A Fallout and a Plea
Josiah isn’t here when I wake up. When I drift back into the reality of the Swarm and the dead, my eyelashes fighting to be pried open, it hits me: the other side of the guest bed is empty. All I have are the sheets and Sherpa down cover that I must’ve kicked over and bunched up at my side sometime late last night. After Josiah and I had...made love? Hooked up? What can I even call it?
A ripple runs across my forehead while I stare up at the ceiling. How late was it when we’d run back from the guest house to the main house? Did his parents hear us come back inside? What the hell were we thinking, screwing around in the middle of the night? My fist finds its way to the side of my jaw, a gentle wham, wham, wham. The only warmth wrapped around me now is my own. Not even the sunlight that filters in through the slates of the boarded-up windows can help break the chill seeping into every corner. I sigh.
But that’s not what’s really killing me, is it?
Get up out of bed. Watch my breath make puffy clouds for a few seconds. Head into the hall, making sure that my shirt and flannel pajama pants are on all the way and my face is mostly presentable. Stop. Stare at the door on the other end of the upstairs loft. Josiah’s room. Cue my intense feelings of regret.
A flash on my right. Paul charges out of his room and almost runs into me with a giggle and a sharp cry. “Last one down is a rotten egg!”
“Paul, don’t start eating without Rayland and Josiah,” Grace calls after him once she slips out of her bedroom. She flashes me an apologetic look and adjusts her glasses. No weird questions in her eyes. Nothing. Before I can smile to signal that it’s all okay, the two of them bound down the stairs. My Adam’s apple flips. Even his younger brother and sister don’t seem to sense that anything is off.
There’s a click before the door ahead and to my left swings open. Across the loft, Josiah slips out of his room, the curtains drawn in his room. He doesn’t jolt when he sees me, doesn’t do much except let his hands hang at his sides. My gasp catches in my throat. I want him to do something, say something.
At last he clears his throat. “Good morning.”
“Hey,” I say softly. “I…”
Josiah looks down with a huff. “I’d like to, uh, wash up.”
I clench my fist. As if you didn’t already do that last night.
Josiah doesn’t hurry towards the restroom so much as drifts towards it, his feet barely touching the plush carpet. When his shoulder almost grazes mine, he says, “‘cuse me,” a little too loud for it to sound easygoing. No “Hey, about last night…,” or, “How ya holdin’ up?”
The skin along my neck bristles. I fight so hard not to swing at him. Still, an invisible hand latches on and squeezes my jugular when Josiah hesitates and half turns my way. “I just wanted you to know that I still want to be friends,” he continues. “I just can’t-”
The more words that fall out of Josiah’s mouth, the more I can see how he’s barely holding himself together at the seams. But it’s not tears that he’s trying to keep a lid on. It’s not a newfound love for me, either. Josiah is unraveling; guilt and shame are all that pour out of him. The realization that he can’t just undo having sex with me. It’s a sin. His Catholic upbringing must be screaming it in his face.
Josiah leans against the side of the open bathroom door. Washed-out sunlight pours through the circular window at the far end of the restroom, just enough to bring a soft glow to the porcelain of the bathtub and sink. The smell of sizzling bacon wafts up from downstairs, as do his parents’ voices. Josiah wrinkles his nose, looks towards the stairs, and opens his mouth again. “...I’m disappointed in myself over what I decided to do last night,” he says. “What we did together.”
Crash and burn. Blinking away my tears doesn’t do jack to help my heart slow down. He raises his hand, reaching out in a motion I can only see as pleading. The sunlight hasn’t risen above his waist yet. I step to the side to skirt around his hand and get the hell out of his reach.
“Forget it,” I snap.
With a twist of my back foot, I face away from Josiah and march for the stairs. I have to slip in between more memories like they’re dancers at a nightclub, but still they punch into me: The shoebox with the baby squirrel, that night last October when he had come over to the Cy House and baked us vegan cookies. The night when I almost put the same revolver to my head and pulled the trigger...if Josiah hadn’t been there to talk me out of it.
None of those times made any difference. None of it was enough to kickstart the same love in Josiah’s heart that I feel for him now, the remnants of which are smoldering on the floor.
“I’m leaving,” I call over my shoulder. My fists are balled up. “I don’t belong here with you or your family anyway.”
The front door glides open as soon as my bare foot hits the first step. When Grace and Paul’s gasps float up the stairs, I let out a sigh so heavy that my ribs feel more like rubber. They must’ve heard me snap at their big brother. Shit...I might as well prep my apology speech for them and their parents now while I still can.
The air downstairs has shifted, gone stale somehow. I put one bare foot in front of the other and flinch when Thunder snaps and growls. There’s a flurry of hissed orders by Grace and Paul for Thunder to stop barking. From the kitchen, Mrs. Knect calls to ask what’s wrong. Thunder lets out another yap.
It turns out I’m wrong, so, so wrong. The man who steps through the front door stamps his boots with barely a muffled thunk-thunk-thunk on the rug. My hand slips off the wooden railing before I almost faceplant down the second half of the stairs. No, no way, not now.
Reg Alteo’s lips flatten out before he takes one step toward me. “Easy, Rayland,” he says, the shine in his gray eyes now washed out. “We’re just here to talk.”
The Knect house is upside down. The furniture seems to sway. Gravity shifts the second Mr. Knect appears in the dining room and stands directly across from Reg. “Hello again, Reg,” Mr Knect says with a curt nod. “What can I help you with?”
Reg’s smile floats into existence. “Just peace talks,” he replies. “That’s all.”
Mr. Knect keeps his hand resting on his holstered pistol -- the same one Josiah had brought back from the guest house last night. Relief floods my throat. Grace and Paul stand in the living room beside their dad, both of them wide eyed and barely holding our guard dog back.
The air is heavy. I’m almost halfway in between Reg and Josiah’s dad.
“We need you and your family,” Reg says. “The Swarm are getting more relentless.” A twitch runs along his even lips. “And those two cops out there are relentless. They’re not going to stop until more people are dead.”
Another somersault throws my stomach into rollercoaster territory. So it is them. Lieutenant Owens and Richards have crossed paths with Reg before.
Behind Reg, two shadow figures materialize in the open doorway: Evan and Bob. Reg’s second and third in command, I realize with a sloshing in my stomach. My hand unglues itself from the railing before I hop down the last step and go for Thunder, who’s lunging back and forth. Reg stares down, watching as our guard dog almost nips at the ankle of his hiking pants over and over again. His half smirk is less than amused. “Relax, boy,” says Reg, “I’m not here to hurt anyone.”
The energy flowing between Reg and Josiah’s dad could burn my skin off. With my teeth gritted, I turn to Reg and say, “You and your people have guns. You have supplies. How are we supposed to help you?”
Bob is the second one through the door. He sniggers before running the back of his hand across his mouth. “That used to be true, kiddo,” he says in his drawl, “but we need more than just firepower now.”
“We need solidarity,” Evan says with his usual soft eyebrows. “It’s not just those two cops. Other people are out there, desperate people who think we’re trouble.”
My response is effortless: “Maybe you are.”
Evan cocks his head in disbelief. Reg steps in between me and him. “Come on, Rayland. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t afraid.” He juts his thumb over his shoulder.
More people glide up the front walkway. Strangers wrapped in jackets and scarves. Three women approach behind Evan and Bob, their features almost completely obscured by their layers of clothes. Behind them, a couple of guys who look to be around my age are leaning against the hood of a still-steaming red truck -- Reg’s truck, I figure. More waves of icy wind come charging through the open door. I gawk. I can’t believe how many souls are in his group.
I snap myself out of the trance and lean over. Thunder finally lets me hook my fingers around his collar, even though he still won’t shut up.
Seven. There are seven survivors with Reg, not five, like Mr. Knect told me and Josiah only a day ago. Seven people who have evaded the Swarm for the past month, just like we have.
The haze around my peripheral vision pulses, and I backpedal as Reg parts his lips. “We can’t fend off the Swarm and the cops like this for long.” His even expression cracks. “Please, Rayland. We can help each other out. If you just come back to the station, I can explain.”
Mr. Knect and I exchange looks. His eyes search for an answer, or even just some inclination as to what the right choice is, within me. My heart sinks. I know a standoff when I’m in the middle of one. This isn’t something I can just logic my way out of.
I turn to Reg. “Alright,” I tell him. “I’m listening.”