Authors: Delany Beaumont
Tags: #post-apocalypse, #Fiction
The Poison Rose, Book One
Copyright © 2014 by Delany Beaumont
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The Road North
What blood leaves
behind is a virus that haunts us all.
It snakes through innocent bloodstreams, infecting, sickening, hollowing out the bodies of all it has chosen to corrupt. It does its work fast, overnight. Leaves behind a lifeless shell, dried out and shrunken. A thing vaguely human, drained of color, the whitish-gray of cold ashes.
What blood leaves behind is a world without adults.
Older people—our parents, all those who ran the world—are gone. Every one of them has succumbed to this disease. I’ve seen nothing to convince me otherwise. I’ve found only children wandering the roads, lost and forlorn, and precious few of them.
We who are left behind show no symptoms until we’re in our late teens—seventeen, eighteen. We spend long, desperate days scrounging for food, hoping that we’ve been passed by, that the disease won’t find us, won’t claim us for its own. Hoping that, by some miracle, we will live to be full grown.
I’ve been told that not all the disease touches die. Some say a changeling is left behind, a creature of the sickness, one who can rise up from its sickbed and walk away. But I am sure this is only a story, the make-believe of frightened children whispering about white, bloodless creatures they think they have seen in the night.
This is the world we’re left to wander through. The world we’re left to try to survive in.
This is what blood leaves behind.
My name is
Gillian Rose. I am young enough not to have fallen sick but I wait for the day when it might happen. Maybe I will be the miracle and escape into adulthood untransformed by anything but time.
The days are quiet in this new world we live in but the nights explode with animal sounds. There are howls, cries, yips, snarls, rootings, snufflings, the snapping of twigs and branches. We often find spore around the places where we’ve stayed, territorial markings.
But human-made sounds have vanished.
More than a year has passed since I last heard the roar of an engine. There was a night, many months ago, when I was woken by a vehicle’s whine approaching from far in the distance. The weird, insistent cry of it cut through the silence of the house where we slept. I leapt up from my mattress, clutching my rifle, my knuckles white.
It might have been one person alone in a car. Maybe it was a small group in a van or a truck. Since leaving home, I can count the number of times I’ve heard such a noise on the fingers of one hand. Each time I’ve heard it, if I was outside and the vehicle stopped anywhere near me, I kept hidden until it drove off again. After my mother disappeared, I stopped trusting anyone able to drive a car.
But driving must be a lost art by now. It’s been so long since I’ve heard a vehicle, seen one driving by.
That night long ago when I last heard an engine whine, I crouched tense and uneasy in the dark of the room where I lay with the children. I listened to the thudding of my heart overtake the sound as it began to fade harmlessly into the distance. I imagined it was the sound of someone like me heading north, along the same route I have chosen to follow.
The day comes
when Larkin starts showing symptoms, when he starts to succumb to the disease. Larkin, the human being I’m closest to in the entire world, the one I feel like I’d give up my own life to save.
Summer’s heat has settled over us again and the berries are ripe. For a few months, everything feels good. Impossibly thick, towering, tangled clumps of blackberry vines cluster about the edges of weed-grown fields surrounding the town we occupy. It feels safe here, houses and stores abandoned but largely undamaged. The berries are deliciously sweet and plump, staining our fingers purple-black, the younger children with sticky-sweet juice dripping from the corners of their mouths.
Larkin throws a fat, dripping berry at me. “Catch, Gil,” he says, after the fact. The berry hits the front of my shirt, smashes flat and smears its way down to my waist. “You’re not on the ball today. Too hot for you, huh?”
I look down at the damage done to my clothing. “You ruined my shirt. And I like this shirt.” It’s a bright yellow tee shirt with the logo of a long forgotten rock band I found in someone’s drawer months ago.
He continues stuffing his face full of berries, his hands and mouth smeared purple just like the younger kids. I’ve been careful not to get myself too dirty, wiping my hands on a rag that sticks out of the pocket of my jeans.
Larkin laughs. “It’s not like you can’t find another shirt somewhere.”
He’s right. The people who fled the town years ago have left plenty behind, some things we can use, much we can’t. There’s no electric power, no running water, precious little gasoline left to siphon off. None of us knows how to drive a car, even if we found one that works. Larkin says he could figure it out fast enough but he never tries.
I love seeing Larkin laugh. He strips off his own shirt, his muscles hard, his body thin and wiry. He smears berry juice across his chest, making fun of my fussiness. I’ve tried to cut his thick black hair in a way that makes it look neat and even but it’s impossible with only a pair of scissors. I wish I could find a battery operated razor that still worked, wasn’t all corroded inside.
This is the best time of year for us, the lazy days when I begin to imagine that it will be a long, long time before we have any worries. This is supposed to be the time when everything comes easy.
One of the younger kids, Stace, who guesses she’s about eleven or twelve, is standing close to me. “Shush,” she says, holding the tip of a purple finger to her mouth.
I look where she’s looking and there’s a fat brown rabbit that has popped out of the vines just past where we’re standing. It takes in a mouthful of clover and eyes us warily. It doesn’t seem frightened, has probably never seen a human being before. “Get your rifle, Gil,” Larkin whispers.
I look over to where I left it, perched on the edge of a drainage ditch. The ditch divides the berry-wild field where we are gathered from a two-lane country road we followed a few miles out of town this morning. I take my rifle with me everywhere. We’ve found other weapons and stores of ammunition but this one is special. And I’m a much better shot than Larkin.
I hesitate, sure that by the time I dart over to the rifle and back again the rabbit will have jumped away. As if reading my mind, Larkin says, “Come on, Gil. At least take a chance.”
Walking casually over to the rifle, I keep watch on the bunny out of the corner of my eye. With all the feral dogs and coyotes that roam through the night, I’m surprised the little creature has lasted as long as it has. I snatch up my weapon and saunter back to the group as if I didn’t have a care in the world. The other children have come closer, whispering and pointing.
When I’m within easy range, I drop down on one knee and take aim. I feel sorry for the rabbit. I have a clear view of it through the site in profile, its nostrils twitching, watching me with one of its big brown eyes. I start to squeeze the trigger but I can’t follow through. I can’t kill the helpless little thing in front of all these young eyes. I stand up and, as if on cue, the rabbit leaps back into the tangle of berry vines.
Larkin strolls over to me. I’m worried he’ll be disappointed. I can’t remember the last time we tasted fresh meat. But he says, “It’s okay, Gil. I don’t think I could have killed it either. It was too small for all of us to share anyway.” He puts a sticky hand to my hair and rubs my scalp, just to drive me crazy. “There’ll be lots more to eat when we get to the city.”
We are in
a small town called Oxbow Ferry, about a mile from the interstate that runs from south to north. We have stuck close to those four endless lanes of blacktop for the last two years. We move from town to town up an enormous valley, making our way very slowly, scouting for safe places to stay, for stores still stocked with jars and cans, boxes of dry food the mealworms haven’t claimed. Safe places—places that haven’t been looted by other survivors.
I started out alone. After they closed the lab where my father did his research and sent him away, after the disease began to spread, claiming more and more lives, my mother and I remained in our home in the country. My father had left us well-stocked with provisions and his hunting rifles. He felt certain he knew what was going to happen. My mother and I spent the days alone target shooting until we felt like we could defend ourselves.
I turned fifteen when we began to run low on supplies. We had a car in the garage that my mother never drove. Once a week she opened the garage door, started the engine and let it idle long enough to make sure the battery stayed charged but not so long that she used up much gas. It was our escape, our one way out in a hurry, if anyone found us, if anyone was still out there and decided they would rather kill us and take what we had instead of bargaining or asking for our help. We had no idea what the survivors might be like, if there were any.
A day came when my mother decided she had no choice but to leave the house for a while. On that day she started a generator in our garage that ran on a dwindling supply of propane. She used it to power an air compressor to fill the car’s tires, ran the pump for the well water long enough so we could each take a hot bath—the last hot bath I’ve had. And she cooked a hot meal, a final home-cooked meal.
I remember her watching me over the remains of the dinner she had concocted from the last of our supplies, holding a mug of hot chocolate to her lips, the worry distinct in her eyes. “Gillian,” she said softly. “I’m not going to lie to you. I have no idea what’s out there so if I don’t—”
I shook my head violently. “Don’t even say that, mom.”
“I have to say it, Gil. You’re a strong girl. If I don’t…” She shrugged her shoulders. “Remember to stay in the shadows, off the main roads. Don’t ever approach someone until you’re absolutely sure they’re safe. And take a rifle with you.” She began to cry. “What’s going to happen to you, Gillian?”
Our only plan had been to wait for my father to return. That was what kept us going. But it now seemed certain that he could not return, was not able to. If he had survived.
The next day she left for the nearest town, Mountain Park, the place where she used to do most of her shopping, and never returned.
I waited for days, cold, lonely, frightened. There were a few unopened cans left, a few freeze-dried packets and I tried to make them last. When I had nothing, when all the jugs of water were empty and I was too scared to try to use the generator so I could run the pump in case mom came back and found I had exhausted our supply of fuel, I decided I had to leave. I had to look for her.
It grew bitterly cold out. Even after making the decision to leave, I waited a few more days, hunger gnawing at me, thirst forcing me to make my way through the snow and mud to a creek that was down a steep embankment for a pitcher’s worth of water.
The thought kept occurring to me that if I could walk all the way to town, I might find some trace of her, discover what had happened. Something had gone terribly wrong. I knew she would have come back if she could. It was at least ten miles to town from our house, twenty miles to the lab where my father had worked. At last, one icy morning, I dragged myself from under the covers piled on my bed, bundled up and started out on the road.
At first I was darting behind the line of trees along the roadside at the slightest sound. But it was so cold, a thin rain soaking me completely, I started hoping someone would drive up and rescue me. I’d take my chances no matter what so I just kept walking down the road. The only things I carried were a small pack with some clothes and ammunition and one of my father’s rifles in its bag slung over my shoulder.