A dusty brown sky lays on the horizon. It’s a day like yesterday and the day before that and the day before that. Maybe it’s been decades. Maybe the sky was never blue and the air never warm. Maybe life was always this steamy hot, bleak emptiness.
Sebastian isn’t sure.
He is a day to day type guy. And here in what remains of the city once called New York he is master of survival. Like before, he knew how to get by. It’s just harder now, but he can make do.
He sucks on the slimy resin remaining from his breakfast of worm eggs. Slurping on his fingers he watches for signs of the creatures return. The worms aren’t overtly dangerous unless they can get an appendage into their yawning teeth lined maws, but otherwise simply running away would keep him safe from the terrier sized creatures.
The electrical shock he gave this one will only make it forget its maternal instincts for so long.
The smell of the worms burned flesh lingers still in the air and a thought strikes him.
“Do you remember birds?” he croaks.
“Oh, God, chicken, so crispy, so greasy, so salty, so good,” he answers, his voice different, higher, female maybe.
“Do you think anything left tastes like chicken?
“No, but maybe good and meaty. Maybe we go to the basement again.”
Sebastian cringes and flexes what remains of his mangled left hand, “No baby we can’t. Don’t you remember what happened last time?”
“Don’t be a pussy darling.”
Sebastian is missing three fingers. The pinky, the ring, and the middle. Comically the wound looks like a cookie with a bite out of it.
If it werent for his baby he knows he would have died. She cared for him. Made him drink. Foraged him food. When the fever passed she stayed with him. He has no clue how long it’s been. They are together forever now. It’s a constant promise she makes him. He doesn’t want to let her down, disappoint her, give her a reason to leave him.
He needs her.
“If that’s really what you want,” he sighs. Lately her requests were getting more and more dangerous.
Climb to the top of that crumbling building.
Sneak into that encampment of survivors and steal some power.
Sing for me baby, sing louder, sing like your life depends on it.
And he does it all. Every single thing. And today he is going to crawl back down into the tunnel that almost cost him his life, because she demands it.
He returns the stunner to his pack and hoists the seventy five pound ruck onto his shoulders. It jingles and jangles as he gets his balance and turns to point himself in the direction of the 96th street subway entrance, one of the few that is still accessible.
He takes his first step and his knees buckle.
The first few steps starting lately out are always the most painful.
He feels so old.
But how old he has no clue.
Long ago he stopped remembering to celebrate his birthday. He knows when his baby’s is though.
It’s the day he broke through his fugue. It’s the day he first talked to her.
Every year he builds her a fire and they feast on cooked food. It’s the only day he allows himself the luxury. The world otherwise is too dangerous a place to do it more often.
In the beginning there were fires everywhere anyway, but dangerously sprouting from melting metal and filled with poisonous chemicals.
It took a long time for the smells to dissipate. The sky will probably stink like it forever.
Those that did not die from what fell from the sky, died pretty quickly because of the smoke and those that survived the smoke perished from the cancers that sprung up later and those that lived long enough with the cancer usually got eaten by something.
Sebastian suspects the growing lump on his stomach is cancerous, but his feelings are if he doesn’t bother it it won’t bother him. Only occasionally is he unable to support his ruck and quick getaways are a thing of the distant past.
One day he will have to go through it and get rid of some stuff, but parting with things has never been easy. Back before the war he lived on the One train going back and forth from 249th street in the Bronx all the way down to South Ferry with his stuff in suitcases. He stopped trying to get a bed in a shelter when someone went through his bags.
They tossed everything onto the floor.
Sebastian slept through the whole thing.
He reassembled his belongings the next morning and then walked the streets digging through trash cans to replace what was lost. If asked to be honest he would not have been able to even say what it was he was replacing. Once something made it into his collection it just stayed there.
His baby helps him with that now.
When he spots something interesting, she usually stops him from getting it unless it is really needed, “No sebastian baby leave that be, you don’t need anything else.”
And he does, he leaves it be.
She is the best thing that has ever happened to him.
The closer he gets to the entrance to the underground the more his hand throbs.
He shakes it hoping to rid the appendage of pain. It only makes the missing digits ache more intensely as if the closer he gets to where he lost them the more he feels their misery.
He doesn’t remember what took his fingers. His only memory of that day is waking up in the middle of the cracked and ruined asphalt of Broadway shivering with fever. The day was the same as any other day, steamy brown with the faint stink of burning metal. The sun was just about to set and deep jagged shadows were cast from the broken buildings.
He could hear the howls of the mutated dogs catching his scent.
He doesn’t know how it all happened only that after the bombs dropped things change for the worst. Most people died and animals became something else. Not all of the animals though just some. Insects and invertebrates changed, they grew larger and braver and hungrier. Dogs grew scales and sprouted spikes where they once grew hair. It was easy to dream about their blood red eyes hunting him in the night.
He never felt safe.
He felt followed every second of every day.
Reaching the entrance to the basement that fed down into the subway Sebastian slips his shoulders from the straps of his bag. The heavy ruck slumps to the ground with a clang of metal in addition to the horrible sound of ripping fabric.
He’s afraid to look.
If the bag is ruined he doesn’t know what he will do. It holds everything he needs to survive.
Turning around he spies the nightmare; a pile of his stuff fluttering in the wind.
Pots and pans.
Wet weather gear.
And 20 pounds of human skeleton.
“It’s okay baby. You don’t need this stuff any longer.’ he tells himself in his baby’s voice. ‘All you need is me.’
He walks over the to skeleton and lifts it up. The bones have all been joined together with small bits of rusting wire. The skull is severely cracked and the mouth is a toothy smile.
‘It’s time to go home Sebastian. It’s time to ride the One train once again.”