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.

 

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Published in: on October 24, 2017 at 11:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ahead of the Rain

This is a short story I published in July 2016.  I am currently using it as a prologue to a longer work.  This story was first published in Flash Fiction Press.  All rights reserved. 

Town by town, she kept moving, always bound for the south, always, it seemed, one step ahead of the rainstorm. The country here was empty, no people to be seen. There were few roads, if these dusty, meandering trails through the brush could even properly be called roads. No matter, they were useless for navigation. She knew to keep the sun on her left in the mornings, and on her right later in the day. She did not travel at night.

When she could, she slept in a barn or, less frequently, on a couch or a bed begged from the local population.

-Please, I’m heading south. May I sleep here tonight?

Some people looked at her with kindness, empathy even. A few responded with contempt.

-Get off my property. Now! Don’t make me call the law!

Most, though, simply nodded with grave understanding. This silent majority accommodated her as best they could, but without warmth. They didn’t like her. They didn’t want her there. But they understood her reasons, and made space for the night.

She was tired, more tired than usual. The past night she spent under a tree. The only man-made structure in sight, a decrepit silo, she figured more likely to collapse in her sleep than to provide any sort of worthwhile shelter. The night had been cold; she slept poorly.

It was her fifteenth day on the road. The air was blowing, west to east, the air thick with moisture. There were clouds rimming the sky near her to the north, passing her by on their eastward journey. She hoped to stay ahead of them. She was not outfitted for the rain.

The sun was making its downward arc in earnest; there were only a few hours of daylight left. She could see smoke rising over the horizon, a town like as not, and she walked faster, hoped to get to shelter before stopping for the night.

Within an hour, she saw a large unpainted barn, and a small house nearby. Civilization, or its nearest approximation in this stretch of the plains. She walked up towards the door, pausing to run her fingers through her hair, to clear some of the dirt off her face. First impressions were everything.

The door opened before she even knocked, catching her off guard. A large man, white, middle-aged, in overalls, looked at her with surprise.

-Can I help you?
-Please, sir, I’m heading south. May I sleep here tonight?

He frowned and considered it a moment, then pointed to the barn.

-The back corner stays pretty warm. If it starts raining, move under the loft near the hay. I’ll fetch you some blankets.

He walked back into the house without inviting her to follow. She stood there, relieved and frightened. He returned in moments.

-Here’s some blankets. They’re old, I was gonna donate them to the church anyway. You can keep them if you want.

She nodded her thanks.

-I ‘spect you’ll be wanting some dinner, too. My wife’ll fetch you some after we eat, won’t be too long now. There’s a water pump out back. Do your business in the outhouse, not in the barn. And don’t steal nothin’.

He walked past her, still frowning. She wanted to ask him where she was, but kept silent. She took the blankets and made for the barn. The door opened easy and wide. It was smaller than it looked from the outside, home to some forgotten farm vehicle that hadn’t been used in the past decade, judging from the rust. There were no animals she could see, just dirt and hay and various farming implements.

The back corner was already cleared. Straw had been neatly placed in the shape of a small human. A trace of body odor lingered; she was not the first to rest here. She dropped her blankets and her satchel. A few photographs, a letter from her mom, some official-looking papers whose significance she didn’t understand, but that she judged too important to discard. A single change of clothes. All her belongings in the world. She sighed.

She tucked the satchel under the blankets and left the barn, walked around back, found the water pump. She pulled the lever a dozen or so times until a trickle of water came out. She cupped her hands, splashed and scrubbed at her face, watched the dirt and the grime turn the runoff brown. She picked at her fingernails, trying to clear the stubborn black filth under them. The road had dirtied her entire body, but the nails were the only part that really bothered her. Made her feel less feminine. Less real.

After five minutes or so she stopped. There was still plenty of cleaning to do, but she didn’t want to overtax the pump. The sun was setting, the day was spent. She went back into the barn and laid down. An hour passed. Dinner never came. Her stomach was angry and loud, but she wasn’t starving. She could find some food tomorrow, in the town. She fell asleep.

She woke to find the straw next to her damp. Had the rains come at last? No, it was only the morning dew, condensation dripping on her from the boards above. It was already light; day was wasting. She bundled her things together, looked over the ratty blankets. They weren’t much, but they weren’t heavy, and you never did know when such things would become needful. She wrapped them up and took them along, left the straw sleeping place for its next occupant.

As she was closing up the barn, the house door opened and she caught the eye of a middle-aged woman, who set down a broom and walked over to her.

-Hello. Does Jim know you’re here?
-Yes ma’am. He told me I could sleep in the back corner of your barn. Sorry to startle you.

The woman sighed.

-He didn’t mention it to me, or I’da brought you supper. You hungry now?

She thought a moment. The sun was already up, and she needed to get some miles covered. But she needed food, too, and better to take it early and sure.

-I’d appreciate it.
-C’mon in.

She followed the woman into the home. It was small, cluttered. There were just two seats in the kitchen, and a small card table between them. The woman cracked some eggs.

-Jim’s in town, probably won’t be back for a few hours. I reckon you got to get back to the road?
-Yes ma’am. What town are we near?
-You’re in Lincoln.

Damn, she thought. I drifted west. I wonder how many days this has cost me.

-I need to get south, tryin’ to stay ahead of the rain.
-You’re the third this week. Ain’t just our house, either: they say there’s a brown river flowin’ south. Not meanin’ any offense.
-None taken.

The woman dished up four scrambled eggs and put them in front of her.

-Just stay clear of Wichita. They’re givin’ folks trouble there. They won’t kill ya, but they’ll delay ya.
-I only got three weeks.

The woman nodded gravely.

-We don’t know what’s gonna happen then. They always talk that stuff to get votes. I don’t figure they’ll actually do any of it. He ain’t said much since the election…

The eggs were dry, but some salt made them passable. Besides, she was hungry. She scarfed them down while the woman watched her with sad eyes.

-I’m just sayin’, a politician’s word ain’t worth much. Why, they’d promise everyone a tractor if they thought it’d get them elected. Doesn’t mean they’re gonna do it. And they prob’ly won’t do nothin’ bout y’all.
-I ain’t stayin’ to find out.

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.

-You, uh, need anything? It’s a long way down there.
-Thank you, ma’am, but I think I’m all set up. Thank you for the breakfast.
-We’re Christians here. We help how we can.

She nodded and went on her way, measuring out a south by southeast direction with the sun. Behind her, just barely, thick gray clouds pushed from west to east. An occasional distant rumble reminded her of the storm that now surely raged on the path she had been on just hours before.

She couldn’t hear the rain, though. Maybe it was one of those dry storms so particular to the plains, all roar and no soak, as her mom used to say. Silly to be scared of a storm like that.

Of course, by the time she found out the difference it’d be too late to stay dry.

-AG

Published in: on April 11, 2017 at 7:36 am  Leave a Comment  
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