Fantasy Fiction Science Fiction

DARK AGES, a Dystopian Capriccio

by Jim Johnston

Even with the plastic helmet, my nostrils burn from the acrid air, with its hint of rotting melons and animal feces. The storm has subsided, and official instructions for domestic cleanup appear on my device. The house, inside and out, is covered with a thin layer of opalescent dust, scattered with little flecks of light, like tiny diamonds. Why should something so lethal look so beautiful? I wonder as I begin my chore. I place the soap, the bleach, and a scrap of rough burlap on the kitchen table. This is going to take hours. Everything takes longer when you’re fully suited up, and there’s no one left to help.

I start with the tabletop and scrub slowly, making sure the burlap absorbs the dust without stirring it up--a few loose specks could find their way through my suit if I’m not mindful. After each swipe of the burlap, I go out to the barren yard and rinse my rag in the decontamination bucket. I look at my hands and thank god the neighbors had an extra pair of rubber gloves.

When I finish the purge, I think of my next task: I must make a marker for Mavis. I think back to my early days as an art teacher as I pull the rusted pots of enamel paint from the cabinet, vaguely remembering a time when color was a joy.

But now, red means dead, yellow means alive but not responsive, and blue means conscious, but unable to move the extremities. I’m white, which means I meet all standard requirements, but there’s no reason to advertise that. The recovery trucks only seek out primary colors.

I check the calendar. It’s Thursday—they’ll come for yellows today. That means Mavis. I’ll have to hurry if I want to get all the dust off her before they get here. They’ll refuse her if she’s not spotless, and then what will I do?

Many years had passed since our last deadly storm, and I’d grown complacent, like all the others. Radiation levels had fallen so low that you could leave the house without being entombed in a rubber suit. A picnic atmosphere prevailed amidst the concrete bunkers--neighbors smiling at one another, sharing their rations--while carefree children played stickball in the broken streets. But the poison was already within us, and people continued to turn color and be taken away. First to go was my beloved Frances, and now my little Mavis. The wound in my heart throbs painfully.

When the sirens screeched their dire warning--familiar from our monthly rehearsals--I huddled back inside, grumbling and afraid. But Mavis had gone to the beach that day with some girlfriends to celebrate her thirteenth birthday. Having left home unprotected, she was covered with the stuff by the time she got back, and, despite repeated hot showers and a thorough treatment with aloe vera, it was clear to me that my Mavis would never be the same. And now she’s gone yellow, shading to red around her armpits and toes. They’ll take her away her today. Frances is gone, and now I’ll likely never see my sweet Mavis again either. The house starts to echo sadly, even before she’s gone.

The dim light filtering through the dust cloud creates a dazzling rainbow of secondary colors, and for a fleeting moment I feel a mindless joy. A luscious layer of purple, orange and green mist quivers on the horizon. Mrs. Rizzulo from the next bunker sees me putting out the yellow marker, and waddles over to pay her condolences. “My Guido went blue today,” she yells at me through her pink plastic bubble. “And now he can’t talk.” She looks up at me with her big brown Italian eyes. “But I’ve already defrosted the lasagna—would you care to join me for dinner tonight?” she asks.

I’d never tried her lasagna, and Mrs. Rizzulo made it seem so inviting. And having watched as little Mavis was folded into that capsule and swept away by the orderlies, I feel I deserve a little comfort. I bring my last bottle of Valpolicella, the one I’d been saving for a special occasion, and we demolish the pasta on her spotless kitchen table. Over the hum of the ventilation system, I can hear Guido’s heavy breathing wafting in from the next cubicle. They won’t come for him until next Saturday. How will she cope? I wonder.

We’re chitchatting about the weather and such, when suddenly Mrs. Rizzulo stares at me and goes silent for a few seconds. “Please call me Loretta,” she purrs, dishing out a healthy portion of her tiramisu. I start to feel like a new man.

After the espresso, Loretta puts her hand over mine and gives me a look that leaves no room for misunderstanding. “Dan, would you care to join me in the pod?” she asks in dulcet tones, tilting her head toward the subterranean chamber.

For a few seconds I’m flummoxed. I’d been faithful to Frances for fifteen years, and I don’t know how to finesse the situation. But she’s been gone for months now, and I’m lonely. The authorities will surely have rules for such things, I think hopefully.

I pull out my device. “Just give me a minute,” I say to Loretta, as I press the icon marked OFFICIAL ADVICE and wait for a response. The screen lights up in an instant. “How can I help you, Dan?” a familiar voice asks.

“A Personal Matter,” I type in the subject line, my thumbs nervously gliding across the screen. “I’m a blue widower. It’s been more than six months, and I’ve all but given up hope that my Frances will return. My only daughter, Mavis, went yellow and was taken today. My neighbor’s husband just turned blue and she invited me to dinner, and then, after dessert, into her pod. As we both live in zone three, he won’t be retrieved for several days. I find her very attractive, and her lasagna was excellent. What is the proper way to deal with this situation? Should I respect tradition, or can I give in to my baser instincts? I’m confused and lonely. Yours truly, Troubled in Trenton.”

I take a deep breath and press send.

I wait nervously for an answer. Loretta glances coquettishly over her shoulder as she washes the dishes and hums O Sole Mio.

My device lights up again. “Dear Troubled, While it is customary to wait until the spouse has been removed from the premises before entering another man’s pod, the unprecedented disruption of the recent storm allows for flexibility in the rules of social etiquette. Life is short, and we must grab it while we can! So, I say: Go for it--enter the pod.”

I give Loretta thumbs up, and in a second, she’s on me.

There’s been no news, and it’s frustrating for both of us. Oh, I know, we’ve all heard those uplifting stories of a blue, or a yellow, who was sent home smiling, white as an Easter lily and smelling like a rose. But you’ll only see that on television. Mostly, it’s endless days of lining up at the state sanatorium, filling out forms, and more forms, and waiting for a reply—always the same: ‘PSU: Patient Status Uncertain, File Reference #XZBL2457”. Public access to the sepulcher is restricted, so we rely on random hearsay and infrequent updates, sent to our devices by the authorities. We both yearn for news, yet there’s so little to cling to.

The neighbors are calling Loretta and me ‘an item’ now. We go to all our appointments together, holding hands in the neon-lit waiting room, while we nervously anticipate news of Frances, or Mavis, or Guido. Weeks go by without a single development, until one day, a tall orderly, dressed in a spotless white uniform, comes out, running his finger down a clipboard.

His voice rings out above the murmuring crowd. “Mrs. Rizzulo? Is there a Mrs. Guido Rizzulo present?”

“I’m Mrs. Rizzulo,” Loretta responds, standing up and smoothing out her jumpsuit.

The orderly gives her a goofy smile, as he spreads one hand toward a greyish man slouching by his side. He chuckles ominously as he hands Loretta the clipboard. “Here’s you man, Mrs. Rizzulo—good as new. Sign here please,” he says in a singsong voice, as he hands her his pen.

“But this is not my Guido!” Loretta says sternly. “And you call this good as new?” she screams pointing to the man. “Look at him! He can barely stand. His eyes are spinning, and he’s drooling all over his pajamas.” She turns to me with a helpless look, and I search frantically for my device.

The orderly moves closer to Loretta and stares down at her, his eyes ablaze. “I’m sorry madam, but his official ankle codes match our records. There’s no way around it. I’m afraid this man is your husband,” he says, tapping his foot imperiously. The orderly turns sour, his face scrunching up like an irradiated guava, and Loretta reluctantly signs the release forms in triplicate.

The new Guido is nestled between us on the tram heading home. He looks up at the ceiling dreamily while humming snippets of long-forgotten folk tunes. He emits an eerie, nasal sound that seems to surge from deep in his lungs, his haunches, and even his little toes. When he reaches high C, a crowd of curious listeners suddenly gathers around us, agog. A blissful smile radiates across his face.

“They fed me a lot of oatmeal,” he suddenly blurts out. “With raisins and cinnamon on top. And then they said it was OK for me to go home, it was OK to go…home. Where are we going?” he asks, grabbing his wife’s arm. He jumps up and starts pointing out the windows accusingly. “Where are you taking me?”

Home, Guido dear, home. I’m taking you home.” Loretta says calmly, settling him down and buttoning up his GI coat. “And this is Dan from the neighborhood—you remember Dan, don’t you? He’s lives in Box 27, just next to the arsenal.” Guido nods and repeats, “raisins and cinnamon on top”.

Slowly, slowly the dust recedes and--ever so cautiously--we begin to venture forth without our helmets. But little else has changed. We still inhabit the same unpainted concrete boxes, with their single neon lights. The soggy drips of pollution that blacken the walls have begun to spread across the floor. We’ve still got old plastic bags over the broken windows, and running water only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. But the rhythm of life has returned to normal, according to the authorities.

Enough time has passed that I’ve reached this sad conclusion: Frances and Mavis are as good as gone. I don’t even bother to fill out the forms any more. I just stand in line, and wait, and wait--pointlessly it seems. I’ve covered the walls of our nuclear scrub room with the words Patient Status Uncertain, cut out from the endless forms I’ve been handed. I think often of my wife and my child--my Frances, my Mavis--and I’ve tacked up some old photos above the incinerator as a reminder. I see the three of us, blithely frolicking in an iridescent sea, as an emerald green sun sets in the distant sky. Their absence haunts me.

Guido is gone, too--for all intents and purposes. Too much direct radiation to the brain—that’s what I say. I’ve seen it all before, and there’s nothing to be done. But his disability provides us with a good income from the authorities--although there’s little to spend money on these days-- and he has a pleasant tenor voice. He remembers all the old Italian songs, and keeps us smiling for hours.

Most days, I maintain my tranquil façade with apparent ease. But there are times when--I swear--I can feel something radiating inside me, and my whole being quivers with an unsettling mix of pleasure and fear. Sometimes I think I might explode, and be dispersed into the vastness of space, forgotten, dead, forever. When I find myself in such moments, and am unable to shake off my troubled feelings, I rely on my device for official guidance. The familiar voice reassures me that within a few generations we’ll all be safe and healthy, and that, one day, everything will return to normal--just like it used to be. Loretta and I dream of La Dolce Vita as we lie on our narrow straw bed at night, imagining the grandchildren we’ll never live to see, while the rats in the alleyway scurry home, clutching scraps of luminescent offal between their pointy little teeth, oblivious to everything, except their next meal.

June 04, 2022 18:06

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Michał Przywara
20:46 Jun 13, 2022

A fun sci-fi story! We see the day-to-day of a couple regular people struggling with the aftermath of a huge, prolonged catastrophe. A strong feeling of uncertainty and resignation comes across, particularly when the narrator considers his family likely being gone forever. I'd say it's almost callous how quickly he manages to make peace with his daughter being gone, but it sounds like they've been dealing with this for a long time, and there's a lot of emotional fatigue. Despite it all, there's a reliance and even dependence on the state...


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13:04 Jun 12, 2022

A very well-written piece, I enjoyed this one


Jim Johnston
14:46 Jun 12, 2022

thank you


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Katy Borobia
15:52 Jun 11, 2022

Let me just say that the first paragraph is stunning. Well done!


Jim Johnston
14:47 Jun 12, 2022

thank you


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