10-28-09 – Housekeeping

I hate being sneaky. I hate keeping things from people that have stood by me, defended me, fought with me – but what choice do I have? Sure, I could stay and debate the best course of action and sit around picking my ass while Collin and Finn argue about where to go… But honestly? I’m sick of it. Sick to death of it, of sharing, of caring, of holding hands and hugging and pretending things are going to turn out fine.

They aren’t fine. They never were, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to pretend that watching Lydia fawn all over her prize doesn’t make me want to gouge my own eyeballs out. It’s time. It’s been a long time coming and now I need to just suck it up and face the lonely road ahead.

Ted and Renny are fast asleep when I get up. Dapper is too, but he doesn’t protest much when I nudge him to get out of the tent. It’s early, only a few hours after going back to bed, and I haven’t slept much at all. We sleep in our clothes, in our shoes, in our coats. I don’t have much to take with me and it doesn’t seem right to take their food or their supplies so I just take my ax and my laptop bag and a few granola bars. There will be places to ransack, to pilfer, I tell myself, and they won’t suffer much without me, not when they have Captain Commando and Ned I-Can-Hit-A-Splintered-Toothpick-At-Thirty-Yards Stockton; I’m injured, and a lousy shot anyway.

I stretch and do a few jumping jacks on the crunchy, frosty ground. I’m getting used to the feeling of being cold all the time and of living with that little twisted pit of hunger in my stomach; I’ve taken on the life of just about every Dickens character I can think of. Dapper sits and scratches his ear, unperturbed by my morning calisthenics and unaware that soon, very soon, he won’t get to steal food out of Evan’s little hand or clean Ted’s palms after he’s eaten a bag of cheese puffs.

I try not to think about those things. I try to forget that in a matter of minutes, as soon as I dip down below the hill and make it behind a building or two, there will be no more Ted, no more Collin and no more ankle biters. It’s sad, sure, but sadness and hunger are hard to tease apart this early in the morning. The grass is stiff and loud as I take a deep breath and set off down the hill. I think, judging by the sunrise, I’m heading vaguely east. There are no zebras in the mist this morning, no lions or giraffes, and no humans to stop me.

There’s a zip-crack in the distance; Finn’s sniper rifle. I know it’s him because he’s in love with that gun and Collin generally uses an assault rifle that sounds more like rat-ki-tat. Finn must have switched guard duty with Collin sometime in the night. I pick up the pace, trotting down the hill and toward a cluster of trees at the base of the hill. If Finn mistakes me for one of the undead then my little adventure will be very short-lived. I make it to the trees, my heart pounding, my lungs practically breaking with the soreness of my ribs. I keep hoping that there’s nothing really wrong with me, that the sprain or break will heal on its own, that I’m not quietly, secretly bleeding to death of some horrible internal injury.

Dapper stays close, his nose more or less glued to the back of my knee as I slow down and head toward the street. It’s real now. I’ve put distance between me and the camp and going back would mean an extra awkward conversation with the group. I won’t go back, I won’t.

I don’t know if they’ll guess where I’ve gone, but it doesn’t matter; no one knows how to get there. I cross what must be Wingra Street and turn south toward Erin Street. For now I’ll just have to guess, because most of the distinguishing features of the neighborhood have been destroyed by fires. The buildings and brownstones are nothing but charred, hollowed out skeletons with the broken windows empty, staring down at the forlorn street, standing watch over the fallen mailboxes and stopped cars.

The roads are quiet until I get to Orchard, where a group of groaners move up the right lane toward me. There’s three of them and they’ve got that disjointed, desperate speed that tells me they’re hungry, starving. Luckily it also means they’re weak and clumsy and too distracted by their own driving hunger to be much of a threat. And it doesn’t bother me. Not anymore. I can’t even imagine what a psychologist would have to say about that; I can look at a decomposing human, a person reduced to meat, to flesh and bone and their raw, brittle parts and feel only the faintest pang of revulsion. Ned put it best: You’re doing them a favor. Don’t think of it as the shot of a gun or the swipe of an ax, but a consoling gesture, a lover’s touch.

Luckily, whatever part of Dapper is German Shepherd makes him a natural at commands; I’ve taught him sit and stay and he does, his tail twitching with excitement and frustration as I take the ax to the three groaners. He wants to help, to defend me, but if he bites even one of them I’ll be short a good dog and a loyal companion.

I’m out of breath after that, the ax hanging limply in my right hand. Without sleep, without enough food, I’m not much use against the undead. It hurts to pull a full breath into my lungs and the pain has made my arms weak. I make a promise to treat myself better, to eat more and exercise and regain the strength that I’ve lost. There’s no room for mistakes now, no one to pick up the slack for me if I stumble or hesitate.

Taking a rest, I kneel down and carefully clean the ax on one of the groaner’s torn windbreakers. I’m worried Dapper will try to lick it and get himself sick.

It takes us another thirty minutes to get to Lowell and every time we encounter one of the wandering undead it gets harder and harder to swing the ax. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe I should have waited until I was stronger, healed, before striking out on my own. Who will keep watch while I sleep? Dapper? Suddenly, martyrdom seems significantly less glamorous and a lot more like a slow, creeping death.

It’s quiet on Lowell Street, which is simultaneously encouraging and a little alarming; there’s not a normal human being to be found, no wondering dogs, nothing to indicate that life remains. I’m not used to seeing the neighborhood like this – still, silent, filled up with wind and the eerie sense that time passes here with no one to mark its movement. I had seen it like this a few times before; whenever the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or Easter Hat Parade rolled around, the houses would empty out early in the morning and no one would return until lunch time. But at least then there was the promise of return, the feeling that soon the neighbors would walk up the drive, tired or sunburned but pleasantly so.

Like every other neighborhood we’ve slogged through, there’s signs of a hasty retreat: front doors hang open, windows have been smashed and never replaced, SUVs and sedans clutter up the yards where escapes failed or the driver simply abandoned the car. The grass has grown long, tickling the top fenders of the SUVs, growing up and out as if to swallow the cars or turn them into ancient, tattered monuments to What Once Was.

The Hewitt residence is more than halfway down the block on the right side. It’s not a big house but I’ve always loved it. Just big enough to feel spacious but cozy enough to feel personal and loved and lived-in. There are no groaners here and no floaters, just the sound of morning moving forward and a few birds greeting the sun as it winks at the city and then moves behind a bank of clouds. It’s an old brick two-story house with a sharply slanted roof and a porch with white, wooden railings. We always had plans to make it a screened-in porch to keep the mosquitoes out during the summer. We talked about getting the New Yorker and some mint juleps and reading aloud to each other on the muggy July nights when there was nothing to do but sit and bask in the wet, dizzy heat.

Idle plans. Idle plans that were never to be executed. Idle plans that now, at a distance, seem childish and sweet, like a starry-eyed kid idolizing a fireman, not realizing that he’s just a man, a man just doing a job that he gets paid to do.

There’s a flag still hanging outside our house, a big white flag with a green peace sign. My mom was always a serious hippy and I could never convince her to get rid of that stupid flag. It seems vulgar now, swinging there, blaring a message of peace that means nothing at all anymore.

The car is gone, the garage door shut. I tell myself this is a good sign. I look for all kinds of signs, clues, hints that will tell me where she is, if she’s alive or not. And like all signs, like all palm-readers and self-styled mystics, I’m grasping in the dark. But it’s an earnest grasping and I can’t seem to stop. The mailbox is empty and most of the windows are still okay. When I get onto the porch there are brown stains on the wood floor but that doesn’t necessarily mean something bad happened. It could be anything. Anything.

I have to kick the door down. That makes me smile. What a tender touch, Mom, locking the door when Armageddon is coming for you. Inside it stinks, but it’s a human kind of stink, a stench I recognize by now. There’s food somewhere that’s spoiled and the dirty dishes in the sink have begun a new and exciting mold colony. Tiny untold worlds have sprung-up all over the house – cobwebs, mold, a trail of leaves leading to a broken window… But there’s no sign of my mother, just a sense that things were left in a hurry.

There’s a line of shoes against the wall of the mudroom but her gardening work boots are missing. Our matching flip flops are there, reminding me again of the way we relished summer, the way we made it our own and squeezed every last warm, lazy day out of it. But maybe not enough… Maybe we should have enjoyed it even more, taken every possible moment to dream up ways of having a pleasant time, of making fond memories. Because now… Now?

Now there’s the smell of rotten milk and it doesn’t matter that the refrigerator door is closed because the decay, the rot, is everywhere. The spiders have made good use of the kitchen, constructing webs in every corner, stringing their houses from faucet to knob, from cookbook to fruit bowl. There are two black, caved-in apples in that bowl and a folded card next to it.

Remember us again next year! The Landry Family Apple Orchard

The card is trimmed in gold and red and a fragile little ribbon wound through a puncture at the top. I pick up the card, wipe the thin film of dust off of it, and tuck it into my back pocket. Dapper is busy sniffing every possible source of food and I keep a sharp eye on him, concerned that he’ll decide a decidedly rotten piece of fruit is edible. His doggy curiosity does not include a matured sense of taste.

I explore the living room, the breakfast nook, the back porch. The upstairs is empty too but my mother’s closet is still open, a trail of socks and underwear leading to the bed. There’s an impression on the mattress, a little square dent where maybe a suitcase sat. She got out, I think, forcing back a sickening wave of disappointment, she left. I don’t know why I want her to be there, what I was expecting. If she stayed she would be dead. Leaving, of course, was her only option.

I take some soap, shampoo, toothpaste and floss and go into my old bedroom. The windows are grimy and covered with the wispy patterns of cobwebs. I pack up some spare clothes in an old My Little Pony rucksack, the only thing in my closet with decent capacity. My grown up things are at my apartment, but that’s too close to the thick of things, to whatever managed to survive the arena blaze. The clothes I choose will probably be on the snug side since they’re from high school, but it’s better than nothing. I try to find things of value to bring with me, things that might be worth trading for food or medicine. I find a box of old condoms underneath the mattress in my room; they’re passed the expiration date but I know from the arena that they’re just as valuable as cigarettes. There’s a pack of those under my mattress too, stale and crappy but maybe worth a can of green beans.

Before leaving, I go back downstairs and check near the phone. The phone is off the cradle, lying on a cluttered desk where my mom kept the mail and bills. It’s an antique, something from my grandmother’s attic and it still smells like sour books after all these years. The answer machine is there but without electricity it’s useless. There is , however, a post-it note near the machine, folded and faded but stuck in a prominent position. I pick it up, carefully smoothing down the edges.

Allie –
Don’t know if you will make it here. I hope you’re safe. Aunt Tammy called, she said they’re setting up a camp in Fort Morgan. Take 39 down to 88, then to 80. Just follow 80 until you hit 76. It’s a long way, sweetie, and I don’t know if we’ll make it. I’m leaving with the Andersons from next door. I love you so much, Allie.

And then at the bottom, underlined:

See you soon in Liberty Village!

Fort Morgan. Fort Morgan, Colorado. I’ve been there a few times to see Aunt Tammy and her family. They’re good people, outdoorsy types, hunters, fishers, kayakers… But that’s many states away, many hundreds and hundreds of miles away from here. I don’t know why but the way it sits there on the scrap of paper, the way she’s underlined it, the way the exclamation point jumps off the page… It sounds too good to be true. It sounds like Utopia and I, more than anything, want to be there with her.

I go back upstairs, feeling a strange heaviness in my hands, and go into my mother’s bedroom. She’s left her perfume behind. I always loved the way she smelled, and that she never ever changed the perfume she wore. The scent has breathed into everything in that room and Anna Sui’s name might be on the bottle but it’s my mom’s scent. I take the perfume bottle and hold it up to the light. Through the purple glass I can see there’s just a quarter of an inch left in the bottle. I shove it into my backpack and turn to go.

But there’s a sound downstairs, footsteps on the porch. There’s a stumble and a crack and my ax is up and ready to swing. I whisper to Dapper, who begrudgingly sits behind me, staring up at me with those wounded brown eyes. I know you want to help, boy, but it’s for your own good.

The footsteps come up the stairs, scraping across the wood, elbows or arms bumping against the wall. I can feel a little burst of energy come to me, a tenacity, a will to defend what’s mine. They won’t come in my house, they won’t get me, not here and not now.

See you soon in Liberty Village!

I move a few steps closer to the open door. I need to get the drop on them because I have no idea how many they are. It could be just one but it sounds more like two or three. Tiptoeing, I command my heart to slow down, to give me a rest so I can concentrate, but the adrenaline is coming too fast and making my hands shake…

There’s a peak of skin at the door, a hand maybe, and I wind up and let out a shout as I aim the blade at neck level.

Whud!

“Gah – I – Jesus!”

“Fuck!”

“Oh Jesus, Jesus Christ, Allison!”

It’s Ted and, thank Christ, his neck is still attached. The ax is buried two inches in the door frame but Ted is on the floor, his hands over his head. Renny stands in the doorway, clutching her chest with fright, her mouth a big wide O.

“Ted! Fuck! I could’ve fucking killed you!” I scream, jumping back and nearly tripping over Dapper.

“You could’ve fucking beheaded me,” Ted corrects, his shriek just about reaching the same panicked pitch.

Too excited by the commotion to stay sitting, the dog runs to Ted, licking his face and hands. If my heart was pounding before then it’s jackhammering a hole through my chest now. Ted looks at me from the ground, thunderclouds gathering in his eyes.

“Oh,” I say, straightening up as my pulse finally starts to regulate itself. Ted gets to his feet, placating Dapper with a few head scratches. “Funny meeting you here.”

“We followed you,” Ted says.

“Yeah I can see that.”

“My idea,” Renny boasts, yanking the ax out of the door fame. “He said you’d be mad but I didn’t expect this.” She nods toward the mangled wooden frame.

“I thought you were… Whatever… What are you doing here?” I ask, taking the ax back from her. A little shower of splinters falls on Dapper’s head.

“We asked Ned. I think he wanted to come but Evan and Mikey could use a change of pace, you know, some time to rest,” Ted replies.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” I say, shaking my head.

“You can’t make it on your own. It’s… It’s a stupid idea, Allison, and I think you know that,” he says.

“And I wasn’t going to let you pawn me off on a bunch of strangers,” Renny adds, glaring at me.

“You know Ned,” I tell her, “and the kids.”

“No I don’t. I don’t even know you but I’d rather be stuck with you all. Less chance of getting shot.”

“Collin and Finn know what they’re doing,” I say.

“Yeah? Then why’d you leave?”

“Oh I don’t know, things were getting a little exhausting ever since my life turned into a fucking Mariah Carey song.”

“Lydia’s just… She’s just one person, you know? We could’ve figured it out. But I guess that doesn’t matter now. Not really, because we’re coming with you,” Ted says, peering at me from the long black fringe over his eyes. “There’s no point in arguing because we’ll just follow you.”

“Ted…”

“No, listen to me, please. I know I’m wrong sometimes but not always and I think you and me… We owe it to each other. We’ve been together from the start of this mess and we’ve managed to stay alive. That means something, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that matter to you?”

“Sure it matters, but… I don’t know… I just thought it was time for a change,” I say, avoiding his eyes. “It’s nothing against you, or you Renny… I thought maybe it’d be better somehow.”

“Well it’s not,” Renny says, throwing up her hands, “It’s a dumb ass idea and you could’ve gotten yourself killed. Here.” She hands me a gun, a narrow little pistol. “Ned said to take this. He gave all of us a few things. He said to wish you luck and to give you this.” And here she takes my hand and shakes it, hard, like one professional to another.

“Fuck,” I say, feeling like she socked me in the stomach instead. I want to see Ned again and I want to see his kids. But this is the cost…

“So where to?” Ted asks, brightening up considerably.

“I found this,” I say, handing them the post-it in my pocket. I’m glad they have something to look at so I can quickly dab my eyes with the backs of my fingers. I don’t say to them “I’m so glad you’re here” or “I could really use the help” but I’m thinking it. The relief of having them there – of having them inadvertently correct my enormous blunder – makes my legs syrupy and weak.

“Liberty Village? What the fuck kind of joke is that?” Renny asks, chuckling.

“It’s not a joke,” I say, snatching the post-it out of her hands. “This is where my mom went and it’s where I’m going too. Where we’re going, if you two insist on following me.”

“Liberty Village it is then,” Ted chirps. “Watch out… Uh… Where is that exactly?”

“Colorado.”

“Oh. Right! Watch out, Colorado, here we come!”

“Stirring,” I say, tucking the pistol into the back of my waistband. “Come on, let’s get downstairs and see if there are any canned rations left.”

My Little Pony, eh?” Renny asks, patting the big pink insignia on my backpack.

“Yeah. You know how I roll.”

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4 Responses to “10-28-09 – Housekeeping”

  1. I’m so glad that you are still alright.
    Scared me half to death when you said you were going by yourself!
    Keep strong Allison and please; keep safe.

  2. Someday, if life is fair, you will be famous.

  3. Jefferson Says:

    Someday, if life is fair, you will be alive and happy.

    I’m way up in Northern Minnesota and you should know something strange that I noticed about these things this week: they’re seeking shelter from the winter in groups. We had our first really cold snap this week (around 0º) and about fifteen inches of snow. We’ve been holed up in a very nice multi-room summer home at the top of the hill overlooking Lake Superior all this time, and we have a view of pretty much everything going on in the town below us, and nothing but wilderness behind us (btw, bears, even small black bears that have become these things are just nasty). We have stockpiled plenty of firewood and canned goods, but we still go out every day to scrounge what we can-extra clothes, etc.

    With all of the new snow, the town actually looked peaceful and almost pretty. No fires. The charred buildings were white. It also got rid of that smell that has been lingering, even with the lake winds, for what seems like forever. Anyway, it was the snow that helped us discover it. As we got into the town I began to notice tracks. My scavenging partner, who is far more optimistic than I am, immediately assumed that someone new had made it into the town and was looking for supplies or shelter, but I could tell from the tracks that it was them-lopsided gait; one footprint dragging a trail rather than being picked up; shuffled feet; you get the idea. The more we went around, the more tracks we saw, and I couldn’t believe how many of them there were still left in this town, but they all led to a warehouse near the lake where a door was swinging crooked on its hinge. We didn’t go too close that day, but we went back the next and I made it close enough to see in the windows from the back side of the warehouse. There must have been a thousand of them just standing around while the wind outside howled. They weren’t shuffling. They weren’t making noise. Just standing there like they were waiting for an airplane or a bus announcement. I signaled my partner to come around and look and it didn’t take us five minutes to figure out what to do.

    Thankfully, Northern Minnesotans drink heavily because of the cold, and that means lots of liquor stores. We found one that still had a few bottles of stock left, found the highest alcohol content we could (I never thought I would actually be glad to see a bottle of pure grain again) and made our bombs. That warehouse went up like tinder box from the inside out and they still didn’t make a sound. The fire burned for a couple of days and destroyed a couple of the surrounding buildings, but the snow kept it pretty confined. I’m not sure we got all of the things in the town, but we sure took a big step. I’m telling you this long story because if you guys are traveling to Colorado, you’re going to be in high altitudes in cold weather and the opportunity might arise. I suggest you (and others reading) take advantage.

    Good luck. Stay safe, and watch out for bears and other critters that might be infected on your journey.

  4. I’m hoping the lack of posts mean you’re on the raod and aren’t finding wifi along the way. Stay safe!

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