The Girl's Guide to the Apocalypse (6 page)

BOOK: The Girl's Guide to the Apocalypse
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“I mean,” I said quickly. “Thank you. That means a lot.”

The smile came back.

“It’s just been so long since I’ve heard a kind word,” I said earnestly. “No one’s arguing here.”

His hands went to my shoulders. He pressed down on them, seemingly feeling the muscles I had.

“Can I have a hug?” he asked.

I nodded, and he pulled me in. The rest of the group applauded. His hands went to my upper back where again he felt the muscles and fat around my bra.

I gently eased away from his embrace, and he let me go.

“You said you’re not alone?” he asked.

“Well, not technically,” I said. “I came with a group, but if I gave you a description of any family I have—”

“Never leave your friends behind,” he said. His voice was high and gentle, also weirdly consoling. “In these dark times, they’re all you really have.”

“But you have water,” I said. “You have
Friends
. The show. And the actual kind it looks like.”

“The world has a way of disposing of things that it doesn’t need anymore,” he said. “You let the universe deal with such silly things.”

I nodded. “You’re right,” I said. “You’re right in a weird way that I never thought about.”

“We have to give up the ways of thinking that we’ve gotten used to,” he said. He stared me down with his big eyes. “Now tell me. What can we do for you?”

I thought for a moment. “I would absolutely love a shower,” I said. “And a working toilet.”

He smiled. “Then you shall have one.”

He led me toward one of the RVs, where I bristled with excitement over having the first real shower in weeks. But there was a slight damper on it as I looked around at the rest of the group, which was only about thirty people. They had strange reddish markings on their face and vacant looks in their eyes.

“Smells great,” I said. “What’s for dinner?”

No one responded, so I kept moving on.

I pointed to the tribe cooking and setting out place settings for everyone.

“So nice to see civilization surviving,” I said.

“Sweetheart,” Darren said. “You are welcome to water and bread, but the rest is not for you.”

I nodded and allowed myself to be pushed inside the RV with a clean fluffy towel that had a green stripe and the Holiday Inn logo.

* * *

Later that night I crept back to the house, food and bottles of water in hand. I entered the back door quietly shutting it behind me before I noticed in the darkness there were two silhouettes sitting at the dilapidated kitchen table.

I was startled, jumped and dropped a bottle.

“Who is that?” I squinted, trying to identify the figures.

There was a deep sigh. “Ideally,” said Robert’s voice. “We would have switched on the light when you entered. It would have made a more dramatic presentation.”

“You can’t be dramatic without candles,” Bruce said. “Couldn’t find any, but whatever.”

“For what?” I asked.

“You broke your promise that you weren’t going to go out alone,” he said.

“I never promised,” I said. “You made your statement, and I never gave you a yes or no.”

“You can’t see this,” he said in the dark. “But I’m shaking a finger at you. Because what you’ve done is incredibly dangerous.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I went looking for drinkable water. And I found it.”

“Really?” Bruce’s voice broke out. “Is it Fiji or Voss? It better not be that Aquafina crap. That stuff hurts my teeth.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “When it’s offered, you don’t ask what’s on the label. And how does water hurt your teeth?”

“Wait,” Robert said. “Who offered it to you?”

“Why are we having this conversation in the dark?” I asked. “Can’t we at least sit in the living room or wait until morning?”

“Fine,” Robert said. “But as your employer—”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “If Mitchellwide doesn’t exist, then I am not your employee.”

“To keep you safe in all lands,” he said. “You can trust Mitchellwide hands. That’s just an ideal philosophy you should still be following!”

“Now is not the time to quote the company ad logo!” I said. “I did data entry and lied on my time card, so there’s no point in waving the corporate loyalty flag!”

“That’s disappointing to hear.” He stood, tripped over the fallen bottle, but recovered. “Son of a bitch!”

“Careful.”

“God, I miss electricity,” he said.

I set the rest of the things down. “I got a bag of chips,” I said. “The baked kind. Just for you.”

Bruce sighed heavily. “Who? Me or Robert?”

“You of course.”

“It’s late,” he said. “The last thing I wanted to do tonight was wait up, hoping you’d come back.” He stood, also tripped on the bottle. “Oh come on!”

His silhouette gained balance back by steadying himself on the doorway.

“Damn it,” he muttered, then disappeared into the living room. I listened to him fall into the makeshift bed. “Are you coming to bed or not?” he shouted.

I didn’t answer. I sat in the chair and rested my head on the table.

* * *

In the morning I woke up to find Debra face down in a bag of pretzels that I had snagged from the RV community.

“Did I fall asleep here?” I asked.

She lifted her head and stared at me hard. “You wouldn’t happen to have an extra pair of shoes, would you?”

I shook my head. “Sorry, I don’t,” I said. “I wish I did.”

She narrowed her eyes, but then sighed. “My feet are killing me. I don’t think I can go another day in those shoes.” Her voice became shaky as the tears welled up. “These were my favorites, but they’re killing my feet.”

“Maybe we can find some shoes somewhere.” I reached for the bag. “May I?”

She held the bag just out of my reach. “I’m used to being hungry, but I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

I held out my palm. “Can I have one?”

“Sorry,” she said. “I just ate this whole bag.”

“But I got them for us,” I said weakly.

“Next time get two.”

She stood, taking a long swig of water from the bottle. Robert entered.

“I hope you’ve thought long and hard about why you weren’t in bed,” he said to Debra sternly.

I snapped to. “That’s what she said!” I shouted. “That’s what she said!” I relaxed. “God that felt good to say.”

Debra raised her eyebrows at me. “Who’s she?”

I looked at Robert, but he stared at me with the same blank expression. “You guys have heard that joke, right? You hear something that could be vaguely sexual and say. ‘That’s what she said.’”

They were staring at me, and I felt both awkward in their judgment and thankful I had never pursued that career in standup comedy.

“Neither of you have heard that expression?” I asked.

They continued to stare at me in stony silence.

“You know that joke kills with the marketing department.”

Debra cleared her throat, got to her feet and went into a downward dog position. “No one talk to me while I’m one with the universe,” she said, taking deep breaths.

He rolled his eyes. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. I meant to ask, who’s this group you saw?”

“They’re weird,” I said. “Almost culty. They sing, they have an odd language of feel good terms and they were really interested in my muscle tone. Or fat tone. Something like that. And I think the leader really wanted to meet the rest of you.”

“Who’s the leader?” he asked.

“Darren Warren,” I said. “He’s the art critic for the paper.”

“Wait,” Bruce said from the other room. He ran over and poked his head in. “Darren Warren?”

“Yes.”


The
Darren Warren?”

“Yes.”

He kicked the kitchen table and waved his arms in anger. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked. “We could’ve had a different conversation that would have led to me becoming best friends with Darren Warren.”

“Well, we just started talking about it.”

“These are things you should tell me right away,” he said. “You know how much I would give to just get in the room with that guy. He spelled my name wrong in a review of
The Farnsworth Incident
, and I never got the chance to explain it to him.”

“If it helps,” I said, “he seems more excited about TV reruns these days. Besides, you never tried to explain that play to me.”

He rolled his eyes and stood. “God!” he yelled. “Why is everything such a joke with you?”

I was a little stunned at him, but I sucked in my breath. “I’m sorry,” I said. “That was wrong of me.”

He paced around the room in a cold silence.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really am.”

He was still silent.

“I don’t know what I can do to convince you of that,” I said. “But we’re kind of living in a time where we probably need each other more than ever…”

He let his voice drop, then went into a heavy pause. “Or something.”

Debra popped her head in.

“I’ve figured out why you look so much better than the rest of us,” she said.

“Oh?”

Bruce stared me down.

She pointed a bony finger at me. “You had a shower, didn’t you?”

I swallowed hard. “Did the universe tell you that?”

“No,” she said. “Just felt I had to say something.” She turned on her heel, winced and hobbled out.

“I can’t believe you were going to hold that out on us too,” Bruce said. “The Verdell I used to know would’ve been more concerned about my interests. It’s like I don’t even know you anymore.”

“You have no idea,” I said. “The meaningless nothing conversations, the constant arguing. I had to see what else was out here.”

“And just leave us?” he asked. “Was that your plan?”

“If I wanted to leave,” I said. “So maybe.”

He folded his arms. “Great. So when do I get to meet Darren?”

I thought back to the weird calm of the RV site, the all too eagerness of his inclusion of myself and others.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s kind of strange over there…”

I let my voice trail off, uncertain of how to describe things. He stood back, folded his arms, self-satisfied.

“Fine, then. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought,” he said. “I think we need to break up.”

“Break up?” I asked. “Isn’t that going to be kind of awkward?”

“I think its just time we started seeing other people.”

“Who are you going to be seeing?” I asked, looking around. “Debra?”

She poked her head back in. “What?”

Bruce impatiently waved her away.

“We’ve really just been more friends than anything else this whole time,” he said.

“Debra?”

He sighed heavily. “No, still talking about us. We’ve been playing this charade for too long.”

“Three years?” I mused. “Maybe.”

“Let’s face it,” he said. “This whole situation has changed you.”

“It’s changed everyone,” I said. “Although I’ve noticed that you use me for networking a lot more than you used to.”

“Be serious,” he said.

“I
am
.” My tone seemed to take him by surprise. “I don’t know why I never noticed it before, but it’s true,” I said. “And if you want to make things really awkward for us, then go right ahead.”

“Then I’ll move out,” he said. “I’ll go find your new best friend, Darren, and you’ll have to sit on the outside, looking at us having all the fun, doing all of his fun projects. He’ll spell your name wrong, and I won’t defend you.”

He stomped over to the couch fort and scooped up his belongings.

“You’re welcome to date whoever you want,” he said. “Welcome.”

“That’s generous of you,” I said. “But I’m a little disturbed that that’s where your mind is going to in a time like this.”

He shoved his things into his backpack, made his way to the door and then suddenly stopped.

“Maybe Steve Harks is single,” I said. “I’m sure someone that eligible won’t be on the market for long.”

He turned around. His face had a gentler demeanor, a complete turnaround from just a second ago.

“Look,” he said. “I’m sorry. You’ve been such a great girlfriend, and I really want us to be friends. I know every couple who breaks up says that, but I really mean it. And if you need anything you can always come to me.”

I nodded. “You too,” I said. “I understand that your career is now coming first, above people and your survival in these tumultuous times.”

“I’m taking the pretzels. I think I deserve it.”

“You’ll have to see if Debra left you any,” I said.

“Son of—”

He stormed out of the house; let the door slam behind him.

Robert entered, chewing on the heel of the loaf of bread that I had pilfered.

“What’d I miss?”

I shook my head.

“Is he getting more pretzels?” he asked. “Because the sticks are better than the twisty kind.”

I let myself collapse onto the makeshift couch bed and closed my eyes.

Chapter 5
Know Your Surroundings

SO MANY
THINGS
had happened during the three years since Bruce and I started dating. I had watched him dabble in an unsuccessful open-mic career where he told jokes about online dating. We watched coverage of a presidential election where he picked a fight with my father over his view on tax breaks, and then he made the Boston marathon bombings about himself.

“How is this about you again?”

He’d watched the coverage on TV through misty eyes. “I could have been there at that time. That could have been me.”

“But you haven’t been back to Boston in two years. Were you supposed to be there?”

“Just forget it,” he’d said. “You clearly don’t get it.”

In those three years, he had also slept through every movie that I picked, never ate any of my cooking and always chose a Patriots games over time with me. I supposed I should have noticed the signs, but there we were in this moment in time and it was over. True, the days of us hanging out on his couch over the weekends and spending evenings with friends, well, his friends, were never coming back anyway, but it felt so unnatural to try to reconcile that my plans wouldn’t take into account of his.

“Are you okay?” Robert asked.

I looked up at him. He seemed genuinely concerned.

“There are bigger things wrong, I suppose,” I said.

He pulled out his textbook. “Know where I turn when I’m feeling down?”

“Not to the secrets of risk management.”

He made a pitying sound with his mouth, opening to a page in his book. “You’re missing out. Listen. The chances of achieving organizational objectives while protecting enterprise value will be maximized by having a clear grasp on business realities, understanding what ‘risk’ is, tying risk tolerance to performance, and deploying risk management above and beyond compliance activities.” He looked up and beamed. “Doesn’t that make you feel better?”

“I literally don’t know what any of that means or why it’s relevant,” I said.

“It’s comforting,” he said. “Truth is a valuable commodity. And so are quality girls like you. That’s what I get out of this.”

“I’m thirty-three and not a girl.” I smiled. “But thank you again.”

He nodded and then turned away.

I closed my eyes again and fell asleep.

I woke up and heard the slamming of the door a few hours later. I only opened my eyes slightly when I felt a heavy weight flop down onto the cushions next to me.

“Bruce?” I asked.

He laid there, back to me, but didn’t answer.

“Are you okay?”

More silence.

“If you’re awake,” I said. “It’s really awkward to have you lay here next to me and not talk. Unless you’re having a change of heart.”

“Oh, we’re still broken up,” he muttered. “Don’t you worry about that.”

“Then why are you laying here?” I asked. “There are other rooms in this house—”

He rose. “Where am I going to go then?” he asked voice raised. “Debra just talks about the food she’s not eating, Priscilla cries all the time and your boss is just a walking TED talk!”

“Why are you yelling at me?” I asked. “You’re the one who wanted more options.”

“This is so typical you,” he said. “Just keep making it all about yourself.”

“That makes no sense,” I said.

I turned over when he didn’t answer me. Priscilla emerged out of the darkened corner of the room, completely startling me.

“What the hell, Iris!” I said. “How long have you been creeping in there?”

“I’m Priscilla,” she said.

“Sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” she said. “Everything seemed so private I felt weird about it.”

“Now it’s just awkward,” Bruce muttered.

“Priscilla, how come you’re not sleeping in your room?” I asked.

“I don’t like it,” she said. “There’s a weird smell.”

“Problem solved,” I said. “Bruce, sleep in Priscilla’s room.”

He muttered something I couldn’t understand.

“We should do another food run,” Priscilla said. “Everything is going to run out so quickly.”

“Well, I’m not doing it now,” I said. “I just came back, and it was weird and exhausting.”

She slumped down onto the floor. “I need something to do. I’m going crazy.”

“Let’s wait until the evening,” I said. “I’ll go with you then.”

“I can’t stay here much longer,” she said. “I want to claw the walls or something.”

Debra appeared in the doorway. “You’d probably really enjoy cleaning the bathrooms and bedrooms. Might make you feel a bit normal. You’ll have to wait until morning, of course.”

I slept for hours. When I woke up, there were candles lit and Bruce was in the kitchen playing cards with Debra and Robert. There was laughter and loud conversation as Robert finished an anecdote.

“…and then my sister goes, ‘If that wasn’t you I caught with my sister, then report yourself to science for the awesome clone job!’”

I joined them, laughing along despite having no idea what made it funny and took a seat, hoping for their acceptance. I cleared my throat, smiling big. There was immediate awkward silence, and Bruce looked down, suddenly too interested in hands.

“Has anyone seen Priscilla?” I asked.

Debra didn’t answer, just looked up at me, covered her mouth and let out a fake cough. Robert mashed buttons on his BlackBerry and Bruce’s fingers had taken on a new level of fascination for him.

“Anyone?” I asked.

“Is this a new friend of yours?” Debra asked.

“No,” I said. “Priscilla. Remember? The woman you keep mistaking as the help.”

“Now I keep thinking her name is Lupe,” she said. “I have got to write these things down.”

Robert didn’t look up from what he was doing. “I sent her out for more food,” he said.

“But she said she wouldn’t go alone!” I said. “It’s dangerous out there.”

“Like you care,” Bruce muttered. “Probably just want to keep Darren to yourself. Well, he’s not going to give you a very good girlfriend review.”

“How are those options coming?”

He rolled his eyes and shifted around in his chair. “About as good as your support for others.”

“Then why am I the only one worried about Priscilla?”

There was a heavy silence again. I grabbed my jacket that hung on the back of an empty chair. I marched outside, zipped up the coat and headed in the direction of the RV community. The sun had almost all but gone down, and my skin prickled at any moving shadow or sound that came up.

I made my way to the RV camp and slowly approached it. People gathered around where there was a brightly lit fire and a delicious smell that wafted from it. I hung by a tree, waited to see Darren or Priscilla, but neither showed up.

It didn’t matter. I slyly joined in the commune anyway by sidling up to different members, trying to blend in. Darren entered and he nodded in my direction as he passed by. His thin, small frame was wrapped in a terry cloth robe, which he wore grandly.

“Welcome, my child,” he said. He reached out and grazed my cheek with his hand.

Once he was settled in a lawn chair decorated with sheets and toilet paper, his followers brought out a feast on trays and plates put on a long picnic table covered with a sheet. We stood around the table and waited for Darren’s blessing, which was just a hand gesture. His fingers fluttered and lowered, and everyone immediately sat and began to eat. We ate everything I loved in this world, except I wasn’t allowed to eat any meat. Every time my hand hovered over a meatball or burger patty, one of his followers slapped my hand away, so instead I went for the mashed potatoes, the dinner rolls, the pitchers of watered down cherry Kool-Aid. It was insulting, but I didn’t want to seem rude, so I just stayed away from it. The group sang stupid songs I hated when I heard them on the radio, but I sang along too, enjoying the feel of community for the first time. When that was over, I got to use the showers to clean up. After the sun came up, I crept back to the house and crawled into bed as if I didn’t know anything. The next day I snuck out again before anyone was up and made my way to the camp.

I was about to cross the threshold into the site when something grabbed my arm and jerked me backward. Startled, I lost my footing and fell directly onto the ground. I whipped my head around as a hand covered my mouth. Panicked now I went to scream when I realized it was Bruce.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

I reared back. “What, are you following me now?”

“I’ve thought about it,” he said. “We need to be more understanding of other people’s needs. Like mine.”

I wrestled out of his mouth grasp. “I could ask you the same thing!” I hissed.

He let go of me and let me get to my feet.

“I got suspicious,” he said. “Thought you and Priscilla were going to hog Darren Warren for yourself.”

I brushed leaves and dirt off of me. “Trust me,” I said. “That sounds like an awesome and logical plan and something we would totally do.”

At that moment, Darren emerged from a RV, and Bruce gasped.

“It’s him!” he whispered. “It’s really Darren Warren! I was hoping you wouldn’t be lying and you weren’t!”

“Why would I lie about that?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Maybe you wanted to win me back.”

“Again,” I said. “Another awesome and logical plan I should have tucked away.”

He grabbed my hand. “I’ll take it all back if you introduce me. Everything. We can even get back together. If that’s what you want.”

I looked into his eyes and saw the desperation. “Why do you want to meet him so badly?” I asked. “Any of these people will probably give you pretzels or whatever. I think I saw a bag of Oreos yesterday.”

He shook his head. “Networking! When this is all over, who knows what kind of deep relationships we’ll have built, and you know a good review from him can get me any part in the community theater circuit. Maybe Robert’s right.” He took a deep breath and stared at the sky. “We’ve been given a gift. I can feel it.”

“This is the quarantine situation all over again,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You wanted to follow that actor,” I said. “We could have found my family, or you’re family, but you cared more about what Steve Harks was doing.”

He rolled his eyes. “That’s nonsense. You know I only cared about you, but it’s time you cared about something other than how things look. The time is over to stop worrying about how others see you.”

I shook my head. “Maybe one of us is missing the point in this situation.”

“Thank you,” he said. “It’s about time you figured at least that out.”

He took a step forward and tried to jerk me along, but I held back.

“I don’t think you should just barge in on them like this,” I said. “They don’t respond well to random strangers coming in.”

At that time, a chant arose as the people of the commune came together. They raised their arms high and raised their voices. Four people stepped forward into the center, each holding part of a thick stick with a charred body tied to it. The voices started to cheer as they hung the stick over the pit and let the fire erupt suddenly.

I was horrified and I drew back.

“What’s going on?” Bruce whispered. “Is now a good time to introduce me?”

I shook my head. “I’ve got a really bad feeling about this,” I said. “We should just find Priscilla and get out of here.”

“Wait,” Bruce said. “You were here to find Iris? Or is it Priscilla?”

“What did you think I was here for?” I asked.

“I thought you were here to make me jealous.”

“Stop saying that!” I said.

He folded his arms and looked away.

“Fine,” I said. “Stay there and sulk, but something’s wrong, and we need to get as far as we can from these people.”

Darren stepped out into the middle. He wore his usual bathrobe and held a crudely made staff.

“Friends!” he announced. “We are here tonight to celebrate the gods who have granted us another day of survival.”

Bruce crept away.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“It was foolish of me to think you’d ever think of anyone other than yourself.” His voice was distant as he disappeared into the bushes.

I rolled my eyes. “Well, at least be careful out there!”

“The granting of lives is never free!” Darren said. “And for that, there is always a payment due.”

The group stared at him in reverence.

“And that’s why anyone who trespasses in our holy sanctioned community must pay the price for the breaths we breathe on this evolving planet.”

“We hear and we appreciate!” the crowd murmured in unison.

“We bring this sacrifice,” Darren said. “This woman who entered our domain without permission and without the respect we deserve. Her charred flesh is a reminder of how fragile our lives are without the gift of sovereign protection.”

“It will educate our minds and satisfy our bodies.”

“Perhaps she had a name,” Darren said. “We’re going to assume her name was either Maria or Rosa.”

“Maria,” said the crowd.

“The gods have shown their will for Maria, and we are to benefit from it.”

“All paths will be made evident.”

“Amen,” Darren said.

He lowered his arms and then rubbed his palms together. “Let’s eat, folks.”

A girl came up behind him with paper plates and handed them out to the people around the fire.

I had a horrible feeling. An awful and sickening feeling, and I couldn’t shake my own intuition. Not Priscilla, please not Priscilla, I prayed. I prayed that she would come through the bushes at any moment and that this would all be one big misunderstanding. The body shape over the fire, the remnants of clothing now being used to burn underneath her—it was Priscilla. The smell was enveloping me, and I hated that it smelled like anything I’ve ever smelled at a cookout or a steakhouse. I was sick to my stomach. The nausea rolled around in my stomach, expanding and moving without any of my own control.

So much so my knees buckled and I vomited on the ground. I tried to keep it as quiet as possible, wiping my mouth. When I got back to my feet, I spotted Bruce on the other side of the compound, creeping around, seemingly oblivious to the horror that happened in front of him.

BOOK: The Girl's Guide to the Apocalypse
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