“Breathe! You have to breathe!”
Thump, thump, thump.
The sound of my fists thumping Michael’s chest reminds me of the heavy bass that used to shake our walls every Sunday morning. Like a religion, our neighbour blasted rock music, assuming everyone else in the neighbourhood wanted to worship like he did.
I sometimes wonder, briefly, very briefly, what happened to those people, and everyone else from that street. And everyone else I ever knew.
Thump, thump, thump.
From the corner of my eye, I see the others have all turned away, looking anywhere but here. Are they embarrassed by my spectacle or just glad it’s not them? They all move surreptitiously away, murmuring amongst themselves, leaving me and Michael alone.
My aching arms lift and fall, lift and fall, lift and fall. At times I think he’s breathing but it’s just the vibration rippling through his relaxed flesh with each thump. The space between the thumps gradually lengthens until I have no choice but to accept what I can’t change.
I collapse onto Michael’s deflated body, taking great shuddering breaths for him, willing my breath to transfer magically from my chest to his. But it doesn’t. His chest no longer rises, no longer falls.
After a while—I don’t know how long because our battery-powered watches all stopped working months ago—I stand up and look around. The world is dull and grey. At first, I think the dullness is caused by my grief, a veil drawn across my sight, dimming all light and colour. Then I realise it’s twilight and I’m on my own.
The others must have headed back to the safety of the cave when they noticed the sun slipping below the horizon. Everyone knows not to be out at night. The thumping I now hear is coming from my own chest.
I look at Michael. He looks so peaceful lying there on the sand. I smile as memories flit through my mind like butterflies. Memories of times so long ago, but not really long ago at all.
Michael falling asleep at the beach and waking up hours later, looking like a lobster in a pot of boiling water. I rub my fingers together and can almost feel the slimy cool lotion rapidly warming, the way it did as I rubbed it gently into his face and shoulders that night.
Michael unable to stop laughing during a midnight screening of a horror film that was supposed to be scary. The Ring, I think it was. The whole theatre turned and shushed him, which only made him laugh more. We ended up having to leave early because he could barely see through the tears streaming from his eyes or breathe around the laughter that wouldn’t stop bubbling up from his chest.
Michael helping at our local community centre, cooking sausages at barbecue fundraisers, cleaning gutters, mowing lawns, and walking dogs for the elderly who could no longer do it themselves.
Michael running through the park with Dickie, his golden retriever. That was where we met. Dickie introduced us.
The sadness on Michael’s face when Dickie got old and couldn’t keep up anymore. The tears I wiped off his face, that soaked through my shirt, after Dickie… I’m so glad Dickie didn’t have to experience this. Life after…, well, isn’t much of a life at all.
The first of many tears runs down my cheek but I don’t brush it away. I let them fall along with the night until it feels as if a river is gushing from my eyes.
Michael’s now blurry and shadowy when I look at him still lying on the sand. I hear his voice in my head. He’s telling me to stop wasting water. We’re in a desert and water is scarce. I think back to him, I can’t stop it. I’m so tired. I don’t think I can keep going.
He tells me I have to get back to the cave. Back to the others. I can’t be out here at night.
I tell him that he can’t tell me what to do. I start to yell, not caring who, or what, hears me. You lost that privilege when you died. When you left me alone.
I sink to my knees beside him and glare at him. Why did you have to go first? You know I can’t do this on my own. I don’t know if I can refuse you..., or if I’ll want to.
I lie down beside him, relax my whole body, look up at the dark. There are no stars, no lights, the night is complete. I suddenly have no energy and just want to lie here beside him and wait with him. The ground feels alive under my back, grains of sand shifting with each intake of breath.
A sharp breeze whips up suddenly, whirring sand over our legs and stinging my face and arms. A thought occurs to me, and I sit up, shift onto my knees, and start scooping handfuls of sand over him. If he’s covered, they won’t find him, right? If they can’t find him, they can’t…
I hear his voice again. Urgent, now. You have to get back to the cave.
I ignore him for as long as I can, scooping and dumping sand, until he’s completely covered, or maybe it’s just too dark to see him.
I hear a noise that sounds like feet dragging through loose sand, and I stand up.
I hope the others will let me in.
Or do I hope they won’t?
When I reach the cave, the others are reluctant to roll the boulder out of the way to let me in. They demand I prove that I’m me.
I don’t blame them. That was how Melanie died. We let in someone she thought she knew, and before we could stop it, she was gone. In the morning the only sign of her was a few reddish-brown grains of sand.
Melanie came back the following night, and for a few nights after that, asking to be let in, but we refused. She cried and cajoled, telling us she was fine, she was her, she was not one of them. At one point she screamed and said they were coming through the sand to get her. She sobbed and pleaded, but we covered our ears and, although our hearts broke, we weren’t fooled. We knew.
After a few days, she stopped coming.
I wonder how I can prove I’m me. This ragtag bunch of survivors have only known each other for a few months. None of us knew each other before, before…
“I don’t blame you,” I say softly, sitting down with my back to the boulder. “I wouldn’t let me in either.”
As I sit here, listening to the silence of the desert at night, I think about things.
I wonder what went wrong, where, and why. Someone did something they shouldn’t, and the whole world went out. At least I assume it’s the whole world. Communications died quickly and, after all the televisions and mobile phones and internet disappeared, no one really knew much of anything.
Michael and I met many different people after we left the city and they all had different theories, but nothing explained the way people came back. People who were dead came back and took the living until they too became the dead.
The dead prowled like cats in the night, looking for prey, and we learned pretty quickly that it was not safe to be outside after dark. Dead people sought out their loved ones or people they knew and somehow managed to move great distances in a short amount of time to find them.
We moved during the daylight and stayed in abandoned houses overnight, making sure to lock and bar the doors with anything we could find. We barely slept at night as the dead knocked and pushed on doors and windows, pleading to be let in.
The bunch of us who ended up in this cave had all had the same thought: that the desert would be safer. How could anything find anyone in that great sea of sand?
But find us they did.
On our trek from the city, through big towns, through small towns, all the way to the desert, the numbers in our little group fluctuated, at one point reaching about twenty or so. But by the time we reached the desert, we were down to a mere handful.
Some people couldn’t resist the begging and pleading of their loved ones and let them in or walked out to embrace them. Others fell into a deep depression and walked out voluntarily into the night, or just stayed out at the end of the day.
All of them came back at some point, but we didn’t let them in. Until Melanie convinced us that one time. But never again.
Now that Michael’s gone, I have no one. Nothing left to live for. I know my parents are dead, and Michael’s too. They came for us before we got too far from the city. We didn’t let them in.
I can hear susurrations, whispering voices on the wind now. Is Michael coming for me? Is it too soon? Would they have found him yet, done whatever it is they do to turn him into one of them?
I take a deep breath. I do what I used to do back when I had a bed, a house, a life I believed I’d have forever. I consciously relax my body, tiny piece by tiny piece, starting at my toes and working upwards, my legs, my torso, my arms, my head, my mind.
By the time I’m fully relaxed, Michael’s here. And there are other people with him. I see Mum and Dad, Susie, my best friend from school. Oh, Grandpa is here. It’s been so long since I saw him. They’re all smiling, they all look so happy to see me.
They’re all glowing, surrounded by full-body shimmering halos that shift and blend hypnotically, coalescing into one bright glaring light that’s hard to look at but hard to look away from.
Michael’s standing right in front of me. He’s smiling and holding out his hand. I grip it and pull myself to my feet.
He embraces me and everyone else steps forward too, surrounding me with love and light. I feel myself floating, no longer tethered to this earthly plane.
One last intake of breath and I finally understand.
Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.