Jessica Barksdale: A World That Certainly Didn’t

marathonlitreview —  February 9, 2016 — Leave a comment

“Let’s see. What do I want to eat next?” Liza said to her friend, the man with her in the almost empty pantry.

This friend—Westlake, a newcomer—was silent on the subject, maybe wanting Liza to not feel bad that her only choices were dried lentils, tamarind paste, and canned pears, the tin slightly puffy, surely off. But it was unclear exactly what else there might be, the pantry dark, the night outside boarded up and hidden behind plywood.

“Really? That’s your answer?” Liza picked up the bag of lentils.

Outside of the house, the ritual pounding commenced.

“Let the countdown begin,” Liza said. Westlake looked at his watch he couldn’t see in the dark, even though the only time that mattered these days was day and night. A dark shadow, he hunkered in the corner with the horrible bucket.

Liza slouched down next to him, crunching lentils between her teeth. As she breathed, she tried not to take the musty, locked in smell of the two of them trapped in the small space. But there was no choice. In the side yard, the rumble of bodies, fists against the wall, a humming growl of need as loud as live electricity.

“Okay, okay,” Liza said to Westlake who was lentil whining. “Jeez. I’m not hogging. Here. Have some.”
In the morning, Westlake had taken off, just as he had the day before. Who knew if he’d come back. Likely, someone else would show up. Maybe this time, a woman, someone Liza could talk to about the parts of her body that were changing. But there wasn’t time to sit in the pantry worrying about her next friend. She checked her shirt and pants for loose lentils—picking two out of a sleeve—sipped from her jug of water—only slightly brown—and then stood. Holding her breath, she listened for any sound outside the door. Her heartbeat used to sound like life. Or hope. Now she knew to ignore it. Her ear flat against the door, she waited. She pressed her ear harder against the wood.

But nothing.

Very slowly, she began to unbarricade the pantry door, using screwdriver and crowbar. The day Liza arrived at this house, she went searching for supplies. In the toolshed, the garage, and the basement of this big house, she’d found plywood, metal straps, nails, hammer, sledgehammer, saw. No gun, not even in the dressers or closets upstairs. The family (Ajamu, Tina, and assorted children—Madison, Riley, and Tate—names she knew from their flung mail in the office) had cleared out what they could carry and thought they would need, leaving behind jewelry, books, perfume, lamps. Most of the tools were gone, but Liza found the second-best, the too-heavy, and brought them into the pantry, along with the wood and metal, nails and screws. Then she went through the cupboards—not much left other than a bags of dried pasta—absolutely fine when softened with rain water—and brightly colored sprinkles for cupcakes and sugar cookies, a rapture of sugar.

One, two, three, she pushed open the door, smooth and soft and slow. Her heart was in her ears and fingers, she ready to slam shut the door and throw on the plywood. But the kitchen and the house were empty. She would know if they were here by smell.

There was a bathroom off the kitchen. Two houses before, Liza had learned how to flush a toilet with waste or rain water. The good news was that it was November, and the rain had started early this year (big irony. Drought over). In other great news, there had been big plastic buckets in the garage. If something like this had to happen, at least it happened now, so whoever was left could flush the toilets. What happened downstream in the sewage system was a mystery to Liza, but for now, the toilets gurgled, the water glugging down to where it always had.

After a small bucket brigade, Liza stood still in the kitchen, looking around. Her boobie traps were unmolested. Nothing or no one had walked through the kitchen door last night, but once she unhooked the string, she saw that the front door was ajar.

Maybe that’s how Westlake got out, she thought.

Don’t be silly, Pim said. It’s how I got in.

Liza looked over at this new friend, Pim, small and dark with bright blue eyes and pale skin. Maybe thirty. Maybe less. But about Liza’s age. None of the others had even been women. York, Grealy, Strange, Sherman, Case, Leggatt, and Westlake. They’d shuffled around, barely speaking. Suddenly, this morning, Pim.

“Talkative one,” Liza said.

Pim ignored her, pulling on Liza’s right hand. Let’s go look for food, she said. I’m starving.

“There’s not much food left in this neighborhood,” Liza said. “I’ve been here a couple of weeks already.”

Anyone else? Pim asked. And I mean normal.

“Not anyone I’ve seen,” Liza said. “Or anyone we want to meet.”

We’ll be fine, Pim said. Anyway, you need to eat. It’s important.

Liza had needed to eat for three months straight since this had started, the kind of eating she’d done her whole life, almost unconsciously. Plates of spaghetti Bolognese. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli. Flounder sautéed in lemon and butter. Chilled New Zealand sparkling water. A deep, rich chocolate cake with buttercream frosting, preferably vanilla. Oranges, grapes, apples. Steamed string beans finished with olive oil and sprinkled with kosher salt. Marcona almonds. Popcorn. Bagels, cherries, green tea. Everything in a stocked cupboard, fridge, pantry. Food at every city corner, in every local market, in the restaurants that lined the streets like jewels. Plates shining like satisfying galaxies on every wooden table in every house.

Stop torturing yourself, Pim said. The best you can hope for are dried foods.

“Dried is the least of it,” Liza said.

Stop, Pim said, but Liza knew her new friend understood. So much was shriveled now. Things that before had been ripe and full, fresh with water and care, were now dark and brown and desiccated, fluttering carapaces, the ghosts of what once was. Fruits and vegetables. Animals and plants. People, dead and alive.

Come on, Pim said. Get over yourself.

Together, she and Pim walked out the door. At the very beginning, Liza drove a hard bargain with herself. As nosy and curious and perhaps deranged as she was, she promised herself she wouldn’t look too closely at the ground, keeping her gaze ahead of her, letting things blur when needed. This tack had been important in the early days, back when there was a lot more noise at night, screaming and pounding and hours of the awful, unnatural howling she’d gotten used to. Back when in the morning, the results of those nights were in full and gory bloom.

Worse had been the smells, the kind she’d only ever breathed in around garbage cans or dumpsters. Maybe in city alleys, behind clubs, where the drunk came to throw up. Where rats came to die after eating d-Con. Where the cats pissed and screamed. Where people had rough, back-against-the-brick wall sex, throwing their used condoms into corners. All of this in a fetid and terrible pile. But the morning smells during the first weeks had been one hundred times any alley detritus. Atomic, blown up, mutated, almost gaseous, green, and floating around the city like a nightmare Goodyear blimp.

Stop thinking about it, Pim said.

“It’s hard not to,” Liza said. “It was everywhere.”

It still is, Pim said. Just not as obvious. Don’t let down your guard. Hey, what about that house?

Pim—this friend so corporeal with her thin, muscled arms—pointed to a mid-century modern Liza had raided weeks before.

Fine, Pim said, pulling Liza down another street, one that until recently had been blocked by something Liza hadn’t looked at. Much. But now the lump was gone, disappeared, pulled into the shadows by the shadows.

They picked a house toward the middle of the block, a once cheery craftsman style house with a long, wide front porch and a once lush bougainvillea vine that had since crackled into tissue paper leaves and dried stalks that had flicked away in the wind. Back before the incident, the troubles, the thing, the accident, the occurrence, someone would have rocked gently on this charming house’s porch swing on a long summer evening, reading a novel, maybe one about the end of the world everyone had been imagining. Vampires, werewolves, global warming, viruses, earthquakes. She and Kevin had read one about a water world, he laughing and slapping his knee at certain parts. “Manhattan isn’t an island any more. It’s a dot!” And, “Canada! The breadbasket of the world!”

Another they read—was it last spring?—was about time slowing down until everyone’s life loosened and unspun like an old woven rug. Who knows why they and everyone got such a thrill about it all going to hell in a handbasket. Nothing new there. After all, the end was such an old story. There were Nostradamus’ plagues, floods, invasions, droughts, and battles. Ragnarok. The end of the Hindu Kali Yuga. Maitreya’s appearance, followed by the Sermon of the Seven Suns. The Christians’ plot-rich great tribulation. Four horsemen. Lamb of God. Let the games begin. Where were they now, though? Oh, yes. The famine and death part.

Jesus—

“Ha!” Liza snorted. “Jesus indeed!”

Stop it! Yes, it happened, Pim said. Let’s eat.

The craftsman had been picked over, by everyone. Doors broken open, cupboards searched. At one point, someone trudged through with muddy shoes—no, make that feet, the toe marks visible on every print. But it seemed these raids had occurred in early days, back before bags of dried food and dog kibble were seen as last hope, last chance. As with the four housemen, that time had arrived. After she and Pim searched the entire house, they opened up every cupboard in the kitchen.

Yay! Pim said. More lentils!

Liza ignored her and packed up the lentils, dried organic spinach fettucine, popcorn (wow, that would take an hour to eat four kernels), and old peppermint candies. One bottle of clam juice. A small tube of tomato paste. A miracle of a small shriveled apple in the back of the warm fridge. Natural dog treats, five, in the original packaging, a rubber band tied tightly around it. Someone imagined they’d go bad, not imagining the dogs themselves would eventually be food.

You are depressing the hell out of me, Pim said.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Liza said, as they made one last scour of the kitchen.

Really? Pim shot her a dark look and then walked toward the front door.

Liza followed behind her, past the tangled pile of ripped curtains, smashed windows, and tree branches in the living room. Outside, Pim stood staring up at a huge oak. A native. No lack of sprinkler system effecting it. Maybe the natural dry and then rain was helping the massive tree, keeping it from rotting from the inside out. The way it was going, this oak would be alive a lot longer than anything or anyone else. So far, humans had managed to ruin everything. Pim was right. Just a couple of months ago, Liza was driving her car to work, drinking coffee shipped from another hemisphere (spiking it with milk from mistreated cows), and burning hours in front of computer that likely had enslaved countless workers on many continents to make. She would message and phone conference and chat, using services that probably contributed to global warming. All those heated wires, floating satellites, banks of servers. She watered her lawn, turned on her lights, put gas in her car. She might not have started the slide into the current hell she and Pim and all the rest were living through, but she sat on the bleachers and clapped as each new special thing that was invented rolled out. Shiny, slick, and special, all leading to disaster.

Don’t get gloomy now, Pim said. You can’t change anything. Besides, you used to be a vegetarian.

“But not a vegan,” Liza said as they walked back toward the intersection and then the street that would take them back to the safety of the pantry. They’d spent a bit too long in the house. Already, the afternoon sun was arcing down toward the bridges, San Francisco glinting with the only light it could.

You think not eating butter would have helped this? Pim spread her arms, and for a forbidden moment, Liza allowed herself a 360 look at the cars in the middle of the street, the houses tangled with broken shutters and blinds—curtains yanked out of busted frames like detached eyeballs—the power lines bowed like slack jump ropes, and the quiet that was as thick as the fog that rolled in nightly with the pack of ghouls.

Last Halloween, one family down the street from Liza and Kevin decorated their entire front yard and porch, witches and ghosts on every tree limb, a sign above their front door that read Cemetery of Doom. If they only knew what horrors truly lurked at night, the sluggish monsters that really existed.

Not so many of them now, Pim said as they arrived back at the house.

“Why is that?” Liza asked. “What is changing? Where are they going?”

You think I know anything you don’t? Pim asked. Just take yes for an answer. If this keeps up—

Liza rushed inside ahead of her friend, her heart pounding. If this kept up, she thought. If things slowed down. Yes, sure. She’d be free of the night terrors, the panic of sundown. But if this kept up and they all disappeared or died or broke down (whatever it was that happened to them), Liza would be truly, one hundred percent alone, at least for a while. Suffering, pain, and fear was at least company.

Drama Queen, Pim said, as Liza opened the pantry door and stepped in, stocking it with their booty. When she was done, she left Pim behind, walking out into the living room, which she’d boarded up with cardboard and plywood, mostly to keep out raccoons and birds and the critters Kevin used to call “night squirrels,” but which were really rats.

“Look!” he say, pointing to the fence rail next to their patio. Liza would hear more than see the rats bustle home toward their nests, ivy leaves rattling.

But nothing had come into this house since Liza had moved in, at least nothing animal. The first nights, she’d heard the pound and drag of something or someone outside the pantry door. A low guttural howling, like an injured coyote. In the mornings, only clues of the evening parade of ghouls. But outside these boarded up doors and windows were trees and shrubs. A view of the bay. Ships moored forever on the water, full of cargo that would never be delivered.

“Are there any of us left?”

Pim snorted. What do you think? You’re the only one?

“How many then?” Liza asked when Pim sidled up to her.

You could go find out, Pim said. Leave this neighborhood. Just because this is where you were when it started—

“It’s too dangerous,” Liza shouted, turning, wanting to push Pim back where she came from. But Pim had disappeared.

By the time Liza had prepared for the night, closing up the house and locking them both into the pantry, she wasn’t mad at Pim anymore. In fact, they’d eaten some lentils, the apple, and popcorn and half a dog treat together, laughing about the concept of “fiber.” Afterward, with a half cup of collected rain water each, she and Pim hunkered down, waiting for the nightly show to start.

Liza must have fallen asleep for a blip because she was startled by a noise, something loud, just outside, up on the street. After a moment, silence again.

What was that? Pim asked.

“I don’t know,” Liza whispered.

I thought I smelled a fire, Pim said.

Liza shifted on the pad she’d made for herself out of paper shopping bags and a kitchen rug. “No one is stupid enough to burn anything.”

Unless it’s safe enough to, Pim said. Do you have any more popcorn?

Liza shook out a few more kernels, and they each sat there sucking the smooth hard seeds, cracking them open only when soft, carefully grinding them down between their molars. No dentist to run to now. Not for teeth whitening or root canals. Not for broken jagged incisors.

This is pretty horrible, Pim said.

Not the most horrible thing, Liza thought.

Are you ever going to tell me about it? Pim said.

Liza swallowed a kernel. “If I talk about it, it will be real.”

It already is. There’s no going back now.

Liza listened to Pim crunch down on a kernel. She could almost feel the popcorn go down her own throat.

“How am I supposed to do it?” Liza asked. “Now? Shouldn’t I just—“

Really? That’s where you go? Offing yourself? Pim said. That’s harsh.

“What’s harsh?” Liza said, feeling her words punch out into the darkness. “What could possibly be harsher than any part of this?”

Though she knew Pim couldn’t see her, Liza spread her arms wide in the pantry darkness. All of this. How to bear it more than another second? What was the point of all this nightly hiding? What was keeping Liza from opening the front door and inviting it all in, right now? Outside, as if in agreement, something howled.

What would be harsher is living with a choice you wouldn’t have made before, Pim said. You are still the person you were even if the world you lived in is gone.

“You don’t even know me,” Liza said.

But Pim didn’t answer back. Nothing from her dark corner. Liza swallowed her popcorn kernel, wished for another dog treat—tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow—and then settled back against the shopping bags and hoped for sleep.
In the morning, Pim was gone. In the wee hours as the pantry slowly filled with a grainy grayness, Liza waited for Pim to come back. Then, when it seemed clear she would not, Liza hoped for any of the silent men, those who’d nodded and said nothing. But none appeared, and by the time morning light poked in through the plywood and under the door leading to the kitchen, Liza was hungry and alone.

As with all the mornings since that last normal day, Liza walked into the light assuming the worst. But like the days before, the house was empty, unmolested. If she could pretend, Liza could stand in this lovely kitchen with its granite and stainless steel and imagine she’d gone in to the pantry retrieve a jar of marmalade for her hosts, both of whom were preparing her a full breakfast: Eggs Benedict with homemade hollandaise and fresh fruit and toast. There Ajamu and Tina were, standing in front of the fancy range and shiny counter, wearing aprons, laughing about the first round of burnt English muffins.

What a waste.

Liza pressed a hand against her stomach. Out in the yard, wind blew the fallen leaves, some swirling across the warm, Tuscany-colored slate, the kind she and Kevin had laid in their own backyard two years ago.

“Smooth enough for a tricycle,” he’d said, looking up, sweat on his brow, his freckled nose shiny, his short red hair in spikes that gleamed in the afternoon sun. “Or six.”

“You wish,” Liza had said, knowing that while she didn’t wish for six children, three might do. Two for sure. They were trying. Had been. And the week before she found herself barricaded inside her neighbor’s garage storeroom with a kid from down the street, she’d known she’d at least have one.

“You’re sick!” the kid—David—cried as they crouched behind the door they’d barricaded with a work table, garden tools, tool boxes, and three coils of garden hose. Even in the darkness, she could see his wide terrified eyes, the glint of panic.

Liza reached out to grab his arm, but instead, she threw up onto the gravel that dotted the dirt floor. All around the house, screams and sirens. The smell of smoke, something made of wire and rubber burning, the smoke acrid and chemical. Overhead, the rush of helicopters and the pu-pu-pu of gunfire. Later, explosions, the kind that in another world, she might have imagined were fireworks after a ball game.

“I’m fine.” She’d wiped her chin with her dress, the one she’d put on to go out to lunch that day. Where was that dress now? Which house had she left it in? Ripped and torn and dirty, the dark blue silk was in shreds by the time she traded it in for some woman’s jeans, a man’s wool shirt, a teenaged boy’s running shoes.

And David. One afternoon, they made it to a house too late, Liza searching for a safe place on her own, finding a big closet in a middle floor bedroom. A lock on the inside.

“David!” she’d called. “David, come down here.”

“I found something!” he cried. “So cool!”

“David! You know what I told you,” Liza yelled, heading toward the staircase.

Then the rustle and sickening thump above on the top floor.

Two nights later, the first of Liza’s friends arrived. York. Like a Peppermint Patty, the kind she’d been trying to think about, craving that first bite, teeth cracking through thin chocolate, tongue tingling with the cool of the peppermint flavor inside.

Liza wiped her face and exhaled. No Ajamu or Tina. No David. No Kevin. Certainly no Peppermint Patty. But she was alive. As far as she knew, so was the baby. She was certain she’d felt a new kind of flutter. Life. Liza had seen the baby once, in a black and white sonogram shot, the thin paper magneted to a fridge in a house that might not even exist anymore, in a world that certainly didn’t. And wouldn’t. Not now.

For a week, Liza collected supplies. By herself, she went out into the neighborhood, searching. String, a first aid kit, cherry sore throat lozenges. And real medicine. Antibiotics of all kinds. Cough syrup. Cold medicine. Codeine, Vicodin, OxyContin. An unopened box of Fig Newtons, a bag of shelled sunflower seeds, a pack of gum, a curl of red vines, a can of pineapple juice. More dog treats. Batteries. A flashlight. Maps in a forgotten car, doors unlocked. An old-school holdout, the woman—Jane Thompson, from the registration—used maps to move around the world instead of GPS. Seeds in garden sheds and junk drawers: green beans, lettuce, nasturtiums, basil. A good pair of hiking boots, thick and rubber soled with plenty of traction but broken in. Socks. A rain poncho. A small tent that folded up into a tight roll. Empty fabric bags for the things she would find along the way.

Every day, she collected, finding a backpack meant for long hiking trips, a large interior and many side pockets. Every night, Liza locked herself into the pantry, alone and vigilant, listening for noises. The first night a couple of howls, but by the seventh night, only rustling, the sound a raccoon or deer might make. No screaming. Nothing human or once human outside the house at all.

Crammed in the pantry with her goods, Liza waited. She thought of Kevin, recreating their last 24 hours together on the old, known earth. He’d left that morning before she’d had time to do more than mumble, “Bye.” Where had it happened to him? On the bridge? In the parking structure? As he pushed into his office at the Embarcadero? Or had he taken BART that day? What had they talked about the night before, besides the baby? Maybe the project manager who sat behind him, the one who messaged him instead of turning around and asking him a question directly. Or the new building in the Mission, the one under construction and now under protest.

“Signs said, ‘Google Out!’” Kevin speared a steamed Romano bean. “Google isn’t even involved.”

Where had he been the moment everything changed for him, his life ending or starting again in a horrible way? In her mind, Liza followed him out of their two-bedroom, one-bath starter home in the Rockridge. There her husband was, in his car, looking back at their bedroom window that faced the street, the shades pulled. Liza had taken the day off to meet a college friend in the hills. They were going to go to lunch and talk about maternity leave strategies. She was going to make a spinach salad for Kevin when he got home. On the weekend, they were going to drive to Monterey and go to the aquarium, despite the unsettling news online about some kind of unrest. Something about Chicago. Or was it New York? Maybe LA. But no one had suspected what was coming. Not Liza. And not Kevin. That morning, he’d known she was in their bedroom, tucked into their bed asleep, their baby floating inside her. At that moment, then, he knew her still.

The eighth morning after Pim left, just as the first streak of gold glinted into the pantry, Liza stepped out. She was dressed in jeans and wool, her boots laced up, full pack on her back. She was heading up over the hills, down into the valley, over the next ridge, and along it. Avoiding large cities and mid-sized towns, she was going to find somewhere warmer and more isolated. A place where she could see in all directions. A place she might be able to grow food. A place she could dig into, literally, and keep herself safe. A place where she could lay out a sheet, take off her pants, and give birth.

Liza adjusted the pack straps, took one last look at the pantry, and walked out of the kitchen, down the front hall, and out the front door into the morning light.

 

Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press in March 2016.  A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming inComposeSalt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.  She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

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