Noah whispered to the bundle in his arms as a passing breath of wind raked across his skin. “So you’re the last Hope. I’ll do my part. You’ll get to the hospital, but can you bring what you’re called?”
“Hey Noah, what were you saying?” Tom went rigged and his eyes deepened in their sockets. “Wait! Do you feel that?” He shoved away from the willow tree he had been leaning on, strode out of the shadow of its hanging branches, licked the back of his hand, and lifted it to the air. “There’s a nasty breeze.”
“Do you think it’s the Black Wind?
“It has the bite and I’m not willing to find out.”
“Agreed. Over there, quick, I see a ditch. We might make it.” Noah sprinted up the dirt road, dodging chunks of pavement jutting out of the earth, and dove into the ditch, spinning so he landed on his back. He slammed into the ground, the breath blasted out of him, but the child safe in his grasp. Tom slid next to him, breathing hard.
Noah rolled over and covered the infant as best as possible. The wind whined above him as it picked up speed. Within moments it roared. It stung the back of his neck and burned his scalp with its venom. Seconds and minutes dragged Ignoring it as best as he could, he closed his eyes and prayed to every god he remembered. The Black Wind it was.
A few hours must have passed by the time Noah noticed the pain had eased. He worried about the length and angle of the shadows. Tom huddled next to him shivering with his eyes shot and body curled in for warmth. The sun had dropped to a mere sliver, while the wind left a deadly calm with its passing. The infant in Noah’s arms stirred and made a few unintelligible noises, which probably meant it was hungry.
“Don’t worry. We’ll get you to the hospital and there will be food aplenty waiting for you. You’re going to get certified meals, no affliction or anything. What do you think of that?”
“She probably isn’t thinking of anything other than she hasn’t eaten since entering this fine world.” Tom sat up and stretched his arms. He peeked over the ledge of the ditch. “It looks all right or rather feels all right. The wind has passed at least.”
“We should get going then.”
They climbed out next to the willow which Noah didn’t recall being so gnarled or the branches bent so deeply, even the dry leaves had fallen to the ground. Is there anything this curse doesn’t kill?
“Which way?” Tom shoved his hands in his pockets, scanning the thin wisps of a dusty horizon. The youthful lines of his face were masked behind bruises, announcing the affliction clawing away his life.
“I’m not sure. Give me a moment.” Noah did his best not to stare at the bruises. His marks were in less visible places than his companion’s. Who doesn’t have the curse anymore? He unrolled the faded street map, cradling the bundled infant in the crook of his arm, noted the late hour by the falling sun, and found their location, not more than five miles out of the remains of Detroit, marked by a fallen road sign he observed a few miles back. “We need to head east, away from the sun.”
“Are you sure you can read that thing?”
“As well as I can piss.” Noah did his best to ignore his irritation with Tom. The poor schmuck would die soon enough and he didn’t want to make it any worse. He reminded himself, few people were trained to understand the symbols anymore. That’s probably why I got picked. They started east with Noah pointing the way as he periodically checked the map.
“How’s she doing?”
“She seems well, as far as I can tell. But we can’t even look at her face to see if the affliction has set in yet. You know about as much as I.” Noah’s experience with infants was about as lengthy as a toothpick and he wasn’t about to pretend otherwise. He had to get to the Remnants, trade Tom for passage, leave the child at the hospital, and he would be done with this mess.
It was her, the mother, who did him in. Her sharp green eyes and a smile which belied the sickness eating away her life was enough to convince him to agree. The mother didn’t even get see the child for fear of affliction. She only had a few hours to live. Dammit, why did they have to know I could read? Someone else could have carried this accursed child.
Tom stared at him. “So where is this place we are going exactly?”
“The Detroit Metro Hospital. Last I heard it was still running and it’s the closest one.” He didn’t mention he hadn’t been in Detroit for over twenty years.
“I hope you’re right. And the Angels will be there?”
“They took over all the hospitals as far as I know.”
“Do you know how long it will take?”
“You sure do ask a lot of questions. I would know better if we had a topographical map, but we’re stuck with what we got…”
“It was the only one in the compound. The last four trips only had rumor and memory to work with. Be glad we have what we got.”
“Poor schmucks. I hope they made it. How do you know about all this stuff? This isn’t public knowledge.”
“My father is chancellor of our compound.”
“And he let you be a Sacrifice?”
“I am afflicted. I was either to be cast out or sent with one of the sojourns as either a Sacrifice or Bearer. This was my choice not his.”
“Didn’t he try to stop you?”
“Once it was common knowledge I had been cursed, how could he?”
“No, I suppose there wouldn’t be much he could do. Can you remember how much time the child has again, before the disease sets in?” Noah glanced at the bundle in his arms, wondering if they would succeed in this desperate task.
“During orientation, I think they told us it would take around twenty-four hours.”
“Good, that’s what I thought. Then we need to speed things up. We’ve lost too much time already. We should avoid the roads. Whatever is left of the Remnants who didn’t flee the city may not remember or care about a twenty-year-old pact.”
“Do you really think anyone, including the Remnants, are alive? Our compound alone is down to a tenth its size and there’s no one who isn’t afflicted. We used to have certified food. Those who stayed behind had nothing. I don’t see how they could have survived.”
“I’m not interested in finding out who is or isn’t alive. You’re probably right. I just don’t want to risk it. Let’s get this child to the hospital and be done with it.”
“Do you think it needs food? The child I mean.” Tom leaned over to peek at the bundle, but Noah stepped back out of reach.
“Whoa, what are you doing? Keep your curiosity to yourself.”
“What? Come on, man, I’m not going to hurt her.”
“I don’t think you want to hurt her, but that doesn’t mean you won’t. Besides, I don’t feel comfortable exposing her to the winds. You’re afflicted and we don’t have any food.”
“Where the hell have you been. I’m not contagious, the curse…has done its part, at least if what the Angels told us is true. I’m not a threat anymore. You should know that.”
“Can you make it till morning?”
“I should.” Tom coughed followed by dry retching. They stopped for a moment while he got his breathing under control.
Noah worried if this kept up his companion wouldn’t last much longer. Seeing a young man slowly die, sickened his heart. “I hear the wastelands have better air. Maybe we should forget this mess. We wouldn’t have to deal with the city, the Remnants, or whatever else is in those dead streets.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Tom’s lips parted with an incredulous chuckle. “You expect me to take my last day and walk away from the only duty I’ve ever been given? Fuck you, hand over the child if you’re too scared.”
“You can barely stand, let alone carry anything.”
“At least I have the guts to do something with my life. Are you going to give me the child or not?”
“I don’t see the point of any of this. The infant will probably die and we’ll come shortly after. What if we get there and find the hospital abandoned? I just don’t see why we should do this. We have no evidence that the Angels of America are still there.”
“You’re that pathetic. You don’t get it. This is our last chance.”
“Saving what can be saved. If we go to the wastelands you’re killing the child. You might as well throw it against a rock.”
“Wait a second, you’re being a little harsh here.”
“No, I’m not. When was the last time you heard of a child living past a day?” Tom waited a beat. “I know. I can’t think of a single one. This is the only chance she has. She must get to the hospital. I’m going, even if it doesn’t make any sense. This is the only way I know how to live with what I have left and live I will, till I fulfill it.” A fit of coughing doubled Tom over.
Noah backed away.
Tom spit a lump of blood onto the parched tundra and strained to regain his posture. “Man, it hurts. I feel like something is eating me from the inside out.”
“No, your innards are just rotting.” Noah kept his distance. “Don’t die yet.”
“I said I’m fine.” Tom’s eyes traveled the area between him and his companion. “Superstitious?”
“Or safe…sometimes…it is hard to decipher superstition from reality. Besides, the winds are enough of a threat to make anyone question.”
“Yeah, the Remnants would be on your side. Just ask them about their cures.”
“You little shit, you should die for that comment!” Being likened to the atrocities of the Remnants and their supposed cures put Noah’s anger to the coals. His jaw creaked as he spoke as the lines of muscles holding it in place went ridged. He hated them as much as anyone. Superstitious or not he wasn’t a Remnant.
“Why? Plan on speeding things up? How about we get back to this after the hospital?”
“Funny.” Noah’s eyes lost focus and what felt like a heavy dry rock lodged itself in his throat. “…sometimes it feels like superstition is all we have.”
“That, and death. I haven’t seen any good from either yet.”
“Let’s get going.”
“Lead on, Bearer.”
They traveled for a couple of hours, crossing a barren plain, cutting over a silent interstate, and navigating around a faded but resilient building. A school or jail, Noah wasn’t sure. His friend, or rather compatriot, walked beside him with as much vigor as the dead. It suits him…pale, bruised, heavy eyes. Another damned soul. Maybe this sojourn is our only redemption. Noah held the child in his arms tighter. She remained silent as if content. He wished she could survive. The green eyes of the nameless mother haunted him whenever he closed his, like she watched, judging his actions and even his thoughts.
The sun fell without warning and Noah squinted to read the aged map, a difficult enough without the lack of luminance. Tom wheezed nearby, holding his chest while he rested against a rusting car.
“How much further do we have?”
“If we don’t get stopped, and we are able to keep this direct route, we should be there by sunup.”
Tom hesitated with his response. “…she might make it.”
It must be hungry. There’s not much I can do. It will just have to survive till we reach the hospital. Before they left, Noah had asked for milk or some other type of food, but everything was tainted, or at least there was no way to tell otherwise. He still believed it best to give the infant some food before they left, even if it wasn’t certified, but it wasn’t his decision. “Let’s go. I don’t want to lose any more time.”
“You know there’s only one of me.”
“You’re a morbid fellow aren’t you.”
Tom smiled. “I don’t see your bruises.”
“The state of my affliction is my business. I know we only have one Sacrifice for the exchange, and that is why we need to travel as far as possible before we are seen.”
Tom lurched into a jog down a hill off of the street. “Then time is our enemy.”
Noah ran to catch up. “Yes…it is.” His arms stiffened from holding the child, especially at their current speed.
They skirted a dry pond and reached the rim of an expansive resting area for cars, leading into the wasteland of an outdoor plaza. They kept to the shadow of a withered oak claimed by the curse as denoted by rotting spots on its once proud trunk. Noah knew they should avoid the plaza, but they would lose at least a half hour if they went around it. He whispered, “We have to go through.”
Tom nodded his compliance.
If anyone still lived, Noah hoped sleep held dominion over the place.
The bundle squirmed in Noah’s arms. It stayed so quiet. He thought babies cried. That’s what he remembered. Why not this one? Maybe they didn’t. Maybe he didn’t remember right.
Tom walked ahead of him along the shadows, intent on what might lay before them. Noah became aware how much he depended on the resolve of this one man’s will to take his own life to keep them alive. A few hours of travel alongside him had done little to assuage his concerns.
They worked their way down into a mall parking lot, doing their best to keep to the shadows of the metallic dead where the vehicles lay in decaying tribute to a vague past of prosperity and convenience. A few cars had orange For-Sale signs against the broken glass of open windshields, like languid tongues against glass teeth, breathing the silence of failed desperation.
Noah couldn’t recall what the signs meant. Something to do with wanting to get rid of something. He waved the concern aside and kept going.
They cleared the rusting graveyard and heard a crack from within a tall brick building to their left. The infant shifted in Noah’s arms. He clutched the bundle harder and it went still. Tom and Noah shared a glance.
After about a thousand heartbeats, Noah nodded for them to continue. Now can’t be the time. It’s too soon. He took the first step as if placing his foot on the water of a raging sea ready to consume him in its convulsive grasp. His hesitation was evident and he knew it with annoyance. He eased each step with as much silence as he could garner, willing his feet to be as light as the child he carried.
Away from caution, Noah’s mind drifted to that which was in his arms and an awkwardness settled into his gait. He wished she had a name. He couldn’t stop thinking of her as a simple bundle of fabric and it bothered him. But children weren’t given names anymore. They were all Hope, an ideal fixed to a child stripped of its humanity, its distinctiveness. As he passed through the night filled desolation of the mall, he wondered if the children of Hope would see their world reborn.
A poster of President Obama with the word ‘Hope’ in large letters at the bottom caught Noah’s attention. He almost laughed at the irony of the word compared to his situation. What would life have been like without that message? Noah felt a hand on his shoulder and was surprised to find Tom’s dark lined eyes questioning him.
“You OK?” Tom took his hand back and scanned the area.
“Uh, I’m fine. Just fine.” They were no longer moving. When did that happen?
Tom shivered, his face masked in sweat.
Dew had crept up on them and Noah’s hands were clammy and chilled. He pulled out the one glove he owned and, gently cradling the child in the crook of his arm, worked the worn glove onto his left hand.
Tom stared at the child and the glove. He didn’t offer to help. Only one of them touched the child, only one of them was the Bearer.
Noah would have preferred a right glove. Maybe if he lived, he would barter for a one. At least it provided something to do, if he made it through this mess.
They passed store after store greeted by the whistle of a breeze, hinting at the wind which hid in the darkness. The place continued as a dim specter of what it once was, a commercial center for the affluent, now filled with scattered shadows of disrepair and silence. Noah felt strange being surrounded with so many signs after years of having letters be a luxury, but he forced only one word to roll across his silent tongue as he held its carrier in a protective embrace.
The pillars of dependence, as Noah liked to think of them, ended ahead, opening to the wide expanse, which lead to the hospital.
At first, Noah thought the shape another cancerous bulge amidst the rubble of the past, until it moved. It rose into the cloaked shape of a man barring the middle of their path. Noah tensed but didn’t stop, intent on walking around the person. This can’t be the Remnants. Not yet. We are still too far away.
Framing the languid frame of the man, his patched and stained cloak billowed in the damp breeze. “More people come to my place.”
“Are you from the Remnants?” Noah wanted to just pass by the man, but something held is footing. Don’t need to anger him, if he’s Remnant. The exchange is going to be sticky enough.
“The Remnants?” Laughter exploded from the man’s dark hood. “What is your desire for those left behind?”
“We want safe passage into the city, as per the pact set so many years ago.”
“And you have a Sacrifice for the exchange?”
Tom stepped up from behind Noah. “Yeah.”
“It’s been a number of years since I’ve seen anyone on the journey. If you make it worth my efforts, I’ll show you how to find the Angels.”
Tom’s eyes narrowed. “Why should we trust you?”
“It’s simple. If you don’t, you’ll die, along with your Hope and what it stands for. Only one hospital is functioning in the city, and unless you guess correctly out of the ten to choose from, you won’t make it in time.”
Noah’s patience dried up. “I’m not sure if I like you or what you’re about. If you’re not one of the Remnants, how do you know so much about us?”
With no response, Noah almost threw the encounter to foul play and left, but after a length pause, the cloaked figure spoke.
“I was once on the same journey as you are on now. I made the exchange, gave up my Sacrifice for the life of Hope. That is why I know what you are about and it is in vain, but if you persist in this folly I would be willing to provide you with my services.”
“Why don’t you just help if you’re not lying about your past?” Noah stared up into the dark mass of the hood and thought he saw a glimmer of eyes. He held tight the bundle in his arms.
“Because what you do is without point. Hope breathes no more even if the child in your hold does. I provide a service, nothing more. Give me payment and I will make sure you don’t end up in one of the hospitals which no longer functions.”
The man brought a foul taste to Noah’s mouth like a rotting piece of meat stuck behind the wisdom teeth which can’t be reached or pried loose. But a deeper instinct told him to listen, something primal, linking them all together on this journey, bearing a child of no more than a day’s age. Noah pulled off the glove and tossed it at the cloaked figure’s feet. “I don’t even have a jacket for my shoulders, a blanket to lay with, a hat for scalp, or any other necessity. Only this glove. It was my brothers.”
“It’s not much, but it will do. I know an old witch who can make something of it. What guides you, sun, memory, or map?”
“A mix of the three, but we do have a map.”
“That is well. Let me see it.” The cloaked figure pointed with his blue and scabbed hand to a place on the map a couple of hours southeast of there current location.
As bile built in his throat, Noah felt glad he couldn’t see the man’s face. “You’re sure that’s the place? It doesn’t say it’s a hospital.” He memorized the location and rolled the map back up to stuff into the loop of his belt.
“It is. I think it was built after the compounds were erected. A couple of years ago the other hospital closed and everything was moved to this location. You should have seen the exodus, large plastic bubbles and all, but no children.”
“When was this again?”
“I don’t know. Maybe ten years ago, maybe five. I lose track of what time is or where it might be. I’m just doing what I can to stay here while I can. Thank you for the glove, by the way.”
“Do you know where we are most likely to meet the Remnants?”
“That is easy. They haven’t moved much in a while. They are quite content staying a couple of blocks from the new facility erected by the Angels.”
“Thank you for the help.”
“There’s something about you. Maybe you will live. A shred of advice if you want it.”
The urge to get underway built in Noah, but he conceded with a nod. “As long as it is quick.”
“It is only this; speak the language of the abandoned and they will question, find their mother and they will listen.”
Tom grunted. “That’s it?”
The cloaked figure stood in silence.
“It appears so.” Noah went to leave and Tom didn’t hesitate to step in beside him.
From the edge of his eyes, Noah saw the man bend to retrieve the glove as they passed, but when he glanced back, the figure of their strange encounter had vanished.
It didn’t take long for the mall to disappear beyond the crest of a hill behind them. A few minutes later, they walked down the middle of a long-abandoned interstate. Neither Tom nor Noah spoke as the moonlight guided their progress.
Tom hugged his arms to his chest and pinched his hands in his armpits. “How much further?” He coughed, grimacing with pain he failed to conceal.
“I’m not sure. Maybe an hour or two.”
“Do you think we’ll survive?”
“Is the question worth asking? I don’t intend to dwell on what might catch us, whether it’s the Remnants, wind, or a foul chill.”
Tom laughed. “Probably, all three, but that’s not what I meant. Will we, humans, survive?”
Noah became acutely aware of the infant in his arms and wished he could see her eyes, but a thin cloth protected her face from the winds.
“Noah, you there? Ah, it doesn’t matter. The sun will be up soon. We should hurry.” Tom gained speed, enough to give him a subtle wheeze. Even with the strain, he didn’t falter or slow.
Maybe humanity will live. Noah kept pace. They bent around a curve in the road and a dark outline of the ruin of Detroit teetered before them. No lights, no noise, just the tall crumbling peaks of what had been. It now crawled with the carnal desperation of those who couldn’t release their past, bound to it as securely as any iron wrought chain. This territory belonged to the Remnants.
Noah wondered how many people still stared at their blank TVs, sat in their crumbling homes, and ate the molded remains of their past, while the affliction caused their bodies to decay even as they lived. It amazed him how many people refused to move on when he left this desolate place for the compounds. He caught Tom’s eyes. “I’ve thought about what you asked, about us living, and I’m fairly certain we’re going to die and all we know will go with us…but her, our Hope, and the infants before her might make something of what’s left.” Noah chuckled. “At least they have a better chance than us.”
“I hope you’re right.” Tom fixed his gaze on the city’s dark silhouette. “And, I hope they forget all of this.”
“It would be nice, but let them remember enough to learn.”
The first threads of the sun cut between the jagged spires of Detroit.
“We should get off the road. We are only an hour or so west of the hospital.”
Noah followed a few steps behind Tom as they navigated the dead stalks of bristly brush reaching like claws from the parched earth, yearning for a drop of their blood. Scratched and scraped, they worked their way free and found a street.
Tom found a sign buried under rubble which marked their location. Noah removed the map from inside his shirt and breathed a sigh of relief. They closed on their destination. No choice remained but to continue on through the decaying streets, where billboards lined against each other like a forest of classifieds. ‘Stop Sex’, one read, and another, ‘Virgins are Not a Cure’. ‘Plants Infected, Eat Only Certified Food’ proclaimed a sign dangling against a broken wall. Smaller posters plastered everywhere read ‘Give Your Child, Save a Child’, ‘The Angels Wait’, and ‘Official Mandate: All Children Must Be Brought to the Angels’.
Noah had fled Detroit before these last posters were erected. Now he was glad he wasn’t there when it happened. He shuddered to think of what people would have done. The outcry would have been…unimaginable.
Deeper into the city the signs took on additional markings much like graffiti, but with crude black paint as if wrought of ash. Some of it Noah recognized as gang or cult symbols, but as they progressed all the designs deferred to one or were defaced. He couldn’t explain his concerns, but the shape of it worried him. It depicted a cross with wings behind it, a snake wrapped around its base, and a halo at its crown.
Noah had fixed on the signs, now he glanced up as Tom nodded toward mounding heaps on either side. It took a moment to recognize them as skeletal remains discarded in thoughtless decay. Some he could identify as human, others appeared to be animals, all mingled in a dance of death. “What savagery is this?”
“Maybe the Remnants did this?”
“I’ve heard a lot about them, but nothing like this. This is where we are supposed to meet them though.” Noah forced his eyes away.
“If the Remnants aren’t here, how are we supposed to find them?”
“We don’t need to. The hospital is only a few blocks up. If they were going to stop us it would be here. I think this is them.”
“If that is true. Who did this?”
“I don’t know, but I would rather try to figure it out after we give the infant to the Angels.”
“You’re right on that. I would like to be done with this place.”
Noah checked the map to verify their location. “I can’t and don’t want to argue on that account.”
A painfully loud horn sounded from ahead. Noah flinched and even his stomach clenched. Foreboding urged a desire in him to flee from the horn’s call. He ignored the impulse. The infant snuggled deeper in his arms within its protective wrappings. “I don’t know what that was, but we’re almost there. Run!”
Their feet pounded against the uneven pavement as they sprinted towards the hospital. Noah caught a glimpse of a faded road sign and then another. Only one block left. Luck was with them.
On either side of them were tall buildings with each door and window blocked by something Noah couldn’t clearly see in his haste.
“Wait! Noah, those are children!”
Noah came to halt, shocked by what his companion said and more so by what came into focus from within the buildings.
Countless children barricaded the doors and windows, huddled over each other, staring at them with a wild innocence gleaming from their eyes. They wore random pieces of garments wrapped around their small bodies in every which way possible.
They seemed so strange, almost foreign or alien to Noah. Maybe it had been the years since he had seen a child. One oddity stood out among the others, the soft lines of their small faces were bent with what appeared to be fear. Why would they fear us? These poor children. “Hey, weren’t not going to hurt you. We’re just heading to the hospital.”
They didn’t respond and, if anything, the lines of fear deepened.
“I don’t think they get what you’re saying. Hey, wait! Noah, they’re not cursed. They’re not cursed! Not a single bruise.”
“That’s impossible. Who are they?”
The horn blasted once more and the children flinched almost as one, pulling further back into shadows of the early dawn. The fear conquered the innocence in their eyes.
“I don’t know what has happened here, but we should get to the hospital. Maybe they will know what is going on.” Noah itched to run.
Most of the children stepped into the light and some of the older ones crawled all of the way into the street, moving more like animals than humans, on all fours. Soon a throng merged behind them. The horn sounded and the children towards the rear yelled with pain, but the ones in front only grimaced, snarling as if an animalistic frenzy took them.
“Tom, I think we should run.” Noah couldn’t break his eyes from the drool which fell from the chin of a child not ten paces from him. More animal than human.
“Yeah, let’s get the hell out of here.”
They broke into a sprint and almost at once the children screamed. The sound deafened, making Noah dizzy. He stumbled, but caught his footing, holding tighter to the precious girl in his arms. Beside him, Tom held his hands to his ears and tried to keep up, wheezing with each lurch of his feet. They rounded a bend and in front of them loomed a pristine white building devoid of decay. The sun caught a corner of the left wall, shining with a warm golden brilliance.
“Come on! We made it!” Noah lengthened his stride and lost sight of his companion. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw Tom sprawled over a pile of rubble, attempting to regain his feet.
Noah, against his instincts, skid to a rough stop and ran back toward his friend just as the children appeared from around the corner, fighting each other to get at them, their small feet driven forward by some unexplainable carnal hate. The horn blasted from behind them even louder this time, but the children didn’t stop. Only a few flinched and the rest ignored it completely. The infant in his arms began to cry. Noah was still a good ten feet away as Tom managed to stand, but a swarm of children leapt over him. They bit, grappled, and clawed at his friend.
Tom screamed as one grabbed the edge of his eye socket with its little hands. Too weak to make much of a fight, he fell to his knees.
Noah was lost for options. The slender throats of the children yelled, screamed, snarled, and cried in a cacophony. Suddenly, Noah became certain. They can’t speak. As desperation built, a primal instinct triggered inside him and he yielded to it. He called out in a single sound, a single low pitch, which resonated from every fiber of his body. It erupted in a deep bellow which shook his teeth and dried his tongue, reverberating like a cornered lion’s challenge, roaring with its last breath. He didn’t know what overcame him, but it worked. The children scattered at the noise just as he lost his breath, revealing Tom huddled in a ball, bruised and bloody. His left eye was shut and wouldn’t open.
“Come on!” Noah kicked him, not knowing what else to do. “Move!”
Tom seemed to gather his senses and Noah offered a hand, helping him stand. They scrambled to the hospital and met white double doors at the entrance with a blank display screen to the right.
Tom coughed up blood with his right hand against the white double doors for support.
Noah averted his gaze and forced himself to go over to the screen. He scanned it, but there were no buttons, no keypad, no place to insert anything, he had absolutely no idea what to do. There was only the blank screen.
“Hurry. They’re coming.”
“I am, but I don’t see how to make the thing work.” Noah cursed his luck, his situation, and his life. He had no idea what to do. We’re going to die.
“Give me a second.” Noah heard Tom bang on the doors. Worth the try. He felt along the screen for a latch or panel that would open a keypad or anything and accidentally brushed his fingers across the screen. It blinked to life with a dim white glow. Tom cried out with pain before being muffled under the snarls of children. Noah kept his eyes on the screen.
“Welcome to Angels of America.” A motherly, feminine, soft, and soothing voice responded, like the sound of silk against baby’s skin or the gentle flow of an undisturbed stream. The words caressed. Noah didn’t know what happened to the wild children other than he could no longer hear their mad cries. His purpose lay before him and he feared what lay in his wake so he kept his eyes focused forward with the infant firm in his arms.
“Please place you hand on the screen to initiate the drop off process.”
Noah did as instructed and the motherly voice thanked him with his full name, confirming his identification was verified. It asked a series of questions about the child, including weight, time of birth, sex, parents, ethnicity, and more. He made it all up except for the gender. A keyboard appeared on the screen followed by a request. “Name?”
Noah typed in one word, ‘Hope.’
“Thank you for your request. Processing…”
Noah held onto Hope and waited.
“We are sorry to inform you, your request has been denied. Capacity is currently full. Please come again. Have a blessed day from Angels of American.”
Noah’s mouth wouldn’t form words. Unbidden tears crawled down his ashen cheeks, escaping at his jaw bone. He couldn’t stop them as they fell onto the thin fabric, protecting Hope’s face. He knew his tears were contaminated, but he couldn’t stop. He dropped to his knees and shook, rocking back and forth with Hope in his arms. He pulled the cloth away from her face. She had green eyes. They were so beautiful, more than he could ever have imagined. “I’m sorry. I’m…so sorry.” He wiped his tears from her face and she smiled at him.
With a click, a small panel below the screen slid open. Inside it contained a cylinder the size of his thumb. He picked it up and the panel closed.
“Emergency Provision Order 1111E released. Use sparingly. Blessings, Angels of American.”
The cylinder had markings in English, but he couldn’t make sense of it. Noah held Hope and the cylinder, waiting for what he did not know. He heard rustling behind him and turned, placing his back against the wall.
Noah couldn’t see the end of them, there must have been a thousand children packed into the street. They all looked above him at the screen as if waiting for it to speak. What struck Noah the most was how normal they seemed. Innocence was with them once more, but something else lingered, visible in the way they held themselves. They appeared lost, without purpose, direction, or even understanding of who and what they were.
Noah closed his eyes. When he reopened them, the children were dispersing. He noticed small pictures along the side of the cylinder in his hand. They’re instructions. He removed the cap, revealing a tiny needle on the end. Confident he knew what to do, he gave Hope the shot. Finished, he tossed it aside.
A loud speakerphone announced above him in the same voice as the screen. “For your convenience, Angels of America is now providing the first meal of the day.” Multiple sections of the building swiveled open in large portals. Similar shaped tanks slid out ten feet, locked in place with a click, and numerous long tubes drifted out of them, stopping within inches of the ground.
The children began to return.
“We hope you enjoy.”
Noah noticed one small boy mouthing the words at he walked to one of the tanks. The boy grabbed a tube and began to suck a clear thick liquid into his eager stomach. The rest of the children did the same and since there were plenty of tubes the communal act was done with complacency in strong contrast to the violence of only a few moments ago.
Noah stood, clutching Hope to his chest. Tom lay on the ground not too far away, ragged and bloody with children passing around him intent on reaching their tanks.
Noah dodged around the children until he reached Tom’s side. “You all right?”
“More than I thought I would be. No, I’m…I’m fine.” Tom waved Noah away.
Seeing nothing else he could do for his friend, Noah walked to one of the tanks. Sitting down, he grabbed an unused tube and brought it to Hope’s lips. She drank with as much vigor as any suckling babe. A soft sound played against the air. A moment passed before memory stirred deep within him. Music.
Hope’s green eyes sparkled up at him with life.
“What have we done to you? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” The music mixed with the shuffling of thousands of small feet danced within Noah’s ears like the sound of a parade without rhythm or purpose. “Hope, tell your brothers and sisters we didn’t know…we didn’t know…tell them we are sorry.”