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Not Quite Dark: A Post-Apocalyptic Adoption Story ~ Chapter One

Dusk is settling over the valley. The evening sky, as if the air has changed colour, is dark blue, like I'm far underwater. This is what people see when they're sinking in a ship, trapped in airtight compartments, watching through the portholes as the light fades. It's the same dark blue before the light trickles away, and the porthole bursts.

I haven't left the house for seven days. I've marked them on the calendar. Cheryl used to say I was a recluse. After a day, she'd tell me I'd miss the sun, after two days, I was losing out. Once I didn't leave the house for four days and she threatened to call the hospital. I don't know what she'd say about a week.

My sister once told me I was afraid of the outside. The air is smoky at midday, and even when it's not raining there seems to be a thin shroud high in the stratosphere, a faded sheet pulled over the stars and moon until only the sun dimly peeks through, exposing the weave.

My house is perfectly ordinary. Camouflage. But my neighbourhood is twisted in curled streets and abrupt corners. Several years ago a group petitioned for huge flower pots to break up the intersections. If I pull back the drapes, I can see one of them from my living room window. Two nights ago I looked through the bathroom window, which is the only one facing south and along my street towards downtown, and there wasn't a single light visible, not even street lighting, although far away I could see flickering reflections that looked like fires trapped behind smoke. I'm not sure when the LED glare above the sidewalks went out and the paved streets became gullies of obscurity. I still have electricity, so if anyone's still here they're like me, just being cautious.

I tuned in the radio today and they spoke of curfews and rationing, but I have water in a pool in the basement. I was thinking ahead when people were still worried about lawns. I paid more in water bills for a while, but soon the bills stopped coming and after that the water treatment plant must have been destroyed.

I wasn't wise enough to buy food for the long haul. I still thought stockpiling was for people in the desert or on TV. My concession was buying bags of rice. Every evening meal the rooster on the bag crows at me about how foolish I was that I hadn't bought tomato plants like Leonard, down the street, or collected stores of liquor, like Marie and Jerry Satter. I can hear them even now, the party next door going late into the evening, outlasting the daylight. The tinkle is more like a music box than a stereo, low volume and shuttered windows. Even though their house is dark, the revelry continues.

When Cheryl first left to join her family downtown, I told her the cities were sprawling bar fights, murderous rampages mixed with hooligan riots. I wasn't sure it was true, and even now I shove away the thought when I remember her leaving. Normally, the rice in the morning encourages optimism. At least there would be something beyond the Satter party, lights winking out behind blinds, people interacting. Most evenings I think about the future and sleep on the couch. Its back rises like someone beside me, and sometimes I dream that I'm not alone.

I knew when Cheryl left I wouldn't see her again. Her light bag was packed with more than overnight supplies. She took photos and keepsakes, like the clay doll, or monkey, or whatever it was that Emily made in grade two, just before she started coughing and we stood over her body in the hospital. That was an ending I never expected to see again.

A cry in the night woke me up. The Satter party is long over and the street is quiet. I still see no lights, although when I tested the lamp, it worked. I've stuffed towels under the doors and blankets over the windows and when I pulled them out to open the door a crack, the air was hushed and expectant.

I was never one for watering the lawn and I'd long since given up chastising myself for not turning it to food production. Leonard used to seem smug, when he'd come to the door pushing back his glasses and offering tomatoes so fresh they still had dirt on their smooth skins. Later I realized he was generous, but by then it was too late. Before long I saw him pushing rolls of blankets in a wheelbarrow, a refugee in his own country, going downhill towards the city. I lifted my hand to wave, but the window is reflective even in the weak daylight and if he turned his head he would have likely only seen a shadow on a covered window.

I have tools in the shed I could use to work the dried grass into soil, but I have nothing to plant and no way to water it without using up my precious supply and informing the neighbours of my surplus.

A cat meowed at the back door today. I went quietly to see, but the cat heard my steps and made a renewed effort. I looked out the narrow window I'd covered with a dishcloth. It was a thin Siamese with a howl for a meow. I waited and it went away, slipping through the ragged hedge and, as I watched, walking into the middle of the road. Emily would have run after the cat, calling frantically to make sure a car didn't run it over, but I haven't seen a car in weeks.

The Satters are gone. I haven't heard anything from their house for a few days. If I were leaving, I used to tell Cheryl, I'd go north, over the hills and nearby subdivisions into the forest. I think that she knew I wanted to return to the time I took her and Emily to the Humber River. There were children laughing on the shore, old women splashing laundry on the rocks, and far above, pigeons flying in flocks away from the downtown. We'd stood in the water after our picnic and let the tiny fish nibble our toes while squirrels chattered on the bank. Are they still there, those fish? Those squirrels?

I lay under the covers for a long time after I woke up. The house used to be busy on a Saturday morning, cartoons in the living room, clattering dishes in the kitchen. It was a glimpse of what I'd missed by going to work every weekday. I thought I could depend on the chaos of daily living, Emily's greeting when she saw me from up the street, her shifting from one foot to the other in her eagerness as if she had to pee, and Cheryl humouring her by taking her out front. The neighbours used to watch, I'd tell Cheryl, but she'd just laugh.

I thought about that this morning and I couldn't get out of bed. My bedroom feels like the water is seeping through the whole house. If someone comes by I won't let them in. They might smell it and think I was crying.

When I finally pulled back the layers of sheets and blankets I keep over the windows, the sky was an afternoon grey. On the radio they said that the northern woods are burning, but it's not the smell of wood smoke. It smells like garbage, and chemicals. I said that aloud to the radio, my voice echoing in the kitchen and the pots ringing slightly on the wall.

If Cheryl was horrified by a few days, what would she think about ten days of peering around drapes and through blinds? Ten days of measuring water into a jug and carrying it up the basement steps, a spill meaning I'd run out of water quicker, successful delivery merely more washing up at the kitchen sink. Her face, with her condemnation about solitude is starting to fade, and instead I imagine that afternoon by the Humber, Emily running along the bank, her eyes fixed on the kite I'd made. We'd called out to her to be careful, but if we'd only known we would have let her run.

I went to the basement and the kite was still there, sprawled on the wall as if ready to take flight again. For the hundredth time I contemplated tearing it down and stuffing it behind the sagging pool table we'd inherited from my father, then I went upstairs again and sat on the couch. Behind me the cushions were a comfort and I was suddenly reminded of Cheryl's legs in the café by High Park where we'd first met, her hands brushing down the fabric, her skirt suddenly shorter under my gaze.

I thought someone would have come before now. Either marauders or authorities, telling me to give up my rice and water or pushing me into a giant hockey rink with beds on the floor. Evacuated for my own good. I expected to protest, to fight, to argue against them, and then finally go, but no one has come and instead I wait while the house darkens in evening and I can hear the fabric of my pants when I cross my legs. There's a rumbling in the far distance but the night is inky dark and it doesn't sound like either engines or explosions.


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