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.