Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Picnic by R A Conine

A loving couple go for a picnic on a quiet mountaintop, but the terrible truth of their situation weighs on their minds in R A Conine's science fiction tale.

They drove to their favorite place. They left town and followed winding Country Route 90 into the russet-colored hills. They crossed the picturesque and sagging covered bridge that had been the subject of so many oil paintings. She remarked that the structure had been freshly painted.

"I see that," he answered, surprised. "Why wasn't it in the newspaper?"

They both admired the beautiful shade of barn red selected by the town council.

They carried hot coffee for the drive and extra water for the hike. It was cold in the mornings but the afternoons were still pleasant. It was autumn then and the last warm days and hints of summer still lingered in the air. Brown and golden leaves danced in the wake of the passing car, skittering across the cracked macadam like flocks of children at play.

They drove for an hour, speaking little, their minds wandering far afield. They sped through the foothills and skirted the massive state park, eventually reaching Sandy Point.

The Point was a carefully tended nature preserve with hiking trails that led inevitably upward. While the marsh birds and colorful wildflowers below were wonderful to see, the real attraction waited above, 300 feet higher than the split rails, the wooden bridges and the boggy Augusta River tributaries.

They crossed the parking lot hand in hand. It was empty. The tourists were gone. The gates were down. The admissions office and first aid shacks were padlocked.

He helped her over the wooden fence then handed her the picnic hamper. She waited, watching him, her eyes bright with love. She had always assumed they'd be together, even as a child. When he went away, that belief never died. He came back of course. He felt as she did. It just took a little longer and the circumstances had to be different for him to understand.

He took the basket, heavy with water, wine and a lunch of cheeses, cold chicken and grapes. They joined hands again and headed up the trail, unspeaking but delighting in the company of one another.

He loved the way her hair danced on her shoulders, like falls of sun-dappled gold. He loved her unguarded laugh, the way she walked, erect with her chin up, and even the way she dressed, in old-fashioned ginghams and checks. The style was outdated but she made it seem new.

At trail marker 8, approximately a mile into the hike, the walking path forked. One direction led onward as before, across easy and level ground. He knew that it circled back around and ended at the parking lot. If followed, another hour would find them standing by their car again, at the end of the journey.

The second path was marked by a sign that read simply, 'Caution: Steep, Strenuous Trail Ahead.' It ascended precipitously almost from the first step. The ground seemed to curl, rising up to meet the trees and presenting a vista that looked to the mind's eye like a solid wall of earth. But he knew from experience that it wasn't, that the climb once embarked upon was actually easy. Simply putting foot in front of foot would do the trick. He was still young of course. Age had not begun to erode his confidence or physical prowess. He was undaunted. He was almost immortal.



They stopped at the 150 foot mark.

She rested on a low stone wall and drank water while he examined the crumbling foundation of an ancient home. His hands were in his pockets and he whistled as he puttered around the ruin, imagining what it must have looked like.

She enjoyed it when he was thoroughly distracted. His guard was lowered and he was like a little boy again, his enthusiasm untempered by adult worries.

He asked, "Who would build a house up here? Can you imagine chasing chickens up and down this hill?"

She laughed. "No. But I imagine it was fun to sled down in the winter."

Then he laughed, really laughed. "Maybe. But I wouldn't advise trying to climb back up here until spring."

After a few minutes, they went on. She forced a little water on him and he acceded to drinking it. She wiped perspiration from his brow and said, "It's getting warm, isn't it?"

He nodded. "A good workout always gets your blood flowing. I never sweated more than when I was skiing. You should have seen the Alps. Nothing like that here."

"I know," she said. "I wish I could have been with you. Germany was beautiful, wasn't it?"

"You can't imagine what it was like. Television does it no justice at all."

She smiled slyly. "What about the Fräuleins?"

He was wise. He answered, "When I said 'Alps,' I was talking about mountains."

"Right," she said sardonically, and winked at him.



Near the 250 foot mark, they discovered a low hut containing a metal bench and a soda vending machine. He stood looking at it for a moment and said, "I don't remember this being here before."

"It wasn't," she affirmed. "Somebody probably sued."

"Lazy monkeys," he declared flatly. "What's next, an escalator?"

"I doubt it," she replied. "Bet that guy with the house would have loved this."

He shook his head and placed a flat palm on the vending machine. "Nah. It would have frustrated him. His coins wouldn't have worked in this thing."

Laughing, they moved on.



As they neared the trailhead and the crest, the sky darkened dramatically. A cold wind swept over them. She looked up, concern written across her fine features. He wrapped an arm around her small waist and said, "Rain? I didn't think..."

"Well," she interrupted, looking at him with humor. "Maybe it's good they put that rest stop in after all."

He nodded in agreement. "We can always run back down the hill."

But they needn't have worried. The dark clouds were only passing. They were gone in moments and the brilliant sun and early afternoon warmth returned. They were relieved and exchanged hugs and soft whispers.

They topped the trail and their eyes beheld a gentle grassy sward backed by close-packed pine trees and an uninterrupted vista of cerulean blue sky.

He strolled to the middle of the little promontory and gazed around. Then he said, "Damnit."

"What's wrong," she asked anxiously. "Isn't it what you remember?"

He eyed her with a crafty smile. "Almost. I was hoping for a potato chip machine."

"You stop," she said, laughing out loud.



The breeze was picking up when they laid out the meal. He'd taken the linen cover from the kitchen table to use as a picnic blanket. This proved too light and he had to weight the corners with rocks he fetched from the trail.

She said, "We should have stopped by Tesco's. I saw the nicest picnic tarp in there. It had a waterproof backing on the underside. It was really big but you could fold it up so little it was a perfect fit for your pocket. Martha said it was from the space program. Just when I think they can't come up with something better, they always do."

He looked pained. "You keep trying to pretend..."

"Enough," she interrupted. "No fighting today. No criticism. No trying to fix it. We had a deal. Remember?"

He nodded.

"Good," she said pleasantly. "How's the chicken?"

"Delicious," he admitted. "No Fräulein could make chicken like this, no matter how big her Alps were."

"Trust me," she said. "Big Alps just get in the way when you're trying to bread chicken."

"Are we still talking about mountains?" he asked.

They went on in this way for some time, through the grapes, which they fed each other, and deep into the wine.

Then they made love on the tablecloth. She complained that the grass was poking her through the thin fabric so he allowed her to be on top. This decision never proved a disappointment and he was always left wondering why they didn't do it more often.

He had to admit that he had an ego and a very orderly method of doing things. Spontaneity wasn't his cup of tea. But it didn't really matter anymore. This was the last time they'd ever lay down together.

They napped briefly. When he woke, her naked back was pressed against his belly. She was curled against him and wrapped in the shelter of his large body. He was glad. The dying day was cooling. The wind out of the west was brisk and it made him shiver.

He cradled her for some time, kissing her golden hair softly and whispering that he loved her over and over again. He found he was rocking, trying hard to restrain his grief.

She murmured, "That feels nice."

"You're awake," he said. "I was hoping... you might keep sleeping."

She took hold of his large wrist. "Your watch stopped. Is it broken?"

He shrugged. "It doesn't matter, does it? Who cares about the time anymore?"

She pulled away and rolled over, facing him. The view was simply spectacular.

She poked his broad hairy chest with a small finger and said, "I care. We've got all the time in the world. Nothing has to get done today or tomorrow or next week."

He looked at her, his eyes nearly hidden by his beetling brows. "We had an agreement, Mattie. Remember?"

She stood, bouncing to her feet in one lithe motion. She was in her prime, strong, taut and utterly desirable. He couldn't take his eyes off her.

She walked to the edge of the bluff and stood there, naked, staring down at the valley and the broad river below. The town she called home marched up the opposite bank, at this distance a mere huddle of geometric objects, the romance of cobblestone and intricate Gothic carpentry utterly lost.

A mist was rising off the river. She knew that it would creep inland and lay on the streets that night. She wouldn't be there to see it. She wouldn't wake to it in the morning and marvel at how strange and mysterious it made that very ordinary town seem, her town, her home.

"Let's go back," she said aloud.

"I knew you'd do this," he replied, disappointed.

"Then why did you come here? Why did you make me come?"

"I didn't make you do anything. You wanted this. Remember what you asked me when I found you?"

She nodded. "I was devastated, Ken. You know what I saw. Then you were just standing there. You came out of nowhere and you seemed so strong, like you could do what I couldn't bring myself... I wanted... well, it doesn't matter, does it? It seems like it was years ago."

She heard his heavy tread, even though he was shoeless and walking on soft earth and green grass. He sat down beside her, dangling his naked legs and feet over the bluff edge. The drop was dramatic, 300 feet straight down to the rocky, river bank.

"It's best," he said. "We don't want to wait until winter."

She wrapped her arms around her body, chilled. "Do you know what caused it?"

He shook his head. "No. No one had time. I always said if the bomb was dropped, I wanted to be at ground zero. I didn't want to live in the world that came after. I never guessed this. I never dreamed it would happen this way."

She caught her breath and choked back a sob. "I talked to Dad and Mom on Friday. Dad said they were feeling sick and they were going to lay down for a nap. They made it up to the bedroom but they never left. When I found them on Sunday morning they were all puffy. There were these purple blotches all over them. Was that part of it?"

"No," he said. "That was rigor mortis. They probably died Friday night sometime. You couldn't have done anything, even if you'd been there."

"It was so fast," she moaned. "How could it happen so fast?"

He placed a cool hand on her hip. His palms were never sweaty. She loved that about him. He said, "We don't have to torture ourselves anymore, do we? That's why we're here."

But she remained in the past, stubbornly reliving the trauma. "Did they suffer?"

"No," he lied. "They just went to sleep. The virus makes you sleepy and warm."

"That's nice," she replied vaguely. "Why not us, Ken? Why?"

He couldn't answer.

Her gaze was distant and troubled. "When I saw you, I just wanted to go to sleep and feel warm and never wake up again. I thought it would be wonderful. Then I'd be where they went, where they all went. I know I made you promise."

"It'll be easy," he said. "We just have to do this one thing. I'll go first if you want. Then there won't be anything here to keep you. You only need to take a step. That's all."

She resisted. "Are we the last ones?"

"There's no way to know. But I think we could be. We were monitoring the spread from MacDill in Tampa. It was fast, like somebody flipped a switch. Russian comms went down on Saturday morning and we never heard from them again. The Chinese lasted a little longer but by Sunday they were shut down too. You know how much noise three billion people make? The whole continent was dead as a stone. I got up on Monday morning and I was the only person left alive on base. So I got in the car and drove up here. I didn't see a living soul in any town. No movement on the roads. No planes. No radio signals. Nothing. You can't believe the smell coming out of the cities." He shook his head.

"What will it feel like?"

"What?"

"The end, when I hit the rocks."

"Are you scared? You can just close your eyes. Keep them closed. I'll give you a little push. You'll feel wind on your face then nothing. You won't have time to feel anything."

"I'm not scared. I just don't want to do this."

He frowned. "We can't wait until winter. There's no heat, no medicine. I won't watch you die slowly."

"Then we'll go south."

He gazed at her sadly. "The virus came out of the south, the warmer latitudes. This thing mutates so fast it's unbelievable. We might be immune now but we won't be in six months. If anything, we need to keep moving north. Cold seems to slow its progress. Maybe the lack of living bodies will kill it in a few years."

She turned to face him at last. "If we're the last ones then we have a responsibility."

He looked away. "I already explained it to you. Your family has a history of Parkinsons, diabetes, cancer and early onset Alzheimer's. If that isn't enough of a bad genetic stew for you, you should add my family to the mix. We've got most of your side's defects but you can also add early baldness, rickets and heart disease. Between us, we don't have the healthy genetic stock necessary to repopulate Hackensack, much less the rest of the planet."

She was suddenly annoyed. "Just because you're an immunologist doesn't mean you know everything."

He held up two large hands in mock surrender. "I admit it. I don't. But we had an agreement. Are you backing out?"

"Damn right I am," she said fiercely. "You go ahead and jump off that cliff."

She turned, stomped back to the blanket and snatched up her panties.

He stood. "This isn't working out the way I thought it would."

She finished putting on her underwear and picked up her blouse. "What did you hope for, that our two broken bodies would complete the circle of life and all the animals would jump up and sing Hakuna Matata?"

"That's my girl," he said with a weak smile. "Way to slip in another reference to your favorite movie. Another one of the many reasons I love you."

She looked at him. "You love me enough to want me dead?"

He shook his head. "No. I don't. I just don't want to see you suffer."

She glared at him. "Then put on your big boy pants and take care of me. Figure out a way to keep us warm and fed through the winter. That's what my father would have done."

"Your father hunted bears with a bow for fun. The last time I saw him alive he was gutting a deer in three feet of snow that he'd tracked for a whole day after a friend wounded it."

"You're not my father," she said flatly. "But he's dead and you're alive. What would he say if he was standing here right now?"

He shrugged. "He'd probably tell me to get some damn pants on. Then he'd cuss me out and say I should make an honest woman out of you. Or he'd just give me a little push. I'm not sure which."

"Who do I look like, Ken?"

He didn't even have to think about it. "Your dad, minus the mustache and the wrinkles and the six-foot five, two-hundred-fifty pound frame of course. Thank God."

"Exactly," she said. "That man's blood is boiling in my veins. I'm the ghost of Pete Kelly, a tough-as-nails mountain man who stayed with the Hmong rebels for a year after the U.S. Army pulled out of Vietnam. He was a sweet guy who would track a wounded deer for as long as it took to end its misery and pain. I'm the closest you'll ever come in this life to Pete Kelly in the flesh. So I'm telling you to get some damn pants on and make an honest woman out of me."

He took a step toward her. With his rippling muscles and young, bronzed flesh he looked like a god. She held up a hand. "Don't. Don't come any closer until you make a decision. I want to try, Ken. I want to live. I want to fight, no matter how much I suffer. I'm walking back down that hill then I'm going home. I'm going to start building a life for myself. What about you?"

He smiled, relieved. "I was wrong."

She slipped her blouse over her head and pulled on her jeans. "About what?"

"About you."

"In what way, Mr. Mysterio?"

He rested his fists on his hips and studied her. Eventually he said, "Pete Kelly passed down some swell genetic stock after all. Our children are going to grow up tough and strong, just like he did. Imagine what they'll be like."

"You better figure out how to brew beer," she laughed. "Or you're going to be in one hell of a pickle."

"Well," he said, picking up his jeans and giving her a peck on the cheek. "I guess I've got about nineteen years to work that out."

"Nineteen?" she asked. "Isn't the drinking age twenty-one?"

"I'm the President of Planet Earth," he said. "I just lowered the drinking age."

She pushed him away playfully as he moved in for a kiss. "You are NOT the President. You'll be lucky if I make you dishwasher in chief."



They went down the hill the way they had come up, hand-in-hand, alive and strong. But they were different from that day forward in every other way imaginable. When the end did come for them, much later, they fought hard and they fought well. Pete Kelly would have been proud of them both.

9 comments:

  1. this story lulls you in, brilliantly descriptive,
    i really wasn´t sure what was coming,very effective.
    well done

    michael mccarthy

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  2. Have to agree with Michael - you just get drawn in without even knowing it. I like being taken along, knowing something is coming, but not the slightest clue as to what.

    Jim

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  3. I love this story. Like the others, I didn't know what would happen. It was a lovely ride and I just enjoyed being with them. I admit I like it when love wins out. I cried a little at the end. It was so beautiful and tender and sweet.

    Frances

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  4. I just wish the joint was open. Nice ride though.

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    1. What joint? What???

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  5. Didn't see that coming. Love the ending, we don't really know if they'll make it but it's love that will carry them through. Nicely done.

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  6. Great story! I read this one yesterday. The descriptions were really something to behold. I'm a huge fan of descriptions and the ones in this story gave me a few ideas. The ending was left open ended however. Not that its a bad thing but it leaves you hanging...and hanging. Its not a fault of the writer, I'm just not a fan. Thanks.

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  7. I enjoyed the read. It flows well. Well done.
    A.C.Nohr

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  8. I am huge fan of dystopias. I liked how you pulled us in but would've liked a hint or two earlier. I like rereading and finding the clues.

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