Responsibility by James A. Hartley [sci-fi]

Imprint - SciFi Imprint Logo 200wResponsibility by James A. Hartley

The pair of them lived, or rather they existed, in the old department store down on Catatonia Avenue: Death’s Head and the Sickly Child. The glass fronts faced out onto bits and pieces, and inside there was the same. The street had had another name once—a proper name. And the Sickly Child had the Virus, but Death’s Head didn’t mind. She’d seen the Virus plenty of times before, and she knew it couldn’t touch her.

Death’s Head glanced across to where the Sickly Child was rooting around among the shoetrees and the mirrors, pushing aside cobwebs and dust with her pale, thin hands. Her fine white hair made a cloud around her puffy milk-hued face. She hummed a tune as she moved from stack to stack, seeking something; Death’s Head knew not what.

“What are you looking for?”

The Sickly Child’s humming broke off. “Red shoes,” she said. “I feel like some red shoes.” She performed a little pirouette, her arms curved above her head. Dust motes sparkled in the shafts of liquid light as her faded floral dress billowed around her.

Death’s Head pursed her lips. Her young companion would be looking for hours, and when she finally found her precious shoes—if she did—they’d occupy her for long enough. The Sickly Child was easily amused.

She turned away and left her to it. She picked her way over fallen shelves and tumbled displays toward the vast marble staircase leading to the lower floors. Small pieces of rubble crunched beneath her feet. She didn’t care about the noise or who it might disturb—this was their place.

On the ground floor, the doors to the street hung open. One angled where it had been torn from its upper hinges, the thick glass long gone. Death’s Head slipped between them and stood looking up and down the street. That way lay the ocean. She used to think about taking that long walk down to the seaside, and then she would just keep going. She would walk and walk, watching her life dissipate in a trail of whisper bubbles in the cool water above, waves sweeping back above her head. That had been before. Now she had the Sickly Child to look after. Now she had responsibilities.

In the other direction lay the mountains, looming large with their forbidding crags. They sat in the back of her awareness, a constant reminder of their isolation. Few had ventured that way. None had ever returned.

Some said the war had been a bad thing, but Death’s Head didn’t believe that. Once upon a time, she’d been a nursing assistant, way back before the conflict, but now she was a doctor—a proper doctor. She gave her little black leather kit an appreciative shake. It had taken her months to build up her small supply of instruments and medications, scrounged from here and there. She fingered the small badge—her namesake—she wore to mark her position. The skull shape with its flying silver wings was pinned to her jacket, had been for years. It was hard to remember now, but she thought she’d found it in a bike shop a couple of blocks over.

The air was good this morning.

A figure lurched down the street toward her, and she pressed back into the overhang. She watched him warily. His black wool cap was pulled down to his eyebrows. His stained brown coat flapped around him, and the bundled green sweater was bunched around his belly and chest. Ratty threads hung from its bottom. Under one arm he carried a large package, wrapped in black plastic and taped with wide strips. He carried that package everywhere.

Death’s Head sank back further against the wall as he drew close to her and passed, muttering to himself, without even a glance. The Dog Man was basically harmless, she knew, but he unsettled her. Nobody had ever bothered to ask, but the package he carried so religiously under his arm had the shape of a mid-sized dog. Though, why he’d want to walk around with a dog wrapped in black plastic, she had no idea.

Perhaps it had been a pet, something dear. Something from before.

Death’s Head waited a few minutes until she was sure the Dog Man had gone, then stepped back out from the protective building shadow. Across the street lay another large, abandoned store, just like their own. That one had scaffolding still in place, ragged strips of plastic hanging from the metal structure like torn shrouds stirring lazily in the breeze. She often wondered what the building would have looked like without its ripped exterior. It was so hard to remember the times before, sometimes, that she just had to try and imagine. Her gaze lingered on the building, then shaking the thoughts away, she turned and headed up the street to perform her rounds.

No one knew where the first strike had come from. Some had said the Middle East, when there was a Middle East. Chemical, biological, nobody had been sure. But none of that really mattered anymore. It was all the distant past. All that mattered was the life they had cobbled together on Catatonia Avenue.

Two blocks further on, she came upon a bus stop. A baby sat at the base of the sign, watching her with its wobbling gaze. She smiled to herself. Didn’t it know that the buses were late? It bored with watching her and turned its head to face the other direction. As she neared, the baby teetered its head back to look at her. She stooped in front of it and held out a hand.

“What are you doing out here, little man?” she said.

It stared at her with big blue eyes, then shoved its fist in its mouth.

“Yes,” she said, looking up and down the street, then up at the sky. “It’s a lovely day for a trip to the beach.” And she thought again of cool, calm water, flowing gently above her head.

A quick scan of the surrounding buildings revealed no sign of the child’s mother. What had Doris been thinking of, leaving the child out here like that? Death’s Head got to her feet. She stood contemplating the surrounding storefronts. Perhaps the video arcade…

A quick call inside the doorway among the black-boxed silence revealed nothing. She peered around the gloom between the lifeless monoliths, but nothing moved. There was a supermarket across the street. Perhaps it would yield better results. She quickly crossed the street, ignoring the child that still watched her, and poked her head through the door.

“You in here?” she called. There was a scurry of movement from behind one of the shelves, followed by silence.

“Come on out,” said Death’s Head reassuringly. “It’s only me.” Wide, frightened eyes and the top of a face surrounded by stringy gray-blonde hair cut in a bob appeared tentatively above the shelf.

“I thought it was them,” said the woman.

Death’s Head frowned. What was Doris talking about? “There’s no one here but us crazies,” she said and laughed.

Doris Day emerged, sliding slowly around the end of an aisle.

“What were you thinking of, Doris?” she asked. “Leaving Blue out there on the bus stop like that.”

“I-I left him there for collection,” said the woman. She stood, her eyes downcast. She wrung her hands in front of her. “M-maybe they’ll take Blue and put him somewhere nice. Somewhere nicer than this. It’s no good for me, but maybe Blue…”

Death’s Head glanced back across the street, but Blue was sitting where she’d left him.

“Now, who exactly is going to collect Blue?” asked Death’s Head, turning back to face her.

“Those people who came and took Puffing Billy away,” she said.

“No one took Puffing Billy. I saw him up at the Plaza yesterday. Now you go and fetch Blue and take him inside. It’s not good for him to be sitting out on the street like that.”

“But they did. I saw them. They took Puffing Billy.”

Doris appeared convinced of what she was saying. It was unlike Doris to be convinced of anything.

“Describe them for me, Doris.”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Just people.”

“Well, if they were just people, what would they want with Puffing Billy? And what would they want with Blue? Blue’s your baby, Doris. You have to take better care of him.”

Briefly, for the first time, Death’s Head wondered who the father was. There were so few of them. It couldn’t be the Dog Man. Surely not.

“Doris, I want you to go fetch Blue and go home. Will you do that for me?”

Doris bit her lip and nodded slowly, then sidled past and out onto the street. Death’s Head turned and watched the gaunt figure while she retrieved her child and, clutching him to her narrow chest, disappeared inside one of the buildings opposite. Death’s Head waited for a few moments to make sure she didn’t reappear.

She could soon check if what Doris had said was true. Puffing Billy never left the Plaza. He chuffed around the hallways and into the grand rooms. The Plaza was only four blocks away. With a quick look to check that Doris hadn’t thought to leave Blue out on the street again, she headed up the avenue.

Another block further up, a shape peered out from a doorway. Long white beard and cane. Old Ebenezer. She smiled at him and waved. He nodded furiously and waved his cane in greeting, then disappeared inside. She’d visit him later, on the way back. Normally she did them each in turn, maintaining a clear routine with her rounds, the proper way, but what Doris had told her made her uneasy. Old Ebenezer would wait.

It didn’t take her long to get to the Plaza. She stood outside the tarnished revolving doors, listening, expecting to hear Billy’s whistle echoing from inside the lobby, but the Plaza was silent. She pushed past the revolving doors, still miraculously with their glass intact, and walked to the lobby’s center. Still nothing. Tall dead plants stood in square bronze pots, as tarnished as the doors, and bits of leaf and dirt lay scattered across the marble floor. Scuffmarks tracked across the tiles where Billy had pulled his imaginary carriages along his never-ending track.

“Billy?” she called.

Nothing.

He could be asleep, but Billy rarely slept.

She’d just have to check every floor. She headed for the staircase, and the upper floors, careful of her footing on the faded and holed carpet. She had been so used to the smooth marble staircase of the department store that she’d tripped once, her toe catching in a rip as she pounded up the stairs. The bruise had been painful for a month.

Death’s Head reached the next floor and listened again. There was no sign of the shuffle, shuffle, woooh-woooh of Billy’s passage. Nor on the next floor, nor the next.

By the time she reached the hotel’s top floor, she had given up hope of finding him. She listened carefully at each floor on the way back down, but the results were the same. There had to be a reason for Puffing Billy’s absence. Nothing would drag him away from his beloved hotel. Death’s Head had to think.

She crossed to one of the cracked leather chairs strewn about the lobby and sat. The creaking chair echoed loudly in the silence.

No Puffing Billy. Doris leaving Blue out for collection. She’d seen Old Ebenezer. But where were the others? The Dog Man was okay. She’d seen him too. But if what Doris said was true, then someone had taken Puffing Billy away. No one she knew could do that, would do that. They were all her responsibility. Most of them could look after themselves with a little helpful prompting, except for the Sickly Child. But the Sickly Child had Death’s Head to look after her. Even though Puffing Billy thought he was a train, at least he could look after himself. He’d know better than to let someone take him away, wouldn’t he?

The Sickly Child was a different matter.

It just didn’t make sense.

Then it struck her. The Sickly Child!

Death’s Head had left the Sickly Child alone in the department store. If there was someone wandering around removing people with no explanation…

It was her responsibility.

She leaped up from the chair, and fumbling her kit, raced out the door.

Seven blocks. Seven whole blocks.

By the time she reached the department store where they lived, her breath was coming in ragged gasps and the blood was pounding in her ears. She dragged herself to a stop, barely able to believe what she saw. Parked in front of the store sat a big white van. It looked like no other vehicle she had ever seen on Catatonia Avenue. The paintwork was clean and the bodywork undamaged.

Nervously, she crept around the van’s back corner, keeping low. Plucking up her courage, she popped her head up and glanced through the van windows. It was empty. She swallowed back her nerves and stood, looking for movement on the surrounding street. Still nothing. They had to be inside the store. And inside was the Sickly Child—alone.

Death’s Head stifled a curse and charged toward the hanging doors of her home.

They were standing there when she reached the second floor, a man and a woman. Something was strange about the way they were dressed. They wore black uniforms, but that wasn’t it. Then she realized. The clothes were all crisp and clean. They wore hats as well, each one with a thick red band and a shiny silver badge in the shape of a shield on front. Their faces were clean and shiny too, just like the badges. Between them stood the Sickly Child. She smiled when she saw Death’s Head.

“Look,” she said, pointing down at her feet. Her face was glowing. She’d found her red shoes and wore them now, all bright and sparkling. They looked strangely out of place in all the gray and dust. The light from the windows behind made a nimbus of her thin white hair.

Death’s Head took in the scene immediately. The man and the woman looked wrong here; they did not belong. This was her place.

“Who are you?” she said. “What do you want?”

“We’re here to help,” said the man. He held the Sickly Child gently by one arm. The woman held the other.

“From the Salvation Army,” said the woman.

At the mention of armies, Death’s Head took a step back. But that wasn’t right. There was something about salvation. She bit her lip.

“We just want to help,” continued the woman. “We’ve come to take you away from here, to somewhere better.”

“Yes,” said the Sickly Child. “We’re going home.” She clicked her heels together and grinned a stupid grin.

“No,” said Death’s Head. “We like it fine just here. Why now? Why after so long?”

“It took a while for things to get back in balance,” said the man. “We’re only now starting to pick up the pieces.”

Death’s Head took another step backward.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said the woman, lifting a calming hand. “If you just come with us, everything will be all right. Proper medical treatment. A warm place to stay. Proper food.”

Death’s Head looked at the three of them standing there, the crisp black uniforms, the Sickly Child’s idiot smile in her too-pale face. She couldn’t. How could anything be all right? What did they mean, proper medical treatment?

“No!” she cried. Clutching her kit to her chest, she turned and ran. She ran past the tumbled shelves, between empty display cases, over broken glass and brick. She ran toward the broad marble staircase leading to the upper floors. Up and away—away to the roof.

“Wait!” said the voice, echoing behind her. She heard the Sickly Child giggle.

She burst out onto the rooftop, thrusting the metal door open with a crash. Birds scattered into the air, wings whirring and flapping about her, dust and feathers flying in a cloud.

Her heart pounding in her chest, she crept to the roof edge, listening for pursuit, but none came. Then she heard noises from the street below.

She watched them from the rooftop, peering over the edge as they led the Sickly Child out into their big white van. They didn’t even look up. She watched as they drove away up Catatonia Avenue, weaving slowly between the few discarded vehicles that lay battered by the roadside and the bits and pieces strewn across the street. She lay there panting, staring down at where the van had turned, long after it had disappeared from view. The van had gone. The Sickly Child was gone.

She didn’t move from her spot until darkness had shadowed the empty street.

For most of the night, she wandered, roaming the floors of the big empty department store, waiting for the Sickly Child to return. Only her own footsteps echoed from the hollow walls. At any moment, she expected the Sickly Child’s humming or one of her meaningless songs to come drifting from some veiled corner. Finally, she slept, alone, curled up in the corner where the Sickly Child had been seeking her magic red shoes.

The next day, she searched. She searched the vacant buildings and the empty streets. Twice she saw the big white van and ducked out of view, clutching her kit to her chest, until the van had passed. Once she saw the Dog Man, no one else. Though she looked, there was not a trace of anyone. They were all gone: Puffing Billy, Doris Day, Blue, Old Ebenezer, and the others. And the Sickly Child. All of them.

By the third day, she had given up hope of finding them again, and the van had stopped coming. There was still the Dog Man, but that wasn’t anywhere near what she wanted, what she needed. She simply couldn’t stomach the thought of him being the only one. The Dog Man and his black plastic package. Nothing else. How could she survive with that?

She looked around, up and down the empty street, and slowly, slowly, the realization came. All she had left was the ocean.

Gently, carefully, she stooped and placed the bag containing her scavenged kit down at her feet, her mind made up. Then, just as slowly, she stood, turned toward the beach and saw…

Further down the avenue toward the beach, in the middle of the street, stood the Dog Man. The light made it difficult to see, but she knew it was the Dog Man because of his package. It stood on the road beside him, a dog-shaped silhouette. He was waving something at it and muttering. Then he threw what he was waving.

A stick shape arced out and up into the sky, sailing through the air to land further down the street. Where had he found a stick?

The Dog Man stood watching the place where the stick had fallen, turned, placed his hands on his hips and muttered something to his packaged companion. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, he wandered off to retrieve the stick. He left his black plastic shape standing there, alone, in the middle of the street.

A few moments later, the Dog Man returned, carrying the stick with him. He stooped a little, waved the stick in front of the place where the package’s head would be, then threw. Out and up, the stick sailed into the air and fell to the street. The Dog Man stood waiting. Nothing.

Three times, Death’s Head watched the performance. Three times, the Dog Man threw his stick, waited, then went and brought it back. And by the third time, despite her doubts, Death’s Head realized that she knew something else. Watching that display, the actions filled with a hopeless futility, she had come to an understanding.

With a slight smile, she reached down and carefully lifted her kit from the spot where she had placed it. She clutched it protectively against her chest, smiling still as the Dog Man threw once more. Her smile grew more certain as she headed down the street toward him. He wasn’t quite the same, with his ratty clothes and stringy hair, but he could almost be the Sickly Child—almost.

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