Short Story: The Worst in Us

She was fifteen; old enough to know right from wrong. What she aimed to do was wrong. Even in the withered husk of society, it was wrong. She couldn’t help it now. Not even if she’d wanted to. She’d made a deal. Maybe afterward she’d care about right and wrong again. Find herself at peace with things. Maybe not.

Allison Hartley was about to murder someone. The teenager’s time and place were decidedly amoral. It wasn’t merely a place of warped morals, but one sans them. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, they were the only thing keeping the world from going to more shit than it had. It wasn’t the whole of society preventing it though. Rather, it was the few that managed to hold themselves to a code, a set of rules. Allison had always been one. That was different now. Would be forever.

Thus her premeditated violation felt a depraved kind of original sin. Whatever the repercussions, it had to been done. No-one would’ve disagreed with that. That is, if she ever planned to tell anyone. That had been part of the deal too: do what needed to be done, keep her mouth shut, and she learned the truth.

Nora had made the deal. Since the world went to hell, Allie had been watching over her. Their parents had been at the refugee camp. They and thousands of others were bombed by “the enemy,” whoever they might’ve been. All Allison knew was she and her little sister were suddenly alone in a burning world. Allison would’ve been better prepared if they’d been honest. Love brings out the worst in us, she knew. Their parents’ lies about reality had eventually forced her into fighting fire with fire.

Three years of utter hell had taught of nothing in life as absolute. That much should’ve been made clear the day they were sent to the refugee camp. Instead, Mom and Dad were quiet. They were quiet through school closing, and the imposed curfews. Twelve-year old Allie was completely oblivious to the world. Fifteen year old Allie was still traumatized by it, daily. She’d had no idea the real extent of damage being done to the world.

Radio and television had become spin machines. She didn’t know it, but she learned it later. They’d turned ongoing narratives from truth into what bolstered wartime support. The family reached the camp, and a matter of hours later the illusions shattered around Allie and Nora. Though the latter was still lost then, she sensed the beginning of realities eventually forced on them. The most prevalent, of course, was Humanity’s depravity– which she was once again a victim of.

A fiery sunset had bled from a dusty horizon as Nora limped up the mound of rubble. It marked the entrance to their home and hide-out. It wasn’t much more than a corner room in a bombed-out building, but a thick, steel door made it impenetrable for anyone hoping to get in. Solid, concrete walls kept them from the elements too, only a small, barred window at its high-ceiling to vent fires for cooking or heating. Allie knew the place was a police station’s set of cells, but the rest of the world was a prison enough that it didn’t bother her.

She’d left the door open to listen to the rare, slap of rain, and keep her ears peeled for the crunch of glass or gravel on their sound-traps. The tell-tale scatter of gravel said someone was sliding down into the bombed-out building. She shouldered her ancient rifle, threw open the door, ready to kill.

Nora was lying face down in glass and gravel, back laden with a pack of supplies. At only twelve, she could already hump the weight of a soldier three times her size for twice as long. That perseverance was the only way either of them had survived.

Allie scrambled for her side, helped her up, neck whipping to eye their surroundings. She fitted Nora’s then heaved them both toward the door. She laid her sister on the makeshift bed of sleeping bags and star, then dropped the back to bolt the door.

It was hours before Nora awoke. She pled for water. Her whole body shook with fresh pain. Something had happened, but Nora’s pistol was still full, her pack too. No raider did this: their ilk struck on the roads, took what they could, then killed their victims in fear of retribution. Nora was still alive, her supplies untouched. Whatever had happened was quick, without obvious resistance.

She finally began to speak, her eyes distant. It was the same stare Allie had seen after they’d watched their parents swallowed by bomb-fire. “I’ve done it a million times. Never like this.” Her bottom lip trembled. “I… I didn’t even know he was there.”

“Who, Nora?”

She teared up with a fierce refusal. “I can’t. I can’t tell you. If I tell you’ll want to tell someone else. You have to kill him.”

Allie’s eyes sparked with sibling guardianship, “Then I will, Nora.”

She refused to speak further, sobbed. A small, dirty hand, lifted the edge of her frayed t-shirt: her dirt-covered navel glistened with “Whore” carved in drying blood by a shaking, old blade. Each letter was torn fabric, the flesh only just coagulated.

But Nora’s hands continued to her pants, slid them down. Allison’s hate-filled eyes went blank, unable to muster even fury at the senselessness inflicted. Etched across her groin, the letters more jagged than before– from Nora struggling– were the words “use me.” The letters extended across her whole groin area, the vulva beneath swollen, bloody, bruised.

The atrocity didn’t need to be named. Neither did the punishment.

She managed to coax Nora into letting her further examine her. She helped her back into her clothes, and medicated her with old, bitter pain-pills. Allie coddled her into sleep, deducing what had been left out. She’d sent Nora to a nearby settlement to procure supplies. They’d done it a million times before. On the way back, she’d been grabbed, assaulted. Again, it clearly wasn’t bandits. That left only a traveler or an inhabitant between the two places.

She scrawled a note to Nora, left quietly; I will.

Half-way to the village, it dawned on her. The small, rocky hill was a hovel: an old manlived there. He’d seemed harmless enough, if slightly insane from time’s rigors. He’d only ever interacted with the sisters once. Hardly enough to kill him over, but enough to sneak in and interrogate him over.

The small hovel glowed from a fire-pit in its center. Flames spit and nipped at the air, cast grotesque shadows across the walls. Allie sneaked into a darkened corner, able to see him across the low-light of the room. He slept like a child might after a long day of play– how they had before. Children didn’t do that anymore. Now Nora never’d sleep without the terrible memories of what someone had done. It gave her fuel to move on.

Allie crept past the fire-pit. The old man grunted in his sleep. He rolled toward her. She dodged behind a makeshift table of half-rotten cardboard. Then, she saw it: a deluded shrine of drawings and black and white Polaroids of Nora and Allie, both clothed and nude. Allie’s face was cut or crossed out, but the old creep had managed to find or repair an old camera. He’d stalked them more than a few times, evidently following them to the nearby river where they bathed.

Her teeth clamped down, eyes took in the few valuables stolen from the girls. Presumably, he’d taken them at the river, when they weren’t watching. Allie and Nora thought they’d lost them. Evidently not.

Atop the pile of underwear, trinkets, and god-awful smelling things, was an old knife. Its cracked, dull edge still bore Nora’s dried blood. The clothing beneath it was as stained as Nora’s innocence. Allie nearly chipped teeth. Her hand clasped the knife, obscene atavism in her eyes. She sneaked toward the bastard…

She returned home to find Nora still asleep. The deal had been held to. When morning came, all that passed would see him crucified, castrated, genitals hanging from his mouth, and “rapist” carved into his groin above mangled flesh. If he wasn’t dead by then, someone would gladly spend a bullet.

Allie rinsed the last of the blood from her hands with a water-bottle, then settled into bed beside Nora. She held her tight, silent tears running down her face. Love brings out the worst in us, she knew, but that wasn’t always a bad thing.

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