I think it started the day the house fell down. I came home and there it lay, nothing but jagged crossbeams enclosing sad triangles of empty space. The detritus of a lifetime. A lot of broken things that meant nothing. That meant everything. And Justin nowhere to be found. I mean, if he’d been in the house, they would have found him, right? Things hadn’t swung that far from normal yet, that they wouldn’t have done a thorough search. Right?
Or maybe that was just a coincidence. Maybe the changes happened gradually. Living in a car, sleeping with one eye open, can jangle your nerves at the best of times. Things might have slipped out of true quite a while later. The death of the house might have just been my personal punctuation mark.
And meanwhile, where the hell is Justin? I have to acknowledge that people have been disappearing for a while now. Not even a puff of smoke to mark their passing. Just…gone. Is it possible that he was the first? That whatever takes people away hadn’t figured out how to do it yet, had to take the house apart to get to him? If he had been the first, and the house hadn’t collapsed, I wonder if that would have been worse. If I simply came home one day and he never did. Yes, I think that might have been worse.
But now, nothing works. I don’t know how he could even find me. That is, if he were here, in this city, alive, and wanted to. Phones don’t work. Emergency response stopped a long time ago. Even this car doesn’t work. I think it would start if I could find any gas to put in it, but I’m not resourceful enough, or brave enough, to figure out how to do that. The stations are guarded, and the whole enterprise seems like more trouble than it’s worth. So I suppose this is my new home, in this car that won’t move, next to this park that I don’t like the look of. There’s a tepid lake down there, across a broad swath of browning lawn, so at least that means water if the taps stop working in the increasingly awful public restrooms. But there are no ducks on the lake, which seems odd. Then again, that also means I’m not constantly reminded that I’ll soon be drinking duck shit. So you see, there is a bright side after all.
You couldn’t pay me enough to enter those bathrooms now that the lights don’t work. Even if you were paying in cans of gas. I’ve been seeing fewer lights go on in the buildings across the street after dark too. I don’t know if that’s because the electricity finally gave out, or if the people have moved on, or if they are trying to blend into the darkness. I do know that it’s uncommon to see anyone in the park or on the street now. A car went by this morning and, good lord, the noise of that thing! I wanted to run out and tell it to hush, that it was drawing attention to itself. I wanted to hide. I wanted it to take me with it.
In the end, I hid. It wasn’t a very clever form of hiding. I just scrunched down in my seat and turned my head towards the park, the way you might if you were trying to avoid an acquaintance you had promised a favor to, one you had no intention of fulfilling.
But while my head was turned I noticed something: the minivan that had been parked across the lake for the last month was gone. And with it, presumably, the family of four that had lived there. I hope they found somewhere better to camp. I had never talked with them, couldn’t, probably, since we didn’t seem to share a language, but I had waved at the kids, times I was down by the lake collecting water or washing up. Maybe they got tired of drinking stagnant water and went to find a park where the taps still work. Maybe. I hope.
My routine works for me. I don’t necessarily enjoy it, but it works. Get up with the sun, stretch, eat a can of something. Wash up at the lake, fill the bottle that hasn’t held syrupy Mexican soda for months with greenish water, wait for the algae to settle to the bottom before drinking it. Take a walk around the park, always keeping an eye and an ear out and my car in sight. Try to note any changes.
The noting-of-changes is the hardest part. I sleep so poorly at night that I feel like I’m in a constant dream state. Sometimes I’m sure that I note things that haven’t really changed, or that changed a long time ago, or that have changed, but in a completely natural way.
Today, for instance, a duck actually flew over. It didn’t stop at the lake, but I noted the shadow it cast on the water. That’s a natural change, I suppose. And it tells me something: there is life out there, somewhere. It also made me realize that I haven’t seen another human for days now.
“Duck, come back!” I said. “I don’t care if you shit in my drinking water!”
As soon as the words were out I regretted them. They sounded loud, foolish, in the quiet that is never quite quiet of the park. The duck ignored me. It had better places to be.
It’s been days now since I saw that bird. I’m not surprised that it never came back. Why would it? Even so, I cried when I thought of it this morning. I’m almost out of food, which means that I’m going to have to go hunting for cans. I’m frightened to leave the vicinity of the car, though. It would be easier if I had a companion, and I started thinking of how nice it would be if the duck had stayed for a visit. My logic seems broken though. I don’t think I ever fantasized about making friends with a duck while Justin was around, when we lived in our house, when I had a panini press and a car that ran.
I actually thought I saw a person yesterday, a shadow that disappeared quickly into the dank parking structure down the block. I didn’t fantasize about making friends with the person. Instead, I stayed locked in the car the rest of the day. People are too difficult. Who knows what they might want? Besides, I don’t want to share my last packet of Gatorade. It makes the lake water taste like sweet citrus-flavored algae, which is only slightly better than regular algae. But still. I don’t think a duck would make those sorts of demands on my resources.
Worse than seeing the shadow person is what happens at night now. Something is walking. I don’t know what it is, and don’t want to know. But something, or somethings are abroad. They cast no shadow even when the moon is up. I hear them though. Sometimes there’s a low thumping, like a distant steam piston. Sometimes there’s a sort of clacking, like a train going over the trestles of a bridge. And once, quite close to the car, there was a chitinous clicking, as if some giant crab was climbing the building across the street. Perhaps there was. I kept my eyes tightly closed, and myself rolled in a checkered blanket in the backseat of the car. In the morning I could find no sign of tracks, of anything passing. All the same, I approach the lake with a certain amount of trepidation now, in case there is something hiding under the dull thick water.
I’ve been noticing the sky lately. It looks fine when you look straight at it, pale blue, or streaked with high thin blades of white, or occasionally obscured by dark thunderheads. But, sometimes, if I happen to look up out of the corner of my eye, I see fire. And roiling clouds the color of spilled blood. I noticed it first when I went on the foraging expedition.
I had thought first about entering one of the apartment houses along the neighboring blocks. Surely they are deserted by now. I’ve not seen another human since that might-have-been-person entering the parking garage. When was that, anyway? Must have been days and days ago. Time seems to move strangely now. One day blends into another, and the nights seem longer and longer.
So, the foraging expedition. It was a success, of sorts. I couldn’t bring myself to walk those (hopefully) empty apartment building hallways, so I crept to a diner on the next block instead. Weak early-morning light showed me rows of dusty booths through serrated windows. The fact that it had already been ransacked was a blessing and a curse. I knew there would probably be nothing inside worth bringing back to the car, but at least it saved me jarring anything awake with the violence of breaking glass. I don’t think I could handle a noise like that, now.
Inside I found that, of course, all the good stuff was gone. There were a couple of mummified cupcakes in a glass case, and what might have once been a salad. The place didn’t even smell any more. In the back I found several big cans of pie filling and a box of tea. The tea was exciting. I made elaborate plans for placing glass containers filled with tea bags and lake water on the roof of my car. Would it get hot enough to brew? I was enthusiastic, even started imagining some sort of water filtration system. I was startled to realize that it was the first time I had made any plans at all since Justin disappeared.
And then, as I was hoisting myself over the sharp ridge of glass still attached to the windowsill, I caught a glimpse of the sky. And I wondered. Who can make plans in a world like this? A world where I may be the last thing alive aside from whatever walks at night, where the sky can’t decide whether or not to burn? I went back to the car as quickly and quietly as I could, the box of tea still clutched, forgotten, under my arm.
Justin is back. Justin is back! At least, I think it’s Justin. It pains me that I don’t know for sure. He looks like Justin, under the unfamiliar beard, has the same eyes, longer hair, sure, but the same hair. The things that made him him seem to be gone though.
He doesn’t talk, doesn’t really acknowledge me. Where did he come from, where has he been? He won’t, or can’t, say. I almost died of fright when he woke me in the middle of the night by opening the passenger side door and climbing in. I thought I was dreaming when I saw who it was. He found a granola bar in the glove compartment, mechanically chewed and swallowed it, while I babbled on to him, quietly, in the darkness. It’s strange, but I could have sworn that I locked all the doors before I curled into my checkered blanket. But if it really is Justin, maybe he still has his key? He won’t say, won’t show me what’s in his pockets.
Life goes on, the two of us now drinking inexpertly-filtered lake water tea from the same bottle. We eat from the same cans of pie filling, sometimes walk around the park together too. But he still won’t speak. He hardly ever looks at me, and when he does, his eyes are twin voids. Sometimes I think I’ll go crazy, having him here and yet not here. But at least I can feel the crazy now. I think I wasn’t right for a long time and didn’t even know it. I avoid looking at the sky and try to think for both of us.
The things left me a message last night. I heard the clicking, closer than ever, and in the morning there was writing on the sidewalk next to the car. I don’t know what it was written in. Something black and gooey, blood maybe, although that seems silly given the context of the message: BLOOD SACRIFICE, it said. I dragged Justin out of the car to see it. Grabbed his head and twisted his neck until I was sure that he was focused on it. But he didn’t react. It was then that the thought came to me: maybe he wrote it. Was he saying that he had been sacrificed? That he would kill me? That I should kill him? Too many possibilities. I shook my head, let his head drop to his chest, and embraced him for the first time since he had come back. I don’t care if it isn’t really him, not anymore. I didn’t make him roll up his sleeves, didn’t look for fresh cuts on his hands. I don’t want to think anymore. It’s time to act.
I saw one of them last night, one of the things that walk the city now. I was still awake after dark, the purloined map on my lap illuminated by a full moon. I had found it, along with several candy bars and some cans of pineapple chunks, during a foray to an abandoned convenience store a couple of blocks away. I was plotting, routing our escape from the city.
The thing was big, bigger than a truck, ungainly, oddly graceful. It had long, segmented, crab-like legs, a thick, tick-like body, and nothing but a circular row of waving red cilia surrounding a squid-like beak where a head should be. It was ghastly, almost to the point of being beautiful. I was filled with terror and awe, and continued to watch long after its unstable outline had disappeared in the distance. I didn’t wake Justin.
And then, to my surprise, I continued planning.
We leave today, as soon as the sun is completely up. We aren’t taking the car. Even if we could find gas for it, it makes too much noise. I’m convinced now that the reason I’m still here is that I’m hard to notice. I’m sure the things know about me, but I don’t make much trouble for them. There must be others like me, camped out in apartments and trailers and under off-ramps, surviving, blending in. I wish I knew what happened to Maybe-Justin. It might give me a clue about navigating the streets.
But we’re leaving anyway. It’s going to take days to walk out of the city, and who knows what we’ll find in the countryside? I’ve marked out a route past as many green spaces as possible. I’ve gotten this far by not trusting parking garages and other enclosed underground spaces; parks seem safer. The sky still looks wrong, still burns at the corners of my vision. We still haven’t performed any sort of blood sacrifice. But we’re going. As soon as the sun is up, we’re going.
Corinna Sara Bechko is a writer of both prose and comics who can’t shake her zoology background. She was short-listed for the Aeon Award for her story Sooterkin and has had horror published in All Hallows and Reflection’s Edge. Her graphic novel, Heathentown, was published by Image/Shadowline in 2009. More of her comics work can be seen in anthologies from Marvel, Image, and Double Feature. She shares her home with a black cat and a brilliant illustrator. You can follow her adventures at thefrogbag.blogspot.com
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