Dayna Jurgens walked down the broad Main Street of Xenia, Ohio, utterly alone. At first she had run up and down, shouting, sometimes sobbing, once laughing in uncontrollable peals that had sounded more like screams. No one had ever answered. She might be the last woman left alive in the world. She knew she was the last in Xenia.
Her left shoulder twinged, and she adjusted the straps of her backpack. Soon she’d find a cycle and… just take it. Everything was left out, waiting for her to take. But she wanted to walk a while first, at least a few more blocks before she left the silent city.
A crow cawed sharply, making her jump. It was perched atop a parking meter, almost close enough for her to be able to reach out and touch it. It was unusually big, with glossy blue-black feathers and gleaming eyes, and it seemed to have no fear of her.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice sounded strange, tinny. “Hello there.”
“Hello,” another voice replied.
Dayna spun around. A woman stood nearby, a living, breathing woman. She was in her forties, tall and lean, with black hair clipped short. She was real. Dayna wasn’t alone.
With another caw, the crow leaped into the air, passing so closely by Dayna that one of its wings clapped against the side of her head. She staggered backward, watched it flap away, and then ran toward the woman. The woman was running too. They met in the middle of the road and clutched at each other, and for a while neither of them could do anything but cry.
“I thought I was last person left alive,” said Dayna. “Everyone in the college died – everyone in the city died. Everyone but me.”
“Me too. Oh, me too.” The woman took a deep breath, then stepped back and offered her hand. It was warm and strong, and Dayna hated to let it go. “I’m Alison Strang. I used to be a bank manager.”
“I guess everyone’s a ‘used to’ now,” replied Dayna. “I’m Dayna Jurgens. I used to teach PE at the college.”
"Where were you going?"
“I was headed for Columbus,” Dayna said. “I figured lots of people lived there, so maybe…”
Alison was shaking her head. “I came from Columbus.”
“Oh. Well… Where were you headed?”
“South. I thought it would be better to be someplace warmer by winter time. Ever been to Georgia?”
Dayna shook her head. “I hear they have great peaches. Let’s go.”
They picked out bicycles and headed out of town. Cycling along the deserted roads, chatting with Alison as they rode side by side, Dayna almost felt like she was on a ride with a girlfriend.
She wondered if the flu had killed all the men, or if it was a coincidence that they were both women. Maybe it was a world of women, and anyone who wanted a baby would have to break into a sperm bank and hope a couple samples were still cold. She grinned to herself at the picture of women rummaging through some lab like a college student desperately searching the back of the refrigerator for anything still edible, and felt hopeful for the first time in weeks.
There were no buildings around by nightfall, so they made a fire by the side of the road and cooked a meal of baked beans, Spam, and potatoes. At least the potatoes weren’t canned, though the outsides scorched and they didn’t cook all the way through to the center.
After they ate, Dayna and Alison sat by the fire, warming their hands and looking at stars that blazed like white-hot sparks from a welding arc.
“All we need are marshmallows,” Alison said unexpectedly.
Dayna laughed. “I’d just been thinking how much this felt like summer camp. I used to go to tennis camp every year. Now I can’t imagine how we all found the energy to play, when we were staying up half the night singing dirty songs and roasting marshmallows.”
“Well, we don’t have marshmallows, but… Do you remember any of the dirty songs?”
Dayna stared at Alison. Was that a pass, or just conversation? Alison looked curious and amused, and that was all. Not a pass, then. Dayna felt oddly disappointed, though Alison wasn’t really her type – too old, for one. Too buttoned-down. Too thin. Dayna liked women with strong fit bodies and warm smiles, women who could hike all day and then put on some lipstick and go dancing. It was too bad that those sorts of women were also frequently obsessed with vegetarianism, or aura-reading, or other weird stuff.
“Do you know ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor?’” Dayna asked.
“A classic,” replied Alison. “Want to be Barnacle Bill, or the Fair Young Maiden?”
“I’m an alto,” Dayna said. “I’ll take Bill.”
Alison’s voice wavered as she sang, as if she was on the verge of bursting out laughing. "’Who's that knocking at my door? Who's that knocking at my door? Who's that knocking at my door?’ said the fair Young Maiden...”Dayna pitched her voice low and gravelly. "’It's me and my crew and we've come for a screw!’ said Barnacle Bill the Sailor.”
They ran out of verses after "I'll smash the lock with my diamond-hard cock!" Dayna applauded, and Alison laughed.
“Guess we should go to sleep,” Dayna said. “We’ve got a lot of miles ahead of us.”
Alison snuggled down in her sleeping bag. “Tomorrow we’ll get marshmallows.”
Dayna lay awake, listening to Alison breathe and telling herself that her nightmares had been creations of fear and grief and loneliness. Now that she had company, she’d never again see that dark man. She fixed her thoughts on Alison, on all the miles up ahead, on Georgia peaches…
…and found herself on a barren field under a slate-gray sky. Metal clinked as she moved: she was dressed in armor, and held a sword. She saw no one and nothing, but the terror that twisted her stomach and closed her throat told her who was behind her. She slowly turned and saw him, the dark man, the shadow man, the man who killed her every night.
He clicked his tongue, tsk-tsking her as if she was a child. “You can’t kill me just by getting a bigger knife.”
“What do you want from me?” Dayna shouted. “Who are you? Just leave me alone!”
She couldn’t see his face – that always seemed to lie in shadow – but she somehow knew that he was smiling. “I want you to fear me.”
Dayna almost laughed, though she was shaking so hard she could barely hold the sword. “Done! I’m scared! Now go away!”
He tsk-tsked her again. “Not until you drop your sword, get down on your knees, and beg for your life.”
Dayna shook her head.
The shadow man casually lifted his hand. Her armor fell from her body and clattered down to her feet, leaving her naked in the chill wind. He walked slowly toward her. Every finger on his right hand was a shard of broken glass. She swung her sword with all her strength, meaning to slice him open like an orange. The sword shattered in mid-air. She dropped the hilt and tried to clench her fists, but she was paralyzed. He laughed.
“Fear me,” he whispered. His index finger darted out and stabbed her in the eye.
…and the pain was gone. She stood on a porch, clothed in jeans and a sweatshirt, alive and warm. An old black woman leaned back in her chair and smiled at Dayna.
“Your heart’s in the right place,” the old woman said. “But you’ve got to lay down your sword and shield. Those kinds of weapons can’t kill your shadow man.”
“What kind of weapons can?” Dayna asked.
The old woman laughed. “You think I mean you should get yourself a gun? No, child. All you need is faith.”
Dayna was raised to be polite to her elders, so she didn’t contradict the woman. The scene began to get blurry and fade away.
“You come and visit me,” called the woman. “Come to Nebraska!”
Dayna woke up. The sun was rising, and Alison was feeding wood to the fire.
“Rise and shine!” Alison called.
Dayna tried to smile back, but it felt like a lie. Alison would undoubtedly think she was crazy when Dayna tried to explain what she wanted to do, and she briefly considered inventing family in Nebraska. But that didn’t feel right either. Maybe she could just not say why she’d gotten this sudden notion into her head.
“I want to go to Nebraska,” Dayna said. “Not Georgia. Will come with me?”
Alison was silent for a moment. “You dreamed of her. The old woman in Nebraska.”
“You did too?” Dayna was astonished, then realized what that meant. “Great! Then you’ll come!”
Alison shook her head.
“But why not?”
Alison again fell silent. Finally, she said, “I didn’t just dream of her. I dreamed of a man, too. A dark man – not dark-skinned, a man in shadow. They’re both gathering people. Him in Las Vegas, her in Nebraska. They’re looking for soldiers – soldiers to fight their war.”
“The woman’s peaceful,” Dayna protested. “She told me I needed faith, not weapons. Alison, I dreamed of the shadow man too. Every night. Every night, I fight him – with a knife, with a gun, with my hands – and every night, he kills me. If she’s his enemy, then we need to go stand with her.”
Alison looked down at her hands. “In my dreams, he doesn’t kill me.”
“You don’t have to tell me.” Dayna put a reassuring hand on Alison’s shoulder. “If it’s too horrible…”
Alison threw off Dayna’s hand.
“He offers me a job!” Alison shouted. “He tells me he needs me. He tells me to come with him, come west. He knows what I am, and he wants me on his side.”
The sun shone bright, but Dayna felt chilled. “What are you?”
Alison swallowed. “I designed biological weapons. Not Captain Trips! That wasn’t mine – I don’t know whose that was. I worked on a variant of toxoplasmosis. It’s a parasite that can kill you or make you very ill, but it can also live in your brain forever without doing much of anything. Sometimes it can alter behavior. The goal was to create a version that didn’t make people sick, but made them placid. Made them suggestible.” She lifted her head and looked Dayna in the eyes. “We were going to start human trials in six months.”
Dayna realized that her mouth had been hanging open. She closed it with a snap that hurt her jaws. “So you’re going to help the shadow man brainwash anyone who’s left?”
“No, I’m going to go to Georgia and stay there!”
Absurdly, Dayna heard a song lyric playing in her head: So the Devil went down to Georgia… Her Daddy had loved all those old songs. He’d sung that one to her when she was a little kid, and many more. Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the river side, down by the river side…
“I’m done,” Alison said. “I’m done making weapons. I’m done fighting. Maybe I’ll make vaccines, if I find more people and can get the equipment. But that’s it. I’m not going to the shadow man, and I’m not going to the old lady. They can have their war all by themselves, because I’m through!”
Alison got up and started throwing her stuff back into her backpack. Dayna sat on her sleeping bag. Her whole body felt numb. You sure can pick them, Dayna. Date abusive men. Date weird women. The whole world ends, and which survivor do you manage to find? A mad scientist working on a secret government plan to create zombies!
She got up and started packing her own stuff. A few minutes later, the two women stood with their bikes loaded, ready to set off in opposite directions.
Dayna nearly left without a word. But that song kept running through her head: I ain’t gonna study war no more…
“You could come with me to Nebraska,” Dayna said. “I wouldn’t tell anyone if you didn’t want me to. You could make your vaccines for us.”
Alison shook her head. “I’m not looking for redemption, or forgiveness, or any of the stuff the old woman talked about. You go fight your war. I don’t want to get involved.”
Dayna got on her bike. “Good-bye, Alison.”
Dayna pedaled down the road, resolutely keeping her mind on practical things. The first gas station she found, she’d get a map and figure out a route to Nebraska. She’d get some beef jerky and dried fruit, maybe a couple chocolate bars for a treat and instant energy. She wasn’t going to think about Alison, or about faith or men who couldn’t be killed with weapons. If Dayna had learned one thing in the past month, it was that anyone could die.
The wind blew back her hair. It was a beautiful day. Daddy used to ride with her on days like this, before his heart got too bad. Remembering him, she lifted her voice and sang.
“The minstrel boy to the war has gone, in the ranks of death you will find him. His father’s sword he hath girded on, and his wild harp slung behind him…”