In the morning he woke from a dream he tried immediately to shove into the overstuffed ganglion folds of his hindbrain and then set about making oatmeal heated with a few coals leftover from last night’s struggling fire. Like this in the early sunlight the odd underwater haze turned everything blue as ash and January ice, but it was so hot that the midsummer green of the woods had crumpled beneath the smothering July sun, sweat beading already on his brow. Last night there was rain and his knees were telling him there would be more later on but he still took the tarp down and carefully skimmed off the water that had gathered in the night before he packed up his camp to move on. You never knew when it would come again.
He walked through the woods until dusk and then set up camp again and ate the last of the beans he’d found in what had once been a house in what had once been the outskirts of St. Louis and then sat digging the infection out of the red gash on his inner thigh with a ring he sterilized over the fire every night, the edges of it burning a sweet tearing arpeggio of pain across the throb of his heartbeat buried deep in the riverbed of the wound. For months the blood had flowed from it and pooled across his groin in a steady menstrual flood every time he did this; he wasn’t even sure exactly how long ago it had been but there was plenty he didn’t remember now. When he washed it in the firelight he could see that the great gaping core of it like a geologic wound was dry now, the edges swollen a gummy pink but settling into a grotesque scar, soft as something just born. So he would live, after all.
After the heat came the floods, and after the floods came the election, and after the election came the war, and after the war came the earthquake, and after the earthquake came more and more floods, rising from the Mississippi and then fanning out across the plains and the prairie like a curse, drowning everything for a thousand miles. Once the waters receded just enough to allow a steady stream of foot traffic Remus started walking. He had no idea where he was going; at first, when he was able to think about it somewhere around Belleville, he thought he might walk to the epicenter of everything—out west, he’d been told, near the Cascades, by divine and hysterical uncoincidence also where Sirius was—and lie down there, like an old dog curling up in a comfortable place to die, but even then something in him had bristled at the idea. Eventually he lost the scent of it and just kept walking, west and west and west, drawn on a compulsion whose name he spent months trying very hard to forget. In short, he survived, but not for lack of trying otherwise for a while.
All along the wide open palm of the flooded prairie that summer he found things washed up in the water or at the lines in the eroded banks of woods and farmland where it had all receded, stuck in the mud or floating along in the humid breeze like messages from another world. Clothes, trunks, cars, radios, books, pots and pans, chairs, gas cans, moldy, waterlogged loaves of bread. Bodies, too. Some of them drowned, some dead of heatstroke or starvation or disease, some shot through the head or the gut or occasionally headless. Early on he’d find some of them missing limbs, or with long slivers cut out of their abdomens or chests like they’d been visited by a hack surgeon. Tripping on the wrong mushrooms in the woods somewhere in Iowa he’d wondered if he’d have let Sirius do it to him, but then he remembered—shock, like cold rain, like teeth, like orgasm—he and Sirius had torn whole bloody chunks out of each other so many times before it could hardly feel much different. He imagined Sirius reaching inside him and pulling out every agonized inch of his guts, clawing out his liver or his lungs, and then eating it right in front of him. This is love, he thought, closing his eyes, lying down in the sodden grass, trying to reach into the beloved unmemory and feel the blood of it underneath his fingernails. Split him open right down the middle and all you’d find was his love, his heart red as a pomegranate, bursting with it, begging for it, ready for teeth.
Sirius Black, he thought, waking up with the throbbing nightmare-drone of cicadasong the next morning. It was the first time Remus remembered his name.
They’d been fighting, just before. They were often fighting towards the end, though the tinge and timbre had been different, this time. When their phones still worked most of the time they got near-constant notifications about the earthquakes out west or the floods at home or the war, which was everywhere; Remus was working nights at the time and when he came home he’d sometimes find Sirius asleep on the couch, a map or an old atlas on the coffee table with a couple of routes traced like heartlines in red and blue ink. Towards the end he’d stopped asking Remus if he’d come with him.
When it all got started the Potters had gone somewhere out west, where James was originally from, thus this was where Sirius planned to go before the situation devolved to the extent that travel became impossible, which they understood by then was only a matter of time. Sirius had lost his job as a research assistant when the college closed earlier in the year, and every day people left town in a quiet caravan of cars, their houses and shops pillaged and picked clean by morning; Remus himself made off with a crate of old blues and folk records and a Turkish carpet, though what he’d do with it he never knew. He listened to them late at night while Sirius slept, all the doors in the apartment creaking on their hinges where they were propped open with heavy books against the thunderstorm winds, thinking about the people he’d read about when the war first started, who’d drugged their lovers or their children and drove off in the night.
It was Sirius who’d left, but really Remus had been daring him to leave for a very long time. He’d asked a question Sirius couldn’t answer, though what it was he couldn’t quite remember in the aftermath; months later, when he returned to the unintelligible mantra of the memory again and again in the flaying heat of the prairie, he wasn’t even sure he’d understood just what he was asking. In the morning he’d begun to spin a half-formed, half-asleep apology to an empty apartment. They’d called each other and texted a few times after that, and Remus was standing around in the kitchen thinking about texting him the whole truth or something approximating the whole truth and trying to come up with a half-assed meal between a can of black beans and a peach with a couple of bad spots when the power went out.
Outside he could hear the people who’d gathered in the street talking about assassinations, the earthquake they said could be felt all the way to St. Louis, when power might be restored, but already he knew. The sunset that night was the color of a new bruise, fever-bright, wrapped in ash thick as gauze.
No more cell phone service, no more texting. No more email, no more internet, no more infection control, no more Amtrak, no more fluorescent horizons. No more morning traffic, no more eight o’clock coffee. No more sirens. No more crackle of the record player. No more certainty of surviving a papercut, a trip around the corner for cigarettes, the winter, the night.
Remus rationed out the last of his phone’s battery like his own blood, reading back over every conversation he’d had with Sirius, wanting to see it light up again and knowing better. When it finally died he put his shoes on and packed some food and clothes and what few scant belongings he cared about or could help him and started walking.
I can never speak to you again, he thought. I’ll never hear your voice. I’ll never tell you goodnight. I’ll never read your research or send you songs or tell you how dearly fucking sorry I am for fucking everything up or how much I miss you like magic or food or blood or language. I can never speak to you again. Absence, absolute and hollowing, beyond comprehension, a record stuck in the same gnawing infernal groove, an open wound that never stops howling, no hope of ever bleeding out. Total loss. There is no word for this. Only the nerves left raw and exposed and screaming by the knowledge of what was there before. I’ll never hear your voice again. I will never speak to you again—never see you again—never speak to you again—never ever again—
One foot after the other, one foot after the other.
He’d been camping along the Missouri River in South Dakota for about a week when he realized someone was following him. It wasn’t unusual to run into other folks even this far outside settlements or major roads, but it was unusual that they didn’t make themselves known soon after realizing they weren’t in any danger. These facts in combination told Remus nothing good: he’d seen people kill each other for less than the food and muddy, graying clothes he had on him. He had the knife he used to fillet fish and another that came into his possession outside Blue Springs, though he tried hard not to think about the precise sequence of events leading to this. If he cut the memory up like a reel of cassette tape he could almost forget how it sounded when it all flowed together. Only shattered glass shards remained. Sometimes he cut himself on them, but this way they didn’t take out anything vital.
A few miles downstream, near the place where the river bent into a narrow, sullen twist, a kid came out of the trees just to the east, looking hunted and exhausted beyond her years. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen, seventeen, but already there were lines around her eyes and more gray in her hair than perhaps even Remus had now, and she was plainly starving. He wondered if she’d been part of a caravan that had gone to its doom along one of the less-traveled roads, or perhaps been led to its doom like a sheep to slaughter. The scar on his thigh still unhealed struck a shrill chord of pain along his knee to his hip and groin like an ice-pick, biting against nerve, against memory.
“You really ought to stick to the roads,” Remus said to the girl once she’d sat down and he’d given her some of his cornbread and opened a can of tomatoes for her. She was barefoot and there was blood dried in her wild hair but she hadn’t said a word and never once quit watching him, no matter how far away he sat.
“Where you headed,” he said, not expecting an answer and not getting one. “I’m headed out west. West of here, I mean. I’d never even been this far, I mean, before. I’d barely left the state.”
She just watched him and ate, the choked ashen blue of the afternoon sunlight catching on the gray in her hair. Still she said nothing except to give Remus a look that said too clearly, Shut your fucking mouth. So he did.
She was short and stocky, with dark brown eyes and fingernails bitten past the quick. She was around the age that she’d probably have been thinking about going to college, if she’d grown up in better times. Maybe she’d been recruited into one of the gangs or smuggling rings that conducted business on the river. Maybe she had a dog and friends she liked to ride her bike with or maybe she went shopping with her mother on weekends. Perhaps she was looking for someone too. Or maybe she was just trying to find her way home. But there had to be a reason she was out here. There always was a reason, whether you realized it at the time or not. Something in you wants to survive, for better and for worse, and often it will be for worse. It’ll hurt and it’ll bleed and it’ll pull your soul at the seams and you may want to die, but you won’t die. There is a purpose to this too, but you won’t know it until much later.
The girl stole his shoes when she left, which he reckoned she would, so he laced up his boots and packed up camp in the dark, listening to a coyote and the shouts of perhaps a caravan or perhaps smugglers or worse way off in the thick smudge of horizon just visible in the pale, sickly moonlight. There were no stars to speak of overhead but her footprints in the mud cut a rigid straight line east, as if she hadn’t looked back even once. She’d live, Remus thought, and headed again back down the roiling river, into the slurry, swallowing night.
One night a crooked, damaged-looking traveler approached him at a bar someone was running out of a shed in Butte. It would be altogether so much easier, he said, if you forgot certain things. If you let it be, if you walked away rather than towards. Lay down everything else but your keenest survival instinct or else you’ll never compete or compare: you will die, and sooner than you think. Remus kept waiting for a sales pitch for some kind of end-of-the-world mysticism or some bullshit but it never came. By the time he finished his shitty moonshine the guy was long gone.
He thought about it all the next day, trading for fishing twine and a few miraculous peaches and a yellowed, dog-eared book of poetry he’d forgotten he ever knew; he thought of it again while he was reading by the flicker-flare of the firelight, the wind when it blew just right bringing with it like a scent the sound of guitars and the sound of gunfire, tucked away where he was near the toothy spine of the mountains. More often than not the farther west he went the fewer stars he could see through the veil of ash and as such he’d stopped relying on them to navigate, but tonight they tore so bright out of the thick cottony rime he could swear he was home again, down by the river or the boundless fields unscrolling in the moonlight before the floods, breathing goldenrod and hollyhock and the scorched August air, the in-between season, the earth ready to turn again.
What would he even be without it? Walking across the country with his love strapped across his shoulders and tugging his grief behind him like bodies on a burial journey, but of course none of it could never be buried. With a totality he’d scarcely known he had within himself he understood he didn’t want it to be.
A few years ago, October or November, he remembered, unseasonably warm but by then it was always unseasonably warm, and they’d gone for a walk very late, looking at the stars, the late-night drunks stumbling down the narrow streets, music coming from somewhere by the creek; it was still new then, this staggering, jelly-legged thing between them, and Remus was afraid of it. He had never stopped being afraid of it. In the dark he’d taken Sirius by the wrist and showed him one of the autumn constellations—couldn’t even remember which one. They’d spent the night in the fields east of town, sitting on the ancient Pendleton blanket Sirius kept in the car with a six-pack and handfuls of the late, out-of-season wild blackberries that grew all along the roadside, pointing with stained fingers while the radio played, Sirius’s elbow and shoulder pressed up against Remus’s, feeling skin and muscle, ligament and bone, heartbeat, heartbeat.
On his knees, looking for the strange seething redness in the east, Sirius put his hands on his waist and pulled him close, pressed his mouth to Remus’s navel, rubber-band vibrations coaxed into rhythm, motion. Every movement they made they made together until Remus lost sight and sense of anything outside their breathing bodies, their beating hearts. Just before dawn he woke up naked in the grass, wrapped in Sirius and the blanket, thinking that this must be what drove all life and all stories along on their twisted, torturous roads. This was where everything came from: blood, magic, desire, grief, music, language, loss, pain, fear, love, years and years, yearning and yearning and yearning. In the pale unlight of morning he could feel Sirius’s heartbeat humming a sleepy song, lullaby-blue right up against his own. The smell of dew and the October-singed fields, a wood thrush singing in the copse of unturned trees, out of place, out of season.
This was where everything came from; this was what we were made of.
He fell asleep listening to the wind sweeping across town and all through the lazy coil of the mountains, trailing laughter and food, coyotes calling, someone crying, a door slamming. Above him the bright peal of stars, right where he left them.
Sirius was from up north, Chicago or perhaps an affluent suburb; Remus came from a town down south, down by the river. As a kid he’d spent a lot of time on his own, avoiding his drunk father and worrying about his mother wherever she was, wandering the fields and the forests downstream, learning what plants were what and which butterflies still lived where and what animals came out when. Later on, when the world very slowly began to end, this served him well. Sirius had never taken much of it to heart and insisted that they should leave to find their friends while things like infrastructure and transportation were still mostly intact, but Remus had always resisted without ever explaining why. There were fields and forests and rivers anywhere; there was a sky that stretched the breadth and depth of the whole goddamn world, and there was a man who apparently loved him, and nothing to stop him. They argued about it, brittly, and he’d told Sirius he couldn’t understand what it was like, being trapped like this, and partly that was true. Unsaid: the river is my blood and these woods are every creaking joint and bone and the patchwork of the fields my bruised and rotting soul. Everything that’s ever happened to me is here and most of that you don’t want to hear. I can’t escape. When the floods come I’ll go out to meet them; when the river breaks the spillway it’ll be the end. I’ll die here. Even if I wasn’t here I’d have to come back here to die. You don’t get it. You don’t fucking get it.
In the days after Sirius left, when he made too much food and didn’t clean the apartment and forgot to fill out paperwork every shift and sat unsleeping at the front windows watching the sweltering turn of the earth, he began to realize that what he envisioned as a trap was increasingly a fate of his own making. He didn’t know what to do with it, not at first, so he picked at it, one more bead of shame for the rosary he’d been carrying around unwilling since time immemorial, and let it fester. Then, the end; then, he started to walk.
On the Salmon River he stopped to cook some of the wild rice he’d traded for in South Dakota and listened to the nightbirds coming out, more common an occurrence here than it was at least in the south. Here it was safe enough that he could wash himself and his clothes in the river while the water boiled, feeling trout nip at his toes, smelling smoke from the wildfires no doubt burning in the west, and indeed the sunset spilled like a burst of cherry juice across the bowl of the sky; soon he would probably see ash again, the kiss of it like snow, the earth where it fell quiet as the bellow of a conch shell. Somehow he’d managed to put on some weight; he wasn’t getting headaches like he used to. The wound on his thigh was as healed as it would probably ever be. He could go anywhere. The way to the south and the east was clear; to the west, there was smoke, mountains, history, a thousand steps, a thousand more, then a thousand more and more and more. There was compulsion, blood, a score to be settled, fear, shame, love, the far shore of every dream, perhaps some decent pot and a real bed to sleep on. To the west there was laundry he’d have to do, promises he meant to keep, the migraine he’d been staving off. To the west there was a man he loved.
One foot after the other, one foot after the other.
Near the Oregon border he was trading some dried meat and odds and ends he’d scavenged from the burn-out bones of houses and a collapsed school back in Montana when smugglers ambushed both the trading post and the bar. One of the proprietors apparently owed a hefty debt they’d not yet paid in full; Remus didn’t see him again when it was over. They took most everything, and Remus, obliged to help with the bodies afterwards, stole the flashlight and the notebook he found on one of the shopkeepers’ bodies and left before anyone could ask anything else of him.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d written anything and he could hardly even hold the pen at first. He started out with poetry he remembered, song lyrics, lines from books, things his friends had said to him over the years, secrets he’d overheard, secrets he’d kept, lies, pretty words, addresses, names, grocery lists, things he never said that he dearly wished he had. For a long time he couldn’t stop. Gluttonous, half-starved, gorging himself without even thinking about it, the look of the words building themselves like roots into walls into cities, like wine, like ritual, like blood spilled, spider-webbed across the warp and weft of his memory until he had to stop for the nausea. That evening he stopped to eat and then brewed a cup of the black tea he’d found in an already-pilfered grocery store in Des Moines that he hadn’t yet touched. Possessed by the same thing that had pulled him out here by the head and the heart and the feet he took the pages in his shaky hands again, still smelling blood on his clothes, and wrote Sirius’s name.
This had always been more Sirius’s forte, he supposed; it was what Sirius was made for. Remus used to read his work for school back when he was still a student and again when he was a research assistant, feeling the rabid spinal bolt of pride in him, the vibrant gut-pang of every word chipping away at something inside him when Sirius would send him something when they were apart, which was not infrequent in those early days. That Sirius would trust him with this—that Sirius wanted him to do it—was something Remus didn’t think too deeply about until much later, and even then, he misinterpreted it, partly wilfully, for something else entirely.
I walked, he wrote, all the way from the headwaters out east. I packed up what I thought was necessary and/or could be traded for something necessary and started walking. A lot of what I took is gone now because it was stolen, or I lost it to the current when I had to swim, and early on there was a lot of swimming. I smashed your copy of Spiderland and I traded your guitar for two cans of Hunt’s diced tomatoes (no sodium added) and a bag of brown rice and I sent your best flannel shirt (the green one I loved best on you) floating merrily down the St. Francis River. I’m sorry.
When you left I was miserable because of course I was miserable, I love misery, there was a lot of feeling sorry for myself and listening to depressing music and not eating and blah blah, you don’t need to hear this. You know it all anyway; you’ve seen it before. The thought of never speaking to you again was worse than death, worse than any kind of hell anyone’s ever imagined, worse than jumping from the window of the apartment and surviving and lying there for days just waiting while the vultures circle. It took the literal fucking end of the world—or just the end of civilization as we knew it, or just the end of a way of life, or maybe we’re still just in the death throes, I don’t know—to make me try. To see what I’d done to you. To make me move. To make me open my eyes and look.
I love you. I love you wildly—I love you more for every blister I’ve put on my foot and every gallon of sweat I’ve lost and every hour unslept to bring myself half a day or half a minute closer to you. More than memory, more than any bullshit fantasy I’ve ever spun. I love you more than safety or comfort or an easy death—and anyway I want to die before you do because the thought of anything else is unbearable. Nothing much can kill me now but I know you could. I love you more than birdsong, better than the distance closing between us on every map I read. I love you more than summer peaches and cherries and all the watercolors of August. I’m alive with it, overflowing, hoarse and scarred with it as the fields used to be in October, bursting like a plum ready to split down the middle. I love you more than the courthouse clock still chiming on the hour at the end of the fucking world. I love you better than I ever loved my own fucking cowardice. This all feels like practice, in a fucking weird way—don’t give me that look. Love’s all about practice. Otherwise it wouldn’t be love.
I am coming to you. I don’t know if you’ll recognize me when you see me; I look a little different now, rougher around the edges, or at least I think I do. There’s a bad scar running the length of my right thigh; I’ll tell you about that someday. There’s more gray in my hair and my knuckles are always chapped and red and I know what death looks like and feels like now. I’ll tell you about that someday, too.
I know you probably are changed too—how couldn’t you be?—but understand this: I would know you anywhere. You are under my fingernails, in the clamor of every chord of music, every song I catch myself humming, folded like every secret in the spongy ganglion curls of my gray matter. You’re in every song I’ve ever loved and all the ones I haven’t yet, every poem I still remember, every velvet-warm dream I wake from in the middle of the night, the beckoning of every wheeling star on those rare nights when you can find them through the ten-ton shroud of clouds in the far north. You’re in the calluses on my hands and feet, the flush of blood in my every heartbeat, the strain of tendons in my knees, the first glint of fire started from flint and tinder, the sight of water after coming across the desert for days and days. You’re in every syllable of every word I write, you’re in all the food I eat. You’re in every mutated cell, every atomic filament. Every step, every path yet untraveled—I know you. I know you.
No need to leave any lights out the way you used to; I’ll find my way.
Into the fire he fed every page as a prayer to every god and ungod he’d never believed in, watching the paper curl and the smoke murmur into the night winds like a sigil, like a promise. He sat there watching until it burned out.
Years ago, just before, or—probably more accurately—long after he fell in love, he and Sirius were walking home from the bar, James and Lily and Peter having left an hour ago; they lived in opposite directions, Sirius halfway across town, but still he walked home with Remus. Feigning drunker than he was, which was not at all, he told Sirius that if he had any sense he’d be afraid. He himself was scared shitless, though he refused to specify what of even to himself, and Sirius only looked at him sideways in the silver haze of the streetlight, insolently beautiful, his smile gone by then, his eyes pinning Remus there like a moth in a shadowbox, panic spreading from his gut like venom until he swallowed it down to save for later. No one else was in the street. When Sirius leaned in and kissed him Remus kept his eyes open to watch their shadows blur together on the dark concrete, changing each other’s shape. Later, when he took Sirius inside him, knees locked around his hips, Sirius’s hand spread across his belly, he tried to say it: I am afraid of you and of myself and this thing which is beginning at the ending of everything. I have upset the order of everything. I have upset the order of everything, and I need this. He thrust his hips against Sirius, feeling the pleasure of it shiver like foxfire through both of them, thinking what he had never said, what he could never find a way to say, which was, of course, I think I have always loved you. I think I always will.
For hours they lay like that, listening to the katydids and the muffled jangle of the nighttime music coming in through the open window. Sirius didn’t pull out of him for a long time; when he did, Remus pressed his mouth to the hollow of his throat, his jaw, his neck where the blood pulsed like the drumbeat of a song he hadn’t heard yet, quicker and quicker beneath Remus’s lips, please, please, please. Knowing, even then, that nothing would last.
It was a Tuesday when he crossed the border into Washington, late, the sun settling into the gray ash-rime of the clouds, spreading red like an oil spill. Through the tall heat-wilted trees, when he came out of the woods and made his way onto the path, he could feel that someone was watching, but he kept walking. Too late to be afraid now, and anyway, he wasn’t. Not of this.
He passed an encampment getting ready to set off first thing in the morning and another that had gotten separated from their caravan and asked him how the roads were, the conditions for which he really couldn’t vouch, but he traded for some thread—the insoles of his boots were peeling apart—and a loaf of bread before he set off again towards the town a few miles away. By then he’d been up all night; he’d be up all night again if he had to, walking down and down the hills, down and down, down and down, deeper and deeper. Off in the distance he smelled death and smoke, something rotting in the wild tangled woods. He had miles and miles yet to go.
The town flickered into his vision so suddenly he bit his cheek to make sure he wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating from lack of sleep—it must’ve been about two in the morning by then and he could feel he’d sweat through his shirt and his blisters had bled into his boots—but it was real, real as his skin and his dreams, real as the love that bore him here towards uncertain ends. Outside what Remus assumed was a bar some folks were stripping a car for parts; when they saw him they stopped but after he nodded at them they got right back to it, and Remus followed an owlcall down a long and winding road, completely unlit, one foot after the other, one foot after the other, until the crooked little house came into view, the A-frame shambling on its foundation, shingles missing from the roof, weeds overgrown and threading through the siding, which was falling apart. One single window in the front was lit up, perhaps with a flashlight or a lantern, perhaps with pure insomniac longing. The sight of it threw the breaker on in Remus’s heart.
Here you are, he thought. Here you are, then. What I have pulled my soul apart to find.
Here you are.
He stumbled down the lane, the soles of his boots catching occasionally on a twig or the detritus of some forgotten thing from before until he came to the front yard, where he could feel someone inside, his elbows probably bracing against the arm of the couch where he’d been waiting all night, listening to the coyotes or the foxes foraging, listening for footsteps.
Into the burnt August stillness the dry grass crumbled beneath Remus’s boots, and as he stepped into the thin rime of light he felt his heartbeat pick up like it had caught the scent of something good in the dark the way it had so many times before. Across the lonesome cast of his shadow he watched at the open window while another shadow unfurled and moved to pull the curtains back. Remus took a breath and went to him.