It does not take Deputy Winston very long to notice the change in Josh’s composure. He’s been moody before, but this is something different, and the Deputy knows it. I watch him glance at Josh’s tapping fingers: the long digits beating out a beat of irritation on the table as the Deputy tries to read and Melanie colors. Adrian checks to make sure our insulation is still firmly locked in place. Tricia and I prepare our humble dinner, but I’m distracted, fumbling with the can opener. Tricia takes pity on me and gives me scooping duty instead. Deputy Winston looks at me next and I cannot look away quickly enough.
I remember when I first met the Deputy. I’d just moved here, having followed Josh to his hometown after graduation, and there was a big Fourth of July blowout in the square. Families had lugged their grills from their homes for the annual grill-off, and the Winstons were one of them. The Deputy teased Josh about the many times he’d caught him and his brother trying to break into the high school after hours, intent on one prank or another. His wife Kate was warm, her laughter infectious, and she and Melanie were busy squishing his secret ingredient into the burger meat. Melanie was covered in raw meat up to her elbows, but her eyes were bright and shining, eager to mimic her mother and make her stepdad proud of her cooking skills.
It was Melanie who found her mother in their backyard, bloodless and broken.
I can’t remember the good times we as a town had without also remembering who is no longer there to reminisce with me, and the scope of my loss in this town is small. I didn’t know that many people. I didn’t grow up here and know all about my neighbors and have cousins just minutes away. There are no memorials to old pets anywhere in town for me to think fondly of as I pass. Today was the first time I’d ever set foot in the high school.
“Let’s turn the radio on,” Deputy Winston says, closing his book. He checks his watch. How long will it be before the tiny hands in that stop moving? “We’ll give it fifteen minutes.”
I’m closest. I wipe my hands on a faded yellow towel and switch on the radio. It crackles to life, but other than the small whine it makes as I test different stations, there’s no sound but static.
My chest tightens as I listen. The static is not a comforting sound. Every crackle and pop feels like it travels up my skin to the base of my neck. The tension is unavoidable. What if this time we hear something? What if somebody else survived, and is trumpeting that survival through the airwaves, desperate and seeking other living souls? Are we totally alone?
Accepting that means accepting that my parents are dead, that my best friends are ghosts, that my town, my neighbors, and all of my special places where I grew up are just as haunted. I am not ready for that.
My knuckles are white where they grip the radio. I force myself to ease off, just a little.
“Nothing, as usual,” Josh says. “What’s the point?”
“If anybody else is out there, it’s my responsibility to find them,” the Deputy replies. “I have to try everything, Josh.”
Adrian pulls out paper plates and utensils for everybody. It’s hard to care how slow styrofoam biodegrades when everything else is already going to shit. We grab what’s available. We can’t afford to do any less.
Melanie finishes her drawing and pushes it in front of the Deputy expectantly. He looks at it and scratches her head absently. “That’s a lot of orange, Mel. I’m not sure–”
“It’s mac and cheese,” she says. It’s the first thing she’s said in days. Everyone turns to stare at her, surprised, overjoyed, cautious, but she just puts her crayons away. “I miss it.”
Without warning, I start to cry. Tricia puts a half-opened can down and pulls me into a hug, moving her body to shield me from prying eyes as if I were her child. The gesture only makes me cry harder. The static from the radio stops, and I realize someone has turned it off so that now I’m the only sound in the room. It’s not a pleasant feeling, nor is the awareness that Josh hasn’t moved.
As I struggle to swallow the outpour of emotion, Melanie scoots her chair back. She approaches with the drawing and hands it to me shyly.
I free myself from Tricia and wipe my eyes on my sleeve. Only when I’m sure my hands are dry do I take the paper. “Thank you,” I manage, and give it a good perusal, as if even the tiniest of details could somehow conjure up the real thing. “You should sign it,” I tell her, and try to give it back. “At the bottom.”
She shrugs and won’t take it. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it does,” the Deputy says. “Who’s going to know who the amazing artist was fifty years from now?”
Melanie frowns. “No one. There won’t be anybody left.”
There is a second in which Deputy Winston’s mouth tightens in a grimace of pain. He is very still as he looks at his stepdaughter, and slowly shakes his head. The smile is forced, as though even he isn’t sure of the truth anymore. “You’re wrong, Mel. You’ll see.”
I realize then that Deputy Winston could break, the same way we all could. Somehow I’d thought him above that, the way that he pulled everybody together, the way he still keeps everybody in line. We’re dependent on him for that, as much as the others might complain. It’s too much. A fresh set of tears burns behind my eyelids. “I’m just going to put this with my things.”
Tricia squeezes my shoulder. “Go ahead, dear. We’re almost ready here.”
I nod and avoid the collective gaze as I escape. In the relative privacy of our makeshift bedroom, I look at the meager amount of things I own now, all mixed in with Josh’s. I used to love how our socks got confused in the wash sometimes, so that I might spend the day walking around with one of mine and one of his. It was precious and silly, but I thought it said something about who we were, what our future would be like when we married.
I can see now that there is no future for us, or for anybody. Not Melanie, not my parents, and certainly not a baby.