The Plague Carrier
My YA short story set in a Post-Apocalypse:
Condemned as a runaway and sentenced to work as a Cleaner, fifteen-year-old Anna now spends her days searching for valuables in a field of dead warriors. Her life goes from bad to worse, however, when she stumbles upon a plague carrier, a boy her age who could kill her entire camp with a single drop from the flask he carries around his neck.
Approximately 26 pages long, THE PLAGUE CARRIER is the first story in my new series set in a post-apocalyptic United States, where survivors are still recovering from a Civil War. East of the Mississippi, peace reigns and the people are free. But west of the Mississippi is a different story. Here, the countryside is ravaged by erratic thunderstorms and tornadoes, and the inhabitants continue to battle one another using advanced forms of chemical warfare. Here, anyone who breaks the law is sold into slavery, where he must serve in a labor camp until his sentence is fulfilled.
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FIRST CHAPTER EXCERPT:
THE SUN WAS SUPPOSED TO BE OUT, shining and bright, on the day I ran away. It was going to help me run faster and longer, was going to light my way through our ruined city, all the way to the river and the train yard on the other side. My wet clothes were going to be dry by the time I climbed inside one of the cars bound for Indiana and I was going to sleep all night long, hidden in a pile of rags, behind large crates of fruit.
I don’t like to blame everything that’s happened on the weather, but if it hadn’t started raining, then I wouldn’t have gotten caught in that thick patch of river mud--
And I might have gotten away.
“Hurry up, Runner! Don’t stand there holding onto yer plate all day long. Field’s awaiting.”
Laughter barks around me as I finish my breakfast. It’s been a long time since anyone has called me by my given name—but I hear it whispered soon enough. Two men with sallow skin and long braided hair sneer as they pass me on their way to the field. One of them breathes, “Anna,” in my ear as his left hand lingers on my thigh. I shove him away. Behind me, the morning skies fill with a multitude of dark clouds, casting more shadow than light down on our camp. A hundred gray tents line the riverbank—the same river where the Chasers caught me, just last week—and all of the tent flaps are tied down in case the wind picks up again.
I pause, plate in hand as I glance up at the sky, wondering what it’s going to give us today. Ever since the Last War, everyone west of the Mississippi’s been tormented by lightning storms, demon winds and earthquakes. Sunshine comes like a fiery flash, straight out of nowhere and it always passes before you can enjoy it.
Never can count on a sunny day anymore.
Thanks to those Chasers and that blasted sun, today I’m heading into a war field, where I’m almost instantly surrounded by dead bodies, knee-deep in blood and gore, shovel in one hand, bucket in the other. A thick canvas apron covers me from neck to ankle and a plastic visor shields my face. Flies buzz from one carcass to the next while the other Cleaners are already grumbling that I’m taking too long, hunting for valuables.
“Get a move on there, dearie!”
“Just look for somethin’ shiny and hurry up—”
“Never shoulda taken that Runner, she doesn’t have a stomach for blood—”
I ignore them as I flip a body on its back, then run a gaze over it, looking for anything worth a coin or two.
Right about then, the sun creeps out like the sneaky devil it is, scaring away all the clouds, charming steam to rise up from the heath and turning the field to haze. I’ve learned that sometimes a sudden change in temperature can cause the dead bodies to shift and moan, and more than one Cleaner has let out a startled cry when that happens.
I refuse to cry out. No matter how terrified I am.
Instead, I pretend I don’t hear the other Cleaners as they whisper spells of protection, all of us still working despite the puffs of steam that billow about. Hot sun on my back, sweat dripping down my face, the stench of my plastic visor blocking out the stench of death, I lean forward and rifle through another dead man’s pockets, his yellow eyes gazing to heaven, his open mouth spilling a gruel of spit and blood.
My fingers latch onto his.
I brush away the mud from his rough knuckles until my thumb rolls across something slippery—a ring, most likely. I tug it off, lift it into a patch of sunlight, and then smile when I see a gleam of gold mixed with ruby. With a soft clink, the ring is dropped into my bucket, where it rolls to a halt atop a shallow pile of silver bullets, ornate daggers and a handful of gold teeth. You have to be careful when it comes to sticking your fingers inside the mouths of these dead creatures—their jaws can snap shut if you’re not paying close attention. You can lose a finger or worse, you might catch their war plague.
Still, I’m not afraid to do the dirty work. That’s one of the reasons this band of Cleaners took me on.
That’s when I get a flash of brilliance and I suddenly realize this fellow must have been rich. So, I hunker down, rest my shovel on a nearby body and set the bucket on the ground.
In a heartbeat, I’m cutting open this dead guy’s tunic to discover three gold necklaces draped around his throat. Just as I’m slicing the seams in his jacket and pulling out an ivory tribal purse, I hear a faint groan to my right.
I stand up, blade ready.
There are two kinds of groans in a field like this: the ethereal groans of the dead and the kill-it-before-it-kills-you groans of the near-dead.
I’ve always preferred the groans of the dead. Unfortunately that’s not what I hear today. I run a hasty scan across the field, searching for movement. Puffs of steam rising, sun dancing behind a bank of clouds, a sea of arms and legs and shaved skulls surrounding me, I suddenly realize that all the other Cleaners have moved away.
They’re heading toward the river to wash up for our midday meal. I’ve been left standing alone in a field of dead mountain warriors.
And right now, one of these plague carriers is moaning back to life, twisting in the mud, trying to push its way free.
One hand on my knife, I yank a silver chain from beneath my apron, pull a dangling whistle to my lips. I’m ready to call the others back. That’s when I spot the creature, not ten feet away. The whistle stills, my mouth turns dry and a demon wind¬¬—the worst kind, since it heralds both death and danger to those who hear it—circles about me, turning my flesh to ice.
The whistle slides to my chest and I stand quiet, staring.
It’s just a boy, not much older than me, probably fifteen or sixteen. And he’s wearing a Runner brand on his left cheek—a big black X that says he’s left his home and his tribe, that he tried to make it on his own but failed. All the Western tribes use the same symbol. It’s how we keep track of our traitors and deserters.
“Boy,” I call a hoarse whisper in his direction, my blade still lifted and ready to use if necessary.
Instinctively, he glances up at me.
His eyes are clear. No sign of the yellow plague. But then why is he wearing the tunic and leggings of the mountain people? It’s a puzzle that confuses me. Their warriors always carry the plague. It’s the highlanders’ way of making sure they destroy their enemies.
So why is this boy free of the disease?
“Keep down,” I say, a tiny bit louder. “Wrap your scarf about your neck.”
It’s no guarantee that a tiny bit of fabric will protect him, but that’s all I can think of. He hasn’t been sprayed for nearly an hour with biochems, like I have. He may not make it out of this field alive, no matter what he does.
He crouches low, brown hair scuffing in that demon wind, cheeks turning pink from the sudden cold. One slow movement at a time, he crawls over the tangle of bodies, away from the Cleaner camp, toward the forest that stands at my back.
“Hurry!” I say, lifting my plastic visor to see him better. He’s moving faster than I expect and I now see sun-browned skin peeking out from rips in his tunic and thick black eyebrows bunched together in a frown. He pauses when he’s close enough to see me clearly, a shock of recognition in his eyes when he notices my cheek and the mark I bear like his.
I touch the brand with my fingers, wondering if the raw skin has darkened yet or if it’s still as red as the day the Chasers caught me.
“What are you doing here?” he asks. “Children shouldn’t be roaming through a killing field.”
It’s the first time he’s spoken and his voice startles me. He sounds more like a man than a boy.
I take a step backward, my foot thumping against a pile of bodies, my right hand remembering the knife and lifting it higher.
“I should be asking you the same thing.” I glance back toward my camp, wondering if anyone has seen him yet. “What’s a boy doing in a camp of dead men?”
Still on his hands and knees, he shrugs. “Runners go where they’re told.” He’s watching me like I’ve got a tell, like there’s some mystery inside me that he’ll be able to figure out if he stares long enough. He pulls himself to a shaky stand, never taking his eyes off mine. “Am I right?”
“You are,” I answer. “But right now, you better do as I say, if you want to live. Head toward that wood and be quick about it!” I point at the forest, still heavy with shadows even though the sun is nigh. “We’ll be burning this field in a few hours.”
His eyes—his beautiful gray eyes—flash with some dark emotion. He runs a fast gaze over me, head to foot, that makes a strange spark flutter in my gut.
“I can’t go.” He’s made a decision, I can see it in the resolute set of his jaw. “I can’t leave,” he says again. “My father is here somewhere—”
“Why would a Runner be in the same killing field as his own father? Haven’t your parents disowned you?”
“Of course, they have—I wouldn’t be wearing this brand otherwise. But my real father never even knew I was born. He’s here somewhere and I have to find him.”
“Boy, your real father’s dead if he was in this field. You know the mountain folk send their warriors out, never expecting them to return.”
“But I can’t leave him here to roast in a heathen fire. I have to take his body home and give him a proper burial. He’s a warrior and he deserves to rest in a grave with wreaths of flowers and choruses of song.” There’s a pleading in his gaze that’s softening my heart more than I like.
“You’re crazy! Your people will never let you back inside their city gates—”
He tugs a long cord from beneath his tunic, revealing a small flask. “They will let me in.”
I see the flask he holds and I freeze, unable to speak or move. I can’t even breathe.
“I’m the Plague Carrier—”
As soon as those words leave his mouth, I swing my visor down, then I turn and leap over the bodies behind me. In two bold jumps, I put a barrier of dead flesh between us, then I pause to brace my left arm over my chin, protecting that narrow gap between my neck and the visor.
“Stay back! Or I’ll call the others!” I yell in a muffled voice.
Already I’ve pulled out my whistle and I’m getting ready to blow it. Just last week I was running through hail and wind, along a riverbank choked with mud. I thought I was going to make it to the Eastern border. I thought I was going to be free.
Now, I’ve got a Plague Carrier, not five feet away from me and moving closer.
This monster could kill the entire camp with the virus he’s carrying in that flask around his neck. I try not to let him know how frightened I am. Meanwhile, all I can think is, from bad to worse, that’s the way my luck’s been going lately.
Reviews from Amazon Readers
"In typically flawless Merrie Destefano style, The Plague Carrier is at once evocative, engaging and terrifying."—Auburn McCanta, 5 stars
"While it was a short 27 pages, it was great! I could not put it down! It will leave you wanting more. I cannot wait to read more about Anna and William."—Allison D. Sautkus, 5 stars
I plan to write more stories in this series, so stop back from time to time! I'll keep my home page updated with any new episodes in the continuing saga of THE PLAGUE CARRIER.