Tending the Flame

We aren’t ready. When Sebastian holds the door, and the sky blinks into blackness, we aren’t ready. When everyone is left standing in the neon glare of street lamps, we aren’t ready. And when those lights inevitably wink out, too? Well, we aren’t ready for that either.

*

“Those librarians gave Elm Street hell,” Sebastian tells me later. Someone from Sentry told him all about it. People come to listen, especially the little ones who are desperate for stories. His shadow is cast high on the ceiling. “They ran out of Tinder three days ago. They’ve been roaming ‘round with flashlights since, looking for Source.” The crowd scoffs. Sebastian snaps his fingers at them. “And why wouldn’t they be? They got a lot of little Elmers to keep warm, don’t they? Ain’t many of them left, last we heard.”

“Why didn’t they burn up the bodies when they still had Source?” a little 4Ber asks.

Sebastian shrugs, his shadowy counterpart a raven ruffling its feathers. “Maybe they don’t understand how to keep their Source strong like we do.”

“If they’re that stupid, they deserve Dark,” the young 4Ber states with a nod.

Half of the room gasps, and the other half murmurs in agreement. “I’m not sure anyone deserves Dark,” Sebastian says firmly. “Look, do you want to hear about Central or not?”

“Yes, please,” the children clamor.

“All right, then.” The room quiets. “Now, those poor Elmers—yes, poor—were on the hunt for Source. We all know that Central got a giant Source. Makes sense they’d go for it, doesn’t it? ‘Course it does. Those librarians have all that Tinder, too. I bet they thought they’d just pinch a bit, and Central wouldn’t even notice. Well, let me tell you something: They did. Just as they are starting to fill up, down come two dozen librarians, like banshees.” He stands and raises his arms to look like wings. “Bullets are flying. Elmers are going down, one by one.” Sebastian’s hand turns into a gun, pointing in turn to each child. “Bang! Bang! Bang! The whole thing was like something straight out of a movie. Until…” he finds his seat, looking stricken, “…well, there weren’t any Elmers left at all. I guess that’s good for Central, not so good for those little Elmers…May they die in the Light.”

“May they die in the Light,” the children parrot.

*

I lost another one today. I mean, there’s not much I can do for suicide. Part of me thinks I should start some sort of support group, but the other part is neck-deep in vitamin deficiency and wild dog bites that I don’t even know how to keep my own spirits up in the Dark.        

Today, the Scouts brought me three bottles of multivitamins, some gauze, and hydrogen peroxide they found in a CVS that had been picked clean. They also brought us a few plastic bags full of drugstore toys, cans of soup, and two new survivors who look like they just walked out of a concentration camp. Their bodies’ gauntness is evident even under their jackets.

As I look them over, they tell me they’re from Pennsylvania Street. I make no effort to differentiate them as there’s no guarantee that either will live long. The man has an advanced case of bacterial pneumonia. I tell the other Pennsylvanian that I’ll do all that I can. My assistant, a veterinarian Before, must take her upstairs to the Source before she becomes hysterical.

When it’s just the man in the battery powered glow of my lanterns and me, he asks me to deal him straight. I listen to his breathing, making a note of rattling inhales and exhales. It doesn’t sound good. I tell him so. He looks grim but not surprised. “We’ve been looking for Source for days. No one would take us in,” he tells me. “We holed up in a carpet store. Lucky we saw your guys at all, really. Can’t thank you enough.”

*

We burn Pennsylvania on the Source three days later. “There was nothing you could have done,” Sebastian tells me after 2G gives the last rites and consoles the Widow Pennsylvania.

I clench my jaw into a kink. I can’t stop thinking how easy it would have been to treat his illness a year ago. I would have started an aggressive round of levofloxacin, ordered a ventilator, maybe even gone so far as draining off the fluid in a, God forbid, sterile environment. I could have done something.

When I see Pennsylvania’s body turn into Tinder, I want to scream. Our group mumbles their thanks for the man’s contribution so that we might live in the Light another day. The smoke blows black, filling the room before curling out the window, indistinguishable from the Dark.

I can’t bear it. I roll up an old magazine to dip into the Source before lighting my way to my office and rekindling the flame in the grate. Sebastian is close behind, bundled in a blanket.

Kneeling for the loose plank of the floorboard, I fish out our last pack of cigarettes. We agreed to stop smoking, so even these pathetic little rolls of paper are an admission of guilt.

“That bad, huh?” He reaches for the cigarette. I’m thankful that he’s comfortable getting his face so close to the burning magazine. Even after all this time, I’m still afraid of being burnt.

He opens the blanket and, after a few drags, the cigarette is carefully tamped so it can be relit later. He closes me into a steady 98.5, and we stand there, fooling one another into believing that the Dark isn’t as lonely as it actually is.

*

Sometimes, before the morning, Tenders ring the bell to wake everyone, and I lie beneath the covers with whoever my bedmate is for the night and pretend they are Sebastian. I pretend that I’m going to get up, make coffee, and start on the paper before he rolls into glaze-covered work pants, complaining about the latest raku firing. I pretend that we eat bagels with salmon and cream cheese before work.

This morning, though, I am shaken awake. I jerk up and try to focus. “Doc?” It’s 5A. “I think you need to have a look at Pennsylvania.”

I ask him what’s wrong.

“Don’t know yet. She won’t let me touch her.”

4E asks us to be quiet from somewhere down in the covers. I follow 5A to the office. Pennsylvania is already sitting on the exam table, her thin frame draped in a heavy snow coat.

The fire in the grate is almost out, something that is remedied before 5A reports the matter to the Tenders. Alone, Pennsylvania gets to the point: “I think I’m pregnant.”

An hour and four tests later, that suspicion is confirmed; but it isn’t until the last blue crosshair appears that she begins to sob. “What am I going to do?” she asks. “How am I supposed to have a baby like this?”

I’m having similar thoughts.

“Would Plan B work?” She is looking at me for my expert opinion, desperate. I tell her that, at this point, the best Course of action would be a chemical abortion.

A mix of horror and relief flitter across her face. “Can you do that?”

I shake my head. It has never occurred to me. My mind flicks through possible solutions. We talk about Planned Parenthoods in the immediate area. I doubt they’ve been ransacked. Then again, maybe there’s an OBGYN out there doing their due diligence. I ask point-blank if this is the route she wants to pursue.

She trembles. “I don’t know.”

I rest my hand against her back. There are merits in both choices, but I can’t have an opinion. We will make her decision come together without a hitch, prenatal vitamins, or no.

“Can I think about it? Give you an answer tomorrow?”

There’s no rush. When I see 3A, our complex’s most reliable Scout, I ask him to check out Planned Parenthood to get both options. Who knows when we might need them?

*

We sit in a circle at supper and talk about the mass suicide on Berkley. There were only three leftover bullets when our Scouts trekked over frosty bowls of the brain. “Their Source went out,” 3A tells me when our people cart back their supplies. They died in the Dark. I guess that’s everyone’s destiny now.

3B, an eternal optimist, asks after Pennsylvania’s child. Despite what I expected, they’re excited. No one is talking about practicalities such as formula, sleep-schedules, birthing complications. They’re cooing over names. No one in our complex, or maybe anywhere, has had a baby since Before. I stare at the emaciation of Pennsylvania’s stomach and wonder if it’s even possible for her to carry through to term. Sebastian knocks his knee against mine. I choke down cold, canned salmon, working out the bones.

Towards the end of our evening, we’re interrupted by knocking on our complex’s door. Hands go to guns, switchblades, baseball bats. Sentry walks down with crossbows loaded. In the courtyard, someone shouts for clemency. “Bring ‘em up,” Sebastian says.

“You sure?” 2A, another Tender, asks. Not all Tenders are brave.

“We’ll be careful.” A handful of minutes later, Sentry leads a shivering boy, no more than twelve, up to our landing. “Hello, traveler,” Sebastian says, crouching. “Where you from?”

“Sunset Boulevard,” the boy says.

We look at one another. Sunset is probably one of the last remaining encampments on the Southside. We’ve traded with them a few times. They have bicycle-powered generators that keep their greenhouse lights going, making them flush in fresh vegetables and willing to trade for the blankets our first floor produces. Everyone else is gone.

“You’ve come quite a way,” Sebastian praises. “Care for some supper? Will someone bring him some peaches? I think we have a few more cans.”

The boy is settled between me and Sebastian. The mother from 1D brings him an open can. I watch Sunset tip the syrupy fruit into his mouth like he’s starving. There are no visible signs of malnutrition. In fact, he looks healthy. I envy his access to leafy greens and sunlamps.

I ask why he’s come.

“Mama sent me for a doctor, said there’d be one here.”

Everyone turns to me. I tell Sunset that there’s a doctor on Pine.

“Yes, ma’am, ‘cept there isn’t a doctor over there anymore. Olney put out their Source last week. They didn’t last long.” All the adults look serious. “The closest doctor I know about was the one here. That you?” Sunset asks.

I nod and ask why his mother didn’t come instead.

“Sick.” Sunset reaches in his pocket for a piece of paper, handing it to me. I read the list in the firelight: high fever, aching, vomit, rash, sores, pustules. I swear, scrambling to get away from the boy. Everyone does the same.

The boy is sent home. I can hear him weeping in the echoing Dark. “Aren’t you going to help?” he cries before the courtyard doors are closed.

I’m not sure we can risk it.

*

“And you think it’s smallpox, Doc?” 5A asks in the office. Everyone else is burning blankets. I think we’ll be fine, but who’s to say that Sunset didn’t have a rash, too?

I tell him it seems likely.

“But how? There hasn’t been a smallpox outbreak in, like, a hundred years.”

Everything is different now; we can’t take chances. Sunset will die in the Dark soon enough, succumbing to either illness or cold.

“What sort of treatment options should we be looking at?” 5A asks. “Just in case.”

I rest against the wall with my eyes closed. This is theoretical medicine. After the vaccine was made, smallpox was all but eradicated. My knowledge of treatment goes to the extent of looking at WebMD for a laugh. A lab worker friend of mine had to get the vaccine before starting her job as a precaution. I remember the injection site: a bulbous spider bite raised with pus before leaving a dark crater that took months to fully heal.

“Doc?”

I hold up a finger for silence, forcing myself to think. If they have pustules, it’s too late for a vaccine. Not that I’d know where to get one, anyway. I ask 5A what he thinks.

“For treatment?” I nod. “Well, I guess a vaccine is our best bet. I’d say the CDC would have something in their offices, but getting in would be a different thing altogether. But treatment…You must have a textbook around somewhere.”

We spend the better part of two hours digging through orange, white-capped bottles and gauze before finding a clinical advisor that isn’t too outdated. We read the entry on smallpox. “Tecovirimat? Cidofovir? Brincidofovir? Where are we gonna get this stuff?” 5A asks, sinking against the exam table. “I mean, we don’t even know it’ll work.”

I tell 5A we could get some Cidofovir easily. As an antiviral for HIV, all we need is a well-stocked clinic. Brincidofovir, on the hand…

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” he says.

Luck seems to be in short supply these days, too.

*

The temperature gauge reads well below zero. 3A tells us we can’t stay out more than twenty minutes at a time before we need to light up a new Source. We’ll risk hypothermia and frostbite otherwise. We’re taking most of the Scouts, which brings concern as leaving the complex with so many leaves our people vulnerable to the cold and vagrants. I leave 5A in charge.

It will take a full day to get to the clinic, despite its close proximity. When I ask whether or not we can speed the trip up, 3A opens the courtyard door. I’m lucky my eyes are protected behind ski goggles; otherwise, they would freeze shut.

“Let’s move,” 3A says, rifle leading the way. “Let me know if you start to go numb.”

Our people close the door behind us. We are alone in the Dark with a single burning torch. The Scouts switch on their headlamps. The streets are as breezeless as they were eleven months ago, littered with Tinder: cars, trash, corpses not yet rotted resting against their steering wheels. “I want us to make it to the gas station before we stop. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” Sebastian says.

“Good. Let’s keep it moving. Careful there,” 3A warns the Torch Bearer when he stumbles on some rubble. After the young man straightens, 3A holds up a closed fist and says, “Hold on, what was that?” It’s hard to remember that he used to deliver pizzas.

I hear something, too. Sound travels so strangely these days. The thought is wiped away by the sound of a gunshot. “Cover!” 3A shouts.

Sebastian knocks me down beside a car. He shuts off his lanterns, and I hear his gun leave its holster. “Careful! Don’t put out that light!” an unknown voice calls in the Dark. I put a hand on my pistol and cock it. I’m no good at this, but I’m not going to die like this. Rolling to my knees, I steady my grip. Eight bullets, eight. I reserve them for the direst of circumstances.

Another volley rings out, sounds like a rifle. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Sebastian mutters. “Out fifteen minutes, and we’re already getting shot at.”

I see someone outside the Light and gasp, nabbing Sebastian’s attention. His gun pops off twice. Smoke smothers us, marking the opposing shots of orange. Our attackers betray themselves, straying too far into the Light. They are emaciated cave dwellers, their figures starving for Source. “Get around them!” one of them cries. More gunfire. Three go down. In a moment of terror, I hear Sebastian cry in pain.

Standing quickly, I keep my hand on the butt of the gun and call his name. More gunfire. Then it’s quiet. “We got everyone?” 3A asks.

I call for Sebastian again, flicking on my backpack’s lanterns. “Over here, Doc!” one of the Scouts says.

The Torch Bearer stands over Sebastian, surrounding him in Light.

He clutches his arm, swearing. Out of the open, I examine Sebastian’s wound. He is lucky to have a through and through. The same cannot be said for the bodies we stepped over on the way to the gas station. Boys in search of Source. Willing to kill for it, even though we would have shared it freely. Fire is the only element easily multiplied. My eyes brim with tears as I sew up the wound.

“He’ll have to go back,” 3A says. “Can’t have a Tender going septic.”

Sebastian starts to argue, but I cut him off with a curt expression. He winces when I wipe the stitches with an alcohol prep pad. Then he says, “Okay.”

*

The clinic’s not far, but stopping to light a new Source in fifteen-minute intervals slows us down. Just when I think I can’t take one more break, we arrive. The building itself, a Damien Center, looks intact. I tell 3A that it’s a good sign, but he still has me wait outside while they do a sweep.

When they give me the all-clear, one of the Scouts take the Source and light a new one in a trash can. I ask him what he used for Tinder, and he points to the waiting room magazines. The last vestiges of a recent past burn up before my eyes.

A single shot rings through the clinic.

“This looks like the room for you, Doc,” 3A tells me from the hall.

Pushing past the remaining bits of the shotgun blasted door, I am surprised by the clinic’s well-stocked status. There are plenty of viable antibiotics in pill form that we’ll use, but I am more concerned about the vials. In the iced-over refrigerator, I find dozens of doses of penicillin. They’ll be indispensable if the antibiotics haven’t died in the extreme cold. The Scout finds two other fridges full of antivirals like Zovirax and Famvir. They could be decent replacements for the Cidofovir, but I’m hoping for the real deal.

Our spoils are placed in meticulously labeled bags. The cold rattles my confidence, but trying will be better than nothing. There must be another way.

“Hey, Doc, what was it you were looking for?” 3A asks. I tell him. A pause and the sound of rustling. “I think I got you covered.”

*

Despite our best efforts, it’s too late to save Sunset. I know this before we cross the threshold into their compound. There is no Sentry, no Scouts, no Tenders. I expect the smell of rot, but bacteria cannot live long on a corpse in this kind of cold, leaving dead flesh undisturbed and scentless.

We step over bodies, faces covered with sheets, the living too weak to turn them into Tinder. We search for survivors. There aren’t many of them, no more than fifteen. The young Sunset who came to see us is there, writhing under blankets. No pustules or rash have appeared. When I press an an iced-over bottle to his forehead, he stirs to look at me.

I ask for his mother. Young Sunset starts to cry, straining for my embrace. I pass him to one of the Scouts and tend to the others the best I can. The Scouts take the bodies and add them to the Source so they will die in the Light.

*

There was not much we could do for Sunset Boulevard. I administered my jury-rigged shots to some of the infected and hoped for the best. About half of them lived. Those who pulled through care for the others, immune. I didn’t want to risk the Scouts, so I shot myself up with the Cidofovir and Brincidofovir concoction. When those survivors were strong enough to walk, we took them with us and burnt the building to the ground. You could see the Source for miles.

*

Pennsylvania is having her baby. As I pull the strange new creature into the Dark and clear its throat, I wonder: What’s the point? As I wrap the little, mewling animal in fur and blankets, I wonder: What’s the point of any of this? And even as I place the cocooned infant on its mother’s chest, I wonder: What’s the point when tomorrow is darker than today? What’s the point when the future can only grow colder and wilder and a little less human? I guess none of that matters.

Even in the uncertain Dark, time does not stop, and the baby needs tending.

We name her Phoebe.

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