Disease is No Laughing Matter
Brenna R. Singman
Stuart leaned against a wall, narrowly dodging a dark stain on the brick. It was better not to touch anything suspicious when anything could be...
"Puntaminated," he said with a grin. Stuart shook his head. He knew he wasn't ill, but more than once he had to run when others thought his wit was really the disease talking.
He just needed another few minutes to rest before continuing. After all of these years, major cities had been abandoned. No help could be found there with the onset of the deadly laughter-the Laugh Track as it was called-and to keep anything from spreading, the cities had been flattened by fire bombs. Years of hiding, years of praying later, Stuart had to return home. If for nothing else, he wanted to end his days somewhere familiar.
Stuart took a few steadying breaths from behind his strapped on mask and pushed away from the wall. It was then that he noticed the graffiti tag. He snickered. "Must be the 90s cuz this place is da bomb! Easton got hit harder than I thought."
Stuart turned down 8th Avenue and its yawning, abandoned distance while trying to get his bearings. The last time he had been in the city, it was a cacophony of the inevitable dead gasping for breath as they laughed their final laughs, clutching to anyone to help them. Finally he started walking in what seemed to be an eastward direction. The city had poorly stood the test of time. High rises were shaved in half or crumbled into rubble. Stuart passed some old haunts. His favorite pizzeria was now ash mixed with disturbing stickiness.
"Must have been hard for them to brie-the," he mumbled, chuckling. His heart skipped a beat. Sometimes he had to question how much of his cleverness was his own and how much could be a sign that he had gotten careless over his years of survival, but the symptoms always came on pretty fast if one got infected.
He passed through Carriage Park, now with cratered fields and its wilted botanical garden. On the other side of the warzone, a lone skyscraper remained upright to at least its thirtieth story. Baffled, Stuart started sprinting towards it. Images filled in his memory of that street, memories of where signs would tell him he was on the right route to work, where he'd wooed the woman of his dreams with some of his best material.
"But she's probably long gone now," he said solemnly. "For better or for woo-rse."
He stopped at the glass front doors, wiped away some built up dust, and peered inside. The old coffee tables and chairs in the foyer area were gone. The walls were chipped, but had clearly withstood the beating of shock waves and bursts. The rotund reception desk looked tilted as if someone tried to drag it and gave up halfway against its bulk. Some broken equipment still sat on the tabletop. On the floor beside the desk were the scraps of his old punch clock that used to flash Dell, Stuart 8:59am every morning.
Something moved in the corner of Stuart's vision. A form had appeared from one of the parallel side hallways-he was sure he saw it-but it was gone in an instant. Stuart knocked on the door, not sure what he was expecting. It wasn't to see a face pop back out from around the corner. Her eyes were sunken, but a beautiful heathered gray. Mussed sandy hair fell over her shoulder in a greasy knot. As she tiptoed towards the door, he could see her dress hang over her gaunt frame.
"Stu?" chimed her muffled voice behind the glass.
"Hannah!" His voice cracked from excitement, and his heart hammered against his ribs. A tear pricked at his eye. "I can't believe it! Am I-am I sleeping if I'm being visited by my dream girl?" He pressed his forehead and hands to the glass as if he could feel her warm, soft skin through it. "You're alive!"
"How-? What-?" Hannah's eyes welled with tears. She immediately reached for the heavy chain sealing the doors from the inside, but she paused just as a few more shadows appeared. Suddenly she was surrounded by more greasy haired, dirt stained survivors. One man grabbed her hands away and glared at Stu.
"You sick?" the largest man asked.
"Dennis, that's my husband!" Hannah screamed, reaching for the door again. He pushed her back, and the others held her arms.
"Are. You. Sick." The man, Dennis, held his glare steady.
Stu held his arms up defensively. "Only thing sick about me is-" A hollow thud against the glass made Stu look at his wife as she retracted her foot. Her eyes were as wide as saucers as she shook her head. Dennis peered closer. "What I mean is, no. I'm not sick. I avoided it like the-uh, UNlike so many unfortunately people I came across. I'm just looking for shelter and my family."
The men and women looked at each other warily. Hannah's eyes drooped in relief. A small smirk flitted on Dennis' lips.
"You can come inside." He punctuated each word deliberately. Stuart's throat clenched as he sensed the bait. It was low hanging fruit. He pressed his lips together with a strained smile.
"I appreciate you letting me in," he said. There was a full minute of tense silence as no one moved to unbar the doors. Finally Dennis grunted and stepped back. A man and woman with gloves unhooked the thick chain and pulled the door open. Hannah ran into Stuart's arms in a loving embrace. "I'll be careful, sweetheart," he whispered in her ear.
"Very!" she demanded. She pulled back, hand still in his, and led him forward into the hideout. He could taste the metallic tang of blood as he bit his tongue. If he wanted to stay with his wife, if he wanted to survive, it was the only way.