by: Juliana Tuck ((Header art by Portohle.))
Across the Margin celebrates Halloween with a heart-wrenching tale of sisterly devotion set against the backdrop of humanity’s ruin…
The twitches that signaled her return to life came suddenly, as suddenly as she’d stopped breathing some hours before. Her eyelids fluttered open, revealing dead eyes behind blank pupils. I tried to remember them as they one were, a brilliant blue-like the summer sky. The way they sparkled when she laughed and flashed when she was angry. I heard her moaning, joining in with the rest of them outside the door. I tried to block out the sound by thinking of her voice, sweet yet strong. My baby sister, Mary, was only fourteen when she turned. She was my sunshine, and it was only natural that when the world fell apart I’d protect her. I’d promised her I’d keep her safe, even when our parents were ripped apart in front of our eyes, and even when our worst nightmares became reality. Ultimately, I failed.
It was supposed to be an easy supply run, in and out before they even noticed us. The day before, we’d discovered a little gas station on the outskirts of town that hadn’t been completely looted yet, so we set out that morning feeling optimistic. She stood guard by the door while I went inside. The smell of rot was strong in the store, but I ignored it. A corpse wearing a cheerful red smock from another world lay prone on the floor, unrecognizable as anything other than vaguely humanoid due to what appeared to be a shotgun blast to the face. I assumed the red-soaked corpse was the source of the smell and paid him no mind as I searched the shelves for anything edible.
I should have known better. We’d survived through the apocalypse for two months. I was just so hungry. I hadn’t eaten in several days, opting instead to give most of my share to Mary. I could barely contain my excitement as I came across a shelf filled with protein bars and the like, basically untouched. I grabbed one and ripped into it.
“Dude, come here, there’s so much food,” I exclaimed. Mary walked up to the door, rifle resting comfortably in her arms. The sight pained me. Before, she had hated guns, mistrusting them as objects of violence and pain. She had always been so gentle, so empathetic. I’d jokingly called her Mini Gandhi. Unfortunately, now the rifle was strictly necessary, and she handled it as casually as she would any other tool. She was barely a teenager, more like a child than an adult, but her haunted eyes had aged her by decades.
I took in her gaunt face and emaciated body. Her cheekbones were razor blades, and I could see her ribs through a hole in her shirt.
“I’ll take watch,” I said. “Just eat a little and then we’ll take as much as we can back to camp.”
She smiled sweetly, “Ok, Jay.”
I gently took the rifle from her and walked back outside. There were a few of the dead in the town, but they hadn’t taken notice of us yet. I settled into a comfortable but alert position, trying to decide what our next move should be and fighting the crushing despair that came with the knowledge that it didn’t really matter. I was completely lost in thought when the screaming started from inside the store.
“MARY!” I shouted. I jumped up and ran back inside as fast as I could. My heart froze at the gruesome scene laid out in front of me. The monster at Mary’s feet was missing both its legs. A trail of decaying flesh and blood clearly showed where it had dragged itself out from behind the registers. Mary lay on the ground, kicking and screaming, trying desperately to pull herself away from the creature. As I watched in horror, it sank its rotting teeth into Mary’s calf. Her screams became shriller, nearly inhuman, as the thing pulled back its head, exposing the muscle and sinew of my sister’s leg. Time slowed to a crawl as I pulled up my rifle and punched a hole in the thing’s skull. But by then it was much too late. Mary squirmed on the floor, trying to stem the flow of blood from her leg as tears flowed freely over her cheeks. I rushed over, struggling to rip a large piece of fabric from the bottom of my shirt as my eyes blurred with panicked tears. When I was finally successful, I tied the strip of fabric tightly above the wound, right under her knee. I had no idea if that was proper placement for a tourniquet, but I didn’t have time to worry. I then pressed the rest of my shirt directly over the bite, praying it’d be enough to stop the bleeding.
“Shh honey it’ll be ok, we’re gonna get out of here.” I whispered to her over and over again. “It’ll be ok, sweetie, it’ll be ok.” I started to pick her up when I heard the knocking from the front of the store. The commotion had attracted a bunch of them from the surrounding area, and now they stood on the other side of the glass, slapping their hands against it and moaning. “Fuck,” I muttered under my breath. I picked Mary up as gently as I could manage, and headed for the back of the store. There weren’t a lot of choices and I was already getting dizzy from exertion, so I shifted her in my arms and pulled the door to the bathroom open. I laid Mary on the floor against the wall, then skittered back out to grab the rifle. I saw the glass start to crack, and ran back to the bathroom, slamming the door shut and locking it as fast as I could. When I turned around, my stomach dropped. The blood had already leaked through the bandage and was forming a puddle on the floor. Mary slumped against the wall, just barely conscious.
“Oh no. No no no no no,” I moaned, disposing of the rifle and rushing over to press against the wound with all the strength I had.
“Mary? Mary, talk to me kiddo. I need you to stay awake.”
“I’m sorry Jay, I’m just so tired.” Her voice was small and raspy. Tears rolled down my face and hit my hands as I pressed against the bite, willing it to stop bleeding. She looked at me.
“Don’t cry. I know you did your best. Maybe this is better. I’ll see mom and dad again. It’s going to be ok…” She trailed off, smiling slightly. “Love you,” she sighed, and my sister’s eyes closed.
“Mary? MARY! Oh god Mary no! Don’t do this, don’t leave me here!” I screamed and sobbed, all my rage and pain flowing through me as I heard the glass outside give way. I cried for what seemed like hours, sitting alone with my shame and my guilt as the undead beat on the door. Eventually no more tears would come, and I just sat there, watching as her body cooled. I stared at my hands, covered in her blood. This was it. I had no more fight left in me. That had died with Mary. I just had one last task to complete, and then I could rest.
I whispered to her as her twitching became less erratic and she struggled to sit up. “I’m so sorry Mary, this is all my fault. But don’t worry, I’m going to make it better.” Her pale orbs locked on me, and she started pulling herself in my direction. I wondered if there was anything of my baby sister left in there as I slowly pulled a knife out of my boot. I thought even if there was, she probably didn’t want to be a monster. She crawled towards me, dragging her ruined leg behind her. When she was just within reach, I pulled her against me, her back to my front, carefully avoiding her mouth as I wrapped my arm around her throat in a choke hold. She felt so small. Fresh tears streaked down my grimy cheeks as I committed to doing at least one thing right.
“I’m so sorry kiddo. I love you,” I whispered softly, plunging my knife into the soft spot on the back of her skull. She slumped against me as foul-smelling blood choked with clots flowed slowly onto my clothes and mixed with the long dried blood on my hands. I laid her out, and I knew it was time. I considered the rifle on the floor, but in that moment I hated the damn thing and the way it had rested so easily in my sister’s hands. Instead I crawled over to the toilet, washing my blade as thoroughly as I could. The thought of turning revolted me, so I had to be careful.
I sat down next to her, staring into her sightless eyes. I never looked away as I slid the blade down my wrist. I even smiled as freedom approached.
Outside, the dead moaned and pounded on the door.