Autobiographical Case Histories from the Abridged 2055 Multimedia History Project on the Plague Year: Documenting the Rapid Sclerosis Pandemic. Society for Research and Education of the Global Open Forum Recovery Group.
Case Contents: Selections from the subject’s journal and an interview with a surviving member of the fire and rescue squad that quarantined the subject.
Subject: Steven Smith. North American (Northeast Coastal Ecoregion) male Caucasian. Age 41 at time of infection in the city of New Haven on May 14, 2027.
Document Status: Except for bloodstains, the journal was unaltered when recovered. Society members have added footnotes. This document is a primary source for post-peak studies. A full copy of the journal and the interview auditory file are available at qqq.ccss.GOF.aubiohist for a small contribution to your community labor pool.
May 16, 2027
Two days ago, I woke up so numb that it was as if I floated over my bed. The morning sun highlighted Cindy’s slender figure and auburn hair as she looked down at me and her lips curled into an I’ve-been-naughty smile. Noticing her blood-speckled cheeks and the chewed-off stump where my left hand used to be, I rolled out of the bed. She laughed as I struggled to stand, unable to feel where my ass ended and the hard floor began. Freakazoiding, I fumbled into my super-sized safari suit and stumbled around the room searching for my boots, unsure when she’d get the Hunger again. I should’ve put her down, but I’d never killed anyone, just written about it. As I edged forward to grab my boots, located just under the bed, her emerald eyes twinkled and she picked up my index finger to suck the gristle off it in a provocative manner. The parasites that had begun to burrow along my neural pathways must have done more than cauterize my injury and numb my body. Although I was terrified, I was not angry. Instead of righteous rage, I felt that considering everything, it was nice of Cindy to remember that I was right-handed.
Pausing by the bedroom door, I stuffed the boots into the survival pack I’d placed there and turned back towards Cindy. As my eyes roamed over her perfections the last time, I blamed myself. Someone so beautiful and sweet wouldn’t throw themselves at an obese oddball who writes appliance manuals for a living. She tensed for a leap. I wriggled into my pack’s straps, breathed deep, and decided that I didn’t care why she’d given me the two best weeks of my life. It was okay if it wasn’t all the secrets and hopes we’d shared, that it was because parasites had transformed her from a reserved sociology graduate student into an insatiable seeker of sexual delights. Until the hunger for human flesh overcomes you, the disease monorails your desires, creating one maniacal need. For Cindy, I now knew that need was sex; for me, well, I missed my mom.
Cindy made her move. I slammed the door and yanked a couch in front of it. My asthma kicked in as I leapt down the stairs. While the couch scraped my hardwood floor, I unlocked my security gate and fumbled open the front door. I scurried outside as she pounded down the stairs. The gate clanged shut and the lock clicked into place behind me. Shouted pleas of, “Don’t desert me!” and “I’ll make everything right again,” issued through the gate. From one of my safari suit’s many pockets, I pulled an inhaler and puffed twice. Breathing again and relieved that Cindy was stuck behind security gates and window grills that I had the sole keys for, I rested against an elm tree. I was trying to ignore her pleas and assess my situation when a Golden Doodle dragged a human femur into the condo parking lot and began to bark at me. Afraid the noise would draw more feral frou-frou dogs or worse, I fled. My bare feet found every sharp pebble as I ran across the too-sunny lot and through the Guptas’ open backdoor. I said, “Oh…Oh no,” as I shut the door behind me. A bloody smear began on the kitchen floor, where little Sabita’s Cookie Monster doll lay abandoned, and ended at the backdoor.
Shaking my head, I walked through their glass and chrome living room and went upstairs to Ms. Gupta’s office. Her built-in shelves were stuffed with accounting books and Ganesh statues. I shook my pack off my shoulders, letting it fall onto the red shag carpet, and dropped into her swivel chair. My thoughts starting to race and my heart to pound — over Sabita and everything else — I pulled a Valium bottle from a shirt pocket and popped several. As I zoned out, I stared at a dancing Ganesh and wondered what he was so happy about.
An hour later, full consciousness came upon me like a slow-motion landslide. Hoping to avoid being buried by anxiety and despair, I decided to focus on the little things that I could control. My first decision was to stay the night. The numbness would soon wear off and I’d be at my most vulnerable. Anyway, before I traveled, I had to figure out how to lace my boots. Curious about what I would face later, I stood to look out the window. To do so, I leaned on the edge of the desktop with my bad arm. The desktop, a sheet of glass that sat on two chrome sawhorses, tilted. Not at my brightest, I watched everything on it slide onto the floor. As the sheet of glass began to move towards my mid-section, I came to my senses and removed my weight from it. The desktop slammed back down. I stared at it for a moment before blurting, “What the what,” as I stood to jerk the blinds open.
My guilt for messing up Ms. Gupta’s office evaporated upon looking outside. Shattered storefront windows lined State Street and a telephone pole topped with ax heads leaned against the wall of Inner Peace and Extreme Survival Studio. It was as if a giant had sucked up mailboxes, trees, signs, cars, and human beings, chewed them up, and spit them back out. Drums, saxophones, and guitars strewn near Dr. Katz’s Animal Clinic stirred memories of the early plague days: endless awful singing by Western civilization’s worst creation, the pop-star wannabe, that was intermittently interrupted by elderly country bands and cheerleader squads. It was like living on the American Idol1 set. Too scared to go out, I kept my crank radio blaring. Intrepid reporters, or Compulsives trying to be reporters, described all-night baseball and midnight gardening, acts of altruism and awfulness, impossible scientific and artistic projects, and entrepreneurs catering to desperate Compulsives. Those Compulsives included computer gamers seeking electricity, shoppers frantic to discover bargains, foodies searching for five-star meals, and what should have been a warning to me, lovers hoping to find their last love. The radio reports all noted the Compulsives’ perseverance, no matter their injuries. However, when enough time passed the parasites changed all the Compulsives into Eaters, just as they had transformed Cindy.
A salty taste filled my mouth as I sat back down and pressed my eyes shut. Still numb, I’d bitten my lip to try to block memories of what came next, when the Eaters finished off most of the remaining Compulsives and yet-to-be-infected Cleans. No matter my efforts, memories of those horrific days swarmed into my mind, days in which I’d shut off the radio and tried to imagine that my condo was a pocket universe. It had been impossible. The end of the world made it through the walls of the basement safe-room I huddled in: the sirens, shots, and horrific screams. Later, it smelled like I was stuck in a busted freezer filled with sour milk and rotten meat. A shameful combination of cowardice and selfishness prevented me from helping anyone. The terror and guilt were worse than the discomforts: eating raw pasta and potatoes to save Sterno; creeping around the condo to maintain my rainwater collection system and chemical toilet; being unable to phone, text, or Facebook; not bathing or shaving; wearing dirty clothes; and missing therapist appointments.
I opened my eyes and spewed bloody spit on Ms. Gupta’s desk. To address my ever-multiplying psychological needs all I could do was to scribble in this journal. Writing fiction was no longer an option since the only thing I’d ever written were stories of post-apocalyptic heroes and I wasn’t being one. Nothing had happened like my survivalist stories, which consisted of macho cleverness and a lack of gun-control laws. Even my self-published masterpieces, Tales of the Rescue of a Techno Maiden and The Parking Garage Pirates of Putnam Street, didn’t hint at the traumas and tedious drudgery of actual survival. I thought I wrote the stories because they immersed me in a world in which no one told you what to do and where you were special just because you had survived. Remembering that Cindy had broken through that thin explanation, I used my hand to wipe the blood off my chin and stood to check on her.
With my binoculars, I left the office and walked across the landing and into the master bedroom. Dr. Gupta’s shriveled remains were on an oak four-poster bed; an empty hypodermic needle dangled from his withered arm. While I examined him, I thought about the big Texan “howdy” he always greeted me with and how he loved to grill shitake mushrooms or Tandoori chicken on summer Sunday afternoons. Now I’d never be able to pay him back for the time he drove me to the hospital after diagnosing my hernia. I yanked the blanket, to try to roll him up in it. He fell with an unpleasant thump onto the floor. After several deep breaths, I threw the blanket over him and went to the window, unsure of what I’d do when my sense of smell returned.
I peered through the Venetian blinds and saw that Cindy had opened all my drapes. But why? With my binoculars, I saw why, and shouted, “Shit soup!” Still undressed, she was emptying my cupboards of their delicacies. Done, she lopped the tops off Apple Jacks, Fruit Loops, and Cap’n Crunch boxes2 with my samurai knife and leaned back to empty one box after another into her mouth. My eyes teared up as Cindy’s curvy figure was outlined in a candy-colored shower of sugary treasure; beautiful blissful bits of sweetness bounced off her and onto the ungrateful kitchen tiles. My stomach lurched each time she slammed an eight pound can of chocolate syrup against a counter edge, only stopping when the priceless chocolate sprayed the kitchen and herself. In silent shock, sweat dripping from under my arms, I watched her lift the huge sharp-edged container to her delicate lips. Her small mouth filled with the life-giving liquid; it flowed down her cheeks and cascaded like a slow-motion velvety waterfall down her neck, chest, and legs, to pool at her feet. The food-massacre went on for what seemed forever — a bottle of peppermint schnapps tasted and spilled, Slim Jims bitten and discarded, Hostess Cup Cakes sampled, a bag of pork rinds scattered after one bite, a gallon jar of maraschino cherries smashed, creating a blood-red tide that flowed across the kitchen floor. With each wasted calorie, primordial pain flowed through my veins and the temptation to save my darlings increased. She attacked my favorites, yanking the tops off a row of small, colorful boxes and ripping open the shiny packages within to stuff their contents into her face. Prefab pastries of every flavor fragmented and fell, surrounding her with what looked like the remnants of a bombed paint factory. I cried out in disbelief, “The bitch is eating my Pop-Tarts!” However, I knew she wasn’t enjoying her last lucid moments, that she wanted me to end her suffering. Cindy was past the Compulsive stage, during which one has some normal desires, and was experiencing a hyper-aggressive form of Alzheimer’s. I wanted to retrieve the Glock in my pack. But how do you shoot someone, especially Cindy? When she collapsed to the kitchen floor — now a sweet swamp with islands of cans, boxes, and bottles — and sobbed, I decided to do it. I loved her too much to let her suffer and I’d promised her I’d do it.
I need to stop writing, even though the sun is up and I haven’t finished telling you about the two worst days of my life. I bet you also want to know how I’ll reach Mom. Don’t worry, I have a plan. But I can’t tell you now. I need to eat my last two packets of freeze-dried ice cream and cry a little. Writing about everything helps, but, can only do so much.
May 17, 2027
Last night as I tried to sleep, I kept asking myself the same question. Why at the headwaters of the river of causality had I made a decision that resulted in my beaching on such a barren island? Why, after preparing for disasters my whole life did I waste all my efforts in one moment of weakness? Yes, it was weakness, not an inner core of altruism and bravery, as I wrote May 1st. I didn’t rescue Cindy that day. Okay, the real reason: thirty days was too long to be lonely. How else to explain why I didn’t ignore her shouts, like I had so many others, why I put the book down I was reading, He’s My Daughter/She’s my Son: A Hermaphrodite’s Story, and why I turned off my radio, which was blaring out static-filled status reports on safe zones and hot spots. My heart leapt, when I peeked out my window and recognized a not-so-friendly face, Cindy from my writers’ group. A calm person, she was shouting in bullet-like sentences while striding back and forth across my parking lot, her long auburn hair waving behind her. “Is anyone out there that can help me?” “I’m clean.” “Come on look at me.” “No bite marks. Nothing.” Her hoarse voice suggested a ragged tiredness underlay the confidence her face conveyed.
My decision to open the door was rationalized by a fiery red miniskirt and a ripped black-lace blouse, which revealed a pink polka-dotted bra. It was hard to connect this woman, who resembled the languid femme fatale in The Lethal Enigma,3 with the straight-laced woman I met in my writers’ group every other Tuesday. That was a woman who always criticized my work for “having too high a death toll” and at our last meeting got personal with, “Yet another rescue fantasy? Who are you trying to rescue?” I didn’t rescue Cindy, except from an itch. She didn’t cling to me. And I didn’t shoot down six empty-eyed Eaters with the smooth professionalism of a paid assassin as I wrote earlier. Instead, with the unimaginable firing up my imagination, I opened my security gate and front door and pointed the Glock in my trembling hand in her general direction. I now understand that the relief that flashed across her face was that of an addict finding a fix.
She swaggered toward me, sweaty hair half-obscuring her face, and said the wrong thing, “Well hello hello Stevie wonders, wondering, wondrous. Looks like you lost a little weight.”
Silent, I backed up into my shadowy and musty living room and motioned her toward the door with the Glock. I slipped on a stack of Wasteland and Last Scout comic books. As I steadied myself, she disappeared from view. Moments later, she was framed in the bright light of my doorway; one hand held a pink Hello Kitty4 pack, and the other, two Tasers. Shaking hair out of her face she said, “You must have gotten awfully lonely in there.”
“Don’t like getting to know people too much. They turn out to be strangers.”
She stuffed the Tasers into her pack and strolled into my condo. I had her shut my door and security gate and waved her toward my lumpy orange couch. My wave was too hard and my grip on the Glock too loose as the gun flew halfway across the room. It landed with a clang among my retro-robots, the ones on my mantelpiece, not those scattered among three bookcases that held science fiction and survivalist magazines or the two Japanese Monster Robots that bracketed my flat screen on its IKEA5 resting place. As I retrieved the gun, she giggled, “Well I guess you already have company.”
I sat down on my La-Z-Boy recliner. “Guess I do. So, what happened?”
After slipping off her tennis shoes and tube socks, she plopped down at one end of my couch, positioning her long legs in front of her to sit cross-legged. I relaxed into my recliner but kept the Glock pointed at her. Bits of orange panty made sneak appearances as she told a story of hiding out in the social science building’s snack shop with six other sociology grads. Taking a breather, she leaned forward too much for my comfort and picked at her toes. “We were a great team…even held off a stray political science prof and a raggedy bunch of econ grads with homemade shivs, fire extinguishers, and a projectile weapon made from soda fountain parts. But the soda-syrup, candy bars, and other treats ran dry. We had to forage. It was crazy awful. The airdrops never worked out. Poor Frank and I were the last ones. Only been three days, but it seems so long ago. We’d gone into the pharmacy on Orange Street to get an edge. But it’d already been emptied — except for one of them.”
Pressing her lips together, she got a faraway look.
“Poor Frank was just too tired, too hungry, too everything.” Her eyes watered and voice trembled. “Brought down by a…an old woman. Her skimpy bunny outfit and walker caused him to let his guard down, even though I—” She pressed her face into her hands and began to cry. “Such a waste…He would have been…He was beautiful and brilliant…a whole new understanding of social change…” Looking up at me, she pleaded, “Why him?” and then bawled.
Cindy could have told me that her fairy godmother had rescued her and I would have believed it. She appeared more than clean and I couldn’t survive another day alone. Hoping to provide comfort, I went and hugged her. She rested her head on my shoulder as she held me. When her sobbing stopped, she released me and wiped her face. “Thank you.”
Not knowing how to respond and wanting to hide the embarrassing physical reaction I was suffering from, I scooted away from her. She reached over and put her hand on mine, the one that still held a gun and giggled, “Let’s make love not war.”
And then she unfastened the top button of her blouse.
And the button below it.
Not until her blouse and bra were on the floor and she was sliding off her underwear did I cry, “Stop it. You don’t have to do that.”
She just smiled and stood on the couch so as to pull her skirt over her smooth hips.
“Really. It’s okay,” I mumbled as her skirt joined her blouse and underwear.
Still smiling, she said, “It will be,” and pushed me down into the couch. Her lips began to playfully nip and nibble mine. I dropped the gun, which clunked on the floor, as her sweet, salty tongue slid into my mouth and all her softness pressed against me. My jeans soon covered the gun and I was gripping the couch. Above me, Cindy moved upward and downward, surging and swaying. As we bobbed and groaned, I attempted to keep up, not to sink under the waves of unbearable pleasure. I was about to scream when she stopped moving and we tensed up. Still in a state of disbelief, I experienced a spasm of release. She pecked my cheek and gasped, “Glad we’re past that,” and zonked out on top of me. As I maneuvered from under her, she muttered, “Don’t go, Frank.” Covering her with my winter jacket, I noticed a nasty scab on her back. However, I shut it out of my mind and went to eat a celebratory Pop-tart (strawberry).
If Cindy was infected, she couldn’t help being post-truth. But was it all a lie? Everything that she said? Did she seek me out, knowing from my stories that I was a survivalist? Had she even dressed like something on the cover of a post-apocalyptic pulp novel because I’d go for that? I’ll never know. I had suspicions that I put aside — well that I burned, hung, poisoned, ran over, shot, and drowned — as she fulfilled fantasies that I didn’t even know that I had. No matter why she did so much for me, she made me feel whole for the first time in my life. And she is someone I still can’t stop loving.
May 18, 2027 [Ed note: Dates are the time of journal entry and not of events.]
So, what happened to Cindy? For another hour, I watched her cry while I planned how to end her suffering. When she rubbed a broken bottle’s jagged edges against her wrist, guilt ricocheted inside me like shrapnel, tearing me apart. Moments later, my missing hand tingled and the nauseating smells of my decomposing neighbor overwhelmed me. I dug my nails deep into my surviving palm. “Oh Cindy. I’m so sorry,” I said as my missing hand became a disorganized tableau of sensations: kisses, ice water, bee stings, a soothing massage, cigarette burns, cramps, crawling ants, electric shocks, and spilt milk. I fell to the floor and whimpered, “I shouldn’t have waited.” Endless grunts and groans passed my lips. Knowing that the plague was rewiring my stump, desensitizing it, so I’d be a high-functioning disease vector, didn’t help. My clothes soaked with sweat and, the sensory symphony unfinished, it was sweet relief to pass out.
I woke sprawled on the bathroom floor, unable to remember how I got there. The medicine cabinet’s contents surrounded me; so, using the light of the setting sun, I applied disinfectant cream and layered gauze over my now desensitized stump. As I worked, I tried to leapfrog the stages of grief, to accept that never again would I nibble a sweet Pop-tart, sink my teeth through the downy rose-orange skin of a ripe peach and into its juicy flesh, or suck out the fatty head meat of a garlic-soaked shrimp. Upon realizing that I’d also never get a creative writing degree, reach the next level of Warlords,6 or attend another meeting of the Vintage Robot Collectors Association, I soon needed the gauze to wipe my tear-coated face.
With much gauze wasted, I returned to the office and found the rum bottle in my pack. After taking a long swig from it, I sat on the floor and grumbled, “Okay, no more bummering. Not about the future, food, or your left hand. Nada.” I also decided not to attempt the stages of grief again. Something would turn up and all that mattered was seeing Mom one last time. Feeling better, but missing Mom, I had an idea. Last week, a Caribbean shortwave station reported that a rescue train would soon come south from Boston, the one Clean city in the northeast. When it stopped in New Haven, I’d pass as a Clean and hop on. Knowing I was going to Wilmington,7 to Mom, I fell into a coma-like sleep on the office floor, an empty bottle in my hand and happiness in my heart.
Morning sunlight poured through the office window. I turned my pounding head away from the light, groaned, “Pleasssse, no. Ohhhhhh,” and spewed my liquid dinner. Done, I staggered to the bathroom. There, I wiped debris out of my itchy beard and scooped water out of the toilet tank with a toothbrush mug until I was semi-functional. As I did so, I cursed any surviving University of Wisconsin biomarketing professors. If they’d followed lab-animal protocols I could have avoided this opportunity for personal growth and discovery. I then redressed my wound, hid it in a towel sling, and prepped for going to the train station. All I could think about while I worked was Mom — how much I missed her, whether she was okay, and how fantastic it would be to see her again.
That afternoon, I stepped into State Street’s pungent air wearing my safari suit, thick glasses, and badly-tied boots. A piercing shriek came from the direction of Whitney Avenue. I tightened the grip on my Glock. The knowledge that I would see Mom if I could make it to the train station steadied me. Swallowing hard, I stumbled towards it through swarms of flies that had gathered to feast on my former neighbors. Their faces and bodies were swollen or caved in by rot and ecosystems of insects clustered in body cavities that shouldn’t have existed. Other neighbors had become dried-up and moldy husks that sun-faded clothing still clung to. My stomach turned and I dry heaved. However, I forced myself to look around. Each block had just five or six corpses, but they seemed countless. The Eaters had also left behind what I hadn’t noticed from the Guptas’ window, scatterings of chewed-over bones. Tiny scraps of clothing, which still blew around, stuck to everything, as if a confetti-filled parade had passed by.
Even before I noticed the eyes of several well-fed, feral cats tracking me, my sense of solidity had faded. Except for the Compulsives’ creations, it was like being in every post-apocalyptic movie I’d ever watched. Those creations included a Last Supper mural made from Tupperware on a Catholic church’s doors; a fifteen-foot8 beer-bottle sculpture of a movie zombie holding a red umbrella in front of an insurance agency; a gallows built of books in front of Never Ending Bookstore; and a giant bird nest on top of the Su Casa Realty office.
Halfway to the train station, in front of a burned-out animal hospital, I slid to the ground next to a pajama-clad man with missing legs. Overwhelmed by awfulness and fear, I said, “Sorry to bother you, dead guy,” and closed my eyes. After several moments of dark despair, I resolved that for Mom, I’d be a real man, like those in my stories. Upon opening my eyes, I turned away from the dead guy so I wouldn’t see his stumps again. A mannequin in a hairdresser’s broken window caught my eye. Its braids reminded me of how Cindy would twist her hair and stare into space after our sensual sessions. My stomach pretzeled into a ball of knots as I recalled what I’d told her a week after she arrived.
We’d finished a breakfast of canned fruit, animal crackers, and turkey-jerky and were in bed planning our day, i.e., reading The Optimistic Sexual Manual: Techniques for Doubtful Lovers. I had on boxers and she wore one of my white oxford button-down shirts, which wasn’t much buttoned. She gently pushed the book down and kissed my forehead. “Stevie sweetie, I need you to promise me something.”
“Just promise if I ever get the munchies well you’ll, you’ll…You know…”
I took her hand. “Don’t be silly. We’re safe here.”
“Nowhere is safe!” She sat up and turned to stare at the wall. “Don’t you understand? We’re never going to be safe.” Tears began to run down her face. It seemed as if all the beauty inside of her was washing out of her swollen eyes.
Fumbling for something to say, I hugged her as she started to sob. When she gasped for breath, I released her and said, “Look at me. No, look at me!”
Quieted down, she turned in my direction.
“Hey. Don’t worry. We’re going to be fine. But if anything happens to you, I promise I’ll do it,” I said, thinking it would never be necessary.
Her shoulders relaxed and she gave me a shy smile. “All right, but you have to triple swear on your mom’s life that you’ll—”
“I told you I’d do it.” Speaking at a rapid clip, I continued, “And anyway, she was always like that fish that escapes the pot to land in the frying pan, or fire, or to land— or whatever. Who knows what hap— She’s might not even be around anymore to swear on.” After pausing for oxygen, I snapped, “I triple swear though!”
Cindy wiped her tear-smeared face and began to giggle. Her mirth built to deep full-bodied laughs that shook her so much she gripped my arm to steady herself.
“Hey. What’s so funny?” I scooted toward the edge of the bed. “You going to stop?”
Still laughing, she pulled me back. “Don’t you see, your stories…you always subjected our group to”–she caught her breath–“were wish-fulfillment fantasies? We kept complaining and you kept rescuing your mom.” Striving to suppress her merriment, she added, “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t laugh. I’m not being nice. So, what happened?”
Instead of answering, I jacked myself out of the bed. As I left the room, she got all sugary. “Oh come on Stevie sweetie. We all have our foibles. There’s no fixation that can’t be fixed. I can help.”
I slammed the door and went to the kitchen. And soon chilled. Cindy was the first person who had centered their world around me, pampering me in countless ways — from keeping me well fed to short-circuiting my funks. And the more I considered my stories, the more I knew she was right. When I decided to tell her the thing I did to Mom, what my therapists hadn’t dug out of me, I knew I loved her.
Sitting back on the bed, I gifted her some high-end biltong that I had retrieved. She accepted it with a smile. Ready to talk but unable to speak, I chewed on the jerky. Chunks of ugly memories that had been decaying in some dark unvisited part of my mind had been knocked loose and were crashing through my head. When they settled down, I teared up. Cindy took hold of my hand and kissed my cheek. “Sweetie, whatever it is, you’ll be all right.”
Before I could change my mind, I told her about the guerrilla war I’d waged against Mom’s love life. That war started with a campaign of passive aggression, a year after Dad took off to Montreal with my elementary school French teacher. It ended when I turned seventeen and retreated to Michigan. When I spit it all out, even how I hadn’t spoken to Mom since I’d run away, I knew I was an idiot. Mom wasn’t the problem. She didn’t need to be saved for being a human being. Grief-ridden by guilt, I tried to puzzle out why I’d warped my life. Rather than come up with answers, I felt like Fuzzy — our giant Calico cat — the time I’d cleaned her and by mistake grabbed the bottle of cat repellant instead of shampoo. For the first time, I wanted to apologize to her (Mom, not Fuzzy). However, given the plague, I couldn’t do anything. Cindy held me while I cried without tears. Later, we did things that helped me forget.
As I broke off eye contact with the mannequin and stood, I decided to keep my promise to Cindy. However, I couldn’t turn towards home. The feeling that I might miss the train and not see Mom was too much. My churning thoughts prevented me from noticing a desiccated, bald man — who wore rainbow tennis shoes and a purple Speedo — tearing toward me. He locked me in his arms before I could react. I dropped my gun and struggled as he tightened his arms around my too-large torso. He seemed to be deciding whether or not to snack on my neck when he released me and shouted, “Tell everyone, Mr. Quigley hugged you.” As I retrieved my gun, he slipped out of sight. Popping a Valium, I clambered into an empty SUV9 that had slammed into a Wok and Roll. After removing my pack, I lay down on the back seat. That my vision was limited to the roof and floor of the car, on which a teddy bear and a Miss Piggy doll embraced, allowed me to imagine that I was in a plague-free world until my back hurt.
May 19, 2027
Upon ditching the SUV, I shifted to aliens-have-arrived mode: run-like-mad, hide, scan-for-danger, and repeat. Soon all my muscles cramped up and there was more hiding than movement. When I reached the train station the sun was setting and I was drenched in sweat. Seeking shelter and a place to wait for the train, I tried to break into Peter Pan’s Liquorland, across the street from the station. Unsuccessful, I crept into Pete’s Pipes next door and failed to stifle a scream. The headshop was filled with the fetid chaos of what looked like a complex murder-suicide pact. A pack of hipsters, at least one a Compulsive, had used knives, ropes, pulleys, buckets, and two homemade seesaws to implement the pact. With death dancing in my head, I backed out and hobbled a half a block further to a public housing complex.10
The Art Deco building’s doors were unlocked, so I ducked inside and flashed my light around the foyer. It had institution-green walls, gray linoleum floors, and faded message murals about “conflict resolution” and “healthy eating”. Hoping I wouldn’t regret it, I picked some chains off the floor to lock the doors. Doing the task right with one hand was like solving one of those 3D brainteaser puzzles. My brain wasn’t up to the challenge cause every few minutes I thought I heard company. I would grab my gun and as I did so, the flashlight would slip out of my sling. Not able to see anything but the floor, I’d babble, “Shit, shit, shit,” drop the gun so as to pick up the flashlight and jam it back into my sling, and then pick the gun up. Things got so tense that I took several spontaneous bathroom breaks.
When I finished locking the doors, I dragged myself up five flights. My steps and groans seemed to echo and a strong odor of a chemical disinfectant irritated my nostrils. At the end of a hallway, I downed three packets of dehydrated chicken soup with stale water from my canteen. The thought that I was closer to Mom eased my mind as I put my gun and glasses within reach. Too exhausted and sore to be scared or care why the place lacked graffiti, trash, and cigarette butts, I sprawled out on the hallway floor and crashed.
The next morning, gun ready, I crept through dim hallways that were only lit by the small windows at their ends. As I did so, I knocked on random doors with my left elbow and shouted, “Hello is anyone home?” or “Come on out. It’s safe.” None of the doors I knocked on were unlocked. I was about to give up when on the eighth — and top — floor, I came upon King Solomon’s Mines of cleaning supplies. The hallway was a hygienic trail of squeegees, brushes, sponges, brooms, paper towels, mops, dusters, and bottles of detergents. At the trail’s end, there were three shotguns, boxes of shells, a set of master keys, and a scribbled note under a half-empty whiskey bottle. I slumped to the ground and read it.
This divine Buildings is this old ladies only baby. Don’t you dear defiles its hallways else I’m coming backs for you and I’ll kill youse and when your deads I’ll kill youse again worse and all youse descendants. Kept the human vermins and any refugees out with only three shotguns and the helps of those two sweetfellows in 2B. Got a lot easier when the vermins all turns on each others like starving rats. Ain’t no guest hidings here anymore either. Couldn’t risk them messin my baby after I works so hard to get it just right. Took care of that problems even the sweeties with some really strong tea. Only things you needs to do each day is…
After too short a relationship with the whiskey bottle, I took the keys and found the apartment with the best view of the train station. Nothing else mattered but making sure I was on my way to Mom, not the saggy furniture, the soiled-diaper-and-empty-beer-can-littered floor, or the dirt-streaked white walls decorated with pictures of rustic boats torn from a 2026 Newport11 Rhode Island Services Club calendar. I barricaded the apartment door and sat in front of the dead TV to rest and mourn my plague-killed TV companions. Half an hour later, a horrifying odor overwhelmed the smells of stale smoke, sour laundry, and soiled diapers that permeated the apartment. Through a smudged window, I watched five chem-suited men carry body parts from the train station and toss them on a bonfire in the middle of State Street while ten men armed with machine guns stood guard. When I slid the window open I heard one of the chem-suited men shout, “I always get the screwy jobs!” Many of the other men yelled unintelligible taunts at him. Although the fire and rescue squad would make life difficult, I was happy because their arrival meant the train would soon come.
My days since I found apartment 4E have been wonder-filled — wondering why I hurt Mom and whether the train would arrive before what happened to Cindy and too many others happened to me. My therapist told me to, “confront my anxieties in productive ways,” but there’s no useful way to confront that anxiety. When I wasn’t writing in this Clash of Civilizations12 notebook, I did try to tackle my other anxieties though. I scavenged for food, finding eight cans of gourmet cat food (meaty bits in gravy), four cans of chicken soup (alphabet), two boxes of macaroni and cheese (deluxe), a bag of gummy worms (sour), a jar of pickles (half-sour), and minty bathroom bounty. I also constructed early-warning systems in the hallways: precarious piles of hair dryers, cutting boards, fruit bowls, bathroom scales, romance novels, sexual aids, and other necessities of daily living. Now with every noise, adrenaline shoots through my veins and I cower in some corner, trying not to whimper, as I cradle my gun and think what could be my last thoughts.
Mostly, I’ve been observing the fire and rescue squad, which is more fire than rescue. While they brought back three skeletal survivors, who they half-carried into the fortress-like police station down the street, six times they returned with a mindless Eater. The first time they brought back an Eater, I didn’t put my binoculars down and walk away from the window, like I did every time after. Rather with growing disbelief, I watched them remove the Eaters’ hood to reveal a face twisted into bleak malice. As the Eater struggled, snapped his teeth, and screeched in frustration at being unable to partake of the plentiful food that surrounded him, the squad performed officious and empty bureaucratic rituals. The rituals ended with a medieval treatment, a fiery “cure,” the burning alive of an ill human being. I know he was human in those last moments not because I saw on his face expressions of pain, and even fear, but because only a human can scream in a way that lasts forever in your head.
Each sleepless night, their never-extinguished bonfire cackles and the dancing shadows on the walls remind me of my possible fate. However, knowing I’m going to see Mom, that I just need to catch a train, allows me to endure the unendurable. Right now, though, I’m so damn hungry, I could boil out the tanning chemicals in the leather jacket that I grabbed from 7C, eat insects, or set rat traps. I don’t remember all of that survivalist shit though. What am I going to do? I know. I’m going to starve!
Okay, I feel better after a Valium and buffering my stomach acids with a chapter of Lost Towns and Cities: Climate Change’s Canaries in a Coal Mine. It wasn’t a good book. I’ll figure out something else to eat. No matter how disgusting, dangerous, or unsanitary, I’ll eat it, if it means being with Mom. Oh man, how I need to see her. Except for food, it’s all I want. Enough scribbling. The squad went hunting, so I’m going out as well.
May 20, 2027
Yesterday, I stepped onto an outside stairwell and surveyed the neighborhood. My mind was like a mob in a burning theater, a disorganized collection of panicky thoughts seeking an exit. I clutched a railing and stared at the train station, willing a train to appear. When that didn’t work and I couldn’t remember anything from the online “Edible Weeds” course I’d taken, I huffed my way down State Street away from the police station and toward a string of brightly-colored fast-food restaurants.13 Too hungry to care about what might lurk behind the smashed-up cars and storefronts along the silent street, I paused to read a poster on a bus stop. Its large title read, “Vaccinations for Cleans and a Cure for Compulsives.” Reassuring words filled it and someone had scribbled the fire and rescue squad’s address on its corner in red ink. When I rushed on, I wondered why they’d try such an obvious technique for catching and killing Compulsives before they became Eaters.
My hopes for empty calories burst upon seeing the shattered windows, pockmarked walls, and the spent shell casings of every size that littered the ground like autumn leaves from an alien foliage. The way the countless decaying bodies of the National Guard troops and New Haven’s finest were arrayed suggested the restaurants kept changing hands till there were no more delicacies to fight over. I considered turning myself in to the squad. Maybe they’d let me call Mom before they grilled me. However, I wanted to see and hold her. So, with memories of the savory tastes of KFC’s fried chicken stirring my stomach, I checked for other customers and stepped over shattered glass.
For three hours, I searched the restaurants’ remains, in constant fear that Eaters or armed men would appear. All I found was a brick of green cheese and several squashed tater tots. Feeling sorry for myself, I stretched out on the cool kitchen floor of Thai Tanic. A yellow glint caught my eye and my hopes soared. I reached under a deep fryer to tap the huge, sunny pineapple can. My mouth watering, I shouted, “At last!” After finding an electric can opener, I dizzily smashed the can open with it and fingered the golden treasures into my mouth. An acid reflux attack interrupted my meal. Seeking water to cool my burning throat, I collided with a cash-stuffed grocery sack as I tore outside. Hundred-dollar bills scattered across the floor.
Near Dunkin Donuts, I found a water-filled pothole besides a battered Ford truck with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on its bed. While drinking from the pothole, I again had thoughts of giving up. They were interrupted by a distant shout of, “Hey kids, pick up the pace!” Struggling into the truck’s bed, I slipped off the bumper and tried to grab something with my missing hand. My chin hit the truck’s tailgate and my glasses flew. Pain shot through my jaw and everything was a fuzzy morass as I scraped my back stuffing myself under the truck with frog-like leg thrusts. Blurry men moved toward me and the smell of gasoline and burnt rubber filled my nose. I reached for my gun but my arm couldn’t reach to a Thai Tanic countertop — so I played dead. It’s easier in concept than execution as I’m not good at hiding from armed men in tight spaces. My cheeks twitched and I hyperventilated as I resisted fishing in my pockets for a Valium.
Two white blobs trailed the rest of the men. One droned, “…best that I can do. You try walking in this wacked get up. I’m wiped. Can’t we break? I need a drink. I feel like a—”
A khaki haze interrupted, “Hey Joey it wouldn’t be such a bitch if you stopped bitchin.”
Although they paused only feet away, I strained to see the hooded figure between the blobs — who jerked around like a puppet. I begged the gods that it wasn’t Cindy. Seeing her would send me on a guilt-powered-jetpack ride to the realm of madness. The spot of purple in the middle of a pale pink blur suggested the Eater was Mr. Quigley. Relief filled me, but it was hard to process that a man who’d hugged me, no matter how oddly, would soon be cured.
The Joey-blob’s shouted response, “Screw you!” brought me back to the present. “No, Really, Screw you! I want to barbeque this Zombie now! He won’t be as hard to handle. Fuck, yeah!” Legs moved in all sorts of confusing ways.
A scout-master voice yelled, “That’s enough! Take a break Joey. Relax. The rest of you lay off him.” After a pause, he continued, “Just sit down; it’s going to be fine. Could someone tase our friend before he gets lost?” There was loud clicking and Mr. Quigley fell several feet away. “Joey, maybe you want to holster that gun.”
“Why? It all sucks. Today. Every Day!”
“Yep. But you’re still squawking, screwing, eating, and shitting so count yourself lucky. Sit down.”
“But it’s not fair.”
“Nothing is. Just sit the hell down and we’ll talk about it.”
“And your gun, Joey.”
“That’s good, very good. No one is trying to break your balls. It’s just your crap luck to be a doughboy when there’s a do-the-tests-while-they’re-still-biting reg. The regs — health regs, test regs, clean-up regs, even the sittin-on-the-can regs — they’re what keeps us civilized. And if that don’t make you stand up and salute, if we disobey them regs, CO will put all our asses in a decoy squad so fast you won’t even have time to give your sweetie a goodbye flyby.
The only sound was the wind blowing debris down the street. Then, the rest of the squad began to murmur. The Joey-blob stood and hit the truck I was hidden under — three times. While it silenced them, I had to give it my all to suppress a shriek. My heart pounded in my ears like a Banger band as the Joey-blob moved away, kicking something that clattered. With a sinking feeling, I realized that that something was my glasses.
“Okay, Joey, you got your shit together?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Do you? Cause, if you don’t you’ll be walking your ass home. So, do you?”
There was a half-hearted, “Yes, sir.”
“Okay, he’s a new man. Enough lollygagging everyone.”
Anger almost beat out fear as the squad left. I wanted to shout, “They’re sick people, not monsters!” Instead, I stayed stone silent, wondering how I had even considered asking them for help.
When I tried to writhe from under the truck, it felt like its weight was crushing me and I remembered a news story I’d read. It was about thieves trapped in chimneys. They all suffocated because their lungs couldn’t expand. After a panic attack, I figured a way to wedge out of my predicament. As my shoulders cleared the truck, something rubbed against my leg. I cried out, “Help me! Please. Anyone.” I twisted to see an orange cat-blob. Ignoring it and my road rash, I finished my escape and sat on the street, leaning against the truck. When the cat-blob jumped onto my lap, I read its tag. My new friend’s name was Sprite and she came from the burbs. I scratched the furball and like an idiot dozed off as if I was at home.
Sprite leapt off me, jerking me out of one of my vivid visiting-with-Mom dreams. I shook my head hard to snap out of my fugue and looked at Sprite. “Thanks for saving me little one.” As I stood to search for my glasses I added, “It’s not safe here. Gotta go, and fast.” Sprite lay down and licked her paws while I began to scour the ground. The further I got from the truck, the higher my anxiety. Sprite didn’t help. She followed me around and at random moments would press against my legs and arch her back. Instead of giving into her desire for a scratch, I’d swear under my breath and step over her, hoping I wouldn’t land on my glasses. She’d issue loud plaintive meows and forgetting that I couldn’t see, I’d jerk my head around to see if we’d attracted anyone or anything.
After an eternal fifteen minutes, I found my glasses. They were under a street lamp plastered with a faded drug-study flyer, headlined, “DO YOU EXPERIENCE EXCESSIVE WORRY.” I went back to Thai Tanic where I stuck the Glock in my waistband and pressed the half-empty pineapple can tight against my stomach.
As I crept between hiding places on my return to the public housing complex, Sprite sashayed after me, ignoring my pleas of “Go away” and “Find someone else.” Exasperated, halfway back I stopped between an overturned firetruck and a burned-out pharmacy. Looking in her eyes, I said, “Don’t have any cat food left or anything for that matter to eat. And the place, it’s a true mess. Really, it won’t be up to your middle-class standards.”
She responded with a “Meow,” some leg rubbing, and an arching of her back that I finally knelt down to scratch — or tried to — with my stump. “What am I doing,” I said and stood to finish my trip.
I paused at the complex’s door, unsure if I should let Sprite in. She decided for me, clawing up my body so fast there wasn’t time to scream. With her snuggled around my neck, I entered the building. When I crashed on my couch, she climbed down to sit next to me. For twenty minutes, I sat, scratched, and starved.
It was only when Sprite jumped off the couch and pitter-pattered into the hallway that I noticed the apartment door was still open. Instead of getting up and giving chase I watched several flies flutter around my face. Just as I worked up enough energy to brush them away, the sounds of dishes and glasses shattering came from the hallway. The breakage continued as I stood and peered out the door. In the fading daylight that fell through open apartment doorways, I watched Sprite bounce like a pinball between my precarious sculptures. I ambled after her. Whenever I was close enough to whisper calming words, she dashed away, destabilizing another sculpture. The whole city probably heard us.
At the end of the hallway, Sprite shot past me and I slumped to the ground, grumbling. She sauntered back and climbed onto my diminished stomach to give me love bites on my cheeks. “All is forgiven little one. Everyone misbehaves sometimes,” I said and scratched her until she went to mew by the outside door. Nothing I did stopped the noise, but I didn’t release her until the song, “If you love someone, set them free,” played in my head. As soon as the door clicked shut and I slouched back to the floor there was whiny mewing from outside. I had to get off the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go-emotional-roller-coaster ride and I was so very hungry. And the mewing was so very unbearable. Mewing! Mewing! Endless Mewing! The noise endangered us. I had to end it, to save us. Bawling, I pulled a cuckoo clock from one of my collapsed sculptures and Never Mind.
How could I have eaten something with a name? Until you’re starving, you can’t understand what a primal force hunger is, the degenerate and degrading things it’ll make you do. Every self-proclaimed saint during plentiful times is a day away from sinning in a famine.
When I woke today at sunrise, sleep-deprived but with a sated stomach, I sat in the room’s shadows and stared out the window. I couldn’t figure out how someone could be so off as to write in ten-foot-purple-precise-Times-Roman typeface on the train station wall, “Mom I’m Drunk!” Why bring their mom into it? Did they want to say, “Hey, Mom, look at me, you can’t control me,” or did they need to see their mom, like me? Maybe they were even trying to apologize to her. Why hadn’t I done that, or even tried to contact her? It would have been so simple to pick up a phone; a few minutes and both our lives would’ve been so much better. Was it habit? Inertia? I don’t know. But the regret churns my insides as if I swallowed a power saw.
During one of our last sensual sessions, Cindy had made me face why I’d been so horrible to Mom. It is a session that I remember too well. Our bedroom was filled with the smell of our sweat, mixed with the sticky-sweet scent of the orange blossom honey we’d drizzled on each other. When her emerald eyes weren’t locked on mine, but staring at the ceiling, her blood would pulse up and down her arched neck, unable to cool her. She’d bite her lip until it bled, and gasping, chant something indecipherable. I’d admire her delicate features and slender figure, the way her flesh glowed with sexual heat, and think about how she was more beautiful than any woman I’d ever seen on the internet. Finished with her ritual of self-denial, her focus would return to me. A look of determination mixed with desperation would flash across her face and she’d again lock her eyes with mine and settle into another temporary truce with her body, to start the cycle over again.
After more than an hour of tantric teasing, her hips shifted and her face trembled. I moaned and pleaded for release with my eyes.
She turned her gaze upward, and pausing between each word, grunted, “How – Come – You – Never – Called – Your – Mom?”
I couldn’t answer; lightning flashes of painful pleasure were exploding throughout my body. All my effort was devoted to not moving, to not giving in to what every fiber of my being demanded: sweet release from the joyful torment. I tried to think about specifications in the appliance manuals I’d written. It didn’t help. Clenching the bed, I moaned as my mind filled with images of dish and clothes washers, fridges and furnaces, boilers and hot water heaters fusing with one another; metal and plastic intertwining in impossible ways as engines overheated, wires sparked, and hot liquids pumped too fast through pipes and tubes to shoot into the air.
Cindy slapped my cheek and gasped, “YouWereJealous…ofYourMom’sBoyfriends!”
My moans stopped their transformation into screams. “What?”
She took a deep breath and grinned. “Your stories were about revenge, not rescue.”
Stunned, a sad silence filled me as a drop of honey fell from one of her soft curves onto my forehead. Cindy licked off the honey and huskily whispered in my ear, “Rescue of the blah. Rescue from the blah. Rescue in the blah.” Straightening up and stretching — beautiful movements that usually distracted me — she continued, “But your stories were really kill, kill, kill. Stoic robots, dashing pirates, devious reptilians, or aliens with too many tentacles, they were all men. Men disgust you more than any—”
I placed my hand over her mouth. Taking hold of it, Cindy said, “Oh Stevie, I’m so very very sorry.” Almost knocking her off the bed, I turned over and stewed. Silent, she held me. I was almost more embarrassed that she knew me too well than depressed that I’d never faced why I was so terrible to Mom.
A day of emotional turmoil followed. Cindy devoted herself to helping me to get past it all — to forgive myself. Her cravings must have been unbearable as we talked and talked and she read me the sexual love poetry that she’d taken up writing. That evening we used some battery juice to watch Groundhog Day. Although we were once again able to enjoy our constrained life I still had moods during which it was hard to be in my skin.
Cindy had been more than right about my jealousy, but not in a way she could have imagined or understood. A little while ago, as I took a baby-wipe bath, the memory of the long-ago day I left Mom clawed itself out of the casket of forgetfulness I’d locked it in. Even after several Valiums and inhaler puffs, I’m still gasping and my head feels like it is going to explode with the horrific knowledge. I need to drag the memory from my mind, cut it into small, safe words, and mount those words on paper, even if it means going to the basement so no one spots my candlelight.
For two hours, I’ve sweated in this clammy spider-filled basement, unable to write or ignore the smells from the washing machines, which the former super filled with dismembered bodies and antibiotic soap.
Okay. Why Not? I’ll tell you.
Soon after my seventeenth birthday, Mom held one of her introduce-the-potential-stepdad nights. She sat across from me at our chipped kitchen table, somber but gorgeous. Her shiny blond hair was permed into her “wild lioness” look — a haircut for someone in her twenties, not mid-thirties — and her regal face wasn’t yet desecrated by make-up. She sighed; the inhalation caused her angora sweater to tighten across her chest. In rapid succession, I ate several of the baby carrots she always laid out for me.
All I wanted was a long afterschool hug, but Mom leaned hard on the table and began her, “BEHAVE, because he’s special,” speech. Whenever she reached the relationship stage that necessitated introducing me to the Man in her life she gave me the speech as if it was a vaccination for misbehavior. That time, mixed in with the standard, “Please be your best tonight,” “You’ll try won’t you,” and, “I’m sure you’ll like him,” there was also: “I love you, but try not to be a jerk,” “Don’t embarrass me again,” and even, “Don’t make me choose; we’ll both regret it.”
After I repeated, “Yes, Mom,” “I certainly will,” and “No problemo,” several times, the uncertainty faded from her eyes. When she stood and left, I watched her pale thin ankles, which slipped into view with each step she took up the stairs. She paused to yell, “If it goes well…we’ll talk about getting you a digitized outfit…including the hat.” My mouth held the remaining baby carrots, but I gave her a toothy smile.
Later, when the doorbell rang, she ran down the stairs in a frilly white dress that didn’t even reach to her knees. “Aren’t you going to get up?” She fidgeted behind me while I opened the door to find a fit- and young-looking Asian guy in a dark blue suit. If not for the pink tie and wine bottle, he could have been mistaken for a Mormon missionary. “Don’t stand there Stevie, invite Alex in.”
I said, “Oh, sorry,” and opened the screen door, letting pass that Mom called me Stevie in front of him. After I coughed up a, “Nice to meet you,” as he crushed my hand, we chatted about the extreme weather. The happy tears forming at the edges of Mom’s eyes were about to wreck her pancaked makeup, when, to my relief, she excused me. They went to the kitchen. I plopped myself down at the dining room table with my homework and pretended to ignore them.
Unlike the other guys, Alex didn’t stand around ogling Mom, he checked the turkey, removed it from the oven, and placed it on a counter. After he shooed away Fuzzy, he and Mom chatted as they worked, often laughing. He chopped veggies with the speed of a professional chef while she languidly stirred the mushroom soup.
Everything was wonderbar. I was even progressing through my algebra when I glanced up to see his hand run through Mom’s shimmering hair and twirl a few golden strands. Putting my pen down, so I wouldn’t bite off the top, I watched his hand slide down her back, stop, and squeeze. Instead of slapping him, Mom pecked his cheek.
I strolled into the kitchen and found my Pop-tarts. Mom recognizing the crinkly unwrapping sound turned around to say, “You don’t want to wreck your appetite.”
“Don’t worry. It’s plenty big, like yours,” I growled, and took a large bite of the sugary treat.
Her spoon clattered on the stovetop and she stared hard at me, her lower lip trembling. Putting her hands on her hips, she blinked several times. “Stop acting like…Never mind. Do you remember your promise?”
If she’d stayed silent I would have done anything for her, for those beautiful pleading eyes; but how could she have treated me — someone who loved her in every way — like a brat when she was the one misbehaving with yet another man and who didn’t care about what I saw and felt?
A concerned look appeared on Alex’s face.
After what seemed forever, her pleading eyes reached me and pulled my heart out of the black hole that had caught it. I barked, “Fine. Fine. I’ll wait,” and spun around to stuff the Pop-tart back into its box. My elbow hit the turkey hard. For the first time that bird flew. It landed in the middle of the kitchen floor and rolled in what seemed like slow motion. Even before it rocked to a stop and Fuzzy approached it, I knew I’d messed up again. Alex put his hand on Mom’s shoulder and said, “We can clean it. I don’t even like skin. Or we can order pizza. Sandy, let’s not ruin the evening. We can still—”
“Don’t call Pie High,” I blurted. “Their delivery guy still likes you. He always—”
“You son of a bitch!” my mother screamed, the first time she’d sworn at me. Unable to look at her because something primitive and violent had woken in her face, I turned toward Alex. He was smiling, which I now realize was due to her inept swearing. I fled to my room and sat on my comic-book-covered bed finishing the Pop-tart. A black thought filled my head. If she wanted to ruin herself with dirty worthless men, who just wanted the one thing men always want from women and who couldn’t love her the way I did, I wouldn’t be able to save her — to stop her from throwing herself at them or them at her. Knowing that I couldn’t watch any more collisions and that she’d choose Alex, or the next one, or the next one after that, over me, I chose for her. I climbed out the window with my duffel bag and babysitting savings, ran across the front yard, and kept running until I landed at Charley’s Appliances and Furnishings in Detroit. I worked there five years — until Charley discovered me in the storage room on a Double-Bliss-Deluxe Electric Massage Chair, burying myself in the plentiful bosom of his matronly-shaped wife, who always smelled of freshly laundered clothes and the pastries she made for me.
I should stay in this decrepit basement since I’ll never be able to sleep again. Putting the thing down on paper didn’t help. The memories of the day I left Mom keep steamrolling through my head. But maybe they’re false memories? Yes, they have to be. Why didn’t I remember earlier what happened that tragic day? Why are the memories so vivid? And why won’t they stop? The plague-related obsessions and neuron-eating parasites are messing with me; that’s the only logical answer. I couldn’t have been so twisted. Mom must know. I have to talk to her. The one thing that will quiet my memories is to tell her I’m sorry for the whole stew of stupidity, ugliness, and craziness and to receive her forgiveness, to hear from her that I wasn’t a monster. All I need is a few minutes with Mom. How much longer do I have to wait? Why won’t the train come?
Oh man, why didn’t I ever call her?
May 21, 2027
Shot my gun this morn. Kill someone. No, someones. This morning. I shot several times at him, or at several of them. Don’t know. Still don’t know.
I was so happy, so so happy after downing a pretty pink pill, just one, no three, no just two of them, I found in a hangout in 6K. Nothing bothering me. I was happy, happy as could be vegging, membering good times with Mom and later, good times with Cindy. Our lives, life together. But then there was the noise. I am sure there was a noise. Crying. Way downstairs. Third floor. No, second floor. I went there once, no twice, went there once and then again with gun. Waited and waited and waited for noise. Scared. Kept peeing. Then needing to pee. At last, I am sure I heard something. Someone crying in 2B. When I crawled in, the place was empty. No. No. Two messed-up and muscled men at kitchen table. Just sitting and sitting and sitting. Silent. No, dead. With their teapot and teacups. No noise. Nothing. But then crying again. In the back bedroom. So I crawled there. I didn’t knock. I just crawled. Quiet and quick. Gun ready.
And I saw him. In a giant closet. Nothing but a dressing table and clothes racks. Sequined skirts, neon dresses, lacey blouses, leather pants, and bird-feathered somethings hanging and in piles. Everywhere. A fashion jungle. He was also just sitting there. But alive. Half alive. Looked gaunt and gone — and all raggedy and hairy. Like a wild animal. A wild dog. Cornered and wounded. We just stared. And he cried again.
I said, “You gotta go. Not cry.”
He put away his tears. “No. You gotta go.”
“You’re all wrong, a bad guy. And you’re sick,” I shouted.
“Not as sick as you. An Eater got you. You’re off. Not even thinking right. About anything.”
“One got you too. You’ll hurt people.”
“No. You will. Once it happens. The change. The Hunger.”
“No, I won’t. You need to bury yourself.”
“You should kill yourself.”
“I’ll kill you!”
“I’ll kill you first!”
“No, I will. It’ll be better.”
“Let me do it. No one gets hurt that way.”
He wiped his face. With his sleeve.
I did also. And then I shot him.
He shot also but missed. I missed too. Hitting something glass. It shattered. It was loud and my hand shook. No, I shook all over. Then there he was again. No several of them or several of him. Someone shouted, “You can’t do anything right!” And then I kept shooting. They did too. Things kept breaking or crashing or shattering. Then I couldn’t hear. Anything. I hid after that. In the closet.
Woke up back in 4E. Ears still hurt. He must be gone. Dead. They all must be. Cause I’m alive.
Or maybe it was just me. Alone. Doesn’t matter. Nothing does.
Going to try a new pill now. No two of them.
[Ed note: Remainder of entry for May 21st and entries for May 22nd and 23rd have not been included due to there incoherence.]
May 24, 2027
Three in the afternoon and I can barely put words on this page. I won’t bore you with the aftermath of the Naked Lunch14 phase of my life. Gotta, wanna, hafta say ‘yes’ to clean living so I can apologize to Mom and she can tell me what really happened. Hope you enjoyed meeting my inner demons though — can’t live with them and can’t live without them, no matter how much I dose the finest pharmaceuticals; but hey there’s no need to say more about the unspeakable. You future-fucks don’t care about me anyway.
Some bad news: you’ll never understand the shit we went through, any more than I could understand what an untidy mess the bubonic plague15 was. Why do I bother writing then? It’s not just because its cheap therapy. It’s also because I’m too lousy a survivalist to make it to the future in person. All I ever wanted was to live long enough find out what happened. Now I won’t. Hey, write back and let me know what it’s like in Tomorrowland.16 Do you have any cool shit, like floating cities, invisibility cloaks, rabble-rousing robots, and fat-free pork rinds? And if I don’t make it… No, I’ll make it; but if I don’t, write Mom (Ms. Smith at 27 Oak Street, Wilmington, DE 19807). Tell her I tried, that I still love her, that I’m sorry. Like you’d bother.
May 25, 2027
I’ve tried everything — drugs, meditation, sleep deprivation, and rubbing alcohol sponge baths — to slow down the fricken buggers that are chowing down on my neural pathways like obese retirees at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Now, I can feel the slimy bastards biting, munching, chewing, and shit-propelling their way through my command and control systems. I swear my brain stem is tingling. A little more — a munch here, a chomp there — and they’ll destroy their habitat. I’ll have no center; I’ll fall apart; I’ll cease.
It’s already happening. I’m not hungry. My whole life I’ve been hungry. All I ate yesterday was two basement rats, two dozen roaches, four spiders, and a romance novel. My clothes and skin hang loose on me. I should be hungry. Maybe that’s wrong; I shouldn’t say, “I’m not hungry,” but that I’ve acquired an appetite for the impossible. Two hours ago, I glanced outside, to see those well-fed men toss another helpless figure on their fire. I didn’t fear them and their actions didn’t disgust me. Rather, I trembled and sweat poured out of my pores as I imagined their bodies broken down into finger sandwiches, blood pudding, brazo burritos, and other delicacies. The cravings didn’t stop until I backed away from the window, took two Valiums, and searched my brain for something, anything else to think about, settling on Cindy.
She lasted longer than I will, not because of my hard living, but because I can’t satisfy my compulsion and, unknown to me, Cindy had been satisfying hers. Maybe I didn’t want to know; there had been so many clues, especially our last night. I’d been stuffing myself with freeze-dried lasagna at my kitchen table when a noise crawled into my consciousness: click, click, Click, Click, Click, CLICK, CLICK. I looked up to see Cindy, eyes hidden behind my aviator sunglasses, auburn hair twisted up on her head, and nails painted bright red with robot-model paint. She stopped tapping on the oven and leaned against it. Her lips, which she’d lined with raspberry lipstick, curved into a seductive smile and a long sleek leg came out of hiding in my black wool bathrobe. She looked great, like a 1950s-man magnet, a movie star who’d just walked off a Miami beach. However, I felt as if my rockets had stopped firing, marooning me in space, far from everything.
“Cindikins, I love you, but I’m not in a loving state.”
Biting her cheek, she retorted, “You’ll be up to it, once we finish the photo shoot,” and posed: bathrobe off both shoulders, one hand on the hip that was higher than the other, and her other hand behind her head. As she pivoted to give me a view from all sides, my camera materialized, spinning by its strap, and a come-hither smile appeared on her face.
“You need to eat Cindy. You haven’t been eating.”
She released my camera, which crashed into a pile of never-to-be-washed dishes. Clenching her hands, as beads of sweat began to pepper her face, she cried out as if in pain, “Sweetie, what’s wrong with you!” – her voice trailed off – “With us? You’ve never said no.”
I took a lackluster bite of my cold lasagna. My mouth full, I asked, “What makes you want it so much?”
Gripping the bathrobe at her throat with her now trembling hand, she sat down next to me. “You know what the reason is” – her voice cracked – “because I love you. More than anything, I love you. Every second of the day, I want to be with you, to be a part of you. Every moment I’m without you it’s an unbearable—” She stopped talking to try to blink away tears, but they began to stream down her cheeks. “Till I met you, I mean till I was with you, I was waiting, saving it for later. It always seemed so shallow, such a distraction from everything I wanted to accomplish, everything important, the planet I was trying to save, my stories, and my dissertation. But now, it’s the thing I need.” She gave a feeble, embarrassed laugh and mumbled, “And until you happened, all that unclean commerce of bodily fluids seemed…well, unsustainable.” She paused to wipe her face. “The time with, before, with Frank, he…I…never did it…he wanted to…a lot…I, we could have…I wish we…I’m not feeling very—”
“It’ll be fine. It’s okay. You don’t have to say more,” I whispered and hugged her.
She leaned toward my cheek and I waited for a kiss, but she pulled away, babbling, “Need to leave. Have to go. I’ll be alright, but can’t, can’t…stay.” Bewildered, I watched her rush for the basement bathroom, my bathrobe swishing across the floor behind her. An hour later, she was still down there. I should’ve checked to see if she was okay. I meant to. Everything would have been different. Instead, wiped out and believing her words, I had fallen over the cliff into sleep.
Did she ever love me, even care about me? Did she always know she was infected? Was it all about using me because I was the last man standing (or rather hiding)? None of that matters. All relationships are a mix of deception and affection, and no matter the exact balance of our relationship, she made me happy; that’s the important thing. I think I also made her happy. She seemed to like the love limericks I’d whisper to her before we slept.
The time I spent with Cindy was the happiest I’d been since right after Dad left, when Mom and I just had each other. During those days, Mom catered to me. Each night she’d read me a story. I’d squash up against her scratchy bathrobe, safe and secure, both of us sinking deep into our sagging leather couch, and she’d make up voices of impossible-to-believe characters — insects in a giant peach, a crazy chocolate factory owner, too-lucky orphans, a witch, and every sort of animal. All I want is to see her again — the latest blond chaos perm and her crinkly blue eyes, bright as a torch flame — so I can tell her sorry for everything. I could pass in peace if after I apologized, her arms opened up, showing that she forgave me and still loves me. Mom’s also the one person that could confirm that the twisted memories pounding away at me aren’t true, that my jealousy was because I wanted more attention, not due to something you’d see on an abnormal psychology blog. All it’d take is a few minutes.
I need to get it together; I cried for the past hour. It’s going to get dark soon and I need to eat, even if I don’t have the right kind of appetite. I now know how strong Cindy was, how the Hunger and one’s particular compulsion go to war with one another. I wish I could talk to the fire and rescue squad; but, they’re asshats. If I don’t make it, whoever finds this notebook, I beg you, apologize to Mom for me, and tell her that I always loved her. But I’ll make it. I’ll see her. They made sandbag emplacements outside the train station yesterday so the train has to be coming soon. It has to. And Mom worked so hard and suffered so much because of me. She deserves to see her son one last time and not get some sort of message service. But if you would, if I don’t make it, please, all I ask is that you tell her sorry for me, that I always loved her.
May 26, 2027
Woke up. The hunger too. Woke up to Hunger. But I control it, I fought it, fighting it. Can’t think right but, getting better. Heard a whistle, rumble, rumbling. A train was outside. Lots of people too. And dogs. Noise. Big noise. Lots of shouting, yelling. Doing organized, organizing. So happy. Going to Mom. I’m on train now. I don’t remember how I got through that fence. I had to though. To get to Mom. Must have climbed over or crawled under. Got lots of bruises and cuts. Lots. Tired. All happy/glad. Can whistle. Am whistles.
Okay, the Hunger fugue is gone for now. To know that I’m on my way to see Mom feels like I took several Percs.17 I’ll be able to make it. I know I can. However, I still feel the Hunger lurking, waiting for when I’m weak. But Mom is a few short hours away. I can do that easy. I hope no one saw me stiff-walk in here like Frankenstein’s friend. I still can’t remember how I [Ed note: Sentence incomplete]
The door is opening.
I pop my head over the top of the seat. Odd, it’s a little girl in a neat yellow dress. She’s singing, “Ring Around the Rosie and a Pocket Full of Posie,” and skipping down the aisle toward me. Looks to be ten, maybe eight, but she has rouge and blue eyeshadow on her face. Why did she slam to a stop and go silent? Right, cause she saw me. Oh Gawd! Oh my Gawd! She looks so sweet — healthy and plump, like a sugary treat.
DO NOT BITE! DO NOT BITE! DO NOT BITE!
Jeez-o-man, that’s over! There’s too much wrong in what I did; but no way to help it, no way to describe the Hunger pains — the cauldron of boiling acid that is my stomach. How much longer until the train starts? How many passengers could there be? Okay, I’ll say what happened since nothing matters anymore.
The girl had stopped only five rows away. She chewed her tongue like it was bubblegum. I was dreaming about doing the same when she asked, “Hey Mr., you ain’t a Zombie are you?”
Still peering over the seat top, I said, “Are you asking if I have the plague? Zombie isn’t polite,” and slid over so I was half in the aisle.
She looked at me as if I was being silly.
“Anyway, what makes you think I’m ill?”
She pointed at my arm. “That stumpie.” I looked at myself and wished I could’ve worn the clean shirt I’d saved for the trip, put on my sling, and brought more than my notebook.
“Oh that. An awful dishwasher accident.” I shoved my bad arm into my ragged flannel shirt, popping a button.
“What’s you writing?”
“What did you say? You’re too far away. Can you come closer?” I hoped I wasn’t salivating.
“No! You schmell.”
I wiped sweat, grime, and a little spit off my face with my sleeve and grunted, “Hey why don’t we play, ‘Simon Says,’ while we wait?”
Maintaining my sanity somehow, I got her almost within grabbing distance. Two short rows. So close. She looked so good. It’s hard to stop thinking about. I would have been nice. An arm, a small pink fleshy arm. That’s all I needed. Man, oh man; such a waste. Such a waste. If her mom not screamed. Camed in and screamed. No her mom came, and, bloody screamed. I can’t write write right write. Dragged treat. Away. Moms are good. I miss Mom. Am going to now. Yes, think that. I have to think that. But Hungry. So Hungry to. Gawd Damn!
Yelling outside. I see a mom yelling. A lot. “…your policy toward…Tell me Exactly what is the policy [Ed note: Sentence incomplete]
White Blob voice. “Yes Ma-mom. Zombies can’t take the train.”
Interview with Joseph Scarboro, male Caucasian aged 51, former member of Northeast Exploratory Fire and Rescue Squad 23. The interview was conducted by Share’n Chan, 3rd level Comparativer of the Boston Scientific Commons Case Studies Club, on September 27, 2050 at a community kitchen near the interviewee’s residential co-op in Boston (Northeast Coastal Ecoregion North American).
Only the interviewee’s responses are provided.
Response(R)-1: Of course, I remember him. Why I’m here. Found his notebook. Don’t know what made me keep it.
R-2: Yeah, it was the cover. That babalicious redhead with that laser gun standing in front of that burning sci-fi city. Don’t see that kind of art anymore.
R-3: Read it all. Those two weeks with Cindy got me through some lonely nights. The rest is a downer. For a day, I was even glad I charred his ass after reading what he did to Sprite.
R-4: She was our squad’s cat.
R-5: In New Haven when, ahhh couple of months after most the big cities and bases went down. It was chaos. Doc. Niratpattanasai Na Ayutthayaiasia’s drug saved us all. Still, the Guy don’t deserve to get his name on about every free clinic and crèche. A lot of them Compulsive sci-en-tists got the desire to find the cure. He got lucky. Hey kid, bet you don’t even know he took chunks out of his lab rats and they had the wherewithwhatever to try the drug cocktail he’d juiced up. They even got the word out and—
R-6: Sorry. It was the worst, out there on our own, just us, the Zom— ah infected, and freaked-out survivors.
R-7: Yeah, the journal stayed in my…ah possession until I heard the Global Open Forum would pay for plague memora…ahh…ballia. Dug it up and traded it for a week at a Cape Cod leisure camp. Only thing those wacked Seattle anarchists ever did for me. My local forum is worse…always sending neighbors over to encourage me to volunteer, suggesting I exercise, how I should eat, not to waste my carbon rations. It’s like everyone’s my big sister. And why somehow do I always gets cycled into sucky enviro jobs, even did radioactive reclamation last week? Is there anything you can—
R-8: Sorry. I know. Sure, the guy saw our posters. Journal says so. If he wasn’t such a paranoidal we would’ve currred him and got him to his mom. Also, he coulda got his wound fixed right. And now the fake limbs, they’re way better than the real thing.
R-9: Alright. Yeah, sure did. He wasn’t secret-agent man. Kept seeing the glint off his binoculars. And man, he was noisy. His shootout terrified us all. We couldn’t chase down every crazed Compulsive. Dangerous. Several of my buddies got comped. Better to stay out of their way, let the disease run its course.
R-10: Sad? He had Cindy! And before that, he was sitting pretty while things went to shit. He got it better than most. If you want sad, I could make you cry till spring.
R-11: When we found him, he was snapping his teeth like a wacked rabbit eating a carrot.
R-12: What da ya mean what happened? You know the answer.
R-13: Yeah, I agreed. Give me a second. Alright, I’ll tell you. You already saw the records. Barbequed that poor guy. Did that a lot, but he’s the one I can’t forget. He failed every test. Nothing human left in him those tests said. But maybe they weren’t perfect cause when we threw him on, his snapping stopped for a few seconds. He got a horrible freak in his eyes and shouted, ‘Tell Mom I’m sorry. That I love her.’ After, I was crying and shit. Later it was non-stop nightmares and a lot of home-brewed beer to stop them. Thinking about it, I shouldn’t have read his journal. Not even a field doc helped. It was years before all that crap stopped.
R-14: Stopped only when I looked up his mom! I used those fugee registries they set up and some leave. Amazoling, I found her and her husband, Alex, Asian guy like you, living in some caretaker complexes south of Boston. Can’t call what they were doing living though. Both had wrinkled up like old people do and were leaning on their neighbors for food. Those were bad times. You posties got it lucky. He’d lost an arm. And she, well she had oldertimers, that forgetting thing. I shouted Steven so many times at her I was hoarse, but I must have half-connected with something cause her eyes lit up and she cried, ‘Oh Stevie you’ve finally come home.’ Without thinking I said, ‘I’m so so sorry. I love you Mom.’ I even hugged her. When I left, she still had an empty smile on her face.