I stepped onto the churned pavement, the street crowded with old cars. The faint call of a crow sounded in the distance. I hitched the shotgun higher on my shoulder, and started down the ruined suburban street. Suddenly, zombies emerged, gnashing their teeth and groaning at me. They clambered over abandoned cars and pushed through hedges, their moaning reaching a crescendo. My pulse quickened. They were close enough for me to see the gore on their mouths. I punched the x button with my thumb, sighting the nearest zombie in my scope and blowing its head off. I twitched the joystick, turning to kill the zombie behind me. Too late! It bit my arm and infected me. “Game Over” flashed on the screen as my character bled out. I lifted the game visor and unbuckled the seat belt, feeling woozy from the simulator. The arcade was practically empty at ten o’clock on a Wednesday, except for a guy in the corner playing an ancient game. The smell of B.O, stale cigarette smoke, and nachos filled my nose.
It was freezing outside and a blast of cold air hit me as I shoved my hands in my pockets. By this time Dad should be at work, I can go back home and he won’t even know I played hooky from school. I started to head home, passing a bunch of seedy bars and their sleazy patrons along the way. I liked hanging out in the rougher parts of town; why not frequent dangerous places if anywhere can be dangerous at a moment’s notice? The arcade is far from home and a long walk, but I can’t stand driving anymore. The sky was grey and overcast, and as I walked, a few rain drops hit my head. I could see the sign for my street ahead and lengthened my stride. I would sleep for a couple hours and maybe go online. The five storey walk-up was close and I fumbled for the keychain my mom gave me. The front entrance of the building always smelled like cat urine. Mrs. Chen would walk her four cats and let them pee there every morning. Dad tried complaining to the superintendent, but he just muttered something about “no proof” and “oldest resident” until my dad just gave up.
I unlocked our door and flipped on the light to reveal the mess that was our living room and kitchen. Dirty plates were piled in the sink and newspapers littered the floor. It smelled like overflowing trash and damp dirty clothes. I stumbled to my room and collapsed face down on my bed, not wanting to do anything but sleep.
The room was dark when I awoke, the foggy yellow light of the street lamp outside not quite entering the room. The sound of rain was loud against the roof, and I could feel the thumping of rap music. There was someone banging around in the kitchen and I was seized with a wild thought of robbers. Yeah right, I told myself. There was nothing to steal, and even if there was, they wouldn’t be able to find anything in the mess. My dad’s voice came from the kitchen. I could tell he was on the phone arguing with someone. I slipped out of bed and padded across the room to my bedroom doorway. I could see the yellow light of the kitchen and smell that my dad was making pasta for dinner.
“No, Sheila, that’s not going to happen! It’s been settled anyways, I don’t know how you think you can fight this!” My dad’s tall frame was hunched over as he paced the tiny kitchen. “Well, I don’t care what you think! Besides, how could you even do that?” He listened for a minute, laughing callously. “If you truly think that will happen, then you must be as crazy as I thought.”
When I entered the kitchen, my dad was slumped over at the table, his cell phone and head in his hands.
“Hey Dad, what’s up? I had a really long day at school, but it was okay,” I said as I walked into the room, pretending not to notice his defeated posture.
He straightened quickly in the chair, his smile hitched wide on his face. “Oh! Hey, kiddo! I was just getting dinner ready. I figured we’d have pasta tonight.”
“That sounds great!” I said, noticing the false hardiness in my voice. I hoped that my Dad didn’t notice it too.
“You heard me arguing with Sheila, didn’t you?” he asked, frowning at my false smile; his own crumbled soon after.
“Yeah, I heard. What did she want this time?” I asked. “Something stupid, I bet,” I added as an afterthought. My aunt Sheila was a pain in the ass. Her and my Dad had never gotten along; she thought Dad was unworthy to marry her sister. She also never liked me, or kids in general. Anything that messed up her pristine house that she constantly cleaned had to go.
“Oh, she wants that antique dresser, but I told her she couldn’t have it,” Dad said as he got up from the table to stir the pasta.
Our dinner was a quiet affair. We watched TV, and by the time Dad got up to go to bed, we had only looked at each other twice, speaking only to ask what we wanted to watch. All the lights were off in the apartment; only slivers of light were coming from the streetlights outside, insubstantial from the rain. Lying under my blanket on the couch, I didn’t feel like moving. Despite having a nap that day, I was exhausted. I could feel myself dozing off, but I was so comfy I didn’t want to go to bed. Before I knew it, I was asleep.
It was sunny. I could see my Mom’s car in front of me on the freeway. We had to use two cars because the new furniture couldn’t fit in one. Despite the air conditioning, my grip on the wheel was slippery. There was a meaningless summer pop tune on the radio. I turned it up, grinning, happy with everything in the world. I glanced forward at Mom’s SUV, with the little sticker family on the back. I could see her wave to me through her rear-view mirror. I waved back, grinning. Suddenly, she swerved into the barrier separating oncoming traffic. The front corner of the SUV crumpled like paper as it bounced off the barrier and shot to the other side. The oncoming transport had no time to stop. It hit the side of the SUV and drove right over it. The sound of metal on metal drowned out all other sound, and the sun became a sweltering ball ready to consume me.
I woke up with a jolt, my heart racing, and blood pounding in my ears. Ever since that day I had nightmares. Sometimes they ended with me holding her body, sobbing, and sometimes they didn’t end at all. It just continued on in a never ending cycle of her hitting the barrier and bouncing off, hitting the barrier and bouncing off. I never found out what made her swerve. Her body was too damaged to do an autopsy, and the cause of death was clear: transport truck. I was taken out of school and my dad took time off work. The funeral was the last time I saw Mom’s side of the family. We didn’t go to Thanksgiving this year. Dad and I went to therapists, and, despite talking about it with perfect strangers, we didn’t talk about it to each other. I tasted salt on my lips and realized I was crying. My breath was coming in gasps and my whole body was shaking. Why did she have to leave me? Half the time I could hardly believe she was gone, and then it would hit me. I would never see her again. I would never hear her laugh, never fight with her again, never rant to her about friend drama. Never again.
The rain that had persisted all night had stopped, and sunrise was peeking through the curtains. The wall opposite was slowly turning orange, washing away the shadows. It was a small patch of sunshine on the otherwise dark and empty wall. Snot was dripping into my mouth, and my eyes were sore from crying. Before I could get a tissue, I noticed the sunlight shift behind me as my dad slipped into the room.
“I miss her too.”
Madeleine Lange-Chenier is a small-town girl who much prefers the feel of grass beneath her feet than concrete city streets. She likes to read (mostly fiction), write (just about anything), and tell her pets how cute they are (approximately 1,000 times a day). She makes really good guacamole and really bad cheese scones.