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The Fruit Of Thy Womb


Imagine a world owned by corporate greed, where the bottom line is NOT the public good.  Capitalism might seem a lot like Communism . . .

 

The end of the world began with a rotten banana.  Ziggy Boyle stood in an alley on a blistering day and nonchalantly peeled the piece of fruit — then noticed to his disgust the white interior had dissolved to a dark slimy pulp.  ‟Gross!"  Dropping it, he wiped sticky fingers on the front of a black shirt and ground the heel of a loafer over the squishy mound.  He next spent a full minute scraping mashed banana off the bottom of his shoe onto the pavement.  The peel had still been yellow.  It was the last time he would steal a snack from that supermarket.  Imagine if he paid for it!  Indignation seethed.  Out of habit, he suppressed his annoyance.  Couldn't denounce the corporations, even under one's breath.  It wasn't wise.

A mass of cockroaches scuttled to mob the smeared fruit, a common sight.  You couldn't go anyplace without seeing them.  Must be the heat.  Temperatures kept breaking records.  It was all people yakked about on the tube.  That and storms.  There were always bigger storms than the last.  Not to mention the massacres.  Terrorism was on the rise.  It might be a hate group.  It might be the meltdown of some suicidal nut-job with a grudge and a bag of bullets and guns or homemade bombs.

He figured they were all just too warm.

Fans no longer did the trick.  You had to have air-conditioning or risk dying of heatstroke.  He didn't, and some days he could feel his brain literally boil in his skull.  It was like Hell on Earth.

Water was becoming scarce.  Nations feuded over that instead of land.  Starvation was rampant.  Plagues were expanding in biblical proportions.

Tempers were on the rise along with the temperatures.  Everyone was hot under the collar.  And it was only going to get worse.  That's what they predicted on T.V.  More gloom and doom.  He finally hauled the offensive device off the wall, sick of hearing bad news.  Then he kicked it, hurled the monitor against another wall, and finally heaved it through the window of his apartment.  Lucky it didn't hit someone or he could have been arrested.  He wondered if the jail had air-conditioning.

 

 

Before Ziggy came into the world, his parents had stopped on a lark at a palm-reader's house to ask if their baby would be healthy.  The woman, Lady Zsa Zsa (whose real identity was Jolene Snork) didn't fit the role.  She had bobbed Peroxide curls and smoked constantly, as if fueled by tar and nicotine.  Sharp features regarded Adele Boyle with one eye closed, plunking regally into a seat across the round kitchen table.  Fingers scrabbled in a package for her subsequent cigarette, the stub in her mouth burned to the filter.  Coral lipstick stained the butt as she tapped it in an overflowing ashtray at one elbow and fumbled with a disposable lighter.  The flame glowed an eerie shade of orange-red, blazing upward to ignite the end of a new cancer stick.

‟Pay now!" the oracle barked.

Ziggy's father Zeke forked over the cash.  It disappeared.  The blonde impatiently held out a hand.  Adele nervously passed hers across the scarred wood surface, and the mystic seized it to pry open and thud palm-up on the tabletop.  The puffing lady's head leaned forward at such an angle, Adele was afraid she meant to burn a hole in the palm rather than read it.  A clump of ash let go.  Adele flinched, attempting to retract her hand.  The fortuneteller gripped it hard and lifted green orbs like Adele's to glare belligerently, not letting go till she had earned her twenty bucks.

The expectant parents waited, convinced from the trappings and the woman's demeanor that she was a charlatan and would merely pretend to study the creases on Adele's inner hand.  Scrutinizing the lines, however, the clairvoyant's head jerked up in an abrupt attitude of shock.  Fear was etched in the wrinkles of her blanched visage as she whispered hoarsely, a barely audible hiss:  ‟Cursed be the fruit of thy womb!"

Adele blinked.  ‟What did you say?"

The woman recovered and shook her head.  ‟Get out."

‟What was the prediction?" Adele inquired.

‟We're done.  Get out!" the lady snapped, crushing a half-smoked cigarette on the tabletop, missing the ashtray in her haste to leave the table.

Adele raised an exasperated look to her husband, who calmly ushered her from the residence.  The couple walked swiftly to their car at the curb.  Inside, the windows rolled up, doors locked, Zeke confirmed what the palm-reader had uttered.  It had to be nonsense, he assured.  The woman wasn't even a Gypsy.

They avoided her street from that day.  Ziggy was born a nine-pound two-ounce baby with no defects.  His parents had considered themselves blessed.  Until the afternoon Ziggy wandered out of his yard.  His mommy only diverted her eyes a few minutes, hanging wet laundry, and he was gone.

 

 

Bored, the child abandoned his toys on the rear stoop and toddled to the sidewalk in the front, which he followed for several blocks, crossing streets in the neighborhood, roaming to a green house with a sign in the yard shaped like a hand.  This captured his interest, reminding him of the story his daddy liked to tell at Ziggy's birthday parties.

A woman slipped onto the porch and stared.  ‟I know you!" she howled, and the boy started crying.  ‟Go!"  She aimed a finger down the street.  ‟Do not return!"

He trotted a blurred route and never saw her again.  But two siblings saw him.  The pair initially planned to turn him over to the authorities.  Then debated collecting a reward, or a ransom demand.  Yet he was cute and darling and won their hearts.  That was the tearful confession of the one he called Uncle.  ‟These things happen," the old fellow said, as if that explained it.  They had visited relatives the day he vanished and driven off with him like he was a stray cat needing a home.  The one who insisted he call her Ma had died when Stevie (what they named him) was seventeen.  A year later Uncle revealed the lad's true name.  It had been on T.V.  They weren't bad people, stated Uncle.  They just didn't do the right things.

Being so young, he had forgotten his parents.  Memories with them had been replaced by a squabbling makeshift family and that became his reality, seasoned with twinges of confusion.  An idea popping into his mind.  A brief image, like the flash of a camera.  Or something unfamiliar fuzzily seeming familiar for an instant.

Stevie Dunham, gradually switching to Ziggy Boyle, searched for his parents as he wished they had searched for him.  News archives at the Public Library provided snippets of stale information; nothing current or conclusive.  Working his way, he traveled to the city where he was born and traced his father to a cemetery plot.  The man had died when Ziggy was ten.  He couldn't locate his birthmother.  He went to the graveyard every evening for a month.  When he married, he had hoped she would read the announcement in the newspapers online and be there.  Standing next to his bride, his eyes distractedly drifted to the door.  Sadly, it was as if his mother had dropped off the planet.

 

 

Ziggy's jaw sagged.  Eyes bulged, witnessing a swarm of little flies appear out of nowhere above the banana.  He swatted brumous air and coughed.  There was a perpetual haze that smelled like poison.  Bugs had taken over the city and to counter the infestation, experimental ‟safe" pesticides were periodically sprayed by teams wearing black hazardous-material suits.  The Extermination Squad.  If it was so safe, they wouldn't need the suits.  He tactfully kept such opinions to himself.  Most of the time.

Loudly stomping, the man succeeded in chasing the roaches away, flattening a few in the process.  He had to clean more muck off the base of his shoe:  banana and bugs.  It wasn't even a real banana.  There was no such thing.  That whole organic movement way back when?  These days everything was manufactured.  Big Business held the power.  They owned the world . . . lock, stock, and barrel.

Where the heck were those guys?  Zig moodily contemplated the ends of the alley.  He was alone.  Except for the hum of flies.  ‟Get outa here!"  He kicked a leg, attempting to shoo the swarm to no avail.  If anything, there were more.

He paced up and down the stretch of pavement, then across the lane.  Folding his arms, he leaned on bricks and hooded his eyes.  Oh yeah, he was supposed to be the lookout.  Why couldn't he remember stuff anymore?  It must be the heat.  He endeavored to stay alert.  Difficult when it was so hot.

Ziggy tugged his shirt, ventilating his chest.  ‟Come on, guys!" he muttered, pacing in a lather.  He wasn't always this uptight.  As a kid he built models, cars and planes and whatever; later, intricate designs for houses, which required loads of patience.  Maybe the glue and paint fumes had fried his brain.

No, it had to be the heat.

Once upon a time Ziggy wanted to be an architect.  Dumb idea.  The Housing Market slid into a sinkhole and disappeared.  Almost everyone lived in condos, rented or owned.  The land belonged to corporations.  It happened before anyone realized — bank liens and foreclosures, government fines and land-grabs, tax increases, seizures by Homeowners Associations . . .  By the time the dust settled, it was too late.

Perhaps he should go and look for them.  How long did it take to hijack a computer?  They were activists, not thieves, but still . . .  ‟You hack the thing and run!  How hard is that?" he petulantly grumbled.  Then sealed his mouth.  Loose lips sank ships.  Maybe he said too much.  They couldn't get caught until the transmission completed.  His job was to call if the heat showed up.  There was plenty of heat.  And he felt conspicuous.

Peace Corpse, the organization he worked for, wanted the secret formulas of the pesticides being pumped all over.  They wanted to publish on the Internet how bad it was for humans along with bugs.  Who knew what the long-range effects might be?  Illnesses and suicides had already inflated.  The government blamed it on the heat.

Ziggy was racked by coughing.  Two years ago he had watched his wife and baby cough up blood, their lungs congested, membranes thinned to bursting.  Losing them turned his heart cold.  He joined a group that was striking back, opposing the heartless bureaucracy of elitist moguls who lived above it all — not because he cared about helping the world.  He wanted revenge.

A droning cloud hovered by his face and he waved a hand, then felt a pinprick of pain.  He smacked his cheek.  Did one of them bite him?  He gaped at a squashed insect in his hand.  They didn't look like regular Fruit Flies.  These were fatter and appeared to have mutated.  Ziggy squinted.  No way, the things had teeth, rows of them on bony horns!  Flies didn't have teeth!

It must be heatstroke.  He was hallucinating.  He brushed his palm on his trousers.

The hum escalated to a furious keening.  Did Fruit Flies usually sound like that?  He didn't remember them making noise.  Other flies hummed.  Fruit Flies were quiet, except right beside his ear.  These were buzzing like an unhappy bunch of bees.  More sting-like pricks from a unit of scouts.  ‟Hey!"  Ziggy's arms flailed.

The remainder of the swarm attacked as if by a cue from their advance guard.  Ziggy wailed, slapping himself belatedly as he fled.  The insects greedily nipped flesh.  Normally vegetarian, they had evolved into carnivores.  Gobbling like tiny winged piranhas, the multitude gnawed exposed parts.  Still he charged, yelping, and bumped down a corner prophet ranting about the signs of The Apocalypse.

‟Here's your doom!" squalled Ziggy.  That's when they got inside his mouth to feed on his tongue.  It didn't halt his screeches.  Or his steps, until his tattered limbs grew weak.  Then the flies swooped to the sky in a roiling cyclone of black and departed.

The prophet never had a chance, sprawled on the pavement in a long bedraggled gown.  Ziggy scrambled to her on all fours, trembling and maimed.  The woman screamed too — being eaten alive.

 

 

Wow, I dreamed I was attacked by Fruit Flies.  That was crazy.  Ahhhhh, why does my face hurt?  And my hands?  They're torn up.  Oh no, oh no, it's true!  It wasn't a nightmare, it was happening . . .

I have to — find help.  That's what I need to do.  Find a hospital, a doctor or cop.  A psychiatrist.  Somebody.  This kind of thing shouldn't be happening.  It has to be fixed.  They'll fix it.  They'll know what to do.  I just need to find someone who will know what to do.

I hear people.  There, protesters, in front of the skyscraper we were here to rob.  Idiots.  Do you really think they'll listen?  We're ants to them, gazing down from their ivory and steel towers.

‟Help!  Please help me!  I was bitten by a pack of man-eating flies!  They have teeth!"

Look at their expressions.  They think I'm a lunatic.  Can't blame them.  I'd think so too.  Ohhhhh, what's that feeling?  My guts are curdling.  My lungs ache.  It hurts to breathe.  It's such an exertion.  Maybe I can't breathe!  How can I walk?  How can I even stand?

That growling, it's coming from me.  My stomach.  My throat.  I sound like a wild beast.  I feel . . . so empty.  I'm suddenly starving.  Oh man, it's too intense, I can't take it.  I feel like I'm dying of hunger!

Why are my veins throbbing?  Did I get a disease?  From the flies?  Or the poison?  God, what's happening to me???

No, oh no.  I can't.  I won't.  I can't control it, can't stop myself.  I need . . . no, please don't make me . . . I need, I need . . . them.

 

 

Ziggy lumbered toward the protesters, who backed away, frightened by his deranged expression, the vicious sounds that emerged from a fly-pecked monster.  He grimaced in a garish toothy smile, the lips in fragments.  Marble-skinned, his flesh ragged, the hulking man clutched a wide-mouthed woman who had frozen to an ice statue while her comrades scattered.  Despite the frigid pose, she was pleasantly plump.  His eager bite sank into a soft round shoulder.

The woman's shrill voice rankled him.  He silenced her with his teeth.  Warmth doused his cold torso.  He had never felt so cold.  Strange he wasn't shivering.  It was simply a deep burning chill that exuded from his very core.

His banquet cascaded to a splattered sidewalk.  The man knelt to pillage a bountiful midriff of flesh and organs.  He binged with cannibalistic gusto, thoroughly enjoying a meal that a day earlier would have horrified him.  He didn't pause to dwell on what could be wrong with him.  It hadn't diminished his appetite, and that was all that seemed to matter.

He straightened from the dead woman, feeling a sense of fulfillment that yielded to fleeting energy.  As he retreated to the building's corner, drawn toward the alley where his transformation began, the nourishment subsided into the dark void at his center.  Dwindling faculties alternated between flickers of residual intellect and an avid animalistic craving.  Satisfaction had evaporated, lingering sufficiently to propel him onward in a greedy quest for more flesh.  Ever more.

Behind him arose the growls of two holey unhallowed disciples, the remnants of prophet and protester shambling in his wake, like instruments of a merciless Old Testament God.

 

 

Adele frequented the playground, huddled on the ledge of a low stone wall with the other mothers, watching the little kids joyfully romp amidst happy squeals and giggles.  It was her ritual to check the swings and sandbox where she would often bring him.  Hope kept her alive, the hope that he would return, that he would remember this cherished haunt.  Yet disappointment and the laughter of children impaled like a blade through her heart and soul.  Would she even recognize him now?  She felt certain that she must.  He was her son, and a mother never forgets.  How could she when her child was a part of her own body?

She perched there for hours, humming a lullabye and rocking slightly, unaware of the women scooting away from an unkempt homeless lady who stared dreamily into space.

This was her home.  This was where she belonged.  This and the house on Evermore Street, which had sheltered other families since destitution forced her eviction.  The sites were her only ties to a blissful past.  To the precious baby and family she once had, long gone, stolen by a cruel sword-thrust of destiny . . . a curse reflected in the terrified eyes of a psychic.

Police canvassed the neighborhood.  Jolene had been brought in for questioning due to a suspicious statement when informed a boy was missing and shown his photograph:  ‟Of course he is."  She claimed to never have seen the child.  Adele wondered.  Had she glimpsed what would happen to him in her palm?  Or in a vision?  Did the woman hold clues or the key to her son's whereabouts?  Zeke had begged her to let it go, but she took to spying on the clairvoyant.  Trailing her to stores.  Then accused her in the aisle of a market, ‟You must have some idea, some critical detail.  Tell me everything you know!"

‟He's cursed and will always be.  But I already told you that," leered the psychic, blowing smoke in defiance of the NO SMOKING signs.  ‟He's like a black cat, that boy.  You do not want him to cross your path."

Adele reeled.  What an awful thing to say!  The witch cackled and pulled free.  Her laughter rang up and down the aisles.  Adele had wafted from the grocery store in a fugue.

If only they listened.  If only they had believed and taken precautions, been more careful.  She would have never let him out of her sight, not for an instant.

Grief, regrets, guilt . . . these led to her husband's death.  He had taken to drinking at bars on the way home from work.  One night he never made it home.

Adele wasn't a drinker.  She had internalized, burying the pain then crawling into the hole, hiding from Life.  But one day Life intruded and yanked that hole out from under her with more loss, and she found herself on the outside of everything, wandering past windows and looking in.  Hoping to see her son.  Hope was all she had left.

 

 

He bet she was pretty in another lifetime.  Not that she was alive now.  Her gray teeth gnashed at his cheek.  Thrashing, he freed himself and his elbow bashed her nose, knocked it sideways.  She looked worse.  The prophet had looked sufficiently harsh before he mutilated her.  Age combined with madness.  Some women matured gracefully, accepting their skin with pride and dignity whatever their age.  He would observe them, subconsciously examining the faces of crowds for his mother.  The little boy inside of him pictured his mommy that way.  He had a vague impression of a beautiful lady smiling, hugging him.  It had to be her that he remembered.

The prophet clawed at Ziggy.  She and the protester wouldn't leave him alone.  He shoved his followers, snarling, and tromped away.  The rabid stalkers tagged after him.

A door slammed open.  An alarm jangled.  Three guys in black burst out of the fire exit.  As the door latched, they froze at the specter of three ghouls in the alleyway.  The men were prepared to be apprehended.  They were not prepared to be eaten.

‟Ziggy?" asked the tallest.  The computer caper's leader.  ‟What happened to you?"  His face was incredulous.

The other two merely gawped, speechless with revulsion.

‟Bub," rasped their tongueless cohort.  He meant bugs.  He gestured.  Like those.

The trio cartoonishly turned as a gathering hum crescendoed.  A thick purple-black swarm blocked the alley.

Ziggy shrugged.  He wasn't even curious about the mission.

Girlish shrieks ensued.  The human savages feasted.

Three bodies lay strewn, grisly leftovers.  And then they twitched, sitting up, clambering to their feet to sway.  The revived activists groaned.

Their leader's name was fuzzy.  Tim?  Ted?  Ziggy frowned.  His mind functioned slower, thoughts torpid, bogged down in wet cement like mental quicksand.  His grasp of mundane connections faltered, yet he might recall dining on his friends.

Was he alive?  He still had enormous trouble to draw air into his lungs.  The effort was similar to ramming a dozen forks in his chest.  And equally effective.  Were any of them alive, these walking wounded with their flesh ripped apart?  How could they be?  What kind of affliction was this that reduced them to mangled corpses who could still think and feel on some crazed demented level, and have boundless appetites like voracious beasts?

Like zombies.

But weren't zombies supposed to be mindless, driven by an instinctive desire for brains?  Or brought back from a near-death state by a powder that rendered them obedient to a voodoo sorcerer's spell?  There was no magic or hypnosis, no comic-book fantasy involved here.  Just poison, Global Warming, and Evolution.  He wasn't himself, that was obvious.  He didn't know who or what he was anymore.  It strained his brain to sort it out, to put coherent words together.  He refused to go stupid and relinquish his surges of rational thought.  It was part of living to adapt to change, but Ziggy could not resign himself to becoming less than human.  He would fight this thing, resist with everything he had left!

His companions, male and female, ravenously assailed a duo of security guards tracking the thieves to the exit door.  The raucous feeding revolted Ziggy, and he staggered from the scene of carnage with bile in his throat that tasted petrified.

Hearing grunts and klutzy footfalls, he ducked into the concealment of shrubs.  A flash of exhaustion overwhelmed him.  He crumpled to his knees and closed weary eyes.

The lids snapped up.  Out of the alley hobbled a gang of blood-stained brutes.  Swerving past his hideout, they clattered down the street demonstrating the lightfootedness of slapstick cops chasing robbers.  Hunched in the bushes, Ziggy loitered in case they altered direction.  Man Zero, the first infected, the source of their ailment, he held a sort of sway.  The cretins were drawn to him, like a master.

The insects, too, and from them he couldn't hide.  A throng accumulated behind where he crouched.  Their irritating whine threatened to reveal his position.  Ziggy's head swiveled.  They had been fruitful indeed and multiplied.  The swarm was huge.  What was he, Lord Of The Flies?

Cuffing them midair, he hunkered as low as possible without lying prone.  Growls alerted him that his flock of faithfuls had arrived.  The male and female zombies raked at him but he dodged them and dashed forth, loping as fast as he could.  It wasn't devotion.  He sensed they might turn on him, finish him off.  When he hurried so did they, a silly shuffling race.  And wherever he went, the flies hounded his heels.

 

 

It would be dark in an hour.  She ought to seek a refuge for the night, yet Adele was unable to budge.  The other mothers had gathered their toddlers and strollers and bags of essentials.  The park was eerily desolate.  And she was half-desperate, half-crazy enough to believe that if she stayed here a miracle could happen.  If she left, disappointment was certain.

Wind ruffled an uncombed lock of hair on her forehead.  She recalled brushing fine strands of a lush and shining mane, feeling quietly content.  It had been a long time ago, but she could slip inside that younger version of herself and see out of her eyes the unblemished features in a dressing-table mirror.  It was a grim contrast to this weathered sun-blotched complexion, the lines streaked by worry and time, engraved like rivers of tears from the deepest of sorrows.  Round and chiselled in the wrong places.  A stranger's countenance; a mask of regret.

She had been a vibrant individual.  Now she was like a damaged toy.  Hollow, useless, discarded and alone, having lost her purpose, her function:  to make a child happy.  It was what she needed to do, fulfill that promise, perform that duty, yet it was too late.  It couldn't be fixed.  Her heart was broken and could not be repaired.  She didn't know how others could go on, why they bothered.  She must possess a flaw, a manufacturer's defect.

Adele hugged herself and rocked, cold, so cold.  It eluded her that the world was warming.  In her secluded atmosphere, the climate was an ice age, somber as a windswept frost-coated plain where the sun never shone and the clouds wept splintered shards of glass.

 

 

That was close!  I should have been more careful.  Shut my eyes a minute and they're on me like ants swarming a dead beetle.  I can't rest.  Can't let down my guard.  I can't even blink unless it's safe.  Unless I'm in a secure location they would have to break into, which would provide some warning.

I can't be sure what's powering them, but they look like you-know-what warmed over.  And I don't think it's the heat.  They should be deceased, not walking around.  They act like they would eat anything that moves.  Anything.  Unlike me, I don't think there's a scrap of life or humanity in them.  I'm hanging on to mine with a deathgrip.

This plague of Fruit Flies, or whatever you could call it, seemed to originate with me.  Or next to me.  I just happened to be standing on the X, the wrong spot at the right time.  I don't know why.  It doesn't seem fair to have so many misfortunes in one lifetime.  What did I ever do to deserve being abandoned by my family and kidnapped, to watch my own family die of poisoning, and then to be the first one doomed, the first carrier of an epidemic?

I have to keep going.  Can't get sucked into despair.  Can't let it win.  I won't allow it to defeat my spirit and get the best of me.  I've been lost before, but never totally, and I won't be vanquished now by fears or flies or walking stiffs.

An open door . . . does it lock?  There.  That should hold for a while.  Nice.  Very nice.

I need to avoid everyone, living or dead.  I have to assume a scratch could transmit the illness.  I've seen that it's contagious through the swarm or contact with its consequences, me and them.  I'm just not sure if a scratch or bite alone would be lethal, or merely morph someone to my state.  Maybe you need to actually die to be like them.  I'm trying to decipher the rules, if this thing has any.  It's insane.  It just suddenly began, as if Nature had a spasm.  Like a bull quivering to throw a fly off his back.  I'm not planning to stick around and find the answers.  If someone's infected, I'll leave them to fend for themselves.  Call me a coward.  I prefer the word loner.

I've always done this, talked to an imaginary audience on my very own private stage.  More accurately, in the circus ring of my brain.  As if I'm important, the main attraction.  As if my life amounts to something.  That's a good one.  I'm about as worthless as they come.  I couldn't even protect my wife and child.  Other than them, I don't think I've made a difference to anyone, made the tiniest ripple with my presence on this planet.  I just kind of watched from the sidelines and let things happen to me.

Is it any wonder?  My mother, whoever she was, ditched me.  She let me get lost or stolen and never came to find me.  That smiling portrait of her in my head was probably fanciful thinking.  I have this notion of her burying me like a turtle egg in sand.  It would explain why I developed a shell for protection as a child.  When Ma and Uncle were boozing, when the house reeked of bourbon and gin, I pretended I was a turtle with a strong shell in which to hide.  Psychological child's play, perhaps.

Did I mention I was so average before today, I was invisible?  At least my mother seemed to think so.  I wonder if it's her I've been addressing my whole life.  Hey, Mom, thanks a lot!  Great job of being there!

When I say average, I don't exaggerate.  Fair to middling, no more, no less.  I have set no example for others; I didn't rate above average at anything.  If they get me, it won't be a great loss.  Yet there is something within me that won't be conquered.  Maybe it's what kept me going thirty-odd years.

I hear them, rattling the door, thumping the exterior wall, scrabbling to get in.

I am trying, I am really trying to make sense of everything.  Nobody will believe this until it's too late.  The heat has made us all mad, including the insect population.  Or is this to settle the score after we killed off the bees and butterflies, disrupting the Food Chain?  Seemingly minor, that colossal error steadily caused things to unravel.  It may start with a single loose thread.  You tug it and the world comes undone.

My arms itch.  Oh jeez!  I'm rubbing them together like a fly!  Am I turning into one???

Absurd.  It was nothing.  I guess I'm entitled to some awkward behavior considering the circumstances.

Corporations created this mess.  They had the money, so of course they had control.  They continued to tinker, engineering stronger species, like they manipulated crops.  Only it didn't stop at bees or butterflies, it spread.  And what resulted was about what you'd expect when tampering with the natural order.  One mistake led to another and another and another, until my family died and with them my heart.

Bitterness and self-pity are all I've got.  I'm basically waiting to die too.  And I don't mean from old age.  What chance do I have?  They're going to keep paying it forward, and there will only be more of them, folks turning, devolving into grotesque shambling nightmares.

It's the screams that make me cringe.

And fear.  The fear of dying but not dying.

Being a zombie, if that's what in fact I am, has its advantages.  I won't have to worry about rules.  Or if my hair is thinning.  I can wear the same clothes for a year.

I can't believe I once cared which side scored more goals or baskets, more touchdowns or runs.  I can't believe I wasted so many hours of my life drinking beer and feeling sorry for myself.

I'm so hungry.  I can't stay here.  I'm shaking again.

The street looks clear.  I need to keep going.  Dawdle too long and I'll find myself surrounded.  The one thing I seem to be good at is surviving.  I'm still kicking.  But what for?  Another opportunity to die?  Maybe that's all we really live for, the chance to cling to life.

I need to find somewhere to hole up, before those things are everywhere.  I'm jumpy from stress.  How I yearn to curl up in a warm bed and slumber without tension.  What I wouldn't give to simply relax.  Amazing how life can change just like that.  There were signs but we ignored them.  Like symptoms of Cancer.  It doesn't go away when you tell yourself it isn't real.

What's that?  Footsteps.  Run!!!

My legs are so heavy and slow.  Am I dreaming?  I wish I were.  I could slap myself a thousand times and behold the same madness.  There is no going back.

Faster . . .  One was hiding in a doorway.  Striving to enter a building.  He grabbed me to sink his teeth into my face.  I panicked and punched him.  There are more now.  It won't take long.  Several months, a year, and whatever isolated individuals are left will take their own lives at the sheer fruitlessness of going on, the futility of barren hopes.

The wretch is stumbling after me, way too energetic for a corpse!  How it manages to hunt and feed while decaying by the minute is a mystery.  They go through the motions of living, yet most are dead.  And I am merely delaying the inevitable.

Ahhhh!

Oh no.  No!  Stay away, you stinking rotter!  What dismal luck.  My ankle twisted stepping off a curb, and the ripe stiff (who probably already stank before dying) is only a few steps from munching my remains.

I have to limp as best I can, laboring to pour on steam, but the thing back there is advancing.  I may as easily succumb to a solitary biter as an entire horde.  The slightest weakness could be fatal.  A single mishap and I'm done for.  It's survival of the fittest and I'm falling apart!  I'm in shreds, the walking leftovers of a flesh-eating virus!  Was that a whimper?  If I start blubbering, it's all over.

The worst part is losing hope.  I just can't picture a future.  I'm hanging on and I don't know why or how.  The world is barbaric and crude.  There is nothing of value, only chaos.  It was that way before this calamity ever began.

Ha, that was rich!  The echo of footbeats sent a shudder up my spine until I perceived they were mine.

A snort, perilously near.  That wasn't me.  Uhhhh!  Great, peering behind I stubbed a toe and tripped.  This is it, this is all it takes!

Stay calm.  Take a breath.  Ahhhhh!!!

The thing clumsily pounced.  I rolled to meet it.  These things are sure tough for being dead.  Yuck, strings of slobber and mucous are dripping to my eyes.  I'm struggling for my life and a distant memory surfaces:  wrestling in Gym Class, the coach yelling that I was as useless as a fish on dry land.  Yeah, I would never be an Olympic athlete I knew, so why bother?  Wish now I had trained for this.  Again though, why bother?  My ma and uncle used to tell me, ‟If humans were meant to be heroes, they'd be born with capes.  Don't be a hero, just stay out of trouble."

They were right.  It seems ironic to me as I'm tussling with a dead guy.  The lengthy hours spent studying . . . then slogging away in a career that no longer exists or bears significance.  Rendered moot — not by the collapse of a civilization that neglected to learn from History — by a simple shift in culture.  My livelihood was replaced, after years of producing windshield wipers, by glass that doesn't need to be wiped.  Rainproof Glass, resistant to water.  For every step forward, it seems, someone or something gets trampled underneath.

Add unemployment to my list of achievements.

I'm brilliantly trying to choke the cadaver and he claws my cheek.  It isn't like I was uninfected, but I'm far from thrilled.  I'm alive and he isn't.  What's the difference?  My brain grapples with the question, mentally mimicking my physical plight, and an epiphany strikes with a bell's ding, signalling the round's end.  Zombies don't pay attention to bells, so we keep brawling until I heft a chunk of brick and dent his skull.  It's a trick I picked up from watching the dead lurch and lunch on the screen.

Humor, my trusty Defense Mechanism.

In the excitement I almost forgot I had an epiphany.  That's how dim-witted I've become.  What was it?  Squinting, I can glimpse the tail of a frail wisp, a transparent inkling . . .  Oh yeah, I was nibbled by Fruit Flies, whereas my fellow infected were chomped by humans.  The Fruit Flies didn't kill me.  Technically I'm not a zombie, I just look like one.  It's a good disguise, but it hasn't fooled them.

This scourge is one of many.  We tipped the balance, and we are the victims of our own undoing.  Most of the survivors of this plague will doubtless suffer from any number of maladies.  Contagions have been springing up daily.  Skin lesions and breathing disorders.  New cancers.  None of us can endure unscathed.  None of us are intact.  And we did it to ourselves.  Cheerful, isn't it?

Pushing aside the contused cadaver, I'm barely able to stand.  Ohhh.  Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh . . .  Ohhhhh.

That was fun.  Dizzied, my legs flaccid, I tumbled down a flight of concrete steps.  More pursuers bumble past above.  I'm curled in a ball, the fresh gashes on my elbows and knees scarcely noticeable amidst the numerous festering fly wounds.  I'm sure that I'm a sorry sight, blending in with The Deadbeats, these rank remnants of humanity prowling the streets without a pulse.

Tears are flowing.  What can I say?  I'm human.

I can't subdue the tide.  Unashamed, I'm overcome by wrenching sobs.

 

 

She cried abjectly, alone in the park, arms embracing herself, a poor substitute for the child she had yearned decades to hold.  She couldn't bear the pain, couldn't go on this way.  Her life was a bleak expanse of sorrow.  To have known him so briefly, his expressions, the small trusting hand in hers, and to have lowered her guard — to have failed him for even a second . . .  It was too long.  That was the time it took to lose him.

She couldn't allow herself to live without her baby one more day.  One more hour.  It was too long.  Too long.  Too long.  The words chanted in her mind, taunting, inviting, accusing.  She clamped hands to ears but couldn't shut them out.

Digging in the folds of shabby garments, she reverently smoothed the stained and creased photograph of a smiling family.  Father, mother and son.  But that was a long time ago.  Too long.  It was too long to believe he would be back.  She wasn't crazy.  Quite the opposite.  Insanity would have been a blessing, a reprieve from guilt and regret.  She had to accept that she would never see him, touch him, again.

She had encountered the palm-reader in recent years.  The woman was like her, a homeless denizen of the street.  Jolene occupied a corner and spewed dire end-of-the-world messages.  Adele had squeezed her arm to demand, ‟How did you know?"

The psychic's eyes cleared for an instant.  Recognition flared.  ‟I gazed inside your soul, down to your pith!" she rancidly spat.  ‟Where the devil dwelled!"

Adele had rushed from the corner, bile scalding her throat.

‟You can't outrun them!" bade the harpy.

Did she mean the cult?  Adele fretted for weeks, paranoid of every face, every person she met on sidewalks, crossing intersections.  It was in the past, she eventually realized.  She was safe.  As safe as a woman could be without a roof overhead.

Adele withdrew a rusty chipped knife discovered in an alley behind a dumpster.  Its blade held the brownish bloodstains of battle.  She traced the steel edge with a fingertip.  The dagger would serve as a fitting instrument to end her world, her private Hell . . . this tragic bereft existence into which she had been deposited by her own tainted birth in a devil-worshipping cult.  It was there she met her husband, Zeke.  They had escaped together when they learned she was pregnant.  After the Midnight ritual where she was drugged and laid out on an altar as one of Satan's brides.  Desperately praying the baby was Zeke's, Adele had refused to believe anything else, rejecting the fortuneteller's words.  In her heart she knew the truth.

Maybe the black sedan that picked them up along a highway had been a little convenient.  Maybe the house, car and cash inherited from a relative she had never heard of seemed a bit serendipitous.  Then the luck soured.  Their boy vanished.  Zeke died.  She lost the house to a corporation over property taxes.  The psychic had been an omen.

Lifting the knife, blade down, she braced herself and murmured an appeal for mercy.  Soon her torment would have to end.

 

 

Reduced to the most primitive of needs, Ziggy utilized supreme effort to scale the stairway.  His stomach craved sustenance.  Yet food would not replenish his will or hope.  It could only fuel and satisfy the body.  Perhaps lend false comfort.  Without hope, there was no nourishment for his emotions.  Depression must overpower the instinct to survive.

He scratched at his sores.  The man's skin crawled from within.  He wanted to bay in agitated frustration.  He was a wreck.

At street level, listening for danger, he detected a scuff.  Then a rustle.  Moist eyes scoured the vicinity, seeking to identify the furtive sounds.  His proximity was a hot zone; he had to stay alert.  Posture rigid, he pondered whether to duck back down the stairwell or attempt to flee.  Before he could decide, a figure hove into view with a mane of tangles and disheveled layers of clothing.  Their eyes locked.  The prophet halted.  Her jaw went slack.  An arm elevated like a shotgun to point at him.  ‟You!" she hissed.

The condemnation sliced through internal organs.  He buckled as if stabbed, hands to his belly.  Remorse tied innards in knots for not sparing his wife and child.  For callously not caring about the world, letting all of this happen.  Everything.  He felt that somehow he was the cause.  It didn't make sense, couldn't be true.  Yet he felt that he was a vessel of death and destruction.  He shouldered the cumbrous weight of responsibility for the world's demise.

Absolute silence shifted to noise, a flurry of commotion.  Fruit Flies revolved around him, blanketing the air.  Their hum vibrated like mini-bombers as they clogged ears, filmed eyes and skin, streamed in and out of his nose and mouth.

Above the buzzing of insects, a grunting and gnarring of beasts echoed.  He knew they would find him.  Blindly the fly lord confronted ranks of zombies, numbed by the circulation of his puny minions.  Mute, he couldn't address the monstrous horde.  Instead he gesticulated broadly, arms wide as if in welcome.  He surrendered to their justice.

A shroud of flies funneled toward the sky and churned there like thunderclouds to witness Armageddon.

The prophet was first to reach him, growling with the ferocity of an insatiable appetite.  Self-preservation unleashed a violence that Ziggy had believed himself incapable of, and he slashed her visage with fingers curved to talons.  He threw her to the pavement by the hair and rendered the harridan null as if she were a roach.  Whatever abominable darkness lurked in his depth, it was a surprise to him.  This ruthless yen to stay alive at all costs seemed foreign.  He had regarded himself as neither good nor bad, a man without distinction.  But here he was combatting a legion of goons bent upon rending him to pieces.  Was saving yourself heroic?  What if he inadvertently saved the world too?

He stood erect, huffing, and faced the ghouls.  Save the world?  Not a chance.  He retreated.

 

 

Adele chided herself for hesitating.  Coward!  She commanded herself to plunge the blade and quit behaving like a wimp.  ‟Do it!" the woman lamented.  She had no reason to live.  Her arms tensed.  This was it.  Mind focused, breath composed, channeling a state of peace, she drove the knife downward.

A grating unintelligible shout interrupted her arc of triumph against the twisted threads of Fate.

The woman winced, blade suspended, and glanced aside in aggravation.  A large man sprinted across the park to the playground.  He collapsed in the sand at her feet.  A pathetic croak issued from a dry throat pitted by innumerable bites.

Adele sighed and lowered the knife.  It would have to wait.  ‟Hey."  She nudged the guy with the toe of a worn shoe.  ‟Are you okay?"  Of course he wasn't okay!  He had been lacerated from top to bottom.  He looked like a dog's chew-toy!  The injured man lay moaning and panting.  ‟You need some help?"  She didn't know what she could do, but it was polite to offer in these situations.

Ziggy's hands groped sediment.  The woman was alive.  They would follow him directly to her.  What had he done?  He tried to push himself up.  One fist clasped something other than sand.  The man blinked at an object, a faded toy.  He experienced a pang of nostalgia.  An obscure recollection.  It meant something.  The sentiment evaporated.

Her knife fell.  ‟That's mine!"  The homeless lady tussled over the plastic wind-up turtle.

Ziggy couldn't let go.  He didn't know why, but he just couldn't release the turtle.  It stirred something profound.

Weeping, Adele pleaded with the man to give back her son's favorite toy.  She would bring it to this park where she had brought him, arranging the turtle on the sand where he liked to bury it.  The toy made her feel close to him.  It was a connection, like this square of symbolic land that she visited religiously . . . a pilgrim traveling to a holy shrine.  A public place, it belonged to everyone yet was special to her.

And to him.

Ziggy had come here guided by a little boy seeking consolation, running to his mommy.  The shattered man squinted at this crying lady.  A smiling young woman's ghostly image superimposed upon her haggard countenance.  A wave of pent-up hostility frothed to the surface.  He bellowed ‟Mime!" — garbled without a tongue — and reclaimed his most prized possession.  Knocking the lady aside, he climbed to his feet in a victorious stance, the toy aloft.

Adele sat up gasping.  She clapped jittery hands to her mouth.  It couldn't be, it couldn't be!  Strangled hysterical laughter spouted as she rose grinning with glee.  Arms apart, she stepped to wrap her child in a hug.  ‟No, I can't believe it!  You're my son!  My dear sweet boy!"

Ziggy whirled, eyes enraged.  She had lost him!  Allowed him to be taken, abducted by strangers!  She had no right to call him her son!  His jaw flapped.  Beads of heartache glittered in his cold eyes.  He couldn't explain the hurt he had borne inside for most of his days.  His exterior wounds were nothing by comparison.  He warded her off, features conflicted.

‟I love you.  I always have," she whispered.

Ziggy shook his head.

‟I'm sorry."  Fingers to her neck, eyes limpid pools of anguish, Adele stared into the face of the boy she had wanted more than anything to find.  He was tall now, like his father.  He had the shape of his mother's chin, her cheekbones and hair.  And his father's sheepishly handsome smile; Zeke's blue-gray eyes.  ‟We both loved you so much," she told their son.  ‟You were ours and no-one else's."

Tears poured from Ziggy's eyes.  His obstinate betrayed expression washed away and he resembled that little boy.  It was the happiest day of his life.

Adele cried out with joy and submerged him in her arms.  The man's height made no difference.  He was still her child.

Ziggy's arms engulfed her, tentative, then forgiving.  They hung on to each other as if they would never let go.  What really connects us?  Blood?  Or something deeper?  Something less tangible?  Ziggy's muddled brain flowed like a river in search of a new path.  Maybe it was who we touched in this life that counted, who we interacted with and made the world better for in grand or modest ways.  Even if we ultimately failed them.

As a gathering army of mutants ringed the park, a cursed man vowed to defend a treasured lady with his final breath.  The zombies barged forth in a frenzy and Ziggy valiantly countered them, kicking, circling, lashing in vain.  There were too many.  And then the flies descended.  Their hum amplified.  The itching beneath his skin magnified in response.  His flesh swelled, and movements became sluggish.  He was sweating tubs.

It occurred to him at the last that he was an incubator.  The Fruit Flies planted eggs; their growth cycle must have accelerated.  Maggots hatched and were consuming him, compelling him to attack others, to cannibalize and infect them.

When they reached his brain, Ziggy lost his mind.  And his temper.

In horror, between billows of flies, Adele ogled her son bloating to impossible dimensions.  His skin bubbled.  Then he screamed, on and on.  The creatures around him tumbled back as the man erupted in an unrestrained spate of head-bashing limb-breaking mania.

Her stomach and teeth clenched.  The woman harbored no further hope.  They were surrounded by a gruesome melee of fiends, and there was nothing she could do to protect her son.  The time to do so was past.  He strove to protect her now but it was futile.  She swallowed.  A rueful smile shaped her lips.  At least they were together.  At least they had that much.

Ziggy's flesh ruptured, sundering to jigsaw bits, and more flies emerged.  Adele was jolted to the grass by a crowd of zombies pawing her.

‟NOOOOOOOOO!!!"  Her fingers coiled.  She had located the knife.  She had survived a cult of wicked freaks, endured losing her husband and only child, then found her child just long enough to lose him again!  She might not win, make that would not win, but she was not going to die like some flimsy skittish female in the movies!  Roaring, she stood up green eyes ablaze, nostrils flared, and commenced killing the dead.  Who probably didn't feel anything, but it made her feel pretty darn good as zombies toppled with holes in their heads.

A knife was no match for the flies.  The insects invaded cavities, clogged her nose, teemed to her lungs.  Their clamor stifled dreadful cries.  As the zombies joined in, she mercifully suffocated while myriad tiny and big mouths devoured her flesh.

 

 

It's hot.  You're bathed in perspiration although it's early.  Wearing goggles and a gas-mask, you venture outside into polluted air that is now black with flies.  The world is deteriorating before your eyes, everywhere dark and humming, a drape of madness and mayhem like the final curtain on a play with a cast of fools.  Where did they come from, this latest plague?  It's lucky you're so paranoid, cloaked in a thin white hood, long sleeves, boots and slacks.  An insect pinches your hand and you ball your fists, shoving them into pockets, but your ears are vulnerable within the hood.  You didn't even know a Fruit Fly could bite!  Your ears are on fire from pain.  Perhaps they're another insect, some new species.  You've never seen anything like them.  You pull the hood tighter.  A hand is exposed to their nicks, the rapacious nips.  Is that blood?  Upset, you cram the fist in its pocket, having skipped gloves due to the high temperature.

Hastening along a sidewalk, you notice a group of people approaching.  It's apparent there is an oddness about them.  Weaving, oafish, milling together yet not conversing.  Maybe they're just weird.  On second thought, you doubt it.  They're weird but that isn't it.  That isn't what makes you step from the curb and cross the street.

They might think the same about you for donning a gas-mask, but the style is catching on since the Global Government began blatantly poisoning the public.  Fashion, however, is the last thing on your mind at the moment.

They're looking right at you.  Groaning in a peculiar manner.  Like they aren't human.  Kind of bizarre.  And they're crossing the street, diagonally, making a beeline toward you.  Creepy!  You speed up to maintain a cautious distance, glancing at them repeatedly.  On closer inspection, they are extremely foul and mangy.  You would definitely not care to meet them.

Well, it's inevitable at this pace.  Time to run.

Briskly you scurry, aiming for a populated area.  Unfortunately, the streets are vacant.  Besides the bugs.  Your goggles are getting steamed; you wipe them on your clothing, hands tucked into sleeves.  The insects are so thick, you're crashing into them rather than the opposite.  You adjust the fogged and smeared lenses with your cuffs and scrub at the flies spattered on the glass.

Peering over, you note that the too-friendly or malicious creeps are still angling to intercept you.  They've shortened the gap.  You can discern their aspects are grossly mauled, and the skin that isn't missing has a pallid unnatural hue.  A tremor of fear passes through your soul.  Unsympathetic, cordial or not, you want nothing more than to get as far away from them as possible.

Where is everyone?  Between the gory characters and bugs, the empty streets, a heavy atmosphere of anticipation, you feel like you've stepped into another universe.  Or woken up the last person on Earth.

You can't be dreaming, your ears sting.  Your fists too.  Exploring the rim of an ear, you discover it bloody.  The back of your hand contains gouges!  Removing your all-purpose E.T. (Every Thing), you weigh the pros and cons of activating the gadget and being tracked, monitored, to check the news — which is owned by the corporations and will tell you as much or as little as they deem necessary.

You're being monitored by cameras anyway, and sensors, in practically everything.  You need to learn if there's an emergency, dictates logic.  Pressing ON with a beep, fanning the buggy air, swirls of soupy mist undulating, you link to the rest of the world.  Article headlines and videos leap off the screen, cryptic apocalyptic messages about zombies and mutant flies.  Uh-huh, sure.  This has to be a joke, some kind of prank or hoax.  Zombies!

Reading an article, your optimism sinks.  You feel like you're the only one who didn't know the world has ended . . .

It's true.  Your gait lags.  You remember the unsavories and pick up your stride.  A solemn Asian anchorwoman intones, hair mussed, her complexion damp:  ‟The Fruit Flies mutated to carnivores by retaining teeth from their larval phase.  They appear to be immune to the pesticides and will lay their eggs in the living or rotting flesh of humans.  The zombies may have been a result of this fly infestation — or a separate parallel affliction.  These are the facts at present.  We will update you as details and events —"  The video cut off.  That was hours ago.

What isn't being discussed in the news is what initiated the mutations, the underlying causes of these threats.  Culpability lies with the corporate structure of society.  Everyone who isn't Somebody grumbles this below their breath, but none of the masses are empowered to do anything about it.  There was a time when speaking out mattered, when people everywhere could raise their voices together and inspire change.  Now it was dangerous to disagree.  Dangerous to complain, criticize, think differently.  Those freedoms had led to war, it was taught.  Now people are content.  There is peace.  If they don't like the way things are, they will be sent to Transition Camps.  Basically, forced labor.

Perhaps a collapse of civilization wouldn't be so bad.

Your reverie has allowed the gimps to gain ground.  You're grateful for the gas-mask.  They must reek.  Darting into a park, you are anxious to get rid of them.  Should you go home?  They might follow.  The park seems tranquil, deceptively ordinary.  A woman is seated on a low wall by a play area.  You lope toward her.  Maybe she's like you were, oblivious, out of touch.

Something isn't right.  The flies appear to be orbiting her.  You bustle to the center of the insect maelstrom and grasp her shoulder, then uneasily eye the matted hair and dirty garb.  A face swings in your direction.  She has lines, too many lines, but she seems okay.  The face turns farther.  Half of it is hideously ravaged.  Her belly protrudes beneath a stretched top, a pregnant quaking mound.  You scream as her abdomen detonates in a torrent of flies.  A visage ripe with welts and tumors showers you.  Blood and bugs.  The insects penetrate your clothing.  Zombies, attracted like sharks, stagger to the feast.

What did you expect, a happy ending?

Your E.T. tumbles out of your hand.  On the screen plays a video filmed from a corporate office.  A man in a black hood announces that Peace Corpse wants you to know what harmful substances people are breathing and ingesting.  The contents of the ‟safe" pesticides are published.  A list of toxic chemicals and sickness-causing contaminants liberally scrolls.

The video goes dark.  A fly lands on the screen and merrily cleans its teeth.

 

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