by Gay Degani
‘BEFORE THE END COMES,’ my mother says, ‘you must leave. Don’t think about me, sweetheart, just go. You’re young. You can make it out.’
I want to take her hand, to tell her I will never leave, but if I touch her, she will flinch, and I don’t want to cause her any more pain. She turns her head and I slip out.
We’ve been isolated for a week without television, radio, internet, and I haven’t seen another human being since the National Guard slashed a giant red X across our door.
They’ve all fled, first in cars, then in government buses. The dogs, the cats, even the pigeons are gone.
I don’t want to leave her. She wouldn’t leave me if I was the one close to death and she was untouched. I shake my head. Wipe tears, rub my palm against my forehead. Listen to the silence.
I check my underarms, behind my knees, between my toes where the infection first appears, but I find no pink spiral pox. That’s how it starts, with pretty little spots, like miniature lollipops, until they turn black and grow. I take a deep breath, feel relief deep in my chest. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones who has some strange immunity. Are there any lucky ones? I know of no one who has been immune. They are all either dead or gone. And if gone, they are still probably dead.
The house seems so normal. The sofa faces the blank television, one of those flat panel screens we saved up for, Mom taking on more cleaning jobs up in the Heights, me taking on more shifts at Taco Bell. Taco Bell. What I wouldn’t give for a Chalupa Supreme right now. I close my eyes and try to conjure the taste, but it doesn’t come. My eyes water, and I feel stupid, frightened too, as reality sets in once again. And again. And again.
We don’t get along, my mother and me. Didn’t get along, I mean. She has—had rules. She complained about everything, what I wore to school, my Cs in math and science. She’d say, you don’t want to end up waiting tables, do you, or God forbid, cleaning houses like I do, do you? DO YOU?
In the kitchen, I go to the pantry, almost empty now, and grab a can of string beans, eat them cold. I hate going outside to use the fire pit. I don’t like being out where I can no longer hear the neighbor kids laughing, cars driving past, jets in the sky.
There’s a deck of cards with pictures of Yellowstone on the back. I bought them at a yard sale. We never had the money to go to any national parks, but we made do. We used to sit at the kitchen table every morning with our coffees steaming next to us, playing Gin Rummy.
Moving back into the living room, I stand at the window and finish my beans. The street is full of empty houses, some with red slashes, some without, depending on when the people left. A breeze shivers in the big Chinese elm in our front yard, jangles Mrs. Ricard’s windchimes next door. She’s been gone a week. Everyone’s been gone even longer. We are still here.
The sound of a large vehicle turning onto the street startles me. A bus? The last bus? I go to the door, open it. I should flag it down. I should leap over the old cement steps and wave my hands. I could leave her, I think. She’s more unconscious than conscious. Would she know?
I take the first step. The bus shifts down as if to stop and I begin to raise my arm, but my head goes light with a jangle of what ifs, what nots. I halt, step back into the house, close the door. Lean against it.
She calls to me from the bedroom.
‘Coming, Mom.’ I duck into the kitchen to put the empty bean can on the counter. Spy the Yellowstone cards, the top one a picture of Old Faithful. I hesitate, then snatch them up and head into her bedroom. I smile at her, and she smiles at me. I sit by her bed and begin to play solitaire on her blanket. She reaches for my hand. Pats it. I am a good nurse. I will take care of her. I will not leave her until she leaves me.
Gay Degani has received nominations and honors for her work including Pushcart consideration, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. She’s published a chapbook, Pomegranate, a full-length collection, Rattle of Want, (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She occasionally blogs at Words in Place, https://www.facebook.com/gaydegani