“Maybe Next Year”
by Jay Wilburn
Sheldon didn’t want to watch, but he couldn’t seem to look away as the third kid jumped off the tower. It was some sort of cell tower on top of an office building perched on a hill. They had gotten past whatever locked barrier was meant to prevent kids from climbing up there. Then, they jumped one by one off the high side so they fell all the way down the sheer side of the hill to the parking lot of a pharmacy. There was a grassy stretch before the parking lot with some ornamentals that Sheldon could see in the shadow of the alley where he stood. The third kid missed those and hit concrete. He saw the impact before the sound carried to Sheldon’s ear a split second later. That kid wasn’t moving any time soon nor the bodies on either side of him.
That pharmacy was empty. Sheldon had checked it weeks ago. Every pill and scrap of food was taken. He was chased out and followed for several blocks by kids armed with knives and pipes. For all he knew, it was the same kids jumping off the cell tower now.
The next girl leaned out from the top of the tower just below one of the signal dishes. She waved to the world below and Sheldon fought the mad urge to wave back. She lifted one leg off the crossbar and kicked her foot into open space a few times like a dance move. The boys hanging on behind her shoved her back and laughed. She managed to keep her grip though.
Sheldon took his eyes away and checked the bag on his hip. He knew what was in there, but he could not resist the urge to check again. He counted using the sharp edges of the foil as markers. Seven blister packs of the medication.
That was a miracle find. They had stopped making this stuff and most other medicines early in 2017. It was only June, but everything was getting tougher to find already. Even food was more scarce than it had been even a month ago. Sheldon tried not to think what it would be like by the time winter came again. Feeding and treating people had dropped off the radar of society. Civilization couldn’t hold out much longer even if the people could.
He thought about the billionaires running Washington. Sheldon wondered if they still sat in their offices or if they stayed in bunkers full-time now. Even they couldn’t be blamed for what the world had become, could they?
He rubbed the sharp edges of the blister packs with the pad of his thumb and tried not to think about it. He tried not to calculate how soon the meds would be used up. Five weeks. The math came out to five weeks. Maybe a little longer if she alternated between suffering and relief by rationing.
Sheldon shook his head and drew his hand out of the bag again. He gripped the strap over his chest with both hands and stared forward. “I don’t know what to do anymore.”
The girl finally jumped and Sheldon couldn’t help but to watch. She twisted as she fell and flipped over twice. Her limps whipped around her body like she danced in the air or fought against the wind. Something in her movements or how she pushed off the tower sent her out from the parking lot and onto the street beyond. She bounced off the pavement as blood splattered around her and a truck with a welded grill clobbered her in the air. The truck fishtailed, but regained its bearing and roared forward without stopping. She tumbled across the lanes and into the ditch on the other side of the highway. Sheldon swore he heard her laughing.
The next boy stepped out on the edge of the tower and gave a shrill whistle over his fingers.
Sheldon turned away and followed the backs of the buildings deeper into the city. “And we thought 2016 was bad.”
Sheldon heard gunfire as he prepared the cross the street, so he crouched and waited. He shook his head. “Why bother?”
The shots echoed and drew closer. Sheldon waited. He only saw their legs as they broke into the open a few blocks down. Handguns roared and the slugs rang off of brick walls and the street. He wasn’t sure whether anyone was hit or whether it mattered. A shotgun exploded, ratcheted, and blasted again. Someone fell to the street. Sheldon couldn’t see the face of the victim, but if that blast peeled off enough of the skin, they would wake to find themselves as a permanent exposed skull, unable to heal any more than that. The eyes would come back, so they would see and feel all of it. He wasn’t sure why that mattered to him, but it still did.
“Where are you idiots even finding bullets to waste?”
Sheldon stood and made the run across the street to the next alley. More shots rang out, but none at him. He hoped the gunfire might keep others hunkered down, so he could get home quicker. The bullets wouldn’t kill anyone, but fear from earlier times when they used to still had an instinctive reaction over some people. There were fates worse than death too, Sheldon supposed. Some people feared pain even more now that death was no longer an option. Others were more like those kids jumping off the tower.
Sheldon stepped through the missing side door of a restaurant he used to like. He stepped over the flipped tables and paused at the shattered front glass. He spotted movement up around the third level of the fire escape, one down from his mother’s apartment. He thought it might be another thrill-seeking kid performing fear jumps again.
He recognized Mr. Dalton, a veteran from the Vietnam War, maybe sixty on his way to seventy years old. He lived in the unit below Sheldon’s mom and he hanged by his neck over the railing buck naked, facing the street below. Mr. Dalton touched himself with furious energy until he blacked out again and his arms went limp.
Sheldon sighed. The man’s head lolled at an angle that made him look quite dead with the rope pinching deep into his throat like that.
“You should be so lucky,” Sheldon whispered.
He looked to his right and spotted a message in dry blood in a surviving section of plaster on the crumbling wall. It read: There’s always next year.
Sheldon tried to remember if that had been there before.
He looked both ways and crossed the street. Sheldon jumped to grab and pull down the ladder. He moved up two levels and stopped where Mr. Dalton and his wrinkled butt swayed right at face level. Sheldon felt tempted to untie the man and let him wake up in a heap on the sidewalk below. He decided it wasn’t his business. Mr. Dalton had been a kind and helpful neighbor to Sheldon’s mother the previous year.
He climbed to the fourth level and entered through the window. “Mom.”
She did not answer, but he could hear her breathing. He popped one of the pills loose and forced it past her sallow lips. Some of the tepid water spilled down her cheek onto her sheets, but she finally responded with a swallow and opened her eyes. She coughed hard enough to shake her entire frame, but she kept the pill down and the fit subsided too.
Sheldon smiled, but his eyes went to the remaining water bottles on the dresser.
His mother followed his line of sight. Nothing got past her even like this. “You’ll have to go to the river again soon and boil some more on the roof.”
Nothing left in the water could kill them, of course, but everything could cause pain and that was the devil in the details now.
“It’ll be fine. I’ll take care of it soon. I found a lot this time. We’ll be good for weeks. That will buy us time to find more.”
She let out a laugh that rattled in her throat and she gave a slow blink. “Time we have. Rest I need. Real rest.”
Sheldon nodded and bowed his head over his lap. “If I could make it all stop for you, really end, I would. You know I would do that for you, if I could. I’m sorry you have to live with this.”
She touched the top of his head. Her hand shook and he felt hard knobs of bone against his scalp through the thin flesh of her gnarled fingers. He did not lift his head to look. Her joints must have been fiery pain by that point. It had to rival the pit of pain from the tumors in her gut. He wondered if there was still any blood flowing through her hands or if they just continued to operate beyond all logic and reason just like everything else in the world.
Her hand fell away from his head back to the bed. She said, “Maybe some day. Maybe.”
“Do you really believe that? You think maybe the curse will lift in 2018?” He raised his head, but stared at the wall instead of looking at her.
“If enough people wish for something, it’s possible to reshape the world.”
Sheldon shook his head and buried his face in his hands with his elbows resting on her knees. He closed his eyes.
The fire escape rattled outside. Mr. Dalton was conscious again it seemed.
Sheldon said, “If wishing made it so, we’d all be free to die again. Everyone in the world must be wishing for it by this point. If the TV and Internet were still up, I’m sure it would be all anyone would ever talk about. That and being hungry all the time.”
“Everyone begged for death to stop last year.” Something wet gurgled in back of her throat with each breath. “Maybe we just need a little more time to really appreciate it before we get that gift back again.”
Sheldon kept his eyes closed as her breathing went slow and even again. She was out. A few seconds later, the fire escape went silent as Dalton passed out again too.
Sheldon needed to get more water. He needed to find food too. It was easy to forget to eat now that people could survive without it, but he felt it was important to keep up the habit.
He listened to his mother’s slow breathing a while longer and wished for it to stop. He prayed for the mercy of silence and peace for her at last. Her breathing continued though, but still he waited and hoped.
The fire escape rattled again. Gunshots popped off in the distance and someone shouted loud enough to echo off the buildings a few streets over.
Glass shattered somewhere below and someone laughed. “Gonna pull that thing off, old man.”
Mr. Dalton growled outside. “Leave me alone. Mind your own damn business, you punk.”
Sheldon was amazed the guy could still speak with the set-up he had going outside.
His mother’s breathing continued, slow and excruciating.
Sheldon stood finally. He bent down to kiss her forehead gently so as not to wake her up. Then, he gathered the empty bottles from the floor around the bed to take to the river for refill. Sheldon stuffed them into the satchel on his hip and left the medicine on the side table near her head. He wasn’t sure she could get them out of the packs herself, so he popped two pills loose and left them where she could reach, but maybe not knock them in the floor. Maybe.
“Maybe next year,” Sheldon whispered.
He turned away from her and stood by the window watching Mr. Dalton below. Sheldon decided to wait for the man to pass out again before he climbed down past him.