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Clean Living

The note taped to the mirror read

you are not sick. live clean, live long

He was examining himself, studying eyes threaded with seven weeks of solitude, poor sleep and stale air.

He had stocked up on antibacterial soap. The papers had warned against using it, saying improper use would just lead to stronger bacteria without affecting the real cause of the infection, which was a virus. He used it anyway. They hadn’t been able to do shit about containing the infection, what did they really know? The virus could probably hitch a ride on bacteria, they were related or something. Anyway, how the hell could you use soap improperly? It was soap.

His face was free from spots. Free from infection. He was like a fish in a tank while the sea washed at the doorstep. Safe. Safe. A sealed membrane. He could stay this was for weeks, months at a time.

Breakfast was spam and powdered eggs. The external door was in the kitchen. Bits of Harry’s scalp and a trace of his blond hairs still clung to the latch because he didn’t want to bother cleaning it. Stupid bastard. Harry had been too slow, always one more thing to go back for.

The den had been a compromise between the two of them. Harry’s exercise bike was pushed up against the wall, already half-cannibalized for parts.

There were movies, movies and tv shows. He had already watched them in English, French and Spanish, with director’s commentaries and every ‘making of’ documentary.’ He popped in an 80’s comedy and cracked a mineral water. That had been one of Harry’s complaints: no booze. Booze was too much of a risk.

After scrubbing his dishes, he stuck his mouth beneath the stream. Clear and cold, it came from a cistern deep in the ground. No pollution.

 

He put up another note. It said

smile. you’re alive.

He had to check his teeth in the mirror. He had heard that a bad tooth could get into your bloodstream, so he flossed a lot. His gums bled. He washed the lacerated flesh with listerine.

There were two entrances. He had wanted one, but bargained it down from three. The door in the kitchen which he would never, ever open again and the hatch in the ceiling he had sealed  before moving in.

The shelter was a deluxe model. It had a game room where he played the wall at ping-pong and a kitchen and a shower that used the runoff for the septic system. The air system was ionically filtered, no changing screens. Quick. Efficient. It could have supported a family of five. Hell, it could’ve supported him and Harry, but one was enough. One could live well, provided one took care.

He took care of himself and ate right. Some canned food, mostly dry. Dry didn’t go bad. Jars could get air in and go bad. He’d had enough bad air.

Sometimes he wished he could get the news in here. Just to see how much better he had it. No matter how bored he was, at least he didn’t have to step over bodies every day.

He made a pyramid of food cans and rolled Harry’s houseplants down the side until the pots broke. The ferns and orchids were long since crispy. He didn’t waste water on them.

In the game room he made another go at the rubix cube before he threw it at the wall. The puzzles were mostly Harry’s idea. Most of the games were two-person affairs. He unpacked the chess set and made it act out Reservoir Dogs.

Dinner was protein powder mixed in with peanut flour. He longed for a steak.

 

The next note said

wash hands

in big block caps. And he did, every time he saw it. Had to. Sores had opened up on the backs of his hands. It hurt, but he had to keep the infection out.

He bandaged his hands with rolls of gauze smeared liberally with antibiotic ointment. It must have been the cheap stuff, because he didn’t heal any faster.

There was a spot on his back. It was probably a zit, but it itched. Did that mean it was infected? He washed it with antibacterial soap every hour, but it just got bigger and redder. His hands were too bandaged to properly examine it, so he got a kitchen knife. Just a little nick, shorter than a dime, but it gushed like a geyser. He swore and scrambled to blot it with toilet paper.

It had probably been fine and now he’d let the germs in.

He hopped in the shower and washed until the water at his feet turned pink.

He got dizzy. Shit. Was that a symptom?

He got out of the shower and took a mega-dose of vitamins and antibiotics. He must have passed out at some point because he woke up with the towel sticking to his back. He itched.

The new bandage sat on the dried blood because he didn’t want to risk opening it up again. His stomach screamed with emptiness.

The dehydrated tofu wouldn’t absorb water, so he ate the cubes out of the box and drank Hi-C. His stomach swelled and ached, so he brought the cubes up in the toilet. Could tofu go bad? He dumped it just to be safe.

 

The mirror said

don’t scratch

because he’d been unable to manage the tape and paper with his hands. They looked like white boxing gloves.

Since the gauze was flammable, he ate right out of cans. Cold spam. Cold beets. He dumped the egg and milk powders right in his mouth. It started a coughing fit that made him puke.

Food was no good. He ate granola off the counter because he couldn’t use his hands. Itchy.

The water tasted stale. It was tainted. The air was bad. So itchy.

He could taste blood on his gums. Harry sabotaged the food. Had to. Probably coughed on everything. Bastard.

The granola went down the drain. The spam went down the drain. The milk powder went down the drain. The water chuckled as it ran down. The veggies went down the drain. The protein powder went down the drain. The drain clogged, bad water backed up into the stall. He fell trying to get away. Back made contact with the dirty floor. Go to the sink and scrub, scrub, scrub.

Back itched. Probably sick. He taped his hands together to keep from picking at it. Behind, so it’d be harder to undo. Live clean, live long. He slept and woke in shifts. No night or morning. No windows. Itchy. He stuck to the couch. Hunger shred his stomach, but the food was bad. No steak. No meat. He slept. Still hungry. Itchy.

 

The mirror said something. Couldn’t read. Too stale. Air bad. Had to grab the door, but hands behind back. Keep trying.

 

“Anything to report, private?”

The young man came back at a slow jog. “We cracked the hood, sir. It’s a shelter. Mostly empty.”

“Mostly?”

“Well, there’s a shambler in there, but he’s pretty well harmless. I think the guy saw it coming, tried to save other people.”

“By locking himself in?”

“And his hands are taped together. Should we fry it, sir?”

He peered past the younger man down at the hole. “Nah. Let’s not waste the ordinance. Pull out, let’s keep moving.”

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Low Water

Midsummer day was drawing closer. Ann could see it in every bucket she dipped in the river. The water level was falling. Now she could pick out distinct shapes on the riverbed where before had only been murky silhouettes. The water was falling. It would not be safe.

“Midsummer day, midsummer day, yahoo!” Van chanted. He was splashing by the bent willow that served as their mooring point. To him the day held nothing but change, which meant excitement to him. He had never been off their little island, the place that squatted between the two riverbanks like a toad in dry weather.

“Van,” she called. The boy stopped. She never needed to say more.

She handed the boy her bucket. Van balanced it carefully as he brought it in to pour in the stockpot. The river water was clear and cold, but she boiled it all just to be safe.

The river had always been a faithful barrier to the land on either side of the island. But it had been too many dry summers, too many winters without enough rain. She hadn’t seen water this low since fleeing to the island.

There were snags, on the river’s shore and close to her little island. Ann made it her duty to clear them out every day, taking their little boat and sending the bigger sticks downstream with a flick of her wrist. Anything that could be used to cross, she broke. But even these little precautions would not save her.

Van was playing in the shade of the cottage. He traced his shadow with a chip of shale.

Ann had come to the island alone. Van had arrived nine months after the last time someone had managed to cross the river. Ann remembered that day in her sleep sometimes and woke up beating the covers.

Van smiled at his silhouette, white-gold hair dancing in the breeze.

Abruptly she said, “Van, house.”

The boy obeyed immediately.

There was not much to lock up. The island was just big enough for a vegetable patch, a single milch cow, and their little cottage. Before she dropped the latch, Ann kissed each of Van’s eyes.

“Stay indoors,” she ordered, and was confident it would be followed.

Marten lived upstream. He walked the top of the dam, looking for leaks and errant trees that might break the wall. When Ann ran low on supplies, she always stopped to call on him first. She thought them amiable enough, but when he heard her request Marten shook his head.

“Can’t do it,” he said. He poured tea out of a rusty iron kettle.

Ann wet her lips.

“Please don’t give me grief, lady. I would do it, if it were at all feasible. But I can’t let that much water out of the dam just to protect one woman and child. The water is low for everyone, not just you.”

“I know it,” Ann said, looking down at her cup.

Marten sighed. He was a strong man. His house sat atop a tower buttressed with thick sapling stakes. But he could no more protect her than anyone could. And she’d known that.

“Leave,” Marten said gently. “find another cove to settle in. Just until the weather cools off.”

“And leave my house to them?” Ann asked, “and eat what? I can barely take enough from the garden to feed us now. I can’t forage offshore. What do I do?”

Marten’s mouth worked in thought.

Ann finished her tea. “My thanks, Marten.”

They shook hands. Marten held on after she let go.

“Ann,” he said.

Ann began saving thick saplings instead of turning them loose to drift downstream. She trimmed away the slime and sharpened them with her mowing blade into rough points. She buried them point-up in the scree by the shore. Van watched, perched on a high branch with the ducks.

Ann’s fingers bled. She didn’t sleep well at night. Sometimes she saw the faces of her family. Sometimes the face of the man who sired Van. Sometimes she thought of laying down and giving up. But the day approached no matter what she did. So she worked.

The dawn of midsummer day was already hot. She felt she was arising from a bath, not her covers. Van slept on while she kindled fire. If all else failed, she could stoke it hot enough that it would eat the house, and them with it.

The day was deceptively peaceful. Ann toiled at her chores, ear to any little noise. Van was subdued. He played quietly, obediently staying within Ann’s sight. She had almost relaxed when she saw the first one.

The body was almost the same color as the underbrush around it, it snapped into focus so abruptly she nearly fell backwards. The distance between both shores seemed to retract and she saw the approaching figure with awful clarity.

Its eyes were milky blind, it had festering sores flooded with flies open on its face and neck. It walked with a numb shuffle. Any hope that it was alone sank when another stumbled from the thicket just behind it. And another. And another.

As Ann watched with fascination, the dead flooded the shores with their bodies.

Van stood, a stone held in each hand, gaping in fascination. He had only caught brief glimpses of them on the far shore in the whole of his life. Now he fled to her skirts as Ann watched them shuffle to the edge of the water and keep walking.

They came on other days, of course. Days when the current would drag them, unresisting, after only a few steps. But the water was too low. Ann could see white quartz wink at her from underwater. The current had lost its teeth.

Ann watched as the forerunners entered knee-deep water. Then waist deep.

She waited.

The water didn’t get any deeper. They were halfway.

Ann drew in a breath and took her splitting maul to hand. Van hefted his rocks as if he would strike them all down.

There was a sound from upstream. It was not the rush of water, as she’d hoped. It was the sound of something large pushing against the current. Ann pictured a raft of dead bodies and dreaded.

A thick, brown line appeared at the horizon. It grew bigger, gained a crown. When it drew into focus, Ann laughed. She laughed so hard she nearly sat down.

It was a tree, a massive oak, the king of all flotsam.

“Marten!” she cried.

The lead walker was three-quarters of the way across the river when the trunk swept by. It bowled over the leaders. The stragglers were unseated by the backwash, they swarmed off their feet and followed the trunk downstream. Ann laughed and put her arm around Van.

Those on the shore remained, scenting the wind. Some, through their unfathomable logic, left to walk along the treeline. Some tried the water again. A cottonwood trunk swept by, smaller, but with more branches to snag.

Ann and Van sat outside and watched all day as they attempted again and again to invade. At sunset they stopped, chasing the warmth back into the trees. One last trunk drifted by, a branch jutted out at a perpendicular angle as if raising a hand. She and Van waved back.

“Back to the house with you,” she said, shooing Van. “Shell the peas and douse the lights. I will start supper after I empty the privy bucket.”

Van skipped off, singing “privy bucket, privy bucket.” Ann chanted along under her breath as she lifted the heavy thing. The privy house was at the far end of the island, so that the waste would float away from them. The little shack stood just over a pocket of water. The privy was just a little wooden hole over the swift water. Ann sang the little tune Van had composed under her breath.

The dead man glared sightlessly up from the hole. Features he shared with Van were visible for only a moment before the bucket contents splattered them over again. The dead man let out a wheezing groan.

Ann checked the water level. Most of his body still lay above the surface. She reminded herself to keep careful watch of the levels, it might be time to shorten his chain again. She let the door clack shut behind her and walked into the wind, letting it carry the smell into the past.

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Sky Burial

“Why do we bury people in the sky, father?”

Babli clung to a framework and hung forward, straining like a kite at the wind. He had his mother’s fine bones.

Nur pressed his finger to a sisal knot so it would not untie while he answered his son’s question.

“Because it makes God happy.”

“Oh.” The boy watched with mute fascination, tonguing the gaps where his incisors would grow.

Nur finished the monkey’s head knot, the one that would last for five years of wind and rain and sun bleach, and turned to ruffle his son’s hair.

“We used to bury them, Babli, like your friends from the south. But God was not happy that we hid his children from his sight.”

Babli sucked his lips through the gap. “Those by the river burn them.”

Nur sucked air over his teeth. “A far worse thing than hiding them. Your friends may count themselves lucky God does not care about them. What else do they say?”

“Nothing.” Nur grunted and nodded as if that were the end of it. He waited as the boy fidgeted.

“Only—”

He grimaced to the planking before him.

“They say God does not exist. They bring colored pictures of their gods. They look like people, papa.”

Nur ran a kindly hand through his son’s hair. His father would not have been so understanding, Nur as a lad would have been cuffed by now, but Mera had borne children late and Knur could not bring himself to raise a hand against the boy.

“They look like people, yes, and they are fragile like people. Look at the basin god. Tanned as a farmer. How long has he been around? One, maybe two generations. God has been here longer than that. Before us, even.”

“What does God look like, then?”

Ah, this was an easy answer. “Like the headman tells you, child. God looks like all of us, for he is made of all of us. He will look like you when he calls me home, and he will look like me when he calls for me. Do you understand?”

Babli nodded, face pinched.

“Good boy. Now, give me that thread.”

With the cotton thread he bound an infant to the cradleboard, making sure its eyestones stayed in place. There were three that day, a woman, a boy, and the infant.

“Will I look like that when I see God, papa?”

Babli’s strange melancholy perturbed him. “One would hope you would be in such good shape. Broken bodies make god sad. But no, Babli, you will look like an old man when God calls to you.”

As it turned out, he was not even a young man when God called to him and the Hill people descended on the village, churning the earth into red mud. Nur watched the fires bank from his high perch and ran to fetch his wife, who had been at market when they attacked. He met a young warrior, philtrum pierced with an owl feather, and took a throwing stick to the head. Nur went down but did not die. The young man set to beating him with a stout club, but his call was not strong enough and Nur woke at dark.

It was oddly peaceful. He limped to his home and saw not a single living thing stir. Glutting themselves on the stored harvest, the raiders had set fire to the livestock, breaking every tool in the village. They mightn’t have bothered. Nur called and called until his head throbbed, but to no avail.

He allowed himself the luxury of weeping in the nest of his murdered kin, but not for long. His was never a sentimental kind. One by one, he dragged the bodies uphill, to the giving-place. As he did it he thanked the lord that the infidels hadn’t set fire to the slaughtered, added insult to injury.

He had only ever set up a platform big enough for thirty, when spring snowmelt had swelled the river and eaten the bridge to the fields. His father had managed eighty, the year of the famine. But now he had to stop and wait every few minutes until his vision stopped doubling itself, build a grave for his entire village without even a boy for help.

It was he alone who tied their sisal navel cords, who lifted and stacked and tied. He stole lumber from the outbuildings to make up for the store. He smeared the paste that was a mixture of butter and clay on their faces, so God would know them. He wept himself dry as he prepared the bower for his wife, placing their son in her arms like a suckling child.

They returned in the late morning and found him by a coop. He had been struggling to lift one more piece of lumber and his head had finally given up on him. They woke him by dashing cold water, then hot tea in his face.

He seemed unafraid to see them, which they were unused to. They slapped him about the head and asked him where his people were.

His smile pulled like a grimace over broken teeth. “With God.”

That earned him another slap. “God,” sneered a warrior, “you people have no god that I see. Where was he when we took your riches?”

Nur spread his hands as if to show how empty they were. They dunked him in the trough just until he lost air, and then let him up.

They bound his hands and feet and left him next to the coop while they argued what to do with him. They were still arguing when the noise came.

It was the sound of straining, of thousands of weight being lifted all at once. There was a look of grim satisfaction on Nur’s face.

Once of the warriors held out a skinning knife. Its edge caught the warm of the sun.

“No tricks, savage,” he hissed, “tell me where your people are.”

Nur looked him straight in the eye, cold and clear. “With God.”

And from the cliffs, a sound of something mighty descending on many, many, many little feet.

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