Author's note: Written as a gift for bisexualcharliedavis as part of the 2019 TDBM Secret Santa challenge on tumblr. The prompt was Charlie x Mattie in a post-apocalyptic setting.
The sky was orange and would fade to a dark purple soon. It never turned completely black anymore, but then it never turned completely light either. Mattie perceived from the color change that it was time to light a fire to try and get a small degree of warmth from the bitter night to come. She surveyed her domain, the cavernous ruins of a pink brick building. It suited her; pink always was her color. In the rubble outside ALL RAT ITTER was painted in large red letters that were buckling inwards along with the rest of the wall. Inside items were stacked in neat piles for future use: things that burned, things that shouldn't burn but did anyway, things that might be food, makeshift medical supplies, and anything that could be used or traded. Mattie poked through one of the piles for a dry matchbook and some wood before taking it outside. Her first night alone there she lit a fire inside and nearly suffocated herself. Now she knew better.
Once the fire sputtered to life she retreated back into the cave, looking for a tin of food that did not look too compromised. She warily eyed a can in the pile that said "Spratt's Cat Food" and decided she wasn't that desperate yet. A can of beans would do. She sat down by the fire and formulated a plan for tomorrow. She wanted to make her rounds of the neighborhood to look in on the sick and injured, but she hadn't seen Charlie in two days and she was running out of food. She wondered where Charlie was. It had not occurred to her to miss him until now since she hadn't wanted him there in the first place. But when he was there she could pass the long, cold evenings talking to him and even if it wasn't much different than talking to herself, it gave the illusion of companionship the same way one would talk to a dog or a house plant.
Charlie came around for the first time a few weeks after she had staked out the pile of pink bricks as her own. He would stand a few meters away and just stare, saying nothing. At first she thought he had become yet another looter or a brute looking for sex and she pummeled him with rocks and debris, screaming until he ran off. This went on every afternoon for three days. On the fourth she hurled a sharp stick at him and it struck true. She could see the trickle of blood as he scampered off behind a burned out car, taking the stick with him. She realized right away that she had made a fatal error, her foe now had a weapon. The next day he returned carrying the stick, now bloody with the two dead rabbits he had speared with it. They had a feast, and that night she tended to the wounds she had made. He came back every day after that, sometimes with dead vermin, sometimes with wood or scavenged canned goods. Eventually Mattie let him make camp there, sharing her pile of rags that she would stack up next to the fire in an effort to keep the freezing night at bay. He never asked her for more than she could give him. In fact he never asked for anything at all.
Charlie was mute. Mattie did not know if this was from the trauma of recent years or from a head injury, but the smart, officious man she dimly remembered from another lifetime had been replaced by a silent and scared boy who kept to the shadows. Sometimes he had nightmares and would howl in the darkness. Through the tears the words would almost form, but he would always recover and be silent again.
On the day the world ended the sky turned blood red and a burning wind blew for days. Much of what was left after the initial explosion caught on fire in the aftermath. Then the sky grew dark and the sun ceased to be and the temperatures dropped to near freezing and stayed that way. Those who didn't die in the first blast perished soon after from poisoned air and foul water. Their limbs shriveled and they went blind and all manner of other horrors. Mattie was one of the lucky ones, if slowly starving to death alone made one lucky. She had been in the basement of the hospital looking for a patient file and was shielded by several meters of cement and earth. She stayed there for weeks with the rest of the hospital staff waiting for help to arrive. When the dead outnumbered the living and the doctors started killing their remaining patients, she left. She did not feel bad about looting the hospital of medical supplies, it was clear they were no longer being put to good use anyhow.
Her first instinct was to head for home. She wanted to find Lucien and Jean and help them if they were still alive. Together they might make it to Melbourne and find shelter with her father. She spent hours wandering the fields scoured of all civilization in the area she thought the Blake house must be in. She could not recognize the streets let alone individual structures. There weren't even bodies to bury. With no news of the outside world there was no way to know if her parents had suffered the same fate as most of Ballarat. Mattie eventually learned that Melbourne had likely been ground zero and the world she knew was truly gone. For the first time in her entire life Mattie had no one.
Humans are essentially tribal creatures and in a catastrophe like this one they will naturally band together for safety and support. At least that was what Mattie always assumed would happen. Instead the survivors fractured and turned on one another, fighting for food, clean water, territory, or sex. Some were just out for blood for the sheer thrill of it. In those early days after leaving the hospital Mattie traveled from camp to camp doing her best to cure the ill or comfort the dying. Eventually trying to eat and stay safe while on the move proved too much for her and she decided she needed a camp of her own. The brewery had been guarded by a burly farmer with a shotgun who kept everyone at a distance. He allowed her to come in and tend to his wounded leg after he was bit by a dog. On one of her rounds she saw the wound had become septic. All she had to do was wait him out.
It was several months before the random acts of violence and deprivation coalesced into a common cause. She first became aware of it when she was making her rounds among the twisted metal facades of Lydiard Street. Propped up against the door of the Colonists Club, the bloated corpse of Patrick Tynneman was holding a sign painted in blood that said "THEM." Gradually the unhinged and predatory survivors of Ballarat had turned their rage on the old guard, the belligerent institutional powers who picked a fight with a bunch of strangers thousands of miles away and lost. Like any good ideological force the enemy took the form of whoever suited the mob at the moment. The rich were Them, as were clergy, politicians and business owners, romantic rivals and unkind spouses. Mattie once saw a gang of women beating a man with sticks, vengeance for some marital transgression that they would have never spoken of until now let alone avenged. Mattie was keenly aware that she was a Them. It was no secret who her father was or that he was one of the most vocal supporters of the war. She believed that being out in the city helping others had bought her safety. People needed her and fortunately these days people had short memories.
Charlie was also Them. She worried that someone would come after him but it was clear to even the most hardened class warrior that he was harmless. Mattie didn't know where he had been in the months before they were reunited or how he survived, but he gave off the air of someone too benign to bother with. Without his uniform and condescending grimace maybe they just didn't recognize him. Mattie wondered if his muteness came from the burden of being Them. Mattie was a child of privilege but had been open minded and flexible in new situations. Before the war she chose to work hard and to make that work benefit the poor and hopeless. Charlie believed in institutions. He was a company man who honored thy father and mother. Now, his father and mother were dead and his company had blown the world to bits. Maybe Charlie was mute because he was too embarrassed to speak.
Mattie threw the leg of a chair on the fire and started carrying her rags to the edge of the cave. It would be another cold, sleepless night without Charlie. She hoped he was ok. If not, she would carry on just the same. She wondered why she kept going. She really couldn't heal anyone with her dwindling medical supplies, it was mostly just for show. Mattie doubted anyone in the town had much time left. If they survived the radiation and the fires and the gangs of marauders, disease and starvation would still get them in the end. Mattie would be no exception. Eventually someone stronger than her would chase her out of her camp or she'd run out of food. When the former resident of the pink brick cave had died she found a single shell loaded in his shotgun and thought she could make a quick end of things. But each day she kept trying to survive and tended to the ill and shivered through the nights in hope of the opportunity to suffer again tomorrow. She supposed someone had to make it long enough to start the world again.
Morning dawned a dark orange and with no sign of Charlie. Mattie decided to put off scavenging for one more day and make her rounds. On the way home she would check some of the buildings on the outskirts of town for drinkable water. Boilers and cisterns were a treasure if no one had found them yet, and her brewery had no shortage of barrels. A wind had kicked up, slightly less icy than past days, as she tread quietly down Lydiard Street. It was one of the few streets that could still be recognized despite the ruins. At the orphanage the few surviving children were being cared for by the former residents of the Bad Girls Home. Mattie thought it an unlikely alliance and suspected some of the teenage girls were serving penance for the babies they had been forced to give away. She reviewed their food stocks and gave nutritional advice as best she could.
Old blind Cec was stationed by the door of the Colonists Club. The club had become a refuge for bachelors who were too old to fend for themselves. Cec made it a point to stand guard ever since they found Patrick Tynneman and no one ever dared challenge him, despite his obvious infirmities. She was not sure whether that was out of respect for who he was before the end or because it was rumored that he knew where all the club's liquor was hidden. Possibly a little of both. Mattie left him with her last can of potted ham and a kiss on the cheek.
Down at the College of the Arts, Mattie tended to the burns of Elaine Greenslade who had taken to setting herself on fire on a weekly basis to protest war, and nuclear weapons, and Them, and violence against Them, and whatever else was on her mind. She was one of many who had found refuge in madness, but at least Elaine had the decency to only hurt herself. Fortunately the College's ample supply of turpentine and other flammables was looted before any of the students could organize their own survival let alone a political protest. Between the bitter cold and the wind and the lack of kindling Elaine rarely managed to do more than singe her hair. By way of payment Elaine pressed a small picture of a star into Mattie's hand, rendered in soot and blue pigment on a scrap of canvas salvaged from inside the building. Mattie thanked her politely and shoved the picture into her pocket. She thought but did not say that she could always add it to the kindling pile back at the cave.
On the way home she saw a stray dog napping behind a dead shrub and thought of Charlie. She wondered if they would ever have enough food to feed a dog instead of hunting it. She wondered if Charlie might like a pet. They could howl together in the night. Mattie sighed. She was developing a soft spot for the poor fool and people these days could not afford to get attached. The afternoon was more profitable than she had hoped. She found an abandoned house that was barely touched. There was no water but she found some bedding and tools which she piled up into a big bundle on top of some garish curtains. Dragging those curtains a few kilometers would only improve them, she thought, so she headed home. She made a mental note to go back and search the decaying car in the driveway for oil and petrol in the morning.
Despite having been gone hours it was still light out when she arrived back at the brewery, dragging her prizes behind her. To her surprise Charlie was standing at the entrance to the cave, in front of the ITTER sign. His face was contorted into a big smile and Mattie realized that it was before the end of the world that she last saw anyone smile or heard laughter. He was holding a dead pine sapling and seemed eager to go inside. Mattie had never said he couldn't but he always waited nervously for permission. She had tried to explain to him several times that he was welcome but he never seem to understand. Now he gestured with excitement towards the cave, waving his pine tree around as he did so. The commotion caused yellow needles to scatter with each shake. Mattie drew closer and it was clear that he had been in a fight. He had a black eye and his lip was split.
"Been in the wars again, have you?"
Charlie looked at the ground sheepishly.
"No worries, I'll patch you up. Wait until you see the blanket I found for us."
Mattie walked inside dragging her bundle behind her but Charlie did not follow. Instead he planted the pine sapling in the rubble, carefully arranging some loose bricks to hold it upright. He reached into his pocket and opened a tattered half of a handkerchief. In the handkerchief were a number of trinkets that he affixed carefully to what remained of the tree: a key, some shiny wire, a single gold earring, other scraps she couldn't recognize. Mattie wondered if he had finally lost what little mind he had left. Watching him, Mattie recalled the subtle changes she had noticed outside lately and things began to make sense. The air was still cold but not as bitter as usual. The dark orange days seemed longer. She tried to remember the day before the world ended and wondered what month it was. Suddenly it all made sense. It was high summer, and summer meant Christmas.
Tears welled up in Mattie's eyes as Charlie worked intently on his masterpiece, glancing up every now and then for approval. It occurred to Mattie that maybe even now, at the end of the world, two Thems made an Us. Her hand slipped absentmindedly into her pocket and she felt the edge of the canvas Elaine had given her. Very carefully she smoothed out the little forlorn star and placed it on the tree. Maybe things were not so bad after all.