When she opens her eyes, all she sees is gray. The gray of a summer storm right before it breaks. Then she remembers that summer is long gone and that she must get up, no matter how much she longs to bury her face in the pillow and forget about the world for just a moment more.
Making breakfast in the dark, to save the generator. Like a moth to a flame, her gaze strays towards the kitchen window and the garden outside. A beautiful garden despite everything, she tells herself. You'd never know anyone is buried there.
Lea is still asleep when Natalie comes in with the tray. At least her eyes are closed. She wonders if she put too many pills in last night's soup. The only idea more frightening is how tempting it gets sometimes to put the whole bottle in.
“When is this fog gonna lift? I'm sick of seeing only gray.”
You'd be sicker if you could see more, Natalie thinks but all she says is: “I thought you were sleeping.”
“I thought I was dead. Or that the rest of the world was. I'm not sure and I don't know if I even care anymore.”
“Social media still down?” As if she needed to ask.
“What do you think?”
Lea's eyes are open now, fixated on her sister's. Natalie forces herself to meet her gaze. Better suspicion than certainty. Don't let Schrodinger's cat out of the bag and we can all pretend it never happened.
After just a sip, Lea puts down the cup.
“Too hot. I'll have it later.”
Natalie makes a mental note to put the pills in Lea's soup from now on.
“Got a message from Mom,” Lea says at lunch.
“What does she say?”
“The usual. Hope you're fine. Love you. Tell Natalie to massage your feet every day until you go to sleep.”
“She didn't say that.”
“No, she didn't.” Lea grins. “But you could.”
“Maybe I will,” replies Natalie. “If you finish your soup.”
“You're worse than Mom, sometimes.”
“Wrong. I'm always worse than Mom. But thanks for the 'sometimes' anyway.”
“When is she coming home, do you think?” Lea now asks.
“Didn't she tell you?”
“You know how vague she gets with specific questions. She's even worse when texting.”
“Well, she's not big on texting. Different generations and all that.”
“She could always call. They did have phones when she was our age, didn't they?”
After lunch (and she did finish her soup, so Natalie feels obliged to rub her feet – not that she minds) Lea mutters : “Can you believe I got Mom to text me but I can't even get a single one from Chris?”
To a sixteen year-old princess, even a sick one, the absence of a prince charming at her bedside is more than an insult, it's the ultimate injury. Natalie is tempted to tell her that Chris got himself a new girlfriend. That he's gone off to live with her in Japan and has forgotten all about Lea. Anything to get her off the subject.
She will have the world at her feet, that one, their mother used to say about Lea. Easy enough when the world lies shattered on the floor, Natalie reflects, like the glass bowl she smashed after the last call from Dan.
As if reading her thoughts, or maybe because her mind is still on boyfriends, Lea asks: “Dan hasn't been around in a while, has he?”
“We broke up,” Natalie says shortly.
“Really?” Lea sounds genuinely surprised.
“Shit happens.” Her hint to drop the subject but for once, Lea is all solicitude.
“When did you guys last spoke?” she asks.
“Some weeks ago.”
“What did he say?”
Natalie takes a deep breath. “He said: 'Shit'.”
Lea giggles, then realizes she shouldn't. “Sorry,” she says. “No really, I am. I like Dan. He's the kind of guy who knows stuff but doesn't need to brag about it, you know what I mean?”
“I thought he bore you to tears. Like that afternoon we spent at the beach?”
“Please. Like I'm gonna let on when I'm having fun. I don't even know why I do that, sometimes. Like maybe if I admitted I was enjoying something too much, it would be taken away from me.”
This is the more open Lea has been in ages. Maybe it takes a broken connection to get people talking to each other again.
“We should never have told you that smiling gives you wrinkles.”
“I'd be happy to get wrinkles now. At least it would mean I've lived long enough to get them.”
She does smile then, and this time Natalie is not afraid to meet her gaze.
Once Lea is asleep, Natalie goes down to the kitchen. From the top of the cupboard she retrieves a telephone, reads the new message and starts writing.
Their mother kept vague about her job. All the girls knew was that it included “buying and selling“ and traveling to the big city on occasions. She certainly didn't try to make it sound glamorous, in fact sounded so jaded and weary about it that they learned not to ask too much. Which is actually proving convenient now.
October was their mother's busiest month. That's when the company held its annual convention, an open door for jokes about Halloween and the true nature of her employers. “The witches brew convention,” as Lea once called it. “Almost to the letter,” Mom said. “Witches crew, then?” Lea said and they both dissolved into a fit of laughter though Natalie failed to see what was so funny.
Even as she pit them against one another, their mother encouraged them to stick together. Constant competition was her idea of emulation. Natalie likes to think this was her way of building up their sense of solidarity against adversity. You make use of whatever life throws at you, including what it throws in your face.
It took Natalie a few days before she thought of retrieving the phone. She should have done it sooner, but there were so many things to deal with and so few she could bear thinking about. Like getting rid of a body before its smell got too strong to hide. Digging a hole big enough in the garden at night, all the time praying the pills she put in the soup were enough to make Lea sleep and not enough to kill her. And trying to retain some pretense of sanity through it all.
Then, just when she thought the worst was over, at least for the time being, having to dig up again when she realized where the damn phone was.
The worst, smell aside and she had a scarf over her nose, was going through her mother's pockets one by one, feeling the flesh underneath and its texture already changing after just a few days. No more rigor mortis there. Whether this was the effect of the garden soil, the fog or something else, she'd rather not ponder.
It took another few days before she could establish a closed network between all three phones, raking her brain for what she could remember from electronic classes and Dan's passion project, the one he bored her to death talking about on their first evenings together. That's when she had asked if being a geek was a congenital male trait. “You should be grateful for geeks,” he said. “When you spend nights tracking down a bug, finding a G-spot is like a walk in the park.” That made them laugh, and more than laugh. “Feeling geeky tonight?” became their secret code, an invitation neither could resist.
If he could see her now, she thinks, he would be so proud. Though he would probably point out all the things she could have done better and faster. Just for that, she was almost grateful he wasn't around.
The last thing he said was shit.
Contrary to what she has let Lea assume, they were not fighting but commenting on the fog that was seeping everywhere, messing up electronics and fucking up with the TV and phone reception.
Then Dan did say shit. As in “Oh Shit! Oh shit, no! Shit –“ and then the scream that seemed to last an eternity but might have been only a couple of seconds before he was cut off.
She stopped trying to call back after the first attempts. Knew from what she could hear on the radio that there was no point. Then the radio went dead too.
“You need to take care of your sister.” She remembers her mother's words, and how typical that her sister's needs should become her own. “Lea just hasn't got your strength.” A compliment doubling up as burden: another responsibility to shoulder, another reason to be grateful for said strength.
Not that Natalie minded. From the moment Lea was born, Natalie had doted on her. “This is not a doll we bought you for Christmas,” their mother would say. To five-year old Natalie, Lea was better than a doll and much prettier: all blond hair and green eyes like their mother, while Natalie took after their estranged father as Mom liked to remind her.
She never resented the extra care and attention her little sister required. That Natalie could fend off for herself she also took as a compliment – if one she wasn't sure she deserved or even want. But she had learned to be grateful for anything that came her way whether or not she had wished for it.
Natalie takes her mother's phone and reads Lea's latest message: “Mom, when are you coming home?”
She starts typing. “Soon.” Pauses, wonders what to add next. Invent a new delay? Searching for inspiration, she browses through old messages. There's another one from Lea that she missed. Thinking guiltily of her sister awaiting an answer, Natalie opens it. And feels worse than guilt.
“Mommy, please come home. I think Natalie is trying to kill me.”
You need to take care of your sister.
The irony is that, after all she did to protect her from the truth, Lea would not believe it if she told her. Lea doesn't trust her anymore, provided she ever did. And with that dawning realization, Natalie feels more than guilty or helpless but useless as well.
What would be worse? Telling her their mother is buried in the garden because there was no way to do otherwise, and no time either, not when they were cut off from the rest of the world, which might as well be dead for all she knew, oh and by the way you were right about that too, Lea. Even though you're half zoned out of your mind all the time with all the medicine I've been slipping you – not to kill you, mind you, but to shield you from the truth. Because this is what Mom would have wanted. She said you couldn't bear the truth.
But did she say that, really? Or is Natalie the one who can't face the truth? Can't face anything, not even her own cowardice. It doesn't take courage to do the things she does. It just takes a steadfast denial of reality under the guise of responsibility. Exchanging one burden for another.
What does facing the truth even mean, she wonders. Is the truth some kind of wild animal you can tame with a look, like you're Queen of the Fucking Jungle? Or do you let it eat you alive like a good Christian martyr? Options are scarce when the only crash course you can get on bravery is from a screen.
The truth is nothing you're prepared for. The truth is that connections are just as fragile as bodies and disconnections even messier. The truth is that nobody remains a body for long when exposed to more than they bargained for. The truth is that a fog is not always a fog even when it hides what you need to run from, run faster than you've ever ran as if running could put more than distance but light years between perception and reality, running back in space and time, until the truth stops being the truth.
The truth is that a house is not a home without a few skeletons in its closets.
She knows what needs to be done, she tells herself. It's either that or die trying. At this stage, both options hold their own appeal.
In the fog, the most familiar route looks foreign. A good thing she's made the trip to the village so often she could do it with her eyes closed – and the temptation is strong to do so, especially when passing by unfamiliar shapes and mounds on the wayside. She knows what they are, would know it by her nose too if it wasn't protected by her two scarves – one being insufficient to block out the fog and the smell.
She has her backpack for scavenging groceries, a mission she usually dreads. Inside the silent store, she has to put her mind on pause as she reaches blindly for the nearest shelves, stepping over mounds of bodies and cans, each burst open in their own way, their smells mingling. She shove cans haphazardly in the bag until it's full. Hoping it's the last time she has to do this.
Maybe this is just her passing on the bucket, but she has to bring someone in – someone with the proper authority, like Dr. Carter. He will find the right words, and Lea will believe him.
But no one answers the doctor's door. The bell doesn't work and neither does her pounding. She should have known, just as she knows it's no use insisting.
She contemplates her next move. The scarves won't protect her for much longer and the temptation is to keep walking into the fog until she can't walk anymore. She almost considers trying other houses, knowing how futile that is, when her phone buzzes. Lea must be awake.
But it's not Lea. The caller is “Unknown“.
“Hello?” Her voice is muffled through the scarves but she prays it won't be mistaken for voicemail. “Who's there? Hello?” She's frantic with hope, sudden renewed hope pouring like rain on dry land, until she realizes there's no one on the line.
But there's still reason to hope. The three bars flashing flashing green on her telephone screen. The first signal she's had in weeks. Where there is a connection, there is life.
She tries going online. Most of her links are dead except one, a news site that hasn't been updated in weeks. Still, almost as beautiful as an olive branch delivered by dove.
Checking her phone as she walks back, eyes on the green bars that have become like a lighthouse in the night. She doesn't know if it was moving away from the house that got her service, or if in tinkering with the network, she somehow managed to unlock what needed to be. If so, those late night sessions with Dan did pay off. Or maybe she's a fucking geek genius herself and never knew it. All she knows is that she needs to keep that connection until she gets home.
She arrives to find the whole house in lights, piercing through the fog as if greeting her in victory. Which must mean the power is back on, another cause for rejoicing.
“Lea?” she calls from the hall, but Lea might still be asleep, unaware of all the lights shining again on them. Natalie drops her bag and starts upstairs, creaking stairs under her giddy step as she tries not to run after all these weeks of waiting, waiting without hope. This is what hell must be like: one big waiting room with no door ever opening.
Or maybe hell is a door opening on what should remain closed.
Lea lies in bed, eyes open but unseeing, phone still in her hand. Fingers clutched in a death grip on her last connection to life. The pill bottle at the foot of the bed, empty. Natalie wonders how she could have found the strength to get up and retrieve it. Then she remembers Lea's last message: “I think Natalie's trying to kill me.” She wouldn't have drunk her tea, or finished her soup. Probably poured them down the toilet as soon as Natalie left the room. Lea would have been strong enough to get up in her absence and see what the world had become. Or maybe just the garden.
Green light flashing through Lea's fingers: the bars triumphantly indicating connection. Maybe her phone benefited from the same service as Natalie's, linked as they were by her homemade network. Lea would have clicked hungrily on the first link available. Even weeks-old news would have been news enough for her.
Lea's fingers twitch now but it's the phone again, vibrating. Natalie pries the device from her sister's cold hand. The bell of a message received, a sound she hasn't heard in ages. She thinks she hears other sounds too, as if the world was stirring out of its hiding place. Echoes of another time: the front door opening, or did she even close it. The creaking of stairs being climbed. Maybe it's all in her mind, memories by association. She's not sure and doesn't care even if she should. Her eyes are still on Lea's last message: “Mommy, please come home. I think Natalie's trying to kill me.”
And the answer, just now received: “Have no fear, love. I'm coming to get you.”