Station Eleven (Page 7)

“You know what’s even more side-piercing?” Alexandra was fifteen, the Symphony’s youngest actor. They’d found her on the road as a baby. “Traveling for four days between towns at the far edge of the territory.”

“What does side-piercing mean?” Olivia asked. She was six years old, the daughter of the tuba and an actress named Lin, and she was riding in the back of the second caravan with Gil and a teddy bear.

“We’ll be in St. Deborah by the Water in a couple of hours,” Gil said. “There’s absolutely nothing to worry about.”

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels. The Traveling Symphony moved between the settlements of the changed world and had been doing so since five years after the collapse, when the conductor had gathered a few of her friends from their military orchestra, left the air base where they’d been living, and set out into the unknown landscape.

By then most people had settled somewhere, because the gasoline had all gone stale by Year Three and you can’t keep walking forever. After six months of traveling from town to town—the word town used loosely; some of these places were four or five families living together in a former truck stop—the conductor’s orchestra had run into Gil’s company of Shakespearean actors, who had all escaped from Chicago together and then worked on a farm for a few years and had been on the road for three months, and they’d combined their operations.

Twenty years after the collapse they were still in motion, traveling back and forth along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan, west as far as Traverse City, east and north over the 49th parallel to Kincardine. They followed the St. Clair River south to the fishing towns of Marine City and Algonac and back again. This territory was for the most part tranquil now. They encountered other travelers only rarely, peddlers mostly, carting miscellanea between towns. The Symphony performed music—classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs—and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.

“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said. He himself found it difficult to live in the present. He’d played in a punk band in college and longed for the sound of an electric guitar.

They were no more than two hours out from St. Deborah by the Water now. The Lear rehearsal had dissipated midway through the fourth act, everyone tired, tempers fraying in the heat. They stopped to rest the horses, and Kirsten, who didn’t feel like resting, walked a few paces down the road to throw knives at a tree. She threw from five paces, from ten, from twenty. The satisfying sound of the blades hitting wood. When the Symphony began to move again she climbed up into the back of the second caravan, where Alexandra was resting and mending a costume.

“Okay,” Alexandra said, picking up an earlier conversation, “so when you saw the computer screen in Traverse City …”

“What about it?”

In Traverse City, the town they’d recently left, an inventor had rigged an electrical system in an attic. It was modest in scope, a stationary bicycle that when pedaled vigorously could power a laptop, but the inventor had grander aspirations: the point wasn’t actually the electrical system, the point was that he was looking for the Internet. A few of the younger Symphony members had felt a little thrill when he’d said this, remembered the stories they’d been told about WiFi and the impossible-to-imagine Cloud, wondered if the Internet might still be out there somehow, invisible pinpricks of light suspended in the air around them.

“Was it the way you remembered?”

“I don’t really remember what computer screens looked like,” Kirsten admitted. The second caravan had particularly bad shocks, and riding in it always made her feel like her bones were rattling.

“How could you not remember something like that? It was beautiful.”

“I was eight.”

Alexandra nodded, unsatisfied and obviously thinking that if she’d seen a lit-up computer screen when she was eight, she’d have remembered it.

In Traverse City Kirsten had stared at the This webpage is not available message on the screen. She didn’t seriously believe that the inventor would be able to find the Internet, but she was fascinated by electricity. She harbored visions of a lamp with a pink shade on a side table, a nightlight shaped like a puffy half-moon, a chandelier in a dining room, a brilliant stage. The inventor had pedaled frantically to keep the screen from flickering out, explaining something about satellites. Alexandra had been enraptured, the screen a magical thing with no memories attached. August had stared at the screen with a lost expression.

When Kirsten and August broke into abandoned houses—this was a hobby of theirs, tolerated by the conductor because they found useful things sometimes—August always gazed longingly at televisions. As a boy he’d been quiet and a little shy, obsessed with classical music; he’d had no interest in sports and had never been especially adept at getting along with people, which meant long hours home alone after school in interchangeable U.S. Army—base houses while his brothers played baseball and made new friends. One nice thing about television shows was that they were everywhere, identical programming whether your parents had been posted to Maryland or California or Texas. He’d spent an enormous amount of time before the collapse watching television, playing the violin, or sometimes doing both simultaneously, and Kirsten could picture this: August at nine, at ten, at eleven, pale and scrawny with dark hair falling in his eyes and a serious, somewhat fixed expression, playing a child-size violin in a wash of electric-blue light. When they broke into houses now, August searched for issues of TV Guide. Mostly obsolete by the time the pandemic hit, but used by a few people right up to the end. He liked to flip through them later at quiet moments. He claimed he remembered all the shows: starships, sitcom living rooms with enormous sofas, police officers sprinting through the streets of New York, courtrooms with stern-faced judges presiding. He looked for books of poetry—even rarer than TV Guide copies—and studied these in the evenings or while he was walking with the Symphony.

When Kirsten was in the houses, she searched for celebrity-gossip magazines, because once, when she was sixteen years old, she’d flipped through a magazine on a dust-blackened side table and found her past:

Happy Reunion: Arthur Leander Picks Up Son Tyler in LAX
SCRUFFY ARTHUR GREETS SEVEN-YEAR-OLD TYLER,
WHO LIVES IN JERUSALEM WITH HIS MOTHER,
MODEL/ACTRESS ELIZABETH COLTON.

The photograph: Arthur with a three-day beard, rumpled clothes, a baseball cap, carrying a small boy who beamed up at his father’s face while Arthur smiled at the camera. The Georgia Flu would arrive in a year.

“I knew him,” she’d told August, breathless. “He gave me the comics I showed you!” And August had nodded and asked to see the comics again.

There were countless things about the pre-collapse world that Kirsten couldn’t remember—her street address, her mother’s face, the TV shows that August never stopped talking about—but she did remember Arthur Leander, and after that first sighting she went through every magazine she could find in search of him. She collected fragments, stored in a ziplock bag in her backpack. A picture of Arthur alone on a beach, looking pensive and out of shape. A picture of him with his first wife, Miranda, and then later with his second wife, Elizabeth, a malnourished-looking blonde who didn’t smile for cameras. Then with their son, who was about the same age as Kirsten, and later still with a third wife who looked very similar to the second one.

“You’re like an archaeologist,” Charlie said, when Kirsten showed off her findings. Charlie had wanted to be an archaeologist when she was little. She was the second cello and one of Kirsten’s closest friends.

Nothing in Kirsten’s collection suggested the Arthur Leander she remembered, but what did she actually remember? Arthur was a fleeting impression of kindness and gray hair, a man who’d once pressed two comic books into her hands—“I have a present for you,” she was almost certain he’d said—and sometime after this moment, the clearest memory she retained from before the collapse: a stage, a man in a suit talking to her while Arthur lay still on his back with paramedics leaning over him, voices and crying and people gathering, snow somehow falling even though they were indoors, electric light blazing down upon them.

8

THE COMICS ARTHUR LEANDER gave her: two issues from a series no one else in the Symphony has ever heard of, Dr. Eleven, Vol. 1, No. 1: Station Eleven and Dr. Eleven, Vol. 1, No. 2: The Pursuit. By Year Twenty, Kirsten has them memorized.

Dr. Eleven is a physicist. He lives on a space station, but it’s a highly advanced space station that was designed to resemble a small planet. There are deep blue seas and rocky islands linked by bridges, orange and crimson skies with two moons on the horizon. The contrabassoon, who prior to the collapse was in the printing business, told Kirsten that the comics had been produced at great expense, all those bright images, that archival paper, so actually not comics at all in the traditionally mass-produced sense, possibly someone’s vanity project. Who would that someone have been? There is no biographical information in either issue, initials in place of the author’s name. “By M. C.” In the inside cover of the first issue, someone has written “Copy 2 of 10” in pencil. In the second issue, the notation is “Copy 3 of 10.” Is it possible that only ten copies of each of these books exist in the world?

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