The Old Switcheroo
By Christi Nogle
Calvin and I have been happy here, all told. With both of us orphaned early on, we were lucky to find each other, lucky to get out of the city and find this valley. We were luckier still to find this house well stocked with board games and books, space to spread out, a good woodshop and pantry, a fine roof, and a well-stocked gun cabinet. We had the orchard out back and the tools to tend it, even some supplies of fertilizers and sprays. A late-model truck in the garage, insurance in case we needed to leave in a hurry sometime.
In twenty years, we’ve never needed the truck. I can’t remember how many years ago it quit starting. That’s all right.
Our happiness could have been more perfect in only one way: we could have finally gotten together. We could have made a family. It seemed like it was going there once or twice, so why didn’t we follow through?
Calvin’s walking around the deck one last time before bed, scanning the tree line beyond the fields, scanning the bare patches higher in the hills. We know the patterns of these hills like we know each other’s faces. We’ve always spotted them before they could get to us, not that there are so many still walking now.
“There’s a lost soul in the bear trap,” Calvin says sadly when he comes in. He moves his chin in its direction. “I hate to leave it, but I’m going to wait until morning.”
I’ve already seen it but don’t say I have. Calvin likes to point out things to me.
“What are the chances?” I say, parting the curtain. We haven’t seen one in months, and it walks straight into the trap. Does this mean more of them coming?
“It’s fresh as hell,” he says. Disgust and pity cross his face.
We could hazard a shot from up here, but the smarter thing is to put it out of its misery up close with the axe and retrieve the trap at the same time. For that we need plenty of daylight, and so we’ll wait.
We’ll sterilize the bear trap, get it back out there. I suspect we’d catch another of them easier than we could catch a bear, but there’s still a chance a bear or something might stumble in, get infected—and wouldn’t it be a shame to have to bury all that meat instead of eating it?
“The trees have gone celibate,” Calvin says. Because so many people are gone—or “wiped off the planet,” is actually how he puts it—the planet needs to cut down food production or else there’s going to be a big mess of rotten fruit, and all the little animals and bugs who eat it will grow out of control.
“A lot more animals? I guess that seems like a good thing,” I say.
“Does it seem like there are more animals? Traps fill faster than they used to?” he says.
No, there are way fewer animals. I don’t know what Calvin’s getting at. I say, “Anyway, the fruit isn’t just to feed animals. The tree makes fruit to make seeds. The trees would want to make more trees even if there’s nothing eating the fruit, wouldn’t they?”
“The earth makes the trees produce seeds. It’s not up to the trees. I bet they’re as upset about it as we are.”
The trees are upset? Calvin’s been getting weird lately. He never would have thought this way back when we were kids.
I got mostly through eighth grade, Calvin sixth. Though I still remember some of my friends and teachers and the general feeling of going to school, I long ago forgot most of the actual content. Maybe I’d not learned those things deeply enough because I’d always thought I could look them up again, or maybe I just wasn’t all that smart. That’s possible.
Or maybe I was smart enough to begin with and then I got too traumatized, what with the whole world dying and all. I think it was that.
Calvin, though, tried to hang onto what he knew for a lot longer than I did. I remember him journaling about things he didn’t want to forget. He remembered little facts about the seasons and weather, stuff about survival. He made sure we kept track of birthdays and holidays. He taught me how to shoot. That was probably the most important thing I learned in my life, what with all the headshots we had to take early on.
“Anyway, we’re not ‘wiped off the planet’,” I say some time after his whole tree-celibacy spiel. “You and I are still here. We’re not smarter than everybody else. There could still be lots of people in the cities.”
“Do you want to go to that city again? Is that it?” he says. Defeat or contempt in his tone, can’t be sure.
We don’t call the city by its name. It’s the only city that exists as far as we’re concerned, certainly the only one we could ever hope to reach.
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” I say. I’d rather die comfortably here, as I know Calvin would. I wish I knew it would still be comfortable, though. It’s not going to be if we can’t keep eating.
This place makes me comfortable. I know we’ll never find its match. Everything scannable, all but the depths of the orchard. We’ve always feared them coming upon us in the orchard where they could get close before we saw them. When we harvest, when we prune, one of us stands guard. I hate to think that this fear has kept us from caring for trees as well or as often as we should.
Harvested, pruned, cared for, I should say. Past tense. The trees still live, but they’ve flowered less each spring for the past twenty. This spring, there are no blossoms. The trees must be turning off just as Calvin says they are. I decide I’d rather believe that because then it isn’t our fault.
Just before dusk, I stand outside with the binoculars, scanning at first but then lingering on the trapped corpse who’s trying to crawl to us. So fresh, this one. He has long hair and a beard, but they look recently washed. The poor thing doesn’t feel the trap cut across his midsection and even if he did, he would not have the intelligence to reach down to try to free himself, so he simply claws at dirt still muddy from last night’s rain. I can’t hear from here, but he’s probably moaning, scaring off all the other animals, not that we’ve trapped an animal in the past few months. We haven’t even seen an animal on the ground since the last snowmelt. Even if there’s nothing he can frighten out there, he may pull free of the trap if enough time goes by, so we ought to get out there soon.
It’s likely he smells me. I should get back inside.
He wants to eat me. Not my brain—that turned out to be myth—but the rest of me. If he were to take me, he would eat my arms or legs or my guts first and stay there gnawing the bones clean, leaving just the top part of my head.
I’ve seen it more than a few times. It’s not what I want for myself, though better that than to escape with a bite.
Just before dark, we do a last sweep of the tree line and make our way up to sleep in the attic. It’s boarded shut, hot and inconvenient, but it makes me feel so safe. It always has. We’ve slept here from the very first night, though usually not at the same time. Up until the past few years, there’s been too much risk to leave no one standing watch. More and more now, we go up together, and we no longer expect that we’ll open the door in the morning to a crush of zombies on the second floor. It’s still possible; it’s just no longer the focus of our worries.
I suppose we visualize starving to death now. That’s what gets us in the gut now, not that it’s urgent. There’s a sack of dried apples and a tin of dried meat in the attic, odds and ends in the kitchen and basement too.
When we’ve gotten into our beds, Calvin turns to me and says, “The consciousness never leaves them, Abbie. They don’t control the body anymore, but the brain keeps working just like yours or mine. They’re horrified at what their bodies do. They’re suffering.”
“We don’t have any way of knowing . . . but we never used to think that,” I say. Calvin’s been circling around this idea for a while now, but this is the first time he’s spelled it out. It sounds crazy.
“That was before . . .” he says.
“Before what, Calvin? We don’t know anything more than we ever did.”
He says, “I just feel it. I felt it, looking at that man in the yard today.”
I don’t have anything to say to that, and after a while he yawns. I think about moving into his bed. I often think of this but can never make myself do it.
If Calvin and I ever would have gotten together, maybe—probably—we’d have had a baby. Maybe the baby and I both would have died in childbirth, who knows? Or maybe we’d have had a half dozen kids, some of them nearly grown by now. We’d have been happier, maybe, but now there’d be a whole herd of us facing starvation instead of just Calvin and me. Would they all be thinking strangely now, as Calvin is?
I’m all right with the choices we’ve made.
“We’ve had some good times,” I say, but he’s already drifted off. He doesn’t answer.
Does he still remember the finding the horses and all those trips we made to the nearby farms on them, the times we stayed up all night making sure they were safe? Does he remember the fear that this place would be overrun when we returned? Does he remember that one long heroic journey we made to the city? The fear of running out of ammo, the swarms of them even in the furthest suburbs. How we used to shower every time it rained? All the prairie dogs we trapped those first couple of years?
We were kids. We had to tell ourselves how to act.
I think we did well for ourselves.
When we’ve bothered to get us both to bed at the same time and all of the barriers are up, we sometimes will stay up there for a day or two. It’s our vacation. We’ll use a sealed pot. Seal or not, we’ll be sitting up here in a bit of a farty smell, reading in candlelight and when we tire of the reading, sleeping—not in shifts but both at once. It’s the safest I ever feel. This time, though, it’s just for one night.
We come out armed, check the second floor on our way down, check the windows. They’re shuttered, and Calvin long ago put a bell system in so we should hear any breach, but we don’t leave it to trust. All the smaller rooms are locked. The basement’s locked. Once we’ve checked the windows and given a brief glance into the locked rooms, we know the house is clear. It’s out to the porch to check the areas closest to us, then we use binoculars to check all the way to the treeline.
Anything could be in the orchard. That’s always a risk.
This morning, the man has dug a wide trench around the trap. He hasn’t torn himself in half. Calvin dons the welding mask and the raincoat. On the way out, he picks up the axe and a thin log.
“Be careful,” I say.
He answers my command like always, “Yes, dear.”
I follow at a distance, covering him. “What’s the log for?” I call.
The man’s digging grows more frenzied as Calvin approaches. I’m thinking, Circle him. Good. Find out what his reach is.
When Calvin has a clear angle, he’s supposed to use the axe to split the skull and then lean back and do a few more cuts for good measure. That’s not what he’s doing, though.
“What are you doing?” I yell.
Calvin’s dropped the log and is kicking it close to the zombie. Oh my god. I know what he’s doing. It’s not what we agreed.
He’s lingering over his shot. He’s chopping off the head. The man keeps mouthing the dirt, hands keep digging. Calvin’s careful, rolling the head with his foot until it’s face-down. He picks it up by the hair and with his other hand, pulls a white garbage bag from his pocket and shakes it open. He drops the head in there. The face still writhes.
I know what he’s doing.
“You forgot the trap,” I say as he passes me on our way back to the house.
“When do you think another animal’s coming by here?” he says.
“What are you doing with the head?”
“You know what I’m doing.”
I follow. In the workshop, he’s getting a vise ready to hold the head.
“It’s the old switcheroo. The mythology of it was all wrong. We are supposed to eat their brains,” he says.
I’m not surprised by this, actually. His thinking has been going in this direction.
“That’s not what ‘the old switcheroo’ even means,” I say.
“It means what we say it means unless we can look it up. Can we? Do you think it’s in the Scrabble dictionary?”
“All I know is this is how we get infected,” I say.
“It’s not, though. Not as long as I clean the brain. The brain’s not infected. Even now, this poor guy is seeing us, hearing us. He’s locked in there. It’s the blood-brain barrier.”
I have no idea if this is a thing, no way of finding out.
Calvin pulls the head out of the bag by its hair, raises it face-to-face with him. The zombie’s lips stretch in a scream, but he can’t make any noise without his lungs.
“I’m putting you out of your misery very soon now, sir. I’m so sorry this happened to you,” Calvin says, all solemn and grave, and then he sets the head gently into the vise and begins to tighten. The head mouths a scream as before.
“This,” Calvin says, tapping the head, “is the vaccine. If we eat their brains, we’ll be immune.”
Calvin has, hasn’t he? Lost it. We’ll be infected, or I will refuse, he will be infected . . . and I will strike into Calvin’s dear head with an axe?
That’s one thing that will not happen. I’m thinking through the various scenarios and decide the worst scenarios are those where he’s wrong about this vaccine idea but right that we’ll be locked in, spectating while something else propels our dead bodies. Both of us shuffling away from here, strangers. Or one of us eating the other and then shuffling back to the city.
“What reason do we have to think that the brain is the vaccine?” I say.
“I saw it. I saw it in a vision, all right?” he whines. He’s finally had enough of worry and stress and doing things the best way every time. I don’t blame him.
He’s got the gloves on. The hand tools are all arrayed. This conversation is over, so now I must go and scan the hills.
“I stuck it in the pasta strainer in the creek,” Calvin says. While the brain washes clean, we sit on the deck drinking cool peppermint tea. Everything is beautiful, the hills and the trees and the bit of the orchard all greener than they have ever been, all without a single flower. The man’s body still digs at the dirt and will do so until his brain is sliced and seared.
Calvin says, “I wish I would have gotten more of them. Every bullet that’s on the shelves of some store is a bullet that could have put one of those poor souls out of its misery. I wish I’d been brave enough to go out to the city and take down all the ones I could.”
I say. “You were brave enough to stay here with me so we could have a life. That’s enough.”
Calvin leans forward in his chair, clears his throat. “Can I ask you something, Abbie?”
I nod. Of course. We’ve talked about everything else, our families and friends and homes, the journeys that brought us together, all the death. We’ve shared every little thought we’ve had during this time together. There’s only one thing left.
“Why didn’t we ever. . . you know?”
I laugh. “I can tell you, but it’s kind of stupid.”
“I’d like to know,” he says.
“Were you old enough to like girls, before all of it happened? Did you have a crush?”
He considers and says, “Not really. I guess I was a little delayed.”
“Well, I had a crush, or two actually. I’m sure I’ve told you about one of them, the one from the boy band? And then there was a boy who came late in my last year of school that looked like him—I mean a really uncanny resemblance—and I’m not saying we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but it was headed that way, right before everything.”
“What happened to him?”
“What do you think?” But I never saw him, not between the time he was standing by my locker all sweet and beautiful and the time I learned he’d been taken down, and so he lived on for me.
Calvin nods, looks like he’s holding back some remark.
I say, “It isn’t that I was being faithful to him. That’s not it. I guess I just had this really strong idea of my ‘type,’ and then you didn’t fit because you looked different.”
Calvin just looks at his hands.
“You’re handsome, just in a different way,” I say. “Anyway, I told you it was stupid.”
“It actually makes me feel better,” he says. “Sometimes I wondered if it was because I was too much of a smartass, or too much of a nerd.”
“You are a nerd, but I love that.” I reach over and scratch his back. “I love your mind, Calvin.”
“I guess it’s as clean as it’s getting,” he says, rising.
I can’t tell if this has helped Calvin at all, but I feel a little better. “It’ll be good to put that poor guy out of his misery,” I say.
Calvin’s crouched out back by the fire pit turning the slices in the pan.
I’d half resolved to let him be, but I can’t keep quiet now. “We have options. We could go into the city. Or if we’re killing ourselves, aren’t there easier ways?”
“This isn’t going to kill us. There’s no risk,” he says.
Of course there is.
“I know you don’t believe it, but I had a vision,” he says.
A dream, he means.
I say, “I have dreams, too, Calvin, but they’re not real. Don’t you see that? There are a million things you dream, and when you don’t have that much else to think about, you can fixate on things, but that doesn’t make them real.”
“It’ll be good to have fresh meat for a change, anyway,” he says. “I saved some to eat raw, just in case the cooking kills off some of what we’re after, but this batch I want to be just right. Crispy edges and all.”
It smells like food from a long time ago. It makes my own mouth water, for sure, but that’s not a reason to risk us.
I say, “There are fewer of them every year. If this is the vaccine, Calvin—think about that—if this is the vaccine, what use is it even? They might be gone already. Almost gone.”
“I think you ought to go scan the hills a while, Abbie,” he says in a small, shaky voice. “Look way up high. There’s a bunch more of them up there by now.”
Goosebumps rise on my arms. I know he’s right even as I rush in the back door, up the stairs, and out on the deck. Even before the binoculars.
The guy in the trap is still now, but the tree line ripples with dead. The bare patches aren’t bare. I’m shaking, trying to still myself enough to look through the binoculars, and Calvin’s calling from the backyard.
Come on back. Nothing we can do now. Dinner’s almost ready.
I ate it, the cooked and the raw, all he gave me. We watched the hills while we ate. Now we sit cross-legged in our attic bedroom with all the barriers up and all the locks locked. We’re here because I couldn’t be anywhere else and because he owes me this much at least, after all the trust I’ve put in him. I could never stand terror for very long, always hid in this hidey hole, didn’t I?
The fire’s still going out back; we risked that. We’ve always been so careful with fires, but now I guess it doesn’t matter.
We’re holding hands, left in right and right in left, knees to knees. “I lied,” I say. “It wasn’t just about the boy.”
“Shh. It’s going to be all right,” Calvin says.
“It was my mom, too. She had a lot of trouble with my little brother. They were in the hospital a long time. They had to. . . and it wasn’t you who was always too afraid to go back to the city. It was me. Every time I’d push to go, then when you’d start to agree, I’d back off. I’ve been a terrible. . .”
“Shh,” Calvin says. “We’ve been happy. We’re going to keep being happy.”
What wouldn’t we do to stay happy and safe, just a little while longer?
A bell begins to ring.
“They’re in the house,” I say. “Or could that be something else, wind on the windows? A bird?”
“They’re in the house,” Calvin says.
Something makes a dull crash far downstairs. More of the bells set to tinkling.
“They can’t get up here. You promised.”
“They can’t. They’d have to do so many things you know they can’t do. But I’m feeling it a little now, aren’t you?”
I am. The whole attic is pink in the candlight, warm and safe as always but different somehow. Calvin looks a little different, in a way I can’t quite pin down.
Something crashes on the second floor, just below us.
“So when are you going to tell me about that vision?” I say.
“Are you sure you want to hear?”
I nod, and he scoots back to his bed, pulls me up against him. It isn’t anything—we’re like a brother and sister by now—but it still feels good to finally join him in bed. He whispers all of what he saw:
“We ate the brain. In the vision, it came to us on a silver platter. The hills shook with lost souls. You reached for the rifle, and I said, ‘We’ll free them, but we don’t have to do it now. You don’t need to be scared. They can’t hurt us anymore.’ I knew we didn’t need to hide anymore, either, but still I brought you up here so you could feel safe. We lay here as long as we wanted, as long as it took to lose the last of the dread, and then we moved the furniture away from the hatch.”
My body tenses at this. The bells ring, all of them now.
“We moved the furniture and let down the ladder. We watched them for a while until you felt safe again. They looked different. They looked like what they are, just poor lost people.”
“And they weren’t coming after us, were they?” I say.
He says, all in wonder, “No, it was like they couldn’t smell us anymore.”
I say, “But they still smell us all over the house.”
They were moving down there now. We kept hearing things crash.
He says, “They smell how we used to be. We aren’t the same people because we don’t have any fear anymore.”
“I still do. Just a little bit,” I say.
“Me too, just a little bit,” Calvin says softly, “but it’s almost gone. And when we’ve entirely lost it, we’ll go down the ladder. We can walk right past them if we want, or we can put them out of their misery so easy then. Something, the meat thermometer I’m thinking, just punch it through the eye into the brain, and that’s it. No drama. Just free them one by one.”
“Or since we’re immune now,” I say, “we could even put our fingers—or some kind of a hook—into their eyes and pull out part of the brain.” My mouth floods with water at that thought.
I’m not sure, though. Will our hands still pick up tools? Will our hands know anything more than to dig and pull?
But he says, “That was in the vision, too, something like that.”
“Or, since we’re immune, we could even go out to the bear trap and eat what’s there—even that—and we wouldn’t get sick?” I say.
He says, “That’s what we did, actually. We sat down in the grass out there and cleaned up the trap.”
“Was it good?” My mouth gushes again as I think back to that time, years ago, when we had all that meat from the last of the horses.
“It was so good,” Calvin says, hugging me tighter, “and we realized that we didn’t need the trap anymore, or the orchard, or the guns, or anything but each other.”
“What did we do then?”
“I don’t know. It was the end of the vision.”
“We walked all the way back to the city, don’t you think?” But did we walk together? Did we veer away as strangers?
He says, “I don’t have any idea. Looking forward to finding out.”
“I’m ready to go down now, I think.”
About the Author
Christi Nogle’s debut novel Beulah [is coming/was published] in January 2022 by Cemetery Gates Media. You can find her most recent short stories in Vastarien: A Literary Journal, Flame Tree Press’s Chilling Crime Stories, and Weird Little Worlds’ Humans Are the Problem: A Monster’s Anthology. You can follow christi on Twitter @christinogle or http://christinogle.com
About the Narrator
Sheila Regan is based in the Twin Cities. Recent acting projects include two projects by director Alex Gutterman– the indy film “In Winter,” and the web series “The Hunter.” She’s also collaborated on several theater pieces based on the poems of John Colburn at venues such as Icehouse, Third Place Gallery, and the Twin Cities Book Festival. You can hear her doing radio stories about artists on KFAI radio.