The Intruder

The Intruder

The Intruder 1920 1276 Megan Turner

(CW: Violence, animal abuse)

In the apocalypse, the sky is the same color it’s always been: orange. They say it was blue once.

“A clear blue,” Grandpa Joe tells us. “Like Grandma Selma’s eyes.”

I don’t tell him that I don’t remember her eyes. I tried to forget them after she left. Besides, when we go outside these days, we wear masks; otherwise, it’s too difficult to breathe. Sometimes you can see another person’s eyes over their mask, but most of us wear goggles or glasses.

“After the blue, it was white for a long time,” Grandpa Joe goes on, “and then it turned orange. We’re lucky,” he says. There are places where you can’t see the sky at all. The smog’s so thick, you can only see what’s right in front of you.

“It rains ash in those places,” I tell the others. I’ve been to Southern California—seen it before.

“There’s something about the sky that makes us human, I guess,” Grandpa Joe says, and I understand that.

At night, the sky is still black, and I’m grateful for the blinking stars. Orange isn’t the worst color. It’s better than no color at all.

In the mornings, Grandpa Joe wakes us up before dawn and we go fishing. The only option is to catch your own meals these days.

“At least we know where it’s coming from,” Grandpa Joe tells us, but he doesn’t have to explain.

He isn’t really our grandpa. We kids only call him that. There’s Joey, who reminds us of Grandpa Joe, even though they’re not related. There’s also Kimmy, Patrick, and Macey. I’m the smallest but not the youngest. I didn’t grow right in the womb, they say, but I’m still happy to be here. Two years ago, Grandpa Joe found me fishing with my bare hands near a creek not far from here.

“Not the way to do it, cherub,” he said.

He didn’t know: If I had caught the fish, I would have bludgeoned its head with a rock. If I had a gun, well—there are plenty of things I could have done.

Dad taught me how to shoot before he left. A few months later, he gave me up to a nice facility. He cried and cried when he dropped me off, but they promised they’d provide exceptional care. A year later, that facility shut down. I went back to the house, but Dad was gone. A neighbor said he died of lung cancer a few months back. Still, I imagined him returning one day, as if he’d never left.

“Esther,” he’d say, opening the door. “Been here long?”

I lingered there for weeks, waiting for Dad, until the food was gone and it was impossible to stay. I hoped I’d find Dad in some other place, some town.

That day at the creek, Grandpa Joe showed me how to use a fishing line. He invited me over for dinner.
“Just down the way,” he pointed.

“Not supposed to talk to strangers,” I said, but somehow I trusted him. I’d been living off the land for days, camping out in the woods. And even though I am not as lame as others might suppose, I needed the help. Besides, I had nowhere else to go.

Where we live, there are still trees, and most of them are green. We have flowers—the weedy kind but still spectacular against the orange sky.

“Reminds me of the fireworks we had as kids,” Grandpa Joe says. “Fantastic colors.” I’ve heard of fireworks, but we don’t have those anymore. There are too many fires we can’t contain.

“You in first, Esther,” Grandpa Joe says. He lifts me into the canoe as if I’m Tiny Tim. The sun is already popping out from above the horizon, so we don’t have much time before it’s too hot to go outside.

Kimmy gets in the canoe next, and then Macey, Joey, and Patrick. Grandpa Joe is old fashioned. He still believes in an order: girls first and then youngest to oldest.

Once he’s in, he paddles us down the shore until we reach our cove. It’s a miracle cove—a swarm of fish still lives there. They eat insects, mostly, which means we eat insects.

Once I saw a frog, which I’d only read about in books. It was a sickly color—not bright green as it was supposed to be. It burped, sticking out its tongue just once as if it were about to croak.

“Must have been going after that mosquito,” Grandpa Joe told me later, but mosquitos are too fast for frogs these days. The poor creature just sat there watching.

“Pitiful,” Grandpa Joe said.

“Get out your oars,” he says now, and we all begin to paddle backward, turning the canoe around. He pulls us into a mud bank, and we get out our nets. Only Grandpa Joe has a fishing pole; he’s the expert, so he gets the expert equipment.

We don’t see many people these days. There are only about 100 left in our town. We have stragglers, of course—and a small encampment near the old town center. Most of our other neighbors have scattered, searching for a cooler climate, a place less prone to fire. Out here, it burns all the time, but in the East there are floods, horrible storms that will flatten a town in minutes. I saw a funnel cloud on the news once, but Dad quickly shut off the T.V. (“No need for that,” he said.) At least we don’t have those kinds of storms here.

“More fish for us,” Grandpa Joe says. He’s a survivalist. He keeps us safe each time the fire comes down the hills. He takes away everything that could burn, puts damp towels around the perimeter of our house. If the fires come too close, we can hide in the underground cellar Grandpa Joe has fireproofed like a tin can. The fire will go right over us, he explains, though the fires have never come that close before.

Grandpa Joe knows almost everything. When we had neighbors nearby, they used to ask why he kept us around. After Selma left, it would have been easier if he kept to himself, focused on his own survival.

“Maybe easier,” Grandpa Joe said, “but a whole lot lonelier.”

We understand that. Most of us were alone before we found Grandpa Joe. He doesn’t talk much, but we know he likes having us around. He isn’t the type to give up either.

“When the Earth’s had enough,” he says, “it’ll fight back,” and I always imagine trees moving, forming an army, retreating to the hills.

The only good thing about all this is we’ve banded together, gone back to the land. Everyone is now either a farmer or fisherman.

“I love fishin’,” Kimmy says. “Don’t you?” She isn’t the brightest among us, but she’s the sweetest. She likes to cuddle beside me after dinner. We all sit in the dark living room, telling stories before bed. Grandpa Joes reads us Dickens and Thoreau, but his favorite is Mark Twain. He has a worn-out copy of Huckleberry Finn.

He was sunshine most always—I mean he made it seem like good weather.

Kimmy and I have taken up sewing. I had found a few scraps of fabric and thread to put together ornaments for the holidays.

“Gone back to a simpler time,” Grandpa Joe says. He sounds older than he is, like he remembers the time before—but he’s only 65. He grew up with television, phones, the Internet.

“Something was missing before,” he told me once. “There was a hollowness.”

I didn’t know what he meant by that, but I knew he didn’t miss the glowing screens.

When we’re on the boat, I usually only catch minnows. Grandpa Joe used to say those weren’t worth eating, but he’s changed his mind since the fish have become scarcer.

“We can fry ’em up,” he says. “Better than nothing.”

Patrick caught a shoe once. We were excited by the bulk of it, even though we knew it wasn’t wriggling. If it had been a freshly dead fish, it might have still been edible. But it was a Nike Air, turned black in the water.

“Maybe with catsup,” Joey said when Patrick pulled it out of the water. Perhaps Joey did take after Grandpa Joe, who was always so chipper. You needed a sense of humor these days, and the rest of us didn’t have it.

In the cove that morning, Grandpa Joe says he’s feeling lucky. And sure enough, only minutes after I catch my first minnow, his line starts to tug.

“Ain’t a shoe,” he calls back, and we all put our nets down and brace him as he reels in the line.

This one’s live. I see it wiggling to get free. I don’t even feel bad for the fish. It must be five pounds, at least, and that would feed us all for a week. I’m already imagining fried fish, fish stew, fish tapenade. I once hated eating fish, but now it’s the best thing we have.

“It’s getting away,” Grandpa Joe says, the taste of fish tapenade dissolving in my mouth. But then Patrick jumps up and catches the fish in midair, wrestles it onto our boat until it stops wiggling and lets out its last breath.

“Holy moly!” Grandpa Joe calls out.

The fish is only a minute dead, but the boys are already gutting it, cutting the fresh meat into chunks. I could eat it raw—that’s how hungry I am—but Grandpa Joe says it’s more civilized to wait, to grill it up for dinner; savor the meal.

“What’s wrong with it?” Macey asks as the boys section it off, and then I see it too. The skin is silver with a bright streak of pink.

“Tainted,” I say. “We can’t eat it.” My stomach suddenly feels so hollow I can hear the inside of it echo.

The sky looked like that fish this morning—a pinkish orange with silver streaks—it must have been a bad omen, but Grandpa Joe shakes his head.

“Keep gutting it, boys,” he says. “That’s a rainbow trout. Last time I saw one of those—must have been the year I graduated, ’03. Almost 50 years ago now.” None of us can imagine Grandpa Joe that young.

We watch the boys finish their work. Joey’s a couple years younger than Patrick and gets tired easily, but Patrick is meticulous.

“Our resident surgeon,” Grandpa Joe often says. “—he certainly could have been.”

 

That night, we steam the fish on hot coals. Grandpa Joe won’t let us start a real fire, but this will smoke the fish so it tastes decent enough.

“I’d have sushi,” I tell Grandpa Joe, but he isn’t willing to take that risk. None of the fish are what you’d call fresh. Besides, we have to be careful not to attract bears or other wildlife. They’re starving, too, though most of them, like our neighbors, have migrated further north.

We’re licking our fingers, enjoying our meal, when Grandpa Joe gets real quiet.

“Let’s go inside,” he says, so we collect our fish, even the bones, and pour water onto the hot coals.

“What is it?” Patrick asks. “Coyote?”

We look out the window. Just over the hills, we can see the orange light, the burning—but that’s always there. This is something different.

“I thought I saw someone,” Grandpa Joe says. “That’s all.”

Grandpa Joe had a brother. Macey told us she’d heard Selma mention children once. There was a girl named Annie, I know. And Grandpa Joe keeps a picture of a young boy by his bedside.

The way Grandpa Joe is looking now, though, I can tell this isn’t about that. He’s afraid. I haven’t seen him this way in a while. Sure enough, a minute later, someone knocks at the door.

“Smells like fresh fish,” the man calls through the door, ogre-like. The smell must have drawn him in. Animals, in a state of fear, can smell from miles and miles away.

“Sorry,” Grandpa Joe calls back. “We only have enough for ourselves.”

As Grandpa Joe speaks, Patrick is already getting the rifle from the top shelf. Kimmy is pulling up close beside me. This isn’t the time for that, I want to tell her, but I can feel her shaking. I stroke her long black hair.

I move Kimmy to the side and stand up, following Patrick. After him, I’m the best shot, but Grandpa Joe won’t let me handle the rifle. He says I’m too sickly, shouldn’t be messing around with something I can’t control. Joey, without his glasses, is the worst shot of everyone.

Grandpa Joe motions for me to move away, but I ignore him, so he unlatches the door, Patrick standing right behind him with the rifle, me directly behind that.

“I come in peace,” the man at the door says, holding up his hands. What he ultimately does, though, seems contradictory—he pushes his way through the door, already locating the meat on the table. He has a dog with him. At least, I think it’s a dog—a grimy thing that hasn’t bathed in months.

Patrick holds the rifle in front of him so Grandpa Joe can go over the rules with the intruder.

“Only one piece per person,” he says. “None for your dog.”

“Then he gets the bones,” the man says.

Grandpa Joe, feeling generous perhaps, agrees. We’d normally use the bones for soup, but Grandpa Joe seems to sense the intruder might get aggressive.

“That seems fair,” the man at the door says. He looks around the spare room and then finds us. “Girls,” he says, as if he hasn’t seen any for ages. I don’t like the way he ogles Kimmy, the prettiest of us all. Macey looks too much like a boy, and I, of course, have my cane.

The man moves forward to collect his fish, but Grandpa Joe stops him. “You can sleep in the shed,” he says, and even that is generous. Usually, he’d just give the man his serving and send him on his way.

 

When the man and his dog are out in the shed, and we’re all cuddled in a large blanket (except for Grandpa Joe, who sleeps in his own room), I ask Macey about the guest.

“Do you think Grandpa Joe knows him?” I ask. Everyone else has fallen asleep, but Macey whispers back.
“Did you see the tattoo on his forearm?” she says. “The numbers on it.” She’s always been more observant than me. “He must have been in the army,” Macey tells me.

I remember that Grandpa Joe served in Afghanistan in his early 20s. He has a tattoo on his own arm.

“Do you think they served in the same unit?” I ask, but Macey shushes me.

“Let’s ask Grandpa Joe in the morning,” she whispers.

But the morning never comes. At least, it doesn’t come for a good while. We’re all woken up in the night by a loud hammering sound.

“The apocalypse!” Joey shouts, hopping out of bed. He always says things like that, even in his sleep.

The hammering is coming from the shed, we know. We hear a whimper and then nothing.

“His dog,” Macey whispers, and the rest of us nod.

“We better check on him,” Grandpa Joe says, but no one volunteers, not even Patrick.

Grandpa Joe gets down his rifle. He’s told me before that the army made some men crazy. Maybe the man in the shed is one of those.

“I’ll go with you,” I say, but Grandpa Joe won’t allow it.

“Your cane,” he reminds me, but it’s not as much of a disadvantage as people think. Sometimes, when you seem weak, you can catch people off guard. But Grandpa Joe isn’t willing to risk that.

In the end, we decide Macey and Patrick should go. Joey will serve as backup. Kimmy and I are the last resort. If it comes down to Kimmy, we’re all lost, I know. Maybe we should have sent her in first, I think—the lamb to tempt the wolf.

The three of them—Macey armed with a skillet, Patrick with a shovel—go out into the shed, but nothing goes as planned. We hear another loud whimper and then a thud. The three of us in the house wait a minute more. Joey’s about to go after them when we hear Grandpa Joe’s shotgun go off.

Grandpa Joe comes back a minute later with his gun, Patrick and Macey following behind. Patrick’s face is whiter than I’ve seen it before. Macey, usually stoic, has a quiet look of concern on her face.

“What happened?” I ask.

“He was trying to eat the dog,” Grandpa Joe tells us. “He was hitting him with a mallet when we came in. Wasn’t his dog, I guess.”

“Grandpa charged him,” Patrick says.

“The man’s dead?”

“No,” Grandpa Joe says. “I just knocked him out. We tied him up and left him in the shed. We’ll take him downtown in the morning.”

That means Grandpa Joe will take him to the jail—where the center of town used to be. A single volunteer serves as sheriff. He trusts those of us who are left. When someone brings in a criminal, he doesn’t ask questions. He simply throws them in a cell and never checks back. They’re still obeying the law that way, the sheriff says. The man could simply be awaiting trial.

“What if the intruder leaves before then?” I ask.

“Won’t happen,” Grandpa Joe says. “If he tries to escape,” he goes on, “we’ll knock him out again—with the shovel this time.”

“What about the dog?” I ask, afraid of the answer. I remember the sound of the gun going off.

“He wouldn’t have made it,” Grandpa Joe says after some time. “We’ll bury him when we get back.”

We all go back to sleep, but before dawn comes, we hear another more startling sound—a crackling noise.

“Fire!” Joey calls out in his sleep—another one of his warnings.

“Hasn’t been dry enough,” Macey says. We almost go back to sleep, but Grandpa Joe, fully dressed, stammers out of the bedroom a minute later.

“Fire!” he calls out, and this we believe. Grandpa Joe has a view of the hills from his bedroom. He can see the soft glow moments before the fire comes.

“From the north?” Macey asks, but Grandpa Joe, putting on his boots, doesn’t answer her. He goes into the closet and pulls out a duffle bag. He points to me, and I run into the kitchen, packing up the remaining fish. Joey runs after me, rummaging through drawers for the extra flashlight.

“I told you kids to keep it in the bag,” Grandpa Joe says, and then we hear a sizzling. I see a branch fall from the tree outside our window. “To the cellar,” Grandpa Joe calls out.

The six of us run out into the yard. I look over my shoulder, see the fire coming toward us, roaring. There isn’t anything here to burn except the house, our shed.

“Hurry up, Esther,” Grandpa Joe calls. I should be the first one into the cellar, but Kimmy and Macey are already on their way down. Macey’s reaching for Joey’s hand, and Patrick is right behind him.

I try to hobble forward as fast as I can, but Grandpa Joe stops me, picks up my cane, and carries me the rest of the way.

“What about the man in the shed?” I ask. Grandpa Joe stops for a moment but then shakes his head.

“Sorry. He dug his own grave.”

I want to remind Grandpa Joe about loyalty, about the tattoo on his arm, but it’s so smoky I can barely speak. Grandpa Joe and I are almost at the cellar when we see the man.

“Must have gnawed his way out,” Grandpa Joe says. The man, much taller and wider than I remember, barrels toward us.

Grandpa Joe, at the cellar door, hands me off to Macey. He’s right behind me, reaching down his hand, but then the intruder lunges forward. Kimmy is on the stairs, helping with my cane, and the intruder pulls her by the hair. He has Grandpa Joe by the leg, and I take my cane, whack it at him. It’s enough so Grandpa Joe can wrestle free, push the intruder out the door.

We latch the bottom lock, which won’t hold him for long. Grandpa Joe climbs down the stairs with the rest of us, but the intruder keeps coming.

“You’d leave me to roast?” he calls out. He’s roaring almost as much as the fire. When we think it’s over, that the fire must have finally got him, he manages to charge through the door.

The six of us stare up at the intruder, the fire raging behind him.

“The smoke’s coming in,” Kimmy cries.

Patrick, with the shotgun, begins to move forward, but I can tell he’s nervous, sheet white again. He’s a sweaty boy with sweaty hands, and this isn’t the moment for a loose grip.

“Give me that,” I say. I take the gun from him. Just as the intruder lunges down the stairs, the gun goes off—a clean shot right through the forehead. That’s how my father taught me to do it. I silently say a prayer for Dad, wherever he is, as the intruder drops down the stairs. He takes his last breath, reaching for Kimmy, but she steps back.

He’s dead before his head even hits the floor. Macey climbs over him, securing the door, and at least the intruder doesn’t burn; at least the fire rages over us, just as Grandpa Joe said it would; at least we are all safe, and only one of us—the right one—is dead, his blood collecting in a pool by our feet.

 

After the fire passes, we bury the dead. There’s only one grave. Grandpa Joe puts the rifle back on its shelf, two bullets missing.

“Don’t worry about the guilt,” Grandpa Joe tells me. “That’ll pass.” But I don’t feel guilty at all. I’m only glad Grandpa Joe and I have something in common now.

Kimmy no longer cuddles with me at night. She’s always on Joey’s lap now, asking him to pet her hair. I sit in the corner, sewing ornaments, hoping she’ll forgive me.

“This one’s for you,” I say, holding up a stitched candy cane. I know how she used to love sweets. “I won’t bite,” I say. “Promise,” but she knows if I had to make a tough call, I would. I could shoot her right between the eyes.

The next week, we go into the woods looking for meat. We find a new dog instead, roaming free.

We take this grimy dog with us, make her our own. We clean her off with soap and water, oil pouring off of her, and she’s much better than dinner. She’ll protect us; she’ll keep us company.

No one will come looking for the intruder. But if they do, they’ll find a grave for a dog. RIP, Charlie, it says. If anyone asks, we’ll tell them Charlie was our current dog’s twin. Daisy got away when the fires came. But Charlie was stubborn. He guarded the cellar door, refusing to budge. He stood there even after we whistled, called his name, begged him to come inside.

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