The Zero-Rings

Hobbs pushed his cart along. It was nearly full. At the twelfth hole, he stopped, pulled his forearm across his soaked brow and bent down. “Dead as a doornail,” he said and rolled over the body. A young man in his late thirties. Thin. Rail-thin. They were coming that way recently.

Most of the time they were heavy, though in the last few months he’d been getting a lot of bony suckers, as he called them. The women, young girls most often, were generally more fit, certainly more appealing. No telling what each day would bring. But he didn’t mind. Hardly. The more undernourished they were, the easier they were to pick up and roll up into his cart.

When Hobbs first got the job, he was instructed not to question his duties. “You don’t think and you don’t touch and you don’t ask me questions I haven’t got answers for and you don’t talk to anyone about what you’re doing and you don’t expect things to get better or get anything more from me and we’ll get along just fine.”

“I understand.”

“And don’t go poking around the prison. I’m telling you this, not as an order, simply to save you time. It’s empty. Has been since the beginning. Before that, it was Lakeland Military Base. When there were no more wars the heroes around here had so much spare time they constructed a golf course, and then the government in its infinite wisdom decided to convert the facility into a minimum security prison.”

“I see.”

“Hobbs,” Larabee began again, as though his head was convulsed in thoughts that would never live in a complete phrase, “you’re being given an opportunity here.”

“I know.”

“In fact you don’t. You can’t.”

“I’ll do my best,” Hobbs promised, with his natural diligence and an eagerness to please.

He walked behind Harding Larabee, a tall, heavyset man with an ungainly gait. A man far older than Hobbs’ forty-one years who assumed his post with the somberness of a sergeant in the trenches about to stave off a mechanized regiment with only his pistol. Hobbs liked that. He found that the more serious a person was the less ambiguity there was in dealing with them. Moreover, Lionel Hobbs didn’t appreciate ambiguity. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t particularly curious, no one was these days, another gift from the virus, but ambiguity was another thing. Distinct unto Lionel Hobbs.

“This is your cart,” Larabee said, circling it several times. He leaned on the edge, running his fingers across the wood worn smooth. “You’ll learn how to balance it out soon enough.”

Hobbs believed him. In addition to his disdain of ambiguity, Hobbs was prone to being disagreeable. He never understood exactly why that was. He had some instinct for differentiating between veracity and those bent on deception, though it didn’t matter. If someone told him he was a genius, he’d consider it thoughtfully. If he was told he was a damnable fool, as Larabee inoffensively growled every so often, well, that was a possibility too.

Only when strangers were unusually harsh would Hobbs protest, and even then without any notable animus. Hobbs never considered himself dumb. It was simply his nature to get along with others. Not the most worthwhile of attributes. And in a world where there was nothing to hold on to except your inner resources and the peace you created for yourself, Hobbs was an example of an animal which had reached a level of conspicuous compatibility within an often unpredictable and alien environment.

He took to his new job with a fervor reserved for those who were offered a second chance at life, a final salvation handed down by the golden of holy. He was out on the golf course early; setting aside a few hours to trim back the heavy undergrowth where possible, then planning out the best route by which to navigate to the bodies disposed of along the eighteen holes of Lakeland Golf Course.

It usually took two or three trips back to unload and return to the links before his work was done. On a good day, he only made one trip. However even with his daydreaming and frequent naps, which most people required these days, he was rarely without diversions. Hobbs felt himself blessed, quite fortunate in fact to be given this minor function and yet he sensed early on that there was a great responsibility attached to his work.

He prized his judgment, always mentally testing different routes past sand traps, natural lakes, avoiding thickets that would tear at his legs. He first moved about the bodies cautiously, much as Larabee did the cart that first day, then picked through their pockets, just as Larabee had told him to do and take what he wanted. If there was any identification, he was to report it immediately. But there wasn’t. There never was. In eight months and six days, he never once found a wallet, scrap of paper, comb, or keys.

A love letter would have been welcomed; the kind you keep until you open it once more and it splits apart at the folds. That never happened either. Usually some money. Once a handful of butterscotch hard candy. He hadn’t had candy in years. Not the imported buttery kind. From London, England, he recalled it said on the warped wrapper.

That was the most difficult part. Opening each of the eight pieces of candy and knowing that once they were gone he would be back to the same bland food doled out by Larabee each afternoon. He downed two pieces the morning he found them tucked in the pocket of the plump blond woman. It took all his effort to get her into the cart, and then only after he removed the two elder men he had picked up earlier. By lunchtime, he had four pieces left, four sticky wrappers, and a whole month’s worth of guilt.

How could he have been so stupid? How often had this happened to him? About never. He was so despondent when he returned home that night he could hardly make it into bed. The next morning the four pieces wrapped in yellow and green foil were at his bedside when he left. And they were there when he returned home. Slowly, when he realized they were placed on the plump woman by some ethereal force for his good fortune, did he eat, very slowly, the remaining pieces.

Usually, the pockets of the people he picked off the links were empty. He simply moved the bodies into position and slid the extended lip at the front of the cart under their backs and pushed down on the handlebars while thick rubber wheels, acting like a lever, flipped them off the ground and down into the belly of the cart. It reminded him of a picture he’d once seen in a history book when he was in school. The image, unlike most, was clear and poignant, and impossible to forget.

The streets were congested with rubble and old people moving about cloaked in fetid rags, stacking bodies in antiquated pushcarts and disposing of them in stacks like cordwood, like so much social refuse. That was the aftermath of a European conflict over a hundred years ago against an evil, demagogic enemy. Times had changed. Most admitted, for the worse. Now there was no single enemy you could conquer through perseverance and courage, or by cannibalizing your imagination and guile.

No one remembered how, or exactly when it started. Some say with a new strain of virus borne on the legs of insects driven up from the Amazon Basin at the beginning of the 21st century. Within five years its impact on concentration, learning, and recall was so noticeable that most of mankind had pocket recorders strapped to their wrists and notepads in their pockets in order to recall who they were and where and the daily scope of their responsibilities.

Others were more seriously affected. For them, the virus stopped not only their minds from remembering, but their cells recalling what actions they were preprogrammed by a millennium of generations to undertake. They simply fell in the street, in elevators, in restaurants, in meetings, in bed, in cars, while making love, or national policy.

By 2035, half the population of the world was incapacitated with no other symptoms than an inability to recall where they lived, whom they loved, and their purpose in life. There was no recall of an address. Their own name. Then they were gone. Scientists speculated that, as with all viruses, there were some who had a natural immunity to the virus. However, there were too few scientists left to do much with the theory. The terror spread silently, leaving a trail of ruinous devastation. Life simply ended in a graceful, elegant, mindless tailspin with no wars or internecine rivalry, no street riots or political revolution.

By 2048, the world population had halved and halved again. By 2053, what remained of the populist governments predicted, over what communication lines were serviceable, that the world would be reduced to less than one percent of its original eight billion people within five years. As usual, in order to placate their constituency, they grossly underestimated the scope of the impending cataclysm. Not that it really mattered anymore. By that time, the only thing most people had left was a shared complacency.

Hobbs knew the facts and precious little else. And he was fine with that. Knowing more would only mean wanting more, grieving more, or reliving worse things actually than not having the company of a woman. Not that they didn’t exist. But they were far fewer than men and many had taken to living in secreted -single-gender communities for fear they would be enslaved by bands of rovers, as they were called, who used them to breed, or worse. Or so the rumors went. Rumors of cults and religious groups that had found rededicating to prayer and God brought relief, if not hope. Rumors that the virus had worn itself out and that isolated groups were repopulating and returning to reclaim civilized roots also flourished. But rumors of hope and revitalization were just that. Things that happened to others.

Hobbs would not let himself dwell on the current state of society, or what remained of his nation, or the remnants of his world. He had a job. And he needed an occupation. He wasn’t like Luther Longley—LL as most called him—who had never worked, never had any ambition, and no conscience about not contributing to helping society climb from the still-smoldering ashes of its hubris.

“There is no society. We’re alone. We don’t need to work because every generation before us worked for us. They left us a storehouse of goods that will last forever, along with the legacy of their arrogant ambition and look what it got them. And do we need all of it? Hardly. In a few years, ten at most, we will all be gone. All of us too.”

Hobbs’ outlook wasn’t quite as gloomy as LL’s. And unlike LL, he believed that there was good in every man and, not simply to prove his own theory, was always just about to ask Larabee if he could bring along a friend, not only to help him, but also to train in case he was taken ill. But he never did. He didn’t recall why. He simply forgot to follow up with some things. Maybe that was for the best. Larabee would have been naturally suspicious that he might have talked to others about his responsibilities, and even more alarmed that there was a possibility that Hobbs, having forgotten the rules, was already compromised by the virus.

“There is no society. We are alone. We don’t need to work,” LL repeated, as he did whenever anyone would listen. It was his favorite phrase and worth committing to what little memory remained.

Holloway nodded, as if he was entitled by heredity to the last word, “He’s right.”

Helen shook her head. “I wish…I wish I had another chance.”

“You would make the same mistakes, my dear, Say the same inconsiderate things, behave with the same routine indifference, hurt those who loved you, those whom you should have been gentler with,” Bensonhurst concluded.

Several thought they heard Helen whimper “no,” though they couldn’t be certain.

Hobbs’ attitude, his general outlook, was different from those of his friends. He needed a place to go every day, a place to fret over, to organize and make his own, and to focus his energies instead of lamenting his circumstances. He considered himself fortunate for having this job. LL thought he was “just plain stupid to be working so hard.”

Well, what if he was? It didn’t pay any better these days to be a rocket scientist. He liked that phrase. It was all the more ironic because there were no rockets buzzing overhead. No rockets or planes. Nothing except swarms of birds chasing after even greater swarms of insects that feasted off unattended fruits and failures of the past.

That was part of the attraction, the chirping life overhead; an opportunity to discover sweeping and cavorting creatures above his land. Animals, too, had suffered, but nowhere as badly as the human race, which, as one English radio commentator noted before the BBC went off the air, “was over.”

Hobbs found a small book, a beginner’s text on ornithology and kept it with him at all times. He could identify sparrows, blue jays, magpies and swallows; those who hunted his land in windswept winters and choking summers; those who hunted in clouds of flapping wonder and those who, like himself, preferred the sanctity of their own devices in their daily conquest to survive. They were part of the life Hobbs had created for himself. And with it all came a contentment he never had before the virus claimed the future of mankind.

When he began, it was in the Spring, each body represented a unique discovery. He bent down beside them, carefully examining their clothing, the expressions on their faces, their hair, size, always feeding his imagination with speculation. There were no common markings. Sometimes there was a bruise around the neck, they were always resting on their backs, hands, and feet splayed out as though they were making a giant ‘X’ that could be seen as a beacon from far overhead.

They appeared every morning, spread out over many of the holes and fairways of the golf course on which he diligently labored. Just as Larabee said they would. He wanted to ask the man who held this job before him about when they were first discovered.

He knew better than to ask Larabee. You didn’t ask questions of a man with a Zero-Ring. In fact, a gold Zero-Ring on the middle finger of his right hand. There were few enough Zero-Rings around. And what he’d seen of them in his lifetime was usually green. Once, coincidentally, just before he got this job, he ran into an old man wearing a red Zero-Ring. That was significant enough. But a gold Zero-Ring! You didn’t ask questions of a man sporting such a rarefied symbol of consequence.

And Larabee was a good enough soul whom Hobbs had no intention of antagonizing. Larabee never displayed a temper, never abused his post or his staff, though he had only one employee, and never took advantage of Hobbs in any way. This kindness, or absence of mistreatment, did not go unnoticed.

At the end of the first year—they used to be called “the holidays”—Hobbs brought Larabee a coleus plant he had cultivated around the bunkers of the second hole, a par five, five-hundred-sixty-yard monster with a daunting, boomerang dog leg set across the three hundred-forty-yard marker. One could only speculate on how many golf balls were gobbled up by that waiting beast. Larabee was thoughtfully appreciative and thanked Hobbs. He never said what became of these gifts. Hobbs thought they were sold on the black market, or worse, left to die. So much was these days.

By the time the virus claimed initiative, it had already ingested hostility, anger, greed, prejudice, bias, some bitterness, grievance, and personality-driven dyspepsia. The less savory affections, the ones that undermined societal stability, fell first. What remained was decency, devotion, forthrightness. Preferences, connections, honesty and concepts held on until the end along with the ability to recall names, if only your own.

Many scientists, some renowned clinical researchers, viewed the malady as nature’s revenge; a lesson in Darwin’s natural selection process resulting in greater human humility, if at a terrible cost. Others were less temporal in their affiliation and were convinced it was a sign from God—a pronouncement, a condemnation and without waiting, an assigned direction for man to pursue. God remained locked in the heart as the location of the houses of worship, as with all geography-bound facts, the concept became wrapped in a stalemate of confusion as topological referencing faded in the furthest outposts of the brain stem.

Hobbs always began at the first hole, as he believed was expected of him and moved towards the last, taking prized routes, often playing games with himself; sometimes a spy being pursued, sometimes an adventurer stalking wild beasts, often simply going around in circles to avoid the eighteenth and the end of the day.

He rolled the first body into the cart at the beginning of the third hole and pushed on to the next. It was really a honey. A par four with a formidable stand of oaks and pines interrupting a straight shot to the green. You could go around them or over, if you had the courage of your game.

Bagley didn’t think much of golf and made no bones about it whenever he had an opportunity to assert his opinion, especially when it came to the thirteenth hole at Lakeland, or any thirteenth hole for that matter, which he viewed with both alarm and biting suspicion.

“I hate, hate, hate, hate it.”

Holloway, with his offhanded contemptuousness, teased, “Last week you hate, hate, hate, hated it.”

“He’s right,” Hobbs admitted. He hadn’t actually counted, though Andrew Holloway was invariably right about such niggling details.

Holloway was an ex-hockey player turned kindergarten teacher turned account manager for a large advertising agency before he created the famous Twin Pizza (two pizzas physically joined to each other at the crusty edge) franchise of the late 1990s. He made and lost a fortune in the franchise and retired to open a lawncare service. Bagley on the other hand was a sarcastic corporate lawyer and once senior litigator at the SEC who never played hockey or did battle in the relentless franchise wars of the late 20th century but whose face bore two, parallel inch-long scars above his right eye which he refused to either explain, or whose importance he had long ago misplaced.

“I understand him. I really do. He can deal with some issues more one week than the next. He tries to compensate. He becomes withdrawn, sullen, he giggles and drools a lot. It’s quite understandable,” Bagley jested caustically and picked up the two candles he was dipping. “I’ve read about such cases.”

“All quite amusing, ladies and gentlemen,” LL said. “But don’t you think we should stick to candle-making. After all, isn’t that what we are here for, for, for, for, for.”

“That and to ridicule each other,” Holloway quickly injected. “Let’s not forget the sport of life.”

“The sport of paupers,” Helen once corrected.

Mariella Brisbow sat with her feet folded under her. She arrived sullen and withdrawn, and was even more out of sorts when the clock moved past six in the evening and Helen hadn’t arrived. They were good friends, only at these imperfect intersections of life. Now she would have to wait a week to see Helen again. To tell her about her dreams, about the voices she had begun to hear. Helen would listen and confide that she too heard voices. Then both computer technicians would fall into each other’s arms knowing that they were infected. Mariella hoped it would happen this way. That she would confide in Helen and Helen in her and they would be put out of the misery that was their solitary, doomed lives.

By midnight, they had made enough candles to last them another week and went their separate ways. Holloway back to puttering around a hydroelectric plant that hadn’t produced electricity since 2023, LL to the car distributorship his father owned, and since there was no gasoline he spent his days polishing cars that went nowhere, and Bagley to perfecting his complaining. Mariella and Helen returned to their apartment building over on Sturgess and Grand.

Mariella had the fifth floor, Helen, the third. They had all the space and furniture they could ever want, and no one understood why these two women who were obviously so fond of each other never moved in together, if only for the warmth of companionship.

Mariella was nearly fifty, soft and soft-spoken. She always wore a green bandanna around her neck. It separated her from the rest, an expression of individuality, identification, and of eternal hope, though so few people roamed the streets these days it was hardly even noticed. Helen was slightly younger with sharper, inciting features. More inconsistent and irascible. Riddled with memories she wished the virus would erase or at least confiscate. Both insisted on their privacy instead of exposing themselves to the indignity of further exposure.

Bagley and Bensonhurst—they all questioned if that was his real name—left together without revealing where they were going or if they would be back. This unsettled no one. From time to time strangers joined the sheltered group. Some stayed for months while others, like Holloway, LL, Mariella and Hobbs had been there from the beginning. No one was quite sure about when that began either.

The rapacious airborne virus left no one untouched, though actual memory loss was inconsistent in its pattern of attack. Some lost everything quickly. Regrettably, those who suffered such immediate devastation greatly outnumbered those who went on for years with only mild or intermittent neural dysfunction.

LL, Holloway and Hobbs had symptoms that would take years to develop into something life-threatening. They could remain marginally functional and continue with their memories eroding for years. The telltale signs were clear and unsettling. If you were struck by the warming spasm that began in the back of your neck while you were in the middle of an important thought, you would lose it forever. This, and the fact that so few thoughts actually had any importance, was the reason why no one spoke of things other than inanities and amenities, while others were prone to violent outbursts that could go on until the victim was consumed in exhaustion and shaking defeat.

LL speculated that Bagley and Bensonhurst were either too proud to suggest they had been struck down while simultaneously thinking about where they lived, or were struck down when they were in the middle of a simultaneous explanation to one another recalling where they came from, or where they assigned themselves to hide when the night fell. For all anyone knew they aimlessly wandered the streets between meetings. It was a shock to most of the group that these men, who displayed such slight tethers to reality, remained as long as they did.

The next day proved more interesting than the one that preceded it. First Hobbs spotted a blue festooned Tennessee pigeon and a cormorant in a dogfight over the eighth green. Then he noticed Larabee failed to show for work. The day after brought the same remarkable set of circumstances. Hobbs was so disconcerted that halfway through his tour of the links he simply stopped and tried to make sense out of such an oddity.

Moving about the golf course, Hobbs paused to look back, to detect any sign of life. He made a special trip back to check the shack then unloaded his first cargo of the day. Three bodies. All quite ordinary and indistinguishable. When he returned at the end of the day, the shack was as barren as it was in the morning. At first, he was upset, then disappointed. He must have missed Larabee. Even the infrequency of his companionship, just knowing he was there, had become a comfort.

Hobbs thought to investigate the prison. He’d glanced in, past the gates once or twice, but was never motivated enough to go beyond. It looked deserted. Even though it was reasonable to assume there was a connection between the appearance of the bodies in the morning and their disappearance from the cart he set at its entrance at night, he simply did not believe nature worked in such a stochastic manner. Hobbs was like so many. He didn’t press the unknown, for he never was really certain what he knew yesterday, what he might recall tomorrow or what the virus would allow him back, if only temporarily, the day after. Larabee was nowhere to be found.

Hobbs searched through the drawers in the shack, looking for artifacts of life. Anything to remind him of his lost friend. They were empty. Just as the life around them was a facade.

“A Harlequin,” Mariella offered. “He’s become a Harlequin. We all pass through that portal in our cycles. It’s the one before the last.”

No one wanted to discuss cycles. Especially Bagley. “You mean he’s been gone from work for a week?”

“You can’t be certain of that,” Helen said, “or anything else.”

“You’re right,” Hobbs answered, almost apologetically.

“I believe you,” she added.

“Then it was exactly a week,” Hobbs said, dipping a red candle. Red was his favorite. They all had preferences. You had to have them or you would go mad with disappointment.

“Maybe he got promoted,” LL offered without thinking. No one ever got promoted regardless of the position they held. Anywhere. It simply wasn’t acceptable. It created an outdated caste system that society had long abandoned for more socialized behavior.

Parker Bensonhurst turned on LL’s flawed logic, “You’ve forgotten. You were thinking it, and you were in spasm, and you forgot about promotions.”

“No, I forgot naturally, but not because of any warming spasms.”

Mariella wasn’t certain. She rarely was, of anything. “A normal forget?”

“Exactly.”

“Tricky, that,” Bensonhurst concluded. He had come from a very wealthy Virginia family that traced its ponderous lineage back to the original Jamestown colony. Parker was affable, congenial to a fault. He had spent most of his early years as a carpenter and bricklayer. Honest work, he called it.

Life had evolved into an impertinent crapshoot solely dependent on genetics; if your immune system was reasonably robust, you could withstand the initial ravages of the virus; if not, you would be swept aside as billions had already been. In their tracks. Those who remained felt themselves fortunate. They presided over a world of unimaginable extremes—characteristic of the greatest human freedom, while they remained aloof from the greatest human suffering.

Bagley rolled about his chair, moaning with distemper and petulance, his bloated weight and ego an anachronism to the times. “He’ll be back,” he said, hanging up three tapered yellows. He was the best in the group. He could produce enough candles in a night to last him a month. They were perfectly formed with a perfectly centered wick. They admired his work, though thinking considerably less of him as a person.

“No, I don’t think so,” Hobbs said, opening his palm.

Air gushed from LL’s mouth. Holloway started to reach out then thought better of it. Mariella lifted her dull green cat’s eyes, and then set them on the small, radiant gold object resting in the palm of Hobb’s hand.

“You know, when you said he had one,” Bensonhurst admitted, “I never believed you.”

“I thought you were more trusting,” Hobbs said, setting the golden Zero-Ring on the workspace they shared in the back room of the deserted town hall where they gathered once a week to make candles and commiserate about their collective plight.

Each in turn touched, embraced, the thing of wonder. Mariella was entranced by the piece. She’d once known a woman who had a red Zero-Ring. Helen kept to herself. As usual, she had showed up with a separate agenda. Holloway, more than the rest, thoughtfully considered his personal options.

“Can I try it on?” Bagley asked.

“It’s bad luck to try on the ring of a dead man.”

No one said he was dead, and yet there could be no other explanation. No one would leave such a thing behind. Right out in the open. It was left there purposely, Hobbs concluded. No one disagreed, which only confirmed his suspicions. The ring was his. For whatever reasons, his luck had turned. Not much, he didn’t want to overreact to the good fortune, but he believed he had been set on a different path.

He recalled, more clearly than he might have, the smallish man with wispy red hair, tender forgiving eyes, and shirt buttoned to his collar—the man who wore the red Zero-Ring. The man who gave him directions that led past the golf course where Larabee was surveying the vicissitudes of the sixteenth hole. Hobbs and the old man exchanged a few words. Greetings. Amenities. Hobbs always felt there was more to the encounter. Hobbs, like those who remained, needed to believe.

“There was no letter with it?”

“It was on his desk in his shack. The door was open. It never was. Even in the summer he kept it closed. With that one small window so he could keep tabs on where I was. You could suffocate in there. He sat there all day until I returned and then left after I did, without a word of approval or displeasure.”

“The paperwork probably killed him.”

Everyone laughed at Bensonhurst’s suggestion. There wasn’t any need for paper, or formalized thoughts.

“When he was alive, I never thought much of it. As though he had inherited it, or fallen upon it in passing. Not at all the man you would think would be the bearer of such distinction.”

“Heroes come in all casts,” Holloway suggested.

“Even Harlequins?”

“Yes, Mariella, sometimes even Harlequins.”

Helen stirred. “Many of us are not who we seem to be.”

Holloway mused, “A gold Zero-Ring. Rarest among the rare.”

“It doesn’t mean much today,” LL said, returning to his work.

“Who knows? Twenty years ago, they were a celebrated band. The finest scientists, philosophers, doctors, engineers, and physicists banded together. Humanitarians one and all with the idea of creating a more perfect world.”

“Any more perfect and we would have been dead long ago,” Bagley moaned.

“What became of them?” Bensonhurst asked Holloway.

“Don’t know. No one does. All dead? Faded away like most of us. The curse of starving, because they could not harvest unrealistic goals. Who knows where this Larabee character who, according to Hobbs over there, wasn’t the kind to positively influence mankind, obtained the ring. And what if he was a member of the Zero.”

“What did it mean,” Mariella asked. “I mean the Zeros?”

“An end to wars, to famine, to pestilence, and disease. It meant everything,” Holloway said. “Hope, destiny, an unobtainable future. If they had come together sooner they might have made a difference.”

“Apparently the virus wasn’t as impressed with their idealism,” Bagley offered, twisting a wick in his hands.

Holloway held the ring above one of the burning candles over the middle of the table. The gold glow ignited the walls of the room in a soft yellow alchemic haze. There was an unnatural silence. It was the first time they had ever heard the reflection of each other’s spirit. “I think we should take turns wearing it.” They were startled by Andrew Holloway’s suggestion. By his sheer presumptuousness. “If only for a day.”

Hobbs got up and came around to Holloway. He set one hand on his shoulder and slowly removed the ring from his other hand. “I’ll keep it.”

“Exactly as it should be,” Bagley admitted.

“No offense,” Holloway said, backing off as he invariably did when confronted. “You have to admit it’s a little strange for a golden Zero to be holed up in a shack.”

“I heard of a woman who worked in a state hospital years ago in Chicago. She was in charge of the pediatric ward. It was empty. I don’t know who put her in charge. I’ll bet it was the same people who put Larabee in that shack next to that prison,” Mariella offered, and continued with her candle-making. She preferred blue candles in abstract, unlikely shapes. The wicks were so poorly centered they often burned out before the last of the paraffin.

Hobbs dropped the ring in his pocket and returned to his chair instilled with an unaccustomed sense of control. There was little left to say that night. They had an ample supply of candles for the coming week. There was some conversation, as there always was. Now it focused on what Hobbs had found on the golf course that week, but otherwise was of little real importance. More a diversion, the unpredictability of his timorous exploits was quite attractive, a counterpoint to the regularity of their lives and what memories had been displaced or completely lost during the previous week.

“Who are you, Lionel Hobbs,” Helen began, “to own such a thing, to be the keeper of the ring? You’re no better than a common groundskeeper. My uncle had one on his home on an island in Lake Michigan. We were rich. We could afford anything. The man was old and crippled and complained ceaselessly about his back and his bladder. My father paid him nonetheless. He did an hour’s work in a day, a day’s work in two weeks and yet my father kept him on. You pick up bodies.”

Hobbs grinned, feeling the ring press against his thigh. His pants pocket had been empty for as long as he could remember. “And proud of it.”

“You’re a pimp for the dead, you are. You come here representing yourself as a scholar and teacher. A philosopher. A man who used to be the guardian of our youth, and while there are few to teach us anything worth learning, you squander your energies setting the worst example for us. A mindless fool. That’s what you are.”

“That’s what we all are,” Bensonhurst interrupted.

“Let’s sing a song,” Mariella pleaded, as she invariably did when the anguish of their circumstances became evident.

Hobbs woke the next morning to find the ring resting comfortably on the middle finger of his right hand. Just as he had seen it on Larabee’s. He sat up startled. He couldn’t recall how it got there—when, where he had made the transition from spectator to participant. He examined his hand. It felt pretty normal. Fingers worked and all. Not that it was warm or cold, or discernibly different, but he did feel special, and that was more than he’d ever felt in his life.

A gold Zero-Ring. A remarkable trophy. A statement of distinction. But what right did he have to wear it? What if someone should see it on his hand? What would they think? In an instant, he went from prideful indifference to concern, a reach in perspective he had never traveled so quickly. Helen was as right as she was wrong. It was pretentious, yet it did fit perfectly.

“Well, I’ll be dipped in shit and rolled in cracker crumbs,” he said, repeating one of his childhood friends’ most cherished responses, finally accepting his heightened status with a sense of total satisfaction, as he might after making love to a woman, something he also hadn’t experienced in years. If it weren’t for his memory loss, and that of those around him, and because sex was once something they talked about quite naturally, he would have dwelled longingly on a past he believed he had no chance to recapture.

Bagley once suggested, just short of insisted, that he be allowed to accompany Hobbs on his rounds. “I’ll talk to Larabee. He can’t be against my helping you. I mean, it’s not as though it were costing him anything.” They laughed. There was no money. No currency of any kind. There was a world full of abundance and emptiness. There was no cost, no value, no anything, including life, which, except for the virus, every now and then, tried in vain to overcome its circumstances.

Hobbs knew that Bagley, prompted by Bensonhurst and eventually LL, only wanted to roll beautiful, if unfortunately very dead, women into his cart; turn them over, watch the body’s coil, the flesh undulate and curl under shards of sparse, faded material. He wanted to hold and lift them, as would most lost men. He wanted to set them, position them, and return to his quarters at night with images to sustain his fantasies. It had been so long for all of them. They had adjusted.

It was just that Hobbs came into contact with women so often; while LL was a tender of cars, Holloway attended rusted copper coils, Bagley was an Omeneer, eternally predicting downfall, dissolution, decay, or disruption, while Hobbs tended a golf course that hadn’t been used in two decades to the backdrop of a prison that was also devoid of life. Hobbs knew it wasn’t fair. It was an injustice from the moment it began. Or so he had come to believe.

With the ring on his hand, he went about his task with renewed vigor. Getting out of bed, doing his deep knee bends, a few less than regulation push-ups and fifty speed sit-ups. No one to brag to about those he admitted, and paying more attention to his farm, as he often called the breadth of the golf course. He had a full day’s work ahead of him. It didn’t matter that Larabee was missing. He would be back. And if he didn’t return, someone would take his place. In either case, he would be the keeper of his ring. Because that was the right thing to do, like taking turns wearing the ring wasn’t. Wearing it in-turn degraded its value, diminished its heritage of hope.

And it didn’t matter if there was a Zero Society. It didn’t matter a jot what Holloway said. All that counted was today, his responsibilities, and to avoid distractions that might elongate the day into an agonizing path of heart-wrenching reflection.

Hobbs was content with his work, to meet his candle-making comrades every Thursday and go about his business without thinking what might have been. Then he met Laura. Of course, he didn’t know her real name. Just that one bright afternoon he predicted the next woman he saw on the links would be a Laura, only he’d hoped, unrealistically he admitted, that she would be alive. That her hair would be blond and braided into two twisting strands that spun down to her waist; and wrapped in a beatific smile that would make the Madonna weep. He passed up an unusually obese gray-haired old man on the fifteenth fairway and without lifting his eyes further, moved quickly toward the curled up object on the putting green at the end of the seventeenth.

He was as surprised to see her, as she was not lying flat with her limbs extended in opposite directions. At first, he considered that it was something else beyond the bounds of humanity that had found its way onto this verdant carpet of life. Upon closer inspection, it was easy to see it was a young girl, and easier to accept what must have been the strength of her character in life from the uncharacteristic softness of her death mask.

He bent down and rolled the girl over. She was beautiful. Disheveled, with long blond hair and heavy lips that reminded him of someone he had once kissed, and maybe longed to kiss again. He forgave the part about the braids. He set her arms at her sides and sat down next to her as though he were about to begin a lengthy conversation with a lover who had left and returned when she realized the error of her decision, when her eyes sprang open.

Hobbs fell away as though he’d been struck. “My God!”

She was dazed, more by the light than by his appearance or response. She began to cough, and then tried to get up, bracing herself with both hands on the grass on the putting green. Hobbs was proud of his work though it was a little early to expect a compliment. When his time came to pass on he wanted to be set out on some golf course, lie in the thick grass, face up to the bright sun overhead and let himself bleed away with a dignity that had disappeared from the world long ago.

He feared falling in the streets simply because he had forgotten which way was home or his brain had forgotten how to contact his heart, or suck air into his lungs, or squeeze food down his gullet and through his duodenal sphincter. There was propriety to what he was all about, even if Helen misunderstood the premise of his position.

The old man with the red Zero-Ring had asked him what he wanted to do after he died. It came at the end of their lengthy conversation, something he had not enjoyed in many years.

She looked around. “You’re?”

“Hobbs,” he said with some satisfaction. “Lionel Hobbs.”

He thought about adding a middle name. Preston, he thought would be sufficient, but did not want to begin their relationship with a lie; and already believed a middle name was like, so much of life around him, an artifact of a bygone era. A time before bodies magically appeared on Lakeland Golf Course. Before he was recruited right off the street by a man with a golden Zero-Ring to tidy up the mess.

She tried to speak but fell to her side. She fell so quickly, Hobbs thought something had broken in her arm. The front of her dress fell open. He couldn’t help staring at her breasts. She noticed immediately and made no attempt to conceal herself.

“I’m sorry,” he said with little sincerity. What he wouldn’t have given to reach out, hold and caress them, to be that close to a beautiful woman. Just once more.

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” And he didn’t.

“Do you want to suckle them?”

The last fantasy he had embracing a woman was too distant to be redeemed. “Are you all right?”

“You can. There’s no harm in it. And I would welcome your warmth. Please,” she said moving slightly nearer to him, “go ahead.”

Hobbs was unsure and moved closer, instinctively taken with his level of comfort. She grasped the back of his neck and pulled his face toward her chest. He didn’t resist. He needed her warmth too. He hesitated again, and then his tongue ran up to greet her warm, soft, deliciously salty and erect nipple. He was stirred. She didn’t move or motion. There was no display of pleasure or contentment. He wrapped his arms around her waist, inhaled deeply and set to both breasts.

He must have been there quite a long time. He couldn’t remember how long. Hobbs wanted her to say something; to reaffirm that what he was doing wasn’t wrong or that he wouldn’t be punished for it and she would not disappear. He longed for more of her body or hearing her tell him she loved the sensation of his lips pleading for her life. That he wouldn’t wake up alone in his bed the next time he blinked.

Finally. “I really am alive?” she questioned, her body stirring.

Hobbs pulled on the sensitive eruptions, drawing them deeper into his mouth, then releasing them, storing up memories and neuronal connections, all the while unable to use his hands for anything other than to help position her breasts. He wanted to raise up her bulky sack dress, slip his hands between her legs. Except he had no recall what he was supposed to do after he reached that juncture.

When he remembered what he couldn’t recall, he passed through an anxiety attack; what if he was collared with a necklace of heat now? Was it better to recall the delight of sex and expose the memory to loss, or repress and preserve the fleeting past—and for what purpose? It was that way with everything. The virus did not alert you to its coming. You were simply the obedient host of its mindless, destructive eccentricities.

“Where am I?”

He stopped, looked up and pulled away, reluctant to end the sensations. “Lakeland Golf Course near Columbus, Ohio.”

“Ohio?”

“We’re on the seventeenth hole,” he said without taking his eyes from her breasts, soaked with his saliva. Both nipples were deeply reddened, as though savaged by a brood of starved pups. Two sparrows flew overhead. Hobbs recognized them. He had already anointed them with names. But this was not a time to display such sophistication to strangers.

She looked up, welcoming the brilliant sun. Then, with her eyes closed, “My God, I’m really alive.” Her chest heaved, her hair fell over her eyes as tears and memories sprang to life.

“I think it’s about eleven o’clock,” he said, not knowing what time it was, only that he’d developed some expertise about telling time by the position of the sun and he wasn’t quite hungry enough for it to be lunchtime.

She staggered to her feet, slowly buttoning her dress without commenting on what had taken place between them. Her fingers were as unsure as her legs, which gave away the depth of her frailty. “I like it here.”

“It’s peaceful.”

He looked over the expanse of Hobbs’ Farm; a serviceable, eighteen-hole course that had entertained commissioned officers and local dignitaries until both became obsolete. Several holes, notably the shorter third and seventh, were almost playable. Hobbs had found several clubs in the abandoned pro shop and when he dug up balls from the water traps, he realized he couldn’t drive them with putters.

“It’s more. It’s a place to service memories. An outpost where you can replay your life. You’re immune out here.”

“You can tell all that?”

“You can too; it’s just that you don’t appreciate what you have.”

Hobbs was appreciative, and more grateful to have her company. “How can you be alive?”

She touched her chest, over her heart. You could see the surprise in her still blanched cheeks. “I don’t know. I just am.” She delighted in the contradiction.

Hobbs could not overcome his amazement. The girl wore a halo of uncertainty, as if she would disappear at any moment. “I’ve never seen anyone alive out here.”

She rubbed the bottom of her foot along the apron of the putting green. “Feels delicious.”

“They’re not bad,” Hobbs boasted. Then looked around suspiciously. Three, four bodies remained. It would take him the better part of the morning to pick them up. Or he could do it in the half-hour it would have taken before—before whenever, he mused.

“What am I supposed to do?”

Now Hobbs took account of the girl seriously. She looked more shaken now than when she opened her eyes. It wasn’t health that marked her, but the absence of it that was so disquieting. “What do you want to do?”

“What do I want to do?” she asked, puzzled at the suggestion of free will. “I don’t remember wanting to do anything.”

“Do you remember who you are?”

“My name?” She tried. “No.”

That was unusual. Names were the only thing most could hold onto. “Anything?”

“Dying, but that couldn’t be true.”

“You’re very pretty.”

She glanced down. She was swaddled in an institutional blue smock. The kind given to you when you checked into a clinic. When you go in voluntarily. “I must look terrible.”

“Not to me you don’t.”

“Then you haven’t been with a woman in a long time.”

“I can think you’re pretty, regardless of who I might have been with in my past?”

She leaned over to kiss him. “I think I could miss you.”

Hobbs gestured toward the three men and one woman, in the cart. “Do you know who those people are?”

She tentatively examined their faces, torsos, clothing, as a child would ask the same question, and frightened they might come to life. “No.”

“They don’t look familiar?”

“No,” she said, suddenly greatly enervated.

“We shouldn’t be standing here.”

Hobbs didn’t know why he said this since no one ever came to Lakeland except Larabee and his ever faithful, recently promoted assistant. He took her hand and together they picked up the three other bodies. He brought them back to the entrance of the prison and left the cart there. Just as he did every day. The next morning the cart would be empty. He asked no questions as Larabee advised.

Laura pulled him into the shed. It was uncomfortable for him, as he hadn’t quite come to grips with the finality of Larabee’s absence or the unlikelihood of this woman’s equally unforeseen appearance.

“This is lovely,” she said, and pulled open her dress and let it fall to her feet.

“Is it?”

“Oh yes.”

She was quite plain. In her late twenties, with a taut, muscular body. An athlete or genetically gifted, he concluded. Hobbs knew he was supposed to do the same thing, but he wanted to look awhile. She fell to her knees and began to unbutton his pants, as if she had been programmed to follow a definite sexual sequence, when she noticed his ring. Her eyes widened, glazed over, and darkened. Not with fear. Not with relief either.

“You know about this?” he said holding his hand out to her.

She touched it, wrapped her hand around his finger as though to protect herself from its glare and looked up. “Are you one of them?”

“I’m the caretaker.”

“But, your eyes,” she said as if she had just discovered a white secret.

“What can you tell about them?”

Laura looked around the room, more unsure than ever. There wasn’t much to say about Larabee’s tool shack. He spent his days watching Hobbs and little else. Most everybody had the same preoccupation with routine and regularity. It was the times. For what they were. People moved about, repeating themselves so there would be no reason to doubt. It was the doubt that they were resolved to defend themselves against. There was an abundance of food from fields that had been cultivated and, with the land so underutilized, vast gardens flourished on property that once supported entire communities.

They were different from their forefathers, most of whom they recalled only from pictures many carried around in their wallets, or from vague separating memories, conversations with the few you could trust or books, which serviced recall more effectively. Hobbs questioned how a nation, a planet, that had once shown such promise, could have been so completely despoiled by an invisible demon.

It was so much worse than the AIDS virus that began to mutate wildly after 2024, consuming tens of thousands every week by 2030 until death was commonplace in every village, as it was during the black plague of the 14th century. New collection and disposal industries grew into maturity simply because of this one virulent microbe. What bodies the AIDS virus left intact this new, virulent, mind-damning virus, consumed with a facileness that amazed even the most hardened cynics.

Bagley insisted that the wheat was responsible for the loss of their collective past condemning them to a future of ignorance and doubt. “Years ago, in the early nineteenth century if you recall, there were hundreds of strains of wheat. We, our government-sponsored scientists, artificially cross-bred and engineered and toyed with them until they mutated into more productive strains, less dependent on hydration, the sun and artificial nitrates. The tradeoff was that by the turn of the millennium, only a dozen remained. It was the virus that attacked after 2018, wiping out nearly a tenth of the nations’ supply, that did it.”

“Did what?” Holloway asked, picking a glob of green candle wax off his fingers. He liked this part of the process more than actually making enough candles so he would not be dependent on the sun. It was a silly little thing that gave him great pleasure. Everybody noticed it and from time to time let warm paraffin drip on their hands just so they could feel the tug of the warm wax pulling against their skin when they peeled it off.

“Began the cycle.”

“There are no cycles left,” Helen said, pressing both hands together and ignoring the warmth rising about her neck.

They were all surprised that evening. She spoke so infrequently and then only in half-sentences, as if she only was about to collect the first half of a thought, the balance drifting back into forgetfulness. There was no more discussion about it that night over a year ago. Or was it two months ago. What did it matter?

What did anything matter except the glow of Laura’s unsure smile? Hobbs was filled with a hope and encouragement. Here was a young woman, attractive and aware enough to bring back most of her past and yet closed off, as we all were, to parts that threatened our future. No one talked about it. You would have thought that his job, collecting bodies with no outward signs of death, would have been reward enough. There was a tacit acceptance of what was and what might be, including the possibility that human civilization might disappear, or mutate into another form during their lifetime.

There was also an acceptance of what might be unacceptable to others; that humans disappeared was obvious or they would not have wound up on Hobbs’ golf course. Why and how did they die? And who was chosen and who was passed by untouched? It was the unexplained deaths more than anything else that should have, but didn’t, evoke any concern.

Who these people were, and where they came from or where they went after Hobbs assembled them, was of no interest to any of the group of candle-makers. And so it went, until today. No, until Larabee’s disappearance, and even stranger, the ring that was left behind. The golden Zero-Ring that brought clarity to Laura’s confused brown eyes.

The sweat from her bright red nipples was fast in Hobbs’ mouth. That he could reach out and take her, that she possessed such a willingness to serve and please him without regard to her own nature was totally foreign to his experiences, faint and paltry as they were. He would not tell the others. He would not give up his ring or his Laura. He wanted to wash away the sadness and desperation, the failure that had overtaken her. And himself, when he allowed for reflection. Yet there was no interest in questioning her how she came to be.

Suddenly she fell back against the side of the shack, rattling its frail timbers. Hobbs rushed to the door and closed it as if that would quell the fear that had suddenly overtaken her. The air inside the shack was already stifling. “Are you all right?”

“A little shaky maybe.” She slipped to the floor. Not distressed or with any panic. “I didn’t tell you how handsome you are,” she said, and then she began to shiver in his arms.

“What’s wrong?”

“What should have already been.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yes, you do. You understand everything.”

“You’re dying?”

“I don’t know what happened. One moment I was,” she began, and then had trouble retaining the memories, “then I was on a bed of sweet green grass and you were staring down at me.”

“You don’t remember where you were?”

“When I died?”

“Anything?”

“You must not mourn. I was supposed to die. We all are going to die someday.”

“You’re so young.”

“You’re really too sweet and handsome for words. No, please, smile, Hobbs. Smile for me, for us both. And never be without it. Never forget me and I will take your beautiful boyish face into the next lifetime. My present to you, my young Hobbs.”

“Laura.”

She startled. “How did you know my name?”

“I didn’t.”

The recollection of names was about the only thing that remained in many, the only part of ourselves that the virus hadn’t yet destroyed. “But it’s Laura. It was my grandmother’s name. I love it. Don’t you?”

“I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met.”

“I’m going to miss you, Lionel Hobbs.”

“But, how could you be?”

“I don’t know. Only the grass, a place of rest,” she said holding his hand to her lips. She kissed his hand. “Where did you get this?” she said this time without fear.

“A friend.”

She shook her head, condemningly. “They tried to help. It didn’t work. At least not with me.”

“Who?” Hobbs asked, noticing that what little energy, strength she had on the golf course was waning quickly. She looked as if she’d spent her entire life trying to survive, and was only now losing the battle, in his arms.

“Who? Who helped you?”

“The Zero-Rings.”

“Who are they?”

“They tried to stop my aging. The process of the virus. But they couldn’t. With some, but not with me.”

“So they left you to die.”

“They thought I was already dead.”

“Why the grass? How did you get there?” Hobbs heard himself ask questions. Probing, curious examining questions. It was difficult for him to understand why, just that part of him had been dead for so long and this girl had brought all that back to life. He attributed this small miracle to his instant affection for Laura. And he always wanted to know if there was a purpose to his life.

“The prison. I remember being taken up with others. It was noisy. Cranking, clanging metal. I was frightened.”

“And after I gather you up?”

“Cremated. It’s a burial process. Tradition. Ritual. We must spend a day in the light of day, on grass, as if we were being offered up to God, and then are taken back down. They tell you all this, to put your fears at rest. It helped me to accept the journey.”

Hobbs was startled. An entire society devoted to the art of survival and resurrection and no mention of it anywhere. The old man with the red Zero-Ring was part of the confederacy. He had to have known. How did he know Hobbs could be trusted?

“They came to me and offered to help. I was dying from the virus. I’m twenty-eight. They said they could help. But only because I was so young and the virus hadn’t affected my limbic system.”

Hobbs caressed his cheek against hers.

“You’re so beautiful and, for a moment, you gave me back my life. I will always remember you, Hobbs.”

“Laura,” Hobbs pleaded.

She lifted her hand to his face. “Will you call me sweetheart?”

“You are, you know. You are my most favorite sweetheart.”

“As you are mine.”

Laura slipped deeper into his embrace. Her pulse weakened; her heart fluttered then stopped. She looked just as young, just as vibrant as she did when Hobbs met her, as they all did, in fact, a point he never thought much about. They all looked to be in the prime of life. At least outside. He sat with her for the rest of the morning; unable to release her, or believe she had finally crossed over. Finally, when he could no longer bear the thought of separating, he got to his feet, set her alone into his cart, and kissed her, as you would a lover whose death meant the best in you had perished.

Hobbs left the cart there that night. Just like he had for so long. By the time he got home, he recalled it was Thursday. He was going to miss his friends. Bagley. Even Holloway. He had enough candles to last several weeks so there was no emergency and it was summer and the days were long and golden dreamy.

He was saddened and hopeful.

For just a brief time he had a woman that he could care and tend. It gave him a sense of relief that it might happen again with a woman who would stay with him longer. He had heard what others had said about the Zero-Ring Society. What had been distant myth became cult and then shrouded by superstition, the truth darkened because of the suspicious nature of man.

Larabee was the gatekeeper. Tomorrow Hobbs would wander as far as it took to find a replacement for himself. As he now understood. He was chosen to replace Larabee.

That night he found a pencil nestled into a tuft of grass beside the door to his shack on the fifth hole. He held it close. An omen, he believed. It was how he would remember Laura—with words.

That night he lit candles in every corner of his small quarters and began to write of what she had meant to him, and of their love for each other.

This is a reprint of work originally published in eFiction.

Arthur Davis is a management consultant who has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has advised the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, Senator John McCain’s investigating committee on boxing reform, and appeared as an expert witness before the New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. Since 2012, over seventy tales of horror, dark fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction, crime, magical realism, as well as literary/mainstream fiction have been published, and he was featured in a quarterly, single-author anthology, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and John Sandford and Otto Penzler’s The Best American Mystery Stories 2017.

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