“I knew my parents were heading for a divorce before they did,” Ashlee said in the darkness, “but they held onto the wreckage trying to keep us all together. If it had been just Chad, my older brother and me, I think they would have still bailed but when I was ten mom forgot to take her pill or dad forgot to pull out, or maybe they just thought they were too old to have another kid, but mom turned up pregnant. They were both in their late thirties at that time so I considered them ancient and my brother was already in High School. Chad left a month after graduation and joined the Navy. He came back a couple of times after that, he was home for Christmas, but he fell off a boat somewhere in the Pacific and we never saw him again. Sorry, your brother fell off a boat, and that’s that, but that was how it was. That seems so odd. Cause of death: Fell off a boat. Dennis was just five at the time. I was in High School but Dennis was already the kid everyone was paying attention to.” Ashlee proper herself up on one elbow. “Am I boring you to death? Do you really want to hear this?”
“Yes” is all Frankie could say, “I mean I want to hear it.”
“Dennis was a strange kid.” Ashlee continued. “He couldn’t learn to read or write, and he spoke in bursts, not babble or anything like that, but there seemed to be days he could talk and there were other days it seemed like he wanted to talk but nothing was there anymore. It was like he had the ability every third day or something like that. He broke things. All of our windows were boarded up before he was out of diapers. He threw things at windows, mirrors, and he threw anything that would break. He cut the shit out of himself one time with a broken bottle and after that we stopped buying anything that could break. Dad had to get Plexiglas for the windows. We ate off plates made out of metal. I mean, there were nice looking but when company came over there we were with our metal plates and heavy duty plastic drinking glasses. Mostly, when it was just us we used paper plates and those red cups. I had to put a padlock on my bedroom door to keep him out. I think they would have split up even if Dennis would have been normal, or even partially so, but having a kid around that, you know, we had to keep him doped up most of the time. Either that or have someone sitting right there with him to keep him from destroying something. We got good, I mean damn good, at hooking up the television and DVD player so we could watch movies. That kind of stuff Dennis would demolish before you could get to him. So we stashed it in my room, or in the garage, a place we kept him out of because of the cars, and when his meds kicked in we’d drag everything out and then after the movie stash it back again. We were like a pit crew with electronics. I got a job at Best Buy because of that kid. I could install anything in less than a minute.
Mom took us out for ice cream one day, it was a year to the date that Chad went missing, and I knew that they both had lawyers and I knew they were trying to figure it out. But mom told us, told Dennis really, that they had come to an agreement, it was really strange she had put it that way. And that she was going to take Dennis and go live with grandma for a while, and I was going to stay with dad ( they didn’t bother to ask, they just knew I wasn’t going to change schools this late in life) and I was watching Dennis when she told him. I wondered if he would know what she was saying. He did. I saw it in his face. He looked at me and said, perfectly, “I did this to us didn’t I?” and I had to leave. I just got up and walked out and kept walking. I sat down in someone’s yard and just lost it. Here this kid is, a host of issues no one even knew how to address, and now he’s blaming himself for a divorce. I knew he would never be right after that.
I called mom on my cell and told her I was walking home and she knew better than to try to stop me. She had to try to put that fire out that she had set in that kid’s mind but we both knew all the ice cream on earth wouldn’t help. I saw a sign advertising a yard sale so I walked over to it and it was this tiny run down house that had like a billion racks of clothes in the even smaller yard. All of the clothes were kids’ clothes, but there was only one kid around. There were three adults there, one guy who looked about twenty who also looked stoned out of his mind, a woman that was about his age, twice his weight, and covered with homemade tattoos, like she had fallen into a pit with needles and ink while having a seizure. And there was an older woman, I’m guessing the inked up girl’s mother, who was just as fat, and she didn’t stop talking the entire time I was there. All three were smoking, and there was this little girt running around and she kept pulling on the handlebar of a Harley that was propped up on a tree. There was a sign there that said, “Best offer” but I could tell the guy wasn’t really trying to sell it. A guy came up and looked at it and the owner guy told him, ‘Ain’t no fuckin’ reason to take it for a test drive if you ain’t gonna buy it,’ and the grandma screamed at him, ‘Give that boy the goddam keys, Freddie, you let him drive if he fuckin’ wants to” and they talked this way, screaming at each other, about everything. The little girl was pulling on the handbars and the other guy just walked off without test driving, which was what the owner wanted, I’m sure, but then the smell hit me. The smell of dog urine was coming out of the house once the younger woman brought out a fan. So all three of them say on the front porch steps, crowed around like some sort of weird animals trying to stay warm even though it was already hot as hell. They were all smoking, all of them were screaming at each other, cussing, screaming at the little girl, and I just walked off. That was just four years ago. I decided right then and there I was going to go to school, get good grades, and find a way to make a life that never included having kids. Most girls want to go on a cruise or go to the beach or Disney or something on graduation. I decided to have a hysterectomy.”
Ashlee sat up and put her hand out in the darkness and found Frankie. “That’s why I never want to have kids.”
They sat in silence and waited. There was no point in worry or nervous talk and they knew it. Finally, Ashlee spoke again, “You think you would have done the 2.5 kids and a dog in the suburbs with Wes?”
“Yeah” Frankie was surprised she admitted it. “The band was the only thing I ever did off the tracks. My high school boyfriend was killed in a wreck, I told you that...”
“…and after that I just kinda went along for the ride. When I was a little kid I was an only child so I spent a lot of time playing alone. They put me through piano lessons but they never took. I always was good at singing I just never thought I was good enough. Until now. That one gig in Valdosta made me start thinking that maybe we were, maybe I was, or maybe just plain luck would pull us through. I felt alive again. Playing in front of that many people did something to me and something for me. Now it’s gone. How many people do you think are left, Ashlee?”
“If what Randall said is true then there won’t be many survivors.” She sighed. “I hated that son of a bitch but he was hardly ever wrong. We have to believe him when he said don’t go back for two years.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“But we do have to plan for it.” Ashlee continued. “We have to think that someday we’ll have to walk out of this place, maybe do the sixty miles back to the last crossroads and see what’s left there. I mean, who knows? Maybe whatever it was, the ‘bioweapon’ left some people in some places and that might be one of them. It’s remote enough.”
Ashlee felt Frankie get up and move around the bedroom. The heat wouldn’t kick on until the temperature dropped below zero for an hour. It was incredibly cold, always, but they knew the fuel had to be saved for those days it was cold enough to kill them. Above them, they had firewood stacked up inside the cabin they hoped would get them through a month, maybe even longer, but the wood was green and freshly cut so they hoped to not use it until the next winter. Both women knew the edge between life and death was thinner than a razor’s.
Frankie had always liked to sing and Ashlee encouraged her. In the darkness, Frankie would singer to Ash, and Ashlee would in turn write songs for her to sing. But the days were filled with woods cutting, sawing, chopping, measuring the snow, and trying to find food that would supplement their meager supplies. Each night it got colder and colder. The frost on the walls of the cabin became thicker and they knew as soon as they used up the fuel for the heaters they would die. Yet the basement of the cabin was thickly insulted from the story above it. The ground kept most of the cold out and there were no windows. As bad as it was, they both knew as long as it didn’t get below freezing, and stay there for a very long time, they would survive. December fled before the cold wind and snow and January fell in behind it. January was a frozen hell for both women but they saw February come, and then slowly go, and they had hardly used any of the fuel at all. March blew in and they began to wonder if Spring had died along with the rest of the human population, but then one day the sun came out and as they tried to shovel a path to the outhouse, the y felt the first real warmth of the year.
Still, winter fought back and it was the last part of April before they were truly able to move around the outside of the cabin. They saw their first bear a week later.