Laura and Kathryn reached the outskirts of Ault just as the sun was rising. They felt its warm rays licking at their tired feet, and, despite their fatigue, they welcomed a view of the outside world in the light of oncoming day. They had been walking for several weeks, slowly making their way back west.
“Let’s go up this street and try to find a place,” said Kathryn. “It’s getting too light out.”
Laura nodded mutely, shifting the shotgun and machete strapped to her body, and the two sisters turned northward up a street whose sign was so mangled and defaced that it was impossible to read the name on it. They passed a lumber yard, after which the street turned residential. Most of the small prairie towns were empty these days—the original inhabitants were toughened country people who left during the Panic to fight the Diseased or to survive deep in the Canadian tundra, one of the few places believed to be impervious to the spread of the Disease. Personally, Kathryn believed that the Canadian tundra story was pure bunk, but she supposed people had to hold on to whatever scraps of hope they could to survive.
“How about that one?” said Laura, indicating a larger, two-story farmhouse further down the street, set apart somewhat from the other houses. Kathryn, who had been on patrol for the Diseased, looked up the street and nodded.
“Sure,” she said drily, and they made quick time to the farmhouse.
The house, with its dinged and dented white wood siding, sagging porch, and weedy yard, looked rough, but probably not that different than it did before the Panic. There were some broken windows on the first floor that Kathryn noted mentally, but the porch swing was still intact, as was a lone rocking chair with chipped red paint. Kathryn couldn’t help smiling a little, wondering at the incongruousness of the world she now inhabited. Seven months later, she was still incredulous that while so much of the world had changed, some remnants of their past lives remained.
“How’s about we sit down for a spell?” said Laura with an ironic smile, catching Kathryn eyeing the rocking chair.
Kathryn grinned back.
“Oh sure,” she said. “I might just sit and watch the sun rise, take a nap, why not.”
The two of them smiled grimly before shifting the weapons from their bodies into their hands. Laura picked up the shotgun, and Kathryn took the safety off the AR-9 she had stolen from the severed body of a gun nut south of Sterling.
“Go for it,” said Laura, and she watched as Kathryn kicked the door open and stepped through. She entered after her sister, and they stood there together in the vestibule, waiting.
After a moment of silence, they walked in further, falling back on their usual routine: check all rooms and hiding places on the first floor, including closets and cabinets, then move—always together—upstairs, and repeat. If the house had a basement, that was always last. This house appeared to have a cellar but, after close inspection, it turned out it was only accessible through an outside entrance, and those doors were held together tightly by a rusted Master lock. It seemed relatively safe.
Next, the women set about making the house livable: setting out poison for the vermin, throwing out any remnants of the past that were rotting or stinking, covering up broken windows, barricading doors to unused rooms, checking for solar hook ups and well water, and looking for useful supplies.
They were lucky this time. The house was relatively free of mice or rats; it was well-stocked with cleaning supplies; and, to their surprise and delight, there were some large, wholesale-size containers of food in the pantry. Evidently, the size and weight of the containers had made them prohibitively heavy to carry out during the Panic or later by looters. There were several giant containers of pickles, baked beans, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and tomato sauce.
“Holy fuck, does that taste good,” said Kathryn, her mouth full of pickle. She pulled another out of the container and took a big bite. “Still crunchy!”
“I know,” said Laura, who had been busy dunking her own pickles into mustard. “This is amazing.”
After eating another couple of pickles each, they got back to the business of securing the house. Despite the ever-rising sun, Laura risked going outside to hang some bells on the front gate leading up to the house as well as on the main door. As an extra precaution, she strung up some wire across the porch to trip anyone who should come a-knocking. Such precautions might be utterly useless when it came to roaming gangs of douchebags who liked to take advantage of the lack of social order to wreak havoc, but they slept better knowing they were there.
In this new world, it paid to be cautious, so Laura set up a baby monitor on the porch in an old, partially broken flower pot and turned it on. If anyone was out there, hopefully she and Kathryn would hear them before it was too late.
Inside, she found Kathryn boiling some water on the camp stove, two cups of instant coffee next to her. She set down the baby monitor receptor and tuned in. They could hear the wind blow through the microphone with a blunt hiss and the noise of birds chirruping as if it was just a regular day in July. Except they were in a stranger’s house in Ault, Colorado, and they hadn’t seen their family since the day after Christmas seven months earlier.
They took turns as lookout: one watched as the other slept. Kathryn watched first. She sat in the hallway on top of her sleeping bag. Though it was full morning now, she could tell that Laura had fallen asleep right away in the room next to her; her breathing was slow and even after just a few minutes. Kathryn was having a hard time keeping her eyes open herself; they had been walking nearly all night. The Diseased, though impaired in mind, still tended to be more active during the daytime. The Disease killed their conscious selves, but their senses, like sight, hearing, and smell, were sharpened. Even in the house, Kathryn would limit her movements during the day to try to avoid attracting the attention of stragglers.
During the early weeks of the Panic, they had often made mistakes. They would find a house and start ransacking it without checking the upper bedrooms, or the basement, only to be confronted by the sudden appearance of what was once a human being but was now nothing more than a gaping maw, hungry for flesh. The Disease spread through bites, and like rabies, it provoked and prodded its victims to bite others.
At first, it had been hard to fight against the Diseased; they looked too much like people. As time progressed, however, those who had fallen ill first began to look less human. Their skin became grayer and saggier, drooping from the framework of the skull in unappealing jowls. The eyes would start to pop, the hair would molt off, and, more often than not, there would be festering, maggoty wounds visible on the neck, arms, chest and back of the victims. Their clothes became ragged and torn, and they moved with trouble, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments wasting away, leaving their victims with determination, but little strength with which to act on this impetus.
As she settled in for her two hour watch, Kathryn couldn’t help recalling a day spent in a similar house out in Nebraska, also on the prairie, some months ago. It had been springtime; perennials had been in full bloom in the garden out front. The kitchen of the house had been particularly well-stocked with food, and junk food in particular. They had gorged on Pop Tarts and Cheetos. That had been a swell day. At first.
She remembered how her sister had picked some of the flowers in the yard and, using a sheet of notebook paper and crayons she found in the house, had drawn a still life. They had found some peace and quiet there, in that old farmhouse, surrounded by nothing but fallow fields and high, high grass as far as the eye could see. They had thought they were safe, too, as it had been days since they’d seen a living being apart from some animals, which were immune to the Disease. They had shacked up, spread out their things, and let their imaginations run wild, when suddenly, on the third day, they heard noise in the root cellar.
They thought it was just a dog or a cat or some other animal, trying to get out. When they broke the lock on the cellar with a hatchet, though, out sprung the farmer and his wife—only very much the worse for wear. Out of desperation, they had gnawed each other’s faces, arms and chests until all that was left was the rotting muscle, clinging to the skeleton like the last bit of meat on a chewed up soup bone.
One of them, the woman, had lurched towards Laura, and it was only Kathryn’s by-now practiced reflexes that had saved them both. She threw her knife expertly at the woman’s head, knocking her backwards with the force of the blow, back into the cellar. She fell with a mute thump. The man, somewhat confused but still bloodthirsty, then lunged at Kathryn. He was so wasted away by the Disease, however, that his legs broke below the knees, sending him to the ground. Kathryn jumped back, and he didn’t reach her. Out of pity and disgust, however, she blew away his head with the revolver she kept tucked into her pants. Then she grabbed Laura’s hand, and the two ran like hell. They were so spooked that they left all the gear and food they had in the house.
That had been a hell of a day, and losing the gear had set them back a month’s worth of scavenging expeditions. They had lost their sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a lantern, a Swiss army knife, several protein bars as well as the food they had found there in the house. It had been a total clusterfuck. And even though they had eventually recouped most of the gear, Kathryn still longed for all the Cheetos left uneaten.
She shook her head at the memory and tried to think of others things, beautiful things. She thought about the blue-green peacefulness of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, where she had gone on vacation with her wife the year before. They had sat on the sand and watched the sun dip down into the water, setting the sea ablaze before them in colors that no camera could reproduce: pinks, magentas, fuschias, violent violets and opalescent oranges. They had held hands and walked on the beach, and spent the evenings in their hotel room, holding each other, touching, embracing…
She didn’t want to think about that either, though. It was too hard to think of all they had lost. Instead, she tried to conjure up something beautiful but less personal. She thought of the view of the Rockies up in Estes Park with Long’s Peak perched majestically over the valley, reaching up towards the sky in granite stateliness.
After a while, the time seemed to pass more quickly, and soon the small alarm on her watch went off. She woke Laura up, and they switched. It didn’t take her long to fall asleep. When her two hours were up, they switched again. She found that Laura had amused herself by covering the wall in the hallway with sketches. There were smaller sketches of octopuses, snails, lizards, and odd, mismatched monsters. Then the sketches turned into a portrait, and after a moment, Kathryn recognized the face, even though it was just a rough sketch: it was a portrait of Laura’s fiancé Chris. It brought a rueful, sad smile to her lips. Neither of them could keep their minds off the most painful part of their lives now, which was always going to be not knowing if their loved ones were still alive, dead, or, what was worse, Diseased.
Would they ever come face-to-face with someone they knew? Someone they had known, in another life, in another place and time? And if that person was Diseased—what then? Did they have the strength to shoot them? Put a hatchet in their head? Throw a knife at them? They had been lucky, so far, that it had never happened. As soon as they realized their predicament, they had fled east, into the prairie, trying to find the least peopled areas. These were also the places where they knew no one and no one knew them.
Once, they had bumped into a group of survivors holed up in a bunker, and among those people was a former classmate of Laura’s. They had exchanged some information, but the woman had not known the fate of their families, and they were likewise helpless to inform her of anything or anyone either. Getting access to their CB radio had been a short but pointless thrill. They had put out their names on the airwaves, listing the names of the people they were searching for, but that was it. They had had to pay the people with the radio in salvaged cans of tuna; it had meant living off stale Ritz crackers for the better part of the following week.
Kathryn pulled out a thick wad of folded papers—her survival diary—and consulted it. The CB messages had been put out on the radio back in May. Two months had gone by since then, and who knew how many people could tune in to it or had heard the message. The survivors in the bunker believed there was a place, somewhere, where someone was keeping track of the names on the CB airwaves, but could that be true? It seemed much more likely that the names were merely symbols of hope, loosened onto the airwaves and into the ether, no longer connected to the people they represented.
She wasted some time trying to think of what to write. How many entries were there already that read, “Empty house. Prairie. Slept during the day. Ate what we could find. No Diseased. Left at sundown”? Was it even worth it? She shook her head again as if to shake away the thoughts of apathy. You must believe, she told herself. There was nothing else left but hope. Hope and determination. For she was determined to survive.
Many hours later, finally the sun was dipping down, flushing the sky pink and orange, and they had each had, cumulatively, six or seven hours of sleep. They ate some military-grade survival food they had left over from…well, it didn’t matter where they had gotten it. They still had some, so they ate it by the light of a single flashlight, and swallowed it down with hot tea made on the camp stove.
“Pretty quiet, huh?” said Kathryn, finishing up her tea.
Laura nodded. “Sleep ok?” she asked.
“Could be worse,” replied Kathryn with a wry smile. Laura laughed at that.
“So, what’s the plan?” asked Laura. “Leave tonight or stay another day?”
Kathryn yawned and stretched, setting down her cup and trying to arrange herself more comfortably on the floor.
“Seems safe enough,” she said. “We could stay another day. Last night was rough,” she added, referring to the long hike they had done to get to Ault. “Besides, it’s going to get more dangerous, now that we’re heading back…towards everything. People. Cities.”
“True,” she said. “Want to explore? Or play some cards?”
“Cards,” said Kathryn, pulling them out of her pack. “Let’s play it safe for now.”
Laura shuffled and dealt. They played poker for a while, using Necco wafers as chips. They had found some candy a week ago and had been rationing it. The Necco wafers were the last to go.
Around midnight they got bored, so they put the cards away and had a quick lunch: hot cocoa, pickles, and beans.
“Mmmm, beans,” said Kathryn in mock admiration. “You know what would go well with these?”
“Cheetos.” Kathryn grinned as Laura rolled her eyes.
“You and your damn Cheetos,” sighed Laura. “You’re never going to get over it, are you?” Kathryn shook her head.
“Hey, you think They can smell farts? Maybe these are a security hazard,” said Kathryn after a moment of silence as they finished off their baked beans.
“Who knows?” said Laura through a mouthful of pickle. “I wouldn’t put it past Them.”
They never referred to the Diseased as such. Or as “zombies,” as some of the other survivors did. It made everything seem a little more manageable to just use a pronoun.
“Can you imagine?” continued Kathryn. “We survive all this time, only to be given away by bean-flavored farts?”
Laura started to laugh and then coughed as some pickle went down the wrong pipe.
“Beans, beans the magical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot!” she managed to get out in between fits of laughter and coughing.
“Shhhh!” said Kathryn suddenly, sitting up. She was pretty sure she had heard some noise on the baby monitor. “Listen,” she whispered.
She and Laura sat stock still, waiting, listening. Sure enough, the monitor was picking up the distant murmur of human speech and the rustle of pant legs and feet on gravel.
They exchanged a wide-eyed look. It had been nearly two weeks since they had spoken to a human being that wasn’t each other. And it had not been a friendly encounter, either, as it had resulted in Kathryn’s liberating the AR-9 from the gun freak.
The two of them quickly and stealthily grabbed their weapon of choice and crawled quietly up the hallway to the main door, baby monitor in tow. It wasn’t really necessary, though, as they could hear the voices outside: they were coherent-sounding, with a mixture of male and female tones, though they could not make out the words. There were at least three of them, it sounded like, maybe four. And they were not the Diseased: that was for sure.
They heard the people open the front gate; the warning bells jingled, as planned, and then they heard footsteps on the front walk. And as planned, the first person took a huge dive as he or she tripped on the strung up wire. There was some loud cursing by a voice that sounded strangely familiar.
The two sisters took the advantage of surprise to open the door and point their weapons at the intruders.
“Put your hands where we can see them and no funny business,” said Kathryn. Her eyes had adjusted enough in the dark of the hallway that, with the light of the full moon, she could see fairly well. And what she saw nearly took her breath away.
She recognized two of the people in front of her: they were her father and Chris. Alive. Not Diseased.
For a moment, they all stared at each other in surprise without moving or speaking. Laura was the first to react, throwing down her shotgun with a loud clatter and running towards Chris. At the last second, she remembered about the wire, and she leapt over it, crashing into Chris with her arms wide open. Kathryn watched as they embraced, and she lowered her own weapon.
“Dad?” she said, uncertainly. She knew this was her father, but he didn’t look exactly the same as before, just as she knew she did not look the same as seven months ago either. Her gray streak was bigger, and she was thinner, scrawnier but also scrappier than seven months ago. Her father was also thinner and older-looking, with dark circles under his eyes and a deadened look in his gaze that, after a moment, seemed to recede.
“Kate? Is that really you?” he said, looking at her and then suddenly smiling. “This is quite the security you have here.”
Before she knew what she was doing, she was in her father’s arms, and they were squeezing each other with all their might. It took a moment for all of them to remember that there was another person there, a woman that Kathryn and Laura did not recognize. Once they all hurried back into the house, they made some introductions, and it turned out they had probably just missed her when they had visited the bunker with the CB radio back in May; her name was Elaine.
Elaine was a native of Ault who had returned to see what she could find back in her home town. She, like them, had gotten separated from her family during the Panic; she had hoped to find them back in Ault, or to find a place where she could wait for them. She was about Laura’s age, but shorter and stockier, with indifferent brown hair, brown eyes, and a broad, honest face. As hard as Kathryn tried to be suspicious of her, Elaine’s face inspired nothing but trust.
“This isn’t your house, or something, is it?” said Kathryn, once they had the water on the boil, and they had all finished hugging again.
“No, no,” Elaine reassured them. “I lived a couple of streets down. I knew the family that lived here, though, and I remembered that they always stocked up on food at those big box stores. I thought there might still be some food in here.”
Laura nodded enthusiastically. “You were right. There’s pickles, beans, mustard and mayo. If only we had some bread…”
They all laughed. It had been months and months since any of them had eaten bread.
“How on earth did you guys think to come out this way?” said Laura, after pouring the boiling water into cups with tea bags.
“Well, we heard you guys on the CB,” said their father, leaning back, his eyes now warm with happiness.
Kathryn and Laura looked at each other.
“Why didn’t you message back?” said Kathryn.
“You did?” said Laura at the same moment. Their father laughed.
“We didn’t think it was safe,” he said with a shrug.
“Yeah,” added Chris. “We’ve heard all sorts of stories about the gangs listening to the CB waves and then ambushing people in the places that they name as meeting points, killing them or taking them as slaves…”
“Holy crap, that’s just a little scary!” she said with a nervous laugh. “Good thing I didn’t think of that before, or I wouldn’t have been able to sleep these last two months.”
“Well, we didn’t mention where we were heading, specifically,” said Kathryn. “We’re not that dumb.”
“No, of course,” said their father. “But we didn’t want to respond just yet. We were planning on responding the next day, once we had a plan, but by then, the situation had…changed where we were staying.” His facial expression altered suddenly; a look of sorrow and intense hatred passed over his features. Kathryn flinched, watching him. Instinctively, she knew she should not ask about her mother. Instead, she glanced over at Laura, but Laura was not looking at them; she only had eyes for Chris. Seeing their happiness, Kathryn felt a sharp sudden jab of jealousy and sadness, but she tried to ignore it.
“So, what’s the news of the rest of the world?” she said, trying to sound neutral, but hoping her father would understand the implication. She wanted to know if there was any word on her wife and what had befallen her.
“Nothing good, I’m afraid,” said her father. “Supposedly the politicians are all surviving in their bunkers, and the same goes for all the millionaires and billionaires. There’s about a thousand conspiracy theories: islands where the Disease can’t reach, tundra where it can’t survive, underground bunkers full of food, you just have to know where to find them.” He paused and sighed. “I’m not sure what to believe. No one is. The CB radio waves report some interesting stuff sometimes, but most of the time it’s just people searching for their loved ones. One time, someone was messaging on the radio when they got attacked. That was awful to listen to.”
He stopped there. Kathryn thought he would go on, but the silence expanded and filled the room. The darkness of night was lifting, though none of them really noticed it, even as the outlines of their faces became clearer.
“Well, we don’t know anything,” said Laura, who was snuggled up with Chris now against the wall. “We’ve been out in this godforsaken prairie since the beginning. Can we go home now?”
Her plea sounded plaintive and childish; Kathryn thought she could already tell the answer was no. Neither Chris nor their father dared speak, and suddenly the room was filled with the sound of Laura’s quiet tears. Kathryn could feel her own eyes tearing up; instead of feeling like a new beginning, this reunion felt like the end.
As if to confirm her thoughts, suddenly there was banging and shouting at the front door of the house. They had missed the sound of the slow shuffling, the low moans and groans, the doom-laden crunch of gravel and rocks under dragging feet. They had missed it, in the midst of their happiness. And somehow, the baby monitor had turned off. They had been enjoying their reunion, but they had enjoyed themselves too much.
The Diseased were here.
In a moment, Kathryn was on her feet, gearing up and giving directions. It didn’t matter now how quiet they were—the Diseased knew they were there. Instead, she grabbed her AR-9, her shotgun, and the hatchet. The rest of their stuff would have to get left behind; maybe they could come back. It wasn’t out of the question.
Kathryn felt all the sadness, the hopelessness, the apathy disappear within her as the adrenaline began coursing through her veins. Emotions receded and were replaced by a sense of singlemindedness: the determination to survive.
The pounding at the door was getting louder and louder; she could hear pounding on some of the windows as well.
She looked around their group quickly; everyone was up and armed now: everyone was ready. The tears were gone from Laura’s face. Instead, her eyes mirrored Kathryn’s: they were filled with anticipation and purpose. Now that they had found some of their family, they had more to fight for than ever.
As she headed towards the sounds of scratching, moaning and pounding, Kathryn steeled herself for what was to come.
Several months passed before Kathryn was able to return to the farmhouse in Ault. The first snow of the autumn was dusting the brown grass of the prairie as she came up the walk, and the warm summer sun was but a faded memory. The house should have inspired sadness and pain within her, but she felt barely alive to any emotions anymore. Sometimes, she wondered if she was Diseased, but on the inside—where no one could see. More often than not, she operated on basic instincts these days; thinking about things, acknowledging her feelings was just too much.
Something had forced her to retrace her steps back to Ault, though, almost as if that was the one place where she might find a relic of the past to cling to and preserve her. After that fateful July night, her determination to survive was no longer fueled by hope. It was simply a drive to stay alive but meaningless in and of itself. During the battle with the Diseased that night, she and Elaine had become separated from her family. Kathryn was pretty sure that her father had sacrificed himself, so to speak, while helping Laura and Chris get away. If you were fast enough, you could outrun the Diseased—especially older Diseased, whose ligaments were stiff and bones were fragile. She thought she had seen Laura and Chris make a dash for it, but not in the same direction as her and Elaine. The Diseased had come between them.
Now, Kathryn was back in Ault, back at the farmhouse. Alone.
She had been traveling alone for some weeks now. She and Elaine had managed to find a safe house run by Quakers, and eventually Elaine had decided she wished to stay there for the winter, while Kathryn began to feel restless. What was the point of staying hidden? She knew no one among the Quakers, and although the safe house had a radio for contacting other nearby safe houses, few people were allowed to use it for any other reason. After days of begging to use it to contact Laura—or anyone else—Kathryn finally realized that she had to strike out on her own again. There was no point to staying there; she had rested enough. Now it was time to find out what was going on elsewhere.
Without really planning it, Kathryn began walking towards Ault again. Now that she knew the tell-tale signs of the safe houses, she located one on the outskirts of town fairly easily. There were only about five people at the safe house in Ault at the time, and none of them were known to Kathryn. She had hoped, just for a moment, she might find Chris and Laura there. She spent the night there before moving on. She had to go to the farmhouse… just once.
There was something mystical about the farmhouse in her mind. Aside from her determination to survive, that was the only other thing that had a hold on her. Even her desire for junk food like Cheetos seemed nothing more than a quaint tribute to the past, something another person had enjoyed. The present Kathryn survived on military-grade chocolate bars and powdered protein drinks. She didn’t even care anymore. She needed to find something to catch onto, something to make her want to live, not just survive.
The farmhouse seemed quiet and empty from the outside and looked unchanged. Laura’s bells and piece of wire were rusted but still visible in the front yard and porch; the same peeling red paint on the rocking chair and rickety porch swing greeted her as before. She was somewhat nonplussed to find one of the baby monitors on the porch as well. Somehow it hadn’t gotten stomped to bits in the clash with the Diseased. There were, however, other signs of that battle in July: broken flower pots, bullet holes in the floor of the porch, and claw marks in the paint of the siding. The Diseased were animalistic in their attacks and rarely minded losing nails in order to secure their prey.
Kathryn shuddered suddenly as she took in the porch with her gaze. She felt goosebumps pop out along her arms that were unrelated to the low temperature, and she recalled that phrase from childhood, Someone just walked on your grave. Children could be quite morbid, she thought to herself. The feeling of intense coldness passed, and she took a deep breath of cool, crisp November air. It came out in a puff of air that was no longer as visible as it was an hour ago. The sun was rising. It was time to go in, if that was the plan.
She decided to knock on the door. She wanted to survive, yes, but she also wanted answers. She felt emboldened by this sense of recklessness.
She knocked and waited. There was only silence.
Kathryn entered the house, and was struck by a sense of familiarity and homecoming she hadn’t felt since before the Panic. There was even a familiar smell to the house, overlaying the muted smells of rotting food and flesh. Kathryn had mentally prepared herself for the sight of the rotting corpses of the Disease they had put to rest back in July, but there were none. At the safe house with Elaine, she had heard of groups of people who had dubbed themselves “The Undertakers”; the Undertakers roamed the streets at night, collecting bodies for disposal. What they did with the bodies, Kathryn couldn’t quite imagine. It would be difficult to bury them because there were so many of them. She imagined they burned the bodies instead. It was the best way to prevent further spread of the Disease.
If indeed the Undertakers were real, then they had done a wonderful job at the farmhouse. Aside from the faint smell of rot, there was no sign of bodies in the foyer where some of the battle had taken place. In the corridor, Kathryn found the remains of their camp stove and dinner and the other half of the baby monitor set. Laura’s sketches were in place. Next to Chris’s portrait, she found a small note: “Undertakers: 7 Diseased bodies removed, 8/10/20—”. So they had indeed been there, a month after the battle. It looked as though they had been remarkably selfless, for they hadn’t removed any of Laura or Kathryn’s gear or anything else, for that matter, from the house.
After a careful survey of the rest of the house, Kathryn had to acknowledge that she was alone there. The certainty of this fact overwhelmed her, and she sat down hard in one of the old kitchen chairs. She put her head in her hands and let herself cry. The tears were there, and they trickled down her face into her hands, but it wasn’t the hard cry she needed. She felt like she could barely squeeze out those tears, and soon they were gone. She realized, in that moment, that she had thought, or rather felt, irrationally, that perhaps someone was there waiting for her, someone she loved and cared for. After realizing the house was empty, though, she understood that she had been lying to herself: hope had crept into her heart regardless of her best intentions.
What was she to do in this world, if there was nothing to live for except survival? Part of her knew that she was being hysterical. She needed to get news of the outside world, and she knew that to do that, she would have to join some group, some collective somewhere that would let her have access to news. She dreaded rejoining society after being alone so much, even as she knew it was necessary. It was still possible Laura and Chris were alive. It was possible her wife was still alive. Their friends. Their relatives. Maybe someone had found a cure or a vaccine for the Disease by now?
And yet, what if there wasn’t any good news? Maybe it was better to simply stay in the farmhouse and wait. Eventually the food supply would finish, and she could keep scavenging, until she couldn’t. Then she’d have to move on. And on. And on. She wasn’t sure which possibility was worse.
She lifted her head up and looked around the kitchen, wiping away the tears, trying to shake away the feelings of apathy, fear, and hopelessness. The kitchen looked as though it hadn’t changed in décor since 1930 or so. She thought about how much her wife would love it—they both loved vintage styles. She could imagine restoring this kitchen, maybe getting a genuine but refurbished old gas stove with six burners, re-painting the old cabinets. The dream of domestic happiness was still within her, even after all she had been through.
As she gazed around the kitchen, her gaze was caught by something bright and orange on the counter top. Kathryn recognized it immediately and jumped up out of her chair. In a single step she was at the counter, gazing at an unopened bag of Cheetos cheese puffs.
Suddenly she knew she was not alone in this world. There was, indeed, something, or someone, to live for. The bag hadn’t been there in June. It was surely a sign—one meant just for her.
She wanted to run around, shouting for joy; she had to resist the urge to dash out of the farm house, calling out the names of the people she loved. There would come a time for searching, for looking, for reuniting. She would need to make plans, but this one small bag of crispy snacks filled her with excitement: someone she knew and loved was out there, alive and safe. Someone who knew her, who wanted her to know she was not alone, had surely left this small token as a message.
She sat back down at the kitchen table and pulled open the package of crunchy, cheesy snacks slowly, letting the manufactured cheese smell emanate from the bag as she inhaled it slowly. It was a smell from another time and place. She popped a puff into her mouth, and munched it slowly, deliberately, letting it fill her mouth before swallowing. She savored each puff slowly, making sure to only eat half; she wanted to save the rest for later. She even relished the feeling afterwards of having the sticky, half-masticated leftovers stuck in her teeth, using the tip of her tongue to leverage them out in an awkward, lingual ballet.
She wanted to share the rest of the puffs with whomever had left them for her. She had to content herself with the feeling that she was close to finding a home again and a community. And that was enough for now.
Ula Klein asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work