Alice tied the bandana over her mouth and wrapped one of Mr. Sullivan’s old t-shirts around her neck. Beside her, Mr. Sullivan did the same. He looked ridiculous. Clumps of his bushy gray beard curled beyond the edges of the bandana, making his head appear even larger than it already was. This, combined with his red flannel shirt and faded overalls, made him look like a nightmarish cross between a cowboy and a lumberjack.
He gave her the thumbs up and tossed her a pair of gloves. She caught them and slid them over her pale fingers. Sweat trickled down her spine, her soaked shirt sticking to her back. She wrung out her hands and licked her dry lips. She hated this part. More than anything.
She followed him to the bed of the truck and watched him swing open the tailgate. Despite knowing what to expect, she gagged when she saw the bodies. Don’t be stupid, she reminded herself. After all, she had helped load them only thirty minutes earlier.
There were a dozen of them. They all bore the mark of the afflicted; they all had died from the Withering. Like with everyone else who contracted the disease, the mark had spread, enveloping their bodies within days, charring their faces beyond recognition as if they had been consumed by flames. She looked away.
“You okay?” Mr. Sullivan put a gloved hand on her shoulder.
His touch reassured her, at least for the moment, and she climbed into the back of the truck. The stench crept beneath her bandana and into her nose. She dry-heaved as she knelt beside the nearest body. A woman. Alice could only tell because a single high-heel still clung to the corpse’s foot. The rest of her features were indiscernible. Her hair had shed, her skin was flayed, and her lips curled inward.
This was somebody’s daughter. A heavy pressure weighed on Alice’s chest. Maybe even somebody’s mom.
She closed her eyes and counted to ten. Her dad had taught her that. “If you’re ever scared, count to ten.” Yet ten seconds rarely lasted long enough. It hadn’t stopped her from running away from home. It hadn’t kept her from leaving her family to die.
This time, though, it did the job.
When Alice opened her eyes, she grabbed the woman’s ankles and dragged her to the edge of the bed. Mr. Sullivan pulled her over his shoulders as if she were a hunted deer, carried her to the edge of the woods, and dropped her into the trench.
He had dug the trench a month earlier, three weeks after the power went out, four weeks after the news reports promised a government-developed miracle cure, more than two years after the first victims stumbled into the hospitals, the mysterious mark tarnishing their skin. So much for a cure, Alice thought. With no
indication from the outside world that steps were being taken to fix this mess, Mr. Sullivan combed the town for survivors. The problem? There were none. Instead, he began gathering the dead, lugging them up beyond Willoughby’s Pond near the woods, and burning their remains with the hope that one day he and his wife could walk the streets without the fear of becoming sick.
That’s how he had found Alice.
Body after body, she labored beneath the scorching sun, checking the pockets of the dead for anything of value, but mostly all she found was cash and credit cards. What a waste. After passing along the last body to Mr. Sullivan, she sat on the edge of the truck and watched him pour gasoline into the trench. Then he struck a match and let it fly from between his fingers.
A flame erupted, and he staggered away from the inferno. Orange tendrils licked the cloudless sky, black smoke billowing from their tips. She tightened the bandana around her mouth. They always smelled worse when they burned, as if the sickness seeped out of them. She imagined the smoke carried the Withering with it and wondered how Mr. Sullivan had remained healthy for as long as he had.
She couldn’t ignore the morbid irony of him possibly falling ill in his feeble attempt to cleanse the town. His town. Their town. At least that’s what Mrs. Sullivan called it. Though Alice had only been with them for a month, Mr. Sullivan’s wife had already made it clear. “Their” didn’t include Alice.
“I don’t think Mrs. Sullivan likes me very much,” Alice said.
He ignored her, his gaze intent on the fire. Then he pulled off a glove and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. As the flames weakened, he returned to the truck.
“She hates me, doesn’t she?” she tried again.
Mr. Sullivan stared into the bed of the truck and cursed. She followed his stare and immediately saw it. She’d forgotten a body. A child. Her stomach dropped. How had she missed it?
She crawled on hands and knees into the far corner of the truck bed and hovered over the child. A boy, she guessed, because of the blue shirt and grass-stained jeans, as if he had died in the middle of recess. She wrapped her arms around his small frame and cradled him in her lap like a baby. Then again, he practically was. She stared at the black marks covering his skin and then glanced at Mr. Sullivan. With his back to her, he regarded the nearby hills and smoked a cigarette; he always smoked after a burning.
She pulled back her shirtsleeve and stared at the black mark on her wrist. Her eyes shifted to the boy. Then to her wrist again. They were identical. They were the same mark.
“Hurry it up,” Mr. Sullivan called.
In a panic, she yanked
down her sleeve, afraid Mr. Sullivan might discover her secret. Then she lifted the lifeless boy into her arms and carried his body to Mr. Sullivan, but when he reached up to take him from her, she didn’t let go. This one’s mine. She climbed down from the truck.
As she walked toward the trench, she whispered to the boy, “We’re the same, you and me.” A tear spilled down her cheek and dripped off her chin. “Except, it should be you taking this walk, not me. I should be in your arms. I should be the one on fire.”
She reached the trench. The bodies below lay in a blackened heap, buried beneath the blaze. She squeezed the child’s body close to hers, a final farewell hug, and lowered him into the fire.
She finally understood why Mr. Sullivan cried every time he stood beside the trench, why he insisted on doing this god-forsaken job. As the flames swallowed the boy’s youth, her heart broke.
With a whisper, she confessed to the grave, to the boy who never had a chance to live. “If I could, I’d give my life for you.”
But she couldn’t. She’d had the mark for two years now. Since the beginning. It never spread. She never withered. She never died. And at that moment, with her heart not in her chest but burning beside the boy, that was all she really wanted.