Chapter 16: Alliances
“Run! Faster! We have company!” Clint yelled, looking back to see the horde of undead running towards them, Margo running in front of them.
As if they had instantaneously had the same idea, the tired, worn-out group of old friends picked Dale up and threw him onto their shoulders, picking up speed towards the Humvee in the distance. They rapidly closed the distance while the undead seemed to be gaining on them.
They opened the back and tossed Dale in, hoping that they would not cause further injury in doing so. Not wanting to risk being caught, everyone piled in on one side of the Humvee and pulled the doors closed. Jules squirmed into the passenger seat while Clint locked the door behind him. He checked to make sure that everyone was in the vehicle: Jules was in the passenger, Dale was in the backseat, passenger side, and Lizzie was behind Clint holding Dale’s hand. He turned to Jules, who was holding a key. He threw the key at Clint without saying a word.
Clint caught the key and started the vehicle. He could not believe the luck that they were having. He floored it, plowing through the undead, but avoiding Margo. Though she had become a monster, he still loved her. She was a friend; how could he even think about plowing her undead self, down? Maybe it might have been what Margo wanted, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was still holding onto the hope that there would be a cure, and he could bring Margo back.
No one said a word, understanding how tense the situation was. Bodies flung themselves onto the vehicle, smashing their faces into the windshields and leaving behind streaks of blood and the occasional loose limb. The road became incredibly “bumpy” as Clint drove like a madman through the hundreds of undead.
“How are we going to leave?” Jules asked.
“I’ll figure that out soon enough,” Clint answered. He sped towards the gate, praying that it was open, but knowing that there was no way that it was. When he rounded the corner and came to the straight away leading to the gate, he was surprised to find that it was open. As he neared, he saw an undead in the control booth, and a horde of them lined up in the gate.
“That explains why it’s open,” he mumbled to himself.
“Do you think that it’s a trap?” Jules asked.
“So, what are you going to do?”
Clint furrowed his eyebrows and clenched his teeth, his knuckles growing white on the steering wheel. “I’m not going to stop.”
“Hold on, everyone!” Jules called back, grabbing the “oh crap” bar above him.
Everyone closed their eyes as the Humvee sped into the final stretch. There was a large bang and several bumps, then nothing. Everyone kept their eyes closed, anticipating more, but it remained silent, except for the soothing hum of the vehicle over the road.
Clint, having never shut his eyes, exhaled deeply.
Jules opened one eye and stared in awe. There was not a single undead in the streets ahead of them. “Wow,” he said, breathless.
Dale and Lizzie opened their eyes and stopped squeezing the other’s hand.
“When you don’t have a horde of death chasing you, when there hasn’t been a single vehicle running for several years, when the majority of factories are no longer operating, the world is quite beautiful, isn’t it?”
Clint commented, staring at the beautiful display of stars in front of him.
“It’s like we’re back out there,” Dale commented.
“It got lonely sometimes,” Jules continued, “but you must admit that it was gorgeous. Seeing the world as it is now, I wouldn’t mind taking another ten years in space.”
Lizzie unbuckled. “I’m going to open up the top to get a better view.”
“Only if you let me get up there with you!” Dale protested jokingly.
Lizzie kissed his forehead. “Of course.”
“Where were the keys? It’s odd that a military base would leave the keys in the vehicle,” Clint asked while Lizzie was busy with the hatch.
Well, keep in mind it was a military base completely operated by the undead. It was in the glove box,” Jules replied with a smirk.
Lizzie pushed open the hatch and stood up. Sticking her head through the hole, she screamed. A pair of legs stuck through the gap with her.
“Margo!?” Jules cried in shock and fear as she climbed into the vehicle and down in Lizzie’s seat.
“You guys need to turn around,” she said.
“Why don’t you just kill us yourself?” Lizzie cried, slapping the undead Margo in the face, and climbing down next to Dale. It was a tight fit, but she wanted to be as far away from the monster as she could be.
“Kill you? Oh, right. Because I went all psycho murderer on everyone when Cory Heights showed up. You don’t have to worry! I’m the same ol’ Margo. I overpowered Cory and tried to catch up to you guys. I forgot that leading a horde of zombies to help us would be intimidating…”
“How are we supposed to trust you?” Dale said, wrapping his arm around Lizzie. If anything happened, he would do anything to protect Lizzie.
“You can’t really. There is nothing I can do to convince you to trust me. All I know is that there is going to be war. And you guys are caught in the middle of it. We have two psychopaths trying to turn everyone into the undead with this stupid parasite, and one who wants to be a—”
“Did you say parasite?” Lizzie asked.
“Yeah, it’s a parasite,” Margo replied. “Why?”
“Jessup, this changes everything!” Lizzie exclaimed, laughing excitedly.
“This completely changes how I study it! How do you know?”
“The hive minds. Cory has been working on it for years… Not to mention the fact that you slowly begin to understand more and more about the parasite as you host it.”
“This explains so much! If we can get to a lab, I may be able to formulate a cure and—”
“Liz, I know how great and exciting that is, but we seriously need to turn around. Our only chance of survival is Charon,” Margo said.
“Why Charon? And who is Charon?” Clint asked. “You mean the ferryman that takes the dead capable of paying into the Underworld? You are telling me, that of all the religious systems out there, the Greeks had it figured out?”
“As much as I would love to meet Cerberus, as I am sure that pup is nothing but a bundle of love,” Margo started. “No. He just enjoys Greek mythology. He renamed himself that. Suits him well. We may have to start a side of our own, though. I’m not sure where he stands. Brun is with him, though I can sense a resentment towards Brun and his methods. That tells me that there is at least some good in him. He can be trusted, I think.”
“Who is Brun?” Jules asked.
“Nasty, foul creature hell-bent on killing everyone and everything.”
“Living and undead?”
“Living and undead,” Margo confirmed.
“And this Cory guy,” Clint asked. “What’s up with him? Clearly something is off.”
“He wants to create a utopia.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Dale replied.
Margo looked at him and said, “Until you take into consideration the fact that everyone has a free will. For utopia to be created, he would have to control everyone himself. Or with another. He couldn’t convince me, and he knows that Charon is hopeless. He will probably get Brun’s help, though that may be more to his detriment than anything…” she trailed off, thinking. “It would be a personal utopia, not a utopia for everyone.”
“I see,” Clint replied, slowing the Humvee down. He turned it around and began to drive in the direction Margo had pointed him in.
“Sometimes, I wish we had just died in space,” Margo mumbled
“Nonsense!” Dale said. “Without us, this world might have ended up in shambles long ago. I mean, with Mycrovitch and the others… Margo, do you not see your importance in all of this? Not to mention the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to reunite with Lizzie.”
He smiled up at her and pulled her into a hug.
“Sure, I’m horribly ill, but the love of my life was the one who has nursed me back to health. Though, it would be nice, sugar, if you could, ya'know, not stop nursing me back to health… Doctors' orders were for me to be in bed still when Margo went all crazy on us.”
“That’s right,” Lizzie said, staring longingly into his eyes. “Doctor’s orders were for you to stay in bed.”
“Oh, get a room!”
“I think that you’re just jealous, Jules,” Margo said with a snicker. “Exit right.”
“Oh, okay,” Clint replied. “Didn’t realize you knew the area.”
“I don’t. But several hundred people who have died do. I know where I am going. I just figured that you guys would like to avoid the military base if possible.”
“You would be correct… Unless you think you could control the horde again.”
“I’m not sure. I honestly have no idea how I overpowered Cory… I’m just glad I did.”
“What was he trying to get from you?” Jules asked.
“Yeah, Margo! Details! We need details!” Lizzie exclaimed.
“Well, after I ran out like a wild animal…”
“So, what will it be?” Cory said, his horde of zombies completely encapsulating the duo. “I can make them climb up here without even thinking about it. You have no escape!” He pulled his weapon up further, aiming it directly at Margo’s chest. “Are you for me? Or are you against me?”
Margo saw a small group emerge from one of the bases. They looked at her, then at the Humvee in the distance. They stared at Margo for a second before they began limping towards the Humvee far in front of them. If she ran now, she may be able to intercept them before they left.
“Will you bloody choose!” Cory screamed.
Margo wiped the blood from her nose and smirked. She kicked the weapon out of his hand, then jumped up and kicked him in the chest, using his body to propel herself over the wall and into the horde of undead below. The undead below caught her, and she took off in a sprint towards the Humvee, the horde following closely behind her. She was going to use them as a blockade while she had them under control.
Cory fell on the other side of the wall, the horde below catching him and jumping on top of him. “GET OFF OF ME, YOU FOUL CREATURES!” he called. “GET OFF OF ME!”
The undead would not listen. He scrambled to find his weapon, but he could not move beneath the weight of all the undead on top of him.
Margo continued her sprint towards the Humvee. She noticed that Clint had looked back. She waved at him, but he turned his head too quickly.
He picked Dale’s legs off the ground and threw them onto his shoulders, the others readjusting their grips on him so that they could hold him over their head and pick up speed. They closed the distance to the Humvee faster than Margo would have thought possible. Jules and Clint stuffed Dale through the rear door and to the other side. Lizzie followed, checked to make sure that Dale was okay, and closed the door behind her. Jules and Clint raced through the front door, stumbling over each other as they got in at the same time. Clint, still incapable of sitting and hanging half out the door, shut the door behind him.
After a few seconds, the horde was surrounding the vehicle. The lights turned on, the engine roared, and without a moment’s hesitation, Clint sped off, turning the vehicle to head straight for Margo. Time seemed to slow down as the Humvee drove past Margo. The undead behind her lifted her up by the foot and tossed her into the air. She landed on the roof of the vehicle and hung on for dear life as the undead flew past her, having been hit by the vehicle. She was happy that this Humvee had a turret mount. It made hanging onto the roof far easier. If only it had a turret, she thought to herself. That would have come in handy later.
As they neared the gate, she noticed a horde of undead standing in the way. She had told the operator to open it, but she had not told any of them to stand in the way of escape.
The Humvee continued to gain speed as it neared the gate. Margo watched in horror as the vehicle plowed through the horde like nothing. Fire shot from the right. Had Margo not been behind the turret, she would have been killed.
Cory screamed in frustration when he realized his efforts were futile. He was rapidly left behind with an entire horde of the undead that he could command.
“Margo,” a voice called to her. She instantly recognized it.
“I’m coming, Charon.”
“Can’t believe you had been holding on for so long.”
“I didn’t really have a choice, Jules,” Margo said, playfully punching him in the arm.
“I have a question,” Lizzie said. “Is your neck still in pain? You know, from the accident that killed you?”
“It actually healed me. It was a lengthy process, but the parasite fixed me up. That is why I can run so fast, I think. It improves the host. Or, at least, it tries to. I don’t know if it does that for the non-sentient, but I know that it does it for me. Little wounds that would heal in a day take an hour to heal, if that puts anything in perspective.”
“Interesting,” Lizzie said, writing it down.
“I don’t know if we will have enough gas to make it to wherever we need to go,” Clint said.
“Most likely not. Charon is going to meet us in the middle. Hive mind,” Margo said, tapping the side of her head. “It comes in handy.”
The group pulled over at an old Wal-Mart to gather supplies. The gas tank was near-empty at this point. Knowing that they were going to have to walk for several miles before reaching the planned meeting point with Charon, they decided that gathering some food, medical supplies, and weaponry was the only logical step before continuing their journey.
“You know, Margo,” Clint said, throwing a backpack over his shoulder, “you don’t really look dead anymore.”
Margo grabbed a cup of noodles off a shelf and stuffed it in her pack.
“It’s the parasite. I think that it has become perfectly symbiotic with me. Usually that would destroy a host, as it has done in the past, but I think that it has evolved enough from its original form to not be detrimental to my health. I don’t feel like there is anything wrong. Along with the parasite came a better understanding of my body and how it works. So, unless the parasite is hiding something from me, I’m perfectly fine.”
“You can sense stuff like that now?”
“Yeah. It’s wild, isn’t it? I feel more alive than ever thanks to this thing. I’m kind of dreading a cure if there is one. How do you cure something of a parasite, I wonder, without removing it? This parasite must have somehow combined itself into my DNA or something.”
Lizzie entered the aisle in front of Margo as soon as she had finished speaking, toting a little red wagon with two backpacks on it, each so full of equipment that the zipper had popped open when she tried to close them.
“I don’t know if we will have enough room for all of that equipment, Elizabeth,” Clint said. “We are trying to save room for food.”
“I need this for research. I have no idea where we are going, or what equipment we will have, so I need to be prepared to use the stone-age stuff I found here. Besides, we don’t have that much farther to go on foot before we meet with Charon.”
Clint looked at Margo.
“Don’t look at—oh, right. Give me a sec,” Margo closed her eyes and furrowed her brows.
“There is a decent looking lab a few miles from where we will be going. With a little bit of renovation and a few well-armed human guards, it would be perfect for any research you will need. Probably. Still, I'd say to bring some equipment you have now. Few undead hang around labs. I have no idea how it would hold up now.”
Jules cleared his throat behind the trio. Everyone turned to look at him. He had one backpack on each shoulder and a gun, which he did not have before, hanging from his hip.
“I found some food. And some weapons. Don’t know if you guys want any, but I went ahead and grabbed a new pistol for myself. This Wal-Mart had a decent selection of handguns, oddly enough. I was expecting to walk out of here with a rifle, but I couldn’t pass on the pistol.”
“They started selling more types of weapons while you guys were in space, then they increased the amount sold when the world went apocalyptic. But, yeah, once monopolies were legalized in America, Wal-Mart tried to become the only store that anyone needed. Let’s be honest here, they really were the only store anyone ever shopped at before the legalization of monopolies,” Lizzie said, trying to determine if she wanted to test her luck with the pack of Twinkies that expired several years ago.
“How much walking are we going to have to do before we meet up with Charon?” Clint asked.
“Quite a bit. Twenty miles or so.”
“I say we ditch Dale,” Jules said. If he can’t carry his own weight, he shouldn’t be allowed to come with us. Besides, all he does is slow us dow—” Jules was cut off by Lizzie slapping him.
“How dare you!”
“Kidding! Kidding! I was going to suggest using a cart to toss him in.” Jules rubbed his face. “Wow. I have never been hit like that by anyone… Remind me not to mess with you.”
Clint put his hand on his forehead. “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that!? We have been putting everything in backpacks when we could have been using carts this whole time…”
“I was going to ask why you decided to go with backpacks instead of carts, but I decided against it.”
“Are we ready?” Clint asked.
“Yeah,” Lizzie answered. “I’m sure that Dale is ready to get out of that Humvee too.”
“Well, let’s go get some carts, I guess.”
“You northerners are weird,” Jules said when they arrived at the cart storage area. “It’s a buggy.”
Everyone stopped in their tracks and stared at him. “A buggy? That has to be the dumbest thing I have ever heard,” Lizzie said.
“What is this? The 1960’s?” Margo asked.
“You won’t catch me dead calling a cart a buggy,” Clint added, tossing his backpacks into a cart.
Jules shook his head. “You guys are acting like ‘buggy’ is the most absurd thing that you have ever heard… If we are being honest here, ‘cart’ is the more stupid of the two.”
Clint glared at him. “Really? Between ‘cart’ and ‘buggy,’ you think that cart is the stupid one?” Clint shook his head, pulling the cart out of the storage bay and grabbing a second.
“Would you guys just shut up already? And, for the record, it’s a cart.”
The group spun on their heels, startled to find three men pointing guns at them. “Now, if you would be so kind as to remove all of your weapons and place’ em on the floor and give me the keys to your vehicle out there, we can avoid any bloodshed, and I’ll just be grabbing your carts. Me ‘n’ the boys’ll get out of your hair, and you can scram."
Clint looked the man up and down. His gun was held impressively steadily, and it was aimed directly at him. He was wearing camouflage cargo pants, combat boots with a knife sticking out of the side, and torn, slightly bloodied, and worn with age leather jacket. A backpack hung from his shoulder. His buddies wore grey cargo pants and trench coats. They also wore backpacks, but they looked to be empty except for a bat that was stuck out of one, and a machete sticking out of the other.
“I don’t think so,” Margo finally said. “You have no idea who you’re messing with.”
“Okay then,” he said. “You’s have no idea who you’re messing with, sweetheart. Now I suggest you guys do as I said, ’else the pretty one gets it.” He pointed the gun at Margo.
Margo started laughing.
The man furrowed his eyebrows. “What’s so funny, eh? Do you think death is funny? You think that this is a joke?”
“Like I said,” Margo replied, wiping a tear from her eyes, “you have no idea who you’re messing with.”
“This woulda been much easier had I just shot you guys from the start. But I was tryin’ to be nice.” The man pulled the trigger.
Margo stumbled back and held her stomach. “I’m already dead, dummy,” she said, quickly grabbing Jule’s gun from his thigh and shooting the three men before they had time to react.
She turned around, grabbed one of the full carts, and began walking outside. She turned around at the door. “Are you guys just going to stand there and stare, or…?”
Clint shook his head. “Are you in pain at all?”
The rest of the group broke out of their shocked trance and joined Margo in leaving the building.
“Oh, yeah. A lot of pain. But I’ll get over it.”
The Humvee was parked in front of the door. They figured that there would not be much traffic, and that they were safe to leave their vehicle parked there. Clint tapped on the window. After a few moments, the door slowly opened. “Took you guys long enough,” Dale said with a smile. “You don’t plan on putting me in that, do you?”
“Do you have any better ideas, Dale?”
“No, not really…”
“Well, then, quit complaining,” Clint said, putting an arm around Dale’s back and another under his leg. “Jules, I’m going to need some help.”
Brun was a brute of a man. For being an undead, he was unbelievably strong. He looked as though he could lift a cow with his pinky.
Cory looked him up and down. It was intimidating to see someone so brutish up close. He knew that, if he wanted to, Brun could easily overpower Cory and rip him limb from limb. There was nothing his symbiotic parasite could do to stop it.
“Please, take a seat,” Cory said with an uneasy smirk and a gesture towards a chair. “We will have a meal set before us soon, but, for now, let’s talk business, shall we?”
The wooden chair groaned beneath Brun’s weight. “What is this place?”
“An old military base that I borrowed from the living. But that is unimportant. What is your goal? I think that we both know that war is approaching, and I think that you and I could work something out…”
An undead, dressed in a black tuxedo, poured a glass of wine for Brun.
Cory took a drink of his wine. It was odd having a meal fitting for a living king when he knew that it wasn't quite as fulfilling for his undead self. The undead craves flesh. Not necessarily human flesh, though it is not opposed to cannibalism, but, more than anything, it wanted to consume flesh.
“Death,” Brun replied, sniffing the wine, then placing it back down on the table distastefully.
“I can’t tell if you’re an idiot or a bloody genius,” Cory mumbled to himself. “What are your plans after death?”
“I don’t believe in an afterlife.”
Cory chuckled. “No, after you have killed everyone. Then what?”
Brun smiled evilly. “Destruction.”
Perhaps this was not the best idea, Cory thought. “What if I told you that you and I could create Utopia?” After he finished asking this, a door opened. Two undead, pulled a cart into the room with two plates filled with food. A three-pound steak sat on each, along with some potatoes, and some freshly baked and buttered bread. A hot cup of tea was set on the table along with the plates. The undead left the room.
Cory picked up his fork, his hands shaking as he tried to keep civil in eating his food. He started with the potatoes, though his eyes kept wandering towards the juicy slice of steak that sat before him. He stuffed the perfectly buttered, salted, and peppered potatoes into his mouth, and closed his eyes, trying to savor something that he once thought was delicious. Just as mother used to make it, he thought. If only I still had a taste for it. If only it satisfied my insatiable hunger.
“Everything is fresh, Brun. Freshly made. This hive mind is nice. It makes things like farming, cooking, and much more so much easier to do.”
Cory finally looked up from his meal to see Brun attacking his steak like a savage. Using his hands to eat it and taking pig-like bites. It was disgusting, and it went against every table manner that Cory’s mother had taught him. The steak did look good though….
He reached for it with his hand, but stopped short, horrified with himself. He picked up a knife and fork and cut himself a piece of meat. He ate it slowly, savoring each bite. The one thing that could satisfy him: flesh.
“Now, back on subject,” he said, swallowing. He began to eat the other parts of the meal now that he had a taste of the meat. “Utopia. Life could be perfect. Just imagine everyone living in perfect unity. No disputes. Just… peace.”
“Communism never works,” Brun replied with a full mouth.
“Commu—I never said anything about Communism!”
“You know what I think?” Brun asked. He slammed his massive fist on the table, almost making the table collapse on itself and exclaimed, “DEATH!”
Cory glared at Brun. “I am starting to think that we aren’t on the same page. I think we need to accept this reality: drag everyone down with us. Then, with me on the throne, and if you accept my offer, you as well, we could create utopia!”
“Impossible!” Brun said. “People will get in the way.”
“You forget, Brun, that we can control those who try to diverge.”
“And how will this system work, Cory?”
“The hive mind! We can work them like little worker bees but give them a false sense of this being what perfection is. But you and I? We will be free! Free to do whatever we please!”
“I can do as I please now.” Brun stood up. “You know that they are beginning to think for themselves now, right? Communication is better. This will be harder than you have wagered.”
“You aren’t as much of a brute as I supposed you to be.”
Scoffing, Brun replied, “Not all brutes have a poor way of speaking or have no thought processes. I’m just a violent man with violent intentions. It is finally time for humanity to end. If you don’t think so, well, I think that we can still work together for now, and we can battle it out after the war is finished.” To himself, Brun said, assuming any of us survive his war.
“I don’t know if this alliance is in my best interest.”
“Sure, it is,” Brun replied. “Both of us wish for death in some way. We both want all the living, dead. We can agree on that and figure out the rest later. Perhaps, all that is needed is some persuasion. I accept your offer. Let us fight this war together. Charon and Margo have no chance.”
Charon shook Margo’s hand. “Welcome to my humble community,” he said with a bow.
“We 'come,” an undead grunted next to him. “I em Frehri’”
“Nice to meet you, Frederick,” Margo replied, extending her hand. Fred accepted it with a smile.
“Fred here is a good friend of mine. He was one of the first of the undead that I noticed to be developing speech. If you think this is bad, you should have heard him when he first started speaking. Isn’t that right, Fred?” he nudged him with his elbow jovially, and the two of them started laughing.
“Oh yah, I wuh so bah’.”
“He seems like a really cool guy,” Clint said to Jules. “I know we have only been with him for a few hours, but I’m getting some good vibes from him.”
“I made some mistakes in my past,” Charon said, looking directly at Clint. “When I was given a second chance, I didn’t want to screw it up.”
“So, what’s your plan, Charon?” Clint asked.
“I renamed myself to Charon, as I believe Margo has mentioned to you guys, because I want to be the bridge between two worlds.” He motioned for everyone to follow him.
“Lizzie, if you will follow, Fred, he will bring you to the lab. Feel free to come back later to join us for dinner. Some of the undead have kindly offered to cook for us. Marshall and Tyler, can you please help carry Dale for Lizzie? And, Lizzie, there are two living that I have set up in the lab that are there to help if any of the undead get any ideas.”
Marshall and Tyler, two undead that had just so happened to walk by as the group started walking forward, saluted, and grabbed Dale.
“And, guys, please come back to town afterwards.”
They nodded and kept walking.
“Frank is not the most articulate of the bunch, but he is getting better.”
“Are you controlling them?” Clint asked.
“No. I am a good ruler, or so they think. They respect me. As Cory has shared, and as Margo has told you, the parasite is mutating to better fit our bodies. It has reached a point where it can mutate without killing the host. This parasite is the next step in human evolution, my friends!”
The community was nice. It was like a flash to the past. People talked with each other in front of their houses, smiles were on everyone’s faces. Everyone knew everyone, and everyone was neighborly.
“When put into a community, the hive mind is a beautiful thing. It brings the community to another level. Everyone knows everyone, and it just gives a real sense of unity. Everyone knows everyone else’s needs, and people are willing to give their hand and help. You can almost feel the love radiating from everyone. Of course, you still have the town grump, like Greg over there,” Charon waved to an older looking undead sitting on his porch reading a book. He rolled his eyes and waved back.
“But even he is a pretty nice guy.”
Charon turned down a dead-end street with the largest house in the community at the end.
“Is that your place?” Clint asked, his respect for Charon beginning to dwindle. He claims that he doesn’t control them, and yet he still has the largest house in the entire community.
“No, no. This is my house,” he said, stopping in front of a humble little cabin.
“I apologize for doubting you,” Clint replied.
“After you, Margo,” Charon said with a smile.
The four walked into the cabin. Immediately, the smell of food entered their nostrils, followed by the smell of the wood that surrounded them.
“I was going to build this myself, but Greg knew a few people who were willing to lend a hand in building it. It was finished last week, which is why it still smells so great. But, please, take a seat. Make yourself feel at home! I’ll be right back. Are you guys thirsty at all?”
“Yeah, actually, I could go for some water,” Jules said.
Charon smiled, stepping through the door into the kitchen.
The cabin was beautiful. A rug was set in the middle of the living room, where they were seated, and a coffee table was set on top of it. Two leather La-Z-Boys sat in each corner, facing away from the window that looked out at the street in front of the house. A matching leather couch was placed on the wall farthest from the window, a leg’s length away from the coffee table. There was a bookshelf where, in most living rooms, there would have been a television. It was filled with classics, though it was clear to see from his collection that Charon was particularly fond of reading mythology of all kinds. There was some Greek, some Roman, some Norse, and a little bit of Egyptian.
The living room was set up to be the first room you walked into when you entered the cabin. Entering the cabin, the door to the kitchen was on the right, and directly ahead was a set of stairs.
It did not take long for Charon to come back into the room. He held a tray of food and a couple glasses of water. “Appetizers, anyone? A ham sandwich for the lady, and I brought you two some apples if you would like one. Margo probably hasn't had a filling meal in quite some time. The craving for meat is insane!”
Margo accepted her sandwich gratefully.
“Meat craving?” Clint asked.
“Yeah, I forgot to tell you guys about that. We have an insatiable craving for meat of some kind. No matter what we eat, we can’t be satisfied until we have eaten some meat.”
“I wish you had told me that before I let you ride in a Humvee with us,” Clint replied, looking Margo up and down as if she were going to pounce on him at any second. “So, Charon, what do you want to see? What are your plans for now, for the future?”
“I want to live peacefully. But we all know that isn’t going to happen, is it? So, my desire is for freedom. Keeping everyone free. Freedom, really, is the only option. It just makes sense. And look around my small community! Look at how much everyone cares for others! You never saw anything like that before the parasite infected us. Neighborly neighbors, smiling faces… It’s beautiful.”
“What do you think about curing it?”
“It would be sad to see it go. Humanity has grown so much because of this, and to take back all the progress that we have made. That would be sad. A return to the way things were… This hive mind, truly, it does more good than harm. Society has never seen brighter days.”
Clint thought for a moment. “Are you going to force the living to kill themselves and become the undead?”
“No. I think that we can live together in harmony. I have several people living here. The ones who had enough foresight to hide when Brun came through town, anyway. I knew that he was a brutish, violent man, but I did not see the destruction that he caused coming… I thought that we would talk, get to understand how the other thought, then split ways… It was stupid of me to invite him here.”
“And yet you invited Margo…”
“Yes, but I knew what Margo believed. We have been talking for quite some time. You know, we really have been given a chance to start over the world completely. We can find better sources of power that don’t cause pollution, for one thing. This town is completely hydro-powered.
“There is a river not far from here. The brightest minds have come together and have been able to share their ideas in a way never before possible. Science and technology are about to experience a dramatic advancement, not to mention health practices, though with our near invulnerability and self-healing, we really don’t have to worry too much about it. All I can see from accepting the parasite and living in peace, living and undead, is good. Better science, better hospitals, better community.”
“War is coming,” Margo chimed in. “Our options are to join Brun, who wants to kill everything; join Cory, who wants to kill the living and control the rest; or join Charon and live together like brothers.”
“Charon, you are a good man,” Clint said. “You took your second chance at life and turned it into something amazing. Hearing you describe what life will be like when the war is complete makes me want to join you and see this near perfect society spring up. I’m in,” Clint said, shaking his hand. “When war does come, I will be standing next to your side.”
“It will be interesting to see what war is like between four sentients and a horde of confused undead that don’t know whom to follow,” Jules added.
“Margo, may I speak with you in private?”
Margo nodded and followed Charon upstairs.
“Have you noticed what I have?”
“Cory… there is something not right with him. I think he's slowly going insane.”
“While we were fighting, he mentioned something about being in a constant battle between the voices in his head and his own will… I don’t have that voice in my head. Do you get that?”
Charon shook his head. “No, I don’t. We both know that he and Brun are working together… Brun might break him.”
“I haven’t paid much attention to Cory in that way, really. I have had a lot on my mind lately, between getting to my friends, then coming to you. I have spent a lot of my time thinking about the coming war more than anything.”
Margo looked into Charon’s eyes. They seemed to twinkle in the dim lighting of the upper room.
“Sorry for staring,” Charon said. “You’re beautiful.”
Margo broke eye contact, embarrassed.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. I think dinner is about ready. I’ll ask someone to bring Lizzie something to eat, since she will be staying with Dale at the lab all night.”
Cory sat on the side of his bed, resting his head in his hands.
The voices, he thought to himself. Why can’t I get rid of the voices!?
Kill him while he sleeps, Cory. Brun will never see you coming.
NO! I can’t! He could easily overpower me…
But you have better control over the parasite, Cory. Coooory….
“GET OUT OF MY HEAD!!!” he screamed, picking up a lamp and shattering it against his head.
You can control every single undead with the snap of your fingers, Cory. Need I remind you that you can make them all do your bidding? Why wait for war to break out when you could just send them all to attack everyone now?
Blood began dripping down his temple. He put his hand on it, then pulled it away. He examined his hand, now wet and red with blood.
I can do it for you, Cory. Give in, Cory. Accept me, Cory. Stop fighting me, Cory. You are becoming weak. The voice laughed. I can make you strong again. Stop fighting me!
Cory rubbed his bloodied hand all over his face.
“Give in,” he said with a smile.
Written By: CalebPinnow
won't you stay
to watch the leaves swirl around my feet
and tell me i'm a girl
and sometimes i feel pretty
and sometimes i act dumb
i don't believe any of it
i'm not sure i'm allowed
won't you stay
to watch the roses bloom under my feet
i've never asked anyone to stay
read a few of my
poetry thoughts, and you'll believe me
that I won't ever ask
but at the same time
you're in my dreams,
which makes everything realer, in a roundabout sort of way
so tell me if i'm alive
or if i'm capable of growing flowers
from the inside out
i don't believe any of it
in my dreams i ask
won't you stay
my life was a line. a straight and narrow path, all i had to do was take one step at a time and id reach paradise. paradise was the end goal. paradise has shattered, and i see the broken pieces glittering on the sidewalk of the straight and narrow, beauty hidden in seeming darkness. I chase after hope, one step at a time. closing doors behind me, i push forward. I change. I grow, and the world is a stained glass window
The dumpster burst behind me, the heat wave close on my back, fiery wings wrapping around me. Chunks of flaming garbage streamed past, falling stars in the black alley.
I gripped the pistol tighter until my fingers stung with pins and needles as I ran. Out of the alleyway, back into the madness. The burning cars and store fronts, blazing cocktails rupturing and spewing glass and flame like urban phoenixes. Riot police and mob yelling, gunfire cracking from all around. Yellow, orange, and red, dancing against swaths of black and gray, angry color scorching the innocent night.
“Hey!” a masked man yelled ahead of me, gesturing with a handgun in my direction.
I didn’t hesitate, raising my own weapon and pressing the trigger twice. He dropped, screaming, pistol slipping from his grasp and clattering on the asphalt.
Handy. I snatched up the gun and sprinted on, past the box truck laying on its side in the middle of the road, cargo strewn out behind it like entrails. Fire leaped from its charred sides, reaching toward anything near it. I tucked the new weapon into my waistband as I dodged a woman grasping for me from a small group of rioters exiting through the broken window of a storefront. Black masks obscured the lower half of their faces, eyes burning with fury, drunk on the chaos and anarchy of the moment.
The mask obscuring my own face was beginning to strangle my breath. I wanted so badly to tear it off, to let myself breathe. But that would have been a terrible idea. I can’t be recognizable. You’re eye color is recognizable enough—don’t put your face out their too.
I kept on, making sure to concentrate on staying light on my feet. Just a little farther, and I’ll be out of this mess. Though suppressed at the moment, fear hid in the back of my mind, whispering that I wouldn’t make it.
I ducked into a side street, darkness hungrily swallowing up the dancing light of a thousand fires burning on the main road. A man lay propped against a brick wall on one side of the narrow road. Blood streamed down the side of his head. His eyes, yellowed and bloodshot, followed me as I dashed past. I didn’t have time to avoid puddles. Water splashed over my shoes, soaking my feet and shins.
Yellow-orange erupted in front of me as I ran from the side street, glass and heat bursting away from where the gasoline-filled jar had shattered. Bullets whizzed past my head, striking the brick wall beside me.
“Get him!” the men called, popping off more rounds in my direction.
I dove and rolled. Hard, warm, gritty ground scraped against my bare arms. Bringing my gun around as rounds cracked by, I fired. Once, twice, three times, five times. Three men dropped, yelling and clutching their wounds. The fourth, armed with a crowbar, ran the opposite direction in terror.
They’re gonna leave without you. Squeezing the thought back into my stomach, I shoved myself to my feet and hurried on. Left, right, left, right, straight for three blocks. Past shattered glass, bodies writhing on the streets and sidewalks. Past flaming vehicles with their waves of heat, roving gangs of degenerate scum, and police lines firing tear gas into mobs a hundred times their number.
There it was, a few hundred yards away. Rising above the smoking city, the burned-out cathedral’s blackened steeple stabbed into the smoky, red-orange sky. Above it hovered Aegis’ APC, blue jets aimed downward, guns firing into the streets beneath. Three drones whizzed from her angular sides as I got closer.
Blood and asphalt sprayed from the bullet’s impact, dropping the man jumping from an alley at me. The drone turned, weapon firing another round at a man, clutching a rifle, rushing down the street at me. Empty shells clattered on the pavement, dropping from the drones as they fired again and again on nearby rioters.
The personnel carrier descended slowly, bullets ricocheting off its armored hide. Her guns barked back, cannons blasting away at buildings, autocannons sweeping the streets.
I was close now, perhaps a hundred yards or so away. But the carrier was drawing an increasing amount of attention from the rioters. Staying close to the ground for much longer was too dangerous.
She dove out of nowhere, tackling me to the pavement. I saw stars when my chin hit the ground, pain shooting up into the top of my skull. My palms scraped against the road as I tried to roll over under her.
The girl couldn’t have been much older than me—maybe eighteen, at the oldest. Fury blazed in her eyes, fists raining down blow after blow at my head and neck.
Barely, I blocked her strikes, searching for a weapon—she was too close to me for the drones to risk a shot. The gun in my hand had been thrown out of reach when I fell, but my second firearm dug into the small of my back.
I punched her square in the face. She screamed and cursed, blood streaming from her nose as she fell backward. The girl returned with an even faster rain of blows, catching me a few times in my face, before I could hit her again. “Die, you golden-eyed freak!” She screamed.
A solid connection with the side of her face sent her sprawling off me, dazed for a second. Rage took over, boiling up inside my chest. These people—no, these animals—had terrorized the country for long enough. They’d burned and looted across the nation, completely disregarding the lives of those around them. These animals didn’t care for anyone but themselves and their selfish, slanted agendas.
In their eyes, we were inferior. We were the animals, carrying a stained bloodline from a race of beings they despised. They were terrified of us, terrified we’d rise up and become their oppressors. Terrified of the power people like me held. Terrified of my golden eyes.
It was them who should have been purged from the face of the earth with extreme prejudice, them who should have been hunted down and killed, them who should have had to live in constant fear. Not me. Not my family. At least most of the nation saw us as just other humans, albeit unique, who still had a life. A life with value—a priceless human life. Not some dark group of sleeper agents for foreign governments or sadistic terrorists. Or telepaths destined to become Nazis bent on extermination and world domination.
I was atop her in an instant, knees pinning her arms to the ground, fists raining down blow after blow. She cried out, dark red liquid streaming from her mouth and nose.
The legislation she and other anarchists protested would bring equality—true equality—and protection under law for telepaths and Peace Keeper descendants alike. It must have been nice for someone like her, who never had to fear being slaughtered with her family in the middle of the night by a gang hunting down telepaths with golden eyes. Must’ve been nice sleeping in peace at night, worried only about your crush not texting you back, or a test at school the next day.
I grit my teeth so hard my jaw hurt. Strike after strike blasted through her week attempts to block them with her arms. Patches of black and purple were already spreading around her eyes and cheeks. Much of her face was no longer visible beneath broken skin and streaming blood.
“Alix, let’s go—leave her!” Taz directed through a loudspeaker attached to one of the drones circling overhead. “We’re getting called back to base, the drones are almost out of ammo, and we’ve gotta pull out—there’s a lot of idiots with heavy weapons headed our way. The carrier’s a sitting duck.”
“Fine.” I stood up, the girl groaning beneath me. My vision blackened for a moment. I swayed on my feet as I tried to move, still dizzy from the hits to my head.
Shouts of “Kill him!” echoed down the narrow street, sending more rioters dashing my direction. Bullets streamed from the drones, empty shell casings dropping onto the ground.
I staggered toward the rescuing carrier, brain finally clearing. Spots still danced in my vision. Definitely have a concussion.
Chink, chink, chink. The last spent cartridge dropped from one drone, then another, and another.
"Alix, run!” Taz commanded. “Go! Come on, man, get to the carrier!”
Retrieving the gun from the small of my back, I pulled back the slide. Golden brass glinted in the flickering light. Perfect.
I turned, weapon raised. Bullets whistled past my face and torso as I returned fire, dropping the leader of the charge. The metal bat he wielded clanged against the asphalt. I fired again and again, dropping four more, all the while stepping quickly backward toward the carrier and the deafening roar of its engines and autocannons.
The last man dropped to his knees, a knife slipping from his hands, blood streaming from two bullet wounds in his chest.
The girl forced herself up onto all fours, spitting blood. A hateful gaze seared into my soul as she struggled to her feet. Crimson streams covered her face and neck, more spattered across her arms and ripped T-shirt.
I let my weapon fall, halting my retreat to the APC. Which of us is more wrong? No, no—they started this.
With a cry of rage, she sprang at me. The battered girl halved the distance between us in a second.
You people will never learn. I raised my gun and pulled the trigger.
Her face paled with shock and pain, screaming mouth agape but silent. Her steps halted. She wobbled, tears streaming down her bloodied face. Panting and coughing up blood, she struggled to reach me.
I fired another round, this time into her leg.
With a scream, she dropped to the red-spattered road. Arms flailing, she scrabbled at the pavement, still trying desperately to reach me.
She’ll live. But did you make her hatred worse? Confrontation like this always makes things worse. Chaos breeds chaos, bloodshed creates bloodshed.
I left her and ran the remaining few yards to the carrier. The APC’s iron side slid open, jets firing to lift her, as I dove inside. Glancing over my shoulder, I watched the girl reach out for me, fury replacing the pain in her cries and curses. Hatred, all the way to the last. Stupid. But are we really that different?
Life is a dream
This question of who (or what) is dreaming who (or what), brought to mind two of my favorite pieces of literature: La Niebla (Mist) by Miguel de Unamuno and Las ruinas circulares (The Circular Ruins) by Jorge Luis Borges.
Towards the end of Mist, the main character, Augusto, is considering suicide and decides to go discuss it with the author of an article he read on the topic: Miguel de Unamuno. When they meet, Unamuno tells him he cannot commit suicide since he is merely a fictional character, a figment of Unamuno's imagination, and thus subject to Unamuno's whims. Augusto, angry, says he is not the ultimate author. Indeed, Unamuno might just be a character in God's dream.
Is God dreaming us or are we dreaming God?
In The Circular Ruins, a short story, a wizard goes by canoe to some burned ruins and lays down to dream a man into existence. After years of trying various tactics without success, he decides to consult with the god of the temple who happens to be the the god of fire. The god of fire says he'll help him out. Everyone will think his creation a man of flesh and blood. Only the wizard and fire will know the truth.
For two years, the wizard trains the man, who he comes to love like a son, but then, with sadness, he lets him go. He sends him downriver to another temple, but first, he wipes away the memory of the two years of training "so that his son should never know he is a phantom, so that he shall think of himself as a man like any other."
Time passes and he begins to hear stories about a man downriver who can walk through fire. The wizard worries that his son will come to know his true origins, but his worries are interrupted by a forest fire. Accepting that his time has come, he walks into the flames. It is "with relief, with humiliation, with terror" that he realizes that he too is the product of another's dream.
Is God dreaming us or do we dream God?
Is the butterfly dreaming Zhuangzi or is Zhuangzi dreaming the butterfly? I am not certain it is either. Rather, the question is who is the ultimate dreamer of all?
But in the end, does it really matter?
5 Golden Rings
Everyone had heard the stories about Harriet. They say she married four times, and still had all the rings saved up in her jewelry box. She never wore them, just kept them locked away, gathering dust.
She could have sold them and gotten some decent money. She could have worn them all as a badge of honor. She could have melted them down and made them into something different, like a necklace or a pair of ornate golden earrings.
But she didn't do any of those things. She kept them in a locked jewelry box in a locked room and left the world to wonder why she did it.
And boy, did they wonder.
Her first marriage was to a guy named Carl Deed III. A stiff name, and it fit his stiff demeanor perfectly. He had some ideas about what Harriet should be doing, and Harriet disagreed.
That was the first ring.
The second marriage was to a man named Barry Carver. Barry was a laid back, progressive, handsome art student. He didn't make a lot of money, but that didn't bother Harriet— Carl Deed III lost a key court case and had to pay a massive settlement. What did bother Harriet was the hours he spent in his room, locked away for days without saying a word to her or offering her even a shred of his time.
Harriet almost regretted ending that marriage. She really did love Barry, but he just left her unfulfilled and alone for a little too long a little too often. She couldn't take it any longer.
Her third marriage was to a younger man named Vince Dodd. Vince was young, he was loving, he was kind.
But he was a little too loving, to a little too many people.
Her fourth marriage was her worst. Jack Freud, who she biting called "Jack Fraud" was nice at first. He was rich, but Harriet had been investing Mr. Deed's money and she had an incredible sum.
Jack, of course, couldn't handle a woman having more than him. So he began, bit by bit, to control her finances, to limit her income. He began to belittle her, to isolate her, to control her.
Harriet lost everything when she finally ended things. Her money, her house, her sense of self. It all left with Jack Fraud.
For years, Harriet had given up on love. As she grew older, the world changed around her. She began living in a tiny apartment, got a job as bartender, and worked her way up the ranks.
She was alive. And for the first time in a long time, she knew who she was.
She remembered seeing the article in 2015, the summer of her 51st birthday, and she smiled. When she got her own bar, called the Four Rings, she hung it up on the wall.
No one dared to comment on it. If they had any negative ideas, they kept it to themselves, at least within the walls of Harriet's bar, because good beer and free sports TV was more important than who loved who.
The article from the New York Times that told the United States that same-sex marriage was legal created an awakening in many people, young and old.
But here, no one was willing to talk about that awakening. The only sign of acceptance in the entire town was this article posted on the wall of the Four Rings, and the only negativity was the occasional distasteful look at the framed article.
Everyone knew about Harriet's first four marriages. They knew the story behind the Four Rings, and while some people called Harriet a whore, most people just said "That poor woman" and moved on with their lives.
No one paid Harriet or her bar much attention. They came to drink, and then they left. It was as simple as that.
Harriet flipped the sign over to CLOSED as she mopped the beer stained floors. She put the mop away and she took the flight upstairs. She was getting older, 53 now, and stairs were getting hard, but every night she ignored her fiery joints and climbed the stairs to her room, stationed faithfully above the bar.
She'd heard rumors that a new family was coming to Brown street. A woman and her teenage daughter, no husband in sight.
Harriet didn't care at all. Unless she or her teen buys beer, it's not her problem. They'll just be another face on the block.
But 50-year-old Dana Schoff did buy beer. Drank it pretty heavily, in fact, but never seemed to really get drunk. She was a big woman with a high tolerance for any sort of alcohol.
Only a week after the trucks arrived, Dana found her way into the Four Rings.
"I'd like a shot," she says. "Fill it with whatever, just get me the strong stuff."
Harriet obliges. She only thinks about it for a moment: I don't get many people my age ordering strong stuff. But the thought is only there for a moment, and then she moves on and gets the drink.
Dana downs it.
"I like your article," she says, pointing at the wall.
The entire bar goes silent.
It's an unspoken rule here: no one ever talks about The Article. It's taboo. It's wrong. It's not allowed. The Article on The Wall of The Bar is merely a fuzzy blur shoved into the back of everyone's minds.
"Why, thank you," Harriet says. "I made the frame myself."
And so conversation resumes.
Dana downed three more shots before the bar closes.
I've been going through something since April, by the time it's done, it will be a wild ride of ten months, just shy of a year. Because of it's legal status I won't get into details about my situation. During all this I have become very depressed, angry, hurt, disappointed and often suicidal. I stopped writing, fell out of love with words and their meanings, as words so often fail us from all aspects of life. I stopped caring about everything and everyone, it takes all I have just to get out of bed. I've never felt so dead inside as I do now, as I feel right this minute. I never catch a break, not as a child and definitely not as an adult. I've tried talking to someone and I have tried medication, just to come to an understanding that no magic doctor or nor magic pill exists. I'd be homeless right now if my support team wasn't made of such wonderful and kind human beings. My situation has robbed me of all that I am and all that I want to be. I can't sleep, can't eat or I over eat, I can't stand the person who looks back at me in the mirror, most of all, I can't stand being disappointed with life. All I do is cry. Get angry and wish myself dead, and all this is because of what someone else did to me. Where have all the good words gone?
Where does the heart go for peace of mind? Where do I go to find my heart whole again, because right now I'm fractured.
I Just Wanted A Hermitage
You ever see that nature documentary where all the hermit crabs line up on the beach, biggest to smallest, and they all swap shells? It's mesmerizing and Utopian to watch; each timid crustacean who outgrew it's current dwelling gets a new one to spread out in; perfect. comfy. till next year that is. (I do wonder about the biggest crab though... it's not as though he shrank back to the start of the line is it?)
Anyway, some part of me was naively hoping that home-buying'd be like that; some decent family who outgrew their current home might want to sell at just the right moment, them moving on just when you want to buy; a perfectly-timed rehousing venture with very few troubles.
It's not like that at all. I'm starting to think that even the video footage of hermit-crab cooperation was staged. I feel as though they may've intentionally omitted the unfortunates;
The ones who panicked when they realized that all the abandoned shells of proper size are moldy on the inside or have holes in 'em or are otherwise unsuitable or already occupied, so they scramble to return to their previous shell, squishing themselves back in place, barely enough room to breathe. Wishing crabbily that all the other crabs would quit being so darn grabby.
Home-buying's like that. When the sand clears and you've managed to nab a half-way less-inadequate dwelling, you sure as hell don't want to go through all that shell-swapping bull-crap again. Might as well just stay in your "perfect" new home forever.
....Dash it all; is that a crack in the ceiling??
I made a fresh loaf in our bread machine Sunday night. My wife and I were closing out our long Thanksgiving weekend with some good cheese and red wine, and the warm bread tasted very pleasant. I had not used the bread machine in a while, but it got a great deal of use in the spring of 2020, when every trip to the sparsely-stocked grocery store felt like running a gauntlet. I thought back to those times as I measured the two-and-a-half teaspoons of yeast; the memories invested our clink of glasses an hour later with extra meaning. For my family, as of December 1, the pressing phase of the pandemic is over.
I do not mean that COVID-19 is gone, or that all risk has disappeared: Delta and Omicron are out there, and “endemic” means we will all get it at some point. Certainly, the pandemic continues to affect numerous facets of life and will for some time. We still wear masks. All the same, Wednesday afternoon marked an end of sorts because my daughters received their second doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and I feel that I have done my duty. I worked to avoid spreading COVID-19 until those for whom I was responsible could be vaccinated; I succeeded.
I felt responsible for my parents and my wife’s parents, all of whom are in good health, but who are old enough to be at risk: they are all fully vaccinated and have received their boosters. I am responsible for my wife and children, all the more so because as a high school teacher, I am the most exposed member of the family: we are all vaccinated, and my wife and I have received our boosters. I am responsible for the well-being of my students: they are not all vaccinated (I don’t know how many are, and it’s not my business), but they all could be if they and their families choose for them to be.
Emotionally, I struggled the most with safeguarding my students. When our school reopened in September 2020—on a hybrid remote and in-person schedule so as to have half as many students in the building—I could not escape the feeling of impending doom. My colleagues and I guessed at how long we could stay open before cases shut us down: one said two weeks, a lot said a month. I guessed two months, reasoning that the first long weekend would lead to travel and positives brought home to our rural county. Universally, we expected the closure to come any day, and I lived in fear of it. I tried to avoid contact with others because I feared that I would be the one who would shut down the school. If I got COVID-19, how many staff members might I force into quarantine? Roughly sixty students would have had to quarantine: sixty students who could not attend school or work jobs, or watch younger siblings so their parents could work. Sixty students to whom I could pass the virus, who would (in all likelihood) be fine themselves, but who might live with an immune-compromised parent or a grandparent, whom I might kill.
I remember the moment when it became clear that I was not alright, because I posted to Prose about it. I have a beautiful view outside my classroom window: the athletic field in front of a hillside with many trees, which in autumn blaze their colors in the morning sun. The news had reported several new positives in the county that day, and I tried to see the hillside, tried to feel and love it. I wrote this haiku:
Cases are spiking here.
September leaves, fence,
hillside in the morning sun,
sky: you must hold this.
Steuben County, New York - 9/25/2020
Beautiful things are talismans. The moments of peace and love they inspire can stave away anxiety and fear. Encounters with beauty keep me whole, and when I lose my capability for that feeling, I’m in a rough place. When my wife miscarried years ago, I wrote in a journal, “I feel no joy in the trees.” That feeling of disconnection passed, though; the COVID anxiety did not.
I sought counseling. I never had before, but I needed help dealing with that weight. It helped.
My wife and I missed our regular visits with our parents, none of whom live in our state. I know people who would not see their older parents at all until vaccinations, and on the other hand, people who went on visiting throughout the pandemic as though all were normal: neither pole was an option for us. I wanted to be cautious and avoid endangering the older people in my life, but going many months on end without seeing a loved one is its own kind of risk. Days are finite.
We decided on a middle ground. Throughout 2020, we saw our parents only under tightly controlled circumstances: we would hole up for ten days without going anywhere, even the grocery store, and if we were symptom-free after that, we would be together like in the old days. We would see one another’s faces mask-free. We would hug. Once school began, we did not visit until January: the winter break permitted nine days out of the classroom before a visit, which we deemed close enough. This was not a perfectly safe approach, of course: there is no perfectly safe approach. It was the risk we all calculated we were willing to take, and it worked out alright.
A lot worked out alright. I did not shut down the school. No one did: there were quarantines a-plenty, but we made it through the year, open every day except two (while admin got the hang of contact tracing). It was not a normal year, but there was school, and it was good. I was exposed to COVID-positive students four times that year, and I had to quarantine and isolate from my family twice, but through a combination of good fortune and safety protocols, I never contracted and spread COVID.
I got my first Moderna dose in January 2021, the second four weeks later. (If I hadn’t, Public Health would have instructed me to isolate from my family after those last two exposures, too.) By the time spring break rolled around, my wife and our parents were fully vaccinated as well. We visited at will again, and thus regained our biggest portion of normal.
In the summer, we flew to visit friends in Colorado. My wife and I went to a Denver jazz club with them; it was the first live performance of anything I had attended in sixteen months, and I wept. My daughters got their first PCR tests and used the negative results to check in at sleepaway Girl Scout Camp for a week. They acted in Charlotte’s Web with our community theatre group. When September came, they returned to school every day, and they began attending extracurricular classes for ceramics and tap dancing; I’ve passed the time during their lessons writing at a typically-uncrowded brew pub. Masked, and with every audience member over 12 providing proof of vaccination, we have attended tours of Broadway musicals that were a very long time coming. All of which is to say, we have been happily living our nearly-normal lives because life had to resume. And now, my kids are vaccinated.
The Northeast winter and holidays mean a spike is coming, and the vaccines are not full-proof. Breakthrough cases have been widely reported for months. But as has also been reported, up-to-date vaccines have provided meaningful protection against the worst outcomes. Personally, I have known vaccinated individuals who contracted COVID who merely had unpleasant colds, and other vaccinated individuals who felt pretty sick. For that matter, I’ve known unvaccinated individuals for whom COVID-19 meant nothing more than an unpleasant cold. But I’ve also known an unvaccinated woman in her thirties with previous lung problems who lacked the breath to speak on the phone and spent a week unconscious on a ventilator. I’ve known an unvaccinated 50-year-old runner of marathons who for more than a week stayed in bed until 1:00 pm because he lacked the breath to walk to his kitchen. I’ve been acquainted with three people who died from COVID-19: two who died before anyone could get vaccines, and one who died having chosen not to get one.
I also know someone who contracted COVID in October 2020 who still cannot taste food. That is what I feared as much as anything: long haul COVID. Lacking the ability to taste that celebratory wine, cheese, and bread with my wife is unfathomable to me. Putting aside all other negative outcomes possible from the disease—you know, like death—the potential impact on taste alone would have been enough for me to get the vaccine. Statistically, my children were always highly unlikely to die from COVID, and I never really feared it. But I did not want to disable them. Their vaccinations are not guarantees that they’ll avoid long haul COVID, but it’s meaningful protection that they can have, and it gives us a more confident freedom than we had before.
This is not to say that everything is the way it was. Most school and community activities have returned, but not all. I’ve been teaching in a mask to masked high school students all year; my honest take is that I’m indifferent to the cloth on our faces. Students are working in groups more often this year. I no longer feel crushing personal responsibility for their wellbeing, or the wellbeing of the people in their lives. Their health is in their own hands and out of mine—to my immense relief. I protected them as best I could and restricted my own life while they had no option aside from trusting me. Now, the option is theirs and their families’, and they will calculate the odds for themselves just as we calculated ours.
The most significant COVID impact on my family at present is who we can see. Some of our closest friends are caregivers for cancer patients, and they’ve determined they cannot take the risk of spending time with others. In their places, I would make the same choice. When we see them again, if we see them again, it will be outdoors when the weather turns warm in April. We try to keep in touch. I hope they are well.
For now, we have plans again. A long weekend trip, a performance of Hadestown in New York, a vacation to Yellowstone with my parents. Group activities. Hugging those we love and breaking bread. Giving thanks.
She knocked on my front door and I did not even touch the handle before the door moved wide open with a creak.
I froze in my steps, taking a moment of silence to behold her beautiful flowing locs that seemed to be hugging her rosy cheeked face.
Her locks moved to and fro- I just stared and wondered who this goddess could be? And what in the cosmos was she doing in my apartment of all places? Eh, truly odd.
Then her voice reached out into my mind. Her lips were not moving, but I understood everything that she had to say:
"Don't fear. I come from a place where time and space is something that is not quite a matter there. We have all the time in the world..." She tilted her head a bit backward, slapped her knee, and chuckled then continued..."It's just like you humans like to say. Is it not?"
I blinked and scratched my head. What was going on here? Was this some kind of joke that my neighbors had pulled together? They knew that I was certain about there being some place where time and space- or a vast range of alternate realities were possible.
But now this being standing before me with her golden, beautiful dazzling locs, her eyes were shining like a starry night brought to life with a light that was quite blinding.
She approached me...moving steady...reaching closer and closer, until our noses touched. Then she blinked her eyes and in an instant we were transported to another place.
I gasped and held onto her. In a tight embrace, not wanting to let go. She smelled wonderful. Reminded me of a blast of sweet roses, a mix of lavender, and honey, too.
Wherever we were headed, I hoped it was an island that had lots of palm trees, coconuts, and lots, and lots of rum.
Mardi, 16th Nov., 2021.
Image source- https://www.artstation.com/artwork/68xP8N