Something’s Not Right: V

The bright sunlit day created an illusion of warmth and wellbeing, but insidious reality could not be so easily ignored. Beyond the sunny rays, softly rustling leaves, and morning-quiet street, the world was not right. 

It was apparent in the lack of people taking their dogs on daily walks, the absence of traffic on the roads, the lonely, empty grocery store aisles, boasting all the produce but none of the buyers. These sights, which had been so common, had slowly disappeared in the past months, and now they were completely gone. Nobody stepped outdoors, nobody drove, nobody shopped in stores. One might think this was all yet another after-effect of the pandemic of 2020, but it’s worse than that – this was a result of the cure.

*  *  *   

Everyone remembers how the pandemic started – the virus that traveled worldwide in a matter of a few short months, with every safety measure enacted after it was too late to control the spread. As a global community, the world was too interconnected to reliably isolate and contain the disease, and the death toll rose daily. In those early days, rife with restrictions and health protocols, all everyone talked about was the vaccine. Scores of pharmaceutical companies worked on developing an effective countermeasure that could immunize the population and defeat the pandemic. Politicians campaigned on promises of the vaccine becoming widely available before the end of the year, and everyone bated their breath and kept sane by thinking about how life would return to normal soon.

But 2021 arrived with little fanfare and delays in the medical trials, and safety measures continued to be the only, if minimally effective, way to curb the virus. Soon, automation replaced most non-emergency essential jobs, with robots stocking food stores and kiosks replacing salespeople. Unemployment grew steadily and the government was forced to offer universal income to stop the daily riots of people who had nothing left to lose. The election in late 2020 had gone in a way nobody could have predicted, and the “elected” government consisted of nobody who had been on the ballot. Everything felt hopeless and returning to normal seemed like a cruel joke that enraged every time it was repeated.

And then, the most unexpected thing happened. After endless delays and countless setbacks that made the whole endeavor seem like a lost cause, a vaccine was approved. The trials had been enormously successful, with 99.9% immunity, and all recorded side-effects were so mild as to seem negligible. Production was fast-tracked worldwide, and lotteries assisted with fair distribution. Within 6 months of vaccine approval, 60% of the world’s population had been immunized, with the rest slated for vaccination before the new year.

2022: The world brought in the new year with rabid excitement, finally able to partake in activities that had been banned for nearly two years. Huge celebrations erupted in all major cities, and people felt like they were truly alive again, as if they had woken from the deepest sleep, Snow White-style. Of course, there were many pandemic changes to adjust to normal world functioning, including employment and education restructuring, governmental role implications, and so forth, but nothing seemed insurmountable after conquering the pandemic.

The death surge was just a trickle at first, scattered across the globe and therefore harder to place within the emerging pattern. But just like the virus, it seemed to spread exponentially. Yet unlike the virus, it appeared to leave no survivors. In short order, communities worldwide deduced that the deaths were associated with the vaccine – but not everyone who had been immunized died, just most of them. The unpredictable nature of the cause-of-death pattern among vaccinated individuals caused a blinding panic. People were used to taking precautions when the threat was outside of themselves, but they had no idea what to do when the danger was already inside.

*  *  *

The dawn of a new humanity provided chaos, and opportunity. With the majority of the world’s progressive thinkers either dead or banished, the foundations of civilization began to crumble. Religious leaders worldwide preached the evils of scientific progress with a renewed zeal, prosecuting even their own who dared suggest that research had it’s place. Many claimed the death toll was in fact the the rapture, but in reverse – the survivors being God’s chosen.

At an alarming pace, civilians who had not been innoculated turned on those who had, fearing contagion. Unmarked vans began patrolling in the dead of night, violently collecting the vocal few who were so bold as to stand against the church. Camps were constructed for those who had taken the vaccine without complications, victims of a growing certainty that their presence in society was both unholy and dangerous.

As public services ended, cities failed. The once proud monuments of progressive metropoli fell to disrepair, and then just fell. Those who had enough to barter commissioned transport to what the church had deemed Holy Cities, only to arrive to unbridled masses of refugees. Within the massive walls that were being erected, life became a struggle for all, as most of the tech and health care professionals had perished.

The belief that the virus was a boon was soon common, and those who had not yet been infected were so, intentionally. The people who would not submit were murdered or exiled, and their children injected with the disease. Over time, the smell of garbage and death in the streets slowly turned from revolting, to annoying, to normal. In spite of it all, humanity tenuously held on.

*  *  *   

It was subtle at first, undetectable at a young age. The health care professionals that remained had few theories and even fewer answers, and medical discovery as a whole had been all but abandoned. One thing, however, was clear. Something was wrong with the babies.

The mortality rate was disheartening to say the least, and certainly the resurgence of smallpox and polio in the overpopulated cities had taken its toll, but this was different. The first wave of children since covid had spread were happy, healthy, and broken in ways that could never be anticipated.

Few would speak before five years of age. Many lacked the focus to learn to read and write, and most were incapable of basic mathematics. While distressing, the world’s powers declared these children “marked by God”, unburdened by the trivial matters of humanity.

The church, behind closed doors, employed what scientists remained to find the cause. It did not take them long, but their work would never find the light of day.

*  *  *   

A 20% loss in higher brain function in the first generation. That’s what the numbers said. The technology no longer existed to properly account for the drop, but it was heavily theorized that the dormant covid virus was capable of editing the genetic makeup of humans. 20% was horrid, but acceptable. These people were functional, able to complete simple tasks, and didn’t ask many questions; that was, until the second generation came.

The issue was compounded. Children were born unable to breathe, some didn’t know how to blink, or swallow. Parents who were barely competent enough to tend to their own needs couldn’t raise their children, and the death camps that had been deserted for decades reopened as “care centers” for abandoned or difficult cases. Those with all their faculties looked on in horror as millions of children were shipped off to live in captivity as feral animals.

The churches, which had enjoyed relative omnipotence for several decades, fell. Entire generations of people incapable of processing the idea of an all-powerful being led to their demise, and with it, the last semblance of centralized power on Earth. With every sunset, mankind was sliding closer to the brink.

The wet thwack from the next room caused Brother Cadbeau’s pen to scratch across the page. Oh dear, he thought. At least these aren’t meant to be pretty records. Just accurate.

He wrapped the pen in a scrap of cloth and hurried to the next room. The door was sitting ajar, and the young maldroit was on the floor, blood seeping from a wound on their head. There was no sign on Tiva, the balding sallow-faced apprentice who was supposed to be on watch for the night. Once again, he had strapped the maldroit’s jacket on tight, but hadn’t bothered with the belts on the cot. And now they were hurt again, so soon after the black eyes had faded.

“Oh Jay, Jay, you poor thing,” moaned Brother Cadbeau. He grabbed a stained napkin from the untouched meal of plain rice and rubbery broccoli, and began to clean the wound with water from the unmoved tin cup. The maldroit stiffened and attempted to scoot away, grunting and scraping along the rough stone floor. “Jay! It’s Cadbeau! Brother Cadbeau!” he cried, and put his hand in front of their face. Jay stopped struggling, craned their head forward to sniff. Then they turned back to Cadbeau, unblinking eyes wide with relief.  

*  *  *   

They had been caught attempting to leave the library with a copy of the histories. The struggle had been terrible, and nine brothers were needed to hold them down–

remember when there were nine of us here?

–while the Abbot performed the operation. Cadbeau had been chosen to hold a shoulder, and he received the brunt of the screaming. “You could have saved us!” they screeched. “You had all the answers in here and you kept them for yourselves! For your fucking liar god!” 

The rest of the abuse was along the same track, nothing worse than anything random beggars had yelled through the gates. The Abbot withdrew from his leather tool pouch a long slender point of metal.  The young thief stopped struggling at the sight of the pick, their dark brown eyes now wide, a slight tremble. They looked straight to Cadbeau, who failed to look away. A tear ran down the thief’s pockmarked face.  

The Abbot grabbed their short hair and, trapping the head beneath his forearm, brought the pick towards the eye socket. The monks chanted the songs of their savior. 

*  *  *   

A pungent, sour smell filled Cadbeau’s nose, and he looked down at the dark stains on the pants of Jay. At least a day without getting changed, he thought. He was sure that Tiva only stayed at the dying monastery not out of obligation to the remaining maldroits, but because he wanted the minimal room and board this position could provide. Goddamn you, Tiva, he thought, then shame burned his cheeks. I wonder if God’s listening at this point, anyway. I wonder if He’s bored with damning us.

After a cleaning and changing, Jay was beginning to relax. Cadbeau saw their eyes darting toward the food on the end table. He scooped some rice onto a spoon, flicked away a curious roach that had begun to approach the plate, and brought the spoon to Jay’s mouth. The rice was soon gone, after Jay’s mouth completely enveloped the spoon and their teeth clinked against the metal. It was a fast motion, like a lizard snapping at a bug, as if they expected him to pull it away.

Goddamn you, Tiva.

*  *  *   

“I don’t know why you named her. You haven’t named any of the other maldroits in here,” sneered Tiva.  He was leaning in the copyroom’s doorway, putting his usual delay into his care-taking rounds. Any other day, Cadbeau would have given a gentle request for Tiva to get on his with duties. Jay’s condition was still fresh in his mind from the night before, and he felt his calm demeanor slip.

“We didn’t make any of the other maldroits. We are the reason for why Jay is the way they are.” he said, a slight sigh of exasperation.

“She is. She.” Tiva said with a scoff. “I don’t care how bent she made herself look, there’s no changing what’s between her legs.”

Cadbeau paused his writing, staring at the wall. He flipped a few pages forward into the half-empty book and wrote a few words in large script. He held up the book for Tiva to see. Tiva chuckled. “Only in your dreams, Cadbeau.”

“Exactly what will happen in Cadbeau’s dreams, Tiva?”

The face of the Abbot, long and dour, had appeared behind the apprentice’s shoulder. Tiva’s cocksure demeanor melted away, and he immediately made himself as small and penitent as his inexplicable belly would allow. “Oh, it’s nothing, Abbot. Please excuse me, I must get to my rounds.”

“Oh, don’t let me interrupt. You seem so invested in this conversation. You may continue it after I leave. Brother Cadbeau,” said the Abbot as he strode into the room, his dull gray robes trailing on the floor. “How is your transcription coming?”

The Abbot peered down at the page that was open in front of Cadbeau, with the words SUCK MY DICK written in the largest script that would fit on the page. The brow furrowed, then lightened with clarity.

“Tiva!” said the Abbot. “You can read! Why were you hiding that light under a bushel?”

Tiva’s jaw tightened, a pinched smile being forced into place for appearances. Cadbeau held his own face neutral. He knew there would be more time to smile after this conversation.

*  *  *   

Jay’s room was the last stop for tonight, and Cadbeau was late. He had to bury a maldroit who had choked on their own tongue. Passing the copyroom, the sour look he saw on Tiva’s face as the newly promoted apprentice finished his shift gave Cadbeau a great lift; an energy that had long since disappeared from reciting prayers and singing hymns.

He found them strapped down and restrained—unsoiled, thankfully. Jay’s head had shot upright at the sound of the open door, and a huge smile as they recognized Cadbeau. He pinched his lips with his fingers, and nodded. Jay nodded back. He shut the door, and quietly undid every restraint. Jay sat up and gave him a tight hug—he managed to hold back the tears this time. Cadbeau gestured to the spoon & plate of rice on the end table, and stood back. 

Jay scooted over to the end table, keeping their eyes on the gray-haired monk. Some rice was pinched in their fingers, and brought to their mouth. Cadbeau held up a finger; Jay’s hand froze, their mouth open. Cadbeau brought a ratty, yellowed book out from underneath his own simple robe. He held it up for Jay to see. The rice was returned to the plate, and the spoon was grabbed. Coordination was still subpar, and half of the rice ended up spilled on the floor and in Jay’s lap, but it was an improvement. They cradled the tin cup in both hands and slurped the water with great gusto. Cadbeau widened his eyes and pinched his lips with his fingers again, pleading for silence. Jay’s eyes widened—they nodded, and slurped quietly.

The meal completed, Cadbeau sat on the cot and opened the book. Jay leaned over and attempted to grab at a page—a successful grab, which tore a page as Cadbeau tried to move the book away. He gasped. The paper hung out of the book, held by a slim tab. 

Cadbeau felt himself shaking, a desire to scream and slash at everything insight. He had to clench his fist, digging his dirty nails deep into his own palm. Jay immediately curled up, arms wrapped over their head for protection.

The one thing I have left. The one thing I saved from—

His hand floated on its own, over to Jay’s shoulder. They were both trembling now; he felt it when his hand came to a gentle rest on the maldroit’s skin-and-bones frame. Cadbeau took a jagged breath, holding it until he felt the calm return to his chest. He then whispered, “If you are a dreamer, come in…”

He felt their muscles relax under his hand, their breathing slow down. He continued to read with a soft quiver in his voice, a few drops of water leaving dark circles on the pages.

Far below the monastery, a pair of eyes peered up through the darkness.  Every night for the past three months that same pair of eyes looked up, glaring, cursing.  Jane knew that Sam was up there.  She felt it.  The rage started welling, fists clenched. How many nights had they sat in this exact spot, looking up at that exact building, guessing about the secrets it held? 

“Okay calm down…” She turned her thoughts away from the monastery, and imagined Sam beside her. Holding hands, resting her head on his shoulder, listening to his breathing.  Spending that time with Sam had been her only escape from this wrenched realty.

“I have to go,” she hoped her prayer would reach him, “but I am coming to find you.”  

*  *  *   

It was windy, when she approached the south side of the monastery.  The outside wall was more foreboding up close.  Between that and the wind, for a moment Jane considered putting it off, but it was dark and cloudy, and she wanted to find him.  A narrow path between the wall and the sheer cliff was barely visible in the dim night, but she knew it was there.  “That’s how I’d sneak in.” Sam had told her during one of their plotting sessions.  Jane imagined him, light footed but sure, effortlessly walking the path and she followed.  

After six small steps, Jane realized this was not going to be as easy as she had imagined it.  At its widest it was maybe the size of her forearm, but it felt more like she was trying to balance on the edge of a pen.  And the wind… it had seemed like an inconvenience before.  Now each gust felt like it might rip her off her tenuous perch.  Jane shuffled her right foot forward feeling every small, gravely pebble.  She shifted her weight, testing the footing.  Satisfied, she released her grip and slid her hand along the stone, looking for any nook to dig her fingers into.  The wind felt like it was picking up, but she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just her heart beating in her ears.  She finally found a small handhold and dug her fingers in deep.  

Another small step and Jane could see light coming from around a corner.  “Oh thank fucking God, a window.”  The site of the end invigorated her.  She stepped quicker now, sliding hand and foot along the narrow ridge.  Right foot forward, right hand…up, fingertips barely grazing the windowsill.  Just one more step and that’s when the rocks under her back food shifted and her left hand lost its grip. Disbelief was all that passed through her mind as she looked down.  Darkness was all she could see.  Then…Sam.  His face looking up at her as it had so many nights when they sat below this building.  Looking up and smiling.  

Her hand reached out to touch his cheek but only felt the rocky ledge.  Out of instinct Jane closed her grip around the stone and held on for her life. 

*  *  *   

The window dropped Jane into a dark hallway.  Left felt like it went back towards the front, so she went right.  The hall smelled like stale incense.  It was a welcome change from the rot she was used to.  The hall wound past dozens of empty rooms.  Some had books, others were filled with broken furniture.  Where were the people?  There weren’t even signs of life.  Jane was so engrossed in her search she didn’t notice the incense fade and get replaced by the scent of antiseptic.  She turned left down another hallway.  The rooms here were different.  One that looked like a doctor’s office, the next a surgical room.  Jane’s concerned deepened.  What if Sam wasn’t here?  What if he had just left?  The faint sound of a man’s voice snapped her out of her thoughts.  The first sign of life.  Her steps lightened as she crept towards the sound.  It sounded like someone telling a story.

The sound led her down another hallway.  The rooms here were dark, door closed.  Each door had a tiny window.  She peered into the darkness, trying to make out a shape.  Another storage room? No…Jane tried to stifle a gasp, these rooms were cells.  In each room, was a bed, and a tiny table.  Some had people sleeping, others were empty.  She looked in each room searching desperately for any sign that one of these prisoners could be her Sam, but it was impossible to tell without going in.  The voice was getting louder, definitely reading something.  The voice was coming from the only room with a light on.  Jane’s heart was pounding.  This was it, she peeked through the tiny window.  Without a doubt, that was Sam, sitting on the bed.  He was wearing a white robe that was practically a burlap sack and pants tied up with a drawstring.  But his face…was just a shadow.  Sam was sitting there, but he was already gone.

The voice was coming from a fat man sitting in chair against the wall. He was reading from a large, handwritten tome.  Rage welled in Jane’s belly.  These people DESTROYED Sam, and this FAT FUCK IS JUST SITTING THERE READING!?  She slammed the door open.  “WHAT DID YOU DO TO HIM?!” She roared at stunned man.

Cadbeau leapt from his seat, sending the book tumbling to the floor. The strange woman stood in the doorway, her chest heaving with unmitigated rancor. Cadbeau stood, frozen. The woman’s shout was still reverberating through his skull as she stomped closer to the pair.

Panicking, Cadbeau’s eyes darted from one corner of the room to the next until landing on a dull glint. The spoon. Cadbeau heaved himself towards the utensil, but the woman intercepted him, grabbing his wrist and throttling him onto the ground with snarling ease. 

Jay was whimpering now, kicking his feet helplessly in the air as the two others flailed against each other. Jay brought their hands to their head, shielding their eyes from the invading chaos. The tin cup clattered clumsily to the ground and rolled towards the open doorway.

Cadbeau felt knotted fists pounding against his head, his senses dimming with each rapid strike. Between spurts of nothingness he could see the woman’s eyes peeled wide, alive with rage and shimmering hellfire.

Is that you, my Lord? Finally come to finish the job?

“Hey!” shouted another voice from the hall. “What’s going on? What’s all that noise? Cadbeau, if your little pet has gotten into-“ Tiva stopped at the edge of the doorway. He blinked at the panting woman straddling Cadbeau’s frame, her breath rushing out in pained gusts. They stared at each other, locked in place while Jay cowered in the corner.

The woman rose to her feet, facing Tiva. “What the hell did you do to him?” she said between clenched teeth.

Tiva swallowed hard, venturing a weak half-step back towards the hallway. “I don’t… I don’t know what… how did you…?”

Jane stepped closer, her bloodied fists trembling. “You heard me, you goddamn monster. What did you DO to him?”

Tiva stopped his meager retreat, drawing a deep breath and puffing out his robed chest. “She did this to herself, you pitiless heretic,” he spat, returning her fiery gaze. “You’ll find out what happened soon enough, I’m sure.” He swung his head back towards the hall. “Brothers! Abbott! There’s an intruder here! There’s an-“

Jane sprang towards the man, swiping the rusted spoon from the floor without a second thought. She lunged, stabbing the rounded end deep into his right eye with an all-too-familiar SHUNK. They fell backwards together into the stone hallway. Silence.

Jane pushed herself up, watching the color drain from the dying man’s face. The spoon’s handle stuck out of his eye socket like a rusted weathervane, pointing straight up to the darkened ceiling. A halo of blood began to pool underneath the man’s head.

Jane sighed deeply, feeling her heartbeat in her fingertips. She peeled off of the man’s body and walked back into Sam’s room, her nerves frayed and electric. The fat man had rolled onto his side and was struggling to stand himself up, his trembling fingers feeling around the room for whatever comforts he sought. His face was matted with blood and blossoming bruises, his eyes almost as slits between folds of puffy red flesh. She walked past him and sat on Sam’s bed, gently pulling a shielding hand from his face. She gulped, praying that the tears wouldn’t come. “Sam,” she said weakly, searching his gaunt face for signs of the life they had once shared. “Sam, we’ve gotta get out of here, okay? It’s me, Jane, remember?” She rubbed his hands in hers, feeling as though his sallow skin might crumble in her grip. “It’s Jane, Sam. It’s Jane.”

Sam’s muscles seemed to relax as he met her gaze. She could see a small bruise in the corner of his right eye, right where she’d stabbed the man in the hallway. She closed her eyes as the tears began to streak her cheeks. “So the rumors are true about this place…” she whispered, fighting the urge to shake the walls with a primal scream. Sam squeezed her hand in response.

A voice broke through. “Sam, huh?” the fat man said haltingly, spitting blood at his feet as he propped himself against the doorframe. “Jay was the name I used. Not really sure why, I guess…” he strained to keep his eyelids open, sizing up Tiva’s corpse. “… I guess it just stuck.” He gave it a soft kick, wincing in pain at the impact.

“His name’s Sam,” Jane replied halfheartedly, brushing a finger down Sam’s cheek. “We used to be everything to each other, back when…” she trailed off, holding a palm against his chest, feeling the same heartbeat that she’d fallen asleep to countless nights before.

Torchlight flickered at the far end of the hallway as the brothers and guards flocked towards the commotion. Closing his eyes, Cadbeau bent his head in prayer. 

Lord, please grace us with a sign of your divinity. Please shepherd us from harm and into the gates of eternity. Please… Cadbeau gritted his teeth, praying through the pain that pulsed behind his eyes…  tell me where the path of the righteous may guide me.

A noise pulled him from his thoughts. He turned, wiping blood from his eyes. Jay, no, Sam was humming contentedly, stroking Jane’s hair as she laid her head against his chest. Their eyes were closed, poised for a much-needed rest. Cadbeau felt his split lips tighten into a smile. 

Amen.

Cadbeau shut the door and slid a chair underneath the knob, propping it up to block the oncoming crowd. Tapping his fingers along the ground, he found the old book laying open near the bed. He pulled it close as he collapsed against the wall, facing the dreaming couple.

Fists pounded against the blocked door as Abbott shouted commands through the tiny window. Torches and metallic weapons glinted light through the slot, giving Cadbeau enough light to find the poem again.

Jane and Sam couldn’t hear the anger waiting for them outside, absorbed as they were in each other’s arms. Sam’s heart thrummed against Jane’s cheek with a soothing bump-bump, bump-bump, bump-bump. Sam stroked Jane’s hair with hypnotic, languid affection, feeling the fine strands fall against his palm with each touch.

Cadbeau took a breath, pain-free and unbothered, then began to read aloud.

“If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .”—


A huge thanks to the writers of this storyverse.
Kat
Garrett @svnsxty
Jim
 @jimburchill
Erich @erichwithach
Dan

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