An ant crawls along the edge of the tub, looking for a way out. I don’t want to kill it, but I’m scared it will lead others to me. It winds around the large bottle of rosemary mint shampoo he bought me after our last big fight and stops at the edge of my pink razor. I could squish it easily but I don’t.
I hear him packing things in the bedroom, loudly slamming books and clothes into his large black suitcase. I want to believe this is like all the times before but I know it isn’t. We aren’t coming back from this.
Sinking below the bubbles I travel into the safe place of memory where I can wrap my arms around his waist and slide behind him onto his silver and green motorcycle. I press my face into his warm back breathing in his deep, rich scent. We drive through the darkness to the little white chapel in the woods. Several ravens perch on the branches of the towering sycamore tree singing to us, serenading our love. It’s us versus the world.
A loud thud brings me back and I sit up and stare at the dark wooden door separating me from him. I wonder if he still has the black gun he held to his temple last night or if he threw it in the lake like he told me he did. I sweep my hand over the cloudy water clearing away a patch of white foamy bubbles so I can stare at my reflection.
“Are you going to say anything?” he says quietly through the door. He doesn’t try to open it.
I don’t have any words left so I stare at the reflection of my distorted puffy face in the water searching for recognition in my swollen eyes. He’s crying loudly as if he’s an animal howling at the moon; misery bubbling and echoing through our tiny home in the woods. We were supposed to sit in matching rocking chairs on the porch drinking homemade lemonade with arthritic hands and wrinkled eyes. He promised me so many things.
“There once was a girl who stole the Eiffel Tower and put it in her pocket. She carried it with her everywhere she went, her own little plaything she could pull out and amuse herself with whenever she liked. It was for her alone to enjoy.”
He has stopped crying and his voice sounds watery and soft through the door. I hang on to his words like I always have, breathing in his musically-rich voice, his distinct way of making everything sound romantic and mysterious. Poetry mixed with madness; the way it began and has remained.
Closing my eyes I see myself swimming along the shoreline of the murky lake near my parent’s home distraught after yet another messy breakup. The soft sound of a guitar on the shoreline breaks my fluid rhythm. Surfacing, I spot him sitting on my favorite rock—the one with the smooth flat top filled with little hearts carved by teenagers proclaiming “B+W forever” or “CR+TJ for life.”
“Fig tree resting in the shady woods reaching toward the light…”
His singing voice is deeply rich with a slight hint of his British accent and I’m mesmerized. A large white dog with straggly white fur sits beside him and when it spots me it dives into the water. He stops playing and watches as the big hairy thing tries to lick my face, lapping at the water while its tail churns bubbles behind it.
“Don’t mind Brutus,” he calls to me. “Like me, he can’t resist the allure of beauty in the water. Tell me, are you a mermaid?”
I couldn’t speak for a long time. I’d never met anyone like this lanky man with a head full of curly hair and eyes as bright and deep as the rainbow moon labradorite stone I wear around my neck. I was enchanted from the start.
“The world missed the Eiffel Tower. They put up posters asking for anyone with information to please come forth, but nobody did for the girl was careful. She cradled it tight to her body at night, only bringing it out when she was sure nobody else would know. It was her secret.”
The last word he spits at me through the door, banging his fist for emphasis. Yes, I know this story. He’s still angry about the pale pink envelope he found stuck in my copy of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” It was never a problem with love between us but with secrets. He wanted to hold them all and I wanted to protect him.
“I wish you’d never found the letter,” I say.
He slams his fists into the door several more times and screams. This wildness usually presses me against the wall, bites my shoulders, and fiercely presses our lips together. Now it’s mutated into undulating wails of anguish and anger. He screams and screams. The ant has disappeared and I wonder if it jumped under the water to escape the sound.
I cover my ears and think about the day Brutus died. I found my love wrapped in a dark green wool blanket under the willow tree beside the still lake water. For the next two days, he didn’t move—refusing food, water, and my touch. It was his way—go inside himself or explode. There are no grey areas within him. For someone so beautifully expressive and poetic, it makes no sense to me he can be so black and white.
He’s gone silent and I hear the door creak as he leans his body against the thin wood. When he speaks the sound oozes toward me like spilled toxic honey. I shouldn’t listen but I do. I let the words seep deep into me.
“The day you promised would never come has arrived. You swore with all you are to never do this to me, but your words were lies. You killed the last buffalo, shot it with your pretty little shotgun and now the world shall never see it again.”
“No,” I say into the cold bath water. “I never lied to you.”
He’s not there. I follow the sound of his steel-toed boots walking through the house back and forth; our cozy cabin we’ve slowly made our own with paintings, piles of books, and squishy chairs made for two. He slams the front door and I jump gasping for air. I’ve been holding my breath.
The sputtering sound of his old red pickup truck makes me bolt out of the water. I run wet and naked out the front door to catch a glimpse of the rusted bumper disappearing into the dense forest of tall pine trees. I don’t breathe as I listen for the sound of him turning around and returning. It doesn’t come.
Several black birds circle the woods above me. Are they the ravens who witnessed our nuptials in the woods? Could they be here to witness our end? The sun creeps down the tree line releasing the swirling night winds blowing in from the far away ocean. Shivering, I fall onto the wooden porch and pull my legs up to my chest. He will be back. He always comes back.
I cry into the splintered wood. We are going to sand it down and repaint it this summer a soft sandy brown color. I rub my palms into the reddish splintery wood until one embeds itself into the palm of my hand. I stare at it and wonder if it symbolizes something.
Closing my eyes tight I travel back to our night. He pulls a bouquet of flowers from his oily dark brown saddlebag; a dozen pink, yellow, and white tulips tied together with a piece of soft brown leather. I hold them in my hands as we stand on the church steps under a vast dark sky of bright stars. He kisses my neck and a breeze blows my lacy white dress around my knees.
“Happiness, cheer, and forgiveness I give to you among the witnesses of the night,” he says. “May our forever be like this forgotten chapel, sacred and wild.”
I pick at the splinter, grabbing at it with the tips of my pointer and thumb. The weathered steeple leaned to one side and I wonder if it’s fallen now, blown to the ground during the big storm we had last month. It’s home to the animals anyway and they don’t care if it’s vertical or horizontal. Its bones will continue to provide shelter and nesting material for far longer than it was a place of worship hidden in the unforgiving woods.
A dark bird swoops from the trees grabbing at a tiny shadow scurrying out from behind the woodpile. I think I hear a tiny squeak and picture a fluffy grey mother mouse leaving behind her nest of too-naked pink babies. The tears I thought had dried up come again but the sound of his truck doesn’t.
He burned the pink letter in the fireplace while I stood beside him. I watched it curl up and fade into ash. The only remnant of my life before him I’d stowed away, my mother’s words scrawled out in thick, black ink. Her words of love and concern. Her words of anger and hurt. He burned them as he had all my things the night we moved here.
“Don’t let him erase who you are,” he quoted back at me. “Don’t let him take my beautiful girl from this world and tuck her away into the wilderness like a caged bird.”
Holding the black handgun against his left temple he made me convince him I didn’t believe her words. I tried to do so, over and over, but he saw the pain in my eyes and knew the truth. He was incapable of sharing me with others, and I missed my mother and my friends. I paid a price for loving him and he decided it was too much and he must leave. I fought to convince him to change his mind, but he would not. Black and white.
Pulling myself from the porch I stagger into the dark, quiet house. I see the empty places where he took things, gap-toothed holes punched into our singular woven life. He’s never taken things when he’s left before. I suck in the thick air and it feels like being in the middle of a forest fire, crackling heat breaking all around me.
Falling to the floor again, I pull his soft grey blanket from the light blue loveseat and press it around my shivering body. You want this, I tell myself. You need him to leave because you’ll never have the courage to walk away by yourself. You want this. You need this.
I force myself to focus on how his brilliant eyes would cloud over when he’d get angry or sad. All the hurts of his life, the abuses inflicted on him through his childhood, and the torture of his teenage years, would turn into a visible mist encasing and transfiguring him into a shadow of himself—a monster. He’d stagger around, his feet forgetting how big they were, kicking anything in his way.
“You never loved me,” he’d say. “You are like all the rest.”
I’d never know how long these transformations would last, these stormy tempest-torn moments he’d become someone else. It was best to go for a swim or a long hike, leaving him to splinter wood with his well-worn ax or throw shiny knives into the trees behind the old barn. To stay was to fight against a stranger who couldn’t see me. It wasn’t a fight I could win.
I stagger to the bathroom and rinse myself off in the shower before drinking an entire bottle of red wine and slipping under the soft covers of our bed. The smell of him surrounds me and I fall asleep telling myself he will return tomorrow and it will be different this time. The rainbow after the storm will streak across the sky and he will be back within my arms free of the misty madness forever.
A sound outside wakes me. He’s back. I run into the bathroom and rinse my mouth with mouthwash and run a brush through my tangled blonde hair. I’m wearing the one shirt he left behind, a long blue flannel that reaches mid-thigh. My thick, strong legs look good in the golden light streaming in from the bathroom window.
Unbuttoning the top three buttons, I splash some rose oil onto my breasts and under my arms. My body vibrates with anticipation of his electric touch. I slither into the living room smiling and panting but find it empty. He’s not here.
There’s a low moan outside followed by a thumping and scratching sound. It reminds me of the time a rabid dog took refuge in a dilapidated barn with broken legs. It still crawled toward us, foaming and feverish. I’d fetched the shotgun from under the bed and left when he’d shot it. We both cried as we buried it under the moonlight.
Climbing onto the couch I peer through the faded yellow curtains. There’s no sign of his truck, but there’s a large shape at the foot of the porch steps roughly the size of a man. I can’t make out any details, but it’s writhing and crawling. The sound of the moan comes again, a deep guttural sound followed by the sound of nails scraping on wood.
What if it’s him? Maybe he had an accident in his truck and he was forced to crawl through the woods injured toward me. While I slept warm and intoxicated in our bed he could have been struggling to stay alive. Guilt burns my cheeks red as fire.
I throw open the front door and the horrible sour smell of death blows into my face as the creature at the bottom of the steps raises its head as if to see me, except there are no eyes, only inky black crusted holes. It opens and closes its mouth with a sickening clicking sound of teeth on teeth.
I scream and it quickens its movements, clawing at the wooden steps toward me. It has exposed bones for legs with no feet. The sharp broken-off bones dig into the ground trying to get leverage to propel it up the stairs. I scream again and slam the door shut.
Monster. Zombie. Undead. This must be a nightmare. I splash water on my face from the kitchen sink as the sound of the thing moaning and moving continues. A loud thump tells me it has made progress and is getting closer.
I pull on a pair of jeans and my faded brown boots. Laying on my stomach I find the shotgun still under his side of the bed. It was his grandfather’s and the fact he left it behind tells me he either plans to return it or he knew I might need it. Either way, I hold it across my chest and return to the living room.
The 12 gauge shells are in a box on the bookshelf made to look like three old books sitting together. As I pull it down and load the gun, I remember him trying to convince me that learning to shoot is part of living in the woods. When I’d still fought him on it, he told me he’d had a nightmare where I’d been torn to shreds by a wild animal. He begged and begged until I finally relented.
The prophetic poetry of this moment brings tears to my eyes and I can’t help thinking I’ll never be loved the way he loved me again. He’d move the world to save me. Would I do the same for him?
The moaning sound rises as I inch open the door holding the end of the gun snugly against my shoulder and focusing on keeping my knees flexed. The horrible thing has made its way to the third step and when it senses me it quickens its movements. There’s nothing natural about how fast it is and I aim at its head and shoot. I’m surprised by how little I hesitate and how easily I absorb the recoil.
It slides down the stairs landing in a motionless heap on the ground. Its chest lays splayed open, a twisted mass of raw flesh and bone. It reminds me of a computer I saw laying in a ditch on the side of the road once—a discarded heap of tangled wires and splintered metal. Motherboard exposed. This thing had a mother.
I scream and the sound echoes in the woods around me and is answered by the call of hundreds of birds circling the morning sky. I’m alone out here and wonder if the shot and my cries are calling more of these things to me. I cover my mouth as a wolf howls in the distance—awake at dawn as confused as me as to what’s going on.
I kick the now twice-dead thing on the ground to make sure it doesn’t move. It makes a squishy sound and leaves a wet mark on my boot. I gag.
Has the end just begun or has it been raging on while I’ve been tucked away from the world in my love nest? Or was my mother right and it’s been more like a gilded cage? The tears return and I can see the night I pledged myself to him playing like a film in the sky. A golden cast of clouds and sunlight reenacting it all; forcing me to see and feel it.
He kicked open the chapel doors at midnight, swollen shut after years of being unused, lifting me into his arms and carrying me down the dark vine-covered aisle. Silver moonlight shone through holes in the roof and illuminated the stained glass window set behind a small wooden altar; a giant golden cross in a swirling sea of blues and greens. He placed matching homemade twisted-wire rings onto our fingers, symbols forever entwining us together.
“Let the stars, the moon, the beasts of the world bear witness as we pledge our pure love to each other. May nothing stand between us now or for all eternity. Soul mates through infinite space and time, we are no longer two beings lost at sea, but one being bound together in the blissful bonds of dutiful devotion.”
We made love on the altar in the single most romantic moment of my life. I was utterly devoured by him; swallowed up and erased from the Earth. I’d become a part of his magic; an alluring rhythmic line in an epic poem composed by and recited by him year after year. Looking down at the monster at my feet I feel the words he’d spun around me crack and shatter.
I return to the cabin and pack my things into my two matching blue suitcases. There is no reason to stay here anymore. I need to see what’s happening in the world and decide for myself what to do next. I stretch my arms out and feel the muscles of my shoulders and back loosen.
I load my old Mazda 3 and lay the shotgun on the seat beside me. I’ve pictured the day I might leave here for years, and although it’s nothing like I could have imagined, the sense of freedom still lingers at my fingertips. I take off my ring and tuck it into the pocket of my jeans.
Author’s note: You might find similarities between this story and one I wrote in week 8 titled “Sunset, Sunrise.” Both have to do with an end of a toxic relationship and include violence. I thought it might be interesting to explore a couple on the fringe, away from media and other people, at the beginning of a zombie apocalypse. I found their twisted love story fit neatly at the end of the world. I apologize if it was a bit too dark or graphic for some of you. Thanks as always for reading and supporting me in this 52-week journey. Almost halfway there!
Short Story Challenge | Week 24
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about the early days of the zombie apocalypse. We had to include a motherboard, buffalo, Eiffel Tower, raven, motorcycle, envelope, tulip, moon, reflect, and sycamore
Write With Us
Prompt: Memory editing wreaks havoc
Include: Jupiter, chocolate, domestic, blossom, ladder, steam, extension, pine cone, sunrise, tide
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water