The following is an excerpt of a novel by Jasmina Kuenzli.
He stands there, the dark son, returning from the grave, and all I can see is the blood on his hands and the black, moist dirt and the rotting look in his eyes and hair. He reaches a hand up to me, begging me to pull him out of the pit he’s fallen into, but I can’t. I can’t I can’t I can’t.
You’re too far down and I can’t reach you I won’t please please just lay back down and die why are you coming back I can’t.
“Ben,” I choke out, as he looks at me, wounded and desperate, like he can’t imagine how anyone wouldn’t reach out for him. And I feel something inside me harden and turn cold, because sisters aren’t supposed to be like this. I’m not supposed to be callous and cold and why are no tears coming, shouldn’t I be at least crying as the black-red dirt clings to his skin and it drips from his hands; shouldn’t I feel something?
I drum it into myself. I’ve failed I’ve failed I’ve failed but still nothing happens; there’s just the dirt and the grass and the stench of smoke and blood and rotting flesh, and I wonder if this is how the Civil War smelled, of blood and death and decay. Did someone stand feet away as their brother lay dying, watching as he reached out for them, watching and feeling nothing?
Maybe this is how I’ll die, watching him sit in his grave and shudder out his breaths and doing nothing, nothing because I can’t reach him, he’s too far down and he’s covered in blood and dirt, slipping and scrabbling at the edge, sliding down and grasping onto the mud, desperate to get up.
I shouldn’t even be standing here, I should be running, leaving him to succumb on his own, to lose the shred of whatever it is that has him looking at me like that, like he cannot believe God sent him the only sister in the world who doesn’t cry.
He’s still looking at me, and I know it should burn me, that tears should fall hot and thick out of my eyes like molten metal; I should cry for him, but my fingers are numb and I am so cold.
I can feel his black, bloody hands choking me, pulling me into the grave, turning me into one too, someone who reaches up and grabs for help to lure someone else down, and suddenly I’m unfrozen, set free like a game of tag. I turn and run, sprinting through the graveyard, through mist that feels like a light rain as it caresses my skin, until I burst through it, and I feel cold and clammy, like his hands. I’m jumping over the smaller holes in the ground, holes dug for children and the small and the ones who came first, rising out of the ground like the worst sort of retribution.
It was all us, all our fault, running around thinking we were invincible. Thinking that in the modern era nothing like disease would ever be threatening, ever be more than a bedtime story to fool children into brushing their teeth.
Until it became real. Until it became Patient Zero and blood pouring out of the eyes of infants, wailing through the night. Until they started burying the babies in mass graves. Until we noticed that the virus mutated, taking infants one week, toddlers the next.
Until the first 3-year-old burst out of his dirt and bit an unsuspecting widower on the knee and the entire world collapsed in on itself. The next weeks were full of running, me and my brothers and our mom, stockpiling food, sprinting to relative safety through crowds and mobs of people desperate for anything that would make them think they stood a chance, standing guard every night, terrified of the monsters with innocent faces.
Something looms up at me out of the shadow of an angel, and I veer to the left, almost falling into another hole. I don’t stop to see more than flying black dirt and smell blood, but my brain fills in the gaps. Snarling, eyes filled with inhuman rage and malice, swallowed up in black.
The face is always the same, though. It’s Jonathan, my little brother. My responsibility. The one I held in my arms when he was born. The one I taught to apply to college and drive a stick and all the other things Ben wasn’t around for. Jonathan, the look of horror on his face as the blood started pouring from his eyes. Bearing Ben’s admonitions to ‘suck it up’ with a straight face. Jonathan, holding a gun to his head before I could stop him.
Two shots. Two people, gone. First the eyes, then the brain, that’s what they said. So my mom saw a little blood on her eye and she had lost her youngest son and her husband had been dead for years, so she gave me the gun and told me to look away, and I shot her, I shot her because she wanted me to and I always did what she asked and Ben was lighting a joint and there was no one else.
I’m still running, and I’m about to reach the road. Monsters line the road, too. Monsters who reach for your breasts and your wallet in the same motion. Monsters with sadness in their eyes and beer on their breath. Monsters who have chosen to deal with it all by not giving a fuck about anything. Monsters that Ben joined, before tonight and the graveyard and the dirt.
I can hear them over the rasp of my breath, their slow shuffling, inexorable and endless, and I know Ben is among them, gaze burning into me, face a mask of desperation, ever closer and endlessly forward. I finger the weapons that hang at my belt, wondering if it will be easier to stop.
Stop and turn and shoot and end it, end him once and for all, before he drags me down and makes me spill blood from my eyes like tears.
I picture it, turning and facing them all, aiming carefully, a headshot to the figure in the red, dirt-stained hoodie, and I stumble, almost falling flat. The image of his face, despair and pleading and accusation, marred by the blood and the dirt but still mine, my fault, my death, and I can’t shoot him. I can’t help him but I can’t shoot him either.
But I can run. I leap over the line of shrubbery lining the cemetery and onto the road, my stride lengthening as my feet find confidence in even ground. I can always run.
My feet pound on the pavement, my breath coming out in short gasps until I settle into a rhythm tap tap gasp tap tap breathe, breathe okay but I’m still so cold and my chest is tight and now I’m remembering the day I ran away, the day I said fuck it they’re dead you’re not family you’re not anything and I left. Grabbed my pistol and my knives and ran through the whole night, because fuck if I was going to die in a secluded corner of the woods, head in a cloud of smoke and alcohol, too wasted to even fight back when they inevitably came. I ran and I left him, and I didn’t look back.
And that was the last I saw of him until tonight, when I ran into the graveyard hoping to pull him out, hoping that he wasn’t gone yet, I could come back, I could still save him. Still save him.
But I can’t I can’t he’s gone he’s too far away he’s gone. I pick up my pace; I’m sweating now but the damp air is making it feel like a fever, and are those tears or blood?
Still I see him, dripping and covered in grime, hair matted to his head and glistening blackly in the moonlighted mist.
Jonathan, eyes shut tight, bite blood tears staining his face, holding the pistol to his head.
Mom, big brown eyes begging me to end it, end it before it gets worse. The squeeze of my hand on the trigger, and a sound like fireworks that isn’t fireworks. Jonathan’s hand squeezing the trigger, and the dual explosions that crashed down into my life like atomic bombs, destroying all, merciless and necessary.
I’m running, fleeing, flying, but they’re all right behind me. The flames slice through me like knives, and the coldness isn’t keeping them at bay, and there is an old red barn on my left and a dead horse on my right, and the flies swarm me, landing on my hair and biting my neck like I’m already dead.
I get back to the farmhouse at dawn, and I am still alive.
He comes toward me, bursting out of the house, and I collapse to the ground and I scream. I scream and scream until he gets to me and puts his arms around me, and he says, “Shhh, they’ll hear you.” So I clench my fists into his shirt and bend my head, mouth against his chest to muffle the sound, and I scream until I feel like my throat is bleeding,
He is still holding me, and I cannot breathe. I am choking on my own tears; they’re going to drown me, and I start gasping harder for air but there isn’t any. There isn’t any air and oh god I’m going to drown I’m going to die I can’t I can’t.
“You are not going to die,” he says, and I realize that I have been speaking out loud. I feel my heart racing in my ears, and I can barely hear him as he untwists my hands from his shirt and raises my face to his.
I am looking at him, and he is alive. His eyes are blue-green, not black, and they blink at me anxiously, and he has a smudge of dirt on his cheek that fails to conceal the pinkness of his skin, the flush that promises life.
“You are not going to die,” he says.
“I am not going to die.”