Meredith awoke with a start, the soot and smoke stained portrait of her husband’s agonized face slathered in pale swaths of paint on the inside of her eyelids. His eyes wide, pleading, his mouth formed into a twisted oval, skin bubbling, melting and peeling away from the bleached bone beneath as claws of fire raked his expression from the stark skull it covered. Her breath hitched and stabbed as she labored her way into a waking state, desperately trying to close the door to the nightmare that was a mixture of bad dream and haunting memory. Her husband Barry had been a terrible man, abusive, perpetually angry, remorseless and unrepentant for his myriad of sins— yet all the same the gnarled fist of guilt formed in her gut for the role she’d played in his demise, burning alive as Denver City Hall was consumed by flames and reduced to smoldering ash.
Beyond her consistently disturbing dreams, Meredith felt almost normal these days, since getting access to the anti-nausea medicine, which Jake managed to find in that trashed drugstore several blocks away. The adventure to recover the medicine had very nearly cost Jake his life, but he’d shown not a single ounce of regret in the days since, even though they were filled with painful recovery from the deep and life-threatening stab wound he’d suffered. Mr. Franklin, the enigmatic property manager of the gated community where Meredith and her husband Barry had lived for the past few years, had been the one to actually coax Jake through the roughest stretch of his injury, a fact that made her considerably uneasy. Swinging her legs off the bed, she turned and looked at Ace, the large Rottweiler who had been part of the package deal with Jake, a smile turning her lips. She brushed slicked hair from her sweat soaked forehead, then reached over and gently stroked the side of the large dog, feeling the gentle bulge of ribs beneath his coat of matted fur. Ace was getting skinny. They were all getting skinny. Caressing her pregnant belly, she chuckled, reminding herself that skinny was relative. Her curved belly certainly didn’t resemble anything skinny, but her face was drawn, skin pulled taut around the angular edges of her jawline, her eyes sunken, and her arms looking like flesh covered branches on an old, withered tree.
In truth, she and Jake had it much better than most— Barry had been almost obsessive about having a stocked pantry, and they had food and water, though they were being exceedingly cautious in their rationing. As Jake struggled through the first few days of his recovery, Meredith silently wondered just how long they’d be stuck in her house, a veritable mansion she had once been awed by, but now felt almost haunted with the memories of her dead husband and reminders of the abuse he’d levied in her direction on an almost daily basis. Standing with a soft groan, she wandered her way to the bathroom, creasing her eyes as the wafting smell of stale urine struck her upon entry. The bathroom situation at the house was far from optimal, with no running water and the fetid odor of waste permeating each of the four point five bathrooms contained within the large structure. They’d long since stopped actually using the toilets, choosing instead to venture out to the thick clutch of trees that lined Meredith’s backyard, but still, the remnants of their first few days grew languid and stale, managing to battle its way through her anti-nausea medicine and curdle in her plump stomach.
She rested a hand on her rounded belly, looking into the bathroom mirror, using her hand to steady herself against the broad, porcelain sink counter. While her stomach was generally feeling better and she did indeed feel normal, normal for an almost seven month pregnant woman in the midst of a solar apocalypse was a long way from a true normal and she found herself battling the pendulum swing of emotions on an almost hourly basis. She was beginning to realize just how much of a savior Jake had been, not just from a physical standpoint, but from a mental and emotional one as well. She’d found hope in his eyes, in spite of his anti-social demeanor— he had a purpose, a desire, and by being in his orbit, she felt the same. But he’d been out of commission for nearly a week, spending most of his time silent and bed-ridden, his body resting to recover from the loss of blood and trauma to his body. As such, she found herself drifting in darkness, creeping far too close to fatalism as she spent her days looking out over the sun-soaked horizon of the meadows behind her house, the sunlight no longer warm and welcoming, but a beacon of horror and pain.
A bottle of water rested on the counter by the sink and she picked it up, checking its contents, then cupped her hand, spilled some water into it and splashed it across her face. The sudden jolt of room temperature liquid shocked her into a slightly more awakened state and she repeated the motion twice more, blinking through the water, trying to comprehend the face that stared back at her from the mirror. Her skin was pale and almost flaccid, languishing on her skull like moist wax paper, her eyes set into her sockets like white marbles placed in mottled, clay bowls. She exhaled, closing her eyes against the image of her own reflection, her fingers curling around the edge of the sink as she felt another relentless crashing wave of despair threaten to drop her to her knees. Pressing her eyes tightly shut, she focused her attention on Jake, someone she could help, someone she could heal— something good that she could do rather than curling into a fetal position and praying that everything would just magically go away.
Releasing her cast iron grip on the sink, she made her way out the door, each stride becoming at least slightly more resilient and determined than the last. Ace perked his head up as she made her way back past the large, king-sized bed and he leaped down, following her out into the hallway, toward the landing, which lead to the curved downward staircase to the first floor. She made her way down the stairs carefully and quietly, not wanting to disturb Jake if he was still sleeping. Ace, of course, had no such concerns, his claws clattering on the stairs as he scrambled down, then darted across the floor, heading to where the first level guest room was, its door locked tight. Scratching anxiously at the door, Ace lowered his head and sniffed loudly at the seam near the floor, as if he could materialize his master just by snorting his scent through the narrow gap.
“Come on, let’s get you out first, then wake him up.” Meredith swept a makeshift pet poncho from the end table near the rear sliding glass door and wrestled it over the large dog as he squirmed eagerly, suddenly realizing what gift he was about to be given. She slid the door open and he burst outside in a blur of movement, vanishing from view. Meredith had been worried about him doing that at first, though Jake promised her that he would come back, and so far, three times a day, every day, he’d done just that. Feeling the pressure of her own bladder, Meredith sighed and went through the arduous process of dressing in her own protective suit, a combination of the MOPP gear and rain poncho that she’d been given back at City Hall, making sure to leave herself access in the lower half of the suit so she could drop her drawers and do what she needed to do. Any sense of self-consciousness or self-awareness had gone, now that she was nearly a week into the process, though it was still a hassle and still felt like tempting fate.
She’d learned the hard way to not even gaze in the direction of the sun, the familiar ball of yellow light and gas, unfiltered by ozone, could very easily burn out her retinas if she stared at it for even a few moments too long. Already, the air felt several degrees hotter than it had when everything had started, and in one case, when she’d hiked up her pant leg just a little too much, a sudden clawing burn radiated along her shin within seconds of exposure. Long story short, the sun was no longer humanity’s friend, and as the days wore on, it would only become more and more dangerous. Not just dangerous, but deadly. Her arms wrapped around her body, shoulders hunched, her hazardous materials suit clutched around her, covering every inch of skin. she pushed out onto the back patio, moving with dedicated purpose toward the small group of trees thrust up from the withered grass in a section of her once lush backyard.
Where there had once been over an acre of vibrant, green grass, there was now a sprawling wasteland of beaten down, dried out straw, the bland variations of brown looking like the left over crust of a decades-long draught instead of only three weeks of normal Colorado summer. Meredith’s shoes crunched through the dried growth as she made for the trees, which were little more than thick, leafless stalks jutting up from hard ground, many of their leaves wilted and browned, drooping as if just emerging from a particularly harsh winter. As the leaves continued to shrink, crust over and die off, the shelter the trees provided became more and more meager, giving Meredith pause as she drew into the copse of growth and searched for a place to relieve herself. Trying to expose certain areas of her body without exposing them to the sun— or her neighbors, was getting more and more challenging and she was quickly growing concerned about how it might work long term.
Fumbling with the straps and buckles, she inched the lower section of her modified suit down, exposing just enough to do what she had to do, crouching in the narrow trees, her eyes darting out from beneath the lenses of her goggles, searching to make sure nobody was playing peeping tom. To her right, she heard the rustling sound of something charging through the trees and jerked, shifting her weight so she wouldn’t topple over, only to see Ace barreling toward her, tail swishing from beneath his doggie poncho.
“Don’t knock me over, Blockhead.” Meredith finished what she was doing, used some toilet paper she’d brought out from the house, then bundled herself back up, wincing as she stood, her stiff back barking slightly as she elevated. Ace circled around her, then joined her in making their way back to the sliding glass door. Meredith had only been out in the sun for a few minutes and she felt sapped and tired, completely leeched of her energy, sweat thickly coating her skin, creating a layer between her body and the outer shell of the MOPP suit. Slipping back inside, she slammed the door closed and removed her hood and mask, expelling a breath of exhausted air. She rushed to remove the layers of clothing, feeling sweltering to the point of overheating. Taking tentative steps forward, she wrestled free of the cumbersome outfit, relishing the fresh air, even though she’d only been clad in her protective gear for less than ten minutes. She wasn’t sure if it was just her imagination or not but venturing outside was getting more and more taxing every day.
While they’d been at City Hall, Dr. Liebert had gone on a rambling diatribe about UV-A rays and UV-B rays and about direct sunlight being invisible to ozone, but her mind roiled with the science behind the event and she found it almost impossible to tie all of the various loose threads together. She knew the sun was getting brighter, she knew that it would be far more damaging to exposed skin, both in the capacity to burn and to cause skin cancer, but would the surface temperature of the earth actually rise? Would the summers be hotter, or was it simply her imagination? She sighed and stepped out of the pool of her loosely gathered MOPP suit, trying to shut the freight train of frantic thoughts out of her mind. It was far too easy these days to follow that train into a deep, dark tunnel and she remained in constant fear that she wouldn’t be able to find her way back out once that happened. Ace had followed her back inside and shook vigorously, as if trying to throw the poncho from his back, so Meredith moved toward him, assisting the large dog in getting free of the heavy, protective outfit. Once loosened of the garment, the animal shook again, with even more aggression, the vigor with which he shook bringing a rare smile to Meredith’s lips.
She walked to the kitchen and located a quarter full plastic bottle of water, slipping it free from behind the rows of ginger ale, then tipped the bottle and took a long drink. Before she’d even set the bottle down, Ace had perched near the closed door to the guest bedroom, looking at her, his head tilted sideways inquisitively.
“Should we check on him, bud?”
Ace’s tail slapped the floor in answer, the Rottweiler clearly sensing her intentions. Meredith crossed the floor and the dog leaped to his feet, pressing his head against the seam of the door as if trying to squeeze through the narrow gap between door and frame.
“Slow down, you big goofball. Don’t jump on him, okay? Stay down.”
Ace pressed his head harder as Meredith turned the doorknob just enough to release the latch securing it closed. The dog barreled forward, ramming the door open with his thick skull and sprinting into the dimly lit room.
The dog ignored her, immediately jumping and landing on the bed where Jake lay with a spring creaking groan and shuffling of loose blankets. Jake grunted and turned away from the dog’s heavy impact, waving a casual hand as Ace pushed his head forward and began licking his master’s face.
“I thought you were well-trained, you bozo.” “He’s good at pretending.” Jake murmured from beneath the piled blankets, running his fingers over the Rottie’s head.