Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 4...
Beth approached the building with a tinge of anxiety budding in her chest. Though she knew that there was nobody left around who cared about the preservation of law and order, it still felt wrong breaking and entering, especially when the place she was breaking into was one that she had frequented with her friends all throughout junior high school. The front door was bookended by two long panes of glass which ran the length of the threshold, about seven feet. They weren’t any wider than a foot each and still boasted paper flyers taped to the inside of the glass advertising various activities the youth center was offering over Christmas break. Beth found herself sifting momentarily back through memories of dances she’d attended, ones just like those depicted on the sheets of paper before her now, only these dances never took place. How many kids had been robbed of experiencing their first slow dance or awkward kiss at one of these dances? What other lives had been stripped of all meaning before they’d even really begun as the result of the wars of men?
She worked to collect her thoughts, focusing on the rock in her hand and the man who had raised her still down at the edge of the road coughing. Lifting her arm, she closed her eyes and hurled the rock as hard as she could at the left side pane, wincing away as it shattered loudly. The crashing sound of grass carried down the front lawn and reverberated back off of the stone wall at its border. When she opened her eyes again she saw only jagged shards clinging to the edges of the frame, like the poorly-kept teeth of some unearthly monster. There came no siren wails or alarm klaxons, only the quiet sigh of stale air exiting the building. Stepping toward the dark slot, she reached inside, and disengaged the locks, taking care to avoid cutting herself on the remaining pieces of glass. She pulled the door open and stepped inside, immediately searching in the slivers of moonlight that cut in through the windows for something with which to prop the door open.
Her gaze settled upon a brochure rack just to the left of the entryway. That would do nicely. She started toward it, the door slowly easing shut under its own weight behind her, swallowing up most of the room in darkness. Though Beth had long ago moved on from her childish fears of creatures lurking in the dark, she couldn’t help her anxiety spiking and her breath going shallow. Claremont was now a lifeless void, and in that isolation Beth’s sense of what was practical and what was impossibly outlandish had slurred. A sudden panic swept over her along with the feeling that some creature was stalking silently toward her in the darkness, claws curled out before it and ready to sink into her flesh.
She spun around, searching through the shadows for signs of movement. There was the welcome desk where Mrs. Sheila had always sat with an open jar of homemade cookies. The shadows of these objects fit like carbon copies over the memories she was able to conjure of them. To the left of the desk was the corridor that gave to what had once been vast stacks of books, now an open auditorium complete with a small platform stage for visiting artists and community events. The moonlight streaking in from the windows that lined the walls cast these familiar sights and surfaces in an otherworldly pallor, but everything remained still and un-moving. There was nothing there.
Turning back to the brochure case, Beth drew in a deep breath and approached it. Glancing out the window, she confirmed that Dad was still seated upright upon the stone wall, though even at this distance and with a wall separating them she could still hear his boisterous coughing. There was no time to waste. She grabbed the rack with both hands and began to drag it backward toward the door, grunting her way along and wincing at the harsh squeal that its metal feet made as they scratched across the tiled floor. By the time she reached the threshold she was panting, which really drove home just how out of shape even a girl in her prime could become when cooped up indoors for five months.
Easing the door open against her backside, Beth grunted and heaved the rack up over the lip at the base of the door before losing her grip and staggering back in a panic as it crashed upon the concrete steps. Brochures of all kinds spilled out and down the steps in the moonlight, but the rack was heavy enough to keep the door ajar, and after the echoes ceased bouncing through the open spaces outside the youth center, silence and stillness once more settled upon the open lawn. With this Beth caught her breath and descended the steps, hurrying back to where Dad sat watching her.
“You’d make a terrible cat burglar,” he joked, seeming to have brought his coughing back under control. His voice sounded better, less raspy, which gave her hope.
“I’m not going to beat myself up over it,” she retorted, stepping up to him and extending her hands. For a moment Dad simply looked her up and down, an unmistakable expression of pride spread across his face. This filled Beth with an esteem that burned a hole through her anxiety. If there was ever anyone in the world she sought to impress, it was this often misinformed, wholly stubborn man. “C’mon,” she urged, “let’s get you inside.”
Dad nodded, taking her hands but moving to his feet under his own power. He held her hand as they walked together toward the building, the breeze stirring a few brochures from the steps and carrying them undulating across the grass. Once more Beth was struck with an odd guilt for littering, and once more she quickly reminded herself that the earth had more or less just gone carbon neutral. Plus, as Dad had reminded her multiple times, with all the nuclear radiation that had been pumped into the atmosphere they were lucky the sky was still blue. Without an internet left to substantiate or refute Dad’s wild claims, she had no choice but to take his word on it.
They made it into the building without incident. Beth led her father to the cluster of rooms opposite the welcome desk and auditorium, where a dozen or so sofas and loveseats were arranged around televisions and coffee tables. It was a motley assortment of donations, none of them really matching save for a couple donated as a set, but for a youth center such things as decorative conformity didn’t matter. They walked together to the nearest sofa just inside the entryway and plopped down. With all the movement Dad had begun to cough once again. It echoed like claps of thunder through the empty building.
“I’m going to go get you medicine,” Beth said, standing immediately back up. “You’ll have to tell me which one to give you though.”
“It’s—all… all in the b—ba—bags.” Unable to speak for a few seconds, he struggled against another coughing fit, then managed to spit out, “look for… names ending in… I-N.”
Beth nodded and ran through the darkness back out into the night. Rushing across the grass, more brochures spiraled through the air before her, carried off into the rustling trees. When she reached the carriages, she began sifting through the paper bags that Dad had filled with various white bottles and tiny boxes, lifting them indiscriminately up into the moonlight where she could read them. It didn’t take long for her to extract a bottle rattling with what felt like thick capsules, its label reading Cephalexin. She quickly dropped it back into the bag and hefted it out of the carriage to where she eased it down to the pavement next to her. Dropping down on one knee, she extracted a couple bottles of water from the open package beneath her own carriage and dropped them into the bag before clutching it to her chest and making her way carefully back into the youth center.
Dad’s coughing fit had subsided once more by the time she set the bag down at his feet, once again out of breath and panting like a marathon runner. But now she noticed something new, a wheezing sound when he breathed, accompanied by what sounded like a wet rattle from deep in his chest.
“You sound terrible,” she sighed, feeling the corners of her lips turn downward in an irrepressible frown. She fell to her knees and began extracting various boxes and bottles from the bag, struggling to catch her breath as she inhaled lungful after lungful of stale air. More than a decade since the library moved to its new grounds, the place still carried that wonderful smell of leather bindings and yellowed paper.
“I’ve never known an infection to spread so quickly,” Dad wheezed, sounding worse with every passing minute. He pawed through the bottles Beth had piled on his lap, holding each one up and squinting at their labels in the shafts of moonlight that cut through the room. Were it not for the full moon outside, they would have been in a much different situation. For this Beth silently thanked her mother. “Here it is,” Dad said, after dropping a number of bottles back into the bag. He twisted off the cap and extracted a wad of cotton from the bottle with his index and middle fingers. Beth had no idea what he was taking, but had to trust that he knew what he was doing. She watched quietly as he shook a number of pills out into his hand and popped them into his mouth. Twisting the cap off one of the bottles of water Beth had stuffed into the bag, he took a few sips and tilted his chin upward as he swallowed.
They both waited for his body to reject the pills as it had the water outside, but after a few seconds Dad nodded to himself and took another measured sip. Fastening the lid back onto the bottle, he sat back and closed his eyes, seeming to relax a bit.
“I thought spring water was always fresh,” Beth said, more to herself than anything. The mystery surrounding Dad’s quickly escalating condition was one that could only be tied to Gwendy Spring. If it had been something in the air or in the food they’d eaten, she would be in the exact same state, and she felt perfectly fine.
“Something seeped into the ground water,” Dad whispered, his voice a dreamy whisper as if he were speaking from miles away. “Something that nature couldn’t filter out.”
Beth wanted to press it further, to flesh out what exactly could have poisoned something that locals had drank from for hundreds of years without issue, but she knew that it was best to let her father rest. Without another word she packed up the remainder of the bottles, making sure to separate the one Dad had opened from the rest so that she could find it when the sun rose the next morning. Sliding the bag out of the way, she settled down next to her father on the couch and curled up next to him. Moments later she was asleep.
- - -
Coughing in the night wrenched her violently from dreams of a childhood sock hop at the youth center. Arms flailing about, mind struggling to make sense of the darkness surrounding her, Beth panicked. This was not her room. It took a few moments for the reality of the situation to soak through the fabrication her mind had presented her, and when she realized that she was indeed within the walls of the youth center but in a time and space far removed from those good old days when her greatest struggle was that of facing off against Dad over the length of her skirt, she felt one of the last pieces of her die.
She pawed at the soft leather beside her, finding the couch empty. Her anxiety spiked immediately, fingers sinking into the soft dough of the cushions as she gazed frantically about in the darkness, waiting for her eyes to adjust. From what sounded like a mile away, off in the other wing, came another series of hacking coughs, echoing about the auditorium and off of the cathedral ceilings.
“Dad!” Beth cried. She swung her feet off of the couch and started carefully through the darkness, arms out and fingers splayed to brace her against any object with which she might come into contact. Outside the moon had apparently sunk beneath the trees or perhaps dipped behind the mountains. The pale light she'd previously used to find her way and read the labels of pilfered pharmaceuticals had dulled to the point where it was almost non-existent. There was now only a soft, muted glow outside, which didn't do much to illuminate the forlorn halls of the youth center. Still, she’d been here often enough over the years to have etched out an almost subconscious map of its floorplan, and once she made it out of the gathering area and its collection of sofas, loveseats, and recliners, she was able to make her way more easily through the welcome area, past Mrs. Sheila’s desk, and into the auditorium as Dad’s hacking grew louder and thundered through the building.
Following the source of the coughing, she was soon upon him, just as her eyes were nearing the end of their adjustment to the darkness. He had made his way out of the other wing for reasons unknown and seated himself at the lip of the stage platform at the far end of the auditorium. He was lurched forward, hands cupped over his kneecaps and fingers digging into the scant flesh at their borders. Between his splayed legs was a puddle on the floor. As she came right up to him the metallic tang that rose up from the puddle made it unmistakable.
It was blood. Somehow she was smelling the hot stink of blood.
“Why did you leave the couch?!” She asked, sidestepping and scooting up beside him. Her arms fell immediately across his shoulders, hands bracing him as he lurched forward mid-fit, coughing and choking on his own fluids. She felt every muscle in his body tense. He arched his back and convulsed, expelling a gushing torrent of blood and bile that splattered all around the floor and on the rubber of his bean boots. As he went to inhale, struggling audibly to catch his breath, the rattle of mucus and whatever else had come unstuck inside him was a rhythmic ripple. It wasn't long before he was beset by another fit, expelling more dark, rank fluid.
This was much worse than before. So, so much worse.
“I—” he tried to speak between labored breaths, but was unable to say more. His head arced back and he let loose an explosion of a sneeze, spraying more dark liquid all over his jeans and arms. Under the force of this he seemed to lose control of himself and fell forward into what would have been a collapse into his own sick if Beth hadn’t been there to hold him back.
She grunted, sinking her fingers into the material of his flannel shirt as she struggled against his momentum. Dad has lost a lot of weight in the months since Christmas – they both had – but he still had a good hundred pounds on her, and she nearly lost the battle to keep him upright. Scooting around behind him, she held him in place as she folded her legs, then eased him back until he was leaning against her. She circled her arms around his chest, retching as warm, syrupy sick oozed from his beard onto her skin.
“You need more medicine,” she whispered as he labored to breathe in her arms.
All he could apparently do was shake his head. She felt every muscle in his body tense up as he channeled every ounce of control he had against the raging impulses of his body and drew in a deep, rattling breath. “Whatever this… is—” he coughed, liquids spraying from his lips, “no… medicine… can—cure—” he heaved forward again, taking her with him as he was overcome by another set of gurgled coughs. Under her weight they both crashed to the floor. Dad landed in the puddle with Beth hitting the hardwood on her right shoulder, sending pain splintering up her neck. She rolled onto her back, her left hand moving instinctively to where she’d landed. Her right arm was pinned beneath her father’s convulsing body, and as he retched once more, she felt a fresh gush of warm wet coat her hand and forearm.
Then came the tears, a little late as she would later consider, but up until that moment she’d been in some form of denial about the precipitous escalation of her father’s condition. It hadn’t even been twelve hours since he’d choked on that spring water, and now here he was in the throes of death. Even Beth understood on a subconscious level that a person vomiting blood and sneezing blood and struggling for breath against the shutting down of his own body was not going to survive without emergency care. Her jaw began to tremble, her lips quivering uncontrollably as the deepest, blackest sorrow she’d ever felt overcame her. Wincing through the pain in her shoulder, she rolled toward her father and encircled her left arm around his shuddering body, holding him as tightly as she could and burying her face in the fabric of his flannel. She inhaled deeply his natural scent of woodsmoke and pine as tears streamed from her eyes and soaked into his shirt.
There is no way to measure time in the pits of life-shaking despair. When the sun began peeking through the windows of the youth center auditorium Beth was still clinging to the motionless form of the man who’d cared for her with no love spared in the absence of a mother. The man who had dismissed the idea that he should ever find another person with whom to connect intimately and share his life. Dad had made every sacrifice imaginable for her, and in the end his final sacrifice was one that would keep her alive while the millions who survived the initial bombings would perish.
Dad had taught her that the water was not safe to drink anymore.