‘No Shelter’ (Part Three) by Timandra Whitecastle
I tell the midwife: first month I missed my period, I didn’t even realize it. Second month, I wondered about it, sure, but I didn’t make the connection. Call me stupid. The third month I spent every morning barfing in the girls’ toilet, locking the stall, and crying, crying, crying. I reread a few chapters in the biology textbook I found in the school library, staring at the pictures for a long time, feeling hollowed out, though ha ha, kinda the opposite was true, right?
There were posters with famous literary quotes on the library walls, made by us kids in that other, glitter-glue-rich age of the world. Above the door hung one quote by Ray Bradbury: without libraries, we have no past and no future. That’s exactly what I felt, Ray, sitting on the hard chair, hunched over the desk. No past except in stories, no future except the words of the biology textbook made flesh.
I wished it would just go away.
I wished it had never happened.
I wished I wasn’t so scared.
That’s three wishes. Where’s a fairy godmother when you need her? I mean, sheesh, Cinderella only wanted to go to a ball, and she got her wish granted. My problems were slightly bigger than the possession of a sparkly blue ball gown, wouldn’t you say?
I figured I’d need help. For fifteen horrible minutes, I pictured all the terrible things that could go wrong, and me all alone, only the child’s father around. But what would he know about bearing human children? Then it hit me: the child wouldn’t just be human. It’d be Elrond the half elf. Shit. Yeah, I decided, I’d definitely need professional help. Where was Gandalf when you needed him?
Later that evening, he found me replacing a lightbulb, one of those long tube ones in our classroom turned love nest. He leaned in the doorway, watching me.
The illumination that gleams cold, the music from the boxes, the moving illusions of people on the flickering white boards—it’s all magic to him. And I’m a mighty sorceress with an iron wand.
For me, though, replacing light bulbs, washing the bedclothes, watering the leftover plants on the windowsills: the remains of a tiny life in an abandoned school in a small town after the apocalypse. All the while, I held safe the beginnings of another tiny life, building itself from the ruins of the girl I used to be.
I hadn’t yet showed him my gun’s magic.
We ate the food he made. He always cooked it outside, never in the clean cafeteria kitchens. You should have seen the fuss he made when I tried to explain what the toilets were for. When I demonstrated the flush, he blanched and stormed out of the bathroom, muttering something in his aelf language. He did his business outside, too. It was weird. Still, every relationship has little quirks, right? I mean, my parents never talked to each other either, and they spoke the same language.
If I closed my eyes, I could nearly pretend the spiciness was Chinese take-away.
Some nights we licked the grease from our fingers, and he’d take my hand, guide it to his lips, and then he’d hold me tight until we were both satisfied—you know what I mean. We didn’t have to say anything to one another.
Most nights, though, when we had finished eating, he would put on music for us and wait for his story. My story. See, the problem with having a good thing is you’re expected to do the same thing again and again, as though you can keep it going that way forever. As if change never happens. Transformation leads to annihilation. This is what we fear most.
I decided to tell him I needed to go away for a few days. Alone.
He frowned at me.
“Dangerous,” he said.
“It would be if you came with me,” I said, stepping down from the chair-on-top-of-table combination I had built. My mother would have gone full-blown ballistic if she had seen me use my makeshift ladder. I walked over to the light switch, still talking. “I want to look for a human. A non-infected human. There’s something I need to know. And if you came along—well, you know that we fear your kind.”
I flipped the switch. The lights flickered on. All the lights. Job well done.
“You don’t fear,” he said, still frowning at me, not distracted at all.
“I did when we first met, remember?” I mimed shock and gazed into his broad face, blond hair falling down to his shoulders. Through a squint, I tried to remember what he looked like when we met, what I really saw standing in the shadows. I couldn’t though. It was his glamour, maybe. Making him look attractive to me. I suddenly wondered how old he was.
“Look,” I said. “If you come along, other humans will try to shoot you. Kill you. And me, too. They won’t understand that we’re together. That you’re not harmful to me. You realize this, don’t you?”
He looked at me, his head tilted to one side.
“Dangerous,” he repeated.
I groaned. The truth was, even if he seemed as human to other people as he did to me, on my own I’d have more chance of finding a survivor group that might know where I could get medical help. The tough survivor teen, going it solo. I’d look for a group with lots of women, or with people I knew from before. I hadn’t decided yet whether I’d need a doctor or a midwife. I didn’t want to have to tell him that either.
“I’ll take my wand with me,” I said, snaking my arms around his waist. He turned to the gun and gave it a dark stare. My wand. No chance I was leaving that here.
“Bad.” He shook his head.
“I’ll be fine,” I assured him, nestling my cheek against his chest, listening to his heartbeat.
Dammit, I didn’t want him to go with me. I got angry. I wanted to pick a fight, but at that point the motion-sensors lit up the yard, reflected a silver sheen in his eyes. Like those pictures of lions, captured through the lenses of night-vision cameras, eyes blank, sheeted in gray. For a moment I wondered whether our child would have those alien eyes, and I was rendered breathless, paralyzed like the doe with her fawn.
The place I live is pretty rural, a small village near a motorway junction—don’t go there. There be monsters. Also, piles of burned Plague victims.
The school is at the center of a long C-curved main road. There’s a bakery close by, a tiny grocery shop, the village hall. They all stand empty, their smashed-in windows and battered-down doors making sad faces. Nearly two thousand souls lived here before. In the next small town, there were three times that number.
A body was decomposing by the pumps at the gas station. Someone got run over, it seemed. I walked on by, gun pointed down. I’d never actually fired it before, but how hard could it be? I’d seen it fired. It used to be my grandfather’s. Every Sunday he would go to the shooting range and shoot clay pigeons. Sometimes he’d take me along, but except for the loud bangs and gleeful destruction of those clay disks, it was pretty boring. I could tell you the story of how I walked through miles of wasteland all the way to my grandparents’ house after my dog survived our encounter with the supermarket ogres to get this gun. But—maybe another time.
I had a cardboard sign tucked under my elbow in case I saw someone. #PLS HELP. Cars were parked or abandoned all over, some neatly against the curb, some blocking the road at odd angles, some with doors left hanging open, the back seats mattresses for stray cats. Others, metal tombs for the dead within them. It’s funny. The Plague hit every mammal hard. First there was fever, like you’d caught a bad cold, you coughed and sneezed, felt rotten. Then you felt better again, so you chalked it up to nothing severe. That’s where it ended for cats. For everyone else, though—everything else—that was just the beginning.
Like, there was a pack of infected dogs that strayed close to the park. The playground there used to be a great haunt for us kids and teenagers after the Plague, us orphans, us lost children in Neverland. I think they moved on, though. One way or the other. Beware the blighted dog! In the twilight hours I’d hear them howling and clicking their tongues. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of the crowns of thorns sprouting out of their infected bodies, saw their eyes reflect the torchlight like a cat’s. I kept my eyes open and got twitchy at any movement.
That’s why I nearly missed him.
Mr. Barker. My former history teacher. He was standing stock-still in the middle of the only traffic light junction our village has, wearing his Breaking Bad T-shirt again, with his faded brown coat with the elbow patches, and over that a cardboard sign that said Repent! The End Has Come! In his hand were a bunch of yellowed, crumpled leaflets.
He saw me and lifted an arm in greeting.
I lifted my own sign above my head. He read it and beckoned me closer.
“Mr. Barker.” I stayed out of reach, ready to snap up the muzzle of the gun in an instant.
“Anna, wasn’t it?” He smiled. I hadn’t seen a genuine smile like that for a long time. I didn’t correct him. Yeah, Anna. Close enough. Whatever.
“You need help?” he asked, looking me over for wounds or signs of infection, maybe.
“I do, Mr. Barker. Or rather, a friend of mine needs medical attention. She’s not sick with Plague, but it’s something serious. Do you know someone around here? A doctor or nurse? Maybe a midwife?”
He clenched his jaw like he was about to give me a formal reproof. Like we were back in the classroom. Even faced with the annihilation of meaning, some lives are hard to let go.
“No fever?” he asked.
“Does she sometimes stand facing a wall, as though she wants to walk through it, but can’t?”
I shuddered, remembering my mother doing that. I remembered the dark spots, tiny like insects bites at first, spreading all over until her body looked like one huge bruise, the blood clotting under her skin.
“No,” I said firmly. “It’s not Plague.”
“Then what symptoms does she have?”
This was going to take forever. Damn obstinate teachers.
“She’s pregnant, okay?”
His head jerked back. His eyes opened wide. I wanted to kick him for the pity in his expression as he realized.
“Anna.” He leaned over me, laid a hand on my shoulder. His breath smelled of spearmint. “Oh, Anna. I’m sorry. I understand. It’s the hormones. But what did Mrs. Friedman always tell you in biology lessons? The end of the world hasn’t obliterated the need for safety.”
Oh boy. Really? He was going to give me a sex ed talk in the middle of the street after the apocalypse? Priorities, man. Focus.
“I don’t need a lecture, Mr. Barker. I need help.”
“Of course you do. Of course.” He put a finger to his lips and looked down at his shoes while thinking. I felt like raising my hand like we were back in class, but I controlled the impulse.
“There’s the hospital in the next town,” he said after a while. “But I’m not sure there’ll be staff. Honestly, I’ll have to ask around. I know a few people with basic medical knowledge. They might know of other survivors with more specialized…”
He paused, his gaze sticking to the gun slung over my shoulder.
“Do you have a safe place to go?” he asked.
I wasn’t going to tell him I lived in the school.
“Not anymore,” I said.
It was a story.
It was the truth.
All things change.
END OF PART THREE