The silence is nice in the beginning. I don’t like most people, except for you, so it is freeing to be alone. The bodies are unsettling, though. Their cloudy gray eyes watch me as I dance away the first few nights, high on survival and disco. I can feel their resentment, their disappointment. I can’t leave them in the house with me. They’re starting to smell. I don’t look at their faces as I tug and pull on arms and legs, straining to get them out of the door and into the backyard. I can no longer think of them as my family. You, you were my family, my new beginning.
Even after I drag them out of the house, the smell still comes in when the windows are open. That ripe, wet scent of decay, like a sour drain that’s been vomited in.
The power lasts a week; the taps go dry two days later. It all goes dark in the end. Flies are everywhere. Their buzzing replaces the electric hum of life and appliances, though louder and more persistent. I twitch when they land on me. I wonder, are they surprised to find me warm and breathing?
I wonder where you were when it happened.
I’m running out of food and there’s no more water. Riding my bike in circles through town, over and over, the streets too clogged with cars and bodies to drive. I stop at every store I see, peering in the windows, trying to open the doors, but they’re all closed up tight.
It’s my third day of searching and I find a door held open by a leg, now mottled purple and green. I push and push and am finally able to slide the door open. The large store that once claimed the lowest prices in town is still and dark, silent yet full of people. Why had they all come here at the end? I step over the bodies and try to find my way around with only the murky light from the high windows to guide me.
Up and down the aisles I wander, trying not to look at the bodies and trying to not breathe through my nose. I carry boxes and bottles to the door, not thinking of how I will get it all home. I suppose I am also looking for someone else like me, someone alive, looking for you most of all. I settle for water and cans of soup. And batteries, lots of batteries. By now, all the dairy is spoiled, the bread green, the meat rotted. Lots of rotting meat everywhere I look. I know I will have to come back and move the bodies somewhere, but I can’t do it today. I’m just too tired, too sick, so I carry what I can and go home.
Was it you who left the portable CD player where I could find it? It must have been. Only you would remember how happy music makes me. I sing loudly, dance wildly, and I can almost forget what happened. Almost.
Sometimes I think I’m glad you weren’t with me at the end. I don’t think I could have stood to watch the light go from your eyes, the love leave your body. At least this way, not knowing, I can still have hope. Hope that I you might someday come back to me.
The wildlife is starting to move in. Packs of wild dogs roam and fight over the bodies while cats with feral eyes watch me from around corners. Vultures cast delicate shadows as they circle overhead. They’re drawn to the smell.
I find a wagon, the bright red plastic fading to a dull orange in the sun, and use it to drag food and water home from the store. It’s easier to go in there now that I moved the bodies to the large freezer and I can’t smell them anymore. One day I am surprised to find a deer running in panic up and down the aisles. Someone must have left the main door open. I don’t think it was me, but I who else could it have been?
I vomit all day long now. Flies swarm around me as I retch, eager for what my body is revolting against. I want to crawl into bed and cry, but there’s too much to do, too much to prepare for. I wish there was someone here that could help me through what I know is coming in the winter.
It’s been nine weeks now. I see you sometimes. A curtain twitches or a shadow moves in a mirror and my heart leaps that it must be you. That you, too, somehow survived and have come home to me. I can’t be the only one left. If there is me, then there must be another, and why should it not be you? But the footsteps I hear in the night are never yours. I don’t know who it is.
You told me that everything would be okay, that you would always take care of us, but you’re not here now. How am I supposed to do this without you? I feel like I am forgetting who you were, who I was. I can’t remember what it was like before. There is only the way it is now.
The windows of the other houses are eyes watching me. I think I can hear screams from behind the locked doors. I look in a window and wish I hadn’t. Those people had a hungry dog.
Nature has returned to reclaim what was taken and I am no longer alone in the house. At night, I can hear sounds like whispers and see eyes glowing red in the dark halls upstairs. I sleep in the living room now where it’s safer.
I wish I had a gun.
The summer storms are here, worse than I remember. Naked, I let the warm rain wash over me while the winds and the lightning rage. Lots of rain, but I am never clean, never the same as I was before. Heat follows the storms and the smell outside becomes unbearable. I cower in the cellar, a towel over my face, failing to stop the assault that breathing brings. I stay down there too long and the rats come, sniffing at my feet, so I have to leave.
I look in the mirror in the hall, but it’s a pale stranger who looks back at me. I wonder who she is. In bright red lipstick, I write my name and yours on the wall so I won’t forget and the letters bleed across the wallpaper. Annie. Colin.
I wonder what name I will write on the wall next.
I can’t reach the food on the top shelves at the store, so I have to climb up on boxes and I worry that I might fall. I’m going to have to start taking things from the storeroom. Eventually, though, there will be no more food and then what will I do?
Sweat makes rivers down my body and my skin glows red and shiny with blisters as I walk, my toy wagon rattling behind me, always searching. Searching for more stores, more water, more food, the possibility of people. Keeping busy makes it easier to ignore the smells, but it is impossible to ignore the bodies. Black and swollen and oozing, they don’t look human anymore. The insects and maggots are so active that it seems like the corpses are moving and might rise once again to dance in the streets. Even the wild dogs feast elsewhere now.
Four months alone and the sun leaves too soon these days. Red and gold fly on the wind and the grass turns silver in the cold of night. The air smells of damp leaves instead of bodies. It’s still a death smell, but a sweeter one. My clothes are too tight and ragged and I am cold. I drag bags home from the store, stuffed with too-big tourist sweatshirts and sports team scarves. I try to light a fire, but something is wrong with the fireplace and the house fills with smoke. I have candles, lots of candles, but they don’t give off much heat. If I use them all I’ll be left in the dark with the voices.
The thought of being alone in winter frightens me most of all.
I fell today. Just a small cut on my leg, but it scares me. What if I get hurt? More than a cut? Or get sick? And how did that box get into the middle of the aisle where I tripped over it? You know I have no need of cat litter.
I feel someone watching me. Following me. Footsteps walk in time with mine down the streets, but when I turn, no one is there. Why are they hiding? It can’t be you. You would never hide from me. I walk fast, almost running, when a root grabs my foot and I fall. The pain is harsh and brings tears. I hear laughter behind me. Sounds I remember from long ago when others would point and laugh. Mean laughter. I do not look back again.
I see strange things in the mirror. I cover it with a blanket, but that doesn’t stop the noises.
My music never stops playing. I can see you dancing next to me, laughing, and it makes me happy. A raccoon watches from the kitchen and I think he is happy, too.
It’s getting harder for me to walk so far, to drag the heavy wagon back home, but I still go, trying to get enough food and water before it snows. I’m not the only one that’s been here. More boxes, things I don’t need, stacked in the aisles. Bottles broken, shelves swept clear. A pink greeting card by the door. ‘Thinking of you’, it says. I can hear their whispers, feel their stares. I hurry home.
I don’t want to go to that store anymore, but I don’t have a choice.
I’ve lost track of the days. When was the last time I saw you? I can’t remember and that makes me sad. It is snowing again today. The other snows were just enough to paint the world white, but this one is stronger. Cold fingers reach into the house to find me hiding under layers of blankets with a flashlight and a book, like when I was a child. I light candles, but no matter what I do, I am cold. I fall asleep and in my dreams a face is pressed up against the window watching me, watching the candles. It almost looks like you. In the morning, I think I can see footprints leading to the window, but the wind is blowing them away. The snow keeps falling.
I hear the whispers upstairs. They do not listen when I scream at them. My voice is rusty and rough, and when I try to sing it is just wordless moans.
I will not make it another night without more heat. I plaster the windows with newspaper and spend hours putting candles in the living room, so many that it is hard to walk. Moving keeps me warm, but I am so tired. Tired of living. Tired of everything. The storm grows angry as night falls. I heat spoonfuls of soup with a candle flame, but that does little to warm me. The music is loud to help silence the sounds from upstairs and from the storm. Candlelight seems to dance with the music, shadows flickering on the walls. Windows rattle in the their frames, little protection against the storm outside. I am too cold, too burdened, to dance, so I wrap myself in blankets and wait for the end of the storm. Wait for the end of it all.
Wind and glass explode into the room as a branch crashes through the window. My cheek stings and blood stains my blanket red. The candles that are still standing catch the curtains and flames climb the fabric to the newspapers that line the windows. My screams are louder than the wind as I back away from the fire, candles falling, flames marking my path. The music keeps playing.
I am not cold now.
Smoke chokes me, tries to drag me down. Do I hear screams from upstairs? I slip through the fingers of fire and burst through the door into the storm. The wind tries to rip my blanket, my skin, from me. I think I see faces at the windows, laughing in the flames. One of them looks like you.
The heat from the house is powerful and I am warm in my blanket. Flames reach to the sky, turning the snow red like the blood dripping down my face. The storm does not scare me now. The fire is my friend. A tree stands over me while I wait for whatever happens next.
I press a hand to my stomach, where the last part of you moves and kicks.
I am not alone after all.
When she’s not chasing after her three children, Allison Walters Luther is crafting fiction in the historical, women’s, and thriller genres. You can read more about her and her work at allisonwaltersluther.com. She occasionally blogs about her family’s journey with autism at simondoesntsay.com and spends way too much time on Twitter at @AllisonLuther.