My god. It's Freak's challenge again (I've done it every month since it started in September). Because I can. Plus, if enough people read this, then I get all giggly and then, my god, I'm giggly. That's the end of the explanation.
Theme is 'Halloween on Christmas. A, for some family-related reason, gets kicked out of the house. He wanders around and finds B B is determined for this day to be his last. A tries to dissuade him. You do the rest.
Everything that happens in the present of the story must be set outdoors.
Must use the words: archive, pancake, mandarin, butter, phantasmagoria, pounce/d and permission.
One character must say: "It's the floaty men, dude…they're here to steal your soul and put it in a little star-shaped glass box…"
The story must at some point feature the re-enactment of a famous scene of a famous movie/scene from a famous movie/famous scene from a movie
No mentions of alcohol or drugs.
Nothing can happen indoors
Not allowed to start conversations with 'I'
So yeah. Tada.
People die every day, and that's okay.
I know how it is. Circle of life. I saw The Lion King, just like every other kid in the American Midwest. Eating hotdogs and jet-puffed marshmallows, writing letters to Santa and the Tooth Fairy, playing in the snow all winter, my entire childhood was untroubled by the fact that people die, though now I cannot possibly imagine and existence that does not revolve around rotting corpses and maggots beneath pallid skin. Soon, my only friends will be flies and my own doppelganger crafted from the insanity that will no doubt take hold of my brain.
Now, I walk around in circles in the remnants of the tenderloin district to ponder humanity's most grievous fate for I cannot bear the false safety of my self-imposed captivity.
That, and my stepmother threw me out.
No one walks around outside any more. It's suicide —or murder, in the case of my dear father's dreadful mate— to try and breath the air, everyone knows it. Getting to shelter is most important right now. The middle of nowhere, in a place where no one, no one is infected.
I don't mind. I hated living in a bunker beside the subway. It was loud and I couldn't sleep and I missed the sky so badly.
There is a ledge, above a train rail. They still run the subways, because the government pays them to do it. People —a line of them, holding hands like blissful school children— stand on the edge of the ledge. "A one," they chant in unison, "and a two!" They swing their arms, all together. So prepared to meet their blessed end. "And a three."
Bless comes from a word that means 'to consecrate with blood'.
"It's the floaty men, dude," a stocky man cries, grabbing onto my arm until I feel the blood vessels burst beneath his finger. "They're here to steal your soul and put it in a little star-shaped glass box!"
Then he lets me go and starts to cry. I run away.
Husks of people with their arms out stretched, the dying and the sentenced, walk around like I do. They aren't walking anywhere though, and they don't care about escaping. Begging, pleading for water they stumble into walls and each other, to fall on the pavement and never get up. They look like the zombies in the old movies. Shaking, sobbing, vomiting, and hallucinating, they each have they their own reactions to the dreadful airborne virus.
Zombies, I reason, would be far easier to deal with. They're big enough to see.
On the edge of town, there is a field. In the centre of it, rows of corn. In the centre of that, strung together with stolen chicken wire, a pounded-in ring of stakes. In the centre of that, me.
There's no one around for miles. The people who owned the house are dead —I saw their bodies, decomposing and wriggling with worms— and I opened up all the windows to let the germs escape. I slept on their porch, and I'm not yet sick. I still haven't dropped the bandanna from my mouth though, just in case. I'll go inside sometime soon.
There is shuffling. Because it's downwind, I'm not in danger, but I cover my mouth with the handkerchief anyway. One can never be too sure these days. "Hello?" I call. Nothing. No response. Might as well be no one out there. Maybe the dementia has already set into their heads.
Again, I call out.
Again, no answer.
I don't call out again.
Paralyzed, I secure the bandanna around my mouth. The sun is riding low on the horizon, making the sky swell with light. Stakes will keep any delirious passer-by away, for a while…their persistence goes, after a while. Besides, I offer no comfort to them anyway. No reason to bother me.
There is another round of shuffling. "Get out of here!" I shout at the very top of my lungs through the cloth over my face. I hope to scare them away. The shuffling is still there though, and I don't know what to do. Usually they get scared and run. They hear things that aren't said.
"What do you want?" Again. If only for a response, for some sort of verification that this person is still out there, thinking and feeling. Someone who hasn't become just another file in the archive of biological weapons. "Who is out there?"
I sit down in the centre of my little chicken-wire fence circle, surrounded by choppily cleared corn. I cling to my legs, rest my forehead against them. There is sobbing out there, I can hear it. There is nothing now, nothing to make me call out to the stranger out there.
They've destroyed everything.
The voice is sewn deep with sanity. Soft though, fading and frightened sounding. I stand quickly, scan the horizon, but everything is obscured by the corn. Securing the pink stripe of cloth around my neck, clutching the spade I pilfered from the abandoned farm house, I stand my ground.
Crying. The softest, most terrified crying. My skin crawls at it, if only because it is so foreign: my stepmother never allowed crying in our house, and the walking cancer bombs always sobbed so terribly. My knuckles tighten around the garden tool, but the malice has begun to drain from my mind.
"Hello, is anyone out there?" I would say nothing, stay silent and wait for them to leave, but they sound too much like my brother. "Hello?"
"Here!" I shout back, banging my spade against the carpet of corn husks. "Here."
I am met with a scream most unearthly. There is a thrashing, stomping presence in the corn rows, throwing ad bending the stalks out of the way with violent fervour. "Where is here?" the voice demands, still laced with sobs. "Where is here?"
Before I can answer, however, they find me.
It's only a teenaged boy. Knock-kneed and dishevelled, swearing over and over again in his twangy accent. Words that would peel the paint off of the walls and thrown my stepmother into a rage. Mouth still secure, I push the fence aside and step out of the confines of my little wire cage.
"Are you alright?" I ask. I take a step forward, but he jumps before I can even get close to him. With eyes that remind me all too much of the insane, he stares back at me. Without loosening my mouth guard, I take another step forward.
Were he infected, he would have tried to attack me by now or turned and fled. I think. My grip on the spade doesn't loosen, not for a second.
"Are you alright?"
I watch his eyeballs twitch in their dry sockets. His head is poised to move to one side or the other, but it doesn't. His mouth opens. "Do you…" His voice is so cracked with disuse that his throat rips. "Do you have…"
Water. Food. Fire. A place to sleep. Vodka.
Not what I expected.
"You can't want to die," I say as we're curled around my stupid fire. Burning corn tassels smell like death. "It's not fair."
It's not fair because he's been vaccinated.
Highly experimental. Costs an arm and a leg, and your first born child. Their arms and legs too.
Son of an ambassador, vaccinated, safe, and this boy wants to kill himself because he has no friends left. "You're alive," I hiss. Fearful in its transience, the smoke flees my breath. "There doesn't need to be anymore than that."
He says nothing.
"You couldn't have taken a bath with the toaster, or something like that?"
Shaking his head, he peels a half-ripe ear of corn to throw the husks on the fire. "We didn't have a toaster," he says. "Or a stove. We had an oven though."
"Should have stuck your head in it," I counter. "Hm…I wonder if the people in that house have pancake mix."
This is met with a blank stare. For the first time, I come to the conclusion that this boy must be younger than me. The pieces begin to come together: he's shocked by the wind, the sky, the distant sound of rain. His skin is so red, burned as if it has never been touched by the sun before.
"You were born beneath the ground, weren't you?"
Blankly, he nods. His eyes start to well up with tears: great juicy ones that trickle down his skin and become fat drops to fall on his lap. His lower lip trembles. "I've never seen a sun…a sun like this before."
"How old are you?"
"Fifteen," he says. Fifteen years old, and he already wants to die. Nobody should want to die when they're fifteen, not if they can help it. "Fifteen years old, and I've practically lived in a closet my entire life. How old are you?"
I don't think he really wants to know. "Going to be eighteen in a week." I remember my birthday very suddenly. I feel old. I also feel proud, righteous, invincible, because I've spent two nights already out above the surface and I'm not dead yet.
"How long ago was the last attack?" the boy asks.
"Your father was an ambassador and you don't know?" Even I know. I know, and my father was just a rich bastard who could afford a bunker. "How can you not know?"
The boy shakes his head until his hair falls in front of his face. "Don't know," he says. "Don't know."
I didn't want to break him. "Well. Um. A year and a half? Two years? There's been one every few months for the past thirteen or fourteen years." I've always been just a little fuzzy on the dates. I've always been a little fuzzy on who's doing the bombing too: first it was Iran, then it was China, then it was Russia, then it was The Communist Nation of Qatarsonia, and no one knew where that was so we stopped asking.
He hugs his legs against his chest and rocks back and forth.
"What's your name?" I ask. I can't keep calling him 'the boy' in my head, especially because he isn't that much younger than me.
He still has his head resting between his knees. "Shai," he whispers. "My name is Shai."
"It's nice to meet you, Shai. I'm Leigh." He lets me slide closer to him, reach out and touch his arm. "Are you breathing? You should breathe. Breathing is good for you, especially when you can do it safe." I am reminded of the blue bandanna around my mouth. I had to burn the pink one. I only have three left after this.
Shai is sobbing though, and this is restricting his ability to breathe. His entire body shakes violently, made only worse when I try to touch him. He scoots away from me until his back touches the chicken wire.
"Stop it!" I bark at the top of my lungs through my mask. "Hold the fuck still, Shai!"
He stops moving.
"You are going to lie down, okay? And you are going to go to sleep. When we wake up, we are going to find something to eat. It will probably be corn. Now lie down. Shut your eyes." It's just a few hours past dawn, I'll wake him up at noon.
Still shaking, Shai complies. He falls to one side and lies there, shivering for a moment, until he stops moving altogether. It doesn't even look like he's breathing. His eyes seal shut. He appears to die.
I watch the bodies burn.
Shai doesn't. Shai's inside the house, picking up the absolute necessities from those people's pantry. I hate to admit I'm too afraid to go inside, but I am. I keep my handkerchief tied tight around my mouth and nose to keep the smell of rotting, burning, diseased flesh out of my nostrils.
Shai emerges. He has tins of food in his arms, but he drops them short as he's hit by the stench of death and fire. "Leigh! I got food!" he shouts through the top of his jacket. I pad across dusty backyard.
These people were pretentious snobs. Mandarin oranges, I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Butter, caviar. I blink at the food and look up at Shai. "Go run around in circles," I tell him. "Clear the germs out of your protected lungs."
He does. When he comes back, his body is heaving. "There is more, but I couldn't find any pancake mix," he tells me. "I'm sorry, I looked everywhere for it but I couldn't find any and everything was stacked really high and…and…"
"Stop," I order. "Breathe."
He does. He looks shocked and hurt and scared. "It's just…I've never touched a dead person before." He looks down at his hands. "It was so strange. It's not like touching an alive person." His eyes begin to glisten with the brightest baby tears. Snot dribbles out of his nose.
I resist the urge to pounce on him.
"Shai," I say. "Shai, stop crying. It's getting on my nerves." It's not getting on my nerves though. It just hurts to watch him. No virus, no weapon can drive this boy to madness, so he does it to himself. I reach out and take hold of one of his hands, run his fingers down to my pulse. "Look. I am alive."
Instead of answering, he grabs the front of my shirt and tugs himself against me. "You're alive," he echoes. "Alive. You're alive. Why are you alive? No one I like it alive anymore, I don't want you to die."
I try to assure him I won't, but he isn't listening anymore.
"Was it always like this?" Shai asks me. Our shelter is beginning to take a more elaborate form: chairs stolen from the still living room, tarps stolen from the basement strewn up without permission— but what do they care, they're dead. "Was it always this gloomy?"
I shake my head. "No. It was nicer before." I was only three at the time of the first attack, though the phantasmagoria is still burned into my head. My family migrated underground a lot later than some of the others. We stayed up just long enough for my mother to die.
"Oh. I want it to be nice again."
He leans against me and I let my hand rest on his chest. His ribs protrude beneath even my thick sweatshirt. It swims on him. "Why are you out here?"
Shai glances up. "What?"
"You've lived underground your whole life. What happened?" I feel him try to inch away from me but I won't let him. "What happened?"
"My family died," he breathes. "We lived in this commune…it spread like something fast. People started snapping, crying. We thought it was the disease from the air but it wasn't, it was insanity from never breathing real air at all."
He breaks off into coughing sobs. I slip away to kneel in front of him, hold his shoulders steady. "Keep going," I urge, and he won't meet my eyes.
"So my mum…she tells all of us we're camping in the living room. And as we're going to sleep, she puts these…pills in our mouths and tells us they're to make us strong and she kisses our foreheads and she takes one too. Only it tastes bad, so I spit it out. I go to sleep and when I wake up, they're all dead."
He's not crying any more. He's not even blinking. "Who?"
"My sisters. Five of them. And my mother. My father just…disappeared." He sighs deeply and I can feel his breath fan over my face, stopped by the scarf around my mouth and nose. "And so they took me to this…home. This thing. And I was all alone. All by myself. Stayed there three years And the virus from the air got in and they were all dead except for me and this other boy. And we stayed there."
His breath comes in shallow puffs now.
"But he died too. So I left. I didn't get to die with them."
Cross legged, we sit facing each other. I let my hands rest on his hips. I can feel the bones under his ragged jeans, sharp and jagged, the product of stress and malnutrition. "That's stupid," I say. "Don't be stupid. You're so lucky."
He reaches forward with his slender hands and touches the bandanna around my mouth. The green one now. Burned the blue one with the bodies. The yellow one and the violet one are still bunched up in my bag. "You're not dead yet either." He lets his eyelids droop a little and he stares at me through a lattice of eyelashes. His long, conical fingers tug at my scarf.
I jerk away. "Don't touch that," I snap. Shai looks a little stunned. "It's safe for you, but it's not safe for me. I can die of this, remember?"
He nods and looks ashamed.
The corn grows slowly.
I don't know how it survived this long. Maybe the owners of the house tended it, though that doesn't seem particularly likely. They were fat and bored looking, even as corpses. Perhaps they hired someone.
Working a field is nothing like reading a book about working a field.
My yellow bandanna is beginning to look a little ragged. I haven't gone inside the house, but I've begun to take it apart piece by piece from the outside. There is too much food inside to pass up, anyway. I make Shai get it.
He looks like a corpse.
I sit in a chair, staring out at the waving field. It dances in the dim breeze. My legs stick to the green and yellow plastic and I lean back until I can't see the horizon in any direction. I shut my eyes.
A pair of hands rest on my shoulders. "Hi," Shai's voice squeaks. I crack one eyelid, just wide enough to see his scrawny shape against the blue of the sky. He isn't quite as gaunt as he was at the beginning of our perpetual camping trip.
"Hi," I return. His hands skate up my shoulders to touch the hallow of my collarbone, ghost over the exposed swatch of my neck. "Is everything okay?"
Shai bites his mouth carefully. He cups his hands around my mouth, through the yellow bandanna, and he begins to peel it down away from my face until air accosts my lungs. He keeps pausing, just briefly, to look at my eyes as if for some silent protest. This time he finds none.
"Can I…" He blushes and looks away. I feel like some sort of dead flower.
Shai leans over and presses his mouth against mine. Particles of sun-shocked dust settle on his hands as they stay cupped around my face in a most tentative, protective way. My entire body seems to flip, turn over and writhe within its skin. Heat pours from the seal between our lips, flowing through my face from his and down through my neck to my heart. His hands tickle the sides of my face, rest behind my head like a pillow crafted from his fingers.
Electricity wavers for a moment between us as we pull away. His hair, sticking up in all directions, is outlined by the sun. He stares at me a moment, my eyes first, and then my uncovered mouth. One slender, white finger ghosts over my bitten lips. I'm sure his look just the same.
He tugs the yellow bandanna over my face again. Still leaning back-bent over the chair, I take hold of his right hand, trace tiny figure eights on it with my thumb. He blushes the colour of cranberries and leans down to kiss my forehead.
Then he turns and disappears into the endless rows of corn.
We don't stay.
We load up the truck and light up the house and leave what's left, but we don't stay. My yellow bandanna stands tied up on the mailbox, looking lonely and bright as the sun in the sky. I watch it go as I struggle to make the car go. Driving a truck is not at all like driving a go-cart, but it's similar enough for me to figure it out.
We swerve into the nighttime. "Slow down Leigh," Shai sobs for the fifth time in the past hour. "Please slow down, it's scary."
I rest my hand on his thigh and he just stops talking, though I can feel him shaking still. "Shai. It's a car. I can drive. Don't freak."
But he's always freaking, and this time isn't any different.
Hours. It takes us hours on this abandoned highway to get somewhere where nothing is. The chicken wire belted down in the back of the truck rattles sharply as we leap from the road and begin to drive across the desert. Shai jumps awake at the sound, his bright eyes wild with the remnants of sleep. I slow and wait for him to drift back to sleep.
There are barracks. Abandoned for years, before the attacks made from germs and lies, the buildings stand at lonely attention. The are angular, slowly decaying skeletons, cemented against the sky. I stop the car short of a pillar and sit there. Nothing else for miles. No one has been here for years. The rains have washed away the disease.
Letting the violet bandanna slip from my mouth and into the dust, I open the car door and step outside.
Yeah. My movie scene is the people jumping into the train, from 'Suicide Club'. It's Japanese.
It owns your soul.
Thanks for reading. It makes me feel all special.