Now All dead. No one survived. All dead.
The words pound in my head like mini explosions going off again and again and again. All dead.
Boom! No one survived.
Boom! All dead.
I don’t know what these words mean. I am not dead. I am here, so I have survived. The heavy fog dampens my clothes so that my cutoffs cling to my thighs. I touch the air gingerly, then grab at it as though I can hold on. I rub my fingertips together. They are wet and clammy from the humidity. I feel, therefore I must exist.
I’m not sure where I am. I’ve been walking since morning, so I must be miles from wherever I began. It’s afternoon now.
I find a plot of grass and a tree to lean against. The bark is rough and hard on my back, but it’s solid. I flip off my flip-flops and massage one foot, then the other.
I check my pockets. Maybe there’s something useful tucked away. I take out a door key on a mini-flashlight key chain. I blink the beam once, twice, three times and swirl the white light. I can barely see the glow in the misty air.
In the other pocket is a roll of Life Savers. I am suddenly aware that I have not eaten all day. I pop one into my mouth, then two more. I am about to take another when I think perhaps I should save the rest. I fold over the foil wrapper and seal it down with my thumb.
I turn the Life Savers around with my tongue and suck out the sweet juicy flavor to make them last longer. I long for a candy bar, something with hard, dark chocolate outside and gooey, chewy, sweet caramel inside.
The sky darkens under a cloud and the wind blows. It looks like it’s going to rain, maybe storm. The days are getting shorter. School will start soon. It will be my last year of high school, but I don’t think I’ll be going now. I can’t shake the feeling that something absolutely awful has happened.
One fat droplet splats on the top of my head. Expecting a downpour, I pull up the hood of my sweatshirt, but there is only that one drop. I’m glad to have the sweatshirt though. I think hard. I try to remember. I almost didn’t take it with me. I grabbed it off the chair on my way out the door. It was early in the morning. Was that this morning? What was it I had to get? A cup of coffee? I never got it. I forgot the money. I was going back to get some, and that’s it.
Now I don’t have the coffee and I don’t have the money and I don’t know what happened. Boom! Boom! Boom!
throbs my brain with the struggle to remember. I beat my palms on my forehead. The exploding will stop if I can just stop thinking.
I search deeper in my pockets. Maybe there’s some cash. I do that sometimes, fold up a bill and stick it in my pocket, then forget about it until I next wear the pants and find it all washed and crumpled. I turn the front pockets inside out. Not even a coin—nothing but lint.
So this is what I have:
• half a roll of Life Savers
• one front-door key (useless)
• one flashlight key chain
That’s it. That’s all she wrote. No more. No less. Once I had everything, and now, nada.
No money, no phone, no music, no food, no clothes—well, except for the clothes on my back: sweatshirt, T-shirt, cutoffs, flip-flops, underwear. Hard to believe I could be so stupid as to take so little, but I was only going for a few minutes, or so I thought.
I hear my mother’s voice somewhere in my head: You’re going out in that?
And my father: You really should wear better shoes.
Mother: You just don’t have the legs for such short shorts, dear.
Father: I don’t see how you can walk in those. There’s no support.
Mother: At least brush your hair.
Father: We just want what’s good for you.
Mother: We just want you to be a normal, happy, pretty girl . . .
Did they actually say these things, or am I imagining things they might say? They always said they just wanted me to be happy. Do they even know I’m gone?
Where are they?
Where am I? All dead. No one survived. All dead.
My throat tightens and my stomach twists into knots. It’s hard to breathe. I squeeze my eyes shut. There is a smell that makes me want to vomit. Burning. Smoke. Ash. I gasp for air.
I try to focus on the moment by counting breaths. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
I inhale deeper with each count, and the chant grows quieter. By the time I get all the way to fifty it is so faint I can barely hear it. The stench disappears and my stomach loosens. I can swallow.
As I listen to my breath, I stare at an ant on the ground. It’s a tiny little thing carrying a crumb twice its size, trudging through grass and over dirt. Suddenly it runs into a twig, and instead of going around, it attempts to climb over without dropping its precious load. The poor little ant is all by itself in a world much larger than it will ever know. I move the twig out of its way, and the ant keeps going as though the twig had never even been there.
I make a pledge to myself—I won’t think of anything except what is in front of me. It is the only way. I have no future. I have no past. All I have is now—the clothes on my back, the raindrop on my head, the grass under my feet, the tree pressing against my spine, the woods on either side of me, and the long stretch of road ahead disappearing into a bank of gray fog.
I’m walking along the side of the road with my hood pulled over my face so no one can see me. The air is dark and heavy. My feet ache from the stupid flip-flops. I might as well be barefoot.
My stomach grumbles. I finished off the Life Savers hours ago. So much for saving. I imagine all the things I could eat: a bagel oozing out cream cheese, extra-cheesy pizza, stringy mozzarella sticks, fried chicken fingers, a burger with loads of ketchup, french fries, potato chips, a mocha milk shake, a thick slice of chocolate cake for dessert. I lick my lips.
The rumbling of a pickup truck interrupts my food fantasy. I try to breathe normally even though inside I am trembling. My instincts tell me I shouldn’t be "found." The truck comes up behind me. I stare straight ahead. It will pass. It will not notice me. It will pass,
I tell myself, like a mantra that will make it true. But it doesn’t work. The truck slows to my pace and drives alongside me. I keep walking. It will pass. It will pass.
The window rolls down and a guy calls out, "Want a lift?"
I don’t dare look, but I imagine a cliché truck guy: cigarette dangling from his mouth, the rest of the pack rolled in the sleeve of his T-shirt, a big grin revealing missing teeth, and some empty beer cans strewn about the front seat.
I shake my head ever so slightly, no, and keep walking straight ahead. My flip-flops slap at my heels with each step.
"You sure? It can be dangerous walking all alone. It’s gonna be dark soon," the man says.
This is what every child is warned about. Never trust strange men who sound friendly. Especially men in trucks who offer rides. I make a mistake and glance at him. He is muscular and good-looking and wearing a T-shirt, but there’s no cigarette. He smiles wide, and as far as I can tell he has all his teeth.
He asks, "You from around here?" Say nothing.
"Where are you headed?" Keep walking.
He stops the ...