“That’s not how you toast marshmallows, Avery!” I said to myself.
“Is so.” I argued back.
“Is not, you’re just burning them. You might as well just eat the charcoal out of the fireplace.”
“Don’t give your brother any ideas, Melanie…” I added my mother’s voice to the scene, causing my own to falter.
Tears began to trickle down my cheeks as I twisted the marshmallows around in the flames, watching them scorch the spongy treats into unrecognizable black blobs.
I was seven the day The Light came. I was arguing with Avery over the Cheerios®, which is really stupid cuz I never liked Cheerios anyway. But I never liked Avery either. I wish I didn’t have to say that. Avery was my little brother. But it’s true. I never liked him and I argued with him constantly.
The Light came on a Tuesday morning. It was after Christmas, so probably in January, but I don’t know the date or what year it was. I never cared about things like that.
It was bright. It burned. It discriminated. When it was gone, so was Avery, and so was everyone else. I was alone. And there was no rhyme or reason in what was left behind, nothing to explain what had happened.
At first, I was just Confused with a capital C. I’d never seen anyone disappear before except on TV. I’d given in and let Avery have the Cheerios. He was pouring them while I scolded that he was too young to pour milk by himself. Then everything went white. It’s hard to explain. It was like for a moment there were only two things in the whole world: bright white, and the sound of Cheerios.
The Light didn’t shine in through the window. It wasn’t like the light bulbs suddenly got super bright. I saw an evangelical movie in Sunday School where little sparkly rainbow circles from the sun meant that Jesus had taken someone to Heaven during the Rapture. The truth is after The Light came, I struggled with that sparkly image a lot, wondering what it was like for the people who disappeared, but whatever. It wasn’t like that either. It wasn’t like anything.
Something flashed inside my head, not outside. I remember knowing it was inside my head and not bothering to blink because it didn’t burn my eyes, but it burned my mind. The sound of the Cheerios tinkling colorfully against the melamine resin of our Avery-proof dishes amplified in my head to a clatter worse than the worst hailstorm. When it stopped, Avery was gone and there were golden o’s of oats all over the kitchen.
You know how sometimes you just know things? I knew what had happened like I’d been expecting it all my life. I got up anyway. I trudged through the kitchen, cereal crunching under my feet, tracked crumbs across the carpet, and went upstairs to where my mother should have been putting the finishing touches on her makeup. I stared at her empty chair for a moment, but I didn’t call her name. I knew. I went back downstairs and fixed myself ice cream for breakfast.
Rapture. I know I said it first. I know some of you were already thinking it, but it’s a ridiculous thought: that I was the only one Jesus didn’t take. How dare you judge me that way? I was seven. Seven! What exactly was my great sin? That I didn’t like my brother? He started climbing into bed with me when he was three and peeing my sheets. Every time he did something wrong I got in trouble for teaching him how to do it. And he cut the hair off my Catwoman Barbie® the Thursday before The Light. Judge me all you want.
As I sat enjoying my ice cream and the fact that no one was going to yell at me for the Cheerios crumbs, it dawned on me there was no one to make me go to school. I was elated. I hated Tuesdays in school – that’s how I remember it was a Tuesday – because there was nothing exciting, like on Show & Tell Mondays or Science Time Wednesdays, to break up the monotony of Miss Murray’s voice. You can imagine my dismay when I sat down on the couch to watch TV instead, and found nothing but dead air.
That was a year ago.
I left the house a few times, but never ventured very far. As bored as I was, alone with no TV, the world outside was frighteningly different. It wasn’t just people that disappeared. The few remaining cars were parked and empty. There were no cats or dogs and there was no sign of birds. Everything was disturbingly quiet, the kind of quiet that makes you sing to yourself in bed so you won’t hear the Boogie Man in your closet.
Hunger finally drove me out of my house for good a week ago, and it was in my search for food that I met Sean this morning. I had already wandered from house to house, all empty, eating what non-perishable foods I could find. I had plenty to eat, but I was starving anyway. There isn’t enough nourishment in snack chips and most of the other stuff that’s easy to eat, and I really didn’t know any better.
Sean was probably in his thirties. I never asked. He had a messy beard, but he seemed clean. I followed him around while he tried to educate me. He showed me how to pick the right canned foods, to get better protein in my diet, how to find tools, boil water, and things like that. He had a book on how to grow food and packages of seeds he said we could plant when spring comes.
When night began to fall, he showed me how to build a fire and said we could roast some marshmallows he’d found. We sat by the fire together. He cut open the box and set the knife down next to the fire.
“I knew I’d find you, Melanie,” he said as he stuck the foamy desserts on the tines. “Destiny brought us together.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Don’t you see? A man… a woman… you are my mate. We were meant to repopulate the Earth together.”
“You mean like Adam and Eve?”
“Exactly! God has chosen us for each other.” His exuberance was disturbing as he scooted closer to me.
“What if The Light was a nuclear bomb and your almonds are roasted?” I asked. I’m eight, not stupid. I know how sex works.
“What kind of talk is that for… how old are you? Seven? Eight?”
“Old enough, I guess,” I said incredulously.
Sean was dismissive. “A nuclear bomb, would have destroyed everything. If anything, it was more like a freak microwave occurrence and you and I were just lucky enough to avoid the hot spots.”
“Hot spots are complicated things to explain,” he said, putting his hand gently on the inside of my leg and pushing it slowly upward. His hand was busy, but his eyes were still focused on the marshmallows in the fire.
I wiped the tears from my cheeks and gently blew out the flames. I plucked one of the bubbly black blobs off and popped it into my mouth. Blechh! I spit it into the fire. It really did taste like charcoal, and bitter with burnt sugar.
“I miss Avery,” I sniffed.
Sean lay twisted silently on the ground where he’d fallen when I stuck the knife in his eye. His other eye stared glassily up at me without blinking.
“It’s not like I hated him. I just didn’t like him. He was my brother after all.”
© 2013 Anne Schilde