Something rustles in the vinyl sheeting. My headlamp is off, so even if I turned I still couldn’t see. Is it a rat? My heart pounds in my ears as intruders explore my home above, the floor joists creak. If I’m still and quiet maybe they won’t find me.
It’s been two months since I’ve heard any vehicles. Bird song, cows mooing, and wind have been the soundtrack of this new life. It feels more like purgatory, like an afterlife. This morning a Diesel truck had growled through the mountain roads. One loud BANG set the crows squawking. BANG, BANG. Silence. BANG. Silence. BANG. The Cochrans are dead. It was too precise, too rhythmic to be return fire. Why didn’t they use their shotgun? They’ve used it on chicken-murdering foxes. I bet there’re probably four puddles of browning blood on their white linoleum. I haven’t seen them in about three weeks. Last time I checked, their food was running low so … I don’t have enough to share myself, but can’t bear seeing them suffer.
I knew this day would come as soon as the disease was mentioned on the news. I knew it when the cable networks went down, and the bombings began, and the Internet dwindled. “Server not reachable” messages had populated most of the US sites left. The wide web had narrowed in an instant – satellite internet had let me access foreign news sites. Now I can turn on my computer when I feel like wasting electricity and play the Chrome dino game.
A cobweb catches a draft of air and whips across my face. Holding in a scream, I brush slap it away. Spiders terrify me, but they’re not certain death like the men above. The cadence of the footsteps above is rhythmic as they go from room to room.
“An empty cat food bowl.” One muffled voice calls to another. It’s the gravelly baritone of a smoker. I can’t make out most of what they’re saying. Based on the different places the footsteps are sounding from, I think there are three. Please be safe, Sandy. Sandy is my inside-outside, gingery cat. He strays around sometimes. I haven’t seen him in a few days.
CLICK. Someone’s in the downstairs bedroom flipping the breaker. It can’t work – removing the safety fuse was one of the first steps I took to prepare. I figured they’d loot my home, but didn’t want them noticing the solar panels and thinking they worked.
Footsteps pound toward the center of my meager living room. They’re probably standing between the mission couch and the TV on that old cedar chest. My home’s heating – the cast iron wood stove – is between them and the kitchen.
The stairs to the loft bedroom creak. I hope he bangs his head on the low peaked ceiling. I mentally survey my bedroom – the shabby chic headboard, the burgundy quilt my grandmother made when I was a little girl.
Now there’s clanging in the kitchen. The second man, the younger tenor, is tossing my cookware on the floor questing for hidden treasures. My hands are trembling – not just with fear, but anger at my belongings being violated, throw about like trash.
“Nothing up here,” the baritone yells. His heavy footsteps slam downstairs. My insides shudder. At least I left the door unlocked, I bet they would have shot the lock or kicked in the door otherwise.
“Just pots,” the tenor says. He steps toward the wood-burning stove. Its door groans open. I’m grateful it’s been too hot for a fire for months. In cooler weather, there’s nothing I could do to mask the heat from its black belly.
“I’ll check the bathroom,” the baritone says crossing the room. The bathroom is the most luxurious room in my tiny house. I even have a fifty-inch tub. Moments after their gunfire, I had sprung into action – shutting down the solar power was the first step. Then I had run the kitchen bathroom faucets for a few moments and flushed the toilet until everything was bone dry. I had wiped up the scattering of water droplets leaving no evidence of water and power.
The tenor’s footsteps travel from the kitchen back toward the living room. I can’t make out what Baritone is telling him. There’s a distinct pop above me, and then a clink – high and clear – my champagne. I’d been saving it for a special occasion. There are no special occasions anymore. There never will be. A tear, angry and cold, leaks down across my nose and seeps into my ear.
Wood scrapes against swollen wood. Someone’s pushing the crawlspace door open. My intestines curdle in protest. I tell myself, keep it together – keep it together – keep it together. Don’t pee yourself.
My hands tremble so I hug myself tightly to keep from shaking the vinyl sheeting. A flashlight sweeps overhead illuminating the dusty cobwebs. A cavity in the red clay conceals me – created by the peculiarities of hillside construction. This silent onlooker would see a canvas of red earth framed by foundation and walls, and accented by dusty vinyl sheeting, moldering boxes of asphalt shingles, several mostly empty cans of eggshell paint, and two long boxes of engineered hardwood. Nothing of value. Nothing to steal.
The door groans shut. Its padlock is in my pocket chilling my thigh. I figured … if I left the crawlspace unlocked, they’d see nothing interesting and be on their way, but a locked door would herald valuables.
Useless streams of afternoon sunlight have been swallowed by evening’s darkness. They sing drunkenly, loudly. By the sounds of it, they’ve helped themselves to more than champagne. Baritone heads to the guest room yelling the other two can fight over the loft bed. Tenor calls dibs and somehow lumbers upstairs. The silent one crashes on the couch last, leaving me sleepless in a crawlspace with all my carefully rationed food crammed next to me. I don’t have many supplies, so after taking care of the solar power and water, I had stuffed canvas bags with my cans and bags of food and hidden them down here. When I had heard their truck engine rev up at the Cochran’s place, I’d slipped back into the crawlspace. Waiting down here is definitely worse than the waiting of my frantic preparations had been. At least then I was doing something. Now I’m helpless. I’m trapped. I’m in an abysmal coffin with floor joists for my ceiling and reeking clay for a bed.
It’s almost noon when they start stirring. Gray sunshine streams through a chink like water spouting into a sinking ship. Their quiet growling indications of hangovers perhaps. Nausea from my stomach eating itself washes over me. I’m stiff, desperate to pee, and my adrenaline wore off long ago. With nothing left to steal, they leave, their loud truck peeling out of the driveway tearing up the gravel. You can do this. You can do this. I’m like the Little Engine that Could, but it’s not a hill I’m trying to get over. I pull the canvas totes with me to the doorway. The wooden door sticks against the jamb, swollen worse by morning dew and a humid night. I throw my weight into it, and it gives way to blinding light. Those creeps drove me underground and (probably) killed my neighbors. My veneer of safety is shattered like brittle plastic.
My insides tremble again. I heave my totes of food on my shoulder. I’m shaking, slipping in the mud as I make my way to the front door – left open for birds and bugs to explore. I shut the door behind me and lock the deadbolt, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I survey my trashed house. Bottles everywhere, couch pillows on the floor, pictures removed – looking for a safe, I guess. I step into my luxurious bathroom, and the aroma assaults me. With the water off, one of them took a dump in my otherwise pristine toilet. I’m talking a bread loaf-sized deposit. It’s disgusting. And they had the audacity to take every scrap of toilet paper. I’ve got to get the water and power back on. I’ve got to do something to feel normal again, but I wish I had some toilet paper – it’s such a simple thing. If I just had the damn toilet paper, maybe I’d feel less violated, more normal. I shut the bathroom door and slump to the hallway floor. I hug my knees to my chest, but can’t find comfort.
Maybe I’ll have to check out the Cochran’s place sooner than later.
Melissa Rose Rogers writes speculative fiction (sometimes light but sometimes dark) and is a recent transplant to the Mile High City with her husband, daughters, and furbabies. Board games and ice cream make her smile. She would rather be scuba diving and has weird dreams.
During the pandemic, she has focused on growing a second child, and adjusting her baking for high altitude.