You pause in the center of the footbridge, a silver-bright ribbon running beneath you, gravel paths serpentine under the locust trees that define the banks of the creek. The sun gleams on a cold spring morning, yet your eyes look for clouds of battle smoke, or tendrils of stinking fog creeping from darkness. There should be a grim procession of flagellants, penitentes in robes and pointed hoods—garments later adopted by ignorant Klansmen—but you see only mothers pushing space-aged strollers, spandexed runners, elderly couples, each maintaining a careful separation; the margin of life.
Your ears strain for the crunch of sandals on gravel, or the slap of a scourge on bloodstained flesh. You expect to hear the solemn chant of the Dies irae resurrected for this new plague. Only it is not a plague, is it? No, only a new sort of grippe; that is what they said at the first. No more than a common cold, a new flu, nothing to fear.
There is no chanting, no line of flagellants, and the only feet crunching on the gravel are your own as you step from the bridge to the pathway. The bundled metal legs of the camp chair bounce against the flesh of your thigh, as much of a scourging as you can stand. What then will I, a poor wretch, say? Quid sum miser tunc dicturus? What then, indeed.
You step under the shadow of the locust trees, walk along the path that drops off the far side of the levee. You clamber across a narrow ditch. The chair legs bang your flesh but leaves no lasting mark. You have everything hanging in bundles from your shoulders, everything you need to set up your isolated encampment.
The meadow opens before you, awash in a brittle morning sun; a feeble spring, a new month, and a fool’s day. A day for zealots and chanting penitents, fools all. But who is the greater fool, the ignorant wielding a plaited scourge or you wielding empty words of your own? It is only a tradition, you say, something to mark the passing of time, a plea for good luck: Rabbits, rabbits, white rabbits. Your first muttered words of the day while you held your dick in your hand and waited for the crack-of-dawn piss to flow.
Rabbits, rabbits, bring me luck. Would it be better rendered in Latin? But it never came from the Latin, did it? No, it was homegrown, a plea for luck uttered only in the good vernacular. Take your pick as the plague swept over Yorkshire, across the Midlands, into Wales; bunnies for luck or Latin chants for mercy not granted. You snort at the thought, step out into the sunshine. Useless words either way, yours or the Latin, and both yielding nothing.
You stalk across the meadow, head for your own personal refuge on the far edge of it. You flip the camp chair open and sit, back to the tangled brush and ivy. No chance of anyone sneaking up from behind. You sit in the sun and arrange your camp. Coffee in a thermal mug placed beside the chair, a book in your lap, a cigar in your hand, and enough anger for a quorum if one were allowed.
The cigar smoke drifts above the sunlit meadow and you watch it go. If you are close enough to complain, you’re too damn close. Keep your contagion to your doomed selves, I don’t want it. No, this latest wave is not the dreaded Yersina pestis, the Black Death. It is only a virus, a novel virus. Novel, like the book in your lap. It sounds so innocuous. And it was just such a thing that killed your Great-Grandfather Smart, killed him dead as he made his rounds driving the bakery wagon, bringing bread to those soon to be dead. Dead himself, soon enough, and only the little Spanish flu that brought him down.
You laugh at the bitter joke of it, the tiny, deadly sting of genetic material contained within a sub-microscopic organic particle; almost inert, but not quite, not quite. The laugh falls away, leaving only the bitterness and the idea of death bookmarking each end of four generations. You remember your Great-Grandmother Allen, a stern woman twice widowed. Was she once a smiling young bride, the newly minted Mrs. Smart, before her young teamster was taken? Is this how you go, spitting blood from stricken lungs, just like the ancestor you never met?
Smoke trails from your mouth and drifts far above the meadow. There are knots of marooned people scattered across the grass, tucked under the edges of the trees. They form tiny tribes occupying this miniature grassland, driven from their apartments as the walls close in. Stay at home, walk alone, or sit in the park segregated by family; these are the choices.
The bigger children drag fallen limbs from the woods and fathers use the limbs to fashion crude shelters. They are flimsy imitations, ghosts of what we once built with our hands and plaited vines and layered fronds. You watch the little kids crawl into the stick teepees where they pretend to be hidden from the eyes of the enemy.
You sit with your cigar and your ignored book and your anger. Harry Smart died before his third decade passed. You have six and counting. How does it feel to be in the ranks of the vulnerable? Not good, you answer; not good.
This is not how I die. How do you die? I don’t know, but this is not what kills me. That was your standard joke, often used and grown stale. It was your way of whistling past the graveyard, but now you’re not so sure. A hero’s death, that thing you wished for, or if not, at least to die worthy of something. But not this, not tangled in the tubes and ventilators of an intensive care unit. Better to become an avenging angel.
You take a grim delight at the idea of raising a hand in self-righteousness anger. You could avenge all the good citizens trapped in their apartments, forced to watch while others play as mindless children. The homebound see images of revelers on sunny beaches, zealots taking communion from a common cup, dupes carried to mega-churches by the busload. You hate them, these idiotic children professing belief in their invincibility or the protection of their various gods.
Worse than the ignorance and bravado of imbeciles are the connivances of the followers of Mammon. These are the daemons at the core of your anger, the white-hot center of it. You spit at the thought of them, these parasites that weigh the lives of people against the imaginary value of their self-created marketplace. You hear their oily voices spinning lies. You hear the calculations behind the lies; human lives turned to abstractions, gross national product, held or sold shares. It is on these greedy heads that your blow should fall. You want a sacrifice, you soulless bastards? I’ll give you a sacrifice. The thought brings another grim smile to your face.
You could do it. It would be so easy, so painless. Run your hands over every railing in the U-Bahn, allow fingertips to trace ever contour of the automated ticket machine. Then run those fingertips over your lips, your eyes, transferring the virus with a swift sure touch. Do this and you are become an angel of death, a dispenser of virulent justice, ready to mete out vengeance.
You sneak onto a plane, plead essential business, a dying relative, anything. Then you find them, and you worm your way in amongst them, leaning close to whisper in an ear, breath hard and wet. You reach for their hands before they can squirm away, take advantage of ingrained social response. You press their flesh with yours, your grip firm, confident.
The base of the pyramid, that is your goal. You do not need to reach for the apex. Infect the foundation and the structure will crumble. You will have a week before the symptoms appear and you must make the most of your asymptomatic cloak. You will strike a blow and you will strike it hard. Then you hear voices and happy words and you watch your meticulous plan fall apart.
Hallo Marcos, you are okay?
It is the Portuguese woman, Susanna, smiling and waving, the mother with the two boys. She gets your name wrong, but you don’t correct her. The kids are running around in the sunshine, the bigger one chasing the smaller. They are squealing and laughing and bitching about the rules of their game, all at the same time.
You wave to your new friend, met only since you were forced into this public isolation. The sun is shining, and the boys are dancing around their mom and you are laughing at the chaos of it all.
Further away, the African guy, the one with the beautiful little daughter, is stretched out on a blanket. He raises an arm, gives you a slow wave, and you return it. The little girl looks after the wave, loses her balance and falls on her butt. She giggles and burbles, waves her tiny hands, Look at Me, Look at Me, and you both look, and it is enough to break a strong man’s heart.
And the sun shines across the meadow, and across the families sitting on the new grass, and between the families float laughter and conversations shared at a safe distance. Smoke trails from your cigar and drifts far above the meadow. Your angry plan drifts away with the smoke, at least for today, and it is torn to shreds and tatters.
Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured by reviews and journals in Canada, The UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, Dime Show Review, Five on the Fifth, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, Route 7, and Bluntly Magazine. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available at fine online booksellers. His author website is: https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/ His Facebook Author page is: https://www.facebook.com/SerialZtheNovel/