A Visitor in Valhalla
by Ward Webb
October 14-ish, 2086
I decided to start journaling because something horrible occurred to me this afternoon as I watched the smoke from the pyre spew off toward the south.
It’s been six years since I’ve seen another human being.
I honestly think I may be the only one left at this point, so I should talk about what’s been going on. Get it out. Document it just in case someone finds me one day all dried up and dusty like everything else. They’ll be able to read and understand.
As far as I can tell, there isn’t anyone left. I used to wander around during the days, calling out to anyone strong enough to answer. After months and months of that I gave up. Anyone would.
I felt lonely at first, especially on that long, defeated trek out of the city laden with a sack of my junk strapped across my shoulders. I knew there had to be other survivors, but I simply couldn’t find them anywhere in the city and if they were looking, they couldn’t find me. I was dwarfed in the empty world.
So with great agony I finally made peace with being alone indefinitely and set myself up in a nice house in Westchester. I kept a bonfire burning a half mile away to keep the smoke going during the days and spent the nights reading books pilfered from the library three doors down.
It’s a beautiful house with a porch that wraps all the way around, a dried pool in the back yard, scorched skeletal hedges that were probably once quite beautiful. On days when the sun’s heat permits, it is a lovely spot to sit and pass the time. It was the type of place I could never have afforded before the rocks fell and turned everything copper.
The sky keeps a constant rust color and the clouds always seem threatening even though all that ever falls from them is that thick, syrupy goo that clings to everything and stinks like stale water. That bad-egg smell that you can taste lingers for days whenever the coffee-colored clouds pass by. I stay inside whenever that happens. Luckily it’s been rather nice lately. The air is almost tolerable without something tied across my nose and mouth.
That’s where I was when it all happened. The porch. I was nestled in the chair on the corner that faces off toward the valley and re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo yet again when I thought I heard something behind me, that kind of muffled crackle that dried branches make when someone steps on them. I was so used to the silence the noise seemed loud. I sprang from my seat a little too eagerly and rushed down the front steps.
Rounding the corner of the house I could see it was all my imagination. There was nothing there. There weren’t even branches lying around to be stepped on. They had long ago been collected for firewood.
I knew I’d heard something, though. The possibility of hallucinations was really ridiculous. I’d made it through six years in basic isolation. I climbed back up the concrete steps and picked my discarded book up off the porch floor.
Sighing as I found my place again, I started rocking the chair gently back and forth and trying to make sense of the weird sound. My eyes soaked in the words but my mind didn’t register anything but the interruption. I was suddenly obsessed with the idea that there might be another living animal; whether it was a man, a dog, a turkey, a cat, a rhinoceros, I really didn’t care at this point. It would just be nice to feel I wasn’t the only surviving creature on this planet.
I stopped rocking and put the book down, dog-earing my place and sitting it on the floor by my feet. I chewed my lips as I squinted and thought about all the possible reasons for hearing something out of nowhere like that. Nothing made sense and I could feel the frustration yammering in my mind, urging me to panic, as always. I swallowed twice and counted to ten with my eyes closed, as the old doctor used to tell me to do.
“Excuse me, sir. Could you spare a glass of water for a weary traveler?” a sudden voice asked, and my eyes popped open as if I’d been struck across the back of the skull with a board.
There, on the sidewalk, with one sandaled foot leisurely cocked up on the curb stood a man of about eighty years or more. Bald except for cabbages of white hair jutting out just above both ears that left a shiny bald plateau with bronzed, grape-like skin reflecting the red sun, he stood with a smile beaming across his tanned, leathery face waiting for me to answer.
I was startled speechless. So many things tried to cram their way out of my mouth all at once I just stood there gawking at him and muttering syllables that meant nothing. He patiently waited, his billowing robes pushing around his thin, spindly legs in the arid breeze.
“Who... who are... where’d you come from?” I said pointing at him, thinking he was a continuation of what could possibly be a very severe and elaborate hallucination.
My eyebrow cocked in suspicion, I watched as he pulled a dark, brown satchel from his back and let it drop to the concrete with a shuffled thud as if he carried along thousands of loose sheets of paper.
“I’ve been walking for months,” the old man explained as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. “I don’t really know how best to answer you. If you want to know where I was born and raised, I will be happy to...”
I couldn’t deal with a rambling old hallucination so I blurted in, “I just want to know where you came from? I’ve been living here for nearly two years and haven’t seen a single soul walk by. You’re the first. Where the hell did you come from exactly?”
He stepped toward the concrete steps convivially and looked off toward the black curling finger of smoke on the horizon. “I came from the west and have been working my way east day after day. I won’t disturb you any further. Just kindly point me in the right direction so I don’t have to waste any more time.”
“That’s all there is since the world turned red: time to spare.”
“Not necessarily, but if that thought helps you deal with things, far be it from a rambling old hallucination to correct you. Just point me toward New York City and I’ll be out of your way. All these tiny little village roads look the same to me and I believe I’ve gotten turned around...”
“Wait, did you just call yourself a hallucination?” I stepped back toward the rocking chair. He took it as an invitation to step closer to me and rose one slippered foot up onto the concrete step.
“Well, most people call me by my name,” he offered and left it dangling in the air.
I pushed. “What’s your name then, old man?”
He laughed, almost scoffing, as he stepped completely up onto the bottom riser and answered, “I’m surprised you don’t recognize me. At one time I was one of the most famous human beings who ever lived. Of course I had more hair and a full, lush beard. I had to get rid of that once the temperatures started soaring over one hundred every day and...”
Copyright © 2012 by Ward Webb