Thursday, July 05, 2012

On the racks: "The Afflicted"

I haven't actually seen it yet, but I understand that the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is now available in book and magazine stores pretty darn well everywhere, bearing within its covers my story "The Afflicted." Here's a sample to whet your appetite:

In the end I managed a bit of sleep, wedged between the trunk and branches of the oak, before dawn came. My knees and elbows ached as I lowered myself to the ground and I could feel a blister forming on my shoulder where the strap of my .30—06 Winchester had rubbed against my oilskin all night. I went over the previous day's events in my mind, walking myself carefully through every mundane moment from when I woke up to when I climbed into the tree to sleep; then I looked down at my watch, waited for the minute to turn over and started to rattle off words that started with L. Life, leopard, lizard, loneliness… Twenty words and thirty seconds later I took a breath and started down the train tracks.

It was about an hour’s walk to the camp, my last stop on this circuit. The clearing was packed with tents, their walls so faded by years of sun I could hardly make out the FEMA logo on the side; here and there ripped flaps of nylon fluttered in the breeze. The camps, cramped to begin with, were made even tighter by the lean—tos that had been built to expand the tents or shore them up, so that in places I had to turn sideways to squeeze my way toward the center of the camp.

As I got deeper into the camp pale figures began to emerge from the tents, most of them dressed in filthy pajamas and bathrobes and nearly all bearing scars or fresh wounds on whatever pale flesh was exposed. I kept my .30—06 at my side and quickened my pace as they began to shuffle after me on slippered feet.

A single tent stood in the middle of the camp, as worn as the rest but bearing a faded Red Cross logo. When I reached it I turned around and shrugged out of my backpack one arm at a time. All the narrow paths that led here were now blocked by the shambling forms that had come out of the tents: they paused as they reached the clearing, watching me carefully as I cradled my rifle.

After a few moments one of them stepped forward. He was bald, save for a fringe of white hair, and he had a bloody gash down the side of his face. Unlike most of the others he was still in reasonably good shape, his skin the color of a walnut. I leveled my rifle at him; he took another step and then stopped.

"Hey, Horace," I said. I gestured at the cut on his face. "That looks bad."

He shrugged. "There's worse off than me." "I know," I said, lowering my rifle, "but we'll start with you. Then you tell me who's worst off."

 He looked back at the others. "There's a lot that are bad off, Kate," he said. "How long do you have today?"

I leaned the rifle in a spot where I could reach it in a hurry if I needed to. "You're my only stop."

He nodded, though he knew as well as I did that even in a full day I only had time to see the very worst off. Their affliction aside, my patients' age and the conditions they lived in meant that each of them had a host of issues for me to deal with. I counted on Horace to keep an eye on who was seriously injured, who had developed anything infectious, and who was showing signs of going end—stage. Everything else — minor illnesses and injuries, the frequent combination of scurvy and obesity caused by their diet of packaged food — I couldn't even hope to treat.

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