Miasma

 

 

It was a nice night. The city was abuzz with foul aberrations. The moon shyly peeked out, obscured by acrid, jaundiced mist. The air smelled like shit. Not literally human excrement as Louie and Jake had often experienced in their careers as plumbers, but still unpleasant all the same.

So yeah, quite a nice night.

It was the perfect evening to crack open a beer and kick back on the waterfront in the bed of a dilapidated ’87 Chevy. The foul mist swept around the two but it simply wasn’t enough for Jake. That was precisely why he carried a repurposed oxygen tank full of pure yellow Miasma. He took the air mask off, fixed it to his whiskered face and pulled a long hit.

The effect was instantaneous. He quivered and smiled drunkenly at the rush. The familiar tickling sensations set upon him and an eyeball erupted from the back of his hand. A wet, by-god-honest eyeball. Bloodshot, baby blue, rolling wildly. And winking! That was the best part. Jake chuckled and held it up, displaying it to his buddy like the 14 pound trout he had caught at Reynold’s pond last summer.

“Hm, that’s new,” Louie said. He lowered his sunglasses to inspect the growth.

He was half blind, as an eruption of chitinous thorns from the eyelid is wont to do. Yeah, it rendered his depth perception a bit off but Louie, like all the Affected, was quite proud of his Mods. The ivory tower eggheads in the lab coats preferred to call the physical side effects of the mist “Bio-Modifications” but a single syllable worked just fine for Jake and himself. Both had quickly become addicted to the Miasma and swiftly found it more intoxicating than Jake’s signature “Weekend Warrior” weed strain. That, and the Mods looked pretty badass.

“Yeah, man, I’m quite proud,” Jake exclaimed. “I think it suits me better than these weird-ass racing stripes.” He referred to the black-blue bruised stripes streaking up and down his forearms. The Miasma had affected different people in different ways and some not at all. It got Louie to thinking about his wife, Leona and what had happened to her after the schism, when those Affected had decided to take back the country one city at a time. Those who were immune (“Munies”, because everything nowadays needed a fuckin’ nickname) became persecuted, ostracized. Strung up in the streets and lynched just for NOT being…

Well, it all made his head hurt. Louie thought it might be read by some as a weird attempt at social commentary or some such shit, but to him it was just weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Who the hell knows why this had all gone down? Where the Miasma had come from? Maybe God just got bored and decided to liven things up a bit.

Louie shook the thoughts from his head, nodded to Jake and drank his beer. A wild scream, a gunshot from across the road over by the mist-tank dispensary. Maybe another deal gone bad. The old drugs were abandoned but the Miasma was discovered to being quite pliable, able to be altered and cultivated to different forms. Different Mods being produced, different neurological effects. Same shit, different day. Only before the schism, you could walk down the street happy as a clam and not have to worry about inhaling a cloud of cocaine. Well, in most parts of town anyway.

“This is my favorite kind o’ night,” Jake spoke up. “Just two best buds kicking back, enjoying that ugly-ass night sky and hanging out in Rusted Rachel’s classy chassis.”

“I told you, man, don’t call her that,” Louie said. He caressed the flaking metal of his beloved truck. It was the only girl left in his life after what happened to Leona. It had been that day that Louie had vowed to never harm a Munie and thankfully, he had convinced Jake to an equal line of thought.

“Eh, I’m just glad you’re not the jealous type,” Jake quipped. He ran his eye bedecked hand across the rusted bed. “I’ve always thought she’s a beaut. Mind if I take her for a ride sometime?”

“That’s some dangerous thinking there, Jake,” Louie said, swatting the hand away. Jake yelped. Louie thought nothing of it. “Can you actually see out of that thing?”

“Can you?” Jake asked. He stuck out his bisected tongue lewdly and held it closer to Louie.

“Get that damn thing away!”

Jake laughed wildly and wiped his eyes. All three of them. He belched and tossed his beer can out and onto the street. Louie clucked his tongue and shook his head.

“All right, I’m bored. Lets go find some damn corn dogs,” Jake said.

Louie scoffed. “Yeah, that’s a good cure for boredom.”

“It is! C’mon, we’ll go check out the happenin’s over at the Village. We don’t even need to take Rachel.”

He had a point. Former tourist trap, now Affected commune, SeaSide Village was within walking distance. They both had very noticeable Mods so they’d be safe to go about as they pleased. But first: a precaution. Both men hopped out of the bed, Louie adding his empty can to a carefully placed cooler full of empties. He opened the truck door, pulled one of his fingernails out of the bed and stretched out the malleable keratin. He softly whistled to himself as he tied his nail elongated to a loose cord of 2 feet. He tied it around the steering wheel, looped it down to the gear shift and knotted the whole thing up.

“That’s a hell of a trick,” Jake said, envious.

“Got that one early on,” Louie replied. “Here, check it out.” He grasped the nail of his middle finger, stretched it to about a foot and held it aloft, saluting Jake with a universal symbol. In spite of everything that had happened, a good solid “fuck you” was still a valid form of communication.

Jake grinned, lashed his bisected tongue again and spat into the thin, yellow mist. He took a huff from his tank.

“Man, don’t do that. It’s disgusting,” Louie scolded.

“What?!”

“Spitting, I mean. I don’t care about the huffing. What man, you think I’m a hypocrite?”

“Nah, of course not. But don’t scare me like that, right? I thought for a second-”

“Thinking’s not your strong suit. And leave the tank.”

“Aw, fuck you very much-”

The banter continued ceaselessly. Jake had a bit of a motormouth at times and Louie was surprised that the Miasma hadn’t affected it in some way. More fuel to the speculation that the Mods brought on by the mist were random and not in any way connected to any sort of muscle memory or personality trait. The two finally made it to SeaSide Village. The locale consisted of a small collection of curio shops, touristy wares and souvenirs, a carousel, a food court, a gazebo and some duck ponds (animals were immune to the Miasma effects but not immune to the violence that had beset from the schism). Jake began to juke and jive in the most embarrassing manner possible as they sauntered up to the food court.

An Affected band was in full swing. The bass player strummed along with a smaller, membrane laden hand composed almost entirely of tendons and veins that protruded from his chest. Saxophone music blared forth from a musician with a flesh-horn protruding from the center of his skull. It waved wildly as the performer bobbed his head passionately to his brass craft. The drummer softly beat along using his own hands, both of them stretched out into a cobweb-esque mosaic of fingers upon fingers upon fingers. So many that they crowded amongst one another on for real estate upon his flesh and created an odd, discordant beat that actually worked well with the music. Harmonious chaos, and God-a-mighty it was beautiful.

Louie actually found himself smiling. He was glad that so many had adapted to well to the changes brought forth. Even the Miasma looked somewhat nice here, backlit and glinting softly off the paper party lanterns strung up throughout the food court. Affected couples danced to the tunes, weaving softly and others more wildly. Louie imagined most of them would go home that night and experiment with their Mods in ways most carnal and imaginative. No surprise whatsoever that there was a whole booming industry now of Affected porn and even less surprise whatsoever that Jake was an avid fan.

The pair wandered up to a food stand and placed their orders. The cashier blinked his many, many, many, god-how-many?! eyes and began to dip the hot dogs in corn batter. Louie took a brief inhale and gazed about. Even children were Affected and the kids gallivanted and shrieked with delight on the carousel nearby. He spied one little boy who sported a head that was split down the center. A single eyeball on a stalk protruded from the seam (now dried over, decorated with a cute papier mache design to hide the morass of scabs). Louie pondered how the child would grow up and what lie ahead in his future. His thoughts were, once again, interrupted by the arrival of their snack. Damn, that guy had so many eyes, all blinking at random intervals. It was disorienting. Did he even have a face?The two sat down as the revelry of the night spun around them.

“Think I’ll ever get a girl?” Jake asked abruptly, devouring half of his corn dog in one bite.

“I don’t know man,” Louie replied, distracted. “Maybe you’ve got too much charm. All the ladies are intimidated.”

“Shit, you really think so?”

Louie scoffed and chuckled.

“I mean, I’m not that bad am I?”

“What’s bringing all this up?”

“I’ve just been… feeling lonely, y’know? I mean, I can huff all this stuff all I want but it hasn’t done nothin’ to my pecker and it sure as hell ain’t gonna keep me warm at night.”

“Didn’t know you were such a softy,” Louie replied. He nibbled his snack and gazed at the dancing couples, Leona’s soft blond hair tickling his shoulders. Her red lips, so naturally bright, they never needed any lipstick. Her soft, brown eyes… then he caught the gaze of the corn dog proprietor and eyes were the last thing on his mind. He needed sleep, he usually wasn’t so judgmental.

“Maybe…” Jake thought aloud. “Maybe I shouldn’t just try girls. You know what I mean? You know what I mean, Louie?”

“Hey man,” Louie said. “If you want to give it a go, by all means.”

“….really? You mean that?”

The realization hit Louie over the head with abrupt force but he had no time to consider it (as he did, ever so briefly). A shrill scream tore through the festivity; this one was right nearby. Jake’s query was suddenly the second-to-last thing on his mind.

The pair turned in the direction, just beyond the carousel and over by the burger shack. A group of Affected emerged from the kitchen of the small restaurant, hooting and hollering and carrying on. The ringleader was a wild eyed Asian man. His face was criscrossed with patch work marks. The bruised, dark look of the marks suggested they were the man’s veins and they stood out just a little too far on his face. Somebody (Louie suspected the man himself) had etched in a few O’s and X’s as a perverse game of tic-tac-toe and whomever had played the game had lost to themselves… if that made any sense.

“Shit, that’s the manager from the bank up on 2nd,” Jake whispered, recognizing the man.

The ringleader of the group hauled a woman to her feet. The small, dark haired woman sobbed and squirmed in the man’s grip. He turned to face the crowd as Louie and Jake realized that the group had other people in their grasp as well. An unconscious, bloodied man and two small children. A family of Munies, likely rummaging through the restaurant looking for any food, sustenance or just good old creature comfort. A child deserved a juicy hamburger every now and then, right? A child deserved to have fun riding an ascending porcelain horse to jaunty calliope music, right? A child certainly didn’t deserve THIS.

….right?

“Folks, I’m going to ask you to stop your party for just a sec and lend me your ear,” the Ringleader called out. He grappled the struggling woman (the mother most likely) and raised his second hand to her throat. Where once would be five hate-clenched fingers now protruded a shard of bone, still wet with gristle and viscera. It was tapered to a fine, piercing point. Louie immediately suspected this was a new Mod and the man had ventured forth with his posse, seeking Munies in order to “take it for a test drive”, so to speak.

One of his cronies loosened his grip on a little boy, plucked off his ear and chucked it at the Ringleader.

“Elias, what did I say about hucking body parts?”

The crowd was silent now even as Elias the ear-hucker looked sheepish and throttled the child again.

“We found a couple of rats in the kitchen,” the Ringleader sneered.

“Please-” the woman pleaded.

He pressed the bone shard closer to her throat, producing a razor fine line of blood. Nobody had made a move to help nor had anyone struck up a cheer for the Munie’s extermination. It was quiet and still, indifference lingering. The Miasma whipped around the plaza softly and even the band had laid down their instruments. The corn dog vendor had all of his too-many eyes trained on the mob of Munie hunters. Even the little boy on the carousel was watching. Louie was conflicted. Part of him wanted to help these poor people. He was Affected, yes but… he had seen what those who had succumbed to their hateful ways could do to those who were different. If he intervened… nobody would help him. He would die at the greasy, gore soaked hands of this mob. Would that be so bad though?

Redemption. Redemption for failing to save Leona, for not being able to protect her.

No. He was selfish. He knew that and he knew he wanted to live, to breathe in the bad air, to see what new Mods it would produce. To hear more of what Jake had to say. If he could shed tears from his thorn bedecked eye, he would have at that point. He made his decision.

“Jake, let’s go,” He said, standing up. The Ringleader and his mob paid him no heed.

“These rats are too good to accept the pleasures of the mist and the treasures they grant our bodies!” the Ringleader was shouting. Louie had heard it all before. Rhetoric from a stained mind.

“Wait, I want to see what’s gonna happen,” Jake said, still clutching his corn dog half.

“No you don’t,” Louie replied. “Trust me, I’ve seen it. It ain’t pretty.”

“Yeah but-”

“C’mon, let’s head over and hang out on the sea wall. We can talk about… what you wanted to talk about.”

“O-Ok, sure. Yeah…”

Reluctantly, Jake stood up. He left his corn dog on the table. He hadn’t quite felt like finishing it. Louie slung his beefy arm around Jake’s shoulder. His hand lightly tapped the eye-bedecked growth on Jake’s hand and the two headed off through the plaza. They could still hear the commotion behind them. Someone was actually speaking up.

“Hey, either let them go or put them down. Stop drawing it out, we were having a good time here!” came an anonymous voice. Typical cold hearted response.

“I’m a showman, what can I say,” the Ringleader called back.

“We haven’t done anything!” the Munie was saying. “We just wanted some food…”

“Hon, you won’t have to worry about being hungry much longer. You and the rest of your Munie family. There’s no place for you anymore out here. If you don’t accept the mist, then we don’t accept you,” came the response.

Louie and Jake had walked far enough to be almost out of ear shot. They didn’t know what had ultimately happened but they suspected the party would have to cease at least long enough to hose down the ensuing blood. They stood together at the sea wall, facing the bay with the Village to their backs. A low foghorn cut through the mist, a single spotlight moving across the still water like a lost spectre. Life went on despite the schism and the effects of the Miasma. Life went on for everyone aside from those who had not been Affected. Ironically enough, they had ended up being more affected than anyone, even if not biologically. Not all the Affected hated the Munies. There were small pocket factions of those who supported equality for all, unity and togetherness for both Affected and “Un-Affected” (Munie being considered a slur to their groups). There were clashes, protests. Marches and violence. As before the schism, life went on. Same results, yet different questions.

The men took a seat on the wall facing the water. Louie wished he had a beer and Jake wished he still had his corn dog. At least they had each other. Louie thought about his wife and knew that she would have wanted him to be happy. Jake thought about his mom and sister, long since departed before the Miasma had appeared. He was glad they hadn’t had to endure the resulting chaos.

Louie took a deep breath. Jake did too, but it wasn’t enough. At least he still had the tank back in the truck. Louie plucked out one of his nails and toyed with it, stretching and bending it. Neither man said a word. The silence was broken as Louie’s nose began to itch, to tingle. Another thorn burst out, this one through his left nostril. It was wet, glistening, raw with nerve endings.

Jake burst out laughing. “Ho-lee shit, lookit that!” He tweaked the thorn and Louie yelled out, the new Mod still raw and tender. “Got your nose!”

“Aw, dammit!” Louie cried. This one would take some getting used to. He loved the smell of his own aftershave and a fresh brewed pot of joe. He wondered how much he would miss only half of the scents. In spite of himself, Louie started to laugh too. He wiped his nose, cried out again and laughed harder.

The foghorn blew again in the soupy yellow mist as the two buddies laughed bemusedly here on this night fueled by blood, hate, change and revelry. Jake slung his arm around his pal and Louie didn’t remove it.

“Now then, let’s finish our conversation before my tongue falls out my mouth or somethin”, Louie said with a grin.

Jake stuck out his bisected tongue and wiggled it in a goofy fashion.

Louie and Jake both started laughing again, even harder, as the mist swept around them in the warm glow of the summer evening.

It really was a nice night.

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