Called to the table once again, this time with more of an emphasis paid to urgency, I picked my way carefully through the barbs of the living room and stole a moment by the mantle. The dampness of the air hurt my lungs tremendously, making me hunch down as I walked, so that I was just skulking around like the other animals. I was called to dinner again and the banshee wail of the voices in the dining area stabbed at my head, clawing its way inside my ears. Another syllable more from within the dining room and I would cave in, I know it. They no longer sounded like people, but now more like flutes and horns that were out of tune. This had been the worst week yet. There'd been no water until last night, when the hill burst open and a small creek formed to bore its way through the back part of the house, and our clothes were beginning to smell like dirt because we had all stood in the water and let it clean us.
But the water was infected too, and where it had soaked us the most, our skin had turned yellow or greenish-pink. Without a second's caution I lifted a small framed portrait of the family from off the mantle and tucked it into my sweater, then made my way through the nettles, toward the kitchen, through to the dining table.
It had been especially cold inside the house since the shudder in the ground had cracked it open and the vines and weeds and the chill had had a chance to grow in through the house. The entire bottom floor was like a forest, and because of this I spent most of my days in the attic, peering through the smeared, smudged lens of a telescope, waiting to be rescued by people not affected by the quake. Heroes, angels, marauders even; anyone. To do something, and hopefully take us out of here before the fact of decay became too normal. I didn't want to become so soft that my flesh would smear away on the chipped wood of the knob on the bathroom door. I could still feel my muscles wanting to work.
I'd had something small, with matted fur, crossing over my legs earlier today, in the dark, and I've decided not to venture through the house anymore without wearing a thick pair of pants, to keep this from ever happening again.
In my mind, at night just before bed, the touch of an unseen animal is like the clutch of a corpse, coming for your skin because it had lost its own. The matted hair could be fungus. Could be the mold that creeps over human skin before maggots appear. Somewhere in the unplumbed rubble, our Grandfather lay buried. We lost him in his desperate search for Grandmother, whom we'd heard screaming as best her tired body could. I don't want to know that his hand is searching through the dark, to clasp an embrace around my ankle.
I would almost rather eat some of the dead raccoons we found underneath a pile of bricks in what's left of the basement. Hungry and badly scared, I'd tasted one of the babies. It was cold and my stomach turned. That's the taste of everything now. And I don't want dinner anymore, anyway.
The thorns were the worst part, though, somehow sharper than the shattered windows. At night, in the dark, it was useless to try using the bathroom. Better to hold it in and squirm through the night than get cut up and fall prey to the insects that waited patiently for the slightest spray of blood on the kitchen tiles or the dusty floorboards where the bearskin rug had become a small home for ants and snakes. One of the sisters fell ill from a rattlesnake bite. We never caught the culprit, and she never woke from her fever. We're all going to die here unless help comes. We'll be eaten before the ghosts of everyone can even find their ways here from the other side. I won't have to worry over the unseeing hands of a corpse, because the night vision of some malevolent thing with small sharp teeth and a thick, dry fur and a skitter and a squeak will get me first if I don't keep to the attic.
I entered the the dining room and every last sick, yellowed eye fell upon me. All of their mouths were turned down into frowns, steam billowing from the two open pots at the center of the table. What would we be eating now? Tonight, when everything safe was rotted. Prepared in the fire built in the collapsed stove, what sick animal were we to eat tonight?
It was Christmas. The last Christmas in the house, if the local stories could be understood to be correct. We would all perish in the forming snowstorm if animals did not eat us first.
Father could not be moved to board up the cracks in the house; not since the accident and the loss of his spirit. He built this house before I was born, and it was not strong enough to help us, but strong enough indeed to crush some of us. It cracked open like an egg and it fell down upon us in a rain and crushed some of us. My brothers could be trusted with nothing. Likewise, neither could I. I was useless to repair a thing. And everyone else was either a girl, or old. The girls laughed and played with dolls made from the splintered floorboards that shot up in a well of burst wood. The surviving elders were almost dust in their late-historied age.
We were helpless.
The sisters all sat in a bubble of cackling heads at one end of the table, pulling the balance off with their noise in the relative silence of the room, pointing their brittle, discolored fingers at me and wagging the sharp fingernails with sincere distaste for my delayed arrival. They began to sing, sounding as if wind were just passing through their hollow heads instead of their voices being created like that from within; until Mother hushed them I was transfixed, and, dropping my head, I was beckoned to dinner by someone. To sit down. And eat. The closer I got to the steaming pots, the more I felt I would be sick. I shot a glance down into my open palms, at the portrait of our family taken before this happened, before the earth opened up and spilled this all over us.
Probably this was better after all. The smartly dressed family in the tiny little portrait was already dead. Saving anything sitting alive at that table would be to raise monsters in the privacy of a mass grave.
My skin was turning a very pale green. In broad daylight, lately I looked like the belly of a frog. Underneath the thin, nearly transparent skin of my chest, my blue heart beat weakly. Sliding bones to the side with the heel of my hand, I pressed my fingers a little too hard and they sank into the flesh and I touched my own heart. The dim lamplight from the bulb over the table cast a shadow inside my chest so dark that for a second the blue heart virtually disappeared. The cold I felt at this was somehow forgiving in its severity. The brothers pulled my breastplate back to the center of my chest and made me promise I wouldn't stick my hands underneath again. Mother looked at me with contempt, not trusting me at all.