Authors: Isaac Marion
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Romance, #Paranormal, #General, #Dystopian
THE NEW HUNGER
For my niece and nephews. May they not grow up in a world like this one.
A dead man
lies near a river, and the forest watches him. Gold clouds drift across a warming pink sky. Crows dart through the trees—dark pines and cedars that hover over the dead man like morbid onlookers. In the deep, wild grass, small living things creep around the dead man’s face, eager to eat it and return it to the soil. Their faint clicks mingle with the rush of the wind and the screams of the birds and the roar of the river that will wash away his bones. Nature is hungry. It is ready to take back what the man stole from it by living.
But the dead man opens his eyes.
He stares at the sky. He feels an impulse:
. So he sits up. His eyes are open but he can’t see anything. Just a blur that he doesn’t know is a blur, because he has never seen clarity.
This is the world,
The world is blurry.
Hours pass. Then his eyes remember how to focus, and the world sharpens. He thinks that he liked the world better before he could see it.
Lying next to him is a woman. She is beautiful, her hair pale and silky and matted with blood, her blue eyes mirroring the sky, tears drying rapidly under the hot sun. The man tilts his head, studying the woman’s lovely face and the bullet hole in her forehead. For a brief moment he feels a sensation that he doesn’t like. His features bend downward; his eyes sting. Then it fades and he stands up. The revolver in his hand slips through his limp fingers and falls to the ground. He starts walking.
The man notices that he is tall. Branches scrape his scalp and tangle in his matted mess of hair. The tall man notices other things, too. A leather chair floating in the river. A metal suitcase hanging from a tree branch. Four more bodies with holes in their heads, sprawled out limp in the grass. These ones are not beautiful. They are pale and sunken, spattered with black blood, regarding the sky with strange, metallic grey eyes. He feels another unpleasant sensation, and he kicks one of the bodies in the head. He kicks it again and again, until his shoe sinks into the putrid mess of its brain, and then he forgets why he’s doing this and keeps walking.
The tall man does not know who he is. He does not know what he is or where he is, how he came here or why. His head is so empty it hurts; the vacuum of space is twisting it apart, so he forces a thought into it just to ease the pain:
He walks away from the blonde woman. He walks away from the bodies. He walks away from the column of smoke rising out of the trees behind him.
Find another person.
A girl and her kid brother
are walking in the city. Her brother breaks the silence.
“I know who you like.”
“I know who you like.”
“No you don’t.”
“Yeah I do.”
“I don’t like anybody.”
“Do too. And I know who it is.”
Nora glances back at Addis, who is such a painfully slow walker she wants to put him on a leash and drag him.
“Okay, who do I like.”
“I’m not telling.”
She laughs. “That’s not how blackmail works, dumb-ass.”
“It’s when you know a secret about somebody and you threaten to tell people unless they do what you want. But it doesn’t work if you don’t say what you know.”
“Oh. Okay, you like Kevin.”
Nora fights a surprised smile. The little shit’s got eyes.
!” Addis crows. “You like Kevin!”
“Maybe,” Nora says, looking straight ahead. “So what?”
“So I got you. And now I’m gonna blacknail you.”
. Okay, let’s hear your demands.”
“I want the rest of the cookies.”
“Deal. I don’t even like Oreos.”
“And you have to carry the water an extra day.”
“Well…fine. But only because I
don’t want anyone to know I like Kevin.”
“Yeah, because he’s ugly.”
“No, because he has a girlfriend.”
“I like ugly. Beauty is a trick.”
Addis snorts. “No one likes ugly.”
“I like you, don’t I?” She reaches back and grabs a handful of his woolly hair, shakes his head around. He laughs and wrestles free. “Okay, so are we good here?” she says. “Do we have a deal?”
“All right but only one, so you better make it good.”
Addis studies the pavement scrolling by under his feet. “I want us to look for Mom and Dad.”
Nora walks in silence for a few sidewalk squares. “No deal.”
“But I’m blackmailing you!”
“Then I’m gonna tell everyone you like Kevin.”
Nora stops walking. She cups her hands to her mouth and sucks in a deep breath. “Hey everyone!
I like Kevin Kenerly!
Her voice echoes through long canyons of crumbled highrises, gutted storefronts, melted glass and scorched concrete. It rolls down mossy streets and bounces off piles of rusted cars, frightening crows out of a copse of alders that sprouts through the roof of an Urban Outfitters.
Her brother scowls at her, betrayed, but Nora is tired of this. “We were just playing a game, Addy. Kevin’s probably dead by now.”
She starts walking again. Addis hangs back a moment, then follows, still scowling. “You’re mean,” he says.
“Yeah, maybe. But I’m nicer than Mom and Dad.”
They walk in silence for five minutes before Addis looks up from his gloomy study of the sidewalk. “So what
we looking for?”
Notfign="lefra shrugs. “Good people. There are good people out there.”
“Are you sure?”
“There’s got to be one or two.”
“Do I still get the cookies?”
She stops and raises her eyes skyward, letting out a slow sigh. She slips off her backpack and pulls out the bag of Oreos, hands it to her brother. He shoves the last two into his mouth and Nora studies him as he chews furiously. He’s getting thinner. A seven-year-old’s face should be round, not sharp. It shouldn’t have the angular planes of a fashion model. She can see the exhaustion in his dark eyes, creeping in around the sadness.
“Let’s crash,” she says. “I’m tired.”
Addis beams, revealing white teeth smeared black with cookie gunk.
They set up camp in a law firm lobby, wrapped in the single wool blanket they share between them, the marble floor softened with chair cushions. The last red rays of the sunset leak through the revolving door and crawl across the floor, then abruptly vanish, severed by the rooftops.
“Can we make a fire?” Addis whimpers, although the night is warm.
“In the morning.”
“But it’s scary in here.”
Nora can’t argue with that. The building’s steel skeleton creaks and groans as the day’s warmth dissipates, and she can hear the ghostly rustle of paperwork in a nearby office, brought to life by a breeze whistling through a broken window. But it’s a law firm. A place utterly useless to the new world, and thus invisible to scavengers. One threat out of a hundred checked off her list—she will sleep one percent better.
She pulls the flashlight out of her pack and squeezes its handle a few times until the bulb begins to glow, then gives it to Addis. He hugs it to his chest like a talisman.
“Goodnight, Adenoid,” she says.
Even with the powerful protection of a 2-watt bulb against the endless ocean of creeping night, he still sounds scared. And she can still hear his stomach, growling louder than any monsters that may lurk in the dark.
Nora reaches across their makeshift bed and squeezes her brother’s hand, marveling at its softness. Wondering how mankind survived as long as it did with hands this soft.
For the first time in weeks
, Julie Grigio is having a dream that’s not a nightmare. She is sitting on a blanket on a high white rooftop, gazing into a sky full of airplanes. There are hundreds of them, gleaming against the sky like a swarm of butterflies, writing letters on the blue with their contrails. She is watching these planes next to a silhouette who loves her, and she knows with warm certainty that everything will be okay. That there is nothing in the world worth fearing.
Then she wakes up. She opens her eyes and blinks the world into focus. The tiny cage of the SUV’s cabin surrounds her, spacious for a vehicle, suffocating for a home.
“Mom?” she blurts before she’s fully conscious, a reflex born from years of bad nights and cold-sweat awakenings.
Her mother twists around in the front seat and gives her a gentle smile. “Morning, honey. Sleep okay?”
Julie nods, rubbing crust out of her eyes. “Where are we?”
“Getting close,” her father answers without taking his eyes off the ringoad. The silver Chevy Tahoe cruises at freeway speeds down a narrow suburban street called Boundary Road. It used to terrify her, watching mailboxes and stop signs streak past her window, imagining neighborhood dogs and cats thumping under their tires, but she’s getting used to it. She knows the faster they drive, the sooner they’ll find their new home.
“Are you excited?” her mother asks.
“What are you excited about?”
“Like what? What do you miss most about the city?”
Julie thinks for a moment. “School?”
“We’ll find you a great school.”
Her mother hesitates, struggling to maintain her smile. “You’ll make new friends. What else?”
“Will they have libraries?”
“Sure. No librarians, but the books should still be there.”
“What about restaurants?”
“God, I hope so. I’d kill for a cheeseburger.”
Julie’s father clears his throat. “Audrey…”
“What else?” her mother continues, ignoring him. “Art galleries? I bet we could find somewhere to show your paintings—”
She doesn’t look away from Julie but she stops talking. “What.”
“The Almanac said ‘functioning government,’ not ‘thriving civilization.’”
“I know that.”
“So you shouldn’t be getting her hopes up.”
Audrey Grigio smiles stiffly at her husband. “I don’t think any of us are in danger of a hope overdose, John.”
Julie’s father keeps his eyes on the road and doesn’t reply. Her mother turns back to her and tries to resume the daydream. “What else, Julie? Boys? I hear the boys are cute in Vancouver.”
Julie wants to keep playing but the moment has died. “Maybe,” she says, and looks out the window. Her mother opens her mouth to say more, then closes it and turns around to face the road.
Behind the perfect movie set of beige houses and green lawns, the border wall looms like a studio soundstage, making suspension of disbelief impossible. Big red maple leafs painted every hundred feet serve as stern reminders of who built this barrier, and who’s keeping out whom. Julie loves her mother. She has high hopes for this new life in Canada. But she has seen more nightmares come true than dreams.
“There it is,” her father announces. The truck hops a curb and descends into the border park lawn, tearing muddy grooves in the weedy grass. They drive past the booths where glorified mall cops once pretended to interrogate nervous college kids.
How long will you be staying? Are you carrying any alcohol? Where were you on September 11th?
All that quaint border-crossing pageantry is over now. There is only one question still of interest to the gatekeepers of nations:
Are you infected?
The Tahoe rolls to a stop in front of the gate and Julie’s father gets out. He approaches the black glass scanning window with his hands upraised. “Colonel John T. Grigio, U.S Army,” he shouts. “Requesting immigration.”
The wall is an impressive feat of construction for something built in such desperate times: thirty feet of reinforced concrete running from half a mile off the coast of Washington to somewhere deep in dedere deethe Quebecois wilderness, and the whole length of it garnished with razor-wire. The “gate” is just two tall slabs of galvanized steel, fitted flush to the concrete to make any prying or tampering impossible. Not that the automated guns mounted above it would allow the attempt.