Items Left Behind

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     Chicago was frozen. Not unusual in the wintertime, but climate change had led to more milder winters and people’s memories are short to begin with. Varda had lived here once, though, and she had a good memory. She’d seen it frozen and snow covered like this.
     But she’d never seen it so quiet.
     In life, Chicago had all of the noise and bustle of a major city, even in winter when the wind would howl between the buildings and the snow would pile up on the streets and wait patiently to be pushed into Lake Michigan. During the apocalypse, it was loud and chaotic. That’s how Varda stole a city transit bus and drove it south on I-55 to her hometown in the cornfield. All of that noise was the perfect cover.
     Now, though, it was still. There was no trace of chaos or confusion. No sounds of gunfire and screams and breaking glass and constant sirens. Not even the normal hum of a well-functioning city not on the brink of destruction, the traffic flow and the honking horns and the occasional siren and the people moving about. The sound of life.
     There was no life here in Chicago, not anymore.
     They’d driven up, Varda and Eli, to take a look around. It had been over nine months since the end of the world, or what everyone called the end of the world since it wasn’t really the end. It was just the huge cataclysmic event of the people who’d long ignored the threat of climate change abandoning the planet and leaving the rest of the world’s population in turmoil, a roiling mess of upheaval and dtsaster that lasted several months. But gradually, as summer faded into fall and fall geared up into winter, the immediate angry eruption of those left to die quieted down. Much of that was due to billions of the people left to die all over the world doing just that. They were killed in the ensuing violence or died from lack of supplies or committed suicide or suffered illnesses or injuries that proved fatal now that everything had gone tits up.
     The network of people that had seen this sort of thing coming, a network that spanned the globe, had prepared as best they could, but in the end, they couldn’t save the world, just a few people. Varda couldn’t say how many were still around. There hadn’t been an official head count of “survivors”. The generous, rough guess was at least half a billion people on Earth were still alive and making the best of it.
     None of those survivors, though, remained in Chicago, at least not that Varda knew. That’s not why she and Eli were here. Their runs to help evacuate survivors from the big cities and move them safely to the countryside had ended within six weeks of the first blip of chaos. The cities destroyed themselves pretty quickly.
     Varda had commandeered one of the four-wheel drive vehicles, a supply of bio-fuel, a small pack of supplies, and Eli. She hadn’t meant to commandeer Eli, but since she and her team brought him and his team back from St. Louis, Eli and Varda had become a team. Varda didn’t ask Eli to go with her on this trip (she didn’t want anyone to come along), but when Varda slid into the driver’s seat, Eli saddled up without a word.
     A fine blanket of snow covered the interstate, heaping over the abandoned cars and wrecks, most of which had been pushed to the side of the road over the course of trips there. Varda’s 55 Party Bus, the bus she’d stolen and had customized with armor to survive the rescue runs, had a cow catcher on the front. She’d moved a lot of these cars herself.
     The snow was still fluffy, but thicker in Chicago, and the sky looked like it could let loose another round of it at any moment. The blanket of white made everything look serene, but Varda knew that many of those piles of snow were hiding cars and trucks, abandoned and wrecked, and some might still hold the corpses of their owners. The buildings showed more and more destruction as they drove farther north into the city. Inside those quiet, broken buildings were probably more of the dead, those that couldn’t get out and those that didn’t want to, dying on this weird hill of chaos.
     The building that Varda was looking for stood largely undamaged. More importantly, the fourteenth-floor apartment she sought was still locked and for that Varda was grateful. It meant that everything inside was intact. And it made her own job of picking the lock much easier. She hadn’t had a key for this place for years.
     When Varda popped the lock and pushed the door open, a rush of memories greeted her in the dim entry way. The curtains were open (he only closed them when he went to bed) and the last of the gray light of the winter day filtered into the front room. Varda stood there for a second trying to catch her breath, all too aware of the way Eli was looking at her. She picked up her backpack and gun and walked inside. Eli followed, closing and locking the door behind them.
     They swept the apartment even though Varda knew there was really no reason to. She could tell by the undisturbed, familiar smell that was so distinctly him that there was nobody here and that nobody had been here for a long time. She almost felt like she was violating a sacred place. As it was, Varda felt like she was on the verge of tears just walking around the apartment, some weird mixture of sadness and happiness and memory.
     Varda set her backpack and gun down on the couch and walked over to the window.
     The view was largely unchanged in a surprising way. Yes, the buildings nearby had visible damage, but Varda could still see the lake, the winter blue-grey of it iced over in spots. The snow still settled like it used to, dripping from the rooftops and clinging to the buildings like it wanted to stay forever. Varda’s breath caught in her throat and tears stung her eyes. She wanted to turn her back to the view, turn her back to the memories it brought, but to do that would mean facing Eli and she didn’t want him to see her like this. She didn’t want to have to explain it to him, not right now. She didn’t even want him here for this. This wasn’t a routine salvage run. The stop at that drugstore, the salvage she and Eli did there, that was just a cover. She was here in Chicago for one thing: to retrieve something important to her.
     Varda swallowed her tears and cleared her throat.
     “Check the kitchen,” Varda said. “There should be some non-perishables in there we can take back with us. Maybe some bottled water.”
     “Okay,” Eli said and Varda could feel him looking at her, trying to puzzle her out. “Are we going to stay here tonight or drive home in the dark?”
     Varda’s heart seized twice in rapid succession. The first time was at the thought of Eli spending the night here, in his space. The second time was when he mentioned home, as if this place wasn’t Varda’s home.
     But it wasn’t and it never was, if Varda really wanted to admit it. It was just a temporary shelter at a pivotal time in her life. Sort of like now.
     “Yeah, we’ll stay tonight,” Varda said, her voice watery and slightly strangled. She cleared her throat harshly. “We’ll be safe here.”
     “Okay,” Eli said after a long pause and Varda heard him move across the living room to the kitchen.
     Safe from his sight, Varda turned away from the window as though the soft winter light hurt her eyes, blinking hard and wiping her cheeks.
     She made her way down to the bedroom.
     The bedroom was dark because he never opened the curtains in here. It was his refuge. Varda turned on her flashlight. Sure he was long gone, but she still couldn’t bring herself to open the curtains because it would be against his wishes.
     The bed was made, the familiar dark green bedspread smoothed free of any wrinkles, the dresser drawers closed, the closet door closed, everything neat and precise. If she walked across the hallway to the office/guest bedroom, it would probably still look like a tornado had hit it. In his work, he was a disaster area; at rest, he was the picture of peace.
     She and Eli wouldn’t be sleeping in here.
     Varda stood there for a moment, breathing deeply. His scent lingered here as well, much stronger than the rest of the apartment, and again she felt an extreme tug at her heart that brought tears to his eyes. She blinked them away and with a shaky breath, she walked around the end of the bed to the nightstand on the opposite side. Opening the drawer and shining the light inside, Varda’s breath caught in her throat, drowned by a sudden wave of tears.
     Lying in the drawer was a journal, a small book bound in red leather. On top of it was a necklace, silver and delicate with a small angel charm.
     Right where she -and then he- left them.
     Varda wanted to sit on the bed and cry, have a real good sob. He’d kept them and she knew he had and they were still there in the drawer on her side of the bed because he knew that even as the world burned down around them, she’d come for them. He kept them, but they were hers, and so he left them for her.
     Varda permitted herself one solid sniffle before wiping her face clean of any tears. She then pocketed both the necklace and the journal, not letting her gloved fingers linger on either item. Varda was glad for the gloves. If she’d touched either item with her bare fingers, she’d be burned by her own memories for sure.
     Shutting the nightstand drawer, she skirted around the end of the bed and walked out of the bedroom, closing the door behind her. Varda turned off her flashlight and jammed it into the other coat pocket.
     Eli waited for her in the living room, standing awkwardly at the end of the couch, looking down the hallway. Varda stopped short when she saw him there. She’d forgotten about Eli, the memories of her previous life having swallowed her up and transported her back to another time.
     “Are you okay?” he asked, concerned.
     “Fine,” Varda said, forcing a bright smile.
     “No, you’re not,” Eli said.
     Varda let any semblance of a fine façade (which she knew was probably garbage) disappear. “No, I’m not. But I don’t want to talk about it either.”
     “Okay,” Eli said, still watching her.
     Varda approached him slowly, like they were suddenly strangers instead of two people who had formed an unlikely, intense bond in the face of adversity and avoiding violent death repeatedly. It was a bond forged by fire, literally since there were Molotov cocktails involved when they first met. Eli had integrated himself so neatly into Varda’s existence that she had trouble remembering life without him.
     Until she walked through the door of this apartment.
     Here was a lifetime without Eli, without the assurance of him, without the unsure looks he’d give her when she drove like a wild woman, without his companionship, without his quirky sense of humor that always snuck up on her.
     Here was an entire existence that Varda had left behind long before the world exploded, but still, she’d come back for it. For a piece of it.
     Her old life weighing down her pocket while her current life looked at her, worried but curious, Varda smiled weakly at Eli.
     “So, what did you find?”