Arlene was the first visitor I had in a long time. She some food with her, which she shared most kindly. The taste of freshly baked chocolate chip cookie was like fireworks going off in my mouth after eating so many boring meals for so long. We talked about the outside world for a while, what things were like outside the walls of my cell.
She spoke of angry businessmen fighting street punks on wall street – the actual wall street, that is – with knives and bats and briefcases full of paper swinging around their heads. It made me chuckle a bit, but it wasn’t happy news. It meant the world was breaking.
Arlene shook my hand through the bars with a sad look on her face. It was clear she didn’t want to leave, but she had things to do, she said. Her family was leaving the state, going down south for the winter. Like a bird? I asked. She didn’t think it was very funny. She left without saying goodbye. I heard her heels click on the concrete as she walked away, and sighed, leaning on the bars.
See, they didn’t know what to do with me, at that time. The whole thing was ostensibly my fault, but they didn’t know if I should be tried for it or not. There was no way my results could have been foreseen, they said, no way to know what was going to happen. So I sat in a cell, and waited.
The days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Every now and then my lawyer would show up, and apologize for not being there sooner. He’d say they were “working on something big” and he expected news “any day now”, but that news never came. It wasn’t his fault, though; there were plenty of other big things happening in those days.
When the riots began in earnest, I began getting more visitors, like Arlene. Some of them came to scream at me, to blame me, and others came to voice their support. Mostly scientists and engineers in the second category, and ordinary working class families in the first. As you might have guessed, though, the number of those coming to wish me well dropped off dramatically after a short while. In fact, all my visitors dropped off after a while. I guess there were just less people to go around.
Jason was one of the angry ones, one of the ones who came to shout at me. He was an older guy, probably in his 50’s, with some sparse gray hair around his bald dome. He smelled like cigar smoke and bourbon, but he wasn’t drunk. I don’t think he’d changed his clothes in a few days, though, judging by the stains. He screamed at me, pounding the bars with his fists. I wondered if that hurt him, but he never said.
I’d heard what he had to say many times before, at that point. He had a daughter, he was a father, how dare I, how dare I, you monster, etcetera. He didn’t cry, like some of the others who had been visiting recently, he seemed more enraged than sad. Jason said it was my fault, all of it, that I should have known better. I kept my mouth shut, of course, like my lawyer said to. I just stared at my feet as I sat in my bed.
The worst was when a mother brought in her five year old daughter. The daughter was crying, and saying things like “Where’s daddy? I want daddy? Did he take my daddy?” It broke my heart, honestly. I couldn’t look either of them in the eye. The mother didn’t even say much. I don’t think she even said her name. It was awful, just me and the girl crying, and that woman staring at me with a glare that came from the edge of hell itself.
I was relieved when the prison system started to fall apart. Meals kept on coming, but the guards came by less and less and, eventually, stopped showing up at all. One day, breakfast didn’t arrive. Then lunch, then dinner. The sounds from the other parts of the prison stopped, too. Usually, I could hear people yelling and hollering out in the yard, and I could see a few people from my tiny window. No more, it seems. The yard was empty, there was not a soul to be found.
But I was still here.
I tried calling out for someone; you’d better believe I raised a ruckus. No one came, though. I slammed myself against the cell bars, but they held firm. No cracks in the cement for me to pick my way out like in a movie, either. No way out, just me, alone, in a cell.
After another day or two of silence, the rats came. They all seemed well fed – I think I know why. They weren’t afraid of me, at first. They came sniffing and biting, always hungry, always more of them. So I had to make them afraid. I snapped their little necks, tore into their flesh with my teeth, and kept them as trophies around the cell. The rats caught on real quick.
Some rats still come through, from time to time, attracted by the smell of their fellow rotting rodents. That’s good. I get hungry, after all. After a while, the taste starts to bother you less and less. I’ve gotten really good at swabbing the fur out from between my gums and my lip with a finger. When I started eating them, so long ago, that used to be a real sticking point, pardon the pun. I hated when the little hairs got stuck between my teeth. Now, I’ve become real good at pushing them out with my tongue. Having less teeth probably helps with that, too.
It took a few weeks before I saw another human being.
I woke up to some noise in the yard, and I jumped out of bed to look outside. There was a man out there, clothing disheveled and hair a matted mess on his head. I was stumbling around like a blind man, tripping over rocks, groaning. I knew the symptoms all too well.
The next day, there were more of them. I heard shouting coming from somewhere else in the prison, someone I couldn’t see. Probably had a big pile of rats same as I did. Maybe they even had someone to talk to. I envied them.
They tried shouting for help. The tried asking for food. They tried just about every method of verbal communication ever invented, and even some that I’d never heard before. I screamed at them to stop shouting, because they’d only attract more attention. The other person stopped asking for help after that. I think they realized their mistake.
The next day, even more of the things had shown up. Stumbling, groaning, idiotic and brain dead, they reached out a the brick walls of the prison as if trying to scrabble up the sides. A few of them gathered outside my window. I was a story off the ground, so I had a relatively safe view of them. I tossed the body of a small brown rat out the window to them, and it bounced off the face of a blonde woman with broken teeth.
After three days of watching them mill about in the yard, I saw my first real human being in at least a month. A kid, maybe a teenager, with a black backpack and a dark hoodie, came through the gates. He had a baseball bat in his hands, covered in blood. I soon understood why.
With a quick swing, he shattered the face of one of the shambling bodies around him, sending it flat on the ground where it stopped moving. The others came at him one by one, and he took each of them down easily. Not sure he even broke a sweat; he just kept on swinging until the yard was clear. Must have taken down about twenty of them.
I shouted over to him.
“Hey,” I said, “over here!”
I waved him over, and he walked over to the area under my window.
“Hey,” he said, staring up at me.
“I’m trapped up here, can you give me some help?”
He cocked his head to the side.
“Well, I figure you’re in there for a reason, right? Why should I help you?”
I paused, trying to think of an answer.
“Because… Because it’s the right thing to do? Because I haven’t seen anyone for weeks? Because I have no real food? Please, man, please! Just come and talk, at least.”
I didn’t mean to, but by the end of that I was holding back tears. I’m not sure if the kid noticed, but he nodded, and wandered inside.
A few minutes later, he was at my door, holding his nose.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ, man, the hell is that smell?”
“Yeah, man, smells like… oh God, dude, are those rats?”
I looked to what he was looking at, my small stockpile of food in the corner.
“I… yeah. Rats. It’s what I eat. You got any food?”
I had to repeat the question, because he was vomiting on the floor the first time I asked it. He took a stick of beef jerky out of his bag and threw it through the bars. I caught it, and bit into it hungrily, spitting out the little plastic bits as an afterthought. The kid watched me intently, as if trying to frame a question.
“Are you… Anderson? The guy on the TV?”
I stopped eating, my hands frozen in front of my face.
“… yeah. That was me, yeah.”
“Shit. You’re the guy?” He sounded more amazed than upset.
“I’m the guy.”
“You made this… this… all this? Right? You found the bacteria, or whatever, and did all the science shit?”
“I didn’t know it was gonna turn out this way. I thought I was… well, I thought I was gonna find some kinda breakthrough, some kind of… Shit. Does it matter?”
The kid scrunched up his face. I couldn’t see his eyes under the shade of his hood, but he looked pretty hurt.
“I lost my sister and my dad to this fuckin’ shit, man. I’d say it fuckin’ matters.”
“Sorry. Don’t know what else to say.”
He leaned on the wall across from my cell. Neither of us said anything for a while. When he looked restless, I asked him a question to keep him from leaving.
“Did you hear anyone else in the prison? Anyone else alive?”
“Nope. Just you, dude.”
There was another awkward silence. I scratched my chin, which was thick with a knotted and gnarled beard.
“Hey,” I said, “do you have any… anything to write with?”
“What? You mean like, paper?”
I nodded. He thought for a moment, putting a hand to his chin.
“There was a notebook at a desk down the hall. One sec.”
A few moments later, he reappeared at my cell with the promised notebook, and a pen, and slid them through the bars. I took them and set them on my filthy beddings.
“Thank you,” I said, earnestly. “Did you… did you happen to see any keys by that desk?”
“Nope. Sorry pal.”
His eyes were shaded by his hood again, and I couldn’t make out his expression.
“Did… did you look? You could look, right?”
“Dunno about that, man. Probably I could look. Probably.”
I sprang forward, grabbing the bars with each hand.
“Please!” I pleaded. “Please, help me! Help me get out!”
He said nothing, but he turned and walked off in the direction he came in.
“Please!” I sobbed, my head resting on the cool metal of the cell bars, “It’s not my fault! I didn’t know! Please!”
He didn’t come back.
It’s been two weeks, now. Food supply is running low, so I decided to write all this up on the notepad he gave me. Might as well. Maybe one day someone will find this and understand.
It wasn’t my fault.
It wasn’t my fault.
Gary Anderson, GeneSystem Health and Wellness Labs technician, age 41.