Home > End of Days (Penryn & the End of Days #3)(14)

End of Days (Penryn & the End of Days #3)(14)
Author: Susan Ee

There’s a mix of longing and sadness in his eyes, but he’s not letting me get any closer.

Seeing that brings me back to myself. Back to the here and now.

The invasion. My mom. My sister. The massacres. They all come rushing back. He’s right.

We’re at war.

On the verge of an apocalypse filled with monsters and torture in a nightmare world.

And I’m standing here, a moonstruck teenager pining for an enemy soldier. What am I, crazy?

This time, I’m the first to turn away.

13

The vault in my head feels full, and my churning emotions need a break.

I wander deeper into the store, away from Raffe. In the dim area before the store gets really dark, I find a display platform to sit on. It’s bright enough for me to see but dark enough to be just one of the shadows if anyone else is watching. Sometimes, I feel like my whole life is lived in this twilight space between sunshine and darkness.

I sit and brood over the fallen racks and broken pieces of our old civilization. When I get tired of that, I look into the dark part of the store. I can’t see anything but keep imagining things that may or may not be moving. But then, as I look around, I do see something.

Behind a tilted sign near a sea of shoes and several fallen mannequins is a small flashlight. It’s on, but it’s weak, casting more shadows than light.

I put my hand on the soft fur of Pooky Bear and debate whether to run away or to investigate. I don’t feel like running to Raffe, so I hop onto my feet and walk quietly in the direction of the flashlight.

Before I can get there, someone steps into the light.

It’s Paige. She’s still in her oversized T-shirt that hangs crookedly off one shoulder and falls past her knees. Her tennis shoes are almost black with dried blood.

The dim light hits the hollows of her face, emphasizing her skeletal features beneath the stitches and casting long shadows from her hair onto her neck. She walks toward the mannequins like she’s sleepwalking. She looks mesmerized by something on the floor.

I take another look at the mannequins and realize that one of them is a man.

He’s lying on his back on top of the scattered shoes with his head and shoulders mixed with mannequin limbs, as if he collapsed onto them. One pale hand stretches toward the fallen flashlight while the other clutches a scrap of paper over his chest. He must have died of a heart attack.

Paige kneels down beside him like she’s in a trance. She’ll see me if she looks up, but she’s too preoccupied with the man. Maybe she smells people now the way a predator might smell prey.

I know what she’s about to do.

But I don’t stop her.

I want to. Oh, Christ, I want to.

But I don’t.

My eyes burn and sting with tears. This is too much for me. I want my mom.

All this time, I’ve been thinking that I’m the strong one, that I’m making the hard choices and carrying the weight of responsibility for my family on my shoulders. But I realize now that the toughest choices, the ones that will haunt us for the rest of our lives, are ones that my mom is still sheltering me from.

Isn’t that what happened when the Resistance caught Paige like an animal? I was still trying to feed her soup and hamburgers while my mother already knew what she needed. Wasn’t she the one who took Paige out there to the grove so she could find a victim for her?

I can’t even look away. My feet feel leaden, and my eyes refuse to close. This is who my sister is now.

Her lip curls, flashing the tips of her razor-grafted teeth.

I hear a faint groan. My heart almost stops. Did that come from the man or from Paige? Is he alive?

Paige is close enough to be able to tell. She lifts his arm up to her mouth, showing all of her razor teeth.

I try to call to her, but what comes out is just a puff of breath. He’s dead. He must be. Still, I can’t look away, and my heart pounds in my ears.

She stops with his arm in front of her mouth, her nose crinkled, and her lips drawn back like a growling dog.

The piece of paper the man is still holding is now in front of her face. She pauses to stare at it.

She pushes the man’s hand out to get a better look.

The skin of her nose straightens, and her mouth closes, hiding her teeth behind her lips. Her eyes warm as she stares at the paper. Her mouth begins to tremble, and she moves his arm back onto his chest. She leans away from the man.

Paige puts her hands up to cradle her head, swaying gently back and forth like a worn-out woman with too many problems.

Then she spins and runs off into the darkness.

I stand in the shadows, my heart slowly tearing over what she’s going through. My baby sister is choosing to be human against all her new animal instincts. And she’s doing it at the cost of starving to death.

I walk over to the man and bend down to see what he’s holding. I step around high-heeled shoes and makeup jars to reach him. He’s still breathing but unconscious.

Still breathing.

I sit down shakily next to him, not sure if my wobbly legs will hold me up.

His clothes are dirty and worn, and his beard and hair are scraggly, as if he’s been on the road for weeks. Someone once told me that heart attacks can last for days. I wonder how long he’s been here.

I have the craziest urge to call an ambulance.

It’s hard to believe that we used to live in a world where complete strangers would have given him medicine and hooked him up to machines to monitor his condition. They would have looked after him around the clock. Absolute strangers who knew nothing about him. Strangers who wouldn’t have even rummaged through his stuff to steal useful items.

And everyone would have thought that was perfectly normal.

I lift his arm to see what’s on the paper he’s holding. I don’t want to take it out of his hand, because whatever it is, it must have been important enough for him to get it out and grip it as he’s dying.

It’s a torn and stained piece of paper with a kid’s crayon drawing. A house, a tree, a stick figure adult holding the hand of a stick figure kid. Scrawled along the bottom in shaky block letters are the words ‘I Love You, Daddy’ in pink crayon.

I look at it for a long time in the shadowy light before I put his hand back down gently on his chest.

I drag him as carefully as I can until he’s lying flat on the carpet instead of on the pile of mannequins on the tiled floor.

There’s a backpack nearby that I also bring and set beside him. He must have taken it off when he started to feel bad. I rummage through and find a water bottle.

His head is warm and heavy on my arm as I tilt it for the water. Most of it spills out around his lips, but some of it trickles into his mouth. His throat reflexively swallows, making me wonder if he’s completely out.

 

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