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"It's the end of the world as--" I sing as the sky above goes crimson and violet.
"Yeah, we get the point, sugar. Shut it." The woman with the bloodstained sweatshirt fumbles with the flint against the pavement. Finally, success. She lights the newspaper torch and hands it over.
I think about saying that it sucked about being stuck in the wreckage of New Orleans but keep silent. She doesn't. "If they rebuilt here, those bastards would win," she says as she looks out at the sea.
Nothing left to do but wait now.
We move away from the water line and up to the makeshift barricades as night returns to cloak us. Soon we hear voices-- hisses-- from the water. My neighbor raises the torch above her head. I can't see her skin past her wrist but I imagine her dark, thin face wears an anxious expression. We are not calm.
Finally, we see them. Just their outlines above water. Then their translucent skin. They try to walk upright with their burdens on their backs. One drops a fish between us. First food in days.
My stomach growls for me to move, to snatch that fish from the ground. Grilled, raw, doesn't matter. Our rations were stolen by gangs two days ago and we aren't about to whore ourselves out to get them back. Well the others might but I won't. So why am I not moving?
Gunfire close by. The fish-men don't move-- don't they fear bullets? I drop down and they mimic me. They aren't armed, they could be worse off than we are. There's screaming behind us; someone's robbed. But these guys don't react and I think I know why.
We stay on the ground until gunfire stops. I keep looking behind us though it's dark and I just get eyefuls of barricade. I hear movement on our left, and something being dragged. The steps are shuffling and wet. Not human. I'm not sure I want to see.
They stop when they reach us. A shorter fish-man with green skin drags a dark cloth as Marie's torch begins to flicker. Whatever they're dragging smells terrible. The cloth ends up maybe two feet away. I expect to see a body in it and slowly turn my head. It's our rations.
I look at the rations a moment, trying to figure out what we can eat when a taller fish-man makes us rise. I've seen them do this once before and I still don't know what to expect. They grab five of us and make us stand in a line. Then the tall one gets in our faces and sniffs us. I try not to make a face; they all smell like rotten shellfish. Then it turns around and goes to left. That's when we see the men from the gangs grouped together. One looks at me with pleading eyes.
The fish-men have two patched-up orange rafts dragged to the shoreline. The human men are shoved towards them until a webbed hand rises and begins pointing at a few of them. Four are brought forward and directed into the smaller raft. One guy with red hair, the one looking at me earlier, turns and tries to run towards us. He sprints maybe five steps before his body jerks back and he makes a gargled scream. We look on in confusion, unsure why he falls until he hits the ground. His body spasms with a spear in his back.
The body is dragged back to the fish-men, twitching. Everything below my knees feels numb and weak. We just stand around, open-mouthed, while the fish-men load the body in the smaller raft with the other men. I see his face briefly, still alive but his lips are already white and coagulated blood drips from his mouth. The remaining men go to the larger raft with their heads down, shuffling. One has a bone jutting out of his right forearm near the elbow. Once on board, the rafts are quietly shoved back into the water. They leave immediately.
We don't have any way to see what takes place out on the water now that the torch is out. Minutes later, we hear splashing followed by a couple of shouts. "What do you think happens to them?" Marie asks. I shake my head. We stand here wondering yet we don't want to know. We're just glad it's not us that they come for. I shiver even though it's late June and there is no breeze, no clouds above. Just us, the faraway stars and the impersonal moon as imperfect witnesses to whatever becomes of the men out there.
The five of us look over the spoiled rations and the dead fish on the ground. When the sun still shone on us, we would have eaten just about anything they had offered. Now, we feel our appetites vanish. 'Maybe we'll eat something in the morning,' I tell myself, before I realize that the food could well all be eaten by then. Then we'd have to wait on the rare mercies of the government men and have to prove that we are still clean, untouched by the plague they say that the fish-men spread. From one trap to another.
I can't remember when we last had drinkable water that we didn't have to boil. It's been six months at least. Back before New Orleans became Old Orleans and then the Wrecks, the government men promised us that we'd be out of here soon. "Soon" in government language means when we're dead, probably because they thought we'd be first to go, being on the frontlines of the fight with the fish-men. Once a week, they show up with a truck which may have water and food. Usually it's men with guns. We'll find out in eight or so hours.
There isn't much left that we can eat. The fish that they left for us is spiny. I joke to Kara that it would make a better weapon than dinner. Silence. I'm used to that. Marie gets another torch going even though that usually invites trouble from the patrols. Sure enough, not a minute later Nancy growls, "We've got incoming!" Human footsteps from the north moving quickly but lighter than what we're used to. No boots. Sure enough, they arrive mostly barefoot and dirtier than we are. I clamber onto a barricade and see other women before us. No men.
I share the corridors with ghosts who have come here before me, some I used to know. One of whom I once loved. The moon grudgingly shares its light through cracked and dirty windows to the east. This is where I linger longest, though I know well what I will find. There is one room I long to be in, to enter and let the fire of memory consume me, to make this place live again. Yet I know like all things, memories fade and wither and lovers view you with jaded eyes before they exit in haste.
Banner ads briefly amuse me. I was told that I could "win a lesson with Jim Courier" when I went to look up lyrics for a depressing song. But a lesson with him would involve some familiarity with tennis, whose scoring system makes about as much sense to me as cricket. Then there's the expectation that I would pretend to be at least slightly coordinated. I could barely manage skateboarding in my youth, and when it comes to belly dancing it takes me twice as long to learn the choreography as a normal person. So, laughing, I closed the page.
A slight breeze stirs, briefly lifting the humid air around us before settling it back down in a graceless, soundless thud. More than anything else around here, it's the humidity that can drive a girl mad. I see two pairs of hungry eyes ahead of me that have probably already crossed that line. I motion for Marie to put the torch out; if they want to fight I want to make it hard for them to see their targets. "What have you got?" a fair-skinned girl with dreadlocks asks. I shrug. It's not like we have any real meals.
I woke up with my head pounding and my stomach storming into battle with itself-- and I haven't even had a drink in weeks. I dislike winter for so many reasons: holiday depression, snow, ice, and flu season. Today seems to be full of all of the above. I wish sometimes that I could hibernate until spring. That would be ideal. As it is, I have to come up with "tricks" just to get my feet to freeze on the floor as they leave the warmth of the blanket and deal with having to be alert for an entire day.
Marie is standing guard over the rations, and I can hear her thoughts, debating about sharing our stuff. Finally, she steps back and gestures at the food. "One at a time, please. I doubt there's enough to go around." They move in. I turn all the way around, getting ready to step off of the barricade when I see Kayla looking at the trail of blood the red-haired guy left when he was speared. Small waves come in closer, yet when they retreat the trail still remains. I wonder if she knew him. Maybe I don't want to know.
The Westboro Baptist Church, best known as the a-holes who protest at funerals of dead GIs (they claim those who die in battle do so because "God hates gays") have just announced that they will begin attending funerals of children in Oklahoma, regardless of how they died. As if a family's grief wasn't a heavy enough burden, now they have to contend with these vile subhumans? I thought my grandmother's former pastor saying that non-whites were "lesser people because the Bible said so" was bad enough. For a religion supposedly about love, they love hatred and ignorance more.
Honestly, I have no idea what to write about today. The last hour of work involved a patient that I have taken care of for over two years dying before I left. It's pretty hard to think positively after that. The younger staff were in tears. I managed not to cry. Once I left and got in the car, I played "Attention Please" by Caroline's Spine near maximum volume. I thought about how she was a former nurse, artist and a mother, and yet her family hardly ever came to see her. Did they make it there before she died?
The sun was setting in the west when I went for my run. I was still thinking about yesterday-- to the point where I spent over half of the day in bed. I hadn't really wanted to be out there; I'd honestly rather hibernate from now until February. Yet my heart was instantly lifted by the neighbor's little black lab. She always comes bounding through the north pasture when I am outside and once she gets her pets and skritches, is happy to jog alongside me as I make laps around the farm. I ended up having fun after all.
There are twenty-one women standing around in the growing darkness, all of us acting as though we aren't disheveled and dirty. We must look to outside observers as though we're pretending to be at a party, waiting for our boyfriends, all dressed up and nowhere left to go. Then the talk turns to what we heard earlier, about the gunfire and the shouting. "They turned the bullets back on the gunmen. I don't know how they did it but I know it's true!" one excitable blonde woman, Helen, tells us. Were they sniffing glue over there, I wonder?
Douglas Adams once wrote, "I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be." I was so sure when I was a teenager how my life would go according to my internal map that to tell me otherwise was pointless. Then college happened and my navigation became fautly, my compass sending me off where I never thought I would go. I became a failure and spent over ten years trying to fix it all and erase the impact of my mistakes. Now I realize that was pointless too.
The other women mumble about how the men were taken while I watch the sky set itself to black, lit only by the stars and moon. I remember being a kid in an observatory with my friends one night and a boy in front of me set off one of those big old flash bulbs as the narrator discussed the brightness of a supernova. As everybody went blind for the next five minutes, the narrator said "Yeah, it's as bright as that." Years later, I look above and hope for something like that to distract me from the incessant thirst.
Two days before Xmas and... what was my story about again? Do I care? Not really. I just want my one hundred words for the day before I crawl into bed. "And so this is Christmas..." yeah and I still can't get a vacation. "Vacation all I ever wanted..." after working two and a half years at the same freaking place and they keep telling me "no". I wonder what they'll say if I ever find a new job and hand in my notice. Do you think they will let me finally have my 40 hours of vacation then? Doubtful.
You never know how what you do every day affects others. Oh sure, you may think you do, especially if your work days are full of routine (or at least as much as can be had in health care). I have cared for one Alzheimer's patient for two years and she is steadily declining. She has trouble chewing and swallowing, and will eventually stop when she forgets how. She is nonverbal and cannot recognize members of her own family. Today, however, for the first time in months, she spoke to me, saying "Thank you"-- all because I fixed a bandage.
I got a phone call this morning from Texas. She wondered if I would be willing to pack up my gelding and drive down there to give "pony rides" for the kids. I looked out at the window, saw the flurries floating by, and further ahead to where said gelding was happily stuffing his face with hay. "I, uh, don't think we'll be able to make it," I said simply. Sure, he'd tack up willingly enough, but sticking a cold metal bit in his mouth after spending three hours in a trailer didn't seem the thing to do on Xmas.
To take my mind off of the thirst, I begin tapping my left foot on the barricade and try a little game, where I try to remember everything that happened before Splashdown. The others don't want to, but one of us has to. Maybe, if we survive this, what I remember will help us survive out there. Assuming there even is an "out there" anymore. The last guy we sent out on the bridge towards the interior got shot before he made it halfway across. The last night we had a working radio, we heard DC government buildings burned down.
I look down at the callous on the inside of my index finger where pens and pencils used to rest. I haven't had to read or write in months; could I still do so once I make it out of here? What makes me think I could, anyway? Marie is the one who knows how to live out of a car. Everything I learned about surviving here, I learned from her. I used to think she would make it out of here before the rest of us, but she is struggling to breathe while she coughs bloody sputum again. Tuberculosis.
A foghorn sounds over the darkened water. We immediately crouch down, unsure of what is happening. I smell something strong and familiar over the rising tide before I recognize the odor: the fish-men. 'Why are they coming back?' I wonder. Marie stops coughing long enough to hear them too yet says nothing. We simply look in each other's direction before she quickly says, "Be ready to run." It would be great advice, if I had anywhere left to run to. Yet after the bridge out of the Wrecks is little more than a wasteland with more gangs and guns.
I stay behind a barricade and hear men approach the shore. Their voices are muffled, their footsteps quick and muddled. One of them is carrying a large flashlight, which makes me retreat further behind the barricade. The fish-men are coming for us now, I realize, and I don't want to know what they plan to use us for. Until now, I have never seen anybody they take back with them return. I doubt that they came for slave labor, though the remaining options are no less grim. I look for a path towards the bridge when I see... him.
When the light first shone on him, I thought he was back from the dead. Speared in the back just a few hours ago and now he's standing here looking at me with eyes that don't blink and just seem... wrong. The light flashes on him again and I see bruises on his forearms, contusions where black thread connected flesh back together. He slowly turns and his mouth opens and closes in a near-perfect "O" yet nothing comes out. He drags one foot towards me and I know that I have to move past him and away from here.
I can't see what they're doing behind me, only sounds of them being rounded up. Stitch-skin moves towards me. I grip the barricade as hard as I can when two more come into view. I figure I'm done for when Marie leaps over me and into them. I recall her words and run. I keep running and don't stop. Daylight comes and there are bodies everywhere, some dead, some not. None have skin. When Splashdown happened, they said to us, "First, do no harm." Now I realize what they really meant:
Don't harm the meat.
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