Station Eleven (Page 8)
Kirsten’s taken care of the comics as best she can but they’re dog-eared now, worn soft at the edges. The first issue falls open to a two-page spread. Dr. Eleven stands on dark rocks overlooking an indigo sea at twilight. Small boats move between islands, wind turbines spinning on the horizon. He holds his fedora in his hand. A small white animal stands by his side. (Several of the older Symphony members have confirmed that this animal is a dog, but it isn’t like any dog Kirsten’s ever seen. Its name is Luli. It looks like a cross between a fox and a cloud.) A line of text across the bottom of the frame: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.
THE SYMPHONY ARRIVED IN St. Deborah by the Water in the midafternoon. Before the collapse, it had been one of those places that aren’t definitely in one town or another—a gas station and a few chain restaurants strung out along a road with a motel and a Walmart. The town marked the southwestern border of the Symphony’s territory, nothing much beyond it so far as anyone knew.
They’d left Charlie and the sixth guitar here two years ago, Charlie pregnant with the sixth guitar’s baby, arrangements made for them to stay in the former Wendy’s by the gas station so she wouldn’t have to give birth on the road. Now the Symphony came upon a sentry posted at the north end of town, a boy of about fifteen sitting under a rainbow beach umbrella by the roadside. “I remember you,” he said when they reached him. “You can set up camp at the Walmart.”
The Symphony moved through St. Deborah by the Water at a deliberately slow pace, the first trumpet playing a solo from a Vivaldi concerto, but what was strange was that the music drew almost no onlookers as they passed. In Traverse City the crowd following them down the street upon their arrival had swelled to a hundred, but here only four or five people came to their doors or emerged from around the sides of buildings to stare, unsmiling, and none of them were Charlie or the sixth guitar.
The Walmart was at the south end of town, the parking lot wavering in the heat. The Symphony parked the caravans near the broken doors, set about the familiar rituals of taking care of the horses and arguing about which play to perform or if it should just be music tonight, and still neither Charlie nor the sixth guitar appeared.
“They’re probably just off working somewhere,” August said, but it seemed to Kirsten that the town was too empty. Mirages were forming in the distance, phantom pools on the road. A man pushing a wheelbarrow seemed to walk on water. A woman carried a bundle of laundry between buildings. Kirsten saw no one else.
“I’d suggest Lear for tonight,” said Sayid, an actor, “but I don’t know that we want to make this place more depressing.”
“For once I agree with you,” Kirsten said. The other actors were arguing. King Lear, because they’d been rehearsing it all week—August looked nervous—or Hamlet, because they hadn’t performed it in a month?
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Gil said, breaking an impasse. “I believe the evening calls for fairies.”
“Is all our company here?”
“You were best to call them generally, man by man, according to the scrip.” Jackson had been playing Bottom for a decade and was the only one who’d managed to go off-book today. Even Kirsten had to look at the text twice. She hadn’t played Titania in weeks.
“This place seems quiet, doesn’t it?” Dieter was standing with Kirsten just outside the action of the rehearsal.
“It’s creepy. You remember the last time we were here? Ten or fifteen kids followed us through town when we arrived and watched the rehearsal.”
“You’re up,” Dieter said.
“I’m not misremembering, am I?” Kirsten was stepping into the play. “They crowded all around us.”
Dieter frowned, looking down the empty road.
“… But room, fairy!” said Alexandra, who was playing Puck, “here comes Oberon.”
“And here my mistress,” said Lin, who was playing the fairy. “Would that he were gone!”
“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.” Sayid carried himself with a regality that Kirsten had fallen in love with once. Here in this parking lot in a pressing heat wave, patches of sweat under the arms of his T-shirt, knee-torn jeans, he was perfectly credible as a king.
“What, jealous Oberon?” Kirsten stepped forward as steadily as possible. They’d been a couple for two years, until four months earlier, when she’d slept with a traveling peddler more or less out of boredom, and now she had trouble meeting his eyes when they did A Midsummer Night’s Dream together. “Fairies, skip hence. I have forsworn his bed and company.” Audible snickering from the sidelines at this. Sayid smirked.
“Christ,” she heard Dieter mutter, behind her, “is this really necessary?”
“Tarry, rash wanton,” Sayid said, drawing out the words. “Am I not thy lord?”
THE PROBLEM WITH THE Traveling Symphony was the same problem suffered by every group of people everywhere since before the collapse, undoubtedly since well before the beginning of recorded history. Start, for example, with the third cello: he had been waging a war of attrition with Dieter for some months following a careless remark Dieter had made about the perils of practicing an instrument in dangerous territory, the way the notes can carry for a mile on a clear day. Dieter hadn’t noticed. Dieter did, however, harbor considerable resentment toward the second horn, because of something she’d once said about his acting. This resentment didn’t go unnoticed—the second horn thought he was being petty—but when the second horn was thinking of people she didn’t like very much, she ranked him well below the seventh guitar—there weren’t actually seven guitars in the Symphony, but the guitarists had a tradition of not changing their numbers when another guitarist died or left, so that currently the Symphony roster included guitars four, seven, and eight, with the location of the sixth presently in question, because they were done rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Walmart parking lot, they were hanging the Midsummer Night’s Dream backdrop between the caravans, they’d been in St. Deborah by the Water for hours now and why hadn’t he come to them? Anyway, the seventh guitar, whose eyesight was so bad that he couldn’t do most of the routine tasks that had to be done, the repairs and hunting and such, which would have been fine if he’d found some other way to help out but he hadn’t, he was essentially dead weight as far as the second horn was concerned. The seventh guitar was a nervous person, because he was nearly blind. He’d been able to see reasonably well with an extremely thick pair of glasses, but he’d lost these six years ago and since then he’d lived in a confusing landscape distilled to pure color according to season—summer mostly green, winter mostly gray and white—in which blurred figures swam into view and then receded before he could figure out who they were. He couldn’t tell if his headaches were caused by straining to see or by his anxiety at never being able to see what was coming, but he did know the situation wasn’t helped by the first flute, who had a habit of sighing loudly whenever the seventh guitar had to stop rehearsal to ask for clarification on the score that he couldn’t see.
But the first flute was less irritated by the seventh guitar than she was by the second violin, August, who was forever missing rehearsals, always off somewhere breaking into another house with Kirsten and, until recently, Charlie, like he thought the Symphony was a scavenging outfit who played music on the side. (“If he wanted to join a scavenging outfit,” she’d said to the fourth guitar, “why didn’t he just join a scavenging outfit?” “You know what the violins are like,” the fourth guitar had said.) August was annoyed by the third violin, who liked to make insinuating remarks about August and Kirsten even though they’d only ever been close friends and had in fact made a secret pact to this effect—friends forever and nothing else—sworn while drinking with locals one night behind the ruins of a bus depot in some town on the south end of Lake Huron—and the third violin resented the first violin following a long-ago argument about who had used the last of a batch of rosin, while the first violin was chilly to Sayid, because Sayid had rejected her overtures in favor of Kirsten, who expended considerable energy in trying to ignore the viola’s habit of dropping random French words into sentences as though anyone else in the entire goddamned Symphony spoke French, while the viola harbored secret resentments against someone else, and so on and so forth, etc., and this collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments lived together, traveled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour. But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with, although someone—probably Sayid—had written “Sartre: Hell is other people” in pen inside one of the caravans, and someone else had scratched out “other people” and substituted “flutes.”