Just before dawn, Matthew wakes abruptly from a nightmare. Shivering, he looks at the boy huddled beside him for fleeting warmth. His son’s hair is matted with sweat. The fever’s broken, then. Matthew breathes a thank you; of all the things they lost After, medicine is what he misses most.
He abandons the paltry warmth of the blankets and dresses in the layers required by an Iowa winter. He stokes the fire, sets a pot of water to boil. The pot of rabbit stew Holly brought sits empty on the stove; he never washed it up last night. He never brought the wood in, either. With Karl sick, he’d forgotten everything else.
Matthew slips out the door, the cold whisking his breath away. He thinks wistfully of central heat, and debates again making the long trek southward. But he knows they’ll weather this winter as they’ve weathered each one since the lights went out for the last time. They aren’t leaving, because Madeline and Eve are buried in the church yard under an oak tree.
A sliver of white clings to the eastern horizon. Wood smoke tangs the air from the cluster of cobbled-together buildings. By the time Matthew stacks the day’s wood beside the door, every window is flickering. He tucks his hands into his armpits and glances toward the two-story farmhouse where Holly lives. A shadow moves across the light.
Matthew grabs the last handful of wood and hurries inside, where Karl’s awake. “What was it like, Dad?” he asks. “Before. When I was a baby. Tell me about the pictures that moved, and how you could talk to anyone, anywhere, any time.”
Matthew hesitates. He used to tell stories about Before like fairy tales. But now that his son is a man–and there’s no doubt Karl is a man these days, even at fourteen–fairy tales seem like a recipe for discontent. Sooner or later, Karl will hear the rumors about places where lights still gleam and water still flows. Matthew knows, as Karl cannot, the cost of that fairy tale.
He sighs, looking out the window. The horizon glowers brown.
“Life was easier Before, wasn’t it?” Karl persists.
Before, Madeline and Evie wouldn’t have died from influenza. “It was convenient,” he says. “You could grab a hot meal any time. As long as you could pay for it.” But the distance between them–Maddie’s job, his job, Evie’s dance and music and Brownie meetings–had been tearing them apart from the inside. After, there is only survival. Survival, and community, because there is no survival without community. Holly was the one who taught him that.
Karl touches his arm; he starts. “You’re thinking of her, aren’t you?”
“Who? Your mother?”
Karl rolls his eyes. “Holly. Your face changes when she comes around. I’m not stupid, you know. You should tell her you like her.”
A man, indeed. Matthew puts an arm around his son and finds the words at last. “In many ways, it was easier Before. But much more complicated. We were never happy. We were always scrabbling for more. Never satisfied with what we had. We have to work much harder now, but…we’re happier. We’ve learned to depend on each other. To take care of each other.”
Across the distance, the farmhouse door opens, and a slight figure hurries through the semi-darkness toward their cabin.