The Last Journalist
Today, Greg wrote by the late afternoon sunlight streaming in, for the first time I heard rumors of cannibalism. He jotted June 14 above, then continued. The last National Guard food truck came a week ago. Three weeks since the first riots, and the Land of Plenty has become just another failed state. It seems longer, though.
He put down the pen, took Vanessa’s picture out of his shirt pocket and smiled. “You doin’ okay, babe? Bet it’s hot down there in Sarasota with no air conditioning. Sure is hot here in the ATL.” As always, she said nothing but gave him her sexiest smile, looking back over her bare shoulder at his camera.
He sighed and turned back to the notebook.
Nobody knows why, but everyone has heard something or another. Food trucks can’t get through for hijackers, seems to be the most plausible explanation. And the news from yesterday. Most of the other rumors run the gamut from paranoid to delusional.
Vanessa had left just in time, it turned out. With a full tank of gas, and a five-gallon can in her trunk, she went to visit her family for perhaps the last time. He’d had to stay behind; he was investigating how certain people seemed to always have gas for their SUVs. When the fuel protests turned to riots the week before Memorial Day, he was in the thick of things, interviewing protestors, police, and National Guard commanders. Not to mention power crews after the electricity quit. Vanessa kept in touch until the phone networks went down too.
The newspaper closed up over the long weekend, and never reopened. Greg kept reporting, but transferred his observations and photos into a ratty three-ring binder. Someone has to document the end, he’d wrote at the time, it might as well be me. Between the riots and fires, thousands dead and tens of thousands fleeing, much of Atlanta was empty now. He’d learned quickly that even starving looters seldom ventured above the fourth floor once the elevators stopped working, so he squatted in an abandoned fifth-floor apartment near the action. Solar panels and batteries, stolen from freeway road signs, powered his laptop and camera. While he was out and about, nobody bothered a man with a camera. You couldn’t eat it or drink it, after all. But it could draw interest, and meeting the noted local journalist Greg Pilser still got people talking even after everything went to hell.
He picked up the pen, stared at the paper for a moment, then put it down. The conversation was stuck in his mind, but he couldn’t bring himself to put it on paper:
“They say it’s happening up in Midtown.” Just another survivor, looking for enough food to make it another day or week. “Someone got killed in a fight, they cut the meat off his legs and cooked it. I guess when you got nothin’ else…” He shook his head, patted his pistol. “Not me. I got eight bullets left. Squirrels is good, but I wouldn’t want to try possum what with all the bodies around, you know? Anyway, the last bullet in my gun’s for me. I ain’t gonna eat nobody.”
You have to wonder about people, he wrote next to the photo, if you want to hold onto your own humanity. Someone cared enough to work on this picture. Something we need to remember: people are worth caring about.
“You okay, kid?” he asked the picture. “I hope you’re somewhere safe. Where you don’t have to worry about eating. Or getting eaten.” Funny, he’d been squatting here for nearly two weeks and only now had he noticed the picture, standing on the bar all this time. As with Vanessa’s picture, the kid said nothing, just continued to squint at something off to his right.
He flipped back a page and looked at yesterday’s entry. He'd shot and printed a photo of a wary group, carrying sacks and water bottles. “We heard the Guard has a refugee camp down at the airport,” one of them told him. “Worth checking out, anyway. Nothin’ left here but a dead city of dead people. Ghosts will be comin’ soon.”
Maybe that guy was wrong about the ghosts. Maybe. But he was right about the city. Today, he’d heard about cannibals in Midtown. Sunday, it was vigilantes in Marietta and Alpharetta. Verifying those rumors were likely to get him killed, but staying here was just a slower death. He flipped back to today’s page, wrote down the cannibal rumor. Then, between that and the kid’s photo: My work is done here. It’s time to see what comes after the death of a city and a nation. When it gets dark, I’m starting for the airport.
His backpack had room for his binder, laptop, and water bottles. The camera he could sling over his shoulder. He took one last look at the photo before closing the binder. “Maybe I’ll see what you’re up to myself, kid.” He smiled and packed.