It’s getting late in the day, and the body isn’t going to burn itself.
I turn away from the endless expanse of sand and sagebrush and shift my gaze skyward. Sixty feet above me at the top of the butte, a hand dangles off the side of a steel platform.
I grip the metal handle and start cranking. With each rotation, thick cables move, and the platform inches downward. Eventually, the winch stops with a clank, the grinding of its rusty gears replaced by a gentle crinkling in the arid breeze.
As usual, the figure strapped to the platform is double-wrapped in a translucent white sheet of industrial plastic—the Professor bought rolls and rolls of the stuff before the whole world went to hell. The plastic is stained crimson in multiple places. The first set of stains I was expecting—the ring of red around the crown of the head has become a hallmark of the Professor’s research. But the second set makes me shudder, even under the blazing afternoon sun.
Haphazard splotches adorn the lower abdomen. Stranger still, this figure is significantly smaller than most. I always release the younglings, so it must be a female. But I haven’t caught one in over a year, and his subjects tend to last three months at most.
Not for the first time, I wonder how it came to this. When I was a child, this platform carried my shivering body down at dawn to hunt and fish. Later in the day, I’d stand in the same spot I am now, shout- ing until the Professor’s smiling face appeared overhead, followed by the whirring of the electric motor.
It had been good, once—almost good enough to make me forget we were the last two people left. Then the Professor’s illness got worse, and his moods turned dark. Our lithium battery banks started to fade too, as if his disease were infecting all aspects of our lives. One by one, he began dismantling the devices from his former life to put their pre- cious parts to better uses. The television, the stereo, even the winch’s motor, all gutted to keep equipment in his laboratory operational.
Each year we drifted further away from a world I never knew, and as my hand-me-down clothes became tattered, as my survival tools became more primitive, as I resorted to climbing the sheer cliff face to reach our home up on the butte, my life became strikingly similar to the lives of the creatures I hunt. But, looking back, losing our teth- ers to the old world wasn’t what forever altered our reality out here in the Utah desert. What changed everything was the nature of the Professor’s experiments.
“What aren’t you telling me?” I say to myself. A bad habit, one that tends to develop when the only ears around to hear you are your own.
The cables creak as I mount the platform and start unfasten- ing the straps. As the last one comes loose, the body lets out a sickly belch. The gas burns my nostrils as it leaves the cadaver. A common occurrence at this time of year—one I never seem to get used to.
Staring at the bloody plastic, I can make out the vague outline of a face within. I deserve to know the truth. I fetch specimen after specimen, and for what? Just this once, I want to unwrap that sheet and find out for myself what the hell is going on. He’d never even have to know.
I stare out at the desert. Aside from a fresh sidewinder trail in the dirt, no signs of life disturb the landscape. If you don’t count the Andes, we really are alone out here—if I believe the Professor, we’re all alone in the entire world.
I look back to the wrapped figure, so efficiently removed from existence. I want to feel pity, but in the back of my mind, I picture a destroyed campsite with blood and bodies everywhere, and a tiny bundle shrieking beneath a juniper tree. I’ve only ever seen this scene in my imagination, but the Professor filled in all the gruesome details of how he found me. Knowing what I know, can I ever truly feel anything for them? They’d do the same or worse to me if they got the chance. My slaughtered parents are proof of that—and the Professor is the only reason I’m not in the ground beside them.
I dip to a knee and heft the bundled corpse onto one shoulder before trudging off through the brush. I reach a ring of stones with blackened remnants in the center and set her down just outside it. Using the seven-inch blade of my Ka-Bar utility knife—the first tool the Professor ever gave me—I strip and feather several large branches, then build a small pyre and begin stuffing kindling beneath.
The orange sky has dissolved into rich purple hues by the time I finish. I lift the body and place her on top. The wood shifts slightly, and she nearly tumbles off, but in the end, the structure holds. Not my best work, but it’ll do the job.
Sparks fly as flint strikes steel. After a few minutes of careful blowing, I stand back to watch the flames lick at the evening sky. I should get back to the butte and put this ugliness behind me. Andes have no love of fire, but I still feel exposed out here, standing next to this beacon in the growing dark. And yet I can’t take my eyes off the form lying on the pyre.
As the plastic melts and her skin burns, wrinkling and curling, fat dripping like wax, I wonder if she was old enough to have witnessed the world before. Had she been a little girl when everything came crashing down, or was she born what she is now, wandering the wil- derness with no concept of the life she’d only just missed?
I can hear the Professor’s voice—Daydreaming serves no practical purpose! I head back through the deepening night, toward the butte, the Professor, and the only life I have ever known.
What I wouldn’t give for someone to talk to.