After Z-Day hit things changed. The Hunger. Life got harder, but it became more precious. Things that used to matter like wealth, status, and race ceased to be of importance. Money didn’t buy your more time on this here green earth. Status didn’t stop scavengers from poaching your food. Ad Zombies didn’t care what color you were as long as you were more alive then they were. They would eat you as soon as look at you. These days if a White guy, a Black girl, and Hispanic guy walked into a bar with a gun. It was no longer the start of a joke. It was the beginning of a story.
My arm lifts to wipe the sweat of the back of my forehead. Being stuck in the Chihuahuan Desert in the summer out side of El Paso was not the place to be. I look to the corner of the dingy shack I found myself in to look over at Jake slumped down into the corner. His once golden brown hair half matted to his head from blood. I just wanted him to open his eyes, so I could see those baby blues. If I could look into his eyes I knew he would be okay. I frown, and my grip nervously tightens on the shotgun I’m holding on it. It had belonged to Jake’s father. He told me to hold onto it. It had never failed to protect the one’s he loved. I turn to look out of a chunk of the wall I had torn out to see where the zombies. I could hear them moaning. That ever-lasting hunger making their cries just pitiful moans that only spoke of their need to be sated.
There were three of us: Jake Thompson, Roger Lopez, and I, Evelyn Brown. Well Evelyn Thompson now. Jake and I got married, and Roger had been not only our witness but also our best man. We had been living in California when Z-Day hit. The boys had been working on an oilrig, and I had come along as not to break up the trio. When that day came we were holed up in our apartment trying to figure what to do when Jake said it was time to go home. Roger and I didn’t have any arguments, so we packed up our traps, and shot our way out of Cali. Everything was fine until Roger said he was hungry. Personally the thought of food had made me queasy so I begged off going telling Jake I had caught a stomach bug. I can still remember the look Jake gave me as he got out of the car. The extra warm hug he wrapped me before he turned to follow Roger into what looked like a deserted gas station.
I look over at Jake again, and my lower lip pulls between my teeth. I was trying to keep from being scared. Jake was pretty messed up. A chunk of his arm was missing, and he had deep scratches all over his shoulders. The zombies had gotten the drop on them while they were coming out. I shot off as many as I could, but it hadn’t been enough to save Roger. One zombie had gotten a piece of Jake while he was trying to pull Roger out. I feel my eyes well up thinking of how hurt Jake was going to be when he found out Roger was gone. They had been inseparable since they were small.
Jake coughs and I turn sharply to see what’s going on. His uninjured arm lifts to pull his hair out of his eyes. He looks up at me, and I’m not as relieved as I thought I would be. I look into his eyes, and I see a look of hopelessness that steals my breath away. I rise from my chair and move over to look at him. My jeans had become a lot less forgiving these last couple of days, but I put it down to the nervous eating I had been doing this last week. I had been hungry at really odd times, but stress was a killer after all. I sink to the balls of my feet slowly, and my hand moves to cup his chin. I used to marvel at the contrast our skin made against each other, but now it had taken a back seat to the bruises and scratches that lacerated his skin.
“Hey darlin’” I smile as best I can try to be brave for his sake. It seems to work some, but the slight wince he gives at my touch has me dropping my hand away quickly.
“Hey yourself.” His hand lifts to run his fingers gently across my lips. As always I kiss the calloused pads, and turn my chin to place a kiss against his palm that he brought to his heart. It was a ritual we completed every night before bed. “What time is it?” Jake’s question left me a little confused, but I looked at my watch all the same.
“Just after 10:00 in the morning. You slept most of the night through” Normally I would laugh and ask him if he had a hot date and he would respond with “yeah, you” but for some reason it doesn’t feel right to do that now.
“Roger?” Jake asks the question, but I can see that he has already geared himself up for the answer. I look away, and Jake curses, and begins to prop himself up using his good limb. “So, It’s been 10 hours since I’ve been bitten?”
I don’t want to think about it, and I force myself to find the reassurances he needs because I need them. “Jake, don’t be silly. If you were going to turn…”
He lifts his lips to mine to cut of any more arguments I would have made contrary to the facts of the situation. In the country facts were facts, and that was all there was. “Of course I’m turning Lynn! I can feel it in my bones I’m thirsty, but there is no water that’ll quench it. I’m hungry Lynn. Lord, I’m so hungry.”
I stammer and begin looking about for something I could give him, anything that would make him happy for a just a little while. My stomach flip-flops, and I rest my hand on his shoulder to keep steady. Normally I’m very cool under stress, but lately it’s been a struggle. “Well, I’ll make a fire, and I’ll grab some of the stuff that we got last night…”
Another kiss cuts off my hysteria before it even begins. He had always been able to bring me back down. Just the way I had been able to bring him down when he needed. It was one of the reasons I loved him. We all had out part to play in our little group. Jake was the idea guy, Roger was the momentum, and I was always the one who kept things from getting out of hand. I squeeze his hand and bring it up to my lips with a shake of my head clearing the thoughts and negating truth at the same time. “Honey, no I’m sure if we…”
“Damn it Lynn! Stop! You’re going to have to face the fact that soon you’ll have to put me down!” Jake catches my hand before I can yank it away. His thumb strokes my fingers, and I take deep breaths trying to blink away any tears.
“I won’t do it.” It was final as far I was concerned. We would find a way to make him okay.
“Lynn…” Jake it seemed wanted to be reasonable. I however was not.
“I said, I won’t!” I turn away, because blinking the tears back was starting not to work.
Jake grabs my hands and cups them within his larger ones. Slowly pulling me into his lap. I rest my head against his chest, and I start to shake my head. He places his hand on the back of my head to forestall the movement. The denial wasn’t making any sense, but I didn’t care I wasn’t going to lose him. Not this way. “Lynn please. I don’t want to become one of them. I don’t want to turn into something that would hurt you.”
I snatch my hands from his, but I don’t get out of his lap. I want to feel his heart beat against my cheek for as long as I can. Soon his hands move to my back, and over my stomach. Gently rubbing back and forth an action that seems to calm and comfort me at the same time. He chuckles, and his hand lifts to my chin to pull it up so that brown eyes met the clear blue of his. “Lynn, remember when we first met?”
I laugh some. We were young. Roger and Jake had already known each other for a while. They had been picking on this old junkyard dog. “Yeah, Jake… I remember.”
“You were tussling with Roger and the other boys trying to save some scrawny stray dog.” He laughed again, and he pinched my arm just to make me jump the way he always did.
I smile at the memory, and poke him in the side playfully. “Ya’ll were being mean to that poor old animal for no reason someone had to rescue it.” I laugh at the scene that plays in my mind, and shake my head. I sit up in his lap and put my hands on my sides lowering my voice to mimic his. “You, pulled me off of Roger, and told me, ‘This is no place for girls! You take your mutt and your afro puffs and g’on home!”
Jake laughed and pulled me down into his arms to place a kiss on top of my head. “Then you slugged me. Lordy, you were hateful back then!”
I curl into his arms. This time it’s my turn to kiss him and pull him closer. My smile was genuine as I rested against his chest. We had been inseparable from then on. “Maybe so, but the tanning I got when I made it home was one for the records books. I couldn’t sit down for a week my father was so mad!”
Jake laughed and lazily kept his arms around me. “You deserved it.” He was quite for a moment, and another kiss was places on the top of my head between his words. “You’ve always been brave. It was what I loved most about you.” Each kiss was a little longer. “It seems like so long ago.”
“I remember like it was yesterday. Jake…” I begin only to get cut off once more by a quick kiss. I continued anyway. “I’m sorry about Roger darlin. I know you loved him like a brother, and he loved you too.”
“Yeah. Me too, but you know Rog. He was always a daredevil. He went out the way he would have wanted to.” I can feel Jake turn his head, and his arms tighten around me, the sting of his tears hitting my cheek.
I hold him as close as I can. I can feel the lump in my throat and my voice breaks “Jake…”
“Shhh Lynn. Unless you’re going to tell me how much you love me, and regret that you didn’t let me do that thing that one time. Just hush!” I can feel him smile, but as always I take the bait he’s teasing me with.
I scoff and thump him soundly in the chest with my fingers. Only semi satisfied with the soft grunt he gave in response. “I do love you Jake. However I’m not sorry. I can’t even believe that you suggested it!” I lay back down finished with my reprimand and take a deep breath. “I’m glad we got married before we left Cali. Jake.”
“Well someone had to make an honest woman of ya, and I think our fathers would have wanted it this way.” By this time his fingers had lifted up to play with the short curls that hung above my ears. I knew he missed the longer locks, but the shorter hair had been more practical with what we were facing.
He holds me really tightly for a few minutes. I can barely breath, but I don’t care. I just want to stay there and never move. The tip of his nose trails down my ear, and soon his lips brush against my jaw line. A hum appreciatively and turn slightly giving him better access to my neck. I was missed his touch, and I was so hungry for more of it. I close my eyes and just as I am about to give in completely he jerks back and sharply shoves me across the room. I land on my hands and knees and turn to give him the tongue lashing of his life, but my words die away as soon as I see him. His breathing was ragged and heavy, and his eyes were watery and ringed with red. His skin had become even paler beneath the bruises on his cheek.
“Lynn, now you stay over there, ya hear?” He coughs, and uses his free arm to adjust himself against the wall. I take a few steps forward, and he lifts his hand to stop me angrily. “No Lynn. Shut up and listen. I don’t have much time. Take my grandfather’s gun. You know it’ll keep ya’ll safe. Time is running out. The Lord knows it, I know it, and you know it. You got to make it to the van. I wont be of any help. My arm and legs are busted. But you have to get out of here.”
“Lynn, for the love of Pete! Do as I tell ya! I know how much you love to argue. It one of the other things I love about ya, but now is not the time. You get those keys. You grab that guns, and get out of here now!” He waved his hand towards the door, but even he noticed the sound of the groans getting louder. Like buzzards circling road kill.
I look out of the window, and see the small congregation of zombies colleting out side. “Jake I’m listening, but there are too many of them near the van now. There isn’t anywhere I can go”
He runs his fingers through his hair once more. A habit he got from his father when he was nervous. “Damn it! Honey you’re going to have to try. Promise me darlin! I need you to be strong for what’s about to come. Tell me you’ll try to escape! I don’t want my last memory of you to be trapped like a rat in here with me.”
“I’ll… try Jake. I promise you” I move to the door and look back at him. Even I can no longer deny that he’s slipping away.
“Good girl, now tell me you love me” Jake lays his head back against the wall. That smile that I love resting on his lips.
“I love you Jake, Lord above I do.” My breath catches, and I take deeper ones trying to stop the tears from flowing.
He licks his lips and grimaces a little, but keeps smiling. “I love you too honey. Remember that for me. Okay love? I’ve loved you since the day we met, and I don’t ever plan on stopping. Not in this life or the next.” He takes a deep breath, and relaxes back against the wall. “I’m so tired baby. You got the gun?”
“Yeah baby, but…” I didn’t want to do what he was going to ask of me. I would hate myself forever. What would his mother Ms. Lily say?
“Then use of one of the bullets to send me home” I looked down into his eyes at the request, and his smile never faltered.
“Jake!” My voice had gone so soft with the despair I felt I wasn’t even sure he could hear me.
“Lynn if you love me like you say you do. You won’t leave me to become a zombie… please darlin.” Jake smiles because he knows in the end I would never refuse him anything.
I raise the gun and aim it at his head the way he taught me. I sniff a few times, and my finger moves on the trigger. I blink away the tears clouding my vision. Jake nods, and closes his eyes. “I love you.”
“I love you both” As soon as the words leave his lips the shot rings out, and I erase the smile I love from his face for good. I turn and look outside of the hole in the wall. I didn’t want to see what I knew to be there. I didn’t want to see what I had done.
The zombies follow the noise to the other side of the shack, and I take that as my chance to get out. I sprint to the van shooting and dodging zombie on the way. I promised Jake I would try, and I would never break a promise to him. I crawl into the car narrowly escaping getting scratched, and slam the door on someone who used to be someone’s mother. I fumble with the keys for a few minutes before the engine roars to life, and peel out of the broken drive way. My hands are shaking as I move onto the main street. There are zombies shuffling about, but no other cars. Most of those still living probably escaped over the border, or to other parts of Texas where the plague hadn’t hit so hard. Eventually I get to open high way and pull over. It was dark by that time, and it wouldn’t be safe for me to drive over the desert at night. I make sure all the doors are locked, and I lean my seat back. Praying for night and sleep to take me away quickly.
The next morning I start to drive again. I really don’t know where I’m going, but I know that I’m somewhere in Texas still. Soon desert becomes grass, grass becomes bushes, and bushes give way to trees. I see a sign that says Ft. Worth Texas, and I know that I’m almost home. Two are three hours, and I would be on my street. Everything about me is numb. I need to stay that way. If I don’t then I’ll start to think about Roger and Jake. I’m going to have to think about what I’m going to tell their mothers when I see them. How I’m going to have to explain that I’m the only one that made it out alive, and how sorry I am.
My stomach flip-flops and I almost swerve and flip the car over in my effort to get to the side. I vomit until there’s nothing left in my stomach but bile. I fall to my knees and I start to cry. I cry until my sobs are nothing but dry gasps of air, and my eyes sting with the effort to keep them open. I just sit there on my knees praying, and crying for God to give me the strength to make it home. After a time I stand up, wipe my lips off with the back of my hand and get back into the van. I had to make it home before sundown.
I misjudged the time, and it only takes me two hours to get back home. The sun was setting, but I made it before light was gone. I pull onto my street, and I try not to look around. Every corner, ever tree, and every building had a memory of either Jake or Roger. I pull up to my mother’s house, and park the car. I’m not really sure what to expect. There wasn’t any phone lines up, so I didn’t exactly get the chance to call. I step out of the van, and shut the door. Taking a deep breath I head to the house.
Before I can get there my mother’s door opens, and Ms. Lily jumps out. She runs to me and wraps her arms around my shoulders. I tremble, and turn away. Heaven’s she looks so much like Jake it hurts. She pulls back, and looks at the van then looks at me. I can’t look in her eyes. I know that she knows. She starts to cry, and all I can do is wrap my arms around her. What do I say to a woman who just lost her son? My mother comes out, and she pulls us both into her arms. I sag against her, and I almost lose it again. I’m so relieved to see Mama. Roger’s dad, Mr. Lopez, comes out of the house, and notices that I’m the only one there. He brings his hands up to his eyes, and goes back into the house. He needs a minutes, and I can’t blame him.
Dinner that night is very stilted. Jake’s father and my dad didn’t make it past the first week of Z-day. They had fought bravely trying to help others, and fell to the disease themselves. At least that’s what the media was calling the problem. A disease. I told them what had happened. Or at least the weeks worth of events that happened until the night before. My mama dabbed her eyes with her apron, and Ms. Lily couldn’t stop hugging me. Mr. Lopez turned on the radio. There were a few channels that still had reception. They of course were all news channels. But much like before Z-Day no news was good news. They didn’t know what caused the problem, they had no leads as where to start looking, and there was no news of a cure.
I push my food around and excuse myself from the table. All of that we went through in El Paso, and for what? No answers? In truth I wouldn’t have been accepting of any answers at that time, but I didn’t care I wasn’t in the mood to be reasonable. I barely made it to the bathroom before I lost what little of dinner I had eaten. I flushed the toilet and turned to sit down on the seat. Hoping that this bug would go away soon. I hear a knock on the door and frown slightly.
My mom walks in, and warm chocolate fingers stroke through my hair and pull me into a hug. I lay my head on her stomach, and take a deep breath. “It’s okay child.”
“Mama, no it’s not. He’s… He’s gone! I know you and dad only thought it was puppy love. But I loved Jake with my whole soul, and now he’s gone!” I wrap my arms around her waist, and she pulls me in close rubbing her hands up and down my back.
“I know how you feel baby. It took some doing for Lily, Jorge, and I reconcile that our loved one’s were gone, but we just had to remind ourselves of what we had to be thankful about.” She drops, so that she can look into my eyes, and I can barely see her for a minute through the tears.
I rack my brains for a few moments, and silently apologize to God that I’m unable to come up with anything at that moment. My words are barely above a whisper. “What did you find?”
“I knew that the good Lord would bring you back to me. Lily still has Jake’s little sister to watch over, and Roger has his wife to take care of. We all have someone that we love to keep us here. Just the way you do.” Mama hugs me, and slowly begins to rock me back and forth.
“I know I have you Mama, and I’m sorry. I just feel so alone.” I snuggle into her arms to take the sting out of whatever I might have said that would hurt her. I knew that everyone was having a tough time. Everyone was feeling the lost of Jake and Roger just like I was.
Mama picks up my chin with her fingers and looks me in the eye. “No, baby. Not just me. You have a child to look after.”
I can only stare at her. “No, I don’t mama. I’m just sick. I think it was something I ate on the way here.” I start to stammer, and mentally start trying to count up some days to see if anything was missing.
“Afraid so darlin.” Ms. Lily comes up behind her with a watery smile. “We knew as soon as we saw you.”“Did Jake know?” Ms. Lily leans against the door watching me as I numbly sit there trying to rack my brain.
“No he didn’t… I wait… No, I think he did. It was something he said before… before.” I choke on the words, and Mama pulls me into another hug.
She softly hushes me continues rocking me back and forth “It’s okay darlin. What did he say Baby?”
“He said ‘I love you both’ That’s what he said when… when it happened.” I look to Ms. Lily. I hated having to bring the subject back to that day, but I didn’t seem to be able to stop myself. I wanted so bad to stop hurting everyone.
“Your Mama is right. It’s okay. You’re safe now.” Ms. Lily comes into the bathroom and wraps her arms around me giving me a tight hug. “We will get though this. All of us, together.
I pull back looking at them. I just don’t understand. “How did ya’ll know?”
Mama laughed and rubs her fingers though my hair. “You always had it in the back honey, but you never had much on the top.”
I stare at her for a moment, and Ms. Lily puts her hands over her lips trying not to laugh at the expression on my face. You had to love country honesty. Facts were facts, and they weren’t anything but.
Mama brushes of her hands, and turns to leave. Ms. Lily following suit. “We’ll leave you be now child. Tomorrow you will start eating. I know you don’t have much of an appetite, but that child of yours is going to be hungry. If the child is anything like his father he or she will be eating us out of house and home soon enough!”
“Ain’t that the truth! Heaven knows that boy could eat! I could never figure out where he put it all, or how he stayed so thin!” Ms. Lilly and my mom head down the hall remembering Jake as they had when he left. I envied them those memories.
I stand up and move to the mirror to look at myself. Now that I had taken time to look I could see what they were talking about. My stomach had gotten fuller, and my breasts were heavier.
A few more tears slip down my face and I let them fall one by one. They would be the last ones I ever cried. I just stand there going over the last few days. Remember Rogers laugh, how happy we had been, and Jakes smile. I remember the songs we used to sing on road trips, or the games we used to play. All of that was gone. I let myself cry not because I didn’t know what would come tomorrow, but because tomorrow and ever tomorrow after I would have spent without them in it.
I took a deep breath turned on the faucet. Splashing some cold water on my face to clear away the trails of tears. Jake was right I had to be strong. I turned, and went down stairs, and as I got to the bottom of the steps I realized for the first time since El Paso I was actually hungry.