(Chapter 7)

“Jesus. This was it.”

All she’d said, the pair 20 minutes past exhausted came upon the building: flat, yellow brick, high 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 within earshot. The door was a welcome thing.

Sam tested handle, the hinge swung outward, free. He looked from bright sunlight into interior 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 as thunder cracked 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. Worst of all, adrenaline surged chest-to-fingertips in chemical panic, body desperate to figure out what the hell while his mind drifted idly through blurry disorient.

Slow crescendo of a high-pitched hum, siren song that too soon morphed into angry voices.

Sam at last recognized the ground hard against him, 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—but 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. He 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? What should I do?” A girl aghast, arms cradled sticks, debris. Pint shifted feet again, trying to square toward both man and girl and still stand over Sam. Frozen moments with no apparent help, until Pint saw behind the girl’s silhouette the crooked movement of corked figures, arms outstretched, reaching for food.

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

The man came at her fast with the shovel.

“Jesus!” Pint flinched floorward, ducked him and scrambled back toward Sam as Shovel Man slipped the tool through the door handle, bracing 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, smelled 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. Pointed at the wall closest to his rickety-fasted entrance, snapped, “Stay.” A command, of course; not a welcome.

***

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 and 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, but scant else 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.

Overhung the far three by a curve of HVAC piping and whatever-else 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.

Pint, stifling pride toward charity (but not bothering with polite preamble, either), walked stiff toward the room’s center, garnering 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 glower before turning his back in hidden preparation. Turned again and slid an open, unrinsed tuna can along the floor, half the semi-clear liquid sloshing en route.

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

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

“Bad?” Sam, head forward for her examination, meditated on the shape of her esophagus, how it affirmed her face and formed her voice. Dreamt in self-amusement of his own facial scar, thinking it somehow appealing, and pondered the new, foreign reflection when next he might have chance to see his own face. Touched chin and discovered more beard than ever he remembered having.

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

Bark of a laugh and bright grin, her eyes still focused on the work. “Lord, but if I’m your 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.

She 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?” Guessed-at medicine. She breathed a moment, found his eyes, finally. Pint’s irises pierced hazel, even as the rest of her was losing focus. “What I said when we got here. I wasn’t mistaken.”

“Hmm?” His puzzled brow, then flinched at the 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 we are now—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.” 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. Leaned forward for comfort, a simple kiss salted by recent rotten waters, sweet to him, all the same. Sweeter still for Pint, who felt no flavor, but imagined. Tugged at his jacket sleeves, kissed back. Long night’s dew seeking damp dawn warmth.

Still then, Sam, aching, exhausted, slunk downward, craving the cavelike space in her torso, his head encased by breasts, bone, biceps. In a moment, hot tears crept into the front of her shirt. “Shit. Sorry. Stress.” Quick sniffle, his cracked voice hummed into her stomach. “Or, I dunno. Relief?”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

(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. Trod mostly copse to coppice, guided by trees.

Absent walls, the pair kept to forest spaces resembling close quarters, not ready to confront a long view. Sour taste of exile dampened want for further company, and Pint did not look well, besides.

Conversation like the creeks and pits and puddles they drank from—sometimes slipped over smooth stones quick and clean, sometimes plumbing fantastic depths, seeming moved only by the wind itself. Spoke of old memories most of all, drafting backward each other’s unshared past, experiences that built the solid stanchions and rickety scaffolding spanning 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 fourth grade!’ 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, 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. Scuffed at 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 bent head-to-ground in yoga pose. 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.

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

She studied him, solace in his fascination. But thought, too, of those dark nights these past few days, when she awoke to find him in similar pose, ear to her chest and momentary stricken expression falling from the creases near his eyes. Caught listening for a heartbeat.

***

Their route angled lengthwise under woods teased through with meandering sidewalks, fickle paths they didn’t care to join. Shadows still short when they came early 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, 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.” Sam, smitten still, how her mind worked. Knuckled away a happy tear in 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, the leg hung awkward, superhero shoe snagged on barbed wire. Recent dead enough–mere days exposed, maybe still upright when the two of them had awoken disenfranchised. Distended and ooze, but Sam disheartened most of all that he now looked upon the child as just another untended riddle: all alone 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 a hundred steps away, unable to look at the thing. In case she saw herself in it.

But grey impression 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. 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 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, he thought. Hoped it meant mercy.

***

A particularly cold night stung mutual to mind the need for improving prospects, Pint awoken pre-dawn by Sam’s steady shiver. Resolved together to better think things through as the days rapid shortened.

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

By sunrise it had already been a long and hungry morning, and no better plan between them because no better option appeared but seek out safe shelter and steady food and hope for the best in the meantime. It seemed untenable. And the universe has its ways of emphasizing such things.

When the pair pushed too confident upon a herd of sick–a hundred yards down to a marsh, but close enough to be unsettling–Sam surprised himself to feel sudden rush, swelled brass toward the throngs, flaunting his presumed immunity. 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.”

Scrambled backwards, “Oh shit fair enough.” But the hungry had heard, turned, knew. Shifted toward them, collective lurch like injured birds.

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

Quick as that, 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 maintainable for a short time, but destination unknown in a dance that insisted on decided endpoint.

Last week’s loss stung fresh to his mind: What they wouldn’t have given for the safety of mass numbers and relatively sick-proof fence, a place and a people to run to and hide with, behind. Sam pictured the beautiful boredom of former community, memories to keep his legs churning. Shared them with 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.

Nostalgia knew nothing of their recent home’s current havoc.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

(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, 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 (social and otherwise). 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?

My god, thought Sam, they’d gone and dropped him 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, started to turn a surveying 360, but stopped short when he saw her.

Pint stood, sort of, staring right at him, crooked bend at hips as if in half-bow, forearm 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 down to a molecular level. Life to him a hopeless trap of swings and roundabouts. Reached up without thinking to remove the twig, held onto it gripped fist even as he moved forward, more gravity than purpose, hugged impact.

Her ear to his sternum, gateway to his muffled inner workings. He wrapped 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.

Trod 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, and so far no pavement, even.

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.

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

Tension 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’d 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. 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.

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 been through, 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. 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, secretly 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 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, and held it out for her.

For a moment, thought himself quite romantic, actually.

Pint 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

(Chapter 4)

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

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

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

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

“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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

(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 go inside.” 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 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, sobbing. Legs tangled in sheets growing cold, tack and sog. Christened, horror story. Pulled out hairs to tear them off, stained, smelling 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 stories: chains, crutches, spokes, wipers, keypads, half-chaps, hinges, cords, cartridges, 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. Nightmare office supply. 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.

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 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, in’it?” The woman glowered, 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 around, not landing anywhere.

“Sam. The girl. Anne? What she told you about the time out. 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. South a bit? Kinda didn’t notice at first.” Then quicker, fix the hole. “But no worse than any other time. Just spotted them and ran?” What she’d said.

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

“Her?”

“You, Sam.”

“No? Not…no.”

Fought retch, empty stomach. Didn’t even 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. 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?”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

(Chapter 2)

“Soooo…” Sam fidgety at dawn, couldn’t hold his tongue in company. “Food?”

“Ugh. Sleep.”

“OK.” Throat cleared, so lovely uncertain. “I didn’t know if…should I …?”

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

Outside, long shadows and mumbled stirring. Will, harmless acquaintance and everyday bureaucrat turned champion of small tasks, paused outside the shelter long enough to hear voices within (confirming folks were awake already), stepped in just as Sam looked to be pulling himself up off the pillow—

—except nope, nope nope, not quite. “Oopsshitsorrysorrysorry.” Scrambled backwards through the doorway, fell on his bottom as Sam inside bellowed. “Fuh-cking KNOCK!” Voice cracked. And Pint’s guffaws just as loud.

Will, 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. Zero desire to share this particular moment together—and certainly not prolong it.

And then perfect-timing Pint, fighting her stupid-happy-puppy grin, appeared and passed unencumbered. Rumpled, but besting everyone in attitude.

Both sets of eyes followed, Sam and Will, then back to each other. Sam summoned 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?”

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, many people managed insulation, encountered infection only secondhand.

Her own 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 to keep a sidearm. Bolstered by experience, laughed at its potential. “Gonna help against 20? No, but OK then.” Absurdly limited ammunition, anyway. But now forbade to set off in fewer than pairs. Which did mean less time for on-air one-on-ones. Small sacrifice, considering.

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.”

Like an historian locked in a cockpit, bewilderment practiced precisely. Made him giggle.

In person, after those first days, the more serious subject broached just once between them. Back to back, boot heels dug in and legs splayed on patchy grass. Pint worrying dirt with unknown pieces of metal mechanism pocketed from a corporate kitchen, fun found idly digging, new archaeology of previous lives: shells, pebbles, can tabs, bottle tops. Looking 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.” 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. “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…shuddered. Didn’t want to think about it.

He 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, 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 (oof, OK, 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. 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 sunlit city streets, not a soul to be seen. She held a jigsaw puzzle box filled with tiny blue eggs, which cracked and oozed beautiful 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. Whut?”

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

“Hmf?”

“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.”

“Hmph? Nah, no. Uck.” She wiped spittle, inspected. Streaks. Fought to keep her borders intact. “No worries. I’m sorry. Lemme…here, just lemme clean up.”

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Wires and Tin

WiresAndTin (2)

None of it should have happened—not the apocalypse, of course, but certainly not the hope, equally impossible, that followed.

Sam, average build made somehow smaller in his own head, a mind inward-built that turned early and often to self-mocking. “All parry and no thrust,” he’d laugh (estuary English), and then dig for a reassuring follow-up—something that read harmless, inoffensive, nothing to see here.

But toward her, inexplicably protective—driven to action despite heartfelt insufficiency. Couldn’t believe himself a savior; couldn’t help it, either.

She who pictured herself awkward in her bulk as much as he felt unimpressive in his lank (in truth, she was not 11 stone to his dozen). She who saw his self-conscious charm and raised him grumbled thunder and a glowered brow.

But she who also laughed with an abandon that knocked bottles off shelves.

Annie, but Sam called her Pint. (Tried “Half-Pint” once and she put him into a wall.) Thirsty, and a fan of full measures.

***

They were unknown to each other and 14 and some-odd kilometers apart in the first moments of the outbreak: Herself American abroad, pub-crawling, whirlwind from a precocious childhood in adult decline; himself still stutterstepped, back with his parents in Borehamwood, vivid dreams dulled in financial responsibility and familial obligation.

And right about then, all around the world, many people died very quickly.

Others sickened and lingered, and panic caught the rest. Cities abandoned (for companionship loses its luster in an epidemic). But in dribs and drabs the still-survivors assembled for the faint promise of camaraderie and comfort, such as it was: leaky tents and cold showers, dusty food, foot travel, fear, failure, walls with no privacy and scant security. And always no way to know an enemy or an incubating virus—the time in whomever between infection and symptom, and the person who’d shoot first without waiting to find out. A dejected citizenry forever called upon to hold itself together. Hopeless purpose.

In this new world, she took naturally to physical labor, bruises and dirt, building some things and tearing into others, digging and looting for the greater good, every ache a satisfying pang of self-destruction washed down with warm alcohol.

Sam, holed up in the dark among wires and corrugated tin, charged with coordinating novice foot soldiers using ancient radios and Playskool walky-talkies. A military duty performed with a college kid’s aplomb. Fun to be had—at least in those moments where no one died, disappeared, got infected, panicked, deserted or violently lost grip of reality.

He and she made fast friends, forged in scatty carelessness over private airwaves, matched humor and pop-culture trivia, desperate not to take something so seriously. Nostalgia punctuated by near miss and dire circumstance.

“But he named one of the episodes…it was, like…argh, something Greek?”

“Yes, about the poem! In the title? Toward the end of the run?”—his inflections turned upward and an octave higher when he got excited—“uh…Ozz…um…Ozz…”

OZZ, yes, um…ozzy …Ozymandias!”

“Yes, Pi!,” and then beautiful baritone in recitation, “‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ …um…blah blah blah, ‘Lone and level sands’…doing something, y’know, for a ways.”

“And Walter White straight-wasting some bitches.”

“Classic.”

Easy, welcome voices in each other’s heads: Her sometime anger steered to safety by his gentle enthusiasm; his neuroses soothed by big laugh and biting wit. But for some time still kept the other at safe distance, every nascent daydream zapped early by present death.

***

It had been weeks of a rhythm too comfortable, silly conversation serenading supply runs over disregarded background noise—themselves alone deaf to the high-pitched, sun-bleached hum of unrelenting drought.

Pint, scratchy but familiar on the radio. “At what point does an oft-patched pair of pants turn into an entirely new item of clothing?”

Sam, fighting a desperate grin, though she couldn’t see him anyway. “I don’t understand; are you making up tongue-twisters?”

“And why does the crotch always wear out first?”

Well-worn days of near-blissful banalities and nights parted, equally ordinary, in quiet misery behind goofy smiles. Both waking-dreamed of legs intertwined and eyes closed on a sagging single camp bed, their best thoughts finding a home in each other’s ears.

But both too attune to anachronistic optimism, “love” existing in the same brain space as swimming pools and mother’s meatloaf—nothing for it here among bloody tangles and emotional dehydration.

And then, on a Tuesday (for Sam still kept a calendar, was a pest about the passage of time), another long hike of hers with little to report, until a sudden throng emerged from a warehouse and everywhere all at once—half-human creatures but quick enough, desperate, infected. And Pint, far from everyone, stupidly without escort or recourse.

Sam, listening in, alone at his desk in the dark. Stopped breathing at her first choked surprise. His only response, bile and adrenaline: a few useless shouted instructions and nothing more to be done. How stupid to think that time would continue unencumbered?

And now, panic, foreign in her voice—“I’m gonna—OK, but…shit…shit”—crushed him sternum to spine. And what else might he now hear on the other end?

Then the signal cut.

And silence was worse.

He stood and turned to tell someone but stopped in a step, pulled off the headset and vomited lukewarm camp coffee onto cracked jamb, splattered his pants shins—as though his body thought it a helpful response. And then wept into the heels of his hands, equally useless.

Interminable. Munitions-minded neighbors alerted, posted armed lookouts to rickety towers, but nothing more to be invested in a single soul caught out. All he could think, locked himself in darkness: How, after everything—how could something now be worse?

Dead, disappeared, devoured (for the infected ate all they could), or home but sick and a slow demise. To be ended at whose hands? His? How long had these scenes cycled through his head? Eons? Seconds? He hadn’t slept, but didn’t know if it had been night yet—once, or ever would be again.

After hours, even the buzz of dead, dry countryside hummed itself into silence. An eternity without sound.

Only then, when it was ready, the air cracked and rifle reports rang like church bells, punched Sam, hunched elbows on knees, in plexus, strained new breath from beneath dark earth. And all at once time resumed its cadence: A signal of something worth saving within easy distance.

Moments crept, and closer still. Word arrived to him before she could: she’shereshe’shereshe’shere. From those who wanted to comfort, couldn’t.

He stepped outside into the glare, sun still high—what day was it?—eyes puffed, tasted dust but couldn’t yet see. Only imagined.

Gate, camp, guards, gunfire—she didn’t stop running until her boots stood atop his.

Gasping through dirt, gunpowder. Pulled each other hard into singe and smoke. Nothing else in the world. A kiss like campfire.

For however long it lasted.

***

At dusk, his head rested on her shoulder like a fork on a dinner plate, as much relief as exhaustion. Straddled the bench, waiting to be extinguished. Her one arm propped against the table (to steady his pillow), gestured with the other, back so quickly to her usual swagger with their comrades. “Prolly helped I smelled foul—who wants to eat that?” Swigged warm beer, recounted just another day’s excitement, burned off excess adrenaline.

But tilted her head for just a moment to find him, a small hello, meaty cheek squished against his hair.

And in that single giddy breath, the whole world was warm inside him.

***

The rain that night came sudden in sheets, thunder and gale. Then settled, curled under tent walls and pooled muddy puddles beneath the bunk that neither of them wanted to leave, anyway.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized