I hate awkward silences, which is ironic because the majority of my last four years has been silent. You can only ask your dogs about their day so many times before you get sick of imagining their responses. I used to talk aloud to myself just to hear something, but I ran out of things to say. I even tried singing to myself for a little while, but decided suffocating silence was more tolerable.
“So, uh...what’s the plan?” Felix asks. I couldn’t be happier for the conversation.
“Well, the first thing is to unload the supplies and get them put away. Then we need to take care of Allis’s foot and get ourselves cleaned up. Good thing I picked up more bleach.”
“What do you mean?” He looks confused.
“We’ll have to take bleach baths. It’s the best way I know to prevent becoming infected. Kills all the germs, washes away the blood, sterilizes everything,” I explain.
“I’ve always found a place to wash off with plain water,” says Felix. “I always just got clean. I never thought about how clean.”
“I’m not sure it’s foolproof, but I figure it can’t hurt to be extra safe.”
We fall silent again. Come on, don’t I have anything to talk about? In all this time, I’ve got no good stories? “What’s the funniest thing that has happened to you since the outbreak?” I ask. It’s sort of random and I expect Felix to be confused, but he doesn’t bat an eye.
“Hmmm...the funniest thing?” He takes a minute to think it over. “A little while after I left the city, I came to this suburb. It had some shops and I desperately needed new clothes, so I figured I’d look around and see if I could find a clothing store.”
I turn left at the traffic light and speed up. The sun is sinking and I want to be at home and locked down before dark. Felix continues.
“I found one and went in. I grabbed a shirt and pair of jeans that looked like they’d fit me and dropped trou right there in the middle of the store. No one was alive to see me so why go into a changing room, right?”
“Right,” I agree, grinning.
“So there I am, standing in the middle of an abandoned clothing store, during the freakin’ apocalypse, buck-ass naked, and wouldn’t you know it, I’ve got an audience!”
“Someone was watching you?!” I can’t decide if I’m more amused that Felix was caught au-naturel or interested in this other person.
“Not someone, something,” he clarifies. “I turned around to grab my new pants and there were about 30 pairs of eyes staring at my ass. Apparently, every cat in the neighborhood had come out of hiding for the peep show.” Through his laughter, he says, “They all started meowing at me and I couldn’t decide if I was more flattered or creeped out.”
We’re still laughing as I swing into the driveway. We get out and set about unloading the car. I unlock the door to the mudroom, wiggle the boards out of their brackets, and prop them against the wall. We haul everything into the kitchen, panting as we drop the last bag of dog food atop the pile. I go back to the car and let Mack out before gently sliding Allis off the seat and onto the ground where I can get my arms around her. Once again, she is propped on my hip and I shuffle into the house. I pause in the kitchen.
“The bathroom is through the doorway and to your left. Take the bleach with you and you can have the first bath.”
“How much bleach is safe to use?” asks Felix, picking up the jug.
“About half a cup,” I tell him. “Will you bring out one of the bath towels for me? I’m going to get Allis fixed up and it might make a mess.”
“Sure thing.” He walks away and returns a moment later with a towel. He spreads it out on the floor for me. “Do you need help with her?”
“No offense, but I don’t think helping me yank glass out of her foot would be the best first impression for you to make on her,” I chuckle.
“None taken.” He smiles and returns to the bathroom.
I lay Allis on the towel and try to figure out the least painful way to approach her injury. “This is going to suck,” I warn her. I grab the gauze, medical tape, and antibacterial ointment from the countertop and peroxide from the cupboard. “This is really going to suck.”
Upon closer inspection, I see that this is going to require stitches. The wound isn’t too deep, but it needs more than a bandage. “Stay.” She gives me a look of defiance but does as she is told. I go to the spare room at the back of the house and grab grandma’s old sewing kit. I dig through it until I find some bright yellow thread and a needle. I also grab one of my grandfather’s belts. Then, I run upstairs to the bedroom and steal a pillowcase from my bed.
Back in the kitchen, I wash my hands at the sink. Before I start fiddling with the glass, I fold my pillowcase into a blindfold and lay it over Allis’s eyes, hoping that if she can’t see what I’m doing she’ll be less stressed. Then I pull a steak knife from the drawer to my right and slip the belt under her leg to use as a tourniquet. I pull it as tight as I can and stab a new hole for the buckle. That should help with the bleeding. Now comes the hard part.
With my left hand I start to wiggle the glass out while with my right I hover the peroxide over her paw pad. It starts to give and I pull the slightest bit harder. So far, she hasn’t even whimpered. Mack is pacing circles around the kitchen table. The glass slides out an eighth of an inch. I keep wiggling and it finally comes loose. Thanks to the belt-tourniquet the bleeding isn’t so bad. I set the shard aside and splash some peroxide into the wound. Now Allis has some complaints. She twitches her foot as the liquid fizzes uncomfortably. While the peroxide does its thing, I use a little more to sterilize the needle and a length of thread.
I tie a few knots layered over each other at one end of the thread until I have a yellow bulge big enough to keep it from sliding through the entry point and feed the other end through the eye of the needle. For this, I decide it might be best to straddle Allis’s torso so I swing a leg over her and contort myself so that I can still see her paw well enough to stitch it up. I try to be quick. Allis kicks and whines every time I get close, but she can’t do much the way I’ve got her pinned.
I weave a tight zig zag line from one side of her paw to the other and repeat the same layered knotting process when I’m finished. The yellow color has been overdyed with blood and deepened to a burnt orange. I reach for the gauze and wrap Allis’s paw as best I can, tape it up, and remove the tourniquet. I know she’ll just lick at the gauze until it slides off, so I look around for some kind of covering. I spot my grandfather’s old velcro sneakers and a dish towel. Perfect. I grab both and get crafty.
With the steak knife, I pry the stitches loose around the velcro fasteners on the sneakers. I fold the dish towel over Allis’s foot the long way so that it goes up her leg as far as possible. I tape around the top to hold the edges in place. Now there are gaps at the front and back of Allis’s leg that need to be closed. I sew the soft side of two velcro strips, one above the other, onto one side of the gap at the front of the makeshift cast. I pick up the knife again and slice an opening on the other side of it and slip the rough side of the velcro strips through them, folding each one over to meet its corresponding soft side. I repeat the process with the gap at the back. When I finish, it almost looks like one of those boots they give you at the hospital for bad sprains.
“All right, girl. Give it a try,” I say, tugging the pillowcase away from her eyes. Allis is only too eager to hop up. She winces and yelps. She is only too eager to sit down. “You gotta take it easy,” I chide. The bathroom door squeaks open. I look up to see Felix, his hair spikey and damp. He is clean shaven.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I borrowed some shaving cream,” he explains, running a hand over his chin. “It’s been a long time since I could shave without having serious razor burn afterward.”
“That’s fine. Do you want some clean clothes?” He looks like he might fit into grandpa’s old stuff.
“Do you have anything in a seven?” He asks in a fake valley-girl accent.
“Let me check the back,” I joke as I pass him. Felix follows me past the bathroom, through the living room, and stops when I turn left through the doorway to the spare room. I pick through a stack of t-shirts and find a plain white one.
“What’s your pants size?” I call out.
“34-30,” he calls back.
“34-30, 34-30,” I mutter to myself while meticulously checking for a match. The closest I can find is 36-30. I take the jeans and t-shirt out to Felix.
“You’ll have to wear a belt,” I say as I hand him the clothes. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” he says. “I’m not about to complain about a belt. I haven’t had clean clothes in such a long time.”
“Too afraid of cats watching you change?” I smirk.
“No!” Felix mocks offense. We laugh as we walk back through the living room.
When I see the stairs, it occurs to me that Felix will need to sleep at some point. “If you go upstairs and turn left at the top, there is a bedroom you can use,” I tell him.
“Oh, uh. Thank you,” he looks confused.
“Well I … I just wasn’t sure if you wanted me to stick around,” he looks away.
“It’s up to you whether you want to stay or not, but I’m not about to send you out there again this late. You can stay the night and leave in the morning or you can stick around for a while.”
“Are you sure? I mean, we just met.”
“I’m sure. Just don’t make me regret it,” I say a little too sternly. Felix nods.
“I appreciate it and I think I’ll stay for a while if you don’t mind,” he replies. “I’d like us to be friends and then maybe this whole apocalypse thing won’t be so daunting anymore.” He looks hopeful.
I’m not sure how to respond to this sentiment, so I just go with, “Alright then. Go put some pants on,” and point him upstairs. He smiles and leaves me standing in the living room. Mack and Allis come out to meet me. Allis hobbles along partially supported by her brother.
“Hi, pups,” I smile and crouch down to pet them. With a jolt, I remember all that I still have left to do before lockdown. I stand and go to the kitchen to pick up all my tools from Allis’s pseudo-surgery. That done, I go into the mudroom and slide on my rubber boots and grab the milk bucket. Belle must be pissed. The dogs follow me out the door.
I jog to the garage/barn and open the door. Belle greets me with an angry huff and a long, low groan. “I know, I know. I’m late.” I slide the bucket beneath her and in a few minutes, she is feeling much better. I check her food trough and find that there is still plenty of grass there. “I’ll make sure you get to go out tomorrow,” I assure her. Usually, Belle spends her days in the field behind the house. On shopping days like today though, she has to stay in where I know she’ll be safe while I’m away.
I trudge back to the house with the milk bucket and let the dogs back inside. I set the bucket down to lock and board the door before I take it into the kitchen to fill two more empty jugs and bring them to the coolers in the basement. Felix is sitting on the couch when he sees me come out of the kitchen with two gallons of milk. He gets up and asks if he can help.
“You can open the basement door for me,” I answer, nodding my head toward it. He opens it and stands aside.
“Thanks,” I say when I come back up. I look around the living room where most of the windows are. Everything is boarded up and locked just as I left it this morning. I sigh.
“You okay?” Felix asks.
“Yeah. I’m going to go take my bath and then we can make dinner. You got any requests?”
“Caviar?” He tries to look serious, but can’t hold a straight face.
“Okay, smartass,” I grin.
“Seriously though, I’m not picky. Whatever you’ve got is fine with me,” he says.
I go upstairs for a clean outfit. I pick out an old concert t-shirt and a pair of sweats and head down to the bathroom. Felix left the bleach jug in here for me. Once the bath is drawn, I measure out a half cup and add it to the tub. The warm water feels so good after today. For the first time, I realize that my muscles are aching all over. I tip my head back and submerge it for a moment before surfacing and picking up my shaving blade from a shelf to my right.
About and hour later, I’m clean, smooth, and hungry. I get dressed and call the dogs into the bathroom. Mack jumps into the tub and I lift Allis in. “Stay.” I go to the kitchen for a grocery bag to put over Allis’s bum leg and a rubber band to secure it. Felix is standing in the kitchen staring at Jim. I remember then that I have a bone to pick with Jim. I approach the guys.
“Hey, my name is Ayva! Thanks for asking, dick!” I spit. Felix looks alarmed. I glance up at him. “Two years! Two years I’ve known this guy and he never even asks me my name!” I explain. “Rude, right?” I glare at Jim before stomping back to the bathroom.
The grocery bag works well. I turn the water on and pull the tab for the shower head. I pour some doggie shampoo over Mack and Allis’s back and work it in with a scrubbing brush. There are sliding glass panels on the outside edge of the tub. I close them to contain the suds and let the dogs handle it from there. They roll around and rinse themselves off while I go out to make dinner. I figure they’ll be ready to get out by the time I’m done cooking.
Felix is still studying Jim when I return to the kitchen. When I come out he glances at me, then at Jim, then at me again. “Uh, Ayva?” His voice shakes a bit.
“You know that Jim’s not … um. He’s not --”
“He’s not what, Felix?”
“Real,” he says. “Jim isn’t real.”
“What do you mean? Of course he is. He’s right there. Felix, are you okay?”
“Am I okay? Ayva, this is just a chair with James Franco’s picture taped to the front of it!” He exclaims. I’m wondering if it was a mistake to bring Felix here. He and Jim aren’t exactly hitting it off.
“Did Jim do something to upset you?” I ask.
“Upset-wha-but, ugh,” Felix sputters. With a deep breath, he tries again. “Ayva, look at Jim. Describe him to me. What does he look like?”
“But you’re looking at him right now,” I object.
“I know,” Felix replies, suddenly much calmer. “Just try. Humor me.”
“Okaaay. Uh, well he’s … kind of thin, but that’s just because he doesn’t eat much.”
“Uh huh, go on.”
“And um … he has a nice tan, sort of a light bronzey color, which is impressive because he never goes outside.”
“What about his clothes? Does he have good fashion sense?”
“Not really. His outfit is olive green with golden floral patterns.” My heart starts racing and I’m sweating. I don’t know why.
“Mmhmmm, and?” says Felix.
“And -- and uh …” A memory flashes at the edge of my mind.
It’s February, 2018. I’m at the general store in town. Alone. There is a movie poster for my favorite comedy. James Franco smiles at me. The poster is on my wall. Alone. James Franco smiles at me. Alone. Scissors. Alone. James Franco smiles at me. Alone. I bet his friends call him Jim. Alone. Jim is in the kitchen. Jim and I are friends. Jim smiles at me. Jim never asked me my name. Jim doesn’t care. Alone. Jim never asks me anything. Alone. Jim doesn’t eat. Alone. Jim never moves! Alone.
I turn and bolt up the stairs, burst through my bedroom door, whip around to my left where James Franco is -- Not smiling at me. There is a movie poster for my favorite comedy. James Franco’s face has been cut neatly from the center. There is a head-shaped hole through which I can see false wood paneling. I’m trembling as I stutter-step down the stairs. Felix meets me in the living room.
“Ayva?” He looks shaken, though not as much as I probably do. I push past him and go to the kitchen where James Franco’s picture is smiling at me, taped to a chair that is stained a sort of light bronzey color with olive green upholstery featuring golden floral patterns. Felix enters behind me. “It’s just a chair, Ayva,” he says gently.
“Yeah.” The room is spinning.