The Last Birds
The birds are gone, Elliot thought idly, watching the gray deadness above. He couldn’t recall when, exactly, he’d stopped seeing them, only that they must’ve disappeared like the rest of the world: fading into the depths of consciousness until they became mere dreams. If he closed his eyes now he could escape to where the untouchable specks still beat their wings and shrieked to each other, leading their young. Follow me, they’d say, I’ll take you where it’s safe.
But it wasn’t yet time for dreams. There was still work to do.
He swiped at his damp brow and set back to hollowing out the earth. Six by three by six, the way every other grave behind his family home was dug. The sound of leaves crumbling underfoot met him from behind as he finished. His fingers clenched reflexively, and he had a fleeting thought of Not this way before a familiar cadence croaked, “What’s this?”
Elliot’s pulse settled.
Named for his mother’s father. Joel’s mother who, in addition to his name, had also given Joel his mouth, crooked and full. His mother who stood at the kitchen sink and coughed up blood from that mouth which had smoked cigarettes for years behind Elliot’s back. His mother who died in a cancer ward twenty months before Patient Zero. Her own plot laid on the other side of what would soon be her son’s. When everything started getting bad, Elliot would stumble drunk into the yard to shake his fist at it, cursing his wife for not holding out another two years—for not waiting for them.
He turned to his son and nodded at the shotgun cradled in his gangly, not-yet-grown-into arm, “How many we got left?”
Joel tucked his soft chin down in shame, mumbling, “Uh, just one. I know you said to wait ‘til we got more, but I saw some Infected deer and wanted to, um, put ‘em out of their misery.”
Elliot cursed under his breath. His son dug his toes into one of Elliot’s piles of dirt.
“I shouldn’t have wasted the bullets, I know.”
“It’s alright,” Elliot grunted, climbing out of the plot and gesturing for the gun, “As long as we’ve got the one.”
Joel gave his father a look as he handed it over, discomfited by the lack of reprimand. He eyed the fresh graves again warily, “What’s this, Dad?”
He didn’t respond as he checked for the last bullet.
Joel laughed suddenly in disbelief, “You can’t be serious.”
Always too clever for his own good. His laughter choked out quickly when he saw his old man wasn’t laughing along.
“C—C’mon, Dad. Just because there’s nothing around here anymore doesn’t mean we can’t go elsewhere.” He lowered his tone like he was afraid there was anything left to overhear him, “I’ve heard of survivors up north. We could pack up and go right now if you wanted. You can’t just—just give up!”
Elliot snapped the barrel shut and met his son’s innocent optimism with guilty silence.
“I won’t help you with this.”
“I’m tired, Joel. Every day’s stolen, don’t you feel it? We weren’t meant to last this long.”
“What if we were, though? Maybe… maybe it’s like that story Ma told with Noah and the flood and that big old boat. We don’t gotta drown just because the boat ain’t here yet. Maybe our boat’s just up north.”
Elliot’s head shook.
“This is where you and I were born, this is where your mother was laid to rest and your grandparents and their grandparents. There’s nothing for us up north. There’s nothing for us anywhere anymore but here. I ain’t leavin’ everything for nothing.”
“So, this,” Joel gestured wildly, “is the solution?”
“It’s the only one that makes sense anymore.”
He looked at his son, then, “There’s a single shot left. Only one of us has to suffer a long death, and it won’t be you.” He gripped Joel’s shoulders, “Please don’t let it be you.”
“I don’t wanna drown,” Joel whispered.
“Water’s up to our ears, now. We’ll drown anyway.”
They locked gazes for a long moment. Long enough for a son to glimpse the relentless desperation that first took root in a father on nights spent with hands on his wife’s swollen stomach.
Joel slowly nodded through the sob trapped in his throat.
Elliot nodded in return, smoothing his hands down Joel’s arms as though to memorize his form. He shook his fingers out, and Joel swiped with ferocity at his eyes. Cheeks red, he swallowed and asked his father like he might’ve asked what time they were going to the store: “Now?”
Elliot blinked a few times in rapid succession, and then, “Close your eyes.”
He separated them by the length of a grave and felt the smallness of his son from this distance to be near-unbearable.
Elliot raised the barrel of the gun. “Dad,” Joel called, his mother’s bottom lip wobbling, “I’m scared.”
“So am I.”
He flipped the safety off. At the sound, Joel’s eyes twitched wildly under his lids like when he and Elliot used to play Hide and Seek. Count to ten and then come find me.
“Wait! Stop! I-I changed my mind! Please! Please!”
“Keep those eyes shut, Joel! Don’t open ‘em no matter what!” Elliot barked, arm trembling.
He jerked once against the trigger but stopped himself how a person does before biting through their own bone. His head shook against salty cheeks, finger finding its place again.
Follow me. I’ll take you where it’s safe.
He knew before it was over that it was over.
The screams grew louder and then stopped all at once, buried six by three by six with the rest of Elliot’s sins. But, hours later, when he settled into his own bed of dirt and waited for the dreams to come, he’d still hear them.