EMBRACE • by Alexander Parker

Two years had passed since the world submitted to the welcoming embrace of Death. Humankind, as a whole, smiled into the end of it all, and now a lone man walked a desolate street counting the unbroken windows and taking in the utter stillness of a quiet and rainy morning. Merchandise sat untouched in storefronts beneath overhanging balconies, all blue and gray, curls of paint catching the wind. Empty food carts stood along the streets, robbed of their innards by rats and insects. All around, nature threatened to overtake what remained, roots and vines stretching like fingers to peel away what obstructions men had made. Had it not been for the periodic sun-dried corpse, those cheeks pulled back in an everlasting grin, all might have appeared at peace. Those wretched markers of the world’s death could not be avoided. Most had died in their homes, in their beds, and spared the world their ghastly visage. Even the flies knew to avoid that tainted carrion.

Thomas wiped the visor of his respirator, his vision partially obscured by cracks in the glass and the tape used to seal them. He watched the droplets seep through, cutting lines across the foggy inner surface as they trickled down.

Too often he was shaken by the loneliness – by the quietness – of his existence. Even as the hand of Death beckoned him, as it had everyone he’d known, he continued on. At times, the closure seemed comforting.

There were no signs of civil unrest preceding the end. His hometown looked much as it had long before the spreading infection. No husks of burned vehicles or boarded windows. Scars of riot and panic did not taint the streets. Somehow, he thought, there might have been comfort in witnessing those things – to know that they had fought.

An orange tabby prowled just inside an open shop door, avoiding the rain with a blank expression on its face. It didn’t budge as Thomas, in his scavenged and tattered biohazard suit, passed by the storefront. He loosened the buckles from his greasy head. The respirator peeled away from his face, revealing a ring of dirt and sweat and grime along his forehead and cheeks. He took in the damp air, unhindered by the rebreather, and it was sweet with rain. A thrush chirped a tune that reverberated in the empty street as he continued his pace.

The wind carried to him the scent of honeysuckle and he became sure that his destination was not much farther, anticipating his overdue return.

***

One year had passed since he watched his wife close her eyes for the final time, hiding away those grossly dilated pupils that enveloped the once glowing amber that encircled them. Her frame was skeletal, and her sunken-cheeked smile haunted his every thought and dream.

“It’s fine. I feel fine,” she’d hollowly whispered, “I’m happy now. It’s all better.” Her grasp on his hand weakened. Those red eyelids slid shut, echoing like the slamming of a door in his mind, and he found himself far from home, in a world unfamiliar, so suddenly alone.

Her gaunt smile remained.

***

No one could ever get to the origin of the ailment. It was highly contagious, that was clear, but no one knew anything about it. If they ever did, it was long after the radios went dead.

Part of the problem resided in the nature of the illness. The infected wanted neither treatment nor cure. They didn’t eat. Those who didn’t starve eventually gave way to the rot. They were happy. The sickness manipulated those vile chemicals in their brains, made them believe it, and was free to devour the host, smiling at the prospect of death.

“It’s all better,” that hollow voice said.

***

The rain ceased and he tossed the mask to the concrete. It shattered noisily. The tabby darted into the receded shadows of the boutique.

A chuckle perked Thomas’ ear and he turned to the narrow alleyway at his right. He stepped with caution toward the dead end, where a collection of trash bins stood, shiny black trash bags piled against them. The alley reeked of sewage. Something moved in the pile. He could see a thin wrist attached to a bony hand hanging limp over one of the bags. Its fingers fidgeted. Another laugh crept from the swollen bags and Thomas approached until the form of the laughter was apparent.

It was an old man. Ribs threatened to jab through his papery flesh. He wore only a pair of stained and threadbare pants and one blood-crusted sock. His smile was wide and eager — teeth yellow, blemished with black crescents at the gums. His dilated eyes darted to meet Thomas’.

The old man rolled clumsily and attempted to escape his rotten bed but could not. He laughed at his failure with a broken voice. When he attempted to lift himself, his brittle forearm snapped like an echoing gunshot and he could do nothing to contain his joyous hysteria. His cackle carried Thomas to the end of the alley where he retched. Had there been food in his stomach, he’d have vomited.

***

Honeysuckle grew in unbridled troves, that familiar scent surrounding and welcoming him at last. He sat down on the familiar park bench, rested his feet. The tabby followed and made brisk figure-eights between his boots. He lost count of the miles he’d travelled to sit in that spot once more, to scoot to one side out of habit, as if to welcome his lover beside him again. He peeled off a glove to scratch the cat behind its tattered ears but it pulled away. It sniffed at his bared hand, hissed, and escaped into the overgrowth.

Thomas leaned back and watched a mass of birds form rippling waves across the lantern-light sky. He was alone again. His face twisted into a sob that became a smile and from his throat a chuckle slipped. He could almost feel her at his side again.

“Everything will be okay.”


Alexander Parker writes in the rural pine countries of Alabama. Sometimes he is a mechanic and, at times, a locksmith, but he is always a writer.


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