What the Old Man Did

November 15, 2011

It happened well after the time. A group of us had taken refuge in an abandoned amusement park. There weren’t many. We all just sort of drifted in a few at a time. Nobody led really, we just sort of all agreed to share what we found. The winters were hardest, we had the food storage from the park, lots of mostly junk food but at least it was calories. The buildings were dark and unsafe what with no real maintenance for many years. We rarely ventured into the big ones. Down at the water park section there was an artificial stream bed and some sturdy wooden structures that provided shelter for me and my “girlfriend.” She was mainly around to keep me warm at night and vice versa, but we got along during the day. I suppose I was in love with her. But in those times there was no government to provide official sanction. But I’m getting away from my story.

After our first two years at the park, late in a summer evening, an old man came along. For some reason, we weren’t afraid of him. He was old, I mean I never asked him how old he was, but he must have been 60 or more. He looked like my grandfather looked before the time. Wrinkles under the chin, white sparse hair on his face, not too much hair on the head. Krinkly skin around his eyes. He was old. He moved like he was old too. Walked slow. It seemed like he was tired. At least that’s what I thought then.

The old man didn’t say too much and none of the fifteen or so in the park group (it varied, some came, some went) spoke too much anyway so that wasn’t unusual. We didn’t like talking about the time or what it was like during the change. And it was hard for most of us to remember anyway. Vague memories of childhoods that had no anchor points in the present. Death was our good practical teacher. We learned like abandoned cats. The thing about the old man was, that he was old. We’d just never seen many old ones. A few. But that was years ago. Or so we thought. A couple of people kept track, or tried to, using old calendars we found in park offices. Most of us could read. But telling time, well we didn’t really need that much. No clocks.

Summer was a good time. Warm. You could swim in the stream that came down from the nearby mountains (it was cold) and there were the stray dogs. They were wild but they would come close if you had food. We’d trap and eat them. They weren’t bad. After the first two years though there were less of them. And then the cooking gas ran out and it was harder to cook meat. We’d sometimes find a dead deer or something in the foothills. I knew what they were because I was 7 or so when my father took me hunting once. Before he left for the army. We didn’t dare eat the dead ones. When the time came one of the things they drilled into us was staying away from anything that looked sick or acted strange. Just after my eighteenth birthday, that included my mother. But I’m drifting again.

One summer evening, the other people came to the park. We could hear them long before they arrived. You could tell they were different. Rougher somehow. They talked loud. We more or less all decided, without saying much to each other, to stay out of their way for the time being. The old man got serious when he heard them and that kind of spooked us. He was always quiet, but once in a while he would tell us things, like how to keep clean and why you did it. How to be careful what you ate or drank, that kind of thing. The look on his face when he saw how the other people acted told us we had to be careful.

But it was nearly impossible to stay out of their way forever, unless we left the park. The girl, my girl, was first to be seen by them. They chased her, but we knew the park, tunnels, old rides, hiding places. But now that they knew someone was here besides them it was really hard to keep out of their way. And they were hard, “crude” the old man called them. Not safe, but crafty. We held a meeting down at the broken down water ride to decide what to do. The old man didn’t say anything. The rest of us didn’t want to leave. We’d had our share of living like the wild dogs. This was our place. It was there that they surprised us. Came up out of the dark, like dogs or cats or something. They were laughing, poking at the girls, hitting us. When I tried to grab the girl, something hit me and I lost consciousness.

When I woke, it was day. The girl was laying on the old wooden platform face down. But I saw she was breathing. She had no pants on. Two of the other people were standing by the rickety stairs that led up out of the water ride place. When they saw I was awake, they laughed and pointed at me. They were speaking, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. All 15 of us were laying or sitting on the platform including the old man. Three more of the others came down the stairs then, one of them was carrying something brown and long. I knew he was in charge from the way he acted and the way the others moved around him. When he drew closer I saw the brown thing was a knife. He walked toward the girl, somehow I knew what he was going to do, but I couldn’t understand why. I’ve learned since that some people don’t need a reason. That’s when it happened.

When the man with the knife got to the girl he knelt beside her and made to stab her in the back with it. Suddenly the old man was on his feet. I could see out of the corner of my eye the two men by the stairs were moving, but the old man was now beside the kneeling leader. The knife had somehow been transferred to the old man’s hand, I hadn’t seen it happen, but it did. Then the knife was sticking out of the back of the leader’s neck. He made a choking sound. The old man whirled and the two men from the stairs fell, grasping their necks. I could see red coming between their fingers. The two others were just standing there. Stunned, like I suppose we all were. The old man was on them in a few seconds. They said no more. I could see the surprise in their eyes as they died.

The old man moved toward the stairs. We said nothing. He didn’t go up the stairs though. He climbed the wooden support beams. They were thick and mostly still strong. He was on top of the thing in a short time and walking quietly along the wooden roof of the walkway that led to the ride. I saw him jump from the roof after a time. Later we heard some yells. There were some girls with the others. I thought I heard one scream.

After the old man had jumped from the walkway roof, I went to the girl but she was not awake. I shook her but she didn’t rouse. Covering her with a blanket from our stash, I and the others went to find the old man. We found him sitting near the park gate. Blood was on his hands and clothes. I wanted to ask him why this happened. We all knew, young though we were, that killing another human being was a bad thing though we had all seen that happen in the time. The old man was now a different thing all together. Different from us not just by age, but by act. You might say he scared us but that wasn’t exactly it. There was something that now separated us from him, more than just him being old. He could do things we never really thought of doing. Things that we didn’t know how to do really.

I finally spoke. I told him about the girl. He got up and ran (it was the first time I saw him do that) to the water ride platform. She was still there, not moving. The old man gently turned her on to her back. There was something incongruous about it, the way he touched her and the way he had touched all twenty of the others. She was breathing. He put his hands along her sides, stomach, neck. Opened her eye lids, touched her legs, felt her head. Eventually he spoke and said that she had been hurt, shocked by what the others had done to her. She might wake, she might not. That night, I slept beside her, my arm over her. In the morning I woke and saw her looking at me. She started to cry and smile at the same time.

A month later the old man left. Before he did, I asked him what happened. How had he done that? He just said, “I thought about it.” Later, I think I began to understand what he meant. He had thought about what would happen to us. He cared about us. I think he saw something that he wanted to stay, not to end (I’ve seen things since that time that convinced me our little group was nearly unique). So he ended the others. But that wasn’t my whole question. I wanted to know how he did what he did. I’m sure he understood that. And that his answer applied to that question too. He thought about doing it. And then did it. I knew he was a very smart man. After he left, we didn’t say much about him. I think we were all afraid in a way. Afraid and perhaps a little reverent. I saw the old man again maybe ten years later. He looked nearly the same, just older. But that is another story.

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