Sep 23rd 2022
The third house in the row sat empty, like all the others. Mariya and Leo stood in the side-yard of the stranger’s house, in that part known only by the people intimately connected to a home. Leo called it an in-between place. He slipped his small hand into hers and she held onto him. He’d stopped asking about the people two weeks ago, a few days after they’d all vanished.
A warm breeze ruffled Leo’s dark hair and made the house’s curtains flutter in the open windows. The movement gave an impression of life but it had been long enough now that Mariya knew better. In those first few uncertain days, the alarms and radios and robot vacuum cleaners still obeyed their missing masters and her heart would leap with every noise or motion. The electronics had all joined the silence quicker than she’d expected.
“How many more today, Mommy?”
Mariya squeezed his hand in response. “Only a few.”
“We mustn’t give up hope.” Leo parroted back a familiar phrase she whispered to him at their lowest moments, to keep him focused on what came next and to keep herself from dwelling on what came before. The flatness in his voice had started three days ago. Another worry to stack on top of all the others.
“That’s right, buddy. If we’re still here, who knows who else is.”
“Mrs McCarthy isn’t.” He pronounced his teacher’s name like there was an eff sound in the middle.
Mariya only nodded. The school had been empty, too. A loading dock in the back had been wide open, with a truck partly emptied. A dolly had lain on the ground, boxes toppled in an arc around it.
Leo stared at one of the windows in the empty house, then pointed at it. A terrified house cat peeked over the sill.
“Stay here, buddy.”
Mariya slid a large hunting knife out of her pocket, clicked the blade open, and the cat retreated into the dark house. She slashed the screen to make an opening big enough for the cat to escape. She’d probably never see it again, but at least now it had a choice.
Mariya plastered a too-big smile on her face and spun back around.
“Ready to keep going?”
Leo nodded and took her hand again. Through the landscaped yard, around the back to the next in-between place. They’d got to an expensive part of town with manicured flower beds. Weeks of abandonment left the delicate, careful blooms needing weeding and watering. Nature took back its rightful place with ease as though it had only been biding the time until the humans left.
Another empty house. Leo sighed.
“Want to stay here, in this one? Maybe there’s toys.” Mariya wiggled his hand and raised her eyebrows. It’d be an earlier stop than the pattern they’d established, an arbitrary schedule she’d adopted, but they could both use some rest. He glanced at her.
After the first couple of days, they’d gone looking for others. They’d both been hesitant to go inside the houses, as though they could violate the private spaces of people who weren’t around to care. It hadn’t taken long for Leo to replace trepidation with wonder, and he explored the new places while Mariya took inventory of supplies. Keeping busy. House to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, taking shelter in the most appealing houses available nearest sunset. They’d tell each other stories as they fell asleep, and Mariya would hold him tight until morning came.
Mariya started toward the front of the house but Leo held her hand firm and didn’t move. She glanced back at him, intending to ask a too-perky question when he cut her off.
“Can we go home?”
Mariya stiffened. Her mouth stretched into a straight line as she tried to shove away the thoughts that came anyway. The painting her mother had given them as a wedding gift. The tiny place where paint had peeled away in the corner of the kitchen in the shape of Italy. The dent on the couch that marked Alex’s favorite spot. Laughing with him at the dining room table over an Uno game. Watching a movie together as a family under a fort made from cushions and blankets. Waking up to a cold bed, thinking he’d left her, only to find the reality was far worse.
She raised her chin and tried walking again and this time, Leo pulled her arm.
“Please, Mommy. I miss my…” he trailed off.
Mariya turned him toward her and squatted down, level with his eyeline. His large eyes, light brown flecked with gold, were wide against his too-still face. His raw grief caught her and tangled her up.
“My brave boy. My little lion.”
Leo’s features wrinkled then collapsed. He tried to talk between his sobs but his words were too wet and mushy to understand. Mariya pulled him close and held him, and he stopped trying to talk. His tears wet her hair and neck, grounding her in what they’d survived. What they’d lost. Her son’s waves of emotion crashed against her tenacity and gave in to the erosion and the thinning of the walls she’d built after they’d gone. She opened herself up to Leo and let him fully into her grief. They only had each other and he deserved all of her.
She sat on the ground with him, flattening some stranger’s grass, and cried.
Author Bio: Amanda Pica is a speculative fiction writer, dog lover, and peanut butter enthusiast. She lives in a state of what if, and loves when life bends around the corners of her expectations.
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