An Element of Blank

by Brett Riley

 

As her father, Billy, drove the old LTD over the rutted dirt road, the two girls lay in the back seat, both of them covered in blood. River had found a ratty, ancient towel in the floorboard; she was pressing it hard onto Candy’s neck and trying to ignore the screams. Then the LTD’s back end fishtailed, tossing River to the floor and Candy into the driver’s-side door. Droplets of blood spattered the back windshield and the seats. Candy shrieked again, but it sounded weaker this time, more pain than terror, as if she were losing interest in her own mortality. River pushed herself up and grabbed the towel off the seat; it slapped wetly against her arm, leaving a bright red smear that resembled South America. She wrung out the towel, more blood pattering onto her bare feet, and pushed Candy back down on the seat. River pressed the towel to the wound again, trying to exert enough pressure to stem the bleeding but not enough to crush her best friend’s windpipe. The car hit another rut and the two of them were thrown nearly to the roof. They landed with Candy on top of River, who wrapped her legs around Candy’s waist. Somehow she kept the towel jammed against the gaping wound. Blood dripped onto River’s face.

Billy shouted, “We’re almost there! Keep the pressure on!”

“I’m tryin’!” cried River. “How far out are we?”

Billy said nothing as he yanked the wheel back and forth, avoiding the biggest ruts. The engine whined like a hive of angry bees. Candy looked pale and scared, but at least she had stopped screaming.

When the Plodders had come out of the woods between the three of them and the car, Billy had killed six with his axe while River and Candy tried to circle around. The girls had almost made it to the car when Candy tripped over a cypress knee and landed flat on her face. Before she could get up, a rogue Plodder staggered out from behind the tree and fell on her. River had seen that the thing was wearing ragged blue overalls and the remains of a once-white t-shirt before it sank its teeth into Candy’s neck, ripping out a three-inch chunk of flesh, blood geysering, spattering the cypress. The Plodder had missed Candy’s major arteries, but that mattered little. She had been bitten, which meant that she was as good as dead.

Suddenly Billy muttered, “Shit.”

River looked up. “What?”

“Runners behind us. Six or eight.”

“The patrols ain’t seen no Runners in two weeks.”

“Well, we’re seein’ ’em now. Most of em’s naked, but one of ’em’s fresh. Still wearin’ doctor’s scrubs. Hang on.” He reached into the seat beside him and picked up an old battery-powered walkie-talkie. Driving with one hand, he turned it on with the other. Static crackled over the tinny speaker. He pressed the talk button. “Jones. We’re comin’ in hot. Six to eight hostiles on my ass. We need coverin’ fire and a medic.”

From the speaker a gravelly voice said, “Roger. Be careful.”

River held the towel over the floorboard and squeezed it with her left hand. Blood dribbled over her fist and down her arm. She passed the cloth back to her right hand and pressed it against Candy’s throat. The initial gush had slowed to a trickle, but Candy lay still on top of her, a hundred pounds of dead weight. River wondered what she would do if Candy changed before they could get home, here in the back seat where there was nowhere to run and no room to fight. She tried to shove the thought out of her mind.

Her father glanced into the back seat. “Gate’s just ahead. Hold on.”

For a split second she heard inarticulate raised voices as the LTD barreled past the gate guards. Billy slammed on the brakes, the tires squealing as the rubber burned onto the asphalt. He threw the car into park and bolted out, yanked open the back door, and grabbed Candy under her arms, tugging her to the ground.

Marquis Fuqua, one of the medics, appeared at his side. Candy looked at the sky with bright and frightened eyes, her neck and upper torso soaked in gore. River scrambled out of the car and knelt beside her, brushing the hair away from her face as Marquis examined the wound. He frowned and then looked at Billy, shaking his head. River had seen him do that before and knew what it meant. Suddenly, the day seemed too hot, the air too thin; she felt as if she could not catch a full breath. Tears welled in her eyes. She blinked them away. She would not cry, not now, not when Candy needed her to be calm. She would do what she had always been taught—cut off the emotion, bottle it up and bury it. Empty the brain of everything save the information necessary to survive. From behind them she could hear snarls and growls and the slap of running feet on the road. She did not turn to look. After a moment, the guns roared, the deep booms of the shotguns and flat crack of rifles like voices arguing a point of great importance. Soon enough the guns fell silent, and the only sound she could hear was Candy’s shallow respiration.

Marquis sat back on the ground and peeled off his white latex gloves, tossing them onto the asphalt where they lay like shed snakeskin. He looked at Billy. “Runners did this?”

Billy shook his head. “Plodders. She was supposed to be our lookout, but she got to pickin’ flowers and let ’em sneak up on her. Next thing I knew, she was runnin’ like hell with twenty or more shufflin’ after her, smack dab between us and the car. We tried to get by ’em, but they was spread out pretty good. We got pinned against the river.”

“I reckon that current was still too fast to chance.”

“Yeah. I was clearin’ us a path, but she tripped at just the wrong time. Like somethin’ outta one of them bad movies we used to watch when we was kids.”

Marquis grunted and fished a tattered pack of Juicy Fruit from his pocket. He did not offer a piece to anyone else. Nobody was making Juicy Fruit anymore; the troubles had killed the whole idea of making anything, unless you counted weapons and shelters. He looked down at Candy. “Well, I don’t reckon she’ll have to worry about trippin’ no more. She’s lost enough blood to get a good jump on dyin’. Plodder’s bite’ll finish it quick.”

Billy scowled at Marquis and nodded at River. Marquis grimaced, but River did not hold it against him. He was only being honest, not treating her like a kid. If she were old enough to go out on patrol or gathering missions, then she was old enough to hear the truth. And if both Plodders and Runners had wandered back into this area, the colony would need every able-bodied hand it could get. They could not afford the luxury of watching children come of age over the years, not when knowing how to shoot or wield an ax might determine whether you grew up at all. The problem had nothing to do with the girls’ age; instead, it lay with the assignments. They never should have let Candy be their lookout. She loved plants and animals and always tried to bring more back to the colony. Once she had gathered so much Spanish moss from the nearby trees that half the compound had looked like a giant spider web. She tended to look everywhere but right in front of her, and so they should have known that she would get distracted. But River was stronger and could carry more wood, so she had gone with her father, leaving Candy alone on the dirt road. What harm could it do? they had thought. Stupid. That should have been the first clue that trouble was coming.

Now Candy would die, just like her parents had. And then something worse would happen.

River cradled Candy’s head in her lap. Candy’s eyes fluttered open; her lips moved as she tried to speak. Marquis handed River a canteen; she unscrewed it with her teeth and held it to Candy’s lips. Some of the water ran down the girl’s face, turning the drying blood into swirls and eddies of pale salmon pink. She turned her head and sputtered; River handed the canteen back to Marquis, trying not to get too angry when he held it out at arm’s length and tossed it in the nearest trash can. Dumb. He knew Candy’s saliva would be harmless until she turned.

Candy looked up at River and croaked, “How bad is it?”

River tried to smile, the muscles in her face twitching in protest as if they had forgotten how. “It’s bad.”

She would not lie to Candy. She never had, not even when she had seen a pack of Runners chase down Candy’s parents just outside the gates and rip them to pieces. When Candy had asked what had happened, River had told her, right down to the goriest detail. Candy had handled it all well, just as she was handling the news about herself. She had always been both flighty and brave.

Now she nodded at River. “Better get me to the kennels.”

River stroked her hair. “No. We can sit here a while. Ain’t no rush.”

“Bullshit. I ain’t gonna let you set here holdin’ me till I jump up and eat your face off. Help me to the kennel or shoot me right now.”

River sighed and nodded. She eased out from under Candy and squatted beside her, grasping her around the torso. Then River pulled herself up, lifting with her legs; Billy stepped over and grabbed Candy under the arms and tugged until she was on her feet, swaying like a sapling in a hard wind. River held her by one arm, afraid that she would tumble over on her face and tear open the clotting neck wound. After a moment, Candy nodded and River let her go. She did not fall.

Candy looked up at Billy. “I’m sorry. I almost got you two killed.”

Billy smiled and then patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry about that now. You want anything? Some more water or some jerky?”

“No. There’s only one thing I want. And we gotta hurry. I can already feel it. Wonder if I’ll be a Plodder, like that thing in them ugly-ass overalls.”

River and Billy said nothing. No one had ever discovered why some people became Plodders and others turned into Runners.

They all walked toward the kennels as fast as they could go, though Billy and River had to wait on Candy, who could only shuffle along like the Plodder that had bitten her. River felt her heart swell and ache as she watched; she bit her lower lip hard, relishing the pain that drove thought away. She had been through all of this before with her own mother, with Candy’s parents, with a dozen friends and acquaintances. It never stopped hurting when they changed, and it never got easier to put them down afterward. Her father had taught her to harden her heart against anything that plodded or ran after a colony member, but she had never been able to take that one last step. You can’t see ’em as the people they were anymore. You’ve gotta see ’em as the things they are. She always remembered who they had been. When they hurt or died, she hurt with them. And so for most of her life, she had dreaded her thirteenth birthday, when, according to the colony by-laws, she would be old enough to hunt, to gather, to patrol, to stand guard at the fences. To wait coldly until a Plodder or Runner wandered into range and pull the trigger. To hack off a head, to burn a body. She had done it many times over the last year and felt she could handle it all as long as she had not known the creature in life. But when she had to kill someone she had known, she always felt as if she were lopping off some crucial part of herself—her empathy, her ability to love, her dreams. She had to get past that, or she would die young.

A cloud moved across the sun. River looked at the sky, so blue it hurt her eyes. A gentle breeze played across her face, bringing with it the scent of frying meat from the mess hall. All around her, people came and went, all of them carefully averting their eyes from the little party headed to the kennels; word had spread already. Birds chirped at each other on the nearby roofs. The three of them passed the garage and the weapons storage buildings and the residences, all of the structures painted in green and brown patterns. Her father had explained that the compound used to be an army base, back before the troubles came. Now there was no army, nothing for one to protect. She had a hard time imagining a world dense with living people like ants flowing out of a mound, a world without Plodders or Runners. Every time she looked at her father, she thought of that world; he had lived there. He had seen nearly everyone he ever knew get torn apart or transform into something much worse than dead. What must his dreams be like?

They reached the kennels in back of the compound. The set of six ten-by-ten chain-link cages stood empty, each one festooned with barbed wire and windblown pieces of wilted Spanish moss, like a hellish version of the tattered garland her father hung from a sapling every December. The metal support posts had been secured in foot-thick concrete. Inside each cage, five iron bars had been driven into the slab. A thick chain had been welded to each bar; each chain terminated with a locking cuff. Candy would die here twice, chained down like a dog, as so many others had. River had never seen the kennels full; the colonists only used them when someone from the compound had been compromised. The occasion was always sad and violent, ending with splattered brains and the smell of burning flesh.

They reached the first empty cage and Candy walked inside, no hesitation. She about-faced and stood in the nest of iron bars.

“You wanna do it yourself?” Billy asked.

Candy said nothing for a moment. When she spoke, her voice shook. “I’m tryin’ to hold myself together, but the truth is I’m scared shitless. Can you do it for me?”

Billy nodded and entered the cage. He picked up one of the closest shackles and pulled a set of keys out of his pants pocket. He selected a key and stuck it in the shackle’s padlock. He removed the lock, and the shackle fell open. Candy held out her hand. He fastened the shackle around her wrist and replaced the padlock, clicking it shut. River saw Candy wince as the lock shot home, the metallic clink somehow final and damning. The cuff looked too big for Candy’s skinny wrist, but she could not pull her hand out without breaking her thumb at the very least. Billy grasped the chain with both hands and yanked on it; the post did not move. He nodded and dropped the chain. Then he repeated the process until Candy’s wrists and ankles had been secured. He picked up the cuff and chain fastened to the central post and unlocked it, fastening it around Candy’s neck. When the final lock clicked shut, he stuck the keys back in his pocket and stepped back. Candy’s long blonde hair had fallen over her eyes. She tried to lift her arm, perhaps to brush the hair away, but the chain stopped her short. She had to kneel in order to get any slack, and on her knees in that cage, concrete baking in the day’s dry heat, her bloodstained blouse rippling in the breeze, she looked like an animal headed for the slaughter.

Candy ran her fingers through her hair and tucked it behind her ears. She looked up at Billy. “Thanks. Now go. I don’t want you to see.”

He frowned. “I aim to put you down. I owe you that much.”

“When that happens, I won’t know who’s here and who ain’t. But I do now. So go. Please, Billy.”

A single tear welled up in her eye and slid down her dirty, blood-encrusted cheek. Billy stepped forward and knelt, throwing his arms around her; she patted him on the back, the chains tinkling like musical accompaniment. Then Billy let her go and stood up. He turned and walked out of the cage, heading for the barracks. River could have sworn he was crying, though she had never seen him weep, not even when her mother had turned. Perhaps a man could only take so much before he started crying late at night, surrounded by the chirping of crickets, the night watch’s soft conversations, and the low moans and growls from the things in the woods. Maybe it only started with the weeping, uncontrollable and violent, and then one day, he would wake up and put his pistol barrel in his mouth or walk out into the woods unarmed. And if it happened to her father, she supposed it would happen to her someday, too.

River had been young when her mother changed, too young to remember the woman as more than a pale moon face leaning over her at bedtime, a shock of black hair that frizzed out in even the dampest of weathers, and a voice like the tinkling of silver bells. Her name had been Courtney. River had often seen her looking out the barracks window at night when both of them should have been asleep, scraping at the wooden sill with the sharp end of an old screwdriver, but River herself had never bothered to look. People were always carving on something. Then, while on patrol one day, Courtney’s horse spooked and threw her right into the arms of a Plodder, who managed to bite off a chunk of her calf before she got away. River soon learned that the bites’ efficacy equated with their distance from the brain; if you were bitten on the leg, you changed slowly, and if you were bitten above the shoulders, you might as well chop off your own head, because within a couple of hours, you would become a growling horror. So Courtney had lingered for days, dropping deeper and deeper into lethargy, her speech becoming more and more slurred, her eyes red and watery. Finally Billy had taken her to the kennels. River had not gone with them, but she had heard the story of how her mother turned into a gibbering, slobbering Plodder who would have eaten the living flesh of anyone within reach if Billy had not put a bullet in her brain first. No one would let River near the kennels, so she had taken her mother’s old position at the barracks window, watching people drift by and wiping tears from her eyes. She had looked down at the sill and saw that her mother had carved something in uneven, childlike letters:

Pain has an element of blank
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not

River had no idea where the lines had come from, but she had read them often over the years. And she had always thought she understood them when she remembered how Billy had come home that day and sat quietly in his favorite chair, reading old books and grunting whenever River asked questions. He did not eat for three days. But he had never wept, not in her presence. And now the girl whom he thought of as his adopted daughter had been bitten, corrupted, and the bite was high. Another day had brought a fresh wound, not just in Candy’s flesh but inside them all, and she could honestly not remember a time when that had not been so.

River knew that Billy would come back to put Candy down, but if he respected her wishes, he would not reappear until after the change. He had not told River whether or not she should stay. Maybe the decision belonged to her; maybe that was part of growing up, deciding whom you could stand to stay with as they died, and came back, and died again.

She looked at Candy. The neck wound had stopped seeping. Candy had dropped the towel; it lay near her knees like a ritual sacrifice, and the wound, open to the elements, looked cavernous and raw. But it had stopped bleeding altogether, which meant that Candy’s systems were shutting down. Her face looked like old parchment; her hair strung out from her head like tufts of cornsilk. And her blue eyes appeared to be tinted with amber. Her dry lips had cracked. River felt a tug somewhere in her guts, as if she had been fish-hooked. She and Candy had planned to pull out her father’s old Scrabble game and make dirty words tonight. They had planned to sneak out and watch the dark parts of the fence, hoping a Plodder would come along so that they could throw rocks at it. They had planned to tell each other stories of the world that was, a place full of cars and people and something called television shows. But now they had no time left.

“Can I get you somethin’?” she asked. “A little more water, maybe?”

Candy shook her head, the chains rattling. “No. I don’t want nothin’ on my stomach. I’m scared it’d make everything worse. I ain’t never been so hungry in my life.”

Billy had left the cage door open. River had no idea why he had done that. She had seen him march as many as two dozen people to the kennels, and he always locked the cages. Just in case, he said. Them chains ain’t never broke, but there’s a first time for everything, he said. Maybe he had left it open because of the sound it made when it closed. One time when she was little, she had snuck out of their barracks at night and tried to get over the fence, chasing a lightning bug like it was the only creature moving on Earth. The guards had caught her and marched her right back to her Daddy, who whipped her ass with his belt and then took her down to what he called a stockade. It was a little room with a cot and a toilet and sink and steel bars for a door. He had locked her in there overnight and told her that if she ever tried to sneak over that fence again, he would leave her down there for a week. When he shut the gate, those bars had clanged like the toll of a deathwatch bell, and she had burst into tears. She imagined that when they locked the cage on one of the corrupted, it probably sounded final and cold, like that stockade door. That was probably why so many of the dying screamed and begged and insisted that they were not sick. Soon enough they would begin to curse and threaten and posture. And then they would just collapse on the concrete until they changed. Maybe Billy could not bear to hear Candy beg him for a life that would soon end either way.

River turned her face up to the sun, letting the day’s heat bake into her. She felt feverish. A rogue thought leaped to the forefront of her mind: what if she had been bitten and had not even felt it in the headlong rush from the water’s edge? She checked herself all over, pulling her clothing back even when she could see no spreading bloodstain, craning her neck back as far as she could, never able to see everything. She spun around and around like a wounded animal tramping down the grass in its den.

Candy watched silently. Her hair had fallen back over her face, but she did not bother to brush it away. Her eyes were twin pools of fire in her pallid face. She said, “Don’t worry. You ain’t bit. You’d know it if you was. It ain’t just pain. It’s like somebody’s took out your blood and filled you full of ice-water. I stopped feelin’ my feet before you got me to the car. Now I’m like one of them smooth, cold rocks you pull out of the river in February.”

River stopped searching herself. She sat down on the concrete just outside the cage door and looked at Candy, who had been her best friend ever since they were born. They had been inseparable even when all their parents were still alive. Some days, River had awakened to find Candy sitting on the bunk across from her, eyes closed, perhaps listening to the noises of the burgeoning day drifting in from the cracked barracks window. On other mornings, River would dash out the door as soon as she had eaten and sprint to Candy’s quarters, where she would leap on the bunk and bounce until Candy woke up giggling, begging for her to quit it. They had eaten together, learned to drive together by piloting an old jeep around the compound in second gear, cowered together in the barracks when their parents went out to defend the perimeter. When her mother turned, River had stayed with Candy’s family for a week. And when both of Candy’s parents were killed and eaten within twenty yards of the front gates while the horrified guards looked on, Billy had gone to their barracks and brought Candy back. He had raised her as a daughter ever since. And now this. River could tell that Billy blamed himself for all the deaths; out of all his family and best friends, only River would be left. And she had no idea how to live without Candy when every breath, every movement, every sound and texture would remind her of something they had done together.

“I’ll tell you this,” River said. “From now on, I’m not just huntin’ for food or those fuckers out there. I’m gonna take out every cypress root I see.”

Candy laughed, loud and long, but even that sound betrayed her advancing condition. Her laugh had always sounded deep and throaty, like an enormous bullfrog trying to hock up a hollow-point bullet. A bizarre sound, but one that made any joke seem funnier. Now the laugh dribbled out in a series of wheezes, like an asthmatic trying to chuckle after sprinting a hundred yards. River tried to smile at her, but the expression felt crooked and wrong. Still wheezing, Candy said, “Damn. You look constipated.”

Now River burst into laughter, a healthy guffaw that startled a bird off the top of Candy’s cage. Candy brushed her disheveled hair away from her face and smiled, and then River’s laughter died in her throat, because she noticed for the first time that Candy’s gums had turned gray. Her teeth looked as white and flat as the barracks walls. River stared at them, unable to help herself. Suddenly an image appeared in her mind—Candy’s faded-parchment face hovering over Billy’s wounded but living body, one of his arms raised in defense as Candy struck like a rattlesnake and sunk those white teeth into his flesh, blackish blood pooling around her mouth and dripping down her cheeks as she shook her head from side to side, ripping and tearing at the meat like a shark.

That’s what it will be like if we don’t do it. She won’t be Candy anymore. She’ll be one of them, a Plodder or a Runner, and if you give her half a chance, she’ll eat your guts for breakfast and your tongue for dessert.

As if reading her mind, Candy stopped smiling. “You know it’s gotta be done. Ain’t no choice. But you don’t gotta watch if you don’t wanna.”

River shook her head. “I’m gonna stick by you until the end.”

From behind them, Billy said, “Sure you can handle that?”

River turned to look at her father. His expression was blank, as if he had changed his emotions as quickly and efficiently as someone else might change shirts. His eyes looked flinty and cold. His steady hands held a .30-30 rifle. She knew he would have already loaded a shell into the chamber. So there it stood, Candy’s 7.8 millimeter death, ready to explode from the barrel and turn her brain to shapeless goo, much of which would fly right out the back of her head. The entry hole would look neat; the exit would be wide and chunky, not so different from a Plodder’s bite. And in spite of all that, River knew she would stand it. For Candy, but also for Billy. She had to stick by him at every turn from now on. Even inside a compound, surrounded by other people, no one survived for long without friends or family, something to keep you sane and grounded. Something to fight for.

“Yeah,” she said. “I can handle it.”

Billy nodded and walked over to her. They sat down together in front of the cage and watched Candy, who had closed her eyes. Her lips were moving. River knew she was probably praying. No one said anything for a long time; the sun dipped further toward the west, their shadows growing longer on the hard concrete. Candy never shifted positions; she remained on her knees, head bowed, lips moving soundlessly. The heat and the stillness lulled River into a semi-doze, while Billy sat beside her, holding the gun in both hands like a knight kneeling with his sword.

Finally River looked up. “Candy. Hey.”

But Candy did not answer. Billy was still holding the rifle in one hand. River burst into tears, but Billy did not even look at her. He was watching Candy carefully.

A volley of rifle fire from the direction of the gate made them both jump and turn away. The steady deep boom of shotgun blasts rolled over the compound like thunder. They could hear raised voices shouting at each other between shots. River looked at her father; he had raised his rifle instinctively, but now he was lowering it, some emotion rippling over his features. He glanced from the gate to the cage. Someone came running in their direction and he raised the rifle again until they saw that the figure was armed with a shotgun.

It was Marquis. He skidded to a stop in front of them. “We got hostiles at the gate! Two big packs of runners! One of ’em made it over the fence before we shot him! We need everybody there right now!”

“Where you goin’, then?” asked Billy.

“Gettin’ more ammo.”

“Bring another rifle for me. I’ll see you there in two minutes.” Marquis nodded and ran off toward the nearest armory. Billy shoved the .30-30 into River’s hands; she took it on instinct and then stared at it as if she had never seen a gun before. She looked up into Billy’s cold blue eyes. She shook her head hard from side to side, tears streaming down her dirty face. He said, “It ain’t fair, but this is the only way. It oughta be you anyway. You’re practically her sister.”

“I don’t wanna,” River whispered.

Billy kissed her forehead. “I’d spare you if I could. Maybe I’ll get back in time. If not, don’t let her live a minute as one of them things. Lock that gate right now, you hear?”

He hugged her, the gun caught between them. Then Billy let her go and dashed toward the gates, not looking back. River stood looking after him, the gun heavy in her hands. She wanted nothing more than to drop it and run after Billy, to face the Runners at the gate, to fight all the Runners in the world bare-handed, anything but take on the task that had been assigned to her. Behind her, the chains rustled and clinked. River turned slowly and looked at Candy, who was crouching on her knees. She had gone even paler than before; she might have been made out of fresh bedsheets. Even her hair had faded, looking like a centuries-old painting of blonde hair. Only her eyes shimmered with color; they were redder than before.

In a voice barely above a whisper, she said, “You remember when we was little and we used to play dolls? We’d make the boys kiss the girls, and then we’d make ’em do it, even though them dolls didn’t have no parts.”

River, her voice cracking, said, “I remember.”

Candy shook the hair out of her eyes. River saw the neck wound crack open again, but only a hair-thin trickle of blood flowed out. “I used to look forward to doin’ it. Sometimes I could hear my parents in the barracks, you know? They tried to be quiet, but them cinderblock walls—stuff echoes in there. It always sounded like work because they’d get so out of breath, like doin’ too many pushups or somethin’. But the way they’d talk to each other after… I could tell it was love. Pain too, but love all the same. I never knew you could hurt somebody and still love ’em. That love and pain might even be the same thing.”

River did not know what to say. She laid the gun against the fence, barrel up, and stood in the doorway.

“Now I’ll never get to try it,” Candy rasped. “Hell, I ain’t never even been kissed. What kinda way to die is that? Everybody oughta be kissed at least once.”

Candy burst into sobs, the sound deep and wracking, but no tears flowed. Apparently the ducts had already died, turned as cold as the rest of her body. River wanted to cry again too, but she would not lose control now. She could not. Candy deserved better than that.

“I’m sorry,” River said. “I ain’t got time to find you a boy.”

She stepped into the cage. Candy began to tremble. River rushed to her and knelt down, taking Candy’s face in her hands. It was like touching the belly of a catfish pulled from a deep riverbed, cold and somehow slimy. Candy’s blood-red eyes rolled back in her head and then snapped back in place. Her breath smelled like standing water and old moss.

River leaned in and kissed Candy, pressing their lips together, turning her head and opening her mouth just a little. Candy sucked in her breath and stiffened. Then she responded, flicking her tongue into River’s mouth, probing a moment, withdrawing as quick as a heartbeat. River held her mouth against Candy’s a moment longer; Candy slumped against her. River began to overbalance; she let go of Candy to catch herself.

Candy fell, the chains pulling her backward and rattling against the slab. Her head ricocheted off the central post and cracked on the concrete. She stared sightlessly at the blue sky. River stifled a moan and sat down, unable to move. Candy was dead. After everything they had been through, all the training and the raids and the nightmare images of teeth buried in flesh, she had been taken away by a cypress knee and one lone Plodder, a thing that walked as slowly as a baby could crawl. River felt the tears coming again and blinked hard. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her hands against them.

When she opened them again, Candy was sitting up. Her mouth had fallen open, long strings of drool hanging from her slack lower lip. Her eyes were pools of blood. She growled low in her throat like a cornered dog.

River felt her lower lip trembling, her breath hitch in her chest. She said, “Aw, shit!”

Candy sprang at her, arms outstretched, hands hooked into talons. The slack in the chains played out and they held Candy back, tearing strips of flesh off her wrists, neck, and ankles. The red muscle beneath gleamed like raw salmon. But River had been sitting too close; Candy slashed at her face, dragging long claw marks down one cheek. Drool flew everywhere as Candy whipped her head about and gnashed her teeth, shrieking louder and louder like an air-raid claxon, and River thought, She’s a Runner, she’s turned into a goddam Runner, and if that spit gets in the cuts I’m as dead as she is.

River screamed and crawfished backward toward the gate as Candy leaped for her again. The chains yanked her backward; River heard something snap like a dry twig and saw Candy’s right hand hanging backward over the cuff. Candy sat down hard, a low moan escaping her, and for the first time, River wondered if these creatures felt pain. She stood up, her back against the cage, as Candy fought against the cuffs, ripping and tearing at the chains, her high-pitched shrieks like bats’ language.

River stepped outside of the cage and shut the door. Then she fed the chain through and locked it. She picked up the gun and raised it to her shoulder, setting the end of the barrel through the chain-link fence, using it as a prop. She fixed her sight on Candy’s wildly snapping forehead, hoping against hope that she could do it in one shot.

She swallowed hard and said, “This is the only thing left to do for you. I hope you’d do the same for me.”

Candy stopped yanking at the chains and looked toward the fence. Her face slackened as if melting in the summer heat. Her hands dropped to her sides, and River wondered, Is she still in there somewhere?

She hoped not. If hell existed, that would be as good a definition as any. The tears kept trying to come; River kept blinking them back. She would be strong, like her father. Like her mother had been. Like everyone had to be, if they wanted to survive.

Pain has an element of blank, she thought.

Candy snarled again. And River pulled the trigger.

 

“An Element of Blank” was previously published in The Evansville Review.

 

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