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Constantine’s red letter day

by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)

 

After eight hours, the highlights of which were a bag of half-full spice bottles, a batch of Mladenka’s handmade soap, and an extended argument over whether nostalgia value equalled actual value (no), Constantine locked the back room behind the counter and closed the door of Stores behind him. He was fitting the shackle of the first lock through the staple when he heard someone coming towards him up the hallway, the kind of shuffling and puffing that signified hurrying without actually being very fast. He snicked the padlock together with decisive force.

“Wait just a second, I need something,” Gerrard said, stopping too near and standing too close.

“I’m closed.” Constantine fitted the second padlock into place.

“It’ll just take a minute.”

“I reopen tomorrow morning after breakfast.”

Gerrard let out a huff. “You know, you could try some actual customer service.”

“Which has been provided all day.” Door secured, Constantine stepped around Gerrard.

“Constantine!” He turned at the second voice. Damnation, he thought, as Tuyen hurried down the hall towards him. “I’m so sorry, Henri said you had something for me, I’ve been trying to get away all day but Mom’s been a handful…”

Keeping his sigh internal, Constantine pulled out his keys. “I do. Give me a moment.”

“Oh, so you’ll open for her,” Gerrard said.

Constantine turned to give him a flat look. “And when you’re taking care of your eighty-two-year-old mother, you will get special consideration too.” Even Gerrard had the self-awareness to redden. “Tuyen, didn’t someone arrive to give you a break?”

“Rigby did, but Mom was fussing, and it was easier just to stay. He did bring us some lunch. I thought I could take her outside in the afternoon for some air while I got some seeds into the garden, but she didn’t want to go out and wouldn’t settle down and…oh, my goodness.”

She’d followed Constantine back into the room, where he’d gone behind the counter and dragged out the laundry bag of supplies one of the couriers had brought back. Bed pads, adult diapers, nitrile gloves, disposable bibs. The kind of things that were jokes until you needed them.

“There’s more coming. Asha found an abandoned assisted living facility down by Hay Bay. She’s going to take one of the cargo bikes down and make a round trip next time she’s in depot,” Constantine said.

“Oh, Constantine.” Tuyen was kneeling by the bag. She pulled out a round plastic jar. “You found some Horlicks?”

“You said she liked it. The seal is intact, so I hope it’s still good. It might help on days when she doesn’t want to eat.”

Tuyen put her hand over her mouth. “This is…” Her voice thinned.

“It’s what you need,” Constantine said. “Will you be all right carrying it by yourself?” The bag was more bulky than heavy.

“I’ll be fine. Thank you.”

“Let me know if you think of anything else that you could use.”

Tuyen pulled the bag out of the door as if towing a sled. Gerrard was roaming the room, fingering and disarranging the clothing and books and dishes on the free shelves.

Constantine went over to the door. “Take what you need and let’s go.”

“I don’t want any of this stuff.” Gerrard pointed at the locked back room. “I need some toothpaste.”

“You’re cut off until you bring me something in exchange for the batteries and the soap. I explained that the last three times you’ve been in.”

“You let other people run tabs.”

“When you’re a farmer who can’t pay until the harvest, I’ll let you run a tab.”

“When you’re a farmer. When you’re looking after your mother,” Gerrard mimicked. “You just want an excuse to play favourites.”

Constantine held the door open. “We’re done here. Are you coming?”

Gerrard folded his arms and leaned against the counter. “I’m not leaving this room until I get what I came for.”

“Suit yourself.” Constantine had time to shut the door behind himself and get the first lock back through the staple before Gerrard reached the door. Gerrard racheted the doorknob back and forth violently, the lock and hasp and staple rattling like dull chimes.

“Let me the fuck out!”

“Very well. Stop shoving the door so I can remove the lock. I said stop shoving the door.” He waited and counted to himself. When he reached twelve, Gerrard gave the door what sounded like a kick and subsided. Constantine pulled the lock out of the staple again. “It’s open.”

Gerrard slammed out of the room. “Medha’s going to hear about this,” he fumed, “you smug asshole,” and stomped away down the hallway.

Constantine locked the two padlocks, pocketed his keys, and headed to the kitchen to drop off the spices and pick up a package of his own before he went out to stretch his legs before dinner. He probably had time to drop in on Lucy, if the weather held.

Eight years and change since what people variously called the zombie apocalypse, the walker plague, and the End of the Fucking World, the high school building had been transformed from a makeshift fortress to a working community hub. While luxuries like central heating and reliable running water were unobtainable at any price, Napanee Depot had a cafeteria kept above freezing year-round by wood-burning stoves, and tiled gymnasium bathrooms where one could splash around half a bucket of sun-warmed water and at least fantasize about taking a shower. When he got back to the depot, Constantine went to his room to pick up his towel and soap, and went to wash before dinner.

At this time of day, the outdoor work crews had largely come and gone, leaving the showers damp and chilly. Behind one of the privacy curtains, Constantine undressed quickly and put his clothes on the head-high shelf, then lathered up. Mladenka had put dried lavender in this batch, which smelled divine but scratched. Constantine squinted at his sliver of soap in the light from the high windows, trying to pick out a stubborn bit of twig.

The sound of water splatting against the tiles came from the other end of the room, then a half-theatrical, half-honest shriek. “Fuck, that’s cold.”

“I can tell.” Whispers, and snickers. A quick exhale. “Ngh. Not here.”

Please not here,” Constantine commented, applying suds with vigour. The June day, ebbing towards evening, had cooled fast, and his skin was already coming up in goosebumps. He had no idea how people managed to get amorous in the showers.

Muffled laughter. “Sorry, man.” Constantine recognized the voice. Satchel was one of the couriers, and a good one: kind, perceptive, and dedicated. And as a side note, emphatically non-celibate.

“Our bad,” added the other voice. Aiken, one of the kitchen workers. Organized and good-humoured under pressure, and good at what he did; he’d actually trained as a chef.

The disadvantage to being among the last to wash was that the day’s supply of warm water was running out. Constantine gritted his teeth and rinsed off the suds with cold water, the friction of his wet facecloth rubbing his skin pink. Shivering, he pulled on fresh clothes, and left Satchel and Aiken in privacy.

He took his towel and dirty clothes back to his room and was heading in the direction of the warm cafeteria when Medha popped her head out of her office as he passed. “Constantine, do you have a minute?”

The depot didn’t have a leader as such, but Medha was the placeholder for one, the problem solver and diplomat to whom everyone turned for solutions and trusted for fair judgement. She’d taken the principal’s office for herself, partly because it was central and partly, she’d confessed to Constantine once, to get her hands on the antique, solid wood file cabinets before they were broken up and burned for fuel.

She’d replaced the punitive chairs and receptionist’s desk in the anteroom with a trio of couches covered with bright quilts, and she waved Constantine into one now. The daylight through the pebbled glass panel between this room and the principal’s office proper was dimming, and she’d lighted a beeswax candle that seeped sweetness into the air.

“Has Gerrard been giving you serious trouble?” she asked, settling into the couch opposite and foregoing any preliminary chatting because she knew him well.

“I would not say serious. He is persistent.”

“He’s been complaining all afternoon–not just to me. He thinks you’re refusing to give him things he needs because you don’t like him.”

Constantine hadn’t like Gerrard since the afternoon a month ago when, newly arrived in depot, Gerrard had taken up space in Stores for fifteen minutes and then tried to explain how Constantine could make his operations more “efficient.” That Constantine was choosing not to replicate the abuses of late-stage capitalism apparently had not occurred to him. “The only salvage he brings in is trash that we already have more than enough of, kitchenware and the like. He makes nothing new. The few times he’s deigned to join a work party, he’s spent most of his time telling people the best way to do the work he’s not doing. I advanced him some goods in good faith, and he’s provided nothing in return and is now expecting more. All of which is to say, he’s correct, I don’t like him, and until he’s paid off his obligation with something of value, he’s welcome to find his toothpaste elsewhere.”

“There isn’t really an elsewhere,” Medha pointed out.

“That’s not my problem to solve.”

She nodded. “I told him the depot only provided room and board, and anything more was his issue to work out with you or anyone else he chose. I won’t tell you what to do. I just wanted to let you know what’s been happening.”

Constantine stood. “I appreciate that.”

She ran her tongue over her teeth. “Do you have toothpaste?”

“Three unopened tubes of Tom’s spearmint ice. I’ll put one aside for you.”

“I haven’t had time to plant anything,” she said reluctantly, “and the last time I volunteered to wash dishes was a week and a half ago, and I had to leave in the middle of that to deal with something else.”

“Invisible work is still work,” Constantine reminded her, and was rewarded with a smile that warmed him in a way he didn’t even mind.

The cafeteria was busier than it had been since the growing season started. Several of the couriers had completed their looping routes and were taking a day or two’s rest before starting out again, and there were a few from Prince Edward County on the farthest point of their own routes. Delia Chow, who coordinated depot maintenance, was hosting a group from North Gower Depot– something to do with water pumping–and the Bonair family, who had arrived after being burnt out of their farmhouse three weeks back, were still debating what to do next.

Constantine joined the line for the serving tables. “Oh, Elmer,” he said, as Elmer Augustine-Buffalo wheeled by him with a tray on his lap. “Some new yarn came in.”

“Great, I’ll be in soon.”

From behind Constantine, Blue, who kept the bike pool running, said, “You get a line on them gears and shit I was after?”

“Apparently Picton Depot may have some. I’ll be sending a message back.”

Winter’s dinners had consisted of a lot of perpetual soup, involving a lot of carrots–last year had been a bumper year for carrots–and Constantine gladly loaded his tray up with green salad and steamed Shanghai bok choy and a cornmeal muffin.

“Wait, those have milk in them,” Aiken said, arriving with a replacement bowl of salad. He picked up the plate of muffins and moved it farther up the table, collecting Constantine’s on the way. “Emma’s still getting the hang of things, sorry.” The serving tables were divided into meat, vegetarian, and vegan sections, unmarked but understood; anything else, like the charoset and matzoh the kitchen had made for Passover, got labelled with little paper flags. “The oatcakes are vegan, though.”

“Thanks.” Constantine took an oatcake and moved out of the line to scan the seating arrangements. He noticed Gabriella and Hank, the Picton Depot couriers, and walked over to them. “May I join you?” They nodded, and he put his tray down. “When are you leaving? Tomorrow? I’ll have that list we spoke about ready if you come by Stores before you go.”

“Can you use sunscreen or lip balm?” Hank asked. “I can bring some on my next circle around, if you want. I’m looking for notebooks, preferably pocket-sized, and pencils.”

“We can use those, and I have pencils in stock.”

Gabriella swallowed a mouthful. “Oh my God, your food here is good. Have you tried these tacos?”

“They’re not my kind of thing, but I’ll tell the kitchen you liked them.”

“Oh, yeah? You a veggie?”

“Vegan, yes.”

She popped a stray shred of meat into her mouth. “Can I ask you something?”

Constantine looked flatly at her. “You can ask.”

She was made of sterner stuff than many people who had backed away when the conversation hit that point. “Why do you even bother anymore? Isn’t everything, like, organic and free range and whatever now anyway?”

“It’s not about that. It’s about trying not to cause more suffering than I need to.” Constantine didn’t have any illusions about the world ever being entirely cruelty-free.

“Okay, but veganism’s pretty radical. I could never give up cheese,” Gabriella said. “Meat, maybe, if I could find a way to get enough protein, but never cheese. It’s delicious.”

“Is that what you base all your ethical decisions on?”

He thought his voice was reasonable enough, but she flushed and looked at him with challenge. “So did you kill any zombies during the plague?”

“Jesus, girl, shut up,” muttered Hank.

“Yes. I did,” Constantine bit off, and the table got quiet and stayed that way for the rest of dinner.

Constantine spent the evening reading in the room everyone called the study. It was just one of the classrooms furnished with couches and easy chairs, and it wasn’t heated, but unlike the cafeteria it faced west and caught the day’s last light. A courier from Kingston Depot, just arrived, interrupted him with a tote bag of hardware store pickings that he expected to trade on the spot. Constantine managed to put him off until the next day. This was why he had instituted formal opening hours; if he didn’t set limits, he’d spend every waking minute handing boxes of razor blades and bottles of dish soap in and out of Stores.

Except for in the dead of winter, most people more or less woke and went to bed with the sun. Around nine, Constantine made a last trip to the outhouses and headed back up to his room. It was in one of the long, low wings of the school, on the quiet end of the second storey, and he took a little-used corner staircase. Halfway up the twilight-dim stairway, he heard shuffling on the landing above him.

He froze. No one had seen a walker for a few years now–it was generally accepted that the plague had worn itself out–but instinct and hard experience rooted his feet to the polished concrete step. “Who’s there?” he said sharply.

A moment of silence, then a deep, resigned sigh and the sound of clothing being hastily rearranged. “Just us.” Satchel’s voice floated down the stairwell. “We’re going.”

Constantine rolled his eyes. The sound of the crash bar on the upper door echoed against the glass and metal, and then he was alone. He gave them a count of sixty, and then climbed the staircase and gained his room.

He changed quickly into the long-sleeved tee and yoga pants he slept in. Before he crawled under his duvet, he cupped his hands against the cold window glass and looked out. Clouds were piling in the west, a dark mass above the fading thread of sunset. He hadn’t been able to find Lucy, and he hoped she was warm and under cover. Not for the first time, he wondered whether he should have tried harder to coax her into the depot. But, as he always concluded, she’d survived worse than a rainstorm alone, and anyway, it was her choice.

~*~

Hank, without Gabriella, stopped by Stores after breakfast the next day to pick up Blue’s list, and reverently accepted one unused graphite pencil on spec. “Half the pens we find are dried up,” he said, “and pencils are my favourite anyway.”

There was a disgusted sound from the doorway. “See, you just hand shit out to anybody but me,” Gerrard accused.

“Hey, man, I’m good for it.”

“I trust everyone to pay their debts, until they prove otherwise,” Constantine said.

Gerrard folded his arms. “I came to give you one last chance. I’ve been watching you. You think you’re better than the rest of us. Well, I know what you’re really like, and if you’re not careful, everybody else is going to know too!” He wheeled and went out, banging his shoulder against the door and staggering as he did, which, Constantine had to admit, was childishly satisfying.

“Wow, drama.” Hank fiddled with the pencil. “Uh, sorry about Gabriella last night.”

“You don’t need to apologize for anyone else.”

“Maybe, but I plan to come back here again, so…” He leaned his elbows on the counter. “Vegan, huh?”

“Since I was fifteen.”

“Was it hard do it, you know, when things got really bad?”

“It was. I didn’t always succeed at it, but I did it when I could.”

Hank turned the pencil end over end, shaking his head. “That’s the hard thing, right? Convincing yourself that anything still matters. That it’s worth the effort. After, you know, everything. ”

“I think, in the long run, nothing really does matter.” Hank jerked upright to look at him. Constantine shrugged. “That’s why it’s meaningful to live as though it does.”

At noon he locked up and went to have lunch. Afterwards, he packed a few books and a full water bottle into his bag. He was scheduled to be open in the evening, which meant he had the afternoon free; the night’s storm had left washed-clean blue skies in its wake, and he felt like being alone out in the green for a while.

On his way out, he stopped by the kitchen. Satchel was helping with the dishes, and Aiken was tidying the prep table, moving around the room in a way that brought him close behind Satchel more frequently than Constantine suspected was strictly necessary. Constantine picked up the small package he’d come for and left them to it.

Everyone had their own way of escaping the hothouse dormitory of depot life, many clearing out altogether during the growing season and fleeing back when the November bleakness of the countryside began to close in. Like many of those who stayed, Constantine had his own bolt-hole in town. A five-minute walk from the depot, he veered off the road and between two houses. The gate was latched, the way he’d left it; he reached over to unfasten it, and entered his secret garden.

One wall was the back of the house, its opposite the wall of the garage. Virginia creeper grew thick over the greying boards of the fences that squared those off to form a roofless room. A few large planters in the corners held shaggy ornamental evergreens. Constantine set his bag down on the teak table beside the matching recliner. “Lucy? Are you around?”

Sometimes she’d hear him coming and be waiting; sometimes she’d appear when he was settled in. Occasionally he’d catch sight of her elsewhere on the street, or on the porch of the brick Victorian Gothic across the road. He was fairly certain she didn’t stay in this aging bungalow, which from what he could see through the back window had been looted and thoroughly trashed, and looked like it had developed a leak in the roof since.

Along one of the fences was a wooden bench with sliding doors concealing storage underneath. Constantine retrieved the blankets he’d stashed there and spread them over the recliner in place of the original cushions, which had been black with mould when he’d come across the place. “Lucy?”

She’d come if and when she was interested. Constantine stretched out on the recliner in the mingled sun and shade. The sky was depthless above him. He toed his shoes off and let them fall off the end of the recliner. He still, sometimes, marvelled at the quiet. It wasn’t really quiet at all–there was a constant low-level shushing of the breeze through the leaves, birds flapping and calling, squirrels skittering across the roofs–but without the rumble of cars and airplanes and the ever-present need people had had to share their musical tastes with others, the sounds of nature seemed soothing rather than intrusive.

He pulled the novel he was reading out of his bag–about magic-users in Regency England, because, as a weird side effect of the end of the world as he’d known it, he now found it impossible to read anything set later than the nineteenth century–and cracked it open. Although he was thoroughly enjoying the story, within two pages his eyelids were closing. He could feel his spine sinking into the blankets, the tightness in his shoulders giving way. The scent of honeysuckle wafted in from the neighbouring yard. Constantine set his book face-down on his chest and let himself nod off.

“Fucking finally.”

Constantine’s eyes flew open.

“Seriously, you need to get your own room.”

“I have my own room. Only, Paul and I had to double up because it’s so crowded right now.”

He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep. Long enough for the inside of his mouth to go gummy. He reached for the water bottle in his bag.

“Someone needs to tell Paul what a tie on the doorknob means.”

A laugh. “Your stanky travel towel is not a tie.”

“We need to get a tie.”

“There are no ties. No one has ever salvaged a tie. No one misses ties.”

“Then just tell him, I’ve been trying to get laid for like three days, can you come back in a couple hours?”

Satchel. And Aiken. They were two or three backyards away from him, and not making any effort to keep their voices down. There was a pause, sounds lower than Constantine could hear. Then, “Blanket?”

The rustle of a plastic bag, the flap of something large shaken open. “Here?”

“In the sun.”

Constantine contemplated getting up and leaving. But the recliner was comfortable, and he still hadn’t seen Lucy, and he’d been here first.

An approving groan. “Yeah, you like being on the bottom?” Someone catching his breath.

“Hang on, there’s a rock in my back.” The hollow thunk of a thrown stone hitting a wooden fence, followed by several minutes of wordless sounds. Constantine picked up his book again.

“I want to watch you.” Movement. “Shift your leg.” “Sorry, fucked-up knee.” “Ow! You’re on my hair.” “Is this good?” “The angle’s wrong, how about…”

It was ridiculous, the lengths to which people were driven in pursuit of rubbing sensitive parts of their bodies against other people’s. Constantine considered himself fortunate to have been spared that human indignity, at least.

“Yeah…yeah, that’s good. Oh, that’s good. Can you–like that.” Half-voiced breaths for a while. “Wait, wait, I don’t want to come yet.”

That had always baffled Constantine. If orgasm wasn’t the point, why bother?

More moaning, Satchel this time. “More. Please. Ah! Dude, you’re killing me.” He got louder, as though giving voice to his own needs were part of his pleasure, which, knowing Satchel, did not surprise Constantine one iota. “Oh fuck, oh fuck please. I need–just do it, oh God…”

“You going to come?”

“I want to come so bad–”

“How about…”

Panting laughter. “Go fuck yourself, seriousl–Ah. Please. Just like that, just–yeah–” He babbled for another long minute. “I’m gonna, I’m gonna come, I’m– Ah, ah–” A long shout tore out of him, descending into a groan.

Soon Aiken gave an appreciative moan. He was quieter than Satchel, who even doing what he was doing managed to express muffled encouragement. When he finished it was with a gasp and a long sigh.

About time, Constantine thought, and dozed off again in the sated silence.

When he awoke, late afternoon shade had descended on the patio. He folded up the blankets again and put them away, then untwisted the butcher’s paper package and left it on the bench for Lucy. The paper he’d left there the day before was sodden and empty. Constantine yawned, finished the water in his bottle, and walked back to the depot without seeing or hearing Lucy or anyone else.

Dinner was green salad again, asparagus–the spindly last of the year—and over-baked corn crackers with bean dip. Constantine looked up to see Gerrard gloating at him from the far end of the serving table.

“You got all your veggies there, Constantine?” Gerrard asked.

“Yes,” Constantine said, and turned to see if anyone was at his usual table.

“Sure you don’t want any hash with that?”

Some people could not get over others making different choices. “Stop bothering me, Gerrard,” he said, and headed towards Carol, who kept the couriers’ notebooks and made sure the maps were up to date.

“Don’t you walk away when I’m talking to you!”

Constantine put his tray down. “Hi, Carol. Has anyone brought in any good stories this week?”

“You think you can ignore me?” Gerrard’s voice rose in schoolyard mockery. “You think you’re so great. Oh, I’m nice to people who deserve it.” People were watching now, the usual chatter in the food line fallen to silence. “You’re just a petty bureaucrat who gets off on having your little bit of power.”

That was not tolerable, particularly coming from someone whom Constantine strongly suspected used to be a middle manager. “There is no bureaucracy, Gerrard,” he said, sitting down. “I provide a service.”

“A service where you get first pick of everything. Nice work if you can get it.”

Gerrard would never believe how stringent Constantine kept his own needs. He stuck his fork into his salad. “If you don’t like it, start another one. No one’s stopping you.”

“Oh, like competition’s really going to happen around here. Everyone goes to you!”

Constantine arched one eyebrow. “So I’m a popular petty bureaucrat?”

As Gerrard sputtered, Satchel, standing in line, broke in. “Dude, you’re missing a key point here. There’s not enough before-plague shit left to go around.”

“Well, yeah.”

“So–and I realize I’m not the first person in history to say this–you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you can get what you need. And Constantine makes that happen.”

Gerrard made a dismissive noise. “Why does he get to decide?”

“Because we trust him,” Carol said.

Constantine looked at her, as startled as he’d ever felt. She inclined her head at him. Heads nodded all around the room.

“Well–but–why doesn’t anybody trust me?” Gerrard’s words came out shrill and wounded.

An awkward silence fell on the cafeteria.

“You know, you still haven’t given back that screwdriver I lent you,” said Delia. “I’ve asked you twice.”

Elmer cleared his throat. “You said you’d do some laundry for me in exchange for that pair of socks I made you, but you haven’t yet.” A ripple of disapproval went around the room. Plenty of people had taken up knitting, but Elmer’s socks were something special; he had a waiting list.

“You keep saying you’ll come help with the dishes, but you’ve only ever done it once.” That was Paul, leaning out of the pass-through servery window.

Gerrard swung his gaze around the cafeteria, looking hunted. “At least I’m not a goddamn hypocrite. He’s so self-righteous, he’s all I’m a vegan, I’m so ethical, and then he sneaks meat out of the kitchen so he can eat it in private. Ask him! I’ve seen him!”

Cold fury crystallized in Constantine. He opened his mouth.

Satchel laughed. “Dude, it’s for his cat.”

Constantine shut his mouth with a snap.

“What? No way,” someone said.

“I know, right?” Paul again.

“For a couple of years now–”

“Yeah, he’s got a place over by the fairgrounds–”

“So are you done?” Blue said over the chatter. It wasn’t really a question.

“Yeah, Gerrard,” Gzowski, one of the other couriers, added.

Medha stood up. “Thank you, Blue, Gzowski,” she said, without raising her voice, and the room quieted. “Gerrard, it looks like you had some of your facts wrong. And that you have a few favours to repay.” And then, because she was a better person than Constantine would ever be, she went on, “I know you have skills that could make a real contribution. You just haven’t found your niche yet. Why don’t you stop by my office tomorrow, and we can discuss how to make that happen. I’ll expect you at ten.”

Gerrard’s gaze darted around the room. He looked as if he’d stumbled over something on what he’d thought was a clear sidewalk and was trying to make sure no one else had noticed.

Carol flicked the edge of Constantine’s tray with her fingernail, a click that got his attention. “You look poleaxed.”

Constantine quelled an urge to look over his shoulder. “I hadn’t told anyone about Lu–the cat.”

She loaded up a forkful of chopped meat and mashed potatoes. “If you think anybody can keep anything a secret around here for any length of time, you didn’t grow up in a small town, is all I can say.”

Had Paul told someone he’d asked for meat scraps? Had Aiken?

Carol rolled her eyes. “Constantine. You usually wear black. You have a white cat. Do the math.”

“…Oh.” He glanced down at his slim-fitting black cotton pullover and dark grey linen trousers.

“Relax. We don’t respect you less just because we know you’re human.” Constantine tried a stony look on her; she just grinned. “Eat your rabbit food, hon. I hear there’s strawberries for dessert.”

~*~

On Saturdays when there wasn’t two feet of snow on the ground or a downpour in progress, Constantine opened from ten to two to accommodate people walking or biking in from the surrounding farms. A lot of trading went on in the parking lot, but he had his regulars. Sophie Michaud wiped out a year’s worth of obligation by bringing in three flats of mason jars of maple syrup. A third of it went within the hour, as word of it spread. Elderly Jem Fionn, who had put his back out twice last summer and probably shouldn’t be living alone but had refused to leave the homestead his grandfather had bought in the Thirties, dropped off an enormous stack of fresh rhubarb. Most of it would go to the compost pile, though Constantine didn’t tell Jem that, and let him walk away with a nearly full tube of Bengay and a precious quarter-pound of loose black tea.

He usually missed lunch service on Saturdays, but there was a pot of lukewarm perpetual soup–carrot, of course–and more of yesterday’s singed crackers on the all-day table. On the Today’s Menu bulletin board that dated from the building’s school days, someone had pinned up a piece of paper on which red crayon proclaimed, TONIGHT!! is Egg Night!! Sarah’s hens must have begun laying again. The depot kitchen staff generally tried to make Saturday dinner a special one, and no one had tasted an egg since late winter. Constantine mentally shrugged and resigned himself to carrot soup and increasingly stale crackers twice in one day.

The little packet of meat for Lucy waited for him in its usual place. The kitchen smelled of something light and gingery. At one of the stainless steel tables, Aiken was chopping a cigar of green leaves up fine, humming to himself. It didn’t appear to be dinner prep, since there wasn’t a two-foot stack of it. Maybe he was hobby cooking. Constantine supposed Aiken needed something new to occupy his time, since Satchel had headed out that morning on his courier route.

He took the parcel and his bag and avoided the parking lot on his way out. He took a circuitous route to his garden. No one seemed to be following him, and he didn’t fear any real harm, but the idea that everyone knew his business rankled a little.

Yesterday’s butcher paper had been blown to the ground, only a patch of grease left where the meat had been. Constantine unwrapped today’s, rattling it in case Lucy was near, but no white cat squeezed under the fence or appeared on top of it with a trill. She might not be feeling sociable, he told himself. Insofar as a cat could be preoccupied, she probably had a lot on her mind these days. And if something had happened to her, well, the last eight years had been a merciless lesson on exactly how much Constantine had no control over.

The sliding door to the compartment under the bench was ajar. He pushed it fully open and reached in for the blankets.

He touched softness–warmer and downier than the wool he’d been expecting–and yanked his hand back. Then he squatted lower and squinted into the dim box.

Lucy lay on her side, five tiny, squirming bundles of fur nestled in a row against her belly.

“There you are,” Constantine said softly, relief spilling through him with a force that astonished him. He extended a finger to her. Lucy rubbed her jaw against it, hissed at him, and then flopped her head back down and began to purr.

~*~

The mood in the cafeteria that evening was festive. According to Carol, medieval peasants had had a ridiculous number of feast days; the depot was developing its own holy calendar around the first spring peas, the first tomatoes, new potatoes, pumpkin pie. Constantine had only half believed his grandmother’s story of how an orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking had been a real and anticipated treat, until he found himself dreaming of vanished foreign luxuries, oranges and coffee and chocolate.

An expanded menu had been posted on the bulletin board: Eggs, any style, from Sarah. Fresh or toasted bread!! made from Manotick flour. Bacon from Emilio. Home fries done in Ranya’s butter. They were taking orders, Constantine saw as the line neared the serving tables, and bringing plates out restaurant-style. The serving tables, including the spot where the vegan choices normally sat, were bare.

“Go on into the kitchen,” Paul directed him, as he stood in confusion that he hoped wasn’t showing.

“What?”

“Constantine!” Ireena waved at him as she deposited two plates on the counter of the pass-through. “Yours is in here.”

Thoughtful of them to keep his bowl of soup warm, he supposed. He went to the kitchen doorway. The smell of hot fat made his mouth water.

“Oh, hey, Constantine.” Aiken looked up from where he was taking a baking tray out of one of the wood-burning ovens. He put it on the top of the stove and pulled off his oven mitts. “Come sit over here.”

A corner of one of the prep tables, at the back of the room near the propped-open door to outside, had a tea towel spread out on it and a stool pulled up to it. On the tea towel was a wine glass, a bare white plate and, surrounding it, a thicket of silverware. Actual silver, Constantine saw, antique and florid. “What’s this?”

“You’re having a special meal tonight too. Have a seat.”

Constantine sat down on the stool. The room was warm, and the cross breeze from the door was welcome on the back of his neck. There was a folded cloth napkin under the forks.

Deja vu came in a slow wave almost like vertigo, cresting and retreating: silver and white linen, sitting in shade on a summery day, respite after long hours of thought and effort. Constantine stilled. He took a conscious breath and let the feeling ebb away. Then he unfolded the napkin slowly and spread it on his lap.

Aiken set a china saucer in front of him. It held a tablespoon-sized heap of finely julienned white vegetable, sprinkled with green that picked up the greenery in the plate’s riotous floral pattern. “To start, quick-pickled daikon radish with spring onions from Delia’s plot,” Aiken said, and poured water into the wine glass. “And to drink, spring water with cucumber and mint.”

Constantine picked up the outermost fork and took some radish onto it. The salad was slightly crunchy, sweet and tart from a vinaigrette, with a tinge of bitter heat from the radish itself, as fresh as spring.

Aiken returned with a small willow basket cupped in one hand. “Next, bread basket. With actual bread, I am pretty thrilled to say.” He set it on the table above Constantine’s plate.

Constantine folded back the points of the white napkin that lined the basket. Inside were two pieces of bread–a heel and a thick slice–about three inches tall, as though they’d been baked in a mini pan. They were still warm.

Leavened flour bread. Not coarse cornmeal crackers, not oatmeal porridge, not wheat berries boiled into barely palatable digestibility. Chewy, dense bread, with the tang of sourdough. Constantine shut his eyes, and kept them that way as he savoured each miraculous bite.

“That was wonderful,” he told Aiken, who replaced his crumb-scattered plate with a yellow cracklewear bowl.

“Yeah, it’s the first year Manotick Mill’s produced enough flour to share. I’ll tell Ireena you liked it, the bread’s her thing. This is a salad of Constant Farm’s butter crunch lettuce with lemon balm dressing and Phillip’s black walnuts.”

It really did taste like lemon. Incongruously, the savory dressing brought back a flash of Constantine’s grandmother’s lemon meringue pie. The filling, a pure colour-wheel yellow, had come out of a box. Long after he’d learned what real lemon pie tasted like–made with Meyer lemons, even better–that tart gelatinous slice had remained one of his earliest recollections of food meaning something special.

The last tang of lemon on his tongue, he put down his fork and watched the cooks’ choreographed chaos. Paul was stirring and flipping eggs on two cast-iron grill pans, Ireena plating toast and home fries and strips of thick bacon from roasting pans keeping warm in the ovens.

“Rigby’s cauliflower and sweet potato soups with garlic chips and chickpea croutons,” Aiken said. The plate was low and broad, with gold curlicues around the rim. Each pureed soup, white and orange, occupied one half of the bowl, and met in a swirled line in the centre. Golden slices of fried garlic matched the curve of the plate on the surface of the white soup, paprika-red chickpeas glistening with oil on the orange. The chickpeas were smoky and crunchy and darkly rich. They reminded him of the way his kitchen had smelled the winter he’d learned to saute spices in oil before adding them to a dish. Constantine heard himself make a soft sound when he bit into the first one.

“Spring vegetables from Another Day Farm with wild ginger coulis.” This was a square white plate, on which the steamed vegetables were displayed like jewellery: an emerald fan of snow peas, a whole Shanghai bok choy, three carrots the size of Constantine’s forefinger, and a cluster of baby broccoli spears. A pale sauce decorated the space around them, gold dots and filigrees punctuated with meticulously placed leaves and sprigs of herbs.

It made him think of high-end places he’d occasionally been invited to on business, low lights and murmured conversations and elegant, overpriced hush. Sometimes places where, twenty feet away, people sat on cold concrete collecting spare change in used paper coffee cups. That world wouldn’t exist again. His feelings about that fact were…complicated. He crunched on a perfectly steamed snow pea pod and reminded himself that there was actually no choice here for him to make.

The kitchen had slowed down. Sixteen-year-old Emma Baker, who had elected to spend the summer working in the depot kitchen to the mutual relief of her and her farmer parents, took the last of the completed orders from the pass-through. Ireena was eating a plateful of home fries while leaning against the sink, dipping each bite into the runny yolk of an egg.

“Puree of white beans with mixed herb pesto,” Aiken announced, offering a small mound of pale puree, with a sauce of minutely chopped greens poured into a hollow in the top and trickling down the sides, served in a pebbled ceramic bowl.

“Did you get a chance to eat?” Constantine asked.

“Oh, yeah, I ate earlier and I’ll eat again later. Don’t worry about me, I’m having the time of my life with this.”

The sauce was a garlicky essence of green. Constantine remembered eating fresh pasta tossed with grilled garlic scapes on some restaurant patio, the summer’s hot breeze scented with asphalt and car exhaust. It felt like a memory of an imaginary world.

Aiken took the bowl and replaced it with a rectangular plate with a blue and white pattern. On it was arranged three slices of pink, glistening…something, that could not possibly be tuna, for several reasons.

“Chiogga beet sashimi.” Aiken made an equivocal motion with his hand. “It’s something I’m working on. Let me know what you think.”

It tasted like roasted beets, sweet and caramelized. Large grains of pink salt crunched between Constantine’s teeth.

“Not going to fool anyone, is it?” Aiken asked.

“I wouldn’t know, but it’s very good.”

“I can’t get the texture quite right. Anyway. This is a palate cleanser of cucumber caviar.”

It was a china soup spoon containing one mouthful of pale green, finely minced cucumber, as cooling as an iced drink.

“Sam Chen is doing fantastic things with cold frames,” Aiken said. “We might get early tomatoes in a couple of weeks.”

“He’s building a greenhouse against an old stone foundation on his property. He asked me if I could get orange seeds. Young trees would be better, but I can’t see them surviving that long a journey.”

“Oranges. That would be something.” Aiken paused. “Can you get orange seeds?”

“Kingston Depot sometimes has contact with people in New York State, and they said they’d send word south. Who knows?”

Aiken took away the spoon and plate and came back with another wine glass–this one with a ruby red stem–and a white plate with shadow-grey leaves ringing the edge. A round of something pale and creamy sat in the centre, topped with a circle of raspberries and drizzled with a dark, winey sauce. Flower petals were sprinkled over and around it, royal purple and cinnabar and rose.

“Hazelnut panna cotta with wild raspberries, Gustav’s plum wine reduction, and edible flower petals. And to drink, rosewater cocktail.”

The panna cotta–more like a cheesecake–was creamy and rich. The flower petals didn’t taste like much, but the cocktail, which had a wild rose floating atop it, was delicately perfumed and sweet. Oddly, both dishes together made Constantine think of something to do with Christmas–marzipan, he realized.

“And to finish, essence of coffee with cane sugar crust.” Aiken put a handleless white espresso cup in front of Constantine. Constantine didn’t smell coffee. He looked down into the cup to see a lozenge of hard candy. It wasn’t something Aiken had made; the candy company’s logo was visible, pressed into the side.

“I tried crushing one in hot water,” Aiken said, “but seriously, better to just eat the candy.” He had an identical cup in his hand; he hooked another stool close and sat beside Constantine with a sigh of relaxation. Constantine tipped the candy into his mouth, and closed his eyes to luxuriate in the dark flavour. Coffee-like, anyway. He never expected to taste the real thing again.

Emma was bringing empty plates back into the kitchen, and stacking them into the large sinks. A canner full of water was steaming on the back of one of the stoves.

The last of the candy dissolved away. Constantine folded his napkin neatly and laid it back down on the tea towel, now denuded of forks. He felt replete and a little dazed.

“Aiken, that was astounding. Everything was absolutely delicious. Thank you.” He knew he sounded rote and impersonal, but Constantine didn’t have ready words for this kind of thing–for being the person being given a gift, rather than the one arranging it.

“Glad you enjoyed it. I had fun with it, too. It was a challenge, you know? Well, a different kind of challenge than everything is these days.” He propped his head on his hand and looked at Constantine. “To tell you the truth, I’ve known vegans, and you don’t really fit the stereotype.”

Constantine had been told that he was a cold bastard–more than once, and to his face–and he couldn’t entirely disagree, but he didn’t understand why that made people think he didn’t have ethics. “It’s important to me to try to live up to a standard of, of decency.”

“It must have been hard, sometimes. Even before.”

“Yes. It’s frustrating to have no options other than going hungry. I’ve certainly slipped.” And vowed to do better, and let it go. “Or bowed to necessity.”

Aiken’s gesture encompassed the kitchen, the cafeteria, their entire situation. “Yeah, I guess you’d have to.”

Constantine looked across the room to the pantry. “Is there anything in particular you need for the kitchen?”

“Just the usual. Salt, sugar, flavourings. Those spices you brought in yesterday were great. They never last long.”

“Let’s appreciate them while we have them.”

“Yeah, that’s the trick.” Aiken’s expression was a little wry.

Constantine stood. “Thank you again for a wonderful meal. I’m honoured that you went to the trouble. And also–for saving scraps for Lucy. And for making sure there’s something for me every day,” he added. “If you didn’t, I’d eat what was on offer, but I’m glad I don’t have to. It…means a lot to me.”

“You mean a lot to us.” Aiken gave him a sideways smile. “We meant it last night. You make sure people get what they need. Don’t think we haven’t noticed.”

“I try,” Constantine said primly, and then, because this sentimental detour had gone on long enough, “Let me help with the dishes.”

“The offer’s appreciated, but maybe not tonight.” Aiken flicked a meaningful glance over to the sinks. While they’d been talking, several people had gathered under Paul’s direction, making an assembly line of washing, rinsing, drying and stacking. One of them was Gerrard, tea towel in hand.

“Medha talked to him.”

“Yeah, be glad she uses her powers for good and not evil.” Aiken rose and stretched. The sound of someone tuning a guitar was coming from the cafeteria. “What’s on tonight?”

There was always some kind of entertainment on Saturday nights: a concert, a play, magical tricks, stand-up, a reading from someone’s novel-in-progress. “Elmer’s band.” It consisted of everyone who volunteered or whom Elmer could rope in, and was as much a community sing-along as a performance.

“Awesome. You going?”

Constantine usually did attend. You learned surprising things about people when they were on stage.

The band was still setting up. Constantine found a place on one of the easy chairs in front of the stage, and sat, satiation and digestion anchoring him, as the couches and benches and bean bag chairs filled around him. Sybille Bonair came to ask him about a birthday present for one of her sons. Then Rajesh, one of Delia’s crew, hinted that he’d found a stash of prescription drugs in a location he was cagey about and wanted Constantine to guess whether they’d still be good. During the intermission, Tuyen spread a crocheted afghan over his knees and wondered if there was any demand for more, because she couldn’t get the hang of knitting socks but she’d been crocheting since she was twelve. Constantine had more blankets than he could move, but he told her that it was beautiful–and it was, colourful flowers set in white squares–and that he’d take all that she had time to make.

Later, in bed, sleep starting to blur his awareness, he thought of Lucy, snug in her blanket-lined box. He wondered if it would be safe for him to handle the kittens, provided Lucy permitted him to. Heather, who lived alone overlooking the river, had been a veterinarian; he’d have to ask her.

He fell asleep to dream of kittens curled up warmly behind his knees, and the taste of lemon custard melting on his tongue.

 

Read this piece’s entry in the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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9 thoughts on “Constantine’s red letter day

  1. This is so hopeful and lovely! Gosh, did I enjoy this. Constantine has such an incredibly refreshing approach to the end of the world– and the Depot itself as the birth of something new, handled gently while young. I love it.

  2. This makes me want to go back and read the other stories from this setting! I’ll have to do that soon when I have a moment. This is such a sweet vision of a post-apocalyptic society. And Lucy with her kittens! This story is a wonderful comfort, thank you.

  3. I like this story so much, I kept interrupting my girlfriend’s nap to tell her about cute things that happened. This is totally my favorite kind of post-apocalyptic setting: things are different, but mostly, people are still just people.

  4. This is so good?? I loved every word of it, and it was such fun to read from start to finish! The community sounds wonderful and everyone is great, and Constantine’s double take when everyone mentioned Lucy was just. So good. It’s so good.

  5. I really enjoyed this story, getting a chance to see the POV of someone who might normally be a side character was great. I liked the juxtaposition of all of the ways he sorta stays to himsel fand yet, you can see he’s still part of the community. I did find it amusing that his first thought was that someone was spying on him when it came to the cat although I haven’t ready any of the previous stories so I’m not sure if more background was given there.

    The resolution with Gerrard and how he ended up learning how to be a part of the community (hopefully) instead of just expecting people to give him what he wants because he deserves it was great and different.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. The world building was so great and the stuff of childhood fantasies. The dinner scene at the end was the best because of the foodie details and the feelings of affection that came through. This was cute!

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