When the Sand Runs Out by Addison Rizer
My mother was a glassblower until the sand ran out. Then, she was dead. She would not have preferred to live in this world where she could not make beautiful things. A world where the search for sand was what unearthed the virus that wiped half the population out.
My father took the good news from the newspaper each morning. He left the bad news for me. He did not like starting his day with negativity. He took the comics. He took the marriage announcements. He sometimes took the sports section but often not. He rarely took the front page. He always took what he wanted.
I took what was left. I said thank you. I knew what he did not know, and he did not know what I knew. I tried to warn my mother when the headlines started to talk of sand, the way it was running out. The way we used it for windows and phone screens and concrete. The way groups of greed began to scoop it from the ocean floor and beaches. From rivers and lakes. The way we could be surrounded by sand in the desert because it was not the right kind. We could drown in sand and still be in want of it.
My mother did not listen, but it did not take long for her business to dry up. She began to take old glass and melt it down, making ugly sculptures of my face as revenge for my warning. As if my speaking the headlines aloud made them real to her.
Something came up from the bottom of the ocean. Something we could not survive. A virus, many people think. A bacterium. It thrived in standing water. It killed anyone who consumed it, anyone who breathed near it.
I read the headlines. I read the warnings. I did what I could to prepare for the three of us. But my father did not like bad news and my mother, in her workshop, refused to believe me. My family of three became a family of me.
I avoided standing water. I did not leave the house often. I stockpiled bottles of filtered water. I stockpiled hard-to-spoil food. I tried to stockpile hope but did not know where to find it.
I watched the news anchor grow thin and pale. I watched a new news anchor the next week.
On day twenty-four, there was water pooling beneath the grass on the lawn. It was time to leave. I packed the car. I counted the bottles of water I had. The cans of food.
When I stopped for the night, I scanned the area around my car. Stray cats lapped at puddles on the side of the road and, when they returned the next day, I determined it was safe enough. The water appeared in even the driest places. It was impossible to separate it from the virus, the monsters, the creatures killing us from the inside.
I did not know what caused the virus to appear. But the cats seemed to and that mattered more, just then. I had heard stories of animals who knew when earthquakes would come. Who dragged their owners from their beds right before they had heart attacks and strokes and intruders. They’d tell me when it was time to move on by disappearing themselves.
I began to keep cat food in my car and leave it out in thanks.
Sometimes, I found towns with survivors left. They told me rumors of heading north. That the virus could not survive the cold. It was September when the dying began. It was October, now, and winter was coming. “Snow,” they said. “Find the snow.”
In this world, rumors were another word for hope.
I paused before refilling any water bottles at drinking fountains and looked around for strays. When I spotted them nearby, I knew it was safe. I’d fill them to the brim, dozens of them, before loading back up in the car.
I would never trust anyone as much as I trusted these abandoned, surviving creatures. I knew that with certainty when I did not offer a ride to any of the survivors we met along the way. I took their information, any supplies they offered, and I was kind, but only as kind as was safe.
The end of the world was lonely, but so had the world been before. At least now we could blame it on the virus when our smiles didn’t reach our eyes. As we reached out to touch, but never hit the target. As we recoiled, just in case.
I drove toward the California border. I’d stop at intersections and wait to find foragers and stays. When I saw them, I drove their way. When I did not, I turned arbitrarily.
When you are at the lowest point, any road leads up. It did not matter which I took.
I turned left and left again.
I slept in the car for four nights.
I crossed the border into California.
Somewhere in California, a sign on the side of the road came into view. “Talk to God,” it said. “Next Exit.”
I took the exit. I drove slowly. I turned off a side road and into the desert. There was no one and nothing on the horizon except mountains back the way I came. Somewhere out there was an ocean. I wanted to taste the salt, but knew it meant certain death. I wanted to plunge into it. To feel weightless. I did not get what I wanted.
Suddenly, there was a phonebooth with a sign above it. “Talk to God,” it said. “Free.”
I approached the phonebooth and paused, listening for any sign of movement. There was only me. It was not as if the dead came back to life. I don’t know what I was listening for.
I picked up the receiver.
I did not know what number to dial so I did not dial at all.
I held it to my ear.
I heard the voice of God and it was my mother.
“Remember what I told you about the piano movers?” she asked me. Her voice was strong. She had been dead hardly any time at all.
“No,” I said. “I don’t.”
“The piano movers made music accidentally,” she said, “and the people still came and danced.”
We never owned a piano. There never were any piano movers. I did not argue with her. I wanted her to talk to me, even if the talk was nonsense.
“The dark will come,” she said.
“It already did,” I said.
“It will feel like it’s following you.”
“It has nothing to do with you.”
I waited. I knew the apocalypse wasn’t about me, but I was inside of it. “Am I going to make it?”
“Do not board your windows up,” she said.
I wished, then, that I could go back. Back to when I was a child and loved my mother, and when I loved her, I could love her while she sat at the kitchen table, putting a puzzle together piece by piece. While she did everyday things. When I could love my father while he grinned at his newspaper. When my love for them did not mean ruining what they loved.
I thought of our house with the windows boarded. My parents and their graves.
The line clicked. My mother was gone. The desert around me was unchanged.
I cried into my hands. I got back onto the highway, I drove for hours, hearing my mother and hearing her fade. I had the urge to turn around. To go back to where the phonebooth sat to see if it existed. I wondered if I had made it up. Loneliness, the inventor of ghosts.
I drove through California. I crossed the border into Oregon. The temperature dropped. On the second day through Oregon, I drove after dark. The streetlights glowed orange and warm and the windshield frosted at the edges. I was nearing safety, if the rumors were to be believed. I was nearing roots.
In the rearview mirror, the streetlights began to go out. One by one, after I passed them, they flickered out. Darkness chased me across the highway. Darkness breathed all around me.
I thought of my mother’s voice. “Do not board your windows up.”
Light still lived in front of me. Light and, maybe, in a little while, people. Northern Oregon, perhaps. Washington. Where the snow fell and the people could get out to feel it. Where there were empty houses waiting to be filled.
I did not know what would happen when the warmth arrived again. I did not even know what December would bring. But I would not board my windows up. I would not call it quits.
I found survivors who told me they were headed to Washington, too. I thought of my mother. “Would you like to come with me?” I offered.
They refused the way I always had. But I offered. My windows were open. It was the only way to survive, I was realizing.
In the far, far distance, there were the lights of a town.
I kept driving, the darkness clawing at me. The darkness whispering through the windows to give up, give up, give up. But ahead there was still light and so I turned on the radio and heard my mother’s voice and kept driving.
In northern Washington, in a town called Oroville, I found the survivors that had gathered there. As I drove through, they waved at me through crumbling houses. I did not know what it was about chaos that enabled destruction, but the houses here proved that fact. There were cars sticking out of living rooms and walls torn down. Some of the windows were covered in cardboard after their shattering. When the virus got you, it got you quick. You could be skipping one moment and dead the next.
I rolled my window down and slowed to a crawl. A woman approached. She introduced herself as Meena. “Alice,” I said.
“What did you do, before?”
“I was a realtor. Not super helpful, now.”
“Everyone is helpful.” She paused. “The houses down that street are taken, but anywhere else is free. When you decide, let me know so I don’t send wanderers over there.”
“Will do,” I said. “Thank you.”
Meena nodded and I started forward again. I didn’t need much, so I passed any house that was more than a one-bedroom. I tried to find something not too damaged. Only one street over from the already-taken homes, I found a few to walk through.
The first had a gaping hole where the back door used to be. Not going to work.
The second had a pool. Good to avoid as a rule, even if the virus died in the cold.
In the third, I could find nothing wrong. It was mostly intact besides a window that needed replacing, which wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
Later that afternoon, I found Meena on the main street just outside a convenience store. She introduced me to a few more survivors and piled my arms with supplies to help me settle in.
I was asleep within a half-hour after pulling the old sheets from the bed.
It was strange to stand still after having been moving for so long. I took to wandering the neighborhoods around me, stray cats following me now that I had begun to leave food on my porch. It was cold and I bundled up the best I could. The cats took routes that avoided certain houses. Mostly ones with pools, but others without. I trusted them and made note of those they avoided. I’d try to warn people, if they came. And they were coming, as far as I could tell.
In the winter, the destruction died. The panic. This was when the survivors emerged. Put down our hatchets and began to sweep. I started to meet more of the survivors. I started to help.
We burned the bodies.
We washed the windows.
We put seeds in the ground.
We went back to work in the winter. Grieved and cried and remained frightened. I could do a lot of things while frightened, we all could. We could rebuild, even when scared. A seed is still a seed even when the planting hands were shaking.
So we went back to work in the winter.
We found gasoline.
We watered tiny green things.
We were a we because we had to be.
Not long after the winter began, a stray I had named Honey and I ran into a little girl wandering down my street, a tape recorder in her little fingers. “Can you say, ‘I love you’ into this for me?” she asked.
Her hands were shaking.
Her voice was strong.
She was alone.
When I asked why, she told me she had lost her mom and couldn’t remember what she looked like. She thought someone would say those words and she’d recognize them. She thought she would find her mother and it made her braver than she ought to be. I loved her for that bravery.
We sat down, together, in the middle of the street. She pressed play. I listened to dozens of women speaking back to me. I was sadder at each one.
“Come,” I said to the girl. “You can stay with me. I’ll help you find your mom.”
The girl hesitated.
A man emerged from the house across the street, a wide-brimmed hat on his head. He was heading to the neighborhood garden we made in the park on the corner. We tended it when we could. We shared what we grew. It was going to take a little while to get life back up and running again and until then, we remained a we. I did not know what would happen after. If, after, we became just me, and I would be alone again.
For now, I took the girl’s hand and led her to my house. I shared what I had, my mother’s voice ringing, always, in my head. I listened to her recordings again and waited until she fell asleep to weep and weep and, eventually, sleep.
I did not recognize her. Her long and braided hair. Her dark and wide eyes. Her gapped front teeth. I didn’t know how to find her mother or if her mother was even alive. The virus showed very few warning signs except for an intense thirst.
The girl didn’t say a word all night. Not the next day either.
I called Meena from the landline in my home to ask her for advice. She told me that, if I could not care for the girl, she would. That she’d spread the word about the little girl who had wandered here. But that was all we could do.
I asked the man across the street what he thought I should do, too. His name was Owen. He had little shriveled carrots and green beans in his basket. He had no answers, but he was kind. That was a good combination. Not the best, but not a loss either. He held out his basket. I took a handful for the girl’s dinner. I thanked him by kissing his cheek and he blushed.
I walked the street that afternoon with the little girl. She finally told me her name was Chloe. She didn’t know how long it had been since she saw her mom. She did not recognize any of the houses here. It was hard.
Before we knew that these things looked like water, there was panic. People were dropping dead. Cars crashed through living rooms and were left there. People came to find food and smashed a window to get it. Not out of malice but necessity. A desperation like that could be forgiven, I thought.
We settled into a routine, me and the girl. We spent a lot of our days walking. At night, I posted on sites made for people missing people. But there were so many. It was so easy to get lost when everyone was lost.
A few weeks after Chloe came to me, we stumbled upon a woman with a group of children trailing her.
I could tell they had been walking for a long while.
I could tell two of the boys with her were twins.
I could tell they were tired.
A young boy clung to the woman’s neck. A teenager trailed the group of them, hands in his pockets and mouth pressed tight.
I nodded at them, and she me as was the custom now. If she needed help, she would ask, as was the custom now. She did not, though I thought I saw her wanting to. She was weary, wary, worried. I understood, though I didn’t understand it all.
Meena had not met them yet when I called, but she was going to try to find them.
It was hours later, and Chloe and I were sitting down to dinner when there was a knock at my front door. That was a foreign sound. No one came around much anymore. There weren’t many people to come around, in the after.
I opened the door to find the woman I had seen that afternoon standing on my doorstep. Her children were at her back, the young one snoring in the teenager’s arms, his mouth open, his breath soft.
“I was told you’re a realtor?” the woman asked. She was no older than thirty, though her shoulders sagged like she had been here hundreds of years and had held such a weight all that time. She was bracing for rejection, I thought, at hardness in her eyes, the pause after her sentence. She knew I was a stranger, knew what a stranger could mean, and she was here anyway. She was brave and scared simultaneously and she was beautiful for that.
“I was,” I said. “Before.”
“We need somewhere to stay,” she said. “I was in an apartment, but…”
She gestured to the children. Not hers, then. Ones she picked up on her journey as I had Chloe. I nodded because that was what you did when someone opened their mouth to ask for help. You did what you could. You did not say no. We were a we, still. “Come in,” I said, despite our limited space.
The woman left the children to sleep in the only bed in the house and followed me into the kitchen. I poured us each glasses of water. It was all I had to give.
“I’m Ollie,” she said.
“Thank you,” she said. “It would have been easier to say no.”
“It would have been.” I nodded and looked toward my bedroom where the both of us could see Chloe crawling into bed to sleep beside the youngest one that came with Ollie. I understood, I meant to say, but didn’t. She knew I understood. She was grateful, even so.
“I haven’t been a realtor for a long while,” I told her.
“That’s okay,” she said. “We don’t need much.”
Across the table, she grabbed my hand. She only got more beautiful and more kind. A good combination. One that I had hoped would survive but wasn’t sure would. I was relieved to see it. A breath let out.
In the morning, I learned the twins’ names were Tyler and Trevor. That they hold hands in their sleep. That they saw their parents die and buried them, shallowly, in their backyard.
I learned the littlest one went by J.T. That Ollie didn’t know his real name. That he liked the taste of bananas. That he hadn’t touched the floor since Ollie found him and found him weeping. That he cried the second he was put down and so he never was put down.
I learned the teenager hadn’t said a word since Ollie met him. She’d been calling him Q for quiet and he didn’t seem to mind. He wore a watch that ticked loudly from his wrist, so loudly it must have been broken. To fill the silence that he left when his voice ran away. Ran from the destruction without him.
We made the best of my little house, Ollie cramming into my bed with Chloe and J.T. and the others in the living room. Q slept on the floor, body pressed against the door. Care or caution, I could not say.
I was hopeful at his soft shoulders.
I was hopeful at how often he carried J.T. in his arms.
I was hopeful my hope was not for nothing.
Chloe asked Ollie to record her voice and Ollie agreed, eyeing me as she did. I shook my head. No luck and no sign luck was coming. We had used it up surviving. In the absence of luck, there was still kindness. There was no limit to that.
I didn’t know how to start finding a house for them, so I just started. Going up and down the streets Chloe and I had been walking before, but with new eyes.
Eyes for space and bedrooms.
Eyes for air and a backyard.
Eyes for something kind.
It took a while to find something suitable. I wandered through houses and none ever felt quite right. Too small or too cramped or too destroyed.
Honey vetoed a few, too. I scratched behind her ears to thank her for looking out for our friends.
I didn’t know if the kids would stay with Ollie or if their families would be found. But I knew they’d be with her for some time. I knew that the same way I knew Chloe was with me and would be for the future I dared to think of. Hindsight was dangerous, but so was looking too far forward. The present was what mattered. Planting, just planting, seeds.
Ollie and I sat at the kitchen table more and more. She grabbed my hand as we walked the streets, sometimes. My chest tightened when I looked at her. I had been wrong before. She could get more beautiful, and she did each day. I didn’t have the words to tell her. I only had words of survival, now. I hoped the rest would return, in time. I hoped she’d be with me long enough to tell them to her.
Spring was nearing, now. Summer would come after. Would the virus return or just the heat? I couldn’t say. No one could. But the flowers began to bloom and I traveled farther when it was not so cold. Farther and farther, neighborhoods and neighborhoods and then, finally, I found a place.
From the outside, it looked as if it existed in the before. That it had not been touched, that summer. The paint was white and gleaming. The picket fence was still standing. In the back, someone had crashed a bus through the wall of the guest room, but that could be used as an advantage I thought.
I cleaned the house top to bottom. I got rid of the glass table with sharp edges, the splintering wood of the banister. I found softer things, rounded edges, taken from other houses.
I gutted the bus and put beds into it where the benches used to be. I hung up curtains around each one. Ransacked other empty houses for bedding and furniture. It hadn’t been lived in in years, it seemed.
I had Honey scour the place twice. Seeming to know what it was for, she took her time, sniffing inch by inch. Both times, she looked at me and blinked before flopping down in the sunbeams streaming through the window. It was okay. It was safe.
She had grown close to Q. I found them asleep together more often than she slept with me now. His leaving would sadden her, but I could not stomach letting her go, now that I had grown used to her being around.
At the beginning of summer, it was ready. I told Ollie nothing except to help me get everyone ready and to take all of their things with them. It was a warm day, the day we walked two miles, the twins grumbling the whole way.
J.T. asked to be put down and walked beside me, holding my hand. He reached up and grabbed Ollie’s hand too, the three of us linked. Then Trevor and Tyler were at my other side, all of us linking fingers. Q, too, took Ollie’s other hand. We were still a we, even after all the passing days. But this was the end of that.
As we walked, Chloe began to cry. She tried to hide it, but she could not. She loved this ragtag group as I did. We were sad to leave them because we did not know what could happen while we were not looking.
I was scared, but not of destruction. I was scared of losing these hands. Of a shut door and me on the other side. It made me want to stop walking. But I had to press on as I always had.
Without saying anything, I stopped in front of their new home and looked up at it. At the grass growing in the front yard, tall and unruly. The sunflowers I had planted weeks ago, now blooming in a line along the front porch. A wind chime hung from the awning and it sang as I led the way inside.
I held the door open and watched as they explored. The house wasn’t large, but it had two bathrooms and a spare room upstairs I had filled with toys and couches and board games I found in my wanderings. I watched for the moment they saw the school bus turned bedroom. Their bedding in each of their favorite colors, curtains for them to hide behind. Not as good as separate bedrooms but better than no space at all.
This was not a world for perfection.
This was a world for good enough.
“One for when Chloe comes to visit, too,” I said, pointing to the last one in her favorite shade of gray. She clapped, delighted, and dove onto it. The children chattered, going from bed to bed. Trevor and Tyler began pushing their beds together. The others followed suit.
“Sorry,” Ollie said.
“Don’t be,” I said, grinning. I should have thought of that. “It is their bedroom, now.”
The backyard, really, was what made me choose this place, before. The swing set, a playhouse hand-built and inviting at the back of the yard. Grass that stretched on and slanted, slightly, so water would not pool, not even when it rained.
“This could be beautiful,” Ollie said, looking in the kitchen at the pantry I filled the best I could, at the pots and pans Meena helped me gather. In the master bedroom, I put Ollie’s favorite comforter from my house. The one she walked around with draped over her shoulders all winter. When she saw it, she frowned. Opened her mouth to say something, but Q came into the doorway before she could.
“Everything okay?” Ollie asked.
“Feels like a home, right?” she said.
“A hope,” Q said, the first time he had spoken in a year.
Ollie had tears in her eyes as she pulled him into a hug. “A hope,” she agreed.
It was time for me to leave, then. I turned on my heel to retreat. Q watched me back out of the room, tilting his head. I held my finger to my lips. I learned to leave quietly long ago. I learned not to love so hard.
“Wait,” Ollie said, turning. “Where are you going?”
“Back,” I said, gesturing. “My job here is done.”
Ollie followed me onto the porch and shut the front door behind her. She put her hands on her hips. She stared. “You’re right,” she said.
Despite how I tried not to hope, it hurt to hear her say it out loud. Before, it could be ignored. Now, it could not be.
“About how this place could be beautiful,” Ollie continued “But it is missing something.”
“What?” I asked.
“You,” she said.
She took my hand and led me inside, Honey at my heels. She shut our front door behind her. We were a we and our house was ours and she was more beautiful every day.
J.T. began to navigate further and further from us. Q talked more, though not much. Tyler and Trevor still held hands in their sleep. Chloe carried her tape recorder in her pocket, but one with only our voices. The voices of our family. The voices of our love.
Then, one day not long after, there was another knock at the door. There was another family that needed another house. I stepped aside and let them in. I smiled.There were eraser shavings even as the world began to end. Teenagers bent, heads together, over their math homework as the lights went out. The gas station attendant dreamed, even, of selling candy bars. Stood behind the counter after the gas ran out. Phone lines must be repaired. Potholes were annoying, even to those who were running. The poets did as poets do and wrote about the summer the end arrived and the winter when the world started again. It wasn’t until spring that I began to hope again. To do as I had always done and imagine what a house could be, what it meant, and how all it ever was, was hope.
Addison Rizer is an administrator in Arizona with a B.A. in English from Arizona State University. She has had pieces published in Little Somethings Press, Hashtag Queer Vol. 3, Canyon Voices, Libraerie Magazine, Anatolios Magazine, Strange Creatures, and Kingdoms in the Wild. She loves writing, reading, and movies critics hate. Find her on her website.