Stop looking at me.
I don’t excel through observation. Your eyes are not inspiring, I am not lifted to new levels of creativity through your attention. Do you not realize I am hiding? You have invaded the corner of my existence. This may be public land, but I am not part of the view you can interact with. How does my seat under the elm, far removed from the paths, encourage conversational examination? I was in peace before you. Leave so I can return to the sensation.
No, I am not whittling. Can you feel the discomfort in my words yet? I am trying to be polite, but this is not a cheap pocket knife; I am not an eager youth creating a spear for marshmallows. Perhaps I am too bitter over these words, so familiar with the condescension over my chosen hobby.
I agree without general words, hoping you'll take the cue. Yes, it is strange to see a young woman carving in the park. That’s why I made myself less noticeable among the trees.
Ignorance is bliss; perhaps emulating my invader will return me to the easy peace of before. I know how to ignore mosquitoes, how different can this be? The catalpa figure of a cat crawls back into the main seat of my attention, a secondary seat placed for the unwelcome presence. My blade glides again.
There are trees in which exist an infinite number of figures. That maple is destined to be a desk and bookshelf. The walnut will soon become a pair of ornate grandfather clocks. My work is in the figure, the forms which while having no utilitarian use contribute in some ephemeral way to humanity.
Give me a block of wood, a blank canvas, and in weeks I will give you a masterpiece. Give me the chance to be Michelangelo, to pound out the edges of form, revealing the image inside. Painting, writing, music; forms are started from nothing, a creation from the void. I am in the opposite, revealing the figure as already existing, reworking the base form. To create from the already created, all I need is the right blade.
Only a sharp blade will slice through the fibers of wood grain. The dull blade may cut, but at what cost? The fibers tear and fuzz, a white down over a once clean surface. A blade should glide, releasing subtle sounds of the draw as the shaving curls and falls.
One cut, two cuts. Three. Four. Shavings gather on the mossy floor.
When a new ring of curls has formed the stranger is gone.
The TV was boring to me, strained and serious faces with no singing or dancing. Momma watched it all the time, always had the news on in the back of her mind. I didn’t yet know what was going wrong.
I was about four when a new miracle drug was invented. They still play clips of the company’s CEO and executives on TV praising all the special properties, how it was going to save the world, years after the truth came out. They said it would cure anything from the common cold to Ebola. It did almost the exact opposite. When they pulled it off the market the entire company went dark. Literally dark; the entire main building sealed itself off and shut down. When the authorities finally got permission to open it up, everyone wished they hadn’t. Turns out the Best Drug Ever had the shelf life of an unwashed egg. Spoiled samples got mislabeled, and a lab techs little mistake started the end of the world.
It did things to people, things that shouldn’t have been possible. It started with memory loss; just small things like forgetting your keys or your friend’s name, and then it built. Within days they couldn’t even recognize family and children, eventually forgetting their own name. That’s when they started to rot, their skin and hair just molting off their bodies in chunks and green slime taking its place. A parade of scientists came through, trying to explain the hows and whys, but even as a kid I could tell they had no idea. I don’t think people rotting alive isn’t on a med school syllabus.
They started to become cannibals, any human in sight caused them to go into a frenzy. If a person happened to escape an attack…it would almost be better that they hadn’t. Anyone who was bitten, scratched, or ingested the green started to turn. It was worse than a death sentence, it was an undead sentence. To feel yourself slipping, the life drain from your body until there wasn’t a you left anymore, and know what the thing you had become would do.
And that’s when it started.
I was at Target when the quarantines started. The store was just a short walk away from the house, so my parents would occasionally send me out on errands when the outbreak alerts were low in the area. I didn’t mind going out since every time they would give me an extra dollar to buy my own candy bar. For those few moments, aside from the candy bar, I could play adult; I had responsibilities, a job, money that was mine to use. In retrospect, my parents probably didn’t think through sending their seven year old daughter out alone during a worldwide contamination threat. But you can’t change the past, and since they’re both probably dead it’s not like they can think about their actions much anymore.
I remember standing in front of the sweets display, a full basket in one hand and finished shopping list in the other, when the PA system came on. I usually ignored the speakers since they never said anything interesting, but as I picked up a snickers bar I noticed the people seemed really interested. Some of them started running and screaming, throwing stuff in front of the doors or running out of the few left unblocked. Some people were just stuck, standing still with funny looks on their faces. There was a woman next to me, short with brown hair and a baby in a basket. She was one of the frozen ones. I tried to ask her what was going on, but she wouldn’t say anything; she didn’t even move when her baby started to fuss and cry.
And then there was a man. He was tall, wearing khakis and a red shirt with a nametag I couldn’t read. I remember thinking that if this was anything like Star Trek he would be dead soon. Luckily, and unfortunately, this wasn’t a TV show. He got the people to stop screaming, got them to calm down, and got them to pile all the stuff they could find in front of the doors. I tried to tell him he shouldn’t do that, I needed to get home. He just looked at me, the kind of look grownups give when they’re about to say something you won’t like, and somehow I knew.
“I can’t go home, can I?”
He seemed surprised that id figured it out. “No little girl, none of us can. Things have gotten a lot worse and the government, hell, the whole U.N. probably issued a worldwide quarantine.” He looked back at me as if remembering he was talking to a seven year old. “But don’t worry kid, everything’ll be alright. My names Ray, and I’m going to make sure everyone here stays safe.”
“My name’s Daisy.”
And that’s how I met the first person in my new “family”.
In one day Ray managed to get the people together, barricade the door, take stock of the generators, food, water, and other resources, and set up a radio feed for information. Then we pooled the resources and created a living space, a weapons arsenal, and a comfortable sleeping area. We set up beds for the girls in the changing rooms, we had just enough for everyone who wanted separate rooms. And then the men created a private sleeping area by closing off the sports section with curtains and tarps. Along with a mattress and sheets, we were all given a water bottle, a first aid kit, vitamins, a baseball bat, and free run of the clothing section. After two days we had a fully functional “house” to live in.
We started grouping together, not through any thought of our own, but a natural event that wasn’t really questioned. There was a big group of men, half shoppers half employees, and they had assigned themselves the job of protectors. They all had at least two weapons on them at all times. They also assigned a watch so that at least two people were watching for attack on the roof. Then, there was the girl group, they were mostly cashiers, and they… well, they didn’t do a lot, at least as far as I could see. Sure, they did what Ray told them to and they helped if they were asked, but they mostly just huddled in a circle and talked all day. Finally, there was the group I found myself in. there wasn’t really a criteria for this group, it mostly seemed to be people who didn’t fit into either of the other groups. There was Mrs. Sally, and her son Baby Jessie, Mr. and Mrs. Frayne, an elderly couple from Minnesota, Andy, a 30-something guy who got an arm and half a leg cut off in a car crash, and me, a seven-year-old girl from down the road. The only person that didn’t get attached to a group was Sweets.
Sweets was tall, muscular, and the only black person in the store. I didn’t really get what that meant for him. The first time I talked to him, I managed to say something so dumb, I still have nightmares about it. I walked up to him and said, “Why does everyone call you black? You’re not black, your brown.” He just stared at me for the longest time. I asked him later what he was thinking, and he said he was deciding whether to laugh or yell at me. I’m really glad that he didn’t yell, but I could’ve done without the laughing. And that’s what happened on the third day.
On the fourth day my mom found me.
Every few hours or so we would hear a crashing sound, like something banging against the barricade. We would all go silent, a silence so loud I felt like my brain would pop from the pressure. And then the banging would get slower…slower…and stop. Then, like a pin dropping, we all as one would breathe in and begin again, trying to forget it ever happened. But this time it was different.
This time, there was screaming.
“Daisy? Daisy! Daisy, where are you!?”
I knew the voice, how could I not? It was the first voice I’d ever heard, the one that sang me lullabies at night and happy songs throughout the day. It was the voice I grew up with, screaming for me. So I went to her.
The doors and windows were all sealed shut, so the only place that we could communicate to the outside was the roof. The adults wouldn’t let me go up alone, so Miss Sally came with me. I remember her hand was trembling as she held mine. We made it to the edge of the roof before I realized what was wrong.
She may have looked like my mom, but it wasn’t her anymore.
“Daisy? Daisy…that’s you right? Daisy, Daisy…”
Her face is wrong. She doesn’t have the right face. I remember thinking, not being able to understand the emptiness in her eyes, the hollows and creases that weren’t natural on a human face. My fingers and toes felt like they were toasting over, the heat moving away my insides. I didn’t really know what numb meant, but that was the word that would’ve gone with the feeling.
“Momma, I’m up here.” I didn’t shout, which was strange. Most of my life was spent shouting and laughing. But even without shouting, my voice carried to her.
“Daisy…” she shuffled in front of the store. “Daisy…”
I don’t know what made me say this, but something told me I had to get this mom-but-not-mom away from here. And all it took was three words.
“Momma, go home.”
Again, no shouting, no feeling, no nothing. I wanted to say something else, I wanted to beg her to take me home, to tell me where dad was, to run up the wall and take me away. But that thing, that mom-but-not-mom, I think it broke me. At the age of seven, watching my mom shuffle away from me, I felt a thousand years old and a million years numb.
We stayed there for who knows how long. Minutes? Hours? Days? I didn’t care. Then Miss Sally tugged on my hand, reminding me she was there. She was crying, and I didn’t get why. Is wasn’t her mom, so why was she crying? I patted her hand, she looked at me, and I swear in that moment I was older than her.
After the mom-but-not-mom left the others started handling me like I was made of eggshells. Whenever they talked about her they would say she was “checking for the rest of the family” or “finding others”, but I knew the truth. They didn’t understand how I was so calm, but I grew up in this. I spent most of my life watching friends and family rot away and die. But they saw I wasn’t acting sad and I think it scared them. The only person who knew the truth was Miss Sally. She was the only one who seemed to understand what I was thinking, and I was grateful for that.
I think they also focused on me because I was the only kid in the group, other than Baby Jesse. Unfortunately, even in the middle of an apocalypse, adults are still obsessed with school. When I wasn’t taking care of Baby Jessie or cooking or doing chores, I was in “class”. Miss Sandy was an English teacher, Mr. Frayne knew all about World War 1 and 2, Andy was really good at math and science; everyone had something to teach me. I remember thinking, next time the world ends, I’m going to Walmart.
The only good class I had was with Sweets. He knew all sorts of stuff about the world; he’d been to New York, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, and so many other places I couldn’t remember them all. He said he traveled the world as a “companion” for a bunch of wealthy businessmen. I didn’t really understand what a “companion” was, but he would never tell me what that meant, always just saying “You’ll know when you’re older child”.
But it wasn’t all that bad. In a way we became a family, a wolf pack that protected its own. And that’s how we stayed for ten years.
“What’s the first thing you’re gonna do when we get out?”
Sweets looked up into the sky, “Child, I know just what im gonna do. Im gonna run out this goddamn hellhole and just sit a spell in the grass, feel some dirt between my toes, and relax. I already got a spot picked out.”
“That sounds nice.”
We were laying on the gravel top of the roof, waiting for our latest shipment of supplies from the Survival Services. After the initial wave of craziness what was left of the government set up emergency procedures; the CDC started quarantining farms and reserves that hadn’t been contaminated and barricading them from the rest of the world. They set up lines of communication over radio and internet, thankfully the essential services stations weren’t a high target for the undead, so most of the country kept their plumbing and electricity. Ray set up communication with the systems so that, when we finally ran out of food, the new Survival Services could airlift in supplies when we needed them. We ended up being one of the largest group of survivors in the tristate area. Yay us.
But the Survival Services ended up being even more of a blessing than we thought. It turns out that, just like subjecting children to homework, some things just never change. The aid group was just established in time to help the first delivery of our store. Baby Anna was born just two years into quarantine. Then came Baby Charlotte, Baby Joey, Baby Caleb, Baby Aaron, and finally born just three months ago was Baby Hope. Most of the babies were born in the last year, just after the government announcement.
Fourteen months, two weeks and six days ago, we got a message that changed everything. We all knew that the infection had a shelf life, but now we knew that the undead did too. The scientists figured out that they can only survive for about five years. And since, as far as they know, no one has been bitten in that time, quarantines should end within just a few years.
Then, a few years turned into two years, then one and a half. Now we only have a few days to go. Two days and ten hours and thirteen minutes to be exact.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m gonna do.” I took a bite of snickers, I had saved a secret stash of them early on, and I was just now eating the second to last bar. “I’ve never seen the ocean, maybe I’ll go there?”
“Naw girl, the ocean’s overrated, it’s just a bunch of sand and stinky ass fish. You don’t wanna go there.”
“Maybe I’ll work on a farm, try to build something.”
Sweets was about to say something when we both heard a distant flapping noise. The helicopter was here.
After so many times doing this, Sweets and I had developed a system. The helicopter never landed, the package was always tied underneath it. I would direct the pilot to set it down, then sweets would run up and cut the rope. Each package contained enough beans, flour, rice, sugar, and produce to last us a month, along with any supplies we were out of, such as painkillers, bandages, matches, batteries, only essentials. Within ten minutes we had the package detached, sorted, and delivered into the store. Baby Jesse, not so much a baby anymore though I still called him that, was waiting when we brought it down.
“Sorry bud, no candy today.” I teased.
“When I get out of here, I’m gonna eat a whole tree of apples!” Jesse was obsessed with green apples, they were his favorite food.
“Come on, help us bring this out.” I threw him the bag of flour.
Something strange happens when you’re trapped in one place and told to wait. Before, we didn’t believe we would ever get out, and that was that. Time passed, and we didn’t pay attention to it. But when we got the news that we would be let out, time seemed to change. The weeks had a way of flying by faster than possible, but every single day felt like a week. You could practically feel the cloud of anticipation fogging up the air, and some people could hardly take it.
And unfortunately, one person couldn’t make it.
“Six more minutes.”
Just a few hours ago we had all been eagerly looking forward to it, towards our freedom. But now it was tainted. Ray’s blood was still covering the stairs, his body laid out in the former break room. No one felt like celebrating, not after that.
It was simple, just a change in guard shift. All he was doing was climbing the ladder, and all it took was a single wet rung. I was the first one to find him, the first to see what was left. His head had crashed into a metal bar, and then another, and there were bits of him everywhere. The guards were stuck on the roof for half an hour before it was safe enough for them to come down. It was funny in a morbid, horrible sort of way; the guy who kept us alive to see a free tomorrow couldn’t last for one more day. Now we were all huddled next to the entrance, waiting and remembering.
No one said anything. No one moved, we all looked in different directions. It was a quiet kind of mourning, a shared feeling.
I stood up, and the others followed suit. We turned, as one, to the barricade, and began to dismantle the wall.
We stepped through the doors, fanning out in front of the entrance without realizing who we were standing next to, and took a deep breath. The air was clean an cool, the sun unusually hot, and we stood frozen in front of the world, afraid it might not be true.
And then we breathed in, the moment broke, and the groups came together again. But it had given me a flash of discovery.
“I know what I need to do.”
I had to go see my mother.
I found her in the kitchen. She was propped up in a chair, sitting at the table, a small revolver in her hand. She must have had one last moment of consciousness, enough to realize what she was becoming. I sat down next to her, careful not to let our skin touch.
“I’m home momma.”
I sat there for a moment, re-memorizing the room, everything from the sunshine yellow walls, the rough off-white wood of the cabinets, to the old bear shaped cookie jar sitting next to the sink. But I didn’t stay long; I had something I needed to do.
I got up and headed to the hall closet, running my hands across the picture frames on the walls. I collected my supplies and went back to her. Gingerly, careful not to touch her directly, I wrapped her body in a white cotton bed sheet. It was easier than I thought it would be to carry her, she turned out to be skin and bones and light as a feather. Bundle in my arms, I carried her outside.
They were waiting for me, one leg of the job already done. Standing in a semicircle around a long deep hole, dirt smudged across their faces, they waited.
I walked to the edge, but I was uncertain of how to do the next part. Then Sweets, as if sensing my confusion, stepped up and jumped into the hole, holding his arms out to me. I let him take her, and watched as he placed her carefully on the ground. Then he jumped back out and took up a shovel, the others following him.
“Wait.” I remembered something.
They paused, and I started back into the house. Past the kitchen, down the hall, last door on the right. Tiny furniture stared back at me, remnants of a life long gone. But there, on the child size bed already too small for a seven year old, was the prize. To anyone else, it would have just been a faded, fraying crocheted blanket, but only I knew it’s true story. She had started making it just before I was supposed to come, finishing it just in time for me to be born. At first, it was just big enough to swaddle a baby, but as I grew so did the blanket, until it became a hodge-podge of colors and yarn.
I picked it up as carefully as I had with my mother, afraid it might break apart just by my touching it. Then I took it, past the little furniture, past the pictures hanging on the wall, past the sunshine yellow room, and out onto the lawn. I stepped down slowly into the hole, at lowered the piece over her, tucking it to her as if she might be chilly.
There was no need for saying goodbye, it had already been done ten years ago, but I said it anyway. Then, climbing out, I grabbed a shovel. In ten more minutes it was done, and a makeshift cross was dug into the grass behind where her head was. As a final touch, I reached into my pocket, and laid my last snickers bar under the cross. And then it was done.
As one, we turned away and started walking, Miss Sally and Baby Jesse leading the way. I had no idea where we were going, but at that point I didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, I was finally free of everything.
“You know you’ll never be good enough for him.”
Not the best thing to hear immediately after getting felt up in the bathroom.
The tacky faux-wood clock that Magda insisted was a priceless heirloom clicked mechanically between us. The plastic cherub pendulum swung across the faded, disturbingly sperm shaped, yellow paisley wallpaper. A pregnant silence, save the clock, laid heavy. I could feel my hair standing up, brushing against the manufactured hallmark style photographs on the wall; lips, pink and swollen, hanging loose.
Apparently, Magda required no reply. She shuffled closer, weight dragging her feet as the stained blue muumuu strained to hold in her beer gut, and pointed with a wrinkled sausage finger. “You may have a ring for now, but it won’t last. My boy knows mama comes first.” She gave a satisfied, pursed lip smirk; features sucked in towards her nose like a psychotic dumpling. Content with her threat, she toddled away, slippers scrubbing over the musty shag carpet, a greasy ball of hair bouncing on her neck.
Brian emerged from the bathroom behind me as I seethed.