“I got worried,” Leon explains. His eyes and mouth droop.
“You weren’t supposed to leave the street,” I say. It’s not what I want to say. I want to thank him for checking on me. I want to tell him how much I appreciate his killing the other meat suit that came down the stairs. But I can’t. What he did was dangerous. His family is counting on him.
“I saw a chemist shop,” he says. “Just up the street that way.”
“We aren’t supposed to go past the hotel,” I counter. If we break too many rules, we’ll be bumped back into the general population. No extra rations for our families. No hidden stores of medicine and food. No special perks.
“I think Jilly…,” he pauses and hangs his head. His rifle points toward the ground. “I know… But I think she got pneumonia. And the nurse said to give her just the cough syrup. She won’t let me see the doctor.”
His daughter was new to this world. Just two months old. His wife nearly died bringing her to term. “I think they refrigerate the penicillin.” What a stupid thing to say.
“Just… if we take everything… Do you think Cora can tell us what to give her?” He raises the M16 again and sights down the barrel.
“Yeah.” I nod. Cora was a pharmacist when I met her. She would kill me if I didn’t help my friend.
Our footsteps slap against the cobblestones. I wonder if this village really is that old, or if they redid the roads just for the tourist trade. I don’t know why I even care. Maybe it’s easier to pay attention to things that don’t matter.
The shop is down a narrow side street. The front window is smashed. Shelves are toppled. The metal security grille is only halfway rolled down behind crooked-teeth shards of glass. The front door is still locked.
We check the aisles first. Poke our heads into the back room. Look under countertops. When we’re sure, we roll the security grating down the rest of the way and tap our lights on.
In my backpack I carry nylon sling bags that fold up pocket-sized. Unfurling them, I load them with the batteries, painkillers, baby bottles, vitamins, cough syrups and allergy medicines I find on the floor. Whatever happened in the shop wasn’t a robbery. Leon goes behind the counter to throw pill bottles and foil packages into his backpack.
I find a stuffed bear. Then a smiling lion. A furry seal. I take them too. It’s not the same as finding a book or a puzzle for Polly or Leon’s kids, but it’s better than nothing. There’s a pocket made out of duct tape inside my vest. I hide the lion there.
“Here,” I say, handing the bear and seal to Leon. “For your kids.”
“I think I got everything,” he says, stowing the toys in his pants pockets. His backpack is full. A nylon bag is held to the side of the backpack with bungee cords.
“If we go back now, we can drop this stuff off at the boats and maybe we’ll have time to go back out before sunrise.” Neither one of us wants to go on supply runs. Risking our lives almost every night. But we volunteer anyway. Someone has to save what’s left of the human race.
Leon nods. He doesn’t move to leave, though. He can’t stop looking at the shelves. The shop must’ve gotten a shipment in before the world went crazy. There is more on display than we could carry in two trips.
No one knew the truth until it was too late. The government agencies said we’d be safe. Normal people with healthy immune systems would fight off the parasites. The terrorists wouldn’t win. Not this time.
So everyone went on like business as usual. Some of us stopped drinking sodas once we heard they’d been contaminated. Some of us didn’t care. By the time we realized there was a problem, it was too late. It’s a fast-growing parasite. You feel normal until it’s so far into your brain that you stop caring.
I stare at the medicines too. I don’t grab the sleeping pills. I ignore the muscle relaxers. I don’t let my hands linger over the prescription-strength painkillers. Instead I pocket some foil-wrapped packages of antibiotics inside my vest.
The walkie-talkie on Leon’s belt crackles. No one’s supposed to use them unless it’s an emergency. We hold our breath and listen to its phantom murmurs in the static.
“Do you think it’s serious?” As soon as the words leave my mouth, I know the answer.
We kill our tap lights, ducking low under the counter. When I feel brave again, I look out toward the front window. The security grille sways under the weight of them. A horde has caught up to us. It won’t take them long to figure out a way into the shop. There’s just too many.
“We need to run,” Leon says. He takes bungee cords from an inside pocket of his vest and uses them to tie my nylon bags onto my backpack. The weight is a lot, but I can handle it. Or maybe that’s a lie I tell myself. I don’t care.
“Is there a back door? Did you see one?” My throat tightens. We checked the back room, but I can’t remember seeing a way out.
Leon nods and crawls away. I follow him. The security grille at the front of the shop creaks. Our hearts speed up. We stay low until we get into the postcard-sized back room. Boxes are piled high against the walls. There’s just the outline of a door. On the other side of it, we hear scraping noises.
We kick and push cardboard boxes out of the way. Leon holds his breath as he unlatches the locks. I put my weight against the door to keep them from streaming in. When he’s ready, he cracks the door enough for the barrel of his M16 and fires out into the night.
I close my eyes. It doesn’t help my ears any. My full weight keeps the door from slamming open. I can’t hear the front of the shop, but I imagine they’re breaking through the security grating by now. My mind goes crazy. I imagine the larvae under my skin, devouring me from the inside. When they destroy the important parts of my brain, I’ll stop fighting them.
“Kelly!” Leon’s fingers dig into my arm.
Surprised, I take a step back. He pulls me through the door and we run. The path he cleared is narrow. They close in. I can smell disease. Dying flesh. That sick-sweet parasite odor. I don’t even realize that I’m sending bullets into the meat suits. It’s habit by now. Leon fires to the right. I take the left.
We sprint back toward the shore, firing at the crowd behind us. We’re slowed down by our backpacks. Otherwise, we might be jumping over low fences and winding around houses. Anything to confuse them. But we can’t do that. We run straight through the wide streets.
They’re fast. I unload one magazine and fumble another one into the rifle. It feels like we’re on a treadmill in a virtual reality nightmare. If it weren’t for all the boring parts, I could almost convince myself.
“Kelly, this way!” Leon takes a ninety degree turn. He sees a car with the door open. Keys in the ignition. “Cover me!”
I spin around and spray bullets at the horde. Oh, God. There’s at least thirty still on their feet. I only have one magazine left. The baton won’t keep us safe when I run out of ammo. The car’s engine sputters.
The street is awash in dead things. Moldy limbs and crumbling torsos. Putrefied heads. Soulless eyes stare up at me. Bleached-white tubers flail on the pavement. My M16 clicks when I pull the trigger. I turn it around, using the butt end to swipe at a meat suit. It falls to the ground but doesn’t stop coming for me. I back away.
“Get in!” Leon opens the car’s rear door. I slide onto the back seat and he pulls away before I can even get my feet inside. I hold onto the leather upholstery like my life depends on it. Which it does.
Leon swings the car back and forth across the road. I realize he’s knocking down meat suits. He’s a good friend. He’ll get us back to our families. After ten minutes, he stops swerving. We must’ve put enough distance between us and the horde. The marina has to be near.
“What the fuck,” he breathes. I almost don’t hear him.
My feet dig into the floorboards and I pop my head over the headrest to get a better view. I wish I hadn’t.
Smoke clouds the sky, blocking the moonlight. Not that we need the light. The fire is the new sun. It dances on the boats in the marina. It flits over the gasoline-soaked water. It eats away the houses along the road.
We leave the car behind. The meat suits run toward us, but we’re safe for the moment. Leon walks toward the water. I don’t understand what he’s looking for when he takes out his binoculars and holds them up to his eyes.
“It’s the Wilde,” he says. It sounds like he wants to say more, but he chokes and gags.
When I squint, I can see more fire on the horizon. Pale flames twirl across the top deck of one of the ferries.
“What did you say?” My heart spasms. I can’t catch a breath. If I had a bullet left, I’d use it. I left Cora and Polly on the Wilde.
Copyright © 2013 Amy Good