Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
2,919 words
SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Strategies for Living in Uncertain Times

by Andrew Lloyd-Jones

Steve buzzed up from the street and when I came down he was standing in front of an SUV the size of my bedroom. It took up half the width of the road, making the rush hour traffic miserable. Taxis edged past slowly, growling.

Wow, I said.

It’s just a rental, he said, looking slightly embarrassed.

No, it’s great! I said.

We kissed, then he took my bag and loaded it into the back as I hoisted myself into the passenger seat. We were headed out of the city for the weekend to a cabin Steve had bought upstate. He’d told me a little about it, but this was the first time I’d be seeing it. In fact, it was the first time anyone else had seen it, as far as I could tell. All I knew was that he had bought it at the beginning of the year as an investment, and was in the process of renovating it.

Another milestone: we had been seeing each other for a couple of months, but this was our first trip together. The relationship had been going well—he was funny and smart and decent in bed, my friends all seemed to approve, and most tellingly, I’d told my mother I was seeing someone. He worked in finance, still played basketball with his friends from college, and seemed to think Scarface was the best movie ever made. The usual guy stuff. The signs were good.

The cabin, he explained, was a few hours away. As we talked and listened to Steve’s playlist, the grays and steels of the city transformed into browns and greens, the verges of the road becoming submerged beneath torrents of bindweed, an undulating flow that covered everything in its path, climbing trees and pouring from branches back down to the ground. Before long, the roads gave up their officious numbers in favor of more personal descriptions, hinting at their historic past: Col. Jackson Drive, Cannery Lane, Smokehouse Trail. It had grown dark by the time we turned down a rough, unsurfaced track. The SUV brushed past grasses and plants bleached white in the headlights, the trail ahead alive with the sudden flashes of moths and mayflies. And then, out of nowhere, there were trees in front of us, and Steve brought us to a stop.

This is it, he said.

He took my hand and led us into the trees, a flashlight he had brought with him picking out a rough path. After a minute the trees gave way to a small clearing, and then the dark outline of the cabin itself. As we neared, I could just about make out that it was part timber, part brick, with a dark pitched roof and an open porch raised a yard or so off the ground.

Here it is, Steve said.

Wow, I said.

He ran up the stairs in front of us, and I heard the jingle of keys as he opened the door. There was the click of a switch and suddenly the windows lit up from within. He held the door open for me and I stepped into the cabin.

Steve had told me the cabin hadn’t been decorated since the eighties, and it showed. Surfaces were still either plastered in a honey-colored wood or covered with browning Formica. He had bought the place sight unseen, and when he first arrived it was filled with the previous occupants’ furniture and belongings, a calendar on the wall still open at August 1992, cans of expired vegetables and boxes of rock hard Pop-Tarts in the cupboards.

He showed me round the kitchen, living room, and three bedrooms, pausing briefly to shine a light down a set of stairs which he said led to a cellar.

Is that where you keep the bodies? I asked.

Nah, he said. I throw them down the well outside.

Steve had already begun furnishing the cabin with new beds, a leather sofa, a dining table and chairs, and in one corner, a flat-screen TV. In the kitchen I opened one of the cupboards, which was now filled with gentrified groceries—cans of organic tomatoes from Whole Foods and neatly labeled jars of whole-wheat pasta and quinoa.

After the tour, he poured me a glass of wine and told me about his plans for the cabin. There was the renovation and redecoration, of course, but it went further than that—strengthening the structure, expanding the cellar, adding solar panels and wind turbines. It sounded like a huge job.

Do you need to do all that to flip it? I asked.

I’m not selling it, he said.

Oh, I said. I thought this was just an investment.

I guess it is. For the future.

Retirement? I asked.

Steve smiled, shook his head, and drained his glass. Then he took a deep breath.

So this might sound crazy, he said. But I wanted to have somewhere to go, to be, if everything goes to hell.

What, like your job? I said.

No. Everything. Society. Government. People.

Then he explained that he didn’t think anything was about to happen, but that after the financial crisis, he decided it was better to be safe than sorry. It wasn’t just about the economy, he said. It was about pandemics, oil crises, even meteor strikes. Whatever might happen, he just wanted to be prepared. It’s not Ohio, he explained, but it’s better than being in Manhattan if the shit hits the fan.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. It seemed to me that if everything went wrong, that’s exactly where you’d want to be, with other people who could help and guide and direct and save. I’d never thought it would be any other way.

Before I could ask him about that, he told me he had something for me. He disappeared into one of the bedrooms and emerged with a small backpack.

I want you to have this, he said.

The bag had already been filled. I unzipped it, and pulled out the contents one by one: a flashlight, a state map, a first-aid kit, a wind-up radio, a foil blanket, a compass, a pocket knife, a filtration mask, some cartons of water, and some emergency ration bars, vacuum-packed in silver foil. I’d seen something like it on the news after 9/11.

It’s a go-bag, I said.

Yeah, he said. I wanted you to have one. In case.

Wow, I said.

Listen, he said. It’s not like I’m saying the world’s going to end. It’s just that I wanted to know if something happens, you’ve got your bases covered. That you’ll be safe.

Wow, I said again.


That’s literally the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me, I said.

We made love that night in the new bed, under new blankets. Afterwards, as Steve slept, I looked over at the go-bag by the door. He had carefully explained what each and every item inside was for, showing me how to use the radio and the compass, pointing out where we were on the map. Everything inside could save my life, he had told me. I fell asleep trying to think if I’d ever been given anything that meant so much, with so little asked in return.

We spent the rest of the weekend at the cabin. Steve went into more detail about his plans—not just the renovations and installations, but his ideas for cultivating vegetables and planting fruit trees, becoming self-sustaining. When he dropped me back off at my apartment in the Village, he gave me a key to the house, along with another map showing the fastest routes out of the city. That night, I stared at the map and found myself thinking about my future for the first time in years. I realized I felt safe.

We spent almost every weekend at the house from that day forward.

All in all, there were thirty acres on the plot, and it took a lot of work just to maintain the land around the house. The garden in front of the cabin, the clearing we’d walked across that first night, had been cut back in the winter, but by the start of summer it needed tending on a regular basis. To the rear of the cabin, the ground was overrun with bindweed and ferns, and farther beyond, more trees. The whole area was completely isolated—as I’d found the first night, there was no real path from the road, so unless you were looking for it, you’d almost never know it was there. Its seclusion had been one of its main selling points, Steve told me.

He had solar panels installed to power the well and provide electricity, together with a water filtration system. We planted carrots, potatoes, squash, and beans, then cut back the scrub land to create a small field for wheat and corn. I learned how to can fruits and vegetables, to pack rice and grains so that they wouldn’t spoil, to store seeds, to use a short-wave radio, to light a fire using a flint and steel. We stocked the house with items that would be useful in times of emergency—batteries, salt blocks, rolls of sheet plastic, candles, duct tape. Online, Steve bought long-life rations, sealed pouches of water, fish penicillin, and potassium iodide tablets to reduce damage to our thyroids in a radiation emergency. Some nights we ate meals made entirely of food we had gathered in the woods. Other nights we counted seeds and made love on cushions stuffed with the feathers of birds Steve had shot. I wasn’t crazy about the rifle, but he explained it was an essential part of our supplies. Not only would it enable us to hunt for wild game—birds, deer, rabbits—but bullets, he assured me, would be the most important form of barter currency in the future. I agreed, as long as he kept the gun licensed and locked up.

Each week we timed our journey from the city to the house, improving where we could on the route Steve had first marked out, determining alternatives in case of bridge failure, tunnel failure, roadblocks. He bought a motorcycle and cut our journey time in half. I found myself checking the change from my coffee each morning for pre-1965 quarters and dimes, which Steve said contained silver and would have genuine value following a breakdown of the financial system. A dime was worth almost three dollars, a quarter, six. He kept bags of them in a space beneath the floorboards of the house. We bought other items useful for bartering too: packs of cigarettes (though neither of us smoked), candles, boxes of matches, tampons, more bullets, all as valuable as gold at the end of the world. I made trips to the grocery store with a fresh perspective. Certain items had value, others did not. Canned and dehydrated food was good. Fresh fruit was pointless. Steve was crazy about Twinkies. While the rest of my friends lay around on beaches in the Hamptons, I was learning to survive the end of the world as they knew it. I felt like a pioneer. I pictured myself in a gingham dress and bunches.


Other than the cabin, our relationship was as you’d expect. Back in the city, we went to the movies, we played tennis at the courts on the West Side Highway, we had dinner with friends, we drank cocktails in hotel bars, we went to parties, we stayed in and played Scrabble and Risk. I stayed at his apartment uptown, since it was easier to get to the cabin from there on a Friday evening. I went to my own apartment once a week to water the plants and pick up mail. I had always liked my apartment in the Village, but it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t spending time there. I had already started to think of the cabin as our home. I kept the key to the front door on a strand of wire around my neck which Steve told me would double as a snare if I was lost in the woods without food.

By the time summer was drawing to a close, the cabin was looking good. The bindweed was gone, replaced by runner beans and squashes and corn, while we had planted roses around the windows and painted the cabin in shades of green and gray that helped it blend into the surrounding trees. I wanted to show it off.

We should have people over for the weekend, I said one day, while we were weeding the potato patch.

I’m not sure, he said. Maybe when it’s in better shape.

After a few weeks, I asked again, but he said he still wanted do some more work in the garden. The third time I asked, he admitted he didn’t want anyone else to see the cabin.

I don’t want too many people to know where it is, he said. You understand, right?

But I had a whole new set of questions. What if something happened; wouldn’t we want to help our friends? What if they found out where the house was anyway? What if strangers came to the house, needing help? What about our families? The cabin had always seemed like a perfect break from reality, but now the truth of it dawned on me.

We argued about it for days after that. We had to help ourselves first, Steve said, or we’d be committing suicide. The best thing we could do for other people was to encourage them to prepare as well. And what if they didn’t, I asked. Would we turn them away? How far would we go?

That’s when I started thinking about the gun.

Why do we need that gun? I asked.

We were in the garden, erecting a wire mesh fence around one of the vegetable patches to keep out rabbits. Steve was clipping through the mesh one strand at a time with a pair of wire cutters while I held it flat.

To hunt, he said.

We’ve got snares, I said. We can set traps. We can fish. We don’t need a gun.

Steve kept snipping, each cut sending a little jolt through the rest of the fencing.

We might need a gun to protect ourselves, he said eventually.

From what, I said. From who?

I don’t know. That’s the point. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

So you’d shoot someone, I said.

Steve had cut his way to where I was holding the wire. He stood up.

If I had to, yes, he said. I’d do it to save us.

I could never do that, I said.

Then you’re lucky I can, he said.

I thought about that for the rest of the week. I tried to rationalize it by thinking that he was prepared to make that sacrifice, to do the thing I couldn’t do to keep us safe. To be the stronger of the two of us. But what I kept coming back to was the fact that the end of the world as we knew it would mean the beginning of a world I didn’t even want to be a part of.

When Steve went home to see his family for Labor Day, I accepted an invitation to a friend’s house in Bridgehampton. It was my first time out to the beach in over a year. I bought sandals. I drank margaritas on decks overlooking the ocean. I lay on the beach. I went to a clam bake. My skin, pale from the shade of the trees in the woods upstate burned in the sun; the calluses I had developed from digging trenches in the garden grew soft in the sea. And I forgot about the end of the world.

By the time I got back to the city, I realized this world was enough for me. I didn’t want to spend my life thinking about the next. I wanted to make the best of what was there now, as long as it was there.

When I next saw Steve, I told him I couldn’t do it anymore. I told him that I missed the city, that I missed my friends, that I missed my life. I gave him back the key and told him I’d miss the cabin too, and in part I meant it. From the outside, it looked beautiful. There were vegetable plots and herb gardens and rose beds and paths through the woods to little viewpoints where you could watch the sun setting. But the vegetables were for self sustenance and the herbs were medicinal and the rose beds were planted as a thorny deterrent in the event of a break-in and the viewpoints were to keep watch for invaders.

I’ll be okay, he said, and I knew this to be true.

I can still remember how to light a fire, set a snare, build a basic water-filtration unit. I still have the backpack and check my change for silver coins. And though I love this life, sometimes I wonder if a pandemic strikes, or a meteor hits, or the markets collapse, or the government falls, if I would make my way to Steve’s cabin in the woods, and knock on his door and ask for help. But most of all, I wonder if he would shoot me to save the life of another woman, one who would be grateful to see me die.

—Previously published via podcast in Liars’ League NYC (3 October 2012); republished here with author’s permission


SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Andrew Lloyd-Jones

was born in London, England and grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. He won the Fish International Short Story Prize with his story, “Feathers and Cigarettes,” and his writing has featured in Cent Magazine; the Tales of the Decongested anthologies; in the collection, The Canongate Prize for New Writing: Original Sins; and in the Bridport Prize anthologies.

Andrew produces and hosts Liars’ League NYC, a New York-based, live literary journal and podcast, showcasing original short fiction from emerging writers.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury