Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Last Man

I stopped by the clinic yesterday (well, one of the several we have now) to interview Henry, the last surviving Exile from the fallback point. His recovery has been coming along better than expected, though he will never be a healthy man again. Whatever poison was in that water did permanent damage to his respiratory system from the lungs up to his throat and mouth. You can hear him breathe from the next room, a rattle that always seems on the edge of being a cough but doesn't quite get there. The act of getting out of bed winds him, turning his breath to harsh rasps.

His voice is the worst part. I haven't the slightest idea what he sounded like before, but Henry talking is like listening to a cancer patient trying to squeak out his last words around a mouthful of stones. I've spent time with enough dying people to have a fair ear for the sound of it. Except Henry isn't dying. He's getting better. His ordeal has left a mark on him, reminders that come with every inhalation.

Still, he's remarkably tough. The older man is trying to do everything for himself no matter how difficult. I'm told he has been heard sobbing at night, almost certainly from the memories of all the dead left behind when he somehow survived.

I didn't see much of that in my interview with him. I wasn't there to learn secrets about the cowardly attack that took the lives of his loved ones. I wanted his story, a piece of the larger tapestry that is our story as a people. I yearn to understand what drives even the worst of us, how the motivations of normal people can twist and turn them into Exiles or marauders.

Or even into people like the UAS.

Henry isn't like Kincaid. He wasn't a good, or even neutral, man before The Fall. Henry was kind of a bad guy. Not in the twirling-my-mustache way. He didn't rob nuns at gunpoint or sacrifice children. He was a con artist, a thief, and even before The Fall, a rapist.

I write that word and find myself surprised that I'm not enraged. The two things that have always bypassed every barrier I've developed for self-control are people that hit kids or women (call me a sexist, whatever. It's instinct) and rapists. Even before the world fell apart I'd have felt the righteous urge to kill a man for that act.

Maybe it was the honesty that softened the news. It may have been the genuine self-loathing I saw in his eyes, heard in his broken voice. Henry once committed an act beyond forgiveness, and years in a cell later, in a world fallen to ruin, it still haunted him. That's how he came to live with the Exiles.

Before the marauders joined up with the Exiles to form a permanent community, Henry was a marauder. He joined a group made up of people like him; men who took from others without conscience. He says it was because he couldn't bring himself to be around any other kind of person. That he didn't deserve it. He took me off guard by admitting that he worried survivors like me would make him pay for the things he'd done before The Fall if they were discovered. He's probably not wrong.

Though he didn't participate in further such acts against women, he didn't stop those in his group that did. His conscience at him over the long months on the road. He was too frightened to say anything, or to even strike out on his own. He told me that cowardice and a desire to live kept him from voicing the objections he felt.

He quoted Tolstoy (or Edmund Burke, depending on your version of history) to me. It's a famous old line:

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

"But," he followed up, "people forget that bad men come in grades. And we can let worse people get by with evil by choosing not to act."

Eventually Henry did leave his group at one of the rare trade gatherings among the marauders. He searched for a new home among them, some group that might have been thieves and maybe even killers, but didn't do the awful things he'd seen too much of. There were a few such caravans, women freely living among them unharmed. Which is who he joined up with and eventually settled in the fallback point with many months later.

Henry admitted to me that at times when he lived among the darkest remnants of humanity, he considered suicide. There wasn't any lack of opportunity, not with so many zombies constantly hounding marauder groups. Henry wasn't afraid to fight, so in that sense he wasn't a coward. But he was afraid to stand up. And too much self-preservation lived inside him to let the undead take him.

It took him a long while, but Henry eventually chose a different way. The truly awful thing I realized by the end of the interview is that he really seems to think he deserves this. That the lives of every single person he held dear was taken while he lived, as a punishment. He wants this pain. He feels he deserves it.

Hmm. Maybe that's why I can't summon up that killing anger. Death would be a release for him. There aren't any punishments for him that I can think of worse than living.

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