There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day.
The rain awakens them, though nobody has been able to explain it physiologically. Once the rain stops, they lie back down, resuming their previous positions. It is probably safe to walk among them during a downpour, but nobody wants to be the first to test the supposition. That is, until today.
I stare across the field, then back to the shelter where I left Ensin and Elena.
Elena is old enough. She can watch Ensin until I return. Cool rags for fevers, soup for food. A fifteen-year-old can manage that.
We had been on the move, looking for the next abandoned store to resupply us, but Ensin went downhill fast and we had to stop in a makeshift shelter. Then the rains came. I thought he would make it until the storms passed, but we used up all our medications during his last infection and after two days of continuous downpour, I had to go or watch Ensin die. I recognize that if I don’t return, I may be dooming them both, but after Eva…
I have trained Elena for years. She can hunt, cook, and avoid the bodies without me.
I did my best to reassure without frightening. Coming right out and saying, “It’s not your fault if Ensin dies,” would not have gone over well with Elena. Or Ensin, if he could understand through the fevers.
One field between me and antibiotics. Ensin is prone to ear infections, but this is worse than usual. He wails at night and during lucid periods, signs that the bones behind his ear hurt. Mastoiditis. If it spreads into his brain, I lose him. Even if I get these antibiotics, I’m not sure I can bring him back.
But I have to try. Standing in my way are a tempest and a field full of emaciated “living” corpses.
Nobody believed until it happened. The past is no place to visit when it means digging up buried plagues. Some we knew. Smallpox in the upper layers of the tundra. There was a vaccine for that and we staved off extinction. But as the climate and thereby the layers warmed, other pestilence emerged. Epidemics so devastating in antiquity they left no survivors to record them. We thought we had it under control, but then it moved into the overpopulated areas. Entire slums a viral conflagration.
You thought the Terracotta Army was funerary art to protect the emperor in the afterlife? Qin Shi Huang was trying to warn us. Don’t gravedig, or a plague army awaits. And here I am among half-living Terracotta homologs. What would Qin Shi Huang say if he could see this? Probably, “I told you so.”
Up close, they look like mummies, recently excavated from a well-preserved dig. Or perhaps the human equivalent of a mammoth dug out of a glacier with a few hunks of meat and hair clinging stubbornly to bone. But in the rain, these dead wriggle like fifty-thousand-year-old worms thawed back to life.
Rain spatters their taut skin and they look almost peaceful, refreshed as they turn their heads skyward to the rejuvenating moisture.
Droplets splash off of parched skin remnants. My breath catches in my chest.
I should be okay with my goggles on and mouth closed. No mucous membrane exposure and I’ll make it.
My own platitudes provide only modest reassurance.
I weave through the undead chasm like a ballet dancer and suddenly, they are behind me, the pharmacy in front.
Inside, it is a standard-built corner drug shop. Checkout up front, aisles of toiletries, knick-knacks, now expired food, pharmacy in the back. Nobody bothered to draw the safety curtain once the virus broke out. I clamber over the counter and rummage through the aisles, finding unrefrigerated (i.e. expired) insulin, cough-suppressants, painkillers, anti-hypertensives, and… antibiotics.
I look through names, recognizing a few. Penicillin sometimes works, but not always. I grab several bottles, but continue searching. Ciprofloxacin? No, that was for my UTI. Cefdinir? Yes, that’s it. As I stuff bottles into the sack, a coughing paroxysm shakes me.
Fuck. I have to hurry.
I fill the bag until the zipper growls at the effort of closure. Anything that might have been antibiotics make- the cut, plus a few painkillers. On the way out, I grab a painting respirator and seal it to my face, hoping I don’t hyperventilate on the way.
The pitter-patter drizzle on the bodies brushes past me like somnambulant whispers. I’m not sure who is more alert. I bump into a few, but they don’t notice. I’ll have to tell Elena.
I hear Ensin before I see him. I’m glad I grabbed painkillers. I’ll give him half a dose, maybe a quarter? He is so little.
Elena startles when I push through the flap. Her alarm is not allayed by the mask.
There is no time to waste.
“Give him this one, once a day for fourteen days.”
Elena nods silently. She knows.
“He can occasionally have a dose of this,” I say, holding up the painkiller, “but don’t give it for more than a couple days or he’ll become dependent.”
Tears well up in her eyes.
She always was a smart girl.
“The rest of these,” I point to the other bottles, “are antibiotics you can try in the future. If you find a library, look them up and make sure.”
Elena looks at Ensin, then at me.
“Can I hug you?”
I shake my head, too choked up to speak. Instead, I sign “I love you.” We all learned sign language for Ensin.
Elena looks away, tears making mud of the dusty floor. I look back and forth between them and Ensin holds up his hand, signing “I love you too.”
Every second I stay puts them at risk, so I blow a kiss through the mask and walk outside. To the chasm. To my new home. Ironic that the water that sentenced me will now be my only respite from an apathetic, otherwise imperturbable fomite existence.
Will he remember me? I hope so.