A Tale of Jenny
Oh, God, please make them stop.
Another scream laces the air setting my heart to racing. I cover my ears with my hands. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I’m not. I lean to the side and dry heave into a corner. Once, twice, and then it is over except for the yelling. A pebble drops from above and my stomach revolts with shards of needle-like pain. I scream, the tenor and tone matching the one above me. As soon as I stop, the sound of snuffling accompanies a gurgling after which comes an abrupt howl of agony only a monster could ignore.
I shriek again for their pain, joining them but desperately afraid. Gasping for air, I reach for my chest, as if the motion can control the terror leaking into my veins.
There is a sudden quiet.
The end began suddenly. There were hot spots all over the world but no one thought anyone would use a nuke. My parents were news junkies. They claimed they could see it coming. It being the end of the world as we know it. Emphasis mine. I dot the air with a finger to bring home the point and sigh.
Another pebble smacks a rocky shelf above me and my stomach seizes again. The stone bounces off the ledge and tries to do a touchdown in my mouth. I cram my teeth together as it hits my lips. I hear hard granite crack against enamel. Another pain erupts amongst the innumerable agonies I experience daily. The biggest being, who knows how many feet of mud and cement stand between the world and me?
“Jackal? Where are you Jackal?” I whistle quietly then louder and louder still. “Jackal?! Where are you?”
I detest being alone. During the day when light shines through the hole above me I can survive without panicking, but at night, even with candlelight, the shock of sucking in air, heart pounding, sweat streaming off my forehead in a mega panic attack, screaming, shaking, crying, unravels me. I am subject to panic genetically through my mother or so I’ve been told. Funny, I can no longer picture her. Another tear slips down my cheek and falls onto my burgeoning breasts.
“Jackal?!” I cry again.
How long has it been since my friend went missing. Three days, four? I don’t know what I will do without him. He sits on my shoulder, he pecks my lips, and he eats from my hand. He is all I have and now he’s gone, perhaps, never to return.
He is a Raven, I believe.
I mark off each day by putting a scratch to the far left wall. I counted the marks this new morning and today is two years since the rumbling of Russian tanks swept into town and the bombs fell, consigning me to this hellhole, trapping me in an antiquated bomb shelter guaranteed one hundred percent undestroyable or you get your money back. All your money back.
My fingers itch with the need to know what is left of the world. I will find Jackal, but even more important than my little love, I need to know if I can survive what is left. I grit my teeth and spittle rolls down my chin, the moisture cold in the night air. They said it wouldn’t happen, that another world war would never erupt, but they were wrong.
I glance at my shoddy jeans, the light from the last candle unforgiving. I grab the taper from its glass ring and hold it close. My hands are filthy, nails ridged and bleeding from constant gnawing and I wonder if life is worth living. I keep the candle in one hand and dig farther into the dirt with the other as my fingers answer my need to see the other side.
I pull back, my heart aching. “Jackal?!” There is terror in my voice.
It began with the HFTs, high frequency traders, those people of monetary union who paid homage to an unforgiving god. My parents harped about it constantly. Eventually currency wars erupted during which China and Russia banded together to take down the USA as the world’s reserve currency. Shortly after, Russia nukes the UK then the USA nukes Iran. After that, everyone started nuking everyone else and it became hard to keep track. Hence, my current situation, stuck in this crumbling concrete and dirt mausoleum alive, yet dead.
Good God my fingers hurt. I mumble under my breath, grab a stone, and throw it against the far wall, releasing the anger inside me. I sit down with a thump, my back against hardscrabble sand that drifts down from a tiny opening in the ceiling. I can just see the sky. I rejoice when it rains, cry when I scent the flowers of spring, and my heart flies happily with tiny snowflakes that drift down when the winds are just right. I have enough blankets and clothes to keep me warm so it is no bother nor do I look forward to the changing seasons with trepidation.
The howling starts again and then the banging. It keeps time on the walls. I can almost make out music but I know there is no way the creatures outside can even understand the concept of what music is. I grab some muslin and stick it into my ears. It helps to drown out the noise, but it also keeps me from hearing Jackal’s return.
My parents created this refuge when the bad times came. They were the ones who took the last bits of oatmeal, grits, and flour from the shelves. They needed to protect me, to keep me safe for I am far too young to care for myself. They store more bottled water than I can drink in ten years. There is canned food, dried food and freeze-dried food. I am safe behind concrete. Well, I was safe, until tonight. Until I ran out of candles.
Oh, God, please bring Jackal back.
I tried to use them sparingly and I realize that of all the things I needed to conserve, candles should have come first. I knew this, but I couldn’t help myself. The dark scares me. Bad things happen in the night. I’m not sure what those bad things are, exactly, but I can hear them howling, gnawing, and scraping from above. I consider myself lucky they haven’t found me. I can’t imagine how they missed my light, night after lonely night.
“I hear you’re going to be prom queen.”
I laugh; giggle actually, before a crushing depression gob-smacks me in the middle. Sometimes my life replays itself in bits and pieces. This was going to be one of those times.
“No one has said a word to me. Besides, don’t you have to vote first?” I smile, my lower lip quivering with excitement.
“Ah, come on, Jenny. You know I’ll be king and you’ll be queen. Want to go to homecoming with me?”
I grin and pull down my skirt. It tends to creep and mid-thigh is all I allow.
Another sigh, almost a wheeze. It doesn’t make any difference what the memory says because it all remains the same. The boy says what I want to hear and when homecoming arrives, he never shows. Instead, I go to the prom alone, dressed in red velvet, my mother’s favorite material, no matter it is not in fashion.
“Jenny?! Where are you girl? C’mon, out of that basement. C’mon now. I’m not gonna hurt you. I promise.”
Did Daddy take my Jackal?
Nonono. I’m not there anymore. There is no basement other than the one I am trapped in and it’s not a basement. It’s a bomb shelter, right? Sometimes things get muddled.
Another tear chases down my cheek. I do as I’m told. The constant nagging, the badgering, the dos and don’ts, the ins and outs. I grab my head to shut out the voices.
It works for a time.
I get up off the dirt, grab a half-filled plastic bottle, and take a drink of brackish water. After two years, the water tastes iffy. I have half a candle left, hopefully enough to get me through until new morning. I suspect the creatures above are mutants. They are not like the walking dead zombie thingies on television. These suckers are real.
They are the creation of a multitude of scientists using and abusing DNA and various other sundry chemicals and whatnots. They make monsters, simple reflections of life that eat at the edges of humanity with a voracious appetite. The foundlings, as they are known, work in the mills, the granaries, the fields. They do the manual work, the stuff no one else wants to do, but most of all, they want to be human. Or at least they did. Now, I think, they hunger.
The mutants dress in white. They have white skin, white hair, light red eyes that twinkle, even white shoes with red bottoms. The first time I meet one, the creature opens her mouth and grunts at me. I back away, almost into a busy street.
Mother pats me on the back even as she pulls me away from the shuttle. “Don’t worry,” she whispers. “You’ll never be like her. She is one of them.”
A howl reverberates through my crumbling abode and I duck, nerves quaking. I stop remembering my past and look forward into my future.
If I can move that rock, I’ll be free. Then, I can find Jackal.
Securing the candle into its holder, I begin again. Blood seeps between my fingers and flows to the floor, as I dig the last bit of rubble from what appears to be an opening no bigger than two of my fingers put together. I lean in for a closer look. Squinting, peering, and straining, to make sense of what I see until I realize it is still night and quite dark.
I hear the scamper of a clawed creature run by as another hunk of concrete thumps to the floor.
“Jackal? Is that you?”
My stomach falls while I wait.
After no response and a thorough sighting of my cell, I sit on my haunches and rethink my desire to be free. It must be done. I have no more light and to sit here in the dark is unimaginable. To be alone is unthinkable. I am inside and they are outside. I must bring in the outside or take my inside outside. One way or another I must be free.
I lean forward, studying the hole. It is not the oracle of truth as I’d imagined. For two years, I’ve dug into this pile of cement and mud. My fingers are shredded bits of flesh and my mind has gone numb. Here is freedom. Just a hand’s breathe away. Once again, I sit back on my haunches and turn my back to the wall. Am I ready for what is out there?
Suddenly, I cannot breathe. I drop the candle and the light is extinguished. Something that scents like tin wraps around my neck and is pulled tight, tearing my fragile skin. I take a ragged breath of air as I attempt to scream. Terrified, my body refuses to budge. My heart hammers, sweat mingles with my tears. All I can hear is groaning, mewling, and a light silvery scream that shreds the night, my existence, and my brain. Thick muscled arms wrap themselves around me and pull me through the opening into their world.
“Jackal where are you?!” Something sharp and painful enters my arm. My screaming stops.
All the screaming stops.
Blessed quiet engulfs me.
“Put her away, Charles. There’s nothing to be done.”
“I suppose you’re right, but it is sad. Look at her hands, her feet. Maybe just a little more to put her out of misery?”
Kathleen points to the syringe Charles has in his fingers. “You’ve enough Ativan in there to put down a horse. Besides, it is nothing to us.”
“I know, but I wonder how long it will take her to get free this time. Another two years? Three? My God, what a nightmare.”
“Need I remind you she used to be human?”
Charles feels a moment’s sorrow for the foundling. While a mutant, she did suffer. At least according to the latest research.
“She is not your concern.” Kathleen adjusts her hat, first making sure there aren’t any smudges on her hands.
It is as imperative to her as it is to Charles, that she remain perfectly white. He inspects his nails to make sure nothing mars them.
“Shove her into the room next door. After all, it’s not like she knows what’s happening to her.” Kathleen grimaces and brushes off a bit of dusty material that floats down from the ceiling.
Charles grunts as he picks up the creature. She weighs no more than forty-five kilos, but the scales and ridges on her hands and feet are deadly and filled with poison. “As you please, Kathleen. Shall I lock the door after her?”
“Absolutely. We will begin time again when she awakens. Perhaps in an hour or two? Maybe we can reprogram her brain to believe she is stuck in a ventilation system or an old mine shaft. Then we can challenge her with differing degrees of oxygen. See if she creates something to compensate.”
“I thought you said she wasn’t aware.”
“She only knows what she’s told. There will be no parents this time, though. And no little birds, Charles.” She says this with a meaningful glance. “This time she will be alone. She won’t even know there are others like her. She won’t even think there are others like her.”
Charles shakes his head. He reminds himself: It’s a job, that’s all. None of my concern. The child is a copy of a copy of a copy. Not real, was once, but would never be again. She is more animal than anything else. However, virtual mind simulation is, to his way of thinking, the greatest and cruelest drug created by humankind.
Thank God, those beings no longer exist.
He scratches his nose before running a finger through a wide slot in the door where a bot-board reads his fingerprint. The door opens into an oblong space as austere as the last. His belly growls as he throws the creature onto the floor, after which her green and black body rolls against a far wall.
“Ready for lunch?” Kathleen asks, peering over his shoulder.
“What are we having?”
“Ribs. Human ones, not those tasteless things that come from cows.”
“Perfect. I’ll be right with you.” Charles glances over his shoulder one last time. He says a silent good-bye to the pitiful creature before he closes and locks the door. He thinks of her a moment longer, until once again hunger takes control. He hurriedly locks the door then scurries down the hall.
Ribs. Ruby red ribs. A delight to behold.