I walked down main street. It was as deserted as I had expected. Vines snaked up the once grand building lining the streets, and weeds had invaded and cracked the once smooth road that I had driven down so many times. I stepped over a tree that had fallen in the middle of the street, it had weeds, grass and small bugs all over it. As I looked down at the tree, I realized it wasn’t a tree at all, but a felled lamppost. I’m sure there was something profound about that realization, but I was too focused on something else to notice it.
I had been deployed away from home when the world had begun to crumble. It happened so quickly, there was no time for people to ask questions, let alone get answers. I spent a month with my unit on our military base, surviving off our supplies and sending out search parties for survivors when we could. My unit protected the civilians near our base, and the few that we found during searches. While there were those taken to looting and violence, we kept them safe under our guard and fed them as best we could. By the time the food had run out we had 350 people in our small community. It became madness so quickly. All that we had tried to protect them from was suddenly here. It had started with a killing, an accusation of stolen food. People became paranoid and soon tensions had simmered over and mayhem erupted. They stormed the soldiers, hoping to take the guns in order to gain an advantage over the now rioting group. I had a survival stash, some ammo, some water and some food. By the time I got to it and left the base, the soldiers had been overrun and the bullets were flying freely. I could not kill the people I had one protected, and I would not stay to be killed before I’d found my family.
My wife had always told me to do what I had to, to save the world. To protect the people who needed protecting and that she would always be at home waiting for her hero to return. Well I had done all I could to help these people and it was time for me to go home.
The journey was long and hard. I had to use every single bit of my training just to stay alive. My survival skills meant I always had some food from foraging, and I always had shelter at night. My instincts told me when to avoid people I saw and when to ask for help. And those times my instinct got it wrong, my military training gave me an advantage during the violence. There were times where I was cold, where I was starving, dehydrated and close to death. But there were also times when the views were incredible, I’d found a can of Heinz beans for dinner and I’d read a book in the sun while I waited for the raw and bloody blisters on my feet to heal. But always in the back of mind I thought about my wife and child, they kept me going through the hunger, the thirst, the loneliness and the danger. It would all be worth it once I found them.
The city I had called home for so many years was almost unrecognizable. Most of the newer buildings had crumbled under the weight of the overgrown trees and vines. Those still standing were almost completely covered with green and it was hard to find my bearings the same way I used to with our famous landmarks.
I finally found my way to our apartment. Old memories suddenly came flooding back. Decorating our new home, bringing our baby girl home and eating countless meals in front of our TV, laughing at trashy TV and arguing about Oscar nominees. Happier times, happy times. Our apartment building had remained remarkably intact. The strong, old brick structure was able to withstand the vegetative onslaught better than the newer, more flimsy structures.
The glass of the front door was broken and I stepped through, making my way carefully up the stairs to my home. The stairs creaked, but they held. I made it to my front door. The crooked number 9 still clung to peeling pain of my front door. The door was off it’s hinges and I stepped cautiously through. The apartment was almost completely bare. I imagine looters had taken everything. I had not expected to see it as I remembered, but it still hurt to see my home so unloved.
I remember the first time my wife and I saw the apartment. We had loved the open brick walls and the large warehouse style window. It had flooded the apartment with the natural light that our small-town hearts had always craved.
The apartment was completely empty now. No sign that anyone had lived here in a long time. They weren’t here. On my long and lonesome journey home I had heard stories from passing drifters that there were colonies forming on the coasts. Small fishing towns were beginning to pop up and people were starting to find some normalcy in life again. Or at least what we humans considered normal. Certainly, the plants of this planet were thriving. I hoped with all my heart that my family had made it one of these new towns and were warm and fed at night, and safe and busy during the day. I imagined my daughter clumsily copying my wife as she stitched and sewed and cooked. I laughed, I knew my wife would never be reduced to sewing. She’d probably have calloused hands and an axe over her shoulder by now.
As a soldier I always had to concentrate on the mission in front of me, remain focused and avoid distractions. The mission to get home was now completed. It was time to start a new one, travelling every inch of this continent until I found my wife and child, or until I died trying.
I started searching our old apartment for anything useful that looters may have left behind. I would search every apartment on this street in order to stock up enough supplies to begin my onwards journey. I lifted a few scraps of cardboard in the corner of the room as I began the scavenge.
I crumpled to my knees. Two skeletons. One adult sized, wrapped around the tiny bones of a child. I stared. Too in shock to cry, scream, or react in anyway other than just staring at the remains of my family. I suddenly felt so tired. All this searching, all this surviving, for nothing. I had left them here alone, to die in fear and uncertainty.
I lay on the floor next to the bones of my wife, who still held the bones of my child. I was laying on my side, looking at both of them.
“I’m sorry.” I whispered.
I raised my gun. My shaky right hand bringing it to my temple. I closed my eyes, tears finally spilling from them and pulled the trigger.
I hope I get to see them again.