I sat on the sofa, feeling like a lump of overcooked pasta, listening to the soft phlumps of my sister, Tabitha, pacing the floor behind me. The sky had grown increasingly ominous over the past hour and we both knew that time was running short. Then it was gone as one oily drop of rain hit the window.
Tabitha stopped pacing and we both just stared at the drop as it was joined by others, soon the glass would be coated with the rusty toxic liquid that fell from the sky.
“Why aren’t they here?” Tabitha’s voice rose shrill, warbling in a way I’d never heard from my sister. I opened my mouth to speak, but I had nothing to say. We stared at the gooey slick coating all the windows of the house, till I realized my mouth was still open and closed it.
“Jessica is crying again.”
We jumped. Drake, Tabitha’s son, was standing two feet away, but rather than being mesmerized by the phenomenon, he was examining the hardwood floors, as if not seeing it would mean it wasn’t real.
“Thanks, honey, I’ll go and check on her.” I said. I peeled myself off the soft leather sofa, feeling more like a ninety-year old grandmother than a thirty year old mother, and slowly began making my way to the back bedroom, even though I had no idea how to comfort my child. I could barely stand to look at her, and everything I did seemed only to hurt her more.
The house was large, much bigger than anything my sister or I had ever owned. We’d stolen the house. Paul, Tabitha’s husband, had plucked a large stone from the driveway and smashed in through the garage, which didn’t do us much good since we still had to break through a door to get into the house from the garage. It was something we should have known, and we joked about our awkward foray into a life of crime. It felt good. For a moment we almost resembled normal for the first time since the news broke. When we got inside, we saw portraits of the family who must have owned the house. I plucked a frame from a slate hall table and looked into four beautiful caramel-coloured faces, grinning obliviously, just as we all once were. A lovely little girl, a bit younger than my daughter, smiled up at me and I wondered if she, too, was already sick, despite only a few pink wisps in the sky and no sign of rain so far. But Steve snatched the photo and turned it over on the table. Soon Paul joined him, removing family photos, and turning over frames. It gave them something to do, and they were right; these people weren’t coming back and even if they did, we weren’t leaving. My seven year old daughter, Jessica, lay in one of the back bedrooms.
I’d taken only a few reluctant paces towards the rooms, when the sound of keys jingling at the front door stopped me in my tracks. My sister and I locked eyes, then raced for the door. It wasn’t until we both smashed into it, that I realized we had the same intention.
“No!” I shouted.
“I know.” Said Tabitha. She slid the chain lock into place, held the bolt shut, and gave me a resolute nod.
“Go to your room and keep Dakota in there with you!” I yelled at Drake.
“Is that dad?” He asked. His hair stood in a spiky mess and his eyebrows raised quizzically, he looked like a kid who’d woken up in blender.
“Drake; room; NOW!” His mother bellowed. His brow fell and he headed towards his room. “Paul, we can’t let you in.” She half-sobbed through the door.
“Tabitha, open the door!”
“No, Paul.” It was almost a whisper and I was sure Paul didn’t hear her.
“You guys are too late. We agreed! If you come in here, we’ll all…” I couldn’t say die. I pressed my feet into the hardwood, and my back against the cold door. In front of me was a spectacular view of Georgian Bay, and an even more spectacular view of a blood-red, cloudy sky. The rain had come. The front wall of the great room just beyond the foyer was entirely large panel glass, with an almost-invisible sliding door in the centre. If Paul and my husband, Steve, were as determined to get in as they were to get out and go for supplies, despite our pleas for them to just stay and wait, all they needed was a large stone from the garden. Beyond bolting the door, we had no fight. We were going to die anyways, what did it matter if it was now, or three days from now?
I had been in Toronto when reports first came in of clouds turning pink, then thickening to an almost black bloody red before bursting with toxic rust-coloured rain, decimating Nepal and parts of India and China. We were excused from work for the rest of the day, although most of us would have left regardless, and a few people stayed, regardless. I went straight to my daughter, Jessica, craftily avoiding my dimwitted co-worker, Nancy, who was crying hysterically and giving everybody hugs. I drove numb to my daughter’s school, walked past ashen parents, ashen teachers, and curious and concerned children. Every voice I heard had a hollow and distant quality. There was an eerie calm daze as the world simultaneously digested the new reality. We holed up in our home and spent the evening studying media sites and social media for any new details or insights, sharing the insightful hits with each other, and keeping the graphic ones to ourselves. At midnight, my husband Steve and I packed a bag, woke Jessica, and drove out of the city. We weren’t the only ones, but we managed to get north of the city just as the calm was erupting into chaos, the facade of civility crumbling to utter anarchy. Within forty-eight hours there were reports of widespread looting and killing, ironically, mostly in the name of providing for and protecting loved ones. We knew the rain was spreading fast. We knew it killed anything it touched, from human beings right down the chain, and that the fumes alone were deadly. We knew it was heading our way and that nobody knew what it was, or what caused it, let alone how to stop it.
“We’re all going to die anyways,” screamed Steve, “Let us in!”
Tabby was sobbing, but I felt like an automaton.
“We’ve got food, and we’ve got water!” Paul screamed. His voice was choked and gruff. I pushed my body harder against the door.
“It’s no good,” she hissed at me, “We can’t even touch it.”
“I know,” I reassured her.
Tabitha’s hand didn’t falter on the bolt, which reassured me. She had been married almost ten years longer than me, it was something that I envied, not just the length of time, but the connection they had. They were best friends and, even though I was considered the pretty one, Steve wouldn’t think twice about locking me out if the tables were turned. Steve would probably lock me out if I gained twenty pounds. It wasn’t exactly difficult for me to leave him out there, but for my sister, I was watching her sell her soul to buy her children maybe two or three more days of life.
Eventually, the men stopped their pleas. We crumpled together at the base of the door, our bodies weak, our heads together.
“Why?” Tabitha breathed. “Why is this happening?”
“I’m actually surprised it didn’t happen sooner.” I replied, and was instantly very sorry. True or no, it was the wrong thing to say with my sister on the verge of hysterics. I remembered needing to check on Jessica and I left my sister sitting with her back against the door. It had stopped raining.
“Don’t open the door.” I warned, as I left. Then I turned and added, “I know that was really hard for you.”
I entered my daughter’s room. It was darker than usual for the middle of the afternoon, eerie mauve light shone in around the drawn curtains and my daughter lay quiet and still on the bed.
“Mom, everything hurts.” She moaned.
I crossed the room and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, even the slight movement of me sitting caused her to moan in pain, then apologize for making me uncomfortable. I instinctively went to take her hand and tell her she didn’t need to apologize, then realized I couldn’t even do that and pulled back. I wanted to look and see how much worse she’d gotten in the last few hours, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it anymore.
“Please don’t touch me, mom. It really hurts bad.” My daughter had started growing shaky and pale the day before. Within hours she developed spontaneous bruises all over her body, and by afternoon she was confined to her bed because she said her feet hurt too much to stand up anymore.
“Can I turn on the light?”
“Ugh, please no,” said Jessica. “Can you just sit and talk to me?”
“Of course I can, honey.” I wanted to get more comfortable, but at the same time, I didn’t want any shift on my part to agonize my daughter. So I just sat, stiff and uncomfortable, breathing in the silence, not knowing what to say, and hoping for Jessica to say anything.
“Mom, everything is going to die, isn’t it?” I felt heat rising behind my eyes and tried to blink back the flow. I didn’t care so much that everything was dying, it was my daughter’s voice. It didn’t sound like my daughter anymore and I realized that her authentic voice was a sound I’d already heard for the last time.
“Yeah, honey, we were all going to die at some point either way, it just looks like it’s going to be a lot sooner than we expected.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“Shh, don’t say that.” I had no idea how to fill the silence, but I had to say something, so I said, “Nobody really knows what happens after we die, for all we know, it could be really wonderful. Remember when you learned to ride your bike? It was really scary, and painful at first, but once you got it, a whole new world opened up.” I felt like an ass for comparing death to riding a bike, and tried to change course, “I think that maybe even caterpillars might be scared to lock themselves up in that tiny cocoon, but that usually turns out pretty sweet for them. Let’s just think of ourselves as caterpillars, what do you think?” Instinctively I reached again, Jessica winced, I remembered, and pulled back.
“It hurts to talk. I’m going to sleep a bit.”
“Okay, Jessie Bessie.” I hadn’t called her that since she was five; my Jessie Bessie Bear with the Big Hugs. I started to softly sing Summertime, just like I did when she was a baby, and I kept on singing until the slowed rhythm of her breathing was keeping the rhythm of the melody. Then I slowly inched off the bed and joined Tabby in the other room.
“My kids aren’t feeling well.” Tabby said, and the automaton who’d been protecting me crumbled into dust at my feet. I was no longer just making decisions based on the most logical assessment of the problem. It was like stepping from a dark and quiet room, into the middle of a live Iron Maiden concert of sweaty and frantic emotions. One instant unlocked every sensation that had been shut down for my own protection and my knees felt like jelly and I dropped to the floor. I felt myself being half-lifted, and half-dragged to the sofa. The lights seemed blinding, and the odours violent, my tongue tasted and felt like a slab of rubber in my mouth.
“You must really love my kids.” Tabitha quipped. I tried to smile but my sister’s expression told me that I hadn’t quite managed.
I pulled my knees up to my chest and felt a little better as I grabbed both the cuffs of my jeans in my fingers, and began rubbing the material. I noticed a small red stain on my left cuff and instantly looked away. My sister sat quietly beside me and I focused on a cream coloured leather chair by the fireplace. It had a small wrought iron table beside it and I forced myself to consider who’s chair it might be. Perhaps the woman in the photograph loved to curl up in that chair and knit on windy days, perhaps with a small cup of tea by her side. I imagined her sitting there, and filled in every imaginary detail till I was ready to face my cuff again. Slowly I willed myself to look at it. There was no logical way I could have gotten it on me. Then I remembered the ketchup I’d shattered while feeding Jessica dinner what seemed like a million years ago. Our last half-night in our own home. I stared at the stain, feeling both foolish and relieved.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I just… I don’t think I’ve been awake and digesting this properly. It all kinda flooded in at once and I was just… drowning in it, I guess.”
“It’s okay if you’re sick,” My sister said. “We’re all going to get it. It’s over for every living species on this planet, and I really don’t think it was aliens getting their period on us, or any of that other nonsense people are spouting. I think this is all our own fault. My guess is some toxic-spewing dumpster company somewhere really fucked up and now we’re all going to die. There’s no two ways about it. I think from here on out, we should just try to go together.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right. I’m not sure of anything anymore. I’m all out of ideas.” Sweat pricked up on my neck.
“I know,” Said Tabitha, “Me too.” Then she tried to smile and didn’t quite manage. “Listen, I think we should all say our goodbyes tonight.”
“Look, Tabby, Let’s just rest. I can’t talk about this now.”
“I just killed my husband and my kids still got sick within minutes, and you can’t talk about this?”
I’d never felt so selfish, and so queasy, both at the same time in my life. I felt everything and everything felt like garbage. I longed for my automaton, but I was abandoned; it’s mission complete, it was time for me to resume command, but I didn’t feel ready, and I didn’t feel strong. I just wanted sleep.
“Maybe he’s not dead.”
“I hope to God he’s dead!” She snapped. “The thought that he might be still alive out there doesn’t bring me any comfort!”
“I know, I’m so sorry. I’m an idiot. Of course they are. It happened so fast. Who knows if we did the right thing? It was just instinct, wasn’t it? I mean, we both instinctively did the exact same thing.”
“Well, who the hell instinctively wiped out the entire planet? That’s what I wanna know!” My sister’s leg began to thrum up and down, like it always did when she was agitated.
“Maybe it was God, I mean, can you blame Him?”
“I’ve been praying.” Her leg stilled.
“It’s good to have God to believe in at a time like this.” She took my hand and squeezed.
“Yup. Those atheists are really missing out.” I squeezed back. My sister giggled and I smiled.
“I bet they’re all trying to convert now.”
We both giggled at this, then sat quietly, each praying silent prayers and watching the last sliver of rusted orange sun dip beneath a bruised purple sky. I wondered whether I would meet my maker, and whether he was more like the bible God we read about in church, or more like the Friend who answers my prayers. I had my fingers crossed for Prayer God.
We woke at dawn, crumpled together on the couch, both with headaches raging. We didn’t have to speak. We knew it was time.
“How?” My sister spoke one word to me and it tore through my stomach worse than the contractions that breathed my daughter into the world. It was a blinding and physical pain, and I couldn’t be sure if the cause was physical illness from yesterdays shower, or emotional trauma taking a physical toll, maybe it was both, but one thing I was sure of, was that I couldn’t move. I was physically frozen, and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to move again.
I was relieved to find that my sister could move, and as she turned to face me, she pulled away from the weight of my back, and I simply rolled backwards to fill up the space. I tried to pull myself out of the tight little coil I found myself in, but it was no use. I could feel myself trying to rock out of the fetal position, but I couldn’t shake it. I could see my sister, and register her panic, and her exhaustion, with her own trauma written all over her face, but I still couldn’t lift myself out. She got a blanket, tossed it over me, and plopped down beside me. She rubbed my hair absentmindedly and it soothed me. I could smell her lotion, and sense the moisture of her palm by the way my hair smoothed under it.
“You’re usually the one with all the balls,” she said. “It’s so fucked up to see you like this.”
I know, I thought. I’ve got to get myself out of this state. I may not be the best mom, but I’ve got to at least show up… to murder my daughter.
I felt myself coil in tighter and I tried to relax and calm my mind. My sister was talking about her husband, but I had to tune her out. I thought of my grandmother, and how she always told me to think of all the good and happy times when I’m trying to fall asleep, and so that’s what I did. I thought about my daughter’s first birthday. Pink balloons, and Sprinkles, the female clown. Why are clowns usually male? This whole thing was all our fault, my sister was right. I mean, we all knew what we were doing to this planet. It was really only a matter of time.
Then I was watching the YouTube video of the shopkeeper who was shooting anyone who tried to get into his store. A woman in a red dress had approached, I’m guessing the men had urged her to go forward, thinking the shopkeeper would let an unarmed woman in the shop. She held money out in front of her as she slowly approached his shop, and for a moment, I thought he was going to let her in. Then he shot her in the face right in front of her child, who looked to be about six or seven years old. He had on flip-flops and dirty green shorts. His face contorted wretchedly, as her head pinged back and a stream of hair attached to a red, white, and wet chunk flew off of her as she dropped to the ground. All hell broke loose immediately after that, and what I’m sure was the corpse of the shopkeeper was dragged out and beaten till I turned off the video. I tried to think of something else to fill the space, I tried to focus on my breathing, but I needed something else, something just as vivid to counter that image, I tried floating in space, then I tried winning five million dollars, then I tried riding wild horses, and then I started to feel again, a warm sadness, knowing that I’d never do any of those things. Nobody would. I slipped into the darkness for a few moments, then I started to breathe, and slowly come back to what my sister was saying. Only she was silent.
“Tabs?” I grumbled. Silence. I kept breathing, and trying to soothe my body into cooperating with me. It took about ten minutes to get off of the couch, and everything remained silent the entire time. I looked at the clock and it was 11:20 am. I slowly made my way to Jessica’s room, then I stopped. My sister was outside with Drake and Dakota. They were hugging. I raced to Jessica’s room and found her, barely alive, on her bed. The room smelled awful, human waste combined with the chemical odour that had permeated everything since the rain. I realized that the chemical odour wasn’t just coming from the rain, it was also coming from my daughter. I wasn’t sure how to do what I needed to, and I couldn’t ask my sister, my legs were too shaky and weak to manage. I tried not to think about what my sister was doing out there. I tried not to think about what I was doing in here.
“Jessica?” I whispered.
Silence. I marched to the bathroom and grabbed a washcloth and shoved it over my daughter’s mouth and nose before I had time to think. Despite my solid resolution, I still winced at the thought of the pain it must cause her, but I had to finish. This might be the last strength I have. I expected her to thrash and buck, but she only shuddered a few times. I held on tight for several minutes after the shuddering stopped, dry heaving as her tender and bruised flesh gave way under the washcloth like a crushed peach.
I cried and talked to my daughter for a while, hating every perfect word that came out of my mouth, now that it was too late. Then, I slowly crawled back to the window. My sister was gone. So was the boat. I looked closer and saw two dead otters on the shore, locked in an eternal embrace. I knew my sister was gone. I thought we had more time, but pink clouds were once again looming in the sky. My head was pounding, and my body ached. The bruises would come soon. I understood my daughter’s pain, and that I was a coward for making her hurt for so long. It was my sister who was brave. I sat on the couch, and thought about what to do next. I didn’t want to wait for the rain. I saw the boat appearing in the distance, and wondered if they were alive or dead on it, until I saw an oar moving. They were coming back.
I checked the medicine cabinets in our new luxury stolen house and found some sleep medication. I set it on the coffee table. Tabby and the kids crossed the massive patio towards the glass doors. They looked almost peaceful.
As soon as Tabby looked at me she knew, and she understood. “The kids said their goodbyes this morning. You did the right thing.”
“I know.” My voice was thick and I was all cried out.
“Are you ready?”
“I think so, I mean. What are we waiting for, right? This is only going to get worse. Maybe we should have just done it with Steve and Paul, I mean, we didn’t get too far without them.”
“I know. We killed them for nothing.” I regretted saying this, but my sister giggled.
“Don’t you remember me saying that? Ha, you were so out of it, it was crazy, you were rocking back and forth like a mental patient and I was laughing maniacally about how awkward it’s going to be when we see Steve and Paul on the other side, and how we’re going to have to apologize for murdering them.” She began to laugh and almost look like herself again. It was comforting to see, and I felt more like myself simply for basking in her beautiful laughter. Her batshit insane, lunatic laughter, over the death of her husband. I started to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Then we sat down with Drake and Dakota, ten and fifteen, respectively, and had the most absurd conversation of all. Ways to kill ourselves. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was only a matter of how. We wondered how many families were having the exact same conversation around the world. We talked about the pills, how we could split them and whether there would be enough. We talked about what we could have done differently and where we, as a species, went wrong, and what might have caused this global fumigation, and whether or not the cockroaches would survive this apocalypse, and even what that might look like. We talked and procrastinated, and procrastinated, and talked some more, until it was finally too late, and when we tried to stand, we found that we couldn’t. The solution to our problem sat in a pill bottle on the coffee table, clearly visible, but reaching this solution had silently passed through the realm of difficult and into the desolate fortress of impossible. We could only watch helplessly and desperately as each second slowly ticked away. And so we continued to do what we’d always done; talk. We stayed alive a long time that way, slowly and more slowly breathing in the thickening acrid atmosphere, feeling our flesh rot as we breathed, feeling our bones turn to gravy inside of us, and wishing we’d acted before it was too late.
This story was based on a dream I had that has stuck with me. I love the story, but the writing could be better. I feel that my imagery falls flat, and my character development is lacking. I also wonder if it would have been more dramatic in present tense. I don’t know that I’m entirely finished with this story, but I’m going to shelve it for now, and maybe come back to it when I have more wisdom and experience under my belt. I hope it was still an enjoyable read.