Tim awoke to ravenous hunger. His insides punched him with brass knuckles and saliva flooded his mouth when the aroma of bread drifted to his nose. He blinked, focusing on the particle board, pipes and wires of the unfinished basement roof.
“Good. You’re awake.”
Turning his head to the voice, Tim’s neck creaked. The memory of his family, dead in the car, drew a hitching sob. The stranger sat on a chair. The recliner from upstairs. He must have lugged it down himself. He chewed on a sandwich. From the smell of it, Tim thought it must be peanut butter and jelly. It was a delightful aroma and his stomach churned as if to say, You like that huh? Well eat it! I’m starving here!
The man noticed the stare of the starving, nodded, and said, “I’ll make you one.”
Tim croaked through a dry mouth, “How long have I been asleep?”
The man squinted at the ceiling, “Um. Two days, I guess.” He slapped on a liberal glob of peanut butter. “You had me scared for a bit. You were cold. Real cold. And sweaty and you were breathing all weird. I’m no genius, but I figured you were in shock so I dragged you down here and covered you up. I didn’t think the hospitals would be open for business, y’ know? The whole ‘end of the world thing.’”
Two days? Jesus. Tim pushed up onto an elbow. The man passed him the sandwich and Tim jammed it into his mouth. A can of Coke landed on the mattress beside Tim. The bread, peanut butter and jelly turned to paste in his mouth. A delicious paste that made it impossible to chew. He popped the tab on the Coke and drank it down.
“Easy kid. Don’t choke on it.”
Which is exactly what Tim did. The Coke slid into his air pipe and Tim choked it out, coughing, sandwich bits decorating the air. The coughing slowed and Tim inhaled big lungfuls of air with shiny eyes.
Tim sat with his legs crossed. The can of soda by his ankle Tim and picked at the rest of the sandwich, breaking it into bite-sized chunks. His mother’s flickered in front of him.
Head bowed at the floor, Tim asked, “Is it the end of the world?”
Scratching at his scalp, the man’s lost gaze traveled past the wall, into the outside world, imagining what was going on out there.
“I don’t know. Could be it’s the beginning of a new one. What I do know is change, any type of change, tends to be real violent.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jason. And you?”
“Pleased to meet you Tim. You want another sandwich?”
Tim nodded. A question formed in his mind, a terrible question that trembled his hand as he reached for the can of Coke. He feared asking it, but he had to. It was like a closet, where, for some reason, a scraping within would convince Tim someone was in there, watching him. An image of a dirty man always came to Tim. A fist crammed into his mouth to stop from giggling as he spied on Tim, daring him to open the door and claim his prize. Tim was afraid of the closet door, but his hand always reached for the knob, always turned it and always found nothing waiting for him within. This time, it was more than probable the terrible thing was real. It wouldn’t be a man this time. It would be a whole world, bereft of anyone except bugs and dead corpses, pulsing and moving with new insectile life ready to spill from putrid flesh. Tim opened his mouth four times to ask, like a fish in a bowl.
Finally, “Jason? Are we the only ones left?”
Jason handed him another sandwich, shaking his head.
“No. No way kid. I’ve been watching the TV. There’s plenty of people left. They’re hiding, running scared, but they’re out there.”
Tim turned the sandwich over in his hand, playing with it, struggling with his thoughts.
“Why didn’t they kill me?” Tim’s eyes swung up to Jason. His lips quivered and turned down. “They killed my whole family and didn’t even touch me!” He ducked his head and said in a whisper, “It would’ve been so much better if they did.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t think your family would have felt that way. I’m pretty sure your mom and your dad would’ve died trying to keep you safe.”
“They did die! They left me!”
“Not by choice, kid. Who would’ve chosen to die like that?”
“Why not me?”
Jason shrugged, “Why not me too? I was out there. Running around while people all around me dropped, clawing at their throats, reaching for me to help them. I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t help anyone. I tried. Once. That was enough.”
Jason’s voice shook at the end, the tremor a sharp contrast to his usual apathetic delivery.
“A pregnant lady. Near the end. There was more belly than there was of her, y’ know? She was covered in those…things. Screaming, yelling for help, wanting to save her baby. That’s all she cared about…the baby. She ran with her arms covering her stomach, crying, asking for someone to help her baby. I got to her, sweeping away the bugs with my arms. It was like trying to stop the wind. I tried covering her with my body. It was like I wasn’t even there. At first, when I lied on her, she squirmed and moved and fought. My God, how she fought!” He paused. Exhaled. “Her movements slowed. They were getting in her nose and mouth you see? She couldn’t breathe. I turned, dug my fingers in her mouth, pulling out as many as I could, but more swirled past my hand. They were too many. They were infinite. She stopped moving. She was so still. Like she had never been alive at all. Just like you, kid, the bugs never touched me. I don’t know why that is. No one on the TV seems to know either. It just is.”
“It seems worse.”
“To be left alive. Living seems so much harder.”