Better

A couple hours later I’m dressed in a set of clothing that smells like moth balls and is at least four sizes too large. Ethie’s late husband was a prodigious man who owned a small barbecue restaurant in the strip mall beside the house until he died some fifteen years ago. 

“If there was one thing he loved more than me it was his pulled pork,” Ethie joked as she pulled the clothes from a battered wooden hope chest that rested at the foot of her bed. “It would have broken his heart to see the pit close, but I guess the shop clogged up his heart before that happened anyway.”

Ethie’s gone to bed now, leaving me to sleep on this ancient sofa in the family room. There’s something wrong with the blocking, causing the sofa to sag in the middle, and the foam beneath the flattened velvet is starting to yellow and turn brittle. Whenever someone sits down, the sofa releases a cloud of yellow dust from the decaying foam, like some sort of toxic mushroom. Even with a dozen children tasked with cleaning the house every day, the dust has settled on every flat surface in the room and clings to the wall screen, giving the already ancient entertainment center a yellow cast like an old printed photograph. 

Still, at least I’m dry. 

And alive.

And that’s still better than the alternative, maybe.

The storm has picked up in the couple hours that I’ve been here and the kids who sleep on the top floor are refusing to go to bed. No amount of threatening or cajoling from Ophelia or the other teenagers can convince them to go upstairs, so my temporary bed is surrounded by a garden of drowsy but agitated children wrapped up in colorful blankets. It’s been a long time since I was around so many innocents. I spend most of my time alone, or burrowing my way through the worst that this city has to offer, or tracking down the sort of scum who would hurt any of these kids to earn a few chits, so as much as the cocoons scattered across the floor are keeping me awake with their persistent whimpering, their presence does something to water the poisonous vine of my heart. 

“Still awake?” Ophelia says from the doorway.

I push myself up on my elbows and look at her. Something about her standing there reminds me of my own childhood. I blink a couple times, trying to dredge up the memory that haunts this teenaged girl with wild hair standing silhouetted in the doorway, but it remains obscured in the mist of age and experience. 

“Sorry about the gun. I just wanted to keep Ethie and the kids safe,” she says. She leans against the door frame and cocks the mass of her hair to one side, studying me in the half dark. 

I don’t say anything. It’s best to not insult my host, but I’m not going to give her the satisfaction of my forgiveness.

“You don’t have to say anything. I know it was a mistake.”

“Which part?” I ask.

She starts and the silhouette of her hair moves. There it is again: That feeling of familiarity. That recognition of someone who probably wasn’t even alive when the memory she triggers was formed. Something from my childhood. Some scene of comfort and safety that I have not thought of for many years. 

“Which part of it was a mistake?” I ask.

A little shrug. That bit is different. The girl from my memory was more expansive in her body language. More expansive in everything, or perhaps that is only how I am remembering her: Young and filled with life and joy. Remembering, I now realize, my sister. 

I heave a sigh and push myself up to lean against the back of the sofa, still keeping my feet off the floor so I don’t step on the cocooned child who has rolled its sleepy body to rest against the sofa beside me. I beckon for Ophelia to sit on the other end of the sofa. “Are you actually sorry for threatening me, or are you sorry you didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger before I could take the gun away from you?”

She settles in, tucking her feet beneath her and wrapping her arms tightly across her chest. The bob of her hair seems to shake in time with noise of the rain pummeling against the windows.

“Honestly, I don’t know.”

I chuckle and give her a slow thumbs-up. “At least you know yourself. A little bit of advice from someone twice your age: Try never to find out how you really feel about killing someone.”

“Is it that bad? After everything that’s happened since the plague, I don’t know that one more death really matters.”

“You’ve got a point there, kid. No, I’m talking about what happens inside your skull. In your heart. Get too close to death and you might just find out you have a taste for it. That, Ophelia, is one of those revelations that doesn’t fade fast. You remember it every day, kinda like an alcoholic recalling the flavor of his favorite liquor even after a decade of sobriety.” Not that I would know about that. 

“Why are you telling me this?” she asks, slowly. Fear has crept into her voice now and I guess that she is imagining that I might have a taste for murdering girls. 

“I’ve been there. Seen death, and worse. Most people my age have. Maybe older people have been telling kids stuff like this forever, but you’ve got it better than I did. People your age have a chance to try and rebuild this world, while my generation watched the whole damn thing burn.”

She manages a half smile in the half light. “You’re right. It does sound like something an old man would say.” 

On the floor beside me, a small child stirs and lets loose a low whimper. I can only imagine the dreams that might haunt someone his age, growing up in a world like this. My own dreams tend to be pits of darkness, yawning caverns into which I march as if my feet were trapped in mud, struggling forward into deeper pitch until waking comes with the violence of an earthquake. That I tend to dream of nothing more is a blessing, brought on by prayer, alcohol, and exhaustion. However existential the horror of my dreams, I am usually spared memories of the vids I analyzed from Jerusalem, and Mecca, and Rome. 

“What was it like before?” she whispers. 

“Before what? I’ve got a lot of before in my life, kid.”

“Before the plague, I guess. I don’t figure you’re old enough to remember before the deluge.”

“Now there’s a term I haven’t heard in a while. Ethie got you reading the old books?” 

She stirs, her face contorting uncertainly. No way she’d fool an inquisitor with that face. I tell her as much, then follow up: “No need to worry about me, but you can’t go tossing that sort of classical language around without having some excuse. At the least you’d better be ready to call the old stories literature, just part of your education. Ethie’s got enough reasons for Youth Services to cart you all away without them accusing her of religious indoctrination.”

“So, you know the old stories? About Noah, and David, and all them?”

A harsh chuckle grinds its way out of my throat before I can stop it. A few of the children on the floor stir, but they’re sleeping through a hurricane, so there’s little that my laugh can do to wake them. “Ophelia, I’ve probably forgotten more theology than you’ll ever learn. I don’t suppose you’ve even heard of the debate between pre- post- and a-millennial tribulation have you?” 

She looks confused, so I go on without giving her time to speak. “Yeah, I thought as much. Not that it matters. Did you get to the part about treating your neighbor like you want to be treated?”

A nod.

“Well, then you’ve got the most important part then. We probably wouldn’t be in this wreck of a world, or at least there’d be a lot more of us living here to watch it burn and sink, if more people had paid attention to that part instead of trying to bribe god into returning by killing half the population.”

“So I was right. You were alive before the plague hit.”

“Yeah. I watched the world drown in blood through a window in a room a quarter this size. That’s probably what saved me.”

“Did you… you know… lose anyone?”

“Isn’t a person older than you who didn’t.” 

And you remind me of one of them, I don’t tell her aloud. 

My sister was about Ophelia’s age when Red Easter hit the world like a bloody knockout punch. When I made it back to my hometown, after the worst of the plague had passed and I had been released to fend for myself, I found the church where our family had attended services a burned and twisted skeleton. I never did get a straight answer on whether it had been burned by the health department because so many infected gathered there to pray for rapture or if it was an act of retaliation, but I did get confirmation that my sister was among those who bled out in the pews at the height of the tide that claimed our world.

“So what was it like before?” she asks, her voice almost pleading. “Was life better?”

I want to tell her about the storybook world of the pre-plague world. Paint a picture in red, white, and blue of people living in prosperity and harmony, without the threat of disease, the iron grip of the city councils, or the ever present rot of the mire spreading out between the surviving bastion cities. 

I sigh and shake me head. “It was pretty bad, but there were more safe regions. The mire were much smaller and really only existed along the coasts and major rivers. Some people even claimed that the flooding was only temporary. That the hurricanes would abate and the seas retreat and we might all go back to living in comfort.” I pause to listen to the rain hammer against the shuttered windows, to the winds whistling against the walls like damned souls. “I don’t envy anyone dying they way they did, but at least they didn’t have to keep living in our world.”

“What about animals? I saw this old movie where people were at a sort of museum with all sorts of fish swimming around in tanks.”

“Aquariums. Yeah.”

“Did you ever see one? I’ve read about marine biologists who are trying to engineer coral reefs to grow in cooler water to try and help break the waves, but they’re having trouble with all the pollution in the water. If I could be anything I would be one of them. Help fix the planet. Learn more about strange fish.”

I crack a grin and shake my head, managing to suppress the laugh that rises from my chest. “You’re a smart one, Ophelia. If we’re going to keep making a life on this planet we are probably going to need to find ways of living with the water. There sure is more of it now, anyway.”

“You think it’s possible?”

“Not impossible,” I say. My mind drifts to all the young women and men who wind up working at Tamar’s place, and worse. Some of them, they really like the work. The attention of the crowd or the touch of a paying customer feeds something in them, and Tamar is a good madam, but nobody who works there is under the illusion that they are changing the world. Nobody really seems to be trying to change the world much anymore. After surviving three apocalypses in living memory, we’re content to just try and get by. “It’s not going to be easy, you know. Probably have to get into one of the corporate academies, and there’s a lot of competition for them.”

“I know. I’ve been studying what I can. I want to take the admission tests next year.”

“Keep at it, kid. You get in maybe I’ll find a way to get you down to the old aquarium.”

“An aquarium? Here?” she gasps.

“Yeah. Used to be a nice aquarium by the river, or so I’m told. It’s downriver of here. Abandoned because the river water is too toxic for the fish, and most people would rather just use virtual than trek an hour through the mire to see a fish.”

“Still, I’d love to see that, if there’s anything left.”

“I’ll look into it.”

“Thanks, Tal.”

I lean over and lay my  hand on her arm. I don’t know what compels me to do it, but for an instant I feel like I’m sitting with my sister again. She’d be older than this now, but in my memory she will always be a girl. Always be kind and just a little innocent. I offer Ophelia a sad smile and give her arm a gentle squeeze. “You just take care of yourself and make sure you get into an academy. There’s not enough people in this world trying to move forward anymore. Too many people like me just fighting for the scraps.”

“Tal…” she whispers.

I cock my head to the side, waiting for her to finish.

“I’m glad I didn’t shoot you.”

 

 

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