Home. We've been back for almost three weeks now, and it still feels like the wrong word.
Not because it’s unfamiliar. Every room is exactly the way we left it all those months ago, from the positions of the furniture down to the order of DVDs on the shelves. The fan on top of the kitchen fridge was even running when we came in for the first time. Good thing there are no more electricity bills to worry about, I guess. This house is still the same giant mess I knew and loved, and it’s comforting beyond belief to be back again. But without the people in it, it isn't my home anymore.
I miss it so much. I miss listening to the latest complaints about co-workers or the occasional family squabble. I miss being pestered to spend more time with people and struggling to claim a TV. I miss the hell out of my cat, Caden. My mom and I were the only ones he seemed to like, perhaps because he knew one of us would feed him eventually, but I adored him. His soft green eyes; his clownish black and white fur; his scratchy tongue; the small black blotch on his nose; his sweet meow... Those things don’t seem to go after animals, but with no one here to feed him-- not to mention the freakish shuffling corpses roaming around failing to shower him with attention-- he must have run off. I worry about him. A silly thing to worry about, I know, but he’s my baby. I'm still holding out for the day he catches my voice and wanders back home. At least then things might feel slightly more normal. I hope the de-clawed, whiny, possessive little cuddle bug is all right, wherever he is.
With winter about to hit here soon, the corn fields out back are barren. This is normal for this time of year. But knowing that nothing more will grow come summertime, they just add to the deadness of this place. The whole town is like this. The local restaurants and gas stations, the churches, even the playground at the bottom of the hill my house sits on. Once these places were cheerful in a rustic sort of way, as if content that nothing exciting ever happened here and nothing ever would. Now these same places are bleak to behold, somber to visit, and nothing short of heartbreaking by comparison. Nothing in the tiny blip that is Sherburne, New York, has changed, as far as the town itself goes, but being here now it feels like an entirely different world.
As hard as it is to think about what’s become of the town, I’ll gladly take it over dwelling on what happened to the people here. It’s easiest to push those thoughts away, as I quickly discovered once Alex and I left. Sentiment does no one any favors when it gets in the way of survival. Of course it’s easy enough to understand this in theory, when I can afford the luxury to mourn every day and haven’t had to make any real sacrifices. If push came to shove, I’m sure that fact would prove much harder to keep in mind.
Maybe it’s for the best that I don’t forget sentiment entirely. Human contact is the only thing that makes this all worth it. But as time goes on, I can’t help but wonder how much of it I’m really feeling. Alex and I keep up a jovial front with each other, doing our best to act the way we always did growing up. Our movie references and in-jokes fuel our spirits, and they help me see the humor in things, but it all feels… disjointed. From the real world, I mean, with all the seriousness that it brings with it. I imagine that’s what makes it helpful, but by now it’s almost a force of habit, a coping mechanism, more than anything else. Then again, maybe that’s what social contact always was. I was never the most savvy social person, and Alex even less so, so for all I know this could be normal. And if it helps him to stay alive, I’ll go through the motions with him until I forget that it’s all just part of the routine.
I sigh as I take my lookout shift for the night. Alex. Where would I be without him? Dead by now, most likely. Oh, who am I kidding? I’d never have made it out of the house without him. He was staying with me for a full week when the outbreak hit Sherburne. We were celebrating his eighteenth birthday by breaking our record for longest visit. And he saved my life. We escaped together, but we couldn’t save anyone else. My entire family, all our friends and neighbors, just… gone. And we couldn’t do a thing to help them.
My phone goes off, jerking me out of the line of thought that’s so often nestled in the back of my mind. A text. That can only be one person.
Alex and Chey. The anchors of my sanity. The two most important people in my life survived the end of the world with me. Even a hardcore atheist like me has to thank his lucky stars for that.
"9:00," the text says. "Check in time."
I force my mouth into a grin, falling back into my cheerful charade. She always forgets the hyphen. No one appreciates hyphens. I decide to play with that idea. "In time for what? And what am I checking for?" I type. I hit send… and scowl. The past half year or so this piece of crap phone has had a habit of shutting itself off at random. I’m glad I rarely need to use it, because I can’t imagine how many times someone would have assumed I was dead or something when it, well, died on me. It’s a miracle that it still gets service. I’ve always wondered why phone lines still work, or water or electricity or the internet for that matter, if no one’s there to keep up the power stations and whatnot, but you won’t hear me complain. With my phone back on, after a quick glance at my station to be sure I’m doing my job, I try again. This time it works.
I return to my watch, awaiting her reply, prepared to pass another night in Hell talking to the love of my life.