Day Six: Russ

The problem of the evil argument has plagued man’s conscious mind for centuries. At its basic level, it considers the reason for and existence of suffering, and it contemplates whether a “merciful” divine being would – or even could – allow it, and why.

Such questions often lead to an understanding of universal good, and of human nature and natural order, and months ago I would have told my students just that. But now, neither theologian nor atheist contends. And as something else entirely, I’m not so sure.

Sunlight squeezed its way through a few cracks in the concrete ceiling. I squinted to catch a glimpse of Anya and Maddy bobbing a few feet ahead as I lit up a cigarette from the scarce, crumpled supply in my inside pocket.

The glowing fiberglass sliced my throat and gradually infected it with a soft burn, and I momentarily felt something close to warmth in exchange for my lungs. Seemed a decently fair trade. Anya turned, presumably because of the match strike.

“Prof, since when do y—“ I unfastened the cancer from my jaw, put my finger to my lips and moved my eyes to Maddy’s spot. “I’m the Hatter,” I whispered to her. “I just speak the nonsense thoughts. I’m not supposed to smoke.”

That seemed good enough for her. Anya always exercised a kind of understanding in my classes, and I was glad that skill transferred. I must’ve been doing something right.

Truthfully, it helped suppress the anxiety that filled my empty cavern of a skull. It didn’t matter that I had no way of knowing how much time we had left, or where we were really going, or what we would find when we got there.

And any thoughts I had of my test results dissipated with the smoke. I flicked the exhausted cigarette into the remnants of the subway track.

“How much farther, do you suppose?” I asked.

“Not much,” Anya said, scratching her scalp beneath her close cut. “The Penbrooke stop should be just ahead, and that’ll put us a few miles from the emergency entrance.”

Anya pulled the straps of her bag tighter around her thin shoulders, swaying slightly under the weight. “Hey, at the very least we’re going in the right side.” She cracked a smile that I tried to match.

“At this point I think every side is the emergency entrance.”

“Don’t try and pull that PHI crap on me now, Prof,” Anya groaned.

“You can just call me Russ. There’s no point in titles. Not anymore.”

About 30 feet from our party, one of the rusted metal exit doors fell from its hinges and crashed to the ground with a resonant thud. Maddy would have screamed if Anya hadn’t thought to cover her mouth.

Flakes of snow flurried in like a storm of things possessed, as if each one were polarized and seeking a reunion with something. We ducked behind a newsstand to stay out of sight. Maddy, shaking but relatively quiet, said one word only, “Caterpillar.”

The new arrival to the subway was decked out in black riot gear complete with gas mask, the best the CDC could provide and taxpayers could fund.

The radio clipped to his chest channeled voices and static through the spacious chamber. The red cross on his left sleeve marked him as a Linvalley affiliate. This is our out, I thought, and before Anya could react I crept out from behind the stand.

“Sir,” I called, hands raised. He trained his rifle on me for good measure, but did not shoot.

“Sir, we were left behind in the chaos. We were just on our way to the hospital.”

“We?” asked Caterpillar, focused still.

“My daughter and I, along with a former student of mine,” I motioned for them to join me, all the while sweating more bullets than he probably had in his clip. “We just want to be safe.”

Caterpillar called it in on his radio. He must have sent the signal to headset, because we couldn’t hear the results. Finally, he looked us over.

“Anyone’s ears bleeding?” We shook our heads, but then again, who wouldn’t?

“Well then, everything’s clear. Let’s get you folks to the hospital.”

The Caterpillar’s ambulance was a different breed than the typical emergency response vehicle. The sleek, black metal was lined with lime green paneling and the Center for Disease Control logo on either side.

When we reached the top of the steps, Caterpillar fished the keys out from his pocket and motioned for me to come to the passenger side door.

“I figured you could ride shotgun with the girls in back. It’s more secure back there, you understand.” I nodded, and he sent his knuckles directly into my jaw.

My back slammed into the ambulance and I slid to the ground. The Morse code of pain signals was halted by the screams of both Anya and Maddy, both in no condition to defend themselves.

Blinking away stars, I scrambled to the back of the vehicle and saw Caterpillar manhandling the girls into the back, locking the door from the outside as he went. As he turned to face me again, before he could say or do anything, I put my hands up.

“Listen, you didn’t have to knock me out back there,” I said, switching my tone and hardening my face. “I’ve been trying to lose these girls for days now. You look like you’re taking them off my hands, and not to the hospital.”

Caterpillar sighed and nodded, removing his goggles so I could more clearly see his faded blue eyes.

“The CDC wants to work on a vaccine, and it needs test subjects.”

I moved closer.

“I used to be a biology professor. Maybe I could help,” I said.

“I’ll call it in,” he said.

I flicked Anya’s switchblade and pushed with every ounce of force I had in me. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the switchblade was the foul ball to his neighborhood home.

Caterpillar slumped to the ground, and I grabbed the keys from his hand. I unlocked the door and found Anya and Maddy seated on the ambulance floor with two men and one woman.

“My name is Lazarus Weiss,” I said, “and I think it’s time we all got to Linvalley.”

Halle Nelson is a first-year pre-major student. She can be reached at HN824858@wcupa.edu. Marty Hopson is a third-year student majoring in English literature secondary education. He can be reached at MH786110@wcupa.edu.

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