This is how Mortimer Tate ended up killing the first three human beings he'd laid eyes on in nearly a decade:
A wreath of cloud lay smooth and still about the top of the mountain like bacon grease gone cold and white in a deep, black frying pan. The top halves of evergreens poked through the cloud, frosted from last night's snow. The final days of winter, not too cold — Mortimer Tate estimated maybe thirty degrees. The thermometer had burst in the third year, that most bitter winter when it had gotten to twenty below or more. The thermometer had been made in America by a small company in Ohio.
Nothing was made to last anymore, Mortimer's dad had been fond of saying.
Mortimer sat at the window of the cabin, which had been built directly in front of the cave. The cave stretched back deep into the mountain. Mortimer sipped tea brewed from ginseng and tree bark he collected and dried himself. The coffee had run out the first year. So many things had run out that first year.
Mortimer watched the men come up the mountain, had seen them rise up through the mist and had blinked at them, thinking he'd cracked up at last. But they were real, rifles in front of them, not trying too carefully for stealth, but neither shouting nor taking the mountain for granted.
He considered going back into the cave to the gun locker, maybe getting the twelve-gauge or even something deadlier, but then he'd lose sight of the men and he didn't want to emerge from the cave again only to find they'd gone or had spotted the cabin. And anyway he had the police special in the pocket of his army-surplus parka. That should be enough. He wanted to talk, not shoot, but of course he had to be careful.
He didn't figure they'd seen the cabin, obscured as it was by the pines and two months' snow. It was possible he could sit right there, and the men would pass by and never be seen again. Nobody had been up this far before, at least nobody Mortimer had seen. Maybe they'd hunted the game out farther down and were up after meat. Mortimer himself had killed a big buck three weeks ago and had eaten venison four nights in a row before drying out the rest for jerky.
Goddamn, he was sick of jerky.
I'm stalling, Mortimer thought. He didn't want the men to pass without speaking to them. Now that he saw them, he was desperate to find out, get news of the world below. But he was afraid too. There were three of them.
He could call out to them right now and be safe holed up in the cabin. They couldn't get at him there. Not even if all three came at once. They'd have to climb up the rocks and snow and he could pick them off easy with the police special. But then they'd know about the cabin and the cave. They could come back with a dozen or a hundred, and that wouldn't do.
He'd have to slip down the side and try to catch one on the flank, open up a dialogue, and then maybe they could find out about each other. Maybe things were back to normal. The portable radio had devoured all the spare batteries so fast, ran out even before the coffee, but it had all been bad news, and when the last batteries had finally given up the ghost, Mortimer wouldn't have replaced them even if he'd had more. He hadn't been able to stand it, couldn't stomach another minute, the play-by-play of the world shaking itself to pieces.
It had been a long time, and maybe things had stabilized. That was a thought, and it turned into a hope; Mortimer found himself sliding down the incline from the thick plank door of the cabin and ducking into a stand of trees. The leftmost of the men was just on the other side. Mortimer went through quietly, not showing a weapon. Strike up a conversation. Sure. Maybe they'd be happy to see him.
He weaved and ducked among the pines, finally caught sight of the first man, ruddy cheeks, dirty red hair with a red-brown beard. Patched denim pants and work boots, thick corduroy coat, also patched. A red band around one sleeve. He held a deer rifle, bolt action, .308 caliber. Mortimer was so close he could see the rifle was a Remington.
Mortimer had one hand in the pocket of his parka, wrapped around the police special. He raised the other hand in greeting.
"Hey — " Mortimer's own voice surprised and startled him, and he cut off the greeting. Mortimer marveled momentarily at the strange voice, his own voice, how loud and croaky it sounded in the still morning. When was the last time he'd uttered a single syllable? He only pondered it a split second, because the stranger had already turned, big-eyed, mouth a shocked O of surprise, and was bringing the deer rifle around.
"No!" Mortimer threw up his free hand in a "stop" gesture. "Wait!"
But neither of them could wait. The rifle barrel had swung even with Mortimer's belly, and he thrust the police special forward and squeezed the trigger. The shot split the winterscape with a crack, white down exploding from the hole in the parka's pocket. The bullet caught the stranger high in the left side of the chest, a splash of red arcing and spraying and landing around him, harsh and bright in the smooth white terrain.
"Harry!" Another shot whizzed past Mortimer's ear.
Mortimer pulled the revolver, moved sideways among the trees as the other two ran toward him, snow crunching. He huffed breath, loud in his ears, steam billowing from his open mouth, eyes and nose wet from the cold and exertion. He fired once and the two guys slowed into a crouch, one going to a knee and shooting. The shot rent Mortimer's sleeve, more down swirling in his wake. They got up again and ran at Mortimer, who ran back at them, throwing everything into the encounter, howling and jerking the trigger three more times.
Two shots went high. The third took the kneeling shooter in the left eye, which popped and gushed blood and goo and shredded eyeball. His scream cut off in a strangled gulp, and he fell back.
The last stranger turned and ran, and this alarmed Mortimer more than when they'd shot at him. He couldn't let him bring others. He crunched in the snow after him. "Wait!"
They both ran faster.
He didn't wait.
Mortimer fired. The shot caught the fleeing stranger between the shoulder blades. The man's arms flew out, the rifle tumbling into the snow. He fell face forward. Mortimer kept running until he was right up next to the body, dropped to his knees. "Oh, no." He turned the man over, but he was dead. "God damn it."
The first human beings he'd seen in nine years.
"Typical." Copyright © 2008 by Victor Gischler