It was late when Kylo finally closed the kitchen. Later than usual.
Being a pastry chef at a fairly decent restaurant, he was the last one to arrive and last one to leave. While the rest of his colleagues went to hit the bar or sing their lungs out at a nearby karaoke club, Kylo was only just packing up and cleaning his part of the kitchen, which was detached from the rest of the food preparation area.
Sometimes it made him feel lonely, but most of the time he didn’t mind, or even preferred this state of affairs. He would turn up the volume of his beloved Carpenters, King Crimson or even the Residents and polished, swept and mopped until everything sparkled and shone. Once or twice a week he stayed even longer to pickle quinces or whip up a fresh batch of custard - anything he didn’t manage to do during the day, really. Overtime didn’t bother him, even though it wasn’t paid. He liked staying behind. The kitchen was so peaceful during those times. Occasionally he had a chat with one of the waiters, but generally he was left alone with his music and his desserts.
That evening was no different.
The sous chef and his team had packed up and left well over two hours ago and Kylo was rather grateful for that. They had another row which had ended with the older man yelling in his face and Kylo smashing one of his prized bottles of artisan beer in a rather glorious cloud of foam and glass shards. He stayed behind after the shift was over and made cardamom and white chocolate pavé, and only really calmed down once he poured the mixture into silicone moulds and placed their trays into the fridge to set.
He was surprised to see that it was close to midnight. Going through his fridges, he packed a couple of leftovers that were reaching their zenith in a plastic tub - a slice of lemon meringue tart, a small dish with cherry clafoutis, some custard to be reheated later on, and few pieces of chocolate truffles. He loved eating sweets in the morning just before hitting the gym, loved the heady boost of energy they gave him.
With his bag packed, he switched the kitchen lights off and went to the locker room to change out of his whites. Someone drew an unflattering picture of him on the door of his locker with a black marker. Kylo just rolled his eyes. He was aware that sometimes he didn’t act as mature as expected, but this made him feel like he was back at junior high.
He was just zipping up his black anorak when the door of the locker room opened and one of the waitresses peered in. Here face fell a little when she noticed that he was already dressed, but it appeared she had other pressing reasons to barge into men’s locker room.
“Oy. Ren. Finished listening to the Carpenters?”
“Need anything?” he asked the woman whose name he didn’t bother to remember. As was usual for him. He wasn’t even quite sure what the sous chef’s name was. Was it Patrick? Paul?
“They’ve just announced it over the radio. Another Red Night is beginning. Just so you know, since you probably won’t stay behind to wait for a transport like the rest of us normal people.”
Kylo just shrugged. The waitress narrowed her eyes and left.
Red Night. Usually he’d be pretty miffed about, but that evening it presented a neat outlet for his pent-up aggression. He didn’t care for another three months of community service and anger management therapy paid for by his exasperated mother.
“Happy is the way I'm feelin'
And I know it comes from being with you
All at once my life is changin'
And I know it's cause I'm fallin' in love
Fallin' in love with you…”
-Kylo hummed to himself as he opened his locker once more and pulled out an elongated object wrapped in a swath of red fabric.
When he uncovered it, he tied both stripes of scarlet-dyed gauze around his gloved hands and forearms. The long iron pipe shone in the cold light of the fluorescent tubes. It had two shorter pieces welded to it to serve as cross-guards and some rubber isolation wrapped around the ‘hilt’ for a better grip. His weapon of choice.
Tying his black scarf tightly around the lower half of his face, he left the restaurant and stepped into the cold wind chasing feather-like snowflakes through the narrow back-alley.
True to the waitress’s words, red lights shone everywhere.
As was mandatory for all establishments during Red Nights, every other colour was turned off. There was not a single yellow, blue or green neon tube of signpost in sight. Traffic died out save for the special reinforced shuttle busses, and the only pedestrians up and about were folks like him.
He encountered his first bloaty shortly after he left the restaurant behind.
The nematodes seemed to have taken nest mainly within the mucous membranes of that poor bastard. Which was dangerous. Kylo would usually go for the head, but with this kind of infestation the head would explode like a beached whale left too long out in the sun, and cover everyone within reach with inflicted tissue.
The bloaty lunged at him clumsily, driven by the nematodes’ urge to spread. His… its fingers opened and closed like the snapping jaws of a rabid dog. Some murky, viscous liquid poured out of its mouth. It resembled the hacked-out phlegm of a chronic bronchitis patient and stank of rot with something acrid within.
Kylo soon noticed its eyes were missing, so he grabbed a small bundle out of his fanny pack and threw it in the opposite direction. It was his sweat-sodden shirt from the gym. Bloaty went straight for it as expected. Grabbed it and slobbered all over it as if it was a fine cut of chateaubriand.
Kylo shook his head and swung his pipe in a perfect angle to shatter the bloaty’s fifth vertebral column. The human-shaped piece of meat conquered by parasites collapsed on the ground like a sack of wet noodles. The bloaty’s ability to control its limbs was lost, but that didn’t stop it from snapping its jaws, twitching and jerking on the dirty slush-covered ground. Kylo stepped aside and swung his pipe again. The impact of its tip obliterated the medulla oblongata and the bloaty went limp.
But that didn’t take care of the nematode problem.
Kylo rummaged through the back alley, growing more and more nervous by each moment, until he found it. The red cylinder similar a common fire extinguisher.
Pictures on it were clear.
First panel showed a smiling stick figure holding the cylinder while standing above something which resembled a smiling anthropomorphic caterpillar.
The next one showed the stick figure, now with goggles on its eyes, pulling on the cylinder’s safety valve.
The smiling caterpillar-man on panel number three was being doused by white dots.
The last one then depicted the stick figure as it flung a lit match at the caterpillar.
Kylo pulled his goggles on.
Suddenly a song appeared in his head. Karen Carpenter asked whether they were really happy with the lonely game they played. Her voice was like a honeyed tea during dreary cold nights or a pure stream of a river calmly flowing through a summer landscape.
He imagined her in a white dress, luminous dark hair flowing in luxurious waves over her shoulders, dark eyes filled with a strangely warm glow. Kylo was suddenly happy that she died. That she didn’t have to witness what the world came to. She was with the angels now, somewhere up there in the immaculate purity of heavens. This thought filled him with sadness so profound, tears sprung up in his eyes even as he covered the body with dozens of nematodes writhing just under the skin in pure white powder.
His mind connected it to the purity of Karen’s voice and dress.
Yes, the substance was like a blessing sent by her grace.
Panel number four. Kylo lit a match and tossed it. Bloaty’s body, covered in white phosphorus, immediately turned into a ball of fire. Kylo thought he could hear the high-pitched tone of broiling nematodes and the wet pop-pop-popping sound of them bursting open.
Oh yeah, the photo, the photo, he thought to himself and quickly pulled out his smartphone to snap a picture of the burning corpse which he then sent to the BEN. Reply arrived within few moments. A smiley face showing thumbs-up and next to it an image showing a bag with a 200$ sign. He wanted to feel happy about it, really he did, however that night the welcomed monetary reimbursement seemed to somehow cheapen Karen’s memory.
He returned the cylinder back to its place for future users and set off in the direction of the massive, hive-like habitat block number seventeen, where he lived by himself.
Winds blew ever harsher and fluffy snowflakes were replaced by much more compact nuggets of white, which, though far smaller than the initial feathery flakes, were also much more unpleasant. Northern wind whipped them straight in Kylo’s face and several particularly strong gusts had almost blinded him. Bad conditions for a Red Night to happen. Bad indeed.
He thought back of the old cabin near Lake Matagamon where he had spent his childhood. How pleasant winters used to be over there. He’d spent lazy afternoons lying in the alcove on top of a moose pelt, wrapped in a quilted blanket, and he’d draw pictures or read stories about heroic knights and their wondrous journeys, while outside myriads of snow-flakes danced above the leaden surface of the lake. Troubles of the outside world he’d sometimes overhear his mother discuss with her friends or saw glimpses of in the telly were no more real than Sir Gawain’s quest to find the Green Knight or the murder of Osiris by his own brother and his wife’s subsequent quest to find all pieces of the body. His imagination had drawn from both worlds whenever he reached for crayons and both worlds were equally easy to hide from by wrapping himself extra-tightly in his blanky.
He used to lose himself easily within his daytime fancies as he rode around the house on his wooden horse, swinging the sword Uncle Chewie carved out of wood for him, and wearing the crown he himself made out of quarto paper and some alu-foil. And it was even easier considering how often he had been left alone. His father spent a lot of time hiking with Uncle Chewie and visiting his Abenaki family in their remote village in order to Help Them With Stuff he never wanted to elaborate on, least of all in front of Ben’s mother.
As for his mother, Ben had seen even less of her. She explained to him on numerous occasions she was trying to make the world a better place for him and all the other children. This apparently entailed spending hours on meetings which hardly ever ended with any conclusive result, dealing with unpleasant people and being buried under paperwork. His father had always told him it is a Very Important Job and they should cheer on her, but little Ben often secretly cried when she failed to turn up for Thanksgiving, see his awesome Kisosen the Sun-Bringer costume he put together with Uncle Chewie, or when she wasn’t there to help him bury Foxy, the shaggy red hound which had kept Ben company more often than any of the adults. And all those tears eventually turned into something else.
By the time he was plucked out of the down-upholstered nest of the cabin, away from the ever-changing waters of the lake, soothing sounds of wildlife, clusters of white cedars which seemingly grew out bare rocks, and the equally exhausting and amazing trips to Katahdin and the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, Ben’s tears ceased to be something natural and became something to be ashamed of. Father had assured him he’d get used to a life in the city in no time. Only Uncle Chewie seemed to know better.
Hah. Life in a city. How many rectifications followed? Life in this. Life in that. Life with this, life with that. Bodyguards escorting him to school. Boarding school. Weed offered to him before he even turned fifteen. Some classmates selling their nude photos for money. Others encouraging them. His peers laughing at him for getting all excited when describing trips with Uncle Chewie to Howe Peaks. Those kids that got into fights over god-damn-pogs.
Eventually his anger had boiled over as it was meant to.
Kylo shook his head.
This was all useless now.
What I've got they used to call the blues
Nothin' is really wrong
Feelin' like I don't belong
Some kind of lonely clown…
Karen always had the best words. Kylo imagined her smiling at him from Heaven - kindly, gently, almost like a mother; while his own mother’s eyes held nothing but sadness, exasperation and resignation whenever she looked at him, the last of which angered Kylo the most.
Their last talk had been the most painful one.
Kylo had told her he joined the BEN - Biohazard Extermination Network. This upset her greatly. Leia was a great proponent of herding the nematode-infected unfortunates into retreats where they’d wait for a cure whose development was on a good way. And it actually was on a good way; but before it could be finished, these unfortunates could infect thousands of others. Killing them was cruel. Kylo was well aware of that. But it was also the only way.
His mom always strove for the betterment of the humankind.
It was ironic that she shared the same goal as the creator of the nematodes.
Elimination of war. Conflict. Suffering.
It didn’t take long and Kylo came across another bloaty. This one bounced up at him from under a car. Its joints were all bending the wrong way. It looked more like a crab than human. There were also lesions on its skin, most probably from spending too much time under that car, and its hands and feet were all bereft of any fingernails.
Kylo pinned it down with his foot and swung his pipe down.
But as he did, something hit him from behind. The weight of a body.
He turned around instinctively and struck it down. It was a young woman, dark hair braided in an unusual fashion. Another gust of wind blew. Bits of tightly-packed snow became icy spears. They hurt his eyes. He couldn’t see. Driven by pure instinct, he stomped on the woman’s neck with all his might, crushing her trachea and cervical vertebrae in one swift motion.
However as he did so, there was a movement. One too swift. He wanted to avoid it, wanted to duck, but the wind… all he managed to do was to shield his face with his forearm.
There was a piercing pain in his hand.
That wriggling sensation under his skin.
That feeling of one vein bursting after another.
His life was over. He wondered how his mother would react once she’d receive the news that her son had been killed by one of the bloaties; that he himself became a bloaty before being dispatched by one of his less unfortunate comrades in arms.
However somehow his body refused to give up this easily.
All these thoughts flashed like a shard of glass through his mind, but before this train of thoughts could properly disappear into the crimson-tinted darkness of the Red Night, his good hand already closed around the nearest suitable object, which happened to be some wood splintered off from a broken pallet. Without allowing himself a second thought, he rammed it through his forearm, just where he could feel that insidious motion.
The advancement of that searing, throbbing movement was stopped. But not the motion itself, as he noted even through the wave of the agonising pain which flooded his nerves with red-hot lava.
He looked around wildly as he undid the scarlet binder wrapping his good hand with his teeth and tied it as tightly as he could around his forearm, around the stake piercing it, around the worm wriggling madly under his skin.
A sudden opening between two curtains of snow showed him two numerals twenty feet tall, painted on the wall of a nearby habitat block.
He was almost home.
Then he looked down on his hand and stifled a whimper.
This was one of the largest nematodes he’d ever seen. Two feet of its flattish body whipped through the air angrily as it kept trying to get to the good stuff. Kylo’s brain. It was such an incomprehensively alien sight, he felt like his blood was freezing. Revulsion crushed his insides. It armoured itself with anger and with hate that made him want to smash that limb, which he begun to view as something foreign and repulsive even though it was still attached to him.
It was then when…
I know it's an old cliche to say
I feel I'm gonna die
And I hear it's goin' out to cry
So I'm gonna say some kind words to you
I like to wish you luck & hope
Karen’s sweet voice flooded his mind like heavenly manna. He felt it. The urge not to disappoint her. She wouldn’t want him to give up this easily.
His legs started to move.
He was right in the middle of habitat block sixteen. Seventeen was about a five minute walk away. He broke into a run, keeping close to the unending blocks of flats, crouching slightly. If any other member of BEN would find him, the protocol clearly stated they were allowed to kill him as a potential vector.
As he ran, a gust of wind pressed against him in an almost gleeful way. It felt like struggling through a pool of molasses. His legs and face begun to grow numb with cold. Numb and heavy. Nevertheless he used three things to propel him forward. Pain, Karen’s angelic voice and hope.
Yes, there was still hope.
There it was.
He found the right entrance and impatiently punched his code in the keyboard - and had to try again as he hit a wrong key. The heavy door groaned open and he slipped in. At the very last moment it seemed like the wind wanted to pull him out in the open, but he came through and almost fell inside.
Instead of heading for the lifts, he took the stairs. Stairs which lead underground.
There he found a short hallway lined by a threadbare heavy-duty carpet.
And a door. A red door.
Kylo punched it, too impatient, scared and in too much pain to bother with the doorbell.
“…yes?” a curt voice came from the speaker a moment later.
“Mother Theresa. This is Karen. I need your help.”
The next few minutes were some of the longest time periods Kylo had ever experienced. The wriggling under his skin became not quite frantic, but rather determined. He could feel the head thrash between his ulna and the radius. Hitting both bones in way which made him clench his teeth as every muscle, every sinew in that arm turned into a string reverberating with many-layered pain. He did his best not to look down. Not to think about what he’d see underneath the binder and the sleeve. His fingers went numb already. Would he lose the hand? Would he lose his whole life?
Then there was also the way the nematode’s tail kept flogging around like a pressurized garden hose. It even hit Kylo’s face on several occasions. Every time this happened, Kylo felt like he was going to vomit.
At last the door opened. In it stood a man dressed all in white, with blood-red BEN logo printed on his rubber apron. His skin had an unnatural pallor of a cave-dwelling fish and contrasting with it was his copper hair which almost seemed to glow with a light of its own.
Mother Theresa’s eyes looked Kylo in the face, then they travelled down to his arm, and then up again. Without showing even a hint of the expected revulsion.
“Can you help me, doctor?” Kylo asked as the nematode lodged in his arm whipped his tail back and forth.
Mother Theresa shrugged and stepped aside.
“I’ll try. As long as you leave your shoes by the door. I prefer my floors clean.”
Kylo did as he was told.
When he entered Mother Theresa’s quarters, he noticed that the door was reinforced and padded. When it closed shut, some sort of locking mechanism clicked loudly in place. Kylo’s throat went dry.
This was the first time he wondered about Mother Theresa’s nature.
When he tore himself away from the door, his eyes locked with the gaze of the doctor. Its look was frigid and there was an oddly thin smile on those full lips. It held the sharpness of a freshly sterilised scalpel.
“Now don’t you worry, Karen. After all, I’m a doctor.” Mother Theresa assured him and flexed his white-gloved fingers.