The sky is a perfect azure blue dotted here and there with white, fluffy clouds that remind her of cotton balls and wisps of fog. Next to the road a small boy plays at war with dirty toy soldiers and builds them a fortress from small stones and wet packed sand. She allows herself to smile at this, so hard in coming that smile. It has been long and long since she has had anything to smile about but the second smile comes easier and so too the third. She feels normal all of a sudden, the way the sun strikes her face when it breaks from beneath the cover of a passing cloud. It illuminates her and makes her feel clean and whole. This is not normal, her mind warns her, normal is hiding, normal is darkness, normal is fear. She frowns ever so slightly, the movement of her lips creases her face by the tinest amount before she arrests the thought and the smile reappears.
To the south, storm clouds gather over the mountains, the cool air descending on the arid heat that rises to meet it. She can hear the thunder, distant; low, but pays it no mind. The breeze is moving east and the clouds with it. She is safe from the storm, safe from the dark clouds. The warm early autumn sun is on her and it feels like an embrace, like arms stretched over her, Andrew’s embrace. It makes her think of how he looked when last she’d seen him, walking from the darkness of their shared bedroom and into the light of the hallway. These thoughts threaten to drown her. The sorrow is close, even after so long. Instead she watches Jacob, as he plays soldier in the sand and dirt. He is three, and that means for almost a third of his life he has survived through what she has survived through. She can only imagine how such a child will be strong when he makes it to adulthood, growing up in this savage new world that had been thrust upon them. Smiling, she tilts her head a little. It is a motherly expression but Jacob is not her son. She had been pregnant once, when they had left New Canaan, but she had had terminated the pregnancy. She didn’t feel strong enough to carry a child, even Andrew’s child, into the world. So she had gone on alone.
She sits down on the cool and bright green grass which is still moist from the morning dew. The moisture clings to her clothes, dampening them. It feels good on her, the contrast of the cool beneath her and the warmth above. She lays back, letting her shirt and pants soak up the dampness. She can feel it against her skin and through her dark hair. She feels so free, so careless; safe. Jacob is not playing with the other children, who are all older than he is. The children she had found here, four of them, were all older, old enough to do chores and help out around the compound. None of them had ever thought to find this place, or rather, be found by this place. Within the perimeter of its high chain link fence her safety was assured. It was best not to wander too close to the fence, but those thoughts were not for today, not for the bright sunshine and the green grass beneath her. Those were thoughts for another woman in another world far away from her. Today, with the sun rising through the blue sky, is a day for freedom. It was a day for relaxing. It was a day to stretch out and enjoy comforts lost to her for so long. She feels like a child again, let loose on the playground for recess. She cannot help the smile that seems permanently affixed to her face, the white teeth that flash bright in the sunlight. Looking away down the road running parallel to the fence she sees people working on something but from here she cannot tell what. She had watched them dance last night, the people here had put together a small folk band and they had danced as though death did not wait for them with hungry gnashing teeth just beyond the safety of their little world. A few of the men had asked her to dance but she had been too uncomfortable. She had wanted to scream at them “HOW CAN YOU DANCE!” but the words had caught in her throat. Quietly she had gone to the bed they had provided her and cried her self to sleep as much because of the relief she felt and as much over the anguish of those lost to her.
She hears the small shoes running on pavement, Jacob is crossing the road. She sits upright, his name starting to come to her lips. The fence, stay away from the fence…but he stops short on the other side of the road. In his hands are a bright red plastic beach bucket and a small yellow sand shovel. Jacob begins picking stones from beside the crumbling pavement, placing them in the bucket. Once the bucket is full, he tries to lift it and carry it back to the other side but it is too heavy. His three year old arms are not strong enough. He sees his dilemma immediately and dumps half the stones onto the road, hefts the bucket again, and returns his treasure to the fortress where he begins building again. Jacob’s army men are stationed in a ring around his fortress as he builds, their plastic guns and bayonets pointed outward. The circle is large enough that Jacob can move around his building project with ease and not be impeded by his defender’s emplacements. The small structure is far more sophisticated than any three year olds fortress has a right to be. She can see that he has constructed a shield wall, gate houses, thin windows for the toy soldiers to shoot from, choke points to limit the effectiveness of the enemies numbers. It is still simple by many standards, but not for a boy his age.
Lying back on the grass again, she closes her eyes and the world turns red as the sun seeks to pry through her eyelids. She feels the breeze shift over her body and she can smell the distant rain in the south; the underlying smell of the grass beneath her that had been cut only yesterday; the fresh air. The smell of death that has surrounded them for so long is all but gone. She draws in a deep lungful of fresh, clean air and exhales. She practices this several times, tasting each breath as though it were a fine wine, swilling it around in her lungs, holding it, giving it back to the world through her mouth so she can taste it on her tongue.
She isn’t tired but the feeling of serenity washes over her like a warm blanket on a cold night. For nine months they had been on the run, hiding, sneaking around praying for respite, for rescue, for safety. She had thought she might never find any of these things until they had stumbled across a running van in the parking lot of a small grocery store. Within had been the people who had brought them here. They had been fed and clothed with loose fitting, clean garments and handmade leather moccasins from hides cured from cattle grazing on the other side of the compound. She had been given a warm bath and freshly cleaned sheets. Before the end of the world, these things had been simple pleasures, expectations of a normal life. She couldn’t remember normal anymore and despite her newfound comforts, she had felt uneasy.
The feeling of peace and safety had not come easy to her but when it came it had come with almost reckless abandon. She had woken to the fingers of morning sunlight caressing her cheek through the window of her small room. That’s when the first strained smile had started. It had been a small thing, weak and nearly stillborn. She had felt something in her chest, something like a balloon. Not discomfort, but as though she wanted to run, to laugh. It had been so long since she’d felt that way that she did not understand what it was and it confused her. When she had dressed to go to the building they called “The Meeting Hall” to get some breakfast, she knew what it was. She finally felt free and safe. She had lived so long it seemed, fearing death in every footstep, that each step she took now seemed light, buoyant. The cool morning air washed over her face and hands.
She had broken her fast on a piece of homemade bread and grits with butter, pepper and salt. It had been so long since she’d eaten anything that had tasted half so good. Outside the sun rose and the men and women of the compound made busy. Some worked in the gardens, others shearing sheep or shoeing horses. There were men and women working bellows while others beat pieces of hot metal into tools and odd shapes. They are working, she thought with surprise, there are people with jobs! Shortly after she had taken her breakfast dishes to the sink and cleaned them Jacob’s mother had approached her. Beth had asked her to watch Jacob so she could spend a few hours in the compounds kitchen preparing lunch. She had been so happy to oblige that the smile forming on her face had nearly burst from beneath her lips right then and there.
As she thinks on this, the sun warms her and the grass cools her. She feels herself drifting a bit, why not? She thinks, just a doze, no harm in that, there is nothing to be scared of now. Andrew had not been scared when the lieutenant had called and asked him to report to the police station for duty. They’d all seen the news and the walking plague it had finally come to their own little corner of the world. He had told her not to worry. He had told her that it was just a precaution. He told her everything would be all right. They had made love and then he had dressed in his uniform and left without another word. It seems now that he had lied to her, and perhaps he had. He had never come back, and she had not known safety until she and the people she had met made it here, to safety.
In her dreams she is running through dark mysterious corridors and someone is chasing her. Pallid gray light spills from unseen windows as she runs past and she sees in snatches as though beneath a strobe light. Her pursuer’s gait is slow and shambling but no matter how fast she runs, she is always just outside of his arm’s reach. She breaks into the light, it is bright and nearly blinding, she turns to look upon her pursuer. It is Andrew. He is in the dark blue uniform of the New Canaan Police Department. His boots are polished and his pants and shirt freshly ironed. His badge, a six pointed star with the town seal affixed neatly in the middle is bright and silver. When she looks at his face she barely recognizes him. His skin is mottled and grey. His right eye dangles from the socket and the flesh within is rotting and putrefied. His arms reach out and his mouth opens. His lips and chin are caked brown with dry blood; his teeth are stained with it. He makes no sound but for the shuffling of his staggered footsteps and then she realizes she cannot back up any further, her back is to a wall. Andrew shambles towards her, and she starts to scream. Thunder booms around her, she can hear the scream before she opens her mouth. In her dream it is the high, thin wailing of a child. She fights to wake herself up, just a dream, just a dream! She tries to tell herself. The thunder booms again and she can feel cold blood all over her. It is hard, like rain and then she knows it is rain. Just a dream, wake up, wake up! But the words blend into that shrill screaming. Her eyes open and all at once she is on her feet. She looks at Jacob’s fortress, the sudden rain storm once safely south of them has torn his safe little hiding place down. The green army soldiers, green like the grass, she thinks crazily, are laying in the wet dirt, their fierce bayonets useless against the storm. She looks for him and sees him standing at the fence, his arm is through it. He is holding a dead man’s hand. It’s clothes have seen a thousand storms and are ragged and torn. His feet are bare and she can see with sudden clarity that the skin on them is worn off revealing dry cracked muscle around the edges. She shakes her head once and her vision clears in time to see that the man is holding Jacob’s wrist and the scream in her dream was the boy’s scream of pain as the undead creature standing on the other side of the fence tries to pull him through a hole small enough for his arm but far too small for his body. Blood blooms underneath the shoulder of his yellow cartoon character T-shirt. His scream pitches even higher as the ghoul pulls and pulls. It does not struggle, the pressure is constant, its grip monstrous. Jacob’s arm comes free with a meaty, rending sound like someone ripping the leg from a thanksgiving turkey and a spurt of dark red blood. The blood spatters over the chain link fence, over Jacob’s shirt, over the face of the dead man who is bringing the still warm flesh of Jacob’s arm to its mouth. The blood washes from the fence and from the dead man’s face in the rain but on Jacob’s shirt it just grows and grows and grows. The dead man, the one who should not be able to stand and walk but does, begins tearing the flesh from Jacob’s arm in wide mouthed, greedy bites. Suddenly she finds her voice and begins to scream.
Men come, their shoes splash in the puddles forming on the ground. One of them shoots the thing on the other side of the fence, the brother of all those that had been chasing them for so long. She thinks of Andrew. She thinks of the love they made and the baby they lost. She thinks of the green damp grass beneath her, the sun, warm on her face, the thunder and the rain. She is lost as Jacob’s mother arrives in time to see her son die and see the last twitching final movements in his body in the sudden thunder storm. Beyond the fence, there is a headless corpse with a child’s arm clutched in its fist; a bright yellow plastic sand shovel rests on the ground at the fence’s base.
She sees none of this, she hears none of this. The world has become a bottomless, empty well and as she falls the sunlight and warmth of hope and protection recede from her. The storm is above her and all around her but she clings to the thoughts of peace and optimism that had woken with her only this morning and her smile becomes a terrible rictus as she plummets into the darkness.