“She got bit?” My stomach tightens. My breath comes in fast gulps. I squeeze Polly’s toddler arm too tight and her little eyes widen. She squirms out of my grasp, running to Cora. “Why didn’t you tell me? What were you thinking? I can’t even, Cora. I can’t even.”
“It’s not – kids bite each other all the time,” she says, trying to be soothing. But her hand settles at the base of her throat. She’s nervous. She hugs Polly tighter and kisses the bitten arm.
“Not now. Not anymore.” I don’t say what I mean. Maybe I should say it. Maybe I’m not saving Cora from anything.
“They play together. They’re just at that age. What should I do? Never let her near the other kids? I can’t take any more away from her,” she murmurs, burying her face in Polly’s curls. She won’t look at me. She doesn’t want me to see. I can’t argue anymore. There is too much sorrow in those brown eyes.
I shrug into my vest, checking the pockets for extra rounds and knives. I hang my policeman’s baton from my belt. I pick up my M16 and sling it over my shoulder. As I turn to leave, I throw back a few words over my shoulder. “Pray for me. I’ll be back soon.”
My stomach rattles as the boats glide into the harbor. We don’t use the engines. Bigger boats get towed in by small inflatables and guys with long oars. Scouts reported the nearest horde was still a few miles away. But that was hours ago and I feel the dread of wondering how close they are now. How close they’ll be when we make landfall. How close they’ll be when we try to leave again. We’ll use the engines then.
“Is this another – what do you call it?” Leon’s voice is a whisper, but in the silence it might as well be a gunshot.
“Podunk town,” I answer. I am his first American friend. He is my first Polish friend. We exchange tidbits of each other’s culture like it’s the end of the world. Which it is.
The moon is just a chunk of ice in the sky. The light it casts is slippery. I remember a time when the roads overflowed with headlights. Back then I worried about my night blindness. Now I worry that my gun will jam and I’ll be eaten from the inside out. What a shitty thing to be afraid of.
When the boats dock, no one moves. We forget to breathe. Leon surveys the marina. I hear the squeak of his fingers tightening on the barrel of his rifle. He spots movement before I do.
It’s not a dog. Not really. But my brain and eyes argue. There’s room for interpretation in the smudge of gray on a canvas of black. Then I notice bone-white spears growing out of the schnauzer’s neck and ribcage. Bits of rotten, maggoty flesh. A forgotten hind leg standing back on the far end of the dock.
“Is it a sentry?” My voice quakes. I can’t be sure that Leon hears me. He used to wear a hearing aid.
“No,” he says and shakes his head. “See the way it moves? It came here to release the eggs I think.”
“Larvae,” I hear myself say. I’m not looking at my friend anymore. The not-dog traps my eyes. Its belly writhes and the spikes wriggle as the pointed tips flex and sway. It fascinates and repulses me.
The closer the boat gets, the more I see. Tubers growing out of its eyes. Most of the skin from its face has already fallen off. Its teeth rotted away. The smaller animals never last that long. Maybe it’s a blessing.
“If I ever find the guy, I’m going to kick him in the balls,” Leon huffs.
We say that all the time. It’s become a private joke. I never know if we’re talking about the scientists that bioengineered a rabid parasite or the terrorists that released it. In the end, it never seems to matter.
The boat pulls into range. We hear the click and whoosh of a home-made flamethrower. The things inside the schnauzer’s meat suit screech and hiss. Fire consumes it. I smell sizzling fat and singed hair before it hits the water. It thrashes for too long until the boat rams it under.
I’ve never been to France. My European holiday started and ended in Ireland. Now what I see isn’t worth the trip. Stone walls, cold automobiles and the smell of salt. Maybe it was different in the daylight. I didn’t want to find out.
“The hotel is just here,” Leon whispers, pointing. He folds the map and stows it in his pocket. Not that we needed it. We follow the road along the shore almost to its end, ignoring the shush-hush rhythm of the waves. Our ears wait for the scrape of footsteps on cobblestones.
I miss birds. Watching them twirl across the sky. I miss squirrels and cats and dogs too. Watching them chase each other like it’s their job. I miss life.
“Do you want to?” Leon stops in the street. His rifle swings right and left as he searches for threats along the road.
“Yeah,” I say. The hotel’s front door hangs off its hinges. It’s not much of a place. Before the world went to shit, I’m sure the guests came for the views. I hope they aren’t still there.
Leon doesn’t follow me inside. His job is to watch the door for an ambush. The parasites aren’t bright. Not human smart. But they aren’t stupid either. And they want to survive as much as we do.
It’s dark. After the first couple of feet, I can’t see the moonlight anymore. There’s a tap light secured to the front of my vest with duct tape. I thumb it on and try to keep my M16 from dropping too low.
The light brightens the first floor lobby. To the right, I see a tea room partitioned off by a set of large French doors. Glass splinters form a glittering pool on the carpet. Behind the reception desk, a hallway branches off toward a more formal dining room. I check all the hiding places I can think of. I am careful to keep my rifle trained forward, ready to be fired.
I pass a stairwell on the way down the hallway. Guest rooms above. There’s no time to check upstairs. I slink past, covering the light with my fingers.
The attack must’ve happened during dinner service. I weave through overturned tables. Broken glass crunches and silverware tinkles under my heavy footsteps. I can’t help the noise.
Rotting food smells lead me to the kitchen. Full plates line the stainless steel countertops. It’s a surprisingly modern room. The owners must’ve renovated. All that debt for nothing. It reminded me of my European vacation. I probably should’ve just stayed home.
I don’t like dropping the M16. But I’m here to raid the pantry. Cora will be happy if I can smuggle her a few pouches of tea, so I stuff them into my pants pockets.
The rest of the tea goes into my backpack. I find powdered eggs too. Cheapskates. I’d want my money back if a place like this served me those. I take sacks of flour and sugar. Packets of crackers and cereal. Jars of olives. Dry pasta in crinkly bags. It’s not much, but Leon and I follow our orders. We’re always sent to the ass-end of nowhere. Briggs and Gavin are raiding shops near the marina. Trevs and Ella are siphoning fuel. More of my friends that might not survive the night.
I’m filling my backpack. Tearing open cardboard boxes to get at the plastic bags inside. Making lots of noise. I don’t realize how much. Not at first.
A sigh stops me dead. I can’t believe I turned my back to the pantry’s door. My fingers close on the M16 just as bony fingers grab my shoulders.
Its mouth inches closer to my face. Tries to give me the French kiss from hell. Its fingers slip on the duct tape over my vest. I scramble and kick. Dodge the tuber that wants to slide past my lips. Pull the trigger.
Bits of flesh and parasite spray the doorway. The recoil hits me like a fist. I keep firing because it keeps coming. Head shots don’t work. We never know where the parasite’s brain will be inside the decaying meat. Or how many parasites a meat suit carries. Bullets grind its face into hamburger patty and break the sun-bleached spears growing from its arms and chest. I spend a whole magazine. My ears ring.
Copyright © 2013 Amy Good