“Would you shut that off?” Morgan asked and reached over to complete the task for the eight-year-old in braids who moved clothing from one machine to the other in the dormitory basement. Morgan felt the knob shut off with a satisfactory click and went on with her chore of gathering sheets to be washed.
“Hey! I like it—” Nelly flipped around.
“It’s been playing nonstop since the start of this thing. We’ve memorized it. The madness must end.”
When the workers at the radio station received wind of the fallout they stayed inside, knowing that if they opened the doors the mysterious chemical would enter their booth and kill them all. They managed to stay alive for three weeks, giving important news about the horrors spreading across the globe, but they knew they couldn’t escape. They tried to clog the air vents with hand towels, but eventually it was too hard to breathe, and they unclogged. The intern lasted the longest. Her last words burned into Morgan’s head.
“This is the end of our live broadcast. I’ve been searching through all our files, deciding what to place on an infinite loop. I figured a song or even a playlist might be too much, or might not say enough about who we were or what we accomplished as a human race, but I do have an old recording of an old musical, one that says something about our city and our people, and so I’ve decided…”
The story of the orphan girl had been on since then, five months ago, when the fallout happened.
At first Morgan found it comforting, clung to it even. She listened every night to the story and the songs, wishing someone would adopt her from this life.
Morgan Valentine, age twelve, was the second oldest student to survive in the residential magnet school in the heart of Manhattan. Nelly was the second youngest, and sadly the most industrious out of the eight remaining students. She was the only student Morgan could trust to do chores without getting distracted, or simply breaking down crying over a dirty sink of dishes, but even she did that, just less.
News reports originally said ten percent of people survived. That meant, statistically, out of their school of exactly one hundred students, they should have had ten. Originally, they had nine, but Samuel went looking for his parents and didn’t come back.
Morgan now knew better than to depend on statistics.
Once she had finished piling up the bedsheets, she ventured down to the third-floor restroom, which she and the other oldest student, Lee, had converted into a makeshift laboratory. They set up a folding table in the middle and gathered all the test tube sets and chemistry supplies they could find. The two started taking air samples by running outside with an open test tube and plugging it up. It was a futile effort, but an effort at solving the mystery of how their entire world came crashing down around them.
“Have you found anything new?” she asked as she walked in, watching him stare over his flasks, looking through messy black bangs.
“Not really. The usual,” Lee replied.
Morgan walked over to the mirror over the sink and checked her face, half-covered in acne because she couldn’t find enough cleanser after rioters left most stores bare. She supposed she didn’t have to live up to beauty standards any longer. Her stomach ached, but she wasn’t sure if it was from hunger or malnutrition. She adjusted her emerald green cardigan around her pale pink cami and watched Lee work in the mirror.
Before the fallout, the two had barely spoken to each other. Lee’s crowd absorbed themselves in video games incessantly, so his group hadn’t mixed with Morgan’s dance team clique. Both on the sciences track, Morgan was the resident biology expert. Lee, chemistry. When the last of their friends died, and they realized they were immune, they managed to overcome their avoidant acquaintanceship. Despite not being close, they learned teamwork quickly. Now they could call each other partners in crime.
A month prior, they had broken into Columbia’s biology labs and taken all the equipment back to the dorm in a stolen shopping cart. Morgan and Lee wished they could have stayed at the lab to work, but with the younger students needing them in the dorm, it didn’t make sense to walk an hour every day to and from the campus.
They briefly considered breaking into the dorms as well, but there were still some zombie-like college students hanging around. Zombie-like because they drank themselves into half-consciousness instead of helping with rebuilding efforts. No, they left the dorms alone. They were not only full of drunks, but also full of corpses, and some of them stunk through the walls.
At least she and Lee had the courtesy to drag all their bodies out to burn.
“I don’t think we’re using any of this right,” she said, turning and examining her previous samples that she left in a centrifuge.
“We’re fools if we think this will get us anywhere. We need adults, Morgan. I hate to say it – I never would have said it before, but we need adults who know things!”
“We are the adults now,” Morgan said and looked at her classmate sadly.
“We’re not adults, okay?” he threw his arms up and let his hands come back down on his thighs as he swiveled around in the leather office chair he stole from the principal’s office, “We barely know the parts of a human cell—”
“I know all the organelles and their functions—”
“Good for you…but I don’t think basic knowledge of the mitochondria is going to help us. Humans couldn’t even cure cancer before this happened. How do you think we’re supposed to find a cure for a mysterious illness, when everyone who would have died from it is already dead!” Lee shouted so violently that his glasses slipped off his nose at an angle.
Morgan shut her mouth and stared quietly at herself in the mirror. Her dark curly hair and eyebrows shone in the fluorescent light. Green eyes gazed back at her. It was a wonder that the electricity was still working at all. She wasn’t sure how, but the people at the plant certainly didn’t turn anything off.
“Ugh,” she groaned, placing one hand on her stomach.
“You hungry?” Lee asked. They had been surviving on what the dorm kitchen had left for the first month. They ate all the fresh food first, and now they were down to some granola bars, peanut butter, and canned vegetables.
“I’ve had a bad stomach ache for the past week,” she replied. “Not the hungry kind, it’s just gross.”
Lee dropped his frustration and spoke seriously.
“Don’t you go getting sick on me, Valentine. I can’t raise six kids by myself.”
Morgan rolled her eyes. The leftover students usually joked of them as “mom” and “dad,” when really, they were holding things together with masking tape.
“It’s just a stomach ache, probably from the weird diet,” she said, stretched to both sides, and took her place next to him at the lab table. “Where were we?”
She was able to work intensely for about thirty minutes, labeling samples here, and looking under microscopes there. Then her side ached again and she leaned over the table.
“You don’t look good,” Lee said, his tone already fading to apathy in case she died.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said, but something wasn’t right. She went into the bathroom stall.
“Hey! I thought we agreed we wouldn’t use the ones in here—” Lee started.
Morgan closed the stall door, pulled her pants down, and saw the worst possible thing she could have.
She covered her mouth and looked away, not wanting to face it. She knew it was coming. Her friends had already gotten theirs before they died. After the fallout, she had hoped that something in the atmosphere or the lack of nutrition would stunt her growth and it wouldn’t be happening.
It was wishful thinking, like everything else from the beginning of the fallout until now.
“Are you okay?” Lee asked hesitantly.
She wadded up some toilet paper and stuck it in her underwear as a temporary arrangement. When she was done and had all her clothes back in order, she walked back to the mirror and stared at herself.
“What’s wrong?” Lee asked.
“I started my period,” said Morgan, one hand on her lower back.
“Oh.” Lee blushed and looked away. “Do we need to like, do something about that?”
Think, Morgan. There has to be a solution.
But no matter the room she considered in the dorm she could not think of where feminine products might be stored. She had searched the whole place when the ordeal began. She couldn’t remember finding any. The other girls her age had survived for a while – long enough to use their supplies up. The only dorm mom, Cecily, had already hit menopause before it started.
It was no use. She had to go out.
“I need to find supplies,” she replied, already analyzing potential routes in her head, whichever streets had the most pharmacies in a square block.
“Right now? Can’t we wait until our supply run next week?” he asked. They had just been out the day before, in the snow. Of course, it couldn’t have hit then.
Morgan shot him a narrow-eyed glance.
“Well, you can’t go by yourself,” he argued. “You may have to search a hundred places to find anything, and who knows who’s hiding out there?”
Morgan shook her head.
“Any of the other students would be a liability rather than a help. And you can’t go with me. If something were to happen to us on the way, there would be no one to look after the others,” she pointed out.
“Trevor could do it.”
“Trevor is nine.”
“So…he ought to show some responsibility sometime,” Lee fudged, blushing again. The past few months had skewed their understanding of who was responsible and who wasn’t. The two of them were now the most responsible, and that was scary.
“I’ll see you in a few hours…hopefully.”
“Be careful out there, Morgan,” he echoed as she stepped into the hall, “bring the hatchet.”
“Will do,” she echoed back.
Morgan went to her closet, and pulled out her heaviest pants and leggings. She put on both, and added three undershirts, a sweater, a coat, hat and earmuffs, a scarf that buttoned around her face.
Besides looking like a walking marshmallow, she was suitably warm.
She made sure she had the handle of her hatchet pushed through a belt loop at her right side, and a water bottle, half-full in case she found herself stuck somewhere. She also pushed some band aids into her pocket and the tiniest bottle of hand sanitizer to use as antiseptic.
She could do this. She could totally do this.
As she left, she heard a familiar chorus about the city chiming down the hall to the laundry room.
“You’re still listening to that?” Morgan asked with a glance around the corner. Nelly sang the next line with great enthusiasm, using her hairbrush as a microphone and power sliding onto her knees in front of Morgan.
“Uh-huh,” she said, grinning. The smile vanished when she saw Morgan’s clothing. “Are you going somewhere?”
“Yeah, just a quick errand, should be back by dinner,” she said, retying the laces on her snow boots.
“But what do you need? We just went out yesterday.” Nelly asked.
“You wouldn’t understand, Nelly. I’ll be back soon.” Morgan walked to the door.
“Okay,” Nelly said hollowly. Morgan gave her a big smile before setting foot into the icy tundra.
She needed treads, Morgan decided, after slipping for the fifth time. She ventured her way through the scaffolds lining the brownstone buildings, stretching towards the crystal blue sky. The snow had melted and refrozen overnight, making every step a slippery, hazardous risk.
But she had to have something. Preferably, more than one thing.
Morgan checked CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Duane Reade… even a privately owned place. She found empty metal shelves staring back at her in a lost forlornness. No one to stock them, no imports to stock.
She almost gave up, coming out of the privately owned place on 34th street, but then she saw the Target across the street.
No one, no one could have left anything in there, could they have?
It was right across from Macy’s. The Macy’s. If people were targeting stores at the beginning, she thought this would be one that would be rampaged.
Hesitantly, she looked both ways, a habit that never died despite zero traffic, and crossed the street to the store.
Morgan used the hatchet to wedge the automatic doors open and pried her way inside. The shop stood completely dark. The employees had abandoned it when the riots began.
She stared around the first floor. Everything of use in Target rested in the basement. When her family first moved from the Vermont suburbs, it amazed her that a store could be stacked up like that. Home goods and clothing on floor one, toiletries in the center of the lower level, surrounded by freezer aisles.
Morgan listened for thirty seconds before venturing further, a tactic she and Lee had developed to avoid crazed people and giant rats.
Hearing no one, crept down the frozen escalator, holding the hatchet above her head. She stepped over the body of another woman, who had fallen while looking for her own supplies.
Morgan scoured each aisle, squinting carefully at the labels in the dark. Most of the items had been taken long ago, and now only the most useless things remained: wart remover, ear cleaner, poison ivy relief.
It was when she was gazing at a shelf of half-torn open face masks that she heard a crunch.
The crunch of trash beneath someone’s foot.
Morgan held her breath and raised her hatchet again, moving slowly as possible, summoning all the knowledge and skill she could remember from her ballet class to tiptoe across the floor, but unsure if it made a difference in her own volume. She hadn’t been quiet when she entered. They knew she was there.
The daylight shone in from the street above. She could leave. She could make it without a fight if she ran.
But then she wouldn’t have what she needed, and it had been thirty minutes since she felt the blood soak through and begin to stain the cloth underneath.
It wasn’t fair, but her parents had told her that was life, and she supposed she was glad to still be alive.
Morgan rounded the corner and peered at the signs, yes, this was it. Feminine Products. That was the section she needed. No one in sight.
Again, the aisles looked bare. There was a piece of trash and a discarded price label holder. But months of searching had taught her better.
Morgan crouched down sideways, knowing she made herself vulnerable, and lowered her face to the ground, looking under the shelf.
She reached out to grab a lonely box of tampons.
A hand snatched them away from her.
“Hey!” Morgan shouted, “hey wait!” She screamed a battle cry, and ran around the corner, hatchet in both hands above her head.
“Those are mine!” she cried.
But when she met the eyes of her enemy, she froze.
It was a woman. A young woman, but still a woman, older than most who survived.Mid-20s. Her facial features, sunken and sallow. She’d had a rough time, maybe no-one to take care of her. In her right hand, the box Morgan wanted. Under her right arm, a babe, maybe a few days old at most, wrapped in an old towel.
“Please, please, leave us!” the woman shouted, holding her hand out to shield herself from the axe.
Morgan lowered her weapon.
“I-I um…” she wanted to say she needed the tampons, that she needed them and she’d been looking all day, and that she really needed them for her first period and all the periods thereafter.
But then Morgan looked down and realized the woman had tied a pillowcase around her pelvis, and that the postpartum blood had leaked through it. She had been in enough biology classes to understand that now.
“You can have them,” she said, taking a step back. “You can have them,” she said and tried not to cry. “I hope you and your baby survive.”
The woman nodded. She opened the box and pushed a handful with the instructions into Morgan’s hands, before running away, back up the escalator, back into the light.
After the woman left, Morgan took a moment to stuff the tampons and the pamphlet into her coat pockets and zip them up tight. She hung around, looking down aisle after aisle. She found some Easter candy from the year before and took that in her free hand.
Morgan didn’t know if she would ever find the supplies she required again, but at least she had enough to figure out a plan.
When Morgan arrived back at the dormitory, Nelly crashed into her in a big hug.
“I missed you!” she chimed.
“I missed you too.” Morgan said.
Nelly looked up at the items she carried.
“You went out that long for some old chocolate?” Nelly asked. Morgan laughed.
“I’ll tell you about it someday.”
Someday. If someday ever came.
That evening, Morgan curled up in the comforter, bright pink and covered in purple flowers, and tried to ignore the pain in her stomach by listening to the crackling of the radio. Her box of chocolate lay open, foil wrappers scattered.
The musical must have looped twice by the time she arrived home, back to the lullaby, singing about sweet dreams and sweet rest for sweet girls. Unattainable now.
Pale flakes fell from the red-tinted sky and hit against the windows in flurries. It used to be that the lights of New York shone so bright, that a cloudy night reflected those back and lit up the city as if it were day. That time had faded. Still, there was enough light from leftover beings in the form of bonfires and candles and lanterns to make the sky glow. Morgan stared up into the heavens and wondered if she would ever see her city as it was before. If she could ever find that spirit again, or if it was all caught within them.