A post-apolcalyptic story; lots of pathos, so tissues are obligatory.
This blistering furnace that sucked the life from anything it touched blazed down relentlessly. The broken road, the scattered rocks, the gasping, stunted trees, all blasted by the searing heat. And me, as I plodded along this seemingly endless road dragging my burden behind me in a living death. A half life, either too precious to terminate—or my cowardice stopped me from premature termination.
Man’s days of tormenting nature were over. Nature no longer tolerated the persistent abuse that mankind had heaped upon her, and the plague had struck some weeks ago. From what I could glean, a mutated virus had attacked the temperature regulation mechanism in people’s brains, causing them to almost literally boil in their own juices. The virus spread like wildfire, an unfortunate simile, leaving almost no survivors. A short incubation period with internal organs rapidly rising above 45°C, melting down and then inevitable death. Health services were quickly overwhelmed with almost no-one spared; no effective treatment and no time to develop a vaccine.
Except me! Why? That impenetrable question had no answer and a hellish and literally bone riddled landscape surrounded me. One plus from the virus, and this is a really ghoulish way of describing it, is that putrefaction was unusually fast, leaving the skeletal remains of millions of people.
While the internet was still operating, I had one lifeline, of a sort; and my most prized possessions were a laptop and a 240 volt generator. When I had been able to find a Wi-Fi connection that still worked, news filtered through, although increasingly weird and bizarre. From what I could gather, the survival rate was only one in fifty thousand, leaving around five hundred survivors throughout Australia. For some inexplicable reason, we were immune to the virus. “Why me?” I howled again, begging the world for an answer. But none came.
What was really scary was a group of people referred to as the “half-immune”. Spared the full ravages of the virus, it had affected their brains so that they were subject to irrational, murderous rage. The estimate was that about five out of fifty thousand fell into this category, outnumbering the fully immune five to one.
So I took to the road, heading for the east coast population centres, particularly Sydney, at first in abandoned cars, later on foot, pulling behind me a two-wheeled trailer that contained my life, including food and water, arms and ammunition. I carried a 9mm Luger/Parabellum on me at all times. Feral dog packs were becoming an increasing nuisance, and I’d had to deal summarily with two of the half-immune, screaming, raving and rampaging at me.
“Bang, bang, you’re dead,” the illusion that shooting another human being is easy is either totally naïve or sociopathic. It’s never easy. Certainly, the mechanics are simple enough; brace your arm, take aim and squeeze the trigger, but that’s not the issue. “Thou shalt not kill,” is a powerful moral and ethical constraint that seems inbuilt to limit our capacity to kill. Well, it did, but the plague seemed to have loosened some of those constraints. I put it down to self defence on both occasions, but they were both close run things.
I came close to death myself the first time. It happened while I was still able to commandeer motor vehicles; abandoned vehicles and those with skeleton drivers were blocking the way, when gunfire cracked out of the middle distance. Leaving my car with great care, I saw a uniformed police officer firing seemingly at random into the stalled cars. Raving, shouting, and screaming obscenities, he stumbled around, looking for new targets.
Creeping back to my car, I checked out the Luger as the gunfire and rage moved closer. Catching sight of me, he loosed off a string of shots, but his aim was obviously affected by his fury. I was lucky. My first shot took him in the gut, which put him down but didn’t stop him firing, and then I heard the distinctive clack of an empty magazine. I moved closer; he drew his taser, but I was faster and got in a head shot. I was amazed to see that, as he died, his face seemed to express something like gratitude.
The second was more straightforward, but much sadder. An older woman, what the doctors called “morbidly obese”, waddled into the road brandishing a kitchen knife. I had had conversations with people involved with speed psychosis, and I knew it regularly took several burly cops or security guards to hold them down. The situation now was similar, although my early researches suggested that the power and rage of the half-immune was probably greater by a factor of two or three. Limited but horrifying information also suggested that the half-immune would eventually turn on themselves and literally tear their bodies to pieces, using whatever weapons were available—or even their bare hands.
This woman had no shoes and her feet were lacerated and bleeding, and she had signs of cutting and tearing at her own body. She rushed towards me raving and foaming at the mouth and one close range head shot was enough. Again, a flicker of what I could only call gratitude crossed her face as she died.
I wondered—might it be possible that the half-immune were aware of what was happening to them, and were grateful for the release. At least, I hoped that was true.
I learned the true meaning of the verb “to trudge” as I made my way through the heat and dust of high summer. The potential dangers of travelling at night outweighed the heat and dust of the day. Grubby, shabby, perspiring and aching, I barely felt human. Tiredness defined me, and I longed for a decent night’s sleep.
What could I find in Sydney that hadn’t been available at home? I knew the answer instinctively; people. While I’d generally preferred my own company, I found myself collapsing without someone else to talk to, another face to watch, another smile to warm me. So, what did I have to lose?
Self-pity is as intoxicating as any drug and equally dangerous, but that was my focus; poor me, poor me. In an odd sense, this helped me; the incomprehensible enigma of my salvation compared to the deaths of multitudes of others would be forced to yield to my need to discover meaning and purpose. Well, that’s what I believed, and it carried me forward.
The road turned and dipped at the outskirts of another small town, its name meaningless, now and forever more. Verandas offered a little shade, and this looked as if it might be somewhere to hole up for the night. I tried various buildings to find a suitable bolt hole when a human scream set my teeth on edge. I froze, even though the comforting feel of the pistol under my arm gave me a little confidence. I turned in the direction of the scream and she ran towards me, arms waving frantically and tears streaming down her face.
“Oh God, please help me, please help, please …” She stopped, overwhelmed by the power of her emotions. Quite tall and slender with long mid brown hair flowing down her back, an expression blended from terror and relief flowed across her round, apple-cheeked face. She stood in the middle of the footpath, her arms outstretched in supplication, a picture of misery, now mutating into desperate hope. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen.
“Well, this is unexpected,” I said. “I’m Peter, and you are …?”
She sobbed out her story. Lisa lived in the house attached to the small church where her father was the minister. She had been home schooled by her mother and had a little sister who she loved dearly. They had all been taken progressively by the plague. A harrowing story of her mother comforting little Emmy as she whimpered and trembled to her death, her mother collapsing and dying herself almost immediately brought more tears. Her father was inconsolable, but died himself within 24 hours.
Lisa had felt totally helpless. She had no idea what had happened and her anguish deepened when she ventured out to find the remains of all the other townsfolk. “I just don’t understand what’s happening,” she said. “Everyone except me has been taken and I’m so scared—I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. Shouldn’t I be dead as well, if everyone else is?”
My faltering explanation did little to help Lisa, and probably made her feel worse. Her otherwise attractive face showed lines of grief, her eyes red with weeping and the strain showing in tense muscles with her features distorted and marked by stress.
Seeing my hesitation and uncertainty seemed to awaken some sensitive impulse in Lisa as her demeanour changed and a half smile appeared on her face. She took my hands in hers, saying, “Peter, I know that God has sent you to me. You are my rock and I know you will save me.”
My heart fell into my boots. This sweet, innocent, vulnerable girl had the powerful religious conviction that I was somehow her saviour, but anyone less likely to fulfil such a role would be hard to imagine. “Lisa,” I said, looking deeply into her eyes, “you need to understand that I have no religious faith and I cannot be your saviour. I am just passing through; I will help you in any way I can, but I have another destination.”
Of all possible responses, hers was the most challenging. “No, Peter, I know that you have been sent here for me; please don’t deny what you must know to be true.”
Hunger, thirst and tiredness had become overwhelming demands and Lisa jumped at the chance to be hospitable towards the man she believed to be her saviour. Her face transformed itself with a warm smile reflecting a sense that she had been rescued, and she happily led me to her house. I couldn’t remember ever having tasted anything better than the slightly brackish water and the canned food. By now it was evening, and Lisa showed me to a room with a real bed; such luxury. I collapsed in a dead sleep.
Lisa woke me in the early hours of the morning, standing close to the bed, although I’d no idea how long she’d been there. “Peter, I’m so lonely and so scared—could I please sleep with you? I know you’re lonely too, and I will be nice to you if you’re just gentle with me. Mummy told me all about the sex stuff and I’m okay with it—with you, my rock.”
My heart, which had gradually started to climb out of my boots, fell back down again with a thump. “Lisa, do you think that’s such a good idea. I’m nearly thirty years older than you: I’m old enough to be your father, and we certainly don’t know each other well enough for that. But if you’re so lonely, you can sleep, and I mean sleep, here with me.”
Lisa had gone when I woke next morning. A header tank held enough water for a shower, and I went out to find Lisa and make a quick survey of the town. I didn’t expect too many problems, but in this new, distorted environment, fear was an ever present companion and I kept the Luger close handy.
“Peter, Peter,” she called, running towards me. Taking my hand, she led me towards the church, through the cemetery. The air of serenity in a place untouched by the pestilence raging outside its walls was comforting and provided an air of normality. I followed Lisa into the church and here I again sensed the air of untouched tranquillity that provided a solace for my troubled heart.
Lisa led me to the altar, in front of which she had built a small shrine containing her father’s watch, her mother’s engagement ring and a stuffed teddy bear that Lisa told me had been her sister’s favourite. Surrounding flowers and cuttings from shrubs demonstrated Lisa’s love for her family in a touching memorial to them. The sun shining through a window suddenly illuminated a plain gold crucifix on a gold chain around Lisa’s neck. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was very precious to her as her father had given it to her when she was admitted as a full member of his church.
“Peter, I know you say you don’t believe, but would you please pray with me for my family?” she asked, sincerity shining from her eyes. “It would mean so much to me.”
Feeling a total hypocrite, but unwilling to upset this sweet, naïve young woman, I knelt with her, my mind going in all directions, while she said simple prayers for the souls of her family, friends and relatives.
“What would you like to do now, Peter?” she asked as we walked from the church. “I usually sit and read my bible and look for people coming to help me. I’m going to be a missionary, you know.”
I had to keep silent. I knew I needed to disabuse her of the simple future she saw for herself, but to do so now seemed like kicking a puppy. The logic of being clear and explicit thundered through my brain but the emotion of not hurting this innocent and unworldly child took precedence. I compromised. “Lisa, I think it would be a good idea to search through the town to see if there is anything worth salvaging to make our lives a little easier.”
Doubt clouded her face. “Don’t you think that’s wrong, Peter? After all, ‘though shalt not steal’.”
My patience was starting to fray and my voice must have sounded harsh. “Lisa, you’ve got to understand that everyone else in this town, and practically everyone in this whole state is dead, possibly the whole world. Stealing doesn’t have any meaning now; there isn’t anyone to own property. I’d like for you to help me, but if that’s too much, I understand.”
Still clouded with doubt, her face showed a range of probably unfamiliar emotions, but she followed when I started at the general store. The door was open, and we collected an assortment of tinned food, mainly stuff that didn’t need too much cooking. Other essentials to support the basics of life were there for the taking, and we finished at the hotel. Lisa looked on with disapproval marking her artless face when I discovered some rather nice single malt whisky. “Daddy told me that alcohol came from the devil,” she said, although when I asked her about the wedding feast at Cana, she let the subject drop.
Back at the house, we sorted out the spoils of the day, but I knew I had to have a heart to heart with Lisa. “Lisa, please understand that I need to hit the road and head for Sydney. My reasoning is simple; if there are a number of other survivors, it stands to reason that the largest number is likely to be in the largest city. I’d like you to come with me, in fact I think that would be the safest and best option for you.”
Her face fell and tears formed in her eyes. “Oh Peter, I can’t leave here. This is the only home I’ve ever known, and Daddy, Mummy and little Emmy are all here—maybe not their bodies, but their souls are here. I talk to them every day. Please, Peter, stay with me. I’ll be nice to you, I promise, and I’ll do whatever you want,” she finished with what she believed was a seductive smile. “You’d be kind to me, wouldn’t you? You see, I’ve never …”
“For God’s sake, Lisa, stop it. I can’t do that to you. You’re too …”
Suddenly, I wanted to be anywhere but here to pull myself together. God knows, I was no angel, and enjoyed the company of warm, willing and enthusiastic partners, but this was totally different. Tempted? Yes, of course I was—I hadn’t been with a woman for months, but I couldn’t face the prospect of violating the innocence and virginity of this lovely girl. My sense of what was right just about overcame my baser instincts and I returned to Lisa. Taking her hands in mine, I gently explained the reasons for my refusal.
She looked both puzzled and scared, and started to tell me, “Peter, you were sent to me, and I need you so much, but I can’t leave here, I just can’t. It would kill me,” and with that she burst into tears.
I sometimes think I should have the word “sucker” tattooed across my forehead in big bold letters. I took Lisa in my arms and with a deeps sigh, told her, “Okay, Lisa, I’ll stay until it becomes impossible for us to remain in this town for whatever reason. No strings attached and you don’t need to sacrifice yourself to me.”
Her hug was fierce but needy; then she told me, “I knew you’d stay, Peter, Jesus told me so.”
I wondered privately just how much of her Pollyanna religiosity I could stomach, but let it go. If that made her happy, so be it.
After a simple meal, an early night, with Lisa again cuddled up against me, seemingly seeking protection. I had to turn away to suppress evidence of a degree of carnal interest.
The bed was empty again the following morning, and after another cold shower I went in search of Lisa. As I’d guessed, she was in the church; she had renewed the flowers around her shrine and was on her knees praying. She stood when she saw me, and followed me out of the church. As I turned to watch her, a dreadful cold sensation swept over me. Her face twitched uncontrollably and she shook as if with fear or cold. Her eyes had lost their sparkle and had a dead look to them. That could only mean one thing—Lisa wasn’t truly immune to the virus, just half-immune, and was starting to respond to the virus.
I was right. With a harsh scream, she launched herself at me, clawing for my eyes, howling in unconstrained rage as the virus spread in her brain. She seemed to grow in size and raw physical power, hostile, threatening and menacing. I managed to dodge her uncoordinated attacks, and unexpectedly, she stopped as the spread of the virus seemed to be suspended.
Lisa looked at me in unrestrained horror, her eyes bulging and saliva drooling from her mouth. “Oh God, what is happening to me? Please, Jesus, help me to find the old Lisa again. Peter, you must help me stop this madness. Please …” But here the intermission stopped, this time picking up rocks and rushing towards me, launching another furious attack. Her face was contorted in a black fury; she was clearly determined to kill me.
The Luger’s bullet provided the only possible solution, and it took her in the chest a little left of centre. Lisa screeched, a harsh, gurgling scream and she fell backwards to the ground. I watched momentarily, but the fury had left her eyes and I fell to my knees beside her.
“Peter,” she said in little more than a whisper, “please pray for me.” Tears ran down her face and a trickle of blood appeared at her lips. My tears mixed with hers as she whispered again, “I love you, Peter” and shortly afterwards, she lifted her hand in a gesture that seemed to take all her strength and touched it to my cheek. Her final words, in a barely audible whisper, “thank you,” served only to make my tears flow even more freely. In a choked whisper, I pleaded, “forgive me, Lisa,” and her parting smile as her hand fell to the ground told me all I needed to know.
I threw my arms open to the pitiless sky and howled, “Why?” A pointless piece of theatre for I knew with a certainty based on painful experience that there was no answer. But it relieved just a tiny fraction of my anguish, my pain and my guilt.
Turning to Lisa, I saw her face now relieved of the virus induced horror, again looking sweet and pure. She felt so light that she was almost insubstantial. I picked her up in my arms and walked into the church, placing her body gently on the altar. Then I did something I could never remember doing before. I fell to my knees and prayed, “Jesus, I know that we haven’t exactly been on speaking terms recently, but this isn’t about me. I want to make a deal with you. If you need to, you can cast me into the deepest pits of hell, but please take this little one and care for her. She was a beautiful young woman and deserves all your love.”
Leaving her on the altar for the time being, I returned to the cemetery, finding a partly dug grave, evidently awaiting someone who had experienced a “normal” death. Finding a shovel close by allowed me to excavate more of the loose sandy soil. In spite of the growing heat, I felt no fatigue. I returned to the church and picking up Lisa’s body, I laid it reverently in the newly dug grave. I then collected the watch, the ring and the teddy bear and placed them all in Lisa’s arms, then filled in the grave with a sense of finality, piling rocks on top to deter any wandering predators.
A couple of pieces of wood and some wire in the gravedigger’s shack allowed me to form a crude cross, and I engraved ‘LISA’ on the cross-piece with my knife. As a final gesture, I said a brief prayer for her, and looped her golden crucifix over the cross.
By this time it was mid-afternoon—I returned to the house, but I couldn’t bear the thought of staying in the town one minute longer than necessary, and I bundled my stuff together, haphazardly dumping it in my trailer. In a quixotic gesture, I took a studio portrait of Lisa from its frame; taken quite recently, it showed the simple innocence of this tragic young woman. .
As I did so, a little black demon on my left shoulder whispered in my ear, “Good going, macho man. You just slaughtered an innocent child so you wouldn’t have to stay here. Make you feel good, does it?” At the same time, a little golden angel on my right shoulder whispered, “You did the only thing you could, Peter. She would have killed you, lived for a short while in unimaginable horror then torn herself to pieces. It was the right thing to do.” I wanted to listen to the angel, but for now the demon had the stage. Hopefully, not for ever, if I could reconcile myself to having killed someone so vulnerable and yet so charming.
Angels don’t give up on you, and my belief that my angel would eventually have the last word comforted me. Any hypocrisy had been burned out of me by the events of the day, replaced by a seemingly irrational hope.
I moved on out of the town. The evening sun still sucked the life from anything it touched with its searing heat. Now, though, I realised I had a reason to live. The memory of sweet, lovely Lisa, the memory of someone truly good, could sustain me through some of my darker nights.