Publishing April 1, 2023
It’s a mad, mad world, Kitten, but I’ll do whatever I can to keep you safe.
It’s been seven years since a rabies-like virus decimated the human population. Cities are in ruin, governments have collapsed, and those who haven’t turned Rabid from the fever, are barely surviving. When Cipher, leader of his band of misfits, encounters a young man digging in his garden in a sunny suburb of South Carolina, he doesn’t know what to make of him. Alone and with all of his limbs intact, the teen seems to be thriving, and yet, there is the matter of the Rabid-like groans emanating from the second-story window.
Kitten doesn’t trust this rag-tag gang of youth who’ve infiltrated his home. He certainly doesn’t trust the clever, black-eyed demon who’s good with a knife, but he’s tired of waiting for his brother to return home, and he’d rather join this band of scavengers than be left all alone. He’ll journey with them to Atlanta and figure out his next moves from there.
Cipher’s first priority is to protect his found family, which now includes this vexing young man who challenges his authority at every turn. How will he maintain order among his tribe? More important, how will he guard his heart?
Chapter 1: Cipher
The boy with the golden-brown curls kneeling in the patch of clover was a surprise, and I hated surprises.
Pressed against the rough bark of a fat-bottomed live oak tree, I smoked a cigarette at my leisure as I watched the kid—more like a teenager—digging in the dirt with both hands, pink tongue wedged in the corner of his heart-shaped lips. The way his unruly hair stuck up in messy tufts reminded me of a cat, or rather, a kitten, which was also how I classified him in terms of threat level. He hummed softly to himself, a daydreamer, completely ignorant to his surroundings and oblivious to the fact that he was not alone.
An actual calico cat slunk into view, wound its lithe body around the boy’s kneeling form, and flicked its tail haughtily. The cat had only one eye, and its fur coat was patchy in places–mange perhaps or malnutrition. Clearly, the cat wasn’t food but a pet, an indulgence that was practically unheard of these days, rare as a wild chicken, though just as coveted, and not for companionship.
The boy’s expression remained focused as he dug. What did he expect to find there in the dirt? Buried treasure? A dead body? I watched him intently, only because I had nothing better to do. That tongue of his was really working the corner of his mouth when suddenly, a dazzling grin broke over his face and he yanked out a fat, round potato.
He laughed, a delighted little chortle, and the sound, like his mere presence, unnerved me. What did anyone have to laugh about these days? I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed unless it was tinged with bitterness. A bit of black humor to get me through, the sort of unhinged chortle you released because if you didn’t laugh, you might break down and start crying. But laughter from actual joy? Hardly.
The boy continued to dig, unearthing two dozen more dirt-crusted tubers while I made a few deductions: one, this was his home, his yard, and his garden that he’d been tending to for weeks; two, he had all of his limbs and no visible scars, which meant he’d managed to survive the plague, relatively unscathed, so far; three, I could have overpowered Kitten with one arm tied behind my back, but I didn’t count on him being alone, which meant there was likely a bigger cat lurking somewhere nearby.
I scanned our surroundings. The neighborhood was a newly built subdivision on the outskirts of Greenville, South Carolina, mostly two-story brick houses with ample lawns, now overrun with weeds; old-growth trees butted up to the woods we’d been traveling for the last several weeks.
My crew and I had stopped here to restock on provisions for our journey south to Atlanta. The forest offered more cover than the main roads where the military patrolled, picking off Rabids and “recruiting” relatively able-bodied strays like us. Here, there were roving bands of miscreants such as ourselves to worry about, as well as the rando throng of Rabids that always seemed to pop up when you least expected it, but I’d take either of those threats over the U.S. government any day.
My compadres agreed.
I searched for any sign of my crew, but none were in sight. I turned down the volume on my two-way radio so as not to alert the boy to my presence, then skirted the tree line to the neighbor’s backyard. Shimmying through a gap in the wooden privacy fence, I found the usual markers of abandonment—a rusted swing set that’d been picked over for spare parts, busted-out windows that hadn’t been boarded up, missing wood siding, and soot and char on the second story where someone must have started a fire inside the house. Ominously, there was a plastic dog house too, but no Fido to fill it.
I crossed the neighbor’s overgrown yard and made my way toward the boy’s property. As quietly as I could, I anchored my boot into the chain-link fence separating the two lawns and swung my prosthetic leg over. Awkwardly shifting my weight, I landed clumsily on solid ground–I’d not yet perfected the art of climbing fences with an artificial limb–then sauntered over to his house and tried a window.
Glancing up, I saw the second-story window directly above me was open to let in the warm summer breeze. There was no way in hell I was going to scale the side of the house, or even attempt it. I was too fucking crippled for that shit.
I glanced toward the backyard to find the boy still kneeling on the ground with his back to me, some thirty feet away, tending to his garden without a care in the world. His sense of awareness was shit. He wouldn’t last ten minutes alone in the wild—even with all his limbs intact—unless he ran and hid or climbed a tree. He didn’t even look up as I rounded the corner of his house and entered in through the back porch.
Once inside, I found the house had been well-kept. Clean and homey with little sayings on the wall like, “It’s not what we have but who we have that matters” and “Live, Laugh, Love” and the most absurd one of all, “Blessed.” I didn’t know whether to cringe or gag. I passed by the kitchen and spotted a large soup pot and cutting board on top of the counter with some carrots that look homegrown as well.
The boy was making soup, something so ordinary and domestic. So… wholesome. He had a home, he had food, he was surviving, seemingly all on his own. That little kitten was thriving, snug as a bug in a rug, while the rest of us had to scavenge and hunt for our next meal, hide from authorities while fending off competing gangs and slaying bloodthirsty Rabids.
What was his secret?
And then I heard an unmistakable groan of agony coming from the second story. I headed toward the sound, keeping my back to the wall as I climbed the stairs and skirted along the upstairs hallway. The walls were decorated with family photos, though none of them were recent. I imagined their family portrait sessions ended around the same time the electricity and internet went out, rendering most of our electronic devices obsolete, including digital cameras. I visually swept the rooms as I passed by them, ensuring all were empty. The master bedroom must be at the end of the hallway, which was also the source of the moaning. The door was open.
Did I really want to go in there?
The odor hit me first, that of rotting flesh and bedsores, gastric acid and infection. I held my breath as I entered the room where the smell thickened like a fog, clinging to my skin, making my eyes water and my throat burn, even with the windows open. I gagged on the stench of human decay and shielded my nose and mouth with my neck bandana. Christ, I hated that smell.
The poor wretch on the bed was far past the point of saving. Filmy eyes stared at nothing, flesh so emaciated that it looked like their bones were trying to claw their way out of their skin. Huge blisters had swollen and erupted all over their body, and the open sores now oozed pus and blood. The poor soul’s chest rattled with every breath, and whatever features once characterized their face were now blighted by the disease.
These were the advanced stages of Rabbit Fever, the highly transmissible asshole cousin of the rabies virus that brought the entire world to its knees roughly seven years ago. No one knew if the virus came from an actual rabbit or some other small rodent, but the scientific name was complicated as hell, so the name stuck. There were conspiracies that it was created in a lab and intentionally leaked by bio-terrorists in Russia or China or whomever our government was at odds with on any given day. Or maybe it was an accident. Who the fuck knew? None of it mattered now because we were all dealing with the aftermath. Societal collapse, food shortages, disease-ridden cities, abandoned suburbs, a shit-ton of dead people… and the few of us who remained, barely surviving.
Oh, and then there were the Rabids.
If you caught a mild case of Rabbit Fever, and you were young enough with a healthy immune system, you might survive it. Or if, like me, you contracted the disease by being bitten by a Rabid, you could stop it from spreading to your major organs—amputate an arm or a leg, and you were golden. But more often, the disease took over all at once, attacking the brain stem like Genghis Khan’s marauding army, scrambling your synapses and wreaking havoc on your central nervous system. The blisters and rash signified the excruciating nerve pain that was a side effect of the virus, and in the case of the person lying on the bed, their window for recovery, if ever there was one, closed a long time ago.
I glanced over to the night table, recently dusted, and saw a framed portrait of two parents, both white, and two little boys, both brown, all of them smiling. The younger boy I recognized as Kitten. The older boy resembled him as well, but neither looked like their parents. Adopted? Judging from the emaciated bone structure of the person on the bed, this must have been Kitten’s mother.
“Fuck,” I muttered and swiped at the beads of sweat that had accumulated on my brow. “Fuck,” I said again because I hated this shit.
The boy was foolish to have kept her alive for this long. Not only was he risking contracting the virus himself, but the woman was only days away from her last gasp. That was when the body, fully suffused with the disease, became strong again, when the virulent parasite took full control of their central nervous system, and they woke up starving and willing to eat anything in their path, including their own beloved son’s pretty face. Because of their diminished brain functioning, Rabids tended to meet their own demise fairly quickly, but by then, the virus had found a new host.
I could walk away, pretend I was never here, and let the boy continue to nurse his corpse of a mother, knowing she might resurrect at any moment and attack him, infect him with the virus or, at the very least, mutilate him in a very not cool way.
Or I could do the right thing and put this woman out of her misery.
I glanced out the window to locate the boy, now clipping various herbs for his carrot stew. The little imbecile. Damn him for fucking up my day, royally. I turned up the volume on my two-way and said quietly to my crew, “I have a situation at 232 Maple Street. A teenage boy with no signs of the fever and a woman who is very near Rabid stage.”
There was a lengthy pause while they interpreted the message, what was said as well as what was not.
“What are we going to do about it?” Artemis asked because of all the options, doing nothing wasn’t one of them.
I gritted my teeth and huffed with displeasure. “I’ll subdue him. Meet me here as backup but stay out of sight.”
I holstered the two-way, turning down the volume again. The woman gasped wetly and groaned in misery. I tried not to think of my mother or father or the many others I’d watched succumb to this wretched disease. I definitely didn’t think about what I’d had to do to survive it.
I took a deep breath, inhaling the putrid stench of death and despair, and cursed the world that had made me, at the tender age of nineteen, the grim reaper.
Chapter 2: Kitten
I startled, breath catching, and spun around to find a strange guy draped against the doorframe of my kitchen. He was tall and lanky with pitch-black hair and eyes like soot. Behind him was the front door, which I knew was locked, so where the hell did he come from?
“Who are you?” I asked, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice. I hadn’t seen another soul around here in months, not since before my brother left to get medicine for our mother.
“I’m from the neighborhood HOA. Your yard needs trimming.”
I stared at him, confused until I realized he was fucking with me. The butcher knife was already in my hand, so I gripped it tighter, fist clenching around the handle until my knuckles paled. The guy’s black eyes subtly assessed the knife before returning to my face.
“What are you going to do with that, Kitten?” His voice was a low purr, and he managed to look both amused and bored by our interaction. He was strapped all over with weapons—several knives, a gun holster slung around his slim waist with a piece in it, a hatchet on his hip, and a belt strapped across his chest that probably carried a much larger blade at his back. His hands were empty, but I sensed they were quick and nimble.
“I don’t have any ration cards, but I have food, and you can take whatever you want from the house.” My eyes flickered to the stairwell behind him, which led upstairs to my mother’s bedroom.
He flowed toward me like water, joining me at the kitchen sink. Arms crossed, he leaned with his back against the counter as if this were a casual conversation. The knife was between us, pointed at his gut. No use in pretending.
“What’s up there, pet?” he asked and nodded at the stairs.
“Nothing worth stealing.”
“Is that so?” He leaned over my soup pot and peered inside. “That’s a lot of carrot stew you’re making. Are you expecting company?”
“No,” I said, then realized my mistake. If he knew I was alone, there was no telling what he might do to me. I shouldn’t have been outdoors. I should have waited until nightfall, but I’d been excited to harvest the potatoes. I was stupid and reckless, and now I was going to pay for it.
“Have you ever killed someone before, Kitten?” he asked.
Suddenly, he was in front of me, with my knifepoint pressed against the soft part of his stomach, only his faded t-shirt between my blade and his belly. My hand trembled so bad that the knife handle slipped in my grasp. He was tempting me to stab him, but I couldn’t make myself do it.
“Didn’t think so,” he said, then swooped in and grabbed my free hand, twirling me around the way my mother used to when I was little. Crossing my arms in front of me, he trapped me from behind, containing me within the cage of his sinewy arms and torso. He squeezed my wrist so tightly that I was forced to drop the knife. It landed on the wood floor with a clatter. My gut followed, a sinking sensation that told me I was doomed.
“Please, don’t hurt me,” I said. I’d beg for my life if that’s what it took.
“Shhhh,” he soothed, warm breath ghosting over my good ear. “I’m not going to hurt you, but we need to talk about the elephant in the room, or rather, the Rabid upstairs.”
Anger flooded me as I twisted in his arms, unable to free myself but trying my hardest. He clamped down tighter, restricting my movement, and pulled me upward so that my feet barely touched the ground.
“That’s not a Rabid, it’s my mother,” I hissed, breathless from struggling in his iron grip.
“Both can be true,” he said in that same silky-soft voice. “How long ago did she contract the fever?”
“A couple of days,” I lied.
“Kitten,” he softly admonished me.
“She’s not going to get better,” he said with a note of sympathy, almost as if he cared.
My sinuses burned and my eyes welled with tears. What the fuck did he know?
“My brother is bringing home medicine. He’ll be back any minute. He’s big and nasty, and he won’t hesitate to slit your throat.” I imagined Santiago finding us like this. He’d go berserk. He’d shut this guy up before he could utter another poisonous word.
“There is no medicine that will save her. And the longer you leave her like that, the more likely she’ll turn on you. She’s suffering, Kitten, but I’m going to take care of it for you.”
I gulped down the knot in my throat, blinking through the tears at the sunshine streaming in through the kitchen window. It reminded me of a kaleidoscope I’d once found at a flea market, all the different shapes and colors blending and reforming before my very eyes, quicker than I could keep up with. This was all happening too fast.
“What are you going to do?” I asked shakily. I couldn’t lose her too.
“I’m going to give you a few minutes to say your goodbyes, and then I’m going to end her life.”
“The fuck you are,” I growled. He finally let me go, and I spun around and snatched the pot off the counter, chucking it at him impulsively. He easily sidestepped it, so I grabbed the carrots and potatoes and did the same. They hit his lean torso, and I briefly recalled some strange comedy show from Before where they used to chuck vegetables at each other. Stupid. The asshole didn’t even bother to dodge my attack, only cupped his junk with one hand and shielded his face with the other.
He nodded at someone behind me, and then two big, brawny arms grabbed me from behind and lifted me off my feet. I kicked with both legs like a donkey and tried to head butt him.
“A scrappy one,” the big guy said. “I like it.”
“Take him outside to cool off. Make sure he doesn’t grab anything that can be used as a weapon. You have one hour,” the asshole said to me. “Make it count.”
“Fuck you,” I snarled while his friend dragged me, kicking and screaming, outside. “Fuck you, you fucking monster, fuck you for ever living, for ever breathing. I hope you catch the fever and die, you sick piece of–”
A hand clamped over my mouth, muffling my cries. The black-eyed demon gave me a cold, blank stare and said nothing.
Chapter 3: Cipher
“What the hell is he doing now?” I griped, irritated at what appeared to be a delay tactic. After taking a few minutes to compose himself, Kitten was now back in the garden.
“He’s picking flowers,” Artemis said, sounding pissy as well—not at him but at me.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked because she was acting as if I did something wrong.
“What did you say to him?”
“I introduced myself, pointed out that he had a Rabid on his hands, and offered to take care of it for him.”
“And you weren’t mean about it?” she asked, dropping her chin in a way that said she didn’t believe me.
“I mean… there’s really no good way to tell someone you’re going to execute their mother.”
“True.” Her attention shifted back to the young man in question. With a fistful of flowers, he turned and headed toward us, but only because we were standing in his way.
“You have a half hour remaining,” I reminded him curtly as he shot daggers at me with his eyes. If looks could kill.
“Fuck you, demon,” he spat before stomping indoors.
“Charming,” I said to his back.
“Can we keep him?” Teresa asked. She’d been sitting in a bed of clover with the skirt of her long dress shielding her legs from the sun. She must have scavenged the sunhat she was wearing as well. Good. Hopefully it would keep her fair skin from burning. The boy’s calico cat was luxuriating in her lap, its one eye staring up at her adoringly while she stroked its stomach.
“The cat or the boy?” I asked.
“Both?” she asked hopefully.
“No. Absolutely not.”
“We can’t just leave him here,” Macon chimed in. We’d left our packs back at our overnight campsite in the woods, but he had his axe draped across his shoulders, sweat staining his pits, and both beefy arms hooked over the handle like some sort of apocalyptic pinup. He was currently on watch in case a friendly neighborhood Rabid attacked.
“Why not?” I demanded. “He was doing well enough without us.”
“He’s all alone,” Macon said. “He’s a sitting duck for some band of raiders.”
“We’re a band of raiders,” I reminded him. “And besides, he has a brother. A big, nasty brother who will be here any minute to slit my throat.”
“He’s been on his own for a while now,” Artemis said because I’d briefed her already. “His brother’s probably not coming back.”
The same thought had occurred to me, though I wasn’t going to give a double dose of bad news to Kitten.
“Don’t we have enough mouths to feed?” I asked, appealing to her common sense.
“He can help us scavenge,” Teresa said.
“And he knows how to grow stuff,” Macon added. “That’ll be useful when we reach Promised Land.”
“If we reach it,” I said because I still wasn’t convinced that the place even existed, and even if it did, how did we know that this supposed colony of homesteaders was any safer than what we’d been doing? “Besides, who says the little brat won’t gut me in my sleep?” I spied the upstairs window, making sure there wasn’t a rifle pointed in my direction.
“He’ll cool off,” Artemis said in her typical self-assured way, “and besides, that’s why we keep watch.”
Did I really want the kid’s presence to be a constant reminder of being a mother killer? To have to look into those fiery brown eyes and see my own callousness staring back at me? Not fucking really. Hit a little too close to home, if I was being honest. Sensing the public opinion was not on my side, I appealed to our only other company member who was as pragmatic as me. “Gizmo, what do you say?”
He glanced up from the radio he’d been fiddling with and adjusted his glasses. “What?”
“That hissy, spitting little kitty upstairs. Do we take him with us or leave him behind?”
Gizmo shrugged because unless it had wires, batteries, or a microchip, he couldn’t be bothered. “I dunno. Ask him what he wants to do.”
The thought that Kitten might not want to join us pissed me off even more. “We’re letting strangers decide now?” I threw up my hands. A little dramatic, sure, but that was what it took sometimes to get my point across.
“With him we’ll have six,” Macon said, “which is better for team sports, and you won’t have to be alone anymore when we pair off for scavenging.”
“Respectfully, we’re not building a little league team here, and I don’t see him increasing my threat potential. I’m fine on my own.”
“Great, then it’s settled,” Artemis said with a nod. “We can ask him tomorrow, once things have calmed down.”
“Someone is going to have to collect dinner off the kitchen floor,” I grumbled. “The little bastard threw everything but the kitchen sink at me.” It was kind of cute, actually. Not that I would admit it to anyone else.
“I’ll take over once you’ve… you know,” Artemis said. “Wrap the body tightly. Burn the bedding too. Macon can help.”
“This isn’t my first rodeo.”
“Mine neither,” Macon grunted.
If I was the reaper, then Macon was the undertaker, mainly because he was the only one of us strong enough to haul the corpses. It was a community service we provided, burning the dead bodies of Rabids. It killed the virus and prevented rodents and scavengers from feasting on their tainted flesh and spreading the disease. We all had to do our part.
I glanced at the sky and determined from the position of the sun that the boy’s time was up. I donned my snug, leather gloves to protect any open cuts on my hands and raised my bandana to cover my mouth and nose. The fever wasn’t airborne, not yet at least, and you generally had to be bitten by a Rabid to contract the virus–the sort of bite that broke the skin; or you had to consume the flesh of the diseased, but there had been cases of contaminated saliva or the fluid from pustules getting into an open wound and transmitting the fever that way. It didn’t hurt to play it safe.
“I’m headed upstairs,” I told them.
Artemis laid a hand on my shoulder. “Thank you for doing this. I know it’s not easy.”
I glowered at her and clomped through the house as a warning to the little master. Inside the upstairs bedroom, Kitten had laid flowers all over his mother’s rotting body, some threaded in the limp locks of her hair. It was a sweet gesture and fitting tribute, but I was bitter at him for making my job harder.
“Are you finished?” I asked gruffly. He was wearing a face mask and gardening gloves, one hand holding hers, softly stroking her paper-thin skin.
“How will you do it?” he asked, meeting my eyes at last, arresting me with his liquid amber gaze. His eyelashes were still wet with tears, and they clumped together in spiky triangles. It twisted my cold, black heart to look at him. And I hated it.
“Gently,” I said, withdrawing my best hunting knife, recently sharpened. “As painlessly as possible.”
His breath caught at the sight of my blade. “I want to be here for it.”
“You don’t have to.” I took no pride in these killings, and I would have preferred not to have an audience.
“I want to be here. For her.”
I nodded and steeled my nerves for the execution. “Anything more you want to say before we do this?”
He shook his head and began to hum. I didn’t recognize the tune. Maybe it was a church hymn, in which case, I wouldn’t know it. The woman’s head turned slightly in his direction, and I hoped that she could hear him in her final moments.
“I love you, Mom,” he whispered, his voice choked with grief.
I cupped the back of her head, supporting the skull at the nape. Her chapped lips parted, mouth opening as if to allow her soul to escape. Gripping the knife handle tightly, I took a deep breath and dragged the serrated edge across her throat, making sure to exert enough pressure to slice through her jugular veins in one go. They tore like rubber bands, and she emitted a wet gurgle right before blood began pouring out of her mouth, mingling with the blood from her neck. I drew back both hands to avoid the spillage. Her head slumped against the pillow in a soft sigh, head angled sideways like a broken doll. I shut both her bruised eyelids as the rest of her life force drained away.
Rest in peace, I said to myself on her behalf. As trite as it may seem, the words were sincere.
Kitten was crying again, muffled, wet little whimpers and sniffles that made my lethal arms want to wrap around him. But no one wants comfort from their mother’s killer. Instead, I took a step back and wiped my knife on the bed sheets before sheathing it again, remembering the cutesy sayings posted in their living room.
Instead of cringing or gagging, I felt like weeping.
And I hated it.
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