“Braeberry Street” by Erin Stocks Rubin
(EPUB | MOBI)

Jimmy runs a mental checklist. A small propane camping stove and matches. Three five-gallon drums of water and a grocery bag of freeze-dried food packets. A flashlight, first aid kit with children’s Tylenol, tarps and garbage bags. Extra clothes. It’s taken him weeks of creeping around, sneaking out of the house to the Army surplus store and the grocery and the pharmacy and piling boxes in the basement. His mother never goes downstairs, so he’s been able to store up about a month’s worth of supplies.

He pulls a baseball cap down on his head and sits down on the porch. It’s hot as hell today, but he needs to see the neighbor woman from next door. He feels restless when he goes too long without seeing her, discomfort tickling his skin like an invisible hair. Last night, he dreamed about her, that he was able to save her and Rusty from what was about to happen. It was the best dream he’s had since the voices began.

* * *

The realtor told me the summers here were merciless. Even my guts feel cooked through, but that’s the whiskey, not the heat. I throw off the covers and sit up, my head spinning. Sam is sprawled beside me, one leg dangling off the bed, a pool of sweat in the small of his back, and I think of our sticky skin slapping together last night. The air conditioning must have shut off before that, and neither of us noticed.

I walk to the bathroom and splash water on my face. My puffy eyes are the price of apathy, for believing that alcohol-induced affection could save my marriage. It’s easier to live like that, at least until the morning after.

Sam groans from the bedroom. “Go turn on the air, will you?”

Without bothering to dress, I walk downstairs and lower the thermostat. The air doesn’t click on.

“Leigh!”

I bang on the gauge, and the plastic casing drops to the floor. Nothing irks me more than when Sam shouts my name as if I’ve behaved badly, or I’m a dog to come running at the sound of his voice. When I confronted him about it last week, like Dr. Edwards recommended, Sam said he never means it that way. But he still hasn’t changed his tone.

“Leigh, look outside! On the street!”

The air conditioning whirs to life for a cruel second then dies again. The realtor was a liar; this house is a piece of crap, an imitation of Wright architecture slapped together to up the value of the property, just like I’d feared when I saw the neighboring ranch with its dumpy lawn and peeling paint. But it hadn’t been hard for the realtor to persuade me that the intermittently working fridge was my imagination, the vibration of the glass dividing wall between the living room and study was a fluke, and the leaking of the downstairs toilet was an easy fix. This was supposed to be our fresh start, to bring Sam and me closer together.

My head throbs and I reach for my stash of pills in the cabinet.

“What do you think it is?” Sam hollers.

I stomp over to the window and yank up the kitchen blinds. One of the top wooden slats twists the wrong way and cracks, dangling from the raised blinds. Piece of shit house.

* * *

“I’m too tired to play.”

Jimmy runs his hand over his brother’s bald head. “Maybe we should ask your girlfriend down the street to come over. I bet you’ll want to play then.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend.” Rusty cradles his new toy truck as if it’s a bird with a broken wing or a pet rabbit. Maybe Jimmy should have gotten his brother an animal instead. Something with movement and energy, something that would make Rusty laugh, and forget about the handful of pills he has to swallow every day or the continuous doctor visits.

“Isn’t he a little young?” Jimmy’s mother sits down on the porch beside them. “I can barely handle the thought of you dating.” Her mouth works an unlit cigarette like a piece of gum, and she cups her hands around her lighter.

“Can I have one of those?” Jimmy asks.

Her lips purse as she blows smoke in the other direction. “Not in front of your brother, you can’t.” She flicks the cigarette against the porch railing. “Any hallucinations lately?”

“I’m fine, Mom.” He threw his refill prescription in the trash can at school yesterday. No point in taking his meds when the world is going to end. At least, that’s what the voices say, although he’s still not sure if he’s supposed to hear them. They never answer when he asks them questions.

“Go play with your truck, Rusty,” his mother says. “Jimmy got it for you as a special present.”

Rusty carries the truck over to the sandbox, and his mother hands Jimmy her cigarette. He puts the cigarette to his lips and inhales deep into his lungs, then hands it back.

“The kid’s got less energy today,” his mother says. “I don’t know why. Maybe he didn’t sleep well.”

“When’s his next appointment?”

“Tomorrow.” His mother presses the butt of the cigarette against the side of the porch and tosses it into the dirt where it joins a dozen others like wrinkled worms. Jimmy tries to pick them up at least once a week, but stockpiling the basement has kept him busy. “Maybe you can watch him after school? Your boss will understand. He’s got kids.”

Of course she would ask that. First it was “Jimmy, can you get a job to help me make ends meet,” and now “Jimmy, take time off to babysit, but I still need some of your paycheck.” He likes his job at the gas station, and he doesn’t want to lose it because of babysitting. Organizing the stock room, labels on the soda bottles facing the same way, cigarettes stacked alphabetically, boxes of gum and candy sorted by name of manufacturing company. When Jimmy calls the old people ma’am and sir and offers to pump their gas, they tip him.

His favorite thing is when the next-door neighbor pulls in to fuel her Jeep, always at pump number three. She swipes a card from the black purse she carries, crosses her arms under her breasts, and glares at the ticking numbers. She always seems mad. What would make her happy? Jimmy doesn’t think it’s as simple as a complimentary car wash with her gas purchase. He’s almost talked to her before, too, but just as he’s figuring out what to say, the pump clicks, and she drives away.

“If you can’t,” his mother continues, “I can always ask our hoity-toity neighbor.”

She isn’t hoity-toity, she’s lonely and sad. But Jimmy just nods, and says, “I’ll ask for the time off.”

“Great.” His mother coughs a raspy hack. “Can you watch him today, too? I need to go out for a while.” She lights another cigarette.

Jimmy rests his elbows on his knees. There’s still no sign of the neighbor woman, and it’s nearly noon. Did she leave for the day? He can’t save her if she’s not next door.

The blinds in the window lift, revealing a pair of boobs. Jimmy stares.

“Look!” Rusty climbs out of the sandbox and points down the street in the opposite direction. “What’s that thing?”

Jimmy looks away and rearranges his dick before he stands up, hoping his mother doesn’t notice.

* * *

I drop the blinds a minute too late. “Fuck!” The kid shouldn’t be staring right in our window. At least his mom didn’t see me.

But there was something else outside, too, and I walk around to the large picture window in the living room for a better look through the curtains.

A white oval shape maybe six feet high and five feet across sits in the middle of the street, directly in front of my house. It looks like a giant egg, narrow on top and thickening out at the bottom, with a hard, unblemished surface. Some of the neighbors are gathering around it: the Smiths, a few men I recognize but don’t know by name, that trashy blond woman who lives down the street.

Sam bounds down the stairs two at a time. “What do you think it is?”

I watch the trashy blonde flirt with Alan Smith. She flips her bouncy curls that aren’t natural, just like the rest of her, and Alan laughs. At least she flirts with all the married men of the neighborhood, not just Sam. I want to go outside and tell her what I think about that. Dr. Edwards would tell me to do it — she thinks I’m all talk and no action. I’ll prove her wrong, some other day when I have more energy, when it’s not so hot and I don’t feel depressed. “The air’s broken. We should call someone.”

“It’s a Sunday.” Sam’s eyes flicker over me before he turns away. “There’s nobody to call.”

His indifference to my nudity makes me want to grab the curtains and wrap them around myself. “Isn’t there an emergency number? It’s over ninety degrees in here.” Maybe I should tell him the neighbor boy saw my breasts. Every time I see the kid he stares at me like I’m the most amazing thing ever.

“It’s air conditioning, Leigh.” The tone of Sam’s voice implies that I should get over it. He walks out the front door. I fume for a few minutes, then run upstairs and throw on some clothes.

By the time I make it outside, nearly everyone from the block stands in the street, chatting and laughing with those they know well, or smiling politely at those they don’t, like me. My agoraphobia—or what I prefer to think of as moving-to-a-new-town-syndrome—blooms and I fumble for a pill, but there aren’t any in the pair of jeans I’m wearing. Sam stands beside the blond woman, whose tube top and short-shorts are even more obscene up close. I embrace my jealousy, a stimulant in its own right, and walk over to link my arm through Sam’s.

“Anyone figure out what it is?” I ask.

“Funny looking, isn’t it?” The blonde’s voice is as sweet as mine, sticky syrup, a Dallas drawl. Even I can’t take my eyes off her buoyant breasts. Does Sam prefer them over mine? Maybe it’s because mine are accompanied by a sharp tongue and bitter regret.

Sam drops my arm and walks up to the egg.

“Don’t touch it,” I say.

He places both hands on it, palms down, and leans his ear close to the shell. “Wait, I hear something. A chirping sound.”

The murmuring around us quiets. Heads turn, and other people lean towards the white surface.

Sam laughs. “Nah, I don’t hear anything.” He winks at the blonde. “I’ll bet its some kind of college prank. Initiation thing.”

“There’s steam rising off it,” another man remarks.

The blonde arches a dark eyebrow. “It’s a million degrees out here. We’re all steaming.”

My upper lip beads with sweat, and I wipe it off. I’ve never been much for premonitions, but I suddenly feel I am going to lose Sam to this woman. Even if he drops on his knees and proclaims to the world that he wants no other woman but me, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to lose my husband.

* * *

Jimmy’s heart races as the beautiful neighbor woman walks past him into the crowd. She commands attention—the curve of her lips and grace of her movements, sandaled feet hardly touching the grass—a lifetime apart from the overweight lumbering of his mother. He wants to ask her name, but the strange white thing in the street has changed everything. He should get Rusty into the basement as soon as possible, in case the voices were right and this really is the end of the world.

His mother blows a ring of smoke into the air. “Looks like an egg.”

“Rusty, let’s go inside,” Jimmy says. “Want a Popsicle?”

“I want to see the egg!”

“The fresh air is good for him.” His mother wanders down the sidewalk. Jimmy wants to shout what he thinks about her parenting, but there’s no time for anger.

“Rusty, we’re going inside.” He picks his brother up and carries him into the house. His mother doesn’t even notice.

Inside, he grabs Rusty’s chemo pills and the calendar off the kitchen counter. He’d tried to get an additional refill by saying they were going on vacation, but the pharmacist had wanted to confirm it with his mother. Two weeks of pills left in the bottles. Hopefully that would be enough.

“Is it time for my medicine?”

“Not yet.” Jimmy unwraps a Popsicle and hands it to Rusty. “Let’s go downstairs. I want to show you something.”

Satisfied, Rusty slurps on the Popsicle. Jimmy flips the lock on the front door and leads Rusty into the basement.

“Listen,” he says, “this is really important.” He points at the supplies. “These packets and cans are your food, and here’s a can opener. You have to put some water with the food in the packets, but only a tiny bit. That garbage can is to pee and poop in, and there’s lots of toilet paper.”

“Why can’t I go pee upstairs?”

“Because you have to stay down here until I say you can go upstairs.”

“Why?” The half-eaten Popsicle melts off the stick, dripping juice on the basement cement floor. Rusty’s lips are stained red.

“This is the important part.” Jimmy points at the calendar. “On a day colored pink, you take a pink pill, just like you do now. On a day colored yellow, you take a yellow one.” He wants to hug Rusty, but he doesn’t want to scare him. “Don’t forget.”

Rusty begins to cry.

“You stay here until I come back for you. Is that clear?” He slams the door behind him and takes the stairs two at a time as the unpainted Sheetrock walls swallow Rusty’s cries. He should stay in the basement, to save himself, but his mother is still outside and so is the neighbor woman. He can’t leave them out there.

* * *

The blonde makes a paltry excuse about sweating and walks off. I feel triumphant. Agoraphobia be damned; I am powerful and independent in my own right, laying claim to what’s mine.

“That was unnecessary,” Sam says.

“What?”

“Your attitude. She and I were just talking, and you turned all crazy and possessive.”

My self-empowerment deflates. “I’m sorry.” My eyes tear up. I hate that he can be swayed by silicone, that our marriage needs more work than either of us have energy for. I turn my head and casually dry my eyes on my sweaty arm. I should have taken a pill before I left the house.

Heat rises off the pavement. People are touching the smooth white surface of the egg thing, wondering aloud what it is. A kid snaps a picture of it on his cell phone. Sweat trickles down my back. I half-expect my face to start sliding off.

“Let’s go out for brunch.” Sam unexpectedly touches my cheek. “We’ll get out of the house, go some place that’s air conditioned. Louie’s has that Bloody Mary bar on the weekends.” He looks at me in the way I wanted earlier, and my despair slides away so quickly that I forget about the heat.

“I’ll get ready.” I kiss his stubbly cheek. “Fifteen minutes.”

He pats my ass as I leave, and I don’t care that half of our neighbors notice.

Back in the house, I go straight to the liquor cabinet, pour two fingers of bourbon, and toss it back. Warmth hits my belly, but it’s a warmth that calms my jitters and dulls the throb of my head. I pour another and look out the window, just as a jagged crack splits down the center of the egg in the street. A fog-like substance seeps through the crack and trails spindly fingers across the egg’s surface before drifting to the pavement, dissolved into the heat or blown out of sight.

Sam bursts through the front door. My glass slips through my fingers and shatters on the tile. Bourbon splashes on my shoes. I want to yell at Sam for frightening me, but his face is blotchy and red.

“What’s wrong?” I pick up the larger pieces of glass on the floor.

“Nothing.” Sweat drips down Sam’s arms. He rips his shirt off and mops his face with it. His bare torso is covered with tiny red bumps. “Did you see the egg crack open? Nothing in it.”

I set the broken pieces down and put my hands on his shoulders, turning him to face me. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Tiny webbed veins stretch from the corners of his eyes to the rich chocolate of his pupils. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”

He blinks. The veins throb over his irises. “Everything’s fuzzy. Leigh, I can’t see.”

I lead him towards the bathroom. “You must have gotten something in them. We’ll flush them out.”

He’s crying by the time we make it into the sink, no tears, but all the hiccups and sniffles that accompany a full-blown meltdown. I’ve only seen him like this once before, when his twin brother was killed. It frightened me then, to see my steady, happy Sam fall apart. And now —

He splashes water on his face. His crying subsides.

“Better?” I touch his shoulder. His flesh sinks under my fingers like putty, fleshy Play-Doh, and I recoil. He clutches the marbled edges of the vanity pedestal. Veins pop up along his forehead, and he chews on the insides of his mouth. His eyes—pools of blood—meet mine in the mirror, and then he cries out, and runs for the door.

* * *

The living room window offers a clear view of the street, and Jimmy launches himself up on the couch. There’s no sign of the beautiful neighbor woman, but his mother stands there, smoking, and talking with a neighbor.

A crack splits the white surface of the egg. Jimmy surprises himself by pounding on the window.

“Mom! Mom!”

A white fog pours through the crack in the shell. Poison? Some kind of mind-altering chemical? His skin goes cold. His hands start shaking, and he grips the back of the couch to make them stop. He should have told more people about the voices.

Someone bangs on the front door, and he leaps off the couch. His mother waves and points at the door handle. She looks pissed, but he shoves his hands in his pockets. He can’t let her in, not if she was right there when the egg opened, not when she inhaled that fog.

His mother’s lit cigarette falls through her fingers and smolders on the porch. She stumbles back, and her head smacks against the porch railing.

“Mom?” He sets his hand to the door. But no, he can’t open the front door, not with its proximity to the egg. The back door, behind the garage, would be smarter.

When he opens it, a wave of heat blows in. His skin prickles as he runs around the side of the house.

His mother is collapsed against the front door, one leg twisted underneath her. A drop of blood rolls out of the corner of her right eye, and Jimmy’s stomach turns. The porch stairs creak under his weight.

“Mom?”

She turns her head towards him. “Jimmy? I can’t see anything. What’s wrong with my eyes?”

“I don’t know, Mom.” His voice cracks, but he can’t make himself move any closer.

“Please help me.” Her hands are covered in small red bumps. Blood drips from her eyes like tears, and she rakes her nails down her cheeks until strips of tissue hang from her face. Jimmy leans over the railing and vomits into the grass.

* * *

Blood drops trail out the front door. I fumble with the phone until my fingers hit the right buttons for 911, but the line only rings and rings. I try one more time before I stumble to the kitchen cabinet to dry swallow one of my pills. It somehow feels wrong to wash the pill down with booze, so I have another shot after I swallow my pill, and then fill Sam’s flask with whiskey, tuck the flask in the back pocket of my jeans, and follow Sam’s blood trail out the front door.

The egg in the street appears to have hatched. Sunlight reflects off cracked panels of shell scattered around the base. Flecks of blood are spattered across the pavement, as if someone swung a dripping paintbrush back and forth. Across the street, a picture window catches the white eggshell glare and bounces it back in my face.

I shade my eyes. “Sam?” My voice is so high-pitched I’m surprised it came from me. “Sam, can you hear me?”

A man stumbles past me. When I touch his shoulder and ask, “Sir, have you seen Sam?” he spins around. Blood covers his face like a shroud. He scrapes twigs down his cheeks as if there’s an itch behind the skin he’s desperate to reach, and peels back flaps of skin and muscle to reveal a small bluish-gray orb, almost translucent and about the size of my palm. The orb quivers, and emerges through the clinging remains of his face.

The bourbon burns in my gut and threatens to come back up. My eyes cross until I see double: two streets, two bodies lying bloody on the ground, two orbs floating in the air. The two orbs form a helix of gray spirals, and I run.

I pass three houses before the crack of a gunshot makes me drop belly to the sidewalk, arms over my head.

“You want this? Come and get it!” screams a woman.

I peek through the bushes to see the blond in the skimpy tube top on the porch in front of me. She holds a shotgun like she knows what she’s doing, and I hear the click-click of a chamber being loaded.

“I’m just looking for my husband,” I shout.

“Are your eyes bleeding?”

“No. Are yours?”

She laughs. “I can see well enough to shoot you square in the forehead. How’s that?”

I pull myself up. “I can’t find my husband. You were talking to him before. His name is Sam.”

“Yeah, I know who he is.” She props one hip up on the porch railing, her arms cradling the shotgun. “He works with my husband, Benji. I haven’t seen him, though.”

I swallow down the burning in my throat. “You mean you haven’t seen Sam or your husband?”

“I haven’t seen your man, not since this shit started. However,” she lifts the shotgun and points it right at me, “when blood pours out of your eyes and you run straight at me, I draw the line at communication.”

She pulls the trigger.

* * *

Jimmy lies in the grass, shivering. He tastes the cereal he had for breakfast, undigested wheat flakes caught in his teeth. The smells of summer, soil and grass crisped from the heat, are sharp in his nose, but there are no sounds — slamming car doors, kids playing outside on bikes or skateboards, the annoying jingle of the ice cream truck. It’s not his mother collapsed and bloody on the porch or the empty eggshell in the street that has jolted his universe out of orbit — it’s the lack of sound.

He opens one eye and squints at the back of his right hand. No red bumps. He sits up and wipes his eyes on his shirt. No blood. The familiarity of his sweat is calming.

Flap-flap-flap-flap-flap.

A little girl rides down the sidewalk on her tricycle. Yellow playing cards are clothes-pinned to the wheel spokes. Jimmy recognizes her: Taylor Hansen, one of Rusty’s friends.

Flap-flap-flap-flap-flap. She stops her tricycle. “Can I play with Rusty?”

“Where are your parents, Taylor?” There’s a rust-colored handprint on her shoulder, right above the glittery lettering that declares her “Daddy’s Little Princess.”

“Daddy’s at work. Mommy told me to play outside.”

She looks healthy, clear blue eyes, no red bumps on her hands. Jimmy has enough supplies in the basement for her, too, but he can’t bring the girl back into his house without asking her mother, especially if there was a chance Georgia Hansen wasn’t bleeding from the eyes.

“Let’s go ask your mom.”

“Okay.” Taylor wheels back down the sidewalk.

Flap-flap-flap-flap-flap.

Halfway to Taylor’s house, the sidewalk is blocked by a white Buick, engine idling. Jimmy recognizes the elderly widow in the driver’s seat. “Mrs. McGregor?” Her old-person smell wafts through the open window. He instantly feels bad for wrinkling his nose. “Mrs. McGregor?”

There’s a soft popping sound, and Mrs. McGregor’s head opens. Pale yellow and red liquid splashes against the inside the windshield, like a giant pimple.

Taylor cries and clings to his leg.

A bluish thing floats out of the open cavity of Mrs. McGregor’s skull and swims around the inside of the car until it finds the open window and darts out. Jimmy tries to pay attention to which direction it goes, but it dissolves into the air.

It’s one of them, he knows it. The voices. They were hiding in the egg. Maybe there’s one inside his skull, too, growing, festering, biding its time until the pressure is too much for him to bear. If he doesn’t claw his own face off, his skull will crack open like Mrs. McGregor’s.

“Mommy!” Taylor cries.

* * *

I flinch as the shot rings in my ears, but there’s no pain.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“Saving your ass.” The woman nods past me, and I turn to see blood coating the porch railing. A familiar tennis shoe is caught between wooden posts, and a man’s body lies face-down below the porch, crushing the rhododendron bushes that line the house. His bare back is covered in red blotches.

I stagger against the stairs. “You shot my husband!”

“He was going to touch you with his bloody fingers. If he’s contagious, you’d be dead. Is that what you want?”

My vision blurs again. There’s an obnoxious thumping inside of me. I dig in my pockets, but no pills have magically appeared. I can’t remember where I put the flask. My legs shake so hard they knock together.

“Oh, honey. Come inside.” The blond murderer helps me into her house, which smells like dying roses. She guides me down a hall with a terrible pink carpet runner and into a chair at the kitchen table, which looks more like it belongs outside on the patio—wobbly slatted chairs, white plastic legs—than in a dining room.

“Want something to drink? I’ve got sweet tea or coffee. Wasn’t expecting company, you know.”

I stare at the table centerpiece, a bowl of plastic fruit on a round black placemat. Small pink plastic flamingos and miniature cocktail umbrellas are posed around the bowl.

“I know it’s a shock.” The woman wets a towel in the sink and hands it to me. “Now put that on your forehead an’ it’ll help you cool off. See that blood on the floor?”

A wide smear of blood stretches across the kitchen linoleum. The sweet air cloys in my sinuses. I want to go home. I want to take Sam’s body and go home.

“That’s Benji’s blood,” the woman says. “I had to shoot him, too. My own husband.” She slaps me on the back. “Suck it up. Survival is key, survival of the fittest. We’ve got to be a team. There’s no ‘I’ in team, like they say.”

I don’t know what she’s talking about. Who’s a team? Who’s this ‘they’ that said we have to be a team?

She rummages through a cupboard and pulls out a packet of gum. “What’s your name?”

“Leigh,” I manage.

She pops a square of pink gum in her mouth. “I’m Reba. Now where was that box of shells?” She snaps her gum, and I smell the faint scent of watermelon. “We’re lucky, Leigh, you and me. When Benji reached out for me with those bloody hands, I just knew he was up to no — ”

She prattles on, and I shift on my chair, which reminds me where I’d stashed the flask. I pull it out of my hip pocket and drink until my brain grows comfortably foggy while Reba bustles around the kitchen with an air of domesticity that doesn’t fit her appearance. She takes down two mugs from the cupboard and is just reaching for the coffeepot when I return the flask to my pocket and stumble back outside, moving unsteadily down the steps and around the house.

Sam’s body is nearly unrecognizable. I want to feel in his shorts pocket for his wallet, just in case, but I’m certain it’s him; I recognize his height, his dark, curly hair now crusted over with blood, his athletic body that hasn’t yet revealed our liquor indulgences but would have eventually, because both his dad and grandpa have beer bellies.

“It’s a crying shame, just like Benji.” Reba leans over a blood-free portion of the railing and takes aim down the street with the shotgun. “But that’s the closest I’m letting any of them get to us again.”

I crouch down beside Sam’s body. I want her to go away. I also want to cry, but my eyes are dry. “Just go away.”

“Think about it, girlie. Have you seen any other un-bloody people since that egg thing opened up? It’s just me and you. We need to get the hell out of Dodge.”

I look down at Sam’s blood-covered fingers. Did he really think we could make it work, moving to Montgomery? I can’t even remember the last time I told him I loved him. He said it to me a week ago, after I yelled at him for forgetting to call me when he worked late. I was already asleep and he came upstairs and kissed me, whispering to me that he loved me, but I was still so angry that I pretended to be asleep. Finally, he gave that tired sigh he always does when he’s really exhausted and left me alone.

I reach for his left hand.

Reba shoves me away so hard that I fall. “What are you doing?” She snaps her gum again. “Don’t touch him.”

“I need his wedding ring.”

“Sweetie, if you touch him, I’m going to have to kill you, too.”

A wave of emotion washes over me, so intense that I can’t identify it. Anxiety? Maybe rage. I’m surprisingly calm for what’s just happened.

“Back off.” I say. “This is my husband. You killed my husband.”

“Then fine. You can face them all by yourself.”

“Face who?”

“Everyone else,” Reba says. “Here they come.”

* * *

Taylor’s mom stumbles down the sidewalk. Jimmy remembers the first time he saw her: tight jeans, long, straight hair, a big, open smile. A mom who didn’t let herself go the way his own mother did. And despite Georgia Hansen not letting Taylor play at their house anymore, she was always friendly to him when he’d pick Rusty up, never talking down to Jimmy, or looking at him like he was a failure.

The last time he saw her, she didn’t have welts across her face, scraped deep by manicured fingers.

He grabs for Taylor, but the little girl slips through his hands and runs into her mother’s open arms. Georgia Hansen’s face holds relief at seeing her daughter, the need to protect, to soothe fears and ease childish worries more important than the blood seeping from her eyes.

Jimmy feels hollow inside. His own mother begged him to help her. She didn’t ask if he was okay, or if Rusty was hurt. She’d only cared about herself.

“Mommy, what’s wrong with your eyes?”

Georgia Hansen leans heavily on her child. Her fingers dig into Taylor’s shoulders.

“Don’t give in.” Jimmy meets her eyes above Taylor’s head. “Your daughter needs you.”

Georgia Hansen pushes Taylor away. Her eyes flutter back in her head, and she pulls out her hair with terrible ripping sounds, scattering brown locks across the grass. Taylor screams, and throws herself at her mother as Georgia Hansen tears her own head apart with inhuman strength.

The sun is too bright for Jimmy to see the bluish shimmer of air but he knows it’s there. It made Georgia Hansen do this to herself. Just like Mrs. McGregor. Just like his mother.

He’s not sure why he’s still alive. Maybe because he was inside his house when the egg hatched. He still has a chance.

A shotgun blast sings out from down the street.

Taylor keeps screaming. Her little hands are covered with small red bumps, and Jimmy backs away slowly, quietly, keeping his eyes fixed on the sidewalk. It’s too late for her.

He’s got to stay alive for Rusty.

* * *

We creep down the porch stairs and press our backs up against the side of her garage. Reba squints down the barrel of the shotgun. “It was that egg thing, wasn’t it. Maybe chemical warfare. A terrorist attack on Braeberry Street.”

I flinch as she pulls the trigger. The street is already littered with our neighbors: three, five, eight bodies. They come down the street for help, eyes watering blood, calling out blindly, and Reba killed them all. Self-defense. They could be contagious. It was the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

Neither one of us want to leave. Reba doesn’t want to leave her house. I don’t want to leave Sam’s body.

I reach for the flask in my pocket. Dr. Edwards says men drink to have courage, and women drink for consolation. I drink because it animates me, because it makes me move.

I take a long pull, and then offer her the flask. “Want some?”

“Fuck, yeah.” She hands me the shotgun, takes the flask, and drinks for at least five seconds. “I’m in AA. Had my third meeting last night.”

I hug the shotgun to my chest because I don’t know how else to hold it. The barrel is all smooth ridges and even lines, warmed by Reba’s hands and the hot sun. I feel safer with it close to me, an explosive teddy bear, a weaponized security blanket.

“It’s time to go,” I say. “One stop, first.”

I climb in the passenger side and set the shotgun between us. Reba backs the truck out of the driveway, and it rolls over something lumpy. There’s a Thelma-and-Louise vibe to it all, or maybe we’re Bonnie-and-Clyde, with the gunned-down bodies in the street.

Gunned-down bodies. Speed bumps. That’s all they are.

“You live in that boxy house, right?” Reba asks.

My Prairie masonry house. Maybe if I hadn’t naively thought a move would save my marriage, this would never have happened. We wouldn’t be living here. Sam wouldn’t be dead.

“It’s not boxy,” I snap.

“Could be worse, you know,” she says mildly, and pulls into the driveway next to my Jeep. “At least you didn’t have to kill your own husband.”

I meet Reba’s eyes, which are blue — not the pretty kind of blue that poets compare to the sky or sea, but watery and pale, an insignificant blue, and her bronze eyeliner makes them appear even lighter. The circles under her eyes are smeared over with makeup a shade too dark, which wasn’t visible outside but is obvious inside the truck. She bites her lower lip and looks away, unable to hold my gaze, and I realize she’s terrified. She’s killed her husband and mine, and a dozen other people bleeding from the eyes. This is the end of the world for her, no matter what.

Suddenly, I’m not scared anymore.

I hold up the flask. “Any requests?”

“Whiskey works, if you’ve got it.” The lines around Reba’s mouth soften. “Don’t be long, Leigh. I’ll get us out of this.”

It’s a furnace inside the house. I throw clean underwear, T-shirts, and a flashlight in a bag, and then add my toothbrush, toothpaste, and some Vicodin from Sam’s knee surgery a few months ago. I don’t think about Sam’s death, or anything that has to do with my marriage. Dr. Edwards once suggested I suffered from disassociation. Right now I’m grateful for that.

I refill the flask. On the way out, I stomp on the plastic gauge cover of the air conditioner for good measure.

* * *

The blonde woman points the gun at him. “Leigh!” she hollers.

Jimmy raises his hands. “Look at me. I’m not sick.”

“Put the gun down, Reba. He’s my neighbor.” The neighbor woman walks out her front door, and tosses a bag in the truck. “You okay, kid?”

Jimmy’s heart leaps in his chest. Leigh. Her name is Leigh. She’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, sweat-darkened hair clinging to red cheeks, green eyes narrowed at him. The low pitch of her voice hums in his ears. He’s suddenly happier than he can remember being in a long time.

“Get in the truck.” The blonde woman hops back in the truck. “Now.”

Jimmy mouths her name again. It’s perfect for her; simple, yet delicate, and iron-strong beneath the surface. The tip of his tongue against his back teeth, lingering on the letter ‘l,’ feels almost sensual.

“Get in the truck, kid,” Leigh echoes.

Jimmy thinks of Rusty, alone and crying in the basement. All those supplies, all the time and money he spent in getting them together. “We should stay here. I have stuff in my basement; food, water, lots of supplies. And my brother’s down there.”

Leigh turns to Reba. “Maybe we should talk about staying — ”

“No,” Reba says shortly. “We’re leaving. Kid — ”

“It’s Jimmy,” he says.

“Jimmy, go back to your house and go inside.” Reba lowers the shotgun, and Leigh leans through the window. The two women talk for a moment, and Leigh turns back to him.

“Jimmy, you and your brother can come with us, but we need your supplies. Got it?”

His shoulders relax. He doesn’t have to leave Leigh.

“We can carry everything in a few trips.” He leads the women around his house to the back door, overly conscious of Leigh standing behind him. He’s taller than her, although his arms and legs are skinnier. Does she notice that he’s sweaty? He hopes he doesn’t smell.

Rusty jumps on him as soon as he opens the door, and Jimmy hugs his brother back.

“Bro, we need to carry the stuff downstairs to the truck outside. Want to help?”

Rusty starts to cry. “Don’t make me go down there anymore.”

“You don’t have to. Not anymore.”

“You were keeping him in the basement?” Leigh asks.

Jimmy’s face grows hot. Her tone of voice is the same as his mother’s the last time he admitted he’d stopped his meds.

Rusty wipes his nose. “Why does that lady have a gun?”

Leigh makes a waving gesture, and Reba hides the gun behind her.

“What gun? There’s no gun.” The blond backs away. “I’m gonna raid the kitchen. Maybe we should take some food or something.”

“I have food already,” Jimmy calls out, but she disappears around the corner.

“Where’s the supplies?” Leigh asks.

“Rusty, wait here, okay?” Jimmy opens up the basement door, and the smell of urine meets them at the bottom of the stairs. Leigh wrinkles her nose and Jimmy immediately feels bad, although he knows he shouldn’t. Rusty’s alive because of him.

“Wow.” Leigh picks up a bag of food packets. “What made you get all this together?”

He opens his mouth to tell her about the voices, but she interrupts him.

“Do you have a tent?”

“A two-person.”

“Grab it. And some extra blankets, and the sharpest knives you’ve got. I’ll come back for the rest.” She disappears back upstairs with the food and several jugs of water.

He’s disappointed, but it’s okay. He’ll tell her about the voices when this is over. She’ll understand him, too, in a way no one’s every understood him before. She’ll love him the way he loves her.

He rummages under the couch for the tent. He’s sweating more than normal — has the air conditioning shut off? Maybe there’s not enough ventilation in the basement. It’s a good thing they’re not going to stay down here after all. He pulls the tent out and wipes his face on his sleeve, smearing a streak of red across his arm.

No.

A buzzing begins inside his head, like a radio frequency gone wrong. The bottom of his right foot itches, and he ignores it until it’s so aggravating that he sits back on the floor, rips off his shoe and sock and scrapes his bare foot with a tent pole.

His eyes sweat big red drops, but he blinks them away. The itch on his foot travels up his leg and across his chest until it reaches his face, which begins to throb like a mosquito bite. He reaches up to scratch it, then remembers the strips of skin hanging off his mother’s face.

He can’t touch his face.

He puts the tent peg back in the canvas bag, and swings the tent up on his shoulder. Toothpaste. That’s what his mother does with mosquito bites. She squeezes toothpaste over the bumps and tells him to leave it alone.

Rusty and Leigh need him. He can’t touch his face.

Jimmy hurries up the stairs to the bathroom to find the toothpaste.

* * *

I put the water and food in the back of Reba’s truck, and then hop in the driver’s side and drive over the dead grass right up to the back door of Jimmy’s house, since there’s a bloody body on the porch. The kids don’t need the last memory of their chain-smoking mother to be her corpse smashed up bloody against the front door.

The younger brother wanders out the back door, and I hop out of the truck and grab his arm before he gets too far. The skin in the inner crease of his elbows is purpled and mottled, as if he’d been shooting up. Injection marks. His bald head glistens in the light, but he’s cool and clammy. He’s sick with something.

I loosen my grip on his thin arm, but don’t let him go. “I’m Leigh. What’s your name?”

“Rusty.”

“Rusty, let’s get you buckled in, and then I’ll get Jimmy. We’re going to go on a fun trip together.” I pick him up, carry him around to the passenger side, and fasten him in before it occurs to me that I should have put him in the back seat. Is he too old for a car seat? I don’t know anything about kids. I’ve never been good with them, which hasn’t been a problem because I’ve never liked them much either.

Sam wants kids. For some reason, he thinks I’ll be a good mother. I can overprotect them instead of him, he’s said more than once. I’ll never hear the end of it when he sees me with this kid.

Heat waves radiate off the interior black panels of the truck. I lean over the kid to start the ignition and turn on the air.

“I’ll be right back, Rusty. Sit tight.” I close the door, careful to avoid little fingers, and head back towards the house.

The air conditioning sends a prickle down my spine when I open the door, a shiver against the hot wash of heat from outside.

“Reba? Jimmy?” There’s nobody around, but I hear bottles clinking, somewhere, and I follow the sounds through the laundry room—T-shirts and jeans and towels thrown on the floor—into the kitchen, where Reba stands in front of an open cabinet. The gun rests on the countertop next to her.

“Reba?”

She swallows quickly, and smiles at me with glistening lips. “Leigh.” She holds up a gin bottle in a mock toast.

“You’re drinking their booze?”

She scratches the back of her hand. “Can you blame me?”

“We need to get out of here.”

“There’s not much good stuff here anyway. Empty bottles.” Her eyes dart behind me. “What’s on your face, kid?”

I spin around to see Jimmy standing in the doorway. His face is chalky and white, as if he’s smeared on sunscreen but didn’t rub it in.

“He’s got it.” Her lips tremble. “Oh my god, Leigh, do you know what this means?” Reba makes a gulping sound, and slams the bottle down on the counter. “Hidden symptoms.”

My mouth goes dry. I think of the red veins throbbing in Sam’s eyes.

“Shut up, Reba.” I don’t take my eyes off Jimmy. “Stay where you are, Jimmy. Tell us what’s on your face.”

He takes a step back. “I forgot the tent. It’s still downstairs. I have to get it.”

“Don’t move!”

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” Reba says matter-of-factly. “Never did.”

“Reba, shut up!” I grab the gun off the counter, just as a trickle of blood leaks down her cheek.

“Leigh, her eyes,” Jimmy whispers.

Red tears blot out Reba’s pale blue eyes. “Christ, I knew it.” She scratches her forehead. The back of her hand is riddled with red bumps. “I should have killed you the minute I saw you, Leigh, like everybody else. If not you, then the scrawny kid, although I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore. I just didn’t want to go through this by myself. It’s easier when someone else is there, you know?”

The gun feels heavier in my arms than it did moments ago. I try to aim the muzzle at her, but my arms shake so much I can’t see straight.

“I hate pain.” She gives a short laugh. “Do it quick, before it’s too late.”

I pull the gun into my shoulder until it hurts.

Reba scrapes pink fingernails down her cheeks. “Do it!” she screams. “Do it!”

I squeeze the trigger. The shotgun kicks back into my collarbone. The sound of the blast races through my ears like water, in and out, leaving an ache behind, and I close my eyes, just for a moment, until I remember Jimmy.

He’s huddled against the washing machine in the entryway behind me. If I let him get too close, I know the thirsty drops of blood in his eyes will infect me, too.

I lift the gun and point it at him.

“I have to take care of you,” he pleads. “You and Rusty. I can save you.”

My finger freezes on the trigger. I hear Sam’s heavy feet thudding down the stairs and my own startled curses, and I fumble at the blinds while a teenage boy stares at my breasts through my kitchen window. The same boy whimpering before me.

I try to drop the gun, but my hands have a death grip on the barrel, and I run past Jimmy, outside into the heat. Behind me, he screams out something about voices and taking pills, but its too late for me to help him anymore, and I jump into the truck, and shift the truck into gear. The gearshift catches on reverse just as my foot slams on the gas, and we back straight into the porch of Jimmy’s house.

Rusty and I jerk forward at the impact. My head bangs on the steering wheel, and Rusty wails. The shotgun slides between the door and the seat.

Jimmy’s white face pops up next to my window. I scream and scream, and Jimmy beats his fists on my closed window. Blood cuts scarlet lines down his white face. Rusty’s cries are as piercing as my screams.

I pull myself together and stop screaming long enough to put my seatbelt on, shift the truck into drive, and peel out on the grass, the tires carving deep lines in the dry sod. My eyes stray to the rearview mirror in time to see Jimmy’s head crack down the middle. Flesh peels back like a banana. I press my foot on the gas and my seatbelt cuts into my chest as the truck jumps forward.

Calm, Leigh, calm. I am calm. I think calm thoughts, about a peaceful sea or a quiet sunset. Peaceful, pleasant thoughts, until the urge to scream has eased.

“It’s okay, Rusty. Everything will be okay,” I say, although I need another pill if I’m going to stay calm, and I can’t remember if I’ve packed any. My breath is tight in my chest, burning, aching, like I have asthma. But it doesn’t matter, because I can get pills at any pharmacy. Besides, Dr. Edwards said I didn’t need them as much as I thought I did. I am strong without them. I am strong. I am calm.

I repeat these things aloud, over and over. My chest loosens, and my breathing comes easier.

Rusty is still crying as I turn off Braeberry Street. Highway 80 will take us into the country, and the truck has more than enough gas to get us out of the state. Sam once insisted we take a drive this way a few months ago — I remember leafy trails overgrown with scratchy thorns and roots and pollen-filled yellow flowers that gave me a migraine; I’ve never been much of an outdoors girl. Then again, I’ve never held a gun before today, and it feels like the most natural thing I could do right now. That, and taking care of the sniffling boy beside me. He needs me. He has no one else.

Sam thinks I’ll be a good mother. Maybe he’s right. I hope he likes Rusty.

“Don’t cry, Rusty. We’ll be okay.”

I stop at the red light before the highway even though the truck is the only vehicle in the intersection. The light turns green. Rusty’s warm hand slips into mine, and I turn to look at him. A pinprick of blood wells up in the inner corner of his right eye, a perfect scarlet tear.

I press my foot to the gas, and the shotgun teeters on my knee. The little boy’s hand is warm in mine.


Erin Stocks Rubin is a graduate of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her work has been published in Polluto, Innsmouth Free Press, and the Coeur de Lion anthology Anywhere but Earth.
Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • MySpace
  • Posterous
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Technorati
  • Tumblr
  • Twitter
  • Add to favorites