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Iron and Tears

By Kati Tomkins

The news report on the radio said it was getting worse.

Caelum turned up the volume as he turned into the driveway of his small suburban home. The reporter's voice filled the little car. It seemed saturated with a strange calm solemnity – as if she was resigned to the fate that was being brought upon them all. He gripped the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands.

"Within the past nine days, a disease known as 'Sanguisis', more commonly deemed 'Blood Hunger', has been devastating our city, along with thousands of others around North America. This sickness has officially reached epidemic proportions. As it stands there are 34 982 Sanguisis victims dead worldwide, as well as the added casualties of those slaughtered at the hands of Sanguisis patients trying to satisfy their 'insatiable appetite for human blood'. Hundreds more are being held in quarantine facilities.

"As of yet there is no known cure or treatment for this disease. Popular opinion among the medical community suggests that Blood Hunger may be transmitted by airborne virus, though no guarantees can be made at this point. I'm Jennifer Macdonald, and this was your evening news. Have a good night."

Caelum turned the radio off deftly. There had been 43 more deaths since yesterday's news report.

Right now he wouldn't think about it. He'd just go inside to his wife, talk about inconsequential things, and the atrocities of the world would fade away for the night.

He walked through the hall into the kitchen. She would normally be there, cooking dinner, but she wasn't. Neither was she in the family room. The bathroom door was ajar, revealing another empty room.

"Paige?" He called upstairs. She didn't answer. His heart beat against the inside of his chest, impatient, afraid, illogical. He started up the stairs.

He flitted from room to room, each time being greeted only by empty space. Frantic, he nearly didn't hear her whimpers coming from within the broom closet.

He swung open the door. His stomach plunged.

Paige was crumpled on the floor, her clothes bloodied and torn. Her skin was broken out and grey underneath the blemishes, and her eyes were milky and unfocused. Without acknowledging his presence, she continued to whine and rock, back and forth, back and forth. Her fingers were at her lips. She was licking the blood from them.

Caelum's first impulse was to get away from this creature that had once been his wife. But it was Paige…he couldn't. Instead he swallowed the bile rising from his throat and remembered the acquiescent tone of the radio reporter, how she had been accepting of the horror that was upon them. He had no time to make a decision.

"They're coming for me, darling." Paige whimpered in a high squeal, breaking him out of his reverie. Still, she did not look up at him. "You've heard what they say on the news. They'll take me away to die without you."

Yes, they would come. The blood on her hands told him so. The murders of Sanguisis patients were never discreet. They would indeed be on their way.

"I won't let them take you." Caelum reached out for his wife, lifting her from the ground and into his arms. He breathed in the scent of her hair. The smell of rot, the smothering tang of death.

"I won't let you go." His cheeks were wet with the blood on Paige and his own tears; wet with her stinking, sweating flesh. He breathed her in, tasting her sickness on his tongue.

She tried to push away from him, but he could feel the weakness in her frail limbs. She would try to save him, but he had decided his fate. Without further thought, he pressed his lips to hers in a fierce kiss. He drew out her diseased breath from between her bloodstained lips, deeply, and the kiss tasted of iron and tears. Paige's weak struggle finally ceased as she accepted Caelum's decision to condemn himself.

There was a knock at the door. Neither Paige nor Caelum pulled away. His eyes pressed shut, Caelum heard the door bang open, loud footsteps, and then all was silent. The feeling of his lover's lips upon his own was replaced by a sharp stinging between his ribs and a slow, slurring sensation of imposed unconsciousness.

He woke up thinking it was just another day. He lay on his back, Paige curled up against his side, breathing lightly. Customary. Sunshine permeated his eyelids. Only when he opened his eyes and breathed deeply did he realize something was horribly and irrevocably wrong. He ran his tongue across his dry morning lips and tasted blood.

They lay among other bodies on cold linoleum tiles. The only source of light was the window, up a set of stone stairs. He looked around, searching for some hint of where they were. A fuse box, a steel door – bolted shut.

Disfigured, twisted taps of some sort shot out from the far wall. And on the floor, garbage, glass shards scattered like stars or tears, and dark stains. His attention was caught on those, his stomach churning with disgust, and underneath, a deep and voracious need.

"We're in a facility," a man's drawling, low whine sounded behind him. "They call it quarantine on the news. Really, it's a morgue."

Caelum turned to the figure lying on his stomach on the floor, surrounded by blood and sparks of light glinting off shattered glass. The man was in casual business wear and wore his hair short, a dirtied caricature of the ideal gentleman. His skin shared the same grey, broken out complexion as Paige's.

"How do you know?" Caelum asked in a voice that had become a shrill wheeze.

The man made a noise like laughing. "Ha. Ha-ha." He turned his murky eyes to Caelum. "I was a government worker. Then I caught the Blood Hunger. The whole world is gunna be taken over by it, you know? They'll never find a cure. They feed us poison here, to make the sickness sleep for a while. That's so they don't get infected when-" The man broke off into a fit of coughing. Then his eyes registered a surprising amount of clarity. "When they kill us."

There was a sound behind Caelum, like a tap being turned on. The government worker stared in the direction of the noise lustily while a new aroma filled the room – a smell that made Caelum's mouth water and his vision clear. He turned.

From the taps on the wall, blood poured.

The others crawled toward them, and like newborns suckling at their mother's breasts, they drank.

Caelum began to move unthinkingly to the taps. His wife stirred and rose to her hands and knees to join him in feeding, but the government worker reached out and grabbed at Caelum's sleeve.

"Don't drink what they give you. Your body will shut down and when they come to take you away, you will surely die."

Caelum leaned back on his heels, trying to keep his eyes away from the feeding frenzy. Paige looked close to tears, huddling against a wall and staring at the taps. He considered the poison the government worker claimed was in the bloody solution.

The crimson flow lasted only a minute or so, but it was enough to make Caelum miserable with desire. He looked down at the government worker, who was coughing again.

"The doctors will come soon. Wait by the top of the stairs. When they come, get rid of them and take their clothes. Get out as fast as you can. It's your only hope of survival."

The man's eyes were closed now. He did not move.

"Why are you helping us?" Caelum wheezed. "Isn't it better for the world if we die?"

The man did not open his eyes. In a whispering breath full of finality he intoned, "Our world is doomed regardless. You deserve to live."

Caelum held his shaking wife to his side for a moment, willing all this trouble to end and for their lives to become mundane once again. But the past was dead now. The government worker's hand twitched toward the steps. You don't have much time, his movement suggested.

So Caelum and Paige hid together in the shadows at the top of the stairs. Caelum held in his greying hand a segment of pipe he had found lying in the rubble. When the doctors opened the door, he followed the instructions he was given.

Before taking the clothes, he and Paige fed. Only then did they dress in the masks and white jackets and enter the building of death, free to escape into a world that would never be safe again.

Did You Know

TumbleBookCloud is an online collection of read-along chapter books for students in late elementary to high school. In addition to the same content previously found in TumbleReadables, TumbleBookCloud includes videos from National Geographic, new Audio Books, and 44 additional chapter book titles. TumbleBookCloud?