Ryan is in the supermarket, staring at the bags of frozen food in front of him.
“We have to start watching our budget,” Meg had admonished him earlier that morning. He stares at the bag of Tyson’s frozen buffalo wings and debates. Then he looks behind him and notices the 2-for-1 sale on Tostito’s Restaurant Style Tortilla chips. He grabs 2 bags of chips and a small jar of Chi Chi’s salsa and places them in his shopping cart.
There, he thinks. Two for you, one for me. He opens the door to the freezer.
A sudden whine sounding overhead is the only warning he gets before all the lights in the supermarket abruptly go out. He pauses with his hand on the door and looks around.
Overhears murmurs from other shoppers speculating on a power surge or asking the proverbial question: What now? Ryan waits for an announcement on the loudspeakers, the voice of someone from the store to come and tell them they’ve had a brief power outage and it’s nothing to worry about, they’ll be up and running again in no time.
He is greeted by nothing but silence.
The first time he used the gun was just two months after the lights went out. It hadn’t taken more than a month for the natural order of things to deteriorate. At that point, most people had given up any hope that they were going to receive the relief that they’d long expected.
It wasn’t merely darkness that became their constant companion, but silence. No reassuring voice from the television telling the people that everything would be alright. No bullhorn-amplified shouts of a military trying desperately to keep things together. Along with the rapid descent into a world without the ability to turn on a light, was the maddening realization that no explanation would accompany the journey.
They’d taken shelter from a thunderstorm a few towns over from where they’d started their lives together. The town had become a war zone with neighbors battling one another for the supplies in their pantries. A can of Spaghettios had become as coveted as water in a desert.
Ryan remembered sneaking them out of the house through the storm doors late one night when he’d heard someone shouting at them through their front door. Their bags had been packed for days; he’d just been waiting --- on what, he couldn’t have answered at the time, but he knew when it happened.
Before they left, he checked the bullets in his gun, memories of long-neglected time on the shooting range surfacing to the top of his brain. There was a crash of splintered wood behind them as they ran, and he turned and fired. He recalled the thud of the body dropping to the ground. He walked through the darkness, crouched beside the form, dipped his fingers in the warm pool spreading near his feet. Cassie’s voice called out to him and he turned and ushered her out of the house and they ran. The gun was still in his hand.
Now Ryan crouched by the window holding Cassie under one arm, keeping her out of sight. He peered into the gray light outside, watching the shadows of clouds as lightning splashed over the sky. The line of passing hunters was nearing its end; the wolves were almost gone. He knew they would start kicking open doors and searching houses soon, and the part of Ryan that gave into dread assumed they would start where he and Cassie had taken shelter.
The door creaked open, and Ryan heard footsteps on the wooden planks beneath the carpet. He counted them as best he could; one-two, one-two, one-two. Three of them at least, and it was safer to assume more. Four of them, maybe five And there were just six bullets in his gun.
Cassie huddled against his knee, and he could feel her shivering, afraid. His teeth clamped together in a flash of unspeakable rage, but he counted down from ten and silenced his anger. It wouldn’t help her live.
“Cassie,” he whispered. She clutched his leg, trembled, said nothing. “Cassie,” he whispered again, injecting harshness. Cassie jerked her head up to look at him. He looked down, but saw mostly darkness.
“I need you to hide. Get away from the window, stay in the dark. Hide as best you can. Stay behind me. I’m going to find out who’s out there.” Cassie started to protest, but aside from a brief whimper she managed to swallow her debate. He felt that sad pride again, the pride of a father recognizing that his daughter was growing up; the sadness of her having to do it far too soon. He thought briefly of a bright yellow flamingo she used to sleep with every night, ‘Rommie’ they’d called him for reasons he’d long since forgotten, and then returned to the darkness surrounding him.
“I love you baby,” he said, reaching down to stroke her cheek. “I love you, my brave girl. We’ll be safe. Just hide away from the window, in the dark, and keep your eyes closed. If I call you, come right away. If you hear anyone else, you stay hiding. Okay?”
“Okay,” Cassie said, and there was no hiding the shiver in her voice. She was braver than he ever could have been at her age, but she was still just a little girl. He leaned over and kissed her on her hair and then crawled away, keeping himself below the waning light from the living room window, creeping towards the door. The gun was in his hands, and he raised it. He was going to have to use it again tonight.