Words Stay [flash fiction]

Post-apocalyptic, bookworm-centered, and a hint of sapphic something.

© Copyright 2022 Alyssa Cokinis. All rights reserved. The piece cannot be republished or used without prior permission from the author.

Days drag, and still I move. Days drag despite deliberate efforts to fill them with excessive productivity. In times like these, we need to remind ourselves that sometimes the greatest goal is the one to move above all else. Body, mind, emotions, even the small pulse in my wrist. All of these are a miracle.

I move. A lot. Staying in one place makes me nervous that I will meet someone, and in times like these you do not want to meet someone. Not without the gear, and the gear doesn’t really exist anymore. The only thing left if we can’t protect ourselves is to look out for our own bodies. Most people either don’t know or can’t do that for themselves simply because they have never had to take care of themselves. Some adjusted quickly and formed communities. Lucky ones. Others couldn’t—were forgotten or never knew how to. Many died. Here we are.

When I’m not walking between places, I like to stop in the in-between to take a reading break. When I finally reach a place, I’m still reading. I know usually I have the amount of days it takes to travel in order to finish reading a story, but sometimes the book is much longer than anticipated or doesn’t hold my interest as much as previous ones have. However, when stuck perpetually on the road, just about anything to distract me from my surroundings and situation is welcome.

This trip’s book is When You Reach Me. The concept of time travel is appealing, but I know no one will reach me like the way I arrive at new destinations. At any rate, I’ve nearly finished it, and I still have one day until the next town—at least what I think will be the next town. I am quite obvious and follow the interstate and highways. I’m not sure why I remain visible if I want to avoid others. But hey: that is the apocalyptic times we find ourselves in. Individually.

It is when I finish Stead’s book, when I close the cover and here that satisfying thump, when I stow it in my rucksack that I hear it: loud, high-pitched, uncontrolled crying. I instinctively go to grip the knife handle, unlatching it from its sheath, as I crouch and pull myself toward this new yearning, something that has distracted me from even finding a new book in this new safe house to take with me on the next part of the road.

Outside the safe house, there is a forest. I skitter across the open yard until I reach the forest opening. Sweat, slick and slimy on my forehead, caresses on its way down. I hiss out a breath, matching my steps to the beat of the crying in my ears. It is getting louder. Perhaps this is a threat or a trap, though.

I round the corner of a tree, then stumble back at the sight.

She must be my age, somewhere around there. Her tear streaks pummeled their way down her face, their tracks visible through the dirt on her face. Her hands are knotted in her hair, her chest heaving up and down in rhythm, and her clothes are ragged. She is, seemingly, quite alone. When I stumble, she finally hears me, turns her head toward me, and her eyes widen. Eyes that flicker to where I had my hand over my knife. “Don’t—” she says.

“I won’t,” I say simply, but my voice is raggedy and thin, wispy, cracking. I have not used it in so long; there has been no need to, until now.

I need to keep my distance. But something pulls at me, urging me to get closer. To know her. I put both of my hands in the air and sit down. “You aren’t going to eat me?” she asks.

Her fear is valid. I know this fear; I’ve run from it many times. “No,” I whisper.

“I’m scared that is how I will die.” She barrels through this sentence like it means nothing, like she doesn’t want me to hear it, but I know if it were me, I would want someone to hear my fear aloud.

When is the last time I truly listened to someone? I swallow. “You’re alone?”

“Now I am,” she murmurs. Fresh tears pile in her eyes before spilling over onto her dirt-ridden cheeks. They erode through the dirt to reveal her pale cheek. Then, she looks at me, striking me, her brown eyes meeting mine. “And you?”

I take my rucksack off and rummage through it, producing Stead’s book. “I’m not alone. Not with these. I look for them when I stop.”

She nods. “I haven’t read in a long time. Since before.”

Biting my lip, I reach toward her through my hesitation and offer it to her. “This one is pretty good. It’s a nice distraction.”

“I need all the distractions I can get,” she says softly. Her tears stop for a moment, the last one faltering on the cusp of her chin before falling onto the ground below. “Thank you.”

Thank you.

It has been so long. So long since I did something worth that. So long since anyone could tell me that.

I stand. “No worries.”

She turns toward me, sensing what I’m about to do. “Where will you go? What will you do without this book?”

I think I smile. It feels foreign to me, but here I am, smiling, at a real human, not just a book in the hidden shadows just off the road. “I’ll find another.” Time to go.

“Can I come with you?”

As soon as the words escape her lips, she flushes. “I-I mean—I haven’t got anyone—”

Can I come with you?

These warm words stick and spread across my chest, building to a knot in my throat. I swallow again and turn my head. “Only if you like stories. Yes.”

“Thank you.” Again, her words stay. She stays.

Published by Alyssa C.

Writer & theatre artist from Iowa. Currently quarantining in the Pacific Northwest. MA in Intercultural Communication Studies from Shanghai Theatre Academy (expected 2021).

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