My ankle throbs painfully. I reach down, feel the ragged edges of the wound. It’s probably teeming with bacteria. It probably should be bandaged. But it doesn’t really matter. Bacteria and blood loss are the least of my worries now.
An hour. That’s how long it takes. We’ve seen it happen, again and again. It takes a little longer for fat people, a little less time for children, but all around that hour mark. That’s how long I’ve got left.
An hour. An hour before I turn, before I kill them or they shoot me. An hour to decide what to do.
He’s asleep right now. He always snores softly when he sleeps, little snuffling noises. I could listen to them forever. His hands – still with dimples instead of knuckles – are held up close to his face. He’s so perfect it hurts.
And in a little while – hours at most – he’ll be dead.
I worry that I’ll hurt him. He’ll be the closest thing, clutched tight to me when the change happens. I’d never harm him now, but it won’t be me soon. Just hunger, and hate, and blunt, tearing teeth. It will hurt.
I could cry out. Tell the others. Show them the bite. That would be the quickest way. Then they’d shoot me, get it over with. No one would bite him. He wouldn’t have to feel this pain. It’s a cold pain, a rip in my skin that I can’t forget. It makes it hard to think.
He still won’t be safe though. “No room for burdens”, they say. “We can’t take in every stray we find.” I used to agree with them. I used to think it was the right decision, the practical choice. It’s better that some of us live than all of us starve together. It’s cruel, but it’s for the greater good.
They’ll leave him behind. They might shoot him first; they might not waste the bullet. Without me, he’s just another stray. They don’t take in strays.
How can there be a greater good than him? He murmurs in his sleep, the half-formed sounds that one day will be words.
He can’t survive without help. He’s too little – too little to find food, or shelter. Too little to be cautious in the wastes, watching for the dangers. He’ll die. Slowly, in constant hunger, not understanding where I am or why I don’t help him.
I don’t know what to do. Let him die in agony, or let him starve? How can I choose when every choice hurts him?
There is one other way.
Not a good way. A cruel, hard way. But maybe, slightly, a greater good.
I stand up. I clutch him to me with one arm. I walk.
The camp is quiet. People snatch what sleep they can. The gate is closed, and bolted, and guarded. The guard stares out from the top of it, eyes scanning the darkness for any movement.
It’s over quickly. The knife cuts quickly across the guard’s neck, and my hand is warm. I hear him breathe, hear the whistle as he struggles for air, and then quiet. He slumps forward, and no one in the camp stirs.
I have a little time. A few minutes, perhaps, to say goodbye. The guard is changed every two hours, and there isn’t much time to the changeover. In less time than that, I’ll be gone.
My first task is the gate. I rest my precious burden carefully near the guard’s small fire as I work. The bolts are heavy, but well-oiled. I feel the rough metal scrape against my hands as I draw them back.
We designed the gate to be silent. Noise makes them come, come running. Silent hinges help me now.
It won’t take long. They smell blood – the guard’s blood, hot and sticky on my hand. They’ll be here soon.
My son won’t starve. He won’t get shot. He’ll live forever. He’ll find his own food, and there will be a lot of it about. Three hundred people live in the camp.
Once you’ve been bitten, it doesn’t matter how old you are. I’ve seen a ninety year-old woman sprinting, one arm snapped off at the shoulder. I’ve seen a man with no legs drag himself across the floor. They don’t need thought, or planning, or the ability to walk. The hunger makes up for it.
He’ll never learn to speak, or tie his shoes. He’ll never build, or plant, or harvest. But he’ll live – live to crawl, to feed, to not face the slow agony of starvation. When there’s no food, they simply wait. The hunger drives them, but they don’t need food. He won’t be hurt or unhappy ever again.
In a few minutes, the first of them will arrive. They’ll smell the blood and come to feed. The rush will go past us, split around us. They don’t eat tainted meat.
In a few minutes, I’ll be one of them, tearing and charging at my former friends. I won’t remember him, or how he smiles when he looks up at me, or the sweet, fresh smell of his hair. It won’t matter to me that he’s still moving, still present in the world.
But it matters now. I can’t save him totally. I can’t give him a full life, but I can give him something.
I cover his mouth when I bite. It takes more effort than I thought to break the skin. He whimpers through my hand and my heart breaks. I have to hurt him. Have to make sure it works. The virus will be in my saliva by now, spreading and reproducing and destroying. I worry at the wound, trying to push the infection deeper. I shake with guilt and self-loathing. I have no choice.
When it’s over, when the taste of my betrayal has been spat over the grass, I soothe him. I hold him close and sing, softly, the lullabies he loves. I rock him in my arms and tell him I love him. I rock him in my arms and stare at his face. I say I’m sorry a thousand times.
I hear the grunts and snarls of the arriving horde, and the first sounds of too-late alarm from the camp. It sounds very distant. I hold him for what will be the last time, for the final few moments in which I understand what he means to me. I tell him I love him. I mean it with every part of me, with every last beat of my heart. I hope that he understands.
I wrote this story in response to this writing prompt. It’s very definitely one of my darker stories. I’m not quite sure how well it works – how clear the idea is, how hard it punches. Feedback would be more than welcome.