Authors: Ann Aguirre
His chin dipped so he wasn’t looking at me anymore. “It’s probably for the best. I’d only have fought with my dad about it.”
But he didn’t pull his hand away. In fact, he shifted until it lay palm up beneath mine. I had never been so conscious of the heat of my skin against someone else’s. The touch gave me a fluttery feeling in my stomach, and I didn’t know if I should lace our fingers together, but I think he was waiting for some kind of cue he didn’t receive because a few seconds later, he drew back.
“You don’t get along?”
That opened the door to a flood of confidences he imparted in his morning voice, soft enough that it created a familiar bond. We had been talking for an hour when our families decided we should return to isolation with promises to repeat the meeting soon. I wished I could stay with Austin, but things would change soon enough—and in ways I couldn’t have predicted then. If I’ve learned anything since those days, it’s not to wish too hard for a shift in circumstances since it never happens as you imagine.
A month later, the Markowitz parents fell ill. The oldest child called our unit, sobbing, as she begged my father to come and save them. He was only doctor in the bunkers; my mother implored him not to go. I understood her caution, but I also knew why he would ultimately refuse her.
“I have to try, Mel. You know that.”
“Don’t go,” she pleaded, as if she
. “Call the administrator.”
Ostensibly, there was a corporate representative here to make sure nothing went wrong. He did periodic checks, but he didn’t socialize with us, didn’t communicate more than necessary. Likely he had orders to that effect as it would be impossible to hand down unpopular edicts if he got too close.
Before my father could reply, the comm sounded, an official tone. “I regret to inform you that there was a fault in the ventilation systems. All units may have been exposed to outside toxins. Naturally, a full refund will be issued.”
“A refund,” my mother repeated, looking numb. “What good will that do us? Jeremy, I can’t watch you and Robby die.”
I ached because she hadn’t called me that in so long, not since I was a little kid. My dad wore a tight, brave expression, but I saw terror in his dark eyes. His hands curled in to fists, as my calm, unflappable father fought the urge to take out his rage on the furnishings. I had never been so frightened in my life.
“I have to check on the Markowitz family,” he said softly.
“Stop it. If we’re already been exposed, then it doesn’t matter. You know that.”
Such a small word to contain so much horror and vulnerability. My mother took to her bed after my father left; first she cried until she had no voice, then she took a pair of pills that let her sleep. Looking back, I can say she was a sweet woman, but she wasn’t strong. That day, Austin called me for the first time while our parents were awake. Time seemed too precious for secrets now.
“I guess you heard,” he said.
“Yeah. My dad is making rounds, trying to help.”
“Mine is—” The audio cut in and out, revealing the fury his dad didn’t bother to contain.
“Come over. You shouldn’t be around him when he’s so mad.” I could hear bits of the rant about how Mr. Shelley would sue the company, but it was all sound and fury. Even the colonel knew there would be no legal recourse in the new world rising from the ashes of the old. That was part of why he was so angry.
Austin didn’t ask permission from his parents; if we were all dying anyway, what did obedience matter? He slipped into our unit with minimum fuss. Here, it was quiet at least.
“I don’t want to die,” he whispered in our morning voice.
A lump comprised of equal parts fear and sympathy rose in my throat. “Me either.”
“I’m not ready. I mean, I always knew it might come to this, but part of me believed my old man. He could buy his way out of anything. Even this.” His voice broke. “Turns out, not so much.”
“I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. Live in my own head.”
Somehow he went into my arms or I went into his and we tangled, hard. He was shaking, or I was. So hard, knowing the air you breathed might be what killed you. Austin smelled exactly like me; he used the same company-provided soap and toiletries, but it was a little better on him, deeper and richer, or it might’ve been the alchemy of his skin. If it hadn’t been for my mother asleep behind us—or the fact that my father could come back at any moment—I might’ve done more than hold him, if I’d been that brave, then. In truth, I wasn’t; and it might’ve felt like taking advantage anyway when he was so obviously upset.
He didn’t go back to his unit that night. Austin slept in my bed, curled against my back. My mother didn’t wake. In the morning, I roused to a comforting arm over my waist; it was the first time I’d slept the night through with another person. I wondered if he would regret the need and vulnerability, but he didn’t seem to. Nor did he appear in any hurry to go back next door.
By the time my father returned, he looked exhausted, dark rings about his eyes. The slump of his shoulders told me it hadn’t gone well at the Markowitz place.
“Bad?” I guessed.
“The parents died in the night.”
I bit out a word I wasn’t supposed to use, and my father didn’t even chide me. “That was fast.”
“The oldest girl has it, and there’s nothing I can do for her, but the younger two seem to be all right. The administrator collected the bodies.”
“So we just wait to die?” Austin demanded.
My father shook his head. “I don’t know, son. The girls will be over here shortly, once they finish packing. I hope you don’t mind looking after them. I need to get some sleep. Is your mother—”
“She’s not handling it well.”
But she was suffering from more than self-medication. Illness followed, so she grew weaker and weaker. My mother never said my name again. Never called me Robby. As she lingered near death, I held in the tears through sheer force of will. Even Austin’s hand on my shoulder didn’t help, though it felt nice. She died just before midnight.
The oldest Markowitz girl also died that night—or maybe the administrator hurried her along. He was a cold-faced man and quick with a needle; I resolved never to be alone with him. Soon, we had two little orphaned girls underfoot, and Austin stayed with us until his mother came for him, wearing a look unlike any I’ve ever seen.
“I know you and the colonel have had your differences, but you need to say good-bye.”
He shot me a panicked glance and I stood reflexively. “Do you mind if I come?”
Mrs. Shelley shook her head. “He’s sick, you know.”
I shrugged. “My father’s been tending people. Both these girls lost their families to the plague. If I haven’t gotten it by now, maybe I’m immune.”
I shouldn’t have said that.
Austin’s father passed that night, and by morning, I was burning with fever. I gloss over this part of the story because I can’t remember much about it. Some things are crystal clear, even at a remove of years, but not this. There were broken mirrors in my head, sweat and pain, a glimpse of my father’s heartbroken face and green eyes luminous with tears.
I’m told I lay near death for seven days, and on the seventh, I came out of it. I recovered. In our small cross section of the populace, I’m the only one who did. A few simply never got sick. By the time the dying stopped, our small community had been decimated.
Of the original twenty-five, six of us lived. Me, Austin, my father, his mother, and the two Markowitz girls. After overhearing some cryptic comments from the administrator, we talked it over and decided to abandon the bunkers. There was apparently a vaccine, but it hadn’t been thoroughly tested, and in some cases, it was making things worse. Instead of merely dying, some people were…. changing. It sounded alarming—and I didn’t want the company using us as test subjects for their faulty medicine or cleaning us up as a failed experiment.
We had to get away. To hide. So the next morning, we packed up everything we could carry—and it wasn’t much. The walk was…harrowing. I’d never realized there was a whole world beneath the city, but there clearly was. People lived down here in warrens and tunnels—pale folk with shining eyes and suspicious stares. Most didn’t look kindly on strangers and moved us along.
But after endless turns, endless twists through a dark world, we found a place that welcomed us. They were a fairly new settlement, calling themselves the College enclave, because of a nearby subway stop, I guess. And when they found out we had a doctor among us, they drew back the barricades and welcomed us. On the surface, most had been homeless, drug addicts or alcoholics, those that society threw away. Down here, they had the power.
In a heartbeat, everything changes.
“They’re evacuating the city,” one of the settlers told us. “Apparently it’s uninhabitable up there right now.”
Another shrugged. “We wouldn’t have qualified for evac anyway. They’re shortlisting those who can contribute to society.”
A dusky-skinned man with dreadlocks said, “Down here, we all can. We do. Doctor, do you mind checking out my little girl?”
Because he always did, my father said yes—and the rest of us found a little piece of ground to call our own. It was dark, cramped, and smelled a bit, of smoke and other, less pleasant things. I felt sure I’d get used to it. Life had already shifted so much.
Austin laced his fingers through mine and drew me away from the others. “It’s better than the bunkers,” he said softly, his tone more hopeful than certain.
“I hope so. At least we’re not at the company’s mercy. Let them try to find us here.”
His expression became exultant, defiant, even. He put a hand on my shoulder and pushed me against the wall, then kissed me with such surety and promise. No more waiting for cues, apparently. Since he had been for me, almost from the moment I heard his voice in the dark, I curled my hand into his hair. There had been one touch of lips to mine before this, but
was the kiss I would cherish and remember, a kiss to obliterate all others. I was breathless when he stopped.
“I wasn’t sure if you…” he started, then he shifted to, “I was afraid.”
“Don’t ever be. Not with me.”
That night, the original settlers decided we needed some rules to follow; each of us should serve a purpose. Austin was confident that night, possibly because of us. And so he said, “You should divide up jobs like an old-school tribe. Some people hunt, others build.”
Most people laughed, but the chief said, “What about the rest?”
“They breed to keep numbers up, naturally. But not too much. We want to survive, not overpopulate.”
To my surprise, they ratified his idea. And it worked well for a long time. My father lasted ten years down there; Mrs. Shelley passed on shortly thereafter. The Markowitz girls had sons and daughters. And Austin? He was a builder, even down here; oh, he crafted the most marvelous things. I helped him in that. Austin Shelley was also the love of my life.
I lost him two years ago.
And I am so very tired now. My name is Robin Schiller, and I have come to the end of my life. In this final recounting, I entrust my tale to you, my pupil; you are the first Wordkeeper. In this world, words matter. Sometimes they’re all we have. So I entrust mine to you. Let them be remembered.
Let it be so.
Copyright (C) 2012 by Ann Aguirre
Art copyright (C) 2012 by Victo Ngai