* * *
on a gathering storm / comes a tall handsome man / but hidden in his coat / is a red right hand
* * *
* * *
The power runs on sunlight. On a really good day, some of us are allowed into the gym, and we can watch the TV for three hours. Old DVDs. Usually they'll just store it for the lights at night.
We have a couple gas generators, but most of our combustibles are used for the heat in the winter.
Today is one of the good days – the sun is bright and hot and burns the skin that isn't protected by leather or cloth.
As I look out over the roof of the High School, it doesn't look like a wasteland for a moment. The trees are lush and green. They've grown over the rubble for most as far as the eye can see – except the skeletal towers that remain downtown, and the few tall apartment buildings in our neighbourhood.
In that overgrown forest of ruined suburban homes, cracked pavement and feral dogs, our hunters are trying to score some deer.
I reach down to the discman at my side and press play, placing a single, discreet earphone into my right ear. If anyone's approaching, it will be from the left.
I don't know the name of the band. I think I did, once. I think the name of the song is Red Right Hand, but I don't know for sure. It's just repeated a lot.
Jessie caught me with the discman when I was twelve. If we ever find batteries, we're supposed to bring them in for the walkie-talkies. At first he was angry, but he let me keep it. He said he'd call on me one day.
No one else in Westwood listens to music. Most of them stopped looking for it after the war.
The guys are content to play cards and dice, and watch the dogs fight.
And of course, hunt.
I pull up the telescope and point it towards the scarred and scorched apartment blocks near the river – their snipers like to hide up there.
There's movement on the fifteenth floor. That's all the proof Jessie wants. Movement.
"I got one!" I shout.
In a moment, Josh appears on the roof, toting his High Power rifle.
"Where?" he asks. Josh is a First – one of the youngest. Nineteen years old, but an evil shot. Gaunt and soft-spoken, he doesn't miss. He just pulls the trigger.
"David Estates – fifteenth floor."
He pulls up his High Power and squints into the scope.
"I got her," he says. He's about to squeeze the trigger, but stops. "…it's a Old One."
"How Old?" I ask. Sometimes Old Ones stray into the city from the north. They don't usually have the resources we have, and they're of little use to us.
"All wrinkles and white hair."
"Kill him, then," I say.
Josh squeezes the trigger and birds scatter from the forest around Westwood Collegiate. I raise my telescope in time to see a shadow slump and fall out of view on the fifteenth floor.
I turn around, but Josh is already on his way back to the southwest battlement.
"Send a runner," I shout after him.
"No runner is getting to the fifteenth floor," he calls back.
"We have to send someone."
"Then go yourself."
That's not such a bad idea.
I've been dying for a walk.
* * *
I walk into Jessie's room – the old band room - he's sitting on a Lay-Z-Boy, throwing darts at a rabbit's cage ten feet away.
"Cypress," he says, whipping another dart. The rabbit squeals, but it's not a fatal dart. It squirms until the dart dislodges itself from its side and tries to push into a corner of the naked cage. "Hungry?"
"I'm fine," I say. I'm starving. But you don't accept when Jessie offers. When he was seventeen and I was sixteen, he killed one of us who ate from his plate. You don't take food from Jessie. But, if you ever want something from him it's best to suggest the opposite.
"Then what do you want, if it's not more food?" he asks. An unusually small First named Paul braves the rabbit's defensive attacks and retrieves the darts. He sets them on the end table by Jessie's hand, and Jessue whips another dart into the cage. He misses.
"We sniped an Old One in the David Estates – I need a runner to do the search."
"Can't you run?" he asks.
"Not according to you," I say. It's a stupid thing to say, but I'm still angry at him.
"Well now I'm saying you can. Run, Cypress." He whips the last dart and hears a satisfying "shik" as it buries itself in the rabbit's head. "…run like a bunny."
* * *
I make my way across the parking lot to the Rouge Road gates. Over the past thirteen years, we've built walls around the entire high school grounds. They reach up ten feet, and serve as guard posts and battlements.
"You need a rifle?" one of the snipers calls down from the gate battlements.
"I've got my stick," I yell, holding up the inconspicuous five-foot staff.
"How far are you going?"
"The apartment towers."
"Take a gun."
A pistol heavy with homemade rounds hits the broken pavement at my feet, and I stoop to pick it up.
"Jesse says no," I yell. The sniper leans back into the battlements, and I can hear the lost bass of a conversation about me. The gates moan and swing open, hard and heavy as the sniper climbs down the battlement.
"Sorry, Cypress," he says, picking up the gun. It's Tyler – a Second, like me. "Wish you were still Spyin'. You always found the best shit anyway. We're not allowed to give you a radio either, huh?"
"Tell you what," I say, holding out a cigarette for him. His eyes light up as he snatches it away. "When's your period end?"
"Two A.M – you better be back long before then."
"Dare ya?" I say.
"Dare me what?" His eyes narrow.
"Dare ya to keep an eye out for me comin' back tonight – let me slip in the side?"
"Why should I?" I hold up another four smokes. He goes for them, to no avail. "Ten," he says.
"Deal," I hand him the four smokes, walking through the gates onto Rouge. "You'll get the other five tonight."
"Why then?" he yells after me. I throw up my hands.
"I haven't found them yet!" I call back.
* * *
The girls took over one of the office buildings downtown – it's all glass, so they can see out but we can't see in. No one from Westwood has ever managed to get inside the Glass Tower.
The Glass Tower is the only building downtown to survive the war without many scars – it shines during the day in contrast to the black rubble around it. We call it a war, but we're not really sure.
Some areas of the city seem fairly normal. You see empty parking lots, empty buildings. Some of them, there's still glass in the windows, like the Tower. Once, after the bombs stopped falling, after we dug out and saw the city, I ran off on my own and found an area of the city that looked like this. Still decent.
I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I thought maybe it had all just been a dream.
I squint at the Sun breaking through the broken frame of the David Estates. It was that charred corpse of a building that pinched me that morning. Woke me up.
Your family's gone.
The world's gone.
You and a hundred or so kids survive.
We had been on a field trip to a marsh. Oak Hammock Marsh.
The adults suddenly panicked.
They locked us in. Told us we would be safe.
They said they would be back soon.
Thirteen years later, my boot makes a slight correction to avoid a skull as I make my way to the still-decent pavement of Portage Avenue.
I used to be a Spy. I was the only Spy who was also a Second. The Seconds once worshipped me.
Now I'm running out to pick the body of an old man one of our snipers pecked off.
I guess things change.
* * *
After Jessie demoted me from Spy, he took most of my gear – left me the staff because he didn't know it's my father's. Didn't know it's important to me.
Demoting me was a move that a lot of people questioned, 'cause I brought in more smokes, matches and booze than the other three spies combined. But back to the task at hand.
I'm not sure how I'll get from the ground floor of the David Estates to the third – the first visible floor that has a floor. The rest is blown out, the heavy concrete beams holding solid.
That old man must have gotten up there somehow… but that alone seems fairly strange.
We'd never been able to get past the eighth floor.
I walk around the foundation until I find where the earth has been disturbed. Something's been dragged across it. I follow the scar in the ground ten feet or so to see a massive beam, sticking out of some rubble. I follow the scar in the opposite direction and find the old elevator shaft.
I cock my head to the side.
Did none of the other runners think of that?
I pull on my leather gloves and make sure the staff is secure on my back.
Fifteen floors is a long way to climb a steel cable.
* * *
As I climb, I wonder how much I'll find in the higher floors of the tower. Most likely they won't have been scavenged, yet.
After two floors my arms are burning. At the third I bounce off the elevator shaft and jump into the hallway. It creaks, but holds.
I take the stairwell for the next five flights, but at the eighth floor I'm obliged to scout around for a while. Soon I discover a new addition – a rope ladder. This must be how the old man got past the eighth floor.
The ninth floor is mostly intact – so intact that the last rays of the setting sun can't get through. I sit down in the dust and the dark for a moment and pull out my Discman. Ditry and smudged fingers pry open the battery case and I pull out the four AA batteries inside.
I don't want to waste the batteries, but I can't come back empty-handed.
I pull a small flashlight out of my pack and slide the batteries in. Twisting it shut, I click it on and stand, continuing my search.
As suspected, the upper floors of the tower are a goldmine of things left behind.
We don't really know what happened after we got locked in that bunker. When the food ran out, twenty of us died from starvation before we managed to break out.
What we do know, we can learn from inference, and from books. Periodicals. Yes, I do know these words.
I'm one of the few of us who kept reading after we broke out – though not many people know that. Jessie prefers that we don't read. In one of the apartments, I find a stack of National Geographics, untouched by the thirteen years, and turn one of the dry pages. It's become soaked and dried out so many times, half the pages cling in a death grip to each other.
A picture of red birds with long, curved bills. Long legs, standing in what looks like clean water.
Amazing things. Men and women, laughing together.
Pictures taken before the disease swept across the world – killing them all.
We don't really know what happened, but we know most people left in a hurry. We find dusty packages, waiting to have their cobwebs brushed away. They left their cigarettes and clothes and canned food behind. We find their pictures. They left their pictures. Sometimes, we come across tiny skeletons.
They left their children.
We know they sure left in a hurry.
* * *
I pull my oversized, long leather pack from my shoulder and throw the least-deteriorated National Geographic into it along with the cans of fruit, and head into the bedrooms. I find a silver chain and a watch that doesn't work. I throw them in – a Third will demand the chain, and a First would be more than happy for the watch.
I check above the closet and dresser – two packs of cigarettes. I put one pack in my jacket, along with five smokes for Tyler, before moving on to the bathroom.
Shampoo and soap – the thirds like that. The chain from the tub plug.
Red hair dye. I pocket that.
Scavenging. This is how it's done.
* * *
By the time I'm halfway through the ninth floor, my pack is full, and I'm even overburdened by the choice items I don't plan to share. I hurry up the stairwell to the fifteenth floor – there is no sixteenth floor, and the fifteenth is the scarred crown of the David Estates. It's as if the top half of the floor had been ripped away by some terrible force. I look up to the open sky and point my flashlight around the roof.
For a second, I think I hear something to my left, but I press on to the south until I find the body of an old man, slumped over and not dead more than a few hours. His skin is muddles – as if it broke open of its own accord – perhaps he has the disease.
I turn him over with gloved hands – Josh had shot him in the throat. I point the flashlight down at his blood, gathered on the dust-and-tile floor.
Footprints in his blood.
I stand and firmly jerk at the tip of my walking staff – a seam shows, and holding the ten inch handle I draw the four-foot blade from inside the wooden staff – its sharp, long tapered edge reveals itself silently. Though it has no foil or wrist guard, I find I've never had a need for one.
Its blade gleams in the semibright moon as I turn off the flashlight and quickly lean down to the blood.
I pick my way north in the rubble, trying to find the way out. A woman has been here first.
I hear something ahead.
The woman is still here.
IF SHE TOUCHES YOU, YOU DIE!
They're not so much Jessie's words as they are just the words. You get the disease from women, it's a fact. I've never known someone who came in contact with a woman and didn't die shortly after. If I can get out of the building without her seeing me, it will be a good day's haul regardless. It would probably be best not to tell anyone I'd come close to one, either.
"Hold!" A voice shouts to my left.
In a single, quick motion I drop my pack and dart behind a wall, just in time to hear a mighty BOOM. It echoes across the forest, and birds rise from their trees.
It sounds like a shotgun.
Cha-chuck – the sound echoes off the empty walls as another round is chambered.
"I got five more rounds, boy," she calls.
Real close combat with the girls is rare. Usually they avoid us as much as we do them.
I whip around a corner and pull my blade up. It flashes through the shotgun, and the gun comes apart in two pieces in her hands. The tip of my blade darts up and in, resting cold and sharp just under her chin.
"Quick for a boy," she says.
"Well-armed for a girl," I tell her. I lunge in for the fatal stroke, but she's fast. A foot-long dagger at her belt is free and parrying my slash. For a moment, it's a stacatto crashing of steel against steel, but she's quick.
A kick throws my feet out from under me, and her foot presses down on my blade. Now the tip of her dagger sits at my Adam's apple.
I look at her in the pale light. She might be the last thing I ever see. I want to memorize her.
The matted pale hair, the feirce look on her face.
The hate in her eyes.
But I don't want to die. In a last ditch effort, I free a flare with my left hand.
The light blinds us both for a moment, but the tip of her dagger doesn't move from my throat.
As it burns, we stare at each other.
She has light brown eyes, and she stares at me as if she can't remember the last time she saw a live man.
I've seen her once – she was on sentry duty in one of the downtown towers two years ago – she would have been around seventeen then.
She's older now – tougher – more sure of herself.
For a moment, it seems a shame I lit the flare.
Her shoulder explodes in a spray of blood and she falls. She hits the dusty ground with a resounding thud, and her eyes remain open.
In the distance, we finally hear the BOOM of the Westwood Sniper's rifle.
I quickly pull on my gloves before tying her up with a roll of duct tape, but don't dare stand until the flare has burned itself out. A sniper of ours might take me out just as easy in this light.
I take her dagger – a very decent one – and the shotgun rounds before standing to leave, picking up my pack and heading back to the stairwell. I don't look back. But I do stop.
I can hear her crying. For a long time I stand there, not thinking. Just standing. But eventually I turn around and come back, leaning down. Her shoulder hasn't stopped bleeding, and won't any time soon. With her wrists and ankles bound, she's not going for help.
"I can't let you go," I tell her. "They'd kill me. I could end your suffering," I say, drawing my blade. Her eyes bulge, and I re-sheath it. "Then you'll bleed to death, here," I say, standing. She lets out a muffled cry beneath the duct tape. I'm almost to the stairwell when I stop again.
I should know better than this. I should just walk away.
But I come back and hoist her up onto my shoulder. She screams at first. Screams like a banchee. But soon she stops and settles down to an occasional sob.
* * *
At the ninth floor we slide down the elevator cable – my ankles and right hand gripping the cable – the other holding her in a death grip. Down, down, down – all the way.
We hit the gound floor and I let her fall into a corner of the elevator shaft, while I collapse against the wall and light a cigarette. She's watching me with large, pale brown eyes. I finish my cigarette half-way and stand, walking over to her. She pushes into her corner, and shies from my gloved hand as I reach for her face.
"It's alright," I say, "See? Gloves." I tear the duct tape from her mouth.
She doesn't say anything. She just stares back at me.
I don't know what I'm doing – there's not really a plan for prisoners – but I produce another cigarette and hold it out for her. She manages to grip it between two fingers with her wrists bound together, and sticks it silently between her lips.
My lighter flares to life in the near-darkness, and she sucks the flame gently into the cigarette. Puffing gently, she leans back and draws the cigarette away from her mouth in a satisfying drag.
"Thank you," she says.
I go back to my corner and sit down. I can't think of what to say to that.
* * *
She shuffles along the broken pavement with awkward steps – I've cut the tape off her ankles, but bound her knees so she can't run.
We're nearing Assiniboine Park – the hazy-gray border between the girl's territory and ours.
I should just kill her. Might get promoted back to Spy for it. Far, far up ahead, I spy a pair of torches burning. We stop.
"Are they yours?" I ask. She doesn't answer. I flip out my telescope. It takes a moment to find them again, but it's a group of four women – most have blades, but a redhead and a blonde tote a high power rifles and a lot of shells.
I pull her into an alley and we sit as I stick another cigarette between her lips.
"What are you going to do with me?" she asks finally. I had hoped the answer would present itself at some point.
"You know what the word 'hypothetical' means?" I ask. She nods. "Well, hypothetically, if I was to walk you up to that group up there and cut you loose, and just to start back on my way to Westwood, hypothetically, what do you think my chances are of not getting shot to shit by your sniper?"
She stares at me, taking another drag.
"Who was the rifleman?" she asks.
"A redhead. Tall.."
* * *
She shuffles ahead of me. One of my gloved hands rests on her shoulder, keeping my blond bullet-shield between her people and myself. The other hand grips the staff. I can get the blade out in a sixth of a second.
I could kill her before you knew something was wrong.
But she shuffles ahead slowly, and soon we can heard their voices.
Soon we can hear their shouts.
"Hold or be shot!" one of them shouts fifty or so yards ahead. My blade comes free and slashes up the blond woman's back, cutting away the tape at her knees and wrists. She tears it away and takes a free step forward, before turning and looking up at me.
"Thank you," she says again. For some reason, I can't think of what to say to that.