2014 Rocket Tears Press Paperback Edition
Copyright © 2014 by Robert L. Slater. All rights reserved.
To all my students; yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Thanks for teaching me so much and sharing your lives with me.
This book is one small attempt to pay some of that forward.
One generation passes away,
and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The End of the World as We Know It
“I HOPE YOU ALL DIE!”
Those weren’t the last words Lizzie had told her family, but they might as well have been. She couldn’t remember what she said when Mama took Jayce and Jerkwad to the hospital, but it didn’t matter anyway. They were gone, and all she could remember were the screaming fights and hateful words.
Lizzie stared out through the gap in the dust-encrusted living room blinds. The streets were empty. At first patrol cars had come by several times a day blaring, “STAY INDOORS. NO PHYSICAL CONTACT.”
Now all was silent. Lizzie couldn’t remember when she had last seen a patrol car.
The clock showed mid-afternoon, but the gray excuse for a day in the Pacific Northwest was fading. Lizzie hauled herself out of the threadbare recliner and trudged to Mama’s bedroom. She snuggled under the covers wondering what she should eat for dinner. Mama had filled the freezer with pizzas before she left, but the same menu for a week was getting old.
Holes in the sheetrock beside the nightstand and the wires hanging out reminded her of the dead land-line. The day they went to St. Joseph’s Hospital, Mama called to say Jason, Jayce to Lizzie, was in room 314. The next day the phone didn’t work. At some point, fixing it became tearing it out of the wall in frustration.
Cell systems had been overloaded since state officials declared the pandemic four weeks before. With the phones down and spotty Internet, Lizzie was alone and disconnected from what was happening. She wanted to go outside. Screw the quarantine.
AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” jerked Lizzie back to her surroundings. Her cell phone? When had it started working? She threw off the covers and followed the sound to the couch in the living room. A picture of Mama that Lizzie loved and Mama hated glowed on the screen.
“Mama?” Lizzie sat on the couch cradling the phone to her ear.
“Honey… I’ve been trying to call on both lines.” Mama’s voice teetered on the brink of hysteria.
Lizzie stopped breathing.
Mama sniffed. “Doug’s dead.”
Lizzie sighed, her shoulders relaxed. Not Jayce. Just Jerkwad, Mama’s boyfriend. “I’m sorry, Mama.” She hoped it sounded sincere for her mother’s sake.
“Are you okay? How’s Jayce?”
“Jason’s a trooper.”
Mama hated Lizzie’s nicknames for her little brother.
“I’m in his room,” Mama’s voice softened. “They didn’t have enough empty beds. You have food? You’re staying inside?”
“Yes, Mama.” Lizzie gritted her teeth; she wasn’t going to cry. “How are you?”
A cough exploded into the ear piece. “Other than too many years of smoking? Lizzie, burn the bedding. In Doug’s barrel in the yard. Then come back in. Promise?”
“Okay. I will. I promise. Is Jason awake?” Jayce was eleven. Was he as freaked out as Lizzie?
“No. He’s asleep, snoring. Can you hear?”
“Yeah.” Lizzie laughed. Jayce could sleep through anything. She took a deep breath. “Mama. I’m sorry for all the things I said. All the times I was a bitch.”
“Lizzie-girl. It’s okay. I was your age once.”
Lizzie didn’t remember having a conversation where Mama forgave her for anything. “Mama?”
“Get some rest. We’ll call you tomorrow. Sweet dreams, Lizzie.”
“Mama, don’t go. I—” She heard the phone click. “I love you, Mama,” she whispered.
Jayce is doing good and Jerkwad is dead. Jerkwad always said she’d be out of the house at 18. Well, I’m here, you’re gone, and I’m not 18 for two months. Was Lizzie a bad person for being happy?
Mama sounded horrible. What if they didn’t come home? The cat lady next door never did.
She fidgeted with her cell. It still had the picture of Lizzie and her ex-boyfriend Chad at the water slides. They had stayed friends when she broke up with him at the beginning of the summer. And in September after school started, he was the first person she knew to die. Then the names of the dead started to flow from the school loudspeaker and down her Facebook feed, one by one, until classes were cancelled and the world finished falling to pieces.
She crossed to the liquor cabinet and pulled out Jerkwad’s favorite whiskey, the glass Canadian Club Reserve bottle he kept refilling from plastic ones. Lizzie pulled out the sticky cork, “Here’s to you, Jerkwad.” She tipped it back, her lips on the bottle. The whiskey burned going down, but there wasn’t a lot in the bottle, so she took another swig.
If cell phones worked again, were things getting better? Lizzie spun through her contact list and stabbed a name at random. Jennifer. It rang and went to voicemail. “You know who I am. You know who you are. You know what to do.”
“Jen. It’s Lizzie. Call me.”
Another stab; another message. The sound of voices, even if the people were gone, was like music.
Jayce’s screaming-bird alarm clock woke her the next morning. Lizzie’s head throbbed, her mouth so dry her tongue felt like sandpaper.
She rolled off the living room couch with thoughts of murdering her brother and his wake-the-dead clock. “Jason Ronald. Turn that thing—” Reality slammed back into place. Her brother was in the hospital with Mama. “Shit.” She stumbled to her feet, clothes twisted from sleeping in them. Lizzie stalked the alarm clock to its nightstand, wrenched the cord out of the wall and dropped it on the floor.
Lizzie wobbled back to the couch. The whiskey bottle on the floor made her heart jump. Jerkwad’s best. But he was dead. He would not be slapping her, or anyone else, for it.
Mama had rotten taste in men. She’d kicked Lizzie’s father out when Lizzie was three, blaming drugs and the army. The only thing left was the CD and movie collection Mama kept. When she was old enough Lizzie claimed them and Mama hadn’t objected.
Lizzie raised the whiskey bottle to swig the dregs, gagging as it hit her dry tongue. Her stomach threatened to empty its contents. She went to the bathroom, turned on the cold water, and splashed her face. Her head pounded and she knew from experience it would only get worse. She grabbed some ibuprofen from the medicine cabinet and swallowed a few.
She returned to the living room and flopped back on the couch. Her phone flashed. MISSED CALL. “Damn.” She thumbed the ‘return call’ and held it up to her ear. “Mama?”
“Lizzie?” Mama’s voice was feather-light and tired.
“Yeah, Mama. Sorry, I missed your call. I was sleeping.” Lizzie’s explanation felt lame.
“Liz.” Her voice broke off.
Lizzie could hear her crying. Her gut twisted and her throat tightened; she felt like she was going to throw up. “Jayce?”
Mama sobbed harder in response.
“No, Mama. I’m coming over there.”
“NO!” Her mother’s voice was steel. The sobs stopped. “You will not. You are not sick. I am. Doug is gone. Now Jason’s gone. Dammit, I’m dying! Please. Lizzie, promise me you’ll stay inside.” Another sob escaped. “Promise.”
“Okay, Mama.” Tears fell. Lizzie heard a voice in the background.
“The nurse is here to give me meds, Lizzie. I’ll call you, okay?”
“Yeah, Mama. Okay.” The phone clicked.
Why hadn’t she said I love you? Was it too much like goodbye? Or was she just withholding her love like her mother had done? Lizzie grabbed a plate, the closest thing to her, and hurled it against the wall. It left a dent, fell to the floor and shattered. She screamed. It gave her no release.
She headed to Mama’s room, keeping her phone close. She collapsed onto the bed and pulled Mama’s pillow into her arms. It smelled like her: spicy sweet perfume and a hint of her cigarettes. It had been a week, but Mama’s scent had not faded.
Lizzie thought of little Jayce, his short blonde hair she’d dyed red for his first day of school, all the ketchup he put on everything, his annoying habit of having the right answer for everything and never getting into trouble for anything. Jerkwad loved to point out that Jayce was only her half-brother. But losing Jayce wasn’t half the hurt; blood was blood. Sobs wracked her body. She lay there for a long time until the sobs faded.
Her head throbbed again. She slid from the warmth of the covers and stepped into slippers. She walked into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet, going straight for Mama’s pills. She ignored the bottles with her own name, prescriptions meant to help her “get along better” in the “normal” world. Not much point in that anymore.
Mama’s codeine would kick her headache quick. She opened the container, dropped one in her hand and put the container back on the shelf.
The pale face staring at her in the mirror reminded her of Mama. She’d never seen it before, but in the black circles and the sad, red eyes, she looked like Mama. Except for the piercings and the hair. Lizzie’s buzz-cut had grown out to a boyish length. The frizzy pale pink at the tips faded to bleach blonde and dark at the roots. I need more sleep. The alarm woke her way too early.
Maybe she would sleep better in her own bed. She trudged past the sign that said “This way to the asylum” on her way upstairs. The house was bigger than most of the mobile homes and trailers she spent her childhood in, but still small for a family of four. A previous owner had converted the attic into a bedroom with enough space to stand upright if you were short. That’s why it was Lizzie’s room.
An eerily quiet noon day sun streaming in her window Lizzie woke from her dreamless sleep. No noise—alarms, angry voices, or TV—blared through the thin walls.
She grabbed the cell, checking the screen. The phone was working but Mama hadn’t called. Jayce was gone. Dead. Her chest felt hollow, her eyes beaded with tears. “Jayce.”
Lizzie wanted to call Mama, but it probably wouldn’t do any good. Trust the nurse, Lizzie. Mama said she’d call. “But what if she forgets? Shit.”
Her head no longer pounded. She felt more herself and even more alone. No people. Not even her cat, Gordito. He’d disappeared last summer—probably had gone away to die.
Out of habit her hand found her cigarettes—one left. She searched for a jacket to go outside and smoke. Mama and Jerkwad had tried to get her to quit, but had done a pretty half-assed job. They both smoked, but they insisted she do it outside by Jerkwad’s illegal burn-barrel and use her own allowance. Screw it. She lit up and smoked on her bed.
The cigarette helped, but her restless nerves needed activity. Lizzie could clean up, but the amount of cleaning overwhelmed her. There were piles of laundry, candy wrappers, old CDs and cases strewn all over the floor. Sheets of paper lay in stacks and on top of journals, most scribbled with song lyrics or tattooed with intricate pencil and pen art of abstract shapes, calligraphic characters and rudimentary nudes. Some of the art had made it to the walls. She’d intended to plaster over the ugly blue and green paisley wallpaper, but had only gotten partway done.
Lizzie tucked the cigarette between her lips and pulled out a small burgundy velvet journal, Jayce’s birthday gift for her. She held a pen over a blank page, not knowing what to write—how to honor her brother. Her mind flitted from memory to memory.
With pen in hand and only tears on the empty pages, Lizzie gave up. The cigarette she had forgotten to smoke had burned down. She ground the butt out onto one of Jerkwad’s CDs she had adopted as an ashtray, wondering if her own cigarettes were more like second-hand smoke.
She could hear Jayce’s voice offering to help her organize her room. She’d thrown Dante’s Inferno at him. If she couldn’t write for him, Lizzie could at least clean up a little. She shoved the journal and pen in her pocket and started in on the mess on the floor, piling clothes and stacking similar things. Everything called up thoughts of the past. She picked up a multi-colored shoe done in permanent marker and threw it at the closet. Enough cleaning.
Lizzie ran downstairs. Her hand caught the asylum sign, tearing it off the wall. She wadded it up, wishing she could go back to the past as easily as it came back to her.
LIZZIE LEANED IN THE DOORWAY to Jayce’s room. His clothes were all put away, and his books were in alphabetical order. He’d had the same shitty fatherless life she’d had, but he couldn’t have been more different, escaping from it all with fantasy novels and precise conformity. Now the alarm clock in the middle of his floor marred that conformity. Lizzie stooped to pick it up, and set it on his bedside table next to his calculator watch. She’d teased him mercilessly about the geekiness of it, but he’d never given up thinking it was cool. She smiled sadly, slid the watch onto her wrist, and went in search of some coffee.
Coffee had always been there for her when Lizzie wanted it—cold, but brewed. Now she found the carafe empty. She had seen it made all her life. How hard could it be? She flipped open the lid and found a moldy filter and grounds. She made a face and dumped it in the garbage. Filter, coffee, and water—simple. Three of the big scoops of ground coffee looked about right.
After she turned on the pot, Lizzie sat down at the computer. If the cell phones were working again maybe the Internet was back too. The old dinosaur took forever to boot up. Mama had picked it up for Jayce at a yard sale.
As the hard drive churned away, she flipped the radio on and tuned it to her favorite oldies station. The radio had never quit working. For a few days all the stations had played non-stop recorded emergency bulletins, “This is the Emergency Alert System, this is NOT a test,” interrupted occasionally with a song or two. But, after a while, the stations switched to digital playlists on repeat with alerts on the hour. She’d listened long enough to hear the same songs in the same order.
“…Can’t you hear the thunder, you better run, you better take cover…” blasted out of the speaker. This part of the playlist was some DJ’s twisted end of the world humor. “… on a heavy trail-head full of Zombies…” She had never figured out the lyrics. She turned it off and plugged in her player instead. She put it on the Dad’s Music playlist.
The computer was still loading. She swiveled in the chair, trying to chill. Lizzie heard the final hiss and burble of the coffee maker and grabbed a cup. Not as dark as it should be. She dumped in sugar and settled back into the chair as the browser window popped up. Yes! She had Internet. A new message winked from Jess on the screen. Lizzie clicked to open it.
Jess, Lizzie’s best friend from grade school, had moved to Texas in eighth grade. Away from the “bad influences” her father claimed. He had never liked Lizzie. West Texas might as well be on another planet.
Lizzie’s father had family in Texas, somewhere. The Guerreros and the Salazars. She couldn’t ever remember meeting any of them, though Mama said her grandparents had come up once when Lizzie was two.
Jess’s message finally opened. You out there?
Lizzie typed: Im here. How u doing? Lame, but what could she say? She scanned through the posts in the Facebook newsfeed as she waited for a response, but they were all spam, nothing from real people.
Where is everybody? Lizzie typed a post on her wall:
Roll call. Check in if u r alive.
Then she headed out to the freezer and found some rocky road ice cream. She ate it out of the carton as she clicked into a Google News search. All the articles were variations on the same theme: “PANDEMIC. End of humanity!” None of them were recent. Last one was a couple days old, from the CBC, a Canadian news site. She scanned the article:
“…Can’t find the source of the plague…
…long incubation period…
…predictions of 95-98% succumbing…”
She almost choked on her ice cream at the numbers. She swallowed more than she intended and then squeezed her eyes shut as the brain freeze hit.
I’m finally one of the One Percent. She flipped back to see if Jess had replied.
At the bottom of the article in big bold letters was the same warning she had heard so often in the last few days: “STAY INDOORS. NO CONTACT.” Lot of good that plan was.
Her AC/DC ringtone was barely audible over the stereo. Her phone was charging in Mama’s room. She scrambled out of the chair, knocking it to the floor. Lizzie ran, diving onto Mama’s bed. She grabbed the phone, and jammed the answer tab with her thumb.
“Lizzie,” an unfamiliar voice said, and Lizzie’s heart stopped. “Your mom’s here. She’s feeling pretty weak.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“Sure.” The nurse coughed. She didn’t sound so hot herself. “Here she is.”
“Mama, I love you,” Lizzie blurted.
“Love you, too, honey. I’m doin’ oooo-kay…” Mama drawled out her words and then trailed off; she sounded totally baked. “Nurse is nice. She’s got the good stuff.”
“I’m glad, Mama.”
Silence on the other end. Then: “Sing to me, Lizzie. Sing the songs I used to sing to you.”
“Ok, Mama.” For once Lizzie didn’t refuse the request. The songs that Lizzie liked to sing now were not the ones Mama wanted to hear. She started with Mama’s favorite, “The Rose.” When she was done, she paused. “Mama, can you hear me?”
“Uh huh. Sounds. Lovely. More.”
Lizzie lay down on Mama’s bed and sang through her tears.
When she ran out of Mama’s oldies she sang lullabies.
“Hush little… mama, don’t say a word, baby’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.” She made up lines the way she had heard her father had done, keeping the song going and going. Even when her voice cracked and faded to a hoarse whisper.
“Lizzie?” the nurse again.
Lizzie stopped, swallowing to dampen her dry throat.
“Your mom- she’s gone.”
Lizzie knew—had known. “Can you put the phone by her ear? I want to sing to her some more.”
“That was a wonderful thing you did.” The nurse took a ragged breath. “I don’t think I’m going to see my daughter again.”
Lizzie didn’t know what to say, so she sang some more. Muffled weeping told her the nurse must be listening. Some countless hours later she realized her phone was dead.
She felt sedated, like her first few days in the psych ward after she’d cut her wrists sophomore year. She stood and tried to shake the cobwebs off. She had to do something. Mama said burn things to kill the germs.
Lizzie grabbed a pile of Jerkwad’s crap, plenty of germs there. She kicked open the back door, and hauled it outside into the gloomy evening. She held her breath to keep from breathing in the foul odor of his alcohol-sweat-stained pillow. She dumped everything into the burn barrel. Jerkwad ignored the law, too cheap to pay for garbage more than once a month. Now she would happily burn his garbage in it.
Barking and howling echoed in the distance. Dogs keened, mourning in a cacophonous chorus. She shivered, tugged her shirt tight, and dumped lighter fluid over everything in the barrel, adding a pile of junk mail and advertising for good measure. Rolling up a Target store flyer, she lit one end with her lighter and then held it over the barrel. She held it until the heat hurt her hand, before dropping it and ducking so she wouldn’t singe her eyebrows.
The fire burst upward as the lighter fluid caught, flames consuming what was left of Jerkwad’s worldly possessions. All except the whiskey she would keep to burn her throat and help her forget. She tossed a few sticks of wood in and thought of getting some marshmallows and toasting them. The thought brought a memory of a blazing beach bonfire, Mama smiling, Jayce making S’mores. It was a bad idea; the marshmallows would taste like Jerkwad’s shit.
Lizzie woke to a dark house. She panicked for a moment, fumbling for her lamp. It turned on. Barely 7 o’clock. The sky was socked in with dark clouds. And she was awake. Weird.
She rolled out of bed and went through the house turning lights on as she went. It was probably only a matter of time before they stopped working. She found the defrosted ice cream on the desk, poured it into a glass and added a shot of Mama’s favorite liqueur—Gran Marnier. She plugged the charger into the cell and huddled on the rolling office chair at the computer. A response from Jess blinked on the screen.
Roll call. Jess. Texas.
“Sounds like a porn star,” Lizzie muttered, smiling despite herself.
Then another. Lizzie? Are you there? I’m scared. And lonely.
Lizzie’s hand cradled her drink as she one-finger typed a response. mamas dead. jayces dead. phones dead or id call. She grimaced at her lame joke, sipping the cold concoction. Mama would have liked it. what do i do now?
There was no answer for a long time. Finally: OMG. My family too. So sorry.
Lizzie raised the glass to finish the drink, but it was already gone. me 2. r u alone?
She wished the dinosaur of a computer would work well enough to do video chat, but last time Jayce had tried, it had taken three reboots to start it up again.
Yes. Wish you were here.
me 2. Her phone had enough juice to turn on now. im calling. She left it plugged in as she dialed.
“Lizzie. Good to hear your voice.”
Lizzie set down the drink, as if she could hold Jess through the phone. “Yeah. What’re you gonna do?”
Jess’ response was a long time coming. “Don’t know. I need to bury them.”
“They’re in the house with you?”
“In their beds. Didn’t know what else to do. They kept getting sicker. And I didn’t get it. One by one, they just…” Jess’ voice faded to silence.
Lizzie whispered into the phone, “I don’t want to be alone.”
“Don’t do anything crazy. Don’t even try.”
“Hey, I’m Crazy Lizzie. Supposed to do crazy, stupid things.”
“LIZ! Don’t! Okay?”
Lizzie swallowed; her throat felt raw. Maybe I’m getting sick. “I can’t promise.”
“Dammit, Lizzie, you’re my best friend since forever. You don’t get to be a cop out. Go outside once it gets light. See if you can find anyone left. Then call me. You hear? If you kill yourself, I’m going to kill myself too.”
They’d had this conversation before. “Okay. I won’t. I promise.” Lizzie sighed. “Not without telling you. But I don’t see much to live for.”
“Free candy? There aren’t any store clerks anymore, right?”
They both laughed and then there was silence.
“I’m exhausted.” Jess yawned. “Call me tomorrow, Lizzie. I love you.”
Lizzie went back to the medicine cabinet and picked through Mama’s collection. She took two Sonata sleeping pills and washed the green capsules down with a glass of water, refilled it and drank another one. Then she put on music from the Mama’s Sad Songs playlist. She lay down on the couch and wrapped a blanket from Mama’s bed tight around her. She wanted to keep that scent around as long as possible, even if it meant she might catch this thing and die. She would never burn Mama’s things, even though she had promised.
Breakfast was a bowl of Apple Jacks and the last of the milk. Lizzie mechanically shoveled it into her mouth. Then she drank the pink milk at the bottom of the bowl.
“I go outside, or I never leave, and I die here,” Lizzie said aloud, as if Mama was listening. Seemed like she was always breaking her promises.
She went upstairs to her room to get dressed: jeans, Doc Martens with extra socks, one of Mama’s threadbare flannel shirts over a baby blue t-shirt with her band logo in permanent marker: Cut Glass. She dumped her school backpack and its contents of done and undone homework. The Dante paperback slid across the floor.
Jerkwad had said she’d never graduate high school. Lizzie was seventeen and still needed almost two years of credits, but she had planned on proving him wrong.
“Fuck you,” she said and kicked the schoolwork away from her.
She opened her shallow sock drawer feeling for the old cigar box Mama hid from Jerkwad. Cash for emergencies. If this wasn’t an emergency, Lizzie didn’t know what was. She didn’t know if she’d need money, but it would be good to have it. She pulled out the box Mama had disguised with pretty contact paper.
Inside were Mama’s class ring, grandpa’s hankie, baby photos of her and Jayce. One slipped out she didn’t remember: Mama and a very handsome soldier in uniform, and a little baby in a yellow dress with shocking dark hair. Her jaw clamped to keep from crying. She took the photo and all but one of the crisp twenties. She closed the lid and returned it to the drawer.
OUTSIDE THESOUNDS OF BIRDS greeted her. Canada geese squawked overhead, drowning out the more melodious calls of the smaller birds. The drizzle had lifted and the clouds had cleared away for one of those frigid, but glorious winter days.
The goose honks faded into the distance and Lizzie realized what was missing—the sound of traffic on I-5 that helped her sleep at night. Now there was nothing. Over the warm flannel she zipped up a winter coat she dug out of a storage bin under Mama’s bed.
She headed down Lincoln Street, putting in her ear buds. The upbeat sound of 4 Non Blondes brought her a bit of a warm glow as she shuffled through the mushy piles of damp leaves blown up on the sidewalk. When the song said “…screamed at the top of my lungs, ‘What’s going on?’” she screamed it, too. Nobody complained.
The air smelled crisp and wintery, but as she crossed under the freeway a repugnant smell invaded her nose—the smell of death. It reminded her of when she’d done community service at the Alternative Humane Society. They had gone to a dog farm accused of abuse and neglect to save the animals still alive. She breathed through her mouth and turned the music up.
Someone, or something, was watching her. Lizzie could feel it. She couldn’t help thinking… —Zombies. She spun around and jerked her ear buds out. She felt stupid, but how many years had her generation waited for zombies?
She spotted something on a porch swing—something slumped over. Her first dead body—an old man, definitely not one of the living dead. His head lolled back at an impossible angle. Lizzie’s stomach churned and her eyes darted, searching for something else to look at. The last few leaves falling from the trees held her attention as she continued walking.
As she passed a cute little cottage, a frantic little head popped up and down in the front window, yipping. Poor puppy. She knocked and tried the front door—locked. The dog had heard her and the yipping increased in frequency and volume. She jogged around to the back of the house. A chain link fence wrapped around to the other side of the yard. She reached across and lifted the latch. She tried the back door. It opened into a kitchen, the stench of death and dog shit hit her nostrils. The pup’s nails clicked on the wooden floor. His tail wagged as he brushed past her into the back yard.
Lizzie filled the water bowl and found the food in the cabinet over the dish. She dumped the bag on the floor.
A little red light on the counter caught her eye. A cell-phone charging. What if some cell-phones work while others don’t? Maybe I should get phones from different providers. With a momentary twinge of guilt she grabbed the phone and its charger. As she left the house the pup ran back in and dug into the food. Lizzie shoved the door all the way open and pushed the garbage can against it. She jammed a garden hoe upside down in the dirt to keep the gate from closing.
How many other pets were trapped in the city? And what about the rest of the country? The world? How many people had thought of man’s best friends in the end?
A few hours later Lizzie had gone six more blocks, accumulated a couple more cell phones with chargers, and “saved” six cats and four dogs.
She had gone no further into the pets’ homes than she’d had to. She had seen no more bodies, living or dead, which was fine by her. But the smells in each house told her if she had pushed in much further, she would have. She had to stop. Sooner or later she would come across a house where the former residents were not tucked away in bed, out of sight.
Across from the Fred Meyer Lizzie paused out of habit for the “Don’t Walk” sign, glancing both ways. She chuckled. Middle of the day and nothing was moving. The “City of Subdued Excitement” was dead. Lizzie glanced around, nervous. She tried to shake off the scents lingering in her nose and the feeling that someone was watching her.
The doors to Fred Meyer startled her by opening obediently. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead in the strange silence of the empty store. The deli reeked and the produce swarmed with fruit flies. She found a couple of decent apples, wiping them on her pants. The refrigerators hummed along. Lizzie picked up a frozen pack of burritos and stuffed it in her backpack.
All the good-for-you wheat breads were green and white in their packages. Lizzie selected one of the suspiciously well-preserved loaves of white bread. The milk all expired on the 8th, but she opened one and smelled it. It didn’t stink, so she tipped it back and touched it to her tongue. Not curdled yet. She grabbed some mac and cheese—the spendy Kraft kind—a 2-liter of Coke and some waffles.
She approached the checkout lane, glancing around. She thought about paying, but dismissed the thought with a laugh. Jess was right. Free candy. And nobody to bust her for shoplifting. She shoved handfuls of chocolate bars into her backpack and pockets, then opened a pack of M&M’s to munch on as she exited the store.
Outside, she decided to take a different way home. The fading daylight made her quicken her steps; dark rain clouds gathered on the horizon. On the other side of the empty overpass she hurried past the old St. Luke’s branch of the hospital, an outpatient drug rehab and nutrition clinic that had been converted into a makeshift triage hospital. The sign out front said, “Danger! Quarantine! Do NOT enter!”
Lizzie thought she saw movement down Holly Street. Probably another dog. She passed through downtown. Am I really alone? Bellingham was a medium-sized city, half an hour from the Canadian border. She tried to recall how many people lived in the city—100,000 sounded right. But there was no sign of them.
Most of the lights still advertised empty storefronts. Nothing looked disturbed. Just empty.
Jess had told her to find someone, all she had found were pets—how typically “Lizzie.” Animals were easier to deal with than people. She wasn’t even sure what she’d do if she did see someone. Run, probably.
The second body she found was at a small mom and pop store. It lay face down. A dark raincoat covered the corpse, but a pool of dark blood-saturated water lay around it. The store window had been smashed. A bat lay amongst the chunks of glass. Lizzie backed away. That one hadn’t died of the plague. She started running, but stopped at the end of the block. Was there anyone alive to chase her?
Lizzie walked to Bellingham High School on the off chance that someone she knew was there. One of the clear-windowed, garage-style roll down doors was open. She walked into the building. A few birds circled inside. Lizzie yelled, “HELLO?”
A white board had the words “School Closed” written across it, along with various locations for hospitals and triage centers and the ever-present “Stay inside” warning. She erased it and wrote a new note: “If you can read this and you’re not infected, come visit me. Lizzie G. 2224 Lincoln St.” The address didn’t exist, except somewhere under the freeway, but she could see anyone looking for it from her house.
She left out the back door onto Kentucky Street. A shape shambled in the distance, odd but unmistakably human. Her brain told her to run, but she told herself there was no such thing as zombies and shouted: “Hello?”
It turned and moved toward her—a man in his mid to late-thirties. He had a patchy beard with a few white hairs, a leather jacket set off with studs, and a spiked dog collar around his neck. His eyes looked wild as he drew nearer.
“Hi.” It was all she could think of. Lizzie could see his mouth working, but no sound came out. She thought maybe he was drunk or stoned, or both.
“Are you infected?”
Nothing registered in his eyes.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. “Wait! Please, stay there.” She warded him off with her hands.
He looked confused, but he did stop, staring at her as she stared back at him.
“Are you hungry?”
That got a response. He lurched forward. His eyes were alive and his mouth looked like he was salivating. She pulled out a Snickers bar and tore it open with her teeth. He ran toward her. Lizzie screamed and backed away. He stopped again. She tossed the candy bar at his feet. He collapsed cross-legged and wolfed it down—she was pretty sure with the wrapper.
She continued to back away. She pulled the candy bars out of her pockets and dropped them in the path. As soon as she was around the building she broke into a run. She ran all the way home—the milk and 2-liter bouncing painfully against her back.
Inside, Lizzie locked the deadbolt behind her and slid to the floor. How long had it been since she’d run that far that fast? Years. But her little feet had carried her quick and sure. Her little feet. Mama’s joke about boobs and Dolly Parton’s feet came back to her. ‘Things don’t grow well in the shade.’ Nothing but shade in Bellingham.
When her heart stopped racing, she noticed it had gotten dark. She flipped the light switch on and opened the closet, reaching back to where Jerkwad’s shotgun lived. She pulled it out and spun the numbers on the trigger lock. Her hiking pack leaned against the back wall. She pulled it out, too. The first aid kit, freeze-dried food and warm clothes might come in handy.
Lizzie checked that the shotgun was loaded and set it on the kitchen table. She slipped off the backpack and put away her haul, adding it to the minimal contents of the fridge: Jerkwad’s cheap beer, a bit of lunch meat, salsa and salad dressings. She grabbed one of the beers, popped it open and took a swig. It tasted like carbonated piss. She set it back on the shelf and shut the door.
She cracked open the pack of frozen burritos, threw a couple in the microwave on a paper towel, then nudged the mouse at the computer. Maybe Jess had left a message.
Sure enough. Lizzie! Call me.
Lizzie pulled her phone out and hit the redial button. It rang and rang.
Jess picked up, breathing hard. “Thank God, Lizzie. You had me all worked up. I called your number, but you didn’t pick up. I thought maybe you…”
“Jess! I’m here. I promised.” She glanced at her phone. “Stupid ringer button was off. I went out today, like you said. You know how I used to say Bellingham was a dead city, now it really is.” She laughed.
“Lizzie? You fucking scared me.”
“Jeez, Jess. You dropped an F-bomb. You don’t talk like that. I went out like I said I would.”
“Yeah. I thought you killed yourself.”
“I’m sorry,” Lizzie said. “I met someone…”
“Yeah. Mostly. Kinda weird. He couldn’t talk. Seemed kinda dumb. Reminded me of the dogs I was saving today.” Lizzie recounted her adventures of the day, but stopped when she realized that Jess was too quiet. “You okay, Jess?”
“No.” Jess sniffled. “I tried to dig a grave. But I didn’t have the strength. I gave up. I thought about burning the house down.”
“Oh, Jess.” Lizzie wished she could hug her through the phone.
“We have an old root cellar, sunken, near the house. I wrapped them in blankets,” Jess said, weeping. “Carried them in a wheelbarrow.” A sob punctuated her pain. “I lay them on the shelves. I don’t think I can stay in the house, Lizzie.”
“No. You can’t. Go into town. Is there anyone else you’re in touch with?”
“An aunt. In Maine. And it’s been a few days.” Jess’s voice turned angry again. “Why’d God do this? Why are we still alive?”
“I don’t know that God did this.” Lizzie sighed. “I wish I was there or you were here.”
“I’d rather be there. With you.” Jess sniffed. “Tomorrow I’ll go into town. Not sure where from there.”
“Me neither. It’s weird. The worst part is the silence. Outside, the quiet gets to me.” The microwave chimed reminding Lizzie her food was heated. “Hey, I’m gonna put you down while I get my burritos, ‘kay?”
“I’m wasted tired. I just need to sleep. How ’bout I call you tomorrow night.”
“‘kay. Night, Jess. Love you.”
“Love you, too. Night, Lizzie.”
Lizzie snuggled into her Mama’s bed, eating her burritos and salsa. She settled in to watch a movie marathon from her dad’s collection: Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and Some Kind of Wonderful. End with the best: Watts, the feisty drummer, was her favorite character ever.
The endless repeating menu music of Some Kind of Wonderful woke Lizzie about three a.m. She turned it off and got up to brush her teeth.
Back in bed the quiet would not let her rest. Her mind raced. So much had happened today, she didn’t know what to make of it all. She knew one thing for certain. She was alone.
End of Chapter Three
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Thanks again, Rob.