‘No Shelter’ (Part One) by Timandra Whitecastle
The midwife is listening to my unborn child’s heartbeat through a stethoscope pressed against my belly. She looks like she’s the seventh angel’s retarded sister, smiling beatifically as though that cheap-ass piece of plastic and stainless steel against her ear were playing celestial music. Led Zeppelin? I look at her and nearly giggle. The Offspring? Nah. She’s a droop-faced woman, thin mouth stretched below her bulbous eyes. But y’know, one can’t be choosy after the apocalypse. I don’t know of any other midwives, and at least she has no signs of infection. I’ll take what I can get. That’s how the adults do it.
We’re both adults now, but the looks she gives me—I feel like I’m her child. Maybe it’s an occupational thing, though. I remember teachers doing that same kind of look, like everyone and the whole world is their disappointing kid.
I sigh. Seventeen and pregnant is no place to be. I know that, right? Seventeen and pregnant and living after the Plague—that’s even less a place you want to be. But it’s my place, and I will damn well own it.
The midwife sits up and tucks her instrument away, digs her fingers into my skin. The baby kicks her for me. Already I’m rooting for this kid.
“All fine from what I can tell,” she says slowly. She’s slurring the words, intentionally maybe. Or she’s drunk.
She turns away and wipes her hands. Like I’m unclean. Like I’m one of them—the infected. I remember the broadcast from the WHO: please remember to wash your hands under running water for at least thirty seconds. Her head turned away, I see that her hair is thinning. She has a bald spot at the top peeking through. I thought that only happened to guys.
“The father is an aelf, isn’t he?” she asks as if it were a bad thing.
I want to say no, he’s an ogre who gobbled me up. I want to say no, he’s a troll, fol di rol, and he ate me for his supper. I just want to say no. I must smell like teen spirit.
I make myself smile. I need this woman to deliver my baby. I’m all adult now. I’m playing that adult game, where you say one thing though you feel another.
“Yeah,” I say. “He was.”
Note the past tense, please.
“Tell me about him,” she says and leans away, searching for something in her bag. Sanitizer, maybe. Disinfectant to cleanse herself of me. She’s oozing darkest disapproval. Rubbing her hands, rubbing her skin raw and red. The WHO would be so proud. Pity they’re not around anymore. Yeah, pity the walking dead. That’s us humans, by the way. There aren’t many of us left—on a long enough timeline, everyone’s survival rate drops to zero—and sadly, no one turned into zombies during the Black Plague. We would have known what to do if the end of the world had been zombies. Or aliens.
Sickness, though? We were helpless. Like babes.
I want to tell her: to be reborn, you need to die first. To grow, you need to shed your skin. Phoenix from the ashes. Annihilation leads to transformation. But it works both ways, see? I don’t think she’d get it.
For a moment I wonder if she has seen the same movies and shows I have. Back then. Does she know Rick and Daryl?
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll tell you.”
I choose the classic line. She must know this one.
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
I met him on the playground just behind the school.
Yeah, I lived in the school. Might seem like a strange choice, but the first thing you learn when you survive the apocalypse is scary survivor adults with guns and knives and shit take the supermarkets and pharmacies and hospitals. And boy, they don’t like sharing. You learn to stay well out of their way. Those places turn into creepy fairy-tale monster lairs. The red-hooded girls walk up to them, get sucked in, and are never seen again.
Schools, though, the schools were empty. The regional health boards closed them after the initial wave of Plague, those front lines of infection: kids and teachers passing on germs, sneezing and coughing and killing everyone they knew with their immaculate attendance record. I didn’t live in the school because it was the closest thing to home, or because it was the place I knew best. That would be kinda pathetic, wouldn’t it? Poor orphaned survivor teen goes and lives in the vestiges of her lost world? Pathetic.
Schools, though, they were clean, decontaminated, had ample space to hide, libraries, cafeterias, the kiosk where we’d get cocoa and vanilla milk during the breaks, science labs and cupboards filled with chemistry. You wouldn’t believe the amount of cigarette packs I found stashed out of sight by desperate chain-smoking teachers. Or y’know, the weed. All those zombie grown-ups and their doped-up lives—be like us, they preached. Behave like an adult. Lololol.
Anyway, the best thing about living in a school? While the electricity was still running, I could watch movies on the smartboards, YouTube clips sometimes when the Internet was still online, or I’d switch on every smartboard in every room and blast “Gimme Shelter” so loud it was beyond hearing, just throb and heat and pounding bliss on a body on the edge of adult. There were motion-sensor lights throughout the schoolyard, too, and the first few nights I was there, all the nocturnal animals set them off. My heart used to race at the thought of intruders: other survivors, infected, the other things that lurked out there in the dark. I’d grasp my gun and hide under the teacher’s desk, counting over and over how many shots I’d have ’til I died. But then I’d see the doe nursing her fawn not far from my window, eyes wide in the bright lights, or the fox rummaging in the trash cans behind the cafeteria. I learned to rely on those lights, trust them, look forward to the sudden illumination. Every evening at dusk, I walked my dog around the track field, through the woods, and up the small hill that’s the backdrop for this place. At a point near the top, on the edge of an overlook, was a playground, swings and slide and sandpit turned cat litter.
When we met, it wasn’t dusk. There wasn’t any dancing in the twilight under the stars or, y’know, singing processions of faery folk. It was a sunny afternoon. My worn-out trainers framed the crisp autumn sky, the creak of rusty swing chains the only human touch on nature’s soundscape. I was swinging so hard I was sure when I jumped off and landed, the ground would crack under my feet from the impact, Ironman style.
The dog’s ears twitched. She never barked—she couldn’t anymore—but turned toward the edge of the forest that gave the school its name and whined a bit.
My feet in the air, on the backswing I studied the spot the dog was watching. Nothing.
Feet in the air. On the backswing—dammit.
A tall pale aelf standing in the shadows, just under the last trees, his eyes glinting in the cold. I say aelf because that’s what we survivors call them now.
Names are important. (Note to future self: don’t call the kid Bob or Miley or Quinoa.) There’s a copy of Lord of the Rings in the school library. Reading Tolkien will teach you all about how names are really important. See, these creatures, the ones who stepped out of the empty spaces after the Plague, some of them looked a bit like Tolkien’s elves, tall, pale, slender like birch trees, and just as poisonous. Some of them looked as if Lovecraft’s worst nightmares had come true. Still others…well, let’s say they came in all shapes and sizes. And horns and tentacles.
The thing we’ve forgotten is how fairy-tale creatures used to be lethal, a threat. Well, we’ve remembered now. I’m pretty sure the “A” in aelf stands for alien. I should ask a responsible adult when I find one.
I jumped from the swing while it was at its highest point, banged my knee bloody on the gravel, rolled off the excess oomph, and sprinted toward the slide where I had propped my gun against the steps.
He was faster, of course. Creatures sprung from nightmares are always faster.
I skidded and tried to course-correct like a rabbit, and all it got me was I ended up sprawled on my back.
The dog—that loyal thing—she bit into the aelf’s leg. She drowned in her own blood when he slit her throat.
Red dripping from the tip of the aelf’s knife, I felt sick. I felt like I was going to die. I strained to say something. Any last words. “Please don’t kill me” would’ve been good. But I lost my voice. I went numb. I saw stars, then gray blotches, then whiteout. I fought the swoon, aware of the oxygen filling my lungs far too rapidly. I was hyperventilating. I needed to pee. He loomed over me, reached down, the blade with my dog’s blood close to my face. Then he petted my cheek, lifting me up until I was in his arms, cradled like a baby.
He rocked me for a while, then pulled back so we just sat there, limbs entangled.
“Gimme shelter?” he asked.
I hid my surprise with a cough.
I got mad—he killed my dog over a song?
I came back up. And was still in his arms.
“Yeah,” I said.
We never said much, so I can’t say it was the exchange of our words, but a recognition of souls.
END OF PART ONE