by Jon Mayo
(about 1,900 words)
I woke to the sound of explosion. I checked if Cassie, my little sister, was alright. She was intact and sound asleep. I gently slipped my arm off her and walked to the window. Across our home, on the sidewalk, was the human remains of that morning jogger. I met him once.
His torso had exploded. His legs were two houses away. I crouched down to look up from the window. The head was still spinning in the air while the arms were on their way down. Both limbs fell with a loud thud, and the head cracked open as it hit the cool macadam.
Cassie snorted and rustled on the bed. I turned around to see her rubbing her eyes awake.
"Morning," I said.
"Morning," she said.
She rolled to the side of the bed and sat at the edge, her legs dangling. On the carpeted floor was our latest quarry of novels and graphic novels, comics and children's books. Some had streaks of blood on their covers. Yesterday was library day. Today was beach day.
"Get ready and take a bath," I said, "we'll leave after breakfast."
She nodded although her eyes were still closed. I walked over to her, nudged her a bit and squeezed her right cheek, which made her giggle and smile.
While she took a bath, I heated up some corned beef on the gas stove. Our supply was limited to canned foods. Cassie didn't complain, but I wished I could make better meals with decent ingredients and stock. We finished our breakfast, and it was my turn for the bathroom. My hair was getting longer, but still no mustache to make me look like a grown-up.
Before we left the house, I pocketed the Glock handgun I picked up two months ago. There were five bullets left, and I didn't waste any of it for a test shot. I locked the back door and secured the windows. I double checked them again just to be sure. We stepped out, and then I locked the front door. Dad's car was still on the driveway. Even if I knew how to drive, the roads were congested with abandoned cars, most of them with windshields and windows splattered with red.
Cassie noticed the fresh stain across our sidewalk. I moved her away from it and tried to shield her eyes, but she pried my hands away. We started walking. You could still see patches of dried blood and dehydrated sinew on the street, the sidewalk and the gutters. Limbs were carried away by coyotes and dogs. There were no reports of animals being affected by spontaneous combustion. Just us humans.
After passing three houses, we were in front of Mrs. Wong's home. She was sitting on her lawn chair and reading a magazine with her legs stretched forward. To her left were piles of magazines, a pitcher of water and a shotgun.
"Good Morning Mrs. Wong," said Cassie, waving her arms. Mrs. Wong shifted her magazine sideways, showing her immaculate white skin, shaded by her wicker hat. She wore sunglasses that dominated the upper part of her head. She smirked and nodded.
We exited our neighborhood and crossed the dry lands that lay at the outskirts of our town. We avoided the town with its streets and alleyways stinking of dried blood, rotting flesh, lifeless bodies. It was a depressing route, a route we had only taken once. But out in the desert, it was more of a serene walk, a moment to meditate. After twenty minutes of walking, the breeze carried the scent of the sea, its shore emerging from the distance.
Before we headed towards the beach, we stopped by a grocery store next to the gas station. I placed the collar of my shirt to my nose, anticipating the worst before we stepped inside. I looked at Cassie who had already covered her's. The door was wide open, and already I could smell the warm, sickening stench emanating out from the store. I took a step back to take a deep breath. Cassie held on tight. I wanted her to stay outside, but that would be a mistake.
We rush in, taking small inhales, enough to give us oxygen without getting sick.
"Take as much as you can, Cas," I said through my shirt.
I snatched an empty basket from the floor, and we raced down the aisle. Cassie grabbed whatever was in her reach: small bags of chips, cans of mixed nuts, boxes of popcorn, candy, melted chocolate. The basket was half full, and there was enough room for a forty ounce beer for our little picnic. When we reached the end of the aisle, the basket was heavy. We were near the frozen food section where all the meats had gone bad. We turned and sprinted for the exit. Cassie giggled as we ran.
A silhouette of a man stood at the entrance, his features hidden from the blaze outside. Cassie stopped, and I immediately pulled her to my side. The stranger was holding a baseball bat. I reached for my gun and aimed it at him.
"Easy kid," he said, "I'm just here for supplies."
"Back away," I said, trying my best to sound like a grown man. "I don't want to shoot you so back away."
"Alright, alright," he said and stepped back into sunlight. His hair was frayed, and his skin was wrinkled, greasy from sweat and grime. His gaze moved from my gun to Cassie.
"You be careful now," he said with a sickening grin, his eyes running up and down on Cassie. I wanted to pull the trigger; there was no one—no police, no concerned citizen, no adults—who would lock me up for murder. We inch out of the grocery store, my gun still pointed at the man's head. I holstered my pistol after we reached a safe distance, but I still kept an eye on that sicko standing at the mouth of the grocery store.
We entered a cluster of beach houses that were mostly abandoned. We stayed on the wide road with a view to the beach. I kept my hand on my gun, on edge at any danger that could be waiting for us at any corner. It was our usual route, which was safe, but after the encounter at the grocery store, you could never be sure.
As we passed the sixth house, I could hear muffled cries two houses down to our right. I pulled Cassie to my left, my hand on her shoulders. As we neared the wailing, I quickly covered Cassie's eyes. She didn't pry it off.
It was Mrs. Leitch, on her rocker with blood smeared all over her chest, chin, arms and legs. The shirt she wore was shredded from an explosion. Her left breast was in tatters. Her right arm, which had cradled her baby, was broken in half. If I hadn't turned away, I would have stepped on her baby's leg. Cassie gasped and wrapped her arms around my waist.
"Close your eyes," I said to Cassie. We walked on. Mrs. Leitch's sorrow faded behind us, eventually drowned by the crashing waves.
I picked our usual spot, about twenty feet away from the water. The sun blared above us at high noon, and there was a slight breeze to counteract the heat. Cassie sat next to me as I twisted the cap off the beer. I took a sip. It tasted like I imagined it would—like piss. I took another swig. I turned to Cassie who was staring blankly at the heaving, stark ocean. I poked her cheek. When she didn't respond, I squeezed it, hoping to get a giggle or a smile. She batted my hand away.
"What's wrong?" I asked, taking another drink. I knew what was disturbing her. Mrs. Leitch had always greeted us whenever we passed her by. Cassie had always wanted to see the baby up-close, but I told her not to.
"Are we going to die?" she asked, combing the sand in front of her.
"What did I tell you?"
"That we're immune. That we're special."
I was not sure if we were immune, but after three years of not blowing up spontaneously, it was easy to believe we were safe somehow. I poked her again on her cheek.
"Come on, Cas, wanna' take a sip again?" I said, showing the beer to her. She scrunched her nose and pushed it away.
"Why do you drink that anyway?"
I shrugged and tossed a small bag of potato chips at her, which hit her face. I giggled, and she smirked, the kind of smirk that told you she'll get you back someday. We ate chips and followed it up with a can of vienna sausage and corned beef. After our picnic, Cassie was herself again. She stripped down to her underwear and ran to the waves. I watched her kick sand up in the air as if she wanted to fly. She jumped and splashed and kicked the water as it ebbed and flowed. I gave up on my beer so I joined in on the fun. I picked her up and tossed her in the water, laughing hard as she emerged to the surface.
We stayed for three hours until we packed up and left. We took another route, avoiding the wide road, avoiding Mrs. Leitch. When we arrived back home, we killed time by reading our books and comics. When she got bored, she picked her crayons and did her coloring book. I didn't cook dinner that night since she wanted more corned beef.
I tucked her in and told her the story of Red Riding Hood. She was sullen this night, but I continued my theatrics, trying to sound like the grandmother and the big bad wolf.
"Can you sleep in your own bed?" she said, interrupting the scene where the wolf was about to eat grandma. I turned to her, but her eyes were still glued to the page.
"You want to sleep alone tonight?".
"I think so," she said looking up at me.
“Are you sure?”
She bit her lower lip and moved her eyes all over the page. Finally, she nodded.
“Do you still want me to finish the story?”
At the end of the book, Cassie was asleep. I gave her a kiss on the forehead and slid off the bed. I turned the lamp off, but left the door ajar, giving her a little light from the kitchen.
It had been two years since I had slept in my own room, which I only used when I wanted privacy. When our parents were still alive, Cassie and I had slept in separate rooms. Our parents, however, still slept on the same bed. Dad blew up first; mom was ripped to shreds. Cassie was inconsolable after that. She had begged me to sleep with her every night. I had told her the risks involved with it, but she didn't understand or refused to understand. She was a toddler back then anyway.
I lie down on my bed, somehow relieved. I wondered about that decision I had made that time, which you could call a death wish. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but a sickening thought kept me awake. If Cassie blew up first, I knew what to do with myself. But if I were to go, Cassie would be on her own.
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