The Contaminated Man

It was twenty-five blocks to her destination, fifteen north and ten west, right through the heart of what had once been downtown. It was an eery and empty place now, the power cut long ago, to conserve what remained. The power grid and other major infrastructure still functioned to a degree, though for how long was anyone’s guess with fewer and fewer people left to maintain it. They only had electricity in the evenings and only in the few neighborhoods of the city where the Quarantine Protocol remained in effect. Contaminated zones, like downtown, had been abandoned by the Protocol, though not by everyone.

The high rise looked like any other on the block. There was a restaurant and a pharmacy on the main floor, some offices and a skywalk connecting to the building across the street on the second. Above that were more offices and above that apartments. All of downtown had been emptied by the Quarantine Protocol, but those who could not live under that law had returned, here and elsewhere. The spray painted red X’s signified that it was still inhabited. Here was where one could find all those things deemed inessential by the Protocol.

She passed by the elevator and headed for the stairwell and began to climb the fifteen flights, the flashlight she had her only guide. It was stuffy and hot and sweat was soon running down her face. As she went a door opened and then clanged shut above her as someone began to descend. They halted upon hearing her footsteps. Marta continued on to the top of the next flight and then called out the floor number to the person above, exiting the stairwell and moving well back of the doorway to wait. After a few minutes there was a loud knock at the door. She waited at least a minute more before renewing her ascent.

When she reached the fifteenth floor she knocked loudly and then waited before entering. She moved quickly down the hallway until she reached Apartment 1543. Hanging on the doorway was a clipboard from which dangled a pen. Taking up the pen she wrote down what she needed and what she had to offer and then knocked on the door. She turned and walked back the way she had come until she reached Apartment 1522, which she entered after knocking to ensure it was empty.

The apartment had all the furniture from its last occupants. There were even magazines and letters from months ago sitting on one of the tables. She had long ago stopped looking at such markers of the disappeared. Instead she went to one of the windows, peering through the closed drapes to look at the streets below. She could see a man passing near the entrance of the building walking erratically and her mouth went dry. Though she urged him on he sat down on the sidewalk right near the entrance. As she pondered how to avoid the polluted man when she left there was a loud knock two doors down from the apartment she was in.

When she had counted off thirty seconds, Marta left the 1522 and went down two doors. Unlike the other, Apartment 1526 was completely empty with light streaming in from the drapeless window. In the center of what would have been the living room there were several small boxes. Seeing them she could not contain herself and she ran forward, dropping to her knees to inspect them. She opened each one to inspect the pills, ensuring they were all still within their plastic casing. That done she popped one of them free and, with a shaking hand, swallowed it. The boxes she put in her bag exchanging them for a small container of strawberries that she had picked that morning from the terrace garden of their building.

The contaminated man was still sitting at the entrance when she had descended to the fourth floor. There was another entrance on the opposite side of the building but even that, she feared, might be too close to the contamination. Instead she decided to take the skywalk, though it was a journey into the unknown. That building had been unmarked, meaning it was abandoned. In her experience the polluted were drawn to people, the internal logic of the disease insisting that it be spread, so an empty building would likely be safer than chancing the other entrance.

Her decision made she did not linger. It was never good to remain away from where the Protocol was in force. The uncontaminated in these areas lived on the knife’s edge and preferred it that way, if the reports of beatings and theft and worse that were broadcast were true. She did not doubt it, not after surviving these last months where any illusions about what people, contaminated or not, were capable of had been shattered utterly.

Marta moved quickly across the skywalk, feeling exposed for some reason in the glass walkway. The high rise she entered was much the same as the other one, filled with abandoned shops and stands, all draped in shadows, daylight rising up from the entryway below to guide her. A series of frozen escalators led down to the main floor. She stood atop one, peering around the lobby to ensure she was alone before starting down. The escalators emptied out toward three revolving glass doors that glimmered where the sunlight caught them. What she could see of the street beyond appeared empty but she walked from one end of the lobby to the other to confirm that there was no one near before stepping into the nearest revolving door.

The door went forward about a quarter of a revolution – not enough to allow her to exit, but enough to close off her means of retreat – before it lurched to a halt and would not budge. She pushed at it, calmly at first, assuming it was merely jammed, but when it became apparent that it was stuck she threw all her weight against it, trying to shake it loose. The door rattled loudly but would not move and she kicked at it in frustration. Next she turned around and tried to push the it backwards, but, as she suspected, the tracking wouldn’t run that way.

She tried to gather herself, to calm the pulse that was thundering in her temples, but instead panic set in and she moved about in a frenzy from side to side, trying to dislodge the door. It had no effect, the door shuddering and vibrating under her blows, but no more. At last she slid down to ground, her back against the glass, tears in her eyes and sweat streaming down her face. Her whole body began to tremble as she thought of what would happen if someone were to find her trapped here, or if no one did, if she were just left to starve and be set upon by the contaminated.

After some time Marta managed to calm herself and she began to think through how she could engineer an escape. Nothing came to mind and she had to fight down her panic again. The thin wedge of space she was trapped within seemed to be growing hotter by the moment, the sunlight beating through the panes of glass. Though she knew it was impossible she could not help imagining the stuffy air slowly draining from the place with each breath she took until she suffocated.

A flash of movement on the escalators above caught her eye and for a moment her heart leapt in excitement, only to be replaced by trepidation. No one would help her here. The Quarantine Patrol would not come for her even if she managed to contact them on the radio. She swallowed, telling herself that it had been nothing more than a change in the light, but the distinct sensation of being watched that crept across her neck told her otherwise. She leaned forward trying to parse the shadows above her, hope and fear wrestling in her mind. She thought she could make out something there, a vague form, but she couldn’t be certain. No further movement came, though she waited expectantly.

“Fucking goddamn idiot,” she said at last to herself.

The words seem to break a spell that had been cast. The shadows moved atop the escalator and she briefly made out the form of someone backing away quickly. She nearly called out, begging whoever it was to stay and help her. Before she could though there was a crash against the glass behind her and she whirled around to see a man, his face contorted into an awful grimace slamming himself against the immovable revolving door. She screamed and jumped to her feet, throwing herself against the door as hard as she could to no effect. The contaminated man yelled something unintelligible in response to her screams and redoubled his tortured efforts.

from Quarantine Protocol

An Attempted Escape

At last the sight of the Stranger watching me from the shadows, his eyes telling me that my dreams of the horrors he would visit upon my person would in time become all too real, was too much. I had to escape San Sebastián and Cuzco and fly as far away as possible, so I set about to craft a plan. Normally I would have used the night to shelter my escape, but the aid it offered me was negated entirely by the presence of the Stranger and his terrible powers. That he had managed to survive our earlier confrontation told me that he was not a man in any sense that you or I would use, but rather a devil incarnate with all the magic that a demon might have upon this earth. I could not hope to defeat him, and certainly I could not evade him along with all the others who maintained the siege. Instead I determined to flee during the day, though it offered me little protection. But the Stranger was not present among the watchers, as near as I could tell, during the daylight hours so, by necessity, it offered my best chance. But how to slip by the guard without attracting notice when I did not have darkness and obscurity as my ally?

I turned instead to my allies of blood and flesh within Cuzco, those friends who I knew I could trust and would not turn from me, no matter the threats and blandishments Don Lope and the Alcalde might offer. Here Diego was invaluable, for I sent him to my friend Don Mariano and a few others to ask for their aid and to explain what I had in mind. They in turn brought word to others they trusted and, when all was prepared, sent word through Diego to that effect. Here I acted quickly, for I suspected that Don Lope had his men following Diego and I needed to set things in motion before they realized what was afoot.

I chose the following Sunday, for the church would be at it’s busiest that day and the crowd would offer me greater cover. Don Mariano had sent me a new suit through Diego, which I wore in the hopes of providing a moment’s distraction from the watch, who had no doubt grown used to the usual frock which I had been forced to wear for the two months I had been under their gaze. As the church filled with parishioners and mass began I hid myself amongst them, my hat pulled low. I spied a few of Don Lope’s men among the worshipers and saw, to my delight, that they were scanning those gathered for a sign of me, knowing that I normally took mass at this time.

At the conclusion of mass the crowd began to let out into the street where the watch was kept and I put plan into action. Don Mariano had engaged two harlots to create a disturbance to draw the attention of the crowd. One of them, a lovely morenasa named Teresa, had spent the morning on the streets around the church selling candies, while the other, a mestiza named Geronima, arranged to pass by Teresa as she was selling her wares to those let out from the service. Teresa feigned to notice Geronima in turn and immediately confronted her, calling her a whore and all manner of things. Geronima responded in kind and they fell upon each other, scratching at each others faces and pulling their hair, creating a tremendous racket.

This had the desired effect, for the crowd exiting the church was drawn towards spectacle. The result was that the street was filled with a milling group of people, trying to make room for the two combatants, mingling with those keeping watch against me. The guards could not resist turning to watch what was happening as well, for most of them were now two months into the siege and they had long since grown bored with their uneventful duty. In the midst of the crowd, having attended mass, was one Pablo Vallojil, an Indian from Guamanga, and a servant of Don Mariano’s. He was the ostensible cause of the battle between the two women and when he had announced his presence to the assembled they both turned and set upon him as one.

Pablo drew his sword, saying that he would see an end to them both for so dishonoring him before the home of Our Lord. There was great deal of nonsense said back and forth between he and the ladies, with members of the crowd joining in and choosing their side of the dispute. Pablo declared he would suffer these harlots’ insults no more and took after them, brandishing his sword. They both fled, towards the Alcalde’s watch, and these honorable men responded by raising their swords against Pablo. A flurry of threats were uttered back and forth as Pablo demanded to be given the satisfaction of punishing these recalcitrant women, while the Alcalde’s men dismissed him as an Indian who had passed beyond all reason and sense.

It was then that Don Mariano and two of his friends happened upon the scene and came to Pablo’s aid, demanding the arrest of Teresa and Geronima. The Alcalde’s men refused, saying that by rights Pablo and Don Mariano should be arrested. Further insults were traded and soon everyone’s swords were drawn and a melee resulted that sent the still gathered crowd into a seething turmoil, as those nearest to the fight tried to get clear of the blades, while those at the back tried to get nearer to better see what was taking place.

I was in the midst of all this, having exited the church with the crowd at the end of mass. As the incidents had developed I had stayed towards the back of the gathering, nearer the church, but when the fight between the guards and Don Mariano broke out I seized my chance and began to slip through the crowd, hoping of course to make a break while the Alcalde’s men were otherwise preoccupied. I kept my head low and had my cloak drawn up high over my shoulders, so that between it and my hat little of face was shown. Moving at an angle away from the fight, but staying within the assemblage I went, neither slowly nor quickly, being careful not meet anyone’s gaze, until the crowd began to dissipate and I could see the open streets before me. Though every fiber of my being demanded that I flee then and there, I kept my wits and walked steadily on, a man about his business..

Just as I thought myself free a hand seized my shoulder and spun me about, nearly yanking my arm free from my torso and I found myself face to face with Don Lope himself. I gave a shout and he snarled at me: You are the devil himself.

From The Maleficio Chronicles

Down the Backroads

The empty cans of beer had joined the other detritus on the floor of the truck, gathered over the past weeks of endless travel, a rodeo nearly every day. There were empty bags of chips and chocolate bar wrappers, bottles of Orange Crush half filled with Copenhagen spit, unopened packets of mustard and ketchup, along with napkins and coffee stir sticks and the other accoutrements of a life on the road. Emma had always complained about the smell of the truck, but Dane and Colton no longer noticed. They spent so long in there, days and nights crossing the Canadian prairie and down into Montana and Wyoming and further south on the rodeo circuit, that the state of the vehicle had simply become normal to them both, as natural as the vast open expanses they drove through.

They drove in an uneasy silence, Colton glancing over from time to time at Dane, who did not take his eyes from the road. He stuck to the back roads and secondary highways, though it would add time to their journey, but there was little chance of their meeting a cop on patrol. They encountered no one as they went and after a time Dane put the truck in the middle of the road so that the headlights illuminated both ditches. The only other lights came from the farms and ranches they passed by, flickering beacons in the darkness.

They stopped once to take a leak on the side of highway, each of them instantly surrounded by a swarm of mosquitoes and bugs. Colton looked at Dane sideways as they stood there. At last, judging that enough time had passed to cool his friend’s temper Colton spoke.

“What the hell is going on man?”

Dane zipped up his pants and walked towards the truck, not looking at Colton. “It’s nothing. It’s Emma is all.”

“Bullshit nothing. Christ, why are we running around in the middle of the night then?”

Dane got in the truck without another word and Colton followed. “Get the stuff. I need a hit.”

“You sure man?” Colton said and Dane glared at him. Colton reached for the glove compartment, clicking it open and rummaging through the papers within. “This doesn’t seem like the best idea if we’re driving.”

“I’m tired man, I need to focus.”

“Well I could drive for a while.”

“Just get the shit,” Dane said.

“Alright, alright. Calm down now,” Colton said, retrieving a baggie and pipe. While he put some of the crystal in the pipe, Dane rolled down the windows, looking out morosely at the night.

They took a couple of hits each and then sat in silence as the high washed over them.

“Emma was with another guy,” Dane said at last.

“Holy shit,” Colton said, coughing. “You saw her?”

“Yeah,” Dane said slowly, taking another hit. “Yeah. Couldn’t find her. Went to look for her and she was in the trailer with this dude.”

“Man,” Colton said, returning the pipe and the baggie to their spots in the glove compartment. “Can’t believe she’d do that. What’d you say to them?”

“Nothing. I just walked in and heard them in the back and bailed. Didn’t trust myself, you know.”

Colton reflected on this for a moment. “So you didn’t see her?”

Dane looked at him. “Pretty obvious what was going on man.”

“I was just thinking, maybe it was Marcie, right? Could have been her too. They came together right?”

Dane worked at his lower lip with his teeth. “Nah, nah it was her. Where else was she, right?”

Colton nodded, “Yeah I guess.”

Neither of them said anymore and Dane put the truck back on the road. They were flying soon, the darkness beyond the headlights seeming almost to blur as they passed by. Colton glanced over at the speedometer and then at Dane but said nothing, though he shifted uneasily in his seat. Dane slowed down when he had to turn on Highway 21 for a few miles, though it was as empty as all the other roads they had been on. He kept the truck in the middle of the road, drifting every now and again to one side or the other so that his tires ran across the warning strip at the center line, which shook the whole truck with a droning vibration.

He kept the truck there even as a pair of lights from a semi-truck blinked beyond a pair of hills in the distance. The lights disappeared, reappearing a moment later as the semi went down one hill and started over the next. They disappeared again as their own truck started up a steep hill, the engine working hard, and then appeared in a blinding flash atop the hill as the semi came down upon them. Dane flinched at the lights but made no move to pull the truck into the right lane.

“Hey man,” Colton said, in a quiet voice that barely sounded over rumble of the straining engine. Dane gave no sign that he had heard, or that he noticed when the trucker sounded his horn and flashed his lights as the two vehicles moved perilously near, one upon the other. Only at the last moment, the semi nearly upon them, the horn sounding louder and louder did he pull the truck over and out of the way. The semi hurtled by, its passage shaking the truck so violently that Dane momentarily lost control of the vehicle.

“Fuck me man,” Colton said after a few moments.

“What?”

“I think maybe I should drive.”

“No,” Dane said, as he turned off of 21 and onto the 570. The tires squealed as he made the corner and started to speed up again.

“I don’t get it man,” Colton said with a shake of his head. “You’re losing your shit over a girl for fuck’s sake. So she cheated on you. You either dump her or you live with it. Either way you move on, you don’t go fucking batshit.”

“Like you know shit about women, man.”

“I know she’s way the fuck out your league.”

Dane slammed his fist on the dashboard. “Yeah, yeah. That’s right. Way the fuck out of my league. That’s the fucking problem right there. This is a goddamn game too her, this whole thing. You and me, we don’t get day money, we don’t fucking eat. She and Carl, they just call Daddy.”

Colton didn’t say anything, reaching into his back pocket and snapping his can of Copenhagen before taking a dip.

“One of these days she’ll get tired of this and then she’ll go back home. Everything will work out just fine for her no matter what. It always does. Me, I gotta go crawling back to the padre.”

Dane could feel his lower lip quivering with emotion and stopped talking, knowing if he wasn’t careful he would start crying from rage and hurt.

Colton laughed under his breath, though he glanced at his friend. “Fucking sucks, no doubt.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Dane said. “If he knew what we were doing tonight he’d probably re-baptize me.”

“You sure they can get the holy water close enough to you without it boiling or something.”

“I just turn it to piss.”

They drove for a time in silence, both of them watching the road. Dane had not spoken to his father in months, not since the last time he had been home. His father had refused to give him any more money, saying that if Dane wanted to continue with the rodeo circuit and the life he was leading on it he could do it on his own with no help from him. It was all Keith’s fault really, he thought. They had grown up together and Keith’s family had gone to his father’s church. When they had first started going to amateur rodeos and the n later on the circuit their parents had insisted that they travel together. They had for a while, but Keith still prayed before each ride. He didn’t chew and he didn’t drink, didn’t chase girls, and Dane did all those things. Soon enough they had fallen out and Keith had informed Dane’s father just what his son was up to on the road.

Several arguments had followed, each time Dane returned home, his father insisting that he give up his ways and Dane refusing. For a time his mother had managed to convince his father to continue to give him some money to help him out when the day money didn’t cover everything, but eventually some final line had been crossed and his father had refused to extend a further hand. He had not even told either of them about Emma, not that it mattered now.

“Yeah, I don’t know how much longer I got man, quite honest,” Colton said.

“Yeah,” Dane said his voice dull.

“Got to grow up sometime, I guess. Dad wants me back home helping out and I don’t know. Can’t really fool myself anymore that I’m going to amount to something doing this.”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway.”

Dane glanced down at the gauges and said, “We gotta get gas.”

“There’s that truck stop on the number one. It’ll definitely be open still.”

“Right,” Dane said and at the next intersection he turned left heading west.

from Drifting

The Comforts of Home

The door sits ajar, a deathly stillness within that cannot be touched. He slips by on his tiptoes, as a roaring wheezing sound emerges from its depths, the sound of some terrifying beast’s slumber being disturbed. Moving quickly now, for it does not seem a moment to linger, he runs through the parlor and the kitchen and then out the front door.

The yard he finds himself in has been transformed: the house with cracked and peeling paint set against a sea of grey. The air is full of the smell of rain that won’t come. He wanders behind the house, thinking he hears someone calling him. There is an old windmill there, creaking in the breeze, and a rusting behemoth of a truck set up on asphalt coloured blocks. He sits in the passenger seat, the sensation familiar and comforting in this strangely barren world.

A coughing rumble from the front yard draws his attention and he creeps around the side of the house, peering to see what is there. He sees his mother leaning against the battered door frame, a distant look on her face. She puts her hand on his shoulder and says, “Meet your father.”

He turns and sees a man on a lawnmower, driving in ever-widening circles as though expanding his realm. He looks oddly familiar and yet not, cutting the long brown grass whose desiccated blades crumble to dust at the merest touch.