Am I the only one in the world making tea with cold water?
Ideally, the water’s supposed to be hot, but the stove in our cabin doesn’t work and we don’t have the right materials to create a fire. Cold tea is the closest thing to an energy drink. Jacob and I can sometimes sleep for up to sixteen hours. When it’s dangerous to walk outside, staying within the sheets isn’t the worst thing. Today’s going to be different, though. There’s lots of cleaning to do, lots of planning for our next food run, and a whole cup of crappy tasting tea to keep me awake. Overall, it’s a good morning.
I pull the tea bag from the mug of cold water and sit in a wooden chair in the kitchen area Jacob and I arranged downstairs. There’s a shelf full of dishes and cooking materials, a bin of cleaning supplies, a couple of bottles full of water, and cans of baked beans. I sip the tea, pretending I’m a sophisticated bureaucrat reading the newspaper, checking my day trades. I’m still wearing my pajamas (underwear and one of Jared S’s XXL t-shirts that says CLASS OF ’75) and don’t plan on getting dressed until we’re ready to go outside.
My bat is soaking in soapy water in the utility sink. Socks, underwear, and shirts are in the sink upstairs. Once they’re done our jeans will go in next. They’re the only pants Jacob and I have, so getting them cleaned is essential. Jared S left behind a nice collection of soaps and detergent. The one thing he didn’t leave behind was clothing in our size. Jared S was a big fellow.
The bloodstained bat reminds me how far I’ve come since the early days of the plague. Jacob and I were sleeping in a large barn on the outskirts of my old subdivision. Most of the houses in the area had been burned during the remnant attacks. A thick haze had settled above the town. Sometime in the night, I heard a crash. I grabbed my flashlight, hands shaking and struggling to turn it on, and stood up. The flashlight beam darted around the room, searching every nook and corner. That’s when I saw him.
Jacob and I had done our due diligence before dark, locking every door in the barn with heavy metal chains. What we forgot to do was check the integrity of the walls. One of the side panels was broken, allowing a remnant farmer to sneak in.
The farmer growled at me, showing off his yellow and red teeth. I screamed and dropped the flashlight. Jacob woke up.
“Hit him in the head, Rory!” he yelled at me.
I looked down and noticed my bat was close to my feet. I picked it up and swung at the farmer, striking his temple. He fell and I hit him again in the stomach. The blow made him bite into his gums, ripping through his lower lip.
“He’s down,” I said and turned around.
“No, he’s not, he’s still moving,” Jacob said.
“Jacob, let’s go.”
“And leave him for someone else?”
I knew the farmer wasn’t dead, but I didn’t want to hit him anymore. I hated the way it felt, both physically and emotionally.
I tried to hand the bat to Jacob. “Here, you do it,” I said. “You take him out.”
“No, it has to be—”
“There may come a time when you have to do this again. You have to be ready! I know you’re strong. You can do it.”
The farmer licked the blood around his lips with a tongue as black as coal. He swallowed and his eyes lit up with satisfaction.
“I don’t want to,” I pleaded with Jacob.
“I don’t want you to either.”
“You need you to, ok. You need to know that you can if I’m not around anymore.”
Thinking of losing Jacob broke me. After everything that had happened to us, I never imagined the possibility that he could die. It was unthinkable to me, but he was right. What if he was no longer around to do the killing? What if I was out on my own?
I looked over at the farmer. Even if I severed his arms and legs, he’d still find a way to survive. It had to be done.
I needed to finish him.
My next swing struck the farmer in the nose, breaking it to the side. I started to cry when I swung again and hit him in the eye. A cracking sound rang out and his eye socket became a blackened pit. For some reason, I thought of Thanksgiving dinner when Dad let me pull apart the wishbone. A little snap! and I’d wish for new shoes or toys or happily ever after, the end, roll credits.
The farmer was silent. He was dead.
I collapsed onto the hay-covered floor. Salty tears trickled past my mouth. Jacob held me and told me he was proud of me. Proud; like something a parent says to their child after they’ve been accepted into college. I had just killed someone for the first time. Yes, they had been turned into a monster, but it felt wrong.
The next day, Jacob found a hatchet and attached it to my bat. One good swing was all I needed to kill them now. It may have made it easier, but I felt remorse after every death.
Except for yesterday.
Yesterday I had fun when I did it. And I was smiling too, wasn’t I? What’s happening to me? What happened to the girl in the barn who couldn’t hurt a fly?
No. The world can change, but it will never change me.
Slow, dragging footsteps and a mumbled, “Morning, Aurora,” snap me out of memory hell.
“Morning,” I say, keeping my eyes on Jacob’s body. He only has boxers on.
“Like what you see?” he says.
“I do too.” He kisses me and looks in the sink. “Cleaning your bat, eh?”
“It’s getting there.”
I rub a green sponge over the hatchet blade. The edges of the sponge are worn and frayed. Blood turns the green texture a murky brown.
“I need some new scrub pads,” I say. “These aren’t cutting it anymore.”
“We’ll look for some this afternoon.”
Jacob sits down and takes a sip of my tea. He scrunches up his face. “I don’t know how you can drink this crap,” he says.
“It keeps me awake.”
“I wish we had some juice or pop.”
“Drink some water then.” Let’s be glad we have anything with flavor to drink, Jacob.
He sets the mug down and pulls one of the water bottles off the shelf and takes a large swig. He grabs his rifle and ammo and places it on the table, counting what’s left. It’s not a lot. I think he ran out of shotgun bullets yesterday.
“What time do you want to go out?” he says.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’d like to finish cleaning my bat, stare at you in those boxers for a while.”
“That chocolate from yesterday has really got you going.”
“I guess so.”
We both laugh. It almost feels like a normal marriage this morning; a husband and wife preparing things for the day, complimenting their good looks, and trotting around in their pajamas with no ambition to go anywhere but back to bed, back in each other’s arms.
Jacob sits down and rests his head in his hands. His stomach growls so loud it sounds like a remnant creeping up on us.
“We need to find more food today,” he says. “And bullets. And everything.”
I dry my hands and grab one of the cans of baked beans off the shelf. “Speaking of food,” I say, and open the top using a can opener. Jacob doesn’t blink. “Eat up. You need to be nourished before we head out.”
“Nourished? How about gassy. I’m going to die if I keep eating this crap.”
“You’re going to die if you don’t eat it. We’ll find more food today. I know it.”
“How do you know we’ll find more food?”
I go back to scrubbing the end of the bat, moving the sponge down the handle. It’s cleaning up well, looks new off the shelf. It would be easier with better pads, though.
“Well …” Jacob says.
“I’m trying to stay positive, Jacob. God will provide.”
“Let’s hope God doesn’t have a bean fetish.”
“Ha! I was reading Song of Solomon last night. It made me focus on what I have instead of what I don’t. I could be alone, I could be dead, but instead, I have you, and that’s pretty swell.”
Jacob crosses his arms, unimpressed. “Swell? Surely you can do better than that.”
I squint my eyes, trying to think of a new word. “Dandy … wondrous … copacetic?”
“Use it in a sentence.”
“Spending the rest of my life with my true love makes everything copacetic.”
I walk over and sit on Jacob’s lap, straddling him. He puts his arms around me.
“Would you like another English lesson?” I say, trying to flirt. I’ve never been good at flirting. What better time to start than now.
“Can we skip the lesson and cut right to the kiss?” he says.
I kiss him long and hard. We almost fall out of the chair. I hear his stomach growl again and I start to giggle.
He looks down at his belly button and says, “Way to ruin the mood, buddy.”
I rub my hand in circles over his stomach and say, “He just wants his beans.”