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By Rebecca Sukach

 
 
    home: stories: goodnight ladies
 
Goodnight Ladies

Crouching beneath the rotting stairwell, Cara flicked the safety off her stolen pistol. The smell of wet wood and decaying flesh wafted through the drafty building and she crinkled her nose, trying her best to ignore it. Sweat dripped slowly down her forehead, stinging the thin scrapes on her cheek. She tried to breathe quietly; she knew if they heard her it would be over.

A quiet shuffling outside drew her attention. They were here. She risked a peek around the edge of the stairs. Squinting against the late afternoon sun, she could see their silhouettes. The tall one had picked up a large table leg. He had the makeshift club wrapped in one of his tentacles and was peering about the lengthening shadows, searching. Cara shuddered and ducked back into the dubious cover of the stairs. She closed her eyes, praying that the hunters would leave.

A loud shout outside startled her into a yelp. She slapped a dirty hand over her mouth and strained her ears. A trash can crashed to the ground. She pressed closer to the wall. Her hands gripped the pistol tight.

Then, the sounds outside faded. Cara waited, holding her breath. Minutes later she crept out from the stairwell, pistol held stiffly in front of her. She breathed a deep sigh of relief. They had gone, for now. She was safe. A grimy strand of blonde hair fell into her eyes and she impatiently pushed it aside, trying to think of what to do now.

Houston had been hit by Masker’s Fever three weeks ago. Cara sighed, remembering her old life - friends and family. Tears blurred her vision as she thought of her mother, her beautiful mother, the final hour before she mercifully died. The disease had killed her mother, but not before it had transformed her into a horrible monster, writhing in pain on the floor of their tiny apartment. After fleeing the apartment, Cara and her brother had hidden in the library.

Cara had read about the fever in the papers - when there were still papers. The disease infected the victim’s cells, latching on to the DNA, causing mutations (sometimes miraculous abilities like ESP and dark vision, sometimes hideous physical mutations). Then, it re-infected the victim, latching on to a different section of DNA and mutating again. And again. The disease kept mutating you until you produced an antibody that stopped the endless cycle or until you died. Most people died. A lot of research had been done before disease reached North America, but no one had found a cure. At least she and her brother Matthew had been lucky, Cara thought, gaining immunity before death or horrible mutations. Many survivors didn’t make it - confronted with their new bodies they killed themselves or went quietly mad. Her albino white skin shone in the growing dusk light from the broken doorway. She smiled slightly, wiping the tears from her bright red eyes. No time to mourn the dead when the living were still in need. She must take care of Matthew. After all, he was only ten.

She stepped out of the building, sniffing the evening air. It was finally starting to cool. October winds always brought a certain smell to the humid night that Cara loved, even as a child. Her step was light as she turned to walk down the street, her confidence returning as evening deepened into night. Her mutated eyes opened the night to her, lifting her near-blindness of the daylight hours. The street was deserted, dark except for the fading glow of the warm pavement. She began walking toward the library. Matthew would be worried if she were gone for too long. She had led the hunters away from him, making them think she was alone. But, they would certainly return. She would have to move soon, maybe tonight. She was so deep in thought she almost didn’t notice the woman who stepped out from behind a building. Cara fumbled for her gun as the woman approached, empty hands above her head.

“Easy there, honey,” the woman murmured as Cara shakily waved the pistol. “I won’t hurt you. Are you O.K.? Do you need help or something?”

“I...I don’t need anyone’s help! Go away!” Cara’s voice was shrill in the quiet night, cracking at the end.

“It’s O.K. Why don’t you put that gun away? I’m not going to hurt you.” The woman’s brown eyes looked sincere, but Cara didn’t trust her. The woman was tall, her black hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her dark skin looked strange to Cara until she realized the woman was covered by fine black feathers.

“What’s your name?” The woman asked, snapping Cara out of her reverie.

She answered reflexively. “Cara.” Then bit her lip, angry for having given that much away. “Not that it’s any of your business. What do you want?”

“Well to be honest, I’m...lonely.” The woman said, looking at Cara sheepishly. “I’ve been hiding in and out of these houses since, since, y’know. And, well, you looked mostly harmless, hon’, no offense.” She grinned. “It’s been so long since I met someone I could talk to... who could talk to me...My name is Shandra.” Cara stepped back and lowered her pistol. Shandra seemed to be safe. But you never did know. There had been those other two...She stepped forward, offering her hand.

“Uh, pleased to meet you.” She flinched as the woman took her hand.

“I, I’m glad to meet someone who’s,” she hesitated, “nice.”

Shandra smiled. “Well, it’s nice to meet you too, hon’. I can’t imagine how a little thing like yourself made it so long with all the crazies and mutie animals around. It’s a miracle.”

Cara withdrew her hand as quickly as possible. Maybe this woman could help her. She could help with Matthew.

“It wasn’t so bad.” Cara stuttered, blushing. “I’m almost sixteen, and somebody had to take care of Matthew.”

“Who’s Matthew? Your brother?”

Cara nodded. “After Mom died I had to take care of him, like today.” She stopped, cautious. She wanted to talk, but she didn’t dare. This woman might be with the hunters. She hoped not – it would be so nice to have someone else around. It got very lonely with just Matthew to talk to, especially since he couldn’t really talk anymore.

A movement on the left caught Cara's eye. She dove to the right as the hunters ran out of the alley. There were four of them, the tentacle man and three others. One had enormous walrus tusks, another had a huge eye in the middle of his forehead, and the last had the furry face of a lion. Cara rolled on the ground, pointing her gun at them, trying to steady her shaking hands. Shandra moved in front of the unsteady girl and spoke.

“Why don’t you go home.” Cara could feel power resonating in those last two words. She would have run home right away if Shandra’s words had been directed at her. Walrus-face turned and ran down the street. The others looked confused but didn’t move. Only Tentacles seemed aware of the mindbender. He screamed and launched himself at her. Cara ran for cover. Ducking behind a row of cars parked on the curb, she caught glimpses of Shandra, grappling with Tentacles. Blood ran down the woman’s arms where his tentacles had ripped her skin. The table leg crashed into her head with a sickening thump, sending a cloud of tiny black feathers flying. Shandra staggered to the side, clutching her bleeding head.

Turning, Tentacles spotted Cara, cowering near an old blue Chevy. His eyes narrowed as he approached her, brandishing his makeshift club. She shrank back, wishing herself invisible, closing her eyes. But no blow descended. Cara opened her eyes. Tentacles was nowhere in sight. She saw Shandra, shakily supporting herself on a nearby mailbox, her hand stretched upwards as if reaching for something. The one-eye and lion face hunters stared at the space just above Cara in a kind of horrified trance. The girl slowly followed their gaze upwards. What she saw made her press her hands to her mouth stifling a scream. Tentacles hung suspended almost ten feet above Cara, eyes rolled back, limbs jerking. A weird blue light danced around him, moving him like a marionette in a bad puppet show.

“Go Home!” Shandra’s words rattled through Cara like thunder. One-eye and lion face ran, not stopping to look back. As their footsteps faded, Shandra dropped to the ground, exhausted. Tentacles hung for a moment longer, then fell in an almost comical imitation of the woman on the street.

Cara ran to Shandra’s side, bending to examine her bloody head. The woman looked up at her, a wane smile on her lips.

“Thanks, hon’. But we need to get indoors somewhere. We’re sitting ducks out here.” She moaned, clutching her head as she tried to stand. Cara grabbed her arm, supporting the woman. The feathers felt strangely soft beneath her fingers and the girl imagined she could feel them moving.

“I can see just fine in the dark,” Cara proclaimed, pointing at her glowing red eyes. “I’m pretty sure we can make it to the library from here pretty quick.” She led the way down the street as she spoke, keeping a watchful eye on the buildings and alleys nearby.

They made their way to the library with relatively little difficulty. They only had to hide once as something slithered out of a Stop N Go and down the street. Cara led Shandra to the Reading Room where she had set up a cot for herself. Shandra lowered herself onto the small bed, groaning as pain lanced through her throbbing head. She smiled weakly at the young girl who had helped her get here, then closed her eyes, slipping into restful oblivion.

It was light out when Shandra finally woke. Cara was sleeping soundly on some blankets off to the side, curled tightly in a ball, holding a snow white teddy bear close to her chest. After looking around the room, Shandra decided to find some breakfast and check her head. You couldn’t be too careful these days. It wasn’t like you could just stop by the doctor if you weren’t feeling well. She found the bathroom, the stalls stacked with boxes, some labeled, some not. She went to the sink, grateful to find a bucket of water handy and washed her face, carefully removing the bandages Cara had placed on her head. The wound looked clean, but she was no medical expert. She washed it carefully, wrapping a fresh bandage around her head. She rummaged through the boxes, and found some soda, cereal and canned fruit. She ate, poking around some more, hoping for some aspirin for her throbbing head. In the third stall, she found some prescription pain killers, probably taken from the nearby hospital. Shandra hesitated a moment, remembering what she had always heard about taking this sort of thing without a doctor’s note. Then her headache decided it for her and she downed three of the red pills in a gulp of Pepsi. Next to the box, she noticed a slimy trail of something on the wall. Brushing her fingers against it, she jerked back. The stuff stung like acid. She continued her investigation of the bathroom for a few minutes before the room began to spin. She staggered back to the Reading Room and flopped heavily onto the cot, falling asleep almost immediately.

Shandra dreamed of Kurt and Bobby. They were still alive, playing ball in the yard with Brandy, their retriever. Then the clouds overhead began to darken and the wind picked up, whipping the trees from side to side. She cried out for them to hurry and come in, but they couldn’t hear her and just kept tossing the ball to each other, laughing. Suddenly she was in the hospital room, holding Kurt’s hand as he tossed from side to side. She knew in her gut that Bobby was already dead and Kurt would be soon, but she couldn’t leave. A voice behind her called out her name, but there was something wrong about it - she didn’t want to turn around. Kurt’s body twisted and bubbled underneath the sheets, contorting in horrible unnatural ways. The voice kept calling behind her, making her turn her head away from her dying husband and look. It was Bobby. She remembered how her son’s head had swollen to five times it’s normal size before it exploded all over the emergency room. She had fainted then, but now she looked on the apparition of her son, a pulsing stump of neck above his once strong body. She screamed as it reached out a hand to her, gurgling and whistling air into that horrible gaping hole in its neck. Shandra woke to Cara shaking her shoulder. She sat up trying to clear her head. The room was dark, only a dim light shining from a candle near her bed.

“You were screaming so I decided to wake you.” Cara murmured apologetically. “When you feel a little better, we’ll go meet Matthew. He’s kinda shy, but I’m sure he’ll like you.”

“I’ll be all right in a few minutes, hon’.” Shandra smiled at the girl. “I’m sure I’ll like your brother too.”

They sat in the dim room and talked quietly for a while. To Shandra, it felt like they talked for hours. She still felt drugged, everything taking on a strange dream-like quality. It was an effort to think. Her tongue felt thick and unwieldy, and she stumbled over words frequently. Shandra wondered briefly if this wasn’t a side effect from using her mind powers yesterday. The fight yesterday had taken every ounce of will she possessed. But Cara didn’t seem to mind her stuttered speech. In fact, she didn’t seem to notice at all, waiting patiently for each answer. Movement in the corner caught Shandra’s eye and she turned her head to see better. Something shifted in the deep shadows beyond the candlelight. She turned to Cara and saw the girl beckoning to the corner.

“Come on out Matthew! There’s someone here I want you to meet.” Cara beamed at the woman, standing up. “Shandra, this is my little brother Matthew.”

The shadow moved forward, but there was something wrong with the way it moved, something wrong with the way it came out of the dark. Then, it was in the light and Shandra recoiled, pushing back against the wall, trying to get as far away as possible from the thing that oozed towards her. It’s pulsing body reared up to expose its underside, the small face of a child perversely imprinted on it, a circle of tiny sharp teeth where the mouth should be. A long scarlet tongue darted out at Shandra, obscenely caressing her cheek. She screamed, slamming her back into the wall, desperately looking for a way out. The tongue flicked out again, rubbing her ankle. She screamed again, this time in pain as the dripping saliva burned her flesh. She darted to the side, trying to run, to get away, but it was deceptively quick, darting in front of her, burning her arm with another flick of its tongue. A wail escaped her, then she was falling, plunging into darkness, into oblivion.

Cara turned lazily over on her blankets, looking lovingly at her brother, Matthew. He was always so beautiful when he was full, so happy. She was sad that Shandra had tried to hurt Matthew, but you just couldn’t trust people these days. There had been those other two that had done the same thing, but next time she would be more careful. She looked down at her brother’s sleeping face. After all, she had to take care of him. He was only ten.