To say he’d grown used to it would be a lie. How did one grow habituated to being alone? Not alone by choice, or alone by necessity, or even alone by militant or alien forces. But alone by providential forces beyond comprehension; alone by fate, you might say, and a fate that clearly despised him.
Fortune did not always favor the bold because if it did he would not be so alone. He’d boldly made promises to the masses that he’d been unable to keep; he’d boldly reassured them that “all will right itself in the end” when the first sign of trouble had reared its fastidious head; he’d boldly clung to his own obstinate optimism when the mortality rates had risen, the resources depleted, and the remaining dredges of normalcy in life were completely stripped away. No, he was proof that sometimes being bold meant being stupid and that “fortune” was a force that favored whomever she pleased. In the end, his boldness had been his hubris, his fate had been the destruction of all he’d known and taken for granted, and now he was forced to grow accustomed to a life of uninterrupted solitude.
The months (or was it years?) of solitary existence since had not been kind to him. Shaggy and unkempt, his hair fell about his bearded and weathered face like a noisome cloud: at times shielding him from the elements; at times plastering against his face as snakely tendrils shining bright with oil and sweat. He kept his nails clipped, mostly because it hurt like hell when they broke off and once he’d had a close call with amputation as infection had set in from the muck that had gotten crusted underneath near the nail bed. He thought that at one time he’d been handsome, his body svelte and attractive, his charm effervescent and alluring. But now what muscles remained attached to his frame were there by necessity; all softness of a privileged life blasted away by the world he’d mistakenly created and in which he sought survival.
Now he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t hallucinated the sound of his name being called, or thought he’d glimpsed movement of fellow human mass moving amongst the brambles that had grown up around evidence that there’d been many where there was now one. He craved the touch of another as a desert wanderer might crave water, his search as much for companionship as it was for sustenance. He hadn’t even the comfort of the cry of a bird or the rustle of a lizard in the underbrush. All was silent and still, save for when winds tore across the abandoned landscape and thrashed together the only companions he had: the trees.
Today was much the same as any other. His pack upon his back, walking stick in hand, he walked forward into he knew not what. Through the shivelight from the dulled sun above he moved, his shoulders still held the stiffness of the night, his knees as well, and as morning progressed he felt his joints slowly release their angst against his hard life. He always walked towards the landskein, the hazy horizon barely glimpsed through the trees. He could stop his aimless wanderings and seek to build a shelter, but what was the point? Too quickly he ran out of resources when he stayed in one area for longer than a fortnight; the earth was still healing from his trespasses and while it provided enough to allow him to tread upon his eventual grave, it was never in surplus.
His gaze hardened into an expression of limitless defeat as he stopped at the edge of the towering sentinels he considered condemnatory companions. There before him in a small glade was a building: grey, dilapidated, and silent. He rapped his walking stick against a nearby rock. Once. Twice. Three times, and waited. Nothing. He hadn’t expected anything, not really, but it was a habit that could not be broken. The latent hope, the obsessive craving he tried to keep buried, of finding another, any other, in this world surfaced unbidden any time he came to an indication that before his sins the world had held many.
Another habit he had yet to break, and one that had formed in the first weeks of his forced seclusion, was his caution. At the same time he hoped to reunite with others, he also feared the meeting. What if they turned out to be all wrong? Or what if he were the one all wrong? What if the only way he could survive in this empty world was to be alone? It was with these doubts and fears that he approached the semblance of humanity left behind, hope battling doubt and curiosity throbbing above them both.
He crossed the afèith at the edge of the wood, the veil-like watercourse moist from previous rains and rendering the ground around it thick with black mud. He used his walking stick to test the ground before he stepped, not relishing the slurch and slurp and threat of losing yet another boot to such a simple trap. Finally, the building was in reach and with more than a little hesitation, a tremulous trepidation shivering through his spine, he pushed open the door.
His eyes had to adjust to the new lighting, his silhouette gloomily lording over the leftovers of unknown lives. He moved inside, walking stick always first to test the integrity of the floor. Ostentatiously cheery figurines sat dusty atop windowsills and the walls may have once been a bright yellow, but were now a strange greenish brown from mold. The table in the center of the room sagged upon rotting legs, some of its contents already spilled to the floor due to its cockeyed angle.
He doesn’t need to explore the rest of the building to know that the other rooms would look similar. He’s seen such things before: chairs overturned as if left in haste; books opened to where the last adventure had been read; instruments decaying with sheet music strewn around; closets left open with outfits still yet to be decided lying upon the bed. All these things evidence to be used against him in the court of the universe. He walked among the ghosts of those who had every right to accuse him.
Curiosity and necessity won out over his distaste and he explored the rest of the building looking for anything that could be of use in his aimless journey. When the man finally made it to the backdoor, he delayed before stepping outside. Bending down he retrieved the item he’d nearly tread upon: a small, brown teddy bear. As he made to stand upright again, something about the way he held the lost toy triggered a device hidden within it and without warning his ears were filled with the sounds of others. His shock loosened his hold and the bear, unknowing of its influence over the man, fell back to the ground.
They spoke to him, a trio of voices—two male and one female—garbled with use and decay, from a prerecording inside its stuffings. “Love and hugs from Mommy,” the first garbled voice spoke followed closely with, “hey sweetie, its Daddy, keep smiling.” There was a rustling in the background of the recording, as if people were trading places, before the final voice spoke, “we all hugged this so now we’re hugging you too.”
Looking past the fallen bear who omnisciently stared at him with plastic eyes, the man tracked age-old footprints in the thick peat of the glade towards the tree line across the way. There was no telling when the footprints had been made, immediately after the catastrophes erupted or in the fallout time, but the sight of the footprints combined with the only voices of humanity he’d heard in years had him shuddering. He picked up the bear and immediately set off in the same direction as the footprints. He was upon the caochan and into the stream before he had a chance to cry out. The old shrubs had obscured his view of the water beneath the foliage and his focus on his new companion had dulled his senses to the telltale sounds of water flowing over rocks. The man scrambled through the stream and up the opposite bank, continuing his rush away from the condemning building and back to his silent sentinels.
As he journeyed that day and into the days after, he would periodically press the device hidden within the bear. Ever scared that they too, these unfamiliar voices, would disappear he tried to ration his usage. But he was desperate for the connection. Having this simple toy, this bear which belonged to one who was no longer, filled the man with such a sense of saudade that for a time he could do nothing but breathe slowly through his nostrils while he stared at his obscure future in the dull reflection of coal-black eyes. He’d never had a family; never had had a home; never had had the warmth and affection that would lead a person to create such a toy for another. Yet he now had a nostalgia for something that had never existed, he mourned the loss of that which he’d never had, and he yearned more than ever to find ANOTHER.
When she’s not enriching young minds with the delights of history or honing their literature skills, M.M. Elmendorf likes to read literary fiction, conquer mountain trails, and write. After seven years living in Taiwan, she now resides in Hawaii. She has previously published short stories with Belanger Books and Darkhouse Books and keeps an active presence on Instagram @mme_meets_world