The 5th Wave
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“Where’d you get the bread?” I ask midway through the burger, grease rolling down my chin. I haven’t had bread, either. It’s light and fluffy and slightly sweet.
He could give me any number of snarky replies, since there is only one way he could have gotten it. He doesn’t. “I baked it.”
After feeding me, he changes the dressing on my leg. I ask if I want to look. He says no, I most definitely do not want to look. I want to get out of bed, take a real bath, be like a person again. He says it’s too soon. I tell him I want to wash and comb out my hair. Too soon, he insists. I tell him if he won’t help me I’m going to smash the kerosene lamp over his head. So he sets a kitchen chair in the middle of the claw-foot tub in the little bathroom down the hall with its peeling flowery wallpaper and carries me to it, plops me down, leaves, and comes back with a big metal tub filled with steaming water.
The tub must be very heavy. His biceps strain against his sleeves, like he’s Bruce Banner mid-Hulkifying, and the veins stand out on his neck. The water smells faintly of rose petals. He uses a lemonade pitcher decorated with smiley-faced suns as a ladle, and I lean my head back for him. He starts to work in the shampoo, and I push his hands away. This part I can do myself.
The water courses from my hair into the gown, plastering the cotton to my body. Evan clears his throat, and when he turns his head his thick hair does this swooshy thing across his dark brow and I’m a little disturbed, but in a pleasant way. I ask for the widest-toothed comb he has, and he digs in the cupboard beneath the sink while I watch him out of the corner of my eye, barely noticing the way his powerful shoulders roll beneath his flannel shirt, or his faded jeans with the frayed back pockets, definitely paying no attention to the roundness of his butt inside those jeans, totally ignoring the way my earlobes burn like fire beneath the lukewarm water dripping from my hair. After a couple eternities, he finds a comb, asks if I need anything before he leaves, and I mumble no when what I really want to do is laugh and cry at the same time.
Alone, I force myself to concentrate on my hair, which is a horrible mess. Knots and tangles and bits of leaf and little wads of dirt. I work on the knots until the water goes cold and I start to shiver in my wet nightie. I pause once in the chore when I hear a tiny sound just outside the door.
“Are you standing out there?” I ask. The small, tiled bathroom magnifies sound like an echo chamber.
There’s a pause, and then a soft answer: “Yes.”
“Why are you standing out there?”
“I’m waiting to rinse your hair.”
“This is going to take a while,” I say.
“Why don’t you go bake a pie or something and come back in about fifteen minutes.”
I don’t hear an answer. But I don’t hear him leave.
“Are you still there?”
The floorboards in the hall creak. “Yes.”
I give up after another ten minutes of teasing and pulling. Evan comes back in, sits on the edge of the tub. I rest my head in the palm of his hand while he rinses the suds from my hair.
“I’m surprised you’re here,” I tell him.
“I live here.”
“That you stayed here.” A lot of young guys left for the nearest police station, National Guard armory, or military base after news of the 2nd Wave started trickling in from survivors fleeing inland. Like after 9/11, only times ten.
“There were eight of us, counting Mom and Dad,” he says. “I’m the oldest. After they died, I took care of the kids.”
“Slower, Evan,” I say as he empties half the pitcher onto my head. “I feel like I’m being waterboarded.”
“Sorry.” He presses the edge of his hand against my forehead to act as a dam. The water is deliciously warm and tickly. I close my eyes.
“Did you get sick?” I ask.
“Yeah. Then I got better.” He ladles more water from the metal tub into the pitcher, and I hold my breath, anticipating the tickly warmth. “My youngest sister, Val, she died two months ago. That’s her bedroom you’re in. Since then I’ve been trying to figure out what to do. I know I can’t stay here forever, but I’ve hiked all the way to Cincinnati, and maybe I don’t need to explain why I’m never going back.”
One hand pours while the other presses the wet hair against my scalp to wring out the excess water. Firmly, not too hard, just right. Like I’m not the first girl whose hair he’s washed. A little, hysterical voice inside my head is screaming, What do you think you’re doing? You don’t even know this guy! but that same voice is going, Great hands; ask him for a scalp massage while he’s at it.
While outside my head, his deep, calm voice is saying, “Now I’m thinking it doesn’t make sense to leave until it gets warmer. Maybe Wright-Patterson or Kentucky. Fort Knox is only a hundred and forty miles from here.”
“Fort Knox? What, you’re going on a heist?”
“It’s a fort, as in heavily fortified. A logical rallying point.” Gathering the ends of my hair in his fist and squeezing, and the plop-plops of the water spattering in the claw-foot tub.
“If it were me, I wouldn’t go anyplace that’s a logical rallying point,” I say. “Logically those’ll be the first points they wipe off the map.”
“From what you’ve told me about the Silencers, it’s not logical to rally anywhere.”
“Or stay anywhere longer than a few days. Keep your numbers small and keep moving.”
“There is no until,” I snap at him. “There’s just unless.”
He dries my hair with a fluffy white towel. There’s a fresh nightie lying on the closed toilet seat. I look up into those chocolate-colored eyes and say, “Turn around.” He turns around. I reach past the frayed back pockets of the jeans that conform to the butt that I’m not looking at and pick up the dry nightie. “If you try to peek in that mirror, I’ll know,” I warn the guy who’s already seen me naked, but that was unconsciously naked, which is not the same thing. He nods, lowers his head, and pinches his lower lip like he’s sealing off a smile.
I wiggle out of the wet nightie, slip the dry one over my head, and tell him it’s okay to turn around.
He lifts me from the chair and carries me back to his dead sister’s bed, and I have one arm around his shoulders, and his arm is tight—though not too tight—across my waist. His body feels about twenty degrees warmer than mine. He eases me onto the mattress and pulls the quilts over my bare legs. His cheeks are very smooth, his hair neatly groomed, and his cuticles, as I’ve pointed out, are impeccable. Which means grooming is very high on his list of priorities in the postapocalyptic era. Why? Who’s around to see him?
“So how long has it been since you’ve seen another person?” I ask. “Besides me.”
“I see people practically every day,” he says. “The last living one before you was Val. Before her, it was Lauren.”
“My girlfriend.” He looks away. “She’s dead, too.”
I don’t know what to say. So I say, “The plague sucks.”
“It wasn’t the plague,” he says. “Well, she had it, but it wasn’t the plague that killed her. She did that herself, before it could.”
He’s standing awkwardly beside the bed. Doesn’t want to leave, doesn’t have an excuse to stay.
“I just couldn’t help but notice how nice…” No, not a good intro. “I guess it’s hard, when it’s just you, to really care about…” Nuh-uh.
“Care about what?” he asks. “One person when almost every person is gone?”
“I wasn’t talking about me.” And then I give up trying to come up with a polite way to say it. “You take a lot of pride in how you look.”
“It isn’t pride.”
“I wasn’t accusing you of being stuck-up—”
“I know; you’re thinking what’s the point now?”
Well, actually, I was hoping the point was me. But I don’t say anything.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “But it’s something I can control. It gives structure to my day. It makes me feel more…” He shrugs. “More human, I guess.”
“And you need help with that? Feeling human?”
He looks at me funny, then gives me something to think about for a long time after he leaves:
HE’S GONE MOST of the nights. During the days he waits on me hand and foot, so I don’t know when the guy sleeps. By the second week, I was about to go nuts cooped up in the little upstairs bedroom, and on a day when the temperature climbed above freezing, he helped me into some of Val’s clothes, averting his eyes at the appropriate moments, and carried me downstairs to sit on the front porch, throwing a big wool blanket over my lap. He left me there and came back with two steaming mugs of hot chocolate. I can’t say much about the view. Brown, lifeless, undulating earth, bare trees, a gray, featureless sky. But the cold air felt good against my cheeks, and the hot chocolate was the perfect temperature.
We don’t talk about the Others. We talk about our lives before the Others. He was going to study engineering at Kent State after graduating. He had offered to stay on the farm for a couple years, but his father insisted that he go to college. He had known Lauren since the fourth grade, started dating her in their sophomore year. There was talk of marriage. He noticed I got quiet when Lauren came up. Like I said, Evan is a noticer.
“How about you?” he asked. “Did you have a boyfriend?”
“No. Well, kind of. His name was Ben Parish. I guess you could say he had this thing for me. We dated a couple of times. You know, casually.”
I wonder what made me lie to him. He doesn’t know Ben Parish from a hole in the ground. Which is kind of the same way Ben knew me. I swirled the remains of my hot chocolate and avoided his eyes.
The next morning he showed up at my bedside with a crutch carved from a single piece of wood. Sanded to a glossy finish, lightweight, the perfect height. I took one look at it and demanded that he name three things he isn’t good at.
“Roller skating, singing, and talking to girls.”
“You left out stalking,” I told him as he helped me out of the bed. “I can always tell when you’re lurking around corners.”
“You only asked for three.”
I’m not going to lie: My rehab sucked. Every time I put weight on my leg, pain shot up the left side of my body, my knee buckled, and the only things that kept me from falling flat on my ass were Evan’s strong arms.
But I kept at it during that long day and the long days that followed. I was determined to get strong. Stronger than before the Silencer cut me down and abandoned me to die. Stronger than I was in my little hideout in the woods, rolled up in my sleeping bag, feeling sorry for myself while Sammy was suffering God knows what. Stronger than the days at Camp Ashpit, where I walked around with a huge chip on my shoulder, angry at the world for being what the world was, for what it had always been: a dangerous place that our human noise had made seem a whole lot safer.