Clinging to Hope as the World Falters
22: An Unusual Eulogy
Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg
Unable to sit still and gab, David took Ellen’s hand and led her upstairs, leaving the girls looking on in worried confusion. Alice was describing what happened, but David had no desire to hear the details. The girls, though, were anxious to figure out what had happened so they’d have a better idea of how to respond.
In their room, David removed his shoes but climbed in bed fully clothed. Following his lead, Ellen did likewise. She figured this was serious and that he didn’t want to be distracted. Figuring this was bigger than just her, she turned and called out while removing her shoes. “Flora, if you could spare a few minutes.”
David looked at her curiously, but she simply told him he needed more than just her support. He seemed to accept that.
“Are you OK?” she asked, stroking the side of his face after she’d climbed into bed with him.
“Frankly, no. Although I tried to put on a brave face for Alice and the others, this has really stricken me to the core. Even though I was hurt by the divorce and had distanced myself emotionally from her, she’s always been a big part of my life, and knowing that Linda is gone leaves me feeling lost and confused.”
“Tell me about it,” Ellen said simply, encouraging him to open up. While she felt bad for the hurt he was feeling, this was the kind of thing she’d been looking for. Although she adored how good he was in an emergency, and how he could focus on what needed dealing with at the moment, she also thought it was important that he not keep suppressing his emotional responses.
The door quietly opened at that moment and Flora moved inside, quickly taking in what was happening as she closed the door and took off her own shoes. She climbed into the bed on the other side of David as he continued to explain what was bothering him.
“She’s flavored much of my life, both in her encouragement and also in her disapproval of the things I’ve done. Her opinion always guided my actions, and helped me to consider and evaluate what I was doing. While she disapproved of my moving here, I thought about her objections and decided that I had a strong case, and that what I was doing was justified. But her objections strengthened my resolve rather than undermining it.
“And since we split up, she’s remained a major influence on me. I’ve always had to consult with her about Alice, keeping her apprised about my schedule, so she was never that distant, even though her attitude kept us from being close. However, when she came here and you got us back together, basically everything changed and we reconnected almost like we were starting all over again.
“But what she did today, honestly, was both incredibly stupid and utterly selfish. If she hadn’t exposed herself like that we would still have won the battle with those people. She didn’t need to sacrifice herself. What she put both me and Alice through is unconscionable. And I can’t figure out what she hoped to achieve by it. Did she do it so she didn’t have to face her own death? So she wouldn’t expose us to the pain of watching her sicken and die? I can’t figure out what she was thinking.”
The whole time he was speaking, Flora never said a word, but cuddled up behind him and held him tight in a reassuring hug. That was what Ellen had been hoping for. She knew that David needed a sounding board, so she had to remain somewhat distant so he had someone to discuss this with, but Flora could give him the emotional connection he so badly needed. On her own, she’d only be able to deal with one of his conflicting needs, but together, they could deal with them all.
“I’m not sure it was a conscious decision,” Ellen replied, feeling she had to respond since David was waiting for an answer. “I imagine she was just looking to protect both you and Alice, but I think it was mostly about Alice.”
“But there was no hope that she’d succeed,” he argued. “She ran forward, firing her gun at nothing, yelling to announce her presence and leaving the people no choice but to shoot at her at almost point blank range.”
David was lost as he tried to place the actions of the day into some kind of coherent context. If he could only explain it to himself, he could move that portion of his thoughts to the side and deal with other issues, like his grief and the girls, but until then, he was stuck in an emotional turmoil.
“I think she knew she only had a limited time,” Ellen said, trying to help him figure things out, “and that rather than having to suffer and die, she saw a way to add value to her life. By making herself a target, she protected both of you and she gave you an easy target. I don’t think she saw herself as ‘getting away’ from her fate, instead she willingly traded her shortened life for the both of you. Trading a few days of painful suffering, which would only stress everyone she loved, versus ensuring that both of you would survive unscathed, that’s a valuable exchange. Don’t forget, you represent more than just a good guy. You are responsible for a whole house full of people who are vital to both Linda and Alice. If something happened to you, it would affect everyone around you, and if you’re hurt, not only would Alice be affected, but everyone around you would be as well.”
“Maybe, but still, how did she...” David asked before halting midsentence.
“You’re just now realizing what it would have been like watching her sicken and die over the course of the next couple of days, aren’t you?” Ellen asked him, watching the realization cross his face.
“And you’re realizing that the pain of a quick death was probably more of a blessing than forcing you to watch her suffer?”
“Yeah, I guess, but it’s still hard to deal with.”
“Well, let’s explore that. Just why does it strike you so deeply?” Ellen asked, even as Flora continued to hold him, loosening his clothing, pulling his shirt out of his pants and allowing him to relax from the stresses he’d been trying to hold inside.
Here David just stared at her as if she was mumbling nonsense. “Because she was such a big part of me?”
“Ah, but which part, exactly?” Ellen asked.
“She represented much of what I was, what I—”
“Ah, I think we may have hit something there. She represented what you were. What your life was like before you cut all your ties to your old life. She was the road abandoned. As long as she was there, you were still tied to your previous life.”
He stopped to consider that. “Yeah, I guess so. Even when I dealt with her, speaking to her would always reinforce what I wanted to do here, and what I wanted to teach Alice about life. How I didn’t want her to become infatuated with the pretty trinkets of modern life, the ultimately meaningless signs of success that don’t improve anyone’s existence.”
“And when she came out here, seeking your help, and decided she liked what you’d done and wanted to be a part of not only it, but you and your new family as well?”
“It confirmed my choices. That not only had I made the proper decision, but that what I’d chosen was now essential,” he reflected.
“So what does that tell you?” Ellen prompted.
“That she really represented not only my past, but my entire previous life. That she was my last tie to the old world, the world before the meteor strike. Since then, everything has changed. Even the world I thought I was building has changed dramatically, but it had a certain internal consistency, but she represented everything that we can no longer go back to.”
“Exactly. Why do you think she so readily agreed to join you here? She realized her world was no longer viable. That she had to either adjust or die, and that she preferred a loving safe environment over a few outward signs of success in a world that would never notice she was there. Do you miss her?”
“Of course I do,” David insisted. “What about Alice? Or the girls, or all the people she’s helped here?”
“Precisely. She’d made a difference. Instead of merely being a competitor in an ongoing game of one-upmanship, she’d found a place where she made a difference, and where she could find acceptance. I think that’s what she sacrificed herself for. She wanted her death to mean something. She wanted it to count, to make a difference. If she could ensure that the rest of us survived, and that the work you’re doing for everyone else continues. You realize you’ve done more for the people here than anything the modern leaders of the free world have, don’t you?”
“Well, most of their achievements have been washed away lately.”
“That’s just my point. For all their talk, they are no longer making a difference in anyone’s life other than by making their lives more difficult. But by allowing you and Alice to continue, she ensured that all of us would continue to make a difference in this brave new world of ours.”
“Do you really think so? Do you really think that was what drove her?” he asked. But before she could answer, there was a quiet knock on the door.
David looked annoyed at being interrupted just as he was about to resolve this, but he knew that no one would interrupt them unless they thought it was important. As he glanced at the door, it opened, and Alice sheepishly entered.
“Sorry, I know you wanted to discuss things privately, but I decided I had as much to do with this as the rest of you. You don’t mind if I join you, do you?”
Instead of answering, David merely held his arm out to her, inviting her to join them. When Flora began to relinquish her position by his side, Alice stopped her.
“No, that’s the best place for you. I’m here mostly to talk. If you don’t mind, I’ll just sit here and I’ll get my reassuring hugs after I’ve worked out my issues.”
“I was wondering how long it would take you to stop by,” Ellen commented.
“Well, the girls wanted to have a full recounting of everything that happened, then we went outside to discuss it with Erica, Julie and Sara. Since they’re in a separate building from the others, they didn’t really get to quiz Maggie about it. So midway through Maggie came out and sat with us, well, she sat near us anyway, and we discussed what it meant and how we felt about it. But after awhile, I decided I needed to discuss it with you. And even more than that, I need to know that you’re OK and that you don’t blame Mom for what happened.”
“Ah, honey, here you are, acting the grown up while I’m wallowing in self pity. Come here and join us. You’re allowed to grieve as well,” David suggested.
Despite her previous protests, she did in fact go to him. To them, in fact. They immediately broke into tears, after which they discussed how they felt and what Linda had meant to them. David ended up holding his daughter while idly playing with her hair, something she found reassuring. Ellen cuddled her from behind, while Flora continued to hold David, sharing her support and comfort.
They discussed quite a few things, David reiterating what he’d already worked out with Ellen. But, as they spoke, David felt better, as if he’d passed a certain point and had now accepted what had happened. As that occurred, he became more engaged, returning caresses. Pretty soon what often happens when someone faces the prospect of death started playing out. David reached out to the living around him, trying to hold on to life, and despite his daughter being there, he began to make out with Flora. Seeing both that her father was becoming distracted and that he really needed this, Alice instead turned to Ellen, but when he and Flora quickly escalated, becoming fairly intimate with each other, Alice begged her excuse.
“Sorry, as much as I know you need to do this, I really don’t think I need to witness it myself. While it’s one thing to discuss it, it’s quite another to watch it taking place. Take your time, I won’t be far away. After all, I’m sure there are several people just outside the door, waiting to hear what’s been going on in here.”
“You don’t think I’m betray—”
“Absolutely not,” Alice insisted, not even allowing her father to finish the idea. “She’d want you to be here for everyone else, and to recover quickly so you can help the rest of us. What’s more, by sharing this with each other, you can all remember what she did and what she represented. I think it’s a healthy thing for all of you. But it’s just something I don’t really want to watch my father doing,” she said as she made her way outside.
As soon as she opened the door, the adults heard a chorus of welcoming cheers, so they knew she wouldn’t be alone, so David didn’t worry about her, instead focusing on those near him, who represented life, the future, and a chance to bask in the love and health they all shared. First with a fairly aggressive needful coupling with Flora, then with a much slower, tender lovemaking with Ellen, and then, as they were enjoying each others’ closeness, the girls joined them, filling their bed once again, even though it suddenly seemed empty, not being quite as full as it had been just a few nights earlier.
As David was preparing the morning’s coffee, there was a firm knock on the front door. Glancing at the others in the room, David considered what it likely meant.
Without saying anything, he put his stuff down and headed to the front door. Opening it, he found Maggie, looking like she hadn’t slept much, standing back from the door.
“You need to come with me,” she cautioned. “You’ll need gloves and some tarps. There are a few things we need to take care of.”
David’s heart lurched, as he could easily guess what news awaited him. Turning to the girls behind him, he told them to get the things they’d need. He already had his gloves with him, and he kept a smock around just for this sort of thing.
Once outside, Maggie turned back just before they reached the trailer.
“I’d better explain what happened before we go inside,” she said. “Last night was rough, as you can imagine. The guys already had an excruciating day yesterday, and it didn’t get any better overnight. Adrian passed just after you all went to bed, but we were so busy I didn’t think it was worth disrupting you for. After working hard to keep Billy going, I ended up falling asleep, leaving Bobby taking care of him. Yesterday was an exhausting day, as I’m sure you’re well aware,” she explained.
“When I woke up, early this morning, I discovered that Bob had died as well. He kept working throughout the night, despite how sick he was. Despite his appearing to have given up earlier, when push came to shove, he really gave himself until the bitter end. As for Billy...”
“You don’t need to finish,” David responded. “Let’s just get this dealt with.”
“Oh no, I think this is worth dealing with,” Maggie explained. “You see, it wasn’t quite as simple as you’d expect. Ladies and gentleman, may I introduce the new and improved, revitalized, Billy Adams,” she said, stepping back with a dramatic wave of her arm.
A dim figure stumbled a bit as he stepped into the light out of the darkness of the trailer, before leaning heavily against the doorsill.
“God, I’m starving. Surviving the damn plague really wears a person down, don’t it?” he quipped, not able to keep the smile off his face and the lilt from his voice despite his obvious exhaustion.
“Billy!” David exclaimed, almost rushing up to give him a big hug. When both Billy and Maggie waved him off, he reflected a bit more. “Wow, this is amazing. You survived this ... this virtual death sentence. You realize what this means, don’t you?”
“Yeah, it means you owe me breakfast and a more comfortable chair out here,” he cracked.
“No, well, besides that, it means that you’ve probably developed antibodies to what’s killing so many people. I have no idea how many people have survived like you have, but if it isn’t that high, I’d imagine the hospital would love to examine your blood to see if they could identify what it was that allowed you to survive when so many others haven’t.”
“Hey, I’ll save the world after breakfast, thank you very much. Right now I’m just anxious to appreciate being alive, and enjoy the support of so many friendly faces. And after that, we really need to mourn those that weren’t so fortunate, but whose dedication helped me survive this. I’m not sure I’d be here now if it wasn’t for the constant attention that Bobby gave me over the last couple of days.”
“Girls?” David asked, turning to request someone bring something for both Billy and Maggie, but a couple of them had already run inside to get them.
“I guess that Maggie has already told you about what’s been happening, hasn’t she?” David asked.
“Not really. I’ve been pretty much out of it. I know that Maggie was involved with something violent, and I know that someone else was hurt, but that’s about all I know right now.”
“Well, there’s a lot to tell, but why don’t you just sit dow—”
“Billy!” screamed Erica from the entrance of the other makeshift shelter they’d constructed to house the not quite so seriously ill people. “You survived? I can’t believe it. If you pulled through, then there’s hope for the rest of us.”
There was an odd mix to the proceedings of calm acceptance and pandemonium after that. The girls were all excited for him, while both Billy and Maggie just wanted to rest and relax after their harrowing ordeal.
Caitlyn brought out some juice and toast to hold them over until Flora could fix a more substantial breakfast, so they sat around and discussed what had happened since Billy had taken ill. He was horrified to hear what happened to Linda, and especially to hear that otherwise normal people had taken to behaving so wantonly.
“You did right to shoot him,” Billy told David, even though David never explicitly said he did it outright. “He sacrificed his own life when he decided his life was more important than anyone else’s. If he needed more guns, he could have waited. There are plenty of people with guns dying left and right, and his insistence on having a bigger arsenal ensured not only his own death, but those of two people he professed to care about.”
“Well, I’m sure he had his own views on that subject,” David offered. But Billy was having none of it.
“No, as I see it, it’s pretty cut and dried. They had gasoline, and they had electricity as a result. They had enough arms to protect themselves, and they had their health, so what more did they want. They had more than everyone else around them did, but they wanted even more. They tried to kill the only people really trying to save people around here, and they deserved a quick death sentence for that alone.”
“Hey, and here I thought I was being extreme by how I’ve been treating people lately,” David said, not having explained what he’d initially done to the people robbing Reggie’s pharmacy.
“If anything, you’re much too kind to everyone,” Maggie insisted. “You let each of those idiots at the shop live, you let the criminals who attacked you have a quick and merciful end, and even now you attempt to justify what they themselves clearly chose to do. I think you’re going to have to grow a tougher shell in the coming days.”
“Hey, don’t go trying to change our man,” Ellen insisted, putting her arm around his waist. “I like him soft and cuddly. He’s tough when he needs to be, but he isn’t willing to cut himself off from his humanity by being as distant as you’d like him to be. It may be tough on him, but it’s what makes him who he is.”
“Kind of ‘tough with a gooey creamy filling’?” Julie suggested from the far corner.
By then the food started coming out, so further discussion was kept short, but everyone was relieved that one of their own had survived, and that was enough to give each of them hope. Hope they each knew was going to be in short supply for a while.
“We lay before you, a hopefully merciful God, the bodies of two good men, and the memory of a wonderful woman, wife and mother,” David intoned to the quiet and respectful gathering of both the healthy and sick over their makeshift gravesite after they’d interred both Bobby and Adrian.
“They were taken before their time by a freak of nature that has sickened and killed more people than all the evil plots of mad men throughout the centuries,” he said, before he changed his tone, revealing just how much the events they’d faced had changed him. “Yet you stand idly by, watching it all unfold, offering us nothing. But at least you gave us an offering, a tiny olive branch that at least there’s some help. By giving us the life of Billy, you give us not only hope that we can survive this blight, but that we may now have the tools to find a vaccine for it. If we can only limit the extent of the deaths with what he can offer us, it would mean a tremendous amount. But again, it’s almost a tease more than a hope. After all, we need to draw his blood and get it to a research lab far away, and they’ll need enough electricity to conduct the tests, assuming they remain safe and unaffected by the rampant death around them. And then, assuming they can find a solution, we’ll have no way of distributing it. With no manufacturing facilities we can’t produce a cure in enough quantities to help most of the current survivors, and without a way to distribute it, we can’t even reach many of those we could aid.
“In short, I find you a bit of a cruel and, if not spiteful God, then at least an uncaring one. One who offers no solace to the sick and wounded, only an unemotional hope of some eventual caring.”
“Well, God, whoever you might prove to be, I’ve decided we don’t need your help at the moment. Despite the odds you’ve stacked against us, we’ll survive this roadblock you’ve mounted before us. We’ll struggle, but we’ll persevere. We’re made of stronger stuff than you expect. We’re not about to fall to our knees, begging and pleading for forgiveness and rescue, because I know you’ll offer neither. Instead we have only each other to rely on. And as we’ve seen, we can’t even be sure of those we attempt to help.
“But as evil as you claim Satan is, it isn’t his evil that threatens us as much as your own ditherings. If everyone was like you, no one would help their fellow man. No one would have stood up to the Nazi’s in World War II, and no one would have struggled to end the various diseases you’ve afflicted us with over the years. Man’s greatest enemy isn’t some disillusioned angel, it’s instead a lack of caring and empathy. Those are the quantities that give us our humanity, and if we stop caring, if we instead react as you have, ignoring those of us in need as those we’ve encountered lately have done, then we lose that which makes us human. So we don’t need your stinking dark angel. We’ve got enough evil in your own detachment. If you can’t help us, then just get the fuck out of our way and we’ll help ourselves, with or without your assistance!”
No one spoke as David finished, stumbling away from the makeshift altar they’d hastily erected. He seemed to have exhausted himself with his frustrated angry condemnations against God, and now he found himself kneeling by this clumsy grave, crying for everyone they’d lost, and those he knew they’d lose in the near future.
“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” Ellen asked as she knelt beside him, offering him her own solace, making up for that which God wasn’t offering so readily. “After all, he might—”
“Don’t bother telling me that God has something better in mind when he started this,” David growled. “This is the work of an uncaring God, or possibly just a sign that all our hopes over the centuries have been for naught. The only way something could possible come from this is if his plan is to blot out man’s existence. To wipe us from the face of the earth so he can start again with someone not as stubborn and insistent, someone who doesn’t insist on ‘free will’ and making their own decisions.”