Just After Midnight

By Christie Skipper Ritchotte

It's just after midnight. "Joey!" Elsie calls. Her brother galumphs over and skids into her shoulder. She didn't jangle the harness or leash, but somehow he always knows.

He slips his meaty arms through the harness and waits for her to clip on the leash, and stares pointedly at the door.

"I'll be right back. Stay here."

He won't budge from that spot, not while he's waiting for a walk. She's used this to her advantage at times; back when Laura came around, she sometimes used the promise of a walk to keep Joey out of the bedroom. She's not proud of it, but it worked.

She retrieves the knife from behind the busted silverware drawer and tapes it to her side. The cold metal warms against her skin until it feels a part of her. She replaces the drawer and pauses until she can force a smile again.

Joey can't understand her sadness. He thinks life is like Blaster Crusaders. He thinks there's a reset button: that people can die and start back at level one. He thinks Laura will walk through the door any minute now.

Elsie cups her face in her hands, lets her fingers drag through the livid mass of scars, traces the aching patterns down her neck. Sometimes she wonders what it would've been like if she'd been the one to contract M1, instead of Joey. Maybe being Simple made things hurt less.

At her signal they set out, past the broken-down elevator, descending the stairs to the bottom floor.

"Shh," Elsie warns.

"Ki-et," Joey whispers. His mouth gapes open, tongue reflexively twisting from side to side.

They sneak past a couple of unconscious 'donie burnouts, and out into the night. The chill clings and accompanies them through the city corridors. Elsie sets a quick pace. From inside her hoodie, she studies the folks they pass on the street, especially those who cross to the other side as Elsie and Joey approach. When they near the Gonzales place, Mr. G. beckons them over and then hands Joey a stick of gum. Elsie thanks him, even though she knows Joey'll just swallow it. They move on.

Near the old grocery, a gang of fem-skins emerge from a burnt-out structure, their shaved heads as naked and pale as the moon. Joey bares his teeth and snarls like Elsie taught him. Most folks are superstitious about catching M1, even after the vaccinations. M2 is the one they ought to worry about. Elsie scans each girl's face as they mock-bark at Joey. He strains against the leash until the skins back off.

As they head toward the train tracks, Joey warns: "Ka."

"Patrol?"

He nods.

They high-tail it back to the building. Elsie ruffles Joey's hair as they hike the linoleum stairs, and he grins, in his way. Sometimes it's hard to reconcile his passive sweetness with what he did to Laura.

Elsie was the champ at ignoring unpleasantness, until a year ago. Until Laura came through the door, hair disheveled, eyes and nose weeping rancid pink fluid. Elsie stroked Laura's matted hair as her lover moaned and vomited black sludge. M2.

She should have run, but she couldn't believe Laura would hurt her. After Laura carved holes in her face with a box cutter, after Joey tackled the sick girl and tore out her throat, then she believed. She bled as Joey whimpered in the corner, and when she woke, Laura was gone.

Elsie tears the knife from her side and stashes it in its hiding place. She wipes her damp eyes on her sleeve. Perhaps she's as simple as her brother after all; who needs M1? Every time she leaves this apartment, she catches herself thinking: this time, I'll find Laura.


Christie Skipper Ritchotte is the eldest daughter of two Mormon hippies, which should explain a lot. She lives in the Salt Lake Valley with her husband and son, and reads slush at Shimmer Magazine. Feel free to email her at galacticfuzzball@gmail.com; she likes email.