I had the idea for this story kicking around in my head for about a year or so. After the NYC Midnight competition I felt like writing another short piece, so I went ahead and finally wrote it. No prompts or anything.
Tamlin slowly drifted back into consciousness. Rolling over, she snuggled into the warmth of the blankets, smiling at how cosy she was. There was no alarm to force her out of bed, no schedule for today that she had to fulfil. It was her favourite part of life these days: being free from routine. She stretched, reaching up with her arms and arching her back until it felt like she was about to pop.
On bare feet, she padded over to the windows that spanned the wall opposite her bed. She threw open the drapes, letting the golden light of the morning sun stream into her bedroom. Lingering for just a moment, she smiled again as the light played over her skin, warming her. Tamlin loved the sun. It made her feel energised.
Squinting, she looked out at the city beyond the windows. Dawn’s orange-gold fingers played over the silent buildings and streets. It was quiet. Peaceful. Serene. Nothing moved in the city below. Not that she could see, anyway. Above, clouds lazily crawled their way across the sky. It was going to be another lovely day.
Shrugging out of the thin shift she’d worn to bed, she paused at her wardrobe, hand hovering over its contents in indecision. It was a nice day out, so something light? She made a selection, pulling it over her skinny frame, then stood in front of the mirror. The dress was a warm yellow that reminded Tamlin of the sun, and was covered in prints of tiny white flowers. She spun a little, letting the dress fan out, and giggled. It was cute.
On her way out, she scooped up a wicker basket from the corner of the room. Admiral Fluffybutt had fallen over—she straightened the dun-coloured stuffed rabbit so that his head peeked out over the edge of the basket. He wouldn’t quite stay put so she had to prop him up with the loaded handgun next to him. Once he was sitting nicely, she tucked the basket handle into the crook of her elbow and strolled out the door.
Crossing the small apartment, she paused only to slip on a pair of strappy white sandals that she’d left by the front door and retrieve her enormous, jangling bundle of keys from its bowl. She then made her way down the hall from where she slept, in 71, to 73. Tamlin fumbled with her keys for a moment, then unlocked the other apartment.
73 was a disorganised mess. There was a single long slab of bottled water, still sealed in plastic, on the kitchen counter, and cardboard boxes filled with pill bottles piled on the floor. Tamlin took a pair of scissors from a drawer and snipped at the plastic, carefully liberating a bottle of Pure Spring Water. Opening it, she took a sip and made a face at the plastic flavour that had seeped in.
Tamlin started to retrieve pills from each of the bottles that sat in a neat line on the counter next to the water. Iron, because she didn’t eat meat. Calcium, because she didn’t drink milk. Fish oil, because it’s good for the brain. Multivitamin, because she was sure there was some other stuff she needed but she wasn’t sure what. One after the other, she swallowed them with a small mouthful of water. She made a face after each one, trying to stop herself from gagging on the pills. Blech. She’d always hated taking pills.
After she was done, she popped a chewable vitamin C tablet into her mouth and crunched it between her teeth. It’d help her not get sick, plus it was a tasty treat to reward herself for being a good girl and taking her pills. The half-empty bottle of water went into her basket.
She exited 73, locking the door behind her, and crossed the hall to 74. Inside, a slight breeze ruffled the curtains that framed the smashed windows, carrying a vaguely unpleasant odour with it. Tamlin walked over to them and sniffed. It didn’t smell like burning outside today, which was good.
In the kitchen, Tamlin pulled out one of her big jars of vegetables. She unscrewed the lid, wrinkling her nose again at the sharp vinegary smell, then carefully drained the liquid into a big gallon bottle she kept for that purpose. She emptied the rest of the contents of the jar onto a plate, then tucked into the mix of pickled tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, and cauliflower with a fork. She was mostly used to the flavour now, though sometimes she got really bad acid reflux and had to take tablets to settle her stomach.
After breakfast, the empty pickling jar joined the water, keys, gun, and Admiral Fluffybutt in her basket. She’d already decided that she’d visit Harris this morning—he loved jars, and she could still spare a few. She locked the door then headed to the stairs at the end of the hall. The door here was locked as well, but she had a key.
The stairs led up to the building’s roof access, another door. Sitting on a hook nearby was a large, floppy hat. Tamlin picked it up as she headed outside, pausing in the light to let the sun warm her again. She let out a small sigh of contentment, then put her hat on and went to inspect the planter boxes.
There were a dozen of them in a pair of neat rows, remnants of the community garden that had once flourished on the rooftop. Tamlin had taken over their care. She was surprisingly good at it, she thought. The various vegetables were growing and healthy, some almost ready for her to harvest and stuff into the pickling jars downstairs.
She went to the other side of the roof, where bright blue tarpaulin stretched between the small ventilation turbines. The big five-gallon bottle she’d placed directly underneath the weighted hole in the middle of her water collection system was empty. It hadn’t rained in a few days, but that was okay. There was enough water downstairs to last her a week or more—she was more concerned about her garden.
All seemed well out here, so it was time to go see Harris!
Tamlin headed back inside and down the stairs, passing her floor and continuing downward until she reached the first floor. There was an open atrium that connected the ground floor with this one, so she strolled over to the balcony overlooking the lobby. Putting her basket down, she leant over the railing. ‘Harris! Good morning!’ she called out.
Below, a gaunt figure peeled itself from the barricaded front door it had been plastered to and shakily lurched a couple of steps toward her. The tall man made a gurgling snarling sound in the back of his throat. His face was a mass of shredded meat and dried blood.
‘Hiiii, Harris!’ Tamlin waved excitedly at her neighbour.
Harris flailed his arms in her general direction in response as he went through his normal routine. He stumbled underneath the balcony, losing sight of her, and Tamlin heard some thumps as he searched for a way upstairs.
The stairwell was well barricaded with a dozen pieces of furniture that Tamlin had hauled down from the apartments above, and would take more than a single person to force open. The front door Harris had been pressed against was barricaded firmly from the inside, as were all the windows. He must have already been sick when he’d hid in the building, sealing himself inside. There was very little chance he’d ever escape the lobby on his own.
Tamlin waited patiently as Harris fumbled about, the gaunt man eventually coming back into view once he’d finished trying to get up to her. He stretched upwards, reaching toward her, and made another gurgling growl of frustration.
She grinned and pirouetted, letting her dress flare out. ‘Aw, thank you very much, Harris! And how are you this morning?’
Harris attempted to jump, his fingers brushing the bottom edge of the balcony. He lost his footing as he landed, collapsing into a heap. Tamlin laughed as he pulled himself back up. ‘Now now, you know you’re sick. You gotta stay down there until you get better. If you behave, though, maybe I’ll climb down and get that door open for you so you can go outside!’
He replied with another snarl, stretching his arms out again and straining to reach her. She shook her head. Silly old Harris. Reaching down to the basket by her feet, she grabbed the empty pickling jar from breakfast.
Gently—carefully—Tamlin dropped it down toward Harris. His grasping hands lashed out immediately, snatching it from the air. He immediately lost interest in her, his attention now focused on the object clutched tightly in his hands. Leering down at it, Harris seemed to consider the jar for a moment before he started mashing his face against the top, as though trying to shove his head inside.
She wasn’t sure why he liked the jars. He just did. ‘Make this one last, okay Harris? I need to find some spares before I can give you any more.’
He ignored her. Eventually, he would smash the glass and it would join the other pieces of glass discarded on the floor of the lobby. The small growls and snarls issuing from his throat echoed in the jar, making the whole thing seem a little comical to Tamlin.
Sitting down at the edge of the balcony, she let her legs dangle down. They were easily within Harris’ reach if he decided to try to grab her, but Tamlin wasn’t afraid—he was having too much fun playing with his new jar. She leant her forehead against the railing and watched him for a little while, smiling at his antics.
After a few minutes, she stood up. ‘Okay, Harris, I’m gonna go visit Mrs Childers now. Chat later, okay?’
She scooped up her basket and headed around to 21, unlocking the door with her bundle of keys. Inside, she walked to the bedroom window and opened it. Crawling out onto the fire escape, she took a moment to survey the area below her.
Once she was assured that there was no one around, she started to climb the stairs down to street level, holding on with both hands to steady herself. The counterbalanced stair swung downwards, propelled by her weight, until it thunked gently on the ground below. It was a bit awkward to climb with the basket still tucked in the crook her of arm, but she took it slowly and eventually reached the bottom.
Before she left the last step she grabbed a nearby loop of rope, tied around the bottom of a drainpipe running the length of the building. As she’d done a hundred times before, Tamlin knotted it around the bottom of the stairs to keep them from swinging back up and leaving her stranded on the ground.
She stepped into the alleyway and took a moment to straighten and smooth her dress. Keeping an eye on her surroundings, she strolled casually toward the street. Apart from the sound of the breeze sweeping along some errant papers and Tamlin’s sandals tapping lightly on the pavement, it was silent.
She approached the gutter, then paused and carefully looked both ways. Left, right, then left again. The street was deserted. There were only three cars in sight—two parked neatly by the side of the road, and a third that had been crashed into the building opposite her. She hadn’t seen anyone actually driving around in a very long time, but she’d been taught to be careful when crossing the road.
Safety requirements satisfied, Tamlin crossed the street and headed toward the crashed car. As she rounded the side of the vehicle, Mrs Childers came into view. The old woman had been crushed between the car and the wall and almost completely cut in half. One arm had been caught as well and was now nothing more than a knobbly stump attached to her shoulder.
The old woman shuddered as she noticed Tamlin. Mrs Childers reached out with her good hand, fingers contorted into claws, her severed stump also straining around to wave in her general direction. The old woman’s mouth was open, but the only noise that came out was a barely-audible wheeze.
Tamlin tutted softly, standing just outside of her reach. ‘Hello, Mrs Childers. You need to be careful. You’re already really hurt, you should sit still. You know that you’re stuck. It’ll only make things worse if you wriggle around like that.’
Predictably, there was no response. Tamlin watched the old woman’s features contort in frustration as she strained against the car.
‘It’s nice to see you, too. I’m sorry I don’t visit you too often, but…’ A wide smile on her face, Tamlin reached into her basket. ‘I brought you a friend so you aren’t so lonely out here! Here, his name is Admiral Fluffybutt!’
Holding the stuffed rabbit where Mrs Childers could see it, she carefully leaned forward until she could drop him just where the old woman would be able to reach him. Mrs Childers made no attempt to take the rabbit, still fixated on trying to throw herself forward at Tamlin.
Tamlin frowned. ‘I really hope you feel a bit better soon. Take care of yourself. Goodbye for now.’
At the side of the road, she checked both ways again, just to be sure, then headed back to the alley. She would normally do a little bit of exploring to see if she could find any useful things to bring home, but didn’t really feel like it today. No, today was too nice a day to go scrounging around. She was going to go play on the roof, or maybe even read a book. Before that, though, she should check in on Martin as well.
Tamlin nodded to herself as she climbed back up the fire escape, the counterbalanced stairs lifting up behind her. Back inside, she climbed the stairwell down to the third floor. At the far end of the hall from the stairs was a janitorial closet. Tamlin set her basket to the side of the door and unlocked it, easing the door open carefully.
Martin sat inside, propped up against the back wall. His ankles were bound tightly together with duct tape that Tamlin had wound around and around them, and his arms were securely tied behind his back as well, fastening him to a heating pipe that stuck out from the wall. He couldn’t really move, except to wriggle around a little bit excitedly when he saw her, and the duct tape across his mouth meant he couldn’t talk or really make any sounds at all apart from muffled grunts.
Martin was a couple of years younger than Tamlin, so he was littler and she’d been able to tie him up so he’d be safe when he’d first gotten sick. She could see his jaw working behind the duct tape, as if he were trying to say something, but knew that if she took it off he would just try to bite her again.
‘It’ll be okay, Martin,’ she reassured him. ‘Sorry it’s so dark in here when I go away, but it’s safest for you to stay put, okay? I don’t want you to get hurt.’
The boy wriggled some more and made a muffled ‘mmurrrhhhfff’ noise. Tamlin reached out and gently ruffled his hair. He leaned into it, as though enjoying the contact.
‘You’re lonely, huh?’ She sighed softly. ‘I’ll bring you a friend or two to keep you company, okay?’
Leaning in, she hugged her brother awkwardly, wrapping her arms around his writhing body and holding him tightly. He pressed his face into the crook of her neck, jaw still working.
‘I’m happy you’re still here. One day you’ll be better, okay? Then you can come up and you can eat pickled vegetables with me and we can play like we did before.’
Tamlin pulled back and looked at him, cocking her head to one side, as though listening to something. Then she smiled. ‘Love you, too.’