by Victoria Koivisto-Kokko
Though the highway itself had cracked and sunk till it was eaten up by the sand, the faded green markers still measured the miles to Gao and it was these that Elizabeth used to track the distance. Once she had had to write the equation on her hand to remember how to convert the distances back into kilometres, but they had been travelling across this desert long enough now that it was second nature.
They had travelled so far over the last three years, leaving behind dirty rivers and boot-sucking mud for the dry, cold crags of mountains, and now this endless parched sand. Cruel was too weak a word for the way the dry air and dust burned skin and lungs alike, for the way the heat pressed down on everything before abruptly giving way to cold the second night set in. The wind felt like razors no matter what time of day it was, but it was better than the chaos and ruin the plague had left in its wake. Cleaner.
On she walked.
It had been four days already, she had been away too long, but it was 400km back to Gao with its seedy merchants and their gap toothed grins, and it was impossible to make good time across this sand. She never thought she’d miss the mountains.
Water was the hot commodity here, not that she had much, but she had the map to the spring they had been guarding for weeks while her travelling companion’s sickness had been worsening. It had been easy to blame the dizziness, sweating and warmth on the climate at first. Then the coughing had started, and then the blood had come, and words weren’t good enough anymore, so it was back along the abandoned highway to Gao with a map and a fragile hope.
The alternative was unthinkable.
There was still 124 miles — barely 200km — to go when she spotted the man on the rise. There was no way to tell if he had already seen her walking along the cracked, remnants of the road, but she dropped anyway. She watched carefully as he skidded down the slope, sending up a reckless plume of sand behind him. He was too far away to see clearly, little more than a vague man shape against the pale sand, so Elizabeth unslung her rifle and checked him through the scope.
Temperature change had warped the metal and cracked the glass a long time ago, and while it had never been a very good scope, it did the job bringing the man into view, even if his top half sat slightly to the left of his bottom as she tracked him.
Red, blistered skin - not a native. Heavy boots - hasn’t been here long. Three water bottles at his hip… Elizabeth’s tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth at the sight of it. She had water, but it had to last and there was never enough to really feel good.
Her finger dropped to the trigger.
It wasn’t worth it. Not for a little water. Not yet.
Elizabeth eased her finger back to the side of the rifle and watched as the man trekked unsteadily to the road and peered at a sign. He had his back to her now, and that’s when she saw what was slung on his other hip.
It could have looked like a nondescript gearbag if he had wanted it to, but at some point it had been whitewashed with paint long since cracked and abused, slashed through on every side by a bright red cross. For a glorious moment her heart soared. A medic? A doctor? It didn’t matter. It was someone who could help. She’d give him the map to the spring. If he was new he’d value the water even more as he wouldn’t have established contacts or suppliers. He’d be desperate for the independence promised by his own source and he wouldn’t understand the dangers.
Then he turned again, fully facing her this time, and she saw his face. What she had taken for sun blistered skin before she saw now was mottled and swollen with pustules and lesions. His neck bulged on one side with a shining, yellow, apple sized blister, his cheeks so deeply hollowed she could trace the lines of his skull as if he was skinless already.
It was coming further south these days at the steady pace of well meaning medics who travelled to treat the illness, only to be turned into desperate shambling corpses themselves. She thought the heat of the desert would kill the bastards faster, stop it from spreading, but there was no escaping death. Not in the ruined cities of Europe, not in the empty wilderness, not in the desert.
Elizabeth shouldered the rifle again, took a slow breath in, dropped her finger to the trigger, and exhaled.
The echo of the shot was swallowed up by dunes. She watched him fall in the ruined scope, a red mist carried off in the wind that breezed by his ear. She had almost missed, he might not be fully dead by the time she got to him, so she waited and watched.
He didn’t move again.
If Elizabeth noticed her hands shaking as she shouldered her rifle and picked her way to the body, she put it down to dehydration and nothing more. When she reached the body she paused far enough away to make sure he was really dead. He had fallen on his back, head turned away from her - a small mercy - and the bag over the shoulder nearest to her.
She used the butt of the rifle to retrieve it, groping with the stock until she had hooked the strap and was able to pull it to her. As alluring as the thought of his water was, she didn’t know which canisters he had drank from, and too much rode on her for her to take a risk with disease. Someone was counting on her.
He had a pistol holstered on one hip, an unfamiliar one with a long barrel. Pistols weren’t much good around here. Her father had once warned her that if they were close enough to hit with a pistol, you might as well gut them with a knife. They jammed less. He had gotten shot just outside of Gibraltar regardless.
The dead man had fallen on the kit bag strapped to his back, and she wasn’t inclined to touch the corpse, so with shaking hands wrapped inadequately in rags, she unzipped the bag and felt her heart sink. It was almost empty.
Three small white cases, a handful of bandage rolls, a single pack of needles with a single accompanying syringe, and a squeezy bottle labelled ‘purified water’ rattled around the bottom of the bag. There were empty wrappers which indicated that there might have been more at some point, but they were long since used.
Elizabeth took out the first case and opened it to find a line of silver tipped glass bottles filled with clear liquid. Tiny labels with even tinier writing were all she had to go on, and she mouthed the words as she read them:
“10 ml Single-dose. Preservative-Free. Morphine Sulfate. Inj USP. Do not use if discoloured. Do not heat.” Elizabeth’s heart was racing. What did ‘inj USP’ mean? What was morphine sulphate exactly?
She fished a leaflet out of the top of the case and scanned it for a familiar word… Pain Relief. It was just a pain killer?
Elizabeth threw the leaflet down in disgust. Pain could be dealt with. She needed something else!
Fishing out the other two cases, she popped them open. More glass bottles with silver caps and clear liquid. She raised the case to her face, reading the tiny words.
“Streptomycin for Injection USP. 1 gram vial. For intramuscular use… What is streptomycin?” She fished out the leaflet from the lid of the case, opening it up and scanning desperately.
Had she enough moisture in her, she’d have cried. The case only contained five vials. Would five be enough? How was she meant to administer it? The words in the leaflet were too big, she didn’t understand.
But she knew who’d know. She knew where to take these.
With eager fingers she pried out the final box. More vials, only four this time, the poor bastard had probably been using these to treat himself but it was what she needed; more of the Streptomycin. Surely nine vials would be enough? Nine of anything was a lot. Yes. This would do. This would help.
Elizabeth sealed the containers and wrapped them in her hand-bandages to keep them safe, storing them in her own bags and turning back for home. It had taken her four days to get this far, but she’d walk day and night to get home faster. She’d take the noon rest, she wasn’t crazy, but by luck or providence she had gotten what she needed long before Gao. This was a good sign. Everything was going to be alright.
She made the trip back to their camp in record time; her lips bleeding and her feet blistered by the time she saw the rocky foothills where they had made camp. It had been a sandstorm they’d wanted shelter from when she had first squeezed her way into the crevice, and the taste of moisture in that little cave had led them to a convenient spring. It was always dangerous to stay near water like that for too long. Someone would know about it, someone would come for it eventually, but it had been a gift to ease the burning fever and make sure they didn’t run out of water while they rested and recovered.
They hadn’t been blessed with much luck since leaving home three years ago — nine years after the madness had broken out and thirteen after she had been brought kicking and screaming into the world — but the desert had been kinder to them than she felt it had any right to be. Now she had the antibiotics, everything would be alright. Nine vials was a lot, but they’d use all of it to make sure. They’d rest up and when Elizabeth was sure they were both strong enough, they’d continue south. Surely Cape Town wasn’t much further. They’d make it, they’d find Aunty Mary and Uncle Roger - her mother’s brother - who had sailed off years earlier in search of better things. They’d have the time and space to be a family again.
Nine vials. One vial a day maybe? The leaflet would be able to tell them, and once she got to the cave she’d have the leaflet explained to her.
Elizabeth was running when she got to the crevice, and almost got stuck in the rocks she tried to rush through the gap so fast.
“I have what we need!” She called into the darkness. The cave was cold, no fire was burning in the pit, but it never was more than embers during the day. There was so little to burn in the desert. Their clothes were still laid out on the rocks where she had left them, the dirty plates from their last meal had been washed and put away. A book was upended by the pile of rags they generously called a bed.
She saw the hand then, poking out from behind the bed, fingers locked solid, their tips purple and nails black. The stillness and silence of the cave became oppressive.