she did when she saw my shirt. I look down at it for a second, stupid thing, then pour another drink. We take our seats and pick at our food.

“This is really good,” I tell her.

“It’s Carrie. Heifer. Figure there’s no need for more calves, and I kind of felt sorry for her being so young. Might as well have dinner.”

I take another gulp of whisky. “So you’ve been running the farm by yourself?”

“Nope.”

“You’ve got people helping out?”

“I did, but no one comes around anymore. I’m just doing the subsistence thing now. Gardening, pretty much.”

She chews and I try not to stare at her mouth. “So you’ve been running it by yourself.”

“I guess so, Ben. Why?”

“I don’t know. Just asking. Seems like a lot of work.”

“Of course it is. Don’t you remember?”

“Sort of. Mostly I remember Sailors’ Knoll.”

She puts her fork down, pushes her chair back, and stands. “Gotta piss.”

While she’s gone, I drink more whisky. When she comes back, she’s got two candles and she lights them with a match and sets them into holders and puts them on the table. I pour her a glass and in a schmaltzy voice, I say, “Well, this is romantic.”

“No,” she says. “This is saving generator fuel.”

I laugh. “Let’s go check it out. Like old times.”

“Check what out?”

“Come on. Sailors’ Knoll.”

She pinches her nose for a second, drums her fingers on the table. “Ben. It’s been here, like, forever. Why the sudden interest?”

I laugh and realize I’m drunk. “Um, the apocalypse?”

“Um, the apocalypse,” she mimics.

I ignore this. “Remember when we use to play scuba divers under my mom’s blanket?”

“I’m usually too busy to remember my childhood, Ben. Anyway, it makes me sad.”

“Why? Don’t be sad!”

“Because my family life was different than yours.”

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s just take the bottle to the knoll. We can bring a blanket.”

She stands and grabs the whisky. “Nah. I’m going to sleep.”  

V

Sharon looms over my bed. Her hair’s pulled back and her overalls are on, and she’s clapping and singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” This takes a painful moment to understand because the whisky has left me confused and sore. Out the window, half the sun rises over her unruly canola. On the bedside table, a glass of well water.

“Drink up, get up,” she says. “We got cows to care for.”

It’s a rough morning. The barn’s dark and stinks of shit. The smell throws my stomach into convulsions, but I manage not to heave. It’s been years since I’ve stepped foot in here. Dad only sometimes convinced me to help during my very occasional summer visits, and I wasn’t interested in poking around when I came up for the funerals. But there’s no rush of vivid childhood memories. It’s just a barn: beams and posts, pens and a loft. I can taste the smell. What I really want is to go sit on Sailors’ Knoll. Why do all this work when there’s so little time left? 

Five Jersey cows lumber around, tails flipping at the flies on their rumps. The farm lost power a few days before I showed up, so we have to milk by hand, which I haven’t done since I was a teenager. Only two have borne calves in the past year, but still. That’s a lot of milking. We sit on our stools and get to work, but my forearms cramp up after ten minutes and Sharon banishes me to cleaning the pens, which is what my dad used to do when he caught me slacking off. Every five minutes or so, she walks by with her dented bucket and throws the milk on the ground outside. 

After the third time, I balk. “What’re you doing?”

Again with that smirk. “Why keep it? You like a good supply of sour milk, do ya?”

“I mean, what’s the point?”

“Point of what?”

“Milking them!”

“Um, it hurts them, you know, to be bursting with milk. What do you think I was doing while you had your nap yesterday afternoon?” She shakes her head and goes back to her stool.

“Look,” I say, tossing my shovel in the dirt. My head’s still throbbing from the whisky. “This sucks. Let’s go for a walk or something.”

She just sits on her stool, tugging teats. “Go,” she says, without looking up. “I’m not leaving them uncomfortable.”

“What? Like you’re friends or something?”

“Yeah. Like we’re friends.”

“Um, you just ate on one of these things? Last night? Remember?”

“Relationships can be difficult. Go for your walk.”

VI

It’s late in the afternoon. I’ve napped off my hangover, and now I’m sitting on the porch laying the groundwork for another. Sharon’s with her cattle way out on my dad’s grazing lands. Beyond her, in the direction of the city, moisture hangs in the air. I drink more whisky and go inside to root through her fridge for sandwich fixings. There’s bread and mustard. Vegetables too, but what about her garden? Why not have something fresh? I stumble out the door and into the sun and down the porch steps and around the side of the house. I pick two tomatoes and a few leaves of lettuce. I looked up and see her in the fields. I yell and wave, but I guess she can’t hear me over the generator. I make four sandwiches and retire to the porch for another glass of whisky. Ensconced in bovine, Sharon approaches the barn, nodding as I wave again. 

I call out: “Come for a drink?”

She squats and shuffles alongside the biggest cow. With her palm, she gives its swollen udder a light clap. I laugh so hard it’s tough to breathe and I spill a slosh of whisky on the logo of my T-shirt but vow never to change it for the rest of my life. Just for a second, I remind myself of my dad, wheezing in his chair next to Walter Willis. I crave a cigarette, even though I’ve never really smoked. Instead, I hurry to my room and spray my chest with cologne.

Sharon goes in and out of the barn, throwing buckets of milk into the grass. After about forty-five minutes, she walks out and wipes her hands on her overalls as she climbs the porch steps. “What’ve you been doing? Drinking all my whisky? And why do you stink like that?” The moisture on the horizon has grown denser. It’s like a bank of clouds now, rolling toward us. If she’s seen it, she’s not letting on. 

“I made dinner,” I tell her, my voice a little manic. “But you’ll have to come with me if you wanna eat it.”

She sighs, but in a surprisingly tolerant way. “Alright. Let me change into shorts.”

And it’s lovely, climbing this knoll. Bunchgrass scratches at my legs. The fields roll away in all directions. I have four sandwiches in a paper bag and a bottle of whisky and a blanket for us to sit on. The sun shines down on us and the sky is mostly clear, except for the horizon. There’s no way Sharon hasn’t noticed what’s going over there, but she doesn’t say anything, just marches up the knoll and pulls at the tall grass with her trailing hands. Once we get to the top, I flatten a section of grass and spread the blanket out.

“Just so you know,” she says, “we’re not getting under that thing to play scuba divers.”

I feel my eyebrows lift in a ludicrous parody of confusion. “What? I know that! Ha! Here, let’s sit. Let’s have a drink. Let’s eat a sandwich. Here. Sit. Eat. Drink.”

She sits, crosses her legs, and takes a drink. She accepts a sandwich and opens it up and wrinkles her nose at what’s inside. “This,” she says, then pauses for a second. “This looks great. Thanks.”

“So,” I say, and a piece of food flies out my mouth and lands on her cheek. “Whoops.”

She ducks my reach and wipes it with her wrist. “Gross.”

I shrug. “So how come you never came to visit?”

“Where?”

“Uh, the city?”

“Right.” She frowns. “The city. I visit often, actually.”

“Oh.” I stop chewing for a second. It hadn’t occurred to me, but of course she does. Or did. Or whatever. It’s not that far. 

“Yeah. I even went to college there.”

“What?” More food flies out of my mouth. “Really?”

She turns her head from the blue horizon to the cloudy one, and I suppose calling it a horizon doesn’t make sense anymore. We can see the clouds touching the ground. They ripple and waver. Sharon looks back at me and blinks a number of times. A spasm. “Do you see a college around here, Ben?”

“You lived there for two years and didn’t call me?”

She takes a bite of her sandwich and nods.

“You should’ve called me.”

“I didn’t think of it.”

“Oh, come on. You thought of it.”

“No. Honestly. I didn’t think of it.”

“You did so. You thought about it constantly.” I lever my last bite into my mouth then make a barrel of myself and roll down the knoll. Everything is blurry and rough and green then blue then grey until I think I might barf and spread my arms to stop. Behind me is a flattened trail of grass leading up to Sharon. I wave.

She calls out: “Are you being flirtatious?” 

“No, I’m just rolling down the hill. It’s not related.” 

She nods and looks at the clouds. I walk back up the knoll and sit beside her on the blanket. A dragonfly whizzes between us and takes off. The clouds are maybe a kilometre away, and all the land in front is turning brown and brittle. 

The whisky no longer burns, and I say, “There’s no raft under here, eh?”

She shakes her head, and I realize she’s holding back tears. “No raft.”

“We could’ve sailed it into space.”

“From what I know of space, that would’ve been uncomfortable. Ben? You’re shaking.”

“Do you think it might just pass us by? Like, are you feeling itchy?”

“No. Are you?”

“I don’t know. Yeah. Could be bug bites.”

“Look,” she says, touching my neck with her fingertip. “That’s a bug bite for sure.”

I smile. “Do you want your other sandwich?”

“Um. Sure.”

The cloud is maybe a kilometre away, and even some of the knoll is starting to turn yellow. 

“It doesn’t matter,” I say, handing her the bag. “This is good enough. I’m glad I came.”

“Me, too.” A tear comes out of her eye and just sort of disappears. She unwraps the sandwich, takes a bite, spits it out. “Do you want to maybe let the cows out once more? I feel bad for them in there.”

“Yeah,” I say, tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

We stand up, hold hands, and stumble down the knoll.

— Paul Carlucci wrote The Secret Life of Fission, A Plea for Constant Motion, and The High-Rise in Fort Fierce. His dog’s name is Hank. Hank’s the shit.