Sunflowers

by Jessica Minyard

My boyfriend always said ammunition was going to be the currency of the apocalypse.

How right he was.

I suspect he expected to be around to see it, though.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard about it on the morning radio. There was an unidentified outbreak on the West Coast. People were dying. The government, the CDC, whoever, was handling it. We had nothing to worry about.

Then by about 8:00 that night, the dead were coming back. And then more people were dying, and turning, and still, we had nothing to worry about.

Major cities were hit the hardest and the fastest. When we finally lost power and cell service, I enacted the first phase of my boyfriend’s apocalypse plan: leave. My boyfriend was a bit of a conspiracy theorist and doomsday planner. He always said that my parent’s house out in the backwoods would be safe. Far from civilization. We would all meet there.

My sister and I made it. My parents didn’t

My boyfriend did, eventually, but he wasn’t himself anymore. When he shuffled into the yard, and I saw his mangled face and missing arm, I knew.

And I put a shell of birdshot through his head.

I shot the person I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with. Well, I guess we kind of did that, in a way.

My dad taught me how to shoot when I was young; I probably should have been a bit older. I got a refresher course last year, after a neighbor told him there’d been some break-ins nearby.

You remember how to load a gun, right?

I don’t own a gun, dad.

But you remember?

Yes, dad.

We did well, my sister and me, in the house, for a while. We rationed food. Cleaned out the fridge first before moving on to the non-perishables, had a plan for collecting fresh water. We were smart, college educated, we could survive this.

But then more found us. Drawn by the stench of my boyfriend’s decomposing flesh and our warm, living bodies. Oh, the smell. Cloyingly sweet, like rotting oranges, but heavy and relentless like ground beef left too long in the sun. It never abated, only grew with each new body.

I picked them off, one by one, but the dead bodies only attracted more dead bodies, and what were we supposed to do, and where were we supposed to go?

Eventually, one of them broke through a bedroom window.

We packed some food, our last jug of water, some blankets, our one shotgun, and headed to the roof.

Here’s my logic: if we went to the basement, we’d never make it out alive. There was no escape from there. My mom did always say she wished they’d built a walk-out.

The dead were slow and lethargic during the day, but they just kept coming and coming, fingers skittering against panes of glass like branches. It was maddening.

I thought: at least if we were on the roof, if there were search parties, or rescue helicopters, or anyone, they would be able to see us.

Maybe we should have tried to run.

Hindsight’s 20/20, though.

Some of the dead had made their way to the back porch, but they had yet to figure out how to reach us on the roof. I kept shooting them, shoulder aching from the recoil, until I realized they could climb the corpses of their comrades. And the spray of blood and brains only whipped them into a more determined frenzy.

I watched them mill and scuffle, bouncing mindlessly into each other.

“Hey, Cat,” I said.

Her full name was Catriona, after our great-great grandmother, but that invariably got truncated to Kitten and then eventually to just Cat.

Her head lolled towards me. I had made her a nest, tucked up against where the short side of the chimney met the roof. It was August, so we didn’t need the blankets, but they made us feel safer. The dark circles under her eyes were pressed in perfect ovals, like thumbprints. Her hollowed cheeks worried me. As did the heat. And we ran out of water three, or maybe four, days ago. And there was no sign of rain.

I gestured with my head, the motion only making me slightly dizzy. “Do you remember that one time we played in the sunflower patch?”

Our mom had planted a small plot of sunflowers on the front edge of our property. I’m not sure why she did, but almost every summer we had sunflowers taller than us, and we would run through them and pluck their petals and pretend we were lost on some grand adventure.

The summer the sunflowers died we tried making shelters with their fallen stalks. I stripped a root and pretended I was smoking, because smoking was something cool and forbidden. Cat banged out an erratic rhythm on makeshift drums of mom’s best plastic Tupperware.

She smiled, dry lips cracking and drawing like overripe fruit. “Remember the pictures?”

How could I forget? Our grandfather was there, snapping memories with his disposable camera, forever immortalizing our youth and color coordinating shorts.

I looked towards the patch; you couldn’t even tell we use to grow sunflowers there. The ground was covered in grass, unmarred, identical to the land around it.

There was a dead girl limping up the yard. She might have been ten – the same age Cat was when we played in the sunflowers for the last time. Her leg was badly broken – I could see her dragging it – but she never faltered. Her hunger was that strong. Her will was that strong.

I wish mine was.

I cradled the shotgun in my lap. Break-action open and gaping, waiting for more shells. But I only had one left. I hadn’t told Cat. Maybe she thought I had two.

I was gripping the shell so tightly I could feel the brass making impressions in my palm. Federal Gold Medal.

Her small voice found me again. “What now?”

I was supposed to have all the answers. I was her big sister, after all.

I was supposed to be able to protect her from anything. I had been protecting her for twenty-five years. From boys, from bullies, from mean girls, from friends, from parental misunderstandings, from broken hearts, from anything that would hurt her.

I drove her to a friend’s house in the middle of the night just so I could yell at him for making her cry over something stupid and trivial that we all forgot.

I slipped the last shell into the barrel and snapped it closed.

I felt both light and heavy, like I was floating and drowning. Like I was both a stranger here and yet had always called this place home. Cat was home.

My clammy fingers skimmed over the safety.

I felt every bead of sweat as they burned hot lines down my neck and back, and yet I felt numb. Like this wasn’t actually happening.

The dead grew restless; I could hear puffing and wheezing as they made noises of distress – or was it excitement? – trying to draw air through collapsed lungs and ragged throats.

There’s a stifled exhale and then silence.

She’s waiting on me.

Jessica wrote and illustrated her first story in the fourth grade. “The Dragon of Grindley Grun” was about an evil wizard, a princess, and a dragon who was actually a prince. She likes to sing loudly and dance on occasion without being particularly talented at either. Her debut novel was published last year and she’s currently pursuing her MFA at Lindenwood University.

Photo credit José Carlos Cortizo Pérez via Flickr

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