“What happened to you, really?” Anna asked. They were on break from their kitchen duties, sitting on the loading dock out back. “I’ve talked to a lot of people at the Center, and no one joined simply from a sense of apathy. There’s got to be more to your enlistment than ‘just ‘cuz’.”
“Well…, I’m almost thirty, and I have no family,” Chris said. “My parents died several years ago – cancer runs on my mother’s side and heart problems on my father’s.”
“No brothers or sisters?“ Anna asked.
“I had a sister, Teresa, but she died when she was thirteen. I was sixteen.”
“I’m sorry.” Anna clasped her hands together in her lap, her constantly swinging legs slowed.
“It was a long time ago,” Chris said. They were quiet for several minutes. The sky rolled through a kaleidoscope of colors as the sun set in the polluted horizon. “I guess if there is a reason for me being – you know, besides the whole unanchored aspect of my life -, it’s her death.”
“What happened?” Anna asked.
“We had a wooded area out behind our neighborhood. Theresa and her friend, Morgan, were hiking through it one summer. It was really hot, as you can imagine, so when they reached river running through the woods, they decided to strip down and swim for a bit.
“The next morning Teresa woke up with a full-body rash and a low-grade fever. My mom called Morgan’s mom to check on her, and it turned out, she had the same thing. After a couple of days, the rashes were still there and maybe a bit worse, so both our parents took them to the doctor and told them about having swum in the river and the doctor said, ‘Contact Dermatitis’. She gave the girls some steroid creams and instructed our mothers to not worry about the fevers unless they went above 101 and then to just give them something to ease it back.
“Two days later, they were both admitted to the hospital. Teresa never came out. She slipped into a coma. Her organs shut down one by one. Her death was ultimately attributed to septic shock.”
“So,” Anne began, “the doctor misdiagnosed what they got from the river?”
“No, that’s the worst part, really,” Chris continued. “It was contact dermatitis. Some inspectors took samples from the river and found traces of chemicals from some industrial run off. A company twenty miles upriver had been intermittently releasing their waste into the river. The contaminate levels were below the required part per million but high enough to irritate sensitive skin. Low enough, in fact, that any effects they may have had on the ecosystems weren’t noticed, and since the river wasn’t widely fished, no one was getting sick. The only reason it hadn’t already washed all downstream when the investigators tested the water was because the whole thing with Teresa and her friend had happened so recently and so quickly.”
“Why would they go septic from a rash?” Anna asked.
“It was the doctor’s office,” Chris said. “Theresa died because she got sick and went to the doctor’s office.”
Anna pulled her leg up onto the platform and turned to him. She felt he was fishing for her to question him, and she was right. Chris wanted to talk about what killed his little sister, but he wanted Anna to drag it out of him. “What was it?”
“The rash itched, and thirteen-year-old kids aren’t scions of self-control – they scratched. When our parents took them in because of the fever, they picked up super-antibiotic-resistant-staph-slash-herpes-slash-flesh-eating bug. It was probably just waiting on a door handle, ready to jump on and ride them home. While they underwent the steroid treatment – them rubbing ointment all over their rashes, the bug found itself a nice little scratch mark and cozied into their compromised little bodies.”
“Oh my God, that’s awful,” Anna said.
“Yeah, it was pretty bad.” Chris coughed into his elbow. “Theresa was the lucky one. She fell into the coma after about three days in the hospital and died two days after that.”
“Did her friend die, too?”
“No, Morgan held on. The medical team went medieval with her treatment, they cut out infected tissue as if she were a burn patient. That’s what ultimately saved her. She had a long recovery, though; she had to suffer from multiple skin-grafts and years of therapy, and now has a lot of scar tissue. She never wore short-sleeves or shorts in public after that, either.”
“How do you know it was the doctor’s office?”
“Some guy who sliced his arm putting up gutters on his house went to the same office the day after they had been there and developed the same infection. He lost his arm, if I remember correctly.” Anna’s mouth fell open in disbelief. Chris just nodded.
“A very thorough investigation found that an international student at the local university had come in recently – like a week or so before – with a possible STD. I don’t remember his nationality, but I’m guessing it was one of the Middle Eastern or Southeast Asia countries because that’s who made up most of the school’s international population. He had already returned to his home, so I don’t know what happened with him. Being sixteen and grieving for my sister, I hoped he died.”
The kitchen manager opened the door to the dock and peered out. “You two coming back or what?”
Chris checked his watch; they had passed their ten minutes by four minutes. “We still have three minutes, man.”
“Break doesn’t start once you finish your cigarettes,” the manager growled.
“We don’t smoke,” Chris and Anna said together. The manager mumbled something more as he released the door. They smiled to one another regarding their petite coup.
Anna returned to seriousness. “I’m sorry you went through all that.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think I’m special,” Chris said. “It’s kinda become the world’s new normal, right? Who doesn’t know someone with a similar story? Different circumstances, perhaps, same outcomes.” The last of the sun’s rim blinked out below the horizon though its light remained in the ever-present clouds. “Hey, you want to run away together?”
“What? No!” Anna said, thinking Chris was joking.
“You know, use our training to live in the hills like Ian said?”
She realized he meant it. “Seriously?” Chris shrugged a shoulder and made a maybe face but didn’t add anything more. “Chris, if I thought it was an option, I would.” She took ahold of his hand. “I care a lot about you, but you heard Ian, it wouldn’t make any difference in the long run. Anyway, I want to make – I want to believe I can make – a difference. Don’t you?” When Chris didn’t answer, she pushed against him, setting him rocking like one of those inflatable punching clowns. “Don’t you?”
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” Chris said, “or gain,” he added.
“Are you serious?” she asked again. “We’ve all got something to lose, Chris.”
He paused. “You’re right.” He looked at their hands for so long, she thought he was finished. “I just think I’d rather have something to gain, something definite.” He smiled feebly in the gloaming darkness. “Bad timing, I know.” She sat silent. “I wish they sent us out in teams,” he said.
Anna put an arm around him and pulled close. “This isn’t the end,” she whispered. She released him and they sat watching the horizon burn like cane fields, their fingers interlocked.
The kitchen manager pushed the door open again. “I know it’s been more than ten minutes now.” They stood and returned to their duties. Neither of them said anything more about their conversation.
The last week closed out.
Chris forfeited his pass. He had no one outside the Center to say goodbye to, anyway. While his cohort packed their bags and received their temportation schedules, he simply moved his things from the room he’d shared the last few months over to a single suite. He had a closet and a bathroom all to himself for the next two nights.
In a matter of hours, the Center de-evolved from being a familiar place to him to one wholly strange – his room, the new faces and behaviors of the fresh recruits. A storm had rolled in – roiling clouds blackened the sky, lightening splashed vertically and horizontally, rain pounded the windows and splashed in through the doorways as recruits clung to their bags. It all made his shift even more dramatic.
After Chris visited the Center’s medical center to undergo his final physical, he ate quickly and retired to the solitude of his room. He sat on his bed for a while listening to the voices coming from the hallway. He didn’t want to stay in his room and read, and he didn’t want to re-enter the throng of people roaming the dormitory. He chose to take a long, hot shower.
Before turning out the lights, Chris looked over his ticket. It was a basic appointment for the station, similar in appearance to a plane ticket: time, gate and crèche assignment listed. Impersonal. In darkness, he lay on his side, facing the wall, unable to sleep.
His door opened and closed quietly. Light momentarily fanned across the room. He rolled onto his back. Anna stood at the doorway, letting her eyes adjust. Her hair dripped rainwater onto the tile. She shrugged off her jacket as she had shrugged off her backpack the first time they met. As Chris watched her undress, she stayed silent, leaving her clothes in the puddle on the floor. She climbed into the tiny bed and pressed her mouth onto his.
The next morning, she was gone.
Chris sat above a river basin, his legs once again hanging over the edge. He took a final bite of the apple he’d been eating and threw the core into the ravine. Birds roosting in branches to his back chattered up a ruckus and drowned out the sound of the churning water. He decided he’d better set up camp before it got full dark.
As he stood, he noticed a ribbon of smoke in the distance. He stared in disbelief. Another ribbon floated upward and feathered out in the light breeze. A third one followed soon after and then a fourth. The sky was clear, no storm clouds, no lightning strikes.
Chris put together a hasty camp site before returning to the edge of the tree line, careful to stay back from the edge in the darkness. A new moon left the role of lighting the night sky to the stars, but from his vantage point Chris could also see additional star-like twinkling interspersed between the trees of the valley. He pulled his compass from a pocket and noted the azimuth to the lights. He had no idea how far away they were since light travels so well when the air is clear; he might as well take a guess at the distance to the stars in the heavens were.
The following morning Chris set out to find a means across the gorge. For the first time since the night he threw his last one into the fire, he began sketching a new map.
Though he didn’t know how far he’d have to travel, he knew the direction he needed to go in relation to the ledge. As long as he kept track of his movements and any diversions he made of his course, he could return to the azimuth. As an additional measure, Chris cut one of his t-shirts in a spiral a foot wide to make a makeshift banner. This gave him six feet of cloth. He weighted it against the wind by tying it to a stone and hung it over the ledge.
It took two days for him to find a suitable place to climb down into the gorge and another to find a place where he could cross the river. Walking north along the riverbank, against the flow; however, it only took another day before he spotted the white fabric bustling in the breeze. He checked the map and was pleased by his accuracy. He turned west.
Chris came to a sudden thinning in the thick forest the following day. There was a discernible decrease in deadfall, the tree trunks narrower. Grasses, not generally found under a forest canopy, blanketed the ground and grew thickly a dozen yards beyond were none had been. Chris stopped and turned a full circle, surveying the area. Stones of various sizes and shades stood up in rows through the grasses and groundcover like teeth. Then his eye caught something that put it all into a surreal perspective. A crypt hid behind a tree a hundred feet away, peeking out of the shadows. Green, leaf-filtered light swam across its surface. He looked at the headstones closest to him and wondered how he had mistaken them for anything other than what they were.
The world suddenly took a frightful pitch. The cemetery was not old, it was ancient. The headstones were worn away by the years, but their styles were familiar since they were similar to those of his time. He went from stone to stone until he found a particularly hardy one still mostly readable. The dates looked like 1973-2031. The threes could have been eights and the seven could have been a one, but the two was distinct. This grave was for a person who had died fifteen years before Chris temporated.
Chris peered up through the tree branches at the azure sky. No contrails, no smog, no industrial pollution of any kind. These many weeks, he had believed himself to be in the middle of a large, forested region of the Northwest prior to the immense urbanization of the region, but this suggested something else entirely.
Clear edges where the fir trees gave way to hardwoods: cherries, oaks and maples; the deep greens gave way to ornamental splashes of color.
It was something one would miss it they weren’t looking for it.
Chris passed through an area in which the wild forest pushed back at what had once been manicured landscape, a barely discernible scar yet still present. He continued through the stones. Heading westerly, he found markers listing whole families on single dates. Many others had no dates. Many others had no names, only numbers. And numbers.
The truth had always been in the back of his mind, but it had refused to surface. It was all gone. The society he had known and been sent back to save. The planet was fine. It just needed to get rid of its people in order to recover. Like breaking off a bad relationship. Removing a tumor.
Another day of traversing through ruins. The density of the city was the only thing keeping off its complete razing by nature. Being the Northwest, there were still old trees filling places, but they were thinner than in the forest Chris had traveled. What had once been tall buildings were now high hills, their components not as hardy as the granite and marble grave markers. These modern constructs paled to the ancient pyramids and coliseums. Interesting what people choose to make to last, how disposable we had become.
Untold years of dust and dirt covered the roads and piled up next to the fallen down walls. Windblown seeds had settled into the novel topsoil and taken root, grown and spread.
Rome could not have seemed so old or ruined. It reminded Chris of pictures of ‘lost’ civilizations in South America; now being re-enacted in the north, but with more transitory materials.
He camped in a cave of debris. The place may have been a garage or a lobby or simply the space under two collapsed buildings. Outside the entrance, he pulled together as much combustible material as he could find and built up the largest campfire he had ever dared.
He wanted to set the whole world to see.
That night, with the flames still bright enough to wake the gods, he once again dreamed of Anna. Her hand in his on the dock. They sat watching the horizon burning like cane fields. Even in his sleep, his mind acknowledged that his eyes were registering the blaze outside his hole. He turned to look at Anna, but she was gone.
The next morning, he continued along his azimuth. He knew the fires he had seen from atop the gorge were man-made and controlled. It could only mean a village of some sort still sat beyond these discarded ruins.
He walked all day and into the early evening. No more stopping.
Sometime after sunset, Chris smelt, rather than saw, the smoke. It rode on a northerly breeze. His quickened his pace but resisted the urge to run. He had learned his lesson from before and would not let panic overtake him again. After half an hour of sniffing his way forward, he found himself on the borders of the village. A field cleared for large crops separated the forest from houses, giving at least a hundred-yard buffer zone between the two.
Tears filled his eyes and sobs began to rack his chest. He retreated back into woods. He knew well enough that to walk into the village, a stranger, at this time of night could likely get him killed, so he found a soft hollow in the undergrowth and spread out his sleeping bag. He tried to sleep, but his anticipation and the chill of the night without a fire kept him awake.
Once the sun had risen enough to see clearly, Chris pulled out the mirror he had kept with him. His reflection was of a wild man, a caged creature. Using the last of his water, he washed his face and hair – it made a marked improvement. His gaunt features looked less crazed, at least.
Chris shouldered his pack one last time and made his way to the village.
He walked through the field, fall crops sprouting through the tilled soil. A smaller, personal garden sat behind the closest house and was being tended to by a couple, a young woman and a younger male crouched down next to one another. The boy saw Chris first and slapped the woman’s shoulder with the back of his hand, pointing. She shot the boy an irritated glance before looking up. Seeing Chris, she stood.
His breath caught; his heart entered his throat. His legs almost gave out from under him.
Her hair, the same color and sheen, shimmered in the sun. The way she shrugged off the canvas bag she’d held on her right shoulder. How she held herself – the tilt of her head, the curve of her torso, the hitch of her hip – as she looked at him.
The mistaken image quickly faded, however, as he watched her call to someone in the house. Where his first impressions all pointed to familiarity, further consideration brought out only contrasts. Smaller, more compact, darker – whether from sun or lineage he could not tell.
An older couple emerged from within. Since the boy had spotted him, Chris had remained rooted to the edge of the yard. The couple exchanged a few words and then the man gestured Chris forward. The older woman had gone inside as Chris stepped closer, but she shortly returned to where the man waited, holding a cup in her hands. As he reached them, she handed the cup to Chris. He accepted gratefully, his mouth having gone completely dry.
News of his appearance spread quickly, and others came from their homes to see the stranger who had come from the forest. The residents all had a similar appearance to the family, but it was not one for which simple familial connections could account. It was as though they were a novel race, derived from a common bottlenecked set of genes. Chris wondered what extreme evolutionary pressures must have been placed on these people. He was acutely aware of his foreignness.
A spike of fear entered his mind. He worried that he might be woefully under adapted – all those medical preparations at the Center may have been for nothing. Then again, he hadn’t been sick even from food poisoning since his arrival. He guessed he’d find out soon enough. Either this community would prove to be the death of him, or he would be theirs.
As more people continued to gather, the older man motioned Chris toward the house. The younger woman whose appearance had stopped his heart earlier took hold of his arm. He turned to her. She really did look like Anna, though darker and harder. She offered him a freshly washed carrot; he presumed it had come from their garden. The father laughed and said something in a dialect Chris didn’t understand. The girl blushed and lowered her eyes as some of the gatherers also laughed. The man clapped Chris on the back and again urged him in doors.
As he entered, he stole a glance back to the young woman and found her still standing, watching.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in