AUTHOR'S NOTE: The action of this story precedes Steal Tomorrow. The story is cross-posted on my Writing blog and is also linked in the sidebar at right under Extras. If you missed the Monday Steal Tomorrow segment, check the sidebar, under Summary and Chapters
May walked the city street with an empty water jug in each hand. As she wove around piles of trash and picked her way over debris, she tried to reconcile the evidence of her eyes and nose with what her brain still struggled to acknowledge. They were all dead—not just her parents, tutors and professors, but all the adults, from newscasters and bank presidents to hedge-trimmers and street musicians. The ones who died first got graves. Later, the dead were thrown into pits. The last of them still lay in the streets and buildings where they fell, hence the smell that May tried to counter by wearing a perfume-soaked scarf over her face. It didn’t help much.
She saw some kids hawking bottled water on a street corner, but although she was tempted, she continued to the park. Here, the turf had been dug up for burial pits and a broad open area showed scorch marks from an attempt at mass cremation, but May avoided these hazards and followed the stone path to the canoe launch. As she stooped to fill her gallon jugs with river water, she heard a voice.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
She looked around in alarm, but then relaxed. The boy looked to be about twelve and although he was dirty, there was nothing about him that suggested danger.
“Everyone who drinks that water gets sick,” he said. “It’s because of all the dead people.”
May turned back to her work. Ignorant child. Of course the river water would make a person sick if it wasn’t properly treated. But she was a chemist and the daughter of chemists. She went to college at sixteen and would’ve been in her third semester if not for the pandemic. She knew how to keep from getting sick off the water. By the time she capped the jugs and got to her feet, the boy was gone.
As she walked back to the vacant building she was squatting in, she found herself mulling over the incident at the park. They boy who had warned her was only trying to be kind. Instead of ignoring him, why hadn’t she explained about distilling and pasteurizing? Why hadn’t she told him where to get chlorine or iodine? She knew how to survive; science had taught her a lot of useful things. But if she wasn’t going to teach others, what was her purpose?
It occurred to her that she had the skills to put together a cocktail that would kill her quickly and with relatively little pain. Perhaps that was the best thing. She didn’t really want to help anyone; she had spent her entire life doing what other people wanted.
A pack of dogs ran past, chased by children wielding baseball bats. A hunting party. Well, good luck to them. May paused so they could go by but when she started walking again, she felt something embedded in the sole of her shoe. She muttered a curse and stopped to remove it. The glass shard she pulled from between the treads of her sneakers was bottle-green and caught the afternoon sunlight.
A flicker of memory stirred: mosaics at the art museum, stained glass in church windows, the glitter of fanciful costume jewelry on the necks and arms of the girls at her high school—girls her parents wouldn’t let her be friends with because she was so much younger and needed to study to win a scholarship to Harvard. She had spent hours poring over books and mixing chemicals in the lab when what she really wanted was to surround herself with bright, colorful things that sparkled.
May looked around the filthy streets, ignoring the curious stares of a group of boys sitting on the curb, passing a bottle back and forth. The glass of their bottle was brown and would probably sparkle too, once its contents were drained. She could smash the bottle, scoop up the glass, and…what?
What indeed? Who was to tell her not to take the ugly, broken shards of civilization and make something of beauty? The road was littered with blue glass, chips of mirrors, red and amber bits of plastic, and who knew what else? It was hers for the taking, and to hell with her parents’ goal of seeing her in a lab. They were dead, and so were all their dreams.
May dropped the piece of glass in her pocket and picked up her water jugs. They felt lighter now. In fact, her whole body felt made of feathers and her heart fluttered with excitement. There had been a time when she thought she would have to wait a lifetime to realize her dreams, but who was to stop her now? She would go home and distill her water, and tomorrow she would scavenge art materials on the city streets. Her life would not be long—she was infected with Telo like everyone else. But at least her life was finally her own.