I first read it in a magazine. One hundred dead in Sierra Leone. Some new flu. I didn’t think much of it. People die all the time in that miserable part of the world, and it seems like a new flu strain spreads every other year: Avian, Spanish, H1N1.
One hundred dead in Sierra Leone turned to five hundred dead in West Africa then two thousand dead with isolated outbreaks across the globe. Bangkok, Sydney, Munich, Dallas. By the time the Center for Disease Control declared an official global emergency the grocery store shelves had all been emptied. Some people paid, more stole. Shop windows had been broken, buildings lit ablaze. Gunshots echoed through the valleys between skyscrapers, the shrapnel of glass and concrete less foreign by the day.
I watched all this on the news while there was still news. I fed the chickens, checked the cows, and then rooted to the deflated beige sofa in my basement, in front of the rear-projection television to which my ex-husband had connected an antenna on the roof. The day the final channel submerged into static I had been watching the die-hard Channel 9 woman, Cynthia Storm, reporting live. She stood toward the back of a mall parking lot as the building burned behind her. Churning flames crawled up the walls and fed coal-colored smoke. Thick and seamless, it gushed into the sky the same way Deepwater Horizon’s oil clouded up through the ocean.
Cynthia Storm, normally primped like a runway model, reported with a plain, greasy face that captured the sobering reality that had engulfed our planet. She spoke of the mayhem throughout the city, bloated bodies in the street, power outages and water shortages, retirement homes ransacked for prescription medication, the elderly beaten with their own canes. There is speculation that the virus, now nicknamed Diamond Flu, was fabricated by a biotech company hidden deep in the books of Maximized International, a corporation that supplied seventy percent of the diamonds in North America and Europe. The theory is that in their pursuit of a true jewelry monopoly they aimed to decimate the population of a bountiful group of mines owned by their final major competitor. I typically reject conspiracies, but if this one is true, the suffocating irony is diamonds will hold little value in this windswept new world.
Cynthia had just stated that the estimated death toll surpassed three billion when a bullet burst through the core of her neck. The microphone fell. Her body crumpled. The camera jerked into a sideways run. The picture bounced along the mall, yellow parking spot lines crossing at odd angles, harsh breath, feet slapping against the pavement. A bang and the trail of a bullet ripped through the audio. The picture floated, crashed, rolled.
It stopped with unsettling suddenness. The sky stretched across the bottom of my screen. The parking lot above. In the middle, a sideways tennis shoe. This image remained for two and a half hours, and I looked away not once, except downward to verify my ex-husband’s rifle still lay across my lap. I still remember every thread and blemish on that shoe.
I call my parents twice a day. I still choke on hope every time I press the seventh digit of their phone number. An agonizing crescendo used to build with every ring (maybe they’ll pick up this time, ring, maybe they were out foraging, ring, why don’t they have an answering machine, ring) never quite knowing when it was okay to hang up; to give up. Circular rings, just like those finger ornaments for which diamonds were once so goddamned important – ring, ring. The phone doesn’t do that anymore, though, and in a guilty way I’m relieved. Now when I hit that seventh digit I hear three tones and a woman repeating, “We’re sorry, this number has been disconnected or is no longer in service.”
I’ve tried to call everyone I know. None answer, none live close enough to travel to, and even if they did I might not be able to handle what I found when I got there. My mental strength is already desperately clutching to this gun, the cows and the chickens, a pantry of non-perishables, the well out back. I have everything I need to live except a reason to do so.
Never a social person since my husband left, never caring to find new friends, I now find myself wanting what I can’t have. The cold in me must have felt warm knowing there were others out there in the world, knowing that around me somewhere the human race was buzzing along, building, populating, accomplishing. I’m cold again. I haven’t seen another person since Cynthia Storm’s esophagus snowed red pulp sideways into the air. The only voice I hear anymore is the anonymous woman who answers every phone I call.
I still watch the television looking for flickers of hope between the static, some flare of red, green, or blue to push past the white, gray, and black, if even only for a second to let me know that someone somewhere might be trying to get it going again. I spend a minute on each channel, attention more focused than it ever was on the shows I used to love. My eyes bloodshot and strained, I switch to the next and repeat, cycling over and over through all six channels until my pupils ache into my ocular nerves and my temples throb. Tears bead in my eyelashes until they’re heavy enough to fall. Migraines push against the back of my forehead as if my skull is an overfull balloon and some asshole keeps pumping in the helium. The constant white noise scratches my eardrums. I think I sometimes hallucinate sounds, and I spend an hour on the same channel, ears so focused they feel as though they’ll pop off my head and float toward the TV.
My thumb finds the remote control’s power button. The static collapses to the center of the screen and leaves the fluorescent gray afterglow of the picture’s death. I stare as it bleeds into the air.
Exploding the silence, a whisper: “I’m surprised you didn’t change the locks.” My fingers snap around the rifle like eagle talons on a rodent spine. My thoughts catch up with my impulses, and I realize the voice is that of my ex-husband. My grip eases. The color returns to my knuckles.
“You left,” I say, still watching the blank TV. “Why should I have had any reason to think you might return? Besides, that’s what I wanted. I’d have taken the doors off the hinges if it meant you’d walk back in.”
“Would’ve been a sight to see,” he says. His raspy words are seasoned by years of smoke. The smell of burnt tobacco and cigar paper has never faded from the furniture, the drapes. I came to resent him for leaving such a palpable reminder of himself, the man who sat in his recliner sipping bourbon on the rocks. It used to make me think I might find him in that chair when I turned the corner into the living room. I lay the rifle beside me on the sofa, rise, and turn to face him, and although I have hated that intrusive odor for years, as I imagine his strong arms around me I hope he smells the same.
“Art,” I say, and I step toward him.
“I’m sorry, Brenda,” he says.
“It’s okay,” I say. With his muddy boots and jeans, his Carhartt jacket, he is a snapshot of himself in time. A little more salt in his beard perhaps, a little more rigid in his face, but still my Art. “We can forget all that now,” I say. “It’s just you and I.”
“About that,” a woman says. Her cowgirl boots lead her tight jeans down the stairs until she stands at the bottom, taller, younger, and blonder than I.
“You have everything we need here,” Art says.
His weathered hand slides into the pocket of his jacket. When he pulls it out the grip of a pistol is enclosed in his palm. Its carbon black armor is a color as deep and evil as the cloud that poured from the mall when my last window to the outside world was painted over. Art’s arm lifts. The barrel siphons me, beckons me. This black hole holds the gravity to swallow what is left of my universe. I should be scared, but as his cigar-smoke yellow fingernail slides past the trigger I realize I’m thankful it’s over, and that I’m glad I got to see him, someone, anyone, one last time.
I look not at Art’s eyes, which remind me of sadness, but at those of the woman past his shoulder. They’re green, fresh, and crisp like crossing blades of grass in spring. These will shine on because of my death, and I’m a small price to pay – an aging, purposeless woman.
With something bright and loud, something euphoric, the television inside of my eyes flickers to static. The speckling gray and black fade to match the white. The edges collapse to the center.