Throughout the years Hollis has observed them among his dreams, watching from a distance as they foraged under a blackened sky. After a time he understood that they, like him, had sensed the flux of earth, yet were undaunted: having journeyed perhaps twenty miles in almost fifty days, a procession of cows-nomadic Herefords and Jerseys-grazed onward, wobbling over a moonlit prairie, bulky heads lowered; their hooves crunched sandstone and pumice, and their excreta, hardening behind them, marked the slender trail in uneven circles-testaments to how far they had come, symbols of presence, like the burned-out and rusting wheelless cars they encountered within unkempt pastures of bluebonnets and high brittle grass, or the gutted houses abandoned on good soil (porches collapsing, doors gone, the wind sneaking through busted panes into dim interiors), or any number of fading signposts passed along the way, those many things fashioned by man-made design and then left again and again as the herd proceeded, weaving blindly ahead for no other reason than it must.
And there, too, he has infrequently witnessed the approach of other languid creatures: half-naked human figures emerging whenever the recurring cows failed to manifest, hundreds of pale bodies cutting through the landscape, angling across the same nighttime terrain but traveling in the opposite direction. That serpentine formation of listless souls wound back into the darkness-the shapes of children, men and women, mothers cradling infants, the elderly-coming from where the cows had been headed, drawing nearer while never quite reaching him. But it was the gas mask each one wore which disturbed him the most-such cumbersome equipment obscuring their faces, too large for the heads of small children and practically consuming the entire bodies of the infants, giving the group a uniform, superficial appearance not unlike that of cattle. Even so, he perceived their determined movements as a kind of miserable retreat, a retrogression toward the past and, indeed, toward the living-where, upon arriving at their destination, he imagined the masks would be cast aside and all of them would inhale freely once more.
Yet every step of their bare feet was now preceded by labored breath, a collective exhalation delivered in unison and released as a muted, staccato gasp through chemical air filters-while their paper-thin skin contracted around pronounced rib cages, and many of their arms hung like broken branches at their sides. As the ragged column advanced steadily in the moonlight, he realized the physical condition of the people had deteriorated badly since he'd first seen them decades ago. Their clothing was either reduced to shreds or had fallen away, their ankles and feet were covered with sores, their hair was so long that it ran the length of their backsides, and the men's thick beards jutted from beneath their masks. In that stream of pale, dirty bodies only their protruding bones shone clearly as they marched one after the other.
"Where are you going?" he had once asked them without speaking. "What is it you're looking for? What do you want?"
Later on, after having grown accustomed to their rare visitations, he offered the men cigarettes, the women Dixie cups filled with apple juice, the children Halloween candy from an orange plastic pumpkin ("Please, you must be hungry-here, have something to drink-have some juice-please, help yourself-please-"), but his gestures went unacknowledged, his voice remained unheard. They, as usual, strayed well beyond his grasp, moving resolutely on the trail, somehow receding even while approaching.
However fast he walked, Hollis was never able to catch up with them. For years he tried without any success, his life evolving from youth to retirement while the processions continued to elude him. But as was always the case, those irregular dreams dissolved with his sudden waking, and he opened his eyes in bedrooms steeped by shadows-his body shuddering as if it had retained something unwholesome from the land of his visions and carried it then into the imperturbable, calm world he has made for himself.2
Now in the waning months of the twentieth century, snow fell last evening without warning, drifting from above as if the heavens had been wrung in the hands of God, spilling down upon an unsuspecting desert, covering all which lay exposed below the dark-gray clouds. Waking well after midnight-an open hardback of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six resting against his chin, a coffee cup half filled with Glenfiddich sitting nearby on the floor-Hollis was comfortable inside his house, stretched across the living-room couch and kept snug by a beige terry-cloth bathrobe. Lifting the novel, he began reading where he had left off, although his attention wasn't really held by the writing; his eyes scanned paragraphs, failing to absorb sentences, until, at last, he set the book aside, turning his gaze elsewhere as the Glenfiddich was absently retrieved, the liquor seeping warmly past his lips.
On the other side of the living room the front curtains were drawn, revealing the picture window and what existed just beyond it: a torrent of snowflakes wavering to the earth, some pattering at the glass like moths before dissolving into clear drops of moisture. Presently, he was standing there in his bathrobe, resting a palm against the window, sensing the cold while buffered by efficient central heating. There, also, he caught a glimpse of himself as an obscure, diaphanous man reflected on the glass; his transposed image was cast amongst the wide residential street-the adjacent and similarly designed homes, the xeriscaped lawns-backlit by a table lamp but also illumed in that frozen vapor which brightened the night, that curious downpouring which smothered the gravel-laden property and changed his Suburban Half-Ton LS from sandalwood metallic to an almost solid white. He realized, then, that the outside cold had somehow managed to bypass the insulated flesh and blood of his left leg-needling into the marrow of his once torn-apart thigh, reviving the ancient injury caused by a North Korean's bullet that had ripped into his leg, striking him while his M1 returned fire; the throbbing, indefinite pain had been felt by him since, but only in the bleakest of winter months, sometimes giving him a slight limp as if to summon his previous incarnation: a young private in the U.S. Army, a rifleman at the outset of a half-forgotten war.
By daybreak, however, the blizzard had reached its end, and soon sunlight vanquished those low-hanging, thick clouds. When a hard blue sky proclaimed the storm's departure, the neighborhood became a glaring sight to behold; the morning's rays were made radiant in the glossy ice patches embracing asphalt and in the immaculate snowfall blanketing yards. Then Hollis was at the window once again, standing there as if he hadn't ever left the living room. The Glenfiddich had been replaced with decaf, the coffee cup steaming while he squinted to perceive the ghostly reflection in front of him; cast discernibly now on the glass of the window, his chest's silver, coarse hairs looked golden, his forehead's rugged creases appeared less defined. He had slept less than four hours, having fallen asleep at about the time he would normally be waking up. Even so, his body felt rested, his thoughts lucid, the previous night's swift accumulation having enlivened him somehow; he was-as his wife, Debra, remained in their bed-fully awake and eager to venture into that bleak, muted scenery. But beforehand, Hollis decided, he would spend a few minutes at the computer-coffee cup on a coaster, an index finger pushing the keyboard buttons-typing a short addendum to the prologue section of his fledgling autobiography, lest he forget later on.
"Whenever something strikes you," Debra had reminded him, "be sure you take note of it. Anything at all. You'll see, little details help create the best picture of someone."
But he worried that the little details of his life weren't at all interesting.
"Nonsense," she'd responded. "Everyone is interesting, and everyone has a story to tell. If you think on it long enough, you'll see how amazing your life has been up to this point. Look, you've gone from Tokyo to Tucson, and a bunch of places in between. Now that's something to write about."
"I'm not sure everyone is interesting, Deb. I mean, what if I discover how incredibly dull I am, or how meaningless?"
"You won't, dear. Trust me."
It had been Debra's idea that he should chronicle his life, an exercise which she believed could preoccupy the downtime of retirement and, she hoped, would foster some much-needed reflection on his part. Toward that end, she purchased a refurbished Mac and checked out several books from the library that she thought might motivate him (Fulton J. Sheen's Life of Christ, Sam Walton: Made in America
, and Chuck Yeager's autobiography). As a young man, Hollis had considered becoming a writer (having immersed himself early on in the writings of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck), but following his military duty, he found serious literary fiction less and less appealing for some reason-perhaps because of the subject matter's growing ambiguity and the unheroic nature of the characters, the increasing emphasis on the human condition's darker extremes. These days, however, his tastes were allied with the works of writers like Clive Cussler and John Grisham, heavily plotted but entertaining novels which more often than not didn't get finished before they were due back at the library; so while he appreciated Debra's gesture, the nonfiction books she stacked near the Mac received the slightest of considerations-the chapters flipped through, a paragraph or two perused at random, a bookmark stuck indiscriminately in the pages to give the false impression of a reading well under way.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Post-War Dream by Mitch Cullin. Copyright © 2008 by Mitch Cullin. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.