Death Count: 20,206
The bold text was printed in large letters across the top of the tattered newspaper, followed by an extensive article. Ayla Moon stared blankly at the headline, her stormy gaze drifting over the first paragraph. The year was 2042, six months after virus had swept the nation. It started slowly, at first going unnoticed, but that didn’t last long. Soon death creeped on every corner of the United States. And now no one was safe.
“You know reading that won’t bring her back.” Damien said in between sips of black coffee, peering at her. “You’re only hurting yourself.”
Ayla glanced at her brother before letting the newspaper drop gently back to the kitchen table, her eyes glazing over. She blinked and turned away, trying to mask her tears. Silently she bit her bottom lip, her hands working themselves into fists in her lap.
Damien’s voice softened. “You know I didn’t mean that to hurt you. It’s just…it’s been months, Ayla. I know it hurts, hell it’s hurting everyone. But torturing yourself isn’t helping anyone.” He reached for her hand, but Ayla pulled away, shoving herself out of her chair abruptly.
“I’m fine.” She muttered, before turning around and exiting the kitchen. She walked down the hallway slowly, trying to fixate her gaze on the photographs. Her gran, sitting her rocker and her favorite book with granddad standing lovingly behind her. Damien as a kid smiling cheekily behind a blue birthday cake. Her mom and dad dancing at their wedding, head’s thrown back in mid laughter.
Ayla closed her eyes for a moment and tried to relive the moments that seemed like so long ago now. She tried to recall feeling anything but pain and dread. But the numbness in her chest remained, tainting even her fondest of memories. This was their existence now.
Painstakingly, she reached up and gathered her short dark locks into a ponytail, revealing the nape of her neck, which was scarred. Her arms likewise, violent white lines tattooing her skin as forever reminders of how far she had fallen from the cheerful child displayed on the hall of pictures.
Slowly Ayla moved towards her room, purposefully avoiding the last photograph. She could not bear to look at her. Not today.
Pushing open the door roughly, she squinted at the light pouring through her blinds, her dark curtains pulled to the side to welcome in the sun. She watched for a moment as the dust particles danced around the window, highlighted in the daytime glow. Ayla let out a quiet sigh before leaning back against the worn wood, allowing it to close gently. She remained there for a moment with closed eyes, her arms wrapped around her torso.
Two months. It had been two whole months since Jade had tested positive. Two months since she watched the life slowly drain from her best friend’s body until one day, it was completely gone. Like all those infected, there had been no funeral. No closure or final goodbyes. Now only an empty space remained where Jade’s light once beamed and the absence of that warmth left Ayla feeling cold and lost. Almost if a part of her died with her. Ayla swallowed painfully, her throat suddenly feeling tight. “Get your **** together.” She muttered to herself before pushing herself off of the door and walking towards her bed. She flung herself onto the purple bedding, fingers brushing over the floral print lightly. For a moment she stared at the ceiling, watching the shadows cast above flicker back and forth as the trees outside swayed in the wind.
Part of her felt guilty. Everyone was losing people around them. It was practically a way of life at this point. She should be relieved it wasn’t worse. After all, she still her had her mom and dad. She still had Damien. But she couldn’t shake the emptiness that she felt without Jade. They had grown up together. From Kindergarten, to first boyfriends, to years ago when Jade’s dad had died. They had gone through every phase of life together. Never had she considered that she’d have to live life without her by her side. The void Jade left behind was everywhere she turned, as hard as she tried to move on. And Ayla had.
She threw herself into work, taking on a second and even a third job. She started running, not stopping until her legs wouldn’t carry her weight any longer. She listened to song after song, trying to drown out her thoughts. But try as hard as she did, it was never enough.
At first her parents and Damien were supportive. They would sit with her for hours as she screamed and cried. Her mother slept in her room most nights because her nightmares grew **** near intolerable to the point she wasn’t sleeping. Damien often took her for rides in his mustang to the middle of no where and back, just for a change of scenery.
But as the months passed, people began to get on with their lives. She began to feel more alone than ever as this new twisted reality set in. That’s when the destructive behavior began. Drinking turned into drug use. And when that no longer numbed the pain, the self harming began. For a while, she was able to hide it. But not long after her parents began to take notice and forced her into rehabilitation or like she liked to call it, hell.
Ayla got put on medication and stopped wreaking havoc on everyone’s lives. And to her parents’ knowledge she was better. But inside, she knew that she would never be the same. This was her life now. Though she was living, she was dead inside. And that’s just the way things were.
“Ayla?” A hushed voice sounded at the door. It was Damien.
“Still alive.” She answered flatly, her gaze shifting towards the door. It cracked open, revealing Damien’s soft bronze waves and his grave expression.
“I’m sorry. Okay? I’m just…” He paused, stepping inside. “I’m worried about you.” He gave her a look she knew all too well. It was the same look that he wore when he’d discovered the scars on her arms. Damien took a few steps forward and sat on the edge of her bed, eyeing her.
Ayla sighed and sat up, crossing her legs. She returned his gaze for a moment before speaking.
“Look. I’m not going to say I’m okay. I’m not okay. None of this is okay. But I’m doing what was asked of me. I’m living my life. I’m not falling apart anymore. But I’m not whole and I never will be. And that’s just going to have to be enough.” Her voice wavered a bit at the end, causing Damien to reach for her as she looked away.
“I’m still here.” He said after a moment, giving her hand a small squeeze. “I know I’m not Jade and it’s not the same. But I’m here for you, okay?”
Ayla wiped her cheek quickly as a tear spilled over. She returned the squeeze lightly, still averting her gaze. Then he asked something he hadn’t asked her in weeks.
“You wanna go for a ride?”