Pathogen: Jana – 3

PathogenThe next morning, at least she figured it was morning, the heavy door to the room opened once more. Two women stood on the other side, and behind them, the man with the gun. “You’re to come with us then, to get cleaned up.”

“What if I would rather just leave?” Jana stood from her corner.

“Then I’ll kill you,” the man answered.

Jana didn’t think he’d shoot her for not going with the other women. She crossed her legs at the ankle, leaned back, and said, “You know, threatening to kill people isn’t exactly the best way to get them to do what you want.”

He shrugged. “I don’t care. It’s effective, isn’t it? Now, on your feet. Go and get cleaned up.”

Jana reluctantly followed the two women. Not that she had much of a choice with the man with the gun walking behind her, so close that she could hear him breathing. “Do you all have names,” she asked idly.

“Yes.” He didn’t tell her his name, nor the names of the women who led her into the bathrooms.

“Is this a cult?” Jana was alone with the two women now. They didn’t speak, but just shook their heads as they gently stripped her of her clothing. Beneath her coat she wore a pair of spandex shorts and a tank top–far more appropriate for a Manhattan summer than Ryan’s coat. “Take it easy with that,” she instructed the woman who dumped the coat into a wash bin. The coat was a faded parka, and the women looked at her like she was crazy for wanting them to take such care.

The water they dumped over her head was room temperature, so that she stood shivering and dripping. They scrubbed at her hair and body with a sharp-scented soap. One of them stopped and pointed to the small black cat on her upper arm. “Oh, that?” Jana asked. “Ryan and I got tattoos together about four years ago. We were separated.” Again, the women said nothing, but resumed washing her. “You know,” Jana offered, “I’m capable of doing this myself.” They merely shook their heads and continued working. They dumped another bucket of water over her head to rinse away the suds and then came at her with towels and clothing.

Outside the room, the man with the gun waited. “At least you don’t stink anymore,” he offered, placing one hand on her shoulder to direct her further down the corridor.

Jana watched the door to the room where they’d imprisoned her. They passed it, but she figured it was pointless to ask where they were going as she’d find out soon enough. “There are better places to live, you know. Brighter places. Even my apartment is nicer.”

“We can keep this secure.”

“Figures you’d say something like that.”

“I don’t want to be your friend thief. I wanted to kill you. Don’t forget that.”

Jana said nothing else to him as he steered her around the corner and into another room. A wooden conference table sat in the middle, surrounded by a semi-circle of chairs. White paint was chipping off of the walls and she wondered how this place could look like it was abandoned decades ago when the riots only started earlier in the year.

“Sit there,” the man pointed to a chair at one end of the table. He and the women left the room.

Jana sat where indicated and waited. An older man she’d not seen before strolled in and sat across from her, laying his palms on the faded table. He was balding, but it seemed like all the hair that had fled the top of his head took up residence on his eyebrows. For a moment, he sat, back rigid, staring at her. She stared right back, reclining in the over-sized chair, arms folded over her chest.

“You are obviously skilled at stealth.”

Jana shrugged. “Not skilled enough it seems.”

The man waved his hand dismissively. He wore a gold wedding band a gold watch. Jana could see from here that the watch face was frosted white and cracked. “Do not undervalue your abilities. No one gets past them–they were CIA, you know.”

“I didn’t know. What’s your point?”

“Everyone must pull their weight. We have a lot of people here. The group who determined your judgment…they were just the first thirty or so in line.”

“Great legal system you have here.”

The man’s mouth quirked up at one corner, but it didn’t put Jana at ease. “You have three choices. You can either work for us willingly, work for us unwillingly, or suffer the ultimate consequences.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific.”

The man rose to his feet deliberately, as though testing the reliability of his legs beneath him. “Well, if you work for us willingly, you’d be finding information. Finding food. Supplies. That sort of thing. If you work for us unwillingly, you stay here and…and we take something from you. The final choice is to forfeit your life.”

“What’s to stop me from just leaving if I work with you?”

“Every mission you’ll be with the two men who tracked you.”

“You really know how to sweeten a deal, hm? What do you take from me if I choose to be uncooperative? Obviously I’m not going to just let you kill me.”

“Well, that would be your choice. Your hand, your ear, your eye, your nose, or your tongue. The women who bathed you…they chose that route. Plus, if you don’t cooperate, then you will never leave this place.”

“Ah, that’s why they were so silent. Well, as fun as that sounds, I think I will keep all of my body parts. I guess I have no choice but to work with you. Though I’m not too keen on spending my days with those two idiots.”

“They are not idiots. Quite intelligent actually. And what you are keen on…does not really matter. You must be hungry; I will have someone show you to your permanent quarters, and tomorrow, you will begin.”

Pathogen: Jana – 2

Pathogen

Theft and assault–that’s what they were accusing her of.

Stealing was technically a crime, but she’d stolen food so often in the past months that it didn’t feel like one anymore. She was hungry and the only way to keep going was to eat when she could, and Jana didn’t trust anyone else enough to form or join a group. Groups ultimately turned on one another when resources ran out or someone disagreed about how things were run. Or worse–she could get close to someone and then they could die.

As for assault, she only kicked the other man because he was trying to drag her out of her hiding spot. How could she know if they would try to hurt her or not? How could she know they weren’t sick? That she never got sick from living with Ryan was a miracle; Jana wasn’t eager to tempt fate if she could avoid it.

Eventually she made her way to the center of the room. She didn’t want them returning to find her hiding in the corner. She sat again, crossing her legs and resting her hands on her knees. She waited, mentally tracking the doors and corridors that led from the street to this room. The door opened with a squeal of protest and men and women of all ages–along with some children–filed into the room, lining the walls. They held slender candles that dripped wax of all different colors onto their skin. They didn’t even flinch.

“Rise, thief.” The man who’d led her here spoke clearly, forcing each word out with bitter distaste. “You may speak for yourself before we lay judgment upon you.” He was clean-shaven, his angular face shadowed in the flickering light so that his nose, jaw, and cheekbones looked sharpened.

Jana got to her feet. “I did steal from you, yes. Because I was hungry. I only kicked your brother to protect myself.” She wasn’t going to rationalize beyond that. Everyone had a sob story and whether or not they wanted hers, she wasn’t going to provide it. Jana didn’t want their pity–she just wanted to get out of here alive.

“You broke his nose. And the bread you stole, you might as well have taken from the mouths of these children.” The man slowly waved his paddle of a hand through the air, indicating the four or five children pressed between adults along the walls. They didn’t budge. “Cast your vote,” the man ordered. The soft rush of forced breath echoed around her as the room began to darken, followed by a moment or two of silence. “Wait here.” The man led everyone else out of the room and Jana heard the door latch in their wake.

“As though I have any choice,” she answered the now-empty room. Were they going to kill her? What did blowing out a candle signify–to snuff out her life? Did one third of the room want her dead, and, what would happen to her if they decided to let her live? She remained standing until her knees began to ache, and Jana realized she’d stood with them locked since the vote. She let her legs buckle beneath her, ignoring the dull wave of pain that radiated into her knee caps from the cement floor. Jana sat back on her heels and stared into the darkness.

When the door opened again, she lifted her head. How much time had passed, she didn’t know, but she’d ended up curled up on her side, her cheek resting on the back of her hand. A child walked forward and placed a bowl about four feet away from her. “Wait,” she called out as he retreated. “What do the candles–” The door slammed again before she could get her question out.

Jana scooted over to the bowl and sniffed at it. She didn’t know how to tell if something was poisoned or not. Maybe this was their way of executing someone who wronged them. Frowning, she kicked the bowl over and wished they’d not taken back the bread she stole. She was so hungry that she only had the memory of hunger, the way her stomach would grumble and feel like it might fold on itself.

Jana had to do something to distract herself, so she stood and walked to the door. She tried the handle; it turned but the door wouldn’t open. It was barred, not locked, which was unfortunate because she’d become deft at picking locks over the last months–or maybe a year–since everything went wrong. She turned to lean back against the wall and sank to the hard floor once more.

The next time the door opened, the man with the broken nose entered. He stepped in front of her. “Here’s the deal. Two-thirds of our group voted to spare your life. A majority of those decided you’re going to join us. However,” he reached down to drive his fingers into her short hair, tilting her head back so that she was forced to look up into his face, “if you take one misstep against us, I will kill you. Or my brother will kill you. Do you understand?”

She clamped her hand down on his so that he couldn’t pull her hair. “What do you count as a misstep, then?”

“Get some sleep. In the morning you will be taken for a shower. You smell, thief. Then the rules will be laid out for you.” He released her hair and peeled her hand off of his. Before opening the door, he kicked at her, knocking her onto her side.

Jana stifled a cry when his foot connected with her arm. She heard the bar slide into place again. A yellow light flickered to life in the corner and a voice filtered through the door. It wasn’t either of the men who caught her in the bank.

“The generator won’t be on forever. There is a closet there on the other side of the room, where you can relieve yourself.”

“Who are you?” Jana scrambled to the door, pressing her ear against it.

The voice didn’t reply right away. “Two more minutes, thief. Then it’ll be dark again until the morning.”

Jana sighed and crossed the room. The door to the closet was coming off of its hinges, and it wobbled as she pulled it open. Inside the closet sat a single bucket.

Pathogen: Jana – 1

PathogenAsphalt pebbles kicked up behind Jana’s heels, stung the backs of her calves. Black smoke plumed from a storefront ahead. The ringing in her ears drowned out the surrounding screams. The thick August heat, intensified by the explosion, pressed against her skin. She flung the sweat off of her forehead with a flick of her hand. Tugging her shirt collar up over her mouth and nose, she ducked into the smoldering building and skidded to the floor behind a counter. Rolling a cushioned chair out of her way, Jana crawled into the space beneath the desk.

Money floated to the floor, riding the air like feathers. If those men followed her in here, she hoped they’d be too distracted by the cash everywhere. Jana couldn’t imagine what anyone would do with money these days. It wasn’t worth anything on the island of Manhattan, not anymore.

The smoke didn’t hold back her pursuers. Their muffled voices conferenced on the other side of the service desk, though Jana couldn’t make out what they were saying. She caught only one word, which replayed in her mind again and again: Food. Her stomach rumbled. She clamped her arms over her abdomen as though that would silence her hunger. Even the pungent odor of burning couldn’t stop the need to eat something, but she didn’t budge. She didn’t budge even though her coat pockets were stuffed with rolls and cheese she lifted from a market a few blocks over. August was too warm for a coat, but this one came in handy, and it was all she had left of Ryan.

The coat was too long for her; it hung almost to her knees. The broad shoulders drooped over her arms. She’d sewn pockets into the lining. Taking a bag from someone was too easy–but Ryan’s coat was like a bag that she wore around her whole body. Besides, it served to remind her that in a way, she was doing this for him.

The two men, burly and stomping, knocked over charred chairs, spilled contents of desk drawers, and shouted “Clear!” on their march toward her. Jana glanced toward the window…or the gaping hole that was once the window, behind the service desk. She could probably escape, but not without being spotted.

A moment later, the chair that hid her was pulled away. “Found her!” A meaty hand clenched around her ankle and tugged. Jana kicked out with her free foot, connecting with the man’s face. He released her, his own hands coming up to his nose. Blood poured from beneath his palms. She kicked again.

She scrambled and ran for the window. A few rolls slipped out of her pocket, but she couldn’t go back for them. Jana jumped over the counter and surged forward, only to stop short. Something caught her coat. Jerking her head to see what snagged her, she saw the other man holding the hood. He snatched her arm and tugged. The floor came up fast.

Jana crab-walked backwards, away from both men now, though the one she’d kicked didn’t seem menacing. He stuffed tissue after tissue into his nose. But the other man loomed. Smoke hung in the air around him, like fog drawn in charcoal, obscuring his face. She could tell by the way he carried himself that he was strong.

“You stole from us,” the looming man growled. “No one steals from us.”

“I was hungry.” Jana got to her feet. She still had to crane her neck to look up at him but she wasn’t going to cower. She’d only cowered once and it was the night Ryan was taken, and only because he made her promise to hide. To this day, she regretted honoring his request and refused to show fear to a stranger.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to come with us.”

“Why? You’re not the law. There is no law. Take back what I stole if you want but I’m not going anywhere with you.”

The looming man reached into the back of his waistband and withdrew a semi-automatic pistol. “I think you are.”

Jana eyed the gun. When everything went crazy in the streets, there had been guns reporting almost every night, but after a couple of weeks, the gunshots diminished. Jana figured the island was running out of ammo. She had no way of knowing though whether this guy saved some. She nodded.

“And you’ll answer for your theft and assault on my brother here.” He grabbed her elbow with his free hand and called to his brother to come along. The trio exited the bank, the stunning sunlight forcing Jana to close her eyes. A light tug at her elbow and she turned left.

When her eyes adjusted, she looked up. A street sign that read “Lexington” dangled from a pole. They passed a few others on the street, though no one stopped them even though the gun was in full view. Either they didn’t care or they were afraid. Afraid of the gun. Afraid of the man holding it. Afraid that one of them–probably the guy with blood dripping from his nose–would get them sick.

The gunman stopped on the corner of Lexington and 68th. His bloody-nosed brother skirted around them to hold aside a sheet of corrugated metal that served as a door. Pushed through the doorway, Jana followed through a series of hallways. They stopped outside of a locked door and the broken-nose-man drew a ring of chiming keys from his belt to unlock it. The gunman tossed her into the room so that she had to stagger to keep from falling. “Wait here.” He shut the door again and the room went dark. No windows, no lights. Jana closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and when she opened them again she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Once she could make out the edges of the room, she sat down in the corner, pulling her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. They never said how long she would wait, or what it meant to them to answer for her crimes.