The road was dry , so much so that Anna found herself coughing on the dust that she kicked up as she walked. It wasn’t so easily mistaken for the flu—this cough was different from that. And she knew she didn’t have the flu, anyway. There was no fever, no vomiting…just a dry cough on dry road-dust on a dry day.
She reached into her pocket and retrieved the cell phone she carried with her, wondering just how much longer it was going to function. She stopped walking and looked at the text message she had gotten from her friend. Jamie’s words were still there, still the same. Anna had hoped that they would be different, or that she had imagined them and all would be well again. No, they were the same.
I got it. U know what u need to do.
Anna wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve, grunting as it deposited some dust into her eyes, causing them to sting a bit. She sighed and put the phone back in her pocket, and resumed walking down the road—empty except for a few broken down, abandoned cars. She looked around herself to be sure that none of them were there, following her. Of course, it was still daytime, and the sun was high in the sky. There would be no one until at least dusk.
She gazed down the road, and could see the roof of Jamie’s house about 300 yards away. Again, she sighed heavily and picked up her walking pace, grasping the strap of the rifle to her shoulder. She thought of those times, as young girls, when they had slumber parties at that very house. The times they stayed up late and ate junk food and watched scary movies. The times they would explore those woods. She felt a lump in her throat, and a heaviness in her chest. First Jamie’s parents, then her own. Now Jamie. Anna shook her head, as if to clear her mind, but it did nothing.
As she neared the house, she could make out the image of her friend standing on the lawn. Anna could see her moving. Hunched over something on the lawn. Anna hesitated, wondering if it was too late. Her heart beat hard in her chest, in her ears. She knew what she had to do if it was too late. She continued to walk, taking the rifle off her shoulder, and chambering a round.
Upon arriving at the house, she could see that it wasn’t too late. Jamie was busily digging a hole in the lawn. Anna could see the sweat that bathed the girl’s body, her pale flesh, almost translucent skin that made the blue veins tracking over her arms more prominent, more obvious. No, it wasn’t too late…but it was close.
Jamie stood fully erect, leaning on the shovel she was using to dig the hole, her breathing heavy and ragged. This was not the Jamie, that girl full of energy, that Anna remembered. Jamie turned to face her. Anna swallowed against that lump in her throat as she saw the dark circles under her friend’s eyes. “Anna,” Jamie croaked, smiling darkly, ”You look like hell.”
Anna let out a little laugh. “You’re one to talk.”
Jamie shrugged her shoulders, still smiling a little. “Help me out here,” she said, her smile fading away. “There’s another shovel over there.” She gestured to the shovel leaning against the house.
Anna glanced over at it, then back at Jamie. “What am I helping you with?”
Jamie resumed her digging. “My grave.”
“No.” Anna said, clicking the safety on her rifle and slinging it over her shoulder. She felt suddenly very numb.
Jamie stopped again, leaning on the shovel. It looked as if it was the shovel that kept her standing. “I don’t want my body to be just left outside…after…” she gestured to the rifle on Anna’s shoulder. “Need your help.”
Anna felt the heaviness in her chest again, strong enough to take her breath away.
“Look, Anna,” Jamie continued, her voice softening, “You know it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. Grant me this one last request.”
Anna swallowed, feeling tears well up in her eyes. She sighed deeply, and walked over to pick up the shovel. She took off the rifle and leaned it against the house. Feeling outside of her own body, she walked back over to the hole, and began digging.
The hole appeared to be already about 4 feet deep, by about 3 feet long. “You’ve been at this awhile,” Anna said, lifting shovelfuls of heavy wet soil.
“Yeah,” Jamie said, breathlessly.
Anna looked up at her friend. Beads of sweat where hanging all over Jamie’s body, her chest was heaving, her breathing noisy and wet sounding. And the smell coming from her…old blood and putrification. “Maybe you should sit down while I do this.” Anna said.
Jamie laughed darkly, not stopping her work. She coughed harshly several times, wheezing as she tried to catch her breath. “If I drop dead from a heart attack doing this, it will just be easier on you.” She laughed again.
“That’s not funny, Jamie.”
The two girls continued to dig in silence, until the sun had changed its angle, and the hole was 6 foot deep.
“Do you want it longer?” Anna asked, finally. She leaned on her shovel, surveying the work. Her arms felt rubbery and tired, and her back was aching a bit.
Jamie shook her head. “Nah.” She dropped her shovel, and limped over to the porch. “I can curl up in there. “ She grabbed a white sheet that had been sitting on the lawn-chair, and carried it back over to the grave.
To her grave.
She opened the sheet, and as Anna watched, draped it down so it fell into the hole and landed spread out on the bottom of it.
“Help me get in.” Jamie said.
No, Anna wanted to say, but her throat felt too full. She felt her legs growing weak under her, and fell forward to embrace her friend. She wasn’t afraid to touch Jamie, as ill as she was. Anna knew that if she herself was going to die from it, she would have by now.
Jamie’s body felt cold, as if she was dead already. Anna felt her the other girls arms wrap around her. It started as tears, her throat catching over and again, until Anna could not stop the sobs from erupting from her.
“You’ve been the best friend that anyone could ever want.” Jamie said, her own voice sounding strained.
“You too.” Anna choked out.
Jamie broke the embrace, abruptly, and backed a few paces away from Anna. “We need to hurry up.” She glanced up at the sky. The sun was angling towards the west, and Anna could see that shadows were lengthening. “When you’re done, just lock yourself in my house. Dad had some MREs in the basement. Help yourself.”
Jamie’s sense of humor, there until the end. Anna wiped her eyes again, and grasped Jamie’s hand as the girl scrambled slowly down into the hole. Anna noticed her friend’s fingertips. Her nails were almost black, her hands white but mottled with purple marking.
She watched as Jamie lay down in the grave, and wrapped herself up in the sheet. Anna could feel her stomach turning, and her knees becoming water underneath her. “Jamie,” she whispered. Jaime opened her eyes, her face tired and wan. “I can’t do this.”
Jamie narrowed her eyes at her. “I told you I want to die a human being. Not, you know…one of those things.”
Anna looked away, unable to speak, scarcely able to think. She glanced down the dusty road she had walked down hours ago, remembering the times when she and her friend had walked back and forth on that road, had chased down the ice-cream truck, had followed that same road all over the neighborhood on those warm summer days.
“Anna,” she heard Jamie’s voice behind her. “We’re best friends till the end, right?”
She snapped her head towards her friend. Best friends till the end. They’d said that to each other the first time when they were 5 years old. A blood oath. They had each cut their own right index fingers, and touched them together. It was out there, in the woods behind the house. Then, after that, they had sat on the big rock in the backyard and drank their lemonade.
“I don’t want to grow up, ever.” Anna had said.
“Me neither,” Jamie had said.
Best friends till the end.
And they repeated that phrase many times over the many years of their friendship. “Yeah.” Anna said, her voice cracking. “Best friends till the end.”
Anna rose slowly to her feet. She walked over to where the rifle, her legs feeling heavy. Her fingers grasped the cold steel of the barrel, and picked it up. Bringing it with her, she sat down cross legged at the foot of Jamie’s grave.
“You’re doing the right thing, Anna.” Jamie said.
Anna nodded, unable to look at her friend. She clicked the safety off, and brought the butt of the gun to her right shoulder, aiming the barrel at Jamie’s head. Tears rolled down her cheeks, hot and inexorable, but she strained to steady her breathing. “Best friends till the end, Jamie.”
“Best friends till the end.”
Anna locked her eyes shut and squeezed the trigger. A loud crack pounded through the air, through her body as she felt the recoil against her shoulder. Her ears ringing, she put the gun to the side, but didn’t open her eyes. “Jamie,” she whispered, and waited.
It was over.
Anna rose to her feet, keeping her eyes away from the grave, not wanting to see what Jamie looked like now. She’d seen enough movies to know that things wouldn’t look pretty now. There would be blood, tissue, bits of skull sprayed everywhere, and she didn’t want to see it. But the image of what it could look like filled her mind. She sank back down to her knees, her back to Jamie, and retched until her stomach was empty. The bitter taste of bile still in her mouth, she shakily rose back up to her feet, and grabbed one of the shovels. She began to fill the grave with large shovelfuls of soil, starting with the area near Jamie’s head, wanting to cover that area first. She knew she wouldn’t be able to finish filling the hole that day, but she at least wanted to cover her friend’s body. That way, they–the ones that were called the Screamers–wouldn’t be able to smell Jamie’s blood.
As the sun started to set, Anna cast her shovel to the side, picked up her rifle, and walked into Jamie’s house. She could hear the screaming and howling in the distance, and knew that they would be there soon. The shadows were long, the air was beginning to cool, and the birds that had cheerily chirped the entire time that Jamie and Anna had dug the grave were now silent. They knew the Screamers would be there soon, too.
She slid the bookshelf against the front door, and proceeded down into the basement, locking the door behind her. At the foot of the stairs, she sank down to her knees, and wept silently in the darkness.