I don't have enough unpublished shorts in the inventory to post one of those, so I'm putting up "Breaking Contact," originally published in Aoife's Kiss in September 2008. If you like it, please link to both the story and to the Crossed Genres page, and give whatever you think the story is worth to Haitian earthquake relief.
♦ ♦ ♦
The smell of old gunpowder stung my nose as I inhaled. Gunpowder and mold.
I opened my mouth for the end of the barrel, then set the pistol down on the bedspread. I wasn't quite ready yet.
Besides, the gun had been in a U-Store-It in the south Florida heat and humidity for years. There were spots of rust on the bluing. It might not even fire.
When I got to the point of eating the revolver, I didn't want to be disappointed.
The day after I came home to Stuart, I drove out to the Jensen Beach causeway to watch the Shuttle go up for the last time. I could have gotten a better view from Melbourne or even Cocoa Beach but that didn't feel right. It was time to be home.
A dozen cars besides my old Honda were pulled off the side of the causeway, all pointing north for a good view. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes not. I'd watched a night launch with Pam Gallagher from this very spot and I smiled for a moment at the memory.
Three minutes after scheduled launch, the Ford next to me rolled its window down. I did the same and got a blast of heat and humidity for my trouble. I hadn’t missed July in south Florida.
"They’ve already launched," said the Ford through his mask. "AM 920."
I nodded and rolled my window back up. Too many clouds between here and the Cape. I turned the radio on and Endeavor was 37 miles downrange as I backed my old Honda back onto the road.
In a small way I had contributed something to the mission -- Endeavor -- carried cryogenically frozen sperm and ova aboard for Project Phoenix. I’d won a spot in the lottery and some of my sperm was going along for the ride. Odd feeling, a part of you going into space to try and save humanity when you’re stuck down here.
A dark blue Stuart police car sat outside Publix when I pulled into the parking lot. Parking wasn’t a problem – not even the usual geriatrics sharking for a handicapped parking space. I still parked far out, though. No way of knowing why the cop was here – probably nothing, but there’d been trouble when things started to go wrong, so I'd gotten used to being careful. I didn’t want to end up in the middle of a gunfight on this of all days.
I needn’t have worried. The cop lounged in a chair by the register at the seafood counter, sound asleep. The surgical mask over his nose and mouth shook slightly with a snore. His partner sat by the produce, awake, but barely. The lights were off in the rest of the store, but only produce and seafood ever got anything in, and then only because of local growers and fisherman. I picked up a half dozen mangos, then stood in the line at the seafood counter. It wasn’t long, but it took a good fifteen minutes to reach the head.
"We got drum and snook," the man behind the counter mumbled beneath the mask he wore.
"No shrimp?" It was my favorite and I wanted shrimp if I could.
"Drum and snook."
"I want shrimp." The cop stopped snoring and sat up slightly, watching me. "Snook, then." I sighed. "Filet, about half a pound." I wanted shrimp and I nearly had an irresistible urge to retaliate by telling the counterman that his mask wouldn’t do him any good. Kinshasa virus was a lot smaller than the openings in the mask.
He went in the back and took forever to come back with my filet.
"What took so long? Don’t you have any help?" I asked.
He shrugged. "They’re all sick."
I might have guessed.
Traffic on US 1 approaching the Roosevelt Bridge was slow, which surprised me. With three quarters of the world’s population already dead from the Kinshasa virus and the rest of us doomed to get it, you don’t generally expect traffic problems. People still drive, though -- even if most stations have no more gasoline, there are still plenty of parked cars with fuel in them. A siphon hose and a gas can got me the 954 miles from Charlottesville Virginia down to Stuart.
Still I didn't feel like waiting, so I turned around and took the old bridge across the river and drove the back route into North River Shores. Out of curiosity, however, I drove past the condo to the front entrance of the neighborhood by the bridge. The traffic was still there, moving slowly around a large alligator stretched across the middle of the two southbound lanes.
For a few moments I took it for dead. The southbound cars were carefully driving into the far lane to get around it, but one came too close and the animal suddenly came to life and snapped at the tires of the offending Subaru. The gator missed, but the driver nearly ran into another car. He hadn’t always missed -- a small pickup sat skewed sideways, blocking one of the northbound lanes. Its tires were fine, but the rear quarter panel had been crushed from a blow of the gator's tail. It wasn't going anywhere.
I laughed out loud for the first time in months as I put the Honda into reverse and drove back to the condo. Not everything was giving up on life.
I pulled into the parking lot a moment later. The condo was upstairs in the first building just inside the entrance. Close to the front, easy parking, not too many speed bumps to go over. I inherited it three years ago, but hadn't used it before now except for the occasional holiday.
A Martin County pickup truck idled on the other side of the parking lot, its crew lifting a black body bag into the back. It wasn't the only bag.
"That's Mrs. . . . Mrs. . . ," a man's voice said from behind me as I got out of the car. "Oh shit, why can't I remember her name?"
"I don't think loss of memory's a symptom," I said. "Don't worry. I lived here for ten years before I went off to FSU and I never knew the name of anyone outside our building."
"Belinsky. That was her name. From New York." That was apparently all the epitaph she warranted -- New Yorkers aren't especially popular among native Floridians. He was a young man, only a year or two younger than me. Tim something or other. Red hair and freckles, skin turning bright red from being in the sun a lot recently, green mask. I'd met him once before when I came home for Christmas break. Moved here from Port St. Lucie and lived alone in the upstairs corner apartment in my building. I'd bought pot from the guy who lived in that apartment when I went to Martin County High.
Tim turned away and I reached into the Honda for the fish I'd gotten at Publix, then started for my apartment. I saw what Tim was doing and stopped. A series of hedges divided the parking lot and Tim had been at work on these with a small pair of clippers. He'd cut a lady bug, passably well done (obviously the earliest), a dog (better), a VW bug (better still, although I couldn't tell if it was an old bug or a new one), and a large cow. He was nearly finished carving up the nearest hedge into a large lizard. Definitely his best work yet.
"Nice topiary," I stopped to look at it. The lizard really was very good.
"Thanks. Nobody really to object now, since the manager got sick last week." He stopped long enough to wipe sweat from his forehead. "Only problem is that most of the hedges are too low to do anything really interesting." He pointed towards a much taller hedge, near the entrance to the complex. "There's only that one there but I'm not sure what to do with it. I was thinking of doing Elvis on that one, but it's a bit top heavy."
I shrugged. "So was Elvis."
"Yea," he said, "but did he have spindly legs?" He thought for a moment. "Maybe John Lennon. Did he have spindly legs?"
"Not that I know of. Try Yoko."
He stared at the taller hedge, then shrugged and turned back to the lizard.
All of a sudden, I didn't want to go into my apartment. I'd be cool and comfortable, but I'd also be quite alone. I hardly had any human contact these days and knowing what waited in my apartment today, I wasn't sure I wanted to give it up so quickly.
"Any news lately?" Tim had a small radio at his feet, not a boom-box but one that looked like radios used to, when people still listened to them.
"Last shuttle went up this morning."
I nodded, "I tried to watch it but there were too many clouds."
"About a cure, then?" He shook his head. "No such luck. Doctors can't do a damn thing. Couldn't find their collective ass with both hands."
I nodded and didn't say anything. I certainly didn't say that I'd been in my last year of med school at the University of Virginia until last week. I knew that a cure in the time available was pretty unlikely. I felt his hand on my arm as I turned away, as if he too were reluctant to break contact.
"You know," he said slowly as if trying to decide how much to say. "I bought my condo here five years ago when I came into some money. I'm well off enough that I haven't had to work since then. Used to be I'd lie on my bed and look out the window at the crew that came in everyday and took care of the grounds. You know, the ones who mowed the lawn and picked up the palm leaves after storms. I used to think that if you had to work, that'd be the last thing I'd ever choose to do. Especially doing it out here during the summer."
He laughed as he looked down at himself. "I guess I really don't think that way anymore. It's cathartic, I guess, working out here in the sun. Fries your brain a bit so you don't have to think." He shrugged. "Or maybe it's just knowing that sometime soon we're all going to. . . get sick. Helps you figure things out."
I nodded and turned away. I too had figured things out but I wasn't sure I was as much at peace with my decision as Tim was.
The bedroom was the same as I'd left it. Of course, I could have left the front door unlocked and that'd still be true. Burglaries are a thing of the past now. No one really expected to live long enough to make fencing stolen stuff worthwhile. Besides, with so many houses empty, there's little need. On the other hand, violent crime is up -- if everyone's going to die, what difference does it make what you do?
I peeled my shirt off and tossed it in the corner. The few minutes outside talking with Tim had soaked it and I stood for a minute, staring into the mirror on the back of the closet door.
Kinshasa doesn't cause lesions like you often find with AIDS, but after a latency period, your skin turns yellow, almost jaundiced, with brilliant star-like red speckles. I'd been checking at least once a day for four months now, since it became clear that Kinshasa had broken in the general population.
I blew my nose, too, then carefully checked the kleenex in the light for specks of blood. I hadn't had any symptoms yet, but Kinshasa usually takes about six weeks before anything shows. Kinshasa Hemorrhagic fever isn't the sort of bloody demon that you find with other filoviruses like Marburg or Ebola. No one crashes and bleeds out from Kinshasa. It attacks the walls of the blood vessels and some of the capillaries burst -- hence the red stars on your skin and the nosebleeds. You feel fine until the nosebleeds and burst capillaries, but by then it's almost over. You start to feel heavy and bloated -- that's from internal hemorrhaging. Most people end up dying from a coronary brought on by loss of blood volume, or from a stroke, or from bleeding into the lungs.
A small spot of red on the kleenex made me freeze. Kinshasa, or just a little blood from blowing my nose too much? I tried a new tissue, didn't blow as hard, then held my breath while I looked at it.
Nothing. I breathed in again.
All of this would be academic -- just another horror to come out of the jungles of Central Africa -- had not a news crew picked it up traveling through the Congo. At least seventy-nine people on their flight back to Toronto caught the virus in the recirculated air of the airplane cabin, plus an even dozen who had face-to-face contact with the newsies during their layover in Brussels. Half of those who caught it on the Sabena flight from Kinshasa got off the plane at its one stop in Abidjan and by the time the news crew was in quarantine in Toronto, the seventy-nine had dispersed to other cities from Seattle and New York to Paris and Mecca, spreading goodwill wherever they went.
I reached down and picked the shirt off the floor where I'd tossed it and draped it over the edge of the laundry basket to dry. They say people who are serious about suicide have a tendency to become tidy -- not wanting to leave things half done. They also start breaking contact with others, trying to extend the tidiness to their relationships. Maybe that's why I came back to Stuart, where I grew up. I said good-bye to my friends in Charlottesville; now I just had to finish saying goodbye to the place where I grew up.
I sighed, pulling a new shirt on and shivering in the air-conditioning. I might have only a day, or I might have six weeks if I caught it from Tim, or from the cops at Publix or the guy at the seafood counter. Then, like everyone else, I'd go the way of the dodo.
The Black Plague killed maybe a third of the population of Europe -- Kinshasa seems to be trying for everyone. Even that's not unusual in the world of viruses -- untreated rabies has a lethality rate of a hundred percent. The difference is that the only cure for Kinshasa is not to get it in the first place. A real slate-wiper.
So I had a few weeks at the outside. In reality, not more than a day. Maybe only a few hours if I got bored after cooking the snook for dinner. No reason to wait around until the power went off and the air-conditioning died. Or until the last of the food ran out. In six weeks, the world promised to be a pretty unpleasant place.
I picked up my grandfather's revolver from the red and yellow tulip bedcover and stuck it in my pocket on my way out.
Like all kids in south Florida, I grew up on the beaches. Maybe half a dozen surrounded Stuart, but I didn't go to the surfer beach that I spent so much time at when I was a teenager. The Bathtub seemed a better place to go right now.
The sand felt wet on my bare feet when I got there -- the fifteen minutes of daily afternoon rain came on the drive over to Hutchinson Island and was already over when I got there. The sun was out again and I walked out into the water, dredging up all the good memories. It's called the Bathtub because a reef a hundred or so yards out serves as a breakwater and the water's only about three feet deep almost all the way out. Warm like a bathtub, and always filled with kids.
Today it was deserted.
I took off my mask and stood there in the thigh-high water for maybe fifteen minutes all alone, remembering.
Loud voices broke my concentration. I looked up and down the beach and didn't see anything. The voices rose and I finally spotted figures on one of the wooden benches that overlooked the beach. They were arguing.
I pulled my mask back up and started to wade back towards the beach. I'd had long enough to make peace with that last part of myself that still questioned suicide as a valid recourse, that still wanted to live. I could see myself just lying down in the warm water, closing my eyes and drifting away. If I were still alone.
The voices rose higher. I reached the water's edge and looked closer at the figures. Two youngish men backing up an older one against the wooden railing by the bench. Another shout and one of the younger men ripped the mask off the old man's face. The other swung a fist and caught him on the side of the face and the old man dropped out of sight.
I ran to the steps leading up to the bench. Some last vestige of humanity, perhaps, trying to save another person. I'd like to pretend that, but really, it was their tearing away his mask that angered me the most. It's the only defense we have anymore. Not very effective, but it still means a lot. It keeps us sane.
I reached the top step before they noticed me. One kicked the old man as he lay motionless on the ground, the other turned his pockets inside out. I stopped suddenly when I saw that neither one wore a mask.
"Who the hell are you?" The one kicking the old man demanded, his foot back for another blow. A thin line of blood trickled down from his nose. I froze at the sight of it.
"What do you think you're doing?" I didn't know what else to say.
The one going through the old man's pockets stopped and stood up and grinned. I could see his gums, bloody from Kinshasa.
The two of them stepped over the body of the old man and came toward me.
"And what do you have for us?"
I started to back away, stumbling on the steps down.
They moved forward and one pulled something from his own pocket. I heard the click of a blade locking into place.
They would do to me what they'd done to the old man. They'd catch me if I ran -- I was in bare feet, they weren't. They'd catch me and kick me and maybe cut me, leave me lying there, not caring how bad they hurt me. What did I matter if they expected to die soon anyway?
The hospitals were overflowing. Ambulances didn't run anymore. They'd hit me and kick me until things broke and---
My hand felt in my pocket, found the revolver. I pulled it out and brought it up towards the two men. My eyes squeezed shut and I jerked the trigger. The noise was deafening.
I opened my eyes, the gun still held outstretched in my hand.
The two men ran the other way as fast as they could. I saw the knife spinning on the ground at my feet.
I stared down at the gun in my hand, almost dropping it. A wisp of smoke drifted up from the barrel. It still worked.
I wasn't sure if I did, though. I'd tried to shoot them to keep them from hurting me like they had the old man.
To save myself.
The old man was dead when I recovered myself enough to check. I just left him there -- nothing I could do for him except to let someone know where to find him.
I drove back home along East Ocean, unsure what to do. Most of the stores and shops were empty now and closed up. The Office Depot where I'd run copies of my med school applications, the car rental place where I got the van to carry my mother's things to the U-Store-It after she died. Not much was still open.
Instead of turning onto US 1 and going across the new Roosevelt Bridge, I drove down to the old Roosevelt Bridge and across the river. At least a dozen people were fishing off the sides for snook. We were lucky that way, living on the ocean.
With that thought in mind, I turned the Honda towards the marina on the north shore of the river. The chain-link gate was open, and I pulled into the deserted parking lot. Memories here, too, like everywhere else in Stuart. When my father was still alive, we'd kept a sailboat here, but that was years ago.
I adjusted my mask and stepped out into the late afternoon heat. A breeze blew off the river and that made it better, but I still sweated as I walked towards the moorage. Surprisingly few boats were missing -- a few die-hard boaters gone out to die on the water, I suppose. A lot of the boats left belonged to snowbirds who only came south during winter. I stopped by a nice 27-foot sloop. Indigence, out of Fort Pierce. It might do.
"May I help you?" a voice asked from behind me.
I turned and saw an old man, not much younger than the one I'd just seen murdered on the beach. He had the requisite mask, supplemented by a forty-five in an old military-style holster at his belt, but he seemed polite enough.
I nodded toward the boat. "I was wondering about this one. Who owns her?"
"That'd be the Silbermans. Joe and Donna. New York."
"Can I get a number for them?"
He shook his head. "Last I heard, they were coming down four months ago. Haven't heard from them since they called. Word is, there's a lot of sick folks up north." A lot of dead ones, too, he didn't have to say.
"I'd like to see about renting her. Do they have any family down here?"
He shook his head. "Not that I know of." He seemed to shut up after that and I turned away. Clearly, he wouldn't be helpful -- I'd have to try one of the other marinas.
"Now if you were interested in moving her to another mooring for me," he said, and I turned back to see a grin that spread beyond his mask. A much nicer grin than I'd seen on the face of the man at the beach. "Lease everyone signs here says that after 90 days of non-payment of moorage fees, I can impound any vessel and move her to a different location to free up the moorage.
"I tried to call the Silbermans -- nice folk, they are -- twice, and got no answer. Even sent a registered letter and got no reply. Of course, not much mail is going north of Jacksonville anymore, but I did try. I don't think they'll be back down anytime soon. I'm pretty busy here at the marina, so that leaves me free to ask you to move her for me if you can cover the moorage fees."
"How much is that?"
He told me the sum, in cash of course. No one used anything else these days. It would eat up most of what I had left, but I could manage it.
I pulled the money out of my wallet and counted it out.
"It's just what I'm due, you understand?" he said.
"I understand," I said, nodding.
"When will you be able to move her?"
It was almost four o'clock now, but the sun would be out for hours yet. "An hour or so?"
"An hour, then." he nodded and the smile faded from his eyes. He had a pretty good idea what I was up to, even if he was wrong. From the empty moorage slips, he probably thought he'd seen it before.
"An hour," I nodded.
He paused and started to turn away, then stopped. "You still seem pretty healthy," he said. "But then, I guess you never know."
I nodded. "You never know."
The sun was just touching the horizon by the time I was passing leeward of Hutchinson Island. The wind was blowing and I'd already shrugged into a sweatshirt. It had taken longer than I'd planned -- only a five-minute drive from the marina to the condo, but I'd had to raid almost a dozen other apartments in my building before I had enough canned food. And a stop at Publix for more mangos. Fish, I could catch myself. I left the front door to the apartment open.
He was right. You never knew. I could start having nosebleeds tomorrow. If that happened, this would be a very short trip. On the other hand, if I hadn't yet caught the Kinshasa virus, well, the only defense was not to catch it. There were a lot of uninhabited islands in the Keys. Or in the Bahamas.
I learned something back on the beach. When they came after me, I didn't even think of the several hundred dollars in cash in my pocket. I thought about nothing but a desire to survive, to live. I'd die soon enough, maybe in a few weeks, maybe years from now.
Passing Hutchinson Island, I spun the wheel to head south, toward the Keys. Leaning back, I moved and felt something hard in my pocket. I pulled the revolver out and stared at it for almost a full minute before I dropped it over the side into the water.
No need to hurry things along.