Reading Time: 9 minutes
It always happened in the kitchen. Maybe the inherent violence of slicing cucumbers or ripping leaves of lettuce tapped into a vein of deep rage, or perhaps the act of preparing sustenance for her family inspired a surge of righteous resentment, but for whatever reason, Shelly always picked that room to lay into him.
Admittedly, cooking dinner provided pretty much the only time they had to talk. Shelly’s administrative job followed a standard eight to six and with the 45-minute commute that didn’t leave much time for anything else. After the requisite parenting of their thirteen-year-old – an unyielding exercise in coercion, compromise, and patience – they barely managed to squeeze in food, fucking, and basic hygiene.
Carl adored his wife. She radiated competence and demonstrated a level of commitment and rigor that he’d never witnessed in anyone else, and certainly couldn’t match himself. He felt incredibly lucky that their individual strengths and deficits seemed to mesh so well, complement each other, and support their relationship. It certainly wasn’t seamless, particularly in times like this, when he was out of work. When tensions rose between them, Shelly had a way of finding his sore spots and poking at them. It was true that her prodding could sometimes get him moving, but it hurt and often sparked his temper, which in turn just fed her own.
“You can make your own coffee! Is it really worth five bucks just to flirt with the fucking coffee girl?” Shelly didn’t mention that it was her five dollars, but Carl heard it anyway.
Carl loved the way Shelly looked, almost feline with her small body and cascade of wavy hair, and her beauty sparkled when she got angry. Her blue eyes got fiery, like the hottest part of a candle’s flame, and the energy seemed to accumulate in her compact form, straining to be released. Carl could see the tension build in her shoulders and arms, a spring tightening then releasing as her words shot forward, sharp, arrows from a crossbow. She looked beautiful, but the words stung.
“I didn’t do anything!” He whined in defense, his tone irritating even himself. It was true – he hadn’t done anything. Although it was in moments like this that he wished he actually had done something, even something simple like asking the cute barista what she did when she wasn’t slinging coffee. Maybe she was a runner and they could have commiserated about the weather – fall was finally taking hold and the long, drizzly, grey days were setting in with tangible intent. Or maybe she was an artist and they could make a date to paint each other. He hadn’t done anything, but he felt guilty anyway, because he wished he’d had more courage, because he would have felt pride and accomplishment at doing exactly the thing Shelly would have had reason to object to, and now he was being chastised even though he’d wimped out and done nothing.
Shelly pounced right on his poor choice of words. “’Do anything?’ You never do anything!”
Now that wasn’t fair. He hadn’t fucked the barista – as if Shelly would have preferred that – but he did do a lot of things: he played guitar; he played basketball; he painted portraits – although mostly self-portraits, but some of Shelly or their daughter, Tava, if he could get them to pose for him; he competed in triathlons; and he’d learned a fair number of skills from a series of part-time jobs over the years. He had some basic landscaping so the garden always looked nice, he kept their cars tuned up, he was decent in the kitchen, particularly if it required grilling or frying – all the things that Shelly seemed to take for granted because she worked in an office, because she did ‘real’ work. He never should have mentioned that the cute barista at the grocery store had finally remembered his name, then Shelly wouldn’t have snapped at him about spending his time ogling girls instead of looking for a job. Now she was on a roll.
Shelly’s tone grew more biting, “You never take responsibility,” Carl could hear the venom dripping from her words. “How ‘bout you do…something?!”
Her attractiveness dissipated, lifted off her like steam, leaving just bitter anger. He felt naive, like he’d leaned into a fire and realized too late that the warmth really just burned when he got too close. Carl suddenly felt trapped, not just by the argument, but by his entire life, his wife, his daughter, the endless demand to ‘do something’ and ‘be somebody’ — if he could only have a little bit more space to explore and find out what he was really here for. Why did she have to be so mean? It wasn’t as if he didn’t help out, didn’t try.
“God damn you Shelly…” Sometimes he wished she would just go away, leave him once and for all. Maybe she would leave him or just die, anything so that he could be…
Shelly collapsed on the floor, the knife falling from her hand.
“Mom?” Tava’s voice inquired tentatively from the other room.
Carl snapped awake, his body covered in a cold sweat, the same as every day since that evening in September. One hundred eighty-six days. One hundred eighty-six nightmares replaying that moment – the first time he had ever killed someone. Not just someone. Not some nameless stranger, like so many after, but his wife, his lover, his life partner, the mother of his daughter. One hundred eighty-six days of regret, of paranoia, of fervently protecting his daughter from a world populated by homicidal maniacs who literally couldn’t control themselves. Protecting her from everyone. Including himself.
Carl couldn’t count the number of people he’d killed over the last six months. He stopped counting soon after he stopped caring, after he realized that half the people he killed had actually committed suicide and that if he’d only been brave enough, or selfish enough, he would have killed himself too.
As far as he could tell, the curse arrived for everyone on the same date, perhaps even at the same moment. Within a day the population was decimated. In less than 48 hours, infrastructure around the world collapsed. After an initial blast of panicked social media the internet went quiet even though the cell and wireless services hummed along, empty, for another couple of weeks. When everyone suddenly acquired the power to kill each other with a glance, an acute, ubiquitous anarchy descended upon the world. After just a few weeks, any and all pretense of order and hierarchy had fallen away.
He was surprised at how quickly the life he’d known receded into distant dream-like memory. The past only felt concrete and visceral when he visited in his sleep. The first few months of post-apocalyptic existence had been a flurry of encounters and stand-offs, brief coalitions and bursts of betrayal. Carl rabidly defended his daughter. Fiercely protecting her, wielding a ruthless, almost wanton skepticism that undoubtedly sent many well-meaning and potentially valuable allies to their graves. He tenaciously clung to his identity as a father. His commitment only redoubled when, after a few weeks, Tava confessed that she didn’t believe that she had the power, that nobody had fallen by her will. She felt defenseless and couldn’t so much as glance in the direction of anyone’s face for fear of death.
It hadn’t occurred to him, until that moment, that some people might not have the curse. Tava’s reluctance to look anyone in the face and meet their eyes was, of course, shared by everyone. Social interaction meant constant tension. Every encounter played out like a scene from a spaghetti western, gunslingers facing off, evaluating their chances, and assessing their own prowess against the potential speed of the other. Carl’s own method was simply to keep up a constant mental chant whenever he was around other people: “Die, die, die, die, die.” He would maintain this refrain as he glanced quickly at faces trying to read expressions and evaluate intention. He honestly could no longer recall if he had actually ever looked anyone in the eyes without watching them drop dead. He harbored no regrets about his actions. How could he? He was well aware that anything else would be suicide – and he certainly couldn’t assume that others would act differently.
The group they were with now had coalesced randomly but had clung together longer and with more cohesion than anything Carl and his daughter had come across since the onset of the curse. He credited the structure and ritual that Daniel had imposed on the group. Carl felt in Daniel the power of unusual conviction, his faith that humanity had not been destroyed but merely challenged and if given the right set of tools – codes, rules, and rituals – that people could learn to live cooperatively and happily again. Carl wasn’t sure if they would ever really relax and find joy in the presence and support of others, but Daniel’s confidence was contagious. The seven of them had sheltered in the basement of the converted warehouse for over three weeks and no-one had died. When conversations started to turn in the direction of argument, someone would ask to ‘tie-up’ – and everyone complied, no question. It turned out that just the act of covering his eyes, wrapping a bandana around his head, calmed Carl’s nerves. He expected that this was the same for all of them. He felt a palpable release of tension in the space around them, and even if an argument ensued, there was a base level of security, an understanding that disagreement was okay, that tempers didn’t have to be deadly. It almost felt normal again, despite the fact that they were all standing around blindfolded.
So the group held together. They cooperated. They improved the space and made it comfortable – building out rooms, improvising a heating and ventilation system, constructing a kitchen – Carl felt useful and productive. He applied what he’d learned over the years of manual labor, jumping from job to job, picking up one skill after another. Never an expert, but a jack of all trades – trades that suddenly had more value than he’d ever imagined. His diverse knowledge fed the group’s efforts at brainstorming, refining ideas, and implementing plans. He felt like he was really adding value. Doing something.
Shelly would have been proud of him.
They ate meals together, went out on expeditions – scouting and scavenging. They even played music. And they laughed. It felt so good to laugh. The camaraderie felt authentic, and even if he couldn’t trust them, exactly, Carl started bonding with the others. He almost felt a sense of safety. That is until Scott didn’t come back the previous morning. He and David had been surprised by another group while out scavenging. And, directly on the heels of that loss, Daniel petitioned for the newcomer.
Carl had also argued for Angie’s inclusion, he couldn’t condone the hypocrisy of barring entry into their “tribe” out of fear alone. None of them would be here if they hadn’t been extended the benefit of the doubt, and he had come to trust, if not the people, then the stability of their system. The processes they had cultivated, the culture they had developed – it had all been built not only in the face of danger, but specifically to withstand it. He had no illusions that their little society was perfect, or even remotely robust enough to protect them from harm, but Carl knew with certainty that the only way to improve it would be to test it. He and Roy had supported admitting Angie, and they’d prevailed over Tatiana’s objections, and now, with one night down, everything seemed to be going okay.
Carl had built daily rituals for himself: every morning he checked all the windows and doors, closets and dark corners, looking for signs of intruders – both human and animal. Rats and mice were pervasive and over the last weeks he had closed up several small holes and gaps that he was sure had provided access points for rodents. His efforts were effective, he hadn’t seen any fresh droppings in at least three days, but he knew that only continued vigilance would keep them out.
The outside teemed with wandering survivors, individuals and small bands scavenging for food and materials. (It was shocking how fast supplies had disappeared once production ceased completely; they were lucky to find even a couple of cans of food after a full day’s search.) As far as he could tell no humans had tried to enter their sanctuary since they’d arrived. Holing up underground kept them isolated, and therefore protected, from other people, but it also resulted in a dwindling supply of nearby resources. During their meal the previous night – tangerines and green beans straight out of cans – the group had even discussed the possibility of moving out and migrating to a new hideout. No decision had been reached but Angie pointed out, quite reasonably, that they really had no reason to believe things would be better anywhere else.
Carl had made it about half-way through his morning rounds when he turned a corner and saw the body. Was someone sick? Hurt? It looked like they were wearing Tava’s coat – who would have taken Tava’s coat? And her scarf.
After a few seconds he registered that it was actually Tava lying on the ground in front of him. It took several more moments of utter bewilderment and disbelief for him to realize that his daughter was dead.
“Nooooo!” The long dog-like keening engulfed him, echoing through the emptiness that hollowed his chest. He didn’t realize that he was making the sound until he heard people running towards him. Understanding crept into his mind followed by a rampant rage.
“Who did this?!!” He yelled as one face after another appeared before him.
“Carl, we don’t even know what happened.” Daniel’s voice sounded distant and dim. Of course he knew what happened – somebody had killed his daughter. Tava was dead!
“I know she’s dead!” Carl yelled, choking on his own voice. They were all around him now: Daniel, Tatiana, David, Angie, Roy. “And I know one of you killed her!”
“Maybe it was an accident.” Roy put his hands on Carl’s chest.
“Did you kill her by accident?!” Carl lunged against Roy’s advance.
“No!” Roy fell back as Daniel intervened between them. Carl glared, willing the smaller man to meet his gaze – he needed to get revenge – someone here deserved to die, maybe all of them did. Carl searched the faces around him looking for a pair of eyes, any eyes! Die die, die, die!
“Tie-up!” Angie’s voice. Who was this Angie anyway? Carl kept scanning the faces. Tatiana looked horrified. Was it you? Die! Daniel looked confused. Was it you?
“Tie-up!” Angie was unravelling her bandana. Was it you? Die! David turned in a circle. Was it you?
Die, Die. Eyes! Finally eyes! Was it…
Note: although the names of the characters in 4:17 are the same as the actors that portray them – all the characters from the film, and these stories, are fictional and the creation of the author. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.