Ghosts never sleep in the dust zone, and the living expect each day to be their last. Worse yet, will this day be the day the toxin tips the scales of a loved one? It’s rightfully said that in the dust zone everyone sleeps with a rifle under their bed and a bullet in their brain—God willing someone loves you enough to put it there when the time comes.
Katerina had just celebrated her seventh birthday when she started to turn. The outbreak had been raging for a year, but I hadn’t lifted a finger to move my family to safety. The twitchers crippled me when they took Rosalyn, and for a year I did nothing but drink. Neighbors disappeared. The local government collapsed until only the helium plant remained. Connections there, deals I made with the ones who brought the twitch upon us, made sure my family had food to eat and I had vodka to drink.
One day, watching the skies turn red from the front porch, I heard Leonid’s voice calling me. The vodka had run out, so I cursed and wheeled back indoors. Our porch had a loose floorboard at the threshold. Unable to step over it, too lazy to fix it, the board mocked my laziness and inadequacy every time I entered my own home.
Upset at the floorboard and the lack of vodka, I rolled into the living room to see my gentle Leonid holding the Winchester .44-40, my father’s rifle, with closed eyes and clenched teeth. He shook as he pointed it at the closet door.
“Leo!” I chided him. He startled and dropped the rifle, angering me further. I only cared that he broke the rules, abused my father’s rifle. “What are you doing?” I slapped him with the back of my hand, angry that the vodka had run out. Angry that the board had mocked me and that I was sober enough to hear it.
I slapped my eldest in anger, and he looked at me, the same expression as the floorboard, as the bottle—flat, empty eyes. Never, since that moment, have I seen the gentle Leonid, the boy who used to love his father. I killed him with the back of an angry hand.
I mocked him. “You’d rather shoot the closet than listen to your papa?” Steadily, he shook his head and pointed at the closet. I raised my hand a second time, but he’d finished with me. Fixed on the closet again, he moved quickly for the Winchester, raising it into firing position before I wrested it from his grip. Throwing him against the wall, I charged the closet and threw back the door.
In that moment I knew no judgment of heaven or hell would ever be severe enough for my transgressions. Curled up on the floor, my Katerina hissed at the sudden light flooding into the darkened closet. Scratching at her blind eyes, she pulled the skin from her face in bloody flakes. Spittle strung from her swollen lips, no longer little-girl-pink.
I slumped to my dead knees and pulled her against my chest, propping us up against the closet door. A cold sweat had soaked through her nightgown, the only clothing she’d worn for three days. Her hummingbird heart rattled in it’s cage. I tried to hug her, but she groaned in pain and slashed my cheek with wicked nails.
There beside us both, unflinching, Leonid, the boy turned man, held the Winchester at arm’s length. I placed Katerina back on the floor in the closet, lifted myself into my chair, took the rifle from my son, and buried a bullet into the brain of my only daughter.
I shut the door and we moved eleven miles out of town that day—as far from the hell Amarillo had become as I could manage. We didn’t know then that the plague dwelled in the water, the food, eventually the land itself. That you couldn’t avoid it. That every rudder’s days were numbered until the bullet in the brainpan went off. Every day for nearly 2,000 days since, the four of us, the Founder men, have haunted the dust zone, just as it haunts us.
Jolting across the compound to station 12, dervishes of ruddy dust whip the side of the truck. I pray for one more day as a family, for another chance to bring us together. But I worry the bullet will go off, or worse, my sons will learn the truth about the plant and how their papa is a sellout as well as a cripple.