The Dashboard feature on Mom's Mac promised sunny skies and a high of eighty, but so far the clouds hung low, obscuring the sun the way the thick shades in the Sitting Room distorted the bulbs whenever Ally dared to play in there.
"That's the Sitting Room," her mom said last night when she found Ally playing on the couch with Trooley, Ally's doll. Mom was on her second martini.
"That's what I'm doing--sitting," Ally said with a slight grin. She picked up Trooley, her favorite doll who was wearing a paisley dress these days, her black hair in braids, and marched her across the the couch cushion in military fashion. The couch used to be at Grandma's house and it still smelled like her, old and sweet with a faint trace of decay. Grandma hadn't survived the first outbreak. The couch had been cleansed, but the smell lingered.
"It's for guests," Mom said slowly, pronouncing each word carefully as if to intimidate. Really, though, Mom spoke that way ("deliberately," Dad called it) when she was drinking to avoid verbal stumbles and incoherent mumbling.
Ally gathered her things--Trooley, the fake tea set--and went downstairs to her playroom, which was actually the basement. Its cold, concrete walls and brown, scratchy carpet didn't scream "fun," but she made the most of it. Ally played mostly in the first corner--Ally's Spot, she called it; she even used her stencil set to create a multi-colored poster advertising just that, and Scotch-taped it to the wall. She also snuck down her Hello Kitty lamp, which helped fight the harsh glare of the two bare bulbs in the ceiling, their alien light always hurting her eyes and making her brain cramp.
On rainy days, she'd stay down in Ally's Spot all day, except for going upstairs for her peanut butter and jelly sandwich at noon, which Mom would make slowly as if there existed greater meaning in the application of peanut butter and jelly on bread than simply lunch. The bottle of Beefeater Gin was never far out of Mom's reach, either.
Mom never got up very early and today she was still asleep at ten. Ally had risen and eaten her Cheerios, sitting on Grandma's old couch, which could pass for something from a castle or a museum (she was definitely not allowed to eat in the Sitting Room), and then placed the bowl and spoon in the dishwasher. There had been one Cheerio left in her bowl, just one, floating in the tan-colored milk. She wondered about that single Cheerio. Did it want to be eaten and join the others? Would it rather return to the box with the Cheerios waiting for their day in Ally's bowl? Or did the Fate of the Drain await this "O"? Was it lonely? If she were a single Cheerio, alone in a dirty pool, Ally knew right where she'd want to be.
So, Ally granted the Cheerio a reprieve from the Fate of the Drain.
When her Mom discovered the Cheerio over three weeks later, she cried, finally forging a connection with a daughter she'd let disappear.
Today would be the ideal day for lemonade. Mom had helped her squeeze fresh lemons last night after Ally finished playing in the basement and, taking advantage of Mom's suggestible state, managed to convince her that tomorrow would be the perfect day for a lemonade stand. It had been fun, too, squeezing the lemons onto a thing that looked like a fat, metal tooth. Fun until, of course, Mom passed out in the Family Room, drink on the table, a reality show flickering away on the TV.
The lemon juice and the healthy portion of sugar she'd added before going to bed, waited for Ally in the fridge. She poured herself a glass and slowly sipped at it the way her Mom did all those drinks in the space-ship-looking glasses.
The freezing sweetness numbed her lips and strangled her tongue. She gagged but managed to swallow. She brought the pitcher to the sink and added water. Then stopped. She emptied two 12oz bottles of water into the jug instead. The second taste proved more acceptable, but still very sweet. Hopefully the Mac weather forecast proved correct: if the day's temperature got real hot, people wouldn't care about the taste--they'd just drink and be happy.
But pay first, of course.
Ally brought out one of the folding-tray tables from the Family Room. Sometimes she and Mom ate on them when Mom didn't want to sit at the kitchen table, only the two of them chewing on pork chops and gulping their drinks--milk for Ally, martini for Mom.
Dad would be back, eventually, she said. He'd gotten sick like the people in California, like the people in Grandma's town. Mom said he was at a "Special Medical Place" in Virginia, but he'd come back. Everything would be alright.
Dad was a doctor, the family type who always had plastic-wrapped lollipops in a bowl at the reception desk. He'd volunteered to help with the outbreak in California. Mom had told him not to go.
"It's not Swine or Avian," Mom said. "This is deadly."
"That's why I need to go." Dad draped an arm over Mom's shoulders. She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve and shrugged his arm off.
"It's highly contagious."
"It's a government program. They have precautions, procedures. I'll be fine."
"Something could happen."
"I need to help."
"What about me? Ally?"
Dad paused then. He gently tugged a tear from her cheek. "People are so afraid," he said. "I need to do something to help." Mom slipped into Dad's hug.
"Think of all the children in California. What if Ally were one of them? Wouldn't you want the best doctors to help?"
"Yes," Mom said slowly. "So why are you going?"
A moment later they were laughing. Ally thought that meant everything would be fine, but the next morning Dad kissed her and Mom goodbye and left in a black SUV, the words, Special Government Operation stenciled across the side like the letters in Ally's Spot.
Now he was in Virginia.
Had his face turned purple yet?
Ally had made a similar stenciled sign on a piece of cardboard she found in the hallway closet--the cardboard was really the bottom of a water-bottle package. Only bottled water now. If they ran out, Mom boiled water from the sink before it could be used.
Ally had forgotten the bottled water at first, using unfiltered sink water in the lemonade. What if her customers get sick?
Ally used duct tape to stick the sign to the corner of the folding tray. There were six roles of duct tape in the bottom drawer by the fridge. The plastic bags were in there, too. "Just in case," Mom said every time she added another box of clear, plastic bags to her shopping cart. The air masks were in their own place under the sink among the bottles of "Industrial Strength Disinfectant--Perfect for Killing Germs and Cleaning Bodily Fluids!"
On her second trek from the house to the edge of the lawn by the curb, Ally brought the jug of lemonade and a stack of 5oz Dixie bathroom cups, each decorated with a different clown face. She set the cups in three towers next to the jug on the tray. The ice-cubes clanking in the jug were made from bottled water.
The third trip added her Little Mermaid money bank (Ariel on a rock, back arched, red hair flowing down toward her flipper) and, of course, Trooley. Ally assumed she was now ready for business, but then she took a fourth journey to get one of the kitchen chairs that had wheels on it. She pushed it over the grass to the tray table by the curb, near to their red-barn mailbox.
She sat in the chair, placed Trooley on her lap so she could pet her braided hair, and waited for customers.
Two hours later, the first dark clouds crept in from the west. Where California is, Ally thought. The sun was supposed to come out, break through the low clouds and make people so warm they'd get thirsty. Instead, the temperature had dropped; Ally started massaging away the goosebumps on her arms. If it got any colder, she'd have to get her NYU sweatshirt. That was where she was going to go to college. She'd study medicine like Dad, maybe cure diseases, too.
First, however, she had to get through the fourth grade and the evil Mrs. Haggartsnat, whom everyone called Old Hag Snot. She giggled. Would any kids dare call her that to her face? Maybe Bobby Maxwell--he was crazy enough.
Mom came out around one.
Ally had started to slip into the hazy illusionary world of daydreams, places where Trooley could speak and walk around without Ally's help, when Mom touched her shoulder. The streets, meaning only Maple St. and Pine Ave, were empty. Ally hadn't seen any cars or the usual Daily Walkers, not even Ms. Kegman and her little toy poodle Flopsy, who took afternoon excursions to "make sure no malfeasance is about."
Their little corner of Pleasant Oaks Gated Community, a place that some of the kids at school, like Carlo, called a "place for stuck-ups," was now like that Wild West theme park they went to last summer. They had walked down an old Main Street, only a few fake tumbleweeds populating the dirt road. The curved doors on the Slugger's Saloon squeaked open and shut in smaller and smaller arcs, pushed from an invisible wind. Then a pistol crack echoed around them and the buildings spewed out actors dressed in Old West attire. In moments, they were in the middle of a staged shoot-out. Ally had started crying because of the loud noises, but she'd enjoyed the park--especially later when eating an ice cream bar amid the soothing Old West piano music from a nearby loudspeaker. Mom, Dad, and ice cream.
"You should come in, dear," Mom said. Her eyes flitted around the two streets and all the identical homes, hand on Ally's shoulder.
"It's like Ghost Town," Ally said. "Remember?"
Mom shook her head slowly. Her eyes still flipped from Maple to Pine and over each house, like mentally jumping hopscotch. "It's going to rain."
"But the Dashboard thingy said it'd be eighty and sunny."
"Weather is fickle."
Ally didn't know what that meant, but she didn't say anything. Sometimes Mom just didn't make sense--it was a fact of life.
"Is it because of The Rots?" Ally asked.
Mom walked past her to the street, turned one way and then the other, then went to the driveway and picked up the rolled-up newspaper. It was wrapped in plastic. She unwrapped it, unrolled the rubber band, and unfurled the paper.
She stared at the cover. Her face tensed and then relaxed, eyes widening, and then it was like a cloud passed over her mind. Her face went slack, as if she fell asleep.
Ally opened her mouth to say, "Mom?," but stopped. Maybe it was better to leave her alone. Ally couldn't say why that was true, but it seemed right.
More dark clouds had moved in like silent assassins to murder Ally's lemonade enterprise. They were bloated beasts fat with rain, preparing to vomit it all out. The sunshine that had been the dim light behind a heavy shade was now the distant glow of a nightlight smothered beneath a comforter.
A breeze tumbled one stack of Dixie cups into the other towers, and they all collapsed onto the tray table, ricocheted off the jug of lemonade, and fell to the grass, which had started to brown in random patches. Like the disease.
Maybe the rain would be good. It would give life back to the grass. Wash away the decaying patches. Rain could heal. Rain was life.
"Ally," Mom said in a sharp clip. She had broken from her trance, her eyes poised and something else, too. What was that emotion--fear? Panic? Desperation? "Time to pack up. Get inside."
"I'm going to call your father." After a pause, she added, "And bring that chair inside; it doesn't belong out here. It belongs in the kitchen."
Mom was back up the driveway and inside the house before Ally could retry her retort. Going to call your father. But Dad was in Virginia and unreachable. Had Mom lied about that? Why? Yet another example of the Confusing World of Adults.
Ally started to gather the Dixie cups--Trooley watched from the chair with her black eyes--when the approaching rumble of a car made her pause. This could be the one and only chance for a sale today. Hope still existed.
An old station wagon with chipped tan paint and rust spots--like the grass--slowed to a stop at the curb, mere feet away. It was like the car appeared out of nowhere.
A thin man sat in the driver's seat, hands on the wheel. A shadow obscured his face. Someone else, a child maybe around Ally's age, was in the back, asleep. There was something strange about the kid's posture, but Ally couldn't say what.
The car door swung open with a squeak and the man stepped out on unsteady legs, as if he were walking on a boat out at sea. His clothes, a black wind jacket and a speckled shirt of brown and blue and faded jeans, hung off him, a size or two too large. He was starting to bald; what hair he did have floated off his head in thin, hay-like wisps. But it was the man's face that stopped Ally's words, the sentence she had had mentally practiced all last night as to avoid sounding childish--Would you like some lemonade?
The man had deep-set eyes beneath a prominent brow and cheekbones that stuck out at harsh angles bookending a round nose over a thin mouth around which several-days worth of stubble had taken root. He was too thin, as if he had been dieting too much, but he could almost pass for Dad. Dad who had gotten ill and probably lost weight, too. Dad who said he'd be back.
Ally almost called this man "Dad," but stopped herself in time to prevent looking pathetic--a little girl crying for her daddy.
The man smiled at her the way Dad always did, the corners of his lips pushing up his cheeks to showcase his dimples, what Mom called, "Angel Kisses." His brown eyes warmed, though they appeared lost in two black holes. There was something wrong with this man, but Ally didn't think she was in danger. In another world, this man could be Dad.
"Thirsty," the man said in a strained voice. Creases in his lips reminded Ally of the lines in Mom's clothes after she ironed.
"Lemonade?" Ally asked.
The man nodded. Behind him, in his car, the child still hadn't moved. The man pointed to the few Dixie cups that hadn't hit the grass.
"One dollar," Ally said.
He raised an eyebrow just the way Dad did when he knew Ally was joking with him.
"Free taste?" the man asked.
Ally hadn't ventured into this business to give her product away, but maybe this was how it worked: hook 'em with a free sample and then get them to buy, buy, buy.
She nodded and poured one cup full. She held it out to him. A skinny clown face in bright white with huge blue lips smiled back on the cup.
The man smiled again and she wanted to ask if he knew her Dad. That was silly, of course. Just because he sort of resembled Dad didn't mean he knew him.
The man took the cup from her hand gently, the clown face bloating slightly. His fingernails were cracked and bluish-black. The skin on his hands were faintly green. And what was that smell? Like the buried aroma in Grandma's couch, only much stronger. And much more vile. Ally would have held her nose, but that was rude and besides this man was nice.
The man gulped all 5oz in a quick swallow. He sighed and placed the cup on the tray. His blackened forefinger nail was inside the cup as he set it down.
From a pocket in his jeans, the man fished out a crumpled dollar. It rolled across the tray like those tumble weeds at the theme park. "Please," he said.
Should she give him a new cup? Wasn't that wasteful?
She refilled his cup. A tiny bit spilled on the tray. She'd have to clean that up or Mom would give her some speech about taking care of your things when she discovered the sticky patch.
The man brought the cup to his chapped lips and paused. There was something by his ear--a fly or a speck of dirt.
He lowered the cup. "How much for the whole jug?"
Behind her, the front door opened with a clang. "Ally? Come inside."
The man set the full cup on the tray table. He stared over Ally at the house. Maybe Mom would recognize the resemblance, too.
"Five dollars?" the man offered.
That would certainly make this uneventful day a highlight of her week. But the jug could fill dozens of cups, at least she assumed it could.
"Ten," she said. She picked up Trooley, hugged her close. She couldn't believe she'd said that.
"Ally?" The desperation in Mom's voice cut through the rush of excitement. "Ally, get away from that man. Now."
The man raised both hands as if to surrender, but Mom was on the move, tromping over the grass with quick, frantic steps.
"No harm meant." The man reached back into his pocket.
"Oh, Jesus," Mom said.
What was wrong? Had Mom finally lost her mind, gone permanently off to the Crazy House, as she liked to say?
"I'm just thirsty and--"
Mom grabbed Ally's arm, but before Mom could pull her away, Ally seized the Dixie cup the man had set down. She didn't know why, though it had to do with Dad.
And that dirt spot, definitely not a fly, near the man's ear was really a purplish, brown boil filled with pus from the man's decomposing flesh.
"Get away from here!" Mom screamed.
The man was saying something but Ally didn't catch any of it. Mom was rambling about the air masks, the home decontamination bath mixture, the plastic bags, the duct tape, The Rots, oh, dear God, The Rots.
The man held up a bill, waved it at Ally. He set it on the tray, and then he took the jug of lemonade and got back in his car.
The man was gone by the time Ally wrestled free from Mom's grip and ran to the kitchen window. Gone the way Dad was gone. She hoped the man liked lemonade, hoped it helped his thirst--at least until his throat disintegrated.
Ally stared at the half-filled Dixie cup in her hand--some had spilled on the way in. She thought of the man's eyes, of his smile, of his "Angel Kisses," and she drank the lemonade.
Mom was running up the stairs and now scavenging the bathroom for the decontamination bath mixture. It would sting, hurt Ally's eyes, but she'd have to endure it.
The day's newspaper was on the kitchen table. Above a picture of screaming people with their faces sliding off like melting butter and frantic doctors in astronaut suits, the headline read: ROTS PANDEMIC SWEEPS NATION. Beneath that, it read: Thousands Expected to Die. And beneath that, Local Man with Rots Evades Authorities.
Ally thought of the man's cracked, blue and black fingernail in the Dixie cup, of the man's withered and chapped lips on the cup's rim, of the motionless child in the car. She thought of these things and wondered if Dad was still alive.
Two weeks later, Ally's mother attended her daughter's cremation. All funerals and wakes were prohibited by law now that the death toll had exceeded 100,000.
A week after that, she found a single Cheerio beneath a pillow on the couch in the Sitting Room. She cried over that piece of cereal for two hours. Then she placed it in a Ziplock bag and made herself a Beefeater martini, extra-dry.
J.T. Warren is the author of the upcoming novel Hudson House. Sample chapters of Hudson House can be read by viewing his profile. It will be available via ebook and hardcover on Amazon. Click on the homepage link on his profile to follow him on Facebook.