Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: Two
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 5) There are Worse Things
I buried Katie in the predawn gloom of a frigid April morning. My heavy breaths created plumes of vapor in the cool, damp air, yet I roasted in my loose T-shirt and leggings. Sometimes in my dreams, I still hear the shovel digging into fresh earth and the soft whump as dirt piled up beside the ever-growing hole between Katie's favorite beech trees. I thought my arms would fall off, the muscles quivering and burning with the effort, but I kept on in the way only the obsessed do. I owed this to my twin, and I would not stop until she was at rest.
After patting the dirt over her grave one final time, I collapsed against the smooth, grayish bark of the nearest tree and sobbed, long and hard. Three similar mounds of dirt lay beyond the beech trees: Mike, my fiancé; Mamie, my grandma; and Dover, our beloved dog. Katie had been alive to help me bury them. This was so much worse.
My dad had been gone well over a week by the time I buried Katie, and I assumed he died a hero's death. It's what he would have wanted.
As I sat there with the hardness of the tree irritating my sweat-soaked back through my T-shirt, the gravity of the situation crushed me in an avalanche of reality. I was alone in the world. Other than crazy Uncle Jack, the only possible relation I had left was the mother who'd abandoned me at the age of ten.
I saw my mother a few weeks before the epidemic started. She'd called when our dad was at work, begging our forgiveness, wanting Katie and me to come and visit her in Georgia. She'd snot-sobbed into the phone, blathering on about how young and stupid she was back then and what a mistake it had been to leave us. I softened, agreeing to visit. Katie had refused to even get on the phone, offering up a double bird salute before stalking out of the house.
I tried to convince Katie to come with me, but my sister was stubborn.
“She didn't give a shit about me when I was ten . . . I don't give a fuck about her when she's sorry. Why, so she can smooth out the wrinkles in her conscience? I'd love to be that big, rippling wrinkle that just won't go away.” Katie had arranged her dark-lipsticked mouth into a teeth-baring smile, and I knew the discussion was over.
I turned my face until my cheek rubbed against the ashy bark of the beech tree, the scent of freshly turned earth all around me. I couldn't stay, not with everyone gone. The power was still on, but phone service had been out for two weeks. Chances were my mother was dead, too.
My lids fluttered closed, bone-weary fatigue making them too heavy to hold open. In that moment, I decided to follow Katie's advice and head further north to Uncle Jack's. He might be dead, too, but he did have a great setup.
I fell asleep against the tree, waking when the sun kissed my skin. Heading into the house, I took a long, hot shower—maybe my last for a while—and headed downtown to Jace's Camping World. The store was closed, but Mike used to work there, so I'd snatched his key ring before leaving home. I let myself in the back door and moved stealthily through the store with a flashlight, helping myself to essentials Katie had suggested before she died.
“. . . chlorine tablets to purify water, a Mylar blanket. Oh! Don't forget an emergency tube tent—they keep you warm even in subarctic temps. Rope, a fold-up fishing rod. Weapons, too. And . . .”
The rucksack I picked out was heavy with gear when I left. Out in the car, I spread a map on my lap and plotted a route from Rockland to Uncle Jack's cabin in Cooper. I marked main roads in red and secondary roads in blue; I anticipated problems near well-populated areas and wanted to have alternate routes in place.
The trip was about a hundred and fifty miles and proved to be tricky. I had to switch cars three times, sometimes hiking overland several miles before finding a suitably clear road to travel. My father may have been an officer of the law, but he made sure his daughters had certain skills, such as hot-wiring cars.
I didn't see many people; most of them were inside their homes in varying stages of the virus or had passed out and died in their cars on their way to who-knew-where. After some guy with red-rimmed eyes tried to strangle me for being healthy, I pretended to be sick like everyone else.
Belfast was a haven of dead bodies, both human and canine. I followed the highway on foot, planning to find myself another ride at the edge of town, but the sight of the bridge crossing over the Passagassawakeag River stopped me. A snarl of cars, some of them trapped on the median, clogged the bridge. Three quarters of the way over, someone had piled up huge metal garbage dumpsters, effectively blocking passage to or from Belfast.
After staring at the disturbing visual for a while, I pulled out my map to find an alternate route. If I attempted to swim the river, all my gear would be waterlogged. I took a chance on the footbridge and found it blocked, too. Eventually, I came across a canoe resting by the edge of the riverbank and waited until dusk before setting out, not knowing what I would find on the other side.
Whoever had tried to keep others from crossing the river was long gone. Silence greeted me on the other side of the water along with the usual signs of death. On the outskirts of town, I found a small car with half a tank of gas. I hot-wired it and managed to cross the Penobscot River without incident.
Most nights, I slept in whatever car I was driving. I'd conceal it beneath a copse of trees or pull it into an abandoned barn. A trip that should have taken a few hours, took days.
When I finally reached Cooper, I hid the little blue car I was driving and hiked inland through dense trees and over rolling hills until I reached the edge of Uncle Jack's property. I shinned up a tree and pulled out my binoculars. The cabin was actually more of a shack. The grass was high, waving lazily in the breeze. A side wall had partially caved in, and there were scorch marks on the roof. Lightning strike? Whatever happened, the place didn't look like it had been occupied for some time.
I climbed down from my perch and hiked across the field to the cabin. A couple of shotguns rested against the undamaged side. The acrid scent of fresh smoke filled my nostrils. When I peeked around the corner of the house, I noticed a smoldering campfire with ribbons of grayish smoke curling lazily in the air. A metal coffee pot lay on its side in the tamped down grass along with two pairs of men's socks and boots.
A bloodcurdling scream cut the air, followed by splashing.
“It's fucking cold, loser!”
The creek. They were in the water, washing up.
A thump from inside the ruined cabin startled me. I picked my way around back and knelt on a barrel, peering through the dirt-streaked glass. A great deal of debris and broken furniture littered the floor along the damaged side. A woman was trussed up on the couch, a gag tied firmly over her mouth. My heart raced, and I backed off the barrel, hitting the ground hard.
More hollering came from the direction of the creek.
My first thought was of freeing the woman, but there was no time. The men were heading back, and I ran the other way, feeling like a coward.
Out back, I raided Uncle Jack's overgrown garden. Most of the good stuff had already been picked over, probably by those guys. While I was munching on a pepper, the sun faded and angry clouds rolled in on a brisk wind.
I climbed a tree and nestled into a fork of branches covered by a thick canopy of leaves and hung my rucksack from a broken-off stub that resembled a hook. When the rain started, I dug an emergency rain poncho out of my bag. The storm began with fat drops of rain that tapped against the leaves and soon turned to a driving downpour that parted my cover and pelted me. Eventually, I slipped into a fitful sleep.
I awoke to the sound of two men talking about trapping animals. They also mentioned finding lumber to fix the cabin and lamented the loss of “their” woman. She'd apparently tried to escape again and drowned in the creek when they decided to teach her not to run.
Terrified the men would discover me, I spent another day up in that tree. When night fell, I heard their drunken voices floating on the air. I waited until they were quiet and only night-sounds surrounded me before I shimmied down the tree. I didn't dare start the car, so I left it behind and traveled slowly on foot through the darkness, stopping to rest every few hours. The morning dawned cloudless and hazy. I came upon a field of sunflowers, their heavy, sunny heads swaying in the gentle breeze. I collapsed amongst their regal stalks and cried. How could the world be ending when there was such innocent beauty to be found?
The body aches and fevers started later that day, and my next truly coherent memory was of waking up on top of the cliff by the sea with Grace watching over me.
I sit huddled on the floor of the mudroom, yanking on fistfuls of my hair and muttering the occasional curse. Max made his dramatic exit a while ago, leaving me to stew. I may not remember how I arrived on the cliff, but the thought of leaving this strange town causes bile to rise in my throat. I know what's waiting out there, and it can only be worse now than what I ran from in Cooper.
Screw you, Max! I have no intention of leaving here without a fight.
I gather up some canned goods, powered milk, and protein bars from the pantry then go out to the yard. Faint light seeps along the edge of the horizon, signaling the beginning of a new day. I scan the houses around me, looking for a good vantage point. The house behind this one has second floor windows that should offer a decent view of the backyard, porch, and back door. I take care to walk around the block, rather than jumping the fence or tromping through neighboring yards. No sense in announcing my location.
Grace trots beside me, the ultimate loyal companion. She doesn't question my lead, just follows it. I try to ignore the emptiness around us as we make our way along the sidewalk to the cream-colored house and enter the backyard. Predictably, the rear door is unlocked. I shine a flashlight around inside; the house is as dusty and undisturbed as any of the others I've inspected. I make my way to the second floor, somewhat numb to the condition of the houses in this town by now.
The apple tree hampers my view from the master bedroom, so I move on to the room next door. I'm not expecting the pale pink walls, canopy bed draped in white eyelet, or toys and games. A child's room. Where is this little girl now? I close my eyes and fight off nausea as I struggle to put aside depressing thoughts.
I cross the room slowly, looking down at the hardwood floor until I reach the window and part the white eyelet curtains. The view of the little blue house is perfect and unobstructed from here.
Going back downstairs, I find a beat-up Radio Flyer wagon in the backyard and pull it behind me back to the blue house. Thankfully, it glides along silently. I fill the wagon with more supplies and wheel it back to the cream-colored house. As I pass the front porch, I notice a sign hanging by the entrance: The Ellers: John, Tammy, and Brittney
Tears prick my eyes, maybe because knowing their names makes them more real to me.
The Ellers' pantry has a trap door in the floor. Hesitantly, I yank on the metal ring and lift the linoleum-covered plank, which sticks for a moment before it creaks loudly as it gives way. Crouching on the edge, I shine the beam of the flashlight around. A set of rickety wooden stairs leads down to a packed-dirt root cellar.
Wrapping the strap of the flashlight around my wrist and placing a piece of wood on the lip of the opening to keep the door from completely closing—because this reminds me too much of a horror movie, and I have no intention of being trapped in some dank hidey hole—I descend the stairs slowly.
A three-legged table rests against one wall and empty shelves line the other three. Besides a few vertical supports, there's nothing else down here. It's a perfect place to hide all my stuff.
A soft whine comes from above me. Grace sniffles at the edge of the trap door, staring at me with curiosity. After I make several trips up and down the creaky stairs, she finally flops down on the floor. Her dark eyes track me as I move about, each eyebrow lifting and lowering independently. When this causes me to giggle, Grace lifts her head and chuffs, almost as if scolding me. I pat her on the head and keep moving.
By mid-afternoon, everything is packed away in the root cellar, and a throw rug is glued to the top of the trap door. If I have to hide, nobody will know I'm here. By nobody, I suppose I mean Max.
Returning to the blue house, I use some bottled water to wash in the bathroom upstairs. I've already disturbed things here, so why not?
In the soft, filtered light shining through the window, I gaze at my gaunt face in the mirror. I run the pads of my fingers along my angular cheekbones and the shadowed hollows beneath them. It's obvious by the fit of my clothing that I've lost weight, but coming face to face with myself for the first time in weeks is jarring. I hate the fear in my eyes. My dark hair is kind of greasy and hangs in lank ropes that drape over my bony shoulders.
I wash my hair. I don't know when things will be this easy again, and if I'm truthful, I'm a bit nutty about my hair being clean. Afterward, I comb through all the tangles and am forced to cut a few snarls out with a scissor. When I'm done, I look in the mirror again. My combed, wet hair frames my too-thin face and dark-circled, owlish eyes.
The tears start to flow. The wrong twin survived. I don't think I'm up for this.
Two sharp cracks split the air outside.
Rubbing my dripping face with my sleeve, I rush into the master bedroom. Grace is already there with her paws on the windowsill. She bares her teeth, a slow, deep growl rumbling in her chest.
My heart starts hammering as I lean in next to her and gaze out the window, looking for movement, anything. The sun is shining. A slight breeze blows. No disturbances. From up here, I can see a few blocks one direction and rolling fields leading to woods in another.
The sound doesn't repeat, but I know what it was. Gunfire. Two shots. Could be a survivor hunting out in the woods. Could be trouble.
I clean up the bathroom and grab my bag, heading for the back door. The yard is undisturbed, so I peer around the side of the house where Max first knocked me on my duff. All clear.
This time, Grace and I go around the block in the other direction. I see nothing alarming, and Grace seems content.
My heart is still beating fast after I close the Ellers' door and lock it behind me. I rest my forehead against the cool wood and take deep breaths, trying to calm the pulsing in my temples.
“Finally ready to take shit seriously, China?”
I shriek, bumping my head against the doorjamb. “Ow!” I turn, and Max is leaning against the doorway to the living room, smirking. I have the urge to throw something at him. “Stalker,” I accuse.
He crosses his massive arms. Today he's wearing camouflage pants and a tight, army green T-shirt. “I admit I've been watching you today. What I can't figure out is where you stored all that shit.”
It's my turn to smirk. “Stump the chump.”
Max's smirk slips a little, and his eyes harden. “You didn't stump me. I wanted to see what you were up to, but time is running out.”
I realize Grace hasn't greeted Max. She's still poised an inch away from my leg. So close I can feel the comforting heat of her.
I cross my arms, mimicking Max's stance. “You keep talking about making me leave town and time running out . . . Why don't you just tell me what the fuck is going on here?”
“Need to know basis.”
“This is 'need to know,' Max. If you haven't noticed, I'm not leaving.”
“You should leave. Take Grace and go before . . .” His jaw tightens, and he looks away.
“Before what?” I stand taller and take a step forward, pointing at him. “Are you threatening me?”
Max's eyes widen slightly, and he shakes his head. “No. If I wanted to hurt you, I've had plenty of opportunity, Marie.”
The use of my given name is disarming—probably the result he was going for. I shrug my shoulders and fling my arms up. “Then, what? You don't like my face, the way I smell?”
Max starts pacing around the living room with his hands cupping the back of his neck. “Did you hear anything a while ago?”
“You mean the gunshots?”
He halts his pacing and looks over at me. “Caught that, huh?”
I nod. I'm quite familiar with guns, though I'm not about to tell him that.
“Look, can we sit for a minute and . . . talk?” He gestures to the brown leather couch.
“I guess.” I wait for him to sit, then I perch on the arm at the opposite end. This brings us almost eye to eye.
Grace finally draws closer to Max, but stops a foot away and looks to me for permission.
“It's okay, girl.”
With a happy yip, Grace launches herself at Max, landing on his lap and pinning him against the back of the couch. He laughs and ruffles Grace's fur, accepting her special full-face licks with great pleasure.
I watch Max closely. He's so unguarded in this moment, chuckling, the smile going all the way to the depths of those sea-glass eyes. There's something almost carefree about him.
But then he sees me watching, and the shutters come down again. He doesn't reject Grace, but he becomes more reserved. “Okay, okay. Down, girl.” Max looks down at his hands for a few seconds as if he's weighing something. When he speaks, he stares at the floor. “Look, I don't wish you any harm, but you can't stay here. There's shit you obviously don't know and don't need to if you're not staying.”
“Max, are you aware of what's out there?” My shoulders slump, and now it's me looking at the floor to hide my tear-filled eyes.
“Of course I know.” Max's voice is much softer, almost haunted. “Believe me when I say you'd be better off out there.”
I close my eyes and shake my head. A few tears escape, but I don't think he can see.
“Listen, Marie . . .”
Max's words are interrupted by a loud horn. It startles me, and I slip off the arm of the couch and land sideways on the slick leather cushions.
“What the hell?”
The horn blares again, reminding me of the one our town used for an emergency signal.
“Attention, survivors! You don't have to be out on your own anymore. We have food, clothing, supplies, power, and best of all—other survivors. All are welcome.”
“Oh my God, Max!” I scramble off the couch and run for the front door when the message starts broadcasting again. “Here! We're here!”
Max leans forward and loops an arm around my waist as I pass him, pulling me down on his lap. I struggle to get up, slapping and clawing at the tattooed arm holding me in place.
“Let me go!”
He presses a hand over my mouth and brings his lips close to my ear. “Shh . . . Be quiet!”
There's a sense of urgency in his tone that causes me to stop fighting. I relax slightly, my back coming in contact with his chest. He's breathing hard, the warmth huffing across my cheek.
“I'm gonna take my hand away, but you can't call out to them, okay?”
I nod, scared out of my mind. It's not Max I'm afraid of. He's terrified, and that can't mean anything good.
Max removes his hand from my mouth but keeps the arm holding me on his lap in place. “Shit, shit, shit.” He groans and rests his cheek against mine.
“Max, what's going on?” I whisper.
“That's the 'Welcome Wagon.' They come around every so often looking for survivors.” There's dread in his voice, and it's contagious.
Max leans in closer, and I feel the thud of his heart against my back. “And some things are worse than being out there.”
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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook