(Chapter 8)

The room full warm, even after sundown and into the evening’s dark, immeasurable moments. Tics of rain rang through the windows overhead, echoed off concrete walls. The forebears of winter hungry for the dry inside.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, thought slow-churned Sam, who had no setting but buoyance. Who, despite hard-won agnosticism, still sometimes sought solace in the mantras of long-dead saints–comforts once recited by his mother in moments young Sam otherwise would not have known were worrisome. Would worry anyway.

Sam sat still propped upright, still wide awake, dull throb across his brow and clean into his left ear, but otherwise restored. Unruffled, anyway, by yet another flash-flood of emotion. Since early in his childhood Sam’s parents had shared fretful glance when various mild surprises–unanticipated guests, misplaced bed linens, a letter from Santa Claus–were met by their only son with confused weeping.

To everyone’s relief, their boy found ways to eke out composure in adulthood. But outbreak and exodus, camp and Pint, stress and promise had all made for unsurprising dam-breaks. Sam still knew to go limp in the currents, swim in the calm.

Now lax and dry-eyed, backed against cool concrete wall, he simmered in the stillness, the last intoxicating aftereffects of adrenaline. Pint, finally restful, latched side-saddle to his torso, brow buried in his sternum and near full weight against him. The heft and heat of her a comfort, honestly, for despite all her fierce efforts, he’d started to fear she’d gone hollow.

Herself asleep, but twitched and fidgeted under his arms; her hands behind his either hip, tugged at his belt loops in nightmare.

Sam sighed, considered their options as his fingers sorted her hair. And all manner of things shall be well.

Voice from dim nothingness dead ahead: “If you’d like a bit by the fire…”

Sam started (though Pint’s head stayed heavy on him, unmoved). The girl from the far corner had come backlit through shadows, voice closer than expected, her shape indistinguishable from other strange shadows and silhouettes.

“Papa’s to sleep,” she said. “But he said you might sit. By the far side, anyway. I asked him. I’m not tired.”

Sam, bottom numb on hard floor and half-blanketed under full-blown person, nodded, “Sure.” Her voice had wafted to him warm and mineral, made his own words sounded a thin drizzle. “Thanks,” he added. Sensed the girl still standing there.

“He meant…” The girl uncertain of her own authority. “She can’t come. Just you.”

Tiny suck of heartbreak, but Sam had guessed it, anyway. “No, yeah, sure enough.”

He extricated himself, awkward. Made a pillow of canvas coat best he could–delicate shift and pull and shape to help Pint’s head upon it. Eyes closed, he knelt and whispered to her, lips grazing her ear. Quiet reassurances.

Then he slid away, shuffled shoeless toward the light.

***

The far-side family’s fire pit itself a fascinating round of rough stone and salvaged pieces of whatnot: sod-stuffed tins and piecemeal concrete set in new Celtic circle. All aglow and smoldered muddy, metallic odor. The smell caught Sam mid-tongue; he swallowed to be rid of it.

Illuminated behind the fire, the girl collapsed in lanky heap, all teenage limbs and lounged. Sam sat opposite, folded legs, warmed  in thin shirtsleeves until the heat reached his gash and stung. He could see the girl only in flashes through the flames: dark hair close shorn, full cheeks and rounded features that morphed between child and adult, depending on the changing shadow.

“Marie.” Her greeting.

“Sam.” He waved, then thought it silly.

Sam waited for further words, but the girl said nothing else. Her eyes unflinching on the fire, as though the licked flames sat fixed before her.

After a time contemplating the same-old burning tinder, her hand rose, heeled away an itchy eyebrow. Sam spotted a colossal wristwatch that slipped heavy down to her elbow, metal band and massive face dwarfing her teenage frame.

Couldn’t help but hope. “That’s quite a piece,” he ventured. To no immediate avail. “It, uh, keeps the date, too?”

She extended arm so the thing slid back down to her wrist, regarded it without much interest. “Ten-oh-two,” she said. “Wed., Nineteen.”

Giddy Sam, now he’d got it. Tuesday, August 27 last he knew for sure, and began ticking away on his fingers the days and dates and ways they might align, until Marie added, “‘Course it hasn’t worked in ages.”

Sam froze, ring finger tipped to thumb.

“Ticker’s stuck. See?” She aimed the face at him. Unmoved.

Sam, crestfallen in half-maths, rolled eyes to the heavens and then fell chin-to-chest. Mired in still-bewildered calendar.

But Marie, ice broken, wanted a splash about. Looked over Sam’s shoulder, frigid waters be damned. “She’s sick then?”

“No no, no. No, no no no.” Sam cast for nearest humor, deflection. “She always talks like that. Chronic American.”

“Yeah? Sure.” The child unconvinced, unamused. “How did you come to here then?”

Pondering his earliest days of outbreak, Sam could think of no good story but every other coward’s boiled-frog account of the growing pestilence: watched news accounts until panic peaked; listened to neighbors until they disappeared and food and water followed; wandered on and off and lost. And lost things and those and all of them in the process.

“Sorry.” Sam loathe to summon any of it. “‘Bout the same as you, I’m sure.”

“Bet not,” Marie challenged.

He scrambled for amusing fodder, something fun to change the subject. A story. Kids like animals, right? he thought. The birds, perhaps?

Early in exodus, Sam knew, the eyes of many panicked morons had turned skyward–followed quickly by their fears, then ire, then firepower. Blamed contagion on ubiquitous beating wings, massacred any and all flying things. As he’d walked alone away from populous, encountering too many a proactive trigger-wielder, feathers fell around him like cherry blossoms. Cascaded. And thus had birdsong stopped. And still the sickness spread, even as every songbird and pheasant and pigeon by hysteria slain. 

My, but hadn’t those idiots been effective. And for naught. And fouled future foodstuffs–and many a firearm–in the process. 

Or fowled, thought Sam, caught in drifting thought. Marie still stared, expectant, itching for a tale. No, maybe not that one. He swallowed another metallic mouthful of saliva.

Marie started in on a different story.

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(Chapter 7)

“Jesus. This was it.”

All she’d said when the pair, an hour past exhausted, had trekked themselves out of cumbersome underbrush toward an odd concrete outcropping, tangle of collapsed metal fencing and industrial detritus fronting a lone, low-slung building, high-up windows and metal doors. A cave of a kind they oft eschewed: Quiet, solid structures earned the fiercest occupants.

But nothing to be done about it, sickness in however many numbers still crept hungry behind them. Through rough forest, the horde had lurked invisible but noticeable enough, shuffling and snaps pursuing the living pair through the brush. And now that Sam and Pint emerged from precious wilderness, the rambling awful could be seen again behind them, scuffing awkward  in pursuit across the lot. Sam caught scent of decay whenever the wind shifted, led Pint around the building’s nearest corner to an inornate entryway.

No choice but, the solitary door was at last a welcome thing. Sam tested handle, and the hinge swung outward, free. He stuck his head from bright sunlight into blindness. That first sniff in months of truly trapped air sparked primitive hippocampus, transported him for a single second, all senses and decades back, to a neighbor friend’s garage circa 9 years old, promised a secret stash of dirty magazines.

Second breath sent him quick back to now: smoke. Smoke meant survivors.

No choice but, he forded threshold, and in that instant thunder howled into his left ear and full through his skull, a blinding flash that dismantled gravity. Second impact on his right side like he’d stumbled hard into the wall, couldn’t pull himself from it again. Worst of all, adrenaline surged chest-to-fingertips in chemical panic, his body desperate to figure out what the hell, while mind drifted idly through blurry disorient.

Prone, Sam could hear nothing but the slow crescendo of a high-pitched hum, siren song that too soon morphed into angry voices.

He at last recognized the ground hard against him, right cheek on cold concrete, winked hot liquid in his left eye. Barks and shouts in the air like words, but no discernible shape to them. Could see only the boot heel that shuffled backward toward his nose. Finally found Pint’s voice, urgent: “Hey! Hey! Fuck off!” The scuffle overhead.

What Sam couldn’t see, what Pint faced: The man inside who’d swung first, now with shovel re-cocked high over his shoulder, though he flinched confused retreat when the sick thing before him flexed, spoke. The man shouted in un-English accent, “Out! Out! Go! Go!” Spat other things, unintelligible.

“Fuck off! Jesus!” Pint, wide, wild gestures, standing ferocious over Sam, who from the floor wished to unstick his cobwebs and locate better diplomacy, but his verbal intervention dribbled out in wordless groan. Would’ve rolled eyes at his own impotence, except for the sensation of shards in his skull.

Then, from the open doorway behind them, shrill adolescence: “Papa?” A girl aghast, arms cradled sticks, debris. The child stood in doorway silhouette, back to sunlight, startled by the bloody scene before her. Pint shifted feet again, trying to square toward both man and girl and still stand over Sam. Each person hinged on threat from all directions.

Frozen moments with no apparent solution. Then Pint spotted behind the girl the crooked movement of corked figures, arms outstretched in front of dead decaying faces–the sick caught up, reaching for food.

Pint lurched at the girl–a single, achy, aggressive motion, surefooted enough but joints unbalanced–snagged the child (despite her backward instinct), and, fistful of fabric, yanked her in and past as Pint’s other hand found the door and pulled it shut. Braced with feet planted, Pint looked about in a panic for some way to secure it.

The man came at her fast with the shovel. Pint flinched floorward–“Jesus!”–ducked him and scrambled back toward Sam as Shovel Man slipped the tool through the door handle, braced it fast with the wall.

He scowled back at the two of them, a heap on his floor. Huffed unhappy predicament.

“No worries, no worries, mate.” Sam, garbled but finding his voice, bloody-cheeked and miserable. Managed propped elbows under crumpled torso. And better feat, had snagged and horsecollared Pint, still inflamed, who wanted up for continued confrontation. Sam tried to transfer a silent thought to her: Not. Helpful.

“No particulars, just cornered for a sec,” Sam said. “Port in a storm, yeah?”

Shovel Man unarmed, unreadable.

“Promise we’re good, right? Look.” Sam, nothing to offer, but saw the man’s unease at Pint’s grey look, confusion at her consciousness. Made special point to pull her close, show of unaffectedness, affection. Herself burning up at the aggressor. Sam closed his eyes and buried his forehead in the crook of her collarbone, his blood on her skin, breathed in the neck of her shirt. The things that sustained him.

Looked up to the man: Sanctuary?

A horrid moment wherein Sam well believed he was about to get kicked square in the chin. But Shovel Man resigned,  gathered the girl—perplexed, obedient—backing toward the room’s opposite corner. Shovel Man pointed at the wall closest to his rickety-fasted entrance, snapped, “Stay.”

A command, of course; not a welcome.

***

An hour or so of settling nerves. Sam slack in injury, propped back to the wall, one leg outstretched and the other knee cocked high, palmed a rag to his bloody brow with still-jittery arm. Half-smiled at her: Aren’t I a wreck?

Pint refused for a bit to be charmed. Pinned-in first-time since a long stretch, her mind more tuned to open wanderings. Nervous now indoors, how much she’d grown care for stable trees and easy exits. Kept checking surroundings, the barren space likely abandoned since long before apocalypse: high-walled, with a line of windows just a few feet from the ceiling; shards and paint flakes, a couple columns and discarded dividers, but scant else in the lone room save for the heaps of improvised living space in the far corner. Twenty meters of concrete floor from the new pair to the incumbent family: Shovel Man and the girl, plus a third pile of dark and textile, kept mostly still but clear enough another man’s voice. Hushed conversation in unknown tongue sometimes carried across the floorspace by blue dust and old air.

The far three overhung by a curve of HVAC piping and whatever-else hood and sheet metal the family had found, used to fashion a sort of furnace that steered smoke up and out a high window, enough so that cooking and heating didn’t asphyxiate. They’d made fire indoors, clever bastards.

The shovel-latched door rattled every so often, but held, mostly fell silent as yellow daylight turned to pink. Still, the lingering sick tended to do just that: stand, mired by inertia, for days, even, if nothing came round to draw them along or finish them off.

Inside, even stillness still smelled of the horde, glowed in the sunset.

Finally, in the dusk-orange space, Pint stifled pride toward charity (but not bothering with polite preamble, either), walked stiff toward the room’s center. Garnered an alert, “No. Stay,” from Shovel Man. Her impatient response, palms upturned, “Water?” As though she’d expected at least that much of her hosts. Shovel Man hesitated in a frown before turning his back in hidden preparation. Turned again and slid an open, unrinsed tuna tin along the floor, half the semi-clear liquid sloshing en route.

She stepped slowly to the remnants, thought better of sarcasm, offered honest thanks for the can. Swallowed some and took the rest to Sam, who drank a full rotten, fishy sip, winced. Pain? Or flavor? wondered Pint.

She set about to his face. First, lifted at his achilles to stretch out the leg, and then sat straddled atop his knees. Tender tug at his wrist relinquished makeshift bandage to reveal the gash, meat and blood, torn from outermost eyebrow through hairline. She whispered, “Christ.”

“Bad?” Sam, head tilted forward for her examination, meditated on the shape of her esophagus–how it affirmed her face and formed her voice, now nearly percussive but still sung through with her own melody. Still alive, he thought. Still very much alive.

She dabbed the last water from the tin and wiped at bloody remnants in his hair. Spat into the rag next, worked at dried red in his beard and along his cheek. His smile stayed put, “Aren’t you maternal.”

Her head tipped back in a quick moment, bark of a laugh and bright grin, before eyes refocused on the work, still smiling. “Lord, but if I’m someone’s mother, we’re both in trouble.” She pinched thin skin together in vague hope that torn edges might simply choose re-adhesion. He winced again, sucked through teeth, smiled grit and watered eyes.

Pint sat back, exhaled resignation. “I guess that’s about it.” Thought better of mentioning stitches, ice—ridiculous as television, microwave. “Prolly best no bandage for a little bit. Maybe it’d be good, not sealing it all in to fester?” Her guessed-at medicine.

Sam dreamt of handsome scar, pondered the new, foreign reflection when next he might have chance to see his own face. Touched his chin and discovered more beard than ever he remembered having.

Pint, still astraddle, breathed a moment, chin downward, then looked up to find his eyes. Her irises pierced hazel, even as the rest of her was losing focus. “What I said when we got here. I wasn’t mistaken.”

“Hmm?” Sam puzzled brow, then flinched at his forehead shifting skin.

“This was the place. This was it. They got me here—outside, there, anyway. Where I got it.” Accelerating evasion all over again, relived those moments of the dead-run home. So close. “It was here.”

“Was it? You mean…?”

“I know the way back. From here. These days, the two of us—as much as I can do now, us together—four hours, max. Four hours back.” Not sure what she even wanted, the thoughts sprinting out without pre-approval. “I could get us back to camp.”

Sam torn—incredulous, tempted. “God.” Thought again on it. “Are you suicidal?”

“Not yet?” Meant it as a joke. “Sorry. I don’t know. You think maybe they’d reconsider? Considered us goners then, and here we are. Not that I care to be a medical miracle, not in their eyes, anyways. But maybe they’ve figured something out?” Convincing herself. “Sure they’d wanna know how we’re both still up and about?”

“Or sure they’d shoot first. Pesky come-backers, us. Make certain they’d do the trick right the second time.” Sam sighed heavy. “God, Pi.”

“Or just walk away? I don’t think I can do it. Bad enough not knowing. But knowing and walking the other way? I don’t think I can.”

Sam, swayed by her hope, saw it terrifying, too. His talents in delaying decisions. “Can’t get going for a bit now, anyway. Good place here, seems like. For a bit. Few hours at least. For the night. As long as they’ll have us. We’ll figure something out.” Smiled crooked with right cheek, left side tender.

She resigned to smolder, but moved to embrace him, anyways.

Sam leaned forward for comfort, reassurance. Closed his eyes and tasted a simple kiss salted by their shared recent rotten waters.

Pint tasted nothing, but tried. Long night’s dew saught damp dawn warmth.

Sam aching-exhausted, slunk downward, craved to disappear into the cavelike space within her torso. He burrowed despite injury, sought a darkness safe and warm and quiet, his head encased by breasts, bone, elbows, biceps.

Pint content to be a comfort. But soon felt hot tears through the front of her shirt, and Sam winced to explain. “Shit. Sorry. Stress.” Cracked voice hummed into her stomach. “Or, I dunno. Relief?”

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(Chapter 6)

Lost, but deliberate march forward all the same, through parkland and fallow paddock and not much else, untended brown and green spaces sliced awry by toppled fences, sometime road or path or railway, steel and asphalt that tended to stretch not quite the direction they felt drawn. The pair trod mostly copse to coppice, guided by trees.

“This is all a bit familiar, isn’t it?” Sam, aiming for levity, remembering long walks away from sick cities toward nothing in particular. Thought, What a year it’s been for aimless shuffling. And indeed wondered to where they hoped to travel, current meadows starved for food and towns rich with sick, or savage, or both.

Despite hunger, sour taste of exile dampened want for further company. And Pint did not look well, besides.

Conversation between them like the creeks and pits and puddles they drank from—sometimes slipped fast over smooth stones; sometimes plumbed fantastic depths, seeming moved only by the wind itself. Spoke of old memories most of all, stories that built the solid stanchions and rickety scaffolding of temperament.

“I failed a test once. Fourth grade. Word problems—math stuff.” Pint’s waters sprung forth unexpected, bright geysers from burning depths. “’Only F in the whole class!’ They wrote that on it. Exclamation point and everything. What that woman must’ve been thinking, like she needed to shame a neurotic nine-year-old.”

“Your parents were upset?”

“Woulda been. I chucked it in the trash and hoped for the best. Guess they never knew.”

Sam understood it a story of things lost, had felt it, too–anchored guilt from confessions never made. Knew well enough he’d wasted anguish on more than one bad mark in his life. A different breed of anguish, now extinct.

He let it settle before setting subtle rudder to a happier current. “I always did pretty well with numbers, actually. Had a maths teacher tell me I had an ‘affinity.’ ‘Course I didn’t know what the word meant, so there you have it.”

Pint lightened, let herself be steered. “I’m just saying, if our survival boils down to arithmetic, it’s on you.”

In between intermittent conversation, long stretches of shared silence warm and dry in a way that sunshine begets fields of nourishment. Always faith in finding drink anew.

Reintroduction to the feral world ensorcelled camp-minded Sam, needle sudden-slipped from the groove of  human harmony. Consumed by how quickly time had worn and worried manmade objects when man himself wasn’t watching. Stopped for long moments to gawk at overgrowth and felled, faded signage: sun-turned plastic neutral color, metal placards genuflected head-to-ground in yoga pose, as though to salute an absent deity. The sort of day-to-day decay that Pint had known and rarely noticed during trips out, when her sole purpose had been to find the few unbroken things.

Sam wondered aloud about the trains, knelt along sleepers and pressed his ear to sun-warmed rails, eyes closed, instinct still to search unseen distance through sound instead.

Pint studied him in those solitary moments, solace in his fascination. But thought, too, of those dark nights these past few days blessedly together, when she awoke to find him in similar pose, ear to her chest, momentary stricken expression falling from the creases near his eyes. Sam caught confirming her heartbeat.

***

Their route angled lengthwise in woods teased through with meandering concrete walkways, fickle paths they didn’t care to join.

The pair came early one afternoon upon an odd metal contraption, still and solitary under a sprawling stand of loosely staggered ash and pine.

Sam, eyesight intact, saw it first but registered no interest, knowing the unweathered thing’s purpose. Scanned clean over it and past.

It was Pint this time who slowed to puzzle at it, the pipe-ish sort of stainless-steel, abstract scarecrow, stuck solid in the ground and as tall as she was. Almost menacing, though she moved close to see it: ridiculous multi-armed skeleton fixed dumb amid living trunks.

Sam realized what was happening—her utter confusion—and flashed expectant grin.

Not that Pint felt like performing. But still, duly baffled, paced a full circle in examination. Then, knowing well the game if not the thing itself, picked the most vivid phrase that came to mind.

“Chain-pronged octopod besieging wire bassinet?”

Tickled Sam to a snort.

Which made her smile, too. Kept at him. “Seriously, though, do you even know? Some damn unassuming English monument to basic machinery? Metal spaghetti crucifix? Headstone for a fallen bicycle?” Almost laughed herself, to see him losing it. Finally something fun.

“Now I don’t even want to tell you.” He knuckled away a happy tear, melodic exhalation. “Disc-golf basket. You know, the targets? What you aim for.” Searched leaves, found foot-long piece of branch and slung it side-armed, by way of explanation. The wood spun flat, jangled chains and fell into the cradle. “See? Hole in one.”

Disc-golf? Jesus.” Pint gave the thing—and then Sam himself—a side-eye of good-natured disapproval. “You dork.”

***

Subsisting on found foodstuffs, a lone corpse easily the saddest source of snacks thus far. Sam muttered, “Delightful,” in his approach, wishing but for hunger that he’d never spotted the boy—12 at most, leg hung at awkward angle, superhero shoe snagged on barbed wire. Recent dead enough—mere days exposed, maybe still upright when the two of them had awoken disenfranchised. The body distended and oozed, but Sam disheartened most of all to realize that he saw this dead child as little more than another untended riddle: all alone and yet uneaten, after having succumbed to a community disease. Who’d been minding him? Where were the others? Overseers walked off, or shuffled, one.

Sam snatched the unopened pouch of crisps and didn’t look back. The new value in sacred calorie.

Pint, the former gatherer, now a hundred steps away, unable to look at the thing. In case she saw herself in it.

But her grey status had rosied somewhat in its unchangedness, the sickness these few days showed stagnant in her, chronic. Sam, who’d been braced to drown in her last moments, couldn’t guess at why it stalled, thriving as it had for so many months in other bodies, which had given way so quickly. Unnatural, in his mind, for a flourishing vicious thing to have next evolved into inefficacy of its own accord.

Perhaps camp inquest had nicked some half-cure among stabs in the dark—“Awful needles,” she’d told him, showing tracked scars. “And cruel gauge, to boot.”—what that burgeoning tier of human authority had done to learn what they could before giving up and getting rid.

Or perhaps the disease only worked slower in her, had taken two weeks to show itself in the first place.

Or maybe the insidious wicked thing sat seething silent, submerged well below symptoms, stockpiling sickness for the moment it might shingle forth, Pint the staging area for her own apocalypse.

Stasis, thought Sam. Hoped it meant mercy.

***

A particularly cold night stung mutual to mind the need for improving prospects, Pint awoken predawn by Sam’s steady shiver: “Dude. Christ.” Irked by his discomfort rather than her own, that they had yet to figure a final point.

“Sorry, sorry.” Groggy Sam, raised his head to look about, nothing but cold limbs and false visions mired in darkness. “You’re alright?”

“Yeah, sure. But Jesus. ” Pint’s ire, too, at her inability to warm him.

Could think of nothing more to say because no better option appeared but seek out safe shelter and steady food and hope for the best in the meantime. Sat for a bit facing each other, legs outstretched and intercrossed, trying to discern daylight. Pint fidgeted, eager to get going as shapes began to form in the fog. Finally disencumbered herself, pointed effort to stand: “Might as well.”

Before setting off, Sam made a single, careful mark on a paper scrap, counting the mornings—now four—since the start of this current odyssey. Had thought to simply assign a Sunday and go on with the week from there, but it felt wrong, to be in charge of such things. The name of each day to him an absolute truth, a fact he longed to rediscover.

By sunrise, this prolonged safety had become its own burden. It seemed untenable.

Indeed, after just a few miles forward, trance-like, the pair pushed too confident through thick brush, looking sudden upon a herd of staggering sick, a hundred yards down to a marsh, but close enough to be unsettling: rent limbs and gore, slough and stumble.

Sam surprised himself to feel sudden rush, swelled brass toward the throngs, longed to flaunt his presumed immunity. Strode forward as though a child toward grounded seagulls–forgetting for a moment that contraction was nothing compared to consumption. Pint set him straight. “Sam!” Startled him to a stop. “They still want to eat you.”

Lanky awkward scrambled backwards, “Oh shit fair enough.” But the hungry had heard, turned, knew. Shifted as a group toward the two of them, collective lurch, a broken ravenous flock.

“Oh, Sam,” whispered Pint. “I wish you hadn’t done that.”

Quick as that, the pair were prey again and on the go. And Sam’s nimbleness diluted between the two of them, for Pint had no pace to her. At a partnered hobble, safe distance from the sick maintainable for a short time, but their destination unknown in a dance that insisted on an endpoint.

The last week’s loss again stung fresh to Sam’s mind: What they wouldn’t have given for the safety of mass numbers and relatively sick-proof barrier, a place and a people to run to and hide with, behind. Sam pictured the beautiful boredom of their former community, memories to keep his legs churning. Told them to her, encouragement in broken breath: fire, companions, laughter, food.

Though they’d no way to find it and wouldn’t be welcome if they did, prayed for camp. As it had been. Knew not what it had become.

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(Chapter 5)

Sideways. Bicep under skull, and Sam almost cried to savor full lungs, cool air flavored by beech, dirt and alder. Brilliant smell. Beautiful. Baffling. Where was he now? Managed half-smile, neglected muscles: needed to stop waking up like this. Global disaster wreaks havoc on continuity of consciousness.

Had a sense of the sky’s morning slant (8:30, 9-ish?), but struck him that it was dead quiet, overwhelming vacancy after the heavy breath and hard stomps of camp. No birds, even. Just blue beyond poplar yellowing. That’s a treat, he thought. Autumn in the leaves. Something his mother would have said.

Lurched up on propped elbow, lumpy earth. But loathe to crane his neck; checked extremities with one hand, collar down to wrist, chest, belt, hips. Cold, but clothed, canvas jacket, shirt, trousers. His own, even? Fit, but loose. Reached toward hindquarters and pulled from back pocket a stack of scribbled notes in his own hand, hoped-for stuff and QSL; felt boyhood pen knife in his coat. The things he liked to keep on him, still there. Compassion indeed.

Urgency to eat something triggered instant recoil: How hungry? And for whom?

But no, no discernible change in appetite. (Except new terror of roasted fowl.) Sam, parched, thought first of an orange. Could’ve torn teeth right through astringent peel, sweet-tart burst of juice to tongue, sharp scent in his nose.

Climbed to his knees and sat back atop bootheels, rubbed face and considered circumstance: There in the wilds, Sam himself—lank and stubble, black hair in his eyes, the only man-made thing among the trees. Alone, but not for the first time since the dissolution of infrastructure. But now sick? Though he felt no fever and nothing else awful, as yet, again. Energized enough to sit upright, relief in the chill. Had the illness burrowed somewhere deep in his marrow? Or passed through and out unencumbered?

Holy shit, thought Sam, They’ve gone and dropped me inexplicable in God-Knows-Where. 

On top of it, realized he might never again taste a real orange.

Up creaky on one knee, then two feet. Hand-scrubbed face, then started to turn a surveying 360, but stopped short when he saw her.

Pint stood, sort of, staring, crooked bend at hips as if in half-bow, one forearm over abdomen and the other planted against a tree. “You’ve got a stick in your hair.” Her voice transformed, low rattle. Pallid. But smirked. “Sleep good?”

His churned thoughts, sickness and affection, inseparable in her molecules. Sam reached up without thinking to remove the twig, held onto it in gripped fist and moved forward to her, more gravity than purpose. Hugged impact.

Her ear to his sternum, gateway to his muffled inner workings; his elbows around her skull protective, enveloped her head and everything in it. Sam, chin in her hair, closed eyes, exhaled every conscious thought and longed to keep his mind from interfering. She wafted hospital.

Counted down a few heartbeats, and Sam managed in a whisper to translate them for her: “I’m glad you’re here.”

***

Wordless, and with no merit in standing still, they agreed on westward.

Boots ankle-deep through ungathered leaves, trod the morning together across their own waning shadows in vague hope to put distance between themselves and recent horrors. Certainly before putting voice to them.

But no map for it.

Slow progress. Pint summoned all strength just to walk—stiff torso forced upright—and even more not to show the effort. The effect some wholly new gait, each pair of steps resonated from head to toe with staccato spots and languid ones. Sam stifled one instinct with another, forewent physical support in favor of bolstered emotions. Pretended not to notice. But still, he worried.

And, somewhere unacknowledged, also seethed.

At a dribble of a semi-clear stream, where they’d drunk full on water they could only assume would kill them slower than thirst—giardia be damned—they quiet for a time sat grappling. Pint, lost herself for a bit in the watch of a caterpillar that crept along dry branch, each paired leg stuck out here or there in rhythm, as though making a circus show of stick-walking. In a gust not more than a breath, the slow-prancing thing fell unceremonious a dozen inches to the leaves below. Emerged a moment later, still moving forward, as though context mattered less than trajectory.

Thought Pint, I meant to do that.

Sam, who often bore silence as his own damn fault, finally broke it. “The time out wasn’t how you said?”

Tension between the two tightened. Not the conversational domino he’d hoped.

Tried again. “When you saw them, lost contact? Said it all happened safe enough. Not so much, right? Apparently?” Forced sick, sober logic to the forefront for the first time. “You’d lost your radio kit. What, not a snag on a branch, then, right? What else got you snagged?”

Pint unmoved. “Not a lie. I wasn’t bitten, dammit, if you thought it worked like that.” Her memory pricked by scant, scratching contact through stiff arms, almost overwhelmed by roadkill scent, grabbed and yanked, panting amid an unseen cloud of potential sickness. She in the moment had been all instinct and subconscious, the near meditation of athletic challenge.

Continued her argument. “If there’d been a chance I’d gotten off clean, I was going for it. What, I was just supposed to say, ‘Hey, maybe you should lock me up, kick me out, kill me now?’  I had to persuade. If any damn person had thought I’d got it, you know I’d never even have made it back. You’d’ve been left to think I’d run off. Or worse.” Thought, but didn’t mention, the public benefits of an accomplice inside, Sam the someone to help vouch for her.

She measured his near-stillness, so strange in him: the first bubbles of a rolling boil. Tacked quieter. “I really didn’t think I’d got it. You know that. I was so healthy; I felt fine. To risk getting you sick? Anyone? You know I wouldn’t do that.”

Sure enough, Sam spilled over. Couldn’t help but see hubris, knowing her. “My god, didn’t think you’d got it? After all you’ve seen. What it’s done, you know full well. This thing, this thing that savaged the whole lot of…my god, able-bodied people?” Blew through roadblock, the part of him that wanted to comfort, would bend over backwards to fix her, shrank. “Thousands—millions? Not just children or infirmed. Able-fucking-bodied.” Full-on yell. “I mean, my god, what on earth made you think you were that special?”

Launched comets to see impact, but knew he should’ve stopped sooner. Pint cratered from first shout. Stared into space.

A breath between them, Sam’s sigh and her rasp.

And then, by way of explanation, his apology: “Pint. I’m sick.”

“No, you’re not.” Resentment where he’d expected sympathy.

“I am. They put me away, too, you know. Alone.” Reconsidered. “Well, for the most part? Anyway, here I am. What they do with …Christ, you know. The ones. Infected.”

“Infected with what, do you think? Every goddamn sniffle means you’re unrecoverable sick?”

“I was, I mean…I mean, certainly fevered.” Doubted himself in claims of withstanding anything substantial. Knew what awful he’d felt, anyway. “Not well. Very, very much not well.”

But she resented his assumptions, having now lived with it within her and a week spent poked and prodded to confirm suspicion, endured sleepless hypothesis and grasped-straw tests and treatments. And after all dumped, albeit blessedly, back alongside him. Bitter Pint knew well her own cellular tempest. “Yeah? This is your expert opinion? What are your symptoms, then, doctor? Wanna munch on flesh, do you?” Sam winced and she jabbed harder. “Staph, strep, ebola, rabies, AIDS, flu, syphilis, fucking mad cow? No chance you could’ve maybe been sick with anything else?”

“Jesus, syphilis?” No idea why this, of those listed, had struck him as most horrible.

“Still swimming in a sea of diseases, Sam, not just the one,” Pint resigned, insistent. “They’re not even dying off. Just us.”

He flooded with memories of childhood infirmity—rubella, scarlet fever, sinusitis. How often in his life he’d been horrible sick not with plague. Or, really, sick with aspiring plagues themselves, but all the many ones that had been unsuccessful.

Pint, still poisonous, “And here you thought yourself all special.” Surveyed his expression, added with authority, “You’re not sick.”

Sam, a flash of hope. “Are you…OK then?”

“Not in the least.”

No, she was quite sick.

But beneath her current moment’s ire, she celebrated his recovery, had known it to look at him: not bloodshot or disabled; certainly not incommunicative or turned. She said agnostic silent blessing to whatever wonderful in his bones had kept it at bay, whatever anatomic grace had latched it in her but still spared him.

That moment so many months ago, when a single switch flipped in the DNA of some otherwise innocuous speck of buggy microbe, mild-mannered Sam, unbeknownst even to himself, already carried the genetic wherewithal not to bite.

***

After a time willing away his thoughts, Sam summoned from his left-front hip pocket a long-treasured sweet, some hard, pink candy from a since-lost suitcase, a hopeful bit he’d found in the beginning of things going bad. He’d often thought it a comfort to have; and now, at long last, an even bigger thing to give. He started the wrapper, with a bit of trouble, then held it out for her.

For a moment, thought himself quite romantic, actually.

Pint, picking at things on the ground, looked only askance. Shrugged without reaching. “Nah. Nothing to me.”

Hurt Sam, like she’d stolen something.

But that quick, she doubled back at him, though she knew it cruel martyrdom. “Can’t taste. Anymore. Sorry.”

Raged internal against her own broken senses, done-for flavor and smell, blurred vision and mumbled ears. Feared herself numb to Sam next. But resolve in her like an injured animal. Would suck on fistfuls of sawdust to stay alive. To keep that one feeling, if none other.

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(Chapter 4)

“You think, what, she’s out for a stroll?”

The voice seemed inside Sam’s ear, yet he couldn’t pin its direction…

“And you’re here, why, you think? Rest n’ rehab? I think not.”

…underscored Sam’s blindness, sucked air from his lungs…

“Havin’ trouble breathing over there? You don’t sound like you’re doing too good with it. Don’t smell like it, either.”

…waited full measures counted off by the slow metronome of Sam’s spurts of panicked inhalations.

“Yeah, your bunkies can tell when you shit yourself, hah.

…and in between Sam’s staccato whimper, it taunted him.

“Pain? Or are you past that? Couldn’t tell. All that whining. Do us a favor and shut up about it. Once in a while. They ain’t gonna give you nothing, anyway. If you figured. Wanna see how it takes you. Maybe it’s not taking you so good. They keep you around, think maybe you’re useful. Just for watchin’, I mean, see how it goes. At least for a little while. Till they figure, not so much. Not even worth a bullet.

“Radio? Hah, like nobody else can talk coms. Thousands out there better useful than you. Leave you out where they know nobody’ll find you. Call it compassion, not to kill you outright. But thirst’ll get you before the sickness. And think how long that’ll take.

“Unless you’re one of the ones that lingers with it. Won’t that be fun? See what the rest of us been missin’, turning sicko. Maybe quick end woulda been worth it. Hard to say what’s catching these days.

“Oh, your girl? What’s her name? Yeah, that’s a special one. Special case. They’re gonna want to keep a close eye on her, absolutely. Took her somewhere else, I figure, to see how it goes. How it takes her. You two did enough damage together, anyway. Letting it spread. They’re sure not gonna go out of their way to make her comfortable. Coulda just done her in, the fucking liar. Went and wrenched it worse for the rest of us.

“You bought her story? Well, ‘course you did. Look at you. Making decisions two feet south of your head, you think? And all of the rest of us suffer. At least they caught you quick.

“Just when stuff starts to get comfortable, somebody goes and gets dumb. Now look. There’ll be scores more dead before you know it. And not just the sick. She sure stirred shit up.

“I dunno, though, I dunno, sounded pretty bad for her, at least. What I heard. Your girl turning inside out, showin’ just what she’s made of, haha. Maybe they give her just a little taste of something. Make sure she’s awake for the worst of it.

“Oh, hah, is that cruel? Maybe think on it this way: The ones that bleed to death ain’t the same as the ones that linger. Seems to be the way it goes. And, what I hear, she ain’t got much left to give. If it makes ya feel better, haha. You coulda just left her sleeping, easiest way out. For her, anyway. And then got yourself dealt with later. One less thing to worry about. But here we are. And she’s sure awake now, you bet.

“What’s the worst way to go, you think? You ever think about this stuff? No, ‘course not. Not thinking as you were, girl right there, all ready. But you think about it now, I bet. Oh yeah. Sick and dead, or linger and turned? There’s a choice for ya. Not that you get to decide.

“Back when stuff started going bad, plenty more folks figured having a choice was better than not. Did themselves self-inflicted than deal with all this shit. Plenty more. Plague flexed and people flinched. You blame them? Wish you woulda gone that way now, I bet. Oh well. Can’t do it yourself anymore, no sir, stuck with however it takes you. And whatever they decide.

“But what if it’s not so bad, the lingering, the turning, you think? The sickos. Maybe it’s lovely, haha. Maybe like you’re dreaming, dream you’re tearing into turkey dinner, stuffing your face, delicious. Man. If that’s what’s in your head, turned sour out there, but thinking stuff’s all blissful? People’s screams is sweet music? Blood and guts taste pure Butterball? Man, maybe that’s the way to go. I’d take it. Not that you get to choose.

“I mean, they don’t look like they think like that. They don’t look like they think much. But no telling. Hah, think maybe you start turning, give me a heads up? Give me a shout? Lemme know how it feels, if you linger, haha. Lemme know if it’s dreams of turkey dinners.

“Between us, though, I hope you suffer. I hope she suffers most of all, but seems to me you could use a good lesson learned.

“Wonder what you’re even hoping for. Hah.

“They ain’t gonna give you nothing, if you figured, bullet or pill, neither. Stop your cryin’. They got medicine, I heard. Maybe not for the disease, maybe just for the pain, at least. But ain’t gonna just hand it out like candy. Not hand it out if you’re past hope. Or sick with something else. Or save it for themselves, for all they know.

“Anyway. They ain’t gonna give you nothing. If you figured. Wanna see how it takes you.

“Hey, hey. You still with me? You promise to stop crying about it? It’s Will and Mary, Anna Gloria. What you’re stuck on.

“Now shut the fuck up.”

Sam woke. Sunlight.

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(Chapter 3)

Frigid water on his face, down his back—caught in the rain? Looked about to grab her hand, kept scraping on shrubs. “Not funny not funny let’s get under cover.” God, the drops. Enough to make you shiver. Mild annoyance. How lovely it will be once they got out of it. Would keep each other warm.

Sam awoke afog in shadows, strange cot and mosquito net. The warm smell of the place—foreign, organic.

What he remembered: Pint, heels dragging, insides uncontained, seeping. Hauled away by those in camp who handled crisis, horded HazMat, bore the proper balance of concern and cruelty. Her gaze cloudy-confused over blood streaked from ears to chin, nose to shirt, knees to floor. Met eyes scowling.

Sam, rawed by that last look. Was he supposed to have stopped them?

Himself left sopped, stunned. Legs tangled in sheets growing cold, tack and sog. Christened horror story. Pulled out hairs to tear them off, stained, stinging scent of lead. He tossed the heap aside and sat naked, hands to hairline, mouth agape, eyes adjusting to early ashen sunlight. Searched gloom for some decent thing to latch onto. Saw oddities attached to small foraged stories between the two of them: paint, pens, trainers, bags, fasteners, filaments, trawls, baubles, god knows—

“You want it?” she’d ask.

“Jesus, Pint, don’t even know what it is. Can it fit in your pocket?”

“Sure. No prob.”

Everything in the space scavenged, much by her, that had felt someday useful. Stagnant for weeks, now bore new spots and smears.

Sam leaned groundward for something he could make give way, earth, grit and muck under fingernails. Bed frame pressed hard and sharp against his ribs, and worse inside them.

And that’s when they came back.

He started at company, sat upright then doubled over, crossed arms on thighs, some idiotic knee-jerk modesty. Voice deep within him scolded, Why, in god’s name, do you care? But knew civility died hard for some; once thought it a point of pride.

Half a dozen or so, masks off but kept distance sure enough, swimming in Teflon and shadow. A woman at the fore scooped towel with gloved hand and flung toward the mess. Which included Sam. He drew it over himself absentmindedly, scanning faces. Fixed welled eyes on Will. Who looked away.

Whisper from the back, late arrival, “Gah, sa mess, innit?” The woman frowned, and Sam recognized her: an organizer, take-charger, often asked—ordered—for things to be gathered, built, distributed, done away with. He expected rooted tone, power, even before she spoke: “She told you what happened?”

The words tumbled, unlanding.

“Sam. The girl. Anne? What she told you about the time out. What was it? Twelve days ago.”

His voice frail. “Weeks? Two weeks?”

“Two weeks, then. Fine. The story.”

“No contact? Not with them?” Couldn’t stop the upward pitch, defensive. “There were a lot, I guess? Dozens. There were, um.” Swallowed audibly. Surreal. “It was a, uh, some kind of manufacturer. North a bit? Sort of didn’t notice them at first, I guess?” Then quicker, fix the hole. “But no worse than any other time. Just spotted them and ran?” What she’d told him.

“And you two’ve been in physical contact. Obviously. Anyone else?”

“Her?”

“You, Sam.”

“No? Not…no.”

He fought retch, empty stomach. Didn’t notice the quick glances, shared signal, and all of them on him at once. Not even a chance to gasp before cloth over face, shocked consciousness clean out of him.

Halothane, for what it’s worth, smells lovely.

***

Queasy, fevered. Sam wondered in the dark: Was this sickness new, or had he felt it before? Physical or psychosomatic?

They’d cleaned him up, at least (by bucket and pool scrape, probably), frigid water lingering in memory. Clothed him in thin underwear and old T-shirt. Indefinitely.

Pint hovered in his head. Every thought ending with voltage, that last look. Delirium stabbed through with grief and adrenaline.

Sam, aural-minded, tested acoustics in the dark: “Hello?” Rasp muffler esophagus. Nothing. He who’d come to relish long days spoken in darkness, unaccustomed to absence on the other end. Always expected an answer.

Repeated intent to sit up, on his feet, move, all morphed to fever dream. Always woke to discover himself, howevermuch later, still lying there. If his brain were muscle, flexed hard, where on earth was the part that made movement?

Thought about time but couldn’t pin it. Counted, lost track. Life without context.

Woke again. “Hello?” Imagined clicking a button, hitting reset, reset, reset.

Worry and sadness, blips on a black radar of blind boredom. Steered regard toward schoolboy rhyme: Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee, Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three… Got stuck sometime in the 17th century, accidentally looped back to earlier monarchs. History dissolved. Jacobean continuum.

Woke again.

Thought, Something in the com lines must be buggered. Or maybe not plugged in? Reached for radio parts and found sheet, knee, netting, wet. Worried, how to get it off his fingers.

Charlie…Charlie…?

Woke.

Saw humid dark firmament above him, the half-moon with massive white hand cupped underneath. Brilliant, he thought with some satisfaction. To keep it from dropping. Never mind that there were no windows.

Mary, Bessie, James, you ken, then Charlie, Charlie, James again…

…Charlie, Charlie, James again…

Woke.

Felt better, reassured. Thought perhaps someone had gone to get him a drink of water.

Charlie, Charlie, James again…Charlie, Charlie, James again…

Woke.

Felt it welling. “Hello? Hello?” Fought fabric, then floor. Couldn’t get his legs loose.

“Hello?” Sniveled, “…please.”

Writhed. Surely left to rot, already dead.

James again…James again…again.

Woke on the floor, raging.

Wasted life. For what? Her fault. Should never have touched the cunt. Forgetting the smell of her neck, how good it had felt. Forgetting everything but hot stuck to dirt.

Woke, floor.

Is anyone out there? I’m still here! I’m alive!” Breath only throat-deep, gasped.

Woke, floor.

Felt reassured again, embarrassed. “I’m really sorry. Got all shouty—something not quite right. I don’t feel…y’know. I think I’m feeling better? But?  I understand you’re worried. I just hoped…could someone please tell me who followed James Two? I thought then, just a hint? I’m sure I know it. But then maybe I could keep it going…”

Woke, floor, feces.

Please. I…it seems…Hello?”

Woke.

Is she dead?!

Unseen hiss beside him: “What do you think?”

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(Chapter 2)

“Sooo…” Sam, nose to Pint’s shoulder, fidgety at dawn. Couldn’t hold his tongue in company. “Food?”

“Ugh. Sleep.”

“OK.” Throat cleared. “I didn’t know if…should I …?”

Eyes still closed, she hooked her ankle over his. Signal to stay.

And really, it was his space to abandon, anyway.

Sam, by way of service as much as luck, had scraped a space under pre-fab military tent frame abutting a single solid wall of an otherwise collapsed stone structure—demolished 70 years or a thousand before, he did not know—all encompassed under sailcloth. The tented room intended more for storage than housing, and so did Sam sometimes consider himself, resting there, a small piece of contributory mechanism as well as curator of found stuff. Besides, the cot, unearthed by Sam himself from a pile miscellaneous tangles, was comfortable. And more so, he now noted, with company.

Outside through camp, long shadows and mumbled stirring. Rows and huddles of makeshift stalls, assembled from found substance and paraphernalia—some of it intended for such purposes, but often not so much. Lucky survivors sheltered in expensive tents, brightly colored, once purchased for occasional holiday; others (most everyone else) constructed ingenious structures of anything long enough to lean, sturdy enough to stack, flat and flush enough to drape.

At dawn, a full field of hushed shuffle.

Comrade Will, a harmless acquaintance and everyday bureaucrat turned champion of small tasks, paused outside Sam’s structure long enough to remember a series of needed items stored within, stepped through just as Sam looked to be pulling himself up from slumber—

—except nope, nope nope, not quite. Will, instant flush of interrupting congress, sputtered, “Oopsshitsorrysorrysorry.” Backwards through the flap of entryway, fell into dust as Sam inside bellowed, “Fucking knock!” Voice cracked. And Pint’s guffaws just as loud.

Will, outside, back on his feet, still processing—angry? Or embarrassed?—when Sam stomped out, wrapped in old sheet (for belowparts) and cross-buttoned shirt, voice too high exasperated to carry hope for authority. “My god, man, civilization, maybe?”

Stopped short of intended tirade. Zero desire to share this particular moment together, and certainly not prolong it.

And then perfect-timing Pint, rumpled and far too amused, appeared and passed the two men unencumbered.

Both sets of eyes followed, Sam and Will, then back to each other. Sam summoned pointed composure. “Yes? Can I help?”

Flustered Will, couldn’t for the life of him remember why he’d come. “She’s…OK, then?”

“More than.”

“I mean, she didn’t…get…when she was out there?”

“’Course not.” Sam laughing incredulous. Nodded at his own current attire, proof enough of nothing catching. “Think I’m mad?”

Sam stamped worry in favor of current joy.

Because, really, no one knew. Blood-borne, water, air or otherwise? Some days, dozens came and went—seemingly healthy, of course, but no telling—and a semblance of camp safety stayed stitched; no major crises yet (not inside anyway). In the months since humanity started assembling again—after those first weeks of ugliness—in the places farthest they could find from any row or town, many people managed insulation, now encountered infection only secondhand.

Her own recent outside experience, though. Sole reporter, Pint the only one who’d been there. Explained to others in broad strokes, went over it with him just once—summed up: “Close call, sure, but never too close.” And that was that.

Elated, he lapped it up.

Newfound caution out among the ruins, fresh abandon within.

***

Pint, rolled eyes, told by camp organizers to keep a sidearm. Bolstered by experience, laughed at its potential. “Gonna help against 20? No, but OK then.” Absurdly limited ammunition, anyway—three bullets a boon.

Sam still in cables and com lines, now with new things to look forward to, savored even more the isolate dark. Strained (smiling) over the wire to decipher her clipped descriptions of unearthed items she couldn’t identify, hoped were helpful. Absurd haiku.

“Glass nub spouting copper filament, hinged to a metal waffle.”

“Porcelain box over…maybe under?…threaded U pipe. Inside…ew, god. Goop.”

“Two-headed twinned cable, green prong and red port. Hey, they fit! Interracial ouroboros.”

Pint like a cartographer locked in a cockpit, bewilderment practiced precisely.

Made him giggle.

In person, after those first days truly together, the more serious subject—possible sickness—broached just once between them. Back to back, boot heels dug in and legs splayed on patchy grass, a well trodden area of raised earth affording the rare view of something other than up-close humanity. Pint worrying dirt with unknown pieces of metal mechanism pocketed from a corporate kitchen, fun found idly digging, the new archaeology of previous lives: shells, pebbles, can tabs, bottle tops. Looked up on occasion to see trees dancing, wind-swayed copses.

“I read once, you should trust one person more than two.” Dour, hesitant, not her usual tune. “Because it takes stones for one person to say she saw something—taking a chance saying anything at all. But two people can talk each other into seeing something different than what really happened.”

“I can see that, I guess.” Sam open to the thought. Didn’t realize she was getting at something.

She huffed, flipped a chunk of glass into leaves. “Do you believe me?”

“Pi.” Leaned around to see her profile, but brought no happy response from her, who scowled at any scent of being placated. He tried again: “Would I be here if I didn’t?”

Her mind somewhere flooded, swimming.

But Sam had seen his share of it, too. Suspect and side-eyes, fielding glances from folks who thought full-bore about bad options and worse, what they’d do if…he shuddered. Didn’t want to think about it.

Took a moment.

Then, keen to change the subject and venue both, scrabbled to his feet, bent, grabbed the scruff of her jacket with two hands and hauled her up, mock force. Held collar over her head with one hand and dusted bum with the other. Her own arms hung in melodrama, the corner of her mouth cracking upward. And so, as guard to willing prisoner (well, she threw an elbow to his gut, just for funsies), he led her in silly ceremonious march elsewhere. Would figure out the destination en route.

***

Two weeks after her physical return from the woods, finally felt fully out of them: no evidence of lasting effects. Relief they gave no word to, but she dug through scant belongings, brought forth a secret stash of good whiskey. (“Bourbon, for fuck’s sake,” she’d growled. “Specificity makes a difference.”) And late at night, on that, another Tuesday, found a quiet spot to sit together, eyes skyward. Stars like spilled sugar.

Sipped relief for a few moments in silence, exhaled char. Evaporated.

Lord, the joy.

Sleep that night like she’d never had, still and heavy. Dreamt of a pristine coffee shop, big windows looking out to abandoned, sunlit city streets. She held a jigsaw puzzle box filled with tiny blue eggs, which cracked and oozed golden honey into a nest of sand. Instructions jumbled, incomprehensible. Couldn’t figure what she was supposed to put together.

Hand on her shoulder pulled her cold from warm depths. Familiar, whispered voice, “Hey, hey.” (Jesus god, what?—if her thoughts had words just then.) But soon knew where she really was, didn’t think it was so bad. His other hand in her hair, knee brushed her shin. “Erg. What?”

“Sorry.” Pre-dawn, Sam in freefall. “I’m so sorry. It seems… I can’t. There’s…”

“Hm?”

“There’s blood.”

Feet numb. Panic with no place to perch.

“There’s blood,” he ached. “On the pillow. And…my god. There’s blood.” Saw her terror spark and couldn’t stop his own. Thumb across her forehead, “My love.”

“Hm? Nah, no. Uck.” She wiped spittle, inspected: streaks. Fought to keep her borders intact. “No, it’s OK. I’m sorry. Lemme…here, just lemme clean up.”

“Pi, you can’t.” Throat locking. “Don’t. It’s…it’s everywhere.”

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