Authors: E.R. Arroyo
the front is another door and a small landing before a staircase. A sign on
the wall reads, “Welcome to our Home.”
. That’s what this is. A
pain twists my stomach as I wonder what happened to them. Did they make it to
an underground bunker? Did they die in the streets? Were they near a point of
impact or did they die from the resulting emissions?
on the floor catches my eye, and I pick it up. It’s a wooden frame with broken
glass. I rub the dust off with my thumb to see a photo of a mother, father, and
two little girls, though it’s faded and hard to make out.
pull it up to my face and look closer. The girls are light-haired and
light-eyed, and they look like the same person twice. Their smiles are bright
and unfettered. No tragedy to bring their tiny spirits down. A word bubbles
up in my mind and I mumble it. “Lovely.” They are lovely. When I’d read that
word in the past, I never had a point of reference. Now I do.
eyes shift to the loving arms wrapped around each girl, and I put the photo on
a cabinet by the door face up.
Dylan calls out from the kitchen. I walk to him and look at him from across
the counter. “Let’s try it.”
look at the faucet handle his hand rests on and nod. He pulls the handle
upward and a rumble sounds beneath our feet. At first, I’m nervous that we’ve
done something wrong because the faucet begins to shake, but after another
moment it spits dirty water the color of rust.
both stare greedily. For the longest time, we wait and then something wonderful
happens. The water runs clear. His eyes grow big, and he looks at me. I
lurch myself around the counter to stand beside him, and we both stick our
fingers in the water and smell it.
nods, and I lean to drink from it. It tastes like earth, but I don’t mind.
Not after the things we consumed in the wilderness.
minute later I stand up panting with water running down my chest. Dylan takes
my place at the faucet and drinks until he can’t anymore. “Amazing,” he
pants. “It still works.” I nod in reply.
droop to the floor while catching our breaths. He has water down his chest,
too. It makes me smile, but I stop myself before he catches me.
a few more minutes, I stand back up and drink more. Neither of us bothered to
turn it off. Dylan follows suit and I drop to the floor again. A few moments
later, he shuts off the water and when he shifts toward me, his foot slips on
the water we spilled and catches himself on the counter.
eyes become huge and a brief panic crosses his face. It’s the first time I’ve
seen him lose his composure. It’s stupid and simple, but I can’t help but
laugh. He eases himself onto the floor beside me and laughs, too.
I ask, certain anything in this house is inedible. It would be over twenty
scoots across the floor, finally letting his exhaustion show, and opens a
skinny door across from me. It’s full of cans, jars, and boxes with words and
pictures I don’t recognize. He gets onto his knees and grabs a white box made
of some type of cardboard. The picture is faded, but it looks like a young
girl in a white hat and a blue shirt.
rips open the box and dumps something into his hand. In a plastic wrapper, the
withered item is brown and green. He taps in on the ground and it makes a
thump sound. He tries to bend it and it doesn’t budge.
puts the box back where he found it and pulls out a can instead. There’s a
small metal tab that Dylan fumbles with while I grab a clear plastic container
with thick, amber liquid inside. I twist the lid off with little effort and
find a cardboard disk attached to the opening. I get my fingernail underneath
it and peel it back.
take a whiff, and it smells wonderful. I dip my finger in and pull some out in
a gooey, stringy mess. I put it in my mouth and wipe away what’s stuck to my
lips. It’s sticky but tastes amazing, very sweet. I press it between my
tongue and the roof of my mouth before swallowing.
good,” I tell Dylan. He takes the bottle from me and reads the label.
He shrugs and hands it back to me. “It’s not sour or burning your throat,
it’s not.” I smile. I can’t stop smiling now.
finally pries open the can he’d been working on, and pulls back the metal.
Inside it is a cloudy liquid with slimy green vegetables inside. Dylan pulls
one from the can and pops it in his mouth then chases it with a few more.
he says, pinching his lips tight. He eats a couple more and we trade. He eats
the honey while I try out the green things. They are about two inches long and
skinny. The skin is a little fuzzy, which feels weird on my tongue. They
definitely don’t taste as good as the honey.
a while longer we go through things in the tiny space, making a pile of the
ones we don’t like--or that smell poisonous or disgusting--in the floor and
things we do like by the sink, eating and sipping on them as we go, stopping
once both our stomachs are full.
the space with the soft furniture, we wipe off the dust with a pillow and
sprawl across them. It takes no time at all for me to fall asleep.
wake not long after, and it’s still light outside. Dylan sleeps with one leg
hanging over the edge of the cushion with his foot resting on the ground. His
knee flops out to the side. One of his hands rests on his stomach, and the
other behind his head, his breaths deep and even.
rub sleep from my eyes and stand up, stretching. I walk back to the front of
the home and look up the staircase. I take the first step carefully, slowly,
but as I ascend I grow more deliberate.
the top of the stairs, I enter the first doorway I come to. Two tiny beds with
dusty, pink blankets and pillows. I close the door imagining the little girls
from the picture sleeping in those beds.
next room is a bathroom. Little bottles and tubes litter the counter space and
the edge of the shower. I shake an image of my mother washing me under a leaky
pipe from my head. That can’t be a memory, I was too young.
last door I come to sticks. The knob turns but I have to push with my shoulder
to slide it open, and something on the other side scrapes the floor. Once I’m
through, I see that a dresser was wedged against the door.
eyes skip over the piles of supplies and bottles of water stacked along the
walls and lock on the bed. The whole family lies there, their bodies not even
fully decomposed. And they all died wrapped in each other’s arms, which tells
me they knew they would die. They knew it was coming.
drop to my knees, pain rising from deep within my gut. Tears flood my eyes,
and my body heaves into a sob so strong it hurts my ribs and makes me
nauseous. I bob back and forth with my mouth gaping open, but no sound comes
out for the longest time. And when it does, it sounds like I’m dying.
hear footsteps leaping heavily up the stairs and stopping right behind me. He
doesn’t move so I know he’s looking at the four bodies on the bed. Without
taking a second look I have it memorized, burned into my brain.
imagine them hearing news of the attacks and taking cover, but there’s nothing
they could do to keep out the fallout--the airborne chemicals. I wonder if the
girls hurt when it happened.
don’t wonder for much longer before Dylan’s arms wrap around me and the touch
makes me cringe. My eyes land on the dull blonde hair lying loose on the bed,
and then on the arms wrapped around the little girls. Loving arms. Arms that
were meant to comfort, not hurt. They died knowing they were loved. And maybe
that’s not so bad.
father died alone in the street, choking on his own blood. I think these were
better deaths than his. So I allow Dylan to pick me up and carry me back
he sets me down and sits beside me, I don’t pull out of his arms, and I don’t
shy away as he wipes the tears from my cheeks, which I replenish immediately.
He doesn’t say anything. He just pulls me to his chest and touches my hair
until I stop crying.
don’t think those will be the last of the dead that we’ll come across, and now
I understand why Dylan covered the body in the woods so I couldn’t see. I
wonder how he felt when he saw it.
yawns and wipes his eye. The hand that was in my hair lands on my shoulder and
you want to find another place to sleep? We don’t have to stay here.” His
voice is gentle.
can’t find words, can’t form my mouth around them.
He leans back, scanning my face, but I don’t return his gaze.
I clear my throat. “We can stay here.”
realize it’s almost evening, since the daylight is fading. Dylan sinks a
little farther into the cushions, and I make no effort to move away. I just
follow him down until he’s comfortable.
don’t think he realizes it, but he’s picking up the ends of my hair and moving
them in circles. He looks at me every so often.
finally find words, but my throat is dry. I swallow a few times. “Dylan?”
sits up straighter, pulling back so he can see my face. His eyes become more alert,
more alive. Sunlight comes in through the window at just the right angle to
illuminate his lips, and I can’t help but stare at them. His eyes, after all,
are much too intense for me to look at.
rests his hand on my cheek, caressing it with his thumb. I feel my eyes glaze
over, and I close them tightly. “Hey,” he says. His thumb passes over my
cheek another couple of times. He says it again, even softer. “Hey.”
open my eyes and look right into his. His hand stops for a moment before he pulls
it away, letting the tips of his fingers trace the line of my jaw. His eyes
drift down to my lips more than once. Then with the side of his index finger,
he lifts my chin. It’s amazing to think of the strong will and volatility that
I’m known for, and then find myself under complete and utter control of a
single finger. I don’t say anything, and couldn’t even if I wanted to.
are you thinking?” he whispers. He leans a little closer.
shake my head to clear it. “Too many things. Or maybe not enough. I’m not
don’t want to break our deal, but...” he says, cautiously. He bites his lip.
“Can I kiss you?”
, is all I can think.
Nothing else comes out. I swallow hard.
to me,” he encourages, dropping his finger and touching my hand instead.
feel confused.” I pull away slightly. His request definitely violates our
deal, but I’m not sure I care anymore. Not after everything that’s happened.
What’s a silly deal among friends who already risk their lives for each other?
Why do the arms that hold me at night need boundaries and rules in the day?
nods, and his shoulders droop along with his confidence. This. This hurt,
this is exactly why I needed boundaries--why he doesn’t need to feel this way.
this about Titus?” he asks, defeated.
I scoff. “Why would you think that? No.”
saw you together.” He looks out the window at nothing while I recall Titus
kissing me on the forehead before running to help us escape. Right before...
“I know he cared for you.” Dylan’s eyes are dark, the sunlight almost gone.
it wasn’t like
. Dylan, you know I just...I’m not sure that...I can
feel that way.”
voice raises a little and grows defensive. “What did you feel when you were
with me in that tree? When you fell asleep in my arms with your lips against
remember the tree?” I ask, stunned that my secret was never a secret at all.
woke up so happy that day, but you were acting like you regretted it. So I played
dumb to give you a way out. But I’m tired of feeling this way. Desperate.
Aching. I want to be in this together.”
just not...I don’t...”
why did you let me? Why didn’t you stop me the first time?” His cheeks are
flushed, and there’s a deep crease between his eyebrows as he backs away.
were in a tree; there was nowhere to go!”
drops his head to his hands and takes a deep breath. I feel daggers in my
gut, and I deserve them. Why am I hurting the only person I have?
sorry,” I say, taking his hand in mine. “I was scared. I’m sorry.” I draw
closer to him, but he grabs my wrists, holding me at a distance.
he says, his mouth in a hard line. “Not out of pity.”
don’t pity you, Dylan,” I say, trying to garner my strength, my courage. He’s
brave. I’m brave. “I want you to.” I don’t know when I decided that. “I
want you to kiss me.”