Debbie Dent wore pastel pink to work on the day the world went straight to hell.
That morning she came to the coffee shop where I worked. Batting her fake eyelashes, she humble bragged about her lavish vacation on Bora Bora.
I remember wondering who even goes to Bora Bora anymore these days.
I remember wincing when she stage-whispered. “Lord, I don’t know what I’d do if I had to eke out a living scraping up people’s crumbs and leftovers for a living every day”
The thing is, Debbie and I, we used to be friends when we were kids. That is, until one day, Debbie got mad at something or another I did to her doll and sent her big brother to beat me up. I was nine and he was eleven, but I did karate, so when he punched me in the gut, I tripped him and kicked him in the teeth.
That’s how we wound up as petty rivals all through middle and high school. At least, that’s how I remember it.
From time to time, she came to the café, spitefully strutting her stuff and I’d laugh bitterly on the inside.
It’s been five years since she last threw shade at me from her high horse in the café. Coated by moss, Debbie’s pastel pink has turned a mottled yellow green. It’s the same moss that covers patches of her skin and has turned the sclerae of her eyes green. It also rotted her mouth, turning her teeth and tongue to an icky charcoal.
That day, the virulent Green had swept across the planet. With lightning speed, the virus infected forty percent of the world’s population. It turned them into mindless freaks.
They’re harmless. Mostly. We leave them alone, let them live like beasts out in the wild.
Sometimes though, they become either violent or weird. Like Debbie.
From time to time, she hobbles all the way down to my street from the cafe on 57th Avenue. She wanders around and sniffs at the air around my house for hours on end.
It’s noon and she’s out there shuffling about. Any second now, I’m expecting her to lift a leg and pee on the shrubs by the front gate. She does that every single time.
The padlock on the gate is new. She stares at it in confusion. She looks up at the window where I stand with a semi-blank expression on her moss-ridden face. I wonder if she can see me. I wonder what she’s thinking. If she’s thinking.
There’s a sound behind me. I drop the curtain and turn to my fourteen-year-old daughter, Katie. She’s wearing an old pair of faded jeans and a tatty old sweater that’s starting to unravel at the shirttail.
“Is she still out there?”
I nod. Katie grimaces.
“Hey,” I probe. “I heard you moaning in your sleep. Did you have a bad dream?”
She’s seen a lot of weird stuff a kid her age shouldn’t have to. It makes me worry about her sometimes.
Katie shrugs, then bends to scratch at the tattered knee of her jeans. “I was dreaming about school.”
“School, huh?” I murmur.
People used to gather in such places not that long ago. Not so much anymore. Like most kids today, Katie does her learning in a virtual classroom from her laptop at home. She never leaves the house unless accompanied by an adult or two. She isn’t allowed to go anywhere there’s a crowd.
She knows little of cheer-leading, track meets, and homecoming dances. Only what she’s seen on TV and stories I’ve pieced together from hazy memories of that time in my life.
Katie straightens. She lifts the edge of the curtain and peeks out the window. She inclines her head downward into Debbie Dent’s general direction.
“What if,” she murmured. “What if we all become like her someday?”
I swallow hard and make a small, discomfited noise in my throat. I can’t even open my stupid mouth allay my own child’s fear because I don’t have the answer. No one does. Katie, though, she’s smart as a whip and resilient as heck.
She notices my silent distress. She drops the edge of the curtain and changes the subject.
“You know, Mom,” she laughs a little, edging closer and leaning to wrap her slender, brown arms around my waist. “In my dream,” she looks up and flashes me her customary, crooked little grin and said, “Everybody was dancing. It was so weird.”