With a Whimper
by Lisa Morton
Tracy gripped the railing edging the building’s roof, looked down six stories to the empty street, and tried to ignore the dead man who stood beside her whispering, “Jump.”
It’d be so easy. The railing was low enough. One more step after, and their voices would end forever.
Except she knew that wasn’t true; their voices would keep going, and she’d be one of them.
When she’d climbed the stairs to the top of this building, she’d hoped she’d be alone. She hadn’t really decided yet. The fact was, it was night, and she was lonely (of course) and drunk, and she’d come up here without really thinking about it, picking her way across the dark roof by a flashlight’s beam. She’d felt weariness descend on her when she’d seen the dead man.
They were everywhere. They’d been everywhere for six months now, since the Outbreak. Every day, Tracy relived the beginning, that first week of disbelief, seeing news reports of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions dying of a mysterious, fast-moving illness. But they didn’t really die, or at least they didn’t stay dead - they came back, but they were changed. Not like the flesh-eating zombies of horror movies; they didn’t try to eat anyone, or chase them, or even touch them. They were...drained. Dull-witted, slow-moving shells that went to the same places they’d always gone to, and who had a soft message for those who hadn’t yet succumbed:
Tracy and her husband, David, had stopped going to work, and had kept their son Ben home from school. Maybe if they sealed themselves away, they could wait it out, like flood victims or...
But it’d taken David and Ben, too. Two days of illness, while Tracy had hoped and prayed and worked to keep them alive, but finally the life had drained from their eyes. She’d locked herself in the bathroom until she was starving, and then steeled herself to come out. For a month, she’d endured her six-year-old son murmuring, “Die.” Then she’d given up and fled.
Tracy didn’t know why the Outbreak hadn’t taken her. More and more she wished it had. By the time she left the crowded city, civilization was gone. It’d happened so quickly, almost as if everything had been set up for it to go down this way. A groan, a whimper, and then soft whispers. No explosion. No wars. Just an ending.
She’d gone to a smaller town, found an empty house that she’d taken as her own. She’d still hear them outside sometimes, at night: A whisper on the other side of the bedroom window.
It was worse when she went out. The supermarket was packed with large dead women who stared at her as she went through the aisles. “Eat more,” one had grunted at her. At the hardware store, when she’d stocked up on tools, a tall man in a John Deere cap had said, “You’re useless.” At the department store, where she helped herself to clothes she’d never been able to afford, a woman with elegant cheekbones simply asked, “Why?”
And she hadn’t responded. She’d never responded, because that was how she’d been taught, that it was impolite, unladylike. David had liked that about her. “I never have to worry about you,” he’d told her, with a smile and a peck to the cheek after a successful dinner with his boss.
She’d left the night he said, “Quieter.”
Lightning splintered the bleak horizon, and the dead man on the roof muttered, “It’s better.”
Tracy remembered where she was and why she was here. The power had finally given up last week (she’d been impressed by how long it had stayed on), and now she didn’t even have the empty company of old movies or games or music. Tonight she’d had nothing but Jack Daniels and rain and the sound of her own breath. She was hungry for fresh food, and she was tired of hearing them, and remembering David and Ben.
She lifted her other leg over the railing. Now nothing stood between her and the six-story drop. One last step, and she could stop it, stop the voice of the corpse who stood behind her. “Do it.”
Tracy lifted a foot...and stopped as she heard something.
It was a car engine. Running. In the distance, but coming this way.
And something else, clearer as the car approached: Music. Loud, coming from the car. A booming bass-line, pounding drums. Rap music.
David had hated rap. “That’s not even music,” he’d said once as they’d been stopped at an intersection next to a car blaring rap. He’d frowned and turned up his country station. Tracy, of course, had said nothing.
And now she thought of that last night with David, when he’d said, “Quieter,” and she’d walked into his study, picked up his hunting rifle, and put a bullet in his head while he’d just stood there looking at her. She hadn’t waited to see if he was truly dead or not, and she hadn’t said goodbye to Ben. She’d just dropped the rifle, taken her car keys, and left.
The rap music grew louder, and she saw headlights; the car was driving down the street below her.
Someone who was still alive was driving that car.
And suddenly she wanted to be with them, more than she wanted to die. She didn’t care who they were, what they looked like or how old they were - they were alive, and that was all that mattered. They’d be gone by the time she ran back down the stairs and out into the street, but she knew they were out there, and she’d find them eventually.
She pulled herself back over the railing, moving carefully now, putting aside drunkenness in favor of hope.
The dead man said, “Stop.”
Tracy did...long enough to turn and say, loudly, to him, “Fuck you.”
Then she laughed and ran.
(This story was originally written for a project called “Fraternity of Flash”. Writer Misty Dahl gathered a group of about two-dozen writers together, gave each of us five words and one phrase - “Lightning splintered the bleak horizon” - and asked us to come up with a piece of flash fiction under 1,000 words. This story was posted to Misty’s website circa February 2012. It’s 992 words long.)