Image courtesy of Rob D at FreeDigitalPhotos.net – Cropped and Color adjusted by Erin Penn
Curtis and Duane watched dawn rise from inside the door of the old county armory as they checked their weapons. Yesterday a bear shambling out of woods had frozen the children in terror, but it continued through the fields, not bothering with the humans or the grain they were nursing in the summer heat. Duane had been closest and debated wasting ammo on the large amount of meat the creature represented, but more likely the shotgun would have angered it and that would have created even more of a problem. The three oldest children who the two elders trusted with spears crouched still, their weapons in hand and ready but also unused. No actual danger existed in those few tense minutes except in everyone’s minds.
Even so, as they expanded their fields to feed the new mouths, their encroachment on nature would continue, and nature, even when man ruled the world, never liked her skirts being pushed back. After oiling his axe and checking it pulled smoothly from his holster, Curtis started the same routine with the blades he carried. The gunner counted the few remaining shells to see if a couple more miraculously appeared in the night and glanced longingly at his pistol. Until someone figured out how to make gunpowder of sufficient quality, his police glock was permanently shelved. Old-style shotguns were more forgiving and, thanks to the southern love of hunting, plenty of ammunition available after civilization fell, to the point some even survived the first madness.
Duane nodded at the more primitive weapons humanity was slowly sliding towards as their primary defense against a planet freed from humanity’s control. “The spears, okay?”
“I looked them over while you got lunch packed.” Curtis hefted a light spears. “One needed the head reset, but the kids have been taking good care of them for once. I wish I could make a bow or that a spear thrower thing you talked about. It can’t be too hard.”
“If only the plague had happened twenty years earlier, before everything went electronic.” Duane chuckled blackly. “I only learned to read to pass the detective exam. It was so easy to have the machines read to you.”
“True that, my friend.” Curtis stared over the close orchards and vegetable gardens at the acreage devoted to grain, his aging eyes crinkling to focus on the distant trees walking toward the edge of their maintainable property. “Working at the recycling plant, I remember when the library books went through. Took us less than a day to clear the mess. We had been promised overtime, but the bosses didn’t need it.”
“I would give my leg for an encyclopedia.”
“Yeah, or for google-glass to work again.”
Duane’s nostrils flared, taking in the clean scents; his ears searched for any sound outside of birds welcoming the sun. “If wishes were horses…”
Curtis nodded, not understanding the reference but he had hear the sentiment enough over the years, and continued considering the trees. The young trees growing in the middle of what used to be a city of nearly 80 thousand made preparing for winter easier ever year as they won against mankind’s fallen monuments. No long trips to the edge of town were needed. It had come to them. “We should chop the trees sooner than later. Doesn’t dry wood burn better than green?”
“Yes, I believe so. We weren’t choking on smoke at the end of winter, not like at the start.” Duane considered, chewing his lip. He hadn’t ever camped before things changed, and the closest he had come to flame was firing up the gas grill at his house. Even after seven years, his lack of manly outdoor activity left holes of knowledge which his grandfather would have laughed at.
Footsteps echoed in the hallway from the dedicated dining area where the children were eating breakfast before another day in the fields. The steps were longer and louder than most of the charges were capable of making but hurried. Yo-yo, the eldest of the children, entered in the foyer area where the men were located at a swift pace just short of running. “Sirs.” His voice cracked, and he stopped at the edge of the painted line, his thin body quivering. Children were not allowed unsupervised in the weapon area.
“What is it?” Curtis growled.
Rocking to one side, Yo-yo swallowed, his newly prominent Adam’s apple bobbing, then coughed to reset his vocals. “Vera’s not coming out of the bathroom.”
“How long has it been?” Duane asked more calmly than Curtis. Curtis had never wanted to be a parent, getting snipped while still in high school as soon as he hit the legal age, and it showed in his dealings with their forty-some charges.
Ducking his head, Yo-yo said muttered, “I think she went in last night.”
Curtis exploded. “What? And you are only telling us now?” Yo-yo’s bowed form shivered.
Putting a hand on Curtis’ shoulder, Duane squeezed hard until Curtis looked at him in anger instead of the child. “Which bathroom, honey? Take us there.”
Yo-yo nodded jerkily, not raising his eyes, and took off on the quick walk toward the stairs for the second floor. No running was the first rule enforced on the survivors. Curtis already pushing fifty way back when and Duane, only thiry-two, weren’t up to chasing the first children Duane had found while searching for supplies all those years ago.
“She says she is dying.”
Duane nearly missed the quiet words in the echoes of their feet on the cement stairs. “She told you this?”
Slightly louder, Yo-yo continued, “Through the door. She won’t let anyone in.” His voice broke through two different octaves, one low and one high.
Curtis grunted as he marched up the steps behind Duane.
“Anything else you can tell me?”
The boy thought a moment before responding to the younger adult. “She’s been acting weird the last couple of days. Screaming at the babies and then crying about it. She even slugged Jasper.”
“Did Jasper need slugging?” Duane’s voice held a smile. Jasper was third eldest of the children, and the only kid over twelve they didn’t trust with a spear.
Yo-yo’s volume reached natural relaxed speaking levels when he replied. “No more than normal. He was just chitters.” The young teen stepped onto the landing before the heavy fire door waiting for the adults to catch up.
Shortly, he led them to the back bathroom next to the old offices they used for storage. Water pressure did not make it up here, even with the pumps some of the Parma Trust managed to spit together for them, but the toilet still flushed and they kept several buckets of water upstairs as a precaution against fires made by candles during the winter months. When the water was freshened, the old water was put in the toilet tanks in the three upstairs bathrooms. The water returned through the gravity-driven pipes when someone did a quick side trip while getting stuff out of storage.
“She’s in here.” Yo-yo whispered.
“Go away.” The voice was laced with tears, anger, and pain.
“Vera,” Duane dropped his voice into what he thought of as his baby smoothing tones. “may I come in?”
“No!” She screamed in terror. “Go away. I got the Mumps.”
Curtis yelled back. “You ain’t got the Mumps, girl.”
Duane stared at the older man a moment before suggesting, “Why don’t you get the kids moving? Breakfast has to be done by now.”
“Fine, my friend, it’s your funeral.” Raising his hands, Curtis turned and walked away.
It usually was. Curtis and Duane had found each other during the crazy months after the mumps struck people who had refused to get vaccinated for an “extinct” disease, then mutated with a flu strain and became effectually a new, practically air-borne disease passed easily in fluids like sneezes. In three months humanity dropped from eight billion to a few million at best guess. The pandemic took its share, but human stupidity took more. Immune adults were rare and got rarer as they fought over supplies which will last for years at the new population levels; those that didn’t commit suicide at the first sniffle. At least three countries set off something nuclear before the internet stopped working; America wasn’t the idiot on the block for once and got all of its plants decommissioned safely. The last act of the forty-ninth President was ordering all the nuclear bombs be disassembled. Number fifty-two, the first woman President, two weeks later, confirmed it was done.
Duane waited until Curtis and Yo-yo started down the stairs. “One of these days,” he muttered while no one could hear. He didn’t feel any better. He needed Curtis desperately, and the old man had started rubbing his left arm when he didn’t know Duane was looking.
Knocking again at the door, Duane shook the last of his anger away. He never had any for the children. “Vera, please.”
“Go away.” She moaned from the other side of the door.
“Why do you think you have the Mumps, honey?”
“I’m sick, so sick. And I hurt really bad.”
The door wasn’t lockable, but privacy was priceless when none was available. Leaning a muscular arm against the door frame and resting his forehead against it, Duane talked to the door as gentle as he talked to her when she was seven and he had found her half-starved wandering the street, his second foundling before he had even met Curtis. He ruthlessly cut off the memory of his first foundling, a baby so dehydrated no amount of formula could save, and the next three who succumbed to Mumps a month after he rescued them from a pack of feral dogs. “Lots of things can do that Vera. No one has had Mumps for a long time.”
“We got new people.” She pointed out.
The Trust had gone through and dropped off four more kids at their make-shift orphanage. Humanity connected through a bunch of over-zealous do-gooders, at least in his part of the world. They were helpful enough, as restoring the ancient well setup for the armory witnessed, but they meddled as much as they helped.
“And they are all healthy, honey.”
He didn’t hear anything on the other side in response until the unmistakable sound of vomiting happened. He parsed the sound again. Dry heaves, he thought, if she had been emptying her stomach all night and not come down for breakfast.
“I’m coming in.” He announced and took a step back from the jam to open the door.
“No!” She screamed. “I’m bleeding and everything. You’ll catch it.”
“Bleeding?” He stopped before pushing the door open. “Vera, where are you bleeding?”
“Does it matter?” Her voice shook. Pain filled the cracks between the terror controlling her, but a bit of embarrassment oozed out in the last question.
“Of course it does.” Firmness meant to reassure pushed the words to the small room Vera huddled in.
Two quick words bounced back. “My pee-pee.”
Duane closed his eyes for a moment, then braced his arms and opened the door. The little girl he had raised for the last seven years curled naked on the floor in a fetal position with blood streaked across her thighs, some white cotton cloth was stuffed a water bucket beside her. The toilet had a little yellow tinge from the most recent dry heaves, while the bucket red-tinged water had floats, likely from her first round of vomiting which stuck to the nightshirt she wore in the barracks with the other children. He ran his eyes over her tear-streaked face, searching for any tell-tale swelling, then down her back to her just barely noticeable hips. Hips he had never noticed before.
Fourteen. Little Vera, the oldest of the girls in his care was fourteen.
Yo-yo’s voice change should have told him what would happen soon to Vera and Belle, but he didn’t think, hadn’t remembered. Fighting starvation had driven them so long and delayed things in the children he had long forgotten about. Dropping on the dirty floor beside her, he pulled this daughter of his soul into his lap. She fought him the whole way. “No, no. You can’t get sick. I am sick. No.”
“Yes, yes. Everything is fine.” He cooed back. “You are not sick. Everything is fine.”
She sobbed louder, the fighting only half-hearted.
“It’s normal, honey.” He stroked her black hair, rocking the child. “It’s normal.”
(words 2,084 – first published April 30, 2017)