The Photograph
By Kristen Sheley
Written November 1998

It took the last of my energy to bury my parents, the two people who had created me, raised me, and loved me. I wept as I pushed the dirt onto what was left of their bodies, wrapped in blue tarp and laid in a hole in our garden. But my tears, tinted pink from blood, did not last long. My body was too wasted; my grief came out dry.

When I had finished pushing as much dirt as I could on my parents, I bowed my head and whispered a prayer. But was God still alive? Did He really care anymore after what we humans had done? What did it matter; soon, I would be dead, too. Maybe I could ask Him those questions to his face, then.

I turned finally, limping to my house, my joints aching in a symphony of pain. The air outside was heavy and odd, filled with strange and unnatural smells. Faint smells of corpses rotting behind closed doors, I believed. The world was dying, all because someone had "pushed the button" in another country and begot a world war of epic and deadly proportions. It really didn't matter who had started it anymore; who could care about something as insignificant as that when everyone around the world was dying?

I coughed as I opened the sliding glass door, spitting out a mouthful of bloody saliva on the cement porch. Radiation sickness was an evil illness, literally eating you from the inside out. Constant pain was my only companion now. My teeth had fallen out, as had my hair. There were open sores all over my body. But I wouldn't commit suicide like some had done. If anything, I kept fighting for life, even as my body spiraled painfully towards death.

I trudged through the dim house, towards the stairs, and grimaced as I pulled myself up to my bedroom on the second floor, leaning heavily on the banister. The house was silent, dead. I had a younger brother, Matthew, but he had been in college when the bombs were launched. He was probably dead now down there; I was not holding out much hope for the other option. By dumb luck, I'd gone home for the weekend that had ended up being the beginning of the end. I'd never had the chance to say a final good-bye to my friends at college, or my boyfriend there. It was all so flippant; "See you on Monday." But by Monday, the power was out, telephones were dead, and the roads clogged with traffic of people who believed they could still survive or outrun the fallout.

"No," I whispered in a dry voice, "no, no escape, there was never a chance. We're goin' like the dinosaurs now!" I laughed bitterly, falling to my knees at the top of the stairs. My arms shook as I leaned forward, crawling towards my bedroom at the end of the hall. The laughter turned to sobs. I was only twenty years old! No fair! a voice screamed in my head. No fair, no fair, nofair, nofairnofair! Why did I have to pay for other's mistakes?

Air, thick with invisible poisons, wheezed in and out of my lungs in little gasps. A tight band of liquid pain across my chest made it difficult to breathe. My lungs were drowning in blood. I paused to spit out another mouthful of my life fluid onto the worn shag carpeting in my room. The only house I'd ever lived in, excepting the dorms in college. Next to my hand was a stain of nail polish from an accident that had occurred when I'd been seven and my best friend and I were painting our nails and toes. One of us had knocked the bottle over and I'd gotten in trouble. My eyes filled with more bloody tears as I recalled sitting on this floor as a little girl with that same friend, playing Barbies and House, imagining that I was a Mommy.

The chances of that happening now had gone up in the numerous mushroom clouds around the world. I would never know what it would be like to make love, to be married, to be pregnant, to go through childbirth and raise my children. I would never dance again, or sing along with a song on the radio, or cook another meal. I would never see Europe or the Grand Canyon or drive across the U.S. I would never again kiss another human being, or have a hug from my parents.

I finally started forward again and pulled myself up into the swivel chair before my desk, then looked outside as I turned my laptop computer on. Sunset. The sky was streaked with brilliant, bright reds, oranges, purples, greens, and blues -- all a result of the radioactive dust in the air. It was beautiful and it was deadly. Below the unnatural collage of color, I saw houses and trees. The homes were empty, dead, some with windows broken from looting. There were dead animals in the street -- dogs, cats, birds. But I didn't see any bodies. People had either fled the neighborhood or gone inside to die.

I'm dying, I thought with a touch of wonder. This is what it feels like when you're dying.

I looked up at the hill a mile from my house, recalling a time before neighborhoods had been built there, when the hill had been covered with trees. And a barn -- an old red barn that I thought was the Funny Farm. My mom used to tell my brother and I that we would drive her to the funny farm when we were kids, and I thought that building was the place.

I turned away from the window, my heart aching too much from memories to see more. My laptop, running on the last of the battery power I had stored from when there was still electricity, waited for me to do something. I typed with effort, determined to leave something here for someone if they survived these dark days and stumbled across my house.

my parents are dead. they died today an hour apart. i buried them in the backyard. they were good people. this was a good world. the bombs shouldnt have happened. if you of the future read this please dont make any bombs they bad & kill people theyre killing me and this was a good world and i loved on this world and i was loved on this world and this shoudntve happened & god if there is one please take me soon im in so much pain....................

I stopped writing, unable to go on. The pain in my body was so intense I could hardly breathe now, let alone sit in a chair. A low moan escaped me. I turned my computer off and wondered if anyone would ever turn it on again. Then, with the last of my strength, I pushed my rolling desk chair to my bed and lay down.

But I was afraid to close my eyes. I knew that once I did, they wouldn't open again. So I looked around my bedroom, the light growing dimmer as the sun set on my last day in this dead and destroyed world. The posters on my walls of celebrities -- how shallow that seemed to me now. The curtains my mother had sewed when I was twelve. The stack of CD's on my dresser, now music from a dead world -- collector's items, if there were any collectors left in the world. The variety of photographs on my desk -- of my friends and me hanging out, of my boyfriend and me at the beach, of my family in Disneyland.

Then there was the one of me in my high school senior portrait. I had not looked in a mirror for several days, not wanting to see what I looked like now at the end. I wanted to remember me the way I was, before. With the long red hair that a boy had once told me was "killer." With the straight teeth that no braces needed to correct. With the clear skin. With the dreams and plans for the future hiding behind the eyes in that photograph, eyes that glowed with youth and life.

It suddenly became important for me to hold this photograph.

With a surge of strength that shocked me, I managed to sit up, slide into the chair, and push myself over to my desk. I picked up the picture, the frame heavier than I remembered it being before. Next to the photograph, on my desk, was a pad of paper. Picking up a pen, I wrote in shaking, child-like scrawl, "I was once like this." I slipped the paper in the lower corner of the frame, then managed to get back to my bed. I rested the picture on the covers next to me, finally closing my eyes. Now, if I was ever found, someone would know that I wasn't just a rotted corpse, one more helpless victim of a senseless disaster.

I was once that young woman in the photograph.

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