By Ronnell Kay Gibson
My aunt and uncle will kill me when they find out I’ve left. The compound, they remind me daily, is the only place we’re safe.
I set out early, planning to be back before they realize their oldest niece is gone. It’s only eight miles to our house, and I’m in good shape. But because I cautiously stick to backyards and tree-lines, it takes me a few hours.
The house looks small, quiet, alone. Just like I feel.
I haven’t been home since the Sickness took my parents, my older brother, and two-thirds of the world’s population. That was a year ago.
I’m anxious to go inside, but I gotta be careful. Others roam the deserted suburbs. Some, like me, seem to be immune. The rest are infected. It starts with a cough. A fever. Soon, delirium sets in. For some lucky souls, death comes quickly. The rest are trapped in a perpetual state of hallucination. They’re the ones I need to avoid.
After thirty minutes, I’m convinced the house is empty. I enter through the back sliding door. The place’s been ransacked. Furniture upturned, photos and books strewn across the floor. I pick up a framed picture of our family. The glass falls in pieces to the floor. I pull the photo from the frame and put it in my backpack.
I head to my little sister Sarah’s room, praying what I seek is still there. Colored butterflies pepper the walls, as the contents of her dresser drawers clutter the floor. Her twin bed rests in the corner, remarkably untouched. I pull the wooden bedframe away from the wall, then hear a clunk.
My breathing stops as I peer around the bed. I exhale and smile.
Lost and forgotten till Sarah’s latest asthma attack triggered a memory—all the misplaced treasures abandoned behind her bed. Sarah’s episodes are coming faster, longer. Aunt Pauline says without medicine there’s nothing we can do.
I grab the inhaler. Clutching it to my heart, I scan the room looking for something special to bring back to Sarah. Maybe a few books, a plastic heart-bracelet.
Pink ears peek out from under a fallen drawer. Mr. Bunny, a present Dad won her at one of those old claw games. Her favorite. I stuff the animal and the other trinkets in my backpack and move on. I scrounge around the bathroom, then the kitchen looking for anything we can use. Besides, a half-used tube of toothpaste and a frying pan, there’s nothing.
My room is last. I don’t have space for mementoes, but I choose a few favorite photos stuck on the wall. My friends and I at Six Flags. My boyfriend, Chad, and I hiking right before our first kiss. A month before my world disintegrated.
My friends are gone. Chad is gone. Out of necessity, I’ve managed to close off my memories, but now they come rushing back in a flood of emotions. I collapse under the weight.
The tears come. I let them. Till the emptiness lulls me to sleep.
I jerk awake.
How could I have let myself fall asleep? Stupid.
Throwing my backpack over my shoulder, I crawl to the window, avoiding every squeaky floorboard. Just like the old days.
The footsteps continue down the hall.
I slide the window open, then raise the screen. Click.
So does the intruder.
I’m diving out the window as footsteps barrel closer, and the door to my room bangs open. Someone grabs my foot.
I hang there, fingers barely touching the ground, the window frame scraping my shins.
A guttural voice calls out. “There’s no escaping this time.”
I use my other foot to try to kick myself loose. It works. Scrambling to my feet, I run. He’s out my window and gaining. I head to the forest, hoping to lose him in the dense foliage. But the terrain is rough.
My ankle twists on a downed log, and I face-plant into the brush.
I can see the figure. Male. Large. I won’t be able to fend him off. I try to get up, but pain shoots up my leg.
He approaches slowly now. His eyes are dark and sunken, his skin pasty. The Sickness has consumed his body.
“Finally, She-devil, I will silence your whisperings.” The Sickness has also ravaged his mind.
Pulling my backpack closer, I reach inside.
He wipes his sweaty face and sneers.
My body trembles as I retrieve my uncle’s gun and release its safety.
The man steps closer. His foul stench burns my nose.
I steady my hand as I aim and pull the trigger.
He crumples in a heap.
My limbs numb as I realize what I’ve just done.
And then, the coughing begins.