During his time at Penn State, Wednesday was Mac and Cheese day for Jim Halpert. It was the one day of the week when the dining hall never seemed to have anything edible and none of the restaurants around campus offered any good deals. So Jim made it a weekly tradition of sorts to make some Kraft dinner and season it with swiped condiments until he had something decent. The tradition continued after he graduated and got a real job, and having a regular paycheck meant he would spring for the pricier boxed mac-and-cheese and take the time to dice some vegetables to add in.
This Wednesday it was nothing fancy, he brought the water to a light boil on the stove at his grandfather’s one-room Pocono mountain cabin. He added a tablespoon of salt to the water, had to make due with olive oil in place of butter for the sauce (a little powdered milk helped ensure it was nice and creamy) and cooked the noodles until they were soft with just the tiniest crunch.
It was only mid October but he could already feel the chilly air seeping in from the small kitchen window. He would have to figure out soon how to better insulate. On the counter-top sat his portable CD player, a reminder to find some more batteries. Maybe he'll try the old General Store down the road in the morning. Or maybe this afternoon, it wouldn't be dark for a few hours and he didn't have anything else to do today.
Once he strained the macaroni and mixed in the sauce, he spooned a generous helping into a wooden bowl and turned to the table with a thick quilt in place of a cloth. He was about to set his bowl down when he eyed the front door and decided the warm mac and cheese would be best enjoyed in the cool Autumn air.
His sister loved autumn. Jim always much preferred summer growing up, he’d go to basketball camp and swim lessons, catch fireflies and eat all the ice cream his mother would allow him to. But autumn was Larissa’s season, she played in the leaf piles until her cheeks were red, made cocoa with far too many marshmallows and wore the same knit sweater every day until Mom would all but pull it off her to clear it. And Jim was pretty sure Larissa looked forward to Halloween more than Christmas, every year wearing a costume more elaborate than the last and coming home from trick-or-treat with her bucket filled to the brim.
Larissa would have loved this autumn day here at the cabin, with the cool and crisp air and the light rustle of the wind through the trees.
But Larissa died 85 days ago. 39 days after the world ended.
It was a couple weeks into June, right in the middle of Jim’s season. He had a barbecue going in the backyard, Arcade Fire blaring in the living room and friends enjoying beers and bean bag toss and good company. That’s when Larissa came through the patio door, pale and shiny eyed, telling Jim to come look at the news.
The images were a couple hours old from the Great Lakes area, unsuspecting newscasters in Milwaukee and Chicago reporting on animals attacks before they screamed and their feed cut out. Then it was helicopter footage of busy downtown streets with large and fast shadows running down the sidewalks, SWAT teams shooting before being cut down or dragged into alleyways.
With cellphones pressed to their ears, all of Jim’s guests rushed home and soon it was just Jim and Larissa watching the map of these “unidentified animals” (no one would say monster or even alien) sightings grow while frantically calling their family. By eleven p.m., their parents had arrived at Jim’s and reports were coming in from Indianapolis and Madison. By the next morning morning, St Louis, Minneapolis and Cleveland. At noon, a sighting in Pittsburgh.
All the stations went silent by the time it was dark, black screens with blinking information: National Alert: Mass attacks by animals of unknown origin. Seem to be attracted to sound. Do not confront animals. Stay indoors and stay quiet.
One of the two sets of string lights on the porch lit up. White. Jim stopped chewing for a moment and trained his eyes and ears on the forest. He had set the sensor about 100 yards down the trail to the main road. It was mostly set off by what he figured were deer and squirrels passing through, nine times out of ten whatever tripped it didn’t make it to the second sensor.
He took two more bites and chewed slowly, and the other set of lights lit up. Red.
He set down the bowl and his wooden spoon beside it on top of an old towel and stood tentatively. It was far too long between the sensors to be a silencer, as Larissa had called them, which meant it was a forest critter or a person. Right inside the front door was his grandfather’s old crossbow and Jim grabbed it and held in his hands across his chest. It was just a precaution, he had only actually shot an arrow a handful of times, always towards deer that were dangerously close to knocking something over and making a clatter.
He thankfully never had to shoot towards another human, the few humans encountered since he arrived at the cabin were just passing through, would ask for a few spare cans of food and be on their way. Though he certainly wished he could have a chance to fire a couple warning shots over the head of his last visitor, a short man his age with dark hair and downturned blue eyes. It was an unusually cold day about three weeks back and Jim let him come inside and heated up a soup to share. The man wrote down his name was Howard (Jim was sure that wasn't actually his name), spun a few tale tales about how hard he fought to protect his girlfriend from the silencers before they got her (Jim could more easily picture him hiding frozen in fear) then took a couple cans and a hand drawn map Jim made with directions to the next clump of cabins and set off. Only at some point “Howard” had swiped the key to Jim’s shed and in the night came back, clearly with an accomplice, to take all the cans they could carry, useful supplies like his tent and sleeping bag and, what made Jim the most angry, a package of Little Debbie cakes Jim would treat himself to every once in a while.
He was clearly not over the “Howard” incident, getting angry all over again while recalling it and nearly missing the figure coming around the last tree on the trail before the cabin driveway. Jim tensed up, gripping the crossbow tighter and the figure stopped and raised their hands.
It was a woman, average height with reddish-brown hair. Judging from the condition of her clothes and backpack she hadn't been been on road too long, a few days maybe. She waved, pointed to him and then spun her index fingers around each other. He was confused for a moment before inhaling sharply, realizing she was asking if he knew sign language. He bent his fingers on his right hand, tapped his forehead and then held out his hand with his index finger and thumb close together, like he was pinching a marble. “I know some.”
She nodded and stepped closer, with her fingers gathered she touched her chin and move her flat palm in a circle over her chest, “Can you spare me any food please?”
He looked down the trail for a moment and made a circle with his hand, index finger extended, “Are you by yourself?” She nodded. He slung the strap of the crossbow over his shoulder, motioned to her to stay there and walked inside. From his kitchen stash he grabbed a beef and mushroom stew and some green beans (neither his favorite so he was okay parting with them) plus a bottle of water.
He returned to the front door and found her in the same spot. She saw the cans and smiled, signing “Thank you” before carefully slipping off her backpack and opening it. One by one he handed her the cans and water and she wrapped each in a piece of clothing so they wouldn't knock into each other.
She stood and signed “thanks” once again and Jim felt his breath catch a little. From the porch all that really stood out were her frizzy curls loosely held back in a ponytail. But now that he was close up he could see she was younger than he thought, with a smattering of freckles across her nose and big, pretty green eyes.
“Do you want some food now? I made some lunch,” Jim signed, or at least he hoped he signed something like that, he hadn’t actually used sign with another person since Larissa.
“Yes, please. Thank you,” she signed back. She approached the steps and without Jim asking began taking off her thin-soled tennis shoes. For a moment Jim thought about telling her to take a seat outside and he would bring her a bowl, lest he have a repeat of the “Howard” situation. But something about her made him trust her (not that the ‘something’ was a great mystery to him), and beside he now kept a combo lock on the shed, so he motioned for her to follow him in.
She carefully shrugged off her coat, unwound her striped scarf and took a seat at his table. Jim filled the other wooden bowl he had with macaroni and placed it in front of her with a spoon. She smiled, now barely whispering with her signs, “Looks delicious” and took a bite. With a satisfied smiled, she gave Jim a thumbs up.
Jim watched her eat, carefully but also voraciously, and lifted his hand up. “I’m Jim,” he signed, finger-spelling his name.
She nodded and brought up her hand to spell out, “Pam.”
Jim smiled, and then brought his hand together to started a question, “How long have you been alone out there?”
She took her final bite and set down her spoon. “About a week,” she whispered while signing “week.” She began her own question, “Where did you learn sign language?”
Jim gave a lopsided smiled and stood to fetch something from his book collection in the living room area, walking back with a yellow-covered book, Signing for Dummies . Pam covered her mouth to let out a silent laugh, and Jim was both pleased he amused her and sad that he couldn’t hear her actually laugh. His most valuable skill had always been his humor, especially at his job before as a paper salesman. He’d yack all day and make clients laugh and suddenly he had convinced them to up their order by 20-percent. Sometimes he found it kind of funny, how his life had been so dependent on talking and laughter and now was all about being silent and still.
“It was my sister's idea to learn,” he signed.
“Is she around?” Pam signed back but from her face Jim suspected she knew the answer. He shook his head and she bit her lip. “My sister is gone too,” she signed.
Jim nodded and then asked where Pam learned to sign.
“The people I was with, one was hard of hearing and another was a special needs teacher, they taught us all,” Pam signed and whispered, and Jim was happy he was mostly able to keep up with her signs.
“So why are you on your own?” Jim asked.
Pam's face fell and she stared at her bowl a moment before shrugging, “I couldn't stay.”
As much as Jim wanted to ask what on earth that meant, he slowly stood instead and ask if Pam wanted another helping. She nodded and Jim walked around the table to take her bowl.
They finished up the mac and cheese (and Pam taught Jim the sign for cheese, which was something like grinding the palm of your hands together) and after a little conversation Pam stood. “I should go, find shelter before sunset,” she signed, then started winding her scarf back around her neck.
Jim gave his bearded face a scratch and watched her. Probably a dozen people have passed through his little patch of the Poconos in the last few months, and he never really thought or felt anything as those passerbyers left his cabin, other than a hope they'd find shelter quickly and that maybe they'd be there if Jim was passing by and needed assistance. But as Pam gathered her stuff, he for the first time felt hesitance in letting a visitor go.
He stood and waved his hands to get her attention. She looked at Jim’s with wide eyes and a little smile and Jim couldn't find his words for a minute, either in sign or English. “You know, it's getting cold at nights, and I have plenty of extra blankets,” he mouthed, only able to sign about half the words. He took two steps to the living area and motioned to the couch, “We can pile them until it's comfortable.”
Pam walked over until she was right next to him. “That's really kind but it's okay, you've done so much to help me already,” she whispered.
“Stay here tonight and tomorrow I'll go with you and help you find a place,” he signed, holding his breath as Pam looked around and assessed the cabin. Beyond the kitchen and living area there wasn't much, shelving on the wall lead to a half opened curtain that divided off the bed in the corner. But if his whole family could spend long weekends here without too much complaint surely two people could be comfortable.
“I don't want to trouble you,” she said.
“No trouble,” he whispered back, “unless you snore.”
She suppressed a laugh and then her eyes met his. “Okay.”
Jim grinned and crossed the cabin to his bed, kneeling to pull out a few blankets from under it. He shuffled back and Pam helped him unfurl the quilts and blankets and set one on top of each other until it looked something like a make-shift day bed.
“Voila, better than an Econo Lodge,” Jim whispered.
Pam nearly laughed again and shook her head. “What did you do, before?” she signed.
“Salesman,” Jim whispered.
Pam nodded, “I bet you were good at that.”
Jim gave a half grin and shrugged, and she let out another silent chuckle and turned to set her things down by her new bed. He didn't want to admit it to her but he was happy to have someone around for a little bit, especially someone like her who smiled readily and was easy to talk to, even with his limited sign language ability.
But he already longed to hear her laugh, and hoped maybe sometime he would get to. He bet she had a nice laugh.