by Jennifer Eichelberger
This town has the same stench as all the others. Death.
I think of Gran.
Please be there. I’m only a few blocks away. You’ve got to be alive. You’re a survivor. Like me.
Leaving the cover of the forest is risky. I lick my chapped lips. My stomach rumbles. How many days had it been since that last can of peas? Four? Five?
I wait. I watch. I pull some brown leaves from the branches and crumble them to dust in my fingers. The sky looms heavy and hot.
An hour passes.
I focus on the crumbled ruins of a Wells Fargo. I grip my twenty-two. I pull my backpack tight, close to my breasts.
I steady myself. Take a deep breath.
Don’t look back.
I scramble up the fallen bricks. Press my back against the wall. Peek inside.
I go in. I make my way around the overturned furniture and dead bodies to the bathroom. I turn the faucets. The pipes moan and sputter. Nothing.
Gran, you’ll have some water.
I search the rest of the bank. There’s money scattered everywhere. I pick up a handful, hundreds of dollars. I clench my jaw—and think of my mom.
I rub my forehead as her voice comes rushing back to me, “Please, come with us. We’ll be safe in Zion City.”
“No way!” I yelled, “Those Mormons make you pool your money and everything. Why should I give my stuff to some stranger?”
“How long do you think your money will be worth anything?”
“I don’t care. I want what’s mine.”
I stare at the money.
I hate her.
I hate her.
I tear the money to shreds.
I look out the window across the parking lot. Oh no. A Wal-Mart. Probably sentries posted at all entrances.
Except there’s no heads impaled on rakes. No bodies strung up by garden hoses.
I point my gun to the sky. I shoot.
I wait. I watch.
Gran’s house is only five blocks away. I ready myself.
I don’t dare look to the left or right.
Pain flares in my side.
I keep going.
But there’s nothing. After three blocks I stop to catch my breath. I clamp my hand to my side.
Gran, I know you. They couldn’t have taken you down. You’re alive. You’re waiting for me.
The houses are abandoned. Some lay in piled ruins. Others have been burned. The hot wind blows dust and papers through the streets.
Then I see it. Only a few feet in front of me. An unopened pack of cigarettes. I bend down and pick it up.
I laugh. They’re even my brand.
Yet one more reason I refused to go to Zion City.
“There’s no way I’m going to a place where I have to give up my favorite hobbies.”
“Jill,” my mom pleaded, “We don’t know for sure if that’s so. Besides, even if you do–isn’t it a small price to pay?”
I open the pack and grab one out with my teeth. I pat my pockets for a match. Where are they? I set down my gun and pull off my backpack. I rummage.
I light up my cigarette and take a deep drag. The warm smoke fills my lungs. I close my eyes and exhale slowly. So good.
And that’s when I hear it.
They’re coming fast.
There’s Gran’s house. Still standing.
The engines are getting louder. Closer.
I’m almost there.
My muscles strain as I sprint through her yard. I skip the steps and slide behind the brick wall on her porch.I smash my cigarette on the cement and wave my hand to disperse the smoke.
I don’t look or move.
Two vehicles pass close by. They stop.
“Hey, check it out,” says a man’s voice.
“Whatcha got there?” says another.
“Smell it. This thing’s been shot.”
“They can’t be far.”
I squeeze the pack of cigarettes, crushing them. I curse myself. I curse the cigarettes. I curse my mom.
I told her I didn’t want to go without my friends.
“You’ll make new friends,” she said.
I hear footsteps coming up the sidewalk. A gun cocks.
My lip trembles. Don’t cry! Do not cry!
“Hey, Duncan!” someone yells from a distance.
“What?” says a voice only feet away.
“What if it’s a plant?”
“The home base! Quick! Back to the Wal-Mart!”
Their engines roar, and then fade away.
I wait. An eternity later, I peek over the wall. No one. I go inside.
“Gran,” I whisper.
There’s bullet holes all over her living room walls. Wrecked furniture in the kitchen.
“Gran, please,” I plead, “I need you.”
I open the cupboards.
I rush from room to room.
I slump down on the empty bed frame in the upstairs guest room. I spent summers here as a kid.
“No,” I say. “You were supposed to be here.” I collapse. I can’t do it anymore.
My eyes burn, but I don’t cry. I will not cry.
“Mom,” I say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I miss you.”
“God,” I whisper, “help me.”
As I breathe out, my body, my heart, everything relaxes. I am calm.
I remember the loose floor board where I hid my diary, junk food, and cigarettes as a kid. I pull it open.
There are cans of fruit and chili! Crackers. Beef jerky!
Dear Jilly Bean,
I prayed you’d come. We came for Gran. You know how stubborn she gets, but we finally wore her down. We waited for you, but it’s getting dangerous. Please forgive me. Know that I love you always.
May we meet in Zion City.
My tears splash on the paper. I press it to my heart.
Yes, Mom. Yes.
I’m coming to Zion.