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November

There was always a possibility that they stumble out of the woods and into a fascist state.

That’s what Bean texts him after they’re all sequestered back in their homes. All the communal houses are split up, now everyone is alone, right back to where they started. Only this time, there’s no Cassandra to rally the troops and create something out of nothing. Grizz still doesn’t understand what’s going on, even after Allie’s bleeding forehead and Luke’s green paragraphs sitting unanswered on his charging phone.

He’s sitting on the floor of the kitchen, still wearing his hiking boots, still wearing the layers of grime he collected sleeping on the ground for two weeks. He’s sitting on the floor of his dark kitchen, a gaping hole opening in his chest, ripping his sternum in two. He shouldn’t feel this way because he always knew that there was always a possibility of winding up in a facist state all alone.

The Guard are going to come and drag him back into their midst, another attack dog for Campbell Eliot, who’s obviously trying to force everyone into cosplaying Lord of the Flies with him. The Guard are going to come and not take no for an answer.

Grizz slides down the counter so that he’s prone on the floor. He can smell himself, the sweat of exertion, the sweat of fear, smoke from the fire, smoke from Bean’s poorly rolled joints. He knows that if he spends one more minute on the kitchen floor he’s going to start crying and never stop, not even if Clark punches him or locks him in a wine cellar.

I want to call Sam, the thought crosses his mind before he can chastise himself for being stupid. There are so many reasons why that is a bad idea, both practical and emotional. He would give three fingernails for enough data to Facetime Sam, to see his face and try to read his thoughts between those blue eyes. He wants to ask if Sam’s a father yet, or a father soon, or maybe even a grieving father.

“Just fucking go,” he says into the stale, stagnent air. “If he had enough balls to see you before the woods, you owe him one.”

Two weeks is a long time with your own thoughts, two weeks is a long time with the words sorry things got so complicated running through your mind like a stock exchange ticker tape. Two weeks is enough time to rewind and press play on every single memory he has ever had of Sam. Pause, freshman year biology, lab partners for one day because their usual ones both had swine flu. When Sam accidentally bumped their hips together while looking into the microscope the bottom of Grizz’s stomach swooped into free fall, his mind only containing the words oh no. Pause, sitting with the Guard in the cafeteria, long before they were known as the Guard, pretending to have to throw something away so he could walk past the round table where Sam and Becca were huddled close together, holding intense conversations in an unknown language.  Pause, prom and bullshit and an embarrassingly wrong library book. Pause, a garden and a library and maybe something else. Pause, Grizz’s bedroom, Thanksgiving. Pause, a hospital bed, and the possibility of a baby, and his skull full of angry bees. Pause, a clearing in the woods and a highlighted book, and a promise. I care about you.

Before he has another chance to think about it, he’s halfways across the backyard, the back door is left unlocked and he thinks he knows how Mr. Darcy felt, stalking across a misty field on an anxious morning.

Becca’s house isn’t too far away, especially with legs that have only known walking for two weeks straight. Becca’s house is no mansion, but there’s enough room for a family, a mother and father, and a daughter. There’s a light on in the kitchen and suddenly Grizz doesn’t know how to breathe.

The blinds on the back door rustle upwards and Sam’s standing there, looking rumpled and exhausted and his face is screwed up like he’s trying not to cry. Then he’s not standing there anymore and he’s running across the crunchy grass and throwing his arms around Grizz’s neck. The moment they touch Grizz can feel his body melting into the ground, letting himself be held. He’s leaning down, his face is pressed into Sam’s neck, he can smell baby formula and Becca’s shampoo and comfort.

Sam takes a step back, his hands on both of Grizz’s shoulders. “You’re back.”

Grizz nods, not sure that any words would come out even if he tried to speak. He wasn’t tired when he stumbled back into town, he wasn’t tired when Jason shoved Allie and Will into a Jeep, he wasn’t tired when he laid on his kitchen floor, but now all his energy reserves are burnt up and he feels like he did right before he passed out during two a days the summer before sophomore year. 

He can feel himself swaying on his feet, can feel himself being pulled across the yard and into the warm kitchen, can feel Sam pushing him onto the couch. “Sleep,” Grizz hears, and then he  does.

~~

There’s always a possibility that Grizz died in the woods and somehow ended up in heaven. Maybe he got pecked to death by a wild turkey in his sleep and was granted access to Becca’s kitchen, with a tiny baby in his arms, and Sam Eliot making him breakfast.

Eden makes a noise in his arms and he is once again surprised that Becca even let him get within twenty feet of the most perfect thing to witness this new earth. Becca is leaning back in her chair, sucking down her third cup of coffee. “You sure you didn’t have siblings? Never babysat or taught vacation Bible school?” She signs along with her taunts. “You’re a natural. She hasn’t been this quiet since she was inside me.”

Grizz doesn’t know what Becca knows, but when she woke Sam up to take an early morning diaper shift she didn’t say a word about the extra lump in his bed, wearing Sam’s clothes and snoring like a lifelong sleep apnea patient. She didn’t say a word when he didn’t leave the next day, or the day after. She didn’t protest when he offered to change diapers and heat up formula, just like she didn’t ask Grizz about the florid marks lining her baby daddy’s neck.

“Nope. Just radiate chill vibes I guess.”

Becca rolls her eyes. “Somehow you got even more crunchy granola out there in the boonies.”

Nothing wrong with that, Sam signs, sitting down next to Grizz. He’s Trader Joes brand.

There is a mental list of things that Grizz would sacrifice body parts for the chance to google. One: when to plant beans in Connecticut, Two: ASL Rosetta Stone.

“I think I’m more of a Whole Foods guy myself.”

They sit in silence, chomping on Sam’s waffles made out of ground oatmeal and slightly discolored agave that he found at one of abandoned coffee shops on Main.   

“So.” Sam breaks first. “What are you going to do?”

“What do you mean?” The peace of the morning is dissipating, leaving only anxiety eating through his stomach like snake venom.

“In case you haven’t heard, there’s been a coup.” Becca deadpans, face suddenly pulled taut. “No one wanted to tell me because I’m a fragile mother, but the one thing everyone forgets about mothers is that they always figure things out.”

Grizz shoots Sam a look, quick and guilty, but he’s absorbed in his waffles. “I’m very unsure what you want me to do about this.” Even as he says it, he can see Allie, bleeding out in Luke’s basement, he can see Sam and Becca shriveling up in starvation because of Harry and Lexie’s negative amount of public planning ability. He can see the Guard descending upon the town in their luxury cars, guns strapped to their sides and fear blocking out the street lamps. He can see Sam’s face whenever Campbell’s name is brought up.

They’re looking at him now, even Eden, warm in his arms. The hope in their eyes is worse than if they had already given up. “I’m not Allie. I don’t know how to lead anything.”

Sam puts a hand on his arm, squeezes once. “No one asked you to be.” He closes his eyes, lines deepening on his forehead. “But you’ve got something she doesn’t.”

Freedom. “What’s that?”

Sam’s face splits open in the soft smile that dominates so many of Grizz’s ticker tape memories. Twenty acres of land. His hands smooth down the air in front of him, bringing the wide swatch of treeless land out of Grizz’s mind and into the reality of the warm kitchen.

~~

December

Grizz almost doesn’t hear the knock on the door when the Guard finally comes to call. He’d finally worked up the courage to go back to his empty house, kissing Sam under the apple tree in Becca’s backyard, trying to ignore the tug of grief threatening to clench his heart. Please. I just found him again. But his being there is dangerous, especially when he knows that he is long overdue for a conference with Campbell, and he’d rather jab a pencil through his eye than put Eden in danger.

He’s cranked up his mom’s old record player, something jazzy and sultry blaring through the house, anything to make the dark rooms have less shadows lurking in the corners. He’s just about to text the “New Ham’s Forest Goblins TM” group chat when he hears Luke’s voice from behind the front door. Thank fuck he’s wearing a turtleneck.

“Grizz, bud, you gotta let us in,” Luke is hollering as Grizz opens the door. Luke looks horrible, patches of dried skin around his mouth, his eyes sunken and gummy. Behind him stands the rest of them, Clark, and Jason, Shoe, and Campbell. They all file into the foyer.

“What’s up?” Grizz wills his voice to stay steady, tries to school his face into a neutral expression.

“We haven’t seen much of you since you’ve gotten back.” Luke crosses his arms, seemingly tasked with holding up the Guard’s end of the conversation.

“Oh you know. I’ve been resting up. Cleaning all our gear.”

“Some things have changed since you left.” This is the most painful conversation this foyer has ever seen, and it’s witnessed the messy divorce of the Visser parents.

“I’ve noticed.”

“We think it’s time you come back to work. Back to the Guard. There may have been a change of leadership but we still got a job to do.”  Luke reaches into his jacket pocket and produces a shiny black handgun. He stretches his arm out, dangling the gun in the breach. “You’re gonna need this.”

Someone has reached into Grizz’s lungs and squeezed out all the air. Someone has reached into his stomach and turned it violently inside out. Someone has reached inside his brain and turned all the channels to static. The last time he held a gun he had been cast as an executioner and quit halfway through the production. Last time he held a gun he couldn’t get the smell of smoke out of his nose for a week and cried every time he took a shower for a week after that. Grizz has a t-shirt with the words “March for Our Lives” blazoned across the front hidden in the  bottom of his underwear drawer and a shake in his hands.

He takes a step back, almost running into the wall. “You know, I’ve been thinking.” He clears his throat. “I think I’m going to have my hands full getting ready for planting. I have to till the land and figure out how to transport goods and start some of the seeds in the greenhouse. So maybe while that is going on, I could take over some of the more low-key jobs? I mean, I can cook and clean without being on call 24/7.” He knows he’s rambling, he can feel Campbell’s cold eyes looking him up and down. “And obviously you guys are doing fine without me.”

Campbell waves his hand dismissively. “The Boy Scout is right. We don’t wanna starve.” He starts to move towards the door. “Because if we starve we know who to blame, right? Consider this a moment of temporary leave.” His face breaks into a smile, so unlike his brother’s, and he’s gone. The rest of the Guard follow behind him, a line of whipped dogs willing to snarl at anything that moves. Luke sends one final look over his shoulder, his eyes saying I’m sorry but his mouth staying silent.

Grizz watches them through the open door, watches as they pile into what must be one of Harry’s fleet of cars, watches them race down the road until he can’t see them anymore. Then he closes the door, locks it. Wedges a chair under the knob. Sits down with a thunk on the hardwood floor.

He puts his head between his knees and finally lets himself cry for the first time since emerging from the woods. He’s always been a crier, before he knew that was a bad thing, before his father flicked his chin and said Janine, did you give me a son or a daughter. Even in New Ham, where everyone is desentized to trauma and loss, his tear ducts seem to be working overtime. The last time he cried he had been heading out into the unknown, the dense foliage where he had seen his first dead body, felt what true hopelessness is, watched a girl’s life drain from her eyes. The last time he cried, Sam had wiped his tears away with a warm hand, looked at him like it was going to be alright, said I care about you.

The weakest part of him gives way, the crevasse that he’s sure that everyone has, the place that’s been patched over a hundred times since the moment they stepped off the buses and into the lion's den. The place where he keeps the hope that one day he would get out and argue with people about literature in libraries with big windows and go home to a sun drenched apartment in a big city where someone who loved him lived, someone who he wasn’t afraid to love back. The place that still believes that one day he could have the chance to be happy.

He’s not sure how long he’s been lying on the floor, he’s not sure how long he’s been crying. He’s not even sure that he’s still crying, his head is so full of cotton and static that he feels like his awareness has retreated to a tiny space in the back of his head that nobody else can reach. He can remember feeling like this when his mom looked him in the face and announced without emotion that his dad was moving to Providence and they weren’t going with him. Or the day that Jason went around snapping his towel at the boys in the locker room and labelling everyone he didn’t like with an explosive three letter word. But now it feels like the place that used to hold the library, the apartment, has been scooped out with a melon baller, and maybe he’ll never get off the floor.

A sound of a window sliding open echoes from somewhere in the back of the house. Grizz’s legs won’t move when he tells them to, he opens his mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. There are worse ways to die, he decides. A bullet to the gut, a snake bite in the woods. 

Someone is crashing through the house, knocking into every piece of furniture from the sound of it. A silhouette appears at the doorway to the foyer, a boy’s tall frame. The boy stumbles forward, caught on a cord plugged into a wall socket. Though there are no lights on and the sun has long since set, Grizz can see red hair, a faded brown jacket. 

“Grizz?” Sam’s hands are all over him, pulling him into an upright position, touching his face, checking his ribs, wiping away a fresh tear. “Did he hurt you?”

He shakes his head. There’s no bruises on him, no blood, and he doesn’t know how to explain the melon baller without sounding like a lunatic. “Luke tried to give me a gun.” They’re sitting facing each other, but it’s so dark, there's no way Sam can read his lips. “I can’t have a gun.”

Finally his legs listen to him and he stands up. Moonlight illuminates his face and he says. “You can’t be here.” Grizz can’t go back to Becca’s and keep playing house, pretending like he’s not a homewrecker. Finally his hands listen to him and they sign, You can’t leave Becca alone. You have a baby.

 Sam blows a long stream of air from between his lips. He draws his knees up to his chest. “Becca and I had a long talk after you left.”

“I hope you told her the fucking truth.” All the sadness has ignited into rage, rage that as soon as he found a good thing it had to be ripped away by a joyous something that neither of them could do anything about.

“She knows everything. About me and you.” Sam puts his head between his knees for a second and then stands up. He looks Grizz in the eye, their faces bathed in moonlight. “Eden’s my daughter because I love her like a father should. I would do anything for her, just like I would do anything for Becca.” He takes a deep breath. “But she’s not mine biologically.”

“What.”

“Becca didn’t want anyone asking who the father was, so I offered.” Now Sam’s the one with tears shimmering in his eyes. “I’d always wanted a family, and I thought that would never be possible, here.”

Grizz thinks about how he doesn’t want to be mad anymore. He thinks about how he read an article from the New York Times about co-parenting a week before the buses came. He thinks about how in this new world you have to hold onto good things recklessly.

Thank you, he signs. “Thank you for telling me,” he says out loud. Then he wraps his arms around Sam and holds on recklessly.

~~

January

There’s a white board on the kitchen wall where Grizz’s mom used to write the weekly dinner schedule. He erases the final remains of “vegetarian lasagna” and “white chili” and uncaps a purple marker. It’s foolish to pull his thoughts from inside his head to where people can see them, but if they keep bouncing around in there he’s going to go insane.

Seated around the kitchen table is Sam, Becca, Gordie, Kelly, and Bean, all of them ready to spring up at the first sign of anything out of the ordinary. They’re just a couple of friends having a little lunch date, there’s nothing to be jumpy about, but there are new rules every day and whispers in the street about what happens when they’re not obeyed.

A wail pushes through the baby monitor and a light flashes on top. Sam leaps to his feet before Becca can respond. Eden is a month old and therefore Becca hasn’t slept in a month. She settles back down as Sam goes to calm Eden.

Grizz turns back to the white board and writes in tight handwriting while the others sit in silence, nursing their coffee.

 

Allie and Will (alive?)

The Farm (how?)

How to Build a Log Cabin (worst case scenario)

How to Dig a Well

 

He takes a step back from his list, headache brewing between his eyes. Bean raises her hand, face scrunched up like the smell has come back. “Quick question dude. What the fuck does any of this mean?”

Kelly takes a long swig of coffee. “I mean some of it is pretty self explanatory. We don’t know if Allie and Will are alive. We also don’t know how to dig a well.” She’s got a new air about her, a woman confident that she can handle antifreeze poisoning and a stressful childbirth. If anyone can figure out how to dig a well it would probably be her.

The dark circles under Gordie’s eyes are so deep they could have been scooped out with a spoon. “What’s the worst case scenario?”

Grizz leans back against the countertop. “Let’s be pragmatic for a second. There’s always been a chance that New Ham will become unlivable, right?” Becca closes her eyes and puts her head down on the table. “I’m not saying that this will happen, or even has a chance of happening, but I want to be prepared if it does.” He sucks a breath in between his teeth. “I think it might be a good idea to entertain the thought of constructing some kind of community in the woods near the farmland.”

“You do know that’s fucking insane, right?” Becca’s eyes are flashing. “There’s no electricity, no running water, no fucking anything. You’re asking us to be goddamn pioneers? We gonna go on the Oregon Trail and die trying to forge the fucking Mississippi River?”

“I’m not saying we need to do it, or even think about it,” Grizz throws his hands up in surrender. “But it’s a good idea to have a backup plan, just in case.”

Just in case of untenable violence, just in case of unmitigated abuse from Harry and Campbell and Lexie, just in case of fire or flood or a hundred other disasters.

“Is that giving up?” Gordie pushes his long hair out of his face. “Abandoning everything Cassandra and Allie built?” Invoking their names sounds like a prayer echoing in an ancient church.

“Or maybe it’s a fresh start.” Bean’s voice is so quiet it’s almost a whisper. “A do over.” Her volume rises. “Instead of trying to overthrow the government we say fuck it and create our own.”

“So what’s your plan?” Kelly asks.

“Try to figure out the whole farming thing. And also try to learn how to build some structures. Just to see if we can.” Grizz can sense the unease settling through the room. “I don’t want to scare anybody away, but I do want us to be thinking long-term. Even if we don’t have to move  out there, it would be good to have some stuff built by the farmland in case we need it, right?”

“End goal?” Gordie asks. Grizz appreciates his analytical mind, his trust.

He sighs. “Same as it’s always been. Take care of as many people as we can for as long  as we can.”

“Do you actually think they’re still alive?” Kelly’s eye contact is relentless and Grizz doesn’t know why she’s asking him. He can feel all the blood in his body congregate in his face and his tongue turn to cement. Talking about subsistence farming or digging a well is one thing, but the thought of Allie dead, dead like Emily, like Cassandra, like Dewey, is impossible.

Finally he finds some kind of words. “If they were going to do it, they would do it publicly. To make an example.”

Gordie shakes his head. “Helena would never let that happen.”

“I very much don’t think that Helena is in charge.” Becca’s voice is full of acid.

“There’s nothing we can do about that,” Bean interjects. “What we can do right now is learn how to build a log cabin.”

Sam’s standing in the doorway, Eden clutched to his chest. “Log cabin?”

“Grizz wants us to all be dirty woods hippies.” Becca jumps up from the table, reaches her arms out for her baby.

Cool, Sam signs and sits down at the table.

~~

He plunges into the woods again, this time armed with spray paint to mark a path to the farmland. Trees for removal, Grizz tells Lexie during what they call an agricultural planning session and what he calls a sneak peak of purgatory. Harry never speaks during these meetings, his nose running and eyes blank, while Campbell leers from the doorway. Lexie’s veneer of calm is slipping and it’s obvious to everyone that she is in way too deep.

He marks a tree with a stripe of orange, silently asking for its forgiveness. He’s not sure how they’re going to haul all the lumber to the farm, or convert it to usable shelter. There’s a bulldozer behind the office of some contractor, so that’s a start, but fuck if he knows how to work a bulldozer.

Bean is with him, the rest of New Ham’s Forest Goblins™ scattered about the workforce. That’s  probably for the best, people would start to get suspicious if they were always seen together.

It’s easier to breath out here. It’s easier to think.

Bean shakes her spray can and sprays a pink strip on the side of an oak. She’s singing a song under her breath, bopping her head as if she was at the turn tables. She smiles over her shoulder at Grizz and for a lighting quick moment he’s sent back to prom. Confessing that he planned to make the Guard a thing of his past. Talking to Sam for the first time, feeling his guts knit themselves into a sweater.

He remembers after prom too, the next morning before they decided to find a killer, when the world was ghostly in the daylight and his head was full of cobwebs just like after the first time in the woods, the first time he felt the weight of unmoving organs and stilled blood. He remembers finding himself in his bedroom at home, cold and dusty after weeks of living with the Pressman’s. He remembers his fingers finding a slim, beat up book, opening to the end. In the middle of my party, here’s death. He’s standing at the top of the staircase. Here’s death, in the middle of my party. Bodies on spikes, bodies on pavement. Blundering. Bruising.

“Earth to Grizz,” Bean is waving her spray can in front of his face. “We’re here.”

They’re standing at the treeline, just like they did before, mirror images of the past. The grass is covered in snow, the promise of lush crops hidden in the earth. He closes his eyes. “I always forget how this feels.”

“How what feels?” Bean stamps her feet, a sign that they’ve been out too long.

“Hope, I guess. That maybe we’ll make it.”

She smiles. “You’re a sappy bastard.”

~~

“That was a stump,” Sam says out loud, hanging onto his seat belt with both hands. “You gotta stop hitting those.

They’re speeding down the new road because Grizz isn’t asking for permission anymore and now his driveway is full of pickup trucks, their owners somewhere in an alternate universe. After a month of relentless bulldozing and wood hauling, the road between New Ham and the farmland is clear, just in time for snow storm after snow storm to cover up all their work. While Gwen bulldozed and Mickey and Bean hauled wood, Grizz had been laying a foundation for an absolutely massive log cabin, the plans drawn up by Gordie and okayed by everyone who Grizz calls the “Pro-Allie, Anti-Campbell Caucus”. Twice a day Becca says “this is insane” and twice a day Grizz silently agrees with her.

Grizz doesn’t answer because he doesn’t want to take his eyes off the road. It was maybe a stupid idea to plunge head first into the forest for a weekend with Sam, but it’s been weeks since they’ve spoken more than three words to each other and Grizz can’t get a buzzing feeling out from under his skin.

 It’s good that they’re actually doing something, that Kelly keeps slipping him photocopied pages about digging wells and water filtration systems, that Gordie has pried solar panels off the roof of the middle school science teacher’s house and studied them well enough to get an idea of how to construct his own, but now the relentless anxiety has only been tampered with bone deep exhaustion. There’s a hundred things to do, figuring out when the till the ground, how to mud the house, and where to steal a wood burning stove from, but none of them are a perfect distraction.

Sam yawns and then looks at Grizz, signs what with a lifted eyebrow, and he’s suddenly grateful for Becca’s insistence that they take a frozen getaway. They’ve been orbiting around each other like twin stars, exerting the same amount of gravity, never getting closer and never getting any farther away. Grizz wakes up in Sam’s bed nearly every morning before running home and driving to the farm before anyone can see him, Sam accidently wore Grizz’s hoodie to a town meeting, they steal moments in the upstairs hallway of Becca’s house, after Eden’s sleeping and before they collapse in exhaustion. Between all the worry and activity and lists and gnawing panic, he forgets that he’s allowed to want this.

They park next to the shed that took Grizz and Bean and a couple volunteers, pulled from the newly unemployed masses, only three days to complete. Once it got cold and governing got hard and everyone got angry about rationing, Lexie called off the job board, telling everyone to remain at home, wait off the winter with weekly ration boxes, supposedly enough calories for one person for a week. The Guard is tasked with handing them out in the school cafeteria every Sunday night and every Sunday night Grizz waits to hear gunshots. He remembers what he said in the woods the night before stumbling upon the farmland. They would kill each other for whatever scraps were left.

You good? Sam asks, opening the passenger door and hopping out. You’re a million miles away.

Sorry, Grizz signs. Just thinking.

 Sam screws up his nose. Don’t hurt yourself. He smiles a little and slams the door shut.

They set up camp next to the foundation of the monster cabin, a green nylon dot in a field of white. Grizz can feel himself drawn to the piles of logs waiting to be notched, the trees waiting to be felled. There’s a chainsaw in the shed and maybe he should get a jump start on the cabin before the rest of the goons arrive on Monday morning.

Sam taps Grizz’s arm. If you even think about working this weekend I’m going to slash all the tires on the truck.

 Grizz turns to look at Sam, maybe for the first time in months. Sam’s nose is red with cold but his eyes are bright and Grizz remembers that there are beautiful people in the world and he’s lucky to be honored with the presence of one. It feels like ever since Thanksgiving they’ve been sucked up in a tornado where he and Sam fly past each other every few minutes, but never staying long enough to witness each others presence. But now he’s mixing his metaphors.

I would deserve it, Grizz signs. It would be very rude to be distracted on a first date.

They heat up baked beans over a tiny fire, the only thing that contains protein in either of their weekly rations. As they pass a plastic fork back and forth, trying to scrape every last bean out of the bottom of the can, Grizz signs I wish I could take you on an actual first date.

This isn’t so bad, Sam huddles a little closer to the fire. Could use a little salt. Also if this is our first date I’m very curious about what you think we’ve been doing the last four months.

If we were in a different sector of the multiverse I would wine and dine you so good you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.

Where would you take me?  

And then they’re bundled up in the tent, wrapped in as many blankets that Sam’s conscience would let them take from Becca’s cedar closet. Sam turns to Grizz, something’s bothering him and Grizz has a swooping feeling in his stomach.

About what you said before. If we were in a different sector of the multiverse, you and I would have nothing to do with each other. Sam’s chewing his lip, and Grizz suddenly wants to rewrite all of high school and start over from scratch. Even if there was something there back then, you said before that you were never going to do anything until college and then there would be no chance that you and I would ever just happen to run into each other. And even then…

 It’s a fear that Grizz is familiar with, when he’s had too much coffee and is laying awake in Sam’s bed, staring at Sam’s sleeping features, breathing in the calming scent of Sam’s presence. What if this one good thing, this bright shining entry in the pros column was only possible because of the staggering amount of cons? That they’re only together because they’re trapped, that their shred of happiness is only possible because of everyone else’s suffering. But Grizz knows how to talk himself off this particular ledge with the truth, because lately he’s out of practice lying to himself.

I could have gone to New York for school, and then every single country in that universe. I could meet everyone walking around on that world, but it wouldn’t matter.

Sam’s face collapses Don’t patronize me.

 I’m not. Grizz takes a deep breath. “I’m being serious,” he says out loud, because he wants to hear the words bounce off the green walls. Even though he’s picked up ASL much faster than he thought he would, he’s nervous that he’s not making sense. “You are so good.” Tears are welling up in his eyes faster then he can push them down. “There is so much good inside of you. More than anyone I’ve ever met.” His hands are going much slower than his mouth but he’s trying. “I think it was always going to be you, at least for me.”

Sam freezes. His eyes slowly meet Grizz’s and in an instant he’s thrown himself into Grizz’s arms and in an instant their limbs are interchangeable and in an instant Grizz realizes that every word he said was the absolute truth.

~~

February

Grizz has got Eden in one hand and a laminated copy of Albert Einstein’s “On Socialism” in the other. A bedtime story, Sam signs before burying his nose in a paperback mystery novel that Bean recommended.

Becca’s upstairs, having a girl’s night with Kelly. They’ve been having more and more of those lately, ending with the four of them laughing around the breakfast table, four sets of feet standing up as soon as the light flashes on top of the baby monitor. Maybe she’s gonna have two moms and two dads, Sam says late one night, when neither of them can sleep. Grizz feels his heart skip a beat, wondering if this is the insomnia talking or if maybe he knows what it actually feels like to be a father, if this is what Sam feels like, if Sam actually believes that Grizz matters to Eden. To hold someone in your arms and know that you’ll love them forever no matter what, that you would protect them with your own life without hesitation. That thought takes front seat to whatever else Sam is insinuating. You don’t teach yourself how to deliver babies for just anyone.

“Hey Eden?” He addresses the gurgling baby tucked in the crook of his arm like a football. “Did you know that man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society?” He’d read the article in another life, when socialism meant voting for Bernie Sanders and not online shopping during Amazon strikes. Now he’s feverishly trying to remind himself why the blisters splitting open on him palms matter. Two nights ago, he started shaking and couldn’t stop, not when he accidentally woke up Sam or when Sam pressed his hands against Grizz’s burning face. I don’t want to do it anymore, he’d said. He didn’t want to drag himself to the farm at the ass crack of dawn every morning, didn’t want to feel like a third wheel in the Becca Sam Eden nuclear family, didn’t want to constantly think about starvation and facism as realties instead of abstract concepts.

But now the lighting is low in the living room and Sam had cornered him against the door before he left for the farm and signed You’re just as much a part of this family as I am, and even though that isn’t true, the fist of worry inside his chest is beginning to loosen. Einstein’s words are bouncing around his brain and maybe what they’re doing is actually important, maybe he’s not working himself to the bone for no reason.

The glare of headlights flash across the room and Grizz’s drops the article, tightening his grip on Eden. Sam shoots up from the couch and runs over to the window. The sound of an engine fades and Grizz taps Sam on the arm, offering Eden. Sam takes her without a second of hesitation.

A knock on the door. Their eyes lock for a moment. It’s too late to pretend that Grizz isn’t living here, it was only a matter of time before someone realizes that he only goes back to his house to grab camping gear and scribble treasonous notes on the kitchen whiteboard before hiding it in the basement, but it feels unfair that someone should interrupt them so soon.

It’s futile to try to hide so Grizz opens the door. Standing on the front porch is Luke, hands shoved deep in his pockets. Grizz has seen him from a distance in full assembly meetings and the few times when Lexie asked him to brief them about how the farm was coming along, but he looks much worse up close, bloodshot eyes darting around the living room.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” Luke licks his chapped lips. “In private.”

The last time he and Luke had a face to face conversation there was a gun involved and Sam had to all but scrape him off the ground. But Sam is clutching Eden so tightly that Grizz is scared she’s going to break and if this conversation turns violent he doesn’t want either of them to see anything awful. Grizz turns around and nods at Sam, he swallows heavily and nods back.

“Outside,” he says and steps over the threshold. As soon as he closes the door he hears the lock click and Sam’s footsteps retreating, hopefully to hole up in Becca’s room until this is all over. “Let’s go.” He points to the truck parked two driveways down.

Then they’re speeding down the road in silence, Luke’s varsity jacket catching in Grizz’s peripheral vision.

“I want to help,” Luke finally says.

“Help with what?” Grizz’s heart is in his throat and his hands are slick on the steering wheel. Were they too obvious? Did someone at the farm tattle to Harry that the cabin Grizz was building was unnecessarily large and that Gordie had been working on a solar generator for the better part of three months and that Kelly was stockpiling medical equipment in the back of her dad’s truck? Did he see Bean drive the RV parked in his neighbor’s driveway into the dark last month?

“Whatever it is you’re planning.” Luke crosses his arms. “You were too close to Allie to just roll over and accept whatever Harry and Lexie say.”

Grizz has been exhausted and burnt out, he has had an undercurrent of hopelessness running under his personality, he’s been a cardboard cutout of himself for so long he’s forgotten what it feels like to be generated by anger. But this is anger. “What do you want me to say, Luke? That I’m going to violently overthrow your sham government just so that you can run back to Campbell and give him an excuse to arrest me?”

“No.” Luke stares straight ahead. “This has nothing to do with him.” He leans his head against the foggy window like a ten year old on a road trip before van DVD players were invented. “I’ve been lying to her every day since it happened. Every single day. And I don’t know if she’ll ever forgive me, and I don’t know if she should forgive me, but I can’t keep doing what I’m doing.” His voice sounds like it’s coming from far away. “It’s eating me.”

Grizz is silent. His mind is a wasteland, the taiga in February. The anger is gone and replaced with a cold pity. He thinks about how Helena made Luke better, made him want to be better. He thinks about how Luke just made an admission of guilt unprompted. “Have you told her the truth?”

“How can I?” A beat. “Grizz, how can we know what the truth is?”

The silence hangs, a fog close to the ceiling of the car. Grizz turns left, they’ve come too close to New Ham’s border. He knows that Luke only wants to help because he needs proof to take back to Helena to show he’s not beyond grace. But that’s better than nothing.

“Where are they?” Grizz stops the car, turning the engine off. They’re running out of gas, the tanks underneath the Speedway are getting dangerously low. “Where are Will and Allie?”

It’s the first time they’ve made eye contact since Grizz emerged out of the forest and into a police state and he feels a dull ache radiate from his chest. This is broken trust, he thinks. This is betrayal. Friday nights, icing their legs on the back porch while the other guys shotgunned Nattys in the kitchen, talking about what stupid shit Jason had said in the locker room, how they weren’t going to be their dads, how they wanted so so much from life, how their insides felt bigger than their outsides. This is betrayal.

“I don’t know.”

The locks click. “Then get out of my truck.”

“No.” Luke’s teeth are jammed together. “No, you don’t get it. I really have no idea. Campbell thinks that I would tell Helena. And I think he’s scared of Helena.”

“How the fuck do you want me to let you help if you can’t give me anything to prove you’re not going to use whatever I say plan Dewey round two?” Grizz can’t help but think for a moment, a quick lightning moment, how maybe if he was tied to the lawn chair, that maybe it would be peaceful. The moment before the shots rang out, when all you could hear was the wind rustling the treetops, all you could see is light filtering through the blindfold, no responsibilities, no worries, no civilization on your shoulders.

He blinks hard, the thought shoved into a deep corner of his brain.

Luke leans in close, so close Grizz can see his pores, the oil in the crease between nose and cheek. “I don’t know where they are. But I know someone who does.”

~~

The kitchen is silent. Becca is standing with her back pressed against the door, arms crossed, only moving to translate what’s out of Sam’s slightline. Sam is leaning on the counter, eyes darting wildly around the room. Luke’s frame fills the doorway to the kitchen. Grizz sits at the table, guilt gnawing a hole in his lower intestine.

Across from him sits Elle, a fluorescent black eye screaming on her face. She’s still, every muscle tensed. “Why am I here?”

Grizz opens his mouth only to realize that he doesn’t have anything to say. All his words have dried up in his throat. He knew, somewhere deep down, that Campbell couldn’t have been treating Elle right, couldn’t have anyone close to him that wasn’t poisoned, knew that Sam couldn’t look at Elle without having to make some excuse in order to leave the assembly and go sit on the bathroom floor.

“If you don’t tell me right now I’m leaving.”

Grizz finally clears his throat. “Luke says you know where they’re keeping Allie and Will.”

Elle crosses her arms, mirroring Becca. “What good does that do you?”

“I was hoping, uh,” a knot of panic is tightening under his sternum. “That you would tell us where that was.”

He never thought that he would be able to describe Elle Tompkins as a brick wall. In the before she always looked like a breeze could knock her over, in the during she was easily overlooked, but in the now her face is impenetrable. He remembers her standing on the curb, sweater pulled over her hands. I don't think God punishes people for specific things. I think he punishes them in general for no reason. His words seem cold now, a callous thing to say to someone standing in the gaping jaws of a monster, but they’re also no less true.

“They’re alive. I think telling you anything would change that.”

Becca lets a stream of air out of her lips. Sam sags against the counter. Grizz didn’t realize he was holding his breath until it escapes from his lungs. He looks up at Sam, wishing he could go over and hold his hand and revel in the fact that his cousin is alive, and isn’t that something. But Sam just gives a tiny nod, goes back to chewing on his bottom lip.

“What if I told you that we had a place where they would be safe?”

Elle laughs once. It sounds like a bark. “Then I would tell you that you’re fucking insane.” A sliver of emotion surfaces on her face. “He’s everywhere, Grizz. I know you want to be some kind of hero, but all we can do is keep surviving until we can’t anymore.”

He closes his eyes, trying to keep his lips from shaking. In no universe does he want to be a hero. He wants to take soil samples and make enough soup to fill the stomachs of hungry people and read dusty books and write pretentious quotes on notecards and tape them to his walls and make Sam laugh every day for the rest of his life.

“I’m not saying you need saving, but if you help us get Allie and Will out, we can protect you too.” Becca’s forehead is creased together, like the words flew from her mouth unbidden.

It’s Elle’s turn to close her eyes. “If Helena and Allie couldn’t help me, what makes you think that you can?” The unspoken truth: they’re stronger than you’ll ever be. Grizz isn’t ashamed of that.

“We might as well try.” Sam’s voice. Sam’s hand on Grizz’s shoulder. “If we don’t try we’ll all end up dying, if we do try we might end up dying anyway. What’s the difference?” Grizz looks up at Sam and feels a wall of emotion slam into his brain. Sometimes he forgets, sometimes he’s so tired and scared that he forgets how much he fucking likes Sam. How he gets to be around someone so smart, so funny, so brave. How Sam likes him too, how he never has to wonder where he stands with at least one person in this godforsaken universe.

Elle looks so tired. Her shoulders are slumped forward, her hair hangs limp in front of her face. “I don’t understand why you’re not afraid of him. After everything.” A challenge, her eyes boring into Sam’s face. Out of everyone in this world, Sam and Elle are the two people who truly understand Campbell Eliot.

“I am afraid.” Sam’s voice is very very quiet. He never talks about Campbell unless it’s so late that sunlight is creeping in through the blinds, or the time when Becca found a bottle of very dusty wine in the basement. He talks around the subject, implying things, letting Grizz fill in the blanks about the burn scar on his left thigh or his insistence on making sure that none of the closets in Becca’s house lock from the outside. “I’m so afraid. But that’s why I don’t want anyone else to be. He’s done enough.” He finally looks away and Grizz tries to will his strength into Sam. “I should have,” he pauses, the air heavy with implications. “I should have known what he was doing. I’m sorry.”

Elle and Sam make eye contact for what feels like hours, but finally she nods. Something releases in the line across her forehead, the tightness around the corners of her mouth loosen. “What is this magic place you guys are hiding?”

She doesn’t tell them where Allie and Will are but she does promise to help them when the time comes for the prison break. “If you have space for me, I’ll come.” Her voice is quiet but strong. “It’s about time we do something.”

~~

March

Becca introduces the mandatory family weekend as a moral booster. They’re sitting around the kitchen table after Eden’s in bed. Sam’s rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands, Grizz is peeling the calluses off his fingers, trying not to think about how gas is running low even with Mickey siphoning from the cars in locked garages before the Guard can think of it, and how there are six hours before he has to be back at the farm. She whips around from where she’s boiling water for chamomile tea and points at Grizz. “You’re gonna fucking kick it if you don’t chill out.” She turns to Sam. “You too. We all need a damn break.”

We already took our Becca mandated vacation for the year, Sam signs. He’s been up with Eden more nights than he’s not but there’s something else in his eyes. He’s not just exhausted, he’s jumpy and constantly looking over his shoulder, and Grizz doesn’t know how to bring it up.

Becca shakes her head, her long hair zipping back and forth through the air. “I’m mandating another one.”

The next morning they sleep in, luxuriously. Sam and Grizz make pancakes that are more like fried gruel, somehow more batter ends up on the floor than in the pan. Sam kisses him as sunlight streams through the curtain, smiles as he wipes a stripe of batter across Grizz’s forehead. They take Eden to the park even though the air is still cold and the grass sticks up in frosted spikes.

The playground is overgrown with weeds but Grizz takes pictures of them going down the slide with Becca’s camera, Eden laughing, her face barely visible under the fuzzy pink hat Helena delivered, a pretense to loiter in the kitchen and make conspiratorial glaces. It’s hard to tell what side she’s on, she’s a legalist to her core, but when she delivered her last batch of cookies she had narrowed her eyes and said, “you know, we’re thinking about a farmhouse wedding,” which was all Grizz needed to hear to add them to his mental roster. She tells him a secondhand story about a girl who asked to be arrested for protection from a terrifying man. He tries to stitch the truth together, bit by bit.

A truth: winter’s drawing to a close and soon it will be time to put the finishing touches on the roof, on the barn, soon it will be time to mobilize people into planting groups. A truth: the ration boxes are getting sparcer and there has been shouting matches in the streets. Another truth: this is the only thing between life and death. A final truth: there’s a chance they’ll live long enough to see another planting and that thought is like a shot of the top shelf stuff, a volt of electricity.

What are you thinking about? Sam asks. His head is tilted to the side, his flannel is rumpled, the setting sun tangles with his eyelashes, sending spindly shadows over his cheeks.

And for the first time in what feels like weeks, Grizz’s smile is genuine. How lucky we are.

 ~~

Planting Time

They till the fields, sleep deprived kids standing in a plot of land, loading Mickey’s truck with flats of sprouts grown in the middle school greenhouse. Crocuses are bursting through the earth and they don’t have any time left. Grizz hasn’t slept in weeks, hasn’t eaten more than a granola bar in weeks, hasn’t spoken in weeks other than to give instructions. He sits in the fields at night, a folding chair in the middle of the soybeans, willing the frost to stay away.

They’ve officially moved into the offshoot, hoping no one notices the vacancies at the ration pickups. They: Grizz, Sam, Becca, Eden, Gordie, Kelly, Bean, Mickey, Gwen. Campbell and Lexie have begun to take a new approach by cancelling meetings and enforcing a stronger curfew. The streets are empty. “They’re losing control,” Helena whispers when she sends Grizz off the morning of the move. Her words replay in his mind as Grizz digs his feet into the dirt off the path between soybean rows. His brain supplies images of bullets zipping out of the passenger window of one of Harry’s many cars, of skeletal bodies, of the cattle gates at the front of the farm being destroyed by the bolt cutters he accidentally left at Clark’s house junior year.

“What’s the point of hauling ten RVs out here if you’re just going to sit in the fucking fields all night.” He didn’t realize that Becca had stomped out of the nearly completed cabin. “What was the point of driving out here in the snow every fucking day to build that house?

“They’re not for me.” He sounds like he’s trying to talk through a mouthful of undercooked rice. 

“I’m getting really sick of this martyr shit.”

He opens his mouth to challenge her but she beats him to the punch. “You say you don’t want to be a hero.” She’s so angry and he wishes he wasn’t too tired to care. “But you seem pretty hell bent on destroying yourself.” She leans in close, breath smelling like the last dregs of the powdered creamer left in the kitchen cupboards he constructed with his own two hands. “You think you’re only hurting yourself, but you’re hurting him too.” Her face hardens. “I won’t allow anything that will threaten the sanctity of my family, Grizz.”

“I’m sorry-”

“And that means you too.” She reaches out a hand, hauls him to standing position, pushes him towards the cabin. “There’s someone warming up a bed for you.”

~~

Growing Time

The farm feels complete, Gwen tells Grizz in June when they end up on dinner duty together. She’s tan and lean and shucking corn into a compost bucket. It feels like home, she says with a quiet smile. The perimeter of the fields are dotted with tents covered by wooden platforms to keep off the summer rains because the RVs filled up halfway through May. A team is felling trees for more farmland and more cabins to the east.

They’re all happy, Gordie tells Grizz while they check on the water filtration system. People are talking to each other, playing capture the flag after the days work is done. No one’s breathing down their necks, the pressure of boredom is gone. Gordie’s smile is bright. They feel like they’re doing something to help themselves instead of waiting around to die.

Sam and Becca work in the main room of the cabin, compiling statements from everyone at the farm, sorting photos printed at the old drug store and meeting minutes from when Allie was in charge. We’re going to tell our own story, Sam signs fiercely one night, even if it’s just to ourselves.

Kids are trickling through the cattle gate, most on foot with backpacks full of hoarded rations, offerings for existence. Bean takes the cans of peaches and packages of ramen and puts them in the storehouse, brings the kids to their bunks, tells them that the only rules are no violence and you have to work if you’re able.

Helena sneaks out to the farm, wearing all black, her mouth a thin line. Soon, she says. We can move soon. Try anything too big and everyone will suffer. Sam signs too fast for anyone to keep up with other than Becca. We can’t forget Elle and Allie. We can’t leave them.  

Kelly makes a speech about trauma during the weekly meeting, everyone gathered around the  front porch of the cabin. The blank stares. The withdrawing from others. The disbelief when there’s consistently enough food for everyone. This is not self reliance she says. There’s a blood stain on her collar and a twitch in her left eyebrow. This is radical togetherness.

Grizz finds her after the meeting. She’s standing at the edge of the woods, hands cupped around a mug of tea.

“Thanks for that.” He stands next to her, staring into the dark. “I think we all needed a reminder that we’re allowed to feel shitty sometimes.”

“Do you mean that?” Her voice is harder than normal.

“Yeah. It’s easy to forget when you’re trying to make sure everyone around you is okay.”

“We’ve seen some shit,” she concedes.

“Casualties of a brave new world.”

“Who said that?” She smiles, bringing the mug to her lips. It’s the smile of someone who figured out how to be a field medic and OB by reading dusty books, who knows everything that can go wrong and decides to smile anyway.

“Me.” Grizz smiles too. “And Shakespeare.”

Kelly checks him with her elbow. “There’s no Shakespeare in this timeline.”

~~

Beginning of Harvest

He shows up late one night

Grizz sleeps shallowly these days even though there’s usually someone on watch. It’s hard to get out of the habit of constant vigilance. A knock on the door and Grozz rolls out from under Sam’s arm, missing the warmth immediately. At the door is a scared sophomore. She’s only been at the farm for a few weeks and Grizz doesn’t know how she got put on watch duty.

“There’s a boy here. He just showed up and is sitting on the ground outside the gate.” Her eyes are giant pools in the dark, her fingers gripping a cheap crank flashlight. “I think it’s the guy who used to be in charge of the food.”

He tears down the hallway, shakes Gordie awake.”It’s Will. He’s here.”

And then they’re running down the dirt path towards the gate, bare feet slapping the night cooled earth.

He’s kneeling in front of the gate, head bowed, head shaved. He’s not moving and Grizz can feel his heart pounding in his ears. They can’t open the gate without crushing Will so he vaults over it, kneels in the dust.

“Hey Will,” he says it quietly, scared of spooking him. He looks ready to tear off into the woods like a colt. “You’re here.” He’s gaunt. Grizz can see bones poking through his grimy t shirt.

Gordie sits down on the other side of Will and they make eye contact. Grizz usually feels out of his depth, teaching himself and a hoard of suburban teens how to farm, starting what he now knows is an anarchist commune, but this, a crushed man kneeling on the ground, is something else entirely.

Finally, finally he speaks. “Is she here?”

Another glance. “Who, Will?” Gordie’s voice is low, quiet.

“Allie, my Allie. Is she here.”

God, this is grief, Grizz thinks. This is too much hurt. “She’s not here yet, buddy.”

Will rocks forward, hands on the ground. This is the crushing of a hope. “But you’re here. You’re safe.” Gordie’s whisper. He carefully lays a hand on Will’s shoulder.

Throughout the next few days the story unfolds in fits and starts. They give him a bunk that had been set aside since the beginning and he sleeps for 48 hours. He eats everything Sam puts in front of him. They take turns babysitting, making sure he doesn’t bolt into the woods or start a fire on the roof.

It’s Becca who breaks the silence, who slides a bowl of bean soup over the kitchen table, who folds her arms and says, “I thought you two were kept together.”

Before Grizz can leap across the room to salvage the situation, Will is shaking his head. “At first we were,” a rye smile. “But how cruel is it to keep a couple together?” A spoonful of soup. “They split us up pretty quick. I think Elle was the only one allowed to see me unless it was Clark or Campbell. They brought us together sometimes but we never knew why.” He slurps down the rest of the broth. “They probably didn’t know why either. The only one who had any control was Campbell. Lexie was too busy pretending she understood shit and Harry was focused on like keeping his heart beating.” He laughs once. “They knew they were fucking scared of you guys though. Lexie thought that Luke was keeping you in line, but anyone with half a brain knew that couldn’t be true.”

Becca and Grizz make quick eye contact. “We have a wedding planned for whenever they make it,” she says slowly. “They keep us updated on what’s going on in New Ham.”

Will runs his hand over his shaved head, back and forth, back and forth. Grizz tries to imagine himself without Sam, a limb cut off, an eternally dull pain. He doesn’t know if he would feel like this in the before, where there was tinder and blind dates and divorce and wide crushing loneliness, the space to lie to yourself about being an island and liking it. But here, with everything stripped away it’s glaringly obvious that people need each other, and it’s glaringly obvious that Grizz needs Sam. It’s glaringly obvious that Will needs Allie.

“We’re gonna get her.” Becca’s voice has no room for argument, her mom voice. A steel backbone and a pacifier in one hand. “We’re gonna get her.”

Will shakes his head. “You better do it fast because everything is collapsing in on itself.”

~~

Continued Harvest

A tete a tete, is what Luke says when his car pulls up to the gate one evening. Will sees the sheen of the windshield from the porch and runs through the fields, colliding with Grizz, his eyes wild with fear. Here’s the reckoning we’ve been waiting for.

They don’t bother with formalities. Sam and Becca stand on the front porch. Let me come with you. Sam’s face is contorted in pain. He’s my brother, I should be the one.

Grizz bounds up the stairs that he felled trees for, bled for. He hugs Sam ferociously. His mind is full of white noise. Be safe. He means forever. Protect as many as you can.

 “Why now?” He asks Luke in the car. Luke’s face is gray, a stark departure from the tan residents of the farm.

“All that’s left is empty threats.” They hit a pothole. “The crops you send back aren’t enough, he says.” He clears his throat. “They want it all.”

“You know that’s not going to fly.” Luke stares silently ahead. “You know the people aren’t going to let that happen.” They’re getting closer to New Ham. Hysterical laughter is rising up Grizz’s throat. “Who would have thought that we would be involved in a violent peasant revolt.”

The side of Luke’s mouth twitches up in a sad parody of a smile. “Anyone who’s ever met you would think that you would be involved in a violent peasant revolt.”

They cross the border into New Ham. It’s a ghost town. It’s a shell of itself. There’s no one on the road, trash is piling up on the sidewalks. Grizz doesn’t see a single person until they get to the church. The crowd is sparse, just a few lingering hanger ons who were too scared to make the journey to the farm. He feels sorry for them. He feels nothing for them.

Campbell is standing on the stairs and history is a circle. Harry’s hair hasn’t been cut in months. Lexie is paper thin and scared.

“What do you want, Campbell?” This is a performance, but no one thought to give Grizz his lines.

Grizz wants to press his feet into the mud, hold Eden’s hand and show her the fresh tomato plants. Kiss Sam in the rain like they live in a stupid rom-com. See the life come back into the faces of kids who have only known fear for months and years and maybe longer. He wants to lay in the space between rows of corn and announce to anyone that will listen I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of stars. He doesn’t want to bleed out on the steps of a desecrated church. He doesn’t want to leave behind everything he loves and everything he’s worked for. He doesn’t want this place, this pain to be for nothing.

That’s when he smells it. Smoke is curling around the steeple of the church, smoke is rising from the direction of Main Street, of the subdivisions. The walls of the church behind them slick with liquid. Campbell’s face splits into a wide grin, alien on his face. “I want you to see this.” His hand arching backward, a match spinning through the air. It hits the door of the church, and the door isn’t a door anymore. It’s a flame.

Harry and Lexie dive for cover, tumbling down the steps. Campbell doesn’t move, his face illuminated by the sickly glow.

Grizz is staring at him, shock evacuating his mind of words. He hears the phantom church choir in their balcony, voices echoing the crackling of the fire. I do not think they’ll sing for me, he thinks. I do not think they’ll sing for us.

A car pulls up behind him and three Valkyries tumble out. Allie, Helena, Elle. They’re shouting, the town is burning apparently. It’s been burning for the last twenty minutes apparently. Campbell can’t handle losing apparently. Campbell would rather have everyone go to seed than forge a compromise apparently.

Campbell starts to move backwards towards the bonfire of his making. Before his mind can catch up with his body Grizz is lunging forward, arms outstretched. One last tackle, first down.

Too late he realizes that Campbell is standing in a puddle of what has to be gasoline. Too late he sees the lighter in Campbell’s left hand. Too late, his attempt to stop a nightmare from playing out in front of his eyes. Grizz crash lands on the steps. Campbell tumbles through the burning door, and there’s a flash and a terrible smell and then there’s nothing anyone can do.

A tableau. Grizz laying on the stone steps staring up at the gloaming. Stars in finally familiar configurations. He’s far away. I am he that walks with the tender and growing night. I am he that doesn’t think about fire and starvation. I am he that drifts through the clouds like a tendril of smoke.

Reality snaps back into focus. Everything is burning. Everything is in slow motion. The night sky, the smoke, house after house, the library, the church, the school cafeteria. Everything is on fire, everyone is screaming but Grizz can’t hear it. The roar of the flame is drowning out any other sound.

We need to get sand, Helena is saying. We need rugs. It’s not worth wasting water. She stands shoulder to shoulder with Elle and Grizz is so glad he’s not a leader anymore. We need to salvage everything we can.

Let it burn, let it fucking burn. He can hear again and Allie’s voice is raspy, like her vocal cords are a cheese grater. Her skeletal arms are wrapped around her frail body and he feels himself get off the ground from where he tried to tackle Campbell and failed, from where he tried to stop his final blaze of glory, fear, whatever it was he wanted, from where he tried to avoid going home and looking Sam in the eye and telling him that watched his brother die. This is a clearing in the woods and a lawn chair and the inability to kill a killer.

He’s looking at Allie  and he’s asking if he can hug her and her face crumples and he realizes that he missed her so much. He’s so scared of crushing her, she’s covered in bruises that make him sick to look at, she’s so thin, but she’s holding onto his waist like it’s a life preserver. She wrenches her face out of his chest. “Will. I need to see Will.” Her sunken eyes widen for a moment. “Did he make it to you?”

And then Elle is there tapping Allie and saying, “he’s fine Al, we need to go.”

And then Luke is shoving Grizz into the passenger seat of his Honda. He’s shouting something about how the school is contained. Allie is behind him and their fingers tangle together in the space between.

And then they’re suddenly home, the dirt road settling around the tires. Everyone is crowded around the car, curious and disgusted and so hopeful. Allie shoves herself out of the car and then she and Will are entangled.

Sam’s sad eyes through the tinted window. Grizz feels like he’s going to vomit on his shoes. I’m sorry, he mouths. Sam tugs the door open and then they’re hugging, smoke and baby shampoo mingling. 

It’s an end, he thinks. It’s the snake of time with its tail in its mouth. He’s crying and so is everyone else.

~~

Gleaning

The Harvest Moon is high. Dried flowers hang from the rafters of the cleared out barn. The scent of hay and fresh wood swirl around as a team sets platters of food on a long table. Helena is throwing her head back in laughter, her flower crown falling to the ground. She’s a beautiful bride.

They waited until the pumpkins were ripe before holding the wedding. It didn’t feel right, Luke had said to Grizz late one night. We needed to give it more time. Time for Sam to sit at the edge of the forest and not communicate a word to anyone for a week. Time for Grizz to wake up screaming, smelling that terrible smell and seeing that terrible flash. Time for Allie’s bruises to heal, her story to spool out like an oil spill. Time for Elle to become a new member of the lumberjack team, splitting wood with a ferocity not seen this side of New Ham.

Sam pokes Grizz in the shoulder. Feel like prom?

Grizz hip checks him, grinning. At least I know a few more signs now.

Bullshit. Sam spins around to face Grizz. Dance with me.

They join the mass of their friends, bare feet on hay, stomping out of time with the rhythm of Bean’s jerry rigged solar power turntables. Arms are tossed in the air, thrown around each other. It doesn’t feel like prom. The fear of the unknown is manageable, the hope they have is wild but not desperate.

They are two people unrooted from space and rooted to each other. That’s true of all of them, Grizz realizes. The shining faces watching a display of loyalty, the hands that plant and cultivate, the individual laughs and fears and dreams. They’re all autonomous branches, growing up and growing together, making sense of unfamiliar constellations.