World After – Susan Ee

EVERYONE THINKS I’m dead. I lie with my head on my mother’s lap in the open bed of a large truck. The dawn light etches the grief lines on my mom’s face while the rumble of the engines vibrates through my limp body. We’re part of the Resistance caravan. Half a dozen military trucks, vans, and SUVs weave through dead cars away from San Francisco. On the horizon behind us, the angels’ aerie still smolders in flames after the Resistance strike. Newspapers cover shop windows along the road, making a corridor of reminders of the Great Attack. I don’t need to read the papers to know what they say. Everyone was plastered to the news during the early days when reporters were still reporting. PARIS IN FLAMES, NEW YORK FLOODED, MOSCOW DESTROYED WHO SHOT GABRIEL, THE MESSENGER OF GOD? ANGELS TOO AGILE FOR MISSILES NATIONAL LEADERS SCATTERED AND LOST THE END OF DAYS We drive by three bald people wrapped in gray sheets. They’re taping up the stained and crumpled fliers of one of the apocalypse cults. Between the street gangs, the cults, and the Resistance, I wonder how long it will be before everyone is part of one group or another. Even the end of the world can’t keep us from wanting to belong, I guess. The cult members pause on the sidewalk to watch us pass in our crowded truck. As a family, we must look tiny—just a scared mom, a dark-haired teenager, and a seven-yearold girl sitting in a truck bed full of armed men.

At any other time, we would have been sheep in the company of wolves. But now, we have what people might call “presence.” Some of the men in our caravan wear camouflage and hold rifles. Some man machine guns still aimed at the sky. Some are fresh off the streets with homemade gang tattoos made of self-inflicted burns that mark their kills. Yet these men huddle away from us to keep a safe distance. My mom continues to rock back and forth as she has for the last hour since we left the exploding aerie, chanting in her own version of speaking in tongues. Her voice rises and falls as if she’s having a fierce argument with God. Or maybe the devil. A tear drops off her chin and lands on my forehead, and I know her heart is breaking. It’s breaking for me, her seventeen-year-old daughter, whose job was to look out for the family. As far as she knows, I’m just a lifeless body brought to her by the devil. She’ll probably never be able to blot out the image of me lying limp in Raffe’s arms with his demon wings backlit by flames. I wonder what she’d think if someone told her that Raffe was actually an angel who’s been tricked into having demon wings. Would that be any stranger than being told that I’m not actually dead but just stung into a weird paralysis by a scorpion-angel monster? She’d probably think that person was as crazy as she is.

My baby sister sits at my feet seemingly frozen. Her eyes stare blankly and her back is perfectly straight despite the weaving of the truck. It’s as if Paige has shut herself off. The tough men in the truck keep stealing glances at her like little boys peeking over their blankets. She looks like a bruised, stitched-up doll from a nightmare. I hate to think about what might have happened to her to make her like this. A part of me wishes I knew more but a part of me is glad I don’t. I take a big breath. I’ll have to get up sooner or later. I don’t have a choice but to face the world. I’m fully thawed now. I doubt if I could fight or anything, but as far as I can tell, I should be able to move. I sit up. I guess if I’d really thought things through, I would have been prepared for the screams. Chief among the screamers is my mother.

Her muscles stiffen in sheer terror, her eyes impossibly wide. “It’s okay,” I say. “It’s all right.” My words are slurred, but I’m grateful I don’t sound like a zombie. It would be funny except for a sobering thought that pops into my head: We now live in a world where someone like me could be killed for being a freak. I put my hands out in a calming gesture. I say something to try to reassure them, but it gets lost in the screams. Panic in a small area like a truck bed is contagious, apparently. The other refugees crush against each other as they press toward the rear of the truck. Some of them look prepared to jump out of the moving vehicle. A soldier with greasy pimples aims his rifle at me, gripping it like he’s about to make his first, horrifying kill. I totally underestimated the level of primal fear swirling around us. They’ve lost everything: their families, their security, their God. And now, a reanimated corpse is reaching for them. “I am okay,” I say slowly with as much clarity as I can.

I hold the soldier’s gaze, intent on convincing him there’s nothing supernatural going on. “I’m alive.” There’s a moment when I’m not sure if they’ll relax or toss me out of the truck with a blaze of gunfire. I still have Raffe’s sword strapped to my back, mostly hidden under my jacket. That gives me some comfort, even though it obviously can’t stop bullets. “Come on.” I keep my voice gentle and my movements very slow. “I was just knocked out. That’s all.” “You were dead,” says the pale soldier, who doesn’t look a day older than me. Someone bangs on the truck’s roof. We all jump, and I’m lucky the soldier doesn’t accidentally pull his trigger. The rear window slides open and Dee’s head sticks through. He’d look stern except that it’s hard to take him too seriously with his red hair and little-boy freckles. “Hey! Back off from the dead girl.

She’s Resistance property.” “Yeah,” says his twin brother Dum from inside the cab. “We need her for autopsies and stuff. You think girls killed by demon princes are easy to find?” As usual, I can’t tell the twins apart, so I randomly assign Dee for one and Dum for the other. “No killing the dead girl,” says Dee. “I’m talking to you, Soldier.” He points to the guy with the rifle and glares at him. You’d think that looking like a set of strung-out Ronald McDonalds with nicknames like Tweedledee and Tweedledum would strip them of all authority. But somehow, these guys seem to have a talent for going from joking to deadly in a heartbeat. At least, I hope they’re joking about the autopsy. The truck stops in a parking lot. That takes the attention off me as we all look around. The adobe-style building in front of us is familiar. It’s not my school but it is a school that I’ve seen lots of times. It’s Palo Alto’s high school, affectionately known as Paly High.

Half a dozen trucks and SUVs stop in the parking lot. The soldier still keeps an eye on me, but he lowers his rifle to a 45-degree angle. A lot of people stare at us as the rest of the small caravan stops in the parking lot. They all saw me in the arms of the demon-winged creature that was actually Raffe, and they all thought I was dead. I feel self-conscious so I sit down on the bench beside my sister. One of the men reaches to touch my arm. Maybe he wants to see if I’m warm like the living or cold like the dead. My sister’s face changes instantly from a blank slate to a growling animal as she snaps at the man. Her razor-grafted teeth flash as she moves, emphasizing the threat. As soon as the man backs off, she goes back to her blank expression and doll-like stance. The man stares, looking back and forth between us for clues to questions I can’t answer. Everyone in the parking lot saw what just happened, and they all stare at us too. Welcome to the freak show. PAIGE AND I are used to being stared at. I would just ignore it while Paige always smiled at the gawkers from her wheelchair.

They almost always smiled back. Paige’s charm was hard to resist. Once upon a time. Our mother starts speaking in tongues again. This time she’s looking at me while she chants, as if she’s praying to me. The guttural almost-words coming from her throat dominate the hushed noises of the crowd. Leave it to Mom to add a serious dose of creepiness even in the smoky light of day. “All right, let’s move out,” says Obi in a strong voice. He’s at least six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a muscular body, but it’s his commanding presence and confidence that set him apart as the leader of the Resistance. Everyone watches and listens as he walks by the various trucks and SUVs, looking like a real military commander in a war zone. “Clear the trucks and head into the building. Stay out of the open sky as much as possible.” That breaks the mood and people start hopping off the trucks. The people in our truck push and shove each other in their rush to get away from us. “Drivers,” calls Obi.

“When the trucks are cleared, spread out your vehicles and park them within easy reach. Hide them among the dead traffic or somewhere that’s hard to see from above.” He walks through the river of refugees and soldiers, giving purpose and direction to people who would otherwise be lost. “I don’t want any signs that this area is occupied. Nothing is to be cleared or dumped within a one-mile radius.” Obi pauses when he sees Dee and Dum standing side by side, staring at us. “Gentlemen,” says Obi. Dee and Dum break out of their trance and look over at Obi. “Please show the new recruits where to go and what to do.” “Right,” says Dee, giving Obi a little-boy salute with a little-boy smile. “Newbies!” calls Dum. “Anyone who doesn’t know what they’re supposed to do, follow us.” “Step right up, folks,” says Dee. I guess that’s us. I get up stiffly and reach automatically for my sister, but I stop before I touch her as if a part of me believes she’s a dangerous animal.

“Come on, Paige.” I’m not sure what I’ll do if she doesn’t move. But she gets up and follows me. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to seeing her stand on her own legs. Mom follows too. She doesn’t stop chanting, though. If anything, it’s louder and more fervent than before. We all step into the flow of newcomers following the twins. Dum walks backwards, talking to us. “We’re going back to high school where our survival instincts are at their finest.” “If you get the urge to graffiti the walls or beat up your old math teacher,” says Dee, “do it where the birds can’t see you.” We walk by the main adobe building. From the street, the school looks deceptively small. Behind the main building, though, there’s a whole campus of modern buildings connected by covered walkways. “If any of you are injured, take a seat in this fine classroom.

” Dee opens up the nearest door and peeks in. It’s a classroom with a life-sized skeleton hanging on a stand. “Bones will keep you company while you wait for the doctor.” “And if any of you are doctors,” says Dum, “your patients are waiting for you.” “Is this all of us?” I ask. “We’re the only survivors?” Dee looks over at Dum. “Are zombie girls allowed to talk?” “If they’re cute and willing to do zombie-girl mud fights.” “Duuude. Right on.” “That’s a disgusting image.” I give them a sideways look but I’m secretly glad they’re not freaked out about me coming back from the dead. “It’s not like we’d pick the decayed ones, Penryn. Just ones like you, fresh from the dead.” “Only, with ripped clothes and stuff.” “And hungry for breeeeasts.

” “He means brains.” “That’s exactly what I meant.” “Could you please answer the question?” asks a guy wearing glasses that are completely free of cracks. He doesn’t look like he’s in a joking mood. “Right,” says Dee getting all serious. “This is our rendezvous point. The others will meet us here.” We keep walking in the weak sunshine, and the guy with the glasses ends up in the back of the group. Dum leans over to Dee and whispers loud enough for me to hear, “How much you want to bet that that guy will be the first in line to bet on the zombie-girl fight?” They exchange grins and wiggle their eyebrows at each other. October winds seep through my blouse and I can’t help looking up at the overcast sky for a particular angel with bat-shaped wings and a corny sense of humor. I swipe my foot at the overgrown grass and make myself look away. The class windows are full of posters and notices about college entrance requirements. Another window displays shelves of student art. Clay, wood, and papier mâché figurines of all colors and styles cover every inch of shelf space. Some of them are so good that it makes me sad that these kids won’t be making art again for a long, long time.

As we move through the school, the twins are careful to stay behind my family. I fall back, thinking it’s not a bad idea to have Paige in front where I can keep an eye on her. She walks stiffly as if she’s still not used to her legs. I’m not used to seeing her like this either, and I can’t stop staring at the crude stitches all over her body that make her look like a voodoo doll. “So that’s your sister?” asks Dee in a quiet voice. “Yeah.” “The one you risked your life for?” “Yeah.” The twins nod politely in that automatic way that people do when they don’t want to say something insulting. “Your family any better?” I ask. Dee and Dum look at each other, assessing. “Nah,” says Dee. “Not really,” says Dum at the same time. OUR NEW home is a history class. The walls are filled with timelines and posters of the story of humanity. Mesopotamia, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Ottoman Empire, the Ming Dynasty.

And the Black Death. My history teacher said that the Black Death wiped out thirty to sixty percent of Europe’s population. He asked us to imagine what it’d be like to have sixty percent of your world dead. I couldn’t imagine it at the time. It seemed so unreal. In weird contrast, dominating all of these ancient history posters is a picture of an astronaut on the moon with blue Earth rising behind him. Every time I see our ball of blue and white in space, I think it must be the most beautiful world in the universe. But that seems unreal now, too. Outside, more trucks rumble into the parking lot. I walk over to the window as Mom starts pushing desks and chairs to one side. I peek outside to see one of the twins leading the dazed newcomers into the school like the Pied Piper. Behind me, my little sister says, “Hungry.” I stiffen and stuff all kinds of ugliness into the vault in my head. I see a reflection of Paige in the window. In the blurry otherworld of that image, she looks up at Mom like any other kid expecting dinner.

But in the warped glass, her head is distorted, magnifying her stitches and lengthening her razor-grafted teeth. Mom bends down and strokes her baby’s hair. She begins humming her haunting apology song. ISETTLE onto a cot by the corner. Lying with my back against the wall, I can see the entire room by moonlight. My baby sister lies on a cot against the wall across from me. Paige looks tiny under her blanket beneath the posters of larger-than-life historical figures. Confucius, Florence Nightingale, Gandhi, Helen Keller, the Dalai Lama. Would she have turned out like them if we weren’t in the World After? My mother sits cross-legged by Paige’s cot, humming her melody. We’ve tried giving my sister the two things I could get from the disorganized mess in the cafeteria that is supposed to turn into a kitchen by morning. But she couldn’t hold down either the canned soup or the protein bar. I shift my weight on the canvas cot, trying to find a position where my sword hilt won’t jab into my ribs. Having it on me is the best way to keep anyone from trying to pick it up and finding out that I’m the only one who can lift it. The last thing I need is having to explain how I ended up with an angel sword. Sleeping with a weapon has nothing to do with my sister being in the room.

Nothing at all. Nor does it have anything to do with Raffe. It’s not like the sword is my only memento of my time with him. I have plenty of cuts and bruises to remind me of the days I spent with my enemy angel. Who I’ll probably never see again. So far, no one has asked about him. I guess it’s more common than not to have your group break up these days. I shut down that thought and close my eyes. My sister moans again over my mom’s humming. “Go to sleep, Paige,” I say. To my surprise, her breathing relaxes and she settles down. I take a deep breath and close my eyes. My mother’s melody fades into oblivion. I DREAM that I am in the forest where the massacre happened. I am just outside the old Resistance camp where soldiers died trying to defend themselves against low demons.

Blood drips off the branches and plops onto the dead leaves like raindrops. In my dream, none of the bodies that should be here are here and neither are the terrified soldiers who huddled together back-to-back with their rifles facing outward.


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Updated: 4 August 2021 — 17:57

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