Anna paced the front yard, bouncing Jackson with each step. The weather was absurd for such a day – offensive, even. The sky was clear and unblemished, perfectly free of clouds. The palms swayed in a light breeze, their shadows dancing playfully on the lawn.
It was too perfect, too pretty for all of the ugly things happening in the city.
Anoles scurried across the sidewalk and into the underbrush. Amelia chased them, grinning and laughing. Her face was covered in smudges of dirt, but Anna didn’t have the time or energy to wash it off.
Her mother swung the door open, her voice hushed.
“They’re showing live coverage of Palm Sands. People are being pushed out of buildings. You should see this…”
“I don’t want to,” Anna snapped.
Priscilla sighed. “Staying out there might attract attention. You can be seen from the road, you know. If someone stopped at the lamppost and looked through the bushes, they’d see you. Come inside.”
“Jackson likes the fresh air,” Anna said, just as Jackson started to wail.
Her mother grimaced and shut the door with a snap. Anna continued to pace, dodging the overhanging branches, her mind wandering into the darkest of places.
She imagined a rainy day, one with clusters of people dressed in black. She envisioned a closed casket, silent and unyielding, underneath a bed of flowers.
The scene flashed through her mind in a blurry what if.
In her mind, she saw herself rise from the pew, as Amelia and Jackson stared at her from the front row. Or maybe, by that time… Jackson would be gone, too.
“The last time I saw Luke,” she would say, voice quivering from the tears dammed up behind her eyes, “he told me that Jackson’s delayed development, seizures, and death were all my fault.”
The crowd would gasp, as if this revelation was a horror worse than the death that gathered them.
“He told me that I poisoned him in the womb.”
That scene melted to a different one, one where her wavering voice faded under Luke’s angry one. This image wasn’t a daydream, though; it was a recent memory.
“If you hadn’t taken Zenophil every day, maybe this never would have happened! Maybe Jackson would be fine!”
They were standing in the hot sun, as she rummaged for her keys in the doctor’s parking lot earlier that afternoon.
“You’re saying this is my fucking fault?”
“You took a Class X medication. You think that had no effect?”
“I didn’t know I was pregnant then!”
“You suspected it,” Luke spat, buckling Jackson in to the car seat. He began to cry, but Luke ignored him, tightening the strap. “You refused wine at Carla’s engagement party.”
“If I’d had the wine, would that have been better?” she shouted. “Some women do fucking heroin while they’re pregnant. All I did was take my anxiety meds. Might I remind you, Zenophil is one of the most popular medications there is? Half the people I know take it. Are they all evil too?”
“They weren’t pregnant.”
“I’m sure some of them were.”
“Then yes, they’re evil. They – you – valued peace of mind and a full night’s sleep over our son’s life.”
“Fuck you, Luke.”
Anna swung into the driver’s seat, her body shaking and her vision blurred with tears. Luke slammed the door, standing outside the car with his arms crossed.
“I need to get some more work done at the office. I’ll see you at home.”
Anna didn’t reply. She backed out of the parking space, glancing at Luke’s stiff, receding figure in the rearview mirror.
For what was possibly the last time.
Rudy peeled out of the parking garage. Luke pressed himself into the seat, his heart drumming in his chest.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yeah, kind of!”
The car made a sharp left. Luke’s head hit the window, pain throbbing across his skull.
“Well, too bad. You’ll find out soon enough.”
The city was in chaos. People ran onto the sidewalks in terrified clusters, like herds of frightened cattle. One man ran to the road, picked up the manhole cover, and slipped inside. A woman ran into an alleyway and crouched behind a dumpster, her eyes burning red.
Luke whipped around, nearly vomiting at the cause of the sound. A woman lay in a bloody pool on the sidewalk, twitching and writhing. Two floors above her, another woman leaned out of an open window, her hair whipping in the wind.
She was smiling.
Luke’s attention was drawn back as cars pulled crazily out into the road. They screeched and honked, bumping into each other, as everyone clamored to escape the city. A few people ran at the cars, pleading with the drivers. A short woman threw herself at the window of a red sedan, begging for a ride. She was viciously yanked back by a man whose eyes flashed red.
Luke watched in horror as he began pulling her towards an alleyway.
“Rudy, stop! Stop the car! We have to help her!”
Rudy just laughed. The struggling pair receded in the mirror, until they were just another dot among the chaos. After that, they drove in silence for several minutes, Luke trying to form an escape plan.
He didn’t have the time.
“Well, we’re here.”
Luke looked up. They were at the edge of the city, overlooking the Egret Grove wetlands. The water shined red in the setting sun, broken by patches of thick, dry grass. True to its name, a few egrets paced the shore, bobbing their heads and searching for fish.
The little birds were completely unaware of the chaos around them.
“Rudy, come on, what are you doing?” Luke still hoped that maybe, any minute, Rudy would snap out of it. Maybe it’s one of his pranks. Or maybe the effects of the drug wear off after an hour, and we’ll be sitting here laughing about it in a minute.
Rudy was stone-faced. “I wish it didn’t come to this, Luke. But… we have strict protocol for people unwilling to take Earl Grey, and I have to follow it.”
“Yeah? What’s that?” Luke forced a laugh. Show him confidence.
Then Rudy pressed the gas pedal, hard. The car lurched forward – straight for the rickety wooden fence, which was the only thing separating the road from the water.
“Isn’t the water here really shallow?” Confidence, confidence.
“Yeah, but I’ll see to it that you don’t make it out.”
Luke yanked at the handle. He tried unlocking the door, but Rudy locked it right back.
“Let me out!”
Luke’s eyes fell on the glove compartment. He grabbed the handle, pulling it open and thrusting his hand inside. Among the papers, random coins, and rubber bands, he felt something cold and sharp.
It’s still here.
The car was just a few feet from the fence. The water glittered, beckoning them playfully. The egrets tilted their heads, staring curiously as the grass bent and bowed in the breeze.
Luke pulled the knife out from the glove box.
In a swift motion, he plunged it deep into Rudy’s chest. The blood spraying across the dashboard, and Rudy jerked forward.
Rudy’s voice caught in his throat. It faded into a choking, gurgling splutter as Luke plunged the knife into his neck.
Luke thrust the shifter into park, and the car shuddered to a halt.
Anna jumped back at the sound, but a familiar sight came into view. It was a green Accord, sporting a new dent across the hood. Beneath the bright reflections scrolling across the windshield she could make out a pale, grinning face.
“Luke! How did you… the quarantine...” Anna choked out.
“It’s a long story,” he replied, his lanky body unfolding itself from the car. “I may or may not have broken a few laws, but...”
Anna started to sob.
“I’m sorry I worried you,” he said. “And I am so, so sorry for what I said earlier. It was completely unfair, completely wrong...”
The door swung open. The butt of a rifle poked out, followed by a twisted mustache and tired eyes.
“Get the hell off my... Oh, hi Luke!”
Priscilla squealed, throwing her arms around her son-in-law in a tight hug.
“Avery, go help him with his stuff, will you?”
He grunted to his wife, trudging towards the car. He stopped short as Luke blocked him, shaking his head vigorously.
“I, uh, just have a few things. I don’t need help.”
Dad shrugged, walking away.
“Are you sure you don’t need help?” Anna asked, touching the car’s trunk. Luke hurried over, leading her away from it.
“Yeah. I just want to be inside. With you, Amelia and Jack.”
“Daddy! Daddy!” Amelia squealed, giving him a big hug as he came through the door. “Can we play airplanes?”
“Of course,” Luke said, returning her hug. Then he hoisted Jackson up by the arms and swung him around, enjoying his son’s giggle. The little boy smiled at his father with a big, beautiful, toothy grin.
But no cooing, no hi’s, no dada’s.
18-month-old Jackson had never babbled, or said a single word, in his entire life.