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New names are chiselled into the cliff face. Nineteen in total. The list reads not only of the old and vulnerable but of the strong and fearless.

This relentless disease favours no one.

Inside the cave at the base of the mountains, I crouch by the fire and try to keep the damp from sinking into my bones.

I scrape soil out from under my nails with a pine needle and tears spill down my cheeks. The hard skin on my grazed palms is stained with the earth that now covers my husband. We hiked for an hour before burying him next to the others, we don’t want to contaminate the camp.

I lie on our hard bed of worn blankets and I can smell him, a mixture of moss, sweat and rot. I wait for him to come and lie with me, but he is gone. He now belongs to the earth and the stars.

The flames from the fire lick, and leap, and dance. They form both shadow and light. A beetle scurries across the sharp stone floor. A year ago, I would have jumped at the sight, but now I shut my eyes.

I dream of rush hour traffic and listening to podcasts in my car, my office desk and the taste of bitter coffee in my favourite mug, walking up and down aisles at the grocery store and throwing shampoo, disposable razors and Doritos into my shopping cart. I’d give anything to exist in that monotonous cycle of time once more.

The virus devoured cities and towns and spread fear across the country. Those who had avoided its fatal kiss fled to the desert or the mountains.

We are never thirsty here at the foot of the giant hills of stone, yet the rain has become both friend and foe. Once it rained so hard, it flooded our camp and washed away some of our supplies.

Fight or flight are our new companions in this unknown world, but our heightened sense of fear is what keeps us alive.

I wake with aching bones to the sharp cry of birds and the roaring river. Heavy with grief, I stagger to the entrance of the cave. Streams of sunlight flicker through the branches of the grand tall pines as the sun rises.

I breathe in the fragrance of blooming wildflowers and charred wood. This is all I have—the present. My next breath isn’t guaranteed, and the past has already happened, no matter how much I wish it back into existence.

I inhale again—this is a gift.

A butterfly lands on the tall grass at my feet.

I take another breath and let the dewy air fill my lungs.

A branch snaps in the trees before me.

I scan the forest floor that’s thick with bracken ferns.

A harrowing snarl halts my breath.

I freeze as my eyes lock on his.

The End

© Michelle Upton

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