Thursday, April 23, 2009

Apocalypse Snippets #5 - Jessie Shumaker, age 23

Disclaimer: This is part of a project I'm undertaking this semester to explore the--ah, you know the drill by now.

Kevin always hated wearing seatbelts when we were kids. Mom was a stickler for car safety - car seats until we were X inches tall, no kids riding shotgun, and those sweat-inducing seatbelt adjusters keeping the belts safely away from our necks. I didn't mind it enough to put up a fuss, but Kevin? The kid couldn't stand to be hugged for too long without swinging his arms. Being restrained in the car turned him into a tangle of thrashing limbs and escape artistry that would've impressed Houdini. All my memories of family road trips when we were little are strung together by that inevitable request from Dad: "Jessie, keep your brother in his seat."

Every car trip. It used to calm Kevin down. My hand on his chest, reminding him to chill.

It's been a while, but it still feels like second nature - my hand pressed into the jersey fabric of his t-shirt, holding him upright. Only this time, he's allowed to ride shotgun, and I'm driving.

The rain's starting to let up. I can feel the Toyota's wheels slipping a little less on the pavement, though the whole frame still rattles and tilts every time there's the tiniest pothole. Piece of shit car. It's half rust and older than Kevin. He traded one of his high school friends an Apple IIe for it - pretty fair trade, if you ask me. His friend wanted to play Oregon Trail. Kevin wanted a car that would last him the summer. That was four years ago.

Now the front seat has loose bolts, and it rattles as we turn onto a side road. Kevin's body slips forward a little, and I readjust my hand, pushing him back against the seat. I buckled him in, but the seat belt only sorta works. I can feel the vibrations of the gravel through his ribcage.

I remember three years back, when I borrowed this stupid car for a trip down to Chicago, and Kevin got pissed at me when he found McDonalds wrappers in it afterward. Like his piece of shit Oregon Trail car was too good for people to eat in it. Never mind that he took it through the White Castle drive through all the time, and that so-called "food" has twice the stink of anything I'd eat while driving.

There's no food wrappers in it now, though - just an SA bag stuffed with tissues and his backpack contents scattered around the back seat. I was trying to find his inhaler, about three hours ago, when the thing on the news hit. We were driving to Mom's, and even with the radio off it was obvious when it happened. The air felt like a migraine coming on, and then all the drivers on the interstate panicked, their cars making squealing noises like this one does when I take it over 60. That, and crunching into one another.

The gravel's easier to drive on than the pavement. It's a narrow road running parallel to the river, and through the row of pines to my left, I can just about see the river.

I can see Kevin, eleven years ago, dunking me into the lake by Uncle John's cabin, laughing while I flailed and then patting my back while I coughed up water in the shallows. I can see me cheering him on at the last swim meet of his senior year, three years back - I was the only one in our family who showed up. I can see us drinking on my apartment balcony a few months ago with the rain dribbling down onto our heads, me laughing so hard I just about couldn't breathe because college made my baby brother a filthy-mouthed little bastard.

My breath hitches now thinking about that, but for a different reason. Aside from the thrum of the road under the wheels and my own breath, there's no sound in the car. Kevin's chest doesn't move under my hand. It hasn't since three hours ago, when I buckled him in.

Since three hours ago, when traffic went crazy and the air tightened up and so did his airway. His stupid asthma - just another lame genetic hand-me-down, like the monkey arms I got from Dad or the straw-like hair we both got from Mom that breaks brushes. His stupid asthma, which only hit bad a couple times even when he was on the swim team.

The spot on my arm where my brother grabbed it is dotted with purplish half-moon bruises. I still don't know where the inhaler is. I could've sworn I'd grabbed it for him with his keys when we left his dorm room.

Even while he was going blue, a guy on the radio was talking about dead spirits and things returning. I saw it happen in the cars around us, but not in the shitty Oregon Trail car. Nothing happened to Kevin, maybe because his body was busy dying. Nothing happened to me, because...I don't know. But I figured, if spirits were taking over human bodies like the radio said, all I had to do was wait. Wait for Kevin's to find his body again. So I drove, and I waited.

Seemed logical. Wait it out. He'll be back. He can't not come back. Everyone who ever died is coming back, right? That's got to include him.

That's what I figured three hours ago, anyway. But my hand's been on his chest in the meantime, keeping him in his seat, and I don't feel anything. Nothing that's him - nothing that isn't him. Only genuine lifeless body in the tri-state area.

I pull up to the edge of the river, rolling the car through the grass and brush between trees. From here, it's a short slope down into the water. I put the Oregon Trail car in park and leave my hand resting on the lever. Without it on his chest, Kevin slumps slowly forward against his seatbelt.

"What d'you think?" I say. "Ford the river?"

If Kevin was here, he'd think that was hilarious.

I ease the car out of park, taking a deep breath as it starts rolling forward. Maybe I'll find him.

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