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.

Behind the Scenes: Ivy & Trees Snippet

This is from an older version of a chapter, though I might take pieces of it for the draft I’m working on now.

I tug at the collar of my doublet and glance at the clock on the mantelpiece. The carvings that encase the clock look like swirls of ivy. The only problem with that is that ivy doesn’t really swirl. It crawls. Its leaves lie flat, though sometimes the plant itself will wind its way around a tree and choke the life out of it, sending tendrils of roots seeking any available entrance to the trunk through scales of bark. Floorboards creak from the next room, beyond a door that sweeps open. 

My father’s home was filled with ornately-carved clocks, mantelpieces, and doorways. It’d been built one hundred years before I was born. Around my father’s property stood a forest: tall and sturdy like a colonnade. The forest was off-limits. Not because there might be criminals or because I might have fallen out of a tree, but because of evil. My father was convinced, and my brother with him, that evil lurked beyond the sentries of sessile oaks and conifers.

Three’s a Crowd

“Speak not, reply not, do not answer me!” Sara threw up her hand.

Frowning, Neve looked at the books in her friend’s arms. “You know, you might be taking your Shakespeare obsession a little too far. All I said is that maybe you should consider—”

Sara’s expression darkened with each word until she thrust her books at Neve. “And you could do with some more Shakespeare. You have no poetry in you, you dark heart.” She turned on her heel and tried to storm off, but the between-classes traffic stalled her.

Neve reached out and grabbed the elbow of her sleeve. “Hold up, Sara. I know you don’t want to hear it, but he was kissing someone else. I wouldn’t lie.”

Sara shrugged Neve off and ducked into the crowd like a fish joining an upstream school. Neve let her head loll back and let out a groan. The bell rang, and everyone shuffled faster; Neve walked across the hall into Mr. Basset’s history class. “Am I cold-hearted?” she asked Andrew, Sara’s boyfriend.

“You? Maybe. But I like that you were brave enough to get rid of Sara for us.”

This is my response to Sunday’s writing prompt. The tome? Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare.

Regret

Your cold silence plagued these last two moons

Hope, once cherished, lies in ruins

A promise rescinded can hold no sway

Such noble vows your actions did not obey

That you were pained, I give my sorrow

Love cannot thrive when the heart must borrow

Writing Prompt: Crack a Book

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This week, open the book you’re currently reading. Choose the first full sentence on the left page. You must include that sentence in a story of no more than 200 words.

Have fun!

Rings of Saturn: Part 2 – Aug. 1, 79

Rings of SaturnA gray plume of smoke climbed into the sky, mixing with the clouds to muddy them. It came from just over a slight rise in a landscape that showed no other signs of human life, so Evie decided to walk toward the smoke. After what felt like about a half hour, she saw an olive orchard growing next to a grain field. Willows lined the far edge of that field, like shepherds protecting their flock. The contrast between the crops and dark soil drew her eye, and Evie realized she was hungry.

It was too soon to pluck an olive from the vineyard, and that would be stealing anyway. But where there was a farm, there were sure to be people, and perhaps the owners of this farm would help her. She had to get home. As much as her eyes enjoyed soaking in the sight of this idyllic landscape, Evie knew she’d somehow traveled a great distance. There was nowhere like this farm near her apartment in the city, which cultivated concrete and brick instead of vineyards and trees.

She stopped just before the growing crops and examined the house. Evie blinked and pinched her arm. “Ow.” The house was real, and it looked like an Italian villa. How could putting on the bracelet transport her to Italy? The whole idea was preposterous. She started walking again, intent on finding someone–anyone–who could answer some questions for her, but she stopped short when she saw an older man emerge from the villa. He wore a toga, like an Ancient Roman. Evie ducked into the vineyard, breathing hard.

She looked down at her own clothes. Jeans, a white tee shirt, and a pair of Adidas. Not exactly acceptable garb for a woman in Ancient Rome–or for anyone in Ancient Rome! “This is insane,” she muttered. Evie duckwalked along the row of olive vines, trying to keep her eye on the man between the bunches of young olives and the leaves clustered around them. From one branch to another, he disappeared. Evie stopped and rose inch-by-inch from crouching. Her thighs burned but she didn’t want to stand up too fast.

“You there! Who are you?” The man spotted her, and gathered his toga in his hands so he could run her way.

If I run, I’ll only look guilty, she thought. “I’m Evie, and I’m lost.”

“You steal my olive branches?”

She shook her head. “No, not a one. I was hiding.”

He narrowed his eyes. He was about her height. Deep wrinkles carved a path between his eyes, one of which was milky-white with a scar on the lid. It looked painful just to open it. His toga stretched over an ample belly, but his breathing wasn’t labored from the vineyard sprint. His hand darted out to grab her arm so fast that Evie couldn’t pull away. He twisted her forearm up to his face and examined the scorched symbols on her wrist. Then, he looked her up and down and, keeping a vice grip on her arm, turned back toward the villa.

Evie had no choice but to let him drag her. She tried to pull her arm free but he was holding on too tight. “Hey, let me go! I’m no thief–”

“I know you’re not. Hush, girl.” He didn’t walk to the front of the villa, but rather to the side, where he shouldered open a wooden door to reveal a storeroom. He swung her inside. “Stay here. I will return with food and clothes.”

“Wait, don’t–the symbols on my wrist–you know what they mean.”

“Shh! I will return.” He closed the door.

Evie felt for a handle but there was none. Not on this side. She tried to fit her fingers into the cracks between the planks, but they were too narrow, leaving her fingertips sore. If dreams couldn’t hurt, this definitely was not a dream. A few minutes passed before her eyes adjusted to the dim light pouring through the cracks in the door. The room was filled with jars and crates. Most of them were empty, but a few of the jars held milled grain.

She turned over one of the crates and sat down, watching the sunlight move outside. If that bracelet really took me back to Ancient Rome, I’m in so much more trouble than I thought I was. How was she going to get back to America? How was she going to get back to the twenty-first century? With the bracelet gone, she couldn’t think of any hope for her escape. But she couldn’t just live here, in the past. Sure, she’d studied Ancient Rome and Ancient Romans for years so she could probably survive but she didn’t belong here. Evie closed her eyes and tried to calm her racing heart.

It wasn’t until dusk that the door was shoved open again. The older man from before stooped to pick up a plate and a cup. “Foot and water first, I think,” he said, and passed them both to Evie. He turned from her and scooped up a dress. “My daughter’s–she’s outgrown it. She won’t miss it, I don’t think. You must wear this.” He draped it over one of the empty jars. “Eat. Drink.”

Evie eyed him warily but then thought, if he was going to poison her, why bring her clothes? She tore off a piece of bread and dipped it in a pool of olive oil on the plate. It tasted better than any bread she’d ever eaten before in her life–or maybe she was just hungry. The man had also brought her vegetables and a bowl with two dormice dipped in honey. She looked at the mice, then at the older man. He nodded. “Go on, woman, eat.”

“Evie. My name is Evie.”

“No family name?”

“Russell.”

His eyebrows pinched together. “Russell…strange name. Never heard of your family. Never seen someone in clothes like yours, but I’ve seen those symbols.” He pointed at her wrist.

“The bracelet–it disappeared when I arrived. How do I get it back? What do they mean?”

The man shook his head. “I was young when I left Campania. You need to go there, Evie Russell, and consult with the priestesses. They will help you. Food and clothing is all I can do for you.”

“Who are you?”

“Publius Sepunius Columella.”

The name didn’t ring a bell, save for the writer Columella who wrote about agriculture in Ancient Rome. But this man wasn’t him. “Publius Sepunius Columella,” Evie repeated his name. “I am so grateful for your help but I must beg for more. I have no money. No means to get to Campania. These symbols,” she thrust her wrist out at him, “obviously mean something to you.”

He cast a furtive glance behind him. “I can give you a mule and tell you that you must ride south for,” he scratched at his chin, “ten days, if the weather’s fair. Campania is past Naples, near Herculaneum and Pompeii.”

Evie knew where towns were in Italy. She was hoping for a guide though. “Thank you, for the offer of the mule.”

“I can give you some money, too, to feed yourself on your journey.”

“Thank you. I am most grateful. Is there no one who can guide me?”

He huffed. “Gods above and below, will you take everything?”

Evie set aside the food and water and stood. “These symbols are important, yes?”

“I remember seeing them carved into the stones of the temple when I was a boy.”

“And you wouldn’t want to upset the gods?”

He pressed his lips into a thin line. “Very well. I will find someone to guide you. But one mule, and one only.” He turned from her. “Wear the gown I brought you. I will return soon.”

“Publius Sepunius Columella?”

He stopped but didn’t look at her.

“What temple was it?”

“I don’t recall.”

He left, and Evie changed out of her clothes and into the dress. It was a little too long, but otherwise a decent fit. She’d only have to wear it for the next ten days–as soon as she found these priestesses in Campania, she was going to find a way to make them send her home. While she waited, she wondered how it was Publius Sepunius Columella could speak English, a language that shouldn’t exist yet. Maybe she was losing her mind, but if so, she wasn’t going to spend her time sitting in an imaginary storeroom.

True to his word, Publius Sepunius Columella returned when the moon was high with a mule, a pouch of coins, and a young man. “This is Tatius,” he introduced the other man. “He will guide you to Campania–and then he will have to leave you to return here. I cannot spare him longer than that.”

Evie thanked him again, and tucked the money, her jeans, tee shirt, and Adidas into the baskets draped over the mule’s hind quarters. Tatius took up the rope and the two of them left the farm and Publius Sepunius Columella behind.

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.