As she walked down the park’s long driveway, the air grabbed Francesca Hamilton by the shoulders with thick dark yellow tendrils that still seemed, even after some seven months, as if they had discontented consciousness, malingering heavy in the low spots, tasting of rotten meat. The Ocher slickened every surface, discolored everything it touched. Hamilton knew that she’d not be able to stay long before her breathing mask—even this good one found in that ransacked Army surplus store—was clogged to uselessness. There was little risk in staying here too long: everything in the park was dead. Or close enough, anyway, she thought as parking lot gravel crunched beneath her boots. The park was built along a river, low and on a flood plain, and the Ocher always settled thickest in the deepest places. But the hope of a water source made braving the fog and near-zero visibility worthwhile. Maybe a breeze would move through some of the haze. The world couldn’t go seven full months without wind, could it? Hamilton tightened her scarf and re-tightened her gloves. The Ocher wasn’t deadly, not immediately, but repeated exposure caused gruesome effects. It was like some terrible movie cliche. Even thinking that it was like a movie had become cliche. She cleared her throat. Scratchy.
Her throat was always scratchy, everyone’s was. Francesca’s group had secured food pretty easily. Their group was small—just six adults and two children—and canned goods were plentiful across these suburbs. People had left in a hurry, presumably for their northern vacation cottages where they hoped the Ocher wouldn’t reach. She wasn’t sure how far north the disaster had drifted, but Francesca appreciated these neighborhoods’ affluence, and their absent-minded rush and panic. Pantries were often still full of canned goods. Tom had even found a closet full of prepper food in backpacks that someone must’ve bought off the Internet before things went bad.
But water: water was far harder to come by. For starters, most people didn’t keep jugs of water around the same way they stored canned goods. Gallons of water took up a lot of space, but a few extra cans of cream of chicken went almost unnoticed. The Ocher ruined plumbing when it got into the municipal water systems, and no one who drank tainted water lived more than a week. That made securing clean water sources was paramount. Still water absorbed the Ocher enough to make it unusable. Francesca’s people had sent her out in the hopes of finding a stream or a river they could return to as a steady source of water. Then, maybe their throats wouldn’t be so scratchy all the time.
Up ahead the fog swallowed the tree limbs she knew were bare. Across the flat vastness of the park, nylon soccer nets hung ragged from decaying metal frames. Before, Saturdays here would have been full of suburban spectacle, soccer kids and cheering parents. Sometimes, a bright hot air balloon floated in the park’s low open spaces, advertising a real estate company. When the bordering river swelled, its waters carried away volleyball court sand and tipped over the blue plastic portable toilets. One rested now, in the corner of the parking lot, on its door. Hamilton hoped no one was inside, but she knew better than to look.
Beyond the parking lot and past a twisted rusting metal rail, the gravel turned to grass, brown at its tips and losing the fight against hardier weeds. A cluster of picnic tables stacked leaning upright stood beneath a wooden pavilion, all going soft and mossy. A merry-go-round, splotchy silver where its red paint flaked off, leaned askew, but spun around its axis with a high screech when Hamilton gave it a nudge. She disliked foraging in parks. The quiet of parks highlighted the quiet everywhere else. But despite the ghosts she imagined in the park’s open places the Ocher filled, Hamilton’s least favorite foraging sites remained schools. The scale of the furniture among all the desolation, too small to fit even within such sadness, and the lonely wind chimes each building seemed to have, silenced in the stagnant air. Schools reminded her of the days before the toxic fog, before everyone knew the name of the ugliest crayon in the box.
Hamilton more closely inspected the upended picnic tables. Something about their arrangement spoke of more than mere storage. They were set in a circle, like a failing wooden wigwam. The cement floor underneath the pavilion was caked with mud and dust, but here and there, the dirt was worn as if from traffic. No footprints but shuffling or maybe even sweeping. The tables’ stacking created a space inside, and she now saw a collection of sad fading blankets making a carpet between the tables.
Overhead within the wigwam, sticks and scavenged trinkets hung from strings and yarn. A box of crackers, empty and overturned, rested nearby. Hamilton knelt on the blankets. Crumbs across the makeshift carpet.
Sometimes, in her foraging, she encountered people. They were mostly just passing by, their eyes distant, their lips thin from thirst or the Ocher’s effects. Usually, the encounters were silent, like ships or icebergs sliding by each other. The ocean and the world had space enough to give way, even though fate and chance had brought their paths within view of each other. The Ocher hadn’t built an apocalypse of diesel buggies and prepper crazies. Instead, Hamilton’s experience revealed an End times of lost motivation. Death came slowly. Oblivion creeped home on the backs of the defeated and hopeless. Hamilton had nearly completely avoided violence. People in her group speculated that the fog repressed desperation, of at least the logical kind. Or maybe everyone was still in shock, too stunned to be aggressive. Or, perhaps, Hamilton had cultivated a countenance that told strangers she was not be messed with. That was her favorite explanation because it was clearly ridiculous.
When she rose, her head bumped on an old soda can hanging by red yarn. Ridiculous was always the name of the game these days, and since she didn’t take chances beyond her mission and her curiosity, she withdrew from her thigh pocket the collapsible metal baton she kept for defense. With a wrist flick the baton snapped to full length. This shelter, small and shabby as it was, wasn’t big enough to harbor many people. Hamilton was quick enough, she knew, to run away from small parties, or hide. Large groups were loud enough to give plenty of warning, and singles might be reasoned with, or avoided. And there was always her baton. She’d grown comfortable with at least looking like she was trained in self-defense. The guy she’d cracked over the head would have assumed she’d taken all sorts of classes. You learned things in the Ocher, she’d said in her report upon her return, and if you didn’t, sometimes you could fake it to good effect.
The park was quiet. Whoever stayed under the pavilion wasn’t home. Hamilton listened for voices. The eerie emptiness of the missing birds was broken only by the trickle of the nearby river. She left the pavilion, a little wearier than before, baton in hand.
At the river’s edge, the Ocher was thickest, mustard yellow old and settled on the water. But the river still flowed, Hamilton was relieved to find, so she removed the test tubes from the pack at her waist and knelt on the muddy ground. She scooped water with one tube, then poured it into the other tube. The water remained clear. Drinkable water. Finally, they had caught a break. They could return with trucks and jugs and one worry was abated. She filled her canteen and stood, pulled her mask below her chin, and drank deeply. The water was cool and fresh on her tongue. Behind her, the merry-go-round screeched again.
When Hamilton turned to look, the merry-go-round was spinning slowly, lopsided, and beside it stood three children. Maybe they were ten years old, their clothes, whatever color they’d been before, all stained yellow. The two girls had long dark hair that crept down their heads in tangles, and the boy, a bit shorter than the girls, had filthy brown hair matted stiffly to his head. Each child looked thin, with sunken eyes and jaundiced skin. None wore shoes. They stood with arms at their sides, unblinking. Hamilton dropped her canteen in shock. She’d never seen children loose within the Ocher. The fog swallowed up youth. Kids aged quickly or didn’t age at all.
If she’d been beside herself, she would have warned her about not taking anything for granted. About how even children were susceptible to whatever was making society. . . well, whatever it had become. She would have reminded herself again about stupid characters in stupid movies, those cliches again, running up the stairs when clearly the front door was a better option. She was smarter than that. But these were just kids, after all. After all.
Hamilton struggled to speak.
“Who?” she asked. The kids didn’t move. Hamilton realized how frightening her appearance must seem. She knelt slowly, placed her baton on the ground and stood, open-palmed. “I’m not going to hurt—”
The children were on her before she could move or speak. The girls pulled her feet from under her and Hamilton landed on the soft ground with a thud. They clawed at her face, ripping off her mask and scarf. She booted one of the children in the belly, sending the girl cartwheeling into the river. The remaining two kids punched madly at every part of her body. One of the children kicked her fiercely in the side. Hamilton felt the crack of a shifting rib in her teeth. The children chanted something, or sang, rhyming. Through the blur Hamilton tasted blood. Each breath icy pain.
The two remaining children stopped punching and instead pinned her outstretched arms to the ground painfully with their knees. The third crawled out from the river and stood over Hamilton, dripping cold water. Hamilton blinked away the pain, through rasping breaths, and looked up to see the girl’s teeth, ragged and yellow, lips lined with noxious blisters. The girl’s Ocher-tinted eyes stared impassively. Over the girl’s shoulder Hamilton could now see into the trees. The limbs looked bony in the chalky yellow sky, and now she could see figures, people, in the trees, held fast by ropes, or maybe nails or even pierced through by the branches, clothing thread bare and filthy as torn as their straining flesh, most of them unmoving, but here and there some of them reached feebly, through the fog. She would have screamed, but the pain and the blood wouldn’t allow it. And Hamilton recognized the children’s nursery rhyme now, as the girl still dripping river water finished it.
“We all fall down,” said the child, small-voiced like a cartoon mouse, and brought a large flat river rock down across Hamilton’s nose. Hamilton was thinking about that nursery rhyme when she regained consciousness, tied among the branches of the park’s dead trees. She saw now, too, the soda cans, hung with frayed thin string, limp within the treetop. Hamilton remembered through the pain those schools, those small innocent desks, and those silent wind chimes. Other bodies dangled nearby, here and there staring with yellow glazed eyes or blinking through their shared defeat, some slowly flexing sagging jaws in a silent rhythm, but only Hamilton still had enough voice left to sing.
Jason Kahler is a teacher, writer, and scholar from Southeast Michigan. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKahler3.