There was blood on my hands, so I knew it had happened again. It also meant I was home. My bed creaks under me, dust coating my sweaty skin. I force myself to go outside and stand at the fresh graves. I liked Liza and Alice and I was glad they’d come home with me.
“Momma, you promised you weren’t going to do this anymore,” my daughter says as she stands next to me.
“I know Ruthie, but I had to save them,” I say. There is no remorse in my voice. I’d done what I thought was right.
“Pappa won’t like it.”
“Your pappa hasn’t been the same since he got bit.”
“You should clean up the blood before he gets up.”
Ruthie hadn’t aged a day since I’d been away, and I’d tried to stay away. I had promised Stanley. She was right. He was going to be angry. “Go to your space Ruth.” If there is anything I fear it is Stanley when he’s angry.
My ten-year-old skips through the overgrown field and disappears. I go back to the kitchen to mop up the linoleum. I am almost done when I hear the screen door bang and Stanley’s boots on the hardwood.
“Claire,” his voice thunders down the hall.
I stand and shake my hands off. “In here Stanley.”
His bulky frame blocks any possible escape when he enters the kitchen. “Is that blood?”
“I don’t want to fight Stan.” I’m so tired and I don’t have the energy for it.
“Is it blood?”
“Yes okay,” I say as I drop the mop and cover my face. “I did it again and I know I promised but I couldn’t help myself. I had to save them.”
“Get out. I told you I don’t want this around Ruth.”
I sink into a chair. “Where am I supposed to go Stan?”
“I don’t care. Anywhere but here.”
“She’s, my daughter. You can’t keep her from me.”
“You did this to yourself Claire. You knew the price for coming back.”
I don’t try to fight him; I just lift my shirt.
“How many?” he asks.
“Liza and Alice.”
He always insists on knowing their names. Perhaps he’s trying to make me remember they were people. But he didn’t see what I saw. They were still people. They stood watching us now. Stanley takes a paring knife and makes two short shallow slices in my abdomen next to the others. I’d lost count of the souls I’d saved and his punishment for what he considered my misdeeds. But the marks kept the tally.
“Get out before Ruth comes back,” he says before leaving the house.
I don’t even feel the marks he gives me anymore. He’s marked me so many times my brain doesn’t register it. My bag is by the front door with the blood-spattered ax I use. I sling it over my shoulder, grab the ax, and start down the grass choked driveway. I don’t turn around because if I see Ruthie, I won’t be strong enough to leave and I am smart enough to fear Stanley. Flies buzz my face in the heat. I hate the road, Stan knows that. It’s why he sends me away and why I never go far.
“Ruthie, your pappa will kill me if you don’t get your buns back to your plot of dirt.”
“I’m bored here mamma.”
“Off this farm, the world is dangerous. I don’t need to be worried about you.”
“The dead come to the farm too.”
“But you’re safe in your dirt. I made sure of that,” I say swatting at the fly. “Please go home my sweet.”
“No. Maybe I can help stop you.”
I hang my head. I don’t want my daughter to think less of me, but her pappa has convinced her I’m doing something wrong. “I save people. Like I saved you. Like I saved your pappa.”
“Well then maybe I can help.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose and sigh. “Please Ruthie.”
“Mamma, don’t you miss me?”
“I do Ruth. You have no idea how much. But you can’t come. Your pappa will take it out on me.”
“What if he never finds us?”
The truth was, I wanted Ruthie to come. I missed her terribly. But that ache in my chest could never go away. And so, I ignore her, as rude as it is. She stops talking, but she doesn’t go away and we walk side by side in silence. I’m no good at telling time since the world crumbled but I’m going to judge that two hours had passed on that hot road when I hear a daisy pusher. The groans echo through the trees and bird’s scatter.
“Ruthie,” My voice is a mere whisper as I look around the deserted road, but she’s gone. The daisy pushers don’t scare me. If I am quiet and can hide then they won’t bother me. But I’m curious so I follow the sounds. I find it plodding through a briar patch oblivious to the pricks. This is what I’d saved Ruthie and Stanley from. No longer bound to their bodies, the daisy pushers can’t sense them like I can. And therefore, they are safe. I watch the daisy pusher for some time. Neither dead nor alive, it only responds to hunger. I’d heard someone use the word reactionary in conversation once. And I suppose that’s what the daisy pushers are. Their eyesight is poor and somehow, despite the dead status they’ve been given, their hearing is fair to middling. The “dead” rising is like a page out of my mamma’s bible come to life. But because they are neither dead nor living, I reckon they are souls trapped in their bodies by the mark of the beast. A man who worked with Stanley had received his from his harlot wife and had in turn given one to my dear Stan. But I cheated the devil out of his soul by liberating it before he became locked in his body. Now my husband can roam the earth, but for some reason Stan chooses to stay at the farm. Screams shatter the stillness and the daisy pusher changes direction. I run to get ahead of him. Branches snap as I push through the woods, but the screams are louder than any noise I’m making.
“Get back. Run May and don’t look back.”
I explode from the woods to see a golden-haired cherub running toward the trees. Two daisy pushers are advancing on her mother who stumbles backward, her gun clicking empty. There is nothing I can do for her. Her soul will soon be stuck, but the child is fast and coming toward me. I head her off and I catch her just before she enters the forest. She kicks and screams and I hold her in my arms whispering to her that she’s safe. She stills in my arms and goes silent. I cover her ears with my hands so she can’t hear her mother’s screams. The daisy pusher I raced emerges from the forest next to us and heads toward the mother. When the screams stop, I scoop up the child and run. We run until my breath comes in short gasps and I stop.
She stares at me sideways. “Where’s my mam?”
I struggle with what to tell her. I don’t know how much her own mother has explained to her. “I’m going to look after you for awhile.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. I was going to look after her and I would keep her as safe as her own mother.
She looks back the way we came.
“I have a daughter named Ruth. Would you like to meet her?” It’s been years since I’ve seen a child other than Ruth and I keep staring at her like she’s a ghost. In this world, children are rare. They don’t last long because they have issues keeping quiet.
She stares at me for a moment then nods.
“Wonderful. I’m Claire, what’s your name?”
“May. My mams name is Susan.”
“May is a beautiful name.”
She smiles and takes my hand in hers. “Where is Ruth?”
I’d forgotten how trusting children can be and I’m almost shocked I don’t have to do more convincing, but perhaps her mother had taught her living people were to be trusted. “She’s at home with her pappa. We’ve got a bit of a walk so we’d best get started.” I can’t wait to introduce little May to my Ruthie. It’s been some years since she’s had someone her age to interact with.
“Is your house safe? Mam said we were going someplace safe,” she says.
“I promise you’ll never have to be scared again.”
May’s smile is angelic and I smile back as we walk. For two hours she rambles and I hope there are no daisy pushers near to hear her. We manage to make it back to the farm without encountering more. The house is sitting just like I left it and I wonder if Stanley is in his plot of dirt or out looking for Ruth. I lead May inside and sit her at the kitchen table. “Are you hungry?”
May nods her head vigorously and I hope she’s not picky. I remember my Ruth going through a phase of only eating chicken nuggets. When the world started to end, she almost gave up eating entirely.
“I’ll fix us something.”
“Where is Ruth?”
“Ruth and her pappa are probably out gathering food. They’ll be home for dinner. Why don’t you go get settled upstairs. Ruth has a room full of toys you can play with.”
May skips down the hall and upstairs, her steps ringing through the empty house. I open my knapsack and pull a bottle from it, pills rattling inside. The top scrapes my palm as I open it and pour the remaining three into my hand. It was time to save May like I’d saved countless others. I let the pills tumble from my hand into the mortar and pestle I keep on the counter. It’s the only thing in my home not coated in dust. The chink chink of them hitting the bowl gives me peace. In no time they are a fine white powder. I remove my last Kool-aide packet from my bag and pour it into the mix turning it purple. Plastic water bottles line my counter and I pour the mix in one then go out to the well to add water. All I have left to eat is a can of stew that I heat over a small fire in the yard. I carry it all upstairs to find May. She’s playing dolls in Ruthie’s room.
“Are they back yet?”
“Not yet, but we can eat without them.” I say as I set the tray down on the floor beside May. She digs into the bowl of stew but to my dismay does not touch the Kool-aide. “Aren’t you thirsty May?”
“I don’t like grape.”
“Oh.” My appetite vanishes. How am I supposed to help her now?