AUTHOR'S NOTE: The action of this story precedes Steal Tomorrow. The story is cross-posted on my Steal Tomorrow blog.
May walked down the city street carrying two empty gallon jugs and trying to reconcile the evidence of her eyes and nose with what her brain still struggled to acknowledge. They were all dead—not just her parents, tutors and professors, but all the adults, from newscasters and bank presidents to hedge-trimmers and street musicians. The ones who died first got graves. Later, the dead were thrown into pits. The last of them still lay in the streets and buildings where they fell, hence the smell that May tried to counter by wearing a perfume-soaked scarf over her face. It helped a little.
She saw a few kids hawking bottles of water on a street corner, but although she was tempted, she continued on. Two blocks ahead was a park. The turf had been dug up for burial pits and a broad open area showed scorch marks from an attempt at mass cremation, but what May was after was the water. She walked the stone path to the canoe launch and stooped to fill her gallon jugs with river water.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
May looked around, nearly dropping one of her water jugs. The boy looked to be about twelve and although he was dirty, there was nothing about him that suggested danger.
“Everyone who drinks that water gets sick,” the boy went on. “Sometimes they die. It’s because of all the dead people.”
May turned away in annoyance and went back to filling her jugs. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Shut up and go away.” May capped the jugs, refusing to look up. Ignorant child. Of course the river water would make a person sick if they didn’t properly treat it. But she was a chemist and the daughter of chemists. She went to college at sixteen and would’ve been in her third semester if not for the pandemic. She knew what to do to keep from getting sick off the water.
It occurred to her that it might be a good thing to share her knowledge with the boy. What would it hurt to explain how to filter the water, then distill or pasteurize it? She got to her feet and looked around, but he was gone. Stupid kid.
As she walked back to the room she was living in over a restaurant, she found herself unable to shake the incident at the river. What was she living for? Sure, she knew how to survive. Science had taught her a lot of useful things. But if she wasn’t going to teach others, what was the purpose of her own life?
She had the skills to put together a cocktail that would kill her quickly and with relatively little pain. Perhaps that was the best thing. It was either that or make herself useful to the other survivors, and she had spent her entire life doing what other people wanted. Child science prodigy May Ellison, credit to her parents and teachers, but really just a friendless freak who never got to do what she wanted to do.
A pack of dogs ran past, chased by children wielding baseball bats. A hunting party. Well, good luck to them. May paused so they could go by but as she resumed walking, something felt wrong. Something smooth was embedded in the sole of her shoe and she muttered a curse and stopped to remove it. The glass shard was bottle-green and caught the afternoon sunlight as she held it in her fingers.
A flicker of memory stirred. Mosaics at the art museum. Stained glass in the church windows. The glitter of fanciful costume jewelry on the necks and arms of the girls at her high school—girls her parents wouldn’t let her be friends with because she was so much younger and needed to study, study, study to win a scholarship to Harvard. She had spent all those hours poring over books and mixing chemicals in the lab when what she really wanted was to surround herself with bright, colorful things that sparkled.
May looked around the filthy streets, ignoring the curious stares of a group of boys sitting on the curb, passing a bottle back and forth. The glass of the bottle was brown and would probably sparkle too, once its contents were drained. She could smash the bottle, scoop up the glass, and…what?
What indeed? Who was there to tell her not to take the ugly, broken shards of civilization at her feet and make something of beauty? The road was littered with clear glass, blue glass, red and amber bits of plastic, and who knew what else? It was hers for the taking, and to hell with her parents’ goal of seeing her in a lab. They were dead, anyway, and so were all their dreams.
May dropped the shard of green glass in her pocket and picked up her water jugs, surprised that they felt lighter now. In fact, her whole body felt made of feathers and her heart fluttered with excitement. There had been a time when she thought she might have to wait half a lifetime to realize her own dreams, but who was to stop her now? She would go home and distill her water, and tomorrow she would begin scavenging art materials on the city streets. Her life would not be long—she was infected with Telo just like everyone else. But at least her life was finally her own.