Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Martin's Vow

by Jason Atwood

The Rapidly Progressive Encephalitic RNA-virus razed in a few short years what it took mankind ages to build. I'm not a doctor or a scientist. So, I don't understand all the details, but you don't need college learning to know that this virus was the hand of God Himself. The disease spread across the world fast enough to make your head swim. Everyone who was infected died within a few days from their brains swelling inside their skulls. Worldwide, people died by the millions.

Mankind might still have recovered if people had set aside their differences and helped each other. Instead, nations and groups who had no love for one another to begin with, blamed their enemies for the plague. I think that was only an excuse to settle old scores. War erupted all over Europe, Asia and Africa. India nuked Pakistan to dust, and then every other country on that side of the world with the bomb did the same to their enemies. The US was spared the ravages of war, but only because we walled ourselves off from the rest of the world. It seems that our leaders were prepared to deal with such things as disease and nuclear war. What we weren't ready for was the Madness.

The R.P.E.R was not done with us. Those who didn't sicken and die counted themselves lucky as having some sort of immunity, or maybe they were simply careful to avoid exposure. It was a rude jolt when people started flying into murderous rampages at random. If no one killed these people, they would eventually calm down, but would have no memory of what they had done.

People began to avoid each other, or worse they would kill each other on sight. I really can't say that I blame them. What else can you do when everyone you see might be smiling at you one moment, and then gutting you like a pig the next? Communities splintered, families split and parents abandoned their children. Society crumbled to ashes, and everyone lived in solitude.

Those who died were left where they fell. No one cared for them at all. Well, except for me. If I found one of the lost, I would do my best to give them a proper rest. I kept them from being harmed by man and beast alike. It was my calling before the plague. It is still my calling. There were so many that I lost count, but that was twenty some odd years ago.

The world hasn't changed much since, but I have. I wasn't exactly a spring chicken back then. Now when I wake up, I definitely feel the toll of time on my bones. I forget exactly how old I am. The days all seem to run together, but it's not like I have anyone with which to celebrate my birthday.

I wake up this morning in my house, where I have lived most of my adult life, like I have so many times before. I stand in front of my mirror dressed only in my boxers and undershirt (I think they used to call it a wife beater). My skin is rough and cracked like an old saddle, and my hair is as white and wispy as dandelion fluff. My eyes are a little bloodshot, but the clear blue of the irises stand out in stark contrast.

I look my reflection dead in its eyes and say, "My name is Martin Carter. I care for those who have no one. I protect the lost."

It is my daily ritual. It reminds me of who I am and my duty. Ritual, duty and faith are the only things I have to keep darkness at bay. These days there is more darkness than ever.

I put on my robe and go downstairs to make breakfast the same way I do most mornings. I open a can of tomatoes from this past summer's garden, and crack a few eggs laid by the scrawny chickens I own. Who would have thought that the things I learned on my great-granny's farm in my youth would be the key to survival during my old age.

After eating and cleaning the dishes, I take a sponge bath using some water from the hand pump out back. It's colder than a brass monkey's ass, but it gets the job done. I reckon I could have warmed it on the wood-stove, but that takes a long time. Also, age has thinned my skin, and the water burns me a lot easier than it used to. The last thing I need now is to get injured. Medicine isn't that easy to come by, and at my age any infection could be deadly. Imagine that, surviving the plague that ended the world only to die from a simple staph infection.

Most days I'd put on some work clothes and tend to my chickens and garden, or if nothing needed to be done I'd relax and read the Bible or listen to the radio. Yes, believe it or not, there are still people out there who use the old transmitters. The only one worth listening to is run by this preacher who is probably older than I am. He plays all the old country and gospel songs, mainly Hank Williams (Senior not Junior), and lets loose with a sermon or two when the spirit takes him. Part of me would like to meet him, but he would probably shoot me before I could even get within shouting distance. After all this time, people still fear the Madness.

However, today I decide to finally go into town to see what I can scavenge. Winder is not far outside of Atlanta, and most of the buildings are still standing. I'd probably have better luck at finding what I need if I went into the city, but it's an awfully long trip for these old bones to make by bicycle. Not to mention that it's a lot more dangerous. Last time I made the journey, I almost didn't make it back, and I was a younger man then.

I return to my bedroom and dress in the suit I used to wear as an undertaker: black pants, white shirt, black jacket and a black bolo tie. I pull a pair of heavy black boots onto my feet instead of the dress shoes that would normally go with such an ensemble. Like the old song goes, these boots are made for walking, and my feet will be the first to tell you that loafers are not. Anyone who saw me dressed like this would probably wonder why I wouldn't wear something more comfortable. It's just another way to remind myself of who I am and my purpose in this world.

The final thing I do before I leave my house is buckle the holster, which holds my old .38 revolver, around my hips. I've rarely had to use it (which is a blessing because bullets are scarce), but it has saved my life. I'd be a fool to leave without it.

I lock the front door to my house, and grab an old Radio Flyer wagon from the porch. Laugh if you want, but it makes carrying all the stuff I find so much easier. My house and yard are surrounded by a ten foot high brick wall covered with razor wire. The main entrance is a wrought iron gate topped with spikes that I secure with a heavy chain and padlock. These measures are more than enough to deter most people. If someone was desperate enough to climb over that razor wire, I've placed punji sticks right where they would land. The only other way through the wall is a small gate in back hidden by boxwoods. Thankfully, I've never had the need to use it for the type of emergency it was designed for.

It's only a few miles to the cluster of buildings where I do most of my scavenging in what used to be Winder. I use the term "scavenge" in the most liberal of senses. There really isn't much left of worth to anyone. All the food, fuel and drugs are long gone. What I mainly look for are various odds and ends that I can use to repair things around the house or to make a few rabbit gums. What I found today, though, was a complete surprise.

It's been years since I've laid eyes on another human being. Even when I did come across someone, they were always alone. Now imagine my shock at seeing two people, a man and a woman clothed in dirty rags, skulk into what used to be a market. Since the Madness began, people avoided one another out of fear. However, here were two people together who were obviously not afraid of each other. Could this be a sign from God? Could I be witnessing a new Adam and Eve? Against the warnings of my rational mind, I decided to follow them.

I left my wagon and crept after them as quietly as I could. I backed up against the wall beside the doorway; the door to this building was long gone. I peered inside, and I saw the couple rifling through a pile of garbage on the floor. Most of what was once inside the building had either been destroyed or removed. I had been through this old market a few times myself, but I could never find anything of any count.

My heart twisted with pity as I looked upon the pair. They were young, well at least in comparison to me. The man was probably in his early thirties. He had lost most of his hair, but what little he did have was long and greasy. His hair made him look a little like Ben Franklin, if Ben had ever been a vagabond. The woman was maybe a few years younger than the man. Her dirty blond hair was tangled into a nest that any rat would be proud to call home. What caused the most sorrow was not how dirty and disheveled they were but how thin. These were not people as much as walking skeletons with skin.

I shifted my weight to try and get a better look, and my knee let out a crack as loud as a rifle shot. The pair snapped their heads around, and they looked at me with the eyes of frightened animals. Their muscles tensed as they quickly scanned the room, trying to decide which way to run.

I stepped fully into the doorway with my arms above my head, and said in as soothing a voice as I could manage, "Please, don't be afraid. I don't want to hurt you."

I saw indecision on their faces. I couldn't tell if they were thinking about running, or if they were trying to determine the best way to kill a foolish old man. I said a silent prayer, and I took a step forward.

"I don't have the Madness." I continued in the same quiet voice, "Please, let me help you. I can see you are starving."

They stood up, and the man stepped protectively in front of the woman. "You wouldn't be the first person to say that, and then try to kill us," he said.

"I hear you, brother. The world is dangerous, but I can offer you hospitality and a safe place to rest. I have plenty of food, and I will even give you clean clothes to wear."

"Please Luke; it's been so long since we've had anything to eat. I'm so hungry," the woman said, speaking for the first time.

I felt a smile touch the corners of my mouth. "Luke. That is a fine Christian name. My name is Martin," I said holding out my hand and taking a step forward, "Nice to meet you."

Luke tensed and looked at me uncertainly, but the woman stepped around him to approach me.

"Mary, what are you doing?" Luke protested, but she ignored him.

"Would you really help us?" she asked, and I simply nodded in answer.

"We can't trust him," Luke hissed.

Mary turned to face her brother and said, "We don't have a choice. We won't last much longer without food. This priest may be our only hope."

"Miss, I'm not a priest, but you are right," I replied. "You're in no shape to fight or run, and people aren't the only dangers out here. There are packs of feral dogs and other wild animals that are just as hungry as you are, and they won't hesitate to make you their meal."

As if on cue, a howl echoed from somewhere in the distance, and it was answered by one much closer.

Luke looked at me uncertainly, but stepped forward and shook my hand.

When we arrived back at my home, I drew up some fresh water so the pair could bathe, and I laid out some clean clothes. While they cleaned up, I set about cooking an early supper. It had been ages since I had cooked for anyone but myself, but I think the end result was acceptable. I even got a wild hair, and whipped up a pound cake for desert. It used up the last of my flour and sugar, and I had to use some ancient Crisco instead of butter; but I don't think it turned out too badly.

We sat down at the dining room table. I said a short grace. They didn't touch the food until I was done, even though the smell of it must have been driving them crazy. Bless those two starving young'uns. I watched with a smile on my face as they dug into my rabbit and squirrel casserole. The pair didn't look so bad once they got cleaned up. They were still deathly thin, and the clothes they wore hung on them loosely. Still, it was a drastic improvement.

I slowly ate while they filled their bellies, and only spoke when I was sure they had eaten all they wanted.

"So, how did you like it?"

The pair slumped back in their chairs simultaneously with satisfied smiles on their gaunt faces.

"Thank you so much Martin," Luke said. "It was the best food ever."

"I'm glad you enjoyed it," I smiled, "but I must say that I am curious. People tend to avoid each other, yet you travel together. How did this come about?"

"We're brother and sister," Mary said, sitting up straight.

"Our mother died in the plague, and our father abandoned us when the Madness began," Luke explained. "I was twelve, and Mary was only eight, when we were left on our own."

"Luke, you took care of your sister like every good brother should. It's a quality that is all but forgotten."

"What did you do before the world went to hell?" Luke asked.

"I ran a funeral home. It was out of this very house as a matter of fact."

Mary shivered and said, "I couldn't imagine having to work with all of those dead people."

"True, not everyone is cut out for it, but it is my calling. The dead need someone to care for them, and not many are willing to do so." I replied seriously, "The plague and the Madness were so hard for them."

Mary wrinkled her brow and asked, "What do you mean?"

"Child," I replied patiently, "there were so many lost, and no one was there for them. They were left to lie in the streets. Someone had to protect them and give them proper treatment. I helped as many as I could during those hard times."

Luke looked confused, "But they were already beyond help. All that was left was a body."

I shook my head and chuckled softly, "I understand your confusion. Not many people truly open their eyes to see things as they really are. True, the soul is gone, but what is left is not just a body. It is the record of everything that person was while on this world. If you know how to look, you can read a lifetime's worth of experiences on those cold features. That deserves respect and protection."

I noticed Luke and Mary shift nervously in their chairs and begin to look around the room. Maybe I was too harsh with them. They had walked a hard road during their lives, and it was wrong for me to upset them so. Besides, I could hardly blame them for not understanding my purpose. If I were in their place, I would probably feel the same way they did right now.

"I'm sorry," I said softly, "it has been so long since I've had company that I've forgotten my manners. Please forgive me."

"No, it's okay, really," Mary's voice trembled.

I held up my hand to silence her. "It was wrong of me to make you feel uncomfortable after all you've been through. Please accept my apologies, and I promise to keep you both safe for as long as you are here."

Brother and sister both smiled, but they were uneasy smiles.

"Since that is settled, allow me to take our dishes into the kitchen, and I will return with dessert."

I gathered the dishes, took them into the kitchen and set them in the sink. Then, I placed the pound cake onto a tray along with some dessert plates, forks, and of course a sharp knife with which I would slice the cake. I was about to carry the tray back into the dining room when I heard whispering.

"He's really giving me the creeps," Mary said.

"Tell me about it," Luke replied.

Even though the dining room was near the kitchen, I could barely hear them. I know that eavesdropping is a sin, but if one of them was coming down with the Madness this might be my only warning. I wanted to move closer to the door in order to hear better, but I was afraid that my creaky old joints would betray me again. So, I stood quietly and listened.

"Luke, I think we should leave."

"Do you think he has the Madness?"

"I don't know, but something isn't right about him."

"Are you sure Mary? We've been running and hiding for so long maybe we're just paranoid. This old guy is odd, but hell...wouldn't you be a bit odd if you spent all these years completely alone? I'm willing to put up with a little bit of odd and creepy if it means we can get regular meals and a roof over our heads."

"Luke, please just trust me. We need to go."

I sighed. I went too far in talking about my duty and scared them. Now, all Mary wanted to do was go back out into the dangerous world before she'd even had a chance to get her strength back. Maybe it wasn't too late, though. Maybe if I was calm I could convince them to stay just a little while longer. Maybe they would stay at least long enough to get some meat on their bones. It was worth a try. I put a smile on my face, and carried the dessert tray back into the dining room.

"Who wants some pound cake?" I asked brightly, but I could tell by the look on their faces that my cheer wasn't convincing.

"Look, Martin...um," Luke stammered, "we really appreciate the food and clothes and all, but we probably should be on our way. We don't want to take advantage of your kindness."

"No, no, you're no trouble at all," I replied quickly. "I have plenty of room here and more than enough food. Are you sure you won't change your mind?"

"Thanks for the offer, but our minds are made up," Mary said starting to rise from her seat.

"I understand," I nodded, "but please at least stay long enough for a piece of cake."

They looked at each other uncertainly, but they made no move to leave. I placed dessert plates in front of each of them, and then sliced off a generous piece of cake. I didn't have a cake server. So, I used the knife and my hand to pick up the piece and place it on Mary's plate. Then with a slight motion, no more than a flick of my wrist really, I slid the knife between Mary's ribs and through her chest until the tip lodged into the back of her chair.

Her eyes went wide, and a trickle of blood ran down the corner of her mouth as she gasped her last breaths.

"Shhh my child," I cooed and wiped the blood from her face, "everything will be fine. There's nothing to worry about."

I heard a noise, and looked around to see Luke crashing through the front door of my house and running into the front yard. I calmly followed him outside where I found him futilely throwing himself against the heavy iron gate. The chain and lock would prevent anything smaller than a Mack truck from leaving. I couldn't bear to see him like this. So, I pulled the revolver from the holster at my hip, and I shot him twice in the back. His lifeless form slid to the ground.

Poor children of Azrael, I keep my word to you.

You will be safe for as long as you are here.


© 2010 Jason Atwood

Bio: Jason Atwood lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife and five cats. Besides writing, he works as a pharmacist at a children's hospital. His work has appeared in Suspense Magazine, and the webzine Orion's Child is currently home to a serialization of his novel "Splintered Fate".

E-mail: Jason Atwood

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