Diane’s bitter coffee had long gone flat and cold, and the sun had only minutes ago lazily pierced the gray morning sky with middling beams of tarnished bronze. She was shadowless in the gloomy diffusion of early day, and the cold seeped from the metal frame of her chair and through the cushion. Winter had come and gone, but Diane remained.
Along the tops of silent buildings birds danced in flying ribbons and traced swirling eddies through the sky with their course. Diane watched them with mute detachment for some time, waiting. As the sun unfurled its fingers through the shroud of morning overcast, a distant black slash of shadow seemed to be quickly drawing nearer to Diane and the flock of songbirds. It drew closer, and Diane focused on its shape against the canvas of grey clouds.
She watched from her seat as the sparrowhawk glided towards the flock of swirling songbirds. They were at first unaware of the approaching harrier, and Diane thought for a moment the hawk would have no trouble seizing its prey. However, a silent cry must have gone up in the flock, because all at once the entire mob took a startling evasive action – the speckled cloud that made up the body of the songbird flock suddenly dipped and swirled away from the sparrowhawk. Seeing that stealth was no longer an option the sparrowhawk dove with raptorial grace and plunged through the scrambling ranks. There was chaos, and even at the great distance Diane was from the conflict she could hear the panicked songs of prey and a single sharp screech from the raptor.
From disheveled black mass the raptor burst forth and though far away Diane believed she could see the captured prey – heart beating, throat bursting – in the talons of the sparrowhawk as it flew to its perch on some unknown face.
The sun struggled to best the clouds as Diane rose from her chair and grabbed the long wrapped bundle she carried with her from its resting place in the frame of the coffee shop’s door. No one remarked on it, and no one commanded her to have a good day. She slung her bundle over her shoulder, gulped the last of her long stale coffee down and set off. It was time for her to go to work.
Diane trudged through the empty morning streets of downtown Flagstaff. The snow had melted just a few weeks ago, and the streets were only beginning to blossom with new green. The buds of her own garden had sprung new last week, and the sight of those vegetables beginning their early life on her exposed deck had filled Diane with joy. She had known that it would not be easy to go it alone, but she had not anticipated the satisfaction of a new crop.
Passing by the empty shop fronts and silent apartments of downtown, Diane felt her forehead tighten with anger as she reflected on her garden. She had come out of her shelter just three days after her garden had sprouted to find it massacred, every bit of green shorn to the soil line. Some of the vegetables might survive, and maybe she would too, but Diane was filled with boiling anger at the murder of her hard work. She had looked around for the perpetrator, and saw him bounding away in the distance – a whitetail buck with crooked antlers vanishing towards the steel and glass forest of the dead and silent city.
Since the day she woke up alone, Diane had avoided the city. That first day, she drove down the hill and into town and screamed and shouted for anyone to come out and say anything. Within an hour she had started sobbing when she found all the televisions were clouds of static. Unable to find a signal or Wi-Fi connection for her phone, she had already come to terms with the new world by noon of the first day. Everyone was gone, but Diane remained.
That was a year ago. Today, she was propelled by a mix of hunger and vengeance. She had not hunted since she was a teenager, those autumns spent with her father hidden in deer blinds and stinking of chemical deer piss. At the time, she had enjoyed spending the time with her father but hated the time spent hunting. Now, she wished she could have both again. Diane shrugged the bundle on her shoulder to distribute its weight and put the thought of her family out of her mind. She had a deer to hunt.
Turning the corner on Aspen, Diane sucked cool spring air through her dry lips as she came upon what remained of the Hotel Monte Vista. The winter had not been kind to the century-old building, and a stiff wind or heavy snow had yanked the neon marquee down from its perch atop the hotel’s roof. It now reposed in shattered illegibility, the only surviving script declaring “HOT MON STA” in mangled pagebreak. Every brick building in historic downtown Flagstaff had developed a cast of wear, but the Hotel Monte Vista slumped with a special degeneracy. The front doors, perhaps left open the day Diane found herself alone, remained open as she surmised they must have all winter. A wet smell like autumn leaves after a rain issued from the building’s mouth. Diane stepped towards the doors but suddenly froze at the sight of a collection of deer droppings on the naked sidewalk. She almost laughed aloud at that – the once bustling downtown now replete with uncurbed bucks – but caught herself. The deer was nearby, and the goosepimples crawled down her arms as she unslung her bundle.
Carefully and quietly, she unwrapped her recurve bow and her quiver of arrows. The bow was not the best or most professional kind for deer hunting, but she had it stored in the attic the day her garden was robbed. She could have wandered around town looking for a sports store, but she didn’t want to waste anymore time. After all, she allowed herself the small luxury of breaking into the ghostly coffee shop and boiling their old dry grounds over a fire in the shop’s fireplace. She’d wasted enough time. Diane affixed the quiver on her back and gripped the bow, stepping lightly into the hotel’s lobby.
The lobby was a wreck of weather damage, and it smelled as though the winter’s snow had blown in and melted across the hotel’s delicate patterned rugs and sleek black counter tops. There was pervasive fungality that seemed to permeate the hardwood floors. Diane stepped softly, her hiking boots placed one after the other across the creaking boards. In the corner of the lobby sat a baby grand piano, and for a moment Diane mused that she could theoretically drag it all the way back up the hill on its wheels. She was strong, that she knew, but she quickly dismissed the idea as preposterous – dragging something that heavy all the way home was certainly beyond her strength.
From somewhere beyond the blood-red hallway that lead to the cocktail lounge, something made a noise. Diane tensed and notched an arrow. There was little light that pierced down into the lower level that lead to the bar, and while she knew that deer were adaptable ruminants she found it hard to believe this one had taken to living in the cocktail lounge. Another sound, this one like the dropping of a bottle, caught her attention and dispelled her doubt. Diane crouched and edged closer, keeping the arrow notched in her bow.
As she entered through the open doors leading into the cocktail lounge, she was surprised to see that it was better lit that the hallway leading to it suggested. The long row of full-length windows along the street-side wall threw a silvery bar of light down across the empty bar. Other than the stink of animal and spilled liquor, the lounge seemed the same as Diane imagined it did before everyone disappeared. She scanned the small lounge with held breath, looking for the source of the noise.
Slowly, a pair of antlers rose from behind the bar and the bucks head and neck came into profile. The stag’s body was hidden behind the bar, and Diane was caught off-guard by it’s small size; She remembered it being larger, but there was no mistaking the creature as the robber of her garden.
The buck suddenly stiffened, sniffing the air and tightening the muscles in its neck. Diane quickly drew her bow back, but it was too late. The buck, alerted to her presence, panicked and whirled away in one spectacular motion . It leaped over the bar in a clumsy arc that left it momentarily sprawled across the floor, its legs kicking stools and a small table over.
Diane loosed an arrow, but it was deflected by a falling table and ricocheted off into the liquor bottles that lined the wall behind the bar. She muttered a curse and drew another arrow just as the buck staggered to its feet. With shocking speed it bounded away from Diane. An instant later, it burst through the glass window wall that faced the street with a terrible crash and call. The buck bellowed and turned broadside to Diane as it fled down the street. Diane loosed her second arrow amidst the chaos of breaking glass and it found purchase, the aluminum shaft passing through the deer’s chest and penetrating where Diane knew the lungs were.
The buck kicked its hind legs and continued to bolt, veering off into the distance with the arrow piercing it in a manner Diane found surreal for a moment. The deer flashed the white flag of its tail as it bounded some one hundred yards down the street before collapsing.
As Diane walked slowly up as the deer gasped its last through pierced lungs. She watched with detachment as the buck passed on. The fire of her anger was fading as the life cooled in the deer’s eyes, and she felt a pang of regret. She had come down out of the mountain for blood, but the deer had just been looking for food. The buck wheezed and made a wet sound.
When the deer was finally gone, Diane went to where she had set her bag down and brought it to the buck’s final resting place. Diane decided to begin the messy business of field dressing the buck, and drew a knife and rope from her bag. She spilled the deer’s entrails right on the sidewalk where it lay and its blood pooled in the gutter and disappeared down a storm drain. When she finished with the grisly work, she tied the rope around the buck’s antlers, jaw, and forelegs to pull it by and began to drag it back home.
As she pulled the lifeless carcass towards the mountain, she passed the front of the hotel. From the street, she could see the small piano in the lobby she had noticed earlier. Choking up on the rope that lugged the heavy weight of the deer’s body, Diane laughed to herself – she’d be back for the piano after all. Alone, Diane pulled the buck down the empty streets of Flagstaff towards her home up in the hills, where she would butcher the deer and plant her garden and survive another year. Though everyone else might be gone, Diane remained – and she planned to keep it that way.