THERE IS NO REASON TO SEEK ADVENTURE By Keith McCleary
August 16, 2012 Longer stories Tags: Unique Format
The research is still going on in earnest at Easter Island. I didn’t know this before she told me, and with few exceptions no one that I’ve related the information to has had prior knowledge of it either.
In fact, I’ve discovered that the most predictable response to news that the international scientific community still, after all this time, is in search of a Cure has nothing to do with the Infection at all. Instead, most people look at me in shock and say, “Easter Island? That place is real?? And they do science there??”
And then, giving me a cookie-cutter look of regret that I’m considering having patented: “And your fiancé is going without you?”
She wants adventure, I try to explain. She wants her life to mean something.
But what about you? comes the inevitable question. You don’t want to go there, do you? And leave the city?
Of course not, I say. Leave here? It’s the greatest city in the world.
I moved to New York for school about 11 years ago. Despite its reputation, I thought it was the only place I could go to pursue my artistic ambitions – but before I left I was working evening shifts at a terrible fish fry joint in my hometown. The last week before I was set to leave, my boss informed me that the head dishwasher wanted to see me.
The dishwasher, a tiny, frail woman who smoked too much, looked up with eyes wide and glistening when I found her at her station in the kitchen.
“Is it true?” she asked. “You’re moving to New York?”
I smiled with all the bravado I could muster – which, at nineteen years old, was a considerable amount. I told her it was true.
With a splash, she reached one spindly arm toward me and grabbed my wrist. Her hands were grey and cracked – the hallmarks of her trade.
“But you know,” she whispered, “–You know there’s Infected down there. They got ‘em everywhere.”
“We have Infected here too,” I said. “You see them every night on the news. They even had to pull a girl out of school for it when her dad went bad.”
“It ain’t the same,” she said. “I just want you to be okay. I want you not to die, and I want you to come back.”
I smiled and reassured her, but in my head I thought: Forget it, lady. I am going to drop this fucking town like a wet turd and enter the eye of the storm. I am heading to the greatest city on earth and I am never coming back.
My dorm was in downtown Manhattan, and I can still see myself dropped at the corner of 10th Street and 5th Avenue on the first day of college with a few duffel bags of clothing and some awkward cardboard boxes holding my survival gear.
Like every other kid, I’d received the brochures on the proper equipment for long-term stay in the city – personal generators, body armor, a first-aid kit and a taser. And like every other kid, I learned what part of that list was necessary (no generator went to waste, ever) what was only somewhat useful (student injuries involving rough horseplay with tasers were more common than reports of successful defense against the Infected) and what was downright pointless (the laughable first aid kit – if anything in there was going to stop an Infection, we wouldn’t need a Cure in the first place.)
Manhattan was cordoned off pretty well in those days, especially around campus. It was unnerving, at first, to see all the high-voltage fences around Alphabet City and St Mark’s Place. Soldiers stood like vultures at the street corners, and we were warned to stay out of Washington Square Park at night – a few rogue Infected often roamed there after dark, and they moved too fast when the Hunger was on them for an ordinary human to outrun. But overall I was pretty untroubled by the things out in the night.
I won’t lie to you – some kids died. I only heard about it; never saw it myself. Once I had to walk across the West Village from a friend’s dorm to my own, and I stopped at the corner of 12th St and 6thwhen I saw some shadowy figures loping past the brownstones, groaning as they chased a jogger with her Pomeranian. I had time to smell the stink of rot and see the peeled skin hanging from their bodies before they were lost to the darkness.
Then I turned away, half-heartedly looked for military personnel to ask for assistance. When I found none I walked quickly down to 10th St., assuring myself that the jogger had a good head start.
College never gave me what I wanted, and the life I lived while attending it was no better. But the thought of living anywhere other than New York seemed ridiculous to me, so after graduation I took an offer to move to Brooklyn with some kids from one of my classes.
Unlike in Manhattan, the outer boroughs were still in the process of sectioning off Infected areas (“wastelands,” as we dryly referred to them) and clearing out space for the rest of population to live. And though this process was expensive for the city, sheer terror of being in close proximity with Infection kept rent down.
A lot of my friends from school left around that time. Some moved to California, where the terrain allowed for the Infected to be quarantined in giant lowland camps and routinely exterminated, while the unaffected lived in the hills and traveled on highways built over the camps themselves.
Still others returned to the small towns and suburban areas they’d come from – the large swaths of land between major cities that were able to, in large part, keep Infection at bay simply because of lower population density. The hefty price to pay for this choice, to my thinking, was living in a totally other sort of “wasteland” - one infected by monotony and emptiness.
Our first year in Brooklyn was at an amazing two-floor apartment in Boerum Hill paid for by our families – amazing, that is, except for the Infected compound directly across the street. Brooklyn tax dollars could not buy Manhattan’s electric fences, so this compound made do with chain link and barbed wire. It worked, for the most part – and we soon became accustomed to the slavering humanoid beasts living side by side with us. Left to their own devices the Infected resorted to feeding on one another, and gave us few problems. Occasionally one would break through and attempt an attack, but the bars on our windows kept them at bay.
Citing personal disagreements, our household split up after the first year, and I sought new lodgings. My second neighborhood in Brooklyn was probably the safest, all things considered. The military presence was nonexistent, and we didn’t even see the wire fences that served as the last line of defense against Infected attacks. But the Greek mafia controlled the area with an iron grip. More than once we watched seemingly healthy folk dragged out of a nightclub or restaurant and thrown into a black sedan before being driven away. Once I finally understood this system, I marveled at how mobsters were able to keep better track of Stage 1 Infections (invisible to the naked eye, but incurable nonetheless) than could an entire nation of trained military officers.
But safety cost money, and soon my roommates and I found ourselves looking to the slightly more wild and wooly “East Williamsburg” – a section of Brooklyn that doesn’t actually exist, except in brokerspeak. Williamsburg proper, with its astonishing number of coffee shops, art spaces and falafel eateries, was one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city. For foolish post-collegiates like us, the name still drew more favorable connotations than did the somewhat barren and rundown district of Bushwick, the actual neighborhood east of Williamsburg itself. But upon finding a Bushwick apartment that was spacious, cheap and newly renovated, we signed on the bottom line.
A whole troop of kids our age soon filled the new building; we were pioneers in that part of the borough. I was nervous about security, but attributed it to the base anxiety I dealt with every time I moved. Strangenesses abounded in our new neighborhood. A diner on the next corner had a menu that seemed to consist only of vaguely-described meats of unknown origin, and we joked that “Infected Stew” and “Undead Pie” were the establishment’s mainstays. If the sleepy-eyed clientele constantly drooped over the diner’s barstools were any indication, I secretly believed our sarcasm wasn’t far off.
In Bushwick I finally came face-to-face with the Infected – or at least to the wreckage they left behind. I had found work at a used bookstore in the Village – more on this later – and one night soon after we’d moved in, I received a frantic phone call from one of my roommates.
“We got broken into,” he said, shaken and hoarse. Crouched in the shelving cage at the bookstore, I trembled. “But we’re all okay,” he continued, and I let out a shuddering sigh. “Well, except for Devin’s parrot,” he finished.
Devin had moved into the first floor apartment when we’d taken the second. Although he seemed to be our age he was in fact a practically ancient 31, seven years my senior. I couldn’t imagine ever being 31, and believed that once I reached that point I would probably be an entirely other person. Devin was in law school, and had frequent parties that we were always invited to. His only affectation was an African grey parrot which actually belonged to his mother in Long Island. The bird, which like all parrots had formed a very specific attachment to its host family, needed a familiar face as a babysitter when Devin’s mother was out of town. Since she often traveled for work Devin got stuck with the parrot pretty regularly, and there were many evenings when he would hole up in his room crouched over his law texts, nursing a beer while the parrot stood on his head, rooting for imaginary beetles in his hair.
That night my roommates had arrived home to our new place only to find the apartment ransacked. The possibility of a straightforward break-in was forgotten at the sight of blood and entrails on the stair, and when Devin entered the building soon after he found that his beloved parrot had been the lone victim of a home invasion. The smell of lingering rot confirmed our suspicions; Infected had been in our building and left before we came home.
Over the course of my time in the city a new wave of Infected break-ins had begun in neighborhoods where defenses were low. No one wanted to believe the creatures were getting smarter, including the local military who arrived to take our statements hours later that night. But the evidence remained. A house that was empty of the living during the day should have been safe by all accounts – the Infected only followed the scent of flesh, after all. But for whatever reason the Infected crimewave persisted. As we grimly assessed the damage and put our apartment back in order, we resolved that we would stay there one more night at least – after checking the bolts on the door several times for reassurance.
“One more night” extended through that summer and into the next. We had a few more scares, but only one I dealt with personally. It was before dawn on a Saturday morning when I woke up to our doorbell ringing. This was already a confusing sign. Our building was locked from the outside, and outsiders had to buzz to be let in. That made our actual doorbell a moot point unless someone who lived in our building decided to stop by, and no one ever did.
I rolled out of bed and crossed with bleary apprehension to our front door. “Inspector,” someone called from the other side.
“What?” I asked, a few feet from the landing.
“Inspector,” the voice said. Then, again: “Inspector.”
One of my roommates had come out of his room and stood in the doorway, hungover and dressed only in boxer briefs.
“Inspector. Inspector,” the voice groaned.
I leaned silently toward the peephole and lifted the cover.
Outside something screeched, and I saw a blur of spittle, blood and bile splatter before a wild fist smashed into the door, rocking it on its hinges and knocking the peephole’s protuberance into the bridge of my nose. I flew back and got a nasty dig in the back of my skull from a closet doorframe, then fell to the floor in shock. Blood pulsed from a crescent-shaped gouge under my eye.
Through the wall, we heard heavy footsteps stumble down the stairs and then out the front door.
My second roommate peered into the hazy dawn outside our window, watching a small band of wailing figures scatter on the empty street. “Naw, they’re not getting smarter,” he said with an uneasy laugh. “Not at all.”
It was around that time that I met Laura.
When you’re young and selfish, love is easy. The bookstore where I worked was a hotbed of unfulfilled dreams and festering libidos, and I took advantage the same as every other self-assured, poverty-stricken twentysomething-with-a-bachelor’s would have. And I got knocked on my ass, of course – pursuing and being pursued, indulging and being indulged in. I played in bands; I watched bands play. One group of friends I quit from got good enough to make a record, good enough to get signed. I borrowed money from my parents and generally paid my rent on time, with little else to show for it.
The job was not without its remittent dangers. As with any retail establishment in the city, the bookstore’s owners were required by military law to create a safe workplace for employees in the form of barricades between employee-only workspaces and shopping areas for the general populace – and stray Infected that might come in search of a free meal. Different kinds of stores solved this problem in different ways. Smaller stores could afford to keep their entire inventory in a secured on-site warehouse, with a small order window in front for shoppers to request purchases. Other stores devised layouts in which every item on the floor was for display purposes only, again with a small ordering window off to one side and a storeroom beyond it.
Because of the unique nature of the used bookstore, with an inventory of rare items that changed daily, the owners needed to create an environment that encouraged browsing but still left its employees safe to move about, reshelving books and helping customers where needed. To this end, an elaborate system of walkways over the aisles was created for the employees to move around in, with trapdoors and collapsible cages installed at specific points over each shelf. If you were an employee and required access to a section of the store proper, you attached a lightweight harness to your clothing and opened a trap door over the area in question. This caused a wire cage to unfold beneath you, creating a safe zone for you to drop into on the harness in order to shelve books or point a customer in the right direction.
The system had no small amount of a rugged and medieval charm for the kids who worked there – bouncing around on harnesses, crawling through a maze of tunnels and passages to access different rooms in the store, all in the quest to protect aging tomes and one’s own person. All the sweat and impending doom only served to increase the appeal of a warm beer and lustful groping in the dark after a day’s work in the stacks.
Amidst all this, Laura was an unknown quantity. I became aware of her crawling above the stacks — she wore a necklace and panic whistle like the rest of us, but had added a host of paperclips, pencaps and “KILL THE INFECTION, NOT THE INFECTED” pins until the necklace became a miniature cacophony of jangling sound. “I made it so you would see me,” she said later, lying in bed while we ate potatoes and nutrient paste. “I don’t know how to be subtle.”
I became aware of the way she walked as if she were barefoot, the way she wore a scarf with t-shirt in a way that seemed vaguely foreign, of her hair and her smell. “When I saw you I knew I would have an affair with you,” she said while we looked at each other’s bodies in the mirror after sex. “And see? Here we are.”
“Here we are,” I’d say noncommittally.
“See? I win. Kissy. Kissy. Kissy,” she would smile and whisper softly, kissing my nose and eyebrow and scarred cheek.
She pursued me in a way that terrified me. She was assured in a way I refused to accept. I hardly even remember how we began, except that she talked more than I expected her to. I remember that she was louder than I was comfortable with and clumsier than I could believe. I was enamored and horrified of her unshaking faith that our meeting was predestined and that our lives would be forever intertwined. I pushed her away before we could even become close, and she responded by cornering me one day in a shelving cage.
“I’m smarter and hotter than anyone else you could be with,” she said in blunt frustration. “This is bigger than us. This is something the universe is requiring us to do.”
“I know,” I whispered in the dark that night. I told her about a dream I’d had of myself as the sky and her as the earth. “But I’m overwhelmed.” She cried and held me.
“It’s okay. I understand. But if you ever hurt me…. I will blow through you,” she said. It was a summer afternoon in the park, and she showed me how to flavor nutrient paste with synthetic spices to mask its medicinal aftertaste.
I nodded. Sometimes I was the sky and she was the earth. Sometimes I was just thankful for the food and the company.
Six years passed.
The city changed and I changed. Laura and I agreed on two things – that we’d gotten together too young, and that we’d stick it out anyway. Then there were the hard times.
The Infected had their supporters; those who believed that the government had found a Cure years ago, or had purposely invented Infection in the first place. There were those whose focus was not on the disease but on the people consumed by it – they were concerned with establishing Infected as citizens in their own right, treating them humanely despite their deadliness. These different groups did not necessarily see eye-to-eye even within their own subcommunities, and might split on the finer points of at exactly what point Stage 1 infection required an individual’s removal from polite society, or whether it was in violation of a person’s established identity as an Infected to force a Cure upon them if one was ever found.
It was a specific and niched hotbed of controversy that almost disgusted me more than did the prospect of Infection itself. But the vitality and pathos of the movement stirred something in Laura. Her hunger to be part of it was a sort of infection all its own.
Not that I was any less distracted. I had discovered painting after college, and it had rearranged my entire identity. I read early on that to love creating art in an age in which resources are no longer available to manufacture the raw materials needed to make it had fundamentally changed what it meant to be an artist, but this was a concept I only understood cerebrally. The prohibitive expense of both oil and water was something I’d lived with my whole life, and was as natural to me as breathing. It formed the most basic struggle for all artists, and my first step was researching alternate solutions to the obvious issue of what to use as a liquid base for my pigments. After studying my options, I went with the most trusted method of the time. Using one’s own bodily fluids to create art had a strange, primal allure that couldn’t be matched for my other alternatives, and I religiously drained a few ounces of blood each morning to collect in my paint jars.
The process drained me physically, and the painting itself drained what was left of me. The fact that I found Laura’s obsession with Infected rights ridiculous strained our relationship even more. I could not be a part of what she did, nor did I want to be. And she was sickened and confused by the art form that fascinated me.
“Don’t you want to be a PART of something?” She would scream, pointing at the Infected rallies on the television.
“I am a part of THIS!” I would scream back, pointing at the rich umbers and burgundies of my canvases. In the battle between our tempers she always had an early lead, but the haze of my own creative effort and physical deficiency created a hysterical fire in me that once stoked could burn forever. I raged at her; she refused to bend to me. We loved and fought and self-destructed and forgave and loved and fought again.
But like a living thing, the city forced us out. When biodomes were installed around a secured network of Manhattan high-rises after budget cuts ended the island-wide Street Protection Plan, it was no longer safe to live anywhere but in the outermost neighborhoods of the outer boroughs. Close proximity to the city proper meant close proximity to rampant Infected, and even living on the Brooklyn waterfront was discouraged when the fish population began to carry its own strain of disease. The footage of trout and carp tearing one another apart in the frothy, bloodsoaked brine of the Hudson was strange and affecting in a way that seeing human Infected no longer was, and it terrified us.
“Don’t you want to live somewhere green? Don’t you want an adventure?” Laura would ask, trying to smile, trying to engage with me.
“So we’ll move — with what money? And to where? Somewhere where I can’t get paid for my paintings and there’s no causes for you to march with? We can hardly afford to take care of this cat,” I would answer, kicking at the stray that Laura had rescued from a slow-moving Infected on the way home from a rally one night.
“Right,” she would say, and I would go to paint. She wanted to solve the world’s problems, but couldn’t stand to live amongst them while she did so. The resolution to that paradox was something that she had to deal with, not me.
Or so I thought.
At night the screams rang out more frequently in our neighborhood. Dark shapes sprinted through the alleyway behind our building and blood stained the early autumn frost. Laura shook and cried some days for hours, and spent more and more time sleeping. But when she told me about the job on Easter Island, I only laughed.
“You applied where? And they do science there?” I asked, incredulous.
“That’s where the Cure efforts are centralized. It’s safe there; it’s like the most remote place on Earth, you know? And they’re starting their own media center to report on their progress, on their findings,” she said. “I read about it and contacted them.”
“Fine,” I said. “Like you tried to set up a nutrient tub on our street as an alternate food source for them. That nearly got a man killed. And like the stupid rallies you’ve been reporting on for five years — that’s done a lot to change the world.
ñYour ideas are either pointless or terrible, and this is both,” I spat. “I thought we loved each other.”
“We do,” she said, and one week later she took the job, and three weeks later she was gone.
The past six months of my life have been dark and strange. I wonder at times if I am living someone else’s life, and other times I think that this was my life all along, and anything before this was an illusion in which I playacted at being someone other than myself.
The first night after Laura left I sat in the dark with the cat, aware of the night and the silence only broken by cries for help in a way that was always at arm’s length when she was here. The city rose around me and shut me out and I was no longer safe – or perhaps the supernatural confidence I felt in living there was stripped from me, and I had never been safe in the first place.
I had to leave.
No one would ever pick over the accumulated junk of our young lives in a yard sale – our dilapidated furniture, our dirty rugs and curtains. There was too much to leave out for a trashman, especially since public works made so few rounds in our neighborhood anymore. And if I left the apartment as it was and just walked out of the city and kept going, what would I be?
I would be no better than if it were me that had moved to Easter Island.
And there was the cat to think of.
I went through the trash bins at my old bookstore job and found some broken shelving cages, then brought them home. I fixed them up as best I could and suspended them from the ceiling where I thought they would hold. I brought the cat up there with me, and a blanket and a pillow. The rest I left.
And then one night I poured my paints all over the furniture. I left the door open and the window to the alleyway behind my apartment unlocked. And I let the Infected in.
It took longer than I expected. I could not sleep, of course, and every movement sounded like it was finally beginning. But then there was a scratch, and a scraping, and a scrabbling, and hands pulling themselves over my windowsill, leaving deep black stains of filth and rot. And it seemed they came as a giant, multi-limbed, breathing and pulsating entity; even as I watched with eyes wide and breathing shallow I could only see them as one.
With a great creeping unease, I watched them pick through my old life.
At first they were frantic, tearing apart couch cushions and old clothes and at one another in the process. But the initial frenzy abated and they slowed, inspecting piles of bills and books I no longer wanted, disassembling a table in a methodical fashion for no particular purpose. It was not the maelstrom I had attempted to prepare myself for. It was an act of ritual as they obliterated the meaningless detritus of my existence.
I remembered when our old apartment was broken into. I remembered the creature that had come to my door so many years before and called out as an Inspector, like the word meant anything at all. I remembered at the time thinking it was merely the lure of a beast that had retained some ability for speech from its old life. Now I am not so sure. Now I wonder if Infection doesn’t take over at all once; if instead it strips pieces of you away one at a time, so that you think you are going through your days as you always did, knocking on doors or entering apartments as if they might be your own. And meanwhile it is the Hunger that drives your actions and manipulates your decisions, making you do impossible things under the guise of structure and normalcy.
I wonder if people can really choose to abandon their lives, or if they are driven to do such a thing because they themselves feel abandoned. But surrendering accountability in the face of loneliness and horror seems a coward’s choice.
The Infected were hungry. Soon they would realize I was above them. They needed feeding.
I opened the trap door, and lowered the cat.
I went out the way I came in. I lived the winter at my family home, out in the other Wasteland. I had no money and painting seemed disgusting and purposeless. There was no romance in draining myself to fill my canvases any longer.
As spring came, the changes began.
Our town doctor saw it first–a yellowing around my eyes, a looseness in my joints. He asked me if I’d started having strange dreams. He pointed out the sores forming on my back and arms; he wondered just what had happened to me when I tried to leave the city.
Had one of the Infected got too close to me? How long had I had these sores?
I told him I could not remember, and his face tensed with worry. I knew then that I would be asked to leave my home — or worse.
By the next daybreak I was packed. Before they could come for me, I was gone.
I have decided to stop thinking about where I will end up. I’ve forgotten my parents’ house with its old rooms that made me feel young, like a giant in shrinking skin. I’ve hitched rides across the country. Every decision feels like a trap.
One afternoon I find myself riding shotgun in a minivan with a middle-aged woman named Linda. She and I have birthdays within a week of one another but twenty years apart. She’s driving to find her children, who have good jobs farther south.
“I’m fifty-one years old and I have never known how to settle,” she’s saying. “I’m the black sheep. I have this van and it is my rock. I can’t wait to see my kids again.”
A song plays on the radio, upbeat and soft and buzzing through the static. You rarely get radio signals anywhere anymore. I recognize the band. I know them. I’d played with them when I was young and entirely another person.
I will find you, the radio whispers. I will find me. I will not find me. I will not find us.
My skin itches; haze floats behind my eyes.
Smoke from distant fires sweeps across the road and I fall asleep, and when I awake again I can’t tell where I am. Lights shine through the trees and cries echo in the distance. My vision dims and I don’t know if it’s dawn or dusk.