“Jesus. This was it.”
All she’d said when the pair, an hour past exhausted, came upon the building: flat, yellow brick, 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 within earshot. A door was at last a welcome thing.
Sam tested handle, and the hinge swung outward, free. He stuck his head 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 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 and couldn’t pull himself from it again. 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, 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…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, 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, 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. 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, 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.
The far three overhung 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.
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.
Finally, in the dusk-orange space, 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 frown 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? 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. He silently recited mantra, which floated to him sometimes since after pandemic but long before he’d ever met her: Still alive, still very much alive.
She dabbed the last water from the tin and wiped at bloody remnants in his hair. Spat saliva into the rag next, worked at dried red along his cheek. His smile stayed put, “Aren’t you maternal.”
Her bark of a laugh and bright grin, eyes still focused on the work. “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?” Guessed-at medicine.
Sam dreamt in self-amusement of his own facial scar 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 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 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 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.
He leaned forward for comfort, reassurance, formed simple kiss salted by recent rotten waters. Pint tasted nothing, but tried. Long night’s dew seeking damp dawn warmth.
Still then, Sam, aching, exhausted, slunk downward, craved to disappear into the cavelike space in her torso. Burrowed despite injury, his head safe and warm and quiet, encased by breasts, bone, biceps.
Hot tears crept into the front of her shirt, and Sam winced to explain. “Shit. Sorry. Stress.” The cave closed in around him, cracked voice hummed into her stomach. “Or, I dunno. Relief?”