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The next time I wake I manage to make a wobbly circuit around the room and find that my prison is quite complete.  There is nothing—and I mean nothing—that I could use to make a weapon.  The so-called ‘mattress’ is nothing but a pile of cloth, the cot is welded to a beam set in the concrete floor.  There aren’t any outlets for me to destroy, nor screws to unseat, and the one ‘window’ is a slice of light ten feet off the ground.  The permeating cold of the room tells me that I’m almost completely underground, and the lack of any amenities makes me think this was an unfinished basement or storage room before it was turned to its current purpose.

Hannah returns twice to usher me, blindfolded, down a small hallway (pretending to trip I manage to lash out one arm and one foot and ascertain the dimension of the walkway) to use a urinal and small sink.  Everything is kept in tip-top shape (except me) and there’s no way I can work some piece of the plumbing free with her watching me each moment, chattering happily about this man’s house or that man’s car.  After I wash my hands, she blindfolds me again and I deliberately turn the wrong way and start walking before thud’ing into a warm, solid body.

“Oops,” Hannah giggles before taking me by the arm and turning me around.  “Thank you Hector,” she trills coquettishly and I have to stop myself from visibly gagging.

Really? I think, as she sits me down on the cot and removes the blindfold.  That’s really the way of it here?  Already they’re back to flirtatious behavior and gender rolls?  What about when their lines break—and the lines always break—who will be spared if everyone is playing at being back to ‘normal’?

Not your problem, a gruff voice answers in my head and I smile.  I know Zel’s not talking to me, and I know I’m not psychic, and as crazy as I am (and I know I’m crazy) I’m not actually hearing voices but imagining them to keep myself from feeling too isolated.

Stephen checks on me later in the day and pronounces me fit enough to, “Join us for a meal.”  They blindfold me again and I start counting. 1, 2, 3…I hit the stairs at 17…at 26 the stairs end and a wash of heat rolls over me, disorienting me, and after a left, right, 14 paces and a right, Hannah taps me on the shoulder and I feel around in front of me, grasping the top rung of a high-backed chair as she whisks the blindfold and I am almost blinded by the light around me.

There’s fire EVERYWHERE and I almost run from the room in a blind panic.  Instead, I grasp the chair more tightly and start to survey the other occupants of the room.  Men—lots of men—and attractive, young girls fluttering around them.  Candles are lit at each place setting and it’s been ages since I’ve seen a full set of bone china…let alone a matching set with 3 plates, a soup bowl, and multiple pieces of matching silverware.

This is…obscene, I think, barely managing to keep my face pleasantly passive.  This is wasteful, ridiculous…decadent!  There’s no call for this, not when the world is…what are they playing at?  Because they ARE playing.  This is not a real, sustainable lifestyle for anyone now.  Let’s forget—for a moment—that the females out-number the males (which, for population growth is ideal, but for defense is not), and let’s forget—passingly—that if one of these candles tips over and starts a conflagration that this building will light up the countryside for miles, calling every mobile walker, crawler, and lurker (not to mention, maybe, that herd Zel and I narrowly avoided), but let’s instead focus on the fact that no one here is visibly carrying a weapon.  So, if we ARE overrun, we’ll have nothing to battle the horde with other than these spindly, ornate chairs.

“Everyone, please take your seats,” a gentile, older man with salt-and-pepper in his hair drawls.  He’s wearing a three-piece suit of fine, navy blue, picked out with tiny silver pin stripes that almost sparkle like stars in the candle light.  A half-movement behind everyone else, I sit down and fold my hands in my lap, as the girl across from me does, waiting for some unknown sign or ceremony.  “Today has been another glorious day in this, our community…” the man says, and I think ceremony before returning my attention to his words.  “And you may have noticed our guest,” all eyes focus on me and I don’t know who to stare down so instead I stare at my lap, “Miss, will you please stand up and introduce yourself.”  I nod, and before I can push to my feet my chair starts sliding out from under me.  I swing, fist cocked, and my hand is caught by a weathered hand before I can connect with the young teenage boy behind me.

“Now, now,” the man who was seated to my left is now standing beside me, shielding me from view of the man at the head of the table, “no need for that here.”

“Sorry,” I mumble, but not to the man.  I try to smile for the boy and he nods, lower lip quivering, before dashing back to his assigned spot.  The man reseats himself as I turn, and I fold my hands at the small of my back before saying (as politely as I can manage), “My name is Ellie.  It’s very nice of you to take me in.”  Then I slide back into my seat and fold my hands in my lap, keeping my eyes on the table cloth while my cheeks are burning.

“Thank you Ellie,” the oldest man says.  “Now let’s all bow our heads and give thanks for what we have,” his elaborate sermon goes into great detail about how righteousness will save them and obedience will be their saving grace, and a whole lot of other religious dogma that send a shiver up my spine.  Almost every statement of his I would addend with, until a zombie horde overruns us.  Once he’s done talking and everyone—including myself—choruses “AMEN,” children laden with a variety a trays start streaming out of (what I have to assume is the kitchen) and circling around the table, depositing their burdens at precise locations before scurrying back to the doorway and disappearing.

The men reach for the food immediately and I start to as well before I notice that none of the other women are doing so.  “Don’t worry, Miss,” the man at my right elbow—not the one who stopped me from clocking the teenager—says, “I’ll serve you.”

“Thank you,” I mutter, eyes still flitting from person to person.  The man has light red hair dusting the back of his freckled hands and a mop of unruly curls that fall to his shoulders.  It would look effeminate on most men, but he’s countered it with rough clothing—denim jeans and a flannel work shirt—that stretch and strain as his muscles flex beneath.  I would guess his age to be comparable to my own, but when he asks how old I am I lie, “Thirty-eight.”  That makes him pause for a moment and that pause confirms my fears.

Ever since the plague there haven’t been a lot of “qualified” anythings.  Particularly, doctors, dentists, or other previously called ‘health-professionals,’ which means that we’ve been reduced to pre-industrial standard of living, and that standard comes with a nearly 25% maternal mortality rate.  Add to that an infant mortality rate of approximately half (and believe me, people are trying to figure out if that has to do with the plague or something else) and you’ve got a lot of desperate survivors trying to find some fertile females.

“Please, let’s not bother our guest on her first evening here,” the leader says, dabbing at the corners of his mouth with a napkin.  “After all, she must be exhausted from her travels.”  Yeah,  I think bitterly, my travels are what exhausted me.  Not losing a pint of blood to a head-wound that one of you inflicted.  I can’t be bothered with worrying about them poisoning the food (if they want me as a breeder they won’t take the chance) so I eat heartily everything that’s put on my plate, and then some—snagging from any basket, plate or platter that comes within arm’s reach.

“No need to be so greedy,” the man to my left—the one who caught my fist—says.  Opposed to the red-haired man, he’s all dark…dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair…but slender, so slender I wonder if he’s not himself sick.

“No need to be wasteful,” I counter and I gobble down another crusty roll.  For all that I’m hating my situation the food is really good; it’s almost as good as what we’ve managed on the island and I almost choke on my thoughts and the bread.

I missed bread.  When I was wandering in the aftermath and scrounging for supplies from any and every source the one thing I truly, desperately missed, was bread.  But for someone on the move it’s too difficult, even baking it in a bowl like I saw one time on NatGeo was too difficult for me to figure out and I burned it—wasting it—every time.  When I got my first hardtack biscuit I cried while I ate it.  That was when I decided the island was worth staying at; if they managed to make bread then that was where I wanted to be.

But I don’t want to be here.  I didn’t come here of my own free will, and after dinner I’m lead back down to my room (aka “cell”) after a quick stop at the toilet.  I don’t want to be here…is stuck in a repeating loop in my head and instead of letting it drive me mad, I decide to drive myself to exhaustion.  Stripping my pants and underthings off (underneath the tunic) I start my sequence, but tai chi alone doesn’t exhaust me.  So I go into yoga, and then push-ups, and finally I start to pant when I’m in the middle of half-a-hundred sit-ups.  I use one of the rags that make up my mattress to towel off with before I pull my clothes back on, and when I sleep I do so underneath the cot on my mattress of rags, both fee hooked over the leg of my cot so I won’t get tangled if I have to move quickly.

God damnit, Zel, I grumble as I fall asleep, hurry up and make these assholes pay for interfering with us…  It’s how I know I’m crazy, I go to sleep with a smile on my lips by imagining the destruction of these people who have been (outwardly) kind to me.

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