It was a dark and stormy night. I’ve always wanted to start a story with those words; it’s unfortunate that now, as I have a story to tell, they’re not quite true. Actually it was a dismal evening: the sun would have just set if it could have been seen through the thick black clouds, and a steady drizzle fell on the crooked pavement. No thunder rolled, no lightening dramatically illuminated the sky. I sat by the kitchen window, looking out at nothing, dreaming. I was always dreaming, that winter. It was the kind of winter that inspires dreams; dreams of being anywhere other than where I was.
At length I roused myself from my self-imposed stupor. There was work to be done, and I was the only person likely to do it. The only person capable, now. I moved slowly to the sink, my knee aching in the cold, to where dishes had lain soaking for days now. The blood had stained the water pink, and I couldn’t bring myself to immerse my hands in the tepid mess. Just like yesterday, and the day before, I shuddered and put the task off until tomorrow. I turned instead to the floor. I felt I could handle dried mud rather better than blood, but even the mud looked red to me. I vacuumed the greying carpet with my head turned aside, hoping that my peripheral vision wouldn’t care. I wished I could turn off my eyes, the way I’d stopped my ears from hearing the cries.
As the vacuum faded into silence, a small hand appeared in the doorway. The little ones were always trying to get into the kitchen. I can’t count how many times I’d slapped them away, unable to bear the sight of their tiny deformed faces and limbs. Weariness overtook me, and I slumped to the floor and watched the hand. It waved pitifully, clutching for something that wasn’t there. Who knew what disjointed thoughts went through the mind controlling it? Maybe none. Nobody knew the full extent of the effects on these children. There was an arm in view now, and a shoulder. It wasn’t long before the child was in full view, and for once I couldn’t look away.
She was barely deformed. Her face was perfect, flawless, with the exception of one ear. Just her left ear had the melted appearance characteristic of her generation. Her brown eyes shone with an intelligence rarely seen these days, and her hair curled in a way that hadn’t been seen for decades. The Horror-babes, as they had come to be known, remained bald for the entirety of their short lives. I wondered how and when this little one had arrived; the vans rarely stopped long enough for explanations, and I paid little attention to them when they did.
Looking into the shining eyes of this child, I felt something I hadn’t felt since I was barely older than her. Hope. I felt my eyes, long dry, well with tears, and a smile cracked my broken, ill-used lips. Surely this was a sign. It’s over. Then as I watched the miracle crawl towards me, a grunt reached my ears. One of the men, only recently arrived, was lumbering slowly towards my brown-haired Horror-babe, arms outstretched. I knew well his intention; it was the intention of all infected males: Destruction. Beauty, passion, hope… they mattered not to those with Horror. They strove to bring all down to their own level, to hurt and maim and ruin. It was their blood in my sink.
I moved without thinking. The consequences could be dire. I picked up the child. Held her in my arms, pressed against my chest. Surely one so nearly perfect couldn’t still be infectious? I glared at the staggering man, knowing that would not deter him but powerless to do any more. He was tall, much taller than me, he loomed in the doorway like an omen of doom. I stepped back nervously as he approached, seeking blindly behind me with my one free hand for something to throw, or threaten him with. Another step back. Another. One foot hit the vacuum cleaner, and I tottered, nearly fell. My free arm windmilled wildly, trying to restore balance, and the movement attracted the hulk’s eyes.
“Haaaaaand,” he muttered, or something that sounded like it. Tongues and lips were among the first deformities to become apparent in Horror victims, followed shortly by the speech centre of the brain. It occurred to me that my would-be attacker was only recently infected, one of the few who escaped the early waves of Horror. This meant he still had some brain function, and was obviously able to move more efficiently than his cohabitants.
I regained my balance with difficultly, and wondered, if I spoke, would he comprehend?
“Leave us alone,” I tried nervously. My voice sounded dry and harsh, unused for so many months.
He blinked and paused. “Leeee? Lone.” Was he trying to repeat my words? “Leelone. Lee.”
“Go away!” I said, louder this time.
“Way!” He matched my increase in volume, and I feared for a moment he may become more aggressive. But he seemed distracted at his own ability to make noise, and turned back towards his fellow inmates. In relief, I hurried to close the door behind him, shutting out the sights and sounds of the sickroom that was the entire house.
I realised I was breathing heavily, and still clutching the child. She hadn’t made a sound, and barely moved, throughout the incident. She seemed utterly calm, looking up at me with what I hoped was trust. She needed a name, and only one occurred to me.
“Hope,” I said to her. “Your name is Hope.”
I stepped into the quiet, rain-splattered street with my heart in my mouth and my Hope in my arms. I hadn’t been outdoors since the onset of Horror. The last time I was outside, the sun shone and people were still human. And then I proved to be one of the thirty-one people in the city with a natural immunity to the first strains of the disease. It fell to us to care for the rest, hoping they would recover, seeking a cure. Risking infection by later, mutated, strains. Or not. I had heard, much later, that seven of the others had taken it upon themselves to put sufferers out of their misery. I wondered, later, if that made them happier than I had been.
I didn’t know where to go. Was anybody left alive? The van drivers lived under a bridge somewhere, I could find them, or hijack a van… this train of thought ended as soon as it began. They would not see the hope in Hope. They would take her away from me, and lock me up with the Horrors we had just left. Hospitals had long-since closed. Doctors, treating the first cases, had succumbed early. It was around that time people had started barricading themselves inside houses. They hoped to avoid illness, but even those who hadn’t fallen to Horror had slowly starved and died anyway. The houses of the dead were burnt, regardless of the cause of death. Better to burn than fester.
The city was unfamiliar to me now. The streets were the same, but the buildings had taken their neglect badly. Streets were blocked by fallen rubble and skeletons. “We’ll find a way,” I whispered to Hope, with no destination in mind. Did she nod? Maybe I imagined that. She was becoming heavy in my arms and on my mind. For long years I’d carried little more than food, and the weight of another human was physically and emotionally draining. Responsibility for masses of the unaware and uncaring was a light burden, but caring for a single child who seemed somehow more than a child was weighty. I had vague memories of a supermarket (oh, that such a thing once existed!) in the area, and wondered if it would be wrong to put my Hope in a trolley. As if there was anybody to judge.
I climbed over parts of buildings and bridges, I crept on tiptoes past the remains of the dead. In the silent city, who knew what might wake the dead? Silly and superstitious, but with nobody to impose rationale on me I crept anyway. I shielded Hope from the rain, and hid her eyes from the corpses.
The supermarket was still there. Mostly. Weeds had buckled the pavement of the carpark, and the glass in the windows was shattered. The constant rain leaked through the roof in many places, forming puddles in the uneven floor. The stock had been plundered in the early days of panic, but some things remained. I found some blankets, still sealed tightly in plastic and probably uninfected, and lined a rusted trolley with them. Hope seemed comfortable to be wheeled around, and I tried to avoid the bumpiest areas in my search for food. What little there was to be found was only barely edible, but I forced it down. It’s not stealing if nobody owns it anymore. Hope didn’t notice the foul taste; she ate mechanically, just like any other Horror. As it grew later, and I grew more tired, my faith in Hope dwindled. Maybe she wasn’t a sign. Maybe she was just deformed in the brain more than the body. It was too late now: I’d touched her, held her close, and likely infected myself in doing so. It surely wouldn’t be long before I was just another lumbering idiot.
I watched her sleep. She lay inert in her trolley, her chest rising and falling slowly. Occasionally she seemed to snore, or snort, but she never moved. No dreams appeared to trouble her, she looked almost comatose. Her hair stirred slightly in the breeze of her breath, covering her single deformed ear so she looked utterly perfect. I was loathe to stop watching her, guarding over her, wondering about her, but eventually sleep stole my senses. Lying awkwardly on the hard floor of the supermarket, in the cold, I dreamed of being anywhere but where I was.
I awoke early, sore all over from my night on the floor. Hope slumbered on, and I reluctantly concluded I must leave her briefly while I explored the city and our options. She would be fine, I assured myself. Nobody was around, and she was safe. I stood and stretched mightily, stretching out the kinks in my back and neck. We would need good food. I had relied so heavily on the vans, and now I realised I’d never even considered where they got the food they delivered to me. Did they grow crops somewhere? There had been meat, sometimes; perhaps they had established or taken over a small farm? The very basics of living I had taken for granted, and thought I was doing it tough. The last twenty-odd years were like heaven compared with sleeping in a supermarket and not knowing where to find something to eat. Yesterday I’d experienced a momentary and quick-fading hope in a child, and today I felt hopeless. I hadn’t felt hopeless in so long; you can’t miss something you didn’t remember having.
My wanderings that morning were aimless, indecisive. Any direction was better than none at all. I tried to keep moving quickly, but was frequently distracted and my course changed. A rat-surrounded corpse would make me hesitate and change direction, or a blocked street might send me retracing my footsteps to find another way around. Before long I’d lost my bearings, my sore muscles and tired mind adding to my confusion. Only when I stopped for a moment and saw a droplet fall to the ground at my feet did I realise I’d been crying.
It was at that moment that I looked up, my eyes seeking further ahead than simply the next laboured step. I had reached the suburbs, where once houses had stood in neat rows, painted cheerful colours, with well-tended gardens. The houses had long-since been burnt; only charred black piles of wreckage remained. But the gardens remained. Overgrown, untended, but there still. I wept and silently thanked those with the foresight to grow vegetables, fruit trees, and herbs. The quality was poor; vegetables were choked by weeds, fruit had been feasted on by birds and insects. But it was food, it was fresh, Hope and I could eat.
I hurried to gather as much as I could in my pockets and hands. I should have thought to bring a basket from the supermarket. Who could know I’d find such a plethora of food? With pockets bulging I tried to re-trace my steps to where I’d left the child sleeping. In my haste I missed my way several times, but finally the supermarket was in sight. I ran to the doors, then slowed so as not to frighten her. Stepping slowly through the broken door, I gasped. She stood upright in the trolley, worry lining her small face. She turned slightly and saw me, and the concern gave way to relief. She’d missed me! She knew who I was, and missed me! Faith in Hope blossomed in my heart again, and something else I didn’t immediately recognise. Love. I strode towards her with new confidence, and grasped her in my arms.
“It’s ok,” I said quietly, “I’m here, I didn’t leave you.”
She smiled up at me, and murmured something indistinct. I wondered if she could actually talk. Maybe she just needed to hear human voices, to learn as any baby did. She couldn’t be more than two years old, that wasn’t too late to start teaching her. She could learn to be a normal child, just as I would learn to be a mother.
“My name is…” I paused, not having heard it spoken in so very long – “Susan.” I pointed to myself, and then to her. “Susan. Hope.”
“Ooo-an-ope,” I thought she said quietly. Maybe I just wanted to hear her say that. She continued to make little noises as I held her, but I couldn’t make out anything that sounded like words I knew. I wondered briefly if she’d been born to parents who spoke another language. But by the time she’d been born, scarcely anybody had been able to speak at all.
That first full day with Hope was spent in discovery, physical and emotional. She clung to my shoulders as we explored our immediate vicinity, and gurgled quietly whenever she saw the colour green. We collected several new possessions, with a vague plan forming in my mind of going to the country somewhere, getting away from the silence of the dead city. Only food stores had been badly looted, so I was able to fairly easily find things like a large backpack, a tent, good walking shoes for both of us, and an umbrella. A small general store on a back street had managed to escape the worst of the panic and still had a lot of canned goods and medical supplies.