Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Air

by Chris Castle


I don't know who will read this. For all I know, I may be the last one left alive...

They said it came in the air. Travelled in the streams of breeze, the drops of rain, and the pellets of hail. But no one knew for sure. No one knows now. But before they all died, they said it came in the air. That was the rumor that I believe over all the others.

At the beginning, some saw it as an opportunity to incite hatred toward their enemies. Muslims accused Israelis and Americans, and vice versa. After that it was political groups -- left wing against right wing, unions against business owners, farmers against animal rights, loggers against eco-warriors. But before long, they ran out of people to accuse, because it was obvious that every group and faction was affected equally. The guilty died with the innocent, the 'good' with the 'evil'. When the rumor mongers died, whoever was left stopped accusing the corpses of whoever was supposed to have begun this. And then there was only silence.

I never saw it happen. I had come home to see my brother who still lived in our parent's house. He left for work the next day and never came back. I had visited an old friend the night before and had not left his house until four in the morning. I walked back, drunk and high and I remember thinking how beautiful the streets were, full of chilled mist. A mist so thick and wide spread it covered up all the ugliness of the town; no cars, no bus stops, just a thick blanket of nothing. It couldn't have been the start if it, otherwise I'd be dead. But I remember thinking how beautiful it was to see nothing, to have everything eradicated. I got my wish, I suppose.

I didn't hear my brother leave. Or more to the point, I heard him call out to me, but I didn't answer. I regret that now, though there's no logic in that. I am after all, only human. I got up, showered; couldn't have been in the water, ate and drank; see before. I turned on the radio and the news ripped out of the speakers and stopped me in my tracks; it wasn't in the airwaves, which a lot of people believed for a long time.

I turned on the television, not sure what the radio was trying to tell me. The television showed footage; it was like watching a film, the same way the terrorist attacks were and if anyone says different then they're lying. I sat; slack jawed and watched it happen. The dumbest thing was, I was so stunned I didn't run out and lock the doors, bolt the back gate. I didn't even move until the first person tore at the windows.

I hid. No heroics for me; I locked what I could and ran to my bedroom window and watched it unfold through a gap in the curtains. Masses of bodies running up dual carriageways instead of cars. The sensation of everything shutting down so all that are left are screams and begging. I only thought of myself; not my poor brother, my friends elsewhere; my own life was the only thing that mattered.

When I saw the mass twitching and somehow coming closer, I retreated further; I climbed into my attic and sat in the dark, doing nothing but breathing and replaying what I'd seen over and over in my head.

While I was in the attic I remembered the most stupid of things -- the gas mask. When I was a kid my brother had found a gas mask from World War Two in the attic. He pulled it on and pretended to be a soldier or a spaceman and I went along with him, until the strap snapped and broke my nose. After that, any time he pulled out the mask, I made sure I was otherwise occupied.

I turned on the overhead bulb and found it almost immediately, in amongst the toys and boxes of comics I had stored. I put it on immediately. I had no idea if it was working but it made me feel safer somehow, because I was taking some form of action, no matter how pointless.

After a full day I emerged from the attic and checked the news reports. From my bedroom I could see masses of black bodies lying on the concrete. The house windows were cracked but otherwise intact, the door lock remained in place. The news reports began to repeat themselves, and after several hours had passed with no change in the stories, I had a notion that everyone was dead. My friends and family were gone. Politicians were gone, celebrities, rapists, children, everyone. And I didn't know how that made me feel, ashamed as I am to admit it. I still don't know now.

It took me a month to leave the house. I rationed all the food in the house, filled every container with water, did the best I could. I kept the radio on a constant loop until I was sure there was nothing left. I used my brother's laptop and searched the sites each night until the electricity finally died out. I noticed within a day, people were e baying off everything; houses, belongings, medical equipment. After two days it began to be trophies and memorabilia. They took photographs of what they had claimed. After three days I stopped checking as I was violently sick looking at what was on display.

The technology was the last things to go; computers crashed because people turned to them for answers; I wonder how many of them reached for their lap tops over an outstretched hand? I sometimes think if anyone else did survive they probably went crazy because they were denied there internet access, their blogs and their music. If the air killed the people, the computers killed our voice. I gave up looking for information after a week as the hysteria of the message boards out-weighted any proof of what actually happened; most if the sites were devoted to telling dead men to not leave they're houses. I've no doubt there are people in bunkers with every wealth available but they're of no concern to me; they're probably happy too, but I'm not convinced they don't remember an old lover, a friend, hell even a pet, that they don't blink and see rotted and torn in the corner of their eye; human nature outweighs riches when you're asleep or when you're lonely.

I waited for them to leap through the windows or tear down the door. After the fear of being attacked subsided, I waited to be infected in some way. I figure I had just dumbed out; I woke thinking I was on the verge of turning; into what I didn't know and couldn't fathom; but even that terror subsided into a form of low wattage constant fear, like waiting the rest of your life for the bad piece of news that you knew was coming; not where but when. My stomach ate itself away in anxiety and what sleep I found was fevered and wrapped in sweat.

But eventually I had to go outside; I was left with no options. My food was almost out. I thought I'd become lonely, miss the notion of contact with others; but survival fuelled me more than anything else. I sat and read in the days and in the nights I sat keeping guard. I wore my mask every moment apart from ninety seconds when I washed my face each day and that was it. I feared and savored those seconds, the bite and the risk of the air and each time I came away unscathed. Each time I waited, waiting to seize...and then nothing. It passed. And I lived for another day at least.

I wore layers of clothes because I didn't know if it was cold or hot; the sky was a permanent grey, unreadable to me. I pulled a hammer from the cupboard under the stairs and practiced the absurd swing of hitting a monster. I reached the front door and almost laughed; I'd forgotten to collect my front door key. I walked back and unlocked the chain. I took a breath and then I walked outside and into hell.

I couldn't help but look at the bodies, although I know that is a disgusting thing to say. But if someone falls close by you watch them fall and you don't look away. So I looked down at them; after a while I began to crouch and look closely to them; there was no b-movie lunges; these poor bastards weren't coming back. I looked each of them over; their bodies all took on the same vague disfigurement; like their bones had gotten too angry for their bodies and tried to pull out of their skin. Shoulders were wrenched out of sockets, ribs and knees jutted at angles. After a while I began to look into their faces, a few inches from my own; but they were all the same; the eyes completely black; their mouth torn open, dying in a scream. Every one of them died in pain and died in hate.

I looked at them for hours until my stomach, god help me, started to rumble and I remembered what my mission was. So I walked into the gardens and front gates of my neighbors and I broke into their houses; at first I walked into the houses of those where the doors were already open. I held my hammer raised above my shoulder, fooling myself into thinking I was ready. I called out and waited to be attacked and torn to pieces. And nothing happened. Instead I walked to the kitchen and began filling my bag with their food.

I managed to complete the road in that first day. After I stole all their food, I returned and took bathroom supplies. After that I went through their rooms and took their books, writing equipment. God help me, I went into the room of a dead child and took his stuffed panda bear, one that reminded me of one I had as a child, and I've slept holding it every day since. And I made my way back to the house and I slept in the attic and for the first time since all the madness began, I cried.

But the next day I found myself returning to the houses. Now I had experienced contact, in whatever twisted form, I needed more. I began to collect photo albums, diaries; these people I didn't know in life that lived a few feet from me I now learnt everything after their deaths. I tried to ration myself; steal photos one day, diaries the next and so on. I returned each day at dusk and in the night I read the diaries, looked at the photos. I did it house by house, family by family. A part of me almost walked out and tried to identify the corpses but I stopped just short of that, though each day I fought against myself not to investigate.

Instead I covered up the corpses. I took blankets from each house and laid them over. This could have been a mistake; it could have brought attention to me, though from whom or god knows what I didn't know; but there was the act of seeing almost fifty black sets of eyes on me that I think in the end would have driven me crazy before anything else. So I gave them their tin pot burial and I didn't say a word to any of them while I did. This was a post-prayers land and I couldn't justify changing that by what I did.

I started to move further out. A road can seem big enough when it's covered in corpses, but I needed to find out more about the dead. Now there was no future I wanted to know corpses' past; I knew by then I was probably in shock, or traumatized, or just bat crazy, but there was a logic in it to me that pushed me on. I reached the end of my road and looked out to the dual carriageway. I knew walking out there would expose me in a way I hadn't risked before, but I knew I was going to do it. I stepped out and faced the long empty road and saw the damage close up.

There were cars strewn everywhere; up on the pavement, overturned, burnt out. And bodies. I couldn't even start to count them; all gnarled and black eyes and strewn over the roads like dolls. And something else, too; the cars had been torn to shreds; not just by crashes and accidents but by hands. There were car doors with long gashes torn out of them; roofs pulled away, steering wheels ripped apart. By fingers and thumbs and teeth. I looked at some of them and saw their fingers torn to shreds, saw their silent screaming mouths full of broken teeth and metal. I looked down the road and realized this path of destruction could lead all the way from where I stood to the end of the world.

There was something else, too. Another reason why I risked going out there. I wasn't deluded; I wasn't expecting to find anyone still alive. But I could get their phones; for some reason the phones had shorted when it had happened and when I turned them on they were all still full of energy. I called my friends, I called my brother and none of them answered. But after a while I began to use the phone; listen to the saved messages, the voicemail and it was the first time I'd smiled since it had happened. I realised if everyone had a phone, I could hear thousands of different voices; thousands of stories, messages, arguments, 'I love yous'. After I figured this out, I almost went insane running to the bodies searching them out. Then I had to stop, to remember the word; ration. Ration everything. So instead I collected the phones day by day and limited myself to ten a night; it was like booze of drugs; I knew I wanted more but did not allow myself to indulge. Instead I worked through them one by one and before I slept each night I held the woman's voice who said I love you in my ear until I slept.

My house became something else. I tore down everything that went before, every trace of my history my family, my life; I erased it all because it was dead. And in its place I created a new world of strangers that I was getting to know through everything but their own bodies. I suppose what was missing was their souls, but then I was never one of the great thinkers; instead I learnt from their diary entries, recognised them from the photo's, learnt their voices from their mobiles and I slowly found a new family to live with for one week, every week. Never longer, never shorter. And then they were gone and I began again, putting the used family in the empty clothes trunk

I drank booze through straws and set their photos on the table by me when I sat and ate; I wrote down birthdays on the wall and remembered wedding anniversaries for each of them. I set plaques on the wall, certificates on the side. Put posters of dead bands on the doors and marked children's heights on charts and tried to predict how they would finish up as a teenager, a man. And at night I would put their photos in my shirt pocket and sleep with them wrapped against my heart on one side and the dead kid's panda on the other and try to dream of them alive in a park or a back garden, alive again and together for one prefect afternoon.

I moved along the dual carriageway day by day; pick pocketing the road bodies until I reached a turning that led to a house I could break into. I followed a pattern for when to leave and when to return by and I stuck to it. And at last I reached my best friend's road, because he had always lived close by. Eventually I reached his house. And I stepped inside, hearing my breath becoming ragged, my throat clogging. And I felt my heart pull against my body as I stepped inside his house and saw the first few recognizable things; his coat rack, the stairwell. And then I saw how everything had changed.

I returned that night and began to scratch my hair. I picked at it at first, feeling the rough craters, the scabs. Then I began to pull more roughly, dig deeper with my nails. There was a part of me that knew I was trying to dig the memories of what I saw clean out of my head, pick my brains clear, but I couldn't stop myself regardless. I saw him and all he had and how it had changed. I saw it when I closed my eyes tight and opened them wide. I saw it all as I looked at the blood clotted in with the skin under my nails, and I drank until I fell away and my mind was wiped away until I came around the next morning and remembered it all over again.

I went on. Not soon after I found my brother on the road. A part of me wanted to bring him back to the house but more of me knew it was impossible. I crouched low and I drew the body close and held it. It was the first time I held a body close and I felt how dry and brittle it felt and sounded against my own body. That night I burned the clothes I'd worn. I told myself it was because they might have been contaminated but part of me hoped his ashes clung to my clothes when I burned them in the back garden.

And that was how it all fell apart; seeing one and then the other. My plans fell away, my families went ignored the longer I sat in the chair at night trying not to think of what I'd seen and seeing it all the more vividly for it. The house I built began to fall away. When I slept I jerked awake almost tearing at my mask, my throat. The food I was so proud of stealing began to taste the same whatever way I prepared it. A while after I found my brother I dragged the trunk into the garden and burnt all that was inside. I began to detect the smell of the dead that sat inside my house even though the mask stayed firmly on my face each and every day.

I made my decision yesterday. I don't know the date anymore not that it matters. My rucksack is packed with what I think I will need, though it's impossible to tell. It is just the bare essentials. Embarrassed though I am, I've packed my panda. His panda, in there too; I don't think I could sleep at all without it, which is brief enough as it is. These last few days I've learnt the basics of driving a car; I figure I can use one if there's a stretch of road that's clear of bodies. Otherwise I'll walk and sleep in houses as I go along. I don't know how long it'll take me to reach the city, but I'll get there in the end. I'll reach it and walk to the bridge I went to with my family when I was a boy; that gives you the best view of the city, the church and the clock tower and the monuments. And I'll take them all in and remember them all. And then when I'm done, I'll break the straps and gently pull the mask from my face and I'll let the air carry over me. I'll take deep long, hungry breaths and stand there eating it all up. And then I'll wait. I'll wait for whatever comes next.

THE END


© 2009 Chris Castle

Bio: Chris Castle is English but works in Greece; he has sent his work out this summer and been accepted 40-odd times. His influences include P. T. Anderson, Stephen King and Ray Carver.

E-mail: Chris Castle

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