No Man’s Land

wired-fence-1207949

The first thing I did when I woke was touch his chest to make sure he was still breathing. The steady rise and fall reassured me, and I sighed back into my pillows. Still here. Still with me.

Today might be the day, though, buddy. My heart clenched. Please don’t let this be the day.

Finally, I rose and went into the kitchen to make my morning tea. I leaned on the counter while I waited for the water to boil, looking out into the back yard. Into the garden where my wife once tended the roses. Where my daughter once played with a puppy. The skies outside were clear and wide open.

I never thought the end of days would have blue skies. It always seemed like the dying of humanity should have been accompanied by thunder, ash clouds, and the death of all things. As it turned out the sun kept rising, the flowers kept blooming, and the birds still sang to welcome spring. It was just the people who disappeared. Almost all of them.

A soft padding of paws on hardwood came from behind me. A wet nose nudged my hand.

“Hey, buddy.” I scratched behind his soft, yellow ear, gently tugging at it.

He harruffed in that way I always thought of as his laugh. It was a game we used to play when he was a puppy. Tug of ear. This was the closest we got to it these days. We were both getting too old for games.

“About ready for your walk, Jake old boy?”

He yawned and shook his head, ears flapping. His heavy tail thumped once on the door frame.

I took that as a yes. “What do you think, should we skip the fields today?” I squinted against the early morning sun to make out the fallow beds in the backyard. “It’s not like we’ve got much to tend to anyway.”

Usually, light green sprouts of beans and carrots would be poking out of the soil by now. I hadn’t bothered sowing any this year. There didn’t seem to be a point.

It was too early in the year for roses, but the lilacs behind the kitchen garden were in full bloom, spreading their sweet scent in the air.

“What do you say we bring the girls some flowers?”

He glanced at me, cocked his head, and woofed softly. He padded to the back door and waited for me to follow.

We walked up to the graves first, same as we did every morning. Dirt still showed through the dandelions and chickweed on the one I had dug six months earlier. One good thing about warmer winters; you could dig graves in November.

I patted a wooden cross that was yet to turn gray with age. If someone had told me fifteen years earlier that a day would come when I would miss Edna Hawthorne like a drowning man misses a boat, I would have laughed and told them they were nuts. The joke was on me now. It had been just her and me for so long that the silence left by the absence of her voice was deafening. Inescapable.

I divided the flowers over the graves and turned to Jake. “Alright,” I said. “You can go on ahead if you like.”

Jake huffed agreeably and padded off around the house. His limp had grown more pronounced this last year. He slept more. We both did. I kept telling myself that at fifteen years old he still had years to live.

I glanced at him as he disappeared around the corner, and shook my head. Sure he did. Years and years.

The empty patch of grass next to my daughter’s grave beckoned to me. I had cleared it of a tangle of weeds and fledgling hazel saplings only a week earlier, but already the fuzzy yellow face of a dandelion winked at me in the early morning sun.

Well, why shouldn’t it? I thought, and sat down with a grunt on the empty grass. Why shouldn’t a flower fresh in bloom smile at the dawn of another season?

I stroked the ground above my daughter’s resting place, just as I had once stroked her back when she laid her chubby little arms around my neck for a goodnight hug. The same way I had stroked it fifteen years ago, shivering and sweat-soaked, clenched in the final few hours of her short life.

I closed my eyes against the bright sunlight and laid down.

It was a good spot. If I looked down into the garden I would see the big elm tree by the creek, where my daughter was conceived on a warm summer’s night, and where we hung her tire swing a few years later. It would be a good spot.

But not today.

I rose and briefly rested a hand on my wife’s headstone, before following Jake down toward the ocean.

Every morning we walked to the beach. Every year the waters crept a little closer. In time, the ocean would swallow the house and the hillside graves both. But not yet. After all the things I had lost, at least this I would not have to witness. Even if sea levels rose at double the speed—triple for that matter—I would be long gone when the ocean claimed my home.

A sharp bark rang into the still morning.

I looked up and hurried my step across the road by the sand dunes. There I stopped dead in my tracks.

Four dusty hiking backpacks and a ridiculous pair of hot pink running shoes leaned on the old wooden fence separating the road from the sand dunes. The shoes looked brand new, straight out of the box. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.

Down on the beach, Jake barked his happy bark. It was answered by a sound so achingly familiar, yet so foreign in this no man’s land, that it took me several heartbeats to identify it. The trilling chime of a child laughing.

I heard voices. Then I saw them.