Back, way back, all the way back to when John had been thirty…no, twenty-nine. He’d been twenty-nine. Really? Looking back, it seemed damned-near impossible that he’d ever been that young. Surely, he’d sprung into existence right around forty-five, already creaking at the joints and complaining about the weather.
Twenty-nine, sure enough, and Eddie had been thirty-four. Always the personable one. The life of the party. The ladies man. Like their mother. John had inherited the hardware store and the booming laugh from their father. Eddie had gotten their mother’s charm and smile. Probably the better set of gifts.
John rubbed at his forehead.
Hard to think in the dark.
He knew it wasn’t the dark.
Hard to think past midnight.
He knew it wasn’t the hour. He glanced across the room at the empty bottle he knew was hidden in the cabinet. John would get rid of it in the morning.
Eddie had run for mayor that year. That was what he was trying to think of. Eddie, Mr. Charm and Smiles, came over to the house with a couple of steaks and a bottle (maybe I should…no, don’t want to wake anyone) and while John threw them on the grill and Jewel and Ruth got to making potato salad and corn, Eddie had announced his grand plans.
“You don’t think I can do it?” Eddie had asked, trying to read his face. Maybe by then John was too unreadable. Maybe, for all his talk of…damn it, what had he always said…letting his ‘field of fucks lie fallow,’ he cared just as much as the rest of them.
He cared what you thought. Just you. And you know it.
But the face hadn’t been for Eddie, as John had explained. John hadn’t been able to help himself.
“I could never,” John had said.
Eddie’s grin had come back faster than a hangover after a night of rum and cokes.
“That’s why I have to.”
John had lost sleep over it then like he was losing sleep over it now. Silly. Back then it was a hypothetical. What if I were in charge?
“I can tell you what,” John said to himself, careful to keep his voice low. Carlos had the room next to him. Good guy until he got woken up at two in the morning.
“You won’t sleep,” he said. He could imagine his twenty-nine-year-old self sitting in front of him, on the edge of the bed. “You’ll tell people you’re not in charge but they’ll look to you anyway and you won’t sleep. They’ll expect you to fix their problems and you’ll tell them you’re going to sleep on it but then you won’t sleep. You’ll tell people to go deer hunting. You’ll tell people to go down to Denver to trade. You’ll tell people to do lots of things. And they’ll think you know what you’re doing. And you won’t…Ah, shit.”
Smoke. Wafting in through the open window on the other side of the room. Strong enough to wake people. Must have only shown up now. He would have noticed it before.
John dressed in the dark, moving around the room by starlight and memory. Of all the things they had gotten used to, the darkness still fascinated him. He thought he’d be reaching for the light switch every time he entered a room until the day he died. Now he could do most things in the dark. Preferred to. Light could lead to headaches.
He cussed to himself as he got outside. There was already a cluster of people in the middle of the intersection, huddled together. Waiting. Someone was holding a lantern, and it lit them strangely. Shadows cast up, highlighting noses and brows. It made him seasick.
Hard to think when I’m sick.
He knew it wasn’t the light.
Birdie gave him a single raised eyebrow and he huffed as he joined them.
“Dead asleep,” he mumbled. “Barely awake now.”
Did Birdie believe him, or did she think it wasn’t the time? Either way, the result was the same. She nodded, then tossed her head at the figure standing next to her.
“Same. Might still be asleep if June hadn’t woken me up.”
They were all looking at him, now. Even June. Skinny, broken June who hadn’t made eye contact with anyone for the first few weeks he was here was now with it enough to be looking at him. Waiting, like all the rest, for John to tell them what to do.
At least we have a protocol for this, he thought as a burp sent reflux up into his sinuses.
“You all know what to do,” he said. Was his voice chattering? From the chill, definitely. The chill of this summer night. “Keep your lights and your radios on. Check in with me regularly. Once Mike and Paul make the watch tower we’ll have a better idea of what’s going on.”
Everyone nodded and the bustling began. Quiet bustling. Groups were made with barely a peep. There were people still sleeping, after all, and if it wasn’t an emergency they didn’t need to be awake.
John breathed deep. Definitely smoke. The smell he’d been taught to be afraid of his whole life. It was different, the smell of a wildfire, from any other sort of smoke. Anyone in the mountains worth their salt could tell the difference between a wildfire and a woodfire. And anyway, if there was someone around here setting themselves up in some abandoned house or another and planning to stay long enough that they’d gotten a woodstove going they would have to know about that, too. Fold them in or kick them out. Being neighborly wasn’t really a thing you did anymore. Too many crazies. Too many selfish bastards. It was too much, too many, too-
He almost screamed. Almost. He blew out through clenched teeth, getting a good a whistle. Birdie was next to him. Staring at him. Studying him.
“Don’t do that,” he said. “Shouldn’t you be going east with Nico?”
Birdie didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. Even in the dark he could see it in her face. She knew. She was now the person who had known him the longest. Everyone on the planet and it was her. She could see it all in his darkened face, smell his breath, knew, she knew–
She held out some dark shape and John took it without thinking. The radio. Of course. No one could check in with him if he didn’t have a God damned radio.
“Are you good?” she asked.
I am not, nor have I ever, been good at anything.
“Fine. Get out there. Maybe we can all be back asleep by dawn.”
Birdie left without another word. Without another pause. She was the one who knew him the longest, know, but it went the other way, too. They would be talking about this. Whether he wanted to or not.
John tried to decide if he could have a drink at their meeting or if that would be too obvious.