As the sun rose over the eastern hills of the Larsen farm, Melody Larsen – the farm’s last remaining inhabitant – pulled the heavy covers up over her head and tried to warm herself.
“The fire must have gone out during the night,” she mused, “and I must have slept later than usual.”
Melody’s desire to push back the covers and drop her feet to the floor suddenly flagged as the memory of the past few days returned.
A shiver convulsed Melody’s body as she curled up in the fetal position, rubbing her legs to increase circulation.
Her mother, father and brother were all dead – killed by Mexican gang members. Even her dog, Tikka, was dead.
Tears ran freely from Melody’s eyes soaking her pillow. She wept silently for a few moments and then willed herself to swing her feet to the floor. Her sherpa-lined slippers greeted her like old friends lending their warmth to her feet. Melody stood up and grabbed her heavy flannel robe from the chair at the foot of her bed. The sun looked bright but the house was still cold.
Another shiver coursed through Melody’s body spurring her to the wood stove on the main floor. As Melody approached the stove, she touched it lightly with the tips of her fingers, dragging them across its rough cast iron surface.
“Cold as stone,” she remarked and then realized that there was no one around to hear her.
Within minutes, Melody had a fire blazing in the old pot-bellied beast. She stood next to the stove as the heat came off in waves. Finally, some of the chill was leaving her body. Finally, she was beginning to feel some of the life come back into her torso and limbs.
As the heat radiated further out into the house, Melody made her way to the kitchen. There she stoked up a fire in the cook stove. Melody went to the pantry to retrieve the oatmeal container to make herself breakfast. As she reached for the cardboard container, oatmeal spilled out of the bottom and a mouse ran across Melody’s hand. No longer alarmed by mice, Melody merely sighed and tilted the container to keep more of the tiny flakes from spilling out of the ragged hole near the bottom of the cardboard tube.
“A year ago,” Melody realized that she was talking to herself again, “I would have screamed at the sight of a mouse, let alone one running across my hand, and I would have thrown out the entire container of oatmeal. Now, I’ll simply check the oatmeal for droppings and make sure to boil it extra long to kill any bacteria.”
“Perhaps talking to myself will help me get through this,” Melody raised her voice as if trying to communicate with someone in the next room.
The old house creaked in reply as the warmth of the twin fires caused its hundred year-old timbers to expand.
Melody began to wonder if staying on the farm alone had been a good idea. She certainly felt capable of caring for herself but the memories were still palpable. She could almost feel the presence of her family around her. It was as though she could still touch them even if she couldn’t see or hear them.
In all of her 30 years, Melody had never felt so alone … so empty. She felt as though her soul ached from the loss of her family. Everything else had already been taken from her. Now, her family was gone too. Was life really worth living?
The oatmeal boiled over onto the cook stove. Melody’s nose wrinkled at the smell of the scorched oats as the freckles across her face danced. Listlessly, she moved the pan to the stove’s upper shelf to allow it to cool. Cooking over a wood-burning cook stove was no easy chore. Melody wondered how the women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had mastered it. She had been at it for several months now and still burned oatmeal about once every two or three times she cooked it.
“Then again,” Melody reasoned, “I wasn’t much of a cook before the crash.”
Melody sat limply in one of the chairs at the kitchen table and put her head in her hands. After a few moments, Melody realized that the chair was her father’s – the one where he always sat for meals. With a sniffle, the tears came again. Her family was gone. Buried on the hill behind the house … by strangers. The gravity of the situation hit Melody as a wave of helplessness and sorrow washed over her.
“It really was pretty stupid to stay here on my own,” Melody continued her conversation with herself. “I don’t know what those people have for supplies, but there’s not much here for me any more.”
Melody wiped her tears and runny nose on the sleeve of her robe and stood to retrieve her oatmeal. The runny gruel had cooled enough to be eaten. Melody pulled a spoon from the silverware drawer of the kitchen cabinet and dipped a spoonful of the runny oats from the pan. The smell of the oatmeal spilled on the cook stove took on a more pungent odor. Melody sniffled again and set the pan on the table. She allowed the mush to run off of the spoon and dribble back into the pan. Melody had no appetite.
“Is it worth going on?” Melody wondered, silently this time as if saying it aloud was too shameful.
“Suicide is selfish – a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” Melody heard herself repeating her parents’ words. The problems she faced seemed pretty permanent. Her family was dead. Permanent. The world had taken a nose-dive back into the nineteenth century. Probably permanent.
Melody found that she had taken a paring knife from the same drawer as her breakfast spoon.
“Why?” Melody questioned hollowly. “Why go on? What’s the use? My life no longer has purpose or meaning. The world no longer makes sense.”
Death seemed a welcome escape from what would most likely have happened at the gang bangers’ house had the Johnsons and Olsens not come along.
“What will prevent another group from coming along and doing the same thing?” Melody gave it a few moments consideration, but couldn’t answer her own question.
Melody toyed absently with the paring knife gently running the tip of the blade up her left arm from the wrist to the crook of her elbow.
“Up the tracks, not across,” Melody giggled as she recalled the sarcastic instructions, a bit of hysteria tainting the otherwise sweet sound of her laugh.
A mouse poked its head out from under the cook stove. Its nose twitched as it looked up at Melody. Melody looked down at the mouse and twitched her nose back. A trail of thin, clear mucus ran out of one nostril toward Melody’s upper lip. Melody was oblivious. Her eyes were fixed on the mouse. It seemed to have no fear.
The mouse moved out from under the stove to the middle of the floor only a few inches from Melody’s feet. Melody wiggled her toes inside her slippers. The mouse spotted the movement and froze in place, its nose twitching even faster than before. Melody lifted the toes of her left foot raising the sole of her slipper an inch from the floor. The mouse darted back under the stove then turned to look from the relative safety of the cook stove’s shadow.
In the dining room the antique mantel clock ticked. Melody realized that she’d forgotten to wind it this morning. Winding the clock had been Melody’s responsibility for as many years as she had lived in her parents’ home. Each tick-tock clucked at Melody accusing her of thoughtlessness and irresponsibility.
“How could I have forgotten,” she muttered to the mouse.
The mouse cocked its head and inched forward out of the shadow of the cook stove’s bulk.
The dry timbers of the house creaked again, joining the mantel clock in its reprimand.
Melody made a tiny slice in the palm of her hand with the paring knife. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt all that much.
Blood welled up at the site of the incision and began to form a trail, like the mucus from Melody’s nose. Melody licked the blood from her palm and then tasted the mucus on her upper lip. She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her robe again and then carefully inserted the point of the paring knife into the small wound she had created. Melody pressed the point of the knife into the cut.
The pain was almost delicious. Melody realized that she was actually salivating. She swallowed and pried the cut open with the blade of the knife. Her salivary glands kicked in again and she suddenly felt as if her bladder was going to let go. It was just like when she was in the first grade, right before she went on stage for the fall concert. Melody was supposed to play her clarinet but a sudden wave of nerves took over and she ran to the bathroom. Melody could still hear her teacher calling after her.
Melody trembled with the intensity of her feelings. She nearly lost her grip on the knife. Her palms were starting to sweat – the sweat mixing with the blood on her left palm. Heat rose up inside of Melody as her knees wobbled. Melody dropped her robe to the floor and limply fell back into her father’s chair at the kitchen table. The force of her body against the chair exacerbated Melody’s full-bladder feeling. Unable to control herself, Melody let nature take its course. She laughed hysterically – long and loud.
Steadying herself with her bloody left hand on the table, Melody rose again and stumbled to the bathroom.
Her thinking was fuzzy, “Why am I going to the bathroom? I’ve already gone.”
That struck Melody as hilarious. She cackled and dropped in a heap in the doorway to the bathroom. The knife clattered across the 1950’s-era tile and underneath the claw-foot tub. Melody crawled after it, the uneven edges of the hard tile pressing unrelentingly against her knees. The knife had skittered under the tub and almost to the back wall. Melody lay down on her belly and reached as far under the tub as she could. The cold of the ceramic tile reached through the cotton fabric of Melody’s pajamas causing her to shiver. Blood from her hand was smeared across the floor. A drop of thin mucus dripped from her nose into one of the blood smears. Briefly, Melody was distracted by the blood and mucus as they mixed together. Then, her fingers reached the handle of the knife.
The tub was the best place, Melody decided although she wasn’t sure why. That was always where people did it in the movies. Inevitably, the hero found the suicide victim in a tub full of blood and water. Melody didn’t have the strength to pump the water necessary to fill the tub, but, for some reason, the tub still seemed like the right place.
Melody felt weak. Her vision was blurred. She wiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her pajama top. The haze remained.
“What’s wrong with my eyes?” Melody wondered. Was it just another sign of the end?
As her fingers ran along the side of the tub, Melody rose to her knees. She held the knife as tightly as she could in her left hand and draped her right arm over the edge of the tub. Blood was now running down her fingers. The pressure with which she gripped the knife had opened the cut wider. The pain was starting to cut through the fog. Melody’s vision was clearing. The drain in the tub came into focus. Melody pulled her torso over the edge of the tub. She could see long, red hairs near the drain – probably her own she realized.
A bout of vertigo struck Melody as she tumbled face-first into the tub. The room spun. Melody nearly vomited. There was a strange, acrid odor in the air and a bitter taste in her mouth – almost like when a piece of tinfoil touched a tooth filling. Melody clamped her teeth together embracing the bitterness.
As the room spun around her, Melody tried to right herself in the tub. She rolled over onto her back and grasped the sides of the curved cast iron. The cold, white ceramic coating bit at her hands. Melody jerked back and hugged herself. The knife clattered into the bottom of the tub.
Melody tried to relax … to breathe slowly in and out but her breath came in short, raspy bursts as though she had run too hard and too fast for her lungs to keep up. A memory from years before filled Melody’s mind. She had run cross-country in high school. A pleasant numbness encompassed her as she recalled speeding across the countryside, her long, braided pony tail streaming behind her. As her skin began to tingle and buzz, Melody remembered the freedom she felt when she ran.
As her euphoria took her to a more pleasant place, Melody’s fingers once again found the handle of the paring knife. The sensation of its wooden handle was almost too much to bear. It was as if the handle was electrified. Melody half-expected to see sparks fly as she plunged the knife into her wrist and ripped upward toward her elbow.
The mouse’s nose twitched at the smell of blood.