Simeon may have been the only other living man in a world of ghosts, but he was still a son of a bitch. The first time I saw him he sat cross-legged on a toppled statue of Justice, pinching olives from a tin can. I kicked my way through drifts of rubble down the long boulevard toward him, waving my hand above my head, but he still just waggled one long finger into the can for the few last olives, pretending like he didn’t see me at all.
Once I got within earshot I couldn’t really think of what to say. He was the first human being I had seen for seven hundred and sixty-four days. I think I ended up saying something like “Hallo!” real loud, like I was shouting from a passing ship or something. But even then he just turned and looked at me with that cockeyed stare, annoyed, like I had asked him for spare change.
Once I got closer, right up to the base of the statue, I said something like, “My name is Joel. It’s nice to see another living person.” But he just went on staring at me with one open eye, his face shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat. He had a naturally pointed face, sharpened further by hunger, and his tattered, dirt-smudged overalls hung around his bony frame like an empty sack. After a minute, he aimed his nose back down and continued digging in the can. He didn’t say a word.
I looked down the deserted boulevard in either direction, watching swirls of dust and garbage twist their way across the cracked pavement. For a minute I thought he might be deaf, or maybe crazy. I wouldn’t blame him, not after what we had seen. After a long silence he finally spoke.
“Can’t have my olives, if that’s what you’re after.”
“Pardon?” I said, though I had heard him just fine.
“Said you can’t have them,” he aimed a glare in my direction, “I found the can, so they’re mine.”
I raised my palms toward him and took a step back. “I don’t want to steal your olives. Just looking to… I don’t know. Talk, or something.”
He appraised me again with his head tilted back, his one open eye slicing me up and down.
I continued. “I was starting to think I was the only one left. I haven’t seen anyone else since everything happened.”
He finally reached the last olive and popped it into his mouth, letting the juice run into his patchy beard as he bit down with stained teeth. “Well, now you seen me,” he said. He tossed the empty can over his shoulder, sending a clatter that echoed back and forth off of crumbling facades.
He stared down at me from his perch. I stared back up at his silhouette, shielding my eyes from the sun.
“Well, I guess I’ll be on my way then.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.
Simeon didn’t say anything, just kept staring at my back as I shuffled off down the road. When I had gone a few blocks I turned back, but he was gone.
The world is a big place, and it feels even bigger when there’s no one in it. Every sound you make echoes back at you from all directions — every cough, every step. The silence is dense; it fills the air like a physical presence, suffocating in it’s blunt, pillowy force. And the longer it hangs there the more the pressure builds, until sometimes you find yourself clapping once, loudly, just to release the pressure.
The emptiness is like that too. It gets inside of you. It gets to the point where you feel less confined when you’re closed off in small spaces, like broom closets or studio apartments. Sometimes I pretend that there’s still a whole world of people on the other side of those walls, still shouting and fucking and killing each other. It’s comforting. In the open you can’t fool yourself; each empty street gapes like a wound.
The world feels like a big place, anyway, until you have someone to avoid. It wasn’t another two days before I came across Simeon again, this time rooting through a toppled trash can in the knee-high grass of a city park. He glanced toward me but immediately picked up his clanking sack and pinned his eyes to the ground. He passed me going the opposite direction, not ten feet away, but he never looked up. He just passed me like a stranger, which I guess I was.
I saw him again three days later as I sat reading Ender’s Game in an arm chair that I had found, inexplicably, on a traffic island in the middle of downtown. He was pushing a shopping cart with one wobbly, spinning wheel across the intersection in front of me. He took one glance at me and shook his head slowly, the way I used to shake my head when the dog in the apartment next door started barking at three in the morning. I waved and gave a friendly smile, but he just leaned against the cart and kept going. It took him ten minutes to get two blocks with that wobbly wheel, but he didn’t look back once.
This went on for a few weeks, one of us happening upon the other out scavenging: Simeon always shaking his head and me waving like a fool. It became kind of comforting for me. Just like having a real neighbor again.
One cool evening, when the red sun stretched long, jagged shadows across the deserted streets, I found Simeon by the water, sitting on a stone barrier overlooking the bay. The cresting spines of upturned boats bobbed in the waves, and sheets of foam and garbage lapped at the shining rocks with every swell. I walked up behind him, my hands in my pockets, marveling at the way this new sun glanced off the water in a long streak, like a blood-stained dagger.
“It’s beautiful, in a way,” I said, more to myself than to him.
He just nodded, his jagged features stretching sharp, red shadows across his smudged face. After a moment, he held out an open can with one olive rolling in it’s juice at the bottom.
It wasn’t much, but I took it.
Photo by Ashton Pal