I don't know how long I just lay in bed, staring at the white popcorn ceiling, making pictures out of the divots and peaks of years' worth of painted asbestos. My focus drifted in and out like I wasn't wearing my glasses. Oh, I wasn't. They were on the bedside table, like always.
My mouth is so dry, the corners of my lips cracked when I attempted to utter a sound. Why did my limbs feel so heavy? I strained to sit up, breaking a sweat and panting just with that minor exertion. I felt like I just ran a marathon, my legs were numb and shaking as I swivelled slowly off the edge of the now too high queen mattress. My pajamas clung to my body and they were stiff with dried urine and sweat. How long had I been in bed?
Where was my family? His side of the bed was untouched, perfectly made next to my stained yellow and brown sheets. My side looked like a yellowed shroud, the outlines of my body ground into the cotton flannel. I slowly staggered from my bedroom, avoiding an odd puddle of strange black ooze in the middle of the hallway.
I peered into my child's room, it was terribly empty and silent. There were no video games pinging or loud music blaring. So silent. Fear clutches at my heart like an icy fist and I feel panic rising in my gorge. I look out the white-curtained window and I stand in stunned shock. Massive piles of leaves encrust the roofs and lawns of the neighbors. It is autumn now, but I don't remember the trees even starting to turn colors.
There's no signs of cars passing down the busy street, no skateboards strumming the leaf-littered sidewalks. There aren't even any bird songs. Abandoned vehicles litter the road, but there are no engines running, no honking of horns. Whatever the people were fleeing from, they no longer are.
I call for my family with raspy lungs and burning eyes. It feels like I haven't spoken in so long that I fear my lips have forgotten how to make words. It doesn't matter anyway, no one answers. The house looks much like it did when I last saw it. Too many books for the shelves, mismatched furniture that we paid too much for to get rid of, empty cat dishes and dark brown velvet couches strewn with white cat hair. Where were the cats? Not even they answered me.
I nearly missed the black stain on the couch, right where he loved to sit. He'd lounge there with a soft pillow and try to trick anyone into sitting beside him and rubbing his feet. It looked like a pool of ebony ashes mixed with oily, greasy water. Tiny rainbows shimmered where the light caught, like a puddle of motor oil on asphalt. It smelled terrible, like a charcoal grill full of mice. The stain puddled on the floor. We're not getting our cleaning deposit back, I nonsensically thought. His cell phone was in the crack of the couch, coated in the ooze.
There was no running water, but I was spared drinking out of the toilet tank by a few bottles of water that were squirreled in the back of the dead refrigerator. The remaining food was a sad shriveled, dry orange and some moldy string cheese that had inflated its plastic packaging with rot. How long had I been sleep?
I had to rest for a moment, sitting on the kitchen chair, letting my mouth slowly absorb the water that I was almost too weak to open. I saw two more stains leaking out from under the curtains and beneath the other sofa. The smell was overpowering, familiar and yet alien. I don't want to stay here any longer than I have to. The smell of the stains is lingering my nose and makes my eyes water. I tried my cell phone, it was dead and the power wasn't working. I need to get out of here.
It hurt to strip off the filthy fabric, parts of the elastic had sunken so far into my skin that I bled taking it off. It took forever to sponge off my skin with tank water, dress myself, find our first aid kit and gather my purse.
I put the rest of the water, a can opener and some cans of spaghetti in my child's backpack, running my fingers over the homework inside the main pocket. It was incomplete and not dated. That was not surprising, it was practically the only thing that was normal. I took my favorite photograph out of the frame and tucked it in my pocket, stepping over the stain in the hallway to leave.
No one answered when I knocked on the neighbors' doors. Some doors were open and all I found were more black pools on the carpet, in beds and in bathrooms. Our doctors' office down the block looked like a tornado had hit it. The windows were shattered, chairs thrown through the frames and the floor was littered with paper from charts. My head hurts, it throbs deep within my skull. I need some pain pills and soon.
There were so many leaves that it was hard to wade through them in places. They were light and crunchy, the only things that smelled right. It hadn't rained yet, though dark clouds were threatening on the horizon and the autumn air was so crisp. City of Trees 1997, an award winner indeed.
I made it to the grocery store three blocks down from my place, panting and sweating, leaning against trees and cars along the way. I used to only take 15 minutes to walk here, now surely hours have passed. There hasn't been another sound other than my feet swishing and crunching along the leaves, a whistling breeze and my occasional cursing. I intended to plunder the pharmacy for first aid supplies, pills for my aching head and whatever is left of the food, then find my family.
I wasn't the first person to think of this plan. The pharmacy is gutted, pills sprinkled like confetti on the linoleum. Useless. My ribs are starting to hurt when I breathe.
I grab a can of pop that had rolled under a display and head outside to the recycled plastic benches in front of the store. The wind is picking up and making whirlwinds of orange, crimson and gold. It's going to rain soon. I can smell it in the air. There's always a period of picturesque fall when people forget that the winter rains are coming. It lures in the students at the university and then the rains hit, making them regret loving that wonderful leaf-studded fall. I crack the can and sip the warm soda, not even tasting the flavor. My eyes are burning. It is getting hard to breathe.
There's a slip of white and red paper wriggling in the wind, trapped under the fallen foliage. I reach down with trembling fingers and pick it up. My vision still blurs in and out but I can read, "Quarantine," in big red letters. No one allowed in, no one allowed out. Okay, but where is everyone?
"Hey!" I call the to emptiness. "Hello there!?" Empty swings wave in the breeze at the neighboring elementary school. I crumple the paper in my fist and suddenly began retching with gut-wrenching heaves. Collapsed on the bench I can see what I have vomited on the autumnal carpet, deep black ooze. It smells like mice in a charcoal grill.
It is raining now, hard and fast. The leaves are swimming by my face as I lay on the concrete, black ichor dribbling out my nose, mouth and ears. It is burning away my skin, consuming me from within. Even my clothing is starting to sizzle damply.
With the leaves clearing away I can see the black stains on the parking lot dissolving, rising to the top of the storm water and swirling into the drains. So, I wasn't a survivor, I wasn't one of the last people left alive. I was just one of the last people. I close my eyes, listening to rapid ragged gurgling and I cannot tell if I hear the clogging storm sewer or my own collapsing lungs.