Crossroad Press, April 2012
SINCE THE SKY BLEW OFF
Originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine
He was only a kid, seven, maybe eight years old. We never did get his name. He arrived at dusk, and when no one answered his cries, he finally fell into a restless sleep in the dust and half-dead weeds along the front perimeter. Well before the sun was up, I shot him through the head. His body quivered a bit and then his mouth became a fountain of blood, but it didn't last long. In less than three minutes, long enough for a smoke, his nerves stopped firing and he was still.
Under brilliant starlight, Tony and I buried his body. You might wonder why we bothered, but those were Mather's orders. Mather was obsessed with germs, and he had every reason to be. We knew about other parts of the country, where whole camps had been wiped out by typhus, diphtheria, all the diseases that had gone completely out of control since the sky blew off. To be honest, we were scared shitless about germs, and we had every reason to be. The kid was light and bony, more skeleton than meat. Underfed, I guess, like most roamers. Wearing gloves and masks, we carried him downhill, away from the hatchery, and put him ten feet under, as deep as we could dig in the two hours we had before the sun came up. Then we burned our clothes and bathed in rubbing alcohol and Lysol we'd come across on our last trip to the A&P warehouse. When we were done, we walked naked back inside the compound, pulling the razor wire tight behind us.
Right off, Mather had been uneasy about the kid. Not that we hadn't seen our share of roamers since coming north to Vermont a year ago, after the Great Fire leveled Boston and half of eastern Massachusetts. We'd seen them, all right, and mostly we'd let them pass on by. The only ones we'd disposed of were the ones that got too close or started acting too weird or hung around too long, like stray dogs begging for handouts. Creepy behavior like that set off alarm bells inside Mather's head.
I especially remember one old guy, batty as hell, his face covered with pus, his bald scalp peeling, his tongue swollen and hanging out of his mouth like a steer at an old-time Kansas City slaughterhouse. Howled at the gate like something out of a nightmare until we took care of him. I remember a teenage girl, too. She'd probably been pretty once, but the sun had left her skin runny and raw and made her hair fall out. She was delirious, talking nonsense about salvation, redemption, apocalypse, all that other Bible crap, like so many of the roamers we'd seen since New York.
The kid was different. I didn't see it right away, but Mather did, thank heavens. That sixth sense of his is what's kept us alive so long.
The kid arrived as the sun was going down. Since the sky blew off, every sunset has been spectacular, nothing any artist or photographer could ever hope to capture. This one was no exception. Pinks layered over blues and oranges and yellows, some soft strokes, some bold ones splashed up there with a powerful hand. Back when I was in parochial school, I remember thinking the walls of heaven must look that beautiful.
I was pulling guard duty and I spotted him when he was a half mile down the hill that leads up to the compound. He was all bundled up in canvas, canvas that was ripped and tattered like a sail that'd spent a week in a hurricane. It didn't occur to me then, but somebody must have told him that canvas was about the best protection you could have when you were outside. Somebody older, wiser.
"He's reason to be alarmed," Mather announced after watching him through binoculars he'd customized with a pair of Polaroid sunglasses we'd looted from a Manhattan drugstore back in the beginning.
"We'll dispose of him," I answered. It was an automatic response by then, as natural and routine as guard duty or sleeping during the day.
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