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Taking Charge



"Hide the car keys, dear. We can't have children starting the car without supervision."

"Sure, Margaret." Her mind is going, Ed thought. He was too bored with her babbling to argue. Why bother? He would not even have looked up from his newspaper, had there been one available. Instead he dug through the contents of a small tan backpack.

"What about those awful Bolands? Do you think they'll hide their car keys? I certainly hope so. Their old car looks dangerous." (He knew she knew the Bolands had died two weeks ago. He wondered if a cleanup crew had ever made it to the Bolands.) "The poor children, how will they ever grow up?"

"They won't."

"It just isn't right leaving them alone like this. Something should be done. They can't take care of themselves. I think the President was right. It would be more humane to end it all now. Why prolong the suffering?"

"People can't kill their own children, Margaret. At least this way they have a chance. Maybe this thing will pass."

"I still think the President was right when he said..."

"The President is dead, Margaret. So it doesn't matter."

"Well, then we should take responsibility for it ourselves. I still don't see why they didn't shoot off the bombs while they had the chance. Now everyone is just going to have to suffer. We should take care of it ourselves."

"You're not seriously suggesting we should kill Justin! ...Are you?" Ed Heath looked his rapidly aging wife squarely in the eye. I have to be sure she doesn't try something stupid, he thought.



"It's up to us now," said a slim twelve year-old boy named Justin.

Gray sky, filtering through rain and wet plastic skylights, fell upon a group of kids meeting in the shopping mall's center. Travis, a heavy-set blond boy of almost fourteen sat on the edge of a table that had been dragged into place, and tried to get the others to listen.

Travis stood up on the table. "SHUT UP!" he bellowed. "Shut up and listen! There's still a lot here, there's still a lot we can do, but we've got to get ourselves together."

"Don't yell," some younger kid in the audience admonished with a giggle, but he was shushed by others.

"We're gonna starve here if we don't watch out. We've got the Jets same as before, only now we're in charge. This is our part of the city."

"What about the grown-ups? You can't tell them what to do," said a kid in the back.

"Oh yeah," laughed Travis with contempt. "I tell them all to die! What are you gonna do about it, think you can save them?"

It's true, thought Justin. In a few days the last of them will be gone. Even if the Death stopped tomorrow, the handful of old adults left would be powerless against so many kids.

"Justin, please brush your hair before dinner. You really should see the barber."

"He's dead, Mom."

"Well, brush your hair anyway. I'm sure there are other barbers, we'll find you one."

"There aren't any other barbers. They're all dead." Isn't that too bad? He smiled at the thought.

"I don't think it's so funny, and I don't think you should either. Now please go brush your hair, and tell your father dinner's ready. Don't forget to wash your hands."

"Have you heard the big news?" asked Ed as he came into the dining room.

Justin realized he was staring at his father's face and averted his eyes. Justin had by now seen many suffer the Death's effects, but the sudden change was much more disturbing when it was his father's face.

"Where would I have heard any news?" Margaret said sarcastically.

"Today we caught someone who isn't dying." He turned the tan backpack upside down, spilling the contents onto the table.

Justin looked up; tried to look less interested than he was. "How do you know he was exposed?" he asked.

"Of course," said Mrs. Heath. "Maybe he was just on vacation alone somewhere, like we were on the island, when the... when it broke out."

"He was exposed long ago. Somebody on the street today recognized him from a week back, and he hasn't aged any."

Justin moved closer so he could see what had been in the backpack. "What are you going to do with him?" he asked. "Where is he?"

"He's in safekeeping. That's all you need to know." Ed elbowed Justin away. "Go wash your hands."

Justin headed for the bathroom, but in the hallway noticed his father's jacket hanging by the front door.

Glancing over his shoulder, he quickly ran a hand through the pockets. The jacket stank of the dead. The only thing unusual was a small piece of paper which had been torn from a larger sheet. On it was a name and address.

He stuffed the bit of paper in his shirt pocket; continued on to the bathroom and washed the smell of the jacket from his hands, using the jug of water which sat by the sink.

"Ed, will you please say grace? Sit down, Justin."

Reaching quickly under his father's arm, Justin grabbed a folded sheet of yellow paper from the things on the table, and went to his seat at the table.

"Time to look at this stuff later, I guess," said Ed. "Maybe a clue here as to what keeps him alive."

As his father began saying the blessing, Justin quietly unfolded the yellow sheet of paper in his lap and read:

GENERAL FILE:H02214

Tilman, Christopher R.

21 November l986

H02214 is a healthy three month-old male Caucasian.

Mrs. Tilman (mother of H02214) initiated contact with the Institute. The family history indicates that the Tilmans carry a gene which, in the 5O% of the offspring in which the gene is manifest, causes rapid aging and death soon after puberty. Case accepted for study.

Ed Heath's prayer and Justin's reading were interrupted by the sound of a whistle blowing out in the street. Justin jumped up.

"Justin, don't you move!" said Mrs. Heath. "You are twelve years old, and you will do as you are told." Her bony finger shook with rage. "Now sit down and eat your dinner."

Just as he began to do so, the door burst open ahead of Travis. Justin stood again.

"Hello, Travis," said Mr. Heath. "Would you like some Spam?"

Travis acted as if Mr. Heath didn't exist and said loudly to Justin, "Gee, when are yours going to croak? There's a meeting, come on." Justin put his napkin on the table.

Mrs. Heath frowned. She had never been fond of Travis. "Justin, I know that Travis is in your club, and I understand that he is without supervision now that his parents..." But she spoke to a closing door.

"What's the meeting about?" asked Justin as the two boys headed out of the front yard.

"We've got to look for the immune guy," said Travis. "I think the old ones have him locked him up somewhere. Speaking of which, why are you hanging around your old folks? You like watching them die?"

"I don't know. My father wasn't too bad till today. So I didn't want to desert him. But it doesn't seem like there's much I can do." Justin had been thinking of moving out. Because his parents were some of the last to die, he was the only original member of the Jets not living with the group.

"Get out of there. They'll just drive you nuts. You know it's time." They headed towards the two motorcycles parked by the street where Sal and Tony were waiting. Sal was sitting on the back of Travis', so Justin started to get on behind Tony. Travis mounted his bike and kicked the starter.

"Wait a sec," Justin remembered the scrap of paper. "I found this address in my dad's pocket, and he's leader of the work gang that caught the immune guy. Maybe the address is where they've put him."

"Where is it?" asked Travis, reaching for the paper.

"Over on the west side of town."

"I've got to get the rest of the guys rounded up for the meeting. You guys go take a look at this place," said Travis, handing Tony the paper. "But be careful. Just take a look and come back to report."

Tony took a look at the address. "I know that street. Hang on."

The house was one of those suburban ones just like all the others on the street. They drove by once, the circled back and stopped in the front yard and got off the bike.

"Do you think they could have him tied up in there, or something?" asked Justin.

"I don't know." Tony shook his head. "Why here? Maybe this is just some place where they were supposed to pick up another body. Do you think we ought--"

"Shhh. Wait," Justin grabbed Tony's arm. "Listen!"

"What is it?"

Justin listened for a second, then ran toward the house. Tony followed more cautiously behind, remembering what Travis had said about being careful. By the time Tony got to the front door, Justin was coming back out. He was holding the hand of a small, crying boy.

"Sitting in there all alone! Can you believe that?"

"All alone?" asked Tony.

"With a corpse that was beginning to smell," corrected Justin. "I guess you were right. They were supposed to pick it up."

Only Travis and a couple of the younger kids were in the supermarket parking lot when Justin and Tony arrived. "Where'd you get that?" Travis indicated the child holding Justin's hand.

"At the address I got out of my dad's pocket. There wasn't anything there but a corpse they were supposed to pick up, and this. His name is Carey, and he says he's four years old." Justin looked down at the little boy and smiled at him. The boy didn't return his smile, but his grip on Justin's finger was firm.

"What are you going to do with him?" asked Travis. Somehow Justin resented the question, but he didn't know how to answer it either.

Soon a small crowd had accumulated in the parking lot. Travis climbed up on the concrete base of a light pole and raised his voice above the noise. "Rumor has it there's somebody immune to the Death. Anybody else hear anything about it?"

Many of the kids had already heard the rumors. It was almost dark, so the kids made quick plans, dividing up the areas they would begin searching in the morning.

"We've got to get our hands on this guy, if he really is immune," said Travis. "He's valuable to us."

Previous Chapter
Alive and Well

Next Chapter
Prisoner of the Dead

Copyright ©1995 R. Verner



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