Pestilence – Kim Faulks

Dad used to tell me all great changes are preceded by chaos. It’s how I used to fall asleep…listening to the screams outside. I remind myself of that as I look at what’s left of my world. But the question still haunts me—the one that went hand in hand with that special kind of wisdom… Is this the great change he talked about? Or was this still the chaos? I used to think about that a lot. Now, I just try not to think. I lifted my head to the howl of wind as it tore along the street at St Martin’s Plaza. It was a howl of vengeance, a howl of rage—one I felt to my soul. I hunkered in the shadows under the torn metal sheeting, waiting for a break in the slick shit that fell from the sky. I hated this place. Hated what was left of this world. Hated what I’d become. Gone was the stupid girl who cared about clothes, and make-up, and my terrified first days of college. That was over three years ago—if I counted right. Three long years alone. Those things seemed so petty now.

I lifted my hand to the weathered skin on my cheek. None of those things would keep me alive—none would keep me safe—none would bring back my family, or my friends. None would change the person I’d become. The real me…the end of the world me. This me was a scavenger, a hoarder. I broke into people’s homes and rifled through their things. I stole food, soap, books to read and blankets when the cold nights came. I stole everything I could carry—and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I was alone, and had been alone for a long time now. I wanted to leave, but leaving meant I’d leave my home, and everything I knew, behind.

I stared at the dark steps of the subway station. I couldn’t leave—not yet—not physically, at least. But I could with my mind. I could escape the memories, and the voices. I could use whatever I had to just sleep and not dream…just this once. Just this day. Harlow, are you coming? I shook my head. Not yet. Please, not yet. I wasn’t ready.

The slow, rhythmic thud of my heart picked up pace. My hand went for the crook of my elbow, an ache flared, spearing deeper than a needle ever could. I needed to get underground, needed to… numb the voices. Thick golden clouds shone above. Their bellies were bright and perfect, but the edges were stained with gray and steeped with poison and hate—and it was all our doing. Genetically modified. DNA enhanced. The Government became the almighty power. They bent nature—they harnessed energy. They created Heaven on earth, so they said.

But the lightning rod they held became a gateway. First came the storms, then the floods, and then the blinding sun so hot it burned cars to the roads along with the people trapped in them. Droughts and floods gave way to desperation. The more we turned to the Government, the more they took control…and then came the plague. It swept across the nation in chilling waves and consumed all. The black disease was unlike any other. One they couldn’t control. One they couldn’t stop. They tried. I lifted my gaze to what was left of them trying.

The words CDC were splashed across the faded banners—Centers for Disease Control. But there was no saving anyone at all. First it took my Mom, and then my sister, Sarah, until Dad and I were the only ones left. We tried to get out, tried to find our way to Grandma Hilly and Poppa Joe. But there was no leaving—not once they barricaded the city…not once those left behind became a law unto themselves and called themselves The Mighty. So we returned home. We survived. We hid and we hated. We stole and suffered. Those who remained alive didn’t come outside anymore.

Not for food—not even for shelter. But those who did come out here, those who braved the streets were searching… searching for peace. Searching for purpose. Or Nirvana. All the horror, all those lost. We did this. We’d brought this on ourselves. The gutted shops blurred into the background as I stepped out of the darkness and into the light. There was no going back now—I glanced at the high windows—others would be watching from up there in their towers. Others like me who knew only one law—the only one that ever mattered… Survival.

I drove my boot into the cracked asphalt and stepped over the curb. The gust snagged a piece of paper from somewhere and slammed it against the green paint-chipped pole in front of me. Book of Revelations was splashed in perfect print along the top. I stared at the crisp white paper and kept on moving. Revelations…somewhere I’d heard that word before. My boot kicked the uneven edges of the asphalt where the whip grass shot high in thick green tufts. I pitched forward, steps stuttering, heart hammering, before I regained my footing and found the first stair to the subway station. The darkness rose as I sank into the shadows, swallowing my legs, my waist…my chest. There was a moment of panic, as the inky void stole my sight and the world blurred into nothing. But nothing was what I wanted, wasn’t it? Nothing was why I left the safety of my home.

It’s why I left clean water and a stockpile of food. I left it all to come here. Because this was where you found Nirvana. The thud of my boots echoed, rebounding against the walls to slam into me. I stilled long enough to glance over my shoulder to the golden glow above. Night would come fast, and steal the light. But it didn’t matter. We were already in darkness—already waiting for the end of it all. The muffled cry of a woman echoed long and sorrowful. It was a background track to every night, and every day.

One that’d been on repeat for the last three years. One I knew well. Harlow? Doncha know what day it is? I ignored that voice, eased against the railing and followed the stairs all the way to the bottom. Black on black moved, shadows against a midnight world. There was a snuff, a breath. I blinked, waited for my eyes to adjust and pushed forward. He leaned against the wall to the platform, one leg kicked high, sole flat against the wall. I caught the turn of his head as I moved closer, and the wisp of long dark hair from under his hoodie. He knew why I was here. It was the same reason everyone came here —to escape.

“Whadda ya got?” I licked my lips, my right hand curled tight around the can, leaving the small cans hidden deep within my pockets. “Food, a can…not opened—you can check for yourself.” A click sounded. The bright flash of torchlight cut through the gloom. His hand shot out, palm up—wanting. I licked my lips and stared at his other hand. Trust. I hated that feeling. Hated the way it made my pulse race. Hated the way it made me feel weak.

But I was here for a reason. He knew it. I knew it. He has something I wanted. Something that was worth being vulnerable for even if it was only for tonight. Do you know what day it is? You get double presents. “You want it or not?” My fingers curled, dragging the can from the front pocket of my jacket, and handed it over. “No label?” The glare hit my eyes. I shook my head and stared into the blur. “It was gone when I found it.

But it’s right there…it’s right there on the top.” The glare glanced off the metal as he turned it over. “Chicken cacciatore? What the fuck is that?” I swallowed hard, fingers dancing, playing a goddamn tune in the air. I clenched my fist, stilling the tremble, and waited. He didn’t want a response. He’d either take it, or not…and if he didn’t… I swallowed hard. Don’t think about it. We’re not there yet. We’re not even close. I swallowed a shiver as the cold raced along my spine.

The ice started somewhere in the pit of my soul, it raced through my veins, lingering in the hollow of my arm—a cruel itch, a gnawing itch. “You know how long it’s been since I had chicken?” I waited, silent. My fingers went to my arm, finding the raised marks. Please, please just take the damn can. It’s good…I promise it’s good. I licked my lips. I knew how long it’d been…three years. Long enough for the taste to live in our memories—long enough for the need to survive. I fear what happens when all of the food is gone. I fear a lot of things now—fear being lonely, fear leaving this world alone.

For now, I don’t think about it. The thoughts come and they go. No, I don’t think about it—not anymore. For now, I’m alive, and I’ll stay alive for as long as I can. I’ll fight, I’ll steal, I’ll trade a can of food for a night of dreamless sleep and tomorrow, when I wake from this dark, underground station, I’ll go back home, back to the rats and the cockroaches—back to searching for food and staying hidden. He ran the crooked edge of his nail along the steel rim, searching…hope flared. Maybe he wanted it? Maybe chicken cacciatore was gonna keep the demons at bay? The steel was gone in the blink of an eye, tucked away under layers and layers of clothes. He dragged his hand free, fingers curled tight. But I caught the shine of glass. The torch clicked off.

Darkness descended. I opened my hand, warm glass in the middle of my palm. “It’s strong, strongest batch I could make. And it’s the last—you hear me?” I licked my lips and nodded. Still his hand never moved. “Harlow?” “Yeah,” I whispered. “Yeah, I hear you.” The warmth of his flesh left mine. I shuddered with the touch, so fucking alien. No one touched me—no one touched anyone.

Not anymore. Especially not him. There was no kindness in this world—my heart skipped and surged as I closed my fingers around the vial—no warmth, no comfort. Nothing but this…nothing but Nirvana. I turned and left him standing there with his pocket full of chicken cacciatore, and the memory of days long past on the tip of his tongue. “Hey,” he called, stilling my step. “You want to share it?” I flinched, and swallowed hard. “No…thank you.” “Suit yourself. If you want it, you know where I am.

” I wanted only one thing from him…but he wanted a lot more from me—chicken cacciatore could fill his belly, but it wouldn’t warm his bed, it wouldn’t moan and shudder —it wouldn’t give him what he really wanted—power and control. The soft sobs grew louder as I left the dealer behind and made for the other end of the platform. I gripped the vial in my pocket, walked to the edge and jumped down. Rocks tumbled under my steps as I crossed the silent tracks. I’d stay here in the train station, just for tonight. Out there, night would come fast. There wasn’t time to get back home. Besides, no one came down here—not anymore. Thick, heavy whimpers grew louder the closer I came. I dragged my hand free and neared the next platform.

Muscles tightened, tendons strained, as I gripped the edge and climbed, lifting my foot high to catch the edge of the concrete. Muscles quivered, thigh tensed, driving me higher as I straightened. I looked over my shoulder to the darkness behind me. The dealer was gone now, lost in the void of this place. But I’d gotten what I came for, peace, even if it was just tonight. “Can you help me?” a woman called. Shadows blurred with the movement. “There’s something wrong with my baby.” I glanced at the long bank of toilets in the middle of the platform. They were the only ones here, the only place with a door and a lock to shut the world out, while I shut out the dreams and the voices.

The faint red glow from the emergency lights were a beacon. I shook my head and stepped backwards. “No, stay away from me.” “My baby,” she wept and held out a thick bundle. My steps were awkward as I lunged backwards and raised my hand. “Get the fuck away from me. Get that thing away.” I didn’t need to see her baby…didn’t need to see a damn thing at all. The smell gave it all away. “My baby,” she whispered.

“My beautiful baby.” I kept her in my sight as she lowered her gaze. The bitter stench of rot wafted with the rustle of the blanket, and the jingle of a rattle filled the air, reminding me what day it was… Christmas. The red glow of the toilets was all I needed. I didn’t know how the lights still ran after all this time. Dad told me it was solar. That, even though the power grids were down, there was still ways we could gain power. We could rebuild, he told me. Humanity could still survive, but we just needed a reason to try. But Dad was gone now, like everyone else.

This was me surviving, this was me trying…one day at a time. I headed for the last door of the toilets. It’s strong, strongest batch I could make. And it’s the last—you hear me? I heard him…loud and clear. The dull ache of hunger reared, spearing through me like lightning. My hands trembled, I splayed my fingers wide and gripped the handle. In those moments after Dad was gone, I prayed for the plague to come for me. I gathered myself and walked outside. I screamed and screamed. My rage bounced off the darkened windows and howled like a hurricane along the empty streets.

Still, nothing came to kill me. Not the plague, not The Mighty. Not even my own strength to end it all. I don’t remember how long I stood there in the cold and the dark, until finally I turned and walked back inside. There were no screams left now. This version of me could only murmur. Only whisper. Only plead for the voices to stay away with the tip of a dirty needle. I gripped the toilet door and yanked. Wood squealed against the cracked tiled floor.

The faint stench of piss and terror still lingered. I hit the lock, shoving the bolt all the way home and made for the busted porcelain sink. Harlow…you coming? The faint sound of my sister’s voice surfaced. It was too soon…like the dead were waiting, hungry, desperate for their pound of flesh. Christmas or your birthday? Take your pick… “My birthday, silly.” The words slipped from my lips without a thought, and the echo rebounded. I lifted my head, and stared at the reflection in the cracked glass mirror. “What are you doing? Don’t answer them. You know better than that.” Don’t answer the dreams, or the memories.

They weren’t real—none of it was real. You get double presents… I held that stare, held it until the blue eyes blurred. Who has a birthday on Christmas day? “I do.” I whispered but it was Sarah’s voice I heard…You do. Echoes. That’s all they were. I pulled the vial free and sat it against the rim. The thin, metal container was next, rattling with the tremble. I opened the kit, pulled out the syringe and the tie. Harlow…are you coming? Desperation bloomed, clenching my throat, forcing the words to the surface.

“Yes, I’m coming, just give me a minute.” You’re slow. You’re always slow. I’m going downstairs. Always slow. I gripped the needle in one hand and the vial in the other. The tip pierced the rubber stopper, crusted blood floated in the barrel as I pulled the plunger. The black markers were faded now—not that I needed them. I drew the black stopper all the way to the end. Outside in the darkness, the woman wept.

I dragged the needle free and opened my mouth. Lips curled, teeth a vise around the plastic. I rolled and pushed, sliding my jacket, the sweater, and the sleeve of my shirt high. The raised gouges threw shadows against my skin. I stabbed the groove, finding the faint throb deep. I forced my finger between the tendons to the vein, grabbed the tie and wound it tight. Harlow…Sarah called.

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