I’m Still Here
by A. T. Greenblatt
When the CDC and your local church fail you where do you turn? People get ugly when quarantines become a way of life and supplies as well as tempers run short in this short story about the Zombie Apocalypse .
As I stare down the barrel of my grandfather’s old rifle, I wonder if I’ve ever had any luck at all. The damn thing wasn’t even supposed to work anymore, but the gaping hole my sister has just blown above the dresser says otherwise.
Strangely, I’m not scared. My old self would’ve been panicking, scrambling for an idea—if only to prolong the inevitable for a little longer. But I’m tired of worrying about my death, so I look at the rifle and try to smile, because acceptance is sort of a nice change of pace.
But God, I wish it wasn’t Karen holding the rifle.
I want to scold her for handling something so dangerous—or let her know I forgive her for what she’s about to do. Even a “Well, fuck, Karen, you’re my little sister and I’ll love you no matter what,” would work. But I lost the ability to speak months ago.
The only thing I can manage is a pathetic little moan, which just scares her even more. She scrambles back a few steps and steadies her aim. Of all the things this virus stole from me, this is the worst. The rifle is nothing compared to the fear and revulsion on her face.
I don’t want to make this any worse for her, for both of us really, so I hold perfectly still, close my eyes, and spend my last few moments thinking of happier times.
My name is Hailey Wilson. Before all this happened, when I was still my old self, I was your normal debate-raising, paint-splattering, wall-scaling high school girl. All right, maybe I wasn’t that normal, but I wasn’t that different either. I had a life. I had a family. I had plans.
Before people started getting sick, the most badass thing I’d ever done was challenge Ashley Mutters to a race up the rock wall. Ashley was an all-star athlete and a full time princess—an odd combination, but she made it work. I beat her, with more than a minute thirty to spare. She never forgave me for that. Probably never would.
It was little victories like these that made the boredom bearable, but the truth was, I was just stalling, killing time, counting down the days to graduation. I was going to leave Tellsford, the safest, calmest, and most boring place on Earth. I had applied only to colleges on the other side of the country. I wanted to be an art teacher, but a cool one, like Mr. Thompson, who had a poster in the studio that said: “Every Day That You Haven’t Created Something New Is a Day Lost.” As soon as the snow began to melt, I was checking the mailbox daily for college acceptances.
My brother and sister gave me a hard time about it, the hypocrites, but they had their dreams too. And their quirks. Honestly, you’d think a twenty-one-year old computer whiz could figure out how to cook microwave pizza, but Dave managed to burn them every time. And like good little sisters, Karen and I never let him live it down.
Mum and Dad might have yelled at us for existing on prepackaged food and doing the things we loved to do after school instead of doing our homework, but they were never around. They preferred managing projects on the other side of the world to managing their kids and the three of us were our own tribe now. So, who was going to tell us otherwise?
I didn’t realize then that those not-quite-spring days of waiting were to be the best ones of my life.
That was before I met Mark Hooper.
Mark and I had been in the same classes since fourth grade, but I really met him the evening of the student art show my senior year. I wasn’t dressed for the occasion. There was clay still under my fingernails and probably some paint in my hair too. But I was damn proud of my piece.
It was a sculpture of one figure giving a flower to another, but the figures were semi-intertwined, elongated, yet balanced so that they danced with each other, flirting on the fine line between being pleasing without being grotesque. They didn’t have faces; it was their bodies that spoke.
It was the most complicated sculpture I’d ever made and even after the first firing, when it was bare and colorless, I thought it was perfect. At least that’s what I told my parents when they called from Beijing. But then Mr. Thompson told me I had to glaze it—and that it had to have more than one color—and that he was hiding the black.
I panicked. I hate glazing. It ruins perfectly good pieces. Brushes never obeyed me like clay did, and no one takes sculptures with uneven finishes seriously. But Mr. Thompson is a stubborn ass when he wants to be.
Eventually, out of sheer frustration, I dipped a brush in glaze and flicked it at the piece. Fat drops landed on the figures’ shoulders, hesitating for a moment before sliding down their arms, following the curvatures of their bodies.
And I realized that my sculpture would paint itself.
I made a mess, but the finished product made Mr. Thompson smile. When I titled it “It’s the Thought That Counts,” he laughed and gave it a place in the show.
So there I was, standing in front of my masterpiece, grinning. And there Mark was, taking pictures for the school yearbook, a camera the size of his head hanging around his neck.
“Cool sculpture,” he said with a crooked smile.
“Thanks,” I said, “Nice camera.”
“Oh, um, thanks. It’s new. I’ve been playing around with the lighting and settings and stuff. See?”
He showed me about a hundred photos on his display screen, most of them different versions of the same thing. I was fascinated by how he played with the lighting and focus, puzzling it out until he captured the moment just right.
“May I use you and your piece as models?” he asked, looking at his feet.
“Will it make the yearbook?”
“Then make sure my piece looks just as good in the photo as it does in real life.”
I meant it as a joke, but Mark nodded seriously. He snapped about two dozen pictures and wouldn’t let me see them, except for the last one. The photo left me speechless. Both subjects looked beautiful, even the artist, in her torn jeans and paint splattered hair, wearing a lopsided grin.
It was the sort of picture you wanted to be remembered by.
Even back then there were warning signs, I guess. It was the old people who noticed them first, talking about friends or family in other towns getting sick and not getting better. They were scared, and told anyone who’d listen. I didn’t listen. Even when someone whom we knew got sick, someone in a local nursing home, it didn’t seem real, and no one was worried when Mark’s nose started running, either.
Mark and began hanging out after the art show. Turned out Mark took photography seriously–he had a whole makeshift studio in his basement filled with bright lights and backdrops and boxes of props from all over the world. He had thousands of photos on his hard drive and a few prized ones hanging up on the walls. It was nice to finally find someone else who saw art as more than an elective class.
So, when he claimed to have a weak immune system and shit luck, I rolled my eyes and maybe used the word “melodramatic”. It had been an unusually warm spring and pollen allergies were rampant. There were snotty nosed victims everywhere and no one thought anything of it.
About three weeks after the art show, right before everything changed, Mum and Dad called us from Beijing.
When the phone rang, I was sculpting figurines among the empty pizza boxes on the coffee table. Dave was on the sofa, playing a video game, his engineering mathematics textbook spread across his lap. (“I study,” he insisted, “During the cut scenes.”) Karen was curled up with a book. We didn’t exactly anticipate our parents’ weekly calls. It was nice to know we weren’t completely abandoned in Tellsford, but ever since Dave turned eighteen and our parents decided we were old enough to look after ourselves, they were barely around. By now, we had been our own tribe for three years and all the phone calls began to sound the same.
Except, this time it was a bit different.
“Have you guys seen the U. S. news, recently?” Karen asked. The anchors had started talking about a flu virus, some horribly malignant strain, spreading quickly, and they weren’t sure flu shots were going to be effective this time. It was the hottest trending topic, and no one had any answers.
“They’re reporting the same thing here,” Dad said. “Don’t worry. It’s probably all sensationalized hype, as usual.” But even through the phone, he didn’t sound completely convinced. Though that might have been because he had a cold.
“Wait, you don’t know the names of the constellations?” Mark asked.
I had come over earlier to hang out and was peering through the window of his bedroom, looking up at the clear, dark sky. “You’ve never taken advantage of this roof before?” I said as I climbed out onto the overhang and into the chilly spring air. He scrambled out after me, and a minute later he was pointing at the sky, his shoulder slightly pressed against mine.
The kiss caught me by surprise; I was in the middle of reciting the names back to him. Ursa Major didn’t have a chance.
It was both more heartfelt and more awkward then I thought my first kiss would be. Definitely not planned. He still couldn’t breathe through his nose.
Mark looked anxious afterward, his gaze locked on his feet. I took his hand and told him we should hang out more. The stars shone over us, winking at us, and I wondered why I had never noticed them before.
The house was silent when I returned that evening. It was way past the time by which I said I’d be back, but I had no regrets. I never liked the house when it was dark and quiet, but I was on a high from the kiss. I felt older and wiser and generally better.
“You shouldn’t be out this late.”
I practically had a heart attack. Behind me, my brother stood in the dark kitchen, with his arms crossed, still holding his game controller. “Christ, Dave, don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“Mum and Dad would be pissed if they knew you’d been out this late with Hooper.”
“Who’s going to tell them?”
“There’s a virus going around.”
“Yeah? So what? Someone always has a cold.”
“That’s not the point,” Dave said and shifted uncomfortably, turning the game controller around in his hands, “You didn’t…. do anything, did you?”
Even then, I knew Dave was just being my big brother and looking out for me. But, damn, did he know how to ruin a perfectly good moment.
“For Christsake, Dave, go back to shooting zombies and leave me the hell alone.”
Now, I would do anything to take those words back.
The news finally named it the Dead Horse virus. A few days later, they started showing pictures of the later stages. Skeletal faces covered with ashy, rotting skin. Sunken sockets and wispy hair. Dead eyes. They compared before and after photos. It made me want to retch.
The worst hit towns were being quarantined, and it wasn’t just in America. Reports of breakouts were coming in globally. The news anchors seemed excited to use the word pandemic.
Beijing was the hardest hit city in Asia. Dave called our parents. Mom picked up.
“Don’t worry, we’re fine,” she said. “You’re dad’s almost over his cold.” But even on the phone, Mom wasn’t a good liar.
I remember wanting to yell at her for hiding things from us, for treating us like children. I didn’t, though. It would’ve made me a hypocrite. Because I didn’t mention that my throat had started to hurt like hell, either.
Two days later, Mark’s mom called to tell me they’d taken him to the hospital. I asked her if I should come; I was fairly certain I could convince Dave to let me borrow the car.
“No, no,” she said, in a tight voice, “It won’t do much good. The place is overrun. There isn’t much we can do anyway, except wait.”
“Will he be all right?”
“Well, only the very old and very young have died so far, so it’s safe to assume he’ll get better, right?” She kept her voice steady, but she couldn’t hide the pleading note.
As a slow horror pooled in my stomach, I asked her to keep me updated. Looked like the Dead Horse virus would not be sparing Tellsford after all.
After three days of arguing with myself, I finally broke down and told Dave and Karen I wasn’t feeling well. They weren’t exactly surprised—they’re not stupid—but they looked liked they’d just gotten the worst news in the world.
“Oh, fuck,” said Dave, “All right, Hailey, grab some stuff. We’re going to the hospital. You’re coming too, Karen.”
“It’s probably just a bad cold…” I said, but they weren’t listening.
A lot of people locally had symptoms and all three doctors in Tellsford were sick. The hospital was a trek, but Dave was right, it was our best bet.
We made it as far as Tellsford’s boundaries. We were probably only a few hours too late, but by the time we got there, the CDC was already setting up a quarantine border. Everyone knew it was a pointless gesture and it wasn’t going to stop the virus. It just made it look like there was something that could be done.
Either way, no one was allowed in or out.
That night I set up my own quarantine in my room. I didn’t really believe it was serious, but if something happened to Dave and Karen … if it was my fault … It was better to be safe. They didn’t like it.
“I get what you’re doing, Hailey and it’s noble and all,” said Karen, “but you’re totally overreacting.”
“Look, when this turns out to be just the flu, you can make fun of me for the rest of my life,” I said.
This turned into a staring competition between me and Karen that, naturally, I won.
“Promise me you guys will be careful,” I said, “Like don’t go around kissing any stuffy-nosed people, alright?”
Karen nodded and Dave’s eyebrows shot up. “What?!”
But I’d already shut my door.
I kept telling myself I just had a bad cold, an ugly case of strep throat with a sinus infection, a rare but curable case of pneumonia. My old self refused to acknowledge that this didn’t feel like any of those things, or anything else I’d had before. For starters, I could still think straight and study algebra and create a detailed modeling-clay likeness of everyone I knew. I was sick, but I was still here and when I wasn’t moping in bed, I paced and fretted.
I scoured the Internet for information, but everything was contradictory. The CDC pamphlets said the virus was spread through contact with mucus and saliva, though they didn’t know for sure. No one knew anything for sure.
Dave would come by fifteen times a day to make sure I didn’t need anything. He never actually said much, but he left my share of burnt pizza on paper plates outside my room. I got all the updates from Karen, who would talk to me through the door.
According to her, estimates were that nearly half of the 1,603 residents of Tellsford were sick with flu-like symptoms. Apparently a bunch of folks managed to sneak out past the barricades, but she didn’t think it’d do much good. Dead Horse was ravaging the outside world as well.
There’d been calls from our parents too, constantly asking if we were all right and if the blockade around the town had ended yet. The last call had been disconnected mid-conversation and Dave hadn’t been able to reach them since.
When Karen asked how I was, I lied and said I was feeling better. She couldn’t know that I’d bitten my nails down to the quick or that I stood in my little bathroom for hours, staring in the mirror, looking for signs of decay.
I saw things Karen didn’t mention as well, from the windows of my bedroom. Neighbors wearing strings of garlic around their neck. Churchgoers on Sunday in medical masks and gloves. The playground next door deserted on a beautiful day.
But the worst part was that Mark and his mom weren’t returning my calls, even though I’d filled up their voicemail ages ago.
I coughed, and fear twisted within me.
After a week of isolation, my skin began to turn ashy and I could no longer deny something was very wrong.
I think that was the first cut of the invisible wound. It didn’t have physical signs; it wasn’t anything doctors could examine or something you could explain to your little sister. But you would swear there was a hole right over your heart and God, did it hurt. With each passing day, with every cough, with every phone call that didn’t come, the wound grew a little wider.
I made sure Dave and Karen never saw me. Every evening, I snuck out and walked up and down the street for as long as I could manage, looking at the stars, naming all the constellations I could remember from Mark’s lessons.
I think I fell in love with the night sky then. It was comforting to know some things could remain beautiful and untouched, even as the world fell down around us. The stars glistened like hope, and every night I found myself begging the stars to spare Karen and Dave; that I would be okay with this as long as they remained healthy. I told them I would never make another snarky comment if I could just survive this. I promised them anything if this virus wasn’t fatal. I explained that my eighteenth birthday was only months away. That I couldn’t imagine not celebrating it and I couldn’t stand celebrating it alone.
Since then, I’ve learned how distant and silent the stars really are.
It had been over two weeks since I had locked myself in my room and there’d been no word from our parents or Mark’s mom. The neighbors knew no more than we did, cell phone reception was spotty, the Internet was filled with rumors, and no one bothered updating their blogs any more. The only thing that seemed certain was the outside world was getting worse. Tellsford’s quarantine held, but at least the aid workers still delivered food.
My bedroom door remained closed. The virus had moved into a new phase: My throat constricted and my tongue went slack and I panicked. I could no longer talk. I tried, tried for hours to whisper and sing and shout and curse, but the only sound I could make was unintelligible babbling. Eventually I stopped trying. It hurt too much, the invisible wound digging deeper with each failure.
Karen persistently gave me updates, even though the conversations through the door became painfully one-sided. She said no one was going to school anymore. Even most of the teachers had stopped showing up. Everyone was either sick or scared. In biology, it was only her and Mrs. Stein, so Karen got to choose what she wanted to learn each day. They skipped the chapter on fatal diseases.
She said Dave was keeping up with his engineering classes even though he couldn’t drive to campus anymore. He studied all the time and never left the house. Even within the storm of my own misery, I couldn’t help worrying for them. Karen liked school, but normally, she would have opted out of it in favor of reading all day. And while Dave was a braniac, hours and hours of studying was definitely not his thing.
It was as if we were kids again, playing some stupid, hopeless game where we all hid in different places. I hoped that when this was all over, we would be able to find each other again.
Three weeks into the quarantine, a new rule was put into place. Everyone present at the collection points got three days of rations per person, which meant Dave could no longer get my food for me anymore. It still took my siblings two hours to convince me to go with them.
“C’mon, Hailey, we know what you’re going to look like, we’ve seen other infected people,” Karen said through the door.
I had spent most of the morning staring at the bathroom mirror. I could barely find myself in it anymore. My face had taken on a hollow, pasty appearance and my eyes were red and glazy. My skin had become a lifeless gray, and even my hair seemed to have relinquished a few shades of brown. I wanted to cry, but I seemed to have lost that ability too.
The worst was my hands. I kept expecting to find my old self’s hands when I looked down, complete with chipped nail polish and bits of dried clay, but there was always that moment of shock, where I would look down and see instead these awful monstrosities sprouting from my wrists and think “What are these things?” But then memory would catch up, like the boom from a distant firework, and there would be that terrible, terrible instant when I would realize these are my hands now. And the invisible wound would widen a bit more.
“Look, Hail, ugly or not, you need food,” Dave said, “And they won’t let us take it for you. Come on, we’ll all go together.”
Dave was right, as usual, so carefully, nervously, I opened the door.
They weren’t quick enough to hide their shock. But Dave kept his promise. We walked to the edge of the town, silent but together, though I kept a bit apart from them and lagged a little behind.
We all knew the word for what I was becoming, but no one wanted to say it.
There were two tables set up on opposite sides of the street. There was a sign on each, one reading “With Symptoms” and the other reading “Without.” At the uninfected table across the street where Dave and Karen stood, you could hear people offering each other comfort. Most people looked tired and ruffled; some still wore garlic strings, and others had crosses or Bibles—or both. But their eyes weren’t bloodshot and they still had good complexions.
The street was wide enough to give both parties room. But you could tell from their nervous glances that the gap wasn’t wide enough for comfort.
I didn’t feel sorry for them though. They still had a future.
In the fourth week of my sickness, I gave up on the stars. Asking for help was useless, no one was listening. Just look at my hands. They belonged to a monster with grey and blotchy skin, with knobby, clumsy fingers that couldn’t mold clay into beautiful shapes anymore. The only things these hands could make were deformed lumps.
The invisible wound had grown so wide and deep that it ripped me apart. And I was left standing there, looking at the girl I once was, the girl with dreams waiting for her, my old self. I knew her once, but she had nothing left in common with me, the sickly, gaunt prisoner, trapped within her own room. Within her own mind.
At night, I still snuck out, but the stars had become dim and tainted. “My name is Hailey Wilson,” I screamed silently at them, “But I am not the Hailey Wilson you once knew. She’s dead.” And the stars didn’t care.
That’s when I decided to bury my old self, my old life, and never think of it again.
But everything reminded me of her.
I couldn’t stand the sight of my siblings, so healthy and untouched, so I walked to the food drops alone. My mirror became the bitch that took pleasure in the pain of my reflection. I shattered it. And the pieces I made from modeling clay, the beautiful people and things I created in the last three weeks of my imprisonment, they belonged to another life.
I destroyed them all.
Karen is a stubborn brat when she wants to be. She refused to get the hint and sat outside my door every day, just talking. It was usually about some book or news report, though those were becoming scarcer as only a few national TV stations still were broadcasting.
“You would like them now,” she said, “They get right to the point.”
It was through her I learned about the Tellsford’s uninfected settlement. Some of the healthy people were creating their own sector within the town. It included the hardware store, a supermarket, and the town hall, as well as most of the larger houses. It was a quarantine within a quarantine. She said some people had already come to talk to Dave and her about it; Dave told them to kindly fuck off.
In that moment, I almost forgot my anger and opened the door to let my family back into my life.
By the end of the fifth week, moving became a challenge. My joints swelled and my muscles stiffened. My fingers clenched and refused to relax. It was as if my body finally got tired of the abuse and decided to ignore my commands. Every nerve screamed and every simple motion became a horrible fight for control. For three days, I could barely move from my bed.
As I lay there in agony, I wondered what I was fighting for. I was a monster, the lifeless, mindless monster that, in hundreds of movies and video games, people shot for fun. But the worst part was I wasn’t brain-dead; I was still here. But a mind was useless without a body, my family suffered from my silence, and I no longer had any art to give the world.
Monsters like me had no futures. The only thing we could do was hurt and hurt and hurt.
As quickly as it came, the pain began to subside. I began to lose other feeling too, but I was grateful I was no longer curled up in pain, even if the numbness made me the biggest klutz in the world.
It was a pleasure not to feel.
The aid workers were two days late and rations were running short. The first-come-first-served rule was being implemented. People started arriving early, queuing for hours, so, it was in the ration lines that I heard the first stories.
Two former waitresses were talking loudly across the street. It wasn’t clear who attacked first, but an infected resident had apparently wandered too close to the new uninfected zone. No one in the healthy line seemed to regret that a sick man was dead, no one seemed to remember he was a neighbor or that he, too, was once healthy. The women were more worried about the person he bit when he was fighting for his life.
“It’ll be a damn shame if we lose Bob because of one of those freaks.”
“They shouldn’t even be feeding them anymore; there’s not enough to go around as it is.”
I don’t normally mind gossip, but there was coldness in those women’s voices; you would’ve thought we were rabid dogs from their tone. They talked about starving us to death as if we weren’t there, listening.
“We’re thinking about moving to the uninfected settlement.” Karen opened my bedroom door to tell me about it.
“Nothing’s decided yet, but we wanted to let you know.” She was crying and Dave stood mutely behind her, arms crossed. “I mean, we’re going to stick around; it’s only if things…if it gets really bad.”
I nodded. Moving made sense. It had been seven weeks since the quarantine started. The power went out a week ago and there were only a few cans of Spaghetti-Os left in our kitchen. Street attacks were becoming more frequent as the food drops were becoming fewer. It would be safer for both of them if they had more able-bodied people around to protect them.
“But, Hailey, promise me one thing,” Karen said. There was desperation in her voice. “Promise you’ll stay alive for as long as you can.” She hesitated. “There still might be a cure.”
I nodded again. I knew enough now to recognize false hope when I saw it. Still, I would have to take my promise seriously. Karen would never forgive me if I didn’t try. I looked at Dave and gave him a small nod. He knew better too, and there were tears in his eyes.
And I’d thought I could no longer feel pain.
The aid workers were a week late. The uninfected line was bristling while the sick stood quietly. We couldn’t be bothered to get angry anymore. There were more of us now in this line than in the healthy one. Most of the uninfected looked stressed, like caged animals; I would have felt bad for them if their complexion wasn’t so good.
The workers pulled out their crates and it quickly became obvious that there wouldn’t be enough rations to go around.
“Hey!” someone yelled from the other line, “Don’t serve them. We need that more than they do.”
“National law states—” said the woman serving our line.
“Hey, we’re desperate over here. How many people have you lost to Dead Horse?”
The woman hesitated. “That. . . that doesn’t matter. Both—”
“Look, lady. You can’t help them anymore. They’re goners. We’re humanity’s future over here.”
The aide looked at us, then at the other line, then back again. Then with a reluctant motion, she picked up our food and started moving across the street.
One of the infected stepped out of line to block her.
It took me a full second to realize it was my old art teacher, Mr. Thompson, and it took me a few seconds more to join him. In ten seconds flat, the aide was surrounded by the sick. Someone behind me tried to say something, but the noise that came out sounded ridiculously close to “Brraaaaainns…” I wanted to kill him.
The poor woman looked scared out of her mind. If she just gave us the food …
I felt the pressure of a rough hand on my shoulder. I turned my head slightly. The hand was muscular and pink. It told me all I needed to know.
“Move, you brainless bitch.” The healthy hand gave me a shove.
I swear I heard Karen’s shouts as I fell. The push caught me off guard, but I didn’t feel anything on impact, though I landed hard enough to cut my hands. As if they weren’t hideous enough.
When I looked up, Mr. Thompson was standing over me, facing my attacker. I think he was just trying to make sure I didn’t get hurt again. I doubt he would’ve actually done anything. Mr. Thompson wasn’t a fighter. Hell, he didn’t even kill spiders when he found them in the studio. But that didn’t make him bullet-proof.
The shot was ear-shatteringly close and for several seconds I wasn’t sure where the bullet went. Blood pooled on the sidewalk … right between his feet … oh, God.
Mr. Thompson just stood there oblivious to the bullet in his gut. A part of me wanted to shake him and shout “Why aren’t you screaming? Why don’t you react?” But of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t.
And then it occurred to me. He was probably completely numb too; he couldn’t even feel the fucking gaping hole in his stomach. He took a hesitant step towards the man, his hand outstretched.
The second bullet caught him right between the eyes.
Mr. Thompson stood there for a second, wavering, as if he had something to say. Then he collapsed.
There was a moment of deafening silence. I couldn’t… I couldn’t even blink. The shot echoed in my ears. His head had fallen on my legs and my jeans were turning red.
Mr. Thompson. My teacher. My friend.
And suddenly, all my fear and anger and despair rose up inside me. I forgot about tomorrow and my promises and my family. If this virus had made me a monster, then I would be a monster. It was better than trying to protect those you care about and being killed for it.
I remember the looks of horror on the idiots’ faces. I remember seeing red as I fought. I remember how alive I felt.
Later, I realized what happened on Main Street wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t going to be a singular event. They’d been waiting for an excuse to attack us.
I don’t know how long I was gone that day. Hours? Days? I don’t know how I managed to get away with only scratches and skinned knees. I don’t know how many died. The blood … it was everywhere. Mr. Thompson’s blood was on my jeans; I didn’t want to think about whose was on my hands.
I don’t know when Dave and Karen left. The house was empty when I got back. Their suitcases were gone and so was the axe from the woodpile, and my grandfather’s old rifle. They didn’t leave a note, but I knew they had moved to the uninfected settlement. I guess, in the end, I made that decision for them.
It would have been easier if I was a mindless monster.
I’d always hated the house when it was dark and quiet. For that reason alone, I considered leaving Tellsford, like I’d always wanted to. This place was no longer safe for anyone: I could hear the fights at night. I had seen the bodies in the streets. No one guarded the borders anymore; I could have just slipped out.
But guilt kept me from turning the doorknob. My brother and sister thought I was a brain-dead maniac. What had happened at the rations drop . . . I didn’t want that to be their last memory of me. Especially when I was still here.
I couldn’t talk or write, and my range of motion was frustratingly limited. I couldn’t even nod or shake my head anymore. But I was still here, trapped inside a body that was slowly failing and rotting away. The hands I’d loved had suffered the worst. Nail-less fingers covered in sores that wouldn’t heal, bulging tendons frozen into place. I’d almost gotten used to the sight of them now. Almost.
I’d lost all means of communication. Except one.
I began to formulate a plan. It would take a bit of luck to work, but I had always considered myself a lucky person.
Fortunately, Mr. Thompson’s studio was unlocked; I don’t think my clumsy fingers could have managed keys. Everything was dusty but still exactly as we left it. Handfuls of my pieces sat on the pottery rack. I took as many as I could without breaking them. Progress was slow.
Before I left, I took the huge tin of cashews I knew was hiding in Mr. Thompson’s drawer and the little sign on his door that read “Unfortunately, I’m still in.” I propped it up next to the side door at home, knowing that if Karen or Dave came back, it would be the first thing they saw. Mr. Thompson would’ve appreciated the irony.
In the eighth week of my sickness, I started scavenging for food.
The infected area of Tellsford looked like a ghost town. Signs were everywhere of the life that had been here, but the spark that made the town breathe was gone. With the power out, it was difficult to tell which houses were occupied by the ill and which were abandoned. Sometimes, I wondered if there was a difference.
The battles became more vicious as supplies became more scarce. There were more victims in the street, more gunshots fired. I saw Tommy, a kid I use to babysit, lying sick and gray in his driveway, dying from a knife wound. I held his hand until his ragged breaths stopped. He was only ten.
Signs began appearing in infected territory, signs that read “Strength in Numbers”. The writing was shaky, like it’d been penned by a first grader who hadn’t quite figured out how to work a pencil. I wondered how the sick got so many signs up so quickly; I could barely manage to open a bag of potato chips these days.
We might have outnumbered the healthy, but I wasn’t going to be seen in a mob again, and I knew better than to wander the stores alone. I explored houses instead.
My sculptures were my only means of communication. They were my messages in bottles. The last traces of my identity for my family to find. I left a piece of my work at each new house I searched, praying they would find their way into the right hands.
I did, eventually, find a bit of luck, though not in the way that I expected.
I was investigating a house a few blocks from my own. I was fairly certain I was alone, but the house creaked and moaned. It was pretty picked over too, even the basement. I let out a shriek of frustration and then instantly regretted it. I was running out of food, but that didn’t mean I needed to let everyone know I was there. The floorboards whined as I trudged up the steps.
In the living room, I found myself face-to-face with another infected victim. We eyed each other for a good minute, neither of us exactly hostile, but neither of us trusting, either. And then I realized who it was.
She had shrunk and her hands looked as bad as mine, but I knew those ridiculous sparkly gym shoes and I knew that sneer.
Ashley Mutters, fellow student, sore rock-climbing loser, and general source of misery for my old self.
“Gaaah,” she said raising her arm to point at something behind me.
I didn’t even hear the healthy bastard come into the room. He was holding a bat, poised to swing, but it drooped a little when he lost his element of surprise.
I knew he would kill me if he got the chance. But I wasn’t a monster—I wasn’t going to act senselessly again. Instead, I walked towards him, not quickly enough to make him panic, but not slowly enough for him to feel safe. Ashley followed behind. He looked nervously from me to her and realized he couldn’t take both of us with just a bat. It clunked noisily to the floor as he sprinted away.
I exchanged a look with Ashley.
“Faaah….baaah,” said she, raising the pitch of her voice, just like she used to when she’d thrown insults at me at school.
“And you’re still a slut,” I said, though my garbles and groans didn’t sound anything like that. But it didn’t matter—we both understood: If we wanted to survive, we needed to work together.
It was much easier to scavenge in a pair. One of us could be on the lookout while the other of us hunted. Ashley and I took turns at the supermarket.
We didn’t expect to find much, but it was worth a try. We got lucky when I found a pack of Twizzlers hiding under the candy shelving. My favorite. Happiness welled up inside me. And eating that sweet, chewy, fake-cherry strip of over-processed sugar? Well, I remembered what it felt like to be content. Ashley and I stood there for a long time, recklessly savoring the treat.
We managed to get back into the storage room, though the shelves were bare and most were overturned. But hidden in a corner, in a mislabeled box, we won the lottery. Four dozen cans of kidney beans meant four dozen means of survival. Ashley and I mumbled and shuffled for joy. I hadn’t seen this much food in ages. If our tear ducts had still worked, we would have put them to good use.
The days started to take on some sort of order. We would scavenge in the morning and spend the afternoon prying open either our new finds or some beans, and eating. With a little patience and teamwork, we could open a can in two hours.
Ashley took over the guest bedroom. I was secretly thrilled to have someone else in the house, even if it was Ashley Mutters, the royal pain in my ass.
But there were still those other days. The days where the grief pinned me to my bedroom floor. The evenings where I couldn’t stop thinking about Mark or Mr. Thompson or Tommy. The nights where I wordlessly begged the stars to give me one more chance, to let this all be some awful dream. Sometimes, when we were out, Ashley would pick up the nearest breakable thing and destroy it without warning. And I knew exactly why.
We were learning to live with Dead Horse, but that didn’t mean it was easy.
It’s been three months since I first started showing symptoms. I can only manage to stomach one can of kidney beans a day. Anything more than one or two bites every few hours makes me retch. It’s ironic that, out of all the things that stopped working, my gag reflex is still going strong.
My hands are frighteningly thin now. And I know my time is running out.
Recently, I’ve been visiting my old self. Turns out she was not as well-buried as I thought. We are two different people now, but she still has some good memories to share.
And despite it all, I keep hoping that I’ll get lucky, that Dave and Karen will see my art, get my message and know I’m still here.
But that was before the front door was kicked in. I saw it happening from my bedroom window. There were six of them and one…I knew that ponytail.
I heard Ashley’s shriek, and then a thud and heavy footsteps.
Merciless fucking scavenging bastards. Every cell in my body told me to run, but I had no place to go. So I waited.
I don’t think Karen expected to find me here when she opened my bedroom door. She yelped and her first shot went wide, putting a hole in the wall above my dresser. She calmed down enough to line up her next shot, leaving me staring down the barrel of my grandfather’s old rifle.
Seconds pass and the shot doesn’t come. I open my eyes and see Karen standing there, trembling. I want to make a joke about how reading too much makes you a lousy shot, if only to make her less afraid of the trigger. The corner of my mouth twitches with the effort to smile.
“Hailey,” she whispers, “Are you there?”
I strain my neck muscles, putting every last shred of my tattered will into moving my head, this one last time. But I still can’t nod.
“I found this.” She pulls out a small figurine I’d left at the pharmacy weeks ago. “You wanted me to find this, right?” She hesitates. “Can you blink?”
I blink so rapidly my eyelids are fluttering.
“Was this meant for me?”
My eyelids dance again.
Her eyes widen with realization. “Oh shit.” She almost drops the gun. “Oh shit. Hailey? Oh shit, I have to get you out of here.”
She scouts the hallway before she grabs me and pulls me out of the bedroom. Instinctively, I recoil, but I realize her hands are covered in latex gloves. I let her lead me down the stairs to the side door.
I make her stop for a moment to see the sign. She scowls impatiently but then reads it and laughs.
It’s a beautiful sound.
We cut through the neighbors’ lawns to the opposite street. At the corner, she hesitates.
“Where will you be safe?” she says, more to herself than me. She crinkles her nose, like she always does when she’s thinking. I’ve missed that crinkle. I have an idea and pull her hand as I head to the edge of town.
The streets are deserted and the sun shines on us as we walk. There are still CDC posters everywhere, but they are just symbols now. Memories of a past life.
There is only a thin piece of latex separating Karen’s hand from mine. I feel the pressure of her palm, the fullness and strength of her fingers, the weight of her concern for me. It’s a more precious gift than I’d ever hoped for.
“Dave is going to freak out when I tell him. He was upset for weeks. He kept wanting to come back, but… We really thought you lost it, Hailey.” Karen stops walking suddenly. “I’ve killed sick people,” she says, her voice dropping to a whisper, “Oh, God. Hailey. I didn’t know.” Her face is full of realization and horror.
I look at my little sister. She’s tanner and a bit thinner but stronger. She’s grown. A part of her is still the Karen I know, but a part of her is now this creature that can survive anything thrown at her. I can see she has an invisible wound too, but she has the type that can heal. And I know, in time, it will.
I pull at her hand and we begin walking again. We don’t stop until we reach the barriers separating Tellsford from the rest of the world.
I want to hug her, but I’m not so reckless anymore. Instead, I take her hand in both of mine. There are tears rolling down her cheeks. She got my message and I kept my promise to her. There’s nothing left here for me now.
I release her hand and walk toward the broken boundaries. I don’t look back and she doesn’t call after me as I begin to head down the state road. Which is good. I always dreamed of leaving Tellsford behind one day.
©A. T. Greenblatt