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Home > Station Eleven(9)

Station Eleven(9)
Author: Emily St. John Mandel

People left the Symphony sometimes, but the ones who stayed understood something that was rarely spoken aloud. Civilization in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbors, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm, and these places didn’t go out of their way to welcome outsiders.

“Small towns weren’t even easy before,” August said once at three in the morning, the one time Kirsten remembered talking about this with anyone, in the cold of a spring night near the town of New Phoenix. She was fifteen at the time, which made August eighteen, and she’d only been with the Symphony for a year. In those days she had considerable trouble sleeping and often sat up with the night watch. August remembered his pre-pandemic life as an endless sequence of kids who’d looked him over and uttered variations on “You’re not from around here, are you?” in various accents, these encounters interspersed with moving trucks. If it was hard to break into new places then, in that ludicrously easy world where food was on shelves in supermarkets and travel was as easy as taking a seat in a gasoline-powered machine and water came out of taps, it was several orders of magnitude more difficult now. The Symphony was insufferable, hell was other flutes or other people or whoever had used the last of the rosin or whoever missed the most rehearsals, but the truth was that the Symphony was their only home.

At the end of the Midsummer Night’s Dream rehearsal, Kirsten stood by the caravans with the palms of her hands pressed hard to her forehead, trying to will away a headache.

“You okay?” August asked.

“Hell is other actors,” Kirsten said. “Also ex-boyfriends.”

“Stick to musicians. I think we’re generally saner.”

“I’m going to take a walk and see if I can find Charlie.”

“I’d come with you, but I’m on dinner duty.”

“I don’t mind going alone,” she said.

A late-afternoon torpor had fallen over the town, the light thickening and shadows extending over the road. The road was disintegrating here as everywhere, deep fissures and potholes holding gardens of weeds. There were wildflowers alongside the vegetable patches at the edge of the pavement, Queen Anne’s lace whispering against Kirsten’s outstretched hand. She passed by the Motor Lodge where the oldest families in town lived, laundry flapping in the breeze, doors open on motel rooms, a little boy playing with a toy car between the tomato plants in the vegetable garden.

The pleasure of being alone for once, away from the clamor of the Symphony. It was possible to look up at the McDonald’s sign and fleetingly imagine, by keeping her gaze directed upward so that there was only the sign and the sky, that this was still the former world and she could stop in for a burger. The last time she’d been here, the IHOP had housed three or four families; she was surprised to see that it had been boarded up, a plank hammered across the door with an inscrutable symbol spray-painted in silver—something like a lowercase t with an extra line toward the bottom. Two years ago she’d been followed around town by a flock of children, but now she saw only two, the boy with the toy car and a girl of eleven or so who watched her from a doorway. A man with a gun and reflective sunglasses was standing guard at the gas station, whose windows were blocked by curtains that had once been flowered sheets. A young and very pregnant woman sunbathed on a lounge chair by the gas pumps, her eyes closed. The presence of an armed guard in the middle of town suggested that the place was unsafe—had they recently been raided?—but surely not as unsafe as all that, if a pregnant woman was sunbathing in the open. It didn’t quite make sense. The McDonald’s had housed two families, but where had they gone? Now a board had been nailed across the door, spray-painted with that same odd symbol.

The Wendy’s was a low square building with the look of having been slapped together from a kit in an architecturally careless era, but it had a beautiful front door. It was a replacement, solid wood, and someone had taken the trouble to carve a row of flowers alongside the carved handle. Kirsten ran her fingertips over the wooden petals before she knocked.

How many times had she imagined this moment, over two years of traveling apart from her friend? Knocking on the flowered door, Charlie answering with a baby in her arms, tears and laughter, the sixth guitar grinning beside her. I have missed you so much. But the woman who answered the door was unfamiliar.

“Good afternoon,” Kirsten said. “I’m looking for Charlie.”

“I’m sorry, who?” The woman’s tone wasn’t unfriendly, but there was no recognition in her eyes. She was about Kirsten’s age or a little younger, and it seemed to Kirsten that she wasn’t well. She was very pale and too thin, black circles under her eyes.

“Charlie. Charlotte Harrison. She was here about two years ago.”

“Here in the Wendy’s?”

“Yes.” Oh Charlie, where are you? “She’s a friend of mine, a cellist. She was here with her husband, the sixth—her husband, Jeremy. She was pregnant.”

“I’ve only been here a year, but maybe someone else here would know. Would you like to come in?”

Kirsten stepped into an airless corridor. It opened into a common room at the back of the building, where once there’d been an industrial kitchen. She saw a cornfield through the open back door, stalks swaying for a dozen yards or so before the wall of the forest. An older woman sat in a chair by the doorway, knitting. Kirsten recognized the local midwife.

“Maria,” she said.

Maria was backlit by the open door behind her. It was impossible to see the expression on her face when she looked up.

“You’re with the Symphony,” she said. “I remember you.”

“I’m looking for Charlie and Jeremy.”

“I’m sorry, they left town.”

“Left? Why would they leave? Where did they go?”

The midwife glanced at the woman who’d shown Kirsten in. The woman looked at the floor. Neither spoke.

“At least tell me when,” Kirsten said. “How long have they been gone?”

“A little more than a year.”

“Did she have her baby?”

“A little girl, Annabel. Perfectly healthy.”

“And is that all you’ll tell me?” Kirsten was entertaining a pleasant fantasy of holding a knife to the midwife’s throat.

“Alissa,” Maria said, to the other woman, “you look so pale, darling. Why don’t you go lie down?”

Alissa disappeared through a curtained doorway into another room. The midwife stood quickly. “Your friend rejected the prophet’s advances,” she whispered, close to Kirsten’s ear. “They had to leave town. Stop asking questions and tell your people to leave here as quickly as possible.” She settled back into her chair and picked up her knitting. “Thank you for stopping by,” she said, in a voice loud enough to be heard in the next room. “Is the Symphony performing tonight?”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With orchestral accompaniment.” Kirsten was having trouble keeping her voice steady. That after two years the Symphony might arrive in St. Deborah by the Water to find that Charlie and Jeremy had already left was a possibility that hadn’t occurred to her. “This town seems different from when we were here last,” she said.

“Oh,” the midwife said brightly, “it is! It’s completely different.”

Kirsten stepped outside and the door closed behind her. The girl she’d noticed in a doorway earlier had followed her here and was standing across the road, watching. Kirsten nodded to her. The girl nodded back. A serious child, unkempt in a way that suggested neglect, her hair tangled, her T-shirt collar torn. Kirsten wanted to call out to her, to ask if she knew where Charlie and Jeremy had gone, but something in the girl’s stare unnerved her. Had someone told the girl to watch her? Kirsten turned away to continue down the road, wandering with studied casualness and trying to convey the impression of being interested only in the late-afternoon light, the wildflowers, the dragonflies gliding on currents of air. When she glanced over her shoulder, the girl was trailing behind her at some distance.

Two years ago she’d done this walk with Charlie, both of them delaying the inevitable in the final hours before the Symphony left. “These two years will go quickly,” Charlie had said, and they had gone quickly, when Kirsten considered it. Up to Kincardine, back down the coastline and down the St. Clair River, winter in one of the St. Clair fishing towns. Performances of Hamlet and Lear in the town hall, which had previously been a high-school gymnasium, The Winter’s Tale, Romeo and Juliet, the musicians performing almost every night, then A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the weather grew warmer. An illness that passed through the Symphony in spring, a high fever and vomiting, half the Symphony got sick but everyone recovered except the third guitar—a grave by the roadside outside of New Phoenix—and we continued onward, Charlie, like always, all those months, and always I thought of you here in this town.

There was someone on the road ahead, walking quickly to meet her. The sun was skimming the tops of the trees now, the road in shadow, and it was a moment before she recognized Dieter.

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