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Authors: Curran, Tim

Biohazard

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BIOHAZARDTim Curran

 

And thou shalt offer thy burnt offerings, the flesh and the blood, upon the altar of the LORD thy God. Deuteronomy 12:27 

 

 

 

Prologue 

When the world ended on Thursday, October 17th, everyone ran blind and screaming with panic that it had finally happened, that Armageddon had finally been visited upon the sons and daughters of man. The optimistic were shocked; the pessimistic vindicated. The religious said it was the time of the Rapture. So as they waited for Jesus to call them home, the rest of us concentrated on staying alive.

No easy thing with the fallout.

The marauding militias.

The roving gangs.

The National Guard and special police units whose job it was to put them both down. Martial Law was declared country-wide. People were gunned down in the streets. Raped. Murdered. Assaulted. It went on and on.

And if all of that wasn’t bad enough, by the end of the first week―seven days shy of Halloween―nuclear winter descended just as the theorists had always predicted. So much dust and debris had been tossed up into the atmosphere that the sun did not come out for almost a month. It was sheer blackness during that time and bitter subzero cold. And snow. It snowed for weeks on end. Nobody would ever know how many were killed off in those dire freezing weeks.

In the Midwest, the survivors—hardy northern types—dealt with it the way they dealt with it every winter. They burned wood. They scavenged pellet stoves, kerosene heaters, anything to keep them warm.

Then the sun came out again.

Just a ghost of it for the first few weeks. But then as the debris rained back to earth, much of it charged with deadly fallout, the sun assumed its ordinary cycles and though it was still cold, it was much warmer than it had been. And at least it wasn’t pitch black twenty-four/seven.

Towards the end of December, a weird heat wave spread across the country and the snow melted and the rains came. Disease, which had been kept in check for the most part by the cold, went absolutely viral, raging in every population, creating pandemics and plagues and the already teetering civilian populations began to die off in numbers.

But some of us stayed alive.

And this is how we did it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

YOUNGSTOWN, OHIO

 

1

When I close my eyes, I can still smell Youngstown.

Isn’t that funny? I grew up there, played high school football there—go Blue Devils—and worked there, got married there…but now after all that, I can only remember the stink.

That invasive smell of rot and refuse.

It crawled up your nose and down into your belly, so that even with your eyes closed you knew you were in the city—rotting garbage and burning wood, fuel oil and the unburied dead. I figured, back then, that I should’ve bottled it, kept it on a shelf somewhere so that if the world ever started turning again, then I could pop the cork anytime I was feeling low and take a whiff. Then I could say to myself, yeah, maybe your life sucks, but it don’t smell like Youngstown.

 

 

2

My wife had the gruesome twosome: radiation sickness and cholera. She got the former from the fallout coming down in the rains that swept the city for weeks, flooding the streets and backing up sewers and washing infected waste into yards and homes. She got the latter because like so many others she was weak from radiation sickness and the fact that the city’s water supply was absolutely contaminated.

There was no point in bringing her to the hospital because they were vastly overcrowded with the sick and dying, corridors packed with people waiting for treatment, hospital incinerators blazing like blast furnaces as contaminated dressings, waste products, body fluids, andcorpseswere fed to the flames. The medical health system of Ohio, like the rest of the country, was inadequate as the infected and sick inundated it. It simply couldn’t handle the sheer numbers.

It wasn’t prepared.

And as drugs and medical supplies stopped coming in—factories around the country shutting down, commerce grinding to a halt—there wasn’t enough to go around. Somewhere during the process, the staffs themselves sickened.

You get the picture.

Anyway, the fallout had already made Shelly pretty sick, but it was the cholera that hammered the final nail in her coffin. I washed her, medicated her, fed her, held her through many long nights.

Cholera is a nasty business.

Vomiting and diarrhea, painful cramping and dehydration, fevers and delusions. It’s not pretty. I treated her the way the hospital told me to and with what they gave me. I made sure she drank lots of fluids. I dissolved packets of sodium, potassium, glucose, and chloride in her water, made sure she got it down. Gave her injections of antibiotics―tetracycline, ampicillin, chloramphenicol―but mostly I just held her and soothed her while something inside, maybe hope and faith, withered and went black like flower petals on a crypt floor.

It was horrible.

I kept remembering that in August we’d vacationed at Chesapeake Bay on Smith Island and things had been good, very good. The sun had been bright and the water had been sparkling and I rubbed suntan oil on her back. She was bronze in the sun and her eyes were a deep Caribbean blue. We made love at night and beach-bummed during the day and ate clams in the evening.

And six months later she died trembling in my arms.

I kept watch over her corpse for days.

It was some kind of twisted wake, I guess. I lit candles and talked to her, alternately crying and screaming out her name, but mostly drinking whiskey in some numb alcoholic stupor, my mind sucked into a whirlpooling psychosis of grief and guilt and denial.

Down below, in the streets, the corpse wagons rolled and the crazies rioted and what was left of the police put them down in a grisly baptismal of blood and then were themselves put down.

“They won’t get you, Shelly,” I told her. “I won’t let them.”

It was getting worse day by day.

Four months now. Four months and I was still in Youngstown, hoping, maybe, that humanity would regroup and that we’d be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But it wasn’t going to happen and what was spread out on the couch was testament to that.

I knew I should have gotten out.

I should have gotten both of us out of the city―maybe across the state line into PA, my sister in Newcastle―but I kept holding onto some crazy and utterly fucked-up idea that the end of the world was going to pass like a bout of the flu. Civilization had shit its pants and vomited its guts out, but it would pass. The fever would run its course.

That’s how deep in denial I was. For when those bombs fell…and baby, they came down like rice at a wedding…the world ripped the seat right out of its pants like a fat lady bending over and there was no seamstress that could hope to stitch it back up again.

And now Shelly was dead.

Dead.

She was pale as bleached stone, her body shriveled and ghastly in death. Outside, a fearsome gonging rolled through the neighborhood. The bell of St. Mark’s:Bong, bong, bong, bring out yer dead!

But I wasn’t about to.

Not Shelly. I’d never let them get her. I’d never let them burn her in one of those terrible pits with the others. The idea was just grotesque to the extreme and I could not allow it to happen. But I couldn’t sit with her day after day. Not only because it was seriously demented, but because eventuallytheywould come for her. There had to be something I could do. Then I got the idea of burying her in secret. Such a thing was unlawful, it was banned. If people saw you they would report you and if the police and civil authorities caught you they would shoot you. But that only made it all that much more necessary.

I was going to bury my wife, have a little service over her grave.

That’s what I was going to do and I coldly planned on murdering any asshole that got in my way. So, that godawful church bell gonging in my ears, I got my shit together, smoothed out the rough spots, and got down to it. For the first time in weeks I smiled, taking a secret, warped joy in the fact that I would bury my wife illegally. It was my way of raising my middle finger to the state. Fuck them. Fuck authority. Fuck those that had created this nightmare in the first place. Those evil, fucked-up minds, all part of the same corrupt bureaucracy that had killed the world.

I took a white satin coverlet that Shelly had loved and wrapped her up in it, kissed her cold dead lips once last time and stitched it shut. Outside, the trucks were getting closer. I could hear them rumbling, see their flashing lights arcing in the dark sky. Out on the streets there were voices.

They were coming.

Bring out yer dead.

 

3

Following nuclear winter, there was one nasty epidemic after another. People were dying in droves and the traditional mortuaries simply could not deal with it.

So the church bells rang.

They rang throughout the day and night and it wasn’t because somebody was going to get married in the chapel of love. No, they rang because the corpse wagons were coming to collect the dead. Dumptrucks, flatbeds, it didn’t matter. If it had a hopper it was converted to a corpse-collector. And given that radio, TV, and the internet had broken down, the city fathers decided to go with the oldest form of communication in cities and villages: the church bell. Churches were spread across Youngstown and most neighborhoods had one or two so when the wagons were rolling, the bells rang.

All you had to do was throw your loved ones’ body out on the curb with your recycling and they’d grab it for you.

Civic action. Made a guy feel good.

Bong-bong-bong-BONG! The wagons are a rolling, brothers and sisters, so let’s forget about care and decency and respect and get completely fucking Medieval on your ass. Uncle Joe vomited his guts out in bloody coils last night? Mom has drowned in a sea of her own collected waste? Little Cathy burst open with black, pustulating sores? The little missus got the spores and ulcers ate her down to a flux of cool, white jelly? No problem, my friend. Wrap him or her or it in a tarp or put what’s left in a Hefty bag, box it, bag it, but please don’t tag it, and we’ll take care of the rest! Not quite dead but damn near? Cash ‘em in anyway, no sense infecting the entire neighborhood. And while we’re on the subject, you got some ugly dig-dogged looking boils on yer face, son, better jump up in the wagon before you start shitting out the red worms and pissing yellow slime and yer eyes fill with blood and explode out of yer head and stain the new sofa.

It was ugly.

It was degrading.

It was inhuman.

But it was also quite necessary, you see.

There were corpses everywhere in the city, rotting in the gutters and piled up on the sidewalks like garbage. There was radiation sickness, of course, from the clouds of fallout drifting west from New York and east from Chicago, but poor sanitation had led to rampant outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, diphtheria, and the plague. New forms of influenza and pneumonia were making the rounds as well as a mutant strain of hemorrhagic fever that was devastating what was left of certain eastern cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and, according to survivor rumor, eating its way through Akron.

In Youngstown the bodies were burned, but after awhile there were just so many that people started throwing them out into yards and dumping them on sidewalks. And all those rotting stiffs, well, they became disease vectors bringing in the rats and the flies which further spread the pestilence. The pathogens were in the water, blown on the air, and people continued to die.

It was insane.

It was hopeless.

And it had only just begun.

 

4

As I plotted the secret burial of my wife, there was a knock at the door.

I wasn’t going to answer it…but I knew if I didn’t, the men from the corpse wagons would kick it down, come thundering forth in their white decon suits and take Shelly away before I could sneak off with her.

“Who is it?”

“It’s me,” a voice whispered. “It’s Bill.”

Bill Hermes lived down the hall. He was okay. An old railroad man and widower, we’d had him over for dinner dozens of time. Shelly was always fussing over him, making him cookies and bars and all that. A nice old guy.

I sighed. “What do you want?”

“Rick…need to talk to you.”

I opened the door a crack. “What is it, Bill?”

He swallowed. “Rick, I’m here about Shelly. Nobody’s seen her in weeks. People are starting to talk.”

“Fuck ‘em.”

“Son…the wagons are coming.”

“I don’t have anything for ‘em.”

Bill wiped his teary eyes with a hankie. “Not saying you do. I’m hoping you don’t. But…but I overheard a couple boys downstairs. They’re saying that Shelly’s on the list.On that fucking list.You know what that means.”

That meant somebody had ratted us out, told the health department that Shelly was dying. Probably the hospital. Radiation sickness coupled with cholera…it was only a matter of time. The clean-up workers would come for her or at least demand proof that she was still breathing.

The trucks were getting closer.

“Thanks, Bill,” I said, shutting the door.

Time to move.

Cradling Shelly in my arms and making sure the corridor was empty, I slipped downstairs using the back steps. Out in the alley, I carried her around the rear of the building and cut through the little field back there. I was sweating, shaking, feeling like some convict who had just gone over the wall at Sing Sing. Shelly hardly weighed anything. I could have run for miles with her. I was almost across the field when somebody shouted:“There! There he is!”

They were coming and I was running.

Men with flashlights were entering the field. I cut through a little thicket, snagging Shelly’s shroud on blackberry thorns. I fought my way through, hands and face scratched. I fell only once but got right up again, kept going. When I made it out of the thicket, white-suited men were converging and trucks with spotlights were coming up the street.

I was trapped.

I started this way and that, but it was no good. The trucks were bearing down and the men with flashlights were closing in through the thicket. They were everywhere. Nowhere to run. It was perfectly surreal and completely unreal. The men chasing me. The flashlights. The trucks. The stink of death from the gutters. The stagnant mist creeping in off the river. The stars overhead blotted out by a dirty smudge of black smoke rising from the body pits outside the city where they burned the corpses.

I made a mad dash out into the street and one of the trucks nearly ran me down. Warning shots were fired, bullets zipping around. Spotlights found me and held me, blinding me there on the wet pavement.

A truck rolled to a stop and four men in white containment suits that were not so white anymore took hold of me while I fought and clawed and screamed. They stank of corpse-slime. I shouted at them and took a rifle butt to the temple that sent me sprawling. I was out for a moment or two after that, then I got back up again, fought my way through a tangle of men, hitting and being hit, knocking them aside in my wild flight. When I got around the back of the truck, I saw Shelly up there atop a moldering heap of corpses. Her shroud had burst, one chalk-white arm hanging out. I could smell the putrescence and hear the buzzing meat flies. Some of the corpses were rotten and green, writhing with worms.

Shelly. Oh dear God.Shelly.

The men grabbed at me, but I went loco. I hit and kicked and got free.

They fell back, not wanting to rupture their dirty suits. I jumped up amongst the carrion and nobody came after me. I was sweating and bleeding, head pounding like a drum, mind filled with shadows and screaming voices. It was insane, totally insane, but I just couldn’t let Shelly be up there. Not with the others, not with thosedead ones.And there were dozens and dozens of them in the back of the dump truck. Just a great shivering mass of carrion infested with crawling and squirming things. As I tried to climb up there my hands sank through spongy bellies that let out clouds of gagging yellow corpse gas. Out of my mind with grief, I crawled and clawed through a noisome sea of putrefaction. My fingers penetrated pulpy faces, scraping over skulls for purchase.

And then scant inches from Shelly’s shroud…I collapsed.

Revolted, sickened, just beside myself, all the energy ran out of me. I slid down that heap of corpses, face netted with buzzing flies, rank meat packed beneath my fingernails.

“You ready to come down now, son?” one of the men asked.

I slid out of the back and they knocked me to the pavement, kicking the shit out of me until I lost consciousness. When I woke, a few hours later, I was lying in the grass where they’d thrown me. A dog was licking the filth from my fingers. My breath was fuming out in cold white clouds, the face of the moon above stained with a black trail of smoke from the ever-blazing body pits.

This is what it had come to.

God bless America.

 

5

All I wanted after that was to be alone, to brood and break down in private with a bottle of whiskey in one hand, but Bill Hermes found me and wouldn’t let that happen.

“She’s dead now,” he said. “Shelly’s gone and she’s at peace. Don’t profane her memory by destroying yourself.”

Sage advice. I knew it made perfect sense just as I knew I would not follow it. All I wanted now was destruction, cool white oblivion. Maybe Bill sensed that too, because he boiled water on his woodstove and drew a bath and made me clean up. And when that was done, he made me some food. It was canned like everything else these days, but at least it was something to put in my stomach.

As I ate, picking at corned beef hash and powdered eggs, he watched me. Watched me very closely. He pulled a Winston out of a crumpled red pack, snapped off the filter and lit up, blowing smoke out of his nostrils. And never once did he take his eyes off of me.

“Well, go ahead, Bill,” I said. “You got something to say, so say it.”

He chuckled. “I’m thinking it’s time you pack up your old kit bag and move on. Nothing here for you now. City’s getting worse by the day. Get out. Get out into the country where a man has a chance.”

“We lived here. This was our neighborhood.”

“That’s all past now, son. Nothing but memories. Get out for chrissake. Get out now.”

“You coming?”

“For what? Ain’t nothing out there for me. I’m too damn old to start again.”

I set my fork down. “Nothing here but memories for you, too, Bill.”

“When you get my age,” he said, blowing out a cloud of smoke, “there ain’t much else.”

He turned away and looked out the curtains to the streets below. Just shook his head. “Goddamn cesspool, Rick. That’s what. Been wanting to get out for a long time. Would’ve, too, if Ellen hadn’t loved it here so much. She grew up two streets away. Even after she passed…I don’t know…something held me.”

“Something’s holding me, too.”

“Bullshit.” Bill coughed into his hand and for maybe the first time, I noticed how blotchy his face looked. A funny yellow sheen to it. “Bullshit, I say. You need to go before it gets worse. Right goddamn now, Rick. I’m too old to go with you. You pull an old tree up by the roots, its dies. But a young one…you can replant it and it’ll bear leaf. You following me?”

I was. “I’ll think it over.”

Bill looked like he was about to read me the riot act, but then the wind went out of him and he broke into a coughing fit. The cigarette fell from his fingers and he held himself up by the countertop.

I was on my feet. “Bill…”

He waved me away. “I’m all right. Just old. Just smoking too much for too long. That’s all.”

But I wasn’t believing that. The coughing. The weakness. The blotchy face. No, this was something else entirely. And he had it good.

“Rick, get the hell out,” he said, pulling himself up, standing erect with great exertion that left him gasping. “Ellen and I…oh, Jesus in heaven…we loved you and Shelly to death. Never had kids of our own. Always thought if we did, they might be like you two. So do an old man a favor and get out of the city.”

“Bill, I…”

“Please, Rick.”

There was no doubt about it at all then: Bill Hermes had radiation sickness.

A week later he was dead.

 

6

Bill Hermes was a good man. A wise man seasoned by time and experience. Did I listen to his advice? Of course not. I stayed. God help me, but I did.

Food and water were the biggest problems. For so long I had been mainly concerned with nursing Shelly back to health and in doing so, I had let everything else go to shit. Mother Hubbard’s cupboard was bare as Miss July’s thigh so I took to the streets with the rest of the gutter rats, scavenging anything I could find.

When Shelly’s deterioration began, the city had been running a series of aid stations with fresh water, food, and medical supplies. But in the many weeks since these had all been closed up and boarded down. Other than the Army out patrolling there was little order, state and local government having collapsed on just about every conceivable level.

So gun in hand, I hunted.

And was hunted.

I had a 9mm Browning Hi-Power I’d taken from Bill Hermes’ apartment. I’d never killed a man in my life and never truly wanted to, but I knew the time was coming. I’d jacked a few rounds over the heads of some bad boys that had been coming after me, but never anything more.

Then, about three or four days after Bill died, some old guy came up to me in the street, wanted a cigarette.Poor bastard was shot through with acute radiation sickness: teeth all gone, hair fallen out, face covered with ulcers.

But I wasn’t taking any chances.

I put the gun on him, told him to stay back. With so many dying of infectious disease in the city, I had a real horror of all the nasty germs floating around out there and what they could do. The radiation did something to those germs, made bigger, badder, more virulent bugs out of them. Some were the same old bugs, but others were much deadlier than they once were. And I’d already been exposed to cholera by then and God knew what else. My number was going to come up sooner or later.

The old man attempted a smile. “Just want one of them cigarettes. That’s all.” He broke up into a coughing fit, spewing blood and bile to the sidewalk. “Gimme one, friend. Gimme one and I’ll tell you where there’s food. I ain’t got but a day or two left. It won’t do me no good.”

I threw him a pack and a book of matches. “Keep ‘em. I got more.”

He was nearly orgasmic as he smoked that cigarette. Such is the nature of addiction. Something I knew well. I had quit smoking three years before…but after the bombs came down, what with the stress I started again. After he got a few drags down, he told me where there was a deli. Canned food that had barely been touched. I was welcome to it.

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