|CHAPTER 2: A LONG WALK’S NO BIG DEAL
Wiley and I got back just before dark. The gates were closed, and the dogs were out. They set up a racket as soon as they saw us coming up the sidewalk. Wiley, a medium sized shepherd mix, had been my mother’s last gift to me. His grizzled brown fur, peppered with black and gray, was like the coyotes that now stole through the abandoned suburbs; and so he was named after Wile E. Coyote, a children’s character from long ago. Wiley woofed in response, dancing up to them, his whole backside wagging, all tiredness forgotten now that he saw his friends. At the gates, he and the others greeted each other with noses and sloppy doggy grins through the fence, mouths open and tongues lolling as they said hello.
Hearing the canine commotion, Blue slipped like an apparition through the dusk to let us in. Looking perfect, as usual, in the dimness, her dark jeans and nubby, gray sweater added to the pale, ghostly impression. You’d never know that in the harsh light of day her mutation often made her look sickly. At least some people thought so. Corpselike they said. I disagreed. I thought her blue tinted skin looked velvety and ethereal, like the last rays of day seeping through shadows under deep forest trees.
No accounting for taste, I thought. People had sometimes told me I looked soft and pretty, like a girl would have in worlds gone by. I couldn’t see it myself. And I didn’t like that others might see me that way. I kept my long hair pulled back in as tight a braid as I could manage for just that reason. Severe. Hard. That’s the way I wanted to look. Let people think I was someone they didn’t want to mess with, maybe even dangerous. Life was easier if no one bothered me.
Blue smiled, her dove gray eyes showing her ease as they peeked through the short, black hair that caressed her face. “We were getting worried,” she said, unlocking the gate. I knew without asking who “we” was. I knew also that she hadn’t worried at all. Everyone would know I was okay. Valera or Gaimen, would have seen if I were in any real trouble.
“I’m fine,” I told her, pushing my way through the ecstatic dog reunion taking place around my knees. “It’ll take more than just any old mute to bring me down. What’s for dinner?” I asked as we made our way across the yard.
She rolled her eyes. “The usual. Soup of the day. I think Joby found some canned meat that Marjo cut up in it though; Spam or something.”
“Great,” I sighed.
“Don’t act so excited,” she mocked; “the dogs’ll start peeing themselves.”
I laughed back. “It’s your fault I’m catching it; you’re almost jumping up and down with glee.” We smiled together. “Spam, huh? What’re the chances of that?”
“Probably the last can of Spam on the planet,” Blue returned. “Aren’t we the lucky ones?” Her sarcasm didn’t fool me. Underneath it I could feel a stab of anticipation, a shared hunger pang that felt like a tightened string being plucked. For some reason, I couldn’t always feel what Blue felt. I relied on her eyes to tell me things almost as much as what I knew inside. Tilted pools of gray, thickly fringed by black lashes, her eyes changed color with her moods; iridescent pearls when amused, cold steel when impatient, deep blue storm clouds ready to release torrents when she was angry.
She ordered the dogs back to patrol, and we continued discussing the day’s findings and other news while we walked the rest of the way to our home, Clay Elementary School. That’s what the words above the doors said. It had been a school before the plague. Three stories of dull, gray stone and mortar, one level a half-basement and the other two above ground, it sat on a small rise a half mile or so from the Mississippi River. Six massive stone steps led up to the main double doors. Large and wooden, the doors had probably seemed imposing to school kids coming here. Now they didn’t seem imposing enough. Thick metal plates had been bolted to the front, covering most of the wood for extra protection. All the windows on the half-basement floor and the first floor above had metal bars or grates on them too. You can never be too careful these days.
The property had been adapted other ways, as well. Ten foot fences surrounded the grounds, with razor wire looped over the top. The fence itself was set in concrete buried five feet under the ground. Not that some mutants couldn’t dig under it, but most would probably get bored or distracted before that. The fence would take care of the others. Plus, guards and dogs patrolled at night to give warning.
And, of course, we had mutants of our own to help too. Seers could see them coming. Others had talents that could be used against attack: movers, zaps, sparks, pulls… even a feeler could help. Maybe any ordinary feeler couldn’t, but some could. Some could take the emotion inside and turn it for or against the one feeling it, increase it, amplify it. Could make the fear or anger or hatred already inside grow, quickening the pulse, faster and faster, until the heart burst with it. Not an easy thing to know about yourself. Definitely something you don’t want just anyone else knowing either, nowadays. Weapons, especially the human kind, were golden now.
Inside, the school had been changed too. The third floor was mostly used for storage and an infirmary, and the first and second used for sleeping quarters. We used the cafeteria for meals and group meetings. A sad, weedy garden struggled to grow where most of the playground had once been. The gym had been converted to a workshop. The locker rooms housed the communal showers and bathrooms. Showers were limited to one a week, if that. The rest of the bathrooms no longer worked. The water’d been turned off for those. We never had enough water for everything we needed. Ironic that we lived less than a mile from the largest river in the country, and we only bathed once or twice a month. Carrying water from the Mississippi would be difficult, though. You’d be walking through some dangerous territory, controlled by unfriendly mutants or gangs of less than friendly people. If you survived them, you still had to boil the water to keep from being exposed to disease. Better to go unwashed and smelly than to face all that. It was ok. Everyone else smelled just as bad.
Blue and I walked up the steps and through the front doors. Wiley had abandoned the other dogs in hopes of being fed and was following by my side. “You might as well get something to eat,” she said, with a small push towards the cafeteria. “I’ll tell Asher you’re back.”
“He knows,” I told her. Asher, my fifteen year old brother, would’ve known as soon as I got close to the gates, if not sooner. Blue and I shared another smile, this one a little sad. She nodded and headed towards the stairs anyway, down the hall to the right.
Asher and I had the same wavy, wayward brown hair and plain brown eyes, but the physical resemblance ended there. He had a few inches in height on me, maybe 5’ 11” to my 5’6” or so. His build leaned more to slight and thin, all angles and taut skin. And while nobody was fat since the plague, at least not outside the QZ, I was definitely not “slight“. Quiet and soft-spoken would describe Ash. Loud and abrasive described me. He was kind and generous; I was--well--not. Despite our obvious differences, we were closer than most siblings. Bonds woven in childhood existed; bonds that nothing had severed. We also shared the connection of our talent. We were both empaths. The plague had given us that bond.
No one knows how it started. Was it a secret government experiment gone horribly wrong? Perhaps it was the ever-watched-for terrorist attack. Maybe the little green men were softening us up for colonization. Was God finally punishing us for our multitude of atrocities? It could have been any of those, or none. Theories flew like the carrion birds that multiplied in the skies, as the dead fell where they stood.
The dying time was relatively short. At least, if you weren’t one of those dying. Within a few short months, earth’s population decreased by eighty percent. The dead lay in the streets and alleys, hallways and building lobbies. Overloaded hospitals and emergency services eventually left the dead where they dropped. The very rich, the very famous, and the highly educated walled themselves off in fortress cities, “quarantine zones” or QZ’s. Microchip sensors and other incredible security measures segregated those who didn’t belong.
Eventually, the dying time slowed, and then stopped altogether. Everyone thought it was over and rebuilding could begin. The Rebirth of Humanity. Only humanity wasn’t exactly what was reborn. The plague had genetically altered the survivors outside the quarantine zones. No one knew until nine months or so after the first wave of the epidemic, when the first gen-alt babies arrived. Some seemed perfectly normal. Others didn’t. As things progressed all were labeled mutants.
Many gen-alt babies were lucky; talented, they were called, or gifted. Born with psychic mutations, they adapted more easily to this new world. Some weren’t so lucky. Chance had played a cruel genetic joke on them, giving them obvious physical mutations. No gift or talent for these. Most were branded monsters. Extra limbs, gills, even fur could be helpful in some ways; but most mothers won’t nurse a newborn with fangs or a forked tongue.
I was “gen-alt talented”, an empath. Nuances of emotion washed over me from those nearby. It was as though I was a pool of water, and I could feel each concentric ripple of emotion from the raindrop people as they touched the surface of my consciousness. Emotions hit me different ways. Sometimes, I would just experience the same emotion as the other person, like happy or sad, as though it were my own feeling. Or maybe, it would be a scent that only I could smell, fear always smelled like urine to me. Usually, an emotion would come as an actual physical sensation. As light as a breath against my skin or as hard as a stab in the gut. Still, I was just a mutant to those inside the QZ. “Mute”, short for mutant, to some; “gen-alt” or “empath” to the more enlightened. To the others like me outside the walls of the QZ, I was a feeler.
Asher was a feeler too, but the raindrops of my talent were a maelstrom to Asher. The emotions swirling around him were a hurricane of feelings, pushing him to the ground like palm trees buffeted by a tropical storm. It made life unbearable at times. Staying inside made it easier, walled away from everyone, and away from the emotions that scraped his mind like fingernails down the chalkboards still hanging in the school we called home.
Only a trusted few knew it, but my brother and I both had another talent too. We were amps. We could take the emotion felt by someone, even a deeply buried feeling, and change it. We could increase it, amplify it. Actually, it could be better than being a reader or a sender, telepaths who could read thoughts or put thoughts into people’s minds. Strong minds could usually resist a sender. It was like I’d heard hypnotism worked. You couldn’t really do it to someone who didn’t want to be hypnotized. Well, you can’t send your thoughts into someone else’s mind and actually bend them to your will, unless they were predisposed to being bent. Not unless you were really strong.
But amplifying a feeling already inside someone? That was easy. I could take an insignificant, buried feeling, like a slight envy, and make it grow. Grow until it became a glowing, white-hot need. A need that would cause you to shred the skin off the person who had what you wanted, even though a few minutes ago you only desired it slightly. Asher could do it too, but just as his empathic abilities outstripped mine, so did his ability to amplify emotions. He was just too inherently good to use it. Lucky for everyone so far, he’d kept me from using it too.
I trudged down the left hand hallway, Wiley’s claws slowly clicking the floor tiles beside me. Making a right turn at the end and going a bit further, we finally entered the cafeteria. Faded murals of happy children covered the north wall. When I first moved into Clay, I would sit and stare at them in wonder. There had never been a time in my life when children were smiling and laughing--and clean--like that wall pictured. A time when the biggest differences were hair or skin color. I never looked at the murals anymore when I came here. Those days were never coming back.
We walked up to the counter where kids would once have gathered their trays of mystery meat and mashed potatoes. Inwardly, I laughed. Mystery meat. Those kids had no idea what it was really like to eat mystery meat. And I didn’t just mean Spam either. I’d never been hungry enough to have to eat other mutes. But I had eaten my share of rats, and occasionally a feral cat or three.
Marjo stood behind the counter in the kitchen area, her back to us. She stirred the soup with a long, metal spoon. We paused to wait till she noticed us, Wiley sitting on his haunches and drooling now that the food smell was so close. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. The soup smelled like coming home felt, warm and cozy and safe. Marjo felt me standing there and looked up, smiling her sweet smile.
Marjo was probably what had once been middle-aged, forty-five or so. Her hair was now silver gray, as thin and straight as the lines creasing her face, making her look older than she was. But while a life hard won showed in her wrinkles and her gray ponytail, it didn’t lessen the kindness in her eyes. She ran the kitchen and kept all of us at Clay, 56 of us right now, fed the best she could. Not an easy chore using only the QZ supplements and what we could grow, scavenge, or get on the black market ourselves.
We all took turns going to the QZ for handouts. Once a week, the powers that still ran what was left of the city of St. Louis distributed food to the needy, who lived outside the guarded walls of the QZ. We stood for hours in slow moving lines, waiting our turns to take a small bag of staple items and vitamins back with us. Those of us who lived at Clay had a system. We went together in as large a group as we could, about twelve of us usually. We always took at least two jumpers with us for a couple of reasons. About halfway home from the distribution center, we would all enter an abandoned building. On the second floor, we would unlock a door and troop in. Then one of the jumpers that had come along would jump each of us home, carrying our bag of goodies. Sometimes we were attacked by someone trying to steal our food on the way to our jump room. If that happened, the two jumpers could instantly take two or more of us back home with most of the food, while the others fought off the attackers. It was a pretty good system for us. We rarely lost our food anymore to hungry mutes, those whose physical mutations kept them from joining the lines of the needy. The powers that be only gave out food to non-mutants, or at least only those they couldn’t tell were mutants.
“Ready for dinner?” Marjo asked.
I smiled back and nodded. “Soup me.” She ladled soup from the large steel stockpot and then turned to cut a piece of bread off a loaf. She handed over the piece of hard bread and a bowl of steaming liquid, with a few chunks of onions and potatoes, and what might possibly be some kind of meat-like substance, floating in it. Then she got another bowl of scraps for Wiley, placing it on the floor. He immediately began devouring his food as fast as possible.
“Heard you had a close one today,” she remarked, without looking at me. I could feel her curiosity as pinpricks on my skin, like when your leg falls asleep; but underneath was the thick, cushiony blanket of her concern. “Slow down, you glutton,” she nudged Wiley with a toe as she spoke. If anything, he ate faster.
“Not too bad, really.” I got a spoon from a container on a small table by the counter, where kids once grabbed their own silverware and lunch trays, laughing and jostling in line. “Ran into a mute in a new neighborhood. He could smell us a little, but he wasn’t very smart or fast. Wiley and me lured him away while Dex jumped everybody back safe. We hid in an old dentist’s office till he gave up. Then we came on home. Long walk, but no big deal.” I shrugged and slid my spoon into my mouth. No big deal to walk for miles through mute infested city blocks. Marjo knew better.
She shook her head, the concern now rising to the top of her emotions like the diced Spam floating in her soup. Now the concern was peppered with annoyance, that motherly “you should know better” and “someday you’ll be sorry” sentiment that it seems all women, young and old, are prone to.
“You may not be so lucky one day.” I bent my head over my soup to hide my smirk. She went on, taking my bowed head to be a show of apology, “You should really take Berle with you when you go to new areas. He’d be a big help. Then I wouldn’t have to worry so much, you know. Hmmph.” Marjo’s mouth barely curved at the ends. “Of course, you know. Sometimes I think that’s why you pull these stunts of yours, just so you know I love you.” She gave me her full smile then, the one that reaches her eyes and makes them crinkle at the edges.
Smiling back just a little, I quickly slid from the room. Wiley gave one more disappointed lick at his empty bowl and followed. Let Marjo think I felt bad for worrying her. But really, I don’t want her loving me. I don’t want anyone loving me. I can’t stand the emotions that come with most people’s love, thick syrupy strands that pull and cling to you, holding you down, stuffing your mouth and nose and lungs till you can’t breathe. Most people’s love felt like that. Dragging you back, trapping you, suffocating you. Love wasn’t for me. I moved the other way when I felt it coming. This time I moved into the cafeteria and slumped at one of the blue plastic seats attached to the long Formica topped tables. The soup was surprisingly good, but I barely tasted my dinner. I gulped it down as fast as possible, risking scorching my tongue. More people would be coming in for dinner any time now. I wanted out of here before anyone else came in and I had to feel them. I just wanted to go back to my room and collapse, but first I knew I had to see Asher. I could feel him waiting upstairs in his sanctum, as he referred to it. I called it his cave when we spoke, but prison would be more accurate.
I pushed my dishes through the window to the dishwashing area and left the cafeteria, heading for the stairs at the other end of the building. I let Wiley out the front doors to join the other dogs, and replaced the bars on the doors before continuing to the end of the hall and up the stairs. Most of the third floor rooms were for storage, so it made the most sense to put Asher where he would encounter the fewest people. Less for him to feel, that way.
Emotions hurt Asher. They could hurt me, too, but I had learned to buffer painful emotions, to wall them off from my own feelings so that I wasn’t overwhelmed by them. Ash had a harder time buffering. Sometimes even positive emotions, like joy or love, would cause him severe physical pain, especially if it was intense enough. Not to mention that sometimes strong emotions could sort of paralyze Asher and me when together, him feeling my emotion, me feeling his, bouncing back and forth, rebounding and spiraling till we collapsed in exhaustion. Another example of why feelers are dangerous; sometimes they’re a danger to themselves.
I got upstairs to Asher’s room without meeting anyone else on the way. Stopping outside the door, I leaned forward, resting my head on the cold glass of the window. Asher had taped cardboard over the inside so we couldn’t see each other, but we both knew the other was there. Maybe that’s a brother/sister thing, or maybe it’s an empath thing, or maybe both. I don’t know. I just knew that within a certain distance, Ash and I were almost always aware of where the other was. We could feel each other like a layer over ourselves. Ash always felt like smoke wafting and curling across my psyche. He said I felt like cool ocean spray hitting his skin. Knocking softly, I pushed the door open without waiting for a reply.
Sitting against the wall at the head of his bed, Asher awaited me. Blue had already brought him his dinner. A school lunch tray sat on the small desk beside his bed, the bright red plastic of the empty soup bowl clashing against the pale aqua of the lunch tray. Ash gave me one of his best “glad you’re home safe, sis” looks to make me feel…what? Sorry that I worried him? We both knew that I rarely apologized for doing the things I did. Certain things have to be done to survive, for me, for him, for all of us. Even so, he still actually worried about me when I was gone for very long. He truly loved me. Another love I couldn’t afford to have, but this one I couldn’t walk away from.
“Blue said you were worried, but you know…” I stopped. A look washed across Asher’s face; something was wrong. Expressions chased each other through his eyes as he felt things, and his face contorted into one grotesque shape after another--hunger, avarice, rage, loathing--someone else’s emotions. “Aaa-ahh!” A cry was wrenched from him. He thrashed around on the bed, gripping the sheets in clenched fists.
Suddenly, I heard Wiley barking like an animal possessed. The other dogs started howling and barking a split second later. I looked at Asher in horror as I caught a maelstrom of emotion from all sides. Mutes were attacking.