by Bryan Aiello
A lone survivor of a post-apocalyptic city must face a poisoned world, giant mutated creatures, and his own encroaching insanity.
Contact info for Bryan Aiello
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* Twitter – https://twitter.com/BryAiello
Other stories by Bryan Aiello
The stick figure wears the top half of a threadbare cub scout uniform discolored from brilliant blue to a soft grey color. The shirt is decked out in faded patches and hangs loose on his scrawny shoulders. Over his legs is a pair of red-plaid one-time shorts that now act as a knee-length kilt ripped and frayed. On his feet are shower shoes wrapped in dozens of layers of duct tape. In his mind is the name Sebastian because that’s what he calls himself.
He scurries bow legged from one burned out hulk of car to the next. He has an old stun gun in his hand as he approaches a terrier-sized worm glowing a neon green in the dusky daylight.
The adult of the species is poisonous, the eggs she protects are not.
The worms aren’t dangerous unless they can get an appendage into their yawning teeth-lined maws. That only happens if they happen upon a sleeping victim, otherwise simply running away would keep him safe, but that’s not necessary this time.
The electrical shock makes this one forget its maternal instincts long enough to grab a few eggs and hobble to safety. The eggs go bad fast without the mother to tend to them but they’ll make it through a day at least.
Once far enough away and hidden to satisfy the creepy crawlies doing a tap dance on his spine he lifts tinted ski goggles from his eyes and peers into a sky the color of mud, dried mud he decides, dried dusty mud, mud that wished one day to be mud again but doubtful it ever would. The sky looks clogged like it could rain or fall to the ground in chunks or do anything other than just look like coffee with a dollop of fresh cream needing to be stirred.
It is getting to be about noon. Plenty of time to eat and decide, what next.
He is a day-to-day type guy. It does no good to complain. It’s a day like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. Maybe it’s been decades or centuries or forever since the whatever happened. Maybe the sky was never blue and the air never got cold. Maybe life was always this steamy-hot, bleak emptiness surrounded by buildings that once stood tall and now crumbled more and more each day from black bricks into grey dust.
Sebastian isn’t sure.
Sebastian lowers the eyewear back down because looking up too long is like bee stings on his sinuses.
He lives in a landscape of million dollar buildings reduced to nine-figure tombstones.
And here in what remains of his city, a place he thinks he once called New York, he is master of survival.
And survival means looking at the sky occasionally.
He sticks his hand into the large, semi-transparent green sack and pulls a fistful of slimy resin from his Worm egg breakfast.
Maybe scientifically they aren’t worms, but something else. Sebastian is no scientist, though he doesn’t really know what he is anymore, or what he once was, if anything. He places the green egg resin in his mouth and slurps on his fingers watching for the mom’s return.
The smell of the worm’s burned flesh lingers still in the air, like melting rubber and smoldering hair, and a thought strikes him.
“Do you remember birds?” he says out loud.
“Oh God, chicken, so crispy, so greasy, so salty, so good,” he answers himself in a higher voice.
“Do you think anything left tastes like chicken?
“No, but maybe good and meaty. Maybe we go down in the subway again.”
Sebastian cringes, flexing what remains of his mangled left hand, “No Baby, we can’t.”
Sebastian is missing three fingers. The pinky, ring, and middle.
“Don’t be a pussy.”
If it weren’t for Baby, he knows he would have died. She cared for him. Made him drink. Foraged 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, 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 95th and Broadway subway entrance, one of the few that is still accessible.
He takes his first step and his knees buckle.
The first few steps starting out are the most painful.
He feels old.
He has forgotten how old, this is a world without dates.
Long ago, he stopped remembering to celebrate a birthday. He knows when Baby’s is though.
It’s the date the last newspaper reads in every dispenser in the city, November 1st, 2020 “President calls for Peace” the headline says. It’s the same news, every day, on every paper he finds.
He can only hope in some reality that the President found his peace.
Once in awhile he guesses when it might be November first and he builds Baby a fire and he makes a feast of 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.
Usually a trapped rodent. sometimes a steamed worm.
Either tastes horrible.
In the beginning, when he made it back to the surface, there were fires dangerously sprouting from melting metal and filled with poisonous chemicals.
The sky will probably stink like that 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 cancerous growths that sprung up later and those that lived long enough with cancer, usually got eaten by something.
Sebastian suspects the growing lump on his side is cancerous, but his feelings are if he doesn’t bother it, it won’t bother him. Only occasionally, he is unable to support his ruck and quick getaways are becoming a thing of past.
The closer he gets to the entrance to the subway, the more his injured hand throbs.
He shakes it, to rid the appendage of pain. It only makes the missing digits ache more 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 a camp alone. He was no longer underground. A small fire was burning. Across from him was Baby.
On the street, he could hear the howls of the mutated dogs.
Some would have said he was crazy before the whole thing started. He doesn’t know how it all happened, or he doesn’t remember, or he blocked it all out. One moment things were one way and the next, most people were dead and animals were different. 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.
He never felt safe.
He felt followed every second of every day.
He learned to hide and scurry like a cockroach.
He reaches the entrance to the tunnel to the subway and 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; his stuff in a useless pile on the ground.
Pots and pans.
Wet weather gear.
And twenty pounds of human skeleton.
“It’s okay. You don’t need this stuff any longer.’ Baby tells him. ‘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 1 train again.”
Sebastian stands above the yawning maw of blackness that is now the New York City subway. The jagged rubble around him once stood over the 95th and Broadway subway station. The street and building ripple back in a Bilbao-esque pile of asphalt.
The underground entrance was built in the middle of Broadway during the first part of the twenty-first century. It was a rounded glass roof with brass accents. The whole thing sat on huge cement girders as if the architect knew something was coming and was preparing a place for people to go and be safe.
It did not work.
Nowhere was safe.
Many New Yorkers died here that day. In matters of numbers, many people died everywhere that day. Those on the surface of the planet in many places just melted into shadow scarred cement. Those underground found out the hard way what monsters they would become when pushed.
Those that were already monsters, thrived the best.
Sebastian is he does not hold a grudge against any of them but has trouble recalling which he was, monster or person pushed.
Baby is draped over his shoulders like a cape. He gently rubs at the hand gripping him tight around the throat.
Baby tightens her hand in response and he coughs. When his Adam’s apple moves, he can feel many of the specific twenty-seven bones he tied together with scraps of wire.
It helps remind him, he’s one of the lucky.
It’s an easy thing to forget.
On the day everything changed, this place was probably crowded and busy. Typically, he never noticed it when he used it. If he did, those memories are now mixed with this hell.
He remembers being a kid in the city though. As a child, New York looks made his skin crawl.
But he was invisible then.
He wishes it were still true.
Maybe the dogs wouldn’t worry him so much. Maybe the giant rats would stop stalking him. He sees them sometimes, waiting for him to die. Maybe his hunts would go smoother. Maybe he could eat better and more often. Maybe the awful pain in his stomach would stop.
He wonders how soon until he will give them what they want.
A corpse to drag to their nest.
A body to pull apart and fight over.
Underground, it will be something else that gets to feast on him when he dies, not that he would make much of a feast these days.
Baby gives him a nudge to the ribs.
He shrugs in response.
Weight is not all he has lost in this world.
His mind jumps to his stunner. Why would he leave that? He wants to go back and grab it. Maybe other things would be useful down here also, but most importantly, he just wants his things. Maybe it’s not too late. He hasn’t seen another person on the surface in months. Maybe his stuff is still there. He knows the worms won’t touch his belongings and the dogs will only sniff through them, he has no food and what smells like him, he wears on his back and legs. His bag only had the tools he found and what Baby would let him keep.
Baby shifts on his back. He knows her patience is crumbling and her ever-present smile presses against the back of his neck. Her beautiful white gleaming teeth spread ever so slightly as she whispers gently “Go, dumb ass,” into his ear.
He sighs, gaze shifting to the black stretching open in front of him.
The entrance to the underground is available through a small crack in the rippled road.
He slips through the opening and stops, fear echoing through his body. The atmosphere suddenly feels cold and stale. His skin tightens. The muscles in his back and upper legs begin to ache before he realizes he is standing in a total body clench. It’s like he is being forced to dive into a cold, black pool of water.
He tries to take a deep breath and it catches in his lungs. The air tastes of mold, rot, and chemicals. It makes him want to vomit. He fights against gagging, sure if he allows his stomach the option, it would empty its contents on the ground in front of him.
Besides the caloric waste, worm eggs are much better in than out, plus, who knows what down here would appreciate the mess and come looking.
He feels frozen in place until Baby nudges him with a bony patella and he has no choice but to take one step, then another. The ground slants and soon the black opens into a wide window glow with a pale light illuminating the platform of what he remembers what was. It has a rounded fifties vibe to it like it was attempting to blend into a Morningside Heights that gentrified many decades before.
His footsteps are hollow against the cracked asphalt. Baby jangles with the movement as he works himself down the rubble. He navigates steel beams, twisting wires and piles of fresh dung, from what animal or animals he can only guess.
The bones slapping against each other make Sebastian nervous, “Can you stop?’ he begs.
Baby does not answer. He waits a few seconds, just on the cusp of the tunnel at the foot of the ramp. He listens for signs he might have a stalker lurking in the dark. The answer to his concern is a hollow whisper of hot air from the surface. If a predator awaits him in the dark, it does so completely silent.
“Go!” Baby demands with a sharp command.
Startled, he pushes into the blackness in front of him.
Within moments, he is swallowed by the pitch and the sounds of his tape wrapped feet hitting the naked dust-covered beams between the rails are impossible to quiet. He stops, aware of his breath and the sound of his heart beating inside his chest as he makes his way South, trying to escape the sense of stupidity of being down here.
“l don’t think this is wise, Baby,” he whispers in a quiet hiss.
“No one asked you,’ baby’s voice says back unconcerned for silence. “Just go, you fucking pussy.”
He wants to argue, but knows it’s useless, Baby always wins, so he takes another step, followed by another, then a third and before long his eyes have adjusted to the dark and he can easily navigate the rusting and useless lines of track and tented beams holding up the street above.
He hears the click of claws on the broken cement ground. The shuffling of dust and debris. In the deep dark, he thinks maybe he can see the glow of green eyes. Maybe a snuffle as his meaty small is savored.
Sebastian’s stomach begins to ache. He holds his hand over the lump. It feels hot and throbbing.
Under his fingers, it ripples angry.
Then, he is sure it does.
Like a mouth stretching with a yawn.
Baby nudges him in the thighs with her heels. The bones are sharp and dig perfectly at the soft spot in front of his hips. He feels like neighing in response, but this isn’t the time or the place for a joke.
He stumbles forward, the pain in his lump growing worse, but the snuffle is replaced by a low growl and he is distracted from his discomfort.
He wants the angry growl to be a trick of the darkness. That maybe it’s not really there. Maybe it’s the sounds of his own feet or breathing or heartbeat. Deep inside his lizard brain though, he knows the truth, a predator has caught his scent and there is nowhere to go but die.
What is death when life is so painful?
He has been prepared for years.
Maybe he would have done it himself, but he doesn’t like heights. He doesn’t like blood or the effort of self-inflicted pain.
He stops and holds perfectly still. If he is being hunted and there is a thing out there in the dark slinking around watching him and waiting to make a safe meal out of him, he isn’t going to walk right into its mouth.
Then he hears a sound that makes him even more scared than the idea of a potential predator lurking out in the dark.
Over the rush of the blood pressure in his ears, the sound of a phone ringing rends the air.
It says, “Bring!” echoing down the tunnel. In the small silence that follows, he hears large claws scrambling away in fear.
“Bring!” the phone brays again.
He looks off into the dark and thinks he sees where the noise is coming from.
Tripping over the stones and cracks and rubbish by his feet, he scrambles into the black of the underground.
“Bring!” it calls.
And he runs. His side splits open in a pain more intense than anything he has ever felt in his life. HIs shirt is soaked with sticky blood and pus.
“Bring,” the phone screams as dust and cobwebs fall from the wood beams above and viscera pours from his wound.
“Bring,” the phone punishes with sound vibrating the world. Shaking existence. Rending reality.
He stumbles out of the tunnel, the sight of the 86th street platform never looked so good. He climbs up and falls to his knees as he gets closer to the phone booth and crawls the remaining few feet. The booth is an ancient one like the kind that would stand on old New York City street corners before being replaced by information and charging kiosks. The ones that, at one point, were everywhere, but eventually dwindled down to a few broken-down stand-alones with small walls separating banks of three.
It was a law or something that dictated there must be pay phones available. Sebastian never had anyone to call, so he never used them. Rumor was they never worked.
“Bring!” the phone screams into the dark as he nears the upside-down relic. Twists of long, thick wires stretch from the top like an uprooted tree system. He climbs up onto the platform three feet up. And spots the phone receiver shimmying in the dirt with each new ring.
He crawls over and picks it up. A long, snaking metal cord hangs from the end brushing loose against the ground.
“Bring!” the ringing is louder with the receiver in his hand. It vibrates painful against the flesh of his palm.
He holds it to his ear. The plastic is cold. It feels wet and dusty at the same time.
He doesn’t hear any sound coming from the thing and thinks to put it down and continue on this insane underground mission Baby has set them on.
“BRING!” it screams into his ear.
“Jesus, fuck me, what?” he yells into the receiver.
“Hello! I am calling on behalf of Home Security experts. May I speak to Sebastian, please?” says a happy voiced man.
“Speaking,” Sebastian replies, calmer than he feels.
“Sir, I am afraid I have some news. Are you sitting down?”
“That’s good, very good, because, sir, things are about to get pretty fucked up.”
On cue, a train whistles from deep in the tunnel. It has the force of sound of F5 tornado picking up houses, cars, and livestock in its funnel. The ground shakes as it approaches. Sebastian falls to his knees and presses his hands into the cracked cement.
Dust is a sheet impossible to see through.
Sebastian goes to his stomach.
Bits of art deco ceiling dance to the ground around him.
The pus-spewing wound on his side begins to mew loudly like a startled hungry cat.
He rolls over lifts his shirt and looks at it. The loose skin on his side lifts and looks back. The wound and he stare at each other until the sound of a tsunami collecting debris arrives at the platform. The train is an ancient coal-powered thing spewing black smoke. Mostly red rust and falling apart, it stops at the phone booth and the disconnected phone in Sebastian’s hand rings hard against his palm.
Sebastian lifts the phone to his ear.
“All aboard!” the cheerful security salesman on the other side of the disconnected line exclaims. ‘And don’t fuck this up!”
“Don’t fuck what up?”
The phone against his ear clicks into a dial tone.
Sebastian climbs into the lone black and windowless car. There is no light save for a single orange bulb swaying on a center beam hardly doing the gloom justice.
The mewing wound on his side lowers to a discontented moan.
He lifts his shirt and two cranky red eyeballs shift sadly to look at him through the skin, “feed me,” the pus-filled toothless mouth begs.
Sebastian gestures with an empty hand and says,”I don’t have any food.”
“With her,” it whines.
Sebastian knows the wound means Baby.
Sebastian begins to shake his head no.
“That’s a neat idea, Sebastian.”
“Just fucking do it.”
And he does, finger by finger, he feeds the bones into the wound on his side, surprised at the lack of pain. Surprised at how much the wound can eat. He starts by unwinding the twists of wire around Baby’s fingers.
“That’s very good. Do you remember when we met?”
Sebastian thinks as he shoves the distal phalange of Baby’s little finger into the mouth stretching away from his side like a seal begging for a fish at a sea park.
“Here? In the dark, you saved me.”
“No, you stupid dick. Here in the dark, we were hunted down almost eaten by a fat Wall Street banker. You ambushed him. You saved me. We ate him for a month. “
Sebastian stops working the wire on the intermediate phalange and the wound begins to scream again.
“He was quite delicious.”
The scream bounces around the inside of the train car, the sound vibrates his skull. He works the wires faster. Feeding the wound one bone at a time feels stupid, so he moves to the wrist and begins to unwind the wire there.
‘No you stupid putz, one bone at a time!”
Sebastian sighs going back to the fingers.
“It was a glorious battle, ours.”
“I don’t remember much anymore,” he whines.
“Stop being a bitch.”
The train picks up speed. It rounds a corner, going on two wheels and spitting sparks before slamming down again. Sebastian loses touch with gravity, floating briefly before slamming back down.
Once connected to the Earth again, he finds he has fed the left hand to the mouth and begins working on the right.
“Then things changed, huh. Out of the dark, a giant rodent attacked. It was the size of a damn german shepherd with nasty brown and rotting front teeth. I could smell it first. It smelled of piss, rotting meat, and mold.’
Sebastian vaguely remembers the sound of long claws scratching at cement in a hurry to get at her. Or it was a nightmare. The creature attacked. One minute, he was a starving refugee scared in the dark huddled afraid, trying to be invisible and the next he was beating a thing to death with his bare hands, fighting for his life.
Sebastian screams. He was feeding his wound absent-mindedly and stuck his own hand too deep and the thing chomped down surprisingly hard. He felt sharp, hard teeth deep inside. He pulls his hand out, thankful that the wound did not break skin.
‘It took a chunk of you, but we beat it off. Got me too. You got sick and I nursed you back. That’s when I found a way out on 95th Street. The surface wasn’t much better. Just brighter. What’s that they say about hell? Don’t matter what level you on, it’s still hell?”
The train moves faster and faster, throwing Sebastian around, but he manages to finish feeding the wound. just the pelvis and the skull are left.
“Toss the hip, keep the head,” Baby demands, “I’ve got more to say!”
He lifts his shirt and the wound belches, satisfied, eyes fluttering tired and before he can lower his shirt gently back over the wound’s face, it is snoring, sleeping soundly.
“I nursed you.”
He looks at Baby. She smiles back at him her lower jaw falling loose from her top row of teeth, making her smile look friendly.
He closes it with it a snap.
He has had this conversation before. It demands a more severe countenance.
“You ate every single bit of me.”
“Yes. I couldn’t help it, Baby. “
“What if I told you that you could make it up to me?”
“In a heartbeat.”
And as if on cue, the phone that had been slamming around the metal box car skids to a stop next to Sebastian’s knee and rings.
“Hey, this is Home Security experts again. I just wanted to let you know that we have arrived at our destination and you should prepare for impact. Thank you for going batshit crazy with us.”
And the impact is painful. Sebastian and Baby’s skull slam up against the front of the car. The walls buckle and the wound begins to cry all in one startling moment.
Sebastian moves, gingerly at first, but the surrounding sounds confuse him.
Crashing waves of water vibrate the air.
He smells clean wind, not a thick hotness that slides down his throat to burn his lungs.
The door to the train car is open.
He steps out onto a white sandy beach looking onto a stretch of greenish-blue water. He looks up and the sky is not mud. It’s not blue either, but it has potential.
“It’s a small oasis,” Baby says.
Around them is hell, but here, are birds. They squawk and swoop. He turns. There are trees with leaves and a breeze from the sea. A smile stretches his lips. He turns again. Behind him is the city, a black smear, a moment in history, a something that, even if it wanted, couldn’t be ever again and maybe he can never be again either.
He places his hand on the wound and it is back to being just a painful lump.
He feels the weight of Baby’s skull in his hands. He lifts her up and peers into her deep black eyes.
“I don’t deserve this.”
Her jaw falls open as wide as it ever has, “Don’t be a pussy.”