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Prisoner of the Dead

When the second day passed without anyone showing up, Chris knew Ed and his friends were dead. It'll mean my death too, he thought, if I don't figure out some way to get out of here soon.

There weren't many options to consider in the city jail. The only light came from windows high over the central hall. For the past two days he had seen no one; had received no food, no water to replace that in the now-empty pitcher.

Ed had had the keys in his hand as he left the central hall, slowly sliding shut its big door of steel bars as he left. The sound of it locking had been the last sound made by another human to reach Chris' ears.

He had tried yelling, but it made him feel thirsty. Since there were no windows near street level, he doubted whether anyone passing outside would be able to hear him. If some kids did hear him, he didn't know what they could do about it.

It seemed as though even the rats had moved on in search of better fare. The last cockroach had walked by yesterday, finding no crumbs in the usual places.

He tried to think what in medical school had prepared him for this, or for the Death. Then he thought of Jan. They had loved each other, then Jan suddenly got too old. Much too old.

Why had Jan been the first?

Did it have something to do with what happened at school? They had been careful to clean Chris thoroughly, but it was only four days after the spill that Jan's problems began.

He put her out of his mind. Carefully he searched the cage, studying its construction. The floor and back wall were made of concrete. The other three walls were just barred partitions, with a barred door in the one facing the central hall. The ceiling was made of precast concrete planks. He went around the cage again, testing each bar, looking for some sign of weakness.

He studied the door lock again, wishing he had some sort of tool with which he could try picking it. The hopelessness he had fought off for two long days began to creep up on him.

He sat down on the cool concrete and leaned against the wall, ready to accept death. Of all people, he was one who certainly had no right to go on. But even if was his fault, he really hadn't wanted it like this.

Then for a instant, he thought he saw something move at the end of the hall. Refocusing his eyes on the distant door, he watched, adrenaline flowing. But everything looked the same as before. Just as he looked away, he saw it again.

It was a face! Someone was on the other side of the sliding door! "Hey!" he squeaked. He tried to get his voice, made hoarse from two days of yelling, to work again.

"Hey!" It came out stronger this time. "Help. Over here! Can you hear me?"

"Are you the one who hasn't caught the Death?" He could see the young face press between the bars. Alongside stood a much shorter child.

"Yes." The reply came out weakly, as if afraid to admit it, even now.

"Are you the one who hasn't caught the Death?"

"Yes. Is there anything you can do to get me out of here?"

"I'll get some help. Wait here." The face disappeared.

Chris felt like laughing and crying at the same time. Wait here! What can they do to get me out of here? Who's going to help? A moment before he was ready to lie down and die. But now he already felt free, just having the others working on getting him out.

After a very long ten or fifteen minutes he heard voices; stood up as several faces peered in at the distant bars. Then they disappeared.

"Hey! Where are you going?" He had an irrational fear that if they left, they might never return.

"We'll be right back," came a faint reply. He wasn't even sure that's what was said.

"Get Tony Graham. Where's Tony Graham?" The whistles had brought together most of the Jets, but no Tony.

"Tony's down at his dad's shop," said Travis. "He's working there today."

"Let's go!" said Justin. They all jumped into the van, Travis at the wheel, as usual. Justin swung Carey up into the seat, put on his seatbelt, then climbed in after him.

Travis weaved through the streets, honking as they approached blind intersections in case another car was coming.

We should put stop signs up, thought Justin, as he looked at the darkened traffic signals. Then he remembered, the gas will run out soon.

"Left on Tuam," he said. "There, on the right." The van turned into the big door of Graham Iron Works and honked. Justin was out of the van and yelling by the time the wheels stopped turning.

"Tony! Tony! Tony!"

"What's going on?" Tony came out of the dim interior.

"We found the immune guy! He's locked in the jail. Hurry, let's go get him out."

"Somebody help me with the tanks," said Tony. Justin moved to help.

Several other Jets spilled out onto the floor of the shop while the equipment was being loaded.

"Get the van out of the way so I can close the door," said Tony. He had already started reeling the chain which operated the door in case of a power failure.

"Come on! We're moving," yelled Travis, starting the van. Several of the kids were still chasing each other around the shop. "Get back in the van, you bunch of monkeys!"

"Don't look," said Tony. He was the only one with dark goggles. With a sparker he struck the acetylene; its yellow flame turned blue as he added the oxygen.

Justin put his hands over Carey's eyes. He bent his head down close to Carey's to explain.

With a shower of sparks, the flame began blowing a molten trough through the steel plate of the lock. When Justin lifted his head away from Carey's hair, the strong odor of burning metal hit his nostrils. He buried his nose in the boy's hair again.

Tony turned off the torch. "Now watch out, don't burn yourself," he said, raising his goggles. "Remember it's still hot, even after the red is gone."

Travis and Justin helped Tony push, but the door didn't budge. Trying to avoid touching the hot areas of the door, they all heaved together. "Are you sure you've got the lock open?" asked Travis.

Tony looked at it again, then took a screwdriver from his tool kit and poked at the innards. "It's gotta be open," he said. "There's nothing left of it." He pried out a few pieces which fell smoking to the floor.

"Hey!" It was the man at the in the cage. "What's wrong?"

"We can't open the door," yelled Travis.

"Why not?" Chris yelled back. As soon as he had seen the torch, he had known that they would get him out. But after several seconds passed and no one answered, he began to worry. "Why not?" he yelled again.

Justin, meanwhile, had begun looking for the door hinges, thinking that maybe if they cut those off they could shove the door in. But he couldn't see any hinges where he thought they ought to be. Could it...

"It slides," yelled the caged man. "Did you try sliding it?"

Justin was annoyed that the man had said it before he did.

They tried sliding it instead of pushing, and the door moved easily. "Let's go!"

Chris saw half a dozen shrieking kids rush into the hall, running around, shaking barred doors, and enjoying the acoustics. Two of the kids began to move the torch equipment nearer.

"So you're the man who doesn't die?" asked Travis.

"I guess. Not yet anyway. Am I ever glad to see you!"

Travis extended his hand. "My name's Travis." They shook hands through the bars. "This is Justin, who found you. This is Tony, who is very useful right now."

"I'm Chris Tilman."

"Don't look," said Tony, striking the torch again.

Chris noticed that the boy called Justin had a small blond-haired boy holding onto his pants leg. Justin had smiled at Chris when introduced; now he approached on the other side of the bars, offering a canteen that he took from his belt. "I bet you're hungry, too," he said.

Chris tried to nod and drink at the same time. "I haven't seen anyone for a couple of days." He took another swallow, thinking maybe he shouldn't try to drink too much at once. He decided that he liked Justin. He looked at him again. About twelve, he was slender, with brown hair over his ears. Even in the dim light, Chris could see that his eyes were green.

"You can have dinner with us," invited Justin. "Our place isn't far from here."

"Do you all live together?" Chris asked as the door swung open.

"Sure," he said matter-of-factly, as he turned to help Tony with the torch equipment. Justin had made his decision. He knew that he had seen his parents for the last time.

They had the torch almost back to the van when a couple of the younger Jets came running up behind them. "Bring the torch! Zak is locked in, bring the torch back!"

Travis came out of the door laughing hysterically, "Bunch of stupid monkeys!"

The van pulled in at an old but elegant three-story house on the fringes of the downtown area. Travis and a couple of the kids went into a small supermarket just across the street, and Chris decided that its location had something to do with their choice of housing.

"Nice," Chris said appreciatively to Justin as they entered the house. "How did you guys get together?"

"We had a club before, some kids from around here. So we just stuck together. And about twenty more have joined us, I guess."

Travis and the others came back in with a grocery cart full of food. "We've got to get some more of that stuff moved into our basement before it's all gone," he said. "It's getting more picked over every day."

Chris gratefully received a can of smoked oysters, which he opened and ate with his fingers as he looked around. The house had apparently been a large one-family dwelling. There was a big dining room with a table long enough to seat ten or twelve. Two smaller tables had been brought in by the kids.

Kids kept coming down the stairs and in the doors. In just a few minutes a dinner on paper plates had been set out. By the time it was ready, all the chairs were full.

"Do you always have dinner together?" Chris asked Justin.

Justin sat at the long table with the little boy in his lap. The four year-old was eating from the older boy's plate.

"What's always?" asked Justin. "They, eh --we just moved into this place a couple of days ago."

As it was getting near dusk, Tony hung a gas camping lantern from the chandelier. There were canned peaches for dessert.

"There's not much to do except go to bed when it gets dark," said Justin. After dinner, he invited Chris to sleep in his room. "If you don't mind babies," he said. "I'm taking care of Carey, he's my boy."

Carey said something Chris didn't understand; Justin interpreted, "He says he's not a baby." He looked back at Carey. "I'm sorry. I know you're not a baby. I won't say that any more, okay?"

Carey nodded and gave a satisfied smile, the first Chris had seen from him.

By the time they got upstairs it was getting pretty dark. The floor of Justin's room was covered with sleeping bags full of kids, but they climbed into a loft, which was all his. At the top of the ladder Justin pulled a flashlight from under the edge of the mattress, and they went through a gate that went all the way to the ceiling. There was no way to stand up, but there was plenty of room to sit up without heads bumping the ceiling.

"Tsa moke tector," Carey said. Chris looked where the little boy's finger pointed to the device on the ceiling.

"We put it up yesterday," said Justin. "I put up the fence and gate myself, so no one would fall out." It was obvious that he was proud of the loft. "I get to have this space because of Carey."

Justin pulled Carey's clothes off, tucked him in, and closed a curtain that separated the loft from the rest of the room. Carey's left thumb went into his mouth, and he closed his eyes with a contented look on his face.

Then Justin reached into a dark corner of the loft and brought forth a candle. "Candles aren't allowed," he said in a whisper. "And it makes some smoke when you first blow it out, so we have to be sure and hold it near the window for a moment after we're done, or the smoke detector might start screaming."

Once the candle was lit, Justin turned out the flashlight and sat facing Chris in the warm, flickering glow of the candle. His green eyes studied the man's face for a moment, trying to figure out what sort of person the man might be. There was a gentle look in the face, no trace of hatred or anger. But the man looked tired, and his eyes held a look of terror. He was frightened, of course. "Do you have anybody... any kids or family, stuff like that?"

"No. I had a girlfriend once, Jan." After a moment's hesitation, Chris added in a voice that was almost a whisper, "I think she was the first person to get the Death."

"The first? You mean the first person you knew."

"No. The first person in the world."

There was a long silence while the green eyes studied the man's face. The face was sincere. Either the man was crazy, or... "That's weird. That's really, really weird. How could she be the first one in the world?"

"And how could I be the last?"

Previous Chapter
Taking Charge

Next Chapter
The Clubhouse

Copyright ©1995 R. Verner

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