Afternoon Eddies

Some short fiction, a palate cleanser from this year’s NaNo.  

Pine needles, so many pine needles, poking and sticking and filling the air with a seductive calm musk of forest, of danger, of plants grown legion. Jack winced, using one arm to clear the branch in front of him, the other idly brushing away the needles that probed his pants and the tough skin underneath.

This path was familiar, though overgrown now; in the halcyon days of his youth, his almost daily wild trek through this stretch of forest kept all but the heartiest vegetation at bay.  In the half century since, the nettles and the pines and the small weeds that now constellated the ground had fortified the reclaimed territory, had set barbs and thick branches to stave off intruders.  Jack returned here as to a scene of forgotten glory, each labored step through the brush an achievement, a small mote of progress in his reconnaissance of his boyhood haunt.

A needle jabbed through the knuckle at the base of his thumb, breaching the skin and finding purchase in the soft tissue between bone and ligature.  Jack gasped, feeling the thick pine and pollen dust racing into his nostrils and settling in his chest.

-why have i come here?-

A wind announced its arrival, rustling the tops of the trees before enveloping Jack.  Leaves and dirt rose in its wake, tickling his ankles, the cold, sweet air startling him and breaking the pace of his progress.

It was getting late, the afternoon sun angled too low to counter the chill breeze.  Shadows long and eldritch danced as their progenitor flora swayed to the wind. Jack knew he should go back, to find his aunt; if he came in before sunset, she was apt to bedevil him with a wet kiss on the cheek, and reward him with a cookie.  She used maple syrup in the cookies; they squished under the smallest pressure of his jaw and melted into molasses behind his teeth. Jack could taste them now, could feel the warm, familiar smell rise into his nose from the back of his mouth. Aunt Millie’s cookies.  Aunt Silly, he had called her.

But no, Aunt Silly- Aunt Millie- had died, years ago.  That house had been sold, and with it, any claim Jack and his clan held on the vaguely titled plot of forest.  So why was he here?

The wind intensified.  The pitch of the rustling trees deepened as the tallest trees bowed lower, acknowledging the passage of air and weather.  Clouds poured above, a celestial river of white that gave way to dark gray. Jack felt like an earthbound raft traversing river rapids, hoping the sky above stayed white and fluffy, mentally steering his patch of ground away from the dark, treacherous sprinkling of storm clouds overhead.  

All at once, Jack was wet.  He hadn’t felt the rain fall, but he could hear it, a susurration above and all around him.  It seemed to be everywhere, a thousand points of barbed water dinging and careening off everything in the forest.  He couldn’t see the rain falling, though, and looked around for some visual confirmation of the storm.

The forest aroma intensified, pine and decaying leafs misting around him.  It was a pleasant smell, though somehow sad, even wistful. It was the smell of yesteryear, of careless youth, of seasons changing and passing, rolling forward, always forward, into the next.

Jack put a hand to his hair: it was soaked.  The loud but invisible rain had drenched him.  Above, few white fluffs remained, the sky now overrun with menacing dark leviathans that filtered out the diminishing light of the fast-setting sun.  

At once, brilliant white forks appeared overhead, and three distinct claps shook Jack’s ears and caused him to start.  He closed his eyes, feeling drops of warm water fall from their lids, glancing off his legs. When he opened them, the storm was gone- the sky was clear, it was mid-day, the sun surging warm waves over his wet body.  A bird chirruped somewhere above him. The ground was dry.

-what on earth?-

Three claps, louder than the first, stirred something deep in his breast.  He closed his eyes again, and this time they opened slowly. Jack was prone on his back, his face and hair dripping wet.  Sunlight and shadows swapped places on the ceiling above him as the blackout curtains rustled in the breeze from the window.  Jack felt a pillow under his head, touched his brow. It was damp. Dropping both elbows beside him, he lifted his body a few strained inches, feeling the wet sheets pull away and turn instantly cold as he relaxed back down onto them.  

His hand went to his leg: no pine needles.  No bird sounds. No forest scents, only the antiseptic smell of the humidifier, and the sour, vinegar odor of his own sweat.  Three sudden claps caused him to jump- they were knocks on his door. With considerable effort, Jack sat up, swinging his legs to the floor, feeling the pins and needles ebb and vanish as the blood started to flow.

Jack stood using a hand against the wall for balance as the other swept the curtain aside.  Below, standing just outside his door, were two men in suits. One had brown wavy hair; the other was starting to bald.  Jack knew why they were here. He had long expected them, dreaded them. They were from the army, come to deliver sad and solemn news.  Jack had a premonition about this, knew they would come. He knew what they would say, and how he would react. It was as though he had rehearsed this very moment a dozen times in his mind.  

Jack slowly walked to his closet, pulling out a long robe to cover his sweat-through night clothes.  He closed the closet door and stopped, disconcerted. This was wrong; he wasn’t wearing a robe. It was a white shirt, with a blazer and a loosened tie, as though he had just come home from work, was still making the transition into casual clothing.  The officer had even remarked on his tie, some inane compliment. And- more darkly- it was this tie he would invoke in his passing consideration of suicide, a momentary thought of hanging himself from the ceiling fan. He would never do that- would never even give the thought a proper name- but he remembered the tie, of that he was certain.  

Jack opened the closet again.  There was a white shirt, slightly wrinkled, but serviceable.  He quickly pulled it over his arms, buttoning from the top down, aged fingers made deft by decades of muscle memory.  The tie, though, if only he could remember the correct tie! Jack worried for a moment that his visitors would give up, would leave before he was ready.  

“I’m coming!” he yelled, voice unsteady, in the direction of the window.

Perhaps the tie wasn’t important.  At least, the type of tie. It just had to be a tie, any tie worthy of remarking on.  Jack found one of black and white gingham and pulled it loosely around his neck, knotting it without tightening.  It was perfect.

As he left the bedroom, Jack ticked through all the details of this encounter.  He would open the door, and the younger of the two men would call him sir, would confirm his name.  Then the older man would say that Michael had died, that he was honorable, and use other nice adjectives that Jack would scarcely hear and soon forget.  A rare and frightening tightness would grip his chest, and, searching for any acceptable words to speak, Jack would invite them inside. Karen would make ask who was there from the kitchen, and Jack would tell her to bring waters, that they had two guests.  

Karen would bring the water and a small plate of cookies, still oblivious to the nature of the visit.  She would blanch when she saw them sitting on the sofa, all starched uniform blue with explosions of medals on the breast.  She would shake, spilling one of the waters, they would call her ma’am, she would start to sob before they could say anything else.  

Jack paused on the staircase.

-i should put a hand towel in the den, to clean up the water.-

He turned at the bottom of the stairs, away from the door and towards the inside of the home.  This was wrong. Karen wasn’t here, she had died, not so very long ago. There would be no spilled water, no spilled tears.  Michael had a gravestone in a large cemetery in Virginia; Jack had visited there, had laid flowers on the grave. It was all wrong, it was out of place on the timeline.  Jack was angry as he reached the door and flung it open.

“You’re too late!” he said, pointing an accusing finger at the visitors.  

The two men stiffened up.  Their army uniforms were wrong, too.  They looked like businessmen, in neat white shirts and black suits.  They scarcely even looked like men; Jack would be surprised if they were a day over twenty one.  Their only medals were shiny name tags that Jack had to squint to read. He glanced back and forth between the baby-faced visitors and the incongruous word Elder on the badges.

“Um, good afternoon, sir,” said the taller of the two.  “How are you today?”

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.  The visitors glanced at one another.

“My name is Elder Brown, and this is Elder Lee.  It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

“I’m Jack,” he said, definitively, extending a proud hand.  Elder Brown took the hand and shook, then passed it to Elder Lee, who did the same.  

“Do you have a few minutes to talk about faith?  We are taking a survey in this neighborhood, and asking some questions about God and our place in the world.  Do you ever think about those things?”

Jack considered it.  He did think about God, all the time, but those were private thoughts, and some part of him knew that his musings were not safe for public airing.  

“Oh, from time to time,” he demurred.

“That’s wonderful!” Elder Brown said, as both visitors broke into wide grins.  “Would you mind if we step inside?”

Jack glanced over his shoulder.  Inside, that’s where they want to come.  To his place, his sanctuary. Of course, he has visitors all the time.  The den is usually immaculate, not one item out of place. In the middle distance, he saw the sofa, covered in balled-up newspaper and dirty clothing.  The coffee table, spackled with used dishes, would need tidying before guests could be admitted. Karen would have his head if he didn’t clean up before having company.  

“My, uh, place isn’t very tidy, I’m afraid,” said Jack.

“Oh, we don’t mind!” Elder Lee cut in.  “The truth is, we’ve been walking for several hours, and it would be good just to get off our feet for a few minutes.”

Unable to think of a counterargument, Jack stood aside, gesturing admission, and the elders crossed his threshold, waiting patiently for him just inside the door.  

“You can, uh, sit over there.  I’ll make space,” Jack pointed towards the sofa, and staggered in its direction.

“We can help with that, if you like,” said Elder Brown.  “Here, let me fetch those dishes for you. Do you want them in the kitchen?”

It was moving too fast for Jack.  The young men- boys, really- flitted to and fro in a whirlwind of activity.  Dishes and refuse were swept up in their wake, re-deposited out of sight. It was over in an instant, and the room looked almost tidy.  

“Would you like a glass of water?” Jack said.  The elders were seated on the sofa now, their eddies of motion evidently spent.  

“Yes, please!” said Elder Lee, with boyish enthusiasm.  

With a nod, Jack retreated to the kitchen, where he searched the cupboards for clean glasses.  He needed to pour the water carefully, and bring it to the den without spilling. He mentally checked through the constituent parts of the task, determined to be more careful this time.  

-why are they here?-

It must be another volley from his daughter.  They were here to convince him to move into a new place, to give up his home.  The nerve of these people, to barge in here and tell him he couldn’t live alone!  They talked over his meek objections. When he spilled the water- just a careless tangling of his feet!- they made much of it, wielding it as proof positive that he needed to leave.  The destination was hazy, but Jack could see through them. They wanted him in a home, not in his home, but a home for people at the end of their days, who couldn’t be trusted to live unsupervised.  It was a second childhood, he remembered thinking, and he was not going softly.

Jack filled each cup only halfway.  This time, he would not spill it, would measure each step slowly, deliberately.  They would see that he can still function, can still do the mundane tasks of life that silently delineate between those worthy of independence, and those whose vitality is spent.  He would show them!

Both cups in hand, Jack began his perilous trek, shuffling his feet just an inch off the floor, finding a stable rhythm.  In twenty strides, he reached the coffee table, and began to lower the cups, feeling the strain in his back as he hunched towards the landing pad.  Elder Brown reached out and intercepted the lander before touchdown, passing one to Elder Lee and snatching the other for himself.

“Thank you,” Elder Lee said.  Jack stood, half-hunched, frozen, slow to realize that his mission had been an unmitigated success.  He smiled and nodded, easing himself upright and rounding the table to the easy chair, into which he sunk majestically.  

“Do you ever think about what comes after?” Elder Brown said, sipping his water.  

Right to the point, then, Jack smirked.  It is time to do battle.

“I think that I stay here.”

The elders exchanged glances.  “I mean, what comes after you leave here?  What comes next?”

“There is no next!” Jack raised his voice.  “I stay here until I die! And I’m not going anywhere else.  I make do just fine on my own.”

Elder Brown looked at Elder Lee again, who shrugged.  An awkward moment passed.

“After we die, I mean,” said Elder Brown.  “Where do we go then?”

Jack thought about this.  Perhaps he had misjudged the situation.  Come to think of it, these boys didn’t look like they came from a nursing home.  Religious folk, then. Come to spread the gospel. Only they were so young. Maybe he should put them in touch with Pastor Abrams, he liked talking about theology.  His sermons always went long, Jack remembered counting the minutes while his stomach rumbled its lunchtime protest.

“I don’t know about that,” Jack said.  “Maybe you’d like to talk to Pastor Abrams, I could introduce you.  He loves talking about heaven and hell. In fact, at his funeral his wife told this story about him getting out of a speeding ticket by telling the officers that he would need to give an extra tithe to make up for the violation of the law.”

Once again, the elders exchanged looks, this time with concern.  

“So, he has passed on?” said Elder Lee.  

Jack stopped, considering.  Yes, that sounded right, he had been at Pastor Abrams’ funeral.  He wouldn’t be available to talk shop with these young people.

“I suppose so,” Jack conceded.

“You live here alone?” Elder Brown ventured.

“I do,” Jack said proudly.  “I have a girl who comes by each week to take care of a few things, since I move more slowly these days.”

The words spilled out of his head before he could catch them.  He had a girl? Who was that? It sounded right, but he couldn’t place her.  Natalia? Tatiana? Something that sounded Russian. When had she last been here?  When was she expected? Jack could never keep it straight. He was seized by worry, that these young people would see his confusion and do something to upset his safety and routine.  

“That’s nice,” said Elder Brown, smiling his acceptance.  “Elder Lee and I are helping people, too, by spreading the good news about Jesus Christ.  Do you believe in Jesus?”

“I do,” said Jack, relieved.

“Wonderful!” Elder Lee clapped his hands.  “Our church believes in spreading Jesus’ teachings, and showing people how faith can transform their lives.  Would you like to join us in a small prayer? Since this is your home, maybe you can say something appropriate, or we can, if you prefer.”

Jack mentally braced against the onslaught of words.  They wanted him to pray? Praying for Jack was not a performative act, it was a silent reflection that belonged in a church.  

“You can go ahead,” Jack said, suspiciously.  

The Elders bowed their heads.  “Our father, who art in Heaven…”

Jack knew this one, tuned out the familiar words, his eyes closed.  He remembered the lilt of the prayer, hearing it echo through the chapel at Karen’s funeral, the sad timbre of the pastor, using the benediction to plead with their maker to treat Karen’s soul with kindness and mercy.  The realization that, when this day of ritual was complete, he would be alone, left by himself for the first time in decades. Imagining waking up in bed, with Karen not there. Tears flooded his eyes and leaked down the deep crevices of his cheeks.  

“Are you okay, Jack?” one of the boys said.  Jack opened his eyes, feeling a rush of water escaping down his face.  

“Yes, uh, I just need a moment.  Excuse me, please.”

Jack stood with considerable effort, and moved towards the staircase.  “I just need to fetch something,” he muttered, using his arms on the railing to propel him upward, towards his bedroom.  Below, the boys sat with their water, watching him with intense interest.

Jack reached the bedroom, and sat on his bed, taking a tissue from the nightstand to his wet face.  He could smell his own sweat on the pillow case beside him. That smell reminded him of deep sleep, of the surreal experience of waking, of the warm embrace of the blankets.  Unthinking, he lifted his legs and tucked them under, feeling the weight and pressure of the comforter on his body. He blew his nose, and then set his head down on the pillow, staring blankly at the ceiling.  

Time must be passing, Jack thought, and there was something he still needed to do today.  It was something to do with Michael, and with Karen, or maybe Pastor Abrams. He searched the ceiling for answers, but the dancing shadows and reflected sunlight held no answers.  The room grew dimmer as his lids half-closed. His body sank into the mattress inch by inch, the soft foam taking his torso into a slow embrace.

A creak on the stairs.  “Are you okay, Jack?”

It was a young voice- one of the boys, the elders.  So they were still here. Jack ran through a checklist of actions needed to see them off properly.  It seemed daunting.

“I’m in bed,” he called down.  “You can see yourself out.”

“Do you need anything?  Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, just a bit tired.  Thank you for the prayer,” Jack said.  Out of his peripheral vision, he saw the face of one of the boys- which one, he could not tell, the name tag concealed by the door frame and too far off to read in any event.  Jack shut his eyes, performing sleep, hoping the youngster would leave him be.

After a moment, he heard a renewed creaking on the banister, and muffled voices from below, followed by the sound of the front door opening and closing again.  

Jack was still dressed in the white shirt and loose tie, but the bed was a comfort, and there would be no harm in taking a nap.  He allowed himself to sink deeper, to begin to drift, his thoughts swirling back to the taste of molasses, his cheek wet with the unwanted kisses of his Aunt Silly.  

-AG

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Published in: on December 10, 2018 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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Pox

For Halloween, some horror fiction for y’all.  

I must have needed sleep real bad last night. I tried to get up at 7 like before- old habits die hard- but my body felt heavy and gravity felt strong. It’s not the sickness, thank God for that, it was just that I felt tired. Bone tired.

My brain was slow to wake up, too. I put on the radio, and it must’ve played for fifteen minutes before I realized it was the same newscast from yesterday morning. Or was it the day before?  No, it had to be yesterday, because it had that thing about the power grid that scared me and Amy so bad.

At first I thought it was just the same story- I mean, it’s an important one, and if we’re gonna lose power soon we have a right to know- but there was this phrase the anchor used, barring some change, soon, the CDC won’t be the only ones in the dark. I remember that phrase, and that little self-satisfied public radio announcer tone she put on it. It was the same broadcast. The news was on reruns.

Now what the hell does that mean?

Amy was still sleeping, thank God for that, too.  She’d curled herself up into a little ball.  She had to eat something, or else she’d be more likely to catch it, they say a weak immune system puts a body at risk.  I pushed my feet over the bed, a little trick to let the gravity work just a bit in my favor, and got up.  I decided to go fuss around in the kitchen, maybe I could find something to fix for her to eat.  Maybe we just missed something yesterday, and there’s still some food left over.  

I pulled myself upright, feet on the ground.  I could hear this yowling sound, seemed like it was coming from the apartment above us, definitely a cat.  Never heard that before, not in this apartment.  Maybe its owner got sick.  Poor thing was probably hungry.  

Then I noticed something else- the traffic noises.  Junction Boulevard was usually loud as hell, especially too early in the morning.  People honked at each other all the time, no regard for all the folks sleeping in the tall residential buildings like mine.  It wasn’t just horns, either, it was motorcycles, blaring subwoofers, shouted conversations in a hundred different languages.  But now it was quiet.  That couldn’t be good.

I figured I should probably turn on the lights.  It wouldn’t bother Amy, she could sleep through anything.  I got about a foot or so from the switch but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  What if we’ve already lost power?  The thought terrified me.  I stood there a minute and lost my nerve.

The cat was still yowling, but it was the silence from outside the window that bothered me more.  I could see daylight poking around the side of the window shades, decided that opening them would work just as well as turning on the lights, minus the paralyzing fear.  

I pulled the curtain open, and light flooded into the room.  It was true what they say, the sun still rises.  I had to blink a few times to let my eyes adjust.  The first thing I noticed was that the streetlight was still on, and a few apartments across 35th Avenue had their lights on.  That meant we probably still had our power, too.  

I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye.  It was coming from the sidewalk across the street, this woman was making her way down the block, using the side of the apartment building there for support.  She was obviously sick, you could tell by the way she was moving.  It was more of an amble than a walk, like her inner ears had forgotten how to balance her.  I watched for a minute, and then she startled, straightened up, and started running into the street at a long angle.  

I moved my head higher up on the frame to see what had her attention.  Then, another person appeared, a short Latino man, running right at her.  Their paths met in the middle of the street, and they started circling each other, just inches apart, frantically coughing into each other’s faces.  It only lasted a few seconds.  Then they stopped, like they realized the other person was also sick, and turned away from each other, parting ways.    

It was goddamned terrifying.  

I looked down at the street.  Nobody was driving, and no cars were running, but they were lined up as usual along both curbs, parked both legally and illegally.  That wasn’t unusual; that was just Queens.  

There was one big white van, though, that was parked right in the middle of the street, and at an angle, too, that asshole.  Totally blocking the street.  My first thought was that it must have been an accident, maybe the driver got sick and lost consciousness or something, but I could see that the driver seat was empty, and his door was just a little bit open.  No, this special snowflake just stopped their car there and got out.  Guess they figured there weren’t many police around, and those that were had other things to care about than an illegally parked car.  

I pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt from the hamper.  I didn’t plan on going anywhere today, so it didn’t much matter what I wore, but it was a little cold to just walk around naked.  I started for the kitchen, and as I passed the lightswitch again I flipped it- light came on- and then flipped it back off again, just checking, funny I had been so scared to do that before.  

The kitchen cabinets were already open.  We’d done this same thing yesterday.  I looked inside, hoping against hope there was going to be, I don’t know, a jar of peanut butter or a can of tuna, something substantial.  I couldn’t see anything but bags of tea, spices, and some baking supplies.  I stood there, ramrod still, for almost half a minute, just looking into the dark recesses of the cabinet, and decided to just empty it out and sort things.  Maybe something would turn up.

I was shuttling cylinders of dried spices to the kitchen table when I heard a tapping sound, so I stopped to listen.  I could still hear that damn cat.  The tapping came again, louder, sounded like somebody was at my door.  I put down the spices and went to take a look through the peephole.

It was Helen, our upstairs neighbor.  

-Helen?

-Oh, I’m so glad you’re here.  Let me in!

She was speaking in a stage whisper. I hesitated.

-Uh, are you sick?

-No, please, just open the door.

-Sorry, but…how do I know you’re not sick?

-Sick people don’t talk.

I thought for a second, trying to remember if I had ever heard about sick people talking.  My mind was blank.

-I don’t know that.

She let out a breath like she was exasperated with me.

-Look, I can’t stay out here.  Please, let me in.  I’m not sick I swear!

Something about the sound of the word “swear” with her British accent convinced me, I still don’t know why, and I opened the door.  As soon as I did, I realized what a foolish risk it was, and half-expected her to start coughing in my face.  She did come up to me real fast, but instead of coughing gave me a big hug.  She took off a bulging backpack and set it down in the entryway.  

-Is Amy okay?

-Yeah, she’s sleeping.

-I’m glad to see you.  

-Have you been outside?  How bad is it?

-It’s bad.  I haven’t even left the building, but everyone is either sick, dead, gone, or barring their doors.  

-I think we might have to leave soon.  We’re out of food.  I was just looking around to make sure I haven’t missed anything.  

She followed me into the kitchen, where I resumed emptying out the cabinet while we talked.  

-How has Amy been doing?

-Not great.  She’s sleeping a lot, and she won’t eat unless I remind her.  

-Do you want me to talk to her?  

-Yeah, I’m sure she’d like that.  Mostly she just needs to eat something.  I’m gonna figure out if there’s any calories to be had and bring it to her.

-I have some crackers in my bag.

I perked up at the word “crackers.”

-Oh!  In that case, yeah, she could really use that.

-Okay.

She walked back into the entryway and pulled a small package of peanut butter crackers out of a side pocket of her backpack.  She set the bag back down and started to walk away.  Then, she saw me watching her.  She gave me a funny look, and picked up the bag, taking it with her.  

-Uh, Helen, would you mind if I…

-Sure.

She opened the small package, pulled off two crackers, and handed them to me.  

-Thank you.

She smiled and started for the bedroom.

I ate the crackers slowly, letting each bite sit on my tongue until it turned moist and sweet.  I tried not to think about how long it had been since my last true meal.

It took me about five minutes to finish emptying out the cabinet.  I opened the fridge, but there was nothing except a half-pint of spoiled half-and-half.  I checked the sink- the water was still running.  That was good.  We had filled the bathtub yesterday just in case. 

Helen came back down the hall.  

-How is she?

-She ate.  She knew who I was.  She isn’t sick.

-A very clinical answer.  

-You can take the scientist out of the laboratory…

I laughed.  

-Well, I finished taking a food inventory.  We don’t have anything to eat, really.  

-Can I look?

-Sure.

She came into the kitchen and scanned the counter.

-You have a jar of flour.

-Yeah, but no butter, milk, or anything else.  We don’t even have sugar left.

-True, but you can eat flour.  Just put it in a little water.  

-Ew.  Isn’t that dangerous?

She thought about it for a second.

-You can get sick from raw flour, sure.  But it’s a small chance.  Whereas, if you don’t eat anything at all, you have a quite high chance of starving to death.  

-Fair point.  How much do you eat?

-You might find this hard to believe, but I’ve never studied the recommended daily allowances of raw flour.  I’d just eat as much as you need.  But don’t overdo it.  Just have a spoonful at a time, and then wait awhile.  It might take some time to get into your system, and you don’t have a lot of it.  

-We’re gonna have to go out eventually.  There’s probably still food at the store, but if we wait too long other people are gonna clear it out.  

-I agree.  That’s part of the reason I came down.

-You want to go together?

-No, uh, how should I put this?  I’m not sure you’d be tremendously helpful, if I’m being honest.

-That wasn’t it.

-Pardon?

-Whatever you were trying to say, that wasn’t how you should have put it.  

She missed the humor.

-Right, well, I think I remember that you and Amy go camping, and have camping supplies, right?

-Yeah.

-You mentioned a machete once.  Do you still have it?

-A machete? Yeah, we do, but why?

-In case somebody tries to infect me.  I’d rather have three feet of steel between me and them.  

-So your plan is to go shopping, and to chop up anybody who gets in your way?

She smiled.  

-Something like that.  

-Why not just find a gun?

-This is New York City.  Where do you expect I’d find a gun?

I shrugged.

-Besides, guns are loud, and I don’t want to attract attention.  Now, can I please borrow your machete?

I fetched it from the closet.

-I’m bringing a big backpack; I’ll grab you some supplies as well.  If it goes well I’ll make a bunch of trips while it’s light out.  

-Be careful.  

-I will.  That’s what this is for.

She brandished the weapon and struck a martial pose with it.

-I’ll be back.

The door closed.  

I went back into the kitchen, feeling a little sore at Helen’s lack of confidence.  Why didn’t she think I’d be helpful?  I mean, I’m not exactly the fighting sort, but I could at least have helped carry things back.  

I looked at the sad stacks of spices and teas.  Tea would be nice, at least it has flavor.  The gas had been off for three days, after a few explosions elsewhere in Jackson Heights.  I could put some tea in cold water and shake it around, it would be something to do.  

I heard creaking in the hallway, and went to look.  It was Amy.

-Hey!  You’re up!

-I couldn’t sleep.  There’s this cat screaming upstairs.

-Yeah, I heard him earlier.

-Where’s Helen?

-She went on a mission to get some food from the store.

-She did?!  Is that safe?

-Not really.  She borrowed our machete.

-Are you serious?  

-Yep.

There was a brief pause, and then she started laughing, shaking in her purple bathrobe.  It was contagious, and we both doubled over.

-I’m just imagining her like the tomb raider or something, cleaving her way through zombies and fetching the hidden treasures in the canned soup aisle.

-Do you want some cold tea?

-That sounds lovely.  

I made a second cup, using the cocktail shaker to steep it faster.  We sat in the living room near the window and clinked mugs.  The tea tasted bitter.

-Did she say when she’d be back?

-Soon.  She’s gonna make a bunch of trips.  

-I want to check on that cat upstairs.

Amy, we can’t.  It’s too dangerous.  

-If Helen can go to the supermarket, we can go up a flight of stairs.

-And kick through the door?

-I mean, maybe.

-That’s going to draw attention from anyone in earshot.  Also, she has our machete.  

She thought about that and frowned.

-Well, maybe when she gets back we can ask her.  

I doubted that level-headed Helen would be receptive to a “save the cat” mission, especially when food was already in short supply, but I figured it wasn’t worth the battle.

-Sure, sweetie, we’ll ask her.

-Is there any news?

-No, cable’s still down, so there’s no internet.  And NPR is running yesterday’s news on a loop.  

-That’s weird.

-Yeah.  Doesn’t sound great.  

We sat there in silence and nursed our tea.

-Helen should be back by now.  

-Maybe she took a load back to her place first.  She likes to be prepared.  

-Yeah, maybe.  

I pulled the curtains open and looked out on the street.  It was empty.  

-How long do you think this is going to last?

-I don’t want to guess.  I think we should just get as much food as we need for as long as we can.  They’ll probably have to send in the military or something to clean this up, and I’m guessing we’ll want to just be hunkered down at home until that happens.  

 

We finished our tea. There wasn’t much more to talk about.  I pulled a book off the shelf, some vampire story by Anne Rice, one of the newer ones. I was about twenty pages into it when Amy called from by the window.

-Uh, baby?  

-Yeah?

-Can you take a look at this?

I put a bookmark in and closed the novel, crossing the room to her.  She pointed out the window.

-Is that ours?

At first I didn’t see anything.  Then I saw a glint of light coming from the intersection, barely within view.  It was a machete on the ground.

-Oh, shit.

Amy took three fast, deep breaths and began to cry.  I was stunned.  

-What are we going to do?

I couldn’t think of any good response.  

-Do you think she maybe made it back inside?

-Probably not.  She wouldn’t have left her weapon.  

-Maybe she dropped it so she could run faster.

That sounded unlikely.

-Maybe.

We sat on the couch, holding each other.  I was staring at the wall, unable to will myself into action.  Amy curled into a ball next to me.  I listed for the cat, and didn’t hear it yelling anymore.  After a few minutes, I heard another noise.

-I think there’s someone in the hallway.

She didn’t respond.  I carefully disentangled myself from her body and walked to the door.  There was definitely somebody moving around on our floor. I opened the peephole.  

I could see the back of an unfamiliar head just five feet from our door.  I leaned into get a closer look, and made a dull thud as the door leaned forward in its frame.  The head turned around sharply, and I saw the rheumy eyes of a sick person.  

All at once, he lurched forward and started violently coughing toward the peephole.  I jumped back, grateful for the small piece of glass that had just saved me from certain infection.  I heard the sound of running in the hallway, and then the sounds of several more sick people coughing insistently at the closed door.  They pushed against it, but not hard, and it was bolted from the inside.

-What’s going on?

Amy was standing in the living room.  She looked concerned, and the concern turned to fear when she saw my face.

-Is that…?

-Yeah.  Let’s stay away from the door.

-Can they get in?

-I don’t think so.

The coughing didn’t stop, a wheezing, rasping series of explosive hacks separated from us by just a few slabs of plywood.  

The lights turned off, flickered on again, and then went out for good.

Amy walked up to me and enveloped me in her bathrobe, the purple terrycloth warm against the gooseflesh of my arms.

-I’m scared.

-Yeah, baby, I’m scared too.

 

Published in: on October 24, 2017 at 11:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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