Colony

The sick summer flowers startle me with the stench of death.

By August a third of Strawberry is dead.

The first lesions start on the hands and face, small patches, soft and pale.

Sunday morning Mortimer spends almost an hour in front of the mirror.

He finds that he’s afraid of the things he’s always loved: the long walks out to the beach, the cool green water where he’d walk out up past his knees, the wonderful and silent mysteries of the woods, the walk home again through the small and charming town of Strawberry.

But most of all he’s afraid of other people.

By the afternoon the full sun and cloudless sky make the heat unbearable.

Outside there is no breeze. The air is stagnant and humid. The sky is sickly pale blue. The few people outside look tired to death.

Out beyond the town square into the surrounding little woods, the trees give nothing away. Occasionally he passes a carcass.

Past the woods and out to where the beach separates Strawberry from the world, the green bay waters give nothing away. The beach stinks of dead fish washed ashore.

Mortimer wades into the water dizzy. His relationship with the world hasn’t felt the same for weeks. Terrified or not, he needs to talk to someone.

Back in the small town square of Strawberry the few people outside look tired to death. An old woman in black looks like she’s dying of thirst; she’s afraid to drink the water; the sound of crying children comes loud through closed windows of depressed looking apartments; a bedlamite dressed in rags is standing on the corner screaming. For the first time ever Mortimer thinks he’d prefer the company of drunks.

&

They’re not letting anybody leave.

I know, says Mortimer.

And they’re not letting anybody come in.

Who the hell would want to?

Christopher has frequented this same bar for as long as Mortimer can remember. Only casual bar acquaintances they’ve never been good friends; terrified or not, he needs someone to talk to.

What do you think it is? Mortimer asks him.

The hell should I know?

How many people have died? Do you know?

I don’t think it’s all that many.

Not that many, huh?

Just a few of the unlucky ones.

Mortimer lets his sleeves slide up over his hands.

Are you afraid?

If it gets me, it gets me, says Christopher. We all have to die somehow or another anyway.

People say it’s the plague.

What do people know?

The bar is empty; the bar is bright, the summer sun comes heavily through the windows and the ceiling lights are on. Fans turn lazily around defeated. Christopher looks intent on something for a little while.

They’re saying not to drink alcohol, he says.

I know, says Mortimer.

But everyone’s too afraid to drink the goddamn water, so what’s the harm in a little beer?

Mortimer shrugs. We’ve been sectioned off, he says.

Yeah.

So what if we’re all doomed to die here like this?

Shit, I don’t know. Can they do that?

Maybe they have to.

Yeah. Christopher orders another. He looks out the window where the heat is visible in blurry nauseating waves.

Shit, it’s like I said before. If it gets me, it gets me.

What do you think started it?

Neither of them says anything. The bartender brings Christopher’s beer.

Fucking Strawberry, says the bartender, and walks off.

I don’t know, says Christopher.

&

Out in the street again there’s a girl crying in a doorway. Death and alcohol make Mortimer bold.

Is there anything I can do? he asks her.

When she looks up her face is pale and she looks old for a girl so young. She doesn’t say anything.

Mortimer sits down next to her.

Go away, she says.

What do you think started it?

She starts crying again.

Mortimer puts a hand on her shoulder.

Don’t touch me, she says.

I just wanted to help.

For your own good. She looks up at him and pulls back her sleeve. It’s covered with lesions. I’m infected, she says.

They say they don’t think it’s contagious.

Then why can’t we leave? And why can’t anyone come in?

Precautionary, Mortimer says not believing himself. The heat is making him dizzy again.

My mother died from it yesterday, the girl says.

I’m sorry.

I’ve seen it, she says. It’s contagious.

What’s your name? he asks her.

Does it matter?

We need friends now more than ever.

The girl looks up squinting at the sick blue sky. Mary.

My name’s Mortimer.

I don’t care. I don’t need any more friends and neither do you.

They don’t say anything for a little while. The street is dull with the sound of sobbing and fighting and fear.

Won’t you go away? Do you want to catch it too?

I think we’re all going to die here, says Mortimer.

Please leave me alone.

Mortimer touches Mary’s arm. She looks over and sees his hand.

You see? I’m infected too.

It feels like it gets very quiet on the street all of a sudden. Christopher is coming out of the bar with a bold stagger. Mortimer watches him walk off towards Southport.

When he looks back at Mary she’s smiling, looking far away and straight ahead.

&

By early October half of Strawberry is dead.

The infection’s spread from families to friends to relatives to acquaintances. Corpses in houses are left in bed; sanitation units come for bodies in the street.

The lesions cover all of Mortimer’s arms and chest. They run in soft pale splotches up his neck.

Mary’s condition is worse: the lesions on her are thick and putrid. They cover her breasts, neck, face and upper torso. She’s weak all the time; Mortimer stays with her all the time. She’s afraid all the time.

Sometimes he goes to talk to Christopher at the bar. Christopher’s healthier than Mortimer, but he has lesions all up his arms. He drinks more heavily than ever.

We’re all gonna die here Mortimer, he says.

I know.

Why Strawberry? he says.

I don’t know.

You’d think New York or L.A. or something.

I know.

Why Strawberry? he says.

I don’t know.

By late evening Christopher is incoherent. The kind of terror Mortimer sees in Christopher’s face makes his greatest fear that others see him the way that he sees them.

Out into the cool autumn evening he can see in the faces of the people on the street the dead hope that the cool weather will kill the plague. The leaves strike him as symbolic.

On Sunday morning he goes with Mary out into the desolate Strawberry streets. The town square is cold and black and red. Already dead bodies are lying in corners of doorways like the homeless in cities.

Out past the town square they go to the little woods surrounding Strawberry where the leaves are all of fall’s myriad colors.

Mary holds onto Mortimer’s arm.

The woods give nothing away, she says.

The carcasses, he says.

But if you ignore them.

Yes. If you ignore them.

Out past the brittle leaves and carcasses onto the beach, the stench of the dead fish is so thick that Mary gets sick. She vomits on the pale shores where the cold waters rush with carnage.

Mortimer cries.

I’m fine now, she tells him. It was just the smell is all.

Aren’t you afraid? he asks her.

Yes, she says.

Christopher says we’re all going to die.

Mary sits down on the beach. She feels drowsy. We probably will, she says.

What do you think started it?

The unanswerable question again, she says.

It’s the only question Christopher has anymore.

Mary lifts herself into Mortimer’s arms. I know. That question is probably the only thing Christopher has anymore at all. She laughs. Except maybe his drinking.

It’s not funny, Mortimer says.

I know. I can’t help it.

He smiles at her. Neither can I.

She slides back down onto the beach. I’m going to die first you know, she says.

Why are you talking about this?

Because it has to be talked about.

How do you know you’ll be first anyway?

Mortimer, I’m serious.

He doesn’t say anything.

I might not make it through the month. I’m weak all the time.

Mortimer doesn’t say anything.

The beach is alive with the sound of waves and the stench of rotting flesh.

I’ll come down here and drown myself if you die first, he says.

I don’t want you to do that, says Mary. I want you to see if you can survive it.

We’re all going to die here Mary.

Maybe, she says. But we don’t even know what it is. What if the winter kills it?

I wouldn’t want to go on anyway.

Promise me, she says.

But I wouldn’t want to go on.

Promise me, she says.

I can’t.

&

By January three quarters of Strawberry are dead.

The warm and wet yellow snow covers corpses left dead in the road. The sanitation units don’t come anymore. Apartments are burned down regularly. Suicides are frequent.

Mortimer has lesions covering his entire body. He’s weak all the time. He’s with Mary all the time. She’s in bed all the time. She’s dying; she’s dying slow.

Mostly she’s delirious.

The cold wet streets of Strawberry are always deserted. The roads and building are falling into putrid disrepair. The town square is peopled by corpses; empty stores are peopled by corpses; restaurants and bars are peopled by corpses. Mortimer goes sometimes to talk to Christopher.

Christopher is sick, sick to death, worse than Mortimer, always weak. The lesions cover his face and body. They’re thick and scaly. They peel off in flaking silver scabs onto the floor.

The bartender lies dead where he dropped weeks ago.

Why don’t you get out of here Christopher, Mortimer says to him.

What’s the use?

Mortimer doesn’t know what to say.

Christopher leans forward and pours himself another drink from the tap.

Turns out to be something of a boon, this plague, he says through a breaking smile. Been drinking free for weeks.

He laughs. Mortimer tries to smile.

Still haven’t lost the drunkard’s sense of humor at least, Christopher mumbles.

Why don’t you get out of here Christopher?

Christopher doesn’t say anything.

These long silences are uncomfortable and frequent, but Mortimer doesn’t mind them.

What do you think happens? Christopher asks him after some time.

What do you mean?

You know what I mean. Christopher takes a long drink. When we die.

I don’t know.

Do you think about it a lot?

Of course. We all do. You know that.

Christopher shrugs. I know. He drinks again. Are you religious? Shit, you know all this time I never asked you that.

I don’t know, says Mortimer. I’m not even sure what that means.

It’s all over’s what I say, says Christopher. It’s just fucking stupid that we’re put here for this shit.

Maybe so.

It’s not fair. Fucking Strawberry. What a place to live and die; and what a way to go.

Mortimer doesn’t say anything.

Would you do it again? asks Christopher.

What?

Fucking life, Mortimer. If you had the choice would you choose to be born knowing all this shit or would you just say fuck it.

I don’t know.

I’d say fuck it. Never had a choice to begin with. Or if I knew about all this shit, I’d of moved out long ago. Done something with it.

Problem is, you already have to be born to be able to choose if you want to be born or not, right?

Christopher laughs. Well that’s the fucking kicker, isn’t it? Pour yourself a drink man.

I’m alright.

What? You on a health kick or something? Christopher laughs again.

Even Mortimer gets a chuckle out of that.

You know what, says Christopher. You know what I’ve decided?

What’s that Christopher?

I’m gonna go out laughing. I mean, that’s my final fuck you, right? That’s all I have. I could sit here and cry and piss and moan all day. Shit I did it long enough. He laughs again; but fuck it, you know? Find the absurdity in it I say. Find it and laugh at it.

That’s not a bad plan, says Mortimer.

The old expression laughing to keep from crying.

Sure, I’ve heard it.

Well, shit. Christopher takes another long drink.

They’re silent for a long time.

The bar is cold and small and dim.

How’s that little girl of yours doing? Christopher asks after a little while.

Mortimer shrugs. Not so well.

Not so well, huh?

Not really.

She as bad as me?

This time Mortimer laughs. Almost.

Well, shit. He looks down at the bar. I would’ve liked to take a wife sometime myself, you know. Always figured I would someday, even though I used to say I wouldn’t.

Things go that way.

Yeah, well.

They’re both silent for a long time.

After a while Mortimer stands up. Well, Christopher, I’ll come by and see you here tomorrow.

I’ll be here, drinking for free like always, says Christopher. He points to the corpse of the bartender on the floor and laughs.

What?

He says over his dead body! Christopher starts laughing again.

Out in the empty street Mortimer can still hear him laughing. The snow runs down wet and dirty and uncomfortable. The streets shake with the sound of the old fool laughing himself to death.

When he gets back home he finds Mary dead.

She’s smiling, looking far away and straight ahead.

(Whit Frazier, From “Youth and the Unreal City”, 2001)

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