When I hear the bicycle, I close my hands on the shotgun stretched across my sweaty legs and peel my bare thighs from the Adirondack chair. The day is stifling hot and smells like summer flowers and rot. Nothing moves except a ripped American flag flapping on a splintered flagpole a few porches down. I consider going inside to peek at who’s coming through the screened door, but I know the door will squeak, and I’ll lose the advantage of surprise.
“Surprise is your friend, Casey,” Daddy explained before he left. “You shoot before they know you’re there.”
“But what if they’re good?”
“No one’s good anymore.”
Everything changed after the thing happened. I don’t really know what the thing was because daddy won’t talk about it, but it came from far away – as far as the moon and the sun and the stars – and plunged the world into darkness. This was last September, just one day after I met my brand new third grade class, and our teacher, Mrs. Perkins, asked us all to introduce ourselves. For my turn, I said, “My name is Casey McKenzie, and I have a mother and a father and no brothers or sisters.” I was loud and clear and didn’t shake at all, starting third grade just right. But then the bad thing happened and there was no second day of school.
At first, people thought it was temporary. They said the utilities would go back online, the banks would reopen, and the supermarkets would unchain their doors. Then, the gas pumps went dry, and the emergency ration trucks stopped coming, and the world became a different place.
I duck behind the Adirondack chair and crouch low, shotgun across my knees. Through the slats in the chair, I see a boy with overgrown yellow hair pedaling past my house. I remember him from the first day of third grade, mostly because of his yellow hair which is the exact same color as the hair on my favorite American Girl doll. He had introduced himself as “Tommy” and said he had two sisters. He’s probably heading home to them now, bringing them food in the filthy pillowcase slung over his shoulder.
People kill for food now.
I relax my hands on the shotgun and decide not to shoot Tommy. Daddy should be back soon, and we’ll have our own food. Besides, the shotgun recoil really hurts my shoulder. For a second, though, I think about shooting the gun, anyway, just to get Tommy’s attention. I want to tell him that what I said on the first day of school last year isn’t right anymore. Now I have to say, “My name is Casey McKenzie and I have a father but no mother.”
I raise the gun, but it’s too late.
After the electricity disappeared and the bank and groceries closed, the sickness came. This new sickness is nothing like a cold or flu, though. This sickness breaks people down from the outside in so that their skin turns rough and pebbly like beach sand at low tide, and their organs melt and leak from their open parts – nose, ears, even privates. When it gets to their brains, they just squeal and grunt like stuck pigs until someone puts them out of their misery.
After Daddy put Mama out of her misery, we buried her behind the house. I put my favorite American Girl doll, the one with the yellow hair, on the grave to keep her company. A few days later, though, the doll was gone.
Now Daddy’s gone, but he’ll be back soon. He promised.
“But what if you don’t come back?”
“I’ll be back, promise.”
Later, I see him. Daddy coming down the road, lurching left and right like Aunt Marsha after Christmas dinner. Shouting a song with no words or melody. The pack on his back looks full.
When he’s closer, I can see the rough skin on his face. Like beach sand at low tide.
I know what I have to do. Daddy went over it with me. He said we use our guns for three things: To protect ourselves, to get food, and to put people out of their misery.
My hands are shaking when I raise the shotgun, so I drop to my knees and rest the barrel on the porch rail to keep it steady. Daddy showed me how close someone had to get before I should take a shot. At a certain distance, he said, there was no missing.
I move the little lever on the gun that switches it from safety mode into firing mode, just like Daddy taught me. I push the gun into my shoulder and sight, the way Daddy taught me. My finger finds the trigger. An explosion splits the air, and Daddy’s singing stops. On the ground, a red lake grows beneath him.
The gun in my hands is still cold. I lay it flat on the porch and duck back behind the Adirondack chair. Across the street and down the block, Mr. Jorgenson descends his stoop with a rifle trained on the bloody mess that is Daddy. His pit bull follows on his heels, and Mr. Jorgenson shouts something at the dog, who runs up and sniffs my Daddy, then pees. Mr. Jorgenson lowers his rifle, walks up to Daddy and pokes him with the toe of his boot. He tugs the pack from Daddy’s back, scans the street, and turns back to his house. The pit bull follows.
I sit in the Adirondack chair until the sun is low and the lightening bugs are out. Down the street, flies buzz around Daddy.
He came back, like he said he would. But he was sick, and Mr. Jorgenson put him out of his misery.
My name is Casey McKenzie, and I have no parents. I’m alone and hungry and Mr. Jorgenson has my food. And a rifle and a pit bull.
So, I take my shotgun and follow Tommy’s bicycle.
Laura Cody is a forensic psychiatrist in New York. Outside of the office, her unique skillset includes running at a slower pace than the typical walker, baking misshapen loaves of sourdough, and always – always – selecting the shopping cart with the bad wheel. She is currently working with a partner on a post-apocalyptic thriller series. Visit her at twodocswriting.com.