They’re Just Like Us (Part 4)

Catch up on the story here


My mom has been hugging me for the last 5 minutes. She hasn’t said anything since the sunrise siren except for a few heavy sighs into my hair. Every now and then her grip loosens around me and I think she’s about to pull back but instead she just pulls me in even tighter. And you know what? It’s exactly what I need right now. Her grip loosens once again and this time she finally breaks the embrace. Her eyes are all red, either from exhaustion or crying, and she clears her throat before finally speaking.

“Do me a favor and take care of the front door so your father can get in. I’ll bag the arm up for the CDC.” She stands up and begins to tidy up the shattered glass and guns that have been strewn around the floor. “Then try and grab some sleep if you can.”

“Thanks, mom.” I leave her alone with her thoughts and unbolt the front door. I thought with all the adrenaline left in my body that there was no chance I would sleep but as soon as I stepped over the threshold into my bedroom, my whole body collapses onto the bed and I fall asleep immediately. 

I must have slept for a few hours because when I woke up I could hear my dad downstairs. After a quick shower and change of clothes, I head downstairs to the living room where my parents are sitting on the couch talking to two men in hazmat suits sitting in the armchairs across from them.  

“No, I don’t know any of their names, but I did recognize them from around town.” My mom’s voice sounds tired but strong and I know some of that strength is coming from the fact that my dad’s arm is around her shoulders. “Oh! Maggie’s up. See, I told you she would be down shortly.”

The men in hazmat suits have to turn their whole body to be able to see me coming into the room so to make it easier on them, I walk over and sit down next to my dad. “Hey,” I say because… what else do you say to hazmat covered CDC agents in your living room? 

“Please state your name for the record.” Left Suit stares intently at me, sitting forward in his chair. 

“Oh, uh- Maggie. Maggie Kirkland.” I look around and realize there’s a tape recorder on the table between us. Next to it is a sealed red biohazard bag which must contain the arm. 

“In your own words, please tell me what happened last night after sundown.” It was clear that Left Suit was in control of this interview. Right Suit sat back in his chair, almost seeming at ease in the bulky yellow suit. 

After they had heard my side of things, they asked a few more questions about the identity of the people in the horde, which unfortunately I couldn’t help much with. Then they packed up the items on the table and left, having ‘all the information they needed to complete their investigation.’ Mom went up to finally get some rest while Dad and I set to taking down all the plywood and hurricane shutters. He wanted to have it all done by the time she woke up so the house would feel normal again. 

We had just finished taking down the outside defenses and my dad could see it all over my face; I was antsy. I needed to be away from the house and doing… something, anything, other than this. A big exasperated smile stretches across his face, “Oh go on, Mags. I’ll finish up.” 

In my room I surveyed the different art mediums I had around. Do I feel like painting? Grabbing an easel and acrylics or maybe my travel watercolor palette? I could go basic and just grab pencil and sketchbook and do some people watching. I decided on my camera bag, slinging it on my shoulder as I run downstairs, kiss my dad on the cheek, and head out to my car. 

I didn’t have to drive far before I found my first photo opportunity. A large group of people are gathered outside a home a few streets away, kept back by the police barriers. I put on a telephoto lens, squeezed my way through the small crowd to get as close as possible, and snapped off a couple shots. Checking the tiny screen on the camera, I see several policemen milling about measuring things and taking photos of evidence. Another photo has a policewoman carrying evidence bags full of guns out of the house. 

“You just missed the bodies,” a smokey voice that sounds almost giddy whispers into my ear. 

“Bodies? Plural?” I turn and stare at the woman in disbelief. 

A cheshire-cat like grin spreads across her face, her desire to gossip outweighing her desire to appear as a saddened mourner. “Yep. Four of them. Apparently them undead that was loose last night found a way inside. Killed that poor family. I heard the gunshots you know, I live right over there.” She pointed to a house down the street. 

“Yeah,” I look back down at my camera and pretend to be adjusting the settings. “I heard it too.” I push away all thoughts of how that could have been me and my mom instead of this family and clear my throat. Before I’m able to speak again, I hear a clucking noise behind me. The gossiper and I both turn to the woman emitting the sound. 

“Oh don’t you start with me, you old hag. I’m just telling her what’s what,” the gossiper snapped before turning away from both of us to watch the live-action crime drama that was still going on. 

The ‘old hag’ turns her gaze to me and it feels as if she’s staring into my very soul. No one knows her name, but the whole town knows of her. She’s homeless and refuses assistance from anyone who tries to offer her food or a place to stay. Everyone just assumes she was wandering from town to town and had the misfortune to get caught in our town when the Wall went up. 

“Sorry,” I mumble, although I’m not quite sure why, and push my way back through the crowd, leaving the old hag, the gossiper, and the rest of the gawkers to their grotesque scene. 

Back in my car, I head towards the main road and out of my development. Normally, I would turn right and head towards the lake where I can always get some great photos, but today I wanted something different. I turn left and head towards the forest. Over the roofs of the rest of town, I can see the tops of the evergreens that make up the forest. Towering over them, from somewhere in the middle, are the smoke stacks of the paper mill that separates our town from Greenville, the only other town inside the Wall. I drive a ways into the forest following the paved roads until I hit the fork. Take the right street and it leads to the factory whereas the left eventually dumps you into a parking lot. I head left and park in the almost empty lot that is the beginning of several marked foot trails to follow through the forest.

I’ve lived here my whole life, which means I’ve taken these trails more times than I can count: nature trips with school science classes, midnight adventures with flashlights and friends, and romantic strolls with local boys. I choose one that I know has a few interesting landmarks I can photograph. I follow the trail for a half hour, snapping wildlife pics along the way, before I leave the well worn path for the humus of the forest floor. Leaving the path isn’t anything new either; a few years ago with a bunch of friends, we wandered this way and found an old abandoned stone house. That was where I was heading today. 

An hour-long walk later and the stone house stands in front of me with it’s half missing roof and a portion of it’s back wall crumbled, somehow looking both impressive and sad at the same time. I walk around the outside of the building and take several awkward angled shots that end up looking amazing. I circle the building like a vulture, looking for anything that, with the right filter, would look great on my Instagram. 

Having inspected and photographically catalogued the exterior, I head through the yawning black opening that used to be the front door. If there were any interior walls, they’re gone now and all that’s left is the shell of the house. A massive tree made it’s home in the back corner where the roof and wall collapsed, but has since died leaving a hollow trunk with a jagged top not too much taller than I am. 

I wander around the room, snapping a few photos here and there, but mostly just running my hands along the stone. What kind of life did these people lead? Did they ever have to deal with hordes of the undead? Probably not. Standing at a former window opening, I breathe in deeply and try to imagine what the forest looked like back when this house was in it’s prime. My thoughts are interrupted when I see someone walking in the forest and headed my way. I gasp and duck out of view. 

My dad will be so mad when he finds out I left my mace in my car, he’s always harping on me to carry it with me everywhere. Ever since the Wall went up, a small percentage of the people inside decided that the laws don’t matter anymore. There was looting and random violence everywhere in those first few months. It’s definitely slowed down over time as the CDC started to lock up the trouble makers, but you can never be too careful. Especially being alone in the middle of the woods with a strange man walking towards you. 

I look around the room to see if there’s anything I could use as a weapon if this encounter isn’t a friendly one. There’s nothing except maybe my camera. It’s heavy enough and the bag’s strap is long. I could swing it and get a good hit or two in if I needed to. Maybe I’ll get lucky enough and he’ll just walk on by. I take a peek back out the window to watch him.

He’s closer. And something’s wrong. His gait is off. He’s shambling, walking awkwardly with a limp. From this distance, I can see his gray eyes. He lets out a long low groan that sets every hair on edge. 

This can’t be. It just… can’t. It’s daylight. The new moon is over. He should be him again, not this. 

He’s almost at the house now. I need to run, I can’t stay here. But they’re fast, so fast, when they need to be. I’ll never outrun him. I tear myself away from the window and look around. The dead tree. Maybe I can hide in there. I take a step and the leaves crunch under my feet. Another groan, louder this time. A twig snaps way too close outside. 

Noise be damned, I need to hide. I take long strides and don’t breathe until I feel the smooth bark under my fingers. Slinking around the back, I try to keep the trunk between me and the front door. There’s a split in the wood I hadn’t noticed before. It takes some effort but I squeeze inside. For a few seconds, I actually feel safe. I may be ok. But through a crack in the trunk in front of me, I can see his shape in the doorway. 

With slow, deliberate steps, he crosses the room. 

His gray eye presses up to the crack in the trunk and he lets out one last low groan. 

He’s found me. 

Part 5

They’re Just Like Us (Part 3)

Read Part 1 and Part 2

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Hollywood got it all wrong, you know. They don’t crave brains, they crave any living flesh. And they’re not slow, shuffling mindless creatures either. They’re fast, fast and clever, which makes them formidable monsters. I wouldn’t exactly call them “smart” though; if they were smart, they would know that pretty much every house has people in it. I think of them more like sharks- if not in the CDC’s captivity, they prowl their territory until they see food and then they are vicious and relentless trying to get it. You know those sharks that adapted to hunt from directly below and jump straight out of the water to catch the seals? The undead are like that.

We moved our arsenal to my parents room. It feels safer to have yet another door between us and them. On a new moon night, you try to keep your house looking as empty and lifeless as possible. If they know you’re in there, they’ll do anything to get in; so we keep all the lights off, sit on the floor next to the bed, and try to distract ourselves by playing go-fish by the dim light of one tiny candle we have lit. Far in the distance, the CDC helicopters, armed with the largest guns they could gather, circle the containment center at The Wall in case of a break-out. 

It’s around midnight when we hear it, the first sounds that tell us that the CDC failed to get all of the undead. Those sounds which tell us it’s going to be a long and stressful night waiting for sunrise. Whatever is happening doesn’t sound like it’s too far to us, and the sound of gunshots are unmistakeable. With a quick puff, the candle is extinguished and the cards that were in our hands have been abandoned and replaced with whatever gun was closest to us. 

Crouching low, we make our way over to the barred window, my mom pushes it up to open it just a few inches, so we can better hear what’s going on outside. Through the crack a gentle breeze floats in, the calmness of it so contradictory to what is happening a few blocks away. A few minutes of non-stop gunfire goes by before all is quiet again. Although we don’t say anything, I know my mom is wondering the same thing, who died to cause it to stop? Did the undead make it inside and kill the living? Or did the living people manage to get the head shot that causes final death for the undead? 

Another cool breeze pushes it’s way inside and instead of bringing noise with it, it brings pollen which causes a loud sneeze to erupt from deep within me. The noise is so loud and startling in the pregnant silence that it causes my mom to jump at the sound. I mouth a few “i’m sorry’s” to her as she composes herself and stares out the window, waiting to see if any nearby undead may have heard that.

Every breath feels like an eternity as we peer through the window, watching for any sign of movement. Ten long minutes pass before we are finally able to relax a little. I lay my handgun in my lap and stretch my fingers, trying to relieve the cramps from holding the gun in a vice-like grip for so long. 

My mom maintains her guard position at the still cracked window, keeping her eyes and ears peeled for any sign that the undead are making their way up our street. I crawl my way back over to the bed and grab a book I had tossed on it when we made camp earlier that night. When she breaks off her vigil and catches my eye, I shake the small box of matches and she nods, a wordless gesture of permission. She feels it’s safe enough for me to fire up the tea light candle to read by. 

In the bouncing candlelight, the words swim on the page in front of me. It takes me hours to read a few paragraphs. I’m staring at them but my mind isn’t absorbing them. My mind keeps drifting to the violent sounds from earlier, to what my life would be like if the dead never rose, to Tim, to life outside the wall. I finally give up and close the book, shoving it under the bed in disgust and frustration.

The green illuminated numbers scream 5:27 at me from across the room. One more hour until sunrise, and things have been quiet for hours. We may be in the clear, I think. 

A scream cuts through the night. 

Fuck.

My mom hasn’t moved from the window since the sneeze but I can see her whole body tense at the sound. I grab a gun and make my way back over next to her. We both know it- that the scream was the sound of the undead, frustrated and hungry. And it was close. 

I stare so intently out into the darkness that my eyes quickly begin to feel fatigued and dry. I blink away the discomfort and check the clock again. 6:01. I blink a few more times, pushing through the exhaustion and try to refocus them outside and that’s when I see it. The one thing you don’t want to see on a new moon night. 

A horde.

That’s the only word I could possibly use to describe it. At least 20 undead are moving in a group down the street, walking slowly with their gray eyes scanning wildly around them for any sign of movement that could mean a quick meal. And they spot it at Mrs. Gunderson’s house across the street and three houses down. She must have pulled a curtain back to watch the horde and they caught it. 

More shrieks erupt as they race across her lawn to the front of her house. From our vantage point, we watch as their rotten fingers try to pry off the metal shutters, probing for any weakness in her defenses that could get them through the front door and on top of their meal. 

If her shutters can hold out another 32 minutes, she’ll be safe. But that is a long time against a horde. 

While some of them work on her front door, others split into groups and try to pry the shutters off her windows. They hiss and shriek and make guttural noises as they work. One of them grabs a rock and begins smashing at the bolts holding a corner in place. In the darkness this sends a tiny shower of sparks with each hit. 

It’s 19 minutes until sunrise when their effort pays off and the shutter over the front window begins to peel away. The groups all converge on the tiny breach and every hand begins working at it, trying to pull it open enough that they can pass through. 

And that’s when I feel the tingle in my nose again. No, no, no, no, please god no. Fucking pollen! I press my non-gun hand to my face, trying to smother the feeling, but it’s coming.

My sudden movement got my mom’s attention and her face contorts into pure terror as she realizes what’s about to happen. She drops her shotgun and tries to shut the window but it’s too late. 

My sneeze booms throughout the room and the silence that follows is deafening.  My mom is frozen on her knees with her fingers pressed to the window frame ready to close it but not actually closing it. As soon as I recover, I follow mom’s stare to the horde and see that every single gray eye is fixed on our house. 

Those few seconds that follow, nobody moves at all: my mom, me, the horde. It’s as if you can see their thought process, continue working on the shutter or take a crack at the new food source. All at once they decided and charge down the street, directly to our front door. 

BOOM! 

The banging they make on the front door shakes the entire house. My intestines feel like they’re in knots. They’re directly below our window so we can’t really see them, but we can hear and feel them. Our reinforced front door is holding but we scramble and grab the rest of our guns and lay them out around us on the floor, facing the bedroom door, ready for anyone that makes their way inside. 

I have so much adrenaline coursing through my body that my fingers tingle as I fumble with my handgun. 

“Mom?” my voice trembles, but hers is rock steady as she replies. 

“We’ll be fine, honey. There’s only 15 more minutes until sunrise. That door can hold out for 15 minutes.” She must be terrified too but she isn’t showing it and I love her even more right then. 

BOOM! 

BOOM!

BOOM!

Every bang sends my heart into my throat. There’s too many of them, they’re going to get in. Sweat beads up on my forehead. My breath is coming in quick pants. I feel like I’m going to pee myself or hurl. 

Then the banging slows and there’s a different sound that replaces it. The window is still cracked open behind us and we can hear their snarls and grunts and somehow they sound as if they’re getting closer. 

We spin around just in time to see dead fingers grabbing at the windowsill between the bars. Two seconds later the gray eyes pop up over the edge, frantic and hungry. With no hesitation, mom grabs a 2×4 and shoves it through the open gap, pushing the head back. He loses his grip on the sill and tumbles backwards down the pile of undead that he climbed up. 

Ten minutes. Please. Just ten more minutes.

In no time, another face appears in its place, another undead made his way to the top of the pile, trying desperately to get to us. He makes it higher than the last one.

I aim the gun but can’t pull the trigger. I don’t know his name, but I recognize him from the restaurant- cheeseburger, medium rare, salad instead of fries. In mere minutes, he’ll be back to normal. I can’t end his life now. Mom tries the 2×4 trick again, but he somehow manages to grab it and yank it out of her hands and out the window. I hear it thunk on our walkway below. 

With one hand, he’s got a firm grip on the iron bars across the window, with the other, he balls it up and slams it through the window, shattering the glass and sending it spilling into the room.  

“Please stop!” I scream at him even though I know he won’t respond, not yet. The sky is getting lighter behind him. Any minute now he’s going to snap out of it and be himself again, but right this second his free arm is through the bars trying to grab us. My mom aims her shotgun at his head, finger hovering over the trigger. “Mom, no! Wait!” 

His fingertips graze the end of the barrel just as she fires. He managed to move it just enough that instead of the headshot she was going for, a chunk of his forearm and elbow are blown off, falling to the carpeted floor with a sickening sound. The shot throws off his balance and he falls back but manages to keep his grip around the bars. With what remains of his arm, he shoved it through the bars again, trying to get at us with his stump. 

With one last shriek, his face changes from the monster it just was to the face I know, only now it’s clouded with confusion. The pile below that was holding him up collapses as they all return to their normal state and his face disappears from the window, leaving just his arm on our floor. 

My mom lets out the breath she’s been holding for who knows how long as we set our guns down in the warm orange glow of the morning sun. Then the air raid siren sounds again alerting the townspeople of sunrise. 


Read Part 4

They’re Just Like Us (Part 2)

Read Part 1

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It’s well after midnight when I park my ancient sedan in the driveway of my childhood home. From out front, I can see that all the lights are off inside except one small reading lamp in the living room. My dad. I enter the house quietly; I know he’s probably too engrossed in his book for me to bother him, but I do it so I don’t wake my mom upstairs.  As I suspected, he’s sitting in his favorite arm chair with a historical biography open in his hands.  I lean against the doorway into the living room, “is it any good?”

“It’s a bit dry,” he says as he looks up at me with a warm smile.  I compare him sitting in front of me to the large family portrait hanging on the wall behind him.  He’s a little plumper than he was back then and his hair has gone gray with age, but his smile is still exactly the same.  And of course his eyes are different.  They used to be brown and now they are the same grayish-white as a lot of the town.  Yep, my dad is dead.  Or undead.  He died two years ago of a heart attack.  It tore me to shreds, I left the apartment I was sharing with some friends and moved back home to be with my mom.  For a year we lived together trying our best to learn how to be a family without him.

I smile back at him, “You’re still going to power through and finish it aren’t you?”

“You know me too well, Mags.” He lowers his head to continue reading and without looking up again says, “You should head up to bed, tomorrow is gonna be a long night, you’ll need your rest.”

Knowing that he’s right and that he is already re-absorbed back into whatever historical time he’s reading about, I turn around and tiptoe up the stairs.  I change out of my work clothes and then lift open the window in my room, kneeling on the window bench to look out at the town.  It’s a warm night, with just a sliver of a moon in the sky. Closest to our house is the rest of our development, multi-colored carbon copies of my home with just enough lawn between them to not be considering adjoining houses. Out past all the newer roofs are older, taller Victorian style houses containing the upper-class section of our little town. These houses all have sprawling lawns with meticulously sculpted greenery and you certainly can’t almost shake hands with your neighbor through two open windows. The glittering lake is just beyond them, only partly visible from my vantage point.  Out past the lake in the distance is The Wall with the searchlights of helicopters illuminating portions of it as they patrol.

When The Rising (as it was so appropriately called by all the national news outlets) happened a year ago, there was so much confusion and chaos in the first few days that we never stopped to think about the fact that this wasn’t happening everywhere. It was only on day 5 when the Center for Disease Control showed up and set up their blockades and temporary fences that went around our town, a neighboring town, and the lake, that we realized this was an isolated thing.

I crawl into bed and pull the heavy quilted comforter up to my chin. The faraway thrum of the helicopter engines helps to quickly lull me into a deep sleep.  

The next morning starts off normal enough, for a new moon day. My mom is making breakfast when I come down and my dad is sitting at the table, scrolling through the news on his tablet. She asks how my shift was last night as she slides a plate in front of me, a short stack of heart shaped pancakes.  I may be 31 but I will never get too old for heart shaped pancakes.  

“Hectic, as expected, but I made some decent money in tips.” A thick stream of syrup flows from the bottle to completely cover my plate. “Enough that I can go get some extra supplies for tonight anyway.”

“Well that’s good honey.” She avoided my gaze and busied herself with pouring more batter as she added, “have you given any thought to finding a job more suited to your degree?” 

I roll my eyes but my dad catches it and makes a face. “I’m trying but the job market isn’t really there for someone with a degree in Fine Arts inside the Wall.” I say it with such a finality that it’s clear there isn’t any more discussion. She had tried to convince me to go to one of the middle or elementary schools and ask about an art teacher position. The problem with that is that since the Wall went up, everyone who used to work outside of the Wall is now scrambling for a way to make money inside the Wall. Besides, teaching was never what I wanted to do.  My dream had been to move to New York and become a famous painter or photographer or sculptor.  Those dreams got squashed the day Alex Ingleson crawled his way out of his grave to be the first to Rise.  

My mom places a plate with one heart shaped pancake in front of my dad and finally sits down with her own stack of pancakes. We sit and listen to my dad tell us what’s going on in the news as we eat.  

“One site is claiming it’s a virus, another that it’s tainted municipal water, and yet another is saying it’s aliens,” he sets the tablet down and has a definitive look on his face. “I’m going with aliens. I feel other-worldly.” 

We all share a giggle at his absurdity, and I hop up, clearing my place as I do. I snag our house ration card off the fridge and flash it at my parents, still sitting and eating. “Other than the rations, anything you want me to get?” 

“I’ll make a list- no Sharon, you sit and eat.” My father hopped up to allow my mother to enjoy the rest of her meal. 

After a quick shower and change, I grab the list off my dad and head out into the town. As I drive through my neighborhood, I wave at neighbors both dead and alive as they mow their lawns, play catch with their kids, and hang up the metal hurricane shutters to help protect them when the sun goes down. 

The line at the hardware store is long, as it usually is the day of the new moon, but it moves pretty fast. With half the list now done, I head to the grocery store. Out in the parking lot sits the CDC supply truck with four employees in full hazmat suits; since they haven’t figured out what caused the Rising, they’re not taking any chances. The sign next to them says “Wednesday: K – O”. Rations are sent in on weekdays and you can only pick up the rations for your house on your assigned day. 

I get my inside “luxury” items and pay using the rest of last night’s tips. Then I head out and get in the rations line. I’m fourth in line and I can already see that it is Tim in the suit checking the cards. Over the past year, it’s always the same people handing out the rations. I think they’ve been instructed not to talk to us, but I can never help myself. When I get to the front, he takes my card without looking up. 

“What happens if you fart in your suit?”

Even with his head down, focused on his clipboard I can see his smile spread from ear to ear. He looks up and I can see he’s blushing slightly. 

“Kirkland, Maggie. Two alive, one dead” he announces to his coworkers behind him but he never breaks eye contact with me. “It’s certainly not pleasant so we try not to,” he whispers back to me. The other suits finished loading up a box with the rations for ‘two alive, one dead’ and put it into my cart next to my other bags. 

I salute Tim and the others. “Until next week, gentlemen!” 

The rest of the day is a blur of activity, the groceries get put away by my mom while my dad and I unpack our survival gear from the shed and begin fortifying the house. We get the corrugated metal shutters and begin bolting them to the existing holes around each window on the ground floor. An additional, larger piece gets the same treatment over the back door. I try to joke with him as we work, but he takes prepping very seriously and barely cracks a smile all afternoon. He then gets a tall ladder from the shed and checks the bars over all the upper floor windows, making sure they’re still firmly in place. Except the front door, the outside of the house is done. We head inside and begin to hang large pieces of plywood into the frames he built on the inside of the windows. My mom insists every month that it’s unnecessary, but my dad refuses to listen and says he only wants to make sure we’re safe. 

The sun is getting lower in the sky when we finally sit down for a family dinner. Very few words are said over the roast and vegetables. There’s an undercurrent of tension and nerves throughout our house, which I’m sure extends from one end of the Wall to the other. 

Finally, with only an hour left until sunset, there’s the familiar knock on the door.  We all answer it together. There’s a man in a hazmat suit with a clipboard.  “Bob Kirkland?”

My dad nods and hugs my mom and me. “I love you both, be alert and be safe. Bolt this door shut as soon as I’m out.” 

“I will. I love you, Dad.”

My mom says his name over and over, the fear that she may lose him again front and center. “Bob… Bob.  I love you, Bob. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” 

The hazmat suit clears his throat, indicating it’s time to go. My dad heads out the door and towards the school bus that will take him and the other undead that they’ve collected into a containment center they built near the gate at the Wall. This is the safest way they’ve found for dealing with what happens on the new moon. It works… but only if all the undead are locked in.

With a heavy sigh, I lift the metal sheet and hook it into place as my mom uses the power drill to secure it. Once that’s done, we sit next to each other on the couch and stare at the arsenal of weapons my dad laid out on the coffee table, hoping we won’t need them. We turn on the tv to pass the time, but neither of us are actually watching it.

Outside, an air raid siren wails letting us know that the sun has set.


Read Part 3