Things We Lost
By Bernard Cox
Two days ago Dad couldn’t move, and today Alessandra won’t let me see him. First, I had it, then she was sick, then Dad, and now Mom. Allie and I got better, but Dad didn’t. She thinks I’m stupid and too young. But for goodness sake I’m eight and hiding Dad behind a door doesn’t mean I don’t know.
“Philip, help Mom into my room. I just need to get something for her out of here.” She closes the door.
Mom’s gray UCSD sweatshirt has dark sweat streaks on her back and belly, like she’s been working out or something. Her hand has small red dots all over it. I don’t want to, but I take her hand in mine. It feels gross, bumpy, slimy, and cold. It doesn’t feel like Mom. Her cough is wheezy.
“Do you need to stop, Mom?”
“It’s only a few feet, honey. I’m fine.” Mom squeezes, and my hand slips around in hers. “You’re being so brave, Phil.”
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too.”
I don’t know why we came here to the cabin. We’re like miles from any hospital. Dad said it was safer in Idyllwild, and the hospitals were overrun.
He wanted to leave home so quickly we left Kitamaru. The cat would be fine on her own, he said. How do you leave someone behind? Allie’s good at finding her. She was looking everywhere. I looked in low places, like under the beds, and Allie looked in high places, like the jacaranda out back. She always liked to climb up there, her little orange face hidden in the purple flowers.
At the beginning of everything, Allie told me that patient zero started in North Dakota and came this way. When I asked her why they haven’t stopped zero, she said it doesn’t work that way.
Allie’s on the porch trying talking to Uncle Sal. He’s the first person she’s reached since mom got sick. She’s already tried Aunt Marie and other people, even before dad died, but no one ever answers.
She’s turned away from me and is covering the phone, but I can hear. She’s saying I’m sorry, over and over, then she says, “But we need help.”
She comes in through the door and I tell her. “Maybe if we stayed inside, at home, Uncle Sal would have helped us.” She tries to hug me, but I break free. “They say if you are sick to stay inside. We didn’t stay inside, we came to the cabin.”
“Philip.” Whenever she scowls her cheeks rise up and make her eyes really, really small. Her face relaxes and she says, “I don’t know why we came here. But I need your help to be brave. Can you please give me a hug?”
Her hug is warm and she squeezes me tight. I know that if patient zero stayed inside, we’d all be fine. It’s not Allie’s fault.
I know Dad’s not really here, but I want to see him. Allie doesn’t think it is a good idea, but she lets me anyway. He looks normal, except his skin is waxy. I want to touch him, but she says no.
There’s no smell yet, but the room feels cold, thick, and damp. Allie says that it’s probably the window unit she turned on.
“Do you want to say something?”
I shake my head.
She tucks him back in, and pulls the sheet over his face, just to keep things off of him. We close the door behind us and Allie explains that she is going to seal it just in case. She tapes the edge of the door with shiny yellow duct tape, and rolls up a towel and tapes that to the floor and bottom of the door, too. Just in case.
In the twists of the wooden door there are these little faces, some look like foxes, some like raccoons. Allie says the rings tell us how old the tree was. We’ve never counted the ones in the door, so I don’t know.
Last summer, Mom taught me how to make baklava. The cabin smelled like Christmas for days. The hardest part was the phyllo dough.
“You have to moisten it, just a little. Then put it down gently.”
I broke so many pieces, but Mom said that it was okay, because we’re just going to eat it anyway. Then Mom told me to put in a little bit more cinnamon and cardamom in the syrup. I love cardamom. I pretended not to like making the baklava with her, but I really did like doing it.
When Allie and Dad got home from shooting, Allie showed me her targets. Allie is a good shot. The groups were really close. But Mom said we can’t eat paper targets.
This summer Dad was going to teach me how to shoot. He didn’t hunt or anything, just wanted me to learn how to do it. Billy Joyce thought that was really cool, but I don’t really care about guns.
Mom’s skin was a warm amber, but now it’s silvery grey with tiny red dashes. Allie says her pallor looks like a dead Manzanita bush. Really, it looks like when Bunnicula would drain all the color out of vegetables.
Allie was making her drink some water when she wanted to talk to us, but I don’t think she can. About every three breaths she says, “I just.”
“Mom, it’s okay. Why don’t you rest?”
She won’t even look at us. Even if her eyes did open I don’t think she’d see us.
“Phil. Listen,” Mom says.
“Okay.” And I wait, but she doesn’t say anything else.
Allie says, “We love you, Mom. You got to rest.” We pull the blanket up and tuck her in again.
Outside the room, she says, “Phil, I’m scared. Can you be brave for both of us?”
“Okay. Can’t you call an ambulance? What about calling Aunt Maria or Uncle Sal, again?”
“Phil, I’ve called everyone. They’re either too far away or they’re not answering.”
The neighbor’s lights are on across the way, so we walk over there. Allie tells me that Mom says that it’s okay to leave her. We’re not going far.
Mister Anza. We don’t know him that well. When he answers, Allie scoops me behind her. I peek through her arm and see that he is so silvery he is almost glowing, and he has tiny red dashes all over.
“Hi. We saw the lights on and were wondering how you are doing,” says Allie.
“Sick. Where are your parents?”
“They’re back at the house.”
“Yeah? How are they feeling?”
I say, “Allie was sick, but she got better,” and Allie swats at me.
“Oh. Well, that’s good to know. Why are you out here?”
“Stars. But we saw your light on, so. Well, goodnight,” says Allie.
“Goodnight.” Mister Anza closes the door, and we back off the porch.
Wrapping me close to her, she says, “Don’t share information like that.”
“Why? It’s true.”
“Just don’t. People are weird right now. It could get us into trouble.”
“Then why did we go to his house?”
“I wanted to see if he was alive.”
All the way home it feels like someone is pushing against my back. I keep looking over my shoulder, but it’s too dark.
The next morning, after breakfast, Allie takes me out to the yard and she stuffs earplugs in my ears. She hands me a rifle, a Ruger .22 automatic. It’s all black and the stock is plastic feeling. It’s not like Dad’s prettier guns with the wood stocks. Even though it’s half my size, Allie calls it small. A beginner’s rifle, but it’s not the rifle she learned on.
Allie says, “This is the safety, keep it on until you are ready to shoot.”
She says, “This is the charging handle, pull it back to load the first round. This is the magazine release. The magazine holds 10 rounds. Once it is depleted, eject it and load another one from this pouch.”
“I don’t know if I want to learn.”
“I know Dad was supposed to teach you, but you need to learn.”
“But I don’t want to kill anything.”
“It’s just in case.”
“In case, what?”
“Just. Here. Line up the sights.”
She reaches around me and guides the stock into my shoulder. In the sights I see an empty apple juice box sitting on a log. Along the back of the log are cheery Black-Eyed Susans slowly swaying back and forth in the gentle breeze and bees climbing on the flowers collecting pollen. But I can’t tell what kind of bees.
“Take the gun off of safety. Aim, and squeeze, don’t jerk the trigger.”
I pull the trigger. The gun is loud, even with the earplugs. I miss the juice box, but I hit a flower. There are petals and dust floating through the air and bees racing around frantically trying to figure out what just happened. I think I just killed some bees.
“Allie. I don’t want to do this.”
“Come on, Philip. I need your help.”
“I don’t want to!” I shove the rifle in her arms and start walking to the house. “I’m not ready.” I don’t really ever yell at my sister. But I mean this. I don’t want to shoot anything. And I know she doesn’t want to either. She’s never killed anything.
Last summer, on the way up to the summer cabin, there was a shiny yellow and green river of frogs hopping across the road. Mom stopped the car and we got out.
“Oh, wow! Yellow-legged frogs. This is so cool,” Allie said.
“Why do you think they’re here?” Dad asked.
“Rained last night, and there was some flooding, maybe they had to move,” said Mom.
They’re in danger, Allie explained, and scientists brought them back to the mountain several times. “This is a good population.”
Allie picked one up and placed it in my palm. “Be really still.” The frog was soft, rubbery and smelled like dusty rain.
Someone honked their horn. The frog jumped and so did my heart, but Allie caught it.
A car peeled out from behind ours. Mom grabbed our shoulders and pulled us back. The frogs couldn’t move fast enough. It sounded like tiny water balloons filled with oatmeal bursting. I almost threw up.
“Allie,” Mom said.
“She’s not wrong,” Dad said. He started picking up the live frogs.
“Let’s try and clear the road.”
Outside, the bodies of birds lay on the gravel driveway, but it doesn’t smell out here. There’s a goldfinch, yellow and tan. Its feathers ruffling in the wind. There’s a scrub jay, blue and white. The jay’s blue cap is squirmy with maggots. Soon it will be all bones. And a crow. Crows are smart. There’s only one crow, maybe she warned the others?
When the battery dies on the iPad, Allie lets me watch the news again. The local station is talking about the end of the world and quoting the bible.
“None of this is helpful.” She turns the station until we hear people with British accents. They don’t seem as scared, just very serious.
“If you want the news, you can watch this channel.”
“How will we know what’s happening at home?”
“Just watch this.” She turns to head back to Mom’s room. “Also, keep it low.”
There’s something about people regressing, Allie tells me it means going backward. The people on the news say to leave the people regressing alone and contact the police if something is wrong. Allie read the same thing online. But Mom just seems sick. She is quiet and sleeps a lot. It’s not like Dad again, because her color is returning. I hope she gets better soon like Allie and me, so we can help bury Dad, and go home.
Allie’s boyfriend stopped calling when Dad died. When we got here, they were texting all the time, but there’s been no message in a while. She thinks he gave up on her because he thinks she’s going to die. But that doesn’t make sense because she got better. I told her that he’s a jerk if he thinks that. I didn’t tell her what I really think. And she’s smarter than me; she probably thinks what I am thinking, too, but it’s better if he’s a jerk.
“We need to go to Farnsworth’s,” Allie says.
“How are we going to get there?”
“Can’t you drive?”
“I don’t want to use the gas, in case Mom gets better.”
“But it’s so long.”
And it is, an hour to get there.
On the way there, there are no birds in the sky, but I saw bunnies and squirrels. They don’t have it. Just birds and us, I guess. Allie explained that it sometimes works that way, that one animal gets it and passes it to the others. Some get it, some don’t.
There are also no people anywhere. I know the news said to stay inside, but it’s still weird. Like when we get to the market, the parking lot has a few cars in it, but it feels like the haunted house we went to last year. On the walk up to the haunted house there were a few empty cars on the lawn, then people would jump out from behind the cars. But those were just actors.
The doors to Farnsworth are open, and the lights are on, but the place is empty. It smells like the house, like compost and dead rats.
“Would you stop it? I know this sucks, but we didn’t bring enough food.”
All the fresh produce is rotting. We get canned, dried, and frozen goods, even though they are heavy, because Allie doesn’t know how long we’ll be here and we’ll borrow a cart to take it home. I really want cereal. We get some, but no milk. We both think cookies.
When we leave, no one is at the counter and we don’t pay. She says it’s okay, we need these things and the owners will understand that. I feel bad about the cookies though. They’re not something we really need.
Even though it’s downhill, everything is heavy, so Allie is trying to make sure the cart doesn’t run away. I try to help, but it’s easier to control without me.
Along the sides of the road are golden flowers. Carpenter bees and a few skippers are flying from flower to flower. When I get closer to see I feel that pushing on my back again, like someone is watching me. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a pinkish flash.
“I saw it.”
“What is it?”
“Come on, keep up.” She moves closer to me.
The pines block what’s left of the sunlight, and I get worried. I don’t see any bunnies or squirrels.
“Don’t look at them.”
These two people, a man and a woman, reddish pink and naked, they’re straight in front of us hiding behind a chain-link fence along the forest. It’s like when bunnies stand really still and think that you can’t see them, but you totally can. We cross to the other side of the road and I can hear them making this low and quiet oh, oh, oh sound, like monkeys talking.
“Hey,” Allie yells and the two people take off running into the woods.
“What the fuck was that?” I stop and then Allie tugs at me.
“It definitely was a ‘what the fuck’ moment,” she says.
She’s quiet for a little and then says that she read that sometimes people got better, and sometimes people died, but sometimes people changed into not people or they weren’t people anymore.
“No, not zombies. They’re just people, but like animals. Either that, or they were lost on their way to the sex barbecue. I’ll explain that to you later.”
But I wish she would explain everything now.
When we open the door to the house, it smells worse than Farnsworth’s. It’s really bad. Especially against the smell of the pine trees outside.
“I did all the tricks. Even baking soda and vinegar.”
“But you can’t open the windows?”
“It’ll attract insects,” she says.
“Have you looked at Dad, again?”
“No. I don’t know if I can.”
“I think we need to check.”
I say, “I can do it.”
“No. No, I’ll do it.”
In the lower level of the house is the gun cabinet, and Allie has gone down there. We’re not supposed to go down there without Mom or Dad, and I don’t even know the combination. Allie does. She said I didn’t want to learn, this is an emergency, anyway, and Mom and Dad can’t protect us.
Allie comes upstairs with the bolt-action carbine, the prettiest gun Dad owns. The stock is a deep brown wood all the way to the tip of the barrel. It looks really old, but isn’t. Allie learned on this gun.
I can hear Mom moving around in her room. Allie is asleep next to me on the couch on the sunporch. I’m awake so I decide to check. When I open the door, she is standing, rocking herself back and forth on her feet in the corner next to the window. She’s also making the same low chattering noise like the two naked people we saw. I can’t see her face; she’s turned away from me. Through the curtain there’s a shadow and it says her long, low sound back to her. She starts clawing at the window screen.
“Mom?” When she turns, the way she looks at me is strange, like I’ve seen her doing something wrong.
She backs up quickly into the corner and starts saying, “Cluh, cluh, cluh!” and huddles into a ball.
“Allie, there’s something wrong with Mom. She’s freaking out or something.”
Allie’s been in there with her awhile. She told me to stay out here, and when I tried to help, she yelled at me to get out. She brought the rifle with her. Why would she bring the rifle to take care of Mom?
I try to listen, but it’s a lot of “Tell me what’s wrong,” or “Don’t do that.” Mom is one of the naked people now. Allie just doesn’t want it to be true.
In the yard, Mister Anza is staring through the window at me. In his right hand is a dead rabbit. Mister Anza’s lips look like clown lips, red and smeared. His face and chest are pinkish.
Allie starts to scream and he walks around the side of the house. I throw the door open and Mom has Allie by the hair and is slapping her. I try to pull her off, but she won’t let go of Allie.
I don’t want to hurt Mom, but I stomp on her foot hard. Allie falls to the floor, and Mom hits me across the face. Then Mom is on top of me screeching so loud my ears are going to burst.
She grabs my throat, and I can’t breathe. My head bangs against the floor. I can’t say anything to make her stop.
Allie stands over Mom and swings the rifle into the side of her head. Mom collapses on me.
Behind her, Mister Anza pounds on the window and wails. He sounds like Kitamaru when she’s trapped outside. Allie spins around and aims the rifle at him. He turns away and covers his face with the bloody rabbit. Its insides spill out from its tummy and leave dark streaks on the window.
“Allie, please don’t. Don’t!” But before I can finish, she fires. It’s so loud, like being under a firework. My ears ring. Everything feels slow and underwater. Mister Anza was at the window, but now he’s not. There’s blood splattered on the broken window and glass everywhere.
“He’s not a zombie,” I say. “He’s not a zombie.”
She closes the curtain, then comes over to pull me out from underneath Mom. She’s speaking to me, but I can’t really hear her. She leads me out, closes the door, and she shows me not to open it.
“Mom is not a zombie.” I don’t think she can hear me.
She is shaking. I’m scared too, but I hug her anyway. I squeeze as tight as I can. I will hold her until she stops.
The room is dark. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she’s looking out the window. She doesn’t move as I walk up to the table lamp and turn it on. The rifle rests on her lap.
“Is the gun still hot?” I don’t know why I ask that. I don’t.
“Did you get hurt?”
“A little, but I’m okay.” Her breathing is weird. It’s shallow and choppy. “Come sit.”
The floor is cold and I lean against her. The pair of scissors lays on top of the gun.
“Could you do me a favor, Phil? Cut my hair. I can’t do it.” The scissors rattle and scrape along the stock, as she pushes them to me.
“Please. As short as you can get it.”
“It’s okay.” Her hand is hot on my leg and trembles. “You can do it. Like salon, but real this time.”
I take the scissors and stand behind her.
Allie’s hair is like Mom’s—so beautiful, thick, wavy, and dark, and it usually smells good, like coconut, sometimes jasmine. In my hands it is heavy, greasy, smells a little like gunpowder still. Where Mom grabbed her, a small bit of her scalp is peeled away and there is blood.
“Does it hurt?”
“Just a little.”
I take a large handful of hair from the back of her head instead.
Her hand finds mine. “Yeah, like that.”
Cutting through it is tough. How long has she had this hair? We’re eight years apart. Maybe that long? Jimmy Albertson in Missus Montgomery’s class said that I was a mistake since I was so much younger than Allie. Allie said he was an asshole. He is. He steps on grasshoppers for fun.
When I’m her age, will we still be friends?
The hair falls to the floor. I take another handful, but I can’t tell where to cut. It’s all blurry and I can’t stop.
“I know. I know. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. It’s okay. Please keep cutting, though,” she says.
In the morning, we enter the room, and Mom is in the corner sobbing. When Allie goes to touch her, she pulls away.
“She doesn’t remember us," Allie says
“She’s one of them now,” I remind her.
I take her hand in mine and make it calm.
“We need to let her go,” she says and leads me away from Mom.
As we leave, we leave the door open. We wait on the other side of the kitchen and wait. Mom eventually steps out of her dark bedroom. She doesn’t look at us. Instead, she stares out the kitchen window, kind of like when Kitamaru would see a bird or something. She then walks to the door leading outside, opens it, walks out into the yard and into the forest.
As we watch her, a monarch butterfly lands on the planter box outside the kitchen window. Mom told us that the butterfly will travel miles and miles before it makes caterpillars and dies. Then those caterpillars will grow up and do it all over. That was a long time ago, but they’re still my favorite butterfly.
We agreed to do something for Dad, but we don’t know what to do.
I think we should burn Dad like they do in Viking funerals, but Allie thinks we’d burn the whole forest down. And besides, she thinks it would be a bad idea to open the door. She’s never checked on him like she said she would, because she knew by the time it started to smell like that we wouldn’t want to see him. I tell her about the insects and how they can clean a bird’s bones.
“That process takes a long time for us. He wouldn’t look like that yet.”
I touch one of the knots on the door. When you’re too close you can’t see the faces.
“Can we open the windows?”
“Why would we want to do that?”
“Let more insects in.”
“Be still for a second,” she says.
So I try. And when we are quiet, the hallway begins to fill with a buzzing noise.
“Do you hear that? That’s them right now, doing their work. We don’t want to let them out.”
She pulls me close and I look up at her. Without the long hair, she doesn’t look like mom and she doesn’t look like dad. It’s like she comes from somewhere else. I wonder how I look to her now.
As we finish packing the car, I see Mom peeking at us from behind a manzanita bush at the edge of the yard. The red shiny branches, green leaves, and white blooms surround her face like a Christmas wreath.
“Look. It’s mom.”
“Where?” Allie asks. “I don’t see her.”
“In the manzanita.”
“Phil, she’s not there.” She takes my hand and says, “We have to go. We can’t stay here.”
I don’t think Mom will be fine up here on her own. How will she eat? Allie thinks she won’t even remember us, anyway.
We get in and Allie backs the car out of the driveway. I stare out the window at Mom’s outline in the bushes and then, in the brush behind her, pink faces start to appear. The farther we get from the cabin, more faces come out, until it feels as if the whole mountain watches us leave.