As I looked back to wave goodbye, she was sitting on “our bench”, both of us forcing cheerful smiles. Here, this bench was our designated meeting place at the end of the day. This was no romantic tryst. This was now our daily routine. Each day was now a fight for simple existence – a struggle and search for the very basics: shelter, food, water. I put on a brave face, for her benefit mostly, and left.
Each time I left her this way, I realized she should never leave my side, not under these circumstances. But without her I could travel faster and further. I knew the places that held most promise for scant supplies – and these places would often be the most dangerous. If I was lucky, and found more than I could carry, I would stash the rest – very carefully, and come back for it later. I knew, and so did she, that if we went together, she would slow me down – she would hold me back. Yes, she agreed, realizing her physical limitations, which in these last desperate weeks grew more and more pronounced. This worried me greatly.
In the first few weeks, home, if you could call it that, was a grim and dirty warehouse, filled with equally grimy cots. Here, people were mostly civilized, for now. But one could sense a pervading feeling of fear – a quiet desperation – an overwhelming sense, if not certainty, that this cannot last. Something had to give. On these dirty cots we slept, if you could call it sleep. We woke regularly to disturbing sounds in the night – furtive rustlings nearby – often too close. She would sometimes beg me to see if it was one of our cats. I would humour her and take a look, but we both knew our little family had long since disappeared – we had no home to give them anymore – and so they left, one by one - looking for food, or running from harm. Sometimes, as we walked the ruined, jagged streets, we thought we caught a glimpse of so-and-so, and as usual, she would urge me to run ahead and see. But their appearance was fleeting – and even if it was one of ours – they had long since forgotten us – our old world – before it happened – before it all changed so completely. Throughout the wasteland vistas, human and animal were almost on equal footing – trying to stay alive.
Those were our nights, and the days not much better. The few things we had, we carried with us constantly – we were all homeless people now. I guess it might have been unrealistic to expect her to guard all our possessions for an entire day – but the regular places were becoming too dangerous to linger in for too long. As each place became untenable, we found another, and there she would wait until I returned. This last one, after the warehouse became too crowded, was almost beautiful. It was the site of an old municipal garden, now sadly overgrown and ruined. But it had a shelter of sorts, and very few had yet made it their home as well. And unless the rain was torrential – it was quite acceptable. A giant half-collapsed gazebo gave the place a Grey Gardens or Great Expectations atmosphere: the gloom was semi-romantic, the dirt was somehow more natural. But it was still summer, and the fall would force us to abandon our little piece of paradise, such as it was. These days, I dared not think too much further ahead than the current day. Because soon, I knew we would have to travel fast – fast enough to stay ahead and away from the “gangs” that were becoming larger, more organized and more threatening every day. She could not walk fast – and not for long. If we ever would have to run – I knew she could not. This was becoming an increasing concern for me. I was afraid for her – each time I left.
* * * * * * * * * * *
On that particular day, I had come across some great stuff – supplies that would last us for a few weeks, and stashing the excess close by, I would be able to stay with her for a good part of the day – and that was a relief. I almost felt happy. But arranging all this took more time than usual. I was late. I increased my pace, and almost inexplicably I broke into a run. I sensed something was wrong as I approached the ruin. The bench was abandoned, our things remained nearby in tidy bundles – but she was nowhere to be seen. Approaching closer, I noticed a tiny piece of paper, attached with the stem of a daisy to the armrest of the bench:
Sweetie - back soon – sure I saw Chesney…
I never saw her again.