Short Story by MaryLou Morning
The Solar Eclipse started on time, but it never ended. With intense anticipation, darkness had split the country across her gut from the Moon’s calculated betrayal and when the first device detonated – somewhere over Topeka, Kansas – the shadows remained behind.
The weapon’s insane pulse of directed energy shocked the system of every electrical appliance and computer intestine from Pueblo to Evansville; from Oklahoma City to Des Moines. Several dozen communication ganglions were critically affected leading to further cascading system failures.
The second warhead severed the remaining sinew of the country’s electrical grid as this multiple reentry version contained a group of six additional electromagnetic pulse mechanisms discharging in a cross-country laceration pattern.
Slipping from their moorings aboard the North Korean observation satellite ‘Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4, the EMP warheads didn’t need a multi-stage rocket to deliver their special brand of misery. The K-4 and her payload of disruption was so secret even the Mossad wasn’t completely assured of its existence. That sole doubt – and modernity as we knew it – vanished on the morning of the great American Solar Eclipse.
“This here is my last copy, Zooman. I sell it to you; I got a gray screen. You savvy? Nothing left.” The worn-out man in the dirty duster that his customers called Hollywood just shrugged again. He did it all the time.
“It’s just that I already seen everything else. I don’t got long to go now. I just want a good one; something good.” Zooman stepped forward, his right hand gripping a pair of barter-chips tightly between his remaining fingers.
“Well, this is a good one. And this copy’s in excellent shape.” Hollywood shrugged and added a head-nod. “Yup.”
Standing in the alley behind the burned-out pool hall in this dead little town had all the glamour of an apocalypse graveyard; but at least there were no cameras.
“Give ya double…” Zooman urged, thrusting the pair of dirt-smudged barter-chips toward his reluctant friend.
“I don’t know.” It wasn’t dirt; Hollywood sniffed, shrugged again. Nerve damage from a sniper’s bullet; the doctors had just straight up lied to him about his recovery.
“Refuse double from a dyin’ man, Hollywood? You’re a cold motherf…”
“It’s not about the profit, Zeke. This is it. This film dies with you. You’ll take it to the grave and then that’s it. No one else gets to see it ever again.” Shifting to his other foot, Hollywood felt the weight of several dozen DVD discs slotted into pockets in his heavy canvas jacket.
“I can live with that.” Zeke laughs, then coughs. More every day; soon, there will be blood. Hollywood bites his lip, looks away; shrugs.
“Anyway, so what? You think that world out there – what’s left of it – cares about film preservation? Barter a movie, forget your cares and haunted lives for an hour or two? Shit’s so much worse now than when you started…”
“I do alright. And people still like movies. Keeps them sane.” Shadows were growing around the jagged edges of the crumbled building. Time to jet soon. The DVD case in his hand suddenly reflected a flash of sun as he turned to face his customer.
“Well, that’s what I’m saying!” Zooman said enthusiastically. “Borrow-barter isn’t an option, man. I want to keep that one.” He pointed with his left hand; thumb and pinky between a trio of stumps.
Hollywood, the DVD movie man with a borrow-barter deal for every taste, hesitated again. His shoulder ached; his armpit felt like a potato was growing under there.
“You can’t make another copy and then…?”
“The replicating machine is shot. Way past its pasture date. And no blank discs left even if it did work. Anyway, none that I can find. And electric hookup is harder than ever to find and costs more than its worth.” Hollywood brought the disc case up and looked at the back; the photo image was faded. “Last of the Mohicans, Zeke,” Hollywood mused with a shrug.
“Thought you had your own juice generator; Faraday-safe and glowing with pride.”
“I did for a while. That’s how I made so many copies; stayed in the borrow-barter biz when the lights went out after E-Day.”
“Nothing lasts forever.” Zooman laughed again; more a choking cough than a humorous sound. Those three words were still a powerful punchline of a sick joke after E-Day.
“Except maybe the eclipse,” Hollywood remarked as he raised his leg and settled onto his old Vespa, automatically avoiding the gas-conversion tubing wrapped around the frame.
“Blaming the eclipse? Blame that maniac over in…”
“And next year, another full solar.” Hollywood seemingly hadn’t heard what Zeke said; the barterman’s hearing was fading to black. “That one’ll slice the country the other way from the last one.”
“Makes an ‘X’-shape after seven years,” Zooman said. He ignored being ignored. Hollywood wasn’t any healthier than anybody else round here.
“I doubt I’ll have any discs left by then.”
“Then let it begin with me,” Zeke; now with renewed vigor. “Double the barter is still good.”
“Two baby zebras for this disc?” Hollywood held the case up; waving it slightly. The setting sun glinted again; just a bit more orange this time.
“Yup. They’ll feed a small clan for a good spell.”
“Okay. It’s unavoidable, I guess. Deal, Zooman. Here.”
“Dyin’ just got a bit more doable.” He handed the barter-chips over, subbing for the precious film. “Thanks, Hollywood.”
Hollywood just shrugged.
“It’s hard to fathom, Cookman.” Hollywood held the reins attached to a pair of small, rather scant-looking zebras; the animals had been fed something that had made them docile.
The various odors of this temporary mess-hall combined to fill Hollywood’s bent nose with something truly unrecognizable. But, he barely noticed. On the outskirts of this burnt-out town in what used to be a comfortable suburb of Southern California, a random pocket of the scarred remnants of E-Day gathered most every day; the fates of all these lives determined daily by one’s next meal.
“One lousy movie? He musta been totally ‘clipsed in the brainpan.” Cookman glanced at the malnourished animals. “Hard to say who got ripped off, though.” The burly mechanic-turned-frycook reached out and gently took the worn leather straps from Hollywood’s hand.
“Who isn’t?” Hollywood had to laugh at that last part. Getting ‘ripped off’ just replaced what was once a governmental predatory tax system. “So, they’re good enough for an extra barter, Cooks?”
“Yeah. Whatcha lookin’ for?”
Hollywood paused while a wave of pain rippled across his shoulder and into his chest, then slithered down his right side into his hip. It must’ve looked really odious; Cooks sucked in his breath and stared.
“Hey; you okay, Movieman?” Cookman wasn’t given to emotion usually; he’d lost too much like most folks after E-Day. But his heart ached more and more now at the sight and plight of his barter contacts. “You wanna lay down or someth…?”
“No. No, I’m okay.” Hollywood straightened up, shrugged violently and wrenched his neck in an obscene way. Cooks heard a soft ‘crack’. “Arr..damn! That’s a bitch! But it sometimes helps.”
“Doctor Jim is still down in the Main Hole, Woody. Want I should call him?” Funny how some sayings still persisted; ‘calling’ someone on the phone hadn’t been done by the masses for years.
“It’ll cost me a leg to save my arm.” Hollywood laughed at this old saw. “Is he still drinking that ‘shine of yours?”
“Ha! Yeah; drinkin’s only thing keepin’ him steady, I’m thinkin’” Cookman tugged lightly on the reins. “Come’on fellas; dinner’s almost ready.”
“You got some of that boxed soup left? That Asian stuff?” The movie-man rubbed his aching shoulder; carrying anything right now would be agony. “Maybe get your helper to cart it over to my hole.”
“Yeah; sure. Give ya a case of chicken, one of beef. What else? You got heat?”
“Could use some lighters, yeah. Thanks, Cookman. Maybe call that drunk downstairs; see what he’ll rip me off to fix this wing.” Hollywood raised his arm; it hurt like hell. He’d be in drydock permanently if this wasn’t rectified soon. And that meant…
“You good on water? Some folks here and near ended up blind with some bad agua last week.” Cookman tugged on the leashes again; the zebras ignored him.
“No shit?” Hollywood’s stomach began to tighten; his gut felt bloated. Is the power of suggestion a sickness symptom?
“Yup; water’s getting’ to be a hard-barter. We gotta watch the supplies.”
“Appreciate your offer; considering…” And without warning, Hollywood burped. Then he sniffed; it was unavoidable. The odor was distressing…funny considering where he was standing at the moment.
“You’re a special customer, Woody.” Cookman looked out at the gathering crowds in the street; gonna be busy tonight. That meant fights; maybe a riot. Returning to the conversation, Cookman caught a glimpse of Woody’s eyes; red, glassy and unfocused.
“…but I’m good; I get my water…from Margret over…near Southslide.”
“She’s reliable.” Cookman said flatly. “Sure you’re in stand-up shape? You don’t look good. At all.”
In truth, Hollywood was beginning to feel frightened. In the last few moments while Cookman was speaking, the ringing in the traveling barterman’s ears had ramped to an alarming level; his heart was thumping, too. He could feel it shaking his chest. Watery blurs replaced his normally sharp vision.
“Actually…” And that was it. Hollywood pitched forward right into Cookman’s arms. The zebras backed away; startled and braying weakly.
“Oh, shit, Woody! I gotcha…” Catching his favorite customer by the shoulders, he lowered Hollywood to the filthy floor, careful to cradle his head and keep it out of the muck.
“Gert! Gert, dammit, get in here!” Cookman looked down at Woody’s face; gaunt and slightly yellow. This fella didn’t get much in the way of quality vegetables, apparently. “Gert!” Well, who did?
“Stop yelling; I’m here.” Gert, not much over five feet tall, was completely bald. No body hair at all, in fact; the result of a harrowing hazing that required a day-long bath in a strong depilatory in some college dorm lightyears in the past. Gert’s personal, quirky body chemistry had somehow made the effect permanent. “Crap! What’s wrong with him?”
“What else? The eclipse.” Cookman looked up at his helper’s shiny face. “I doubt he’s got more than a few months left in him. Help me…”
“Right. This is gonna be extra.”
“I know.” Together, they hefted Hollywood’s body – more than half of his weight was the collection of dead movies he constantly hauled around in his tattered jacket – and placed him on a nearby butchering table. Good thing he was out cold.
“Thanks. Now get those sad-ass critters and prep em for tonight’s horror show.”
“Wish you wouldn’t call our dining service that, boss.” Gert leaned in and took a close look at the DVD-hawker. His face was sunken. Forcing an eyelid open, Gert saw that Hollywood’s eye had a few fat, reddish veins that may be a sign of something neurological. “Might have a brain-fry here, Cookie.” Gert had just started medical school when….
“No doubt.” Cookie pulled a fairly clean rag from his apron and placed it under Hollywood’s head. “Gert, go down and get the old man, will ya? He’s got a hot one here.”
“That’ll be extra.”
“How long?” Hollywood had just opened his eyes less than hour ago after a classically weird dream. At least, he hoped it was one.
“About a week.” Doctor Jim – that’s what most folks called him – cocked his head and adjusted the beam of his exam-flash to pass over Hollywood’s other eye. His pupil reacted accordingly.
“Oh, shit.” Weakly, “No…” Might as well have left a big sign: ‘Vacant’
“Not sure you realize how luck…”
“Lucky!? A week since I’ve been back to my hole?”
“Well, you had a…”
“Lucky I have a hole left at all, doc.”
“You are still breathing.” Doctor Jim pocketed the flashlight; his patient, at the moment, just wasn’t.
“That’s lucky, I guess; but good or bad?”
“Whoever patched that bullet wound didn’t do you any favors.” The post-surgery exam was apparently over. The actual surgery had been four days ago. Another day in a coma-sleep and the good doctor would’ve been forced to…
“I know. They said…” Hollywood pauses suddenly; looks at the Doctor with some hard-to-identify suspicion.
“What?” For a flashing instant, Doctor Jim wondered if this sick man had read his thoughts somehow a moment ago.
“How did you get paid? If I just woke up; how…?”
“Our good friend, Cookman, um, took care of the barter swap.”
“He swapped? What? Food?”
A shadow was forming in Hollywood’s mind; he knew it to be a kind of ill omen. E-Day stole many familiar traits of civility from common folks; what it left in its place, like a mad magpie, was a heightened sense of danger, or less dramatically: barter fraud. Fight or flight in high heels.
“Well, no. Something of yours,” he said tentatively. Even the doctor sensed it.
“What was it? My scoots?” He couldn’t be that lucky; that Vespa was more trouble than it was worth.
“No, son. A number of your…”
“No!” The shadow hardened into a cloud; and deep shade followed.
“…discs with movies. Those ‘x’ ones are truly a treasure.”
“Oh, shit; no. How many? What’s it cost in priceless cinema history to keep my sorry ass walking this stinking planet?”
“It was shocking how many we found, Woodman. Tucked all in your basement, like that…”
“How many?!” Hollywood was hoping he was either dead or in some drugged-out stupor. His weird dream was turning into a real-life nightmare.
“Half your collection. Least about half that we found. And from your jacket. A regular walking video store.”
“Half? Half?” The word didn’t even make sense. How was he supposed to barter with that…? Still, maybe he could find a way to pitch this to his barterers.
“Only thing is, Cookman also needed a cut.”
Right. The other shoe. “Of course, he took the other half?”
“Oh, Christ, no. What do you think we are? Highwaymen?” Such a quaint term for what was done anyway.
Hollywood felt as though the good besotted doctor had just flung a heavy woolen blanket on him; heavy and soaking wet. “What’s left, Jim? Anything useable?” Whatever the answer might be, it’ll be bad. The question itself didn’t even meet the minimum for coherence.
“You need to focus on recovering, son. That was a hellacious tumor I dug out of your armpit. It was cutting off a critical…”
“Oh, I’m very grateful, Doctor. I’ll get better just in time to expire from starvation.”
“You must have other skills, Wood. Really, these days…”
“Whatever I have left is worthless.” A wicked thought struck the center of his mind like a dart in an Irish pub.
“Say, Doctor Jim; are we, as a species, going cannibal yet? Maybe there’s a value in my….”
“That’s not funny!” The doctor was genuinely outraged; no doubt he’d seen plenty of it in the last year or so. He’d been hearing the word ‘Kuru’ lately. And it wasn’t a good fit with The Oath. “There’s more of it than we want to admit. It’s a bad omen.”
Hollywood felt an odd twang of comfort at this thought. Two bads make a good?
“Slippery slope, doc? Worried we might finally be the last link on the food chain?”
“More like the bottom of the slope, I fear.”
That sounded somewhat more ominous. “Hope that other thing is true, then.”
“What other thing is true?”
“That thing about tasting like chicken.”
That did it. The doctor bit his lip briefly; clearly pissed. “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t condemn your soul to…” He shook his head; then actually snorted.
“You don’t sell out your species for a damned meal, son!” With that he turned and walked toward the makeshift door in this hovel of a makeshift field-hospital embedded into a hole in the ground; then paused without turning. “Stay quiet, rest while you can. You’re out of here tomorrow.” And with that, he turned and left the room.
Hollywood never saw him again.
“Surprised to see you walking and talking, Movieman.” Zooman was seated in a rather high-tech-looking wheelchair parked in a small alcove lined with books. There was a small video screen on a short swing-arm attached to his chair on his left. “Heard you’d left the planet.”
“Nearly did. Might have; Cookman said I mighta flatlined a few times.”
Hollywood could not keep himself from looking around this room. His eye-muscles ached from the strain of forcing his peripheral vision to store details from the very edges of his sightline. There was something on the wall to his right; finally, he turned and gawked.
“Shot that sonuvabitch myself, Hollywood. Just like Teddy did in that Sean Connery movie; what’s it…?
“’Wind and the Lion,’ Millius, nineteen-seventy-five, Keith, Bergen, Huston. Classic.”
An odd hissing sound wrapped around an eerie wheezing whistle issued from the Zooman. Laughing. “You know your shit, Movieman. I’ll give ya that.”
He’d heard that pointless complement his entire life. He’d learned to ignore it. The eyes of that bear seemed to stare at him; only him.
“Yeah, that bear and me tangled the year before everything went dark.” Zooman looked over at his guest; Hollywood was still gazing at the immense fur nailed to the wall. Was that real wood paneling? He’d never been invited into Zeke’s home before. Home; not hole. Funny how a single letter made such a…
“And you know what, Woodman?”
Hollywood felt a cold sensation on his neck, and he turned to gaze across the room directly into his host’s eyes. Like a slap to his face, Hollywood realized that he knew nothing about this man. Those eyes were a stranger’s eyes.
“What?” Barely breathing now. Even the air in his lungs seemed paralyzed until it knew the answer.
“I ate every damn last ounce of flesh from that beast.” He held up his left hand; glanced at it with a sneer on his face. “It was only fair.”
Holy shit; this guy…who is this guy? “Sounds more like ‘The Revenant,” Woodman remarked absently. Still held an image of this character chomping down on a bearburger.
“The what? Never heard of it.”
Hollywood suddenly felt the weight of what he was here to do. And he hated it.
“Look, Zooman, I don’t want to claimjunk your time. You’re busy. It’s just that…”
“You need a job.”
“Yeah. I got no more barter-goods. They scooped my library, the doctor and Cookman.”
“If they ripped you off, we can…”
“Oh, no, Zeke. No; it’s not like that. They swapped it fair. Hell, I’m here, right?”
“You are here.” That steel voice; that definitive confidence. And once again, the movieman’s inner radar pinged with the stark notion that this frail-looking revenant in the expensive-looking wheelchair was not who he appeared to be; not even a little bit.
“You know, I owned a couple dogs back when it was light at night.” Almost no one used that expression anymore. “But I never been around zoo animals. I’d do whatever needs doing. Clean the cages, feed em, you know…”
That science fiction sound again issuing from the thing in the chair everyone called Zooman. Something ‘ol Woody had just said was funny apparently. Hollywood shut his mouth.
He ran a zoo, right? Hollywood screened a fast flick in his mind’s-eye of all the swaps he’d done with Zeke over the years. Regular meat sources were gone; coopted and heavily controlled by the deep state after the E-Day dust settled.
Zebras were the peak of the exotic faire; usually it was unrecognizable slabs of red protein wrapped in plastic. But, as a barterer, Zooman just provided a desperate community with…
“It’s not that kind of zoo, Woods.” Zooman, or whoever he really was, suddenly sat up in his motorized chair. Woods had just noticed the mechanism moored underneath; rough, black cables laced up to a box wedged and fixed to the chair’s arm near Zeke’s tragic right hand. “And we have people for that, profession.”
The nonsense image of a ‘professional animal cage de-pooper’ flashed in Hollywood’s mind; a kind of ‘coming attraction’ trailer for a secret society, post-apocalyptic labor force. He burst out laughing. A moment later, that wheezing hiss joined him.
“I’m sorry, Zooman.” He gulped a lungful of air that smelled of some tropical flowers; strange he hadn’t noticed until now. “Really. Forgive me.”
Hollywood couldn’t help worrying that anything – any small thing – he said could be a potential offense. He was in the den of a man he didn’t know; what are the rules? These days, a random situation like this could be fatal. Or worse.
“No offense, Woods. Be at peace.” Zeke actually looked taller now in that wheelchair.
“I…don’t know what that is,” Hollywood said; and it sounded genuine.
There was a quiet moment as Zooman gazed at his guest. He’d been working this situation for a while now; no need to rush. He let the silence fill the corners of the room before he spoke again. “You’re in a shadow, no doubts there.”
Hollywood looked up; embarrassed perhaps that he’d shown a slice of his inner self.
“Anything would be a miracle, Zeke. Whatever you got…”
“I think I may have a solution for you, Woods.”
“It takes some courage, though, mi amigo. Real courage.”
Like a comedy skit, Hollywood patted his now-empty duster about chest-high as though he were looking for his cigarettes or something. “It’s here somewhere. Got alotta room now that my collection is…” and a single, penetrating, solitary stinging thought hit home. The remainder of his breath hissed out of his slackened mouth.
Zooman seemed to pick up on something here; like they were both tuned to the same radio station. But it was Zeke who voiced it.
“Lost to time, Woody? Trampled in the bloody dust left over from the insanity of a nuclear misunderstanding?”
Woody looked over at the man whose voice now sounded like a piece of rebar; hadn’t even noticed that the entire chair had crept across the floor – is that a Persian carpet?
There; an arm’s length away, those eyes boring into the bankrupt Hollywood. Zooman.
“Yeah. For me and you and the world.” All those classics, history, unique images, performances, timeless art; and for what?
“No, Woodman. I’ve got a deal for you. Best swap you’ll ever make.”
“My last swap, I think.”
Zooman nodded through a dazzling smile.
A person’s perception of the world can change in a heartbeat, and for some, it can take a lifetime to catch on to what others easily perceive. And for still others; never. Hollywood’s number landed somewhere around 20 minutes.
“Thirty days? And then, what?”
“Nothing flashy. You have a last supper that might make the gods themselves envious, bathe in a bath to die for – forgive me – then go to bed with the partner of your choosing; any age, any style. Just like the previous twenty-nine days.”
“Will them, uh, vitamin supplements I’m taking the whole time interfere with, um, my activities?”
“Not at all, Woody. Getcha healthy, packs your cells with good things for you. And for our clients.”
“Yeah. Your clients; who are they? Not some brain-fried deep state ghouls, I hope. I couldn’t. Are they…?”
“…not a concern for you. They’re famous for their teas, quiet manner and traditional cuisine. They travel an awesome distance for our, services.”
“That last night, you’ll feel great. No fear, no leftover doubts, no one left with your burdensome effects. Not a bad way to fade to black.”
“Well, I do have a…”
“Won’t find a better exit, Woodman. You know it’s true.”
“Yeah. No, it’s true. Except I’m worried that my…”
“What? What’s left?”
“…my soul, Zeke. Is this a thing that, I don’t know. I’m not religious; what’s it like to be damned for eternity? That’s my sole doubt.”
“How would I know?”
“It never works out well in the movies.”
“Well, there’s Disn…”
“I just want to be sure, you know? Some barters are a smooth swipe; some a rip.”
“The alternative to this option is a butt-load of horror.” Zooman shrugged for a change. “And that’s on a good day.” Life in the street had an indefinite time span; this option offered by Zooman was much more definite. “Hate to say it, Woods; E-Day is Eat Day. It’s getting bad out there.”
“I know. You weren’t my first stop.”
“I know.” Zooman was about to add an additional observation when Woods beat him to it.
“Something’s happening out there; folks are up and hiking out to softer dirt and…”
No. No, they weren’t. And Hollywood’s twenty minutes clicked over and he saw the world as clear as a projector’s light on a sparkly silver screen.
Zooman was nodding; his iron eyes fixed Hollywood with a stare that demanded compliance. His body, though frail-looking, filled the seat-well of the wheelchair and his second-nature command of its functions only added to the mystery that was Zooman.
“You’d be doing a good thing; the right thing for our species,” Zeke said softly. “That’s a real thing. Your soul is, immaterial.” It took an extra heartbeat, then he chuckled at this unintended wordplay.
“That’s the point, though. Right?” Hollywood had seen plenty of films where the human soul faced a permanent peril for an imprudent, petulant decision. “Now that it’s only a month away…”
“Show it to me! Show me your soul, if you can.”
“I can’t. Who can, Zooman? Can you?”
“Of course not. We’re in the dead days, Woody. The hungry time spoken of and sung about since this part of our throat widened out.” He pointed to his own throat; there was a reddish gash nestled up against his neck-apple. “Our souls are, well, extra baggage for this world right now.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
“Don’t let it hold you back. The choice is real simple.”
“The consequences aren’t, though.”
Zooman laughed at that; it sounded a bit more human than before. Zeke had hit a steroid breather just before they ambled over to the special barracks behind his house. That’s where they were now.
“A month of heaven on earth here in the Palace, followed by the real thing, more than likely. That; or a daily scramble of fighting for filthy shit to eat, and maybe ending up some monster’s sex doll. It’s out there.”
Hollywood had seen it, too. Convincing, he didn’t need. Just that soul thing; that last doubt. “Everything you say is true.” There was another quiet moment.
“Will you tell me everything, Zeke? How your elite food factory works, the clients who come here, the way we’re…processed. Everything?”
“Yes. If that will ease your mind, and your soul. Yes, of course.”
“I think it might help.”
“Remember; you’re our permanent guest. You’re in for good. The world is offline for you. You are here to stay.”
“Then I officially offer you our Gold Sun Package, Mr. Woodman Hollywood, purveyor of fine films and a master barterer. Will you buy a ticket to your golden destiny?”