July 19, 2024
Warblers tweeted enchanting melodies and fresh pine-scented air wafted through the open window on the front yard The American Sycamore obscured most of the view of the road, a blinding handicap to our security. A pale blue sky peeked through the swaying leaves, flirting with a gentle breeze.
I turned and looked at Faith lying in a tangle of sheets, her breathing soft and tranquil. A flitter outside drew my attention where a branch sprang up and down and an avian silhouette fluttered up and away.
Pleasant sunbeams splashed golden bars on the duvet through a side window. Silently apologizing to Allie at my failure to protect her and Heather, I added intimate engagements with Faith to the list, but felt confident Allie would forgive me and want me to be happy. Doesn’t everyone presume their deceased spouses want them to be happy? I didn’t even know if Allie was dead. Regardless, there wasn’t a powerful enough clichéd rationalization to ease my harsh self-deprecation.
I wiped my moist eyes, certain that even if Allie had forgiven me before escaping this cruel world, I doubted I would ever forgive myself. It didn’t matter as my guilt stemmed beyond our ‘til death do us part’ vow. My matrimonial devotion to Allie may not exist in God’s eyes after death, I’d forever bounded my heart to hers until my final breath.
That moment standing by the side window, gazing down at the Jeep’s roof, I accepted Allie’s and Heather’s probable fate.
But Faith escaping her captors provided some amount of hope for the girls, a testament to the possibility they were still alive. But if they were alive and unable to escape yet, the horrors wrought upon them were too agonizing to imagine. My deepest fantasies may be worse than what they experienced, but maybe they weren’t. Either way, my heart, and soul needed to unhinge the guilty tether lest it drives me insane. I could always believe they’d escaped and found safety elsewhere, perhaps even finding a community in which to live with others. That alleviated some regret, even if I never saw either of their faces again.
My throat closed, and I silently wept at the loss, feeling the process of grief draining into acceptance where a lighter heart beat on the other side. I would always miss them, but just the memory of them reminded me of my failure. I felt more determined not to let Chase, Faith, and Vicky down, rationalizing the slightest chance at redemption.
A hand fell on my shoulder blade. Soft lips kissed and traced the nape of my neck. I turned my head and stared into Faith’s desirous blue eyes, feeling her body heat pressed against my back. She guided me to the bed where we lay once more, savoring each other’s delicate touches and compassion—
—Resounding thunder. Dazzling whiteness. Hollow nothingness.
Crust soldered my eyes shut, but with a wince and a pinch, they opened with a minute tearing sound.
Overhead, soft limitless blue. Absolute silence.
Can I move?
Hesitant to try out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to, I took a couple of breaths, blinked. I tried to lift my arm and hold it in front of my face. I wiggled my fingers, and they obeyed.
I sighed, and that pain set in as if only acknowledgment of sensations alerted my brain to injury. Turning my creaking neck, my mind registered the pile of blackened wood and rubbish in its scope, but the screaming of taut muscles dulled their impact.
Orange and yellow tongues licked charred timbers.
Where’s the wall?
Sweet, melodious chirping resurfaced, inciting me to rise. One, two, three deep breaths and gathered the courage for the pain of rising to a sitting position. An obnoxious thudding beat at my temple like ritualistic timpani. Bile sloshed in my gut, and the acrid burn in my throat made me gag, suggesting that I had either already vomited or soon would.
The free-reigning breeze piqued my interest. Clumps of dry-brown grass and charred planks surrounded me, disrupting my preconceived expectations of waking up in our bedroom. I remembered looking out the window and Faith joining me and then . . . nothing.
Where were Faith and the kids?
My mouth was a crusty trap on a rusty hinge. My tongue slapped the insides of my cheeks. Copper. Blood. I spit out opaque ivory saliva from my sand trap; the twisting pink veins in that glob confirmed clotted blood. I looked myself over—black soot and tender red welt patches down my limbs.
I stood up in stages, examining the surrounding rubble. Clearly, there was an explosion, the house reduced from an intact edifice to scrap wood ruins.
Had someone blown up the house? Those men in the pickup we’d driven off the road and killed their friends? Had they tracked and found us? Had Faith’s abductors tracked her?
I didn’t think any of those possibilities caused the explosion. In this new world, I presumed people took what they could, lost what they couldn’t keep a tight grasp on, and moved forward with less attachment to anything except to their loved ones, weapons, drugs, or food. Captives were expendable.
My thoughts were groggy. A white sun blazed down, exacerbating my migraine with endless and unanswerable questions.
I walked among the rubble with jutting rocks, nails, and shredded boards gnawing into my callused bare feet without notice. My concern lay on finding my son and the girls. Blackened timbers and dusty wall plaster combined into a jumbled mess. Charred studs connected at a right angle, limply supported roof shingles that hung down like a darkened scalp. Faint yellow and tangerine flames licked unburnt timber; a dark odor of seared carpet shags hovered low. The gray hulk with an incongruent rubber mass around a dull metal and spoked item triggered my pattern recognition enough to identify a tire rim and complete the puzzle that I was staring at the remains of the Jeep at one end of the property.
Smoothness against the soles of my feet. Looking down, I noticed the kitchen linoleum tiles. A square here, a rectangle there. On my right were two easily familiar black appliances: the cooking range and the refrigerator.
Mounds of burnt wood boards with fraying ends piled up as a Homecoming Rally bonfire. Sensing the worn metal and peppered debris scorched by the conflagration withheld secrets.
Noticing a peachy pale lump huddled beneath some planks turned stomach into a fluttery mass of skittish butterflies. Each step now ached from irritated crimson blisters on the soles of my feet. Perhaps my newfound sensitivity to pain related to the knowledge of whose body I knew I’d find when I lifted the plank covering most of it.
Singed brown hair with bald spots and a crispy upper body. Tugging on the shoulder of the facedown corpse, Faith’s lips snarled up at me. A glass shard impaled her forehead above her wide and blue right eye, the sclera dark gray from soot. A maroon trickle crusted around the inserted blade. I closed her eyes with a flat hand and gripped the glass that slid out with some effort, issuing a liquid squelching pop that unnerved me.
I knelt and brushed her burnt hardened hair away from her face except for several strands I lay over the vertical slit where the shard had penetrated. When I lay her head down, her face transformed into Allie’s, my wife’s accusing and disappointed eyes boring into my soul.
I turned away to sift through the debris for Vicky’s and Chase’s bodies, trying to convince myself I hadn’t seen that optical illusion. My heart, and certainly my soul, knew otherwise.
Tapping a board barefoot to gauge its temperature before shifting my weight onto the planks to ensure they’d support me and prevent falling through and potentially suffering lacerations or nail impalements that could get infected, I waded with grim meticulousness.
My hand didn’t sizzle when I tossed tepid planks aside, embarking with indifference until I found something worth succumbing to emotions. One scan of the debris revealed a blackened doll. I frowned, straining to remember if I’d seen Vicky carrying any dolls. I stepped on creaking boards, the damaged wood cracking and snapping underfoot. A few splinters cut other superficial wounds in the soles of my bare feet, but I ignored the stinging pain with a grimace and continued my search.
Bending and lifting the doll, its weight proved heavier than the normal cheap rubber and plastic. Immediately I knew I’d found Vicky, but my heart didn’t break until I turned her over and glimpsed her slack, partially charred face and gently closed eyelids over tiny sockets, as if peacefully asleep.
Tears fractured my sight as I carried Vicky to Faith and manipulated the young mother’s arms to embrace her baby for all eternity. I leaned down to kiss both their brows.
A feverish fury drove me to attack piles of boards like a rabid beast. Sweaty and panting, my teeth gritted. Inside my chest, my heart threatened to seize, but I didn’t slow. In my mind, I envisioned Chase’s unmarred face. That was the only image I wanted to remember of my son but continued searching and in my maniacal fugue plaster dust puffed into my face, enraging me further. Cottony insulation itched my skin; my eyes watered from the soot floating on the backdrafts of the remaining pockets of lit combustibles. Under one charred plank, I found a curious burnt cardboard box. I picked it up and recognized a cigarette pack.
My mind flooded with recent memories: the pack on the mini-mart floor, the mysterious smell outside Jeep, and the wafting scent that followed Chase into the kitchen when Faith arrived. Also, Chase’s unusual garrulous discourse with Faith when I questioned that smell.
But when had he started smoking cigarettes? And how didn’t I know? Like all parents who find out about their kids indulging in pernicious activities, I blamed myself for not seeing the clear signs sooner that Helen Keller would’ve slapped me upside the head.
Then I questioned his motives for beginning such a deleterious habit, in which neither his mother nor I had ever indulged. Perhaps the fall of civilization instigated for the disgusting habit, begun out of curiosity, and unrestrained by a simple rationalization that it no longer mattered, that our circumstances had reduced his life expectancy. I really don’t think he’d started before the Aria Virus. If he had, I’m sure either Allie or I would’ve discovered it.
A wide black log protruded from beneath shredded debris further along. As I tossed boards aside, I saw in my mind the image of a mongrel eagerly searching for a bone. The reality wasn’t far off. I didn’t want to upon Chase’s burnt corpse, but I had to find the body. Had to know he perished as much as it would destroy what little remained of my resolve.
Why? You could walk away and assume he’d blown up the house to murder Faith, Vicky, and you and then run away. As psychopathically disturbing as that rationalization would be if true, he’d still be alive.
With the utmost delicacy, I lifted the final plank and shoved it aside to see an incinerated bare leg. Digging a little further revealed ebony streaks and golden puncture holes searing boxer shorts and t-shirt, above which his swarthy face stared back at me. His teeth shone brightly visible, the fiery blast singeing off his lips and most of his cheeks. An open stump reduced his nose to a pulpy cavern, and his eye sockets oozed a white mass of pus. I turned away in horror and saw a cigarette lying on his chest, and a blackened fist curled tight at his side. I wondered why the cigarette’s tobacco hadn’t burnt up in the explosion.
Swallowing a dry lump, I uncurled his charred fingers that cracked from the stress. A warm, but otherwise unmarred disposable lighter rested in his fleshy palm. Ironically, it had survived the intense heat without its fluid exploding.
An airy whooshing sound prickled my ears. The malodorous dark odor of decay made me dizzy. Looking around the burned debris, a snaking silver hose caught my eye. I followed its coiled expanse to where a dark hole shimmered the surrounding air, blurring the crisp focus of dirt particles and scorched flakes. Ever so faintly, I heard a whispering rush of gas through that hole.
Gas? But why was the gas line still operational?
I didn’t know the answer, but that was the truth. Chase snuck down to smoke a cigarette in the laundry room off the kitchen where gas had been leaking and the spark of the lighter ignited the inferno that killed them all. Everyone but me.
I walked back to Chase’s body, lighting the cigarette, and wondered how long the gas had been leaking and why we hadn’t succumbed to gas intoxication or gotten high in the prior days? Unless the leak hadn’t happened until yet. It didn’t matter.
Why Chase hadn’t snuck outside to smoke, I’ll never know. I felt sad that he worried about me berating him for smoking now in this devastated world? Truthfully, I probably would have given him some grief and tried to get him to stop, but I know I wouldn’t have responded the same way as if I had discovered him smoking before the pandemic hit.
Embarrassing wails—and lung irritating coughs—escaped me, but I no longer cared. Even under the strained, precarious circumstances of the pandemic, the tragedy of losing a child wasn’t any less devastating.
My weary eyes looked off into the distance before returning to my son’s face. In transferring my focus from the distant trees at the back of the property to Chase’s visage, I spotted a shotgun. Tossing the cigarette away, I inspected the gun to find out the blast hadn’t damaged it.
I fired three shots into the air at a forty-five-degree angle—one each for Chase, Faith, and Vicky. Birds squawked, taking flight with delicate wings flapping.
I sat on a pile of rubble and sulked. Everyone I loved—Allie, Heather, Chase, Faith, and Vicky—were dead or gone. The status of the former two remained unconfirmed, but I accepted their deaths to protect my soul from the horrors of what they’d endure in captivity alive. The world as I had ever known it was a distant memory that would never return to its former glory.
Loneliness failed to describe the emptiness in my breast.
The future stretched forth as a dangerous and lawless wasteland. As I tasted the copper metal, my tongue flopped like an alien tentacle and ran along the Mossberg’s barrel that I’d shoved in my mouth. I wanted no part of such a future, especially if I was alone. Searing tears singed my cheeks. My weeping was less about feeling sorry for myself and more in mourning for all my deceased loved ones. The best people who deserved more joyous lives.
I’d never cried so much in my life. The overwhelming grief made me overlook the sin of suicide, but how could I go on and not constantly think about them? It would drive me insane.
“I really tried to protect you,” I whispered in a raspy voice around the twin barrels.
Metal bitter saliva cascaded down my throat.
I put my big toe inside the trigger guard.
Something deep inside me, perhaps a part of me that feared death, suggested that if I followed through with this suicide, I would do a disservice to everyone I’d ever loved.
Memories flooded me as yet more shameless tears streaking down my cheeks: Allie in a school hallway with glasses and braces, wearing a wedding dress in a great banquet all, seated on a chaise lounge chair on a sandy, tropical beach with opaque glasses and a wide smile; Chase in a cowboy outfit on his birthday, a pale, fanged vampire on Halloween, dressed impeccably for his first day of school; cradling newborn Heather in my arms, my angel twirling in a purple tutu, giggling on a luscious patch of grass and pointing at a butterfly.
Sighing, I removed my toe from the trigger guard and tossed the shotgun aside. I sought Faith and Victoria and kissed their charred corpses once more. Hovering over Chase’s body for an immeasurable length of time, I pressed two fingers to my lips and tapped them on his forehead. I knelt to pick up the Mossberg and headed off into the unknown daylight with a microscopic grain of hope that I’d discover Allie and Heather alive somewhere else.
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