Conversations with Simon
A tale of sorrow, solitude, and strange occurrences
I was never alone.
Though my mother and brother were no longer in my physical company, I still heard their voices.
I heard his, at least.
Pretty often too.
At first, I thought I might've become infected as well somehow and had begun to hear things; auditory hallucinations of sorts. I hadn't recalled that to be a symptom of the virus but it's hard to know with these things. After all, it was perfectly possible to be asymptomatic and still carrying around this baleful bug, with all the potential in the world of unintentionally transferring the toxin to someone's lesser equipped immune system.
I had also considered that I'd gone mad from grief.
Or that maybe the global pandemic-inducing virus had mutated. It had already overtaken 90% of the population, specifically those who had enthusiastically taken the allegedly eradicative vaccine. While suspiciously, the 10% who held out, uneager to be part of the human trial, were spared. The vaccine did appear to be successful at first, which is why our government allowed us to go back to our 'normal' lives, pre-mask era. Nothing about it was normal though, not really, and it only took 18 months of pretending it was business as usual, for things to take a sharp, savage turn.
As the infrastructures quickly crumbled before our eyes, so did the number of government officials, doctors, and virologists. Thus, leaving it up to the bold, uneducated conspiracy theorists and skeptical militia groups to rebuild any semblance of social organization. Unless you wanted to try your hand at being a rebellious bandit or a post-apocalyptic nomad, you had to seek shelter outside the derelict ruins of the old city from which we came. Some chose to stay near the ransacked and abandoned series of storefronts near City Center, while others attempted to occupy the charred remains of the dilapidated mansions on Marion Hill.
Mother had survived devastating catastrophes before, which propelled her toward the sort of self-education that allowed us to live off the wildlands. For us, the trick to staying alive was finding a location far enough away from the small pockets of the remaining population. The group leaders of these strange assemblages had taken to barbaric tendencies. They made it known that they were willing and able to do whatever it took to serve only themselves and those they'd deemed valuable enough to be accepted into their survival squad. Since our crew at the time consisted of a beautiful woman, an almost-eleven-year-old girl, and an eighteen-month-old boy, we chose to take our chances in the mountains.
Fast forward six years to my newly solitary existence. I had convinced myself that any bloke left out there had probably also succumbed to this peculiar phenomenon of hearing voices that once belonged to their dead loved ones.
After a few unquestionable occurrences, I stopped considering whether I'd gone mental. It was my Simon alright, cheeky as ever.
His five ("an' a half!" I'd hear 'im pipe in) year old voice sounded the same as it had before I was tasked with the burial of his small, infected, and subsequently lifeless body.
At the time, I had been sure in my decision to have him stay at home base for my first solo trek to the river. It was three miles down and six miles west of us. We were tucked behind an advantageous arrangement of fallen oak trees near the second to last peak, across from Resolute Ridge. After what had happened on our first attempt at a supply run without Mum, I had no doubt Simon would be safer in a more familiar space.
Although he knew the rules of our makeshift homestead, he was still so young. Brilliant for his age but a child nonetheless; still very much lacking impulse control. It was the most difficult decision I'd ever had to make and the question of whether it was the right one or not still haunts me to this day.
It hadn't rained in a few weeks, and our small garden was having a hard time producing. We needed to restock a few necessities before the cold came - mostly bark and pine nuts that proved to be worth the hassle of collecting. Antioxidant-packed blueberries if we were lucky, water to hold us over until the next rainfall. I carefully descended into the valley on my mission to collect the valuable roots of the flowers that wouldn't kill us to consume, along with the edible inner bark from the birch trees that grew near the river and existed long before the virus. Fish were off-limits, as they were almost guaranteed to be carrying the terminal toxin. I worked quickly to complete my foraging journey, determined to return before dark.
All the while, Simon was busy polishing off our small supply of home-grown baby carrots and being victimized by a tiny mozzie with a belly full of what I presumed to be, you guessed it, the virus. We had been taught to withstand, overcome, and anticipate so many variables out there. Of ALL the dangers that Mother had prepared us for, everything that we had already survived… a bloody mosquito is all it took.
I kicked myself for having any hard feelings about the carrots.
If I had been there I could've reminded him NOT to smash the blood-sucker, spewing the contents of its stomach all over the fresh, tiny wound made by its 6-pointed proboscis. I could've shown him the pinch-and-remove technique that only left behind trace, conquerable amounts of the contagion.
At least we'd had a few years together after our mother's disappearance.
I wanted the female voice that I heard in my mind to be hers. I wished and pretended it was, but I knew it wasn't. I'd hear my own voice in my head recalling her words of wisdom, but that was very different indeed from having actual conversations with Simon's spirit. There was another voice though, that felt like Mum… maternal, intelligent, patient, grounded. All but the well-hidden worry that I always sensed within her. I'd hear this feminine voice utter things like, "Notice," or, "Be still." Once I heard her say something along the lines of, "Look within and go without," whatever that means.
Because I didn't hear Mum's voice like I so distinctly did Simon's, I couldn't help but question the conclusion I had come to all those years ago, after seven months without any sign of her return.
That's how long it took for reality to set in for me. Two-hundred-fourteen sun-downs before I stopped discreetly begging the universe to bring her back. I didn't want to do it alone. I had just barely entered my teenage years, I wasn't ready to be the mum to my wee brother. There I was though, doing what I had to do as I had always done. Looking back, it wasn't all that bad; Simon was very self-sufficient for such a small boy. I regretted feeling burdened by becoming his only caretaker when I just wanted to be mothered, myself. It had been long enough. I knew the more energy I wasted on indulging in my feelings of despair, the less I had to keep us alive.
Simon never gave up on her.
Even after a year and a half without her, his four-year-old voice would chirp, "There's no pwoof she's gone gone, B!" he'd snark, "PWOOV it, Blaze! You don't know nuffing sister. She's not gone. You'll see."
I couldn't imagine my heart hurting more than the ache of wanting, expecting our mother to return to us and the forest shelter we'd transformed into a home. A sanctuary. A place of refuge from the ever-evolving horrors that existed just outside, and sometimes within, the perimeter that she'd peppered with clever traps and unique safety measures. Our Earth school, where she'd taught us to grow and tend to our food, how to make fire and boil water, and which leaves were okay to wipe our bums with.
Later I realized that having to try and explain to sweet, heartsick Simon that Mama may never come back to us… was the hardest thing I'd ever have to endure. His sorrow was palpable, and it brought us both to our knees on many occasions. It also brought us closer, as most tragedies do.
The longest she had ever been away was 63 sun-downs. Usually a little bruised and battered, but whole upon return, and always somehow more fierce than before. Oftentimes bearing curious gifts and unconventional supplies that we would surely, sooner or later, put to good use.
As she pulled each item from her travel pack she would ask us, "How can we use this? Sit with it, tell me what comes to mind!"
She would give us ample time to think critically about how we might apply each new object to the continuation of our existence. After a long while she'd 'bring her ideas to the table' and together, as a team, we would plan out the best use of our time, energy, and tools.
I'll forever remember the time that mother came back with a short, braided hemp-rope, burnt on one end, along with an arrowhead, a jagged piece of an old license plate, and a large leather glove packed full of wilted dandelions. She had stuffed every available nook and cranny of her tattered bag with the bright yellow weed that day.
Once considered a nuisance, now key to our survival.
We waited until the flowers turned to seed-bearing stems and then blew the dying weed's offspring, along with our wishes, across the field behind our habitation, creating a lifetime supply of recurring dandelions that supported us in many ways.
One of our favorite unexpected oddities that mother brought back from an outing was a green marbled stone, not like any other we had seen before. It had been formed roughly into the shape of a heart and found by the riverbed, three miles down and twelve miles west. We learned on the day of the dandelions that our cherished chunk of gemstone, identified as jade, just-so-happened to fit perfectly inside of another most mysterious treasure.
At the bottom of the large leather glove that contained the wilting weeds, Mother had tucked away an extraordinary piece of jewelry. A locket that, like the jade stone, happened to be heart-shaped. It was attached to a rusty chain and appeared to be centuries old. It seemed very out-of-place as Mum gently removed it from the disheveled old glove.
This wondrous locket was adorned with an oval amber stone flecked with golds, reds, and yellows, and surrounded by copper intricacies, detailed spirals, and tiny golden leaves crusted with soil and grime.
Mother handed it to me, but Simon was the one who put the two together, making it our most prized possession. Even though it didn't appear, at first, to hold any substantial benefit toward our survival, it was undeniably dazzling.
"HEY!" he shouted with joy at his revelation.
"Look at this you guys..." he trailed off, disappearing around the corner to retrieve his favorite green rock.
When he came back, he beelined it to me for the locket, picked it up, and fiddled with the faulty latch until it clicked open. He stuck the jade heart inside and clicked it closed again, pleased with himself for knowing it would fit so flawlessly.
I'd seen some incredible things as a little girl, back before the world as we knew it came to such an abrupt end. I still dreamt of sparkling dresses and dinner parties, trying on my mother's jewelry, pretty hairpins… but this… this was the most magical thing I'd ever seen.