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Reality Checked

by Amy S. Tripp

Once upon a time, I believed in ghosts. I’d watch those reality shows, you know the ones: people, armed with flashlights and gadgets, prowling through old buildings. I loved those shows because I believed. I don’t anymore. How can I, when pretty much everyone’s dead? I mean, if there really were ghosts, the world would be full of them, right? There’d be crowds of dearly-departed or, at the very least, my dad. He wouldn’t go to some hereafter without saying goodbye.

So there’re no ghosts. Unless you count me, because most days I feel about as alive as one.

Mom comes out of the bedroom just as I’m throwing a log on the fire. It’s cold enough that the wood stove needs feeding day and night. So, I’m tossing another log in and wondering if I can make one last scavenging trip before we’re snowbound, when Mom bursts in. “They’re coming,” she says. Her eyes are bloodshot, her hands are shaking. I doubt she slept last night, maybe not even the night before.

I say, “I know.” When she started in like this a few days ago, at first I said, “Finally!” What a mistake. She rocked and cried for hours. Apparently they aren’t the good guys. Go figure.

The second time, I was smart enough to act worried.

This episode will pass. They always do. In a week, or a month, it’ll go away to be replaced by some new obsession. I’m still trying to decide if They’re coming is better or worse than We’ll be at Grandma’s soon. Hell, we’ll never be at Grandma’s again. There’s no Grandma left.

“They’re coming. I can hear their boots. Hide!”

“Okay. You hide first. I’ll be right behind you.”

She nods and scurries away.

* * *

I think it’s safe to make that final trip to the store. There are only a couple of inches of snow on the road, and the Subaru is all-wheel-drive, whatever that means. If the world was still living, I wouldn’t be old enough for my license, but as it is now, I’m Queen of the Road, swerving around discarded vehicles and animal skeletons.

I’m worried. Do we have enough food stockpiled in the basement? Our hoard is mostly fruits and vegetables, pastas and stale cereals, but at least a couple of meats come in cans: tuna, ham. Wouldn’t it be great if there was canned bread? I can’t even bake biscuits in the wood stove anymore. The flour’s full of bugs. Doesn’t it figure that bugs would live when nearly everything else died? At least they can’t get into the cans, but I have to watch out for the boxed foods. I armor them in plastic zipper bags.

And it’s not like I can grow anything fresh. It doesn’t work. I tried.

Okay, so we probably have enough food for winter, but you can understand my worry, right? The only thing standing between starvation and me is me. I’ve counted the food and figured how much we eat each day, and really, we should be good.

But Mom could go on a binge and eat everything in sight. I mean, it hasn’t happened before, but there’s always a first time. She might get stuck in a Thanksgiving Day! loop. Maybe I should hide the can opener. Or the food. That’s what I did with Dad’s hunting rifles. I keep them loaded, just in case, but they’re hidden from Mom. I can’t trust her.

I used to carry a gun everywhere, but after a while it seemed pointless. From what I can tell, we’re the only people left in the world. And since there aren’t any animals worth hunting, I don’t have to be dragged down by weapons.

So I go back to the local store — it’s really nothing more than a gas station with a few shelves of groceries — to see if I’d missed anything. I hadn’t. It was stupid to think I had. Maybe it was just an excuse to get away before I’m trapped for months.

Next spring I’ll make a trip to the city. It’s an hour away. My stomach tightens when I think about it, but we need a better food supply. How long does canned food stay good, anyway? Eventually I’ll find out. The hard way.

The last time we went to the city, Mom still had her head on straight. She swung through car-choked streets, held my hand through body-littered stores. On that trip, I realized an empty city scares me more than an empty forest. It’s hollow. It echoes. It’s dead. And I’ll have to face it alone.

Anyway, we stuffed the hatchback not just with food but with batteries and medicine, books and games. Mom even taught me how to siphon gas. It was proof that we could survive on our own. And we could, we did, until Mom went crazy.

I went to a pharmacy when Mom started getting weird. I spent hours reading books about what medicine treats what illness. I searched for the right pills, but it didn’t matter. Seems there’s no prescription for her kind of nuts.

With no supplies left in our small-town store, I drive to a road I haven’t been on since the dying started. The dying. Ugh. People keeled over without warning. Animals, too. At first, officials called it a virus, and then a biological attack. Then there was no one left to make guesses.

I stop in front of a cluster of houses. Damn it! I hate this. I apologize to the corpses as I bolt by. They’re not much more than skeletons now. Skeletons with hair. At least they’ve stopped stinking.

It’s all worth it when I find a treasure. Among the fruits and vegetables there are home-canned jars of venison and beef. Score!

When I’m home and the provisions are unloaded, Mom pulls on my sleeve. “They’re coming! Hide! Now!”

I don’t have time for this. I need to stack the cans: fruits with fruits, vegetables with vegetables. Venison and beef in their own place of honor. I have my priorities. “You hide first. I’ll lock the doors and be right behind you.”

Later I’ll find her asleep under the bed or curled in a closet. Sometimes it feels like she hides for days. Of course, most times days feel like weeks. But, really, it’s kind of nice when she’s hiding. I have a little peace. An odd thought for a girl who’s nearly alone in the world, right?

* * *

I haul some water from the creek. We already have enough for a couple days, but I need to be outside, feeling the snowflakes melt on my cheeks. The snow spirals to the ground, getting heavier each minute. By morning the road will be plugged. I’ll be trapped. Alone. With the crazy woman.

It was last winter when Mom started going nuts, spring when I became just that girl she spouts off to, late summer when she was completely gone. She doesn’t live in the same world I do.

Or maybe it’s me who’s living in the wrong place. A ghost who’s not smart enough to move on.

I startle at the sound of the door opening and closing. Mom hasn’t stepped foot outside in two months... maybe three. I almost drop the bucket.

“Come in. We have to hide.” She glances at her bare wrist, as if it’ll reveal the exact time of impending doom. “They’re coming. Don’t you hear the footsteps?”

“You go, Ma. I’ll wipe away my footprints and be right in.” It’s strange to see her outside. Her skin looks whiter than the snow.

She shakes her head. “No. You hide first. I have to make sure you’re safe, Alyssa. We’ll climb into the root cellar. They’ll have a hell of a time finding the trapdoor. They’re not very bright.”

It’s the first time she’s said my name in months. And the trapdoor? She remembers the root cellar? Really? I’ll have to find a new hiding place for the guns.

When I don’t answer, she leaps down the steps. “I’m sure they’re almost here!” Barefoot in the snow, she lifts her robe until it skims her knees, and hops across the white yard toward the road.

I follow. I can’t let her get lost. Even a crazy mother is better than none at all. I’m almost to her when I hear it: the tramp of boot-clad feet. At first I think she must be making the noise, somehow bringing her fantasies to life, but that can’t be. Can it? Of course not.

Then I realize I’m actually hearing the sure-footed steps of several people. The welcome murmur of voices.

I’ve waited so long — two years and then some — to catch sight of another human. My heart soars, then plummets. How do I know who they are, that they’re safe? Are they good or bad, angels or devils?

I tug on Mom’s sleeve. “I hear them. Come on, we have to hide.” They’ll know someone’s here, that can’t be helped. Our footprints will give us away, the smoke unfurling from the chimney. I’ll grab a gun and hide until I can see them, until I can judge whether they’re a flock of saints or a herd of sinners.

“No. You hide. I’ll be right along.” She’s throwing my usual words back at me, but with more urgency, more fear. She turns to me, eyes no longer vacant, mouth set in a grim line. “Go, Alyssa!”

I pull her arm again. How can someone so small feel so heavy? I let go and almost trot to the house, but I can’t leave her.

I wait a beat too long. A passel of men turn the corner. They’re dirty, blood-smeared, and look as wild as the few animals that survived the sickness. When they shout and rush toward us, I know how we must look: like prey, like easy pickings.

And here I am without a gun.

It’s Mom who grabs this time. She pulls at my fingers, but I can tell by her eyes that she’s lost again. “Run! I hear them coming,” she says, and she does. She drops my hand and darts away.

“You go, Mama,” I call after her, as if she’s waiting for permission. “I’ll take care of a few things and be right behind you.” I watch as she careens past the house and dashes into the woods, so fast she’s flying.

I don’t turn to look at the men. I don’t want to see them again. Once was enough. Instead, I close my eyes and listen to their steps.

I wonder whose death will be easier. I pray it’s Mom’s. I tense, waiting for the first contact. Before it comes, rancid breath, like the rotting flesh of our neighbors, slithers over my shoulder.

At the last moment, I decide I won’t huddle like a coward waiting for my end. I open my eyes and turn to meet death.

I find nothing but drifting snow and an empty street. There’s no one. No one at all. I look up and down the road, but the world is as empty as it’s been for months.

I’ll admit that for a moment, I’m lost. Perplexed. Maybe I should go back to believing in ghosts. But then I hear it again, in the distance, boots hitting snowy asphalt.

There’s only one thing to do. I scamper toward the woods, ruining the carpet of pristine snow. “They’re coming, Mama! I can hear them. It’s time to hide!”

Copyright © 2012 by Amy S. Tripp

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