Snapshots of the End

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I crossed the boundary line, entering familiar space as each breath of morning air drew knives into my lungs.  The entire trip had taken three and a half days, less than I thought, but more than I would have liked.  Most of the access roads were now obsolete, either blocked with rusting, snow covered cars, or patrolled by packs of ferals where nature thrived.  None of that mattered now, as the last of my world depended on the few things I brought back with me.

I approached the threshold, trailing moist earth from my boots as I rapped on the door, four sharp knocks.  My seven-year old greeted me.  Timothy’s face was a dull sheen and I wondered how long he had stood there, waiting for me.  Black curls, his mother’s gift, clung to his forehead, and he clutched his sister’s stuffed bear as if it would save him from the world the opened door brought in.

I barred the door behind me and set down my pack and rifle.  Timothy waited as I knelt and took him in my arms.  He refused to respond and had the gaze of a child that had accidentally left the back gate unlocked, only to realize in the morning that the family dog was long gone.

I felt like I was pestering him with questions.  What happened?  Was his sister okay?  Did The Sick finally make Its way here?  It took me several minutes to get his attention.  When he finally snapped out of his stupor his face scrunched up and tears started rolling down his cheeks.  Timothy’s question was simple.

Was I going to bury him and his sister where I had buried their mother.

I paused, inhaling deep, and asked him where those words had come from.

The second day I was gone, Edward Thompson had brought us a bundle of firewood, as promised.  That man had a way with words and his influence pried into my son’s insecurities like crude oil seeping into a fractured sidewalk.

Thompson had stolen a glance at Hollis and asked why we hadn’t cremated her yet.  It was only a matter of time before The Sick would spread like wildfire and everyone would either be underground, or food for the birds and ferals.  It was all my fault for ignoring him.

My knuckles burned white with each word Timothy bawled.  I told my son that I would be dealing with Mister Thompson and the rest of the Promise as they came ‘round.  Now was a different story, for now we were going to take care of things on our end.

I had Timothy fetch one of my good candles and the jar of honey that I hid in my cedar chest in case of emergencies.  I set water to warm on the hearth and lit the candle wick in the dying fire.  Slowly, the fire blossomed and the smell of warmth and honey filled the room as the beeswax was consumed.

Hollis’ cot wasn’t far from the fire.  She had been restless with fever and I tucked the blankets beneath her chin.  A bowl of water and cloth stood by, waiting to be used.  Her skin was porcelain white, almost translucent, and I had to lean in to make sure she was still breathing, but she was.

I withdrew a half empty brown bottle and a couple of lemons from my bag.  The lemons were still a sunny yellow and had not yet been touched by the frost.  I showed Timothy how to cut them in half and how to save the seeds in hopes of planting them in the spring.  He squeezed half into a mug and I chased it with warm water.

I let him stir in the honey as I took care to wring out the cloth and placed it back on my daughter’s forehead.  I wiped a reddish smudge from the side of the bottle and popped the cap off easily.  I eased Hollis’ lips apart to let the brown sludge crawl across her teeth and creep down her throat.  I gagged with the smell and knew it must be hard on her.

I gave her a sip of honey-lemon tea and sat next to Timothy.  My son watched her sleeping form and asked if Hollis was okay, or if The Sick really did catch up to her in the end.

I shook my head.  She was going to be fine.  Hollis was strong like her mother.  Both of my children were.  It was one of the finer traits that made me remember her each time I woke up.  I did not speak of her often, as Hollis was a toddler when The Sick hit, and Timothy was only a few years old when she left us.

Their mother, Cheryl, had eyes like deep pools of amber and they glimmered like stars above a still pond.  Her laughter made the wind dance and her smile could stop wars.

We had met at the shop my grandfather used to run.  It was a family trade, and I spent long hours there since I was a child, taking things apart piecemeal to see how they ticked.  I started with old radios and blenders and soon graduated to the cars people drove.  By the time I was Hollis’ age, I could tell what was wrong with just a glance, just by smelling burnt pieces and corroded metal.

My father had gone to fight in the war and my grandma had long since left this world, so it was just the two of us, taking care of things day by day.

I was nineteen when I first met their mother.  Cheryl had stumbled into the shop, almost on accident.  She was a mess of dust coated dark hair and clothes that had long since lost their color to the sun.  The camera around her neck was the only thing she cared for.  Cheryl was strange to me, but she acted right at home and asked if I could give her a lift to the next town as no one else in the city even bothered to stop for her.

Cheryl lingered in the area a bit longer than she realized and we got to know each other better.  She had a beautiful heart and my grandad could see that I fell for her.  He told me that I reminded him of the two of them when they were younger, before they settled down.  He gave me the little he had managed to save over the years and told me he was kicking me out of the house.  That it was time to travel the earth for a bit.

And we did.

We went near everywhere.  It’s one thing to walk out into a desolate middle of nowhere and rest easy for a few days on a gentle word.  It’s another thing to promise to make things a smidge better.  Places that I never would have imagined visiting welcomed us like a story book.

Growing up, I was never good with words, but we taught each other the tricks of our trades and before long I felt right at home by her side.

Whenever we got near a main town, she would always send rolls of films and letters of what she called ‘our exploits,’ home to our folks.  She told me that she had planned on making a series of our adventures.  She called it, The Snapshots of Life.

But it didn’t last long.

On the way back home, that’s when The Sick appeared.  It spread like ants on a picnic table and people that we once shared smiles and meals with lay dead and burning in the streets.  At first, people helped each other out, but it was only a matter of time and once the helpers were all gone, the rest of the world took over.  It wasn’t uncommon to see bone thin people robbed of their food in their own homes by a fool with a sharp stick and a gun.

Cheryl recorded all of it.  She switched to instant film and kept the important pieces with us.  Didn’t trust that she would ever step foot in a darkroom again.

I still remember how listless, how distant she was the day she told me was going to change the name of the project to Snapshots of the End.  She never stopped taking and categorizing her pictures in the hopes that one day she could help fix whatever went wrong.

I lost her the day they asked us for help.

Due to our witnessing a good chunk of it first hand, they begged for our expertise as the they tried to stop The Sick.  There was only one space left and said that it was going to be perfectly safe.  Much safer than being with the ferals or The Promise.  I was taking care of Hollis and Timothy and urged her to take the last seat.  I knew if anyone could turn things around, it had to their mother.

I pulled myself out of the memories and gave Hollis another sip of tea.  I gave Timothy a spoonful of honey and told him to put the rest of the jar away.  No matter how often I thought of her, I could never tell our kids the end of it, of how meaningless it all was in the end.

I found the facility they escaped to one day when I was out looking for supplies.  I will never know how long she’d been gone.  Her skin was cold and mottled in bruises from where The Sick had its way with her.  Any notes, any progress they had made had succumbed to the mold that was nature’s way of taking back the world.

I brought her ashes back home and buried what was left in the woods.

No sooner did Timothy sit back down did the pounding and yelling start.  The Promise knew I was home and they didn’t make waste in letting me know their opinions.  I pulled the last thing out of my bag, a half full box of rounds for the hunting rifle I sent Timothy to fetch. 

I loaded the gun, kissed Hollis on the forehead, and made the slow walk back towards the front door.

Please baby girl, please wake up.

 

About the Author

Andrew Gonzalez lives in Southern California with his beautiful wife, two dogs that like to pretend they’re cats, and a cat that reigns over the family garden.

Andrew Gonzalez