by Julia Watson
I breathe out slow, lying on the gazebo roof in Crestfield Park. I used to lay here and face the sky, making cloud shapes, counting stars. Today I’ve got a job to do.
Focus. Shut out distractions. Breathe. Just like you taught me.
Bottom of the breath, I aim and squeeze. CRACK. Mr. Johnson, our next-door neighbor, falls. Goes still. His noisy mutt, the one you hated, used to welcome me at the end of his chain with rough fur and a wet tongue to wash my salt away. I’m glad that dog’s not here.
Another. A woman—hard to tell who. I fire. As her ruined face explodes into mist, I whisper my thanks to the fool who built a gazebo on this ugly spit of land overlooking Rustridge Canyon—named for the five generations’ worth of scrap refuse the town tossed into it. You’d say I was crazy, boxing myself in, but alone, it’s the only way to get this done.
I thought there’d be more here, but it won’t be long now. My rifle sounds out like a dinner bell. Come and get it, you sorry sonsabitches. That’s what you’d say if you were here.
I see movement straight ahead, the signature shuffle. The horizon crawls closer, a sea of creeping death. Impossible to outrun in the long range, but we tried anyway.
They’re coming now. I don’t stop firing except to change rifles. Having to reload equals dying, the second law of the road. How you loved putting truth to ‘he with the most guns wins.’ I take grim pride in my marksmanship. That’s from you; she never touched a gun in her life, not even the one you bought her.
I got your steady hands, your eagle eye. Always were good with a blade. I got that too. But until after, I never wished for your enthusiasm, your joyful war whoop. I’ve tried it on for size, hoping it would make this easier. It doesn’t. The real danger isn’t in the reaching hands; it’s in their faces. Getting caught up looking for what’s missing there—that’s what gets a body dragged down.
I say my goodbyes. Bobby Reyes, his left foot dragging along. I liked him, but never said so because of what you’d say, do. No wetback whoreson would ever be good enough for your blood. Mrs. Oates, my middle school librarian, mean old goat. She washed Maggie’s mouth out with soap once for saying ‘shit.’ But she gave me a tired smile and a dog-eared copy of My Side of the Mountain once when I came to school with another shiner. Sometimes I’d look for a copy of that book on the road. Or imagine Frightful the falcon, soft and fierce on my shoulder as I stood guard, while you searched another boarded up, silent house for ammo and canned goods.
I always knew I’d get out. Someday. College maybe. More likely, the army. You’d have been quietly proud, though you said a woman had as much business in the armed forces as a fish in a tap dance.
My friends are harder when their pale faces appear in the crowd. Their arms reach up for me and I answer them with what mercy I can give; I’ve only a finite number of bullets and minutes at my disposal. But I close my eyes for Maggie. Pull my trigger. When I look up, she’s gone.
Jesus, you were right. Not one fool among them had the sense to leave. Died as they lived. Stuck here. I fire until the ones in the back climb over the fallen and fall themselves, forming a low defensive wall.
When it started, part of me was glad. We were leaving. End of the world aside, it was what I’d always wanted. Except in my daydreams, it was always me and her leaving you.
It was for the best maybe, what happened. She wouldn’t have lasted two days on the road. Probably would have got us both killed. That’s what I tell myself.
I thin the crowd. Please come, I pray to whatever’s out there, to whatever’s left.
Three more reserve rifles. And that awful wall now five feet high. Doing its job. Slowing them down. Giving me time to reload.
But what’s the point if you’re not here?
I meant to draw you out, to not have to go back there.
I breathe it through, piece by piece, the parts you couldn’t block out that day, my face pressed tight against your chest as you dragged me away. Hissing growls, a hoarse frenzy. Her scream rising steadily in pitch until horror gives way to pure animal suffering. The rending sound. The smell of blood, sickly-sweet and heavy.
You had a gun, but you didn’t shoot. Later on, I figured you couldn’t risk the noise. Or you just couldn’t. I hoped she didn’t need a bullet. I knew better than to ask.
I flex my bad hand, more from habit than hurt, and wish you’d come, but the answer in my blood says if you haven’t yet, you won’t.
How stupid I was to think that, even dead, you’d make this any easier. The world lurches. My head spins. Time tries to slip from me again, and I haul it back hard. I’ll have to be fast.
I hop down and make the wall in three breaths. A hand with broken fingernails scrabbles for me as I climb, but I kick it away, already up, then over. Facing the gauntlet.
They come for me. What’s left of the boy’s swim team, Mr. Jessop from the hardware store, Ms. Williams, who led the Sunday choir.
I yank my hand axe out of Shelly Brooks’ lead-colored brains and go for the hole up ahead, thinking I could have tried out for football. Over your dead body. A harsh sound rattles in my throat. I think maybe it’s happening, that I’m dying, but I’m only laughing. I’m so tired, and freedom is so close.
“Family is everything,” you told me before all this, my teeth gritted, face twisted away from you as far back as I could get while your thumb wiped blood from my split lip. You smeared it between your fingers, testing its texture, the thing that linked me to you.
We ran. First law of the road? Don’t get dead.
“All rules’re meant to be broken,” you rasped at the end, your torn hands holding your insides in. “Do it.”
How many times had I thought about killing you in your sleep? And you knew. You smiled, your lips bubbling red. “Here’s your chance, darlin’.” You tried to laugh, choked instead, while I looked and couldn’t find it—that sixteen years worth of sorry in your eyes I was aching to see.
So I let you beg as I backed away. Let you curse me and spit, say I wasn’t your blood no more. I wished it true, did what I do best.
I ran like hell, for all the good it did me.
Your blood in my veins calls me home one last time.
The gate, half off its hinges, grins a wide-open welcome. I drop the axe, pretend not to see the thing straining towards me on its bloody length of chain in the next yard over.
I open the screen door, let it slam behind me to rouse you. Wipe my boots on the mat, drawing strength from the tiniest rituals of before—a game you never joined, but didn’t begrudge me.
I hear you before I see your familiar shape coming down the hall, slow and steady. Thump-slide. Thump-slide.
And the strangled gurgle behind you, dragging itself across the floorboards with one arm. Wisps of hair and shattered bare bone that used to be smooth.
I understand it now, why you left her like this. Not because you couldn’t do it. You were never afraid of being a monster. You were afraid of being alone.
My arm itches, and I scratch under the dirty bandages, ignoring the stiff, blue-black flesh there. Once they get a taste of you, you’re already dead, even if you get away. But it can be weeks before it takes you—borrowed time I’ve spent on this.
Her pistol’s in my belt, with three good bullets.
You shuffle closer as I draw, in no particular hurry, like you know I’m back for keeps. I could do it. Save her from you once and for all. Her and me both. And leave you here to rot, never to rest. Again. You deserve it.
Rule #3: Never turn your back on your family.
Blood calls to blood, to its own. Through the red haze stealing across my vision, I can feel you. Both of you. My breath hitches and a terrible hollowness kindles inside me, bottomless with need.
I raise the gun as your mouth opens, impossibly wide, your wail of hunger the fourth last sound I’ll ever hear.
I cock the gun and face you, my running days behind me.
Mama. Daddy. I’m home.
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