You always hated end-of-the-world stories. You loathed the idea of being one of the survivors. Better to be one of the nameless millions, lost and forgotten in the first wave of The End, whatever that end may be. At least their misery was over. Not wearing telephone books—finally they came in handy for something—duct-taped together as body armor while carrying an aluminum bat against thieves searching for an unguarded entrance. You do what you’ve always done. Pretend everything was okay, burying your feelings and reality, as deep as possible, desperate to cling to anything resembling normal.
You set a dish in front of your mother-in-law, careful to stay out of her gnashing reach while you arrange the place setting. She raged against her restraints, her neck straining against the electrical cord that kept her strapped to the chair. Her mouth opened and closed in inchoate groans, both unintelligient and urgent. Having never giving much care to her looks, she retained an air of frumpiness despite her rotten stretched of flesh, pulpy as overripe, moldy fruit. A heavy-breasted woman, though only one bobbed within her blouse as the other had been shorn off like low-hanging fruit when she was changed. Disgust peered at milk from milk white eyes within distant hollows. She slobbered and kicked as she jabbered, bits of clotted flesh stuck in the back of her remaining teeth.
A desiccated husk of nagging wrath before The Change, your mother-in-law never liked you. Not the way you kept the house, not the way you raised your child, not the way you treated your wife. She never accepted you. Not her for precious baby. You were never good enough, the two of you so unnatural together, and she let you know it at every turn. Reducing your role to that of punching bag for the frustrated whenever the occasion for family dinner rolled around, it was as if she never forgave you for stealing her daughter from her.
Still, you couldn’t bring yourself to bash her brains in, no matter how often you’d fantasized about the spray of blood and brain matter as she continued to squirm, the repeated blows until her limbs completely stilled. Or how satisfying the crunch of your bat would be splintering her skull back in real life. True life.
Instead you went through the motions of serving them dinner.
The wail-like drone of a child made your chest ache.
Your father-in-law waited as you slathered gravy over the turkey. His jaw worked up and down in wordless anticipation, like an unhinged mandible. He let loose a terrible gas; his bloated belly settled. He was the kind of man who needed to be taken care of and worried after. A good man, a nice man, but a weak man, he was content to go through life without dreams or hope, doing just enough to get by. Show up at the warehouse, move crates around, punch the clock, come home to an already prepared dinner and complaints about bills. Treading water at a dead end job, a needless cog in a heartless corporate machine, and calling it living, his eyes had long glazed over in indifference long before the gray film settled over empty eyes.
Your father-in-law slammed a fist against the table. The dishes jumped and an empty glass didn’t quite stick the landing. His arm lacked precise control, like a crack addict fumbling for a pip while wearing mittens. She had torn the soft muscles from it when she first changed, stripping the meat from his bone like a piece of stringy fried chicken. The noise drew a doddering howl from your mother-in-law. They turned and thrashed at one another, a mix of garbled rage and the haunted echoes of babbling, a symphony of slobbering jibbers and grunts. The kind of endless fighting, devouring one another in bite-sized chunks, you’d hoped they were past. The Change left them guided by all the wrong instincts, reduced to a craving which needed to be fed. To be so angry at someone your only response was to destroy them. Devour them. One thing hadn’t changed: your mother-in-law’s self-satisfied snarl at seeing you lost in a problem you couldn’t handle. But maybe you read too much into her lipless grin.
Part of you knew you’d be better off without them, but that wasn’t the point. You couldn’t pick and choose your family. You were stuck with them and had to make the best you could. For better or for worse. You remembered your vow that the two of you would never be like them.
She was everything.
You sat down next to her, raising a spoon of mashed potatoes to her mouth. Her swollen tongue pushed it aside, but licked her lips as her head lolled toward you. You felt like one of those pet owners who dress their dogs in sweaters, pretending they were people. Her gray workout shirt was slung over one shoulder in that way you always found sexy, ignoring her insect-mottled skin. She kept pulling despite the rope biting into what was left of the flesh about her waist, her intestines slowly unspooled from the gash sawed by the rope. The lone eye remaining in its socket was a silver disc that didn’t focus on anything in particular. But she knew you. Perhaps it was your smell. Smell was the strongest sense memory and perhaps your scent connected with some last bit of humanity within her.
You’d met her in your church’s singles group. You fell for her immediately. Her intelligence. Her beauty. The way she was so at ease within her own skin. With your plain looks, you never dreamed she’d notice you. You. Whose parents couldn’t afford braces to fix the irregular crook of your teeth and jagged smile. You. Whose skin allergies often left your face flaking as if it sloughed off in order to escape being near you. You. Who always got the leftovers and hand-me downs and was left feeling as if you were never worth being treated as special. That was never what she saw. She looked at you as someone who captivated her, who she wanted to know and be known by. Through her eyes, the broken little places in you healed.
The pathetic mewl couldn’t be ignored anymore as it tore at your heart with each hitching sob, a slobbering reminder of your failure at your one job as a parent: to keep your child safe. This wasn’t the life you imagined having. You held to the hope of the future. Passing along your foolish genes and foolish dreams, praying for something different for your children. Child. It was difficult enough to conceive and there would never be more. Its. Funny how you already thought of your child that way. You remembered the delight your wife took in kissing its delicate feet, its toes now blackened nubs. Its eyes weren’t the right color and no sign of recognition filled them. Its face drooped to the side as if it had half of its skull basked in. A thin trickle of blood trailed down its chin as its breath smelled of rotten bologna and sour milk. Its tiny hands reached out to grab you and it bared its gumline in infantile menace.
Flesh of your flesh.
You knew, like with much of your life, you had nothing left to lose. Perhaps death, undeath, had not changed them that much. They were still family though you were the outsider. They waited for you to come into the fold. They were family. Family stayed together no matter what. That was the whole point. That was everything.
You loosened the bindings of your parents-in-law. You understood that one of the hardest things to learn as a parent was when to let go of your children to let them live their own lives. You brought it, your child, to your breast—each desperate mewl stabbed at your empty womb—as you prepared to let it suckle one last time. Parenthood was about sacrifice.
A monster stirred inside you. You imagined what it would be like to tear someone to pieces. To rake your fingers into the soft part of their belly to scoop out their insides. To gnaw at their skull to still the desire for their brains. And you wondered if you’d have any awareness of it beyond that hunger. Or if you’d be like rain, falling, spilling, pooling simply because that was what you did.