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After the Flood

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Things didn’t go straight back to normal after the blood receded, of course. We got to the dam right as it was ending, blood seeping back into the earth, bones and hair just… gone, like they’d never been there, and by the time we’d seen my dad--and hugged and cried and introduced Aracely and she’d been hugged and cried over and I think my dad already loves her, emotions are so high right now, it’s easy to love someone just because they stayed with your daughter through all this--it was all gone, like it had never been. Even the crazy. Whatever it was, the virus-like thing that made people go mad, if that was ever real, if that wasn’t just an excuse, a way to rationalize how inhuman people become when they’re fucking scared out of their damn minds, even that was gone. People went back to… not normal. But not frenzied. Grieving.

Except, the bodies were still there. The broken-down doors and the dead engines and the seeping leftovers of my mother. I assume. My mother didn’t get on the news, obviously, but we’ve got a radio in here, and the reports are all about the damage, now. Speculations on why it all came, where it went, whether or not it’s coming back. The conservative pundits are saying that this is a trap, the eye of the storm, and when it comes back it’s taking all the sinners with it. The liberals are focusing on the bodies, the buildings, the crying survivors. My dad crouches beside the radio all day. Listens to the crying. He hasn’t cried. It’s building up inside him, flooding and putrefying like the blood, and I’m scared that if he doesn’t cry soon he’s going to go crazy. He misses Mom. He thought she’d be with me. Their relationship was bad for a while, and I think he’s sorry he didn’t try harder to fix it, now that his chances have run out.

Aracely can’t handle the radio. She still doesn’t know where her dad is. She’s petrified of hearing his name on the local stations. She’s still angry with me. I try to comfort her, try to hold her and kiss her face and tell her it’ll be okay, but she doesn’t want to hear it, doesn’t want to hear it from me. She’s like a moth to the radio. It’s going to burn her, but she keeps fluttering by. She tries to leave but she always comes back.

I don’t really know her that well. We’ve only been dating for a few weeks, really, and all I know is that she’s beautiful and funny and she likes shoes. For a little bit, I desperately wanted to leave the dam and go pillage the nearby houses for some high heels. Maybe if she felt pretty she wouldn’t be so panicked all the time. Maybe if she heard herself clack-clacking wherever she went she’d feel stronger. I don’t know. I don’t even know what she likes about shoes, I just know she shops for them all the time, her closet is full of them, she has more shoes than outfits. I wish I’d asked before all this happened. She’s got great taste and wears high heels like she was born in them. I never told her I thought it was stunning. I could tell her now, I guess, but she doesn’t want to hear it.

She’s so angry.

I should have left with her earlier. I should have brought her dad. I should have shot that man, so she wouldn’t have to, so at least one of us didn’t have to be a murderer. I didn’t want her to become a murderer. I already had. It should only ever have been me. She’s supposed to be the shoes and high ceilings and laughter and curls. She was something special. Now she’s burning herself on the radio and her bare feet are silent in the halls.

I still love her. Even if this doesn’t work out, even if she wants nothing to do with me after we leave the dam, I’ll love her. It’s okay if I can’t have her. There are other girls. But there will never be another Aracely, and, like, she shot a man to save my life . You don’t get over that. Not ever.

I wish she’d stop listening to the radio. Her dad’s dead. It’s not helping.

Me? I don’t care about the reports. Everybody I love is either definitely fucking dead or here. There’s distant family, but, I don’t know, I barely saw them, I can’t bring myself to actually care. I only have so much energy, you know? I love my dad and I love Aracely and other than that all I have space for is horror. Horror is an emotion, as it turns out. I thought it was more of an object, but it’s inside me now, it’s expanding and I can’t…

I run.

I can’t go outside. Nobody knows we’re in here, probably, and if they knew we had resources, they’d come in and they’d kill us all and like, that’s fair, I understand, I would too, so we’re staying hidden until things calm down or we run out of food, whichever comes first. So I can’t go outside. And there’s not a lot of space in here. I know it irritates the fuck out of everyone else who’s stuck down here, but you know what? Fuck em. I shot my mother. My girlfriend hates me. I need to stop thinking about it for ten fucking seconds or I’ll blow up, alright?

So I run. I circle the generators, which are still running, which stopped when the bones and hair started getting stuck in them but they’re back on now. The fucking bones. I bashed a man’s head in with a thigh. Whose bones were they? If we dug up Grandma, would her bones still be there?

Not thinking about that.

I run to the end of the dam and back. It’s pretty far--the river is wide--and I’m tired by the time I’ve done it three times. I do it again. I slam into the far wall, full-body crash, my flesh scraping against the concrete and my bones grinding against each other. My head smacks the concrete with a wet, echoing smack. The faint sounds of the others, talking, silences for a second, but when the noise of my crash doesn’t end in screaming, they start up again. I’ve done this before. They’ve stopped worrying.

I slide down the wall. The concrete scrapes my skin. My heart jumps like a squirrel. I don’t want to bleed. My butt hits the ground and I pull my knees up to my face and hide in them and hope my head isn’t bleeding. I used to be kind of grossed out by the emo kids and their long sleeves in summer--we all knew what they were doing, we just didn’t want to deal with it, right? It was too much, it was scary and weird and their pain was just too huge to face, and I feel guilty about it, but I really didn’t know them well enough to ask, okay?--but I get it now. If I wasn’t afraid of my own blood I’d probably be cutting myself. Instead I’m bashing myself against concrete walls.

I hope my head isn’t bleeding.

I’m starting to panic. My heart isn’t slowing down, and it hurts, and I’m nauseated and the floor is spinning and I raise my hand to feel my hair for that sticky, clammy, egg-yolk texture and the sharp sting of salty fingers in a cut, but there’s nothing. The panic subsides. I’m not bleeding. There’s no blood in my hair.

I want Aracely to hold me. I want her to put her arms around my shoulders and kiss my clean hair and tell me I’m not a monster. I want her to put her hand down my shirt and push my hair off my neck and tell me let’s just forget about everything for a little while and for us to try to be quiet but we can’t and the sounds of us to make my dad look up from the radio and remember I’m here, I’m alive, we’re all we have left and he can’t leave me like this . Even if that last bit doesn’t work out I just want Aracely to kiss me again. She forgave me in the woods. But it went away as soon as we were safe.

Fuck. I lift my head and smack it against the wall. My ears ring. The room vibrates. For a few seconds I’m transported. Nothing exists here. It’s just a big empty concrete room and my head is floating in it and yeah, it hurts, but not as bad as coming back, settling into my body, my body filled with blood .

How the fuck am I supposed to get over a phobia of fucking blood ? The fact that I’m filled with it, all the time, it just… I remember that sometimes, out of nowhere, and I want to tear my skin off. I’m not okay. None of us is okay. I wish a therapist had been stuck in the dam with us. Although, a therapist would be just as traumatized as we are. Wouldn’t help.

This lasts two months. I don’t know how nothing happens in two fucking months but fuck is that a long time, when all you have to do is run and feel like shit and smash your body into the hardest thing you can find a couple of times a day. Everyone would think I was crazy if everyone else wasn’t just as crazy in their own way. One of the women cuts her fingernails down every few days. I don’t know what’s up with that, fingernails were never part of the flood, but she keeps clippers in her pocket and every few days you find her sitting in a corner, concentrating like she’s doing brain surgery, clipping down the pink nubs that are all that’s left of her fingernails. There are scabs on her nail beds. She hasn’t had enough nail to clip for weeks. It’s disgusting.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly bad, I want to take her clippers and hide them. Watch her look for them. Come up to her when she’s frantic and say “Hey, I found these, looks like you dropped them,” and then, when she’s teary-eyed with gratitude I’ll put them in my bra and put my hands on her face and say take them if you want them and then her breath will stutter and she’ll look at my breasts and she’ll let me slide my hands from her face into her hair and when I kiss her she’ll sigh into my mouth and it won’t be disgusting even though nobody remembered to bring toothbrushes to this godforsaken hidey-hole and-

I had sex with Aracely just the one time, in the shed while we were walking here, and we were both filthy with the grime of walking for two days in a sea of blood and no way to wash, but for just that time, we got to forget. She kissed me and she undid my pants and I forgot there was blood on her fingers. It didn’t matter. We were together, and we were going to be okay, and it was magical. I thought everything was okay. I thought...

Now she’s angry with me.

I feel awful that all this horror has made me so weirdly horny.

I hate myself for being angry that it didn’t do the same to Aracely.

Are we even still dating anymore?

Anyway--two months, and then the food is starting to dry up, and a few of us leave. The news reports slowed down a while ago. A few of them even started reporting on normal things, like the weather and how to start obedience training your puppy. The world is repairing itself and it’s time for us to rejoin it, my dad says.

I want to stay here. I want to stay here with my wall and my concrete room and the grinding roar of the generators blocking out my thoughts. My mom is out there. We can’t go home. I can’t look at her body again. It’s been two months. What will it look like after two months? Will it even still be there? Nausea heaves at my stomach. Did someone touch my mother’s body?

Probably.

Oh, fuck.

“Lea? What’s wrong?” my dad says. Aracely is just looking at me. Do I look nauseous or scared? I feel cold. I feel sticky sweat beading on my face.

“Nothing,” I say. I shot my mom and someone else took care of the body. I won’t ever know where it is. Who touched it. I’m going to be sick.

I keep it in. My nails dig into my palms and I’m not opening my mouth for anything. Aracely’s expression is unreadable. God, she hates me so much. We should have run away together the first day of the blood. Me and my mom and her and her dad. We would have been okay if we could have all been together.

I take the first steps outside. Hurried, half-blind, sick. I just need to move or I’m going to throw up.

It’s hot and the grass is dead. Summer. The river sounds different from the outside. The dam looks so much bigger. The sky is too open. There’s a car driving across the dam and I want to run and hide. I shouldn’t have come out here.

Dad and Aracely are right behind me. My dad’s hand settles on my shoulder. He knows I’m freaking out, but he has no idea how to help.

Aracely knows, too, but she doesn’t want to. She’s looking at the car. Tracking it with her eyes as it speeds down the clean road. Disappears around a bend.

“Are we walking, then?” she says. Flat. Emotionless. I know she feels something, she’s hiding behind this blankness, and an unexpected rage flares up in me. I look away fast, but not fast enough, and I know she’s caught my glare in her mirror eyes. I love her . I want to help her, okay? I want us to be able to rely on each other. But we can’t. She won’t let me.

My dad answers her question with a grunt, and we’re off. We’re taking a more indirect route home than the two of us took to get here, but it won’t take as long, because we’re not trudging through knee-deep blood and catching our feet on bones and clinging hair. We sleep by the road, undisturbed. By noon the next day, we’re entering the neighborhood.

“Thank you for the escort, Dan,” Aracely says. When did she start calling my dad by his first name?

“Come home with us,” my dad says, and I can hear pleading in his voice, and I can’t tell whether he’s afraid for her or for him. They’ve spent so much time together these last months. They both lost someone without seeing the body. It should have been me, talking to her. I see what she sees, for a second. A man who was there, who said hi when she came near and reliably stayed in one place, and a girlfriend who ran away.

I’m being an idiot. Jealous of my dad. She was pissed at me, and there was no way to apologize, was there? “I’m sorry I didn’t kill that man”? No. The flood broke us. We couldn’t fix it. End of story.

My hands feel empty.

It’s not the end of the fucking story. I put my hand on my dad’s shoulder.

“Can you give us a minute?” I say to him, cutting him off in his beseeching monologue, that we’ll help her, that we’re safer together, that he doesn’t want to leave a teenager alone. He stutters to a halt. He looks at me with pity heavy in his eyes, and he breathes in the rest of his monologue, and steps away. It’s not far enough. He can hear us. It doesn’t matter.

Before I can even say anything, Aracely shakes her head. Her long, luscious hair is stringy and dull. We ran out of shampoo weeks ago. “No,” she says, looking at me, and finally, finally , there’s something in her eyes, they’re not empty mirror-glass anymore. They’re sharp and narrow and something inside her is bleeding.

“Aracely, plea-”

No ,” she says, firmly, burning, and her lip is curling as she looks at me with this hate I’ve never inspired in anyone before, and I feel like a bug, I feel like I’ve fucked up so bad and I don’t know what I did. This isn’t just the horror of it all. This is me .

“Lea, I’m not coming. I need to find my dad. I need to put this behind me, understand? I need…” Her hands rise for a moment, then fall, as if she wants to explain something to me but she just can’t. “Just go away.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t kill that man for you,” I whisper. Her eyes spark. Her hands tighten into fists.

“Fuck off,” she says, and then she’s gone, storming down the sidewalk. I’m watching her leave. I feel like I’m never going to see her again. I feel flattened. I want to lay down on the concrete and never get up. Horrors are supposed to bring people closer together, right? We go through this terrible thing, and we cleave to each other, become inseparable, right?

I fucked up. I fucked up so bad. My hands are shaking. Her hair bounces in strings.

“Let’s go,” my dad says. He drops his hand on my shoulder again, and he steers me the other way.

“What did I do?” I whisper, mostly to myself, but my dad’s right there, he hears, and he shakes his head.

“You didn’t do anything, sweetie. It’s just… all this. It tears people apart.”

I shake my head, faintly, and keep walking. That’s not it. I did something. I want Hillary back. I want my mom. All I have is my dad.

The sidewalk is clean, dry, hot under my bare feet. There’s nothing red, nothing wet, no sign that anything was ever wrong, and I feel lost, betrayed, like I’m supposed to go back to normal now, like the blood never happened, but I can’t. I killed my mom. My best friend is dead. Aracely hates me and I don’t really know why. The blood could come back. We don’t know why it showed up in the first place, and it could just… come back. I’m never going to stop being afraid of that.

I shove my shaking hands into my pockets. I’ve got a few pairs of shoes at home, nice ones, that I never wear because I never have a reason. She might never forgive me, but I’m not going to leave it here. I’m going to try. The thought of walking into my own house makes me sick, but I’m going to get over it, I’m going to bring her the shiny blue pumps and I’m going to apologize and I’m going to make her tell me what I did, and if we can’t fix it, fine, but I’m not leaving it like this . We went through too much together. She shot a man to save my life. I’m bringing her a pair of shoes and we’re going to talk.

“You okay, sweetie?”

I shrug. He squeezes my shoulder.

Together, we go home.