Some bitch took a chunk out of Anderson’s throat, and we had to get the fuck out the village before we all ended up dead. Yeah, sure, you could blame the sickness. As if the boils and the puking aren’t bad enough, the fever makes you crazy. But, it wasn’t the sickness.
It was her—the bitch herself.
It’s people, the world over.
You just can’t fucking trust them.
There was nothing we could do for Anderson. It was just a matter of waiting for him to cark it, but he was a tough old bastard and we got a good day’s journey between us and the village before he started going downhill.
So we camped up in the woods for the night, and I made a small fire to take away the chill and ward off anything lurking for a kill.
“Go on without me at sun up,” Anderson said.
Of course, Boo told him, “No—we’re not leaving you. We stay together.” And he cut me a look, and said, “Tell him, Natch. We stay together, right?”
Anderson’s breathing was ragged. The wound on his throat wasn’t going to heal—it was sticky, it smelled, and with every breath it seemed to squeeze out more yellow goop. I put some more wood on the fire and said, “Keep warm. Just don’t get too close to the flames.”
He was fucked, and we all knew it.
“Find the others, and let them find you,” Anderson said.
Boo huffed. “Fuck the others.”
“No, I’m done for, kid,” Anderson told him. “You have to save yourself.”
I curled up in my blanket, pulled my hood low. “We can talk in the morning,” I said. “Let’s not decide anything in the dark.”
And, in the morning, Anderson was dead. Boo wanted to bury him. I kicked dirt over the last few smolders of campfire, ready for moving on. “So bury him,” I said. “You can catch me up.”
“You’re not going to help?”
What was the point? “I’m not digging a grave with my bare hands,” I said.
Boo’s shoulders dropped. “We can’t just leave him here.”
There were some bushes and shrubs nearby. I said, “Okay, we can roll him under there. He’ll be out of sight.”
Boo wasn’t impressed. “Out of sight. That’s it?”
He had to hear the cold raw truth. “We can spend all day burying him, and an hour after we’re gone, someone or something will have dug him up. He’ll be lunch, or a family meal, or a late night snacks until he goes rancid. You know the way it is. Whether he’s buried or under a bush or just left here—what the fuck does it matter?”
Boo gave way. He knew I was right.
I wished I wasn’t.
I closed Anderson’s eyes, pulled his hood together over his face, and covered him with his blanket. His smell would draw the scavengers in no time.
Most days, we didn’t talk much while we traveled, and we talked even less that day until the underbellies of the clouds were getting darker. There’d been no sun since the Crack. It was always cloudy. Purple-grey clouds. Sometimes thin and wispy, sometimes—like now—fat and heavy, and in the distance you could see the dirty haze of rain from sky to ground. Now and again, there was a quiet rumble of far-off thunder. The air was thick. The storm wouldn’t be long in reaching us.
“We need to find shelter,” I said. “The sooner the better.”
Boo pointed up the hillside. I’d seen it, as well—a small farmhouse, maybe little more than herdsman’s cottage. There were no herds or flocks, anymore, and maybe there were no herdsman about, either.
At the worst, there were outbuildings, enough to keep the blistering rain at bay, so we turned off the road and headed over the field.
Abandoned houses always look abandoned. This one didn’t. The door was closed, the windows shuttered, and there wasn’t the usual detritus lying around outside.
We avoided the house and settled for what smelled like an old goat barn. But, it was dry, and we didn’t need any more than that.
We huddled together in the corner for warmth, and Boo asked, “What if the others didn’t make it?”
That was a possibility. “We have to keep on going, and make sure we make it,” I said.
Boo lowered his head. “Yeah. For Andy…for Win—we have to,” he said.
Anderson and Winston didn’t count anymore. “For us, we have to,” I said.
It was a hard truth to swallow, and before Boo had chance to chew on it, the door slammed open, and a short, round woman in a heavy yellow cape held a lamp high and pointed a rifle at us.
“Monks?” she said.
People often mistook us for monks. I pulled my hood clear of my face, and told her, “We mean you no harm.”
The scowl on her face softened to something more like shock. No doubt she recognised our broad faces, wide set eyes, and small mouths from the drawings and posters.
“You’re Healers…” she said.
“We’re just staying out the rain,” Boo said, removing his hood.
The woman looked from one to the other of us. “I heard there was four of yous.”
“And now there are two,” I said.
She thought a moment, then lowered the gun. “You eaten?”
Boo looked at me. We both had empty stomachs.
“I have rabbit stew,” the woman said. “Plenty to go round. There’s just me and my girl.”
“Is it your girl with the sickness?” I asked, and the woman nodded, silently.
“We can smell it,” Boo explained. “And we can take it away.”
The woman sighed and shook her head. “I can’t pay you. We have nothing.”
Boo smiled and his eyes brightened. “You have rabbit stew,” he said. “Who needs money when there’s rabbit stew?”
So, hoods up against the rain, we followed her inside. The house smelled of heavy with the sickness, and warm with cooking.
Hearing us, the daughter came from the back of the house asking who was there. She hadn’t been ill long. She had the sores on her mouth. Her lips were swollen and her eyes were crusty, making it difficult to see—but she saw us, and moved closer to her mother, hiding behind her bulk.
“Don’t be afraid,” her mother said. “They’re Healers. They can make you well, again.”
Boo was always good with kids. He focused on the girl. “My name’s Boo,” he said.
“Charmaine,” the girl said.
He held his hands out, and the girl took the invitation to come to him. His hands swamped hers. “I need you to close your eyes, Charmaine,” he said. “Then I’m going to put a hand on your head and you’ll feel warm, and then you’ll feel better.”
She looked up at him, understandably nervous. “Will it hurt?”
Boo smiled. “Not even a teeny bit.”
Charmaine looked up at her mother, who nodded that it was okay, then, trusting Boo, she closed her eyes and Boo let go of her hands.
She didn’t need her eyes closed, to be honest, but she looked young and maybe it was for the best. Boo unfastened his robe and let it fall to his feet.
Charmaine’s mother put a hand to her mouth. Shocked, yet assessing Boo’s body, checking him out from top to naked bottom, and from the nervous glance she threw me, she approved of what was on display. Which was everything.
Boo rested one hand on Charmaine’s head and held the other in the air.
We glow all over when we take the sickness. It’s a sight to behold, and Charmaine’s mother had her hand on her chest now. “Oh my,” she said softly. Her eyes glistened, her lips trembled.
Boo held his head back as he absorbed the sickness, and he inhaled deep and slow at the nourishment he was drawing in.
Charmaine’s lips lost their bloatedness, the scabs dropped away, and the pale colour of her face flushed with health.
Boo let a long breath, and said, “It’s done.”
Charmaine rubbed the crustiness from her eyelids and giggled at Boo’s nudity. “You got no clothes on,” she said.
“He certainly hasn’t,” her mother said, and I could see the stew wasn’t going to be the only time I thought of rabbits that night.
Soon, we were eating, and the woman hardly took her eyes off Boo. And sure enough, when it came to talk of kipping down for the night, she said there was a bed we could have, but it would be a little tight for two of us…if Boo didn’t mind sharing with her, she had a double bed with plenty of room.
Boo, of course, happily accepted the offer.
I slept alone, glad to be free of the rough fabric of my robes. For a while, I watched the shifting shadows on the ceiling, and tried to ignore the moans and bumps and grunts from Boo and Charmaine’s mother.
Sleeping never comes easily, anyway, and I was still awake when the door to my room opened. Charmaine stood in the glow from the hallway. She was wearing a shin length nightdress, plain and practical. “Are you asleep?” she asked.
“If I were, I couldn’t answer you,” I said. “A better question would be ‘Am I awake?’”
She waited a beat, then asked, “Are you awake?”
“Yes. I’m awake,” I said. “Still.”
Her feet slapped against the bare stone floor, and she came to the side of the bed. “Can I sleep with you?” she asked.
I couldn’t make out her features in the dim light, but from her voice, I imagined the eyes of an abandoned puppy looking back at me. “How old are you?” I asked.
I sighed. “That’s old enough to know you shouldn’t be asking strangers if you can sleep with them.”
“I’m cold,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m cold, I sleep with my mother.”
“That’s different,” I said.
“Mm. It’s even more different tonight because she’s humping with your friend.”
That fact hadn’t gone unnoticed. “You should be in your own bed,” I suggested.
Charmaine nodded. “I will be, if you let me.”
Touché. So this was her bed.
“I don’t want to hump,” she said.
“Oh, good,” I said.
“You don’t like humping?”
“I didn’t say that.” How could a child get the better of me? “I just don’t want to—and I’m not sure I should even be discussing it with you.”
“Okay,” she said. “But I’m still cold.”
I sighed at the ceiling. I was probably going to regret it, but I pulled the covers back and said, “Okay–get in.”
Charmaine jumped into the bed and pulled the covers up, eagerly, and snuggled close, then she lifted her head from the pillow. “My mother puts her arm out for me to rest on,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, I’m not your mother.”
She didn’t move. Didn’t speak. She just waited.
Damn it all.
I put my arm across the pillow, and felt her smile as she rested down on it. Her hand rested on my chest. “Everybody said I was going to die,” she said.
“You were,” I told her. “The sickness always kills.”
“But now I won’t die.”
“Will I live forever?”
“It might feel like forever, sometimes,” I said. “But when it comes it’ll probably feel too soon.”
She nodded as if the answer had given her something to think about, then she asked, “Can I lick you?”
“No!” I said. I knew it would come to this. I told her, “I think you should go now.”
“Please. Just once,” she said. Those puppy dog eyes again. “Just your shoulder.”
“No. You need to go.”
She exhaled hard. “I could have done it without asking.”
“You still might,” I said, but she was quick to shake her head.
“Nuh-uh. That wouldn’t be right.”
I wasn’t going to risk it. “You should go.”
She sat up with her face down, and muttered, “Sorry.”
I really think she was. And I would have told her I wasn’t offended, and maybe explained more, but the thumping and banging and moaning from next door turned to Boo’s pained screams and Charmaine’s mother cursing and shrieking.
“No,” I said. “No, no, no—not Boo!” and leapt from the bed, grabbing my robes.
“So fucking sweeeet,” the woman was screaming with a manic laugh.
When I got there, Boo was on the bed, head dropped to the side, mouth and dead eyes gaping open. The woman was squatting over his hips, ripping his insides out with her bare hands. Boo was everywhere. The bed, the pillows, the woman’s naked chubby body—all soaking red.
The woman snarled back at me, then laughed again, with Boo’s innards hanging from her mouth.
I retched and stumbled away, in time to stop Charmaine from seeing what had happened.
“Don’t go in there,” I told her, holding her away, but she went to the doorway to see for herself, and put her hand to her mouth in horror.
I couldn’t stay. I grabbed my boots and tunic, and headed for the door.
Charmaine stopped me. “Where are you going?” she asked.
It was dark outside, but what choice was there? “Far away,” I said. “I’m going far, far away.”
She looked back at her mother’s room where another orgasmic cry of sick pleasure wailed out loud. “Take me with you,” she said. “Please.”
I shook my head. My kind were always going to be prey. Sooner or later, even Charmaine would turn on me.
Once she’d tasted my flesh, she’d want more.
I slipped into the night to the cry of her pleading.
To survive, I needed to find the pack. I had to find the security of the others.
If they existed.
If they’d survived.
I had to believe they were out there, had to keep faith that I wasn’t the last of my kind, that I wasn’t the only grown up Jelly Baby in this godforsaken, fucked up world.
By Jim Corwell