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Copyright 2013 by Bryan Cassiday
All rights reserved. This excerpt is from the novel Poxland by Bryan Cassiday.
Halverson felt like he was covered with hot leeches that were sucking the blood out of his flesh. To make matters worse, he felt like ticks were crawling under his skin across the entire length of his body. He scratched his left forearm trying to soothe the itching that was burning his skin. It did no good.
The ticks were embedded under his skin as they crawled all over his body. His scratching accomplished nothing, save to exacerbate the itching and smarting of his skin.
His eyes snapped open.
He realized he was lying naked on his back in the dingy bomb shelter. He surveyed his body. There were no leeches on it, and he could discern no traces of ticks burrowing underneath his skin, no ridges formed in his flesh by their burrowing. Nevertheless, his flesh was burning up.
The result of the nuclear blast. The scorching blast wind had striated his body as he had run for cover to the bomb shelter underneath the desert.
A single dim incandescent light bulb hung above him in a wire cage on the ceiling, as he lay in a daze on a bunk.
The explosion of the atomic blast and its accompanying overpressure had all but burst his eardrums.
His skin continued to itch like crazy. He had to get the radioactive dust off it. He needed to take another shower. But how many showers did he have to take and how often? He knew he had taken many since the atomic blast had flattened Las Vegas, a few miles away from where he now lay doggo underground.
He could not take that many more showers, though, he knew. There wasn’t an inexhaustible supply of fresh water in the shelter. What water remained needed to be conserved for drinking.
Iodine, he thought. He needed more iodine tablets to treat his radiation-contaminated body. Where was Victoria? he wondered. She and he were the lone survivors of the atomic bomb explosion, as far as he knew. He did not see her now.
He felt his forehead with the back of his hand. As he had thought, he was burning up with fever. Maybe he was delirious as well.
His mind raced, seeking answers.
Maybe the atomic blast had never really happened. Maybe the blast was a chimera of his overheated imagination brought on by the fever. Somehow he doubted it. In fact, it was all coming back to him.
The president had dropped nuclear bombs all across the country and all over the world in a last-ditch, desperate attempt to rid the nation of the plague-infected flesh eaters that were running amok around the world, wreaking havoc and spreading the pestilence wherever they roamed.
If only this was a nightmare! decided Halverson. Then he could wake up from it. The fact was, it was worse than a nightmare, because it was really happening. He would never wake up from it.
Above his face he saw a black spider rappelling down on a strand of silk from the ceiling. Then he wasn’t the only survivor, decided Halverson. This spider, too, had survived nuclear annihilation.
He did not like spiders. He did not like this ugly thing jerking its eight legs around like knitting needles darning an article of clothing as it descended ineluctably toward his face on its thread of silk that glittered like dew in the dim artificial light of the incandescent bulb.
His initial reflex was to kill the creature. He wanted to swat it off its silk strand and then stomp it on the cement floor.
But if he killed the spider, he would be alone in the blast shelter—unless Victoria was in another part of the structure. He had no desire to be the last man on earth, or even the last living creature on earth, for that matter.
Overcoming his reflexive urge to smash the spider, he decided to do nothing and let it continue its descent from the ceiling, to let the ugly arachnid live and keep him company in the cramped bomb shelter. To have any kind of life with the creature present was better than being left alone, he decided, even if it was a detestable spider.
He rolled out of the way of the spider as it descended onto the bunk.
Hopefully, the thing would not bite him later as a way of thanking him for his moment of kindheartedness, or, was it more accurately a moment of weakness on his part for sparing the spider? Was it weak to desire a companion in his solitude?
The creature crabbed away from Halverson across the bunk’s sheet. Just watching the way the spider scuttled off creeped him out. The last thing he wanted was a hunchbacked spider crawling across his smarting flesh. The suffocating sensation of leeches and ticks swarming on and inside his body was enough for him to deal with at the moment. Too much for him to deal with, in fact.
He sprang off the bunk to his feet.
He must find Victoria. Was she in any better shape than he was? he wondered.
A hunger pang attacked him. If worse came to worst, maybe he could eat the spider. Or maybe it would be best to let it reproduce, so it would bear more spiders and then he could consume them. Christ! What a sickening thought! He wanted to wretch.
His logy mind was straying off in directions he preferred not to travel in.
He massaged his forehead. He needed to pull himself together. To face his predicament like a man. The last man on earth, maybe. His mind kept revolving back to that nagging whim, he realized, like water circling a drain before disappearing down the sink. The last man on earth.
Was it really that bad? he wondered.
The president of the United States had ordered the nuclear bombing of the entire country in order to wipe out the plague-infected flesh eaters that were taking over the world. Yeah, it was that bad, Halverson decided.
Unbidden disturbing memories flashed back into his mind. He remembered confronting his brother Dan on the end of the Santa Monica Pier. Dan, who had contracted the so-called zombie virus and become one of the walking dead . . .
Mannering the cop wielding a smoking jackhammer and fending off the creatures as they converged on him on a Wilshire Boulevard sidewalk. Mannering jamming the clattering jackhammer into the chests and brains of the walking dead, pulverizing the necrotic tissue of the creatures with machine-gun piston thrusts of the tool, allowing Halverson and Victoria to escape as he covered their retreat. Then the gruesome sight of Mannering disappearing into the horde of flesh eaters, and his amputated, bloody arms flying out of the mob of creatures as they tore him apart and tossed away his bones that they had picked clean of marrow . . .
Reno the journalist staving off the flesh eaters with Molotov cocktails as they laid into Halverson and him at Alcatraz prison. Reno being ripped apart by the ghouls as Molotov cocktails exploded around him, taking out scores of the creatures jacked up into a feeding frenzy of bloodletting . . .
The memories were overpowering. Halverson could not deal with replaying them over and over again in his mind’s eye to the point of debilitation. He banished the images from his mind. The worst thing about it was that these memories were but the tip of the iceberg. He had plenty of other lurid recollections of flesh-eater attacks that were just as horrifying rattling around in the dark corners of his mind, waiting for their chance to surface to his consciousness and torment him with their graphic atrocities.
And then President Cole ordered the A-bomb dropped on Las Vegas, forcing Halverson and Victoria to take refuge in this blast shelter underneath the radiation-contaminated Nevada desert.
It was all too much to come to grips with, decided Halverson. He needed to forget about it and carry on, taking it one day at a time. The scope of the debacle was just too much for him, or for anyone else for that matter, to comprehend all at once. Trying to get his head around the enormity of it would trigger a mental breakdown, he was convinced.
He could not remember how long he and Victoria had been holed up in this dusky rat’s nest of a blast shelter. His mind was playing him false. It did not want to face the horrifying reality of his situation. Memories faded in and out. But were they memories or false impressions left from nightmares rummaging around through his calamity-besieged mind?
He was burning up. He needed water.
He strode to the water cooler, ran water out of the cooler’s tap into a plastic cup, and took a long pull of the tepid water. Cooler? he thought ironically, eying the container, grimacing with distaste at the water’s warmth as it enveloped his tongue. What he’d do for an ice-cold glass of water! Or better yet an ice-cold beer.
He realized he was dying of thirst. He drew another cup of water. The water remaining in the cooler bubbled and glub-glubbed as the water level lowered. The cooler was fast approaching empty, he realized with a sigh. He downed the cup of water, ignoring its lukewarm insipidity this time.
How much water did they have left? he wondered. You could go without food for days, even weeks. But you could not go without water for days, especially in the stuffy closeness of this poky shelter. They had to have water.
His gaze lit on the orange plastic prescription bottle of pills on the sink. He also needed to take iodide pills.
He managed to snap open the white childproof cap on the pill bottle and downed two of the iodide pills. He needed them to protect him from radiation poisoning by iodine-131, which had been released into the air during the atomic blast. Radioactive iodine-131 was absorbed by the thyroid gland.
By taking the iodide tablets he kept his thyroid saturated with iodine, so it could not absorb the poisonous iodine-131. The thyroid could absorb only a finite amount of iodine. The trick was to keep the thyroid saturated with iodine for as long as the air might contain radioactive iodine-131.
He did not know if any of the nuclear blast’s iodine-131 had seeped into the bomb shelter when he and Victoria had first entered the shelter during the explosion. But he wasn’t taking any chances.
Also, he did not know how long the iodine-131 would linger in the air after the nuclear explosion. He would keep taking the iodide pills for the time being.
As of right now, the outside air could not seep into the airtight blast shelter.
At least he didn’t think it could. He had no way of knowing for sure.
Of course, the iodide pills were useless against the radioactive cesium-137 and strontium-90 that might still be in the air outside.
Halverson heard footfalls. He turned toward the source of the sounds.
Yawning, wearing a white terrycloth bathrobe, Victoria was entering the living quarters from a bedroom. Noticing that he was naked she averted her face from him. Her blonde hair hung down on her shoulders in glossy coils.
A twenty-eight-year-old dress designer in the prime of her life wearing a threadbare bathrobe in a fuggy, claustrophobic cement room under the desert. No doubt she neither dug her wardrobe nor her dwelling, Halverson decided. Then again there wasn’t much to dig during their ordeal.
“Why don’t you put on some clothes?” she said.
“I fell asleep after I took a shower, I think,” said Halverson.
“My mind’s playing tricks on me. It’s filled with nightmares and bad memories. I’m having trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy.”
She turned to look at him. She jerked her head away again at seeing him still undressed.
“Are you gonna get dressed or what?” she said, facing away from him, arms folded across her chest.
He strode over to a closet, opened its door, and removed from the cylindrical wooden hanger a wire coat hanger with a terrycloth robe draped on it. The robe looked like the one Victoria was wearing, right down to its shabbiness. He slipped it on.
She heard him close the closet door. She turned around and faced him.
“We got a problem,” he said.