Tins clanked as empty food wrappers rustled in the corner. Jewboy’s head came up fast.
It felt like they’d been in the stores for weeks, the air was so stale it felt like you needed teeth just to breathe it.
‘We’re going to die in here aren’t we?’
It was the most Dr. Sever had said since the wet sound of meat being torn to pieces had ended the begging from the door’s far side. At least she’d spoken, Jewboy had been beginning to worry the woman wedged into the rooms far corner had been struck dumb. The food by her side had stayed where he’d left it as she stared at the splinters round it’s edges like she could hammer them back with her eyes.
‘Maybe, they sound weaker now; it could be wearing off. When was the last time you heard anyone scream? A week?’
‘I can’t remember. If we’d have gotten further…haven’t been myself, I expect.’
He was surprised she’d admitted that much. He’d never seen her admit to weakness in all the days since the program started. Then again he hadn’t been either, and he hadn’t seen what they’d done to the rest of her team. Sever put a finger between her teeth and spat it out, frustrated by the lack of fingernail.
Jewboy thought of his kids. He’d taken the placement for them, ‘Volunteering’ they’d called it. A fast track to freedom. Judging by what he could see through the room’s safety glass he might as well have not bothered. They’d be as dead as the rest of the town, and that was if they been lucky.
‘What was it your Dad said? You know, about the operatives eating?’
‘Nothing useful. Just the same right wing propaganda, farmers are all the same round here.’
In fact, he’d talked about pretty much nothing else at breakfast for months before it happened. They deserved it; they had a debt to pay to society, they needed to learn their lesson. But Jewboy hadn’t been able to stop himself thinking it doesn’t matter if they ‘volunteered,’ or what meds you feed them. What was the old saying? ‘Civilization is twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism?’ It hadn’t been long before they’d found bones in the fields.
It was the closure’s that had sparked the riots as the unregulated began to be laid off. No one had really thought about what would happen when the corporations dismembered the smaller farms; the ones that had said no to the program from the start. Since then the problem had spread until it had been at the institute’s gates. The early harvest that had burst from the rows of parched corn had changed that.
When the pods had opened. Jewboy brought his eyes down from the window and the clouds of smoke just visible outside. It was hard to scrub from your eyes no matter how hard you tried. He’d never seen insects like that, even if the sight had vanished quick as they began to burrow.
‘What are we going to do Jewboy?’
‘I don’t know. Whatever it is it’ll have to be soon; we’ve no more food.’
He looked at the corner they’d been using as a garbage can. You couldn’t really call it that anymore; cess pit would be a better word.
‘Can you drive?’
‘Only an automatic.’
Neither could he, not really. The blow that had opened the gash on the side of his face had healed, but his legs still felt weak. One was probably broken. He’d certainly screamed enough at the start. There was a car outside close enough to spit on, but he hadn’t been able to hobble across the storeroom without wanting to yell bloody murder. If you counted the drop, there was no guarantee he’d make it without passing out.
‘That jeep might start.’ He made sure Sever could see what he meant. ‘If we’re lucky they’ll have left.’
‘What if they haven’t?’
‘Sever, we stay here much longer we’ll never leave. I can move now. You got a family doesn’t you?’
It was a low blow, but at least it was only her expression that crumpled.
Then we’re driving out of here. After that; I don’t know.’
‘We’re three stories up, and that’s not a window; it’s a cat flap. That’s why I chose this place.’
‘Lucky, you’ve got me here then. It’s quietened down enough now; see that?’
Jewboy points at the fire escape bolted to the institute’s side. ‘We’re going out on it. I’ll pull the wires off the alarm. Trust me; I’ve got the experience.’
He pointed at the patch stuck to his overalls and ignored her frown.
‘We were supposed to have burnt that out by now.’
‘Your program needs work Doctor, but it’ll take a lot more than what’s left out there now to rebuild it.’
He envied the other inmates; at least they hadn’t known what would happen to them if they were caught. The fury outside had died down, but not before they’d gotten a good idea of what happened to those they dragged away.
‘I hate them.’
For a minute Jewboy’s confused, the harvest that had sprung from the fields, or the inmates on the program? Sever’s fingers beat a tattoo on the linoleum.
‘They’ve gone and mucked it all up. All those lives lost, some of those scientists were my friends. The subjects should have run when they had the chance if they hated the treatment so much. They volunteered.’
Jewboy decided not to mention that they hadn’t had much choice, incarceration in the collapsing prison system hadn’t been much fun even before the food crisis. He looked outside again; Whitewater’s streets had been bad enough before, now they looked a whole lot worse. He’s impressed it had taken the budget of an operation like the CDC to make the shit hole into a hell hole.
‘Come on, let’s just get it over with shall we? One way or another we’ll know where we stand soon.’
He makes sure he sounds confident. It looks like she needs it, and he doesn’t want any problems when they hit the street.
The window cracks open without a sound although the relief doesn’t last long. It’s worse than he’d thought; bodies lie twisted around each other like worms, and they’re lit by dozens of fires. He supposes he shouldn’t be surprised; there were enough combustibles in the institute to keep it burning for a week.
‘You hear that?’
He keeps his voice low, as something rustles in the shadows, and there’s that sound again, the one that had made his skin crawl as they’d hid in the store room’s depths. It sounds like the ocean sighing. Sever points at the vehicle, and tries not to break his arm.
Jewboy follows her finger. The jeep better work, because the shapes emerging from the streets around them look a lot worse than dead. The spray’s burnt holes in them so deep he can see bone. Something slips from one cavity to another faster than his eyes can follow.
‘Poor bastards they’d have been better off if their hearts had stopped.’
Sever looks like she’s watching an animal perform tricks, ‘What’s wrong with them do you think? We should take one with us.’
She should know, it was her that designed the program. Jewboy’s not shy of reminding her.
‘Crashing, they won’t last long without another dose, and we’re not taking anyone anywhere. They’ll be in a lot of pain.’
His father had told him about that. He’d been one of the specialists, part of the corps assigned to look after the labor pools. It was a well-known family secret what that entailed. You kept the workers at their posts anyway you could, medication did the trick just fine.
‘Are they going to hurt us?’
‘Depends how desperate they’ve got. We were lucky they’d already been through the stores. They’ll be itching inside by now.’
He thought how that would feel; to know what was crawling through you while you could still think, and fought the urge to stick his fingers down his throat. He’d been lucky; the research hadn’t progressed far when Sever had taken pity on him. He’d been lucky she’d recognized him at all. They weren’t going to be kind if they caught up with her; they certainly hadn’t been with the rest.
The murmur from the torn throats rustling in the breeze redoubles, and a woman’s tonsils rattle. He watches as something like fleas crawl over its surface; fascinated by the life that keeps it moving.
Jewboy grabs Sever’s hand as more appear behind her, and pulls her with him until they make the car. He slams his foot against the window, but it barely cracks the glass. He’s winding up for a second go when the brick flies past his head.
‘You needed help.’
Sever shrugs her shoulders.
‘Don’t run,’ It’s the woman he’d spotted a minute ago, he’s amazed she can speak at all. There’s so many holes in her face it looks like it should slip off.
‘We’re not going to hurt you.’
He’d have preferred threats, but it’s not the hosts he’s really worried about it’s what’s inside them.
‘…just want to talk….’
It looks like they’ve chosen her as spokeswoman; there’s more meat left on her throat than the rest, although the others aren’t shy of adding encouragement. Jewboy tries the direct approach.
‘Leave us alone, or I’ll make you feel worse than you do already.’
‘Can’t do that…’
‘See they’re hungry.’
‘All of them, and we’ve run out.’
‘…don’t have the goods…’
‘What? Who? Look we don’t have anything, just leave us alone.’
Jewboy shoves Sever behind him as he finishes smashing the glass out of the window, and tries to work out if they can make it without the car if it doesn’t start.
‘All the little uns…Mary… Ryan…Scott.’
‘Don’t forget mine.’
‘Yours as well yes…’
‘They had it…we had to.’
‘We did…but you have more. They can feel it.’
The woman’s fingers tear at her throat chasing the shapes burrowing there, and Jewboy sees a tear leak from the corner of one bloodshot eye.
‘Stay away; there’s nothing we can do to help you.’
The rest of the crowd’s heads come up like water in the wake of a boat, and their eyes focus on the escapees. But, Jewboys already under the dash. Sever hasn’t said a word since she broke the window, and he daren’t look up to see why. He’s not sure he’d be able to start again. Stars erupt behind his eyes as the engine catches and he hits the wheel with his head.
‘Get in; we’re out of here.’
They’re close; a hundred, maybe two, stubbornly warm bodies pack the street.
His voice jolts her into motion.
She gives them the finger and the engine roars as they wheel spin down the street. Another minute and they’d have been driving through a wall of bodies. There’s a bump as someone goes under the wheels; then another, and they’re bouncing down the nearest one way.
‘What have they done?’
Severs voice is low like she doesn’t want to say the words as they reach the suburbs and rise into the hills. What’s left of the town spreads out below them. They can trace the damage that’s gnawed through it like teeth tearing at an apple. There’s not a soul moving down there now even the slow ebb of people creeping their way in pursuit like blind men shuffling toward the light has vanished. Jewboy swerves, muttering under his breath as he passes another barricade.
‘Where are we going?’
‘I just wanted out of there.’ Jewboy shifts down a gear as the incline gets worse, ‘You’re the brains of the operation.’
‘What about our families?’
Happier times flash across his mind, but he’s having none of it.
‘There’s no one down there Sever, no one alive at any rate. ‘
He shrugged and kept his eyes on the road, but it gets hard to see when he thinks of the kids. Something soft brushes his cheek, and he moves his head in time to see Sever sitting back. It’s all he can do to keep the car heading straight.
‘Why’d you do that?’
‘It was only a peck; you wanted me too, didn’t you? And you’re doing your best to save us.’
‘I don’t know if it’s going to be good enough,’ Jewboy’s silent for a moment, ‘If we go by your driveway will that be enough?’
When it’s done, they sit in silence. Driving the massive automobile any further doesn’t feel worth it anymore.
‘Do you think they…?’
‘Maybe, I shouldn’t have taken you, I’m sorry.’
They hadn’t found them, not breathing at any rate. They hadn’t even found much of their homes either, just smoking ruins and bits of their loved ones scattered over the grass. All of town had been connected to the institute one way, or another, and the operatives had made sure they shared their vengeance equally. Jewboy’s the one finding it hardest to deal with; it’s the first time he’s run from a fight in his life, and the result’s strewn all over his front lawn. The Doctor’s yet to shed a tear. He thinks its shock, but it’s hard to tell. She looks like she’s watching things unreel in a place that has nothing to do with the remnants of the town they’d both grown up in. Sever speaks first, ‘It was my fault. When you’re rested, we’ll leave. I know a place.’
‘There’s a lake. We used to go fishing there. It’ll be alright you’ll see.’
‘That’s what you said before; I don’t know if I believe you anymore.’
‘Why wouldn’t you?’
Her fingers feel cool; like glass as she lifts them to his chin. He’s grateful for their touch; they stop the images of Mum and Dad unreeling through his head.
‘It’s easiest if I show you.’
This time she kisses him properly, on the lips; it’s like crushing butterfly wings.
The first thing Jewboy thinks when he’s able to is there’s been a car crash. Someone must have hit them, and she’d got him back to the institute, although there’s none of the damage there’d been when they left. He tries asking what’s going on, but if anything comes out of his mouth, he can’t hear it. A woman with metal gray hair, and a Doctors uniform is towering over a female operative that’s just been given their meds. She has the type of beauty Jewboy’s shy of looking at for fear of spoiling it; even curled up on the floor. It takes him a moment to work out it’s a younger version of Sever. When the older woman moves closer, still she moves so fast he can’t follow her. There’s too much blood as the scene bursts apart like someone’s disturbed a wasp’s nest.
Jewboy gets the feeling he’s been spared, and when he can see again she’s in another room, and she’s much younger. It’s dark, and lockers march away further than he can see. There’s a movement in the shadows and a man dressed in sports clothes approaches. Sever looks brittle as though the journey to get to here has abraded her somehow, and the gear she’s wearing looks worn and tatty. He lifts a hand to her face, and for a moment it looks like it’s trying to crawl away. It’s an old game and not a pleasant one, that much is obvious. Jewboy doesn’t want to see any more.
He doesn’t have a choice.
When the man is done he feels cold, and a lot older than twenty. The sports hall fades to be replaced by a child’s bedroom, and there’s plenty of noise now. Shouting thumps through the dusty carpet, and there are footfalls on the steps outside. It looks like a tornado has ripped through it. Jewboy can tell this is the worst of the bunch. This man’s face stays in the shadows where the light from the one up ended lamp doesn’t reach. His hands are huge and broken knuckled, and when he finally enters the light Jewboy can see the family resemblance.
Fresh air rushes over Jewboy. He gasps, and for a moment he wonders if he can stop. He wants that cold, clean air to fill his lungs and wash away what he’s seen. But, it’s over, at least it is for him. He can feel the car seat sticking to his skin. The sun’s leaving the city for the night. They’ve been waiting he can see that much as explosions dot the horizon, and Sever looks at him with eyes so dark he can’t see anything in their depths.
It’s the same voice as well. The one he fell in love with a long while back
‘Good, that’s what I didn’t tell you when we started working together.’ She pauses looking down the hillside as explosions crawl into the sky. ‘That’s why I made them eat their kids.’
Centum Press – Sept 2016 ‘100 Voices’ (Anth)