Peter slapped his hand against the aluminum siding and leaned into it, panting. His ankle throbbed. Each sweep of pulse pounded a fresh surge of pain through the swelling
. If he kept running, it wouldn't take long before he couldn't even walk. Cripples wouldn't survive hunting season
From where he stood, the two-story's summer lawn stretched in lush luxurience to the curb
strain oblivious to heat waves. In utter tranquility, two bodies lay face down in the grass, orderly rust-soaked stains
spreading from beneath their heads. Their limbs jutted out in directions subtly inhuman
, for all the world like broken dolls some fickle child had abandoned.
Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.
A humid breeze stirred, carrying Peter the stench of rotting flesh. He doubled up, wretching. Half-digested Cheerios
splattered all over his sneakers. This wasn't a game
He needed a hide-away, to wait, just until the sprain could healed enough for him to start running again. Struggling on any further would be suicide
. Were he in Milwaukee
, he would have set out looking for Marcus. The two had been playmates for a time during middle school. They'd lived to either side of Hickory Ave., where a professional middle-class apartment cluster
brushed up against a black ghetto
. They'd said over the 'net, just before the fibre-optic went down, that the 'troubled neighborhoods
' were taking decades of segregation
to its next logical step and walling themselves off against the spiraling madness. Peter wondered how far a half-hearted phone call every six months would've honestly gotten him. He'd never taken up Marcus's invitation to the other side of the street before.
Nonetheless, it would've been a better shot at survival than any he had here. This was not Milwaukee
. But if he could fade away for a little while, things would work out—he could flee however many miles further North it took to disappear into the evergreen forests that would eventually bring him to the Canadian border
. He remembered them from the ride up to Camp Chippewa
. No one would find him there... unless maybe they had infrared goggles now? Downtown he'd seen a trendy thrift store
selling a pair, once.
Suddenly, sharply aware of his exposure
, he ordered himself to concentrate. There was nothing around here except houses, churches, and farmland. All foreign territory. Dangerous. Only the local high school came to mind as nearby refuge, since they'd shut it down four months ago when bird flu finally hit Wauseba
. To Peter, it hadn't particularly mattered. At that point he'd already dropped out. Freshman year he'd arrived as the new kid sporting a rainbow pin labeled "Support Equal Rights
!" To him, it was just one among a dozen others tacked to his backpack. Back home that sort of thing was unremarkable—Roosevelt's G.S.A.
handed them out at the start of every school year.
Here, things were different. At first he was only shoved during class changes—anonymous hostility
. By the middle of Sophomore year, students were taking time off to personally beat the shit out of him with latex gloves to shell their fists
and surgical masks to hide their sneers
. So Dad quit his job and homeschooled Peter while Mom kept working at the law firm. His first lesson, probably to cheer Peter up, was a lecture about the masks. They did nothing to prevent infection by airborne multi-resistants
. Such 'precautions' were nothing more than talismans
. "Pocket full of posies
" redux. Ironically, the masks were actually intended for those already infected—to prevent the contagious from spreading their sickness. Dad snarked that it didn't say much for Wauseba's biology curriculum
to see an entire school of ignorant bullies expecting salvation from strips of cloth thin as paper.
Mom's biology curriculum had been impeccable
. She wore hers correctly, even after they closed the coffin lid. Peter, cornered by a burgeoning penchant for the imaginative, couldn't help seeing a 21st century death shroud—something to veil away the Here from the Gone
. Spiritual was seeping into secular, warping and rotting his grounding in reality until it could hardly support his own weight. He was glad after that Dad didn't share any more clever metaphors.
The thought fell to him. He'd go there—that hiding spot at the top of the janitors' stairwell. He'd gotten to know it quite well between matriculation and extrication. First limping wide around the corpses, nose clenched shut with trembling fingers, he cut through the identical yards of identical houses dressed in beige and white to an identical excess
. He paused occasionally to wipe the streams of sweat from his forehead. A sunburn sting would linger long after the touch. He was desperate for shade. No trees here
Twice he heard engines. Twice he dropped to the ground, a growing reflex, hoping they'd mistake him for a corpse. SUV
s and pick-up trucks were still patroling these streets, hoping to chance upon more Sodomites for cleansing. That was their blanket term for urban refugees—bringers of the plagues, arrogant hedonist heretics, temptors of God's wrath. "They" were Fundies
bigots, right-wing redneck wackos. You could tell by the party affiliation on national IDs. Kids too. It was considered a hereditary trait
. Dad had tried to register them Independent
two months ago, when the White House
abandoned crisis management to the states. Dad had driven off to get gas three days ago
, at the start of the killing.
It didn't take long for Peter's head to begin buzzing with an unreal weightlessness
and his eyes to lose focus. Dehydration from an unusual, but not-yet-statistically-significant spell of scorching weather was getting to him. The expanse of high school parking lot, sickly sloshing in midair, kept his adrenaline
pumping. Terror pushed him onward where willpower might have failed. He hobbled frantically into the shadow of a brick wall painted over in gaudy primaries. The school's entrances were all chained shut, of course, but no one would mind at this point if he just kicked in a glass pane or two
To his surprise, he found one of the doors already shattered.
Peter might not be the only one here.
He cast a jittery glance back toward the path across the parking lot, but he knew he couldn't chance that much exposure again
. If the heat didn't lay him low, a gunshot might
. He hunched over and gingerly stretched himself through the jagged hole into darkness. Glass shards crackled beneath his feet. Ensconced in the absence of sunlight, he climbed a short flight of stairs up to the main hallway. He hoped his eyes would adjust soon—he didn't know the layout of the school too well. It was gigantic
Wandering corridors for a few minutes, he could finally see well enough to make out details. A bubbler gave him reason to relax a little. He bent over to lap up some strength, but no water spurted out to meet his lips. He had an instantaneous vision of complaining to Mom about the firehose water-pressure of the school's drinking fountains. It faded
. He wondered if he was getting feverish. The clean, elegant little clump of useless metal
began to blur behind oncoming tears, but he fought to hold them in. A survivor wouldn't waste water on something like that. A survivor would stay composed and know how to use a compass and what food to bring and where to sleep. Peter tried to remember second-hand information gleaned from boy scout
friends, but Roosevelt had banned students from participating relatively early. He switched to thinking of himself as a character in Hatchet
, or some Jack London
tale back from eighth grade lit. But those were both Man against Nature
narratives. There were two other types to contend with. Man against Man
. Man against Himself
Turning from the dried up fountain, he noticed the dim outline of a dancing cactus. That was the door to his old Spanish classroom, Señora Richardson's. Nice woman, but they'd fired her when the schoolboard cut foreign language funding
after the Progressive Front bombed a megachurch
in Colorado. Rumor had it their leader was an illegal immigrant
From that familiar waypost of friendly territory, it was easy. He climbed the stairwell two doors away to the fourth floor. Taking a right, he past his old locker, #892. They had neglected to scrub off the additional 666
. The fire exit at the end of the hall led to the janitors' stairwall, which went one floor further to a little attic with a lock whose key he'd stolen last year. It hung from a string around his neck, chill beneath the sweat-stained t-shirt. In Madison
he'd had a born-again cousin who always wore a cross necklace. One day while Peter was visiting, they were supposed to meet downtown to check out the farmers' market. Michael never got there. Someone had attacked him while he was crossing Library Mall
, with dozens of students staring on. No one had done anything to stop it. Nevertheless, the next day the Badger Herald
had been brimming with righteous condemnations and agonized hand-wringings. Thereafter, Michael always wore his cross necklace hidden beneath his shirt. Thereafter, they didn't see much of each other
A voice, cracking
Peter started out of his memories
and backed into a wall, considerably more solid
. The exit sign didn't shine all the way to the top of the flight—he couldn't see anyone. There was rustling. A form emerged into the dim red glow. A kid, maybe fourteen, with pimples and a mess of greasy curls, was holding a gun rigidly away from himself, as though it were some small, furious animal that might bite him.
There was a WWJD bracelt
around his wrist.
Peter stiffened. The throbbing in his ankle was unbearable.
"Who are you? Are you... who's side are you on?"
The kid's voice trembled, much like his pistol grip. In that moment, Peter became aware of how much his own legs were shaking. He raised his hands slowly, an unreal gesture, something he should've been seeing in a mediocre action flick
. The kid took a step down the stairs. Peter could make out his eyes then. Intense, white little circles tinged red.
"Who are you?! Come on... c..come on...say something!"
Peter's voice was lost. He couldn't find it
"Are you... do you believe in God
The kid was crying now, tear trails glimmering softly in the glow. The silence between his weak gasps stretched a space between solar systems
Yes? That wasn't true
. He couldn't say that. He'd never be able to fake it.
No? But that wasn't true either
. It was hard to think amidst the screeching pain and twitching muscles. He swallowed thick.
"I don't know."
The kid sniffed, scrunching up his face and tilting his head back as though he would sneeze. Quite suddenly, he broke into sobs
. The pistol drifted downward, his arm too tired to hold it thrusted out like that anymore. Between heaving gasps he moaned, "I do. I do. I do," rhythmically. A grief-swollen mantra.
Peter couldn't place the reason. He was out of ration. An inexplicable smile spread in little jerks across his face—a grin to lash at despair. Slowly—step inhale exhale step—with the care taken for stalking a wary duck or sneaking past his parents' bedroom, he approached. His jittering fingers gently took the boy's hand and tried to slide the pistol from his grip, waiting with breath held for something deafening to break the spell
A few seconds that lasted hours, the pistol remained firmly in the kid's grip. Then, almost instantaneously, it fell into Peter's
. The kid was nearly wailing now, clutching at his face like it might fall off. Peter turned the pistol over cautiously. The safety was on
. In a moment's hesitance, Peter imagined clicking it off, holding the barrel against this stranger's head, and pulling the trigger.
But after that
Peter chucked the gun into the darkness below. It let loose an agonized clatter of metal against concrete as it tumbled out of sight. Then there was only stillness, punctured intermittently by the sound of two boys sobbing together.