The bike is actually hers. She liberates it from it’s hiding place in the back of the garage where she stashed it when she started swapping bike rides on the weekend for study sessions with Matt. It’s colour hasn’t dulled since Alicia last saw it even if she does have to dust it off a little.
The chain creeks and the seat is wonky from being pressed between gas canisters and one of Travis’ locked cabinets that have his tools. There’s a padlock on the front of it that Alicia holds in her hand for a second. (Mostly because now that the city has really gone to hell she’s less concerned with...everything).
Propping the bike against the car Alicia pulls apart the garage until she finds the little bike toolkit they keep on hand. Everything needs touching up; the chain, the seat, the tyres-
Alicia sits on the dirty floor, tucking the flannel shirt tied around her waist underneath her, and gets to work.
The air is dusty and there’s a smell coming from inside the car that makes her turn her nose away but the hour that it takes to get her bike up and running is therapeutic. Her hands are black and her hair is sticking to the back of her neck but it’s made her forget for a second. Building a little zone in her mind has been harder and harder now that every time she closes her eyes Alicia can see Susan looking at her with red eyes. Grabbing at her ankles trying to drag her down, growling at her-
Alicia stops and puts her hands on the back of her head, dipping her chin between her knees to take several deep breaths.
Susan will not be replaced in her mind with the monster that took over her body. That summer sweetness, soda and cartoons, sitting on the floor practicing a presentation while Susan braided her hair.
Alicia sits back up and stares at the wheels of her bike until she’s not thinking of anything.
The ticking of the wheels of her bike come to a stop at the voice from her porch. Ofelia sits on the step with a cup of something in her hand. Whatever it is, it won’t be hot, it’s too early for the power to have been switched on.
Alicia grips the handles of her bike. “Thanks.”
Ofelia’s hands shake when she lifts one of them to push a strand of hair back behind her ear. “Don’t go too far.”
That makes Alicia scoff but she tones it down. Ofelia is probably the one person that she hasn’t managed to annoy yet and Alicia needs to keep those numbers close. “You’re not my mom.”
It comes out as a joke but Ofelia recoils slightly and Alicia realizes that the safety and ignorance of the garage has disappeared and they’re once again living in a world that has pushed them into a gated prison, soldiers taking people in the night and waving their guns about for fun. And Ofelia’s mom is sleeping in her room. Dying.
Ofelia might have a decade on her but it’s her mom.
Alicia swings her leg over her bike. “Sorry.” She says abruptly.
Ofelia forces a smile and watches Alicia kick off, making way down the deserted street.
People stick close to their homes, barely leaving their front lawns like something will grab them and take them away from their self-contained safety.
No one is safe. Alicia weaves up and down the street counting the abandoned homes and the curious eyes that follow her. A few soldiers whistle at her and she glares back. Sleep deprived and power hungry, they don’t really know what they’re doing unless someone is barking an order at them. They whistle at everything.
Alicia rides around until her legs are tired and sore. Staying away from the house is good for her. There’s only so many times she can stay and watch Nick shake in his sleep or endure Chris burning holes in the back of his head for no other reason than the fact she’s there and he can.
When she reaches the highest point in their gated community, Alicia stops. The houses around have already been purged. Nothing and no one left around. She can see over the tops of the chain fence to the soldiers defending the entrance. The rumble of engines is constant as they patrol the roads. She’s cycled past a few already.
Alicia slides her phone from her pocket. The charge is lasting even though it hasn’t been plugged in since yesterday night. It’s out of boredom that she takes a few pictures of the sky as it slowly bleeds orange. It doesn’t stop her from reopening the last few texts she sent Matt and the replies he sent before he got too...ill to respond.
It makes her forearm itch. The bandage she’d hastily wrapped around it was secure and she’s been cleaning the makeshift tattoo every day. She’s not stupid, she didn’t wake up to the end of life as she knows it, no college, no escape from her family for something better with someone she loved to throw it all away and die from infection.
There might be parts of things going on that she doesn’t understand (which are dwarfed by all she does understand) but that doesn’t mean she’s giving up.
It’s out of stubbornness, she thinks, that inner anger that’s bubbling up and just waiting for something to happen. Something bigger than going back into Susan’s house to get them bullets. A close call but a risk that needed to be taken.
Alicia puts her phone away and takes the handlebars again.
She’s really too smart to get killed that easily.
If her mom notices she’s missing more than usual she doesn’t say anything when Alicia gets back. Not that day, or the next, or the next.
Nick is a more pressing manner. The soldiers raiding houses is more pressing. Travis and his constant trips to the gate. Daniel and Griselda.
(Alicia had slipped in a few days ago to grab a couple of things; spanish homework and books to read. Daniel had watched her with his lips pressed into a thin line).
Alicia becomes accustomed to being forgotten about.
Chris finds her sitting by the pool reading. Her bare feet are in the water and he doesn’t make a lot of noise so when he clears his throat next to her, Alicia reels back and his eyes widen.
“Why have you got a knife?”
A page from her last english essay now floats away in the pool. Alicia frowns. She puts the short knife down again and Chris stands straighter. “Sorry,” Her eyes flash to the wooden fence. “-I can’t really be out here without it.”
Chris touches his nose. “Right.”
She thinks he’s going to leave after that but he sinks down and kicks of his shoes and socks, rolling up his jeans to dip his feet in the pool with her.
It’s then she takes note of what he’s missing.
“Where’s your camera?”
Chris grips the edge of the pool like he’s debating whether to let go and just jump in. “Madison has it.”
His hair is unruly and tumbles over his face when he looks down. Alicia stares for a second longer until he looks back with a question. “Do you think there’s still people out there?”
Alicia watches the water and the leaves floating on the surface. Some are green, freshly fallen while others are withered and brown.
They think she’s hopeful and unaware. They think Chris is running away with his imagination. Alicia says nothing.
In the end he answers his own question. “God help them if they are.”
The grass is wet underneath her feet. She’s only out to watch the sunrise. Though the moment is ruined with all the horns sounding at the gates. Soldiers are switching roles and relieving those that have been stood watch for the last day. Some choose to take the journey back to wherever their base is, others camp down in houses that have been purged.
Alicia stands defiantly in front of Susan’s house when a lone soldier walks by. He pauses and goes to smile but she cuts him off. “Not this one.”
“Oh really?” He tries to shed off the exhaustion in his face but it doesn’t work. His smile is painful and sluggish.
Alicia is about half the size of him and maybe a third of the weight and he could take her down. But he looks like a stiff breeze would knock him over.
Yet he looks behind her at Susan’s house like that’s where he wants to be.
Light footsteps skip over the gravel and silence once again on the grass. Ofelia presses a hand on her back, bringing comfort and what the soldier interprets as as adult argument to the situation. “Over there.” She points to a house across the street while subtly placing Alicia just behind her. “I think the house is still getting running water and it was only cleared a few days ago. They’ll still have power too.”
The soldier nods with a grimace and leaves them standing on the lawn. Ofelia takes her hand away from Alicia and rubs her own arms. “Is this what you do every morning? Scare tired men from their beds?”
Alicia rolls her shoulders.
Ofelia smiles but Alicia can see the signs of another sleepless night. “I’m sure you’ll be fun for your future husband.”
Alicia bristles visibly and the roles are reversed. Ofelia drops her arms down. “Alicia- I’m sorry-”
“It’s fine.” Alicia backs away, turning and walking quickly to Susan’s door. She slams it so hard that the windows shake.
Matt always thought she was funny.
She keeps Susan’s letter under her bed and reads it every night before she goes to sleep. Eventually she stops crying every time but it makes her wish and wish that she’d been given just a minute to leave something for Matt. Something he could read to rest against and know that she never wanted to leave him the way she did.
The guest room is filling up with things that belong to her but her wardrobe rotates between herself and Ofelia. Every couple of days she’ll wonder where something is only to find Ofelia wearing it.
They’re going to be screwed the day they stop being able to do loads of laundry.
Alicia sits on Susan’s lawn again. It’s chilly and there was no chance of her slipping into her room. Liza and Travis whisper a lot about how much worse Griselda is getting and only stop when Daniel comes out hushing them.
It’s not merciful to keep Griselda in the dark. It’s cruel.
(A voice in the back of her head, the one that plagues the safe zone there, reminds her that was exactly what her mother and Travis were doing.)
(She doesn’t fault Nick. He’s got enough to deal with).
The soldiers are marching on their morning orders. A few spare her a glance, curiously wondering why she’s out so early, but they move on when she doesn’t answer them.
When she turns she notices Nick disappearing from the window where he was watching her from behind the blinds but the voice is Ofelia walking down the steps. Alicia turns back and doesn’t say anything to stop her approach.
Ofelia brings warmth, not just the thick hoody that she drapes around Alicia’s shoulders but her general persona. It’s no wonder that on their morning supply runs she’s catching everyone’s eyes.
And she means everyone.
“You didn’t know.”
Ofelia pulls her knees up to her chest. “I asked your mom. She said he was very nice.”
Alicia limits her disdain. Nice was a word her mother used when she struggled to highlight anything else. Alicia has listened to her mom’s comfort. How brave he is, how wonderful, how much he would want her to keep going.
There’s nothing left of her ignorance now as much as she wants to deny it. Matt was brave and kind and loving and forever patient. And hers.
“He would have agreed with you.” Alicia whispers.
Ofelia looks lost until she remembers her own joke. “If you want to talk about him-” She pauses to look at Alicia. “-I know that this is all a bit personal but I’m a good listener. And I’d appreciate hearing something that wasn’t about my mother right now.”
It’s honest and it’s early. Alicia takes the hoody and lays it over her lap. “It is personal.” She offers the hoody to Ofelia and she shuffles closer. “But you’re already wearing my clothes, how much more personal can we get?”
Nick disappears for a couple of hours every day and Alicia doesn’t know where he goes. Asking anyone would draw attention to him and that’s the last thing anyone needs. Silence protects him when she can’t.
The power starts taking longer to switch on in the morning. The line at the supply drop off gets shorter. Alicia watches the soldiers as they check off their names and hand over their packages. They all have bruises and bags under their eyes.
Alicia wheels the red cart home and eventually Ofelia stops staying behind, choosing to fall in step with her and come home.
Travis sweeps through rooms like waves on a shore. There and gone again. Always whispering and looking in her direction like he’s afraid she’ll hear something or react. Her mom isn’t any better and even though she’s given Chris his camera back there’s still a tension between them all.
That’s what happens. Normal family dysfunction.
That’s what has her writing out her notes for maths on the kitchen table while it gets dark outside. The lights will go out soon which leaves her racing against time. The longer she writes, the longer she pretends. It gives her mind a break.
(Riding her bike isn’t an option since her mom and Travis disappeared in there over thirty minutes ago and locked the door behind them).
Chris is in the living room watching something on the television but the noise doesn’t disguise the heated conversation that Daniel and Ofelia are having on the stairs.
Alicia tries not to listen in but by the time Ofelia storms down the stairs, looking angry and tearful, Alicia is already picking up her phone and a flashlight.
There’s only one place she knows to go. They dodge the lights of the patrolling army vehicles and slip into Susan’s house. Alicia guides them to Susan’s room where her perfume is still lingering in the air and the bed is as she left it.
Ofelia hangs by the door, a stranger here, until Alicia pulls her hand and brings her over the threshold. “It’s okay. I used to come here all the time when I was younger.”
And even when she was older.
“You knew your neighbour well?”
Alicia slips off her converse and lets them hit the floor. Ofelia glances out of the window before shutting the door and stuffing a chair in front of it.
Alicia stops pulling at the sleeve of her jacket. “No one’s here.”
Ofelia nods like she knows. “Force of habit.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Ofelia lets the offer hang as she holds herself. Even in the dim light Alicia can see her shake. Alicia sets the flashlight aside, letting it shine up reflect along the ceiling.
Ofelia’s cheeks are decorated with tears she couldn’t hold back. “I don’t want to put this on you.”
Ofelia could describe Matt to a total stranger now. Alicia had painted a perfect world of words for him in the quiet of their conversation. It had left Alicia hollow, like she’d scooped out everything that she’d associated him with and left it for to be picked up.
“I can take it.” Alicia murmurs. “Hey-”
Her second break of silence responds to the sharp intake of breath and the way Ofelia looks at her hopelessly. Lost.
Alicia stumbles over, her bare feet feeling odd against the fluffy carpet, and takes Ofelia’s hand again. “It’s okay here. You don’t have to-” Ofelia’s hand is hot and her knuckles are dry. “-bottle everything up for me.”
It’s not that Alicia isn’t comfortable with contact, she reached a level with Matt that was good for them both in different ways, but her limits are different with everyone. Boundaries are set and decided when she comes out and into those moments.
But Ofelia is new, and crying, and it’s easier to endure the little panic in her chest when she’s brought into an embrace she wasn’t prepared for.
(Alicia shoulders the burden and the rest of the weight that follows).
The hazy redness of the sky is something she associates with Ofelia now. It peeks through the blinds that Alicia didn’t get a chance to close last night and the warmth light lies in strips over their legs.
Alicia counts the lines crossing her shins and focuses on breathing while Ofelia sleeps next to her. Her arm had been thrown around Alicia’s waist when they settled down to sleep, something Alicia had quickly adapted to, but the night had drawn Ofelia in on herself and turned away.
Every now and then she’ll take a deep breath and Alicia will rub her hand over Ofelia’s back. It’s something Matt had done when she’d slept over at his place. Ofelia would remember the gesture as she spoke about it a few times the other night. Each time had been followed up with an admission that they never reached that further stage in their relationship.
Alicia had left it at that.
Secrets are harder and harder to come by.
Everything goes to shit.
All she wants is to take the bruises away from Nick’s face in her last memory of him. Wants to remember that hug and the way he buried his face into her neck.
Alicia wants to stop having to relive the moment the people she loves are torn from her life. Kicking and scream. Dying and crying.
Chris lying on top of a car while she calls out jokes about policing the streets and ringing her bell at him on her little pink bike keep those memories at bay. They soon find out that taking their frustrations out on abandoned houses do the trick even better.
Alicia raids closest and puts on the most beautiful dresses and doesn’t imagine different scenarios every time.
She’s a prom queen getting revenge for a ruined date. A wife destroying her husband’s possessions with his own golf clubs. A girl tearing through her best friend’s room looking for something stolen. A soldier staring at her harsh expression in the mirror and realizing that violence is all she knows.
Alicia sees Chris run down the stairs when she looks in the mirror. What does he see?
The dress is swapped for her own clothes, the ones already worn this week, and they close the door on a house that looks like it’s collapsed in on itself.
Everything looks perfect on the outside.
The tap runs cold and soaks the towel in her hand. Her leg is stinging and Alicia is lucky that they weren’t stopped on the way home.
It was a plate, one of the many that she threw against the hardwood floor, that left a small but deep cut just above her knee. The house is thankfully quiet when she lets out a hiss at the pain that comes with pressing a cold compact against it.
Chris hadn’t followed her home and her mom was nowhere in sight. Ever since Griselda was taken with Nick everything has just been quiet. Empty. Alone.
“What did you do?”
Alicia doesn’t drop the towel but her hand darts for the nearest piece of cutlery and grabs the handle. Ofelia becomes torn between concern for the streak of blood dripping down Alicia’s shin and confusion over being threatened with a wooden spoon.
Her grip on the spoon doesn’t lessen until Ofelia crosses the kitchen and takes the towel from Alicia’s leg and kneels. “Jesus, Alicia- how did this happen?”
Secrets. “I fell off my bike.”
Ofelia looks up. “Did someone hurt you?” She’s quick to jump to conclusions. The soldiers have been getting restless since the recent nighttime raids. Just looking for an excuse.
“No.” Alicia says. “I was going too fast. Knocked into the curb. There was a rock.”
Ofelia’s unimpressed expression is one that clearly doesn’t believe her. Alicia puts the spoon down and grips the edge of the counter. “I’m fine.”
Ofelia dabs the towel against the cut listening to Alicia’s pained puffs of breath. When Alicia doesn’t say anything else Ofelia stands and rummages in one of the cupboards that has all of the unplaced things in the kitchen. The first aid box is one they’ve used a lot in the last couple of weeks. Alicia is surprised but thankful when Ofelia pulls out medical tape and a large bandage.
“It’s going to scar.”
There’s no one around to stitch them up anymore and Alicia hasn’t had the time to read up on that yet.
Ofelia looks up again as if daring her to say it’s fine.
The whole ordeal lasts a few minutes while Ofelia cleans her up as much as she can, disinfecting and taping the split skin together with tape before placing a bandage over it.
When Ofelia stands up, in her personal space, Alicia flushed red.
“I’m fine, I just need to-”
“Hey- breathe, breathe-”
It’s hard when Ofelia has a hand on her shoulder but Alicia closes her eyes and turns away from her. Her palms touch the cool metal of the sink and she lets the fast panicked breathing take over her completely.
“I’m just-” Alicia struggles for the words and hopes that this won’t be the thing that sticks out in Ofelia’s mind. “Not good with-” She points at the small distance between them. “-this.”
Ofelia’s face crumbles. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable-”
“No, no-” Alicia’s foot taps against the floor. “-not you. I’m just not-”
Not used to feeling safe when touched. Not able to shake Susan’s growling and reaching and strength. Not able to get the hurt look from Chris’ face when she hit him. Not able to remember a time when she was younger and Nick was out of control that him grabbing her didn’t leave bruises, not matter the apologies that followed.
Not used to having someone she could relax around.
The heat in the afternoon makes the kitchen hazy and stifling. Both of them are sitting on the kitchen floor, opposite each other, with their legs stretched out in front of them. Alicia nurses a glass of water and Ofelia listens.
“He was my boyfriend.” Alicia runs through the conversation. “But my best friend too. I just didn’t see the difference.”
A second thought. “I didn’t feel the difference either. I think he was okay with that.” Sleepovers and studying and his smile when she made a terrible joke. “He was okay with it.”
“He loved you.” Ofelia says. “I think we put too much thought into it sometimes. In the end that’s all we want. In whatever shape or form.”
Maybe she never needed to come out and say it. Maybe he always knew. It doesn’t change how much she wishes he was here wrapping his arms around her.
The heart on her arm is healed over and she looks down at it now. The thick lines have washed away to leave just the ink she pressed in with the pin. It’s messy and untidy but it’s there. It’ll always be there.
It makes her lip tremble and she looks up quickly.
“What can I do?” Ofelia asks.
It’s a selfish question born out of wanting to avoid tragedy. Avoid discomfort.
All Alicia wants to say is ‘bring him back’.
But she’s only got a few people now and driving them away is the last thing she needs. It hurts and she chokes around tears with the words. “Can you just hold me?”
Her mom hasn’t hugged her since she pulled Alicia away from Susan while she screamed. Chris came close in the house and Alicia still feels like she’s just waiting for Nick to cry on her shoulder.
Ofelia crawls to the side of Alicia, placing herself in the corner of the kitchen counter, her back against the cupboards. She doesn’t draw Alicia in, which she’s grateful for, but allows Alicia in her own time to settle herself between Ofelia’s legs and lie back against her.
Being held helps. There’s science behind it all and, for a few seconds while she gets used to how Ofelia feels and the differences, Alicia buzzes through all of it. Her muscles are forced to relax, her foot stops shaking and the panicked flutter in her chest beings to rest.
It doesn’t stop her crying though.
Ofelia takes it. It’s hot and their skin sticks together but Ofelia doesn’t let her go. Listens for her and lets Alicia ride out the overwhelming sadness in her chest.
(Alicia hopes, somehow, this helps Ofelia too).
“I’ve got you.” Ofelia whispers against her jaw. “Whatever you need.”
It’s sincere and honest and Alicia takes a slow shuddering breath. And with that she swallows down the sorrow. Another day. Another time. For now-
“This.” Alicia closes her eyes. “This is good.”
Everything goes to shit.