Someone just died, but I’m still alive and yet, I don’t have a soul anymore.
— Andre Breton
“The Forest in the Axe”
It has been one month, three days and ten hours since Matt died. Tom doesn’t think he’s truly slept since he heard his youngest son’s last breath rattle softly from his lungs. He has no appetite or any real desire to get up and move, but moving is all he seems to do. He feels like a fish: if he stops, if he stands still for too long then he will die. Brushing his teeth is a chore; his arm feels like it weighs a ton as he lifts the brush to his mouth twice a day. Tom prowls the halls of their shelter and steps out into the night to walk in the unsafe dark; his gun an afterthought where it rests against his shoulder.
He still hasn’t wept over Matt; the tears don’t seem to be there. Tom stood at Matt’s grave and stared into the deep, dark hole with eyes so dry they’d felt as though they had sand in them. On either side of him, Hal and Ben had both wept openly. Even Weaver had choked up as he tried to give the eulogy because Tom hadn’t been able to. He’d wanted to, but the words would not come anymore than the tears would. He’s dead and it’s not fucking fair, was the best he’d been able to come up with. He’d traced the words on the wall of his cold bedroom the night before the funeral until his fingertip was raw.
People look at him strangely for his lack of visible anguish, like they don’t think he’s grieving properly. If a child dies then the appropriate thing to do is wail about it—but not too much. Too much mourning is suspicious, it looks like overacting, like maybe it’s a way of hiding guilt or better put, guiltiness born of happiness—one less mouth to feed, one less warm body to look after and worry about.
The night Matt died, Tom was dozing at his bedside, but something yanked him awake so hard and fast it had been painful. Matt was pale with faintly bluish lips as the pneumonia had its terrible way with him. Then he’d heard it: that last, soft breath… then nothing. All Tom could think was, This is not really happening, it’s only a bad dream. I’ll wake up soon.
He’s still waiting for that, for the moment he opens his eyes onto a normal day with normal colors, not the greys and blacks everything seems to be draped in. It can’t be real because there was Anne and Lexi first and then Matt… but Matt only had a cough, it was no big deal. That’s what he told himself anyway.
Yet on a cool spring night, Matt drifted out of Tom’s reach forever. There was nothing to shoot at or blow up or even attempt to bargain with. Pneumonia did not listen to threats; it did not have a conscience or anything approaching sympathy. Then again, neither do their would-be alien overlords, so perhaps in that regard pneumonia is an alien, but the battlefield is different and they didn’t have enough weapons to fight it with.
In a world where even going out for supplies is potentially fatal, people stop thinking anything from the inside can get them. Aliens are the threat, the number one cause of death among humans. They are the sickness that needs stamping out. All of the other seemingly antiquated methods of dying barely register. Things like pneumonia, a disease which can easily be fatal if not treated properly. And with supplies like antibiotics in short supply and high demand, well… pneumonia cannot be treated properly.
People say for Tom to “take some time” or they jazz it up with a bit of a different twist in phrasing: “take all the time you need”. He doesn’t know how to tell them that there will never be enough time for this. Even though they look at him oddly, people also still come to him, too; always wanting something or needing help. They say he should take some time, but Tom doesn’t think that’s what they really want because at their core human beings are selfish. What that selfishness demands is that they come first, that they always get their fair share of everything and everyone because their survival is the most important thing to them.
It’s not even a terrible trait, not really, not if you tilt your head and look at it just right. Human beings did not make it to the top of the food chain by being kind. That their forebears learned that cooperation ensured better odds of survival does not mean altruism. Tom didn’t always believe those things, but now he does because Matt and Anne and Lexi are all dead and people are saying, Take all the time you need only to follow it up with, But first I need your help…. Tom keeps giving it, too, because he doesn’t know what else to do and without something to keep himself busy he’s afraid that he will fall down and never get up again.
They buried Matt in a field full of wildflowers, the riot of color a stark and horrifically cheerful backdrop to one of the saddest days of Tom’s life. Each night he doesn’t take on an extra patrol, he slips from the underground with the intention of going to visit his little boy’s final resting place. He means to stand in that field under the moonlight with the waving flowers whispering all around him in the moist, cool breeze and tell Matt he’s sorry. He can even visualize touching the wooden cross at the head of Matt’s grave, but that’s what draws him up because he’s got a funny thought about that. He always thinks, Better it was made of bone. Bone would last longer than wood. Wood rots.
Tom clears his throat and shakes his head so violently it actually makes his neck ache, tense muscles bunching and rolling together. He doesn’t want to think about things rotting, not when he’s also imagining his son’s grave. He walks onward, feet gritting against the filthy remains of the street. He scratches his beard and idly thinks: How did this happen?
I didn’t pay enough attention to him when he started coughing, that’s how. I asked if he was okay and when he said he was, I believed him. Just. Like. That.
Tom stops again and blinks against the darkness, tells himself to just stop, goddamnit. Even if he had caught it on the very first cough and hauled Matt off to Lourdes immediately, there’s a good chance the outcome would have been the same. They don’t even know what kind of pneumonia it was because they don’t have the equipment to do the tests anymore. All they managed to rule out was infectious pneumonia because that was easy—no one else got sick; therefore, it was not contagious.
Tom crouches down by the fallen remains of a wall and looks at a cluster of yellow flowers on woody stems that are growing beside it. The field was full of these little yellow flowers with waxy looking petals that actually shined in the bright spring sunshine. Tom wonders what these flowers are called, wonders if they’re poisonous because he saw jimson weed and white snakeroot out in the field that day, too. He’d looked everywhere but at the grave until the final moment. Then he’d gotten lost in the blackness of it; the craggy earthen walls, the rectangular mouth that was going to gobble his Matty up.
Something shudders through him and sends him back to his feet, back to walking. The quivering of a dying bird thrums in his muscles, making him feel as though he is vibrating. He tries to remember the last time he ate and cannot. He doesn’t go to breakfast anymore and if someone—usually Hal or Weaver—brings him something, he says thank you and throws it out when they’re gone again. He shouldn’t waste food, it’s a really horrible thing for him to do, but he can’t stand the sight of it. Matt hated oatmeal and now that’s all there is and it makes Tom want to scream.
He picks at his dinners though, so fine, it’s good enough—he’s eating something. He’s remembering again how to smile in the right places, too, how to interject his thoughts into the conversation. Just last night he told Ben, Hal, Maggie and Weaver that white snakeroot is what killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother because he’d been thinking about the field as well as thinking that he should try to make conversation.
Tom knows now that this is what “acting normal” feels like. He also knows he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of it.
His wandering leads him through a hole in a brick wall that reveals the husk of a courtyard. This used to be a mansion, one of those great old Charleston homes and most of it is still standing, its beautiful skeleton limned by the moonlight. There are roses here, Tom can smell them and as he walks deeper into this secret, overgrown garden, he sees them. They’re pale in the light of the moon, pink is his guess. The bushes are laden with blooms, the limbs drooping under the weight of their dew-sprinkled heads.
Tom closes his eyes and breathes in, catches a whiff of mock orange and wisteria mingling with the heady scent of the roses. There is the sleepy drone of insects amid the long grass that leans over a flagstone path. For a second, he can easily imagine that when he opens his eyes the world will be right again and not the godforsaken mess it has become. It’ll be like he hit rewind, everything will go back to the way it was before, all the way back to Ben needing an inhaler and Rebecca being alive. Anne Glass will never be a concern or a name he learns, Lexi will not even be a twinkle in Tom’s eye, Matt will not die so quietly and sadly.
When he opens his eyes, nothing has changed, but he knew that would be the case anyway. Hope for what is gone is a waste of time, but like damn near everyone else, Tom spends an inordinate amount of his free time clinging to it.
The whitewashed shape of a rocking chair glimmers in the overhang of a deep porch and Tom threads his way through the undergrowth toward it. He’s not worried about Skitters or air raids and maybe he ought to be, but he can’t muster up the give-a-damn. For a little while all he wants to do is sit in a rocking chair and breathe in the scent of this once magnificent garden that’s still giving its all. He wants to appreciate it for what it is—something lovely and alive.
He settles into the rocking chair, gingerly easing his weight down on the weathered wooden seat and listening to it groan. When he’s sure it’ll hold him, he allows himself to relax as much as he possibly can. He’s shirking responsibilities by taking this time to himself, but then he reasons: Isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing? The settlement is asleep anyway, except for the prowling guards staked out around the perimeter and maybe a few rowdy drunks down at Pope’s bar.
Tom pushes the toe of his boot against the brick floor of the porch and lets the motion of the rocker lull him a bit. He stares out at the wild tangle of the garden, breathes in the sweetly mingling scents and doesn’t really see any of it. At least not until the clouds shift and a soft gleam catches his eye. Tom leans forward in the rocker to see better and his breath catches in his throat. There, among a bed of gladiolus, are more of those yellow flowers with woody stems. Their yellow is so bright even in the silver wash of the moonlight that he doesn’t know how he missed them. It’s like the flowers are taunting him, reminding him of the main duty he is shirking: visiting Matt’s grave so he can offer his apologies to the uncaring soil.
No, better yet, the flowers are haunting him; his very own Marley to remind him of his guilt. To remind him of his failure.
He feels the same dying bird quiver in his muscles as he did before and his breath gets stuck in his throat. The flowers wave in the soft breeze and the silver smoke of mist twines in and out of the leaves and grass like a spectral panther. Tom tries to find air and he tries to blink, but he can do neither.
The first tears that fall are so hot they burn his cheeks. Then he remembers how to blink and the tears become a flood. He makes some strange sound in his throat, a strangled back cry as he hunches over on himself. The dying bird quiver becomes shakes so hard his teeth rattle. He has a second to wonder how this level of tears would be accepted: Too much or not enough? Then he stops thinking, too occupied with trying to breathe and not doing a very good job of it. His eyes are closed, but he can still see the yellow flowers, crowding over Matt’s grave now while honeysuckle climbs the wooden cross. That damn cross that will rot away to splinters eventually and leave his child’s grave unmarked.
Tom is no stranger to weeping, but he’s never cried this hard in all his life. He can hear the sounds he’s making, but he’s not actually aware that he is the source. He slides out of the rocking chair onto his knees and kneels there with the sharp brick edge of the porch biting bruises into his flesh. His hands are braced on the ground, he can feel bugs crawling over his fingers, can feel dirt bedding up beneath his fingernails. Bugs and dirt rips another sob out him so hard that it hurts his chest because bugs and dirt are how bodies turn to bone in the ground. The dirt shelters the insects while they do their gruesome work of eating flesh that once moved and lived. They eat away lips that once smiled and eyes that once looked up at the clouds when they were five and said, I see a dragon, Daddy!
He cries until he gags then vomits, spitting up bitter bile because there’s nothing else in his stomach. It only seems to spur him on and he coughs and splutters around his awful weeping. His face is on fire and the strain of it is making his head pound; there is snot on his upper lip, he can taste the slippery saltiness of it in his mouth. Tom digs his fingers into the dirt and tries to stop this shameful madness, tries to shut it down and put it back wherever it was hiding, but he can’t. He’s hiccupping now, stomach roiling and eyes throbbing and burning and he still cannot stop crying.
A hand on his back startles him so badly he yells around a sob, producing a sound a lot like the yelp of a kicked dog. Tom scrambles back and knocks into the rocking chair, his rifle falling over with a clatter that he barely notices, but it doesn’t go off. Looking up, he sees Pope standing at the edge of the porch. He looks calmly back at Tom then leans forward and thrusts a bottle of whiskey at him.
“Drink,” he says. “It makes things suck less.”
Tom wants to argue that it doesn’t, wants to tell Pope that it’s likely he’s an alcoholic, but he doesn’t do that either because right now he wants a drink more than anything else. He takes the bottle from him, using both hands to steady it because he’s shaking so badly. When he lowers it, he takes the first deep breath he’s had in at least twenty minutes.
Pope’s digging in his coat pocket and when he comes up with a wad of napkins he’s pillaged from somewhere, he offers them to Tom.
“You might wanna wipe your face, Mason.”
Tom snatches them from him, hears the soft sound of the cheap paper ripping and sees the flutter of it left behind in Pope’s fingers. He scrubs at his face, holding onto the whiskey with his other hand. Pope sits down on the side of the porch and looks out at the garden.
Of all the people to find him bawling his eyes out, Tom wishes it wasn’t Pope, who was conspicuously absent from Matt’s funeral. Pope with his hateful sarcasm and smart ass mouth. Tom risks another pull from the bottle and waits for some remark from Pope, but one doesn’t come, he’s not even looking at Tom.
“What are you doing here?” Tom asks when he can trust himself to speak, when he thinks that maybe Pope is actually being decent for a change.
“Raping and pillaging,” Pope says as he leans over and takes the whiskey from Tom. “You know, the usual.”
Tom rolls his eyes, but is surprised to feel a flutter of amusement at Pope’s words.
“Seriously, what are you doing?” Tom says.
Pope shakes his head.
“Walking back from hunting, Professor,” he says. He reaches over beside him and picks up two rabbits tied together with string, long ears dangling and casting shadows along the bricks. “Don’t worry your little head about it.”
“I’m not worried about it,” Tom says. “I was just wondering.”
“Well, now you know,” Pope says. “I heard something and decided to check it out. Imagine my surprise when I found you.”
Tom makes a noncommittal grunting sound in the back of his throat and swallows against the lump that still lingers there. He wipes his eyes, unsurprised to find the back of his hand wet with more tears. He’s not actively weeping, but he’s still leaking like a faucet. He wishes Pope would go away; he kind of wants him to stay, too, though.
John Pope may be a lot of things, including a criminal and a first-class asshole, but he’s also the only person Tom knows who doesn’t expect or want a damn thing from him. Tom even trusts him, something he’d never dare say out loud—especially not to Pope because he’d do everything he could to destroy that trust; Tom’s noticed that about him. What’s more is Tom likes Pope and sometimes that galls him because there are plenty of reasons for him not to like the guy. He pisses Tom off more than any other person ever has, but he challenges him, too, he pushes him. Another thing Tom won’t ever tell Pope—and he can barely admit it to himself some days—is that he considers Pope his friend. Tom accepts that he may be more screwed up in the head than even he is willing to acknowledge most of the time
The more he thinks about it though, the more he finds he is glad that it was Pope who found him. He thought he was dismayed, but that was basic, normal—no one likes being caught in the middle of an emotional breakdown. But Pope won’t try to comfort him, he won’t feed him line after line of trite shit meant to make him feel better and even he isn’t so cruel as to make fun of a man’s dead child. Despite the fact Pope is an inveterate liar in many regards, when it comes down to the core of things he’s actually the most honest person Tom knows.
Pope passes the bottle back to him and Tom takes it and drinks before getting up to sit in the rocking chair again.
“Did you know this place was here?” Tom waves his hand out at the garden.
“Yeah,” Pope says. “I found it ages ago. Sometimes I come here to sit and have a drink in peace. Now you’ve gone and fucked that up.”
Tom considers that for a moment, dissects Pope’s tone of voice and determines he’s kidding.
“Sorry about that,” Tom says.
“Meh,” Pope says as he reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a hand-rolled cigarette. “You want one?”
“I don’t smoke,” Tom says.
“Most people don’t anymore, but I still like it even if the tobacco is stale now,” Pope says. He holds his hand out for the bottle and Tom passes it back to him.
“Smoking will kill you,” Tom says.
“There are lots of things will kill you,” Pope says. “Cigarettes are about the least of my damn worries these days.”
Tom doesn’t say anything to that; it’s true and giving someone crap about smoking a cigarette in this new dark age is dumb as hell. So is letting the fact that other illnesses still exist slip your mind so that when your kid starts coughing, you don’t really think that much about it. Then you wake up, more awake and aware than you’ve ever been in your whole pitiful excuse for a life, just in time to hear his life end. After that there are yellow flowers and wooden crosses that won’t last and cold dirt and busy insects. Inside you are a collapsing star because you’ve lost so much already and fate keeps snatching things you love away even though the world is ending in a slow, painful dissolution of everything. Your heart is breaking, your mind is melting and it will never end. You are having a hard time finding the will to keep fighting, but you know you have to because there are two more boys out there that need you, that depend on you.
“Ah, damnit, Mason,” Pope says.
It’s only then that Tom realizes he’s crying again. He shakes his head, tries to suck it up and he can’t, God help him, he can’t. That frustrates him, it embarrasses him to be doing this in front of someone else, but honest-to-everything, he’s still glad it’s Pope. No one else would let him go like this, no one else would let the raw wound of his grief suck and bubble in the night air because people have such a strange desire to cover up the ugliness, the reflections and reminders that all say, this could be you one day.
“Hey, man, hey,” Pope says. “Shit.”
Pope gets up and stands beside Tom, touches his shoulder and Tom leans into him without thinking about it. He wants comfort, even Pope’s comfort, just not platitudes and hand-holding bullshit. Tom only wants someone to let him lean on them for a moment instead of it being the other way around. Pope tenses at the touch, at Tom’s trembling weight digging into his side and along his hip and Tom thinks: Now—now he will push me away and say something awful.
But Pope doesn’t. Instead, he relaxes and loops an arm around across the backs of Tom’s shoulders while he bawls, grief chewing him up and spitting him out only to shovel the mess back into its mouth and start over.
When he is finally done, Pope’s leather jacket is soft and damp from his tears and Tom’s head feels like it’s full of floating rocks—heavy and light at the same time. His eyes are a bloodshot, swollen mess and he’s got more snot on his face, snot which has also undoubtedly transferred to Pope’s jacket as well. He leans into Pope awhile longer, mind drifting with no thoughts to clutter it up. When he snaps out of it, he pulls away from Pope with a muttering sound like a man waking from a strange, unpleasant dream.
“I’m sorry.” Tom’s voice is a croak when he manages to speak again. “I didn’t mean to do that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Pope says. “You done though?”
Tom thinks about it and nods after a minute. “I think so.”
“Are you sure?” Pope asks.
“Don’t be an asshole,” Tom says, half-pleading in a quiet way. “Not right now, Pope, please.”
“I’m not being an asshole, I’m just wondering if I can sit down or not,” he says.
Tom almost smiles, but wipes his face instead. “You can sit. I promise not to start blubbering again.”
“All right then,” Pope says. “Good to know.”
“You mind sharing more of that whiskey?” Tom asks.
“Not at all.” Pope passes him the bottle.
Tom drinks until he has to stop to catch his breath. The booze is a different cloudiness inside his head, it pushes away the stuffiness left over from the crying and fills up the spaces with a gentle cushion that is soothing. Tom’s aware of all the dangers inherent in this, aware that alcoholism really does run in families, but he’s not worried about it. Pulling one good drunk does not mean the rest of his days will be spent in pursuit of more booze.
He doesn’t pass the bottle back to Pope until there’s only an inch or two remaining. Pope holds the bottle up to the light and snorts out a laugh.
“You all right now?” he asks.
“Not really, but I don’t care right now either,” Tom says with a lazy wave of his hand.
“Close enough,” Pope says. “Told ya booze makes everything better.”
“That’s because you’re a drunk,” Tom says.
“So?” Pope asks.
Tom has no reply; only thinks, So, indeed.
Pope standing up rouses him from his pleasantly numb haze and he looks up at him. Pope has his rabbits again, dead bodies dangling from the string like a morbid mobile as they twist slowly to the left then back to the right and over again.
“Good luck with your hangover tomorrow,” Pope says as he starts to walk away, stepping backwards to look at Tom slumped in the rocking chair.
“I will persevere,” Tom says.
He gives Pope a thumbs-up that makes him smirk before he nods then turns away, walking towards the hole in the garden wall. Tom watches him go and sucks at the back of his teeth.
“I really am sorry about that earlier,” he calls after Pope. “I shouldn’t have done that; it was a stupid thing to do and you shouldn’t have had to deal with it.” It feels like the right thing to say after smearing his sadness and snot all over Pope’s jacket.
Pope freezes a foot from the hole in the wall then turns and strides back down the path towards Tom. When he draws near again, Tom is surprised to find him scowling as he leans forward and pokes Tom in the chest hard enough to make him grunt.
“It’s like this, Mason,” Pope says as he takes his hand away before Tom can swat at him. “You don’t have to be sorry for feeling like shit because your kid is dead. You don’t have to be sorry you’re not holding it together the way everyone, including you, seems to think you should.” He tips his head back and stares up at the sky, letting out a long, hard breath; a breath that sounds almost painful in its own right. When he looks back at Tom, he pokes his chest again, lighter now, more of a tap. “You are allowed to grieve.”
He turns and walks away again without giving Tom a chance to respond. He watches Pope go in stunned silence, mouth working as he tries to find the words. All he can come up with is thank you and what a bizarre thing that is. Even though Pope is long gone by now, Tom says it out loud anyway and decides that will have to do.
After another couple of minutes, Tom leaves the garden and makes his careful, slightly weaving way back to his quarters with the sound of his sorrow sloshing around inside his head beneath the calming blanket of liquor he’s laid over it.
That night, there is no fitful doze or uneasy hypnagogic state trying to pass itself off as rest. For the first time since losing Matt, Tom honestly sleeps. Yellow flowers grow across the roadways of his dreams, making him groan and whimper.