Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
Simon huddled closer to Meredith as the two sat gazing at Manhattan in the distance. A city, once vibrant and full of life, now stood as a mausoleum. Skyscrapers reached toward the darkening sky little more than vacant, black pillars. Deafening silence hung over the deserted streets. Broken cars clogged Fifth Avenue and debris polluted the once clear lake of Central Park. Time’s Square lay derelict, the massive screens which were once vibrant with life now cracked and dead.
Meredith recalled photos, both from before and after the Fall. It would have been something had she lived in the city’s heyday. ‘Sounds like it would be horrible with all the noise though,’ Zack had said when she mentioned the thought to him. Meredith smiled, as she had back then. He was right, it probably would have been horrible. Still, it would have been a sight to see.
“Mary,” Simon the young boy said, bringing Meredith back to the present. “Is that West Burrow?”
“No, not that,” she said. “That used to be New York.”
“But aren’t we in New York?”
“We are,” she said. “But that was New York, New York.”
The boy giggled.
“You’re silly, Mary.”
Meredith smiled and ran a hand through his black hair. His ripped, red shirt clung to his pale chest—darkened a shade from sweat and dirt.
“And you’re stinky!” Meredith said. Simon hit her arm, though it might as well have been a love tap.
The woman stuck out her tongue, and the two burst into laughter. It was moments like this that she lived for nowadays. Even she had to admit, it was far better than staying in a laboratory all day.
A howl echoed from the dead city. Their laughter ended abruptly.
“Do you think they can hear us, Mary?” Simon asked. Meredith reached for her satchel. The boy lunged over and grabbed her hand. “No, please don’t use it!”
Meredith grimaced. Her grip tightened on the satchel for a fraction of a second. Simon took a sharp breath. She snatched back and turned to hide her flushed face. “Fine, I won’t. Not unless we’re in a lot of trouble.”
“Oh…okay,” he said, though his brown eyes lingered on the bag. “It’s just…your hair…it’s turning white. You act so funny when you have it on. It scares me.” She nodded.
Meredith was afraid of the device too.
“Come on,” Meredith said, standing and scooping up the satchel. “Let’s get up to bed. Tomorrow we’ll be at West Burrow.”
Simon smiled, grabbed Meredith’s hand, and pulled himself up.
It took at least half an hour to get herself and Simon up into the tall oak. The moon hung in the dark sky with what had to be a hundred stars. Moans echoed across the Hudson River, growing in intensity.
“Are you sure they can’t climb trees?” Simon asked, his voice trembling.
“Of course not,” Meredith said, tying a rope tightly around him and the tree’s limb. She peered over the edge. It was at least a two-story drop. “The most they’d be able to do is hit against the tree. I’d feel sorry for the tree…though it’s such a handsome one. I’m sure it gets hit on all the time.”
Simon smiled. “Silly,” he said and rested his head on the trunk. Meredith waited, watching the boy. He tossed and turned what little he could. His eyes were clamped tightly shut, and his face was tight with concentration. She wished she could make Simon more comfortable, but she already knew that there was nothing in her satchel that could improve his situation.
“Sleep tight, little guy,” Meredith whispered.
She climbed up to the nearest branch, testing it to ensure it held her weight. Once she was sure of the limb’s integrity, Meredith perched upon it and placed the satchel between her legs. She reached into the bag for her own length of rope—her fingers brushed a cold, metal surface. Murmurs she couldn’t understand flitted through her mind like a swarm of flies. Meredith yanked her hand back, ending the whispers but leaving her shaken. She glanced down at Simon. Though Meredith couldn’t see the boy, the sound of his subtle snores put her at ease.
All those people affected by the virus—always in pain, always oozing, yet always alive. If you could call such a fate living. Zack had always said that this was the world’s punishment—for living so big and having no thought of the consequences.
Meredith could see him—his shaggy brown hair, his lab coat, his lanky frame. But that was gone. It was just her and Simon now—the survivors of Scatterfield, Rhode Island. He deserves someone better than me, she thought.
Another moan echoed in the night, though it sounded closer than before. Meredith looked toward New York, it’s far off silhouette barely visible through the wood’s canopy. It was nothing, she finally decided. Probably just the wind whipping through the empty streets of the city. Meredith laid her head on the trunk and closed her eyes.
Her eyes opened wide. A stench made her nose wrinkle, like a mix of decay and feces. One by one, figures emerged from the darkness of the woods—ten, twenty, thirty. Each of the figure’s footsteps made a wet squish, and their pus, blood-oozing skin shined when moonlight caught it. Red eyes stared up, though Meredith knew that those eyes didn’t hold a plea for help; They held a look of hunger.
“Mary,” Simon whimpered. He pressed himself back against the trunk he was tied to and stared down with wide, terrified eyes.
“It’s okay,” Meredith said, shouting to make herself heard. “They can’t climb trees, reme–”
One of the creatures latched onto the tree and climbed, leaving a dark trail behind as it ascended. More screams filled the air as more of the creatures climbed. Each left a piece of themselves as their rotting bodies rubbed against the wood. Intestines dragged behind from its ruptured belly. It howled in pain, yet still clung to the tree side and dragged its innards along behind.
Meredith grabbed a branch, broke it off, and threw it at the closest creature a few feet down. Its hairless head snapped back when the branch made impact, impaling its fleshy cranium with a wet squish. The creature’s grip loosened, and it fell back into the darkness below. Its body landed, sprawled on the ground. Meredith waited. Maybe that killed it, she thought. Though, she knew better. The creature sat up and grasped the branch protruding from its skull. With a quick wrench, it pulled the stick out. The wound left behind closed instantly.
The stench of rotting flesh was overwhelming. Silhouettes emerged from the wood. Several grabbed the surface of the tree and hauled themselves up its side. Others stood back, staring up. Within minutes, the darkness below was filled with hundreds of shining eyes–all staring at her.
A grip tightened around Meredith’s hand. She gasped, almost falling off the branch until she realized that it was Simon’s hand intertwined within hers. He didn’t say anything but just stared down with wide, blue eyes and a quivering lip.
Meredith grabbed her bag, shifting through the small pile within. Surely there was something; something that she had forgotten. Her hand nudged something that sent a shock through her; the same thing that caused her to wrench back her hand before. Only this time, she grabbed it and yanked it from the bag.
It was, to anyone ignorant, a silver crown. Four half arches attached to the circlet, where it met on the crown of the person’s head at a monde-like orb. A strip of blue light brightened and dimmed, running throughout the crown’s circlet and up into the orb. The device seemed to expand and contract in Meredith’s hand, almost as though it were breathing.
“No, Mary,” Simon shouted. “You said you wouldn’t!” Meredith glanced down. Ten creatures were climbing, and at least thirty crowded the foot of the tree.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She raised the crown and placed it on her head. The night broke away. Meredith ascended—rising past this world, past the universe, past reality itself. Her body felt electrified. Images sped through her mind. The sensation overwhelmed her, blocking her senses to the present.
She saw a small town overlooking a bay into the Pacific. That’s how she would always spend her mornings. It seemed so peaceful. Zack came and brought her a cup of coffee.
“Do you think the CW-12 will work?” he asked, sitting beside her and gazing into the sunrise.
“Of course,” she said, resting her head on his shoulder. “Maybe we have a fighting chance now.”
Meredith cried out, and her limbs shook with adrenaline and rage. She stretched out her hand, willing matter to converge and form a flame. A glow sprouted from her palm and lit the night. The creatures stopped at the sight of light, their black eyes squinting. Meredith clenched her jaw, anger fueling her power, and the size of the flame grew with the beat of her pulse. She tossed the fire as though she threw a baseball. It struck one of the oozing monsters, causing them to burst into an inferno. It fell, and Meredith savored the scent of scorched flesh.
“Mary, stop!” Simon said.
The creature, the Regenerators—they called them. Victims of the Unmentionable Virus. Meredith spent hours studying their infected cells under a microscope—watching them automatically repair themselves when damaged. They had one of the afflicted in the holding cell. Meredith had watched it screaming, begging for help. To be delivered from the pain. Yet every time someone went in, the creature attacked. Meat suppressed the screaming. Suppressed the pain.
“Mary,” Zack said. “Snap—out of it!”
Meredith shook her head. Simon stood on the limb beside her, back pressed against the tree and staring with wide eyes.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” she said, though her hand twitched. That compulsion—to cause more destruction, even though half the forest was lit with flames.
“Come on,” she said, reaching out for the boy. Simon shook his head. “It’s okay,” Meredith said, a muscle in her neck twitching. “It’s me again.”
Simon rushed into her arms, and she picked him up. Meredith closed her eyes. Destroy it all, a voice in the back of her mind commanded. She felt the sudden flush of rage warm her body, but Meredith pushed back, holding it at bay. No, this wasn’t her. She thought about Simon—the little boy she had saved and clung to her at that moment. If anything, she had to keep it together for him.
She took a deep breath and then stepped off the branch. Simon tightened his grip as they fell. Though, they fell no more than a foot before her body stopped in midair. She lifted higher until the trees and the inferno below looked like a sea of green and ember. Meredith took one last look at the dead city before turning away and flying north.
Blood and excrement trailed behind Regenerators as they filled the streets of Manhattan. Their moans filled Broadway and rang through Queens until they created a symphony. Though that night they saw a light—a burning flame. At last, something new! The creatures stumbled toward it—hoping for a cure, hoping for an end to their suffering. Above all, they longed for food.
Snow wafted down as Meredith flew away from New York—the city fading into the distance, though the flare of the flames reached into the night. Whenever she glanced back and watched the orange sky, she smiled. The fire. It’s so pretty. Everything should be that way– She shook her head. Quit putting funk in my head! she thought.
“Meredith,” Simon said from behind, his arms around her neck. “Take off the crown.”
Meredith lowered. Their shadow grew larger, but her feet never touched the ground. “No,” Meredith said, her voice deep and raspy. Simon reached up and pulled the crown off her head.
The two plummeted. Meredith felt Simon fly off her back as she rolled. Finally, she came to a stop. Simon got up and approached her sprawled form. He tugged on her arm while he held the crown in his other hand. When Meredith stood, she wiped what dirt she could from her tattered business skirt. She looked at the device in the boy’s hand.
“Give it to me, Zack…I mean Simon,” she said.
“But you said you wouldn’t use it!” Simon said.
“Simon, I had to—“
“I didn’t, Simon. Now, please give me the crown—“
“You might use it—“
“I SAID GIVE IT–”
Simon shrunk back. Strands of hair fell across Meredith’s vision. The amount of grey had doubled. Meredith’s shoulders slumped. Yet again, she found that she couldn’t look the boy in the eye. “I’m sorry. Here, put it in your bag.”
She took the backpack off his shoulders and opened it. Simon dropped the crown in.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, patting his head. She knew she had to destroy that thing, but it was the only defense they had against the Regenerators.
Just wait till we get to West Burrow. Then think about it. “Come on,” she said. “We’re almost there.”
The Regenerators stared up at the pyre. It consumed the thicket of trees—black smoke blotting out the setting moon. They could smell fresh flesh. The mutants followed the scent, their stomachs aching.
To the east, the first of rays of morning crept over the horizon. The rising sun stung their rotting flesh, yet the Regenerators carried on. More and more joined the throng, until a line over a mile long trailed from New York City, and only grew.
More snow fell that night, blanketing the tall, brown grass, and the wind blew through the barren landscape. Nothing but an occasional, thin and spidery-looking tree gave them shelter. Simon shook, hugging himself. Meredith took off her olive-green coat and draped it over the boy’s shoulders.
Finally, the sun rose and shone over the nearly white ground. Eventually, they stopped and made a fire. Simon wrapped himself in Meredith’s coat and used his bag as a pillow, while Meredith took the GPS out of her pocket.
An hour away from West Burrow on foot.
“Mary,” Simon said. “Could you tell me a story?”
“What do you want to hear?” she asked, scooting closer.
“Could you tell me how you saved me again?”
“Oh,” Meredith said, looking away. “Wouldn’t…wouldn’t you want to hear something else?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not afraid anymore.”
“Okay,” she said, though she looked more at the sky than the boy. “There was a monster that came to Scatterfield. It was a horrible thing…the creature took the townspeople by surprise. The town burned down…A lot of people were hurt…”
“You mean they died.”
“Yeah,” Meredith said, her voice trailing off. “But…I found you. By then, the monster was leaving. You were all alone–”
“I wish I wasn’t so scared,” he said, his gaze falling. “I could have done something. I could have saved Mommy and–”
“No!” Meredith said and put a hand on his shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault what happened. Nothing is your fault.”
Simon shrugged and rolled over. The woman sighed but cuddled up to him. Though Meredith blinked fiercely, her red eyes wouldn’t dry.
Cold shook Meredith from her sleep. When she opened her eyes, the sun was descending. “Come on,” she said, shaking Simon. The boy grumbled, shifting beneath the woman’s coat. “It’s getting dark. We’re almost there.” Within ten minutes, the two traveled on.
The wind pushed against them. Meredith crossed her arms, tucking her head down. Just an hour, she told herself, rubbing her prickly arms. The coat nearly consumed the boy, so the only thing visible was the top of his head.
More than once Meredith stopped and glanced back. She swore she heard moaning.
“Simon,” she said, kneeling. “Get on my back.”
He clamped his arms around her neck. The folds of the coat remained in his grasp, so it was as though Meredith wore a large, heavy scarf. A large, red brick wall appeared on the horizon. It stood at least three stories high and extended for miles to the left and right. Only the rooftops were visible over the wall—their brown, singled tops coated in freshly fallen snow. Meredith sighed in relief. They had reached West Burrow.
Meredith turned cold. She didn’t want to turn, yet some indescribable urge forced her to look back. The horizon looked blurry—a wall of constantly moving bricks. It took Meredith only a moment to realize what it was.
Regenerators—a horde of thousands. Their mutterings drifted with the wind, becoming a tidal wave of static. The stench of week-old carrion washed over Meredith. She swallowed, forcing back bile. With the cold numbing the creatures’ endlessly festering skin, they would probably climb over one another to get over the city wall.
“What is that, Mary?” Simon whispered into her ear.
“Nothing, Simon,” she said, turning and sprinting toward the wall of West Burrow. Her feet sank into the snow, so it felt as though she ran in slow motion. She pushed on. Her calves burned against the resistance of the snow. No matter how hard Meredith pushed herself, the sound of the creatures behind her grew louder, and their stink grew stronger. It was no use. They would be upon them in minutes.
Meredith’s gait slowed. Her heart felt like a shard stuck in her chest. Everything within repulsed against the idea of what she knew she had to do. Just keep going, part of her demanded. No, she couldn’t.
This was the only way.
“Come on, Simon,” she said, kneeling. The boy unhooked his hands from around her neck. Meredith turned him so she could see nothing but his face. It took every bit of will not to look away from his confused expression. Yet, she held his gaze and pulled him into a tight embrace.
“I need you to listen to me, Simon,” she said. Her hand slid into his backpack. “I need you to run to West Burrow. No matter what happens just run. I’ll be right behind–”
Simon pulled back and clasped his small, cold hand around Meredith’s wrist. The crown pulsed blue in her hand.
“No,” Simon said, his voice quivering. “You can’t.”
“I have to.”
“I won’t let you!”
The boy’s eyes shimmered. Meredith had to take deep breaths to ensure hers wouldn’t do the same.
“I don’t want you to die,” Simon said.
“I won’t, I promise,” Meredith said, though her watering eyes couldn’t look at his. “I need to protect you.”
“But you’re the one that needs protecting.”
Meredith stroked the boy’s head and kissed him on the forehead. There was so much she wanted to say—to apologize, to tell him his future was going to be far better than his past. Anything to make him feel better. She opened her mouth, yet nothing came out.
“Go,” she finally muttered, forcing herself to hold his gaze. “I’ll be right behind you. I promise.”
Simon’s lip trembled. He stood there for several seconds, but forced his body to turn and run.
Meredith stood—feeling more alone than she had since Scatterfield. She would have stood there all night, watching the boy grow farther and farther away. A weight fell into her chest. It was one that made her want to fall and not get up. Yet, the moans from behind called her back to the present.
The Regenerators were nearly a mile away.
The frigid metal of the crown burned her grip.
She turned toward the horde, holding the device in both hands above her head. Most of the creatures ran on all fours now; some vomited white bile that fizzled when it touched the snow.
Keep it together, Meredith thought. She lowered the crown onto her head.
It was late. Meredith looked through the research facility window. It was nearly midnight, and the moon’s light illuminated the corridor. She entered the double doors to the main laboratory at the end of the hall–
A tangle of bodies on the metal table unfastened themselves from one another. Zack stood, pulling his pants up while the blonde lab assistant—what was her name…Linda?–wrapped her arms around her bare breasts.
“Mary,” he said, face flushed. Meredith slammed the door. She wanted to run, but all she could do was stand leaning against the door. Her body felt heavy and limp. She just wanted to fall, yet she couldn’t. It was as though she hung from invisible wires that forced her to remain standing.
Meredith staggered and doubled over. Flashbacks ran through her head. She struggled for control, but she could only hear the visions–
“I didn’t want you to find out this way,” Zack said.
“How could you?” she said, though she stared out the window. She wouldn’t look at him. She wouldn’t break.
“Mary!” Simon said, his voice distant.
“I thought we were happy.”
Zack looked away. “You were,” he said. “But the spark…it’s just gone.”
The comment felt as though Zack slapped her across the face. She just stood there—unable to move, retort.
Linda stepped out, now wearing a half-buttoned white shirt and short tan skirt. The sides of her breasts were visible within the open folds of her blouse. Meredith grimaced and turned away.
“Maybe we should leave,” Linda said, taking a step closer to Zack.
Meredith couldn’t look at them. She kept her focus out the window, her hands clutching the sill. The sounds of their footsteps echoed down the corridor, growing fainter and fainter until they disappeared altogether. Thoughts flooded her mind. They sped through so fast that she wasn’t sure what to make of them. Rage battled with sadness, hate with depression.
She eventually wandered into the laboratory. Everything seemed so clean, so sterile. Nothing seemed to hold the wonder and majesty it once had. But then her eyes fell on the CW-21. The “Crown” as they called it. It sat on its pedestal, staring at her. They hadn’t tested it. She and Zack agreed that it was too dangerous for human testing. Meredith’s face flushed at the thought of him. All she could see was him and Linda, entangled in the same room no longer than a few minutes ago. He didn’t even have the decency to tell her that it was over. Didn’t she deserve that much, at least? Meredith’s hands tightened into shaking fists.
She would finish this without him.
Meredith. snatched the CW-21, and placed it on her head–
Energy burst from Meredith’s body, lifting her. The first row of Regenerators staggered as crimson blurred her vision. Meredith felt as though a fire burned beneath her skin, and she heard her pulse in her temple. The Regenerators righted themselves and then lumbered on. Meredith’s face twisted. She opened a hand, flame erupting within her palm. She flicked her wrist, and a fireball sped off into the horde.
He would pay. They would all pay. And everything would burn.
One of the Regenerators fell, its smoldering form blacking the snow beneath it–
Zack gawked up at her.
“Mary,” he said—his voice strained. “What are you doing?”
“What was it you were looking for?” Meredith said, her voice low. “A spark?”
She raised her hand, letting the fire consume it without burning. Zack stepped back, tripping over his own feet. The flame reflected off his eyes.
The Regenerators were only a yard away. They could reach and claw all they wanted. They couldn’t touch her. She smirked.
The voice was faint, almost as though it were the wind. The boy lay a few feet behind her. His heavy eyes looked up at her before his head fell face-first onto the snow.
Nobody lived. Meredith’s body heaved. What have I done? She thought. She ripped off the CW-21, crumpling onto the road. She sobbed. Everything burned around her. How could she have done this?
A boy tugged a man’s arm beneath a fallen rafter of a smoldering house. The boy sobbed, pleading. ‘Don’t leave me.’ It took nearly an hour to console the child and carry him away from the corpse. They left the destroyed town, her arm wrapped around him. Her life was his now–
Tears fell from her cheeks, fists clenched. “This is my body,” she said.
Meredith’s head arched back. A wave of flame burst from her curving body and smashed into the creatures. Their screams raised into the night. The smell of roasting flesh and bubbling bile engulfed her. They crumbled to the snow, their limbs falling apart in the flame’s heat.
It was hot. Hotter than had Meredith ever felt, although there was no pain.
Her clothes burned away, leaving her naked body wrapped in an inferno. She willed the flame to rage. Her mind always wanted to slip, but she wouldn’t let it. Finally, there was nothing left but crumpling bodies, flames still burning on their charred remains, dying on the black mush of melting snow. Meredith let the flame die and let the darkness take her.
Simon opened his eyes. A man in a camouflaged uniform stood over him. He wore a green helmet, and a machine gun hung by its strap around his shoulders.
“Oh good,” the soldier said. “He’s alive!”
Another soldier came into vision.
“Wait, Mary!” Simon muttered, trying to sit up. “Where’s Mary.”
“It’s alright,” the soldier said, trying to force him back down.
“I have to find Mary!” Simon said, looking around. He turned, expecting to find her close by. But all he saw was miles of melting, black snow behind him. The only thing still standing was a tree at the edge of the blast radius.
“Mary!” Simon said.
“It’s alright,” the soldier said. “You were the only one.”
“No!” The boy said. “I wasn’t! Mary!”
Simon’s cries drifted through the air until the soldiers picked him up and carried him toward West Burrow. Meredith’s eyes burned, tears streaking her cheeks. She hid, naked, behind a tree about five miles away. Despite the distance, she could still see and hear the boy.
Was the crown changing her that much?
Her heart fluttered as she watched the men take the boy away.
“Be safe,” she whispered.
It’s all for the best. Meredith told herself that over and over again. Each time she did, her grip tightened on the crown in her right hand.
Credit : Steven Winters
Twitter : https://twitter.com/VenWinters
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