Authors: Cara Coe
Not If You Were the Last Vampire on Earth
Copyright © 2016 by U. Mandy Carrico
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the above author of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
A 1980’s one hit wonder by Tommy Tutone. I found it in a CD in a records store in downtown Tuscon, Arizona. My hometown. The only city I’ve ever lived in and one I haven’t left in over a decade. The music store was on Washington Avenue, a nostalgic establishment clinging to the good ol’ days with vinyl records and compact discs and cassette tapes. Just skimming the list of songs off the
Pop Hits of the
album was enough to torment me for days. My eyes landed on the title and I was done for.
I didn’t know I was musically infected right away. It happened while I was giving my dog Mowgli a bath. He’d run through some sewage sludge and being within a hundred yards of his stinky dog fur was excruciating. Scrubbing the shampoo into his fur, I caught myself humming.
And then pushing my cart through Albertson’s to pick up some Campbell’s Bistro soup, it happened again.
My feet shuffled to the beat in my head. My flashlight became a drumstick on the cart handle. I felt my hips swivel to the left and to the right again. All these actions swept through my body until I froze mid-sway and crinkled my eyebrows.
Was I just dancing to Tommy Tutone?
Then it wasn’t just humorously catching myself singing or humming under my breath at random moments. It was curses and grunts and a pulled hair or two.
While unearthing full grown potatoes from the north patch of my garden, that contagious song struck me again. “
Jenny, I got your number. I need to make you mine. Jenny, don’t change your number
I rocked back on my heels and looked at Mowgli who cocked his head at my frustration. He didn’t run with his tail between his legs because he knew he wasn’t the cause of my outburst. He rarely was. Mostly, I reserved the choice words for his brothers, Bagheera and Baloo. The mischievous duo. They were always putting their muddied paws on freshly laundered clothing or engaging in fevered wrestling matches – one which knocked down three hours-worth of a dominoes trail that weaved around tables and chairs in an abandoned mall food court.
But it was easy enough to weather their frustrating antics once the moment had passed. In a world devoid of companionship, they were family. And they never broke the rules that mattered. They never swiped food, they always came home, and they protected me. To the death, I learned, when Baloo braved a wolf who came looking for the rabbit I was roasting over a small pit. A book from the University of Arizona Medical Library, smashing some glass into a vet clinic, and a long night of learning how to stitch and disinfect his wounds kept him with me. Though his leg healed funny and he runs with it turned slightly outward.
Songs came and went. The longer I went without new music, the deeper I delved into past eras. I began collecting iPods and MP3 players I found, charging them at home and listening as I completed my tasks for the day. The playlist owner came back to life for a few hours and kept me company metaphysically.
Vegas Road Trip 2010
made me dance,
Workout Number 4
kept me motivated,
made me laugh though I’m sure the owner wore an opposite expression when she (maybe he?) listened to it, but
Missing Benny –
that one made me cry. It made me cry so forcefully that I stopped my tasks and just kept pushing repeat on
by the Dave Matthews Band until my chest pinched so tight, it was hard to breathe.
This wasn’t some break up. Benny died. I wonder if he died in The Before when everyone would have stopped to give him their attention and feelings for the whole day, maybe some for whole weeks. Or if he died in The Sweep where the only person who had time to care was the playlist owner.
This song – this stupid Jenny song – this one didn’t leave. I sang it absently here and there for a couple weeks before the first phone call. I was rummaging through the office of a CVS pharmacy trying to find a key to their allergy case. The pollen was thick for days and the Claritin was mocking me on the other side of the plastic.
While digging through desk drawers I saw the phone. It was a simple push-button affair stuck to the wall like a relic caught in time. I lifted the receiver and listened to the hum of the dial tone. With The Sweep putting everyone in a panic, the government rolled out high-level research power generators that run on K-cells or Kauter-cells, named after the woman who invented them. Essentially, they provided a high output of energy with a low maintenance reaction. Gas and oil lobbyists would have hated them if they’d lived long enough to muster up enough of the feeling.
These babies were put in essential locations: government operations, hospitals, emergency services, and communications. Including phone companies. Unfortunately, none of it matters because there’s no one to care about the power in the essential locations. Last time I checked, a bear didn’t know how to dial out for pizza or an eagle would just perch on the arm of an X-ray machine, rather than have his eagle friend climb in it so he can explore the bones inside of him.
But still. I was here. Maybe there’s not another living soul in the entire world, but I know how to use the phone. So I did. The only area code I knew off the top of my head besides Tucson’s was one from Chicago because my brother-in-law had been from Chicago: 312.
I said the numbers as I punched. “Three, one, two…eight, six, seven, five, three, oh, ni-e-yine.”
It was a non-working telephone number.
I hung up.
But the next day I couldn’t help picking up a list of area codes from the library. It was a fruitless exercise but even the act of dialing felt cathartic. I could pretend for a few moments that there was someone else out there. My heart even stuttered for a few held breaths while the last of the numbers were punched. Boise this time.
It was a non-working number.
I was seventeen when The Sweep went full force and the majority of people got sick. I was eighteen when it got my father. I sat with him while he died at home. The hospitals were too crowded and too useless anyway. I felt so alone. It was an achy, wretched feeling.
But even then I wasn’t alone, not truly.
I was nineteen when I saw the last live human being. It was a woman limping through a park with a red scarf on her head and a tattered coat covering her thin arms. She held a bottle of something in her armpit. I only remember her because I paused to wonder what it was a bottle of. I didn’t realize at the time she was the last I’d see. If I’d known, I would have remembered more details. Maybe said hi. I was used to not seeing people. I’d gone weeks at a time without seeing anyone else, so it was months before I realized she was it. And once I knew she was it, I started looking.
Looking, looking, looking. It took over everything for a while, this need to see another person. But after a year, I stopped looking so hard. I found Mowgli and Bagheera and Baloo in a litter where three of their siblings had already died and their mother was nowhere to be found. Caring for them comforted me for a while. After two years, I went on a steady diet of prescription pills and laid out in Hotel Derek downtown with its washed out fanciness and dim prestige. I don’t remember much about those five months. I barely fed myself. I smelled. It wasn’t until Bagheera got trapped in a sinkhole and I didn’t even realize it until I noticed I hadn’t seen him for over a week and I found him exhausted and crying and near starved that I flushed all the stashes of pills I knew of and gritted my teeth through the withdrawals.
It has been over a year since I cleaned myself up. I stopped looking for other people. I took victories in the little things like building a fire from scratch or growing a zucchini or knitting two mittens that were
identical. I talked to my dogs like they were my children. I lived my life without trying to inject it with too much hope. Except those few minutes each day when I ripped a sheet out of the area codes book and carried it with me until I passed by a phone. Then I’d try the number.
Sometimes it rang. Most times the number didn’t work. But I allowed myself those few moments of gluttony.
I sat on the sacking station at an Albertson’s and turned a can of dog food around in my hand in an arbitrary inspection. “Chicken?” I asked Baloo, holding it up from him to see. “You feel like chicken today?”
Baloo barked his approval.
The cashier stations had the antique phones my eyes were automatically alerted to. The kind without all the fancy gadgets and buttons or cordless ones that needed electricity to work. I hummed and punched in the number. Houston this time.
I tucked the receiver between my ear and shoulder, set the can of doggie chow between my legs and began opening it with the can opener.
The ringing started.
I raised my eyebrows at the waiting Baloo. “We have a ringer,” I told him. He didn’t care. His eyes watched my can opener. I circled around until the opener sliced through top and popped off the lid. Complete with the task, I moved to hang up the phone so I could feed my hungry dog but as the receiver moved away from my ear I heard a breathless, “Hello?”
I brought the phone back to my ear. The voice pushed out the greeting again with a tone of desperation rising with each repeated attempt.
“Hello? Who is there? Hello?”
I swallowed thickly until I could unglue my voice. And then I spoke to another soul for the first time in four years. “Jenny, I’ve got your number.”
“You have my what?”
The voice was deep. Not the low-tones-talking-section-of-an-R&B-song deep, but still guy deep. Man deep. Not-woman deep.
“Um, the Jenny song. That’s your phone number,” I stammered.
“What? I don’t understand.”
“It’s a song. A one hit wonder. I dialed it and you picked up.” I sang it. “
He laughed softly. The sound socked me in my stomach. It was so human. So tangible.
“You dialed a phone number from a pop song?”
“Yes,” I answered. I shook my head. Why were we discussing something so insignificant? Suddenly questions burned in my mouth. They began rolling off my tongue in waves. “Are you alone? Are there people there? Who are you? Is the city okay? Was just my city wiped out?”
I took a breath. I felt shaky.
“I’m alone.” He answered the only one that mattered. The one that meant that the past several years were not a bad dream or a weird plague that only killed every man, woman, and child in Tucson while the rest of the world remained untouched.
I sagged against the pole I was sitting next to. Baloo whined impatiently and I realized I was still holding his open can of dog food. I dumped it in a bowl and hopped off the belt to give it to him. “Where are your brothers?” I asked him, frowning and scanning quickly for Mowgli and Bagheera. Baloo didn’t answer, as he shouldn’t, and began to chomp away happily.
“I don’t have any brothers,” the voice said and I started. He thought I’d been asking him.
“One. She died.”
“It was many years ago. When it first struck.”
I fell silent. So did he. We have forgotten how to have a conversation. It’s been too long. But neither of us hung up. The sound of his breathing made me feel like a person and not just a creature existing to exist. I closed my eyes and let the feeling wash over me.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
I opened my eyes. I didn’t want to tell him.
“No, it’s not.”
I shrugged a pointless shrug. One he couldn’t see. “Does it matter? What’s your name?”
A laugh almost bubbled out of me and I clamped it down with a hand over my mouth. In case that really was his name.
“As long as we’re hiding behind aliases,” he expanded and I couldn’t help but smile.
. Question: if you’re alone, who have you been talking to on the phone?”
. No one. Your phone call was the first time I’ve heard one ringing in years. I’d forgotten what the sound was for a moment. By the time I figured out someone was calling, I had to run to the phone. Across half a floor and a frantic dig under a mountain of papers.”
“Yeah. The number you called is a phone in a hospital.”
“Are you sick?”
“If I was, who would be taking care of me?”
“Oh. Right.” I felt stupid. “Duh.”
“It’s okay. I’m a little weirded out that I’m even talking to someone right now. On the phone. What city are you in?”
I dodged the question. “So why are you in a hospital then?” I could think of half a dozen more comfortable places to bunk. The k-cell generators aren’t large and can be hooked up anywhere.
“Research. I was a med student when The Sweep happened. I needed to be…useful still.”
Med student. My mind began to calculate his age in my head but it was impossible to know at what stage of medical school he was in when his studies were rudely interrupted by a species-ending plague.
“How old are you?” I opted for bluntness.
“Ah. A long pause after my med school tidbit before asking the question. What number did you come up with?”
“None. I haven’t eaten yet today and I have a headache. Harder to think.”
“I’m twenty-four. I was nineteen when it happened.”
Two years older than me. I let him ask me first before I told him my age so he could feel like I didn’t shoot down all his questions. My age was safe enough.
“Hmmm. I felt older than you,” he said.
“How can you feel older than me? We’ve been talking for five minutes.”
“I have a sixth sense for these things.”
“I see. Well, I suppose it’s a useless sense now. Since everyone is gone.”
He paused. “Almost everyone. I still can’t believe I’m talking to you.”
“Why were you even calling when you thought no one would answer?”
“Because it felt good to hope for a second.”
“If you were hoping to hear from someone, why won’t you tell me where you are?”
How to answer him…
My mind drew back to those final days when life stopped being normal and everyone looked at everyone else with wide eyes. The desperation to live colored all of our faces. Some people withdrew into themselves and waited to die. Some people threw themselves into solutions: stockpile supplies, root out herbs (because returning to nature is the only way to fight a man-made disease), and engage in other various busywork to keep their minds off their inevitable death. Some turned into savages.
I was coming home from a pharmacy. It was my third trip in search of Halixon pills which were a fancy, expensive, dressed up placebo that drained my father’s bank account and made him sleep. I knew it wasn’t helping. I’d been feeding him the purple pill for a month and everyday he got worse. Still, I set out in search of the medicine because I couldn’t sit in the house another minute listening to his watery breathing. I had to do something to help or at least pretend to.
By this time, order was thin. Police officers had abandoned their posts. Fires sprouted up and burned for days. Broken store windows stood with their big gaping holes into the window fronts resembling open mouths.
The last pharmacy I tried wasn’t even staffed. A short walk around the back area revealed ransacked shelves devoid of all available Halixon as well as a few choice addictive pharmaceuticals. As I walked home empty-handed and finally accepting defeat, I noticed I was being followed. Three men. Two on my side of the street. One of the opposite side of the street. I was their prey.
I’d heard of women being raped. My neighbor came home with wild eyes and a sweater always tightly pulled around her even though it was mid-August in Tucson. Another neighbor told me she’d been gang-raped by a group of guys from an adjacent neighborhood who’d begun calling themselves the Devil Keepers and stealing everyone’s Halixon. The wide-eyed woman died two weeks later from the disease. I saw her lifeless corpse through the window as I cut across her yard coming home to avoid walking out front on the sidewalks. Her thick sweater clung to her rotting flesh.
These three men didn’t know I was carrying a nine millimeter that my father had taught me how to fire before he got really sick. They were my first kill. I waited a little too long to use it, though. I hadn’t killed anyone before and I was hesitant to reach for it.
One of the men got his hand on my shoulder and yanked painfully. I was thrown to the ground and he was immediately on top of me, pinning me to the concrete. I almost couldn’t reach the weapon. But I got an opening as he lifted his hands off my arms to unbuckle his belt. I reached into my waist, pulled it out, cocked it, and fired between his eyes like I was taught. I then fired a shot into his friend who was waiting behind him for his turn. I sat up and aimed at the third. By then he was running away back down the street. But I hadn’t been able to shoot at a retreating threat. My neighbor’s face flashed through my mind as I thought about the next girl he would attack but it was too late. He was too far. I was still too shaky to stand up.
I sat on the phone quiet for a moment and considered his question. I wanted to give him an answer I would want to hear if someone finally found me after several years but chose to remain hidden. “I won’t tell you where I am because I don’t know you. Things got pretty hairy towards the end where I am. I had to kill to stay alive. I don’t want to have to kill you.”
“Nicely put. I went through similar experiences.”
“So you understand?”
“Why do I feel like we’re agreeing on something?” I asked.
“Because we are. You can call me tomorrow. Same time. And we’ll get to know each other. On the phone. With supposedly miles of land between us and anonymous but hilarious fake names.”
For the second time in this exchange I smiled. “Okay.”