In the morning I’m up before sunrise, pressing my head against the cool bathroom tile. My stomach is a jumble of nerves and nausea as the smell of tea wafts in from our basement kitchen, tempting me. I’m not convinced I won’t get sick if I stumble after the heavenly aroma.
I’m lucky. Tricia brings me a cup and shuts the door behind her. “Sweetheart, have you any idea what you’re getting yourself into?” she asks, and I start crying.
Of course I don’t have any idea. Pregnancy was an adventure on a good day, and we haven’t had one of those in a long, long time. Tricia doesn’t really expect an answer, though. She smooths back my hair and murmurs reassurances that sound nice. We both know better.
By the time the rest of the basement is up, my stomach has settled and Tricia has promised to give what help she can. She had children of her own, and then grandchildren. Those that stayed local are dead. Every night she prays that her family members in other states are still out there, toughing it out like us. We have no other way of knowing. Every morning we turn on the radio in hopes the static clears and there’s news again. Every morning we are disappointed.
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Melanie climbs onto the couch next to me and settles into the crook of my arm. Tricia smiles at us both, buttering toast. Adrian, the last member of our makeshift family, reaches behind her for one of the mugs full of tea before joining Josh and Deputy Winston at the table.
The other morning ritual: we wait for daylight to chase away any vestiges of the fog and study the town map. We’ve marked it in circles and arrows, torn up post-its and colored pencil marks, and a handful of little Lego figurines to tell us where we’ve already been, where we haven’t – which places are depleted and where else the rest of our town holds up. Listed in columns on a yellow legal pad are the resources we’ve found, what we’d like to find, and what we absolutely need to survive.
They’ve divided the city into sections. We – our basement, and the others still left – spend the first half of every day going through them one at a time, collecting whatever goods are found. We always meet at the same time, in the same place. The rest of the day is spent divvying up those goods between the basements. Everything gets shared equally, or as much as it can be. We can’t afford to lose anybody else, but we really can’t lose this sense of order. Sometimes it feels like this routine is the only thing holding us together. Even so, we could use the pick-me-up of a good find, something that would make us feel like we aren’t just rolling boulders up a hill.
I know I could use it. Tricia has said she will help, but there are choices I have to make first. Do I want to keep it, knowing how limited our resources already are? What will Josh say when I tell him? How can I countenance bringing something so helpless into a world that we – adult men and women – can barely manage? If this is the way it’s going to be now, I’m not sure I can keep it together. I’m just not sure about anything right now and that terrifies me, almost as much as the fog.
An hour passes and then Deputy Winston calls it. We know the drill. Everybody gathers their day packs, their water and ammo rations, and the Deputy carries the one walkie-talkie we have. When the basements first organized, he’d taken everything that was left from the police department and made sure that even if we couldn’t get in touch with anybody outside of town, we could at least keep in contact with each other. Batteries are always on the list of things to find.
The Douglass basement crew is already waiting at the McDonald’s when we arrive. There are no actual Douglasses left alive, but before the fog they’d just finished their basement. New insulation, with a full downstairs bath and no windows, makes it a prime location for shelter.
We greet each other, and Melanie climbs the playground ladder, preferring the slide over the other people. Even when the few children her age arrive with the other basements, she doesn’t mingle much. There are a handful kids left, and usually someone from each basement takes a turn watching them play while the rest of us forage. The playground is the one normal thing we can still give them.
It’s Hailey’s turn to watch, so she waves us off once everybody is accounted for. Today we’re splitting into three groups to revisit the high school, some condos, and the local day care. They’re all on the same block so it’ll be easy to search them and still keep in relatively close contact.
Most of the obvious places – groceries, convenience stores – are ransacked beyond redemption. They were looted during the riots so there’s not much left in them that’s vital. The schools, the other public centers, though, there’s a surprising wealth of things that don’t necessarily look important the first time in.
After a few months, though, you realize the scope of your need. Maybe the biggest is that we have to find ways to reshape the world, repurpose what’s left so that we can use it in this new ugly version of things. The high school has durable furniture, wood and metal we can scrap, sometimes food or other souvenirs in lockers, and textbooks for the kids. There might be baby food that’s still good in the day care, and at the very least clothes and toys for the kids. The condos could have anything – especially if the residents were taken. The dead don’t need as we do.
At the high school, Allison and I go through the lockers while Josh, Babs, and Conner search the nearby rooms. Allison graduated the year before I entered high school, but that age difference doesn’t seem to matter as much as it used to. She finds a boy band poster on the back of a locker and snorts, pointing it out wordlessly. That one is harmless, but in others there are photographs of friends, family, love notes taped up, old corsages drying in corners, and I start to feel sick again.
“Hey, look at this!” There is surprise in her voice, and when she pulls her head out of the locker she’s grinning. I stare at the small blue pack she waves and breathe carefully through my nose. “The glorious pill. Want it? You’re the lucky one who still has a guy.”
“Oh. Yeah, good find,” I say, and study the little white fixers. Good find. Only a week’s worth of birth control is missing. I wonder how many I can take at once, if that would force quit what’s already growing inside me – if I can bear to do that, knowing that I can’t afford not to.
I feel light-headed. “Maybe we’ll find more,” I say, and force myself to smile. Down the hall I see Josh come out of a classroom and wave a bag of what looks like Hershey’s Kisses at me and I realize that I am going to throw up.
This registers with Allison. Her brow creases as she asks, “Are you all right?”
“A little warm. I’m going to step outside for some air,” I tell her, and wave feebly at Josh before turning. Outside I spend a few minutes dry heaving behind a bush.
If only the rest of me could be so empty.