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Amanda Gowin


Worst thing about tuna from the can was the sound the fork made running along the edge – Ruby gritted her teeth and flashed back to a kindergarten she barely remembered, when the boards were black and chalk dust floated in the shafts of light. She couldn't imagine what little kids would stare at now, with their squeaky marker boards –

Kids don't stare at nothin' now, just through, she corrected herself, and balanced the empty can on a tower of other empty cans. Somewhere beneath the mess was the trash bucket, but she had an agreement with the twins not to burn trash when they were gone.

No matter how long it took for one of them to remember to haul it out back. Apocalypse or not, the place was still a damned home, not a hog pen. There was a lighter shaped like a woman in a bikini, she snatched it on her way out the door.


Goddamned Nazi teenagers.

"What?" Screen door slamming behind her, she lit a stale Marlboro, twisting her hair up off her neck and curling her toes in the grass. First nice day in a week at least, fuck the boys. She wasn't spending another minute on the couch watching the only station left – it was broadcasted di-rect from Teddy's basement. Just an old man finally tired of shooting shit, going progressively insane.

"You better go back in. It's dangerous." Naked to the waist of his jeans, a tanned nineteen year old hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and squinted like Josey Wales. For punctuation, he spit.

"The fuck it is," Ruby skipped to the picnic table and flashed her legs at him, crossing and uncrossing them, toenails redder than her hair.

Silver glimmered here and there in the tall grass at the edge of the yard, a thousand empties that would never announce a married couple's farewell to solitude. Mike and Grig set up a perimeter of alarms with the sophistication of the Frog Brothers. Most all of their survival methods were at this intelligence level, but stiffs weren't all that swift. Maybe bloodsuckers were smart, but braineaters didn't have the sense to step over a cluster of cans or around a deep hole.

"I ain't seen a corpse so much as twitch in a week. I wanna lay in the sun." Untying the bottom of her halter, she let it hang, no hint of a breeze to help the show. "Where's your brother?"

"Bev's dogs was barkin' half the night, we been up at her place checkin'."

"She all right?"

"Roberta had six pups. Bev cussed us for wakin' her up after she'd been up with the dogs, but then she made biscuits and gravy."

"She did not! Why didn't you come get me?"

Mike's teeth were white as any Colgate ad. "Come on, Ruby. George got ate first night, and Bev's pushin' fifty. If we'd hauled Miss Perky Tits up the holler with us there would'na been no biscuits and gravy."

"You're a charmer, Mike Forshey, really you are. If Grig's up there givin' it to Bev he can sleep somewhere else."

Mike giggled. "Maybe he will. You don't cook like Bev."

"What about you?" Ruby dragged the halter over her head with a yank that undid her hair as well.

"Cookin' ain't all there is to love." He laid his rifle across his shoulders and hooked a hand over each end like he was in the stocks. "Any point in me comin' in, or you just teasin'?"

Shrugging, she dragged on her cigarette. "Just teasin'. Too hot for it."

Nodding, Mike sighed. "We found us some jumpsuits in the doc's back room, I told Grig we oughtta drag off as many as we can before August and they really take to stinkin'. Anyway, we'll get the air conditioner workin' tomorrow."

The twins were built for this. Hell, most she knew – used to know – were built for it. If there'd been alarms, if the highway'd run through the town, if it'd happened in the day, Coalton would probably still be pretty much the same.

Prime attack time in a one stoplight town is just before dawn on a Sunday morning. Everybody is passed the fuck out, and the walls will be painted with brains and guts before anyone gets the satellite tuned to the national news that said to lock the damned doors and remain calm.

Half were dead before the church bell rang. Ruby's dad had bit her mama in the throat and Ruby brained him with her little brother's aluminum tee ball bat before she thought about it. With Mama locked in one bedroom and Tommy in another, Ruby sat in the morning light in her panties and Lady Gaga shirt chainsmoking Daddy's menthols and listened to gunshots and screams in the rest of Wallwork Estates Trailer Court. She didn't turn the light on, didn't look out the door. By the time the cellophane crunched empty in her fist, the noise had died down, and Daddy had started to move.

First thing, she'd looked at her hands, and smelled the empty pack. She watched Daddy twitch on the yellow kitchen floor and tore it open, looking for powder residue, hoping for something to help her believe she was fucked up, that it was all in her head. Nothing.

Mama'd started thumping on the door. Still, Ruby was sure it was meth, or maybe coke cut with something weird. She passed her room where Mama thump thump thumped and Tommy's door where there was no sound and kicked open the composite board door of her parents' bedroom. Knee-walking across the waterbed, she knocked down roach clips, hemos and a wedding photo before discovering the Ruger's clip under Tommy's last report card. The gun was in the nightstand, the clip was hid. Daddy heard about gun safety, he wasn't stupid.

Ruby hadn't felt her hand on the gun, but the clip slid home like a slick cock, and she ran down the hall, past the thump thump thump, pistol at her shoulder like on the cop shows.

Floating. She'd heard her feet skitter onto the linoleum. Standing over her old man, face down in his factory blues with blood in his hair, Ruby whispered "I'm sorry." But when he rolled over and looked up with eyes as milky as poor old Roberta with her cataracts, the scream that came out tore her throat. She screamed and screamed, and the last she knew of her dad was his long arm snatching for her ankle. Ruby emptied the clip in his wide open mouth.

The sound of the gun dry firing over and over in her hands was like a clock, soothing her down off a ledge, and when Ruby realized she was no longer screaming, she also realized there were two men in the living room.

"Ruby Mullins," one twin had said (this was before she'd had over four weeks to learn to tell them apart). "Didn't know you had it in you."

They never blamed her for pointing the gun at them both, click, click, click, click.

"You gotta wash your legs," the other one said, then matter-of-factly pushed the bedroom doors open, firing off a few shots in each.

Since that month had passed, she was glad she never knew which one killed her mom and Tommy.

"Whatcha thinkin' 'bout, Red?"

Blinking up into the sun and back to the picnic table, she answered "Tommy."

Mike crossed to her in a few long steps. If it had been a different place, a different life, he might've cupped her face in his hands and kissed her, telling her it would be okay, and reminded her about the good things – the stiffs seemed pretty well killed off, her family was in heaven, the garden was coming up good, and Mike Henderson's cow had a late calf. Maybe even added some flattery – she was still seventeen and still beautiful, and he and Grig hadn't noticed the black roots in her red hair or that her carpet didn't match her drapes. That sooner or later everything would seem kind of normal.

Instead, he spit and said "Grig ain't fuckin' Bev. He's workin' on her tractor. He's fixin' to trade her for a pup. He wants you to have a pup, Ruby."

She laughed and kissed him on the mouth. He felt her boob out of instinct, but it was okay. The miracle really wasn't that she had survived, but that she had slept between twins in a queen-sized bed for this long and wasn't pregnant.

"I'm goin'," Mike groaned, as she pushed him away. She lit another cigarette. "We're gonna hunt a little this evenin', and day after tomorrow we're goin' back out to the highway with Henderson to check out the rest of the trucks. If we ain't seen nothin' by then you can go with us, okay? If we ain't seen nothin'."

Ruby spread her top on the table and lay back, the fabric shielding her shoulder blades from scraping. "Okay. Have fun. And if the pups look like Roberta see if she's got one with differnt color eyes."

"Picky bitch."

She closed her eyes, hearing the grass rustle against his legs. "What's for supper," he called back.

"Pie!" Ruby yelled, and his laughter followed him.

In fifteen minutes she was bored and sweaty.

In twenty the back of her brain was itching.

In thirty she knew she'd been lied to, and went to find her boots.

Ruby hadn't been scared since she shot her Daddy in the face – as far as worst case scenarios, that was it, so what was there to fear? She picked her way along the crick in the brush, looking for the flash of hooks. If she found the twins' trotlines, she was close to the cabin. Wasn't long before the pistol was heavy in her belt and she didn't care what they were doing anymore – foraging was exciting. She'd been sittin' on her ass too long.

A good-sized trout flipped in the sun, splashing water, and Ruby stopped to push the line down underwater so it could breathe. Didn't like this type of fishing, but it saved time. If they caught a couple more she could fry 'em up on the grill, and dig proper in the cellar of their house's former resident for something to go with it. Corn on the cob was all she really wanted but –

Ruby saw the cabin and heard the stiff call in the same instant. She ran, pistol in hand, thorns pulling red lines in her legs. Pressing her face to the door, she listened.


"Motherfuckers!" Ruby yelled, and under her angry shoulder the door gave. She fell onto the dirt at the feet of a tied girl wearing a pink high heel. A dead, tied girl wearing a pink high heel.

The stiff howled; Ruby stared up at it. Grig and Mike were frozen in a cloud of pot smoke, their jaws gaping like the stiff's.

Pushing herself to her feet, Ruby felt her throat close. "You fuckin' pervs," she whispered, and looked around. The plank table held the collected contents of what would soon be all they needed to cook meth, if they could find the ingredients. Cold medicine was the one thing hard to come by these days. Weed in a pile around a purple water bong on the chipped coffee table in front of them, they were both fully dressed.

The stiff was not. She was greenish grey all over and dripped white at the mouth, her shoulder bone completely exposed. Her nipples had gone black, and her lips, and all she had on besides the shoe was a pair of stained white granny panties. Barbed wire looped around her neck, staple-gunned to the back wall under each of her ears. Her waist was pinned the same. Its, Ruby reminded herself. Its waist. The girl thing howled, eyes white.

"Ruby, we didn't –"

She trained her gun on Grig, even though the protest was Mike's. "You boys been fuckin' that thing?"

His eyes were red, but his mouth made a straight line. He folded his arms and leaned back into the dirty cushion. Quietly, "No. But we been thinkin' on it 'bout three days now."

"Damnit, Grig –"

"Shut the fuck up, Mike." Ruby kicked the plank table and smashed all the cookware as it landed. "This is what you two been doin'? Bev ain't got no pups, Henderson ain't got no calf, and there ain't nothin' left in the factory, is there?"

Grig shook his head. "Bev's got pups. But yeah, mainly we been sittin' up here wonderin' what to do with Sarah."

Ruby swung the gun, and with a loud crack Sarah Stiff's head jerked, then she dangled in the wire.

Mike put his head in his hands.

"So this is what it's gonna be like?" Ruby asked, and cocked her head. The pistol dangled at her thigh.

"Who the fuck knows?" Grig shoved weed into the bowl and reached for the lighter. "I'm bored. Mike's bored. Everbody's bored. This End of the World is the most boring shit that ever happened. We gotta figure out what the fuck to do, forever." He lit the bong and took a long hit, coughing.

"We had to do that anyway, dipshit," Ruby answered, but there was no fight in her. Hell, there was no fight left in Ted, even, broadcasting from his compound in the desert.

"Don't you ever wish you'd been rescued by someone you woulda talked to in high school?" Mike asked.

As she stepped over the coffee table, they each offered Ruby, last fall's Coal Festival Queen, a hand. She fell between them on the futon. "No," she answered, and didn't think it over, because the truth didn't matter. Grig passed her the bong, and she laid her head against his shoulder.

"Promise you didn't fuck it?"

"Swear on Mom's grave. Mike didn't neither. We was just curious."

Ruby hit the bong, coughed heartily, and handed it to Mike. Her head switched to his shoulder, rotating between them from habit. "You think Sarah was prettier than me – before she was dead, I mean?"

"Fuck no," the twins answered in stereo.

Eventually they laid the futon flat, and didn't leave the cabin until all three of them were sweaty and tired. On the walk back they smacked at mosquitos, and a few lightning bugs blinked to each other.

On the trotline, the trout flipped and splashed, but Ruby forgot all about it.

➥ Bio