Sue Ellen, she died last night.
I stayed with her, scared, praying over her feverish contorting body, terrified she would leave me, and she did, just before midnight.
I sat up til dawn staring out her window at the starry sky, holding her hand ‘till it grew cold, feeling lost. I guess feeling sorry for myself; it ain’t the first time.
I didn’t even know her, she was just Jonathon Ross’s little sister; she’d lived with her brother and grandmother across town from my own. I knew of her, had seen her in the marketplace. She was just some dumb little kid, half grown. She was a virtual stranger but she’d been all I had left. She’d meant more than herself to me.
Jon Ross gone…
Walter, Catherine, William, Mr. Silas.
More than I knew, could have ever known, ever last person, strangers and friends alike, everyone in my town, everyone.
Sue Ellen was the last.
Me. I am the last.
I am the last living person of Dixon. I am the only one left alive.
I couldn’t stay in Sue Ellen’s house. Didn’t want to stay in mine, neither. I decided to walk right out of town, not even allowing myself a look at the accusing blank windows of each home I passed. I looked straight ahead, at first not knowing where I was going and then just following my feet. I reached the center of town, there found a horse already saddled, left outside the apothecary. I knew it for a sign. I offered the horse an apple from my bag, which he gratefully accepted, allowing me to climb onto his back and we made our slow way to the general store for more provisions. In back of it, I hooked him to a cart and after loading it up, we left the fine town of Dixon forever, together.
It was a slow ponderous bumpy journey. We passed farmsteads with cows lowing in the barns, I knew those cows were past needing to be milked, poor li’l souls. By nightfall I was exhausted, head drooping, my hind end numb, I bedded the horse down in one of those lonely barns (this time with no cows to be heard) and laid my own head in the hayloft. I considered the farmhouse but couldn’t bear to enter it with its dark and deathlike quiet. It was like a coffin filled with the old way of life, the one the sickness destroyed.
I woke in the morning to the crows of a rooster, and the stamping of my horse’s feet down below. I decided then to name him Horse on account of how impatient he was.
I fed him, added some provisions for him to the cart from the barn and then went to find the well. I had need of a toilet, too. Once we were both squared away we left that little farm.
A little brown dog started to follow us, and I gave him a name too, Dog on account of how eager he was to be a part of our group.
Horse, Dog and I made our slow way towards the big city. I didn’t have a plan, not really, but I didn’t know where else to go, my parents having died years before, and my aunt gone from plague; I had no one else to scuttle to. I figured if anyone knew what to do in this new world, it would have to be the big city folk.
We saw a great deal of the countryside, a few towns, lots of birds, no folks. We passed the fort too on the way and no sentries greeted or grumbled at us. The tall log walls shadowed the countryside, wind whistling gently through chinks in the walls. The flag flapped occasionally, a lonesome sound. We continued on, crossing umpteen fields and after a a few days no matter where we went the stink followed and it wasn’t us, although we didn’t smell too pretty either, by that point.
It was the stink of ever living soul’s final remains.
The worst part was that we got used to it, bad as it was, it accompanied us like an old friend.
Some days later, we passed a house and heard the cries. High pitched, dreadful, lost cries, cries that have been going on so long they no longer hear themselves. After standing for just a moment outside the home, I decided to go in.
The door was unlocked, the Ma was in front of it, like she was trying to be a doorstop. In her putrid, greasy arms was a child, the one that had done all that mewling I could hear from the road. It looked at me with big blank eyes, its tummy swollen under its nightgown, its nose no longer producing snot but still covered in the dry stuff. After just a moment it raised its arms up and I lifted it to me; with a quick peek under its nightgown I determined it to be a girl and decided to call her Girl, on account of she was one.
I found her Pa in the back bedroom, along with her brothers and sister, each laid out on their spot on the bed, stinkin’ worse than hell.
Girl and I left. We took the shotgun off the mantle.
We traveled two more days before we saw them. The bad ones.
I saw their dust long before I saw them. Three horses, pounding the earth, ripping through the long grass. We had stopped at a farm, eager to have a rest and some water. I’d put my horse and the cart in the barn to cool down in the dark recesses of a stall.
Girl and I were having lunch on the long grass when they ran up on their horses.
“Need to see the doctor!” One of them shouted, his horse’s dark nostrils flaring.
“Ain’t no doctor here,” I said.
“I ain’t foolin’ girl! Where’s the doctor?” He looked at me real menacingly so I stood up.
I’m pretty tall myself.
I said real slowly so he could understand me. “Ain’t no doctor here.”
He finally took a real good look at me and then his face changed, turned darker, sneaky.
“Where’s your Pa, girl?”He slid off his horse, patting it with one hand.
“You sick?” I pointed at him, snuck looks at his friends who were so sick they were nearly falling off of their horses.
“You’re alone, ain’t ye?” His smile grew bigger, yellow tobacco teeth showing between a thick whiskered mouth.
“Nope,” I said, truthfully thinking of Girl, Horse, and Dog.
“What’s your name?”
“None of any of yours.”
“Insolent little brat.”
“I’m a woman.”
His eyes narrowed. “That, I see.” He shuffled closer to me, his ragged breath hot in my face as we stared eye to eye. He reached a hand out expecting to grab my arm when we both heard a throttled choke.
“Jeb, I–” and then the man on the dappled horse fell off his.
“Dammit, George.” He shifted away from me to attend to his companion, then caught his breath funny and started coughing, himself. Deep, wet, hacking coughs.
I knew what that meant. I sidled away from him, taking Girl by the hand and leading her towards the barn.
When we rode out, the man called to me one last time, “Girl, help us.” He was no longer thinking of that peculiar act between a man and a woman, his eyes were pleading and he had his dead fella’s head in his lap. He seemed real shaky too.
I took pity on him. It was a hard world. “I can make it quick,” I said holding aloft my shotgun. His eyes went steely again, and he laid over to one side breathing heavily. I’d seen this before. I thought better of my decision. “Well, changed my mind. I need it more than you.” And we rode off, the man gasping over and over again ‘til he was hoarse with it and then we were out of earshot.
We found the big city just as the sun met the top of the sky.
It smelled just as awful as everything else, worse probably on account of all the animals that were dying now too, unfed and uncared for in all the homes and stables all closed in together, thousands of them.
I held Girl’s hand and Dog trotted along beside us, pawing the ground and whimpering. I felt like whimpering, but held my tongue until Girl started up that mewling again and I had to shush her. Somehow her sounds were too loud for the place which was alive only with flies and birds, mostly of the buzzard kind. Street after street yawned ahead of us, silent of human noise, loud with insect.
We walked for miles, hour upon desolate hour, til my eyes blurred with tears and washed my face with salt. Till I’d convinced myself of the futility of the whole of our future. Till I could not stand upon those streets and witness the end of it all, the evidence of it, the finality for one more minute.
We left the city at nightfall walking through the night till we came to just the right farmhouse, far enough away from the stink of the city. It was well provisioned, lots of firewood, a well, fields to grow in, a full cellar, and only two bodies to drag out to the yard and burn to make it habitable.
It was Home, the last one.
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