By the looks of it, they still had a couple hours before sunset.
“We’ll be able to finish the tomatoes and the squash. We’ll get to the beans tomorrow,” said Anthony, Sky’s father.
“Yes sir,” she replied without looking up.
The two worked side by side, quietly transplanting their seedlings from small pots into the spring soil. Sky enjoyed this work. Despite everything, she felt safe outside. There was something about this time of year that made the fear quieter. The remnants of the last frost were long gone, and the sun faced the earth enough to lengthen their days again. Despite the beads of sweat that had formed on her forehead, the earth was cool beneath her fingers. It was the perfect temperature to spend a day with the dirt.
She knew that these afternoons spent with her father and their promise of tomato salads and warm vegetable chili would make their store of happy memories a little fuller. That was important. They needed as much goodness as they could get before nightfall.
“What’s on your mind, Sky?” Anthony asked as he tenderly packed dirt around a tomato plant’s roots.
“Not much,” she lied.
Her father stopped tamping the soil and rested his gaze on her. He sighed and continued working.
“We can’t afford to lie to each other,” he said softly.
“I know,” she replied.
“I won’t ask again,” he said in a sharper tone.
“I’m thinking about what we’ll eat when we harvest these tomatoes,” Sky hastily replied, a nervous smile tugging at her lips.
“What’s your favorite meal?” he asked, softness easing its way back into his voice.
“Can’t decide between tomato salad and chili.”
“That is a tough one. I think mine is the salad. Diced onion. Tomatoes. Minced garlic. Chickpeas. A little lemon. There’s nothing better,” he said.
Sky’s stomach grumbled.
“That sounds amazing,” she admitted with a nervous laugh.
They kept working in silence.
“You know, your mom used to make that kind of stuff all the time.”
Sky stopped what she was doing and looked up at her dad fearfully. Her eyes dropped back to the soil. She kept working the seedlings while her entire body burned.
“She loved to cook with lemon. Used to bother me. I thought she overdid it. She overdid everything,” he said.
“Like what?” Sky asked.
He seemed to snap out of a reverie. “Hm? Oh, nothing. Forget what I was saying.”
Her heart dropped and the warmth that had spread from her stomach to the rest of her body chilled. Stupid. Selfish.
“You know I don’t like to talk about your mother, Sky. Just drop it,” he said, his voice suddenly thick with anger.
“Yes sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
A familiar fear focused her energy on the plants at her fingers. She kept her eyes low. If she could just silence this moment, it would pass—
“It’s selfish of you, you know. It’s selfish of you to make me remember her. You barely knew her.”
Sky said nothing. She stopped working but kept her eyes low. Be small. Be quiet.
“I chose her. After everything. You don’t even, you can’t—she was my world. You don’t know what you lost, but I know every ounce of it, all of its edges. Every time I look at you and see her face, I remember. That you’re what’s left. All I have.”
Sky kept her eyes on the ground. Inside, her thoughts raced backwards, trying to find the tomato salad and the vegetable chili again.
“Answer me, Sky.”
A horrible silence descended around them. Sky didn’t breathe.
“BE RESPECTFUL, SKY!” he bellowed. Sky jolted at the volume and swallowed a scream.
“You will not survive this world if you cannot respect me, do you understand that?”
“I can keep you safe, but only if you follow my instructions. I’ve told you to never mention her. Do you know what could happen if—”
“Do you know how close we are to losing everything?”
“It’s all on me. I have to carry us, Sky. ME. You have to understand that.”
“SHUT UP, GIRL!”
Sky held her breath again. She was beginning to feel dizzy. Anthony started to laugh. All the warmth of the sun and the feeling of spring dissipated. A shiver ran down Sky’s back.
“Can’t you say anything else?”
“Can’t you think of anything more interesting to say? Damn it, Sky.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
Another moment of silence passed between them. Sky began to work on the plants again, tamping the soil around their tender roots, hating herself for asking stupid questions about dead people.
“Your mother? She was strong. Outspoken,” Anthony said quietly. The longing in his voice broke her heart. Sky felt her lips begin to smile. She couldn’t help it—she thought of her mother as a hero. She couldn’t remember her, but she understood with a deep knowledge that her mother was strong.
“I could have survived this world forever with her,” Anthony said. He looked directly at Sky. “You’re nothing like her.”
The smile fell off of Sky’s face as Anthony, not for the first time, confirmed a belief she held at the core of herself.
“I’m not sure if we’re going to make it. I’m not sure if you have what it takes. And honestly, I’m not strong enough to be everything for both of us.”
Anthony stared expectantly at Sky. She didn’t know if she was supposed to apologize or agree.
“Yes sir. I’m sorry.”
Anthony narrowed his eyes, holding Sky in the clenched fist of his gaze. Finally, he closed his eyes and let out a sigh.
“Just go, Sky. Go in the house and start getting ready for nightfall. It’ll be dark soon.”
Sky quickly stood up and ran back to the house, thankful for the release even as the terror of night coursed through her and pummeled her heart.
Of course, she knew he had to keep it together. They both did. She was stupid for asking about her mother. It was just so hard not to, when he did that. Pulled back the curtain enough for her to squint from the light.
But it was selfish. The stress he was under was massive. Enough to kill a man, like he said had happened to everyone else who had survived the initial onslaught.
All she had to do was pull down the shutters and stay quiet. That was the extent of her job. It was important—they couldn’t risk detection. Not any light. Not a single sound. Once the house was prepared, her job was to sleep in the quiet of the basement, and to stay put no matter what she heard. Most nights, she didn’t hear anything. Those were the good nights. The few eventful evenings were all it took, though. For her to question everything. Especially if survival was worth it if it was all they had left.
She pulled down the shutters for the large front room window, the three bedrooms, the downstairs bathroom. She looked through the kitchen window at her father as he finished the vegetable transplants. The sun was on its way to the horizon, filling the air with gold.
She stared at this man who she loved. The only living person in the world she could love, and the only one who she could ever hope would love her. She wasn’t sure if he did right now. But he would again later. In the morning. When the horrors in the shadows melted by the light. When he knew he could close his eyes and things would be okay. He was doing the best he could. She knew that. She loved him for it. She hated the world for making his best not good enough. She hated her mother for being gone. She hated herself for not being her mother. She pulled down the shutters, grabbed a thick slice of toast and a jar of beans from the pantry. She poured water into a glass and headed down to the basement for the night.
Sky awoke to the sound of something pounding on the front door upstairs. Her father had not yet let her know morning had come, so she knew it must still be night. The blood drained from her face as the incessant pounding shook the door. Sky looked around her frantically. There was nothing in the basement but her bed, a crate of books, and her dresser of clothes. She leapt out of the bed and dragged the dresser in front of the basement door.
The pounding was relentless. Sky slid under her bed. The floor vibrated every time the door crashed. The violence and persistence of the sound convinced Sky that the door would not hold when all at once, the pounding stopped. All was silent. Sky’s eyes were hot with tears. Her breathing was shallow and muffled. If only she didn’t have to breathe. If only she could be so silent she ceased existing.
Then, footsteps. Quick ones. Her father? She had no idea. The sound of the front door opening, then slamming closed. Did her dad leave? Was something in the house now? Something heavy smashed on the floor. She squeezed her legs to her chest laying in the fetal position and bit her lip. She could not cry. She could not cry because if she cried, she would need to breathe more loudly, and if they heard her, she would die. She would die and there would be nothing but the terror and the darkness forever.
The door opened again. It sounded like something large was being dragged across the floor. The door slammed close. It was quiet. A loud crash on the upper right side of the basement wall jolted her out of her ruminations. Something had slammed into the house siding outside. Then another sound she didn’t understand. A rapid, scraping sound—almost as if something was trying to claw through the dirt and wall to get inside. To where she was. Alone.
Another crash in the same spot. Panic squeezed her body into a ball, her eyes glued to the part of the wall being assaulted by something that didn’t sound like her dad. Then gunfire.
Her entire body froze.
He’d only used his gun once in the last 8 years. And that was 8 years ago, the night all of this began. The night mom died. The night Sun died. The night everything changed and no one came to visit ever again and there were no more Thanksgivings or Christmases or birthdays because everyone was dead and all they had left was surviving and all he had left was her and now that was going to be over too.
Another shot and then the scratching stopped. There was nothing but silence. Then Sky noticed another sound. A soft, rhythmic song of a sound, not as frightening as it was heart wrenching. The sound of something breaking in a way that could never be undone. It was so close to her and it was her. She was crying. She couldn’t stop it. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t see, not even the darkness anymore. She was the darkness, and there was no light inside her.