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At the End of the World: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Friday, July 3, 2020 11:45 EDT



August 29

    Just when you think you’ve got things under control, you realize that control is an illusion. Because the world takes all your fine ideas and solutions and flushes them down the crapper.

    Here’s how it happened.

    I was one of the first people up. We’d ended the prior day making some initial preparations for the journey, figuring out how many and what kind of rations to leave behind for the captain and Johnnie, which weapons, how much ammo. Made us feel lower than dogs the whole time we were doing it. And we stayed up pretty late. Except Willow. She participated through dinner then went to her bunk. She looked depressed or maybe very thoughtful or — hell, I don’t know. Because: Willow.

    So next morning, as soon as I pulled on my clothes, I went to check on the captain. No response to a light knock and no snoring. Either he was still sleeping or he had died, which was always on our minds, now. But I calmed myself down and walked back to the manager’s house, figuring it was time for us to bite the bullet and eat some more of those godawful penguin eggs. They were protein and they wouldn’t stay good forever, so what the hell.

    When I walked in, Chloe and Rod were already up. He was heating water. She had already grabbed one of the penguin eggs from our makeshift “fridge” outside.

    I sidled over to Chloe. “Hey.”

    She smiled sideways at me. “Hey.” She leaned close enough that our bodies were touching all the way down the side. It felt great. Then it felt more than great. Her smile widened. “So,” she asks, all innocent as she changed the unspoken subject, “where’s Willow?”

    “What do you mean?”

    Chloe’s smile dimmed. “She’s not with you, checking on the captain?”

    Giselle’s head popped out from under her blankets.

    “No, I went there alone –“

    “Damn it!” shouted Giselle, who leaped out of bed and ran down the hall to the room at the end of the hall, the one with a separate outside entrance. Johnnie’s room.

    She hammered on the door. “Johnnie, Johnnie? Is Willow –?”

    “I’m in here,” Willow said through a loud yawn. “And we’d like to sleep a little more.”

    Johnnie actually giggled when she said the word ‘sleep.’

    Giselle nodded, walked away from the door and started to cry. Rod held her, and I’m not sure his eyes were dry either.

    Chloe had grown very pale. “No,” she whispered. “This can’t be happening.”

    “Oh, it’s happened all right,” muttered Steve. “Shit.”

    *     *     *

    In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. We all felt that way, particularly Giselle who was the only one of us who had noticed that Willow always seemed to find extra time to spend alone with Johnnie. On the surface of it, you’d think there couldn’t be a more mismatched couple, but in a crazy sort of way, it made sense. Although Willow was arguably the most grown-up of us, Johnnie was the most uncomplicated and comfortable with himself. Which we had sometimes mistaken for stupidity, I guess. Granted, he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but what we were really seeing was that Johnnie wasn’t a worrier. He took things as they came and always with a cheery attitude. That’s just who he was, and when someone was cruel to someone else, you always got the sense he didn’t quite understand it — as if we were behaving like people from another planet.



    So Willow had made her choice. And there was obviously no going back. She didn’t do it to try to get us to lift the quarantine; she did it to stay with Johnnie. Kind of the weirdest and scariest Adam and Eve reboot you could ever imagine. She knew the dangers. She knew that a balanced diet was going to be a big challenge for them. She knew all of it. But as she calmly, patiently explained through the door, she knew that we’d leave them a good supply, she knew which seaweed she could use to supplement their other nutrient needs, and she knew the wildlife of South Georgia well enough to help them get by. And with Johnnie, she certainly had a strong pair of arms to help her. And with all the diesel left in the ship, they’d have heat and electricity for a long time, as long as they only used it when they needed to.

    “Besides,” she said in that eighteen-going-on-fifty-eight voice of hers, “if we don’t catch the virus, it means we’ve learned some important things about the vectors of contagion. And then if we wait for, say, a month or so, we can try going back aboard the ship, scout out more of the supplies. Also, it’s certainly got a better and more powerful radio than we have here. So, you see, if all of you find the world dead out there, you can always come back here. Because we’ll either be safely dead and frozen solid, or we’ll be alive and with plenty of room for all of you.”

    I wanted to find a flaw in her reasoning, but I couldn’t. I also couldn’t help envying her for how much of an adult she already was. I suspect she was born that way.

    So after pushing back the sense of loss, of how much our group had shrunk, we went back to the radio shed with the captain’s breakfast. Once again, he didn’t reply. We knocked hard. Still nothing. We pushed open the door with a flensing knife. He was in his bed, staring at the ceiling.

    And beyond it into eternity, I guess.

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