Authors: Claire C. Riley
#1 Appreciate what you have.
There are times when I wish for the old days. For bills, and jobs, and too much TV. For fast food, sports cars, and thoughts about the ozone layer and how we can repair it.
Now we know that there was never any way to repair it. That it didn’t matter how high your cholesterol was in the end, because you were always destined to die a slow and agonizing death. Or maybe you would be one of the lucky ones, maybe you would go quickly. Regardless, you would still die and you wouldn’t be around to see the ice caps melt.
So what would I say if I could go back in time and speak to the old me? Or even the old you? I’d say this: Get fat—eat the food you love, because soon enough it will be gone. Love freely, but trust no one. Always hate with regret, because hate is such a waste. Drive fast, but be mindful of others on the road because one day, in the not-so-distant future, you might need one of those people that you overtake and undercut, to save you.
I would tell you not to waste too much of your time pondering what to do with your life, and just enjoy the here and now as much as you can. Because before you know it, it will all be much too late. Doctor, lawyer, farmer, computer technician, police officer, delivery driver—in this world that I now live in, none of that matters. Who you
isn’t important anymore; it’s who you
that now holds the greatest significance. And most of us, those that are still alive, are not good people at all.
I look out across the calm ocean with a sigh. The waves gently caressing the pebbled beach remind me of happier times, when I would go crabbing with my mother and father. I never killed those little crabs; I just liked to catch them and watch them scuttle around in my blue plastic bucket. Perhaps that was a hint as to the sort of woman I would become.
I turn to look at Lilly through the cracked windshield of the car and offer her a small smile. Her little hands, as usual, are clasping her dirty brown teddy bear with all their might. Her wide brown eyes stare back at me in confusion until at last recognition flickers across her face and she seems satisfied with who I am, and that I am not far from her side. She knows that in this bleak world, I am all that she has left. Just me and her teddy bear.
She closes those brown pools of innocence again and snuggles back down into her car seat, a thumb pushing between her rosebud lips to help soothe her. She should know by now that I am never far from her side. She is mine, and I am hers. It has been this way since we found each other in flowers and light. I will never leave her—not until I have to.
I slide off the hood of my car, my jeans making a strange screech and scratch sound on the dented red metal. I take one last drag of my cigarette and stub it out into the dusty ground with a shake of my head. I swore I’d never smoke again. That’s another thing to add to the list: if you want to smoke, do it. But be aware that when they run out—the cigarettes—there’s no running to the store to get more. You get little in this world.
I walk to the edge of the cliff to get a better view of down below. The sun is just setting over the ocean, creating a myriad of color before my eyes. It finally dips, and like a snap of the fingers the light is snuffed out. The night embraces us with its cold, treacherous fingers. It is easy to believe that everything is okay when I am up here. I can pretend there’s nothing to be afraid of—no boogeyman hiding under the bed. No evil in the world. Just me, Lilly, and the sound of the ocean.
The waves pound against one another, the froth building and crashing against the sandy beach cove below. The saltiness of the ocean leaves its presence on my dry lips, making my thirst even greater.
I startle when Lilly’s small hand clasps mine. Looking down into her melancholy little face, I try to force a smile for her, but it comes out as little more than a contorted grimace. Still, I tried at least. I always try.
“You should be sleeping, Honeybee,” I say as I gently squeeze her warm hand. Her skin is still smooth like silk, not rough and calloused like mine, and I rub my thumb across the back of her hand over and over, my smile coming easier now. She always soothes me without even having to try.
Lilly continues to stare blankly up at me until I reach down and pull her into my arms. She doesn’t resist, but clings to me like a little koala bear, her arms and legs gripping me tightly around my waist and neck. That thought makes me sadder still. She will never know what a koala bear is. In this morbid world, they are all gone now, along with almost every other beautiful thing that once existed.
I stare up at the stars, tiny pinpricks of hope in the darkened night sky. My heart feels heavier than usual tonight. Lilly’s hand tips my chin down so that I am looking at her again.
“Where are they?” she asks in a whisper.
“Down there,” I say, pointing to over the top of the cliff that we are on.
She peers over as much as she dares, her tiny fingers digging painfully into my skin as she watches the abominations moving below. They are awake now. They came alive with the snuffing of the sun. I feel her fragile little body shiver and tense in my arms and I grip her tighter, more for her comfort than anything else. Because I wouldn’t drop her for all the world. My grip on her is as fierce as my heartbeat, relentless and unforgiving. It knows no bounds, and would only surrender when those monsters ripped my still-beating heart from my cold, dead body.
“It’s okay. We are up here, and they are down there. We’re safe,” I reassure her, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “We have our light still.” With a gentle smile, I point to the streetlight, which inexplicably is still lit after all this time. It makes no sense, but I’ve given up trying to figure it out. I’m just grateful that it is here, blanketing us with its protection.
“For now,” she whispers back solemnly. Her words cut into my heart, carving a piece of it out and sending it away. I nod, because I cannot lie to her; she sees through to the truth every time.
“Yes. For now, for tonight. And that is what matters. Tonight we can dance under the stars.” I smile and twirl her around in circles, and she giggles and buries her face in the crook of my neck, her warm breath washing over me with each gentle laugh.
It is the sweetest sound I have heard in a long time—her laugh. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful sound that is left in this world. Better than the time we found the little gray kitten with its one white paw hiding under the burnt-out car, crying for its mother. The sound was so inexplicable to me. It was something I hadn’t heard in so long that I had forgotten that it even existed. A small meow—a cry for help, from a kitten of all things! Of course, it died a week later from starvation. There wasn’t enough food to feed ourselves, never mind a kitten. Lilly had lost the will to speak for almost two weeks after that. I thought she was gone, lost, absorbed back into herself forever. But she came back, eventually.
Lilly laughs again, harder this time, the sound breaking free from her heart-shaped mouth, and I twirl her faster, making us both dizzy and breathless. Her laugh is even better than the sound of the breeze moving through the long grasses and flowers in the field that I had found her hiding in—though that is a very close second. My clever little Honeybee, hiding in amongst those sunflowers. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, that field of sun; as if God had shone His light upon that particular place, bringing her to me and me to her. In the middle of a world filled with so much loss—so much death—a gray world full of sorrow and pain and misery, how could there possibly be so much brilliant yellow beauty? I had wandered among the flowers in awe, my jaw slack and my eyes wide and brimming with tears. My hands skimmed along the tops of the flowers, the petals soft beneath my palms.
It had felt like a sign.
I had wanted to give up that day; I was ready to let go and move on to the next world, and then I saw her: my Honeybee. Her little scrunched-up face peering up at me, surrounded by the yellows, oranges, and greens of the sunflowers. She was like a gift. I was so close to losing it, and then she—Lilly—was there, her face a more beautiful canvas than any sunflower could ever be.
We wept in each other’s arms that day, so happy to have found one another. A mother without a child and a child without a mother. Both lost and broken. Both dying with no hope. But together, things seemed more possible, and I have hope now. I think she does too.
Lilly and I dance until the sky darkens further and the stars seem to multiply, though she does not ever let me put her down. She grows heavy in my arms, and her eyelids begin to flutter closed again. I take her back to the car and place her in the little seat, and I clip her back into it safely, being careful not to wake her up.
I learned my lesson the hard way of not buckling her in when she sleeps. Having to make a hasty retreat with a small child screaming and rolling around on the floor—blood pumping from the small cut to her head she just received because she had fallen out of her safety chair—is a journey I don’t want to have to make ever again. She suffered a serious bump to her head that day, and I still feel guilty about it when the sunlight shines on that white sliver of a scar on her forehead.
I light up another cigarette after I shut the door on her sleeping form, and I go to stand at the edge of the cliff again, looking down at
They gurgle and hiss, their red eyes staring back up at me. The sound of their jagged nails scrambling for placement on the side of the cliff worries me, but they cannot climb, I know this. So we are safe. For tonight, at least, thank God, we are safe.
Light peeks over the top of the hillside, glaring in at me through the windshield—a soft orange glow turning to a brilliant yellow as the sun rises higher. I rub my eyes and slouch further down in my seat, wanting more sleep, but the sun retaliates and rises further, making me groan and fully awaken.
“All right, all right,” I mumble to myself. I shouldn’t complain—the sunlight is our friend, our savior. But some days, I am so very tired.
I turn in my seat and see Lilly still sleeping, her little thumb still tucked into her pink mouth. My mouth twitches into what could possibly be considered a smile, but then I surrender myself to my misery again as my stomach aches and I crease over in pain. I open the door and get out, taking my smokes out of my back pocket and lighting one up before I’ve even shut the door behind me.
The first wave of nicotine hits me and I relish the pleasure it brings. There are only four things that bring me pleasure these days: Lilly, my cigarettes, food, and light. I walk to the edge and look down the cliff face, knowing that the monsters won’t be there now—they are never there during the day. The night is their only friend.
However, their previous night’s antics are there to be seen, unfortunately, in the form of a bloodied pebbled beach and mutilated carcasses. I don’t look close enough to see if the bones are human or animal, or even their own brethren, I never do. It doesn’t matter anymore—dead is dead, no matter what it once was. I gave up worrying about other living things long ago. I can’t do anything about it, so I prefer to blot it out. I would prefer to blot the entire world out if I could, but I can’t because I have Lilly.
I finish my cigarette, feeling the hunger pangs subside a little, and I go to the trunk of the car and open it to check our supplies. I know we are running low on everything, and if we don’t find food soon, we will run out and eventually starve. I can survive without food longer than Lilly can, but it’s been days and I can feel myself growing weaker. The cigarettes were a great find to curb the hunger pangs, but I’m going to need real food soon. There’s only so long I can do this without food, without sustenance, without the energy it gives me to keep on going.
I pull out the last of the canned food: a small can of pinto beans. She hates pinto beans, and I hate the effort of having to make a fire to cook them on. I was so pleased the day we found the stash of cans in the deserted gas station. So pleased. The people inside were long since gone. But now, as I stare at the last can, I think the beans were a curse, because we haven’t found food since that day. I throw the can to the ground in anger and slam the lid down on the trunk with a small sob. When I look up through the window, Lilly has awoken and climbed out of her seat, her pale face staring back at me through the window. Her wide brown eyes blink rapidly, looking frightened, and I immediately turn my sad face into a happy one for her. I beckon her out of the car to stretch her legs.
I pick her up as she climbs out, giving her a quick squeeze and a kiss on her dirty forehead before pushing the soft curls back from her pretty face.
“Did you sleep well?”
She bobs her head, her eyes going wide as she looks into my face. “I need to pee—bad.” She bites on her bottom lip, a small frown crossing her face.
“Okay, let’s go pee together,” I say with a smile and put her down. I take her hand and we walk away from the car and toward some small green bushes at the side of the road.
She stops as we near it, her sneakered feet skidding to a stop, and I turn to look at her.
“Check it,” she pleads.
It’s my turn to nod as I pull out my small knife from the sheath at my side, release her hand, and walk the rest of the way to the bush on my own. I know there is nothing in there. She knows it too, because the monsters only come out at night, and they hide in the darkness of buildings, mostly. This bush isn’t dense enough for them to hide in—light pierces through the scratchy branches—but I play along anyway. I always play along if it makes her feel better. Because I strive for her happiness, though at times it seems like an impossible task—to keep this little girl alive and happy. But I try.