There’s only so much you can bring back, and some of the things I’ve had to leave behind haunt me. Dusty glassware from the university lab, too fragile to take over broken roads. Books that spilled their pages like a deck of cards or (once) whose ink charred in the light, leaving lacework pages.
And the thing with Melly, and Pattermead’s pack.
It was after the first long winter, and it was my third time out since Pattermead. They were talking about pairing me up with someone on the salvage runs again. It made sense, it’d be safer, and I didn’t want to hear that shit. If I brought back a good haul I could put it off a little longer—they’d insist if Sad Mack weighed in, but otherwise I’d be okay—so I was heading back to where I’d left him.
The melting snow left a dirty lace of ash over the road. It was getting dark and I was looking for a spot to camp along the shoulder when I snagged my pants leg on a thorny little creeper amid the winter-dead grass. I bent to untangle it and the thorns rubbed against my scars like a cricket trying to make words. Could almost hear them.
I kept going down the middle of the road the whole damn night.
It wasn’t a great time to be out. There’d been a storm on the northeast horizon a few days back, and sure, it had blown out before it got close. But lightning attracts ghosts, and some of them might have come this way after.
I hear that out in Alberta they’re having some luck trapping ghosts with old vacuum tubes—get them in, and they’re stuck in the empty—but no-one’s making more of those and they’re fragile. Not something you can drop in a backpack and carry through miles of rotten city. I just listen to my scars and keep my head down.
’course, I hear all kinds of shit about Alberta.
I’d been hurrying the whole way to Abbotsford and was mud-soaked from a fall I could’ve avoided by paying attention, and I was generally running on that miserable sad Christ I gotta get this over with feeling that keeps you from slowing down and being sensible.
The apartment building was one of the ones without too many holes in it, though it looked rougher than before in the almost-twilight. Couldn’t tell if that was my mood or the last couple months of weather.
I didn’t want to go back up and find Pattermead.
I lit a tealight and went anyway.
I wasn’t sure how high to climb until I kicked the flashlight that I’d dropped on the landing, back then. The cold little tube skittered away from my foot. I picked it up before I turned down the hallway. Another battery could make it good bait again.
The door of the place we’d checked was still hanging open. There’d been rats, thank Christ. I’d liked Pattermead, didn’t want to see what the ghosts had done to him.
The other bits we’d found before were still scattered around, untouched.
The straps on his pack had broken, and the rats had gnawed a hole in it, but it still held most of what we’d gathered. I found the dog-tags that Chaudrey gave everyone, and took his shoes—he’d had good shoes, someone would be able to use them. Then I put a cobweb-clotted tablecloth over him, and when I was done apologizing I left him there.
I carried his pack down the steps in my arms. Its weight rubbed my arms raw through my muddy sleeves, and the ruined straps dangled. My muscles trembled and sang, and the grime dried to a thin layer on my face and stung my eyes.
I was talking to his pack, a low half-mutter through my teeth. Like I was carrying him, and explaining what we needed to do next. We needed to get to someplace safe, someplace I could clean up, dry my clothes before they had a chance to rot.
We needed to sort through and repack the salvage down to what I could carry out alone. Because he couldn’t help me now.
It was dark out, a smeary cloudy sky and a dry rind of moon. I could see enough to walk down the pavement and I did that, his pack burning in my arms. My wet clothes bagged heavy and chafing down my back, between my legs, oozed mud into my boots. I imagined him yelling at me to stop being such an idiot, find shelter, clean up. I started to run. You can’t yell when you’re running. And I tripped on one of the hungry cracks in the pavement and went down in the street with all the air smacked out of me.
The good thing about having the breath knocked out of you is it makes you stop to catch it.
I picked myself up slowly, found a place where the walls had mostly fallen out onto the street, and crawled into the basement for shelter.
— * —
There were clean clothes in his pack. They were too short and loose, and my belt left slimy patches on the waistband, but I wore them. I built a low fire and my own clothes smoked and stank as they dried.
I didn’t mean to sleep.
I woke up at dawn and saw the sunlight reflecting red off the air above me, memories shining where the building's windows used to be. Birds were winging back, and one flew through the glaze of light and dropped with a broken neck.
In the grey light of morning, with the wind hissing past the stubs of the walls, I laid our salvage out under the empty sky and sorted it as best I could. The drugs I kept, and the small metal things he’d found. Pattermead had been an engineer. I’d been an electrician, which was about the most Christing useless thing you could be now. I didn’t know why he’d thought these things were good, but I trusted him.
I shoved what I couldn’t carry back into his pack and tucked it into a corner, kicked gritty dust over it. Maybe someone’d find it, or I’d come back for it someday.
I heard something moving as I headed back up to the street and held still. There were rats in the city, sure. Used to be dogs, but the winter had been hard on those.
The scrabble I heard was too big for a rat.
I unwound the laces that held my zip-gun in its holster, pulled it out slowly, crept up. Breathed through my mouth and tasted snowmelt and concrete and listened very hard. If my scars were tingling I couldn’t tell through the adrenaline, and you couldn’t hear ghosts coming anyway, but it was sure as hell something.
There was another scrabbling, closer, and the flapping noise of bad shoes, the kind with the sole peeling off. It only sounded like one person. It shouldn’t have been any person. Abbotsford was no longer the kind of place where you got a lot of through traffic.
There was half a doorway above me. A stub of wall. I took a deep breath and lunged past it to the street, trying to look everywhere at once and aim where I was looking and—
“Don’t shoot me!” she screamed.
The noise was such a shock I pulled the trigger. The carriage bolt the zip-gun was loaded with went skittering off somewhere. I dove back behind the wall.
When I heard breathing, or sobbing, I peeked out again.
There was a young woman trembling mid-cringe in the street, hunched over and knees bent and hands thrown up. Her ashy skin was streaked with dirt, and her layers of clothes were technically not rags. Her shoes were in a terrible state—one of them had the loose-flopping sole that I’d heard. When the wind gusted the right way, I could smell her.
I pointed the zip-gun at her and said “I’m not going to shoot you.” There didn’t seem to be anyone on the rooftops or in the sky-backed windows or at any other vantage point I could see. “Where’re your friends?”
“There’s no-one.” She lowered her hands a little. Her fingers and face were whittled down next to the bone, and her voice was wavering. “No-one here except you. I think. Didn’t see anyone.”
I kept looking around, little snips of sight. Trying to catch someone out, moving my eyes more than my head. Wasn’t getting anything. “Where’re you from?”
She pointed northeast, which made sense. West and northwest are the coast and the big parks where if you lasted the winter, you probably wouldn’t feel any real need to come out. Anyone coming straight out of the east or up from the States would be a professional traveller.
“You came alone? How far?”
“Kamloops,” she said. “Someone chased me. Dropped my pack. Had to.” She wasn’t crying, which made it more believable—could’ve lost her water along with her pack. “Scared to go back, if they were waiting. Kept going.”
“Where’d this happen?”
She waved northeast again. “Two days that way,” she said, and then, swallowing, “Maybe three.”
“What’ve you been eating?”
“Some dandelions yesterday.” She blinked. “I think.” Her voice began to rise. “I just kept walking. I don’t know. What’s going on? I don’t—”
She cut off hard as a flipped switch. In the sudden quiet my skin prickled. Nothing so clear that I needed to get out of there; just a bad feeling.
“Sorry,” she said, opening her eyes. “I’m very—Do you have any food?”
I picked some jerky out of my pocket and tossed it to her. It bounced off her chest and through her fingers, landing on the street. She snatched it up and dusted some of the grit off after the first bite.
If she was lying about the starving-and-lost thing she was really convincing. I put the zip-gun away. I hadn’t reloaded it anyway.
“Where were you going?”
She was still working on the jerky, and I waited. That stuff is stringy as hell even if you’re not dehydrated. “Looking for people,” she said eventually. She stuck a finger into her mouth and ran it around her gums, pulling out tufts of dry meat and licking them off. “Made it through winter, but picked my neighbourhood clean. Don’t know how to hunt and things aren’t growing right. Where are you from?”
“Tintown. Maybe four days from here.” Less for me, but she looked bad. “They might take you in, if I brought you there.” They probably would no matter how she showed up, but if she thought I was useful she maybe wouldn’t try robbing me.
“I need more food.”
“I can spare enough to get you there,” I said, “if you help me carry some stuff.” Get Pattermead’s pack back. “I’m on a salvage run for them.”
She hesitated. “Can’t carry much.”
“You can carry more than nothing.”
— * —
That was Melly. I gave her Pattermead’s pack, knotting the straps back together. I gave her his shoes, too; her feet were purple and reeking, shaggy with burst blisters. She peeled off her socks and it looked like bits of them were staying behind in her skin. Sad Mack could look at that back in Tintown, I guessed.
There were spare socks in Pattermead’s pack, and she put those on. His shoes didn’t fit quite right, but they were in one piece.
“How long were you walking?”
“Don’t remember. Days.”
Pattermead and I always went back up Highway 1; it was straight and pretty clear which was great when you were bringing things back. Melly had come this far, so I hoped we could get through a few miles of city to a highway without much trouble. There was a culvert alongside the road, too, and it’d help to be near the water if things went bad. The ghosts don’t mind damp, and they love the lightning in storms, but they hate enough water to ground a charge. One good breathing tube and a half-flooded basement and you could avoid them for—
For however long it takes to recite 99 bottles of beer on the wall to yourself five times.
Melly was watching me with a blank look on her face. I gave her a handful of jerky and a half-full canteen. “I’ll give you more when we stop,” I said. “This is enough for now, ’kay?”
We did not make good time. By later afternoon it was drizzle-misting and she was staggering so bad we stopped in what was left of a coffee shop. I stomped one of the chairs apart and built a low fire, and we sat around it and took the wettest of our clothes off to dry them, and even near the fire she kept shiver-twitching.
She looked down at herself, at the last grimy layers that the rain hadn’t seeped through. My skin prickled a bit and I rubbed the side of my neck.
“I’m fine.” She smiled, which I did not believe, but okay. I’d called her Pattermead that afternoon, not really thinking about it, just calling the name I always called when we needed to get moving, and she hadn’t said anything. I could return the favour. “What’s it like where we’re going?”
“Not perfect,” I said, thinking of Sad Mack and the slow broken-glass burn of the sky in the north. “But people there are okay.”
“Lots.” Chaudrey could answer that.
“Why don’t you stay there?”
I thought of Pattermead and my scars itched. “I don’t need the company.” I offered her a cup that had been sitting near the fire long enough to warm, but she ignored it and went for the jerky.
“It’s not safe out when it’s raining, is it?” she said.
Yeah, well. “Sometimes is.”
“How do you tell?”
I turned my head and pointed at the scars branching down my neck, but Melly still looked blank. If she hadn’t been around people who’d had a chance to figure it out, she might not get it.
The nice part of Tintown was that people already knew things and there were no questions about does that work for everyone and any scars or do you need to get hit by lightning and does it hurt.
“I feel the ghosts coming,” I said bluntly.
“Does it hurt?”
She was asleep right after dinner, a wheezing lump on the far side of the smoky little fire. I talked to Pattermead’s pack, a little, but not really about anything.
Sometimes when I remember Pattermead I go on to think about Melly on that trip back. I try to remember if she’d said anything as we walked, and there’s just a dull tone in my mind, like wind blowing over an empty bottle.
Nothing felt right. I listened to the fire chew broken furniture, and to her tired wheezing, and sometime when the clouds were starting to clear she made an awful rattling sound and then went quiet. I wondered if she’d died but I heard her roll over and I finally slept.
She got up when I did in the morning.
There was a low white overcast running down the sky and the wind was yellow-grey and full of grit, the last of the post-winter crumble lifted on the first of the spring air.
I put my bandana across my face. Melly watched me and pulled her sweater up to cover her mouth and nose. She was moving faster than yesterday, and talking more. I didn’t love it, and told her to walk ahead of me. Said it was so she could keep an eye out for stuff, and if she found anything I’d take a look.
“I wouldn’t be a good scavenger,” she said. “I need to be around people.” No expression, just her dull eyes looking at me.
“You said you picked your neighbourhood clean.” I didn’t like scavenger but Chaudrey could deal with that. He’s big on salvage. “Pretty sure you can figure it out ‘til we get back.”
We travelled quick that morning. Most of the buildings were slumps of masonry and scorched-black steel bones, and I didn’t do much checking of storefronts. Hiked past fallen signs, a broken bench, garbage cans congealed with waste. Had that bad I gotta get this over with feeling again.
Up ahead two cars had hit each other on the corner long ago. The glitter of smashed windshield and headlights was embedded wide across the road like grit in a roadscar.
Melly reached it and I heard soft little pops, all fizzing together, like bubbles in a drink used to sound. The bits of glass started working up out of the road, bouncing like hail.
She bolted back towards me. Some of the glass swerved towards the sound of my voice, pounced on my boots and started chewing away. Most kept popping after Melly, glittering like rat’s eyes.
“Pattermead!” I screamed, like he was still around to warn, and bolted for an upended dumpster. My boots’ laces were fraying and snapping under the glass, and I kicked them off as I leapt onto the rusty lid. It held. A handful of glass pieces rattled on the ground below me.
Melly was still running, the glass seething after her like surf. I yanked out the zip-gun and fired down the street.
The steel bolt went past her, spanged through a downed street sign, and punched into one of the garbage cans we’d passed. Spilled it onto its side and started it rolling.
The glass rushed right past Melly and went for the rattling garbage can like I’d rung a dinner bell. Even the bits around my dumpster followed it.
I caught my breath. Melly was standing in the street looking back at me and I waved to her, then slipped down to the sidewalk, keeping the dumpster between me and the glass. Practically tiptoed my way down the block. Grit bit through my socks, but just normally.
Melly caught up with me. Didn’t say anything.
“They have that in Kamloops?” I said, bitter.
I thought there were new holes in Pattermead’s shoes but she shook her head.
Remembered how she’d screamed and wheezed and thrown up her hands first time I surprised her. Looked at her now, standing still and quiet and dead-eyed blank.
I dug Pattermead’s spare clothes out of the pack Melly was carrying, cut them apart and wrapped them around my feet, tied them in place with my spare laces. I could have commandeered his shoes, but they wouldn’t have fit me well, and up close Melly reeked. It was the shouting reek of the second and third month after. She stank like rot, warm and pulsing.
I’d smelled people who reeked like that and none of them could walk as hard as we’d been walking, let alone carry a pack.
Adrenaline was buzzing through my skin again. Paid attention this time.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, change of plans.” My heart was slowing down but beating hard, like it was trying to break out of my chest. “We’re gonna go up the Abbotsford-Mission to the river, fill up the canteens again, and then we’re heading home. You good for that?”
“Because clearly taking care of you is fucking distracting me and I’m missing stuff, so we’re taking a route that I know’s safe.”
My tone worked because it was a couple of blocks before she spoke up again.
It didn’t really matter. I guess. Tintown was ahead and I’d be done with her pretty quick.
“We did salvage together,” I said. “We were up in an apartment building. Found a little girl.” I thought it had been a girl. Wearing a dirty nightdress, standing not even as high as my hip. She’d had a gas mask on, way too big for her; looked like one of those pre-blast dolls that Sad Mack sewed animal heads onto, the dark weight hanging forward off her neck and reaching halfway down her torso.
I never thought she was a mannequin. People set those up sometimes, but you learn to check the face and hands. Pattermead put down his lantern and knelt down, said something about not worrying, all low and soft. I was checking for anyone else but it looked like it was just her, maybe shivering a bit in the dancing lantern-light, like she’d run in here and put her mask on and then stood frozen in the corner waiting to see what came through the door. I guessed her parents had explained what to do, before whatever happened to them.
There was grime everywhere. Coating the gas mask, the pale crescents of her nails, her nightdress, her filthy feet. And me too stupid to catch it as Pattermead reached for her shoulder.
Pale crescents. Whose nails are pale, anymore? Whose nails are clean?
“He tried to help but she was gone a long time.” He touched her shoulder and her arm crumped in on itself and fell down out of her sleeve in fibrous chunks, and the rest of her followed, her nightdress collapsing and her whole body pattering down into the dried stain of her own waste. Her head tumbled off, and the mask hit the ground with a muffled thunk and rolled once. “That thing where the skin locks up. When it’s a kid, right, they aren’t strong enough to move.”
It wouldn’t have been better if she could. You move when your skin’s locked up, there’s a lot of splintering at the joints and bleeding and everything just goes straight to hell pretty quick.
But little kids aren’t very strong. So her skin had held her there, through the first night and the next and that’d been pretty much it. No wind or weather to topple her over. Not even any rats. Nothing ate the meat that locked up when it was living.
“And he.” Ah, fuck, Pattermead. “He did—it’s bad sometimes. Things break and—Chaudrey says something leaks out, gets to people.” I thought that was bullshit. I thought Pattermead had just hit his limit. Maybe he’d had his own little girl, I dunno. But he started making this noise—
It wasn’t a scream. It was the sound you might have made in the night, before, if you walked to the bathroom in the dark and stepped barefoot in dogshit. But he kept getting louder, like he was stuck on the idea of scaring away something that disgusted him.
“Pattermead.” I smacked his shoulder, once. He was stiff as a board. “Pattermead, shut up. Shut up. Something’ll hear you.”
“Uh,” he said, just as loud as if it was a meaningful word, and then “uh, uh, uhhhhhhh—”
“Pattermead!” I grabbed him but he waved his arms wildly, knocked me away. I cursed and backed off. He was a good partner. Careful, dry, a bit weepy sometimes at the worst. But he was a solid fireplug of a man and I couldn’t move him if he didn’t want moving. A little noise wasn’t usually a problem, usually, but he wouldn’t stop.
So I backed off. That was all I was doing—backing off. You can only make noise for so long. Figured I’d wait for him to gasp himself out.
But I felt it in my skin. The scars, waking up, starting to burn.
He must have felt it too.
“Pattermead!” I screamed it then. I remembered him inching out across a rotten floor to grab my wrists when I’d fallen through. Giving me time to cry over what was left of a dog that the family had loved enough to bring inside and that had finally starved trying to bite open tin cans. Asking me if I wanted to partner up when we first stood in the Tintown street waiting to hear about assignments.
Remembered all that and I flicked on the bait flashlight, dropped it on the landing, and ran.
— * —
Melly had one hand on my arm, and I pushed it away, kept us walking. My nerves were buzzing again, not burning like they had back then, and I finally thought I got it.
I’d never heard of something exactly like this. I didn’t know what to do. There were people who might have ideas, someone saner than Sad Mack and smarter than the bookworms, but none of them were here.
I just did salvage work.
I was thinking about Pattermead and those glass bottles I couldn’t bring back because they’d have broken.
“Hey,” I said, as we crossed up the corner that had the blue-scorched ruins. This block hadn’t been dangerous last time I was here, just weird. “Come on.” I waved her over and we crossed the street to the empty lot. It was scattered with chunks of white brick and twists of thick hard wire, like if a lightning bolt had hit a stack of shopping carts.
I picked up one of the bricks. Had to use both hands to do it. “You think you can carry these?” They were heavy as hell, every dip and hollow glossy white like colour had been burned right out of them.
“What are they?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Pattermead said this kind of ceramic’d be useful. Can you manage three? If we can find them whole?”
She didn’t even shrug. “Probably.”
In the end, we took two, and a large half-brick that something had bitten through like a block of cheese. Melly stood there, braced against the weight while I tucked them into the center of Pattermead’s pack so their edges wouldn’t rub through, and I knotted the ends of the pack’s waist-strap together.
“We can make the river before dark,” I said. “Refill the canteens there. Probably just four days back, if there’s no storms.”
Like the one out in the northeast, a few days back.
It wasn’t tricky. She asked if we really had to go out to the edge of the bridge and I said the water was clearer away from the banks so you could just lower a canteen on laces and draw it back up, and when she leaned over the railing working on that nonsense I grabbed the back of Pattermead’s pack and heaved.
My shoulder screamed at me from the weight but the brick-laden pack tumbled Melly forward. She grabbed the railing one-handed as she went over and I saw her wrist pop, twisting and poking out funny under the skin, but she held on.
She wasn’t screaming. She was holding her own rotting body and what had to be a hundred pounds of salvage up by a snapped wrist and she wasn’t screaming. My scars were buzzing hard. That fuzzy rush I’d thought was only adrenaline, because even if the ghost inside was steering her hard, it was sheathed in meat. I’d barely picked up anything until Melly had stopped breathing.
“What are you doing?”
“Drowning you, I guess.” My canteen wasn’t empty. I poured a little trickle of water over her fingers and she made a noise like Pattermead had as her muscles jumped and pulsed all up her arm. “Is Melly still in there? I’m real sorry if she is.”
I was. I couldn’t help her or bring her to Tintown, but if she was still there, inside, I was sorry. It was a lousy end.
It hissed. “Help me up.” And then “I’ll leave her. I will. Her and your pack and—”
“Don’t think you can.” One of its fingers spasmed loose as the joint popped. It was trying to reach up with the other arm but the pack strap over its shoulder kept it from getting a good angle.
“Meatsuck,” it snarled. “Shitbug. Vermin.” Its feet scrabbled at the side of the bridge and didn’t catch. If it could have gotten out, it would have. They don’t like water, and the body was headed straight down.
“I’m glad they didn’t get you that way,” I said to Pattermead. Talking to him helped things make sense. “I guess they mostly can’t.” I looked at it again. Its free hand clawed at the pack straps, but my knots were solid, and with it twitching so hard from just the canteen, I didn’t think it could carefully untie anything once it was underwater.
“Was she sick or something?” I asked. “Or was it just being starving?”
Then it screamed at me. I mean, there were words, but nothing helpful for anything.
I poured the rest of my canteen over its hand and, it fell. I thought I heard the screaming go on for a second after the water closed over it, but no more.
My scars were finally quiet.
— * —
So I guess they’re onto something, up in Alberta; if the ghosts get into something that’s the right shape, they’ve got real trouble getting out again. Something like a vacuum tube that’s been waiting to grab electricity for half a century. Or a nearly dead girl that’s still breathing like the ghosts used to, before the blasts hammered them out of their skin and left them nothing but angry.
I turn it over sometimes. Even if she’d lived I couldn’t have brought her back with that thing inside her. And the pack had to go, to keep her down. Pattermead would’ve understood.
I don’t know what part of the body a ghost lives inside, liver or guts or bones or brain. I don’t know how long it’ll take to rot away, or if it might break free and float up, if the thing inside Melly will ride part of her rotting body to the surface and the air.
Chaudrey gave me some downtime, but I’ll need to go back out soon.
I’ll take the highway when I do. We steer clear of that part of the river now.
© 2020 Frances Rowat
About the Author
Frances Rowat lives in Ontario with her husband, their dog, and a not-quite-startling number of cats. She was born in Canada, and while growing up spent time in England, Algeria, and Switzerland. She is currently spending nearly all of her time behind a keyboard, where she frequently gets lost in details. Her work has appeared in such venues as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Liminal Stories, and PerVisions; this is her second appearance in Cossmass Infinities. She enjoys earrings, fountain pens, rain, and post-apocalyptic settings, and may be found online on Twitter @aphotic_ink or at https://aphotic-ink.com/.