by Sarena Ulibarri
The deer have moved into the neighborhood now; that shows how far things have gone. Once or twice when I was a little girl we took trips out of the city and I remember them grazing along the side of the highway. Now they graze in the untended lawns of my neighbors. For awhile after the epidemic hit it was common to see coyotes, buzzards, foxes, scratching at the neighbors’ doors, compelled by the smell of rotting meat. But the carnivores have moved on, mostly. Now it’s just the deer.
When my roommate Alyce and I started seeing pictures online of virus-ravaged bodies, we boarded up the doors, put tape over all the vents. We don’t know whether or not we’re the only ones left.
I always imagined the end of civilization would come in some mechanized way, our own technology turned against us. Great hulking machines, land burned by chemical warfare, humanity destroying itself with its own progress. But this was a biological takedown. Nature looking at the scar we left on her and saying, “Enough.” The little research released said that even before the virus finished replicating, it sent self-destruct signals from the infected cell to all nearby cells. Mitochondrial meltdowns happened in hours. The disease leapt from body to body and in a few weeks the world as we knew it was gone. Now, dust rolls over paved streets and the click of deer hooves replaces the thrum of car tires.
Neither Alyce nor I knows how to hunt, but we’re running out of food. A few more cans of corn, a bag of flour and a sack of stale Halloween candy. She wants to dig a trap in the backyard, let the deer break its legs, then use a kitchen knife to carve the carcass. I grab her arm and hold her so tightly I can almost feel the bone beneath the skin, tell her we can’t go outside, we don’t know that the virus isn’t in the air. She says the air stinks in this house, which is true. She says she’s tired of being stuck here with me, which I hope is not true. I refuse to let go and she pulls against me.
The deer passes by the living room window, its antlers pronged and jagged, resembling the microscopic pictures of the virus that we saw online. Our computers are long dead from lack of electricity, and when I watched the screen dim for the last time, I didn’t think I could ever feel so alone. Until now, when Alyce pulls away from me, tells me she has to leave or she’ll go crazy. That she would rather catch the virus and join the other corpses than stay here and hide any longer. And besides, she says, what if there are other survivors out there? How are we supposed to rebuild if we don’t ever find each other?
I don’t want to rebuild. It would be nice to comfortable again, with lights, running water, but in that word “rebuild” I hear too much struggle. I hear survival of the fittest. I hear the human race trying to push itself back into the evolutionary game. If we did find a man out there, I wouldn’t let him touch me. I’d cut out my own uterus if he did anyway. Nature has made its selection.
Just wait one more day, I ask Alyce. I beg her. I make her promise before I let go of her arm.
That night I climb in bed next to her, lay my head on her sharp shoulder. Her body is rigid, but I wrap my leg over hers and eventually she softens under its weight. I hold her with the knowledge that I may never hold a human body again, and I ache with her refusal to hold me back. Her shoulder twitches and I realize she is crying.
In the morning she’s gone. I wrap myself in the blankets and roll toward the wall, watching every breath for a sign of the virus in the air she must have let in when she left. If I pay enough attention, maybe I’ll be able to feel when the virus replicates, when the first cell breaks down.
When I don’t feel anything I get out of bed, find the boards she removed from the door and nail them back up. I consider dismantling the coffee table and boarding up the windows too, but they’re storm windows, as unbreakable as a window can be. I glance out of it, and see Alyce crouched by the open gate, looking more ape than human. It isn’t even her. No, she’s gone.
That night the door shakes against the boards. Fists rattle the walls; a voice shouts. I creep to the windows and look out. The deer antlers peek up from just out of view, unnaturally still. Alyce is covered in blood and dirt. No, not Alyce. This ape woman, this creature from outside who threatens my safe world. I dismantle the coffee table, nail it across the rattling door and shrink back into the bedroom.