The room flushed 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 learn to worry anyway.
He 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 muddled emotions.
He’d been a clenched child, breath held, struggled to ride out every passing anxiety. His parents 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 now knew to go limp in the currents, swim in the calm.
Lax and dry-eyed, his back 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. His fingers sorted her hair. And all manner of things shall be well.
A 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, still). 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 warm and mineral, made his own words sounded a thin drizzle. “Thanks,” he added. Sensed her 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 would be like that, anyway. Of course it would. “No, yeah, sure enough.”
He extricated himself, 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 on her ear with 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. Behind her, somewhere, Shovel man and the other sat concealed and silent. Sleeping, Sam hoped. He sat opposite the girl, folded his legs, warmed in his 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, but the girl was unconcerned for further conversation, eyes unflinching on the fire, as though the licking flames sat fixed before her.
A time passed contemplating the same-old burning tinder. Her hand rose and heeled away an itchy eyebrow.
Sam spotted a colossal wristwatch that slipped heavy down to her elbow, loose 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 her arm so the thing slid back down to the wrist, regarded it without much interest. “Ten-oh-two,” she said. “Wed., Nineteen.”
Giddy Sam, now he’d got it. Tuesday, August 27 the 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 now broken, wanted a splash about. “You all wandering out in a bad time.” She 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.” Marie unconvinced, unamused. “How did you two come to here then?”
Not that, thought Sam of how he and Pint had wound up here. The stuff that came before. But 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. Suddenly his head hurt.
“Sorry.” Sam loathe to summon any of it. A droplet leaked from his left eye, as though to relieve the pressure. “‘Bout the same as you, I’m sure.”
“Bet not,” Marie challenged.
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.