Richard P J Lambert CC
The mornings were for smoke, hazy and thick in the mouth from the fires that were still smoldering in the landfill. Sometimes it smelled like the campfires she and Zosia sat around that first year, in the Fall in the hills outside of town. Then the wind shifted and it smelled like trash again, toxic and plastic. She tried not to think about what it was doing to her lungs. On the list of things that could kill her, “corrosive carcinogens from burning plastic Tampon applicators and Ziploc sandwich baggies” was not very high. She was far more likely to break a leg sifting through the rubble at a gas station for a Twinkie and some toilet paper and, in her hobbled state, get taken out by a wolf or succumb to gangrenous rot.
Lorraine felt certain she was going to meet an ignominious death. Definitely a death in search of toilet paper or dog food or a decent solution to the problem of menstruation, all of which had been scoured from the shelves in the initial panic. For right now, Diane mostly ate what Lorraine ate, other than the odd can of wet food Lorraine managed to scrounge up in one of the shell shocked Jewel-Osco’s she frequented for supplies. Lorraine survived on skipping her period using the birth control pills she still had, but that was going to end in a month. The toilet paper situation was touchy, and she preferred not to think of it directly, allowing it to skirt far outside the perimeter of the white-hot center of her anxiety.
She wore a bandana around her face when she was outside, for the smoke, but also because she liked the image she and Diane cut as they walked down the center of the street, their reflections following them, the only moving things in a stilled landscape: Diane’s regal pinkish ears and her soft pink muzzle set off by the silver grey fur, her bulky pit body loping alongside her, and Lorraine in her boots and her hoodie and the bandana, humming Kashmir for a joke, all of those things that before would have made them look formidable, like they were out to fuck shit up. Now there was no one to look but themselves as they jogged past the empty storefronts and the windows shouted their images back to them. Those things about them that would have signaled danger before—Diane’s silver hammerhead jaw snapped shut like a trap over the limp body of a squirrel—those signs that meant they should be avoided, what did they mean now that there was no one to look?
A handful of times that first year in their writing program, she and Zosia had gone into the hills outside of Laramie and huddled over a scrawny fire, started in on a couple of tallboys, tried to make each other laugh. It always devolved into gleeful, shitty gossip.
“Lor, have you ever noticed how Winnie takes a cigarette break anytime Steve goes up for workshop?” Zosia would say, staring into the fire, a small smile having crept onto her face. She never directed her smiles directly at people, as if she knew the full force of them was slightly formidable.
“My dude, she’s allergic to depictions of conventional heteros having depressive p-in-v, and there’s always sad missionary-position sex in Steve’s stories.”
“Ok, Miss Queer Theory 2013,” Zosia laughed. “I’m pretty sure that’s my line. Don’t judge Steve’s sad hetero sex until you remove the plank from your own vagina.”
Lorraine laughed, a surprised squawk, then blushed, her face hidden by the night and the glow from the fire. Heterosexuality was frequently lampooned by Zosia, who called it “an unfortunate aberration in the genetic code” and, Lorraine often felt, by extension, a vague shadow had been cast over her own desire, calling its legitimacy into question.
“But his last story had no sad boning!” Zosia continued, oblivious, “Maybe his sex life’s improving.” Her eyes went wide and innocent.
Lorraine had a choice at this stage about whether or not she wanted to fully jump into the shit talk, knowing that Zosia was trying to goad her into saying something awful and hilarious, not content until Lorraine had called Steve a cramped skinned-knee of a human with likely impotence issues he was compensating for with his florid prose. It felt like a game of one-upsmanship that she wasn’t totally comfortable with when she was sober. Was Zosia storing up these insults as evidence against her character? Would she deploy this knowledge later and turn their mutual friends against her? Was she compiling some kind of burn book? Their acquaintance, first semester into their writing program, had been new enough that she wasn’t sure. When she was drunk, however, she’d have done anything to make Zosia—a tiny depressive person herself, though of a distinctly gayer species than Steve—light up. That it took a fair amount of less-than-ethical shit talk to make Zosia that kind of glowing-from-within happy bothered her less and less as their friendship progressed and no repercussions were forthcoming. The weekly shit-talking festival moved indoors mid-September, when it started to get too cold at night, and then they moved to bars where sullen men in Carhartts sipped whiskey and girls arrived out of the cold shivering, still bare-legged in their best skirts, pretending the Wyoming wind didn’t do what it always did, their skin windburned and pebbled all over like chicken skin, cornered and plucked.
It was surprising to her, now that the world was ended and everyone was gone, how much time she spent in just subsisting day-to-day. The streets were still choked with cars where people had abandoned them or died in them and it was mostly too much of a hassle to drive—the last time she’d attempted she’d ended up playing a life-size game of Tetris trying to navigate around a wall of cars blocking a major intersection and had to drive up on a lawn in the little sedan she had and it had recently rained and the sedan just…stuck.
She’d wanted to try harder to dig it out, but the car closest to hers was full. A couple, now too decomposed to see much of who they’d been. They must’ve gotten too sick to keep going and just decided to stick it out in the car. They were curled in the backseat, the one on top wrapped in the arms of the one under her, pressing their bodies together in a last moment. Another Pompeii, though the tableau arguably less poetic for occurring in a Subaru. Which of them had gone first? Had she known, or was she too delirious to know she was clinging to a corpse? A hair tie circled the wrist on the hand of the body on the bottom, clenched tightly in the t-shirt of the body on top. Clutched still, though the urgency of the moment was gone, clutched as Lorraine stared into the window, her heart pounding, vomit searing her esophagus. And the smell.
She’d had to heft the 30-pound bag of dog food onto a shoulder and trudge home, leaving the car. Cars felt like a parody of the old world. She couldn’t go back, why pretend.
These days the word that kept circulating through her head was “fecund,” an SAT word she was annoyed at herself for remembering, because who was around to listen or care about that kind of decorative frippery now? But it was fecund and lovely, the way the manicured lawns were being taken over by wild scrub, the way thick blankets of emerald moss had appeared on the concrete. Even the rot in the refrigerated aisles of the supermarkets, even the rats—it felt like a fertile death. It felt like a death that was struggling toward something, working to become. On a park bench outside of the former public library, she ate a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos (one of the last in the world, she thought, wistfully), a can of spinach, and a Silver Century brand vitamin for the elderly and washed it all down with a bottle of water. One of the wild dogs that moved in packs now stood at the edge of the lot thrashing something to death in its jaw, and Diane whined a little, then settled into a low rumbling growl and planted herself a foot in front of Lorraine. “Relax,” she said to Diane, “that one doesn’t need us. He’s already got a snack,” but Diane stood in front of her, rumbling away.
She knew she was a guest here. She didn’t imagine she’d be welcome for long.
Early into their second year, Zosia had come back from a run to the apartment she and Lorraine now shared with Diane at her heels. Lorraine was on the couch, watching one of the Housewives franchises, which she mainly did because Zosia found it amusing. (“I like,” she’d declared imperiously, “when idiots get drunk and give themselves away. They can’t help it, they just pick at their shitty brains like scabs until they burst open and one of them starts screaming about how good her pussy is.”) Zosia ran up and let herself into the apartment, and a silver grey pit bull followed her. Zosia slipped into the bathroom and the shower started up, leaving the dog, who sniffed around the living room for a minute, then settled at Lorraine’s feet with a whump. Lorraine reached a tentative hand down in front of the dog’s face and received a lick.
“I think I accidentally got a dog,” Zosia said when she emerged from the shower.
“We can’t have dogs in the apartment. The lease.” Lorraine said, already knowing this was a losing battle.
The dog, clearly knowing the word ‘dog,’ had flipped over and smiled winningly up at them, revealing her shell-pink stomach. Lorraine’s hand reached out automatically, like a magnet homing in, and began to stroke the dog’s belly. The skin felt warm and thin. She felt the desire to bury her face in it, to lick it, then felt embarrassed.
“We should name her Baby,” Lorraine said, giving in.
Zosia had laughed. “We are not naming my dog Baby. How about Diane?”
“Like Diane from Cheers?”
“No, like Diane from Twin Peaks.”
“Like Diana, the goddess,” Lorraine said.
“Let’s not overreach, Lor. I’m sure she licks her own vagina.”
“Maybe Diana did too,” Lorraine said.
“Shit, I guess I would too if I could,” Zosia said.
And the dog groaned and stretched out and fell asleep, and her name was Diane.
There had been a moment…her and Zosia sitting in Zosia’s car in the light of the Wal-Mart parking lot that first year before they lived together. They had gone grocery shopping, but neither of them could bear to go home, and their chicken breasts and yogurt and milk sat in the trunk of the car, spoiling by the minute. The Wal-Mart sat at the edge of town. To drive past it was to drive into the night, the mountains, into a nothingness that was not nothing, really. Everyone was always trying to say the West was a blank canvas you could project anything onto, but that wasn’t true. It was cold and unknown to her and populous with what, she didn’t know. That wasn’t nothing, she had to remind herself.
It became easier to look at Zosia, Lorraine found, when they sat side by side. Her body felt like a tuning fork, vibrating, struck into music, forced into music. The blue light from the Wal-Mart sign illuminated Zosia’s face so that she looked alien, her full mouth purpling in the strange false light. A silence had descended on the car. She knew what the silence meant. If she had reached over, if she had taken Zosia’s hand, it would be out in the open. The silence had gone on so long that it felt like they lived in the car, that the car was the whole world.
“I guess I need to read for class,” Zosia had finally said.
That had been the moment: a silence, a world and a lifetime, and there hadn’t seemed to be another one, though now that there were no discrete moments, no days, no hours, she felt keenly the loss of what must have been a near-infinite number of seconds and in those seconds, choices she could have made. It was useless to think of it, but like a child who hopes to bargain with a deity to get the thing they know is most impossible, she thought of Zosia often, as if thinking of it could change that she was alone. As if thinking of it could change that she hadn’t, five years ago, reached across the cup holder in that blue light and taken Zosia’s hand, and kissed her, and kissed her, and kissed her again.
She left Laramie without Zosia. She left Laramie with Diane.
On her last day in town before Lorraine headed back east, Zosia went for a run after having sullenly watched Lorraine pack her car up all afternoon. “You’ll like the apartment I found, Zee,” Lorraine said that morning. “There’s a cute arcade bar next door.”
“Aren’t you tired of drinking so much?” Zosia said, and Lorraine reddened, felt it like a slap: a divergence from their agreed upon girlish codependency, their indulgence of one another’s flaws, their insistence on explaining those flaws to each other so that they appeared, for a moment, to be assets.
They talked little after that. And then the car was full.
“Goodbye, I guess,” Lorraine said, feeling stupid. “I’ll come back to visit.”
“Yeah, I know, we’ll keep in touch,” Zosia said, staring at her feet. (Was that sarcasm? Lorraine thought).
It was a bad play with a weak script and they were forced to keep going, and Zosia was hiding behind irony like she always did when she felt something too much, though perhaps it was an irony they both needed in that moment. There was no way to puncture this idiocy and reach through to grasp the real Zosia. She would have to continue this way. Lorraine wanted to die. Instead she stepped forward and hugged Zosia, whose tiny frame she felt she could engulf in hers. She smelled musty, and a little like body odor. Her chin hooked over Zosia’s shoulder and Lorraine stared at Diane, who was whining a little.
“Alright, ok,” Zosia said with a laugh after the hug didn’t end, and stepped away.
Lorraine watched Zosia silently lace up her hideous running shoes and run down the black top of the driveway, her tiny form battling the wind, and she felt furious—why should Zosia be mad at her, after all this time, all of a sudden? People are assholes when they don’t know how to take care of themselves, Zosia always said about the emotionally immature artists who populated their writing program. Lorraine had thought it wise, drunk in a bar at midnight, Zosia gesticulating with an unlit cigarette. Now she only felt dread. When would she next sit in a bar with Zosia? When would she next unravel the world with her in the near, cold hours of the night?
Diane sat, staring at her, a high whine in the back of her throat, and before she had time to consider, she was ushering her to her car, clearing the front seat, going back inside to take her dog bed where it lay to the right of Zosia’s bed frame. And they drove out of town on that grey afternoon in late May, the bank of clouds on the horizon so low they seemed to invade the plains.
Halfway through her drive, she checked her phone and saw ten missed calls from Zosia. On the voicemail, Zosia’s voice, rough from crying, cold and remote: Why are you like this?
She hadn’t considered, in the moment when she was taking Diane, that she was ending everything with Zosia. She had felt the action as one moment in a long series of tactical deployments in their relationship—a betrayal, certainly, but a justified one. They were both mad, both upset, when they next talked they would be able to figure it out. They would timeshare Diane, Zosia would come visit, they would laugh about it one day. But Zosia never came.
The sickness came down swiftly and felt decisive in a Biblical way. It took two days from start to finish, and the symptoms set in quickly, without warning. It went like this: fever, raw throat, blistering, hallucinations, a sudden break in the fever, then death.
Lorraine had stocked up on beans and potato chips and water and dog food, had walked Diane, then went back to her apartment to wait. She put the news on, and watched as the ranks of the newscasters thinned until only one remained. On the last day of the news, he had shown up, sweaty, feverish, a bloody mark creeping out of his collar. “There’s nothing left to do now but love what you have,” he said, and he’d sounded almost relieved. In a way, she thought, it was a relief to have all options removed from you. A straight line to follow: the joy of resignation.
At first, there had been a festive air after the quarantine was enforced, neighbors in the halls sharing wine, laughing. The prevailing wisdom was that science would save them, somehow. But then the sounds coming from the neighboring units were terrible, undignified and horrible, every once in a while a furious wail. The anger of the condemned. Lorraine played music, slipped out of the apartment only to let Diane take a piss every eight hours. She stopped picking up her poop from the patch of grass in front of the building, too afraid to make the walk to the dumpsters, not sure what she’d find there. At night in the streets there were screams.
And then the fever set in and she sat in the bed, shivering, clutching Diane. Diane lay her head on Lorraine’s legs and stared at her and seemed to vibrate with concern. Every once in a while she opened the door for Diane and let her into the hall to pee. She didn’t have the strength for much more. When Lorraine’s blisters got bad and Diane appeared to have morphed into a horned creature lit with a heavenly glow, she mustered up her last fevered reserves and put Diane on the leash and walked her downstairs. Outside, she unhooked her leash and knelt and hugged Diane, whose warm, wet tongue snaked out, impossibly long, to lick her ear. “Thank you,” she said into her fur, and then she kissed the spot on her muzzle where the fur seemed to have been worn thin with kissing, a place that Zosia, too, had kissed, over and over, and Lorraine imagined her mouth meeting the ghostly remnant of Zosia’s, there on the face of the dog they both loved. Then Lorraine stood and went back inside to die.
Instead, her fever broke and her blisters scabbed and she lay in bed for two more days to be sure, listening to the world quiet, eating beans when she could. On the third day, on shaky legs, she opened the door to her apartment and there was Diane, with a new bloody tear in her fine grey ear.
“Oh hello,” Lorraine said, and let her in for a bit of first aid, and a feast: a scoop of dog food and half a can of tuna.
The neighborhood dogs had gone feral now and seemed to have a bit of a super pack going, maybe a Lost Boys kind of thing—no parents! we’re the parents now!—and Diane and Lorraine would have to back up slowly if they turned a corner and found them ripping something apart, bodies shivering and snapping like hyenas, Diane’s fur in a stiff, angry bristle. When the pack ran they sounded thunderous and a bit stupid: there were always some terriers and decorative idiotic bichons living it up, yipping hysterically. At first Lorraine wondered if Diane would run off and join the circus, but she never did.
So it was her and Diane, scavenging, avoiding the pack dogs, sleeping together in one of the nice abandoned houses in a leafy neighborhood. She still barricaded the door at night, at first to keep the looters out. Then the looters had died and it was clear no one else was coming. The big pack slept in a park a few blocks away. She found herself barricading the door anyway, protecting what she had from the nothing that wanted it.
It was grotesque, to be so bereft of companionship, walking down the middle of the street, waking up alone, shocked and sweaty, singing alone, Diane trying her howl on the high notes. But she couldn’t bear to leave. Her landscape had become known to her, the horrors it offered up had softened in her continued exposure to them. Perhaps there was something else out there, but she couldn’t risk all the looking it asked of her. She couldn’t risk the trying.
She thought about the Wal-Mart parking lot often. It had been wrong not to try—not to give her and Zosia what they both wanted, that little bit of light they could have made together. Now that there was infinite time to consider, she knew it had been fear that had stopped her. Fear like that did not exist anymore. Not now, when the fears were bigger, bodily: scavenging, trying not to break a leg and go to rot. But it was a kind of rot she had been afraid of: the slow decay of Zosia’s regard for her, the way hunger would turn, inevitable, into comfort, then disgust. The day when Zosia would enter a room and not look first for Lorraine’s eyes, her affection so loud in her gaze that Lorraine could feel it like a touch to her cheek from across the room. Before Zosia, there hadn’t been any women for Lorraine, only men. So it had been on her, to tell Zosia. To tell her that she wasn’t alone. After Zosia, there had been nothing at all.
She went over and over it now, all that she could have had if she had only asked for it, all that she had bereaved herself of in the not-asking for it. She let the vision of her life with Zosia fill the ruined world, limping along at her side loyal and constant as Diane.
Zosia’s face flickering in and out of shadow as she sat across from her at the campfire.
Zosia confused at the oven, burning something for dinner, then yelling at Lorraine for making fun of her.
Zosia’s skinned knee after her daily run, kiss it, she’d said, laughing at herself for crying. And Lorraine had kissed it, had tasted the raw salt of her blood.
It had been stupid not to try. Or worse: it had been evil. Lorraine and Zosia had gone grocery shopping in the Walmart, animals themselves roaming the chilled, pristine ecosystem of the refrigerated aisle and the produce aisle where vegetables were waxed to a terrifying sheen. Staring at the 30 kinds of cheese, the five varietals of apples, laughing with Zosia about cucumbers shaped like dicks, stupid jokes that weren’t even jokes, really, just an excuse to bat language back and forth. Lorraine had stuffed the car with a mountain of perishable groceries and had wedged herself in, too, next to the lemons that seemed to give off an unnatural light. Next to Zosia whose cruel wit was banked low, for just a moment, as she waited on Lorraine for a word, for a sign that she wouldn’t have to make a joke, this once. Such blatant wealth. That kind of waste was an offense punishable by death, in this new place. And death had passed over her like the shadow of a black wing and moved on. So she would be made to live in her stupidity a while longer, made to wake up again and again to a shadow crouching at the periphery of her field of vision.
Sometimes at three in the morning, spooning Diane, she thought: could that fate that she thought of as grotesque, horrific, could it in fact be a lucky fate? Lucky, and Zosia was waiting for Lorraine to make her way down I-80 to her? Maybe it was better to leave, to make her way out into the world, find out what was left. Who.
And then there would come a sunny day, Diane drinking from a dead fountain greened with algae, the light making her fur silver, and everything around her so beautiful and charming in the conflagration of its decay that Lorraine would imagine a figure appearing out of the still landscape. Or she’d wake to the silence of this new world with the image of a nightblue hand clasped in hers and the feeling of fingers just having scraped down her scalp, hello my love wake up wake up and for a moment she could think, could know: someone’s coming for me.
Katie Schmid is a writer living in Nebraska. She has published prose at The Rumpus and The Establishment, and poetry at Redivider and Hayden's Ferry Review, most recently.
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