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The Girl in Red
Author: Christina Henry




The Taste of Fears

   Somewhere in an American forest

   The fellow across the fire gave Red the once-over, from the wild corkscrews of her hair peeking out from under her red hood to the small hand axe that rested on the ground beside her. His eyes darted from the dried blood on the blade—just a shadow in the firelight—to the backpack of supplies next to it and back to her face, which she made as bland as rice pudding.

   Red knew very well what he was thinking, what he thought he would be able to do to her. Men like him were everywhere, before and after the world fell apart, and it didn’t take any great perception to see what was in their eyes. No doubt he’d raped and murdered and thieved plenty since the Crisis (she always thought of it that way, with a capital letter) began. He’d hurt those he thought were weak or that he took by surprise, and he’d survived because of it.

   Lots of people thought that because she was a woman with a prosthetic leg it would be easy to take advantage of her—that she would be slow, or incapable. Lots of people found out they were wrong. Someone had found out just a short while before—hence the still-bloody axe that kept drawing the attention of the stranger who’d come to her fire without invitation.

   She should have cleaned the blade, though not because she was worried about scaring him. She should have done it because it was her only defense besides her brain, and she ought to take better care of it.

   He’d swaggered out of the trees and into the clearing, all “hey-little-lady-don’t-you-want-some-company.” He had remarked on the cold night and how nice her fire looked. His hair was bristle-brush stiff and close to the scalp, like he’d shaved it to the skin once, but it was growing out now. Had he shaved it because he’d been a soldier? If he had been, he was likely a deserter now. He was skinny in a ropy muscled way, and put her in mind of a coyote. A hungry coyote.

   He didn’t look sick; that was the main thing. Of course nobody looked sick when they first caught it, but pretty soon after they would be coughing and their eyes would be red from all the burst blood vessels and a few days after the Cough started, well . . . it was deceptively mild at first, that cough, just a dry throat that didn’t seem to go away and then it suddenly was much more, a mild skirmish that turned into a world war without your noticing.

   It didn’t escape Red’s notice that underneath his raggedy field coat there was a bulge at his hip. She wondered, in a vaguely interested sort of way, if he actually knew how to use the gun or if he just enjoyed pretending he was a man while flashing it around.

   She waited. She wasn’t under any obligation to be polite to someone who thought she was his next victim. He hadn’t introduced himself, although he had put his hands near the fire she’d so painstakingly built.

   “Are you . . . ?” he began, his eyes darting over her again. His gaze paused for a moment when he saw the gleam of metal at her left ankle, visible just beneath the roll of her pants.

   “Am I what?” she asked. Her tone did not encourage further conversation.

   He hesitated, seemingly thinking better of it, then gestured at his face. “Your eyes are light, but your skin is brown. You look like you’re half-and-half.”

   She gave him her blandest glance yet, her face no more expressive than a slice of Wonder Bread.

   “Half-and-half?” she said, pretending not to understand.

   Red had that indeterminate mixed-race look that made white people nervous, because they didn’t know what box to put her in. She might be half African or Middle Eastern. She might be a Latina or maybe she was just a really dark Italian. Her eyes were an inheritance from her father, a kind of greenish blue, and that always caused further confusion.

   Their eyes always flicked up to her hair, looking for clues, but she had big fat curls that could have come from anybody. She was used to speculative glances and stupid questions, having dealt with a lifetime of them, but it always surprised her (it shouldn’t have, but it did) how many people still cared about that dumb shit when the world was coming to an end.

   “I was just wondering what—” he said.

   “Where I come from it’s not polite to start asking people about their folk before you’re even introduced.”

   “Right,” he said. The intruder had lost some of the swagger he’d had coming into the clearing in the first place.

   “What are you doing out here on your own? I thought everyone was supposed to go to the nearest quarantine camp,” he finally said, choosing not to introduce himself despite her admonishment.

   They were not going to be friends, then. Red did not feel sad about this.

   “What are you doing out here on your own?” she answered.

   “Right,” he said, shuffling his feet. His eyes darted in all directions, a sure sign that a lie was on offer. “I lost my friends in the dark. There were soldiers and we got separated.”

   “Soldiers?” she asked, sharper than she intended. “A foot patrol?”


   “How many soldiers?”

   He shrugged. “I dunno. A bunch. It was dark, and we didn’t want to go to the camp. Same as you.”

   Don’t try to act like we have something in common. “Did you come from the highway? Do you know which way they were headed? Did they follow you?”

   “No, I got away clean. Didn’t hear any of them behind me.”

   This sounded like something he’d made up to explain the fact that he was alone in the woods with no supplies and no companions and sniffing around her fire looking for something he didn’t have.

   Red sincerely hoped he was as full of shit as he seemed, because she was not interested in encountering any soldiers. The government wanted everyone rounded up and quarantined (“to safely prevent the further spread of the disease”—Red had snorted when she heard that announcement because the fastest way to spread disease is to put a whole bunch of people in tight quarters and those government doctors ought to know better) and she didn’t have time for their quarantine. She had to get to her grandmother, and she still had a very long way to go.

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