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After the End

Damien Angelica Walters is the author of Paper Tigers and Sing Me Your Scars. Her short fiction has been nominated twice for a Bram Stoker Award, reprinted in The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and The Year's Best Weird Fiction, and published in various anthologies and magazines, including The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu: New Lovecraftian Fiction, Cemetery Dance Online, Nightmare Magazine, and Black Static. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls. Find her on Twitter @DamienAWalters or on the web at damienangelicawalters.com.

After the end, you don't have to go to school anymore. No more sitting in Mrs. Jenkins' fifth-grade class, holding your breath whenever she starts calling on people for answers. And maybe it wasn't that you didn't have the answers, maybe it was that she made you stand in front of the class and explain them to everyone else, and maybe you always hated that.
You also don't have to ride the bus anymore and that's even better than not having to stand in class. Greg, Tyler, and Shaun, the boys who sat in the back seat, always picked on the girls. If you were pretty, they picked on you a little--pulled your hair, tried to grab your books. If you weren't, they picked on you a lot--names and jokes and if they pulled your hair, they pulled it hard and if you cried, they laughed. You think the bus drivers knew; they just didn't care. Or maybe they were afraid what would happen if they cared.
No homework, that's another thing you don't have. Your mom tried for a while but math and grammar aren't that important anymore so she stopped.
You don't have to worry about baths either or shampoo getting in your eyes. Your mom cut off all your hair and made you wear only jeans and t-shirts, but not pink. Never pink. It's better not to be a girl, she said, even when you mostly stay inside now. She wouldn't say why, but you think you know.
Sometimes it gets boring because there's no electricity and no television but you can play games, the regular kind, and UNO cards, and you can read or draw, at least until you run out of paper.
You can't turn on the faucet anymore and expect water to come out. You have to use bottled water and that's hard to find. You can't go to the store and buy food. The stores are still there, but the shelves are empty, there aren't any people working in them, and no one's bringing new food. You especially can't go through the drive-thru to get chicken nuggets, but it's okay if you have lots of cans stored in the pantry.
You do a lot of waiting, even if you don't know what you're waiting for, and you kind of get used to the quiet. When you go out back to use the new toilet that your mom dug in the far corner of the yard, the only thing you hear is the wind and some dogs barking--the animals didn't get sick, only the people. Once you heard a gunshot. but you pretended it was only a firecracker. You didn't tell your mom, but you think she heard it, too.
You learn not to talk about some things even when you think they're things you should talk about. But grownups don't like to talk to kids about things like that. That's one thing that's the same as before. But just because you don't talk about it doesn't mean you don't think about it.
You think your dad is probably dead because he worked for the Army and even though he had a gun, you're pretty sure he would've come home by now even if he could only check on you quick before he left again.
Your mom kept thinking someone would come, even if it wasn't your dad, but you don't think she was right. You don't think there are enough people left to really care.
You saw a movie once where scientists made a bug and it got out and everyone got sick. You don't know if that's what happened because your mom wouldn't say. You don't know why you're not sick. Maybe you're just not sick yet.
It doesn't matter why, though, because you have to think about how deep you have to bury your mom in the back yard so the animals won't smell her and try to dig her up. You have to take care of your sister because she's only six. You have to make sure her hair is short and that she doesn't try to put on her favorite shirt because it's pink with a unicorn and you know if you try to throw it out, she'll cry and then someone might hear you.
And you can't have unicorns or crying. You have to keep the doors locked and the curtains closed because you don't want anyone to know you're here. Because there are still some people left and they're not always the nice people. You can't remember if your mom told you that or not, but she didn't have to.
You have to eat your vegetables from a can, even the ones you don't really like, and when they're gone, you have to go and find more, and you and your mom already took all the cans from the other houses in your neighborhood that didn't have people in them anymore. That's mostly true, but the people that were still in the houses weren't alive so they couldn't hurt you. You have to remember to say that to your sister since your mom can't say it anymore.
You have to talk to your sister about the ugly things, the not being a girl, the being careful so no one sees you, the guns. You have to tell her she can't cry or complain or say it's too hard or that she's too scared. You have to tell her that she has to come with you because you can't carry everything back by yourself, even when you know the truth is that you want her with you in case something happens and you can't come back. She's too little to be alone.
You're scared that you'll forget to tell her something important and she'll get hurt, and you hope your mom remembered to tell you everything. You know she tried to, especially when she knew she was sick.
All you really want to do is hold the stuffed hippopotamus you've had since you were a baby and cry and pretend that everything's a bad dream and when you wake up, your mom and dad will be there and they'll both give you a big hug, the kind you always pretended you hated when you didn't, and your hair will still be long, and you won't ever complain about homework or Mrs. Jenkins or your sister coming in your room when you tell her not to or even the boys on the bus. But you can't, because you know better.
You don't get to be a kid anymore, not after the end.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 10th, 2016
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