This story is by Gina Screen and was a runner-up our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Gina Screen lives with her husband, son, and two dogs in Maryland. She is a former television news producer and a PR agency executive. Gina is a two-time Emmy and two-time NAACP Image Award nominee. She’s trying fiction in between being the head of communications for a large federal agency.
They played the very last game of the very last World Series in Los Angeles. It was August and below freezing at Dodger Stadium.
As he watched the game on the old television, Melvin Thompson cried a little when one of the players went down on a patch of ice. “Hudson tries to steal second, he slides . . .” — then a pause, it became clear it was not a slide — “he’s not gonna make it, he’s out.” The pitcher went down for good, after going into convulsions in the seventh inning.
One last grasp of happier times, Thompson thought, before sunlight, baseball and hot dogs slipped away for good; before pandemics, a looming ice age and little men in big cars, kidnapping ordinary Americans under the cover of darkness and official badges, took everything away.
It was snowing again. He considered his relative good fortune; guard duty at an outpost just outside the remains of Las Vegas, with no pesky supervisors. Years ago, it was a Holiday Inn; now, it was just a better-than-average shelter for a lonely soldier.
It was snowing in Los Angeles, too.
Thompson sighed, pushed his bulk out of the chair and went to stare moodily out the plate glass window at the old Boulder Highway.
Something fluttered past the window.
He reached frantically under the laminated counter for his rifle. A patrol wasn’t scheduled today.
He pulled on his parka and stumbled outside.
There, everything was swirling white; snow as fine as sand whipping into his face by the fierce wind.
“Trash,” he said, trying to convince himself.
He lost consciousness when something hit him in the back of the head.
He came to sitting on the floor of the lounge, propped up against the bar. The pain in the back of his head announced itself the moment he moved. His wrists were cuffed. He heard movement; then he saw small feet wearing heavy boots. It was a woman, with a lean, tired face, and intense brown eyes holding a gun.
“Where’s your food?” Her voice was gravelly, like she hadn’t spoken in a while.
Thompson croaked out, “Behind the bar.”
She walked out of his line of vision; he heard the door of the refrigerator opening. After a few minutes, he smelled a burnt, hot odor, letting him know she had found his hot plate and his dinner.
The woman reappeared, holding something. His fear immediately resurfaced; his energy pack.
“What’s this?” He tried to think of a lie, and couldn’t. After a minute, she shook her head, said, “Never mind. I know what it is. If you had enough clout to get one of these, what the hell are you doing all the way out here?”
A burst of static came from his radio.
Instantly, she was leaning over him, unlocking the cuffs.
“You’re going to reply all clear. If you don’t, I’ll kill you.” She held the gun, standing back while he scrambled to his feet, the welt on the back of his head throbbing. The room tilted briefly until he got his bearings.
“Thompson, come in, over.”
He hurried over to the radio, the woman right behind him. He cleared his throat. “Thompson here. over.”
The radio squawked again., “Murdock here. All clear? Over.”
“All clear. Sir. Over.”
“A patrol will be there about oh-six-hundred tomorrow. Over.”
“Yes, sir. Over.”
He heard the woman shift behind him. “Yes sir. Over.”
“Murdock over and out.” The static died into a thin hiss.
After a moment he turned around. The woman nodded at him slightly. “Hands.” She put the cuffs back on him. “The storeroom?”
He walked her down the long, cold hall to the former manager’s office. She walked lightly; even wearing the heavy boots, her footsteps were nearly inaudible next to his heavy tread. He wanted to look at her, but he hadn’t heard her holster her weapon.
The office was filled with weapons and ammunition. She moved to gently stroke the grip of a nice semi-automatic.
“Don’t,” he pleaded. “They’ll miss that one.”
She turned and gave him a hard look. “And what, they dock your pay?”
He sighed. “They’ll know you were here.”
“I’m supposed to believe that you weren’t going to tell them?”
“I wasn’t,” he replied, honestly.
She gave him a long, hard look and he fought the urge to shuffle his feet like a teenager under her scrutiny.
He opened his mouth but nothing came out. He closed it, licked his lips. Thompson thought of his father, a loyal government scientist until the end. When an especially virulent strain of pneumonia swept through the CDC, he died, along with the scientists who had been the world’s best hope against the latest deadly pandemic.
What came out was, “They played the very last baseball game today.”
She didn’t re-holster her gun, but she did let her gaze wander around the room, taking in the old pinups and memos never filed. She put the ammo in her pack, but left the semi-automatic behind.
When she said, “Travel rations?”, it sounded like a request instead of an order.
He led her to the food locker. She wrinkled her nose at the MRE’s, but took a stack, plus some cans that made her pack bulge. Now he studied her openly — she was too thin, but pretty in a way that made him think of diamonds.
“Thanks; now the list.”
He blurted, “You’re with the insurgents?”
“I’m not with anybody.” She paused, and then added, “The list.”
The list was a manifest of test subjects moved from location to location. They were the scarcest commodity left — citizens who didn’t have the protection of wealth or government friends, but who were available for medical testing.
The government had turned to “volunteers” for testing after running through illegal immigrants. They were used to help find the antidotes for a variety of epidemics, viruses, and biological weapons. It’d become quite the industry, turning brother against brother for a few dollars or the protection of a well-placed government official. But, there were people willing to risk their lives to stop the testing; he just wasn’t one of them; and the guilt of his cowardice weighed heavily on his soul every single day.
Thompson unlocked the door, reaching for the manifest as he hit the light switch. He watched his guest page through the pictures.
The color drained from her face as she stared down at a photograph. When she raised her eyes to his, they were watery.
“Have you seen him?” she whispered hoarsely.
He looked down to where one small, ragged fingernail was pressing into the page; a thin-faced boy, with her dark eyes. He started to say no until he realized he recognized the boy.
Most days he bought into the party line that it was okay use children because it was for the greater good and wreak havoc on the rest of the world in the name of national security.
Without thinking about the consequences, he said, “Yes. He was here a couple of weeks ago with a patrol.”
The woman’s face was alive with excitement.
This time he did hesitate. An executable offense, a voice inside his head said quietly: revealing the location of a listed subject to any unauthorized personnel.
“North,” he told her in a rush of words, “to Overton. But that’s a major installation.” He looked doubtfully at her.
“Thank you,” she said, brown brown eyes glistening.
He wanted to ask about the boy, but instead he said, “Do you know how to find the insurgents?”
She smiled; the first real smile he had seen on her face. “I’m told that you don’t. They find you.”
He nodded, feeling stupid.
She holstered her weapon and reached one small hand toward him. He stared down at it before realizing that she was offering to shake hands with him. “Diane Matthews.”
Reaching out, he shook it. “Melvin Thompson.” She looked down at the photograph in her hand and closed her eyes, inhaling as if trying to remember some almost forgotten scent.
With a heavy sigh, she looked out at the swirling snow. The light was fading fast. “I need to go.”
“Not yet,” he said, not wanting her to leave. “You’ve got time.”
She looked at the photo again. “No, I don’t.”
Once her parka and pack were on, she looked less fragile, more like a soldier. She looked back at him and smiled. He returned the smile. “Goodbye, Thompson.”
And then she was gone, a black figure disappearing into a cloud of swirling white, cutting through the storm like a blade, heading north.
On a barely understood impulse, Thompson quickly pulled open the door, shouting, “Matthews, wait for me.” He saw her pause.
With one last lingering look at the old Holiday Inn, Thompson hastily grabbed his emergency pack and hurried out the door; rushing to catch up with Matthews, looking up, into the unforgiving sky outside, and felt light, lighter, lightest.