February 2nd Place Contest Entry – “The Sixty Year Night”

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Chris, Kurt, and Abigail had a little in house competition to lead the charge. Our February prompt? “And the Children Shall Lead.”
Kurt took second place for our February prompt with his story “The Sixty Year Night”

Cawntest-01 The Sixty Year Night

by Kurt Pankau

“And what sort of story would you like today?” asked Jessica. “Something with trees in it?”

Frank’s head hung. “No,” he intoned. “I’ve rather forgotten what those look like.” His eyelids were parted, revealing the useless black pits that had once been eyes. He fingered the knob atop the long black cane that rested against his knee. His foot tapped. “You’re different,” he said. “You’re not the one who usually comes. What happened to Caleb?”

“I don’t know,” said Jessica.

“I can guess,” said Frank. “His voice was starting to change, so it was just a matter of time before he left. How old are you, my dear?”

“Twelve,” said Jessica.

“I see,” said Frank, and his head hung once more.

“Well, I need to read you something,” said Jessica. “An old favorite, perhaps?” She glanced at her notes to see what he’d asked for recently, but couldn’t decipher them. Caleb had lousy penmanship.

Frank sighed.

Jessica looked at Tyler, her eight-year-old brother. He looked back and shrugged.

“Is there anything you would like to hear?” she asked.

“Well…” said Frank.

“Out with it,” said Jessica.

“Could you… I hate to ask this, but could you read me something dirty?

Jessica sighed.

“There are so few stories about touch,” he said, running his fingers along the arm of his chair. His face might have looked wistful, if not for the mutilated eyes. “Touch and sound are almost all I have left now,” he said. “I’m sorry if it’s awkward for you.”

“It’s fine,” said Jessica. “You don’t have to apologize.” But it wasn’t fine. She reached into the bag for a dog-eared paperback. The Gentleman Lies. The cover was tattered, but what was left depicted a round-bosomed red-headed woman leaning back over a balcony while a bare-chested man appeared to be sniffing at her neck. The pages were soft from wear. Jessica’s hands trembled.

Adults could mostly fend for themselves, but children were needed to help with menial tasks and moving things between houses. Jessica’s best friend Rosie was a food-bringer. Tammy emptied refuse buckets. There wasn’t running water anymore, so her cousin Lincoln had been a water-fetcher for the bathing unit—until he’d lost his own sight last spring. Storytelling was a pretty cushy job, but it did have its drawbacks, like having to recite pornography aloud to grown men.

“I can handle this,” said Tyler. He set his bag down, careful not to put it in the well-trodden path in the carpet.

“Oh, bless you,” said Frank.

“Thanks,” said Jessica. She retreated into an unused bedroom. It used to not bother her. Like the other children, she’d laughed at the lurid depictions of people exploring every inch of each other. But lately, she’d found it… interesting. It was still gross, sure, but it was also a little exciting. And that terrified her.

It meant she was becoming a woman. An adult. She was twelve already. How many months could she have left before menarche, when age and the sickness would rob her of her sight as well? Before she entered the sixty-year night. She could ask for time—time to try and take in the world, so she would have something to remember before her world collapsed into darkness.

But she wouldn’t ask. No one ever did. There was too much to do, just to keep what was left of civilization from falling apart.

So instead she took in the room. The air tasted like dust. The curtains were yellow and moth-eaten. They barely kept out any light—not that it mattered. The floor was littered with tiny black flecks, the bodies of unfortunate tree roaches, or perhaps black mold. Or were they really on the floor at all? Maybe those were the splotches in her vision. She shook her head and looked around. The flecks were still on the floor. Good.

She could hear noises from the other room. Tyler’s voice—uncharacteristically harsh for such a young boy—and something else. She couldn’t place it.

The room had a radio in it. So this was an old house—old enough to have once had working electricity. Supposedly the radios were boxes that talked and sang to you. If those ever worked again, that could free up some time for herself and the other entertainers. And she had so little time left.

Soon she’d see the splotches. Then her eyes would bleed. She’d be kept in quarantine while her eyes became decayed husks and shriveled black. During that time, she’d learn Braille and practice walking with a cane to get around. She’d be in temporary housing for a few years until she married. She’d try to find someone with a nice voice, and they’d try to have children, and maybe—just maybe—those children wouldn’t lose their sight. But deep down, she knew they would. Everyone did.

More noise from the other room. Was that… sobbing? What was Tyler doing? She strained to hear his voice. “…bleeding, scarring, and necrosis below the macula…” he was saying.

Oh, no!

Jessica ran into the living room and found Tyler reciting from a scrap of the CDC sheet on the disease. Frank’s head shook in his hands.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m reading him a story,” said Tyler.

“You little monster,” Jessica seethed. “What’s the matter with you? You think he doesn’t know what he’s been through? You think he wants to be reminded.”

“No,” said Frank. “The boy’s right. I needed to be reminded.” He raised his head and faced Jessica, empty black pits of eyes pointed right at her. “I needed to be reminded of what you’re about to go through.”

A wave of fear passed through Jessica’s entire body. Then anger. She nearly lost her footing but managed to keep it.

“Tyler,” she said. “Leave us.”

“Jess, I was—”

“Leave us,” she said, more forcefully.

“I’m protecting you,” he said.

“You can’t,” said Jessica. “Now go.”

Tyler picked up his bag.

Jessica picked her book.

“The Gentleman Lies, by Francis Armore,” she began.

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