You remember the day they came.
The shady corner behind the store smelled of Lou’s cigarettes and the dumpster down the alley, just shy of pick-up day and overflowing already. You chewed your sandwich and stared at the weeds growing through the asphalt. The day was stifled by summer heat and suffocating humidity, too bright and too hazy all at once.
A shadow passed overhead. You looked up.
You remember the day they came because it was the day your father died. He died in the early morning, just after two, twenty miles away. The nurse who called spared you the details, but you know his lungs were filled with fluid and his eyes were milky white, the blood in his veins slow and thin. The nurse’s name was Jenny. Her call woke you from a dream about worms the size of back-road culverts chewing through the land and churning under the fields, houses and cottonwoods toppling like dominoes in their wake.
Your father has been dying for days, months, years. He has been dying for as long as you can remember. His wheezing cough and sluggish hands, the tired slouch of his body on the sofa, these are the parts of him that fill your memories.
Solemn and sympathetic, Jenny said, “Your father has passed. I’m so sorry.”
There is only one funeral parlor in town. You haven’t seen it but you know it is empty and dark now, like everything else. There are seven graveyards, but your father does not lie in one of them. You had planned to cremate his remains. There was so little left of him, only a bag of skin and bones and broken-down parts, coarse white hair like individual threads pierced through his scalp and drawn out long and slow, a half-finished doll of shabby fabric.
You told the doctors you could not care for him at home anymore.
The hospital is well outside your five-mile radius.
You remember the day they came because you tried to go back to sleep after the nurse called. You lay in bed and thought about getting up, thought about making coffee and thought about turning on the television. You thought about your father, dying alone in a hospital bed, and you thought about the nurses on night duty hearing the frantic trill of his heart monitor. You thought about it so long that when you finally shuffled into the living room and grabbed the remote, the infomercials were surrendering to the earliest morning news. Asian markets closing, European markets opening, the tailored suits and shiny hair of people far away, they were all reduced to numbers scrolling along the bottom of the screen and calm news desk reports interspersed with shaky camera clips of war and poverty. They were images of places you have never been, roadsides you have never seen. It didn’t occur to you that you never would.
You’ve lost your chance now. They do not allow travel.
Your five-mile radius encompasses fields and farms. Your five-mile radius includes the chicken plant on Highway 9, now silent but just as pungent as ever, and the new high school the county built even when the voters went against it. Your five-mile radius includes two creeks, but there is something wrong with the water. The grass on the banks is dying, leaves are falling from the nearest trees, and slimy moss the color of fresh-cut grass grows where none grew before. While waiting in line for food at the high school, the local kids whisper about small, squirmy water snakes of an unknown species wriggling under the rocks when anybody approaches. The children dare each other to splash in and make a catch, but none have succeeded.
You remember the day they came because your coffee was too strong and your toast was burnt and you went to work like it was any other day. Your car coughed and grumbled when you started it, but once it was moving forward the noises stopped. The problem wasn’t enough to warrant a trip to the garage, you thought, not until payday. You drove along familiar roads beneath a sky mottled with dull, flat clouds, the leftovers of yesterday’s rain. On the radio the DJ promised another storm before nighttime. You sighed at the news then felt guilty; all around the county lakes were shallow, reservoirs dry, blades of grass sharp and crackling with thirst.
You remember the road looked gray rather than black, the summer wheat leeched of color, the fences no more than ink-sketched lines around the fields. You remember a moment of confusion: You couldn’t find the sun, couldn’t remember which way was east. You stopped at the intersection of South Marshall and Judge Taylor Road. There is a stop sign on the corner, pockmarked with bullet holes, leaning away from a decade of wind. The moment passed, and you drove on.
You remember the day they came because you were late for work for the first time in five years. The store was already open and Lou was working one of the registers. You apologized as you rushed in, but he waved it off and didn’t say a word as you tied on your blue apron.
Lou waited for a quiet moment later in the morning to say, “I heard about your dad. I’m real sorry. At least he’s resting easy now.” His brown face crinkled with sympathy and he patted your arm before heading into the back.
You remember the day they came because Mrs. Meester brought all six of her kids into the store just before noon. It was the last time you saw all of them together.
Seven days later Mrs. Meester was standing in line for rations at the high school, just inside the front door by the trophy case. Five of her little ones stood hand in hand behind her. A week after that, you met her at the high school again, in the gymnasium this time. She was waiting impatiently behind the red line on the floor, four children beside her.
Mrs. Meester gave you a nod that day in the gymnasium. Her lips curled in a thin, weak smile as she asked after your dad.
“He’s still dead,” you said.
“Oh,” said Mrs. Meester. “How terrible.” She turned away and stepped up to collect her rations.
The rations they provide are bland, simple meals, much like the MREs your father remembered from his time in the army. Every item is sealed and ordered in unmarked packets. You don’t know what the food is made of; you don’t know if it matters. Each meal is packaged in a lightweight gray box, easily collapsed, with no markings or writing on any surfaces. The food is enough to keep you full. After a couple of weeks your cravings for fresh fruit and vegetables faded away.
Every night you eat your rations in front of the television. When you turn on the old set, the picture snaps into clarity and there is a man sitting behind a desk in front of a blank wall. He wears a dark suit with a blue tie and he says, “Please stay within your defined zone for your own safety.” He reminds you of your ration distribution center and your five-mile radius, the restrictions and rules you have now memorized. He is on the television twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He says, “It is not safe to venture outside your defined zone.” Every channel is the same, every broadcast identical no matter the time.
When you saw Mrs. Meester two days ago, she was hurrying through the empty parking lot outside the school. It was a hot, blustery day and she had no children with her. Her hair whipped about her face and her cheeks were pink.
She saw you and stopped, and she asked, “How is your father doing these days?”
And you said, “He’s just fine.”
You have been counting the weeks by Mrs. Meester’s children. Oldest to youngest they’ve slipped away: six, five, four, three, two, and the baby was last. Now there are none.
You remember the day they came because Mrs. Meester’s four-year-old escaped her grip in the freezer section of Lou’s store and hid amidst the produce while his older siblings called his name and the baby gurgled happily on her mother’s hip. You could smell the bananas a few days past ripe and the cleaner Lou used to mop the floors, the stale odor of well-used money and powder-soft children, Mrs. Meester’s perfume and optimistic hairspray. Your stomach churning, you remembered hiding from your father in the farm store when you were a child, curled up in a dog crate while he and the elderly clerk searched the aisles. He wasn’t angry when he found you; he laughed and bought you a bag of sour candies on the way out.
Then Mrs. Meester and her children were gone—the toddler found in a flurry of scolding and laughter—and the hours crawled by. Noon, one o’clock, two. Lou told you to take a break, and you carried your lunch outside to the shaded curb behind the store where Lou sneaked his cigarettes and the odor of smoke lingered. In the paper bag was a ham sandwich and an apple, the same meal you ate every day. The apple was soft, its bruises sour. Across the alley there was a closed garage; you can’t remember a time when it was anything other than abandoned. Spray-painted graffiti in smears of red and black marred the bay doors and the plywood over the windows, an unremarkable record of squalid boredom. Broken bottles glittered in the sunlight, scattered across asphalt and shriveled weeds growing through the cracks. There was a faded sign hanging in the window and a padlocked chain holding the door shut.
You remember. The garage was the last thing you saw before they came.
Lou’s store is well outside your five-mile radius, as is the rest of the town. The town is surrounded by fields, the fields by green hills, and your father’s house is a speck beside a road that is little more than a line on an old map. In the spring when it rains the road is muddy and rutted; in winter it’s among the last county roads to be cleared. Joe Harry used to plow it with the crooked blade attached to his F-250. The sound was unmistakable: an angry, grating growl of metal on gravel any time there was more than three inches of snow on the ground. Your father joked that Joe measured the snowfall with a ruler every morning. On the rare snow days of your childhood, before your father wrapped you in a puffy coat and wool scarf and too-big mittens attached to a string, before he took you outside for sledding and snowmen, you would sit in the window in hopes of catching Joe stepping onto his porch in the dark, ruler in hand. You imagined that he would lean over stiffly to peer at the numbers, face twisted up in his customary scowl, eyeing that last tenth of an inch that meant he owed the neighbors a cleared road before coffee. Joe Harry has been an old man all your life. He was a widower, arthritic and unsmiling, childless.
Joe Harry’s house is empty. His was the first you checked. You shouted yourself hoarse and knocked until your hand ached, then broke a window to climb inside. But Joe was nowhere to be found. That was six weeks ago.
Every house on the road is empty except for your father’s.
You don’t know why they let you stay.
Once a week you walk to the high school to collect your rations. The first week you didn’t count your neighbors as you stood in line. You listened to their conversations; you watched their faces; you studied their eyes. They asked after your father and expressed their sympathy. They discussed the state of the county roads and the new school superintendent. They gossiped about their spouses, their siblings, their friends. The day was hot and humid and windless. Shadows like empty voids marred a clear blue sky.
But nobody glanced upward. Nobody said, “I wonder what they want.”
The line moved forward and you stepped into the school. The hallway was cool and lit only by dusty sunlight filtering down the long hallway. It took a moment for your eyes to adjust. You wondered why Mrs. Meester had left her oldest at home.
“That’s better,” said Mike Philips. “I swear, that sun gets hotter every day. Maybe there’s something to that global warming bullshit after all.”
Mike Philips is an old friend of your father’s. They played baseball together in high school and sometimes met up for a beer on Friday nights. Mike is a retired plumber; his wife Laura used to run a daycare out of their home. She wasn’t with him that first day in line at the high school. You didn’t know at the time what her absence meant.
You said, “Maybe they’re doing something to the atmosphere.”
Mike looked at you, puzzled. “What?”
“Them,” you said. You nodded upward. There was no sign of them in the hallway, but you knew they were nearby. The window to the front office was dark; you imagined them hiding behind the smudged glass, watching. You lowered your voice and said, “Maybe it’s part of their plan.”
The confusion didn’t leave Mike’s face. “Whose plan?”
You thought Mike was playing dumb, as scared of them as you were, but before you could press him you saw a flicker of movement from the corner of your eye. It was outside the line, in a dark corridor intersecting the main, so fast it was gone before you turned your head.
The line was straight and quiet. Nobody noticed. Nobody strayed.
But you watched. You narrowed your eyes and you watched.
A shadow moved. It was barely more than a play of light and dark on the far wall, below a line of posters advertising a Partnership For a Drug-Free America with bright images of healthy children, green parks and white smiles. The way it moved reminded you of a barn cat or a raccoon, but bigger, longer, bending itself just out of sight.
Mike touched your shoulder and you started. “It’s okay,” Mike said. “I know you’re worried about your daddy, but he’ll be just fine. You’ll see.”
Your father had been dead for seven days.
You stand in line for rations once a week. You never see your neighbors at any other time. Nobody comes to visit, not even those within the five-mile radius. If they are in when you knock on their doors, they choose not to answer.
The phones don’t work anymore, but nobody in line mentions it.
There are no cars on the roads. Yours still runs, but you can’t bring yourself to drive it, not when you might need it later.
There are no planes in the sky. Some days there are vast silhouettes above the clouds; some days there is nothing.
There is still electricity running to your house, but there are fewer and fewer lights each night when you look out the window before bed. If it weren’t for the one morning a week you walk to the high school to await the distribution of rations, you might suspect you are the last person on Earth.
You eat your rations methodically and think of Edward G. Robinson and the miracle of strawberries, of the chicken plant now silent and empty, of the shorter and shorter lines at the high school every week, of Mrs. Meester’s children and the snakelike creatures in the changing creek.
The man on the television says, “It is not safe to venture outside your defined zone.” Perhaps he is a human puppet coerced into speaking for them. Perhaps he is only wearing a human shape.
You turn on the television at midnight, at four a.m., at noon, at sunset in hopes of catching something different. But the broadcast never changes.
The man is saying, “Please stay within your five-mile radius for your own safety.”
His blue tie is askew and there are dark smudges under his eyes. You wonder if puppets can get tired, if he has been broadcasting nonstop for weeks on end.
He says, “It is not safe to venture outside your defined zone.”
You frown at the television and mutter, “Why the hell not? That’s what I want to know.”
The man on the broadcast blinks twice and says, “Because you will be punished if you do.”
You drop the plastic fork. Your mouth is open, your heart racing.
The man asks, “Are you thinking about leaving?”
“No,” you say. The word trips from your tongue before the thought is fully formed. “No. Absolutely not.”
It’s a lie, and the man with the blue tie knows it. You can see it in the narrow way he watches you. The corner of his mouth twitches.
“You will be next,” the man says.
“No,” you say again.
He blinks. “Please stay within your five-mile radius for your own safety. It is not safe to venture outside your defined zone. Once a week you will obtain rations from a central distribution center.”
You fumble for the remote and switch the television off.
You count to one hundred, willing your heartbeat to slow and your hands to stop trembling.
You count to one hundred again.
You finish your meal and sip the last of the orange drink that comes in every ration. It isn’t enough to wet your mouth. Silence settles over the old house. You fold up the meal box and add it to the stack in the kitchen. It is the only trash you generate anymore. You wonder what will happen when you have so many there is no more room.
You’ve explored the boundaries along your invisible border. You’ve walked to an intersection that marks the extent of your five-mile radius. Nothing stopped you, but there were shadows darting at the edge of your vision. They hid behind fence posts, crouched in the ditch, ducked into a culvert when you turned your head. They were watching. You didn’t cross the road.
There are no dishes to wash, but you stand at the kitchen sink anyway. The water still flows, like the electricity, but when you turn on the faucet and cup your hands to drink a mouthful, then another, it is slick on your tongue and tastes like spinach gone slimy, smells like the pond where you used to hunt for frogs with your father’s help. The kitchen is dark but in the window you can see the shape of your reflection, lit from behind by the hallway light.
You step outside and the screen door still creaks, still falls shut with a clap. You used to think about replacing the spring to stop it from banging. Now you think about what will happen when winter comes and things begin to break. There are shingles on the roof that need to be repaired. The furnace was temperamental and unreliable last winter. The windows are old and drafty. If the pump breaks, you’ll have no water.
You think about what you said to Mike Philips. Maybe there will be no winter.
Maybe you won’t be here to find out.
You lean on the railing of the back porch and look across the fields. You can see the outline of the nearest barbed wire fence, but everything beyond it is a patchwork of shadows. Last night there was a light shining to the east half a mile away. It was the porch light of Mr. and Mrs. Gryzbowski, a young couple who just moved here from Atlanta. They wanted to raise their unborn child in the country. The baby was due in September.
Last night their light was on, but tonight it isn’t. Theirs was the last. You can’t see any lights from your porch anymore.
To the north a dark smudge of forest interrupts the fields along a clean, tamed line. A creek flows from the hills through those trees; you played along its banks when you were a kid. Your father gave you a bucket and a trowel and said you never knew what you might find. You dug in the mud and splashed in the water until your clothes were soaked through. You collected interesting pebbles and autumn leaves and crooked sticks to show your father when he came home from work. You pretended to be a troll, a warrior, an explorer, a scientist. You imagined the creek was somewhere else, anywhere else: the Nile, the Amazon, a frozen river high in foreign mountains you would never see.
There is something wrong with the water. There are fewer children in line every week, but those who remain are more certain than ever. There is something wrong with the water; it is slowly killing the forest. There are patches of dead, barren trees marring the hillside. The water snakes are impossible to catch.
The night is clear and calm, just cool enough to be comfortable. It takes you a few moments to spot the shadows overhead. There are never any lights; the only sign of their presence is an absence of stars, a void in the sky. You hear crickets chirping nearby and it disturbs you that they should care so little for what is happening. But while crickets sing, no moths bump and dance around the porch light. You have not seen a single moth since the day they came. You wonder what the moths know that the crickets haven’t figured out yet.
Resting against the porch railing, looking across the valley where your neighbors’ lights used to shine, you make a decision.
Tonight you will go to the creek and see what the children have seen. You will wait an hour, maybe two, and you will walk across the fields toward the forest and the hills. You will pretend to be ten years old again and fearless. You will find the snakes swimming in the water. You won’t care if you ruin your sneakers squelching through the mud.
You remember the day they came.
It was a hot summer day. Your father had died in the early morning, alone and drowning in the fluid that filled his lungs. The nurse who called was named Jenny. Half a day later you were sitting on a broken curb behind Lou’s store, eating a ham sandwich and a disappointing apple, trying to decide if you had any good memories from before your father was sick. Days at the park, vacations on the beach, camping and playing catch and collecting frogs from the pond: They felt like memories of another life, recorded in grainy home video and played back without sound, the colors weak and the smiles uncertain, forced, twisted by the years that stretched around each captured moment.
The world did not tremble when they came.
You thought the shadows were from the clouds. Then you looked up.
You remember the day they came.
You think you might be the only one who does.
© 2012 Kali Wallace.