By D. Leroy
People try to run, but freedom is impossible. Every road is blocked since both bridges were blown last spring.
I don’t have enough gasoline to attempt an escape. If I did, God help me, I’d at least try, but automobiles are now lifeless vestiges of a world that once was. Now we wait solemnly for the heavy drone of aircraft engines to pass overhead. Surrendering to death ushers despair ― a sense of failure mostly, and wrongness ― just so wrong. My brain won’t abandon the idea of running. Just grabbing up my kids and running like crazy until we reach the woods, and then running more. But to where? Some claim the poison is painless and merciful. You just go to sleep. I pray that’s true.
My wife, Tammy, gazes skyward. Her tear-filled eyes reflect the day’s waning light. My two young children sense that something ominous looms over us. I can tell by the way they stop and gaze pleadingly from dirty faces, as if to ask, You won’t let them hurt us, will you? All I can do is stand helpless in the dead lawn.
Tammy asks, “Do you think we’ll taste it?”
I can’t answer. I don’t know, and speech eludes me. I wrap my arm around her thin shoulders.
She cries then. Her starved body trembles.
I cry, too. God help me, it’s all I can do.
I catch the tears streaming down my daughter’s cheeks, and my eyes dart away. Ashamed. Her innocent face — all of seven-years-old — accuses me and asks for protection I can’t provide. She reminds me so much of Tammy with her hazel eyes and delicate features.
The first flake, fat and white, drifts past my face, and I stare stupidly until it lands lifeless on the asphalt. How long does it take to work? The sun has fallen below the treetops, and only the orange horizon remains of this day… our last day. More flakes float weightlessly to the earth. Tammy’s face remains buried against my chest.
I have to tell her, but can’t draw the words into my throat. My nine-year-old son cries, “It’s here! The poison’s here!” We’d heard about the poison from drifters — about how it was being spread across the countryside. They told us how it works and how it looks like snow.
Tammy’s head jerks up, her eyes wide. “I didn’t hear the planes!”
“No,” I don’t bother to scan the skies. “Nothing.”
Across the road, our elderly neighbors trudge out their front door, hand in hand, and ease themselves into their old porch swing. Both of them tilt their heads skyward and watch the poison fall. Their pensive expressions say what I feel: Time to sleep. Just sleep and sleep.
I grasp Tammy’s hand. Our eyes meet and, sorrow lingers heavily between us. We had this discussion already and agreed on what we’d do when the poison fell. Before the war, life blossomed and the faintest memories still hovered over us. What seemed like an eternity ago, my father and I bought an old tractor tire from the junkyard out in Kramer. He’d smiled proudly and said with his hands on his hips, “Fill this thing with sand and you’ll keep them kids busy for hours.” Oh, how right he’d been. Then the war started and swept away all things good. Just yesterday, when the emergency relief station broadcasted that the poison was coming, Tammy and I agreed that we’d take the kids and just lie down in that dirty old sand-tire and go to sleep, closing off the misery of this rotting world forever.
Tammy cries as she holds out her hands to our kids. “Time to go, my angels.” Her stuffy voice hurts me; I don’t know if it’s my heart or something more powerful that aches at her sadness. My mind teeters on panic, and I think, The basement… we could get in the basement. Maybe the poison can’t get in there. But of course, it can. We’ve already heard that it permeates everything and actually makes death more long and laborious if you try to hide from it.
Our children drop their toys, not making a fuss or even attempting to argue. Sometimes kids just know when something bad is happening. We make our way slowly to the back yard as darkness settles in.
The poison cascades down in droves, dusting the ground and alighting softly in my wife’s hair. I flick it out. It’s hard to breathe normally, but I try.
I glance up at the dark sky as we reach the sand tire. The black dot of an aircraft high in the air drifts across, a tiny silhouette shadowed against a star-splattered night. Then I hear it, so faint. That horrid drone. We saw a lot of planes right after the war started. That was before the power went out and everyone thought we were winning. I remember watching the news with Tammy in perplexed silence, gazing in horror as reporters provided harrowing updates. We gaped nervously at the battles raging behind them in places we knew, like Denver and Dallas.
I’ll never forget how tightly Tammy gripped my hand while watching the battle at Indianapolis, only forty-five minutes from our home and how bizarre it all was — like seeing coverage of a foreign country. But the true horror had been stepping out into our own yard and hearing it, the concussive explosions and the flashes on the horizon at night like an approaching thunderstorm.
Not long after that, the news broadcasts stopped.
Tammy lies down in the sand and opens her arms for the kids to join her. My son cries softly. My daughter asks how long we’ll have to lie here and she yawns. “Not long.” Tammy embraces her. My eyes droop heavily. It’s happening. Tammy starts to blink, and her head bobs. Sleep comes quickly with no pain at all.
I lie down and as I situate myself, the horrid realization that Tammy and my kids are already asleep prompts a wet sob to lurch from my throat. But not for long. I whisper weakly, “I love you,” and then the darkness takes me and the world is gone.
My eyes flutter open and I cough. The poison puffs up in murky clouds, and I sit up with a gasp. I feel sick. How long does it take before we die? A glimmer of hope sparks in my chest. What if it wasn’t poison… what if it was just ashes or something weird? If I’m not dead yet, then maybe we have a chance. Tammy sleeps, and the kids are cuddled up next to her. A thin layer of white covers them like dust, and I think how awful it looks. I swipe it from Tammy’s arm, then recoil at the feel of her cold, hard skin. She’s dead… Oh goddamn it, she’s dead!
I cover my mouth and weep as I watch them lying there, so peaceful. I expect Tammy’s eyes to snap open and look at me, but they don’t, and they never will.
I climb slowly from the sand-tire and brush the poison from my clothes. I can’t pull my eyes away from my dead family. The flakes no longer fall, but the darkness lingers. My feet tangle, and I stumble back and fall hard onto my butt. White powder plumes around me, and I scramble back to my feet. What in God’s name is happening here? I must be dreaming. But then I taste the stale air, feel the dread, and everything is too real for it to be a dream.
The poison didn’t kill me.
I lumber feebly out to the front of the house, and I’m met by eerie stillness. A thick layer of milky dust coats everything, like freshly fallen snow. My eyes crawl from one silent house to another. My elderly neighbors remain on their porch swing, slumped together as dead as my family. I cry, and my cries turn to wails.
I yell, “Is anyone alive?”
I cup my hands around my mouth. “Anyone out there?”
I fall to my knees in the darkness of this lifeless world, and my screams shatter its incoherent stillness. Hope fled this place long ago. Today was to be the last day. Only death can break its steely grasp. With that, I collapse to my side and await its mercy. Oh, sweet mercy. Death would come, gratefully. Welcomed. I craved it, for it would be my first taste of freedom.
And the hours pass.
I don’t know how long I am there before I hear that distant yell for help. So faint, so weak, yet so real. I consider getting up, but the thought sickens me. The white powder has been strewn by the wind, and its snowy quality has aged to a dingy gray, like old ashes. My mind dwells on my dead family and with each horrid image, my heart shrinks to nothing. If the poison won’t kill me, I’ll find another way.
That far-off voice. “Somebody please… help me… help me!”
So far away. A woman.
A single thought coalesces within me, and I stir and eventually sit up. Who is that?
I slowly rise and begin to trudge toward her. Whether manufactured in my broken mind or placed there by God, one question eludes me: Why can’t I die? Perhaps I am immune to the poison like some people are immune to the flu. But can one be immune to poison?
I start to wonder if there isn’t more to me than just a man of flesh and bone.
Perhaps God has designed me to destroy this faceless enemy that has stolen everything. Am I insane?
The voice. “Help me! Please!”
My pace quickens as certainty is wiped clean and mystery looms before me. “I’m coming!”
I find solace that whoever owns that distant voice heard me and must be smiling right now.
We are not alone.
D. Leroy grew up in Indiana where he started writing fiction at the age of thirteen. After seven years in the military and over fifteen years in the technology industry, he now resides right back in Warren County, Indiana with his wife and five children. You can find him online at his website.