I tear through my late neighbor’s garden on my hands and knees. The sloping ground behind her house is all mud and broken stalks that twitch in the wind. Mrs. Cordon sighs from within the house. Her body has been lying in her bedroom for almost a year.
Although it’s late afternoon, the darkening skies make it hard to distinguish rock from root in the mud. Gray clouds move shadows over the scorched and cratered valley below the mountains, over toppled buildings and highways gridlocked with abandoned cars.
The city burned for days until the rains came; the sky filled with a black smoke that coated the trees with ash like early winter. Now it is still.
As I dig, mud spreads on my face and clothes and weighs down my hair. Blood mingles with the mud on my arms. I was ambushed today. They had stalked me for a week — a pack of feral dogs, mangled, ugly. They ambushed me in the rubble of a gas station. An emaciated Mastiff latched onto my arm as I howled and found a rock the size of a lamp to bring down on its head. The others scattered into the woods, their retreat marked by rustles and yelps.
Now I listen.
I hear something.
But it might be just the voices.
The wind carries voices sometimes. Whispers that trickle through our silent town, into the empty husks of houses, under collapsed roofs and over the unmoving remains of my neighbors.
But this sound — a scratching sound like a plow being dragged along the earth, and jangling keys — is new. And it’s close.
Hello! A voice calls from a distance. Hello, Hello, Hello!
The words cut through the empty streets.
Is there anyone here?
Barks and yips sound in the mountains as if in answer.
I stop digging, my stomach full of raw potato and mud, and scan the street.
A figure appears by the Miller’s house, a person with a large hiking backpack, layers of dark clothing, a hooded sweatshirt shadowing their face. They push a shopping cart heaped with assorted bundles and water bottles.
I scramble on all fours from the garden to Mrs. Cordon’s house, up the rotting wooden stairs to the porch, through the door, the mildewed rot of living room, and crouch by a window.
Is there anyone out there? The figure hesitates in the road and looks around. They look directly at my window and I fall to the floor.
The skeleton of the house creaks around me. I hear the wavering old voice of Mrs. Cordon. Stay, she whispers.
When I look out the window again, the street is empty. Mrs. Cordon is quiet. In the silence I hear the echoes of my first calls, unused to the abrupt stillness in town, when I wandered the empty streets and screamed my voice raw. I creep onto the porch and listen.
A single warning bark in the distance.
Wait, I try to say, my voice cracked.
The gray skies swirl above me and the air is full of rain.