Read an Excerpt
When I wake, the world is still gone. Only fragments remain. Pieces of places and people who were once whole. On the other side of the window, the landscape is a violent green, the kind you used to see on a flat-screen television in a watering hole disguised as a restaurant. Too green. Dense gray clouds banished the sun weeks ago, forcing her to watch us die through a warped, wet lens.
There are stories told among pockets of survivors that rains have come to the Sahara, that green now sprinkles the endless brown, that the British Isles are drowning. Nature is rebuilding with her own set of plans. Man has no say.
It’s a month until my thirty-first birthday. I am eighteen months older than I was when the disease struck. Twelve months older than when war first pummeled the globe. Somewhere in between then and now, geology went crazy and drove the weather to schizophrenia. No surprise when you look at why we were fighting. Nineteen months have passed since I first saw the jar.
I’m in a farmhouse on what used to be a farm somewhere in what used to be Italy. This is not the country where gleeful tourists toss coins into the Trevi Fountain, nor do people flock to the Holy See anymore. Oh, at first they rushed in like sickle cells forced through a vein, thick, clotted masses aboard trains and planes, toting their life savings, willing to give it all to the church for a shot at salvation. Now their corpses litter the streets of Vatican City and spill into Rome. They no longer ease their hands into La Bocca della Verità and hold their breath while they whisper a pretty lie they’ve convinced themselves is real: that a cure-all is coming any day now; that a band of scientists hidden away in some mountaintop have a vaccine that can rebuild us; that God is moments away from sending in His troops on some holy lifesaving mission; that we will be saved.
Raised voices trickle through the walls, reminding me that while I’m alone in the world, I’m not alone here.
“It’s the salt.”
“It’s not the fucking salt.”
There’s the dull thud of a fist striking wood.
“I’m telling you, it’s the salt.”
I do a mental tally of my belongings as the voices battle: backpack, boots, waterproof coat, a toy monkey, and inside a plastic sleeve: a useless passport and a letter I’m too chicken to read. This is all I have here in this ramshackle room. Its squalor is from before the end, I’ve decided. Poor housekeeping; not enough money for maintenance.
“If it’s not the salt, what is it?”
“High-fructose corn syrup,” the other voice says, with the superior tone of one convinced he’s right. Maybe he is. Who knows anymore?
“Ha. That doesn’t explain Africa. They don’t eat sweets in Timbuktu. That’s why they’re all potbelly skinny.”
“Salt, corn syrup, what does it matter?” I ask the walls, but they’re short on answers.
There’s movement behind me. I turn to see Lisa No-last-name filling the doorway, although there is less of her to fill it than there was a week ago when I arrived. She’s younger than me by ten years. English, from one of those towns that ends in -shire. The daughter of one of the men in the next room, the niece of the other.
“It doesn’t matter what caused the disease. Not now.” She looks at me through feverish eyes; it’s a trick: Lisa has been blind since birth. “Does it?”
My time is running out; I have a ferry to catch if I’m to make it to Greece.
I crouch, hoist my backpack onto my shoulders. They’re thinner now, too. In the dusty mirror on the wall, the bones slice through my thin T-shirt.
“Not really,” I tell her. When the first tear rolls down her cheek, I give her what I have left, which amounts to a hug and a gentle stroke of her brittle hair.
I never knew my steel bones until the jar.
The godforsaken jar.
My apartment is a modern-day fortress. Locks, chains, and inside a code I have three chances to get right, otherwise the cavalry charges in, demanding to know if I am who I say I am. All of this is set into a flimsy wooden frame.
Eleven hours cleaning floors and toilets and emptying trash in hermetic space. Eleven hours exchanging one-sided small talk with mice. Now my eyes burn from the day, and I long to pluck them from their sockets and rinse them clean.
When the door swings open, I know. At first I think it’s the red answering machine light winking at me from the kitchen. But no, it’s more. The air is alien like something wandered freely in this space during my absence, touching what’s mine without leaving a mark.
Golden light floods the living room almost as soon as my fingers touch the switch. My eyes blink until they summon ample lubricative tears to provide a buffer. My pupils contract just like they’re supposed to, and finally I can walk into the light without tripping.
They say it’s not paranoia if someone is really out to get you. There is no prickle on the back of my neck telling me to watch out behind me, but I’m right about the air: it has been parted in my absence and something placed inside.
Not the kind that holds sour dill pickles that crunch between your teeth and fill your head with echoes. This looks like a museum piece, pottery, older than this city—so says the grime ground into its pores. And that ancient thing fills my apartment with the feel of things long buried.
I could examine the jar, lift it from the floor and move it away from here. But some things, once touched, can never be untouched. I am a product of every B movie I’ve ever seen, every superstition I’ve ever heard, every tale old wives have told.
I should examine the jar, but my fingers refuse to move, protecting me from the what-if. They reach for the phone instead.
The super picks up on the eighth ring. When I ask if he let someone into my place, his mind goes on walkabout. An eternity passes. During that time I imagine him clawing at his balls, out of habit more than anything else, while he performs a mental tally of the beer still left in the fridge.
“No,” he says, eventually. “Something get stolen?”
“What’s the problem, then?”
I hang up. Count to ten. When I turn the jar is still there, centered perfectly in my living room between the couch and television.
The security company is next on my list. No, they tell me. We’ve got no record of anyone entering apartment thirteen-oh-four.
“What about five minutes ago?”
Silence. Then: “We’ve got that. Do you need us to send someone out?”
The police give me more of the same. Nobody breaks in and leaves things. It must be a gift from a secret admirer. Or maybe I’m crazy; they’re not above suggesting that, but they use polite, hollow words designed to make me feel okay about hanging up the phone.
Then I remember the answering machine’s blinking light. When I press Playback, my mother’s voice booms from the speaker.
“Zoe? Zoe? Are you there?” There’s a pause; then: “No, honey, it’s the machine.” Another pause. “What—I am leaving a message. What do you mean, ‘Talk louder’?” There’s playful slapping in the background as she shoos my father away. “Your sister called. She said there’s someone she wants you to meet.” Her voice drops to a whisper that’s anything but discreet. “I think it’s a man. Anyway, I just thought you could call her. Come over for dinner Saturday and you can tell me all about him. Just us girls.” Another pause. “Oh, and you of course. You’re almost a girl,” she tells Dad. I can picture him laughing good-naturedly in the background. “Sweetie, call me. I’d try your cell phone, but you know me: ever hopeful that you’re on a date.”
Normally, I feel a small flash of anger in my chest when she calls to match make. But today …
I wish my mom were here. Because that jar isn’t mine.
Someone has been in my space.
The human body is a wondrous thing. It’s an acid manufacturing plant capable of transforming simple food into a hot burning mess.
I vomit a lot now. I’m great at it. I can lean forward just right and miss my boots completely. If the world wasn’t gone, I could go to the Olympics.
As soon as breakfast comes up, I poke down an apple. It takes.
“Do you have to go?” Lisa asks. She’s chewing her bottom lip, working the delicate skin into a pulpy mass.
“I have to get to Brindisi.”
We’re standing in the farmhouse’s yard, encapsulated in a constant damp mist. Plush moss springs from pale stones that make up the house’s exterior walls. My bicycle is leaning against a long-abandoned water pump. Somewhere along the way, the owners had resources enough to reroute the plumbing and enter the twentieth century, but they left the pump for charm or lack of caring. The bicycle is blue and not originally mine. No money changed hands. It was purchased for the paltry sum of a kiss outside Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci di Fiumicino. No tongue. Just the surprising taste of tenderness from a Norwegian man who didn’t want to die without one last embrace.
“Please,” Lisa says. “Stay.”
“I can’t.” There’s a tightness in my chest from the mountains of regret heaped upon it. I like her. I really do. She’s a sweet kid who once dreamed of nice things. Now the best she can hope for is survival. Thriving is not an option and it may never be.
“Please. It’s nice having another woman here. It’s better.”
Then it strikes me, the note of desperation in her voice. She does not want to be left here alone with these men. They should be bound to protect family, and they do. But shared blood isn’t the only reason: I suddenly realize they see her as a possession. A way to while away the hours until humanity draws its last ragged breath. I should have sensed it sooner, but I was so bound to my own agenda that I failed to look beyond my borders.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t know. I should have, but I didn’t.”
A pale pink flush creeps over her fair skin: I’ve guessed her secret. Although she can’t see me, I glance away to give her a moment to recoup. My cheeks buzz with shame.
The silence lasts long enough for the precipitation to congeal into raindrops.
“You can’t stay any more than I can. Come with me.”
I should regret the words, but I don’t. If she agrees, it will add who knows how many days to my journey. Time is a luxury when you can’t see what’s left in the hourglass. But with humanity limping along as it is, kindness is rare. I have to hold on to what makes me human.
“Really? You’d let me go with you?”
Her neck pops as she jerks her chin over one shoulder, back at the house.
“They won’t let me go. They’ll never allow it.”
What did they do to you, baby girl? I want to ask. Whatever she says, it won’t affect my decision anyway: she’s coming with me.
“Go up to your room and get your things. Make sure you’ve got something comfortable and warm to wear.”
“But—” I can see she’s still worried about the men.
“I’ll take care of it.”
We go inside together, and in the abrupt shelter we luxuriate for a moment. It feels good not to be rained on. Then we nod and she inches up the stairs while I make for the kitchen.
As far as kitchens go—and I’ve known few—this one is lean. Not an efficient leanness, but the too-thinness of a woman who fights to maintain an unnatural weight. The room has sag; I can see where things should go if one had the inclination to decorate or a love for cooking. It yearns to be filled with a family.
Only one man is present: Lisa’s uncle. His skin is filled to capacity and oozes over the chair’s borders. It’s a sturdy piece of furniture probably many generations old. The wood is dark from time, and the seat is some kind of thick wicker with a honeyed sheen. The chair has seven empty siblings.
The big guy glances up, scans me for weaknesses he can exploit. My breath catches as I pull my shoulders back and push my chin forward, trying to look as strong as my body will allow. He finds nothing he can take without considerable effort and goes back to chewing on the bread I made two days ago after I picked the weevils from the pantry’s ample flour supply. Crumbs fly from his mouth, spraying the table with damp flecks that will harden and stick if they’re not wiped down soon. Neither Lisa nor I will be here to do it. These men will be wallowing in their own filth in no time.
“Lisa’s coming with me.”
He grunts, swallows, fixes his beady eyes on me. Raisins pressed deep into dough.
“It wasn’t a question.”
His bulk gathers like an impending storm as he heaves himself from the chair.
“We’re her family.”
This can’t go anyplace good. A cold spot the size of a quarter forms on the back of my neck and spreads until I’m chilled all over. What was I thinking? He’s bigger than me. Morbidly obese and slow, true, but large enough that if he gets me on the ground, I’m screwed.
We stare each other down. If we were dogs, someone would be betting on him, impressed by his sheer size.
A sharp shriek tears the artificial calm. Upstairs. Lisa. For a second I tune out, my attention latching onto the strange silence that always follows a scream.
The fat man lunges for me. Lisa is in trouble, but right now I am, too.
I feint left, dive right. He’s like a crash test vehicle hitting the wall, plaster dust forming a white halo around his body. It takes him a moment to recover. He shakes his head to clear the pain fog, then comes at me again.
Again I manage to dodge him. Now we’re staring each other down across the width of the table. Just a few feet between us. No weapons in sight. Lisa is a tidy housekeeper, and though this isn’t her home, just one they stumbled across the same way I did, everything is in its place.
Another scream. This one drifts like dandelion fluff.
Inside my chest, my heart hurls itself at its bone prison. It knows her father is up there with her and it knows what’s happening.
“I’m going to her,” I say. “And if you try and stop me, you’re a dead man.”
He laughs. His jowls wobble and shudder.
“When he’s done fucking her, we’re going to take turns fucking you, bitch.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t try sooner.”
He holds up both palms. “What can I say, love? We like lamb, not mutton.”
It’s my turn to laugh, only mine is bitter and dry.
“What, bitch? What’s so fucking funny? Share the joke.”
I inch down the table toward the open doorway. On the other side of this wall there’s an umbrella stand. What’s in there is useless for keeping a body dry, but the pointed end could still easily put out an eye.
“Did I ever tell you what I did for a living before all this?”
He grunts. Follows me down the table until we’re both at the blunted edge.
“Some kind of lab rat.”
I nod. Something like that. “I’ve done a lot of lifting, so I’m pretty strong for a skinny woman. What have you done besides shift gears in your truck and swing a glass of Guinness?” There’s less strength in my body now than there was before the world ended, but my survival instincts have brought me this far. I make a break for it but I miscalculate: his reach is longer than mine. His arm snaps out. Fat grasping fingers coil themselves around my ponytail. He jerks me backwards and pulls me against him until his gut is a stuffed IHOP pancake bulging against my back. A triangle forms around my neck and tightens. Chest, humerus, ulna.
Usually when I long for the past, I dream of meals in chain restaurants where they serve the exact same dish every time. I dream of how it feels to be dry, or how my skin tingled when I stood too long in a too-hot shower. But now? High heels. Stilettos. With a four-inch metal rod keeping the heels straight and true. Because my captor has socked feet and it would take nothing to drive my fashionable weapon right between his metatarsals.
I’m wearing boots with a thick sole made for walking, but he’s six-foot-something and I have to exaggerate to see five-five, which means my heels aren’t going to do much besides grind his toes. It’s not enough.
“I win,” he says.
Maybe he’s right, but the game isn’t over yet. There’s more than just me at stake.
“When was the last time you saw your own dick?” My voice thickens as the arm tightens at my throat. He’s pulling me closer and higher. My heels are rising off the ground. There’s a whisper of rubber against tile as my feet flail to seek stability. “Can you hold it to piss or do you sit like a woman?”
“Please. Fat guys like you can’t get a hard-on.”
Dark spots obscure my vision. It’s morning but my daylight is fading fast. Lisa is sobbing now between the screams.
There’s more strength in him than first appears. Adipose overlays significant muscle mass; the perfect camouflage. My toes leave the ground.
Everything that follows happens in an instant.
My chin drops and I sink my teeth into his forearm. The enamel slices through the tissue and scrapes bone. I draw my knees up so when he drops me and lets out a roar that comes all the way from his scrotum, my weight falls like the sparkly ball on New Year’s Eve and my boots crush his feet. A gasp shoots from my throat as I fall forward onto my knees. Impact pains set my shins on fire. My opponent recovers long enough to deliver a swift kick to my backside with his damaged foot. Warm copper with a hint of iron floods my mouth. I scramble to my feet, dart sideways, arm held protectively over my stomach.
Without a thought in my head besides survival, I reach for a chair. It’s lighter than its mellowed wood would suggest. Or maybe not. In times of need, the human body can conduct amazing feats. I know this because That’s Incredible! told me. And Cathy Lee Crosby had a face an eight-year-old could trust.
White bone gleams through the skin as I lock my hands into place on the chair’s back. He’s English, which means he understands little about my national sport. This chair is my bat and his face is the ball. Baseball on steroids.
He comes for me and I swing. There’s a sharp crack as his face shatters. Wet droplets of blood splatter my shirt and face: a mosquito’s wet dream. Broken teeth crumble from his sagging mouth, and he falls. He is a mountain of flesh conquered by a woman holding a chair. The wood slips from my hands as I stagger into the hall and mount the stairs.
I get his name from a friend of a friend’s sister.
“Oh my God, you have to call him. He’s the best,” my friend says with the exaggerated enthusiasm of one passing on thirdhand news.
Nick Rose. He sounds like a carpenter, not someone who listens to problems for a crippling fee. A woodworker. Someone average. I can do that. I can talk to someone regular. Because normally when I think about a therapist I imagine an austere Sigmund Freud looking for links between my quirks and my feelings about my mother. My relationship with my mother is just fine, although I haven’t yet returned her call or contacted my sister like she asked.
What would Freud make of that? What would Dr. Nick Rose?
I make the call out on the street from my cell phone. The city is in full tilt. Horns are the spice sprinkled over relentless traffic. Bodies form an organic conveyor belt constantly grinding along the sidewalks. Out here my words will be lost, but that’s what I want. I’m a rational woman but the jar’s arrival has me questioning my grip on reality. And deep down inside me, in the vault where I keep my fears carefully separated and wrapped in positive thoughts, I get the crazy notion that the jar will know.
So I stand outside on a corner, cup my hand over the phone’s mouthpiece, and dial.
A man answers. I expected a female assistant and I tell him so and immediately feel a jab of guilt for stereotyping my own sex. Some feminist I am.
He laughs. “It’s just me. I like to talk to potential clients. It gives both of us a feel for each other.”
Clients. Not patients. My shoulders slump and I realize how taut my body has been holding itself. Dr. Nick Rose’s voice is warm and bold like good coffee. He laughs like someone who is well practiced in the art.
I want to hear it again, so I say, “Just so we’re clear, I don’t secretly want to have sex with either of my parents.”
Another laugh is my reward. Despite my reservations, I smile into the phone.
“Me either,” Dr. Rose tells me. “I worked through that in college just to make sure. It was touch and go for a while, especially when my father kept asking me if he looked pretty.”
We laugh some more. My tension is rendered butter melting away from my psyche. And at the end he tells me that Friday afternoons are all mine if I’ll have him.
When we hang up, I am light-footed. The mere act of procuring a therapist has done wonders for me already. Friday. It’s Tuesday now. That gives me three days to fabricate a story about the jar. A dream, maybe. Psychologists love dreams. Because I can’t tell him the truth and I can’t explain why because I don’t know. The answer isn’t there yet. I don’t want him to think I’m crazy, because I’m not. Desperate is what I am. Quietly desperate and insatiably curious.
I follow the routine: unlock, unlock, open, close, lock, lock, chain, security code. The blinking light on the panel glows green, just like it’s supposed to.
The jar is waiting.
Lisa’s whimpers come from her bedroom. I say her bedroom; but who knows who it really belongs to. Whoever was here before shook all their personal belongings into suitcases, or maybe boxes, and fled. So I call it Lisa’s room, although it won’t be for much longer. Not if I can help it.
Left at the top of the stairs. Second right. Through the open door.
What’s left of her family is in there with her.
Her father is a leaner man than his brother, younger by a handful of years, although from this angle I can’t see his face. His ass is a glowing white moon with a pale slash of hair dividing the hemispheres.
Beneath him, Lisa is pressed into the bed facedown. She’s past struggling, resigned to her place in the family hierarchy. A crude puppet impaled by her puppet master, hunching the bed herky-jerky with his every thrust.
Disgust is lava and pyroclastic ash erupting from my pores. A small cry is all the warning he gets as I race forward and grab his testicles mid-slap. Before our world ended, I was never one for manicures and pedicures. A stranger flicking a file across my feet would only make me squeal as the nerve endings danced. Hangnails frame my fingertips still. White dots are albino freckles on my nails. The edges are ragged where I’ve lain awake and nibbled while I rifled through my thoughts. All of this adds up to the one time a man doesn’t want a woman’s hand on his balls. My nails are pincers sinking into the delicate skin..
I expect him to shriek, but he doesn’t. There’s one last ripple of his ass and he stops cold as though he’s awaiting my instructions.
“Get off her.”
His voice is husky from the grunting. “I’m sorry.”
“Not me. Pull out and tell her that.”
He eases out. His erection withers until it’s a limp shoestring dangling in the air.
“I’m sorry,” he repeats.
“Lisa,” I snap. “Get up and get your things.” I wish my words could be gentle, but that won’t get her up and moving and out of here.
There’s a moment’s hesitation, then she pushes her body off the bed. She tugs up her jeans and fastens them without lifting her chin. This is not your shame, I want to tell her. It’s him. All him. But now is not the time.
“Lisa’s part of my family now,” I tell the man who created half of what she is. “We’re leaving.”
He’s a chipped and damaged record. “I’m sorry.”
When I release him, he remains frozen. His shoulders shake and it occurs to me he’s crying. I kneel beside him as his daughter gathers her things and crams them into a backpack the same size as mine. My hand comes to roost on his shoulder and I am shocked at myself because I know I’m about to comfort a rapist.
“We don’t have to be monsters. We still get to choose.”
“I have urges.”
“She’s your daughter.”
“We’re leaving now. Lisa?”
She shakes her head; she has no last words to give him.
We pack food: bread, preserves, canned goods. Anything with a high-calorie punch. These we wrap in plastic trash bags and tuck into my bicycle’s basket. There’s milk in the kitchen drained by one of the men from the cows that wander the yard. They’re living off grass now, scavenging the land. And they’re lucky, because all the rain means thicker, lusher pasture for the eating. At the back of my mind is an image of me slaughtering a cow to survive, my arms stained with what looks like ketchup but is really blood. I shove it away and try not to think about that yet.
“We should drink it all,” I tell her, dividing the tepid liquid into two glasses. My gag reflex tries to reject the fluid, but I force it down, knowing that my body needs this. Food is becoming more scarce. An estimated ninety percent of the population is dead, but perishables are long gone and fast food is anything but. What remains is processed foods. Hamburger Helper that for the first time actually does help. Eventually we’ll all be down to foraging, or subsistence farming—if any of us make it that far.
Lisa sips at the milk: a church mouse with a precious piece of cheese.
“Where’s my uncle?”
The question hangs in the air between us.
“On the floor. I had to stop him.”
She swallows. “Is he dead?”
I don’t want to touch him. I don’t. But she’s looking to me like I know what to do. She doesn’t know that I’m making it up as I go along. Pulling it out of my ass like my butt is a magician’s hat.
Kneel. Two fingers against her uncle’s neck. They’re swallowed by his flesh knuckle-deep, like he’s made of quicksand.
Please let him stay down, I chant. The fingers not lost in flab curl around a paring knife. A postapocalyptic insurance policy. For a few seconds his pulse eludes me and I think he’s dead. But no … there it is. Pa-rump, pa-rump, pa-rump. He’s the Little Drummer Boy on speed.
“He’s alive.” For now, because a galloping pulse can’t be good in a man the size of a VW Beetle.
“Thank God,” Lisa says.
Yeah, God. That guy. He forgot to RSVP to mankind’s last party. Who could blame him? The fireworks were great but everyone attending was sick.
On the other side of the kitchen, knives wait in a drawer. Knives for sawing bread, for slicing cheese, for dicing tomatoes, for hacking meat. One cleaver for me, and the paring knife. Both bear keen edges.
“You should have a knife.”
Lisa’s brows dip. “Oh no, I couldn’t.”
“What if you need to cut something?”
“I thought you meant …”
She’s staring toward the thin air above her uncle. The drawer beckons. A corkscrew. Good for taking out an eye. An adequate weapon for someone who doesn’t want to carry one.
“Take this,” I say. Her fingers close around the helix. One presses against its point and she winces. “Just in case we find a great bottle of wine. This is Italy, remember?”
We walk with my wheels between us. Lisa’s hand balances on the seat, using it to guide her path while I hold the handlebars and steer us true. She took the corkscrew without question and shoved it into her jeans pocket, where she reaches down and traces the outline every few dozen feet.
This is the middle of nowhere, although its existence proves that it must be somewhere. So I pull out my compass and wait for the needle to still. Southeast. I want southeast. If we take a right at the farm’s entrance, that’s the road east. Good enough until we find a road that wanders south.
We don’t speak until we’re at the white mailbox and the old planks that form a halfhearted attempt at a fence are behind us.
Lisa cracks the silence. “I hope he’s okay. My dad.”
“He’ll be fine.”
“He’s my father.”
“You could have killed him.”
“But I didn’t.”
There’s a pause as she formulates the question. “Why?”
“The world you knew, that we all knew, is gone. Humanity is mostly dead and what’s left is dying.”
A ditch forms between her eyebrows, and it’s filled with ignorance.
“I don’t get it.”
“I like being human.”
The ditch digs a little deeper.
“He did it because he loved me,” she says after a while. “That’s what I tell myself so I don’t hate him. He’s still my dad, and a person shouldn’t hate their dad. In a way, I feel like I owed him something. It was a hard job, looking after me out here, being blind and all.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“It’s no excuse,” I tell her. “You didn’t owe him that.”
She disappears inside herself for several moments before returning with a new question.
“During sex, did you ever close your eyes and pretend it was someone else?”
Did I? Maybe. When I was younger. Before I began having sex with someone other than myself.
“Sure,” I say to make her feel better. “Probably everyone does that.”
“I tried. It didn’t work very well.”
“Honey, what he was doing to you wasn’t sex or love.”
“Can I tell you a secret?” The question mark has a rhetorical curve, so I stay silent. When we reach the first crossroad stamped into the landscape, she says, “I think I’d still like being touched one day. By a man who likes me.”
“I think you will, too.”
“Do you have any secrets?”
I look at her sideways, tell myself I won’t let this one come to harm when I’ve lost so many along the way. “No.”