Written for Advanced Creative Fiction at Rutgers University. April 10, 2019
It’s a hot August day on Rikers Island. Of course, I can only tell that it’s daytime from the rays of light shining between the bars of this cell’s tiny window. No one’s been around to enforce bedtime in days, nor let anyone out for a meal, shower, or recreation in the yard. That fucker down the hall is moaning again. Does he think anyone hears him? Nobody’s coming to help you, buddy! Can’t you smell the death stinking up this shithole, begging for the sweet escape of an open window, a door, anything? The stench of the diarrhea and vomit that soaks the clothes of my criminal neighbors had gone from an infuriating olfactory presence to my new normal.
My name’s Eric Porter, and I guess I’m a survivor. Oops, that sounded like a hokey line from an NA meeting. Well, it’s true. Every night last week, the whole block would huddle around the big wall-mounted CRT TV over in the rec room to get the latest updates on the superflu. It popped up in Montana and spread hundreds of miles in a flash. Nearly 100% lethality and seemingly airborne transmission. Of course there was a riot in here when the news came that it was in New York, but what could we do when they brought out the tear gas and tasers? Into your cell you go and into your cell you die.
Except me. And that other guy. That was 5 days ago so I’m starting to get hungry in spite of the stench. All I’ve had to eat is some of the skin above my fingernails, but I’ve been doing that since I had to kick meth on account of my imprisonment. I’m not too far above moany guy, I just express myself differently. Right after the cell block got real quiet, my favorite pasttime was to poke my nose through my cell door and shake the thick white bars hoping that someone would come rescue us. Now I’ve given up and await impending doom. I lay in my hard, white cot and stare at the hard, gritty ceiling to conserve energy, only getting up to relieve myself in the stainless steel toilet or drink water from the tap above it.
Aside from moany guy, the prison has been deathly quiet. Even the outside has been silent since the flu killed off the birds. That’s why I easily hear a door open at the beginning of the block. Then a voice calls out.
I think I know that voice; rugged and deep but with a little squeal in the upper register.
“Right here!” I shout back.
Heavy footsteps approach me in a frenzy and I’m face-to-bar-to-face with Tyrell Spencer, a muscular 6′ 3″ black guy who I’ve been rolling with for a decade. He’s two years my senior at 28, but his imposing frame and weathered features make him look old enough to be my step-dad. He’s wearing the small black backpack he’s had for years, with only one zipper fully intact.
“Eric, you look like shit, man. What the hell happened to your face?”
“I got in a fight at the gym when someone wouldn’t let me work in on the squat rack,” I brush a weak hand against the stitches of a 2-inch scar on my cheek. “He slashed me with a shard of glass.”
“Ouch. Well, you look hungry. I found this set of keys in an office back there.”
“Let me see that,” I rifle through. “Should be… this one”.
He twists the hefty key in the lock and slides the door open.
“Freedom…” I step into the corridor. “Man, did you bring any ice? I could use a little boost.”
“Fuck no, are you crazy? I stopped messing with that shit after you got busted.”
“Wow, we’re both 6 months sober?”
“Yessir. Well, I got some bud in my bag but that’s a little different,” he says with a grin that shows the gap where his left lateral incisor used to be before I met him. “Now eat this, you look pretty pale.”
He grabs a protein bar from his bag; it’s out of the wrapper and in my belly before I can taste its nuttiness.
“You’re looking pretty swole for someone who’s starving.”
“Not much else to do in here than get your pump on.”
“Well it’s a good thing you haven’t wasted away because you’re probably gonna have to use this. The city is a madhouse right now.” Tyrell pulls a Glock 19 pistol out, jams a pre-loaded mag into the well, and racks the slide in a blur of muscle memory. He hands me the grip and I admire the weight of this lethal machine, feigning a shot at my window.
“Didn’t think I’d get to use one of these again.”
“Yeah yeah, the pigs all shit themselves to death so you’re good. Speaking of which, can we continue this conversation anywhere other than here? I’m not a fan of the smell of hot shit,” Tyrell fans in front of his nose which has always leaned a little to the left from one of many childhood scuffles in the Bronx.
“Hey, guys? Don’t forget about me.”
“Who’s that?” Tyrell asks as we both walk towards moany guy.
Clinging to the cell door with knuckles white around the bars is an incredibly bony white kid who couldn’t be older than 20. On his right pectoral is a hyper-realistic tattoo of a onion with a tear falling from its humanoid face.
“What’s your name again? And what are you in here for?” I ask him.
“Luke,” he twitches slightly. “I’m here for larceny, supposedly awaiting trial. I got caught stealing computer parts from Micro Center.”
“Well,” Tyrell thinks for a moment. “I can’t let this kid die here, so I guess he’ll be coming with us.”
He pops the key in and opens the cell before handing Luke a bar from his bag.
“Thank you,” Luke says as he steps out. “Just one issue, I have HIV and I haven’t had my medication in days.”
“Shit, you too? What are the chances that all three of us have it?” I ask.
“About that,” Tyrell pipes in. “It seems like the only people still around have HIV. It must have given us an immunity to the flu.”
“Did anyone figure that out before it was too late?”
“Maybe,” he says. “But I didn’t see anything about it on the news.”
What a turn of fate. The stigmatized now rule the country—and maybe the world. Who knows how far the flu spread? But we’re all doomed if we run out of antiretrovirals.
“Let’s go to the medical ward,” I suggest. “Hopefully we’re the first ones there and the drugs haven’t been looted already.”
We head back the way that Tyrell came in, then take a left after the double metal doors. Our steps reverberate from the linoleum floor of the rec room to its white popcorn ceiling. It’s eerily quiet except for the static of the TV. We go through another identical set of doors and enter a room with a hard beige floor and white walls with countless scuffs. After easily vaulting over the waist-high counter directly ahead of the entrance, I motion for the others to follow.
“They always take the meds out of this closet,” I say while pointing to the thick steel door in front of us. I wiggle the handle expecting it to be locked, but it moves freely. Bad sign.
The door’s open, and…
“They took everything!” Luke laments.
The dozens of bins lining the secure closet’s shelves which are normally filled with bags of various prescriptions now lay empty.
“I think we should get out of here while we can. I have meds in the bag which I’ll be happy to share,” Tyrell explains, “but I’d rather not run into any stragglers here. We need to get off this fucking island and figure out a game plan.”
We get to the parking lot and I’m surprised when Tyrell keeps walking towards the bridge.
“You didn’t bring a car or anything?”
“Hell no. Everyone tried to get out of the city and died in their cars, so all the streets are full,” Tyrell says.
“Sounds like we need to commandeer some bikes,” Luke muses.
We all nod in agreement. Thankfully the jail isn’t too remote. The bridge is under a mile, then we’ll be in Queens. It gives me some time to think about the good old days. Or at least, they felt good at the time. I remember the first time Tyrell and I copped some ice. It blew away everything else I ever tried. Then one day, a friend showed me how to slam it. Mix it, filter it, tie off, and shoot that shit right in a vein. Vaping it was child’s play after that, I couldn’t go back. Of course, Tyrell got into it just as deep. Then it became hard to justify the cost of clean needles when I was stealing batteries just to afford half a g. One of us must have shared with some sketchy fuck out of desperation, then that’s it. HIV positive. Who knew that it would someday save us?