“I don’t rightly know what you were expecting when you came out here, but this ain’t some kind of rebel base. Just a bunch of kids trying to scrape by.”
The lanky youth that spoke kept his hands in his pockets and his gaze level on the three uniformed men. But his eyes lingered on the patches on their uniforms, studying their unit designations and ranks. Behind him, a younger girl peeked around to look up at their faces. She was dirty and thin, but there was determination in her eyes. One of the men, the commander of their small unit, stepped forward.
“We’re not looking for trouble, just for help.” He hesitated, noting still more sets of eyes watching him from the delipidated barn. The rotten building leaned to one side like an animal waiting to die. “I’ve been lead to understand that your…group…can get behind enemy lines.”
The boy who seemed to be their spokesman nodded.
“If, by that, you mean we know the ways to get around the checkpoints that bunch have set up, then yeah. But how do I know we can trust you? Last I checked, the army’d been pulled to pieces with folks on both sides.”
The man tugged at his collar, revealing his unmarked neck.
“No ink. You know they mark their soldiers.”
The girl spoke up then.
“Not the spies. Not the saboteurs. But he’s alright, Trip. His mind feels free.” Her eyes were unfocused now. “He’s seen the badness and he knows it for what it is. So do his soldiers. We can trust them.”
“You’re sure, Kally?”
The boy looked down at his younger friend and she nodded.
“Very sure. Isn’t that right, Captain Malcolm Foster?”
Captain Foster blinked. Sure, she could have gotten his rank and surname from his uniform. But first name? Then she spoke again and his jaw dropped open in disbelief.
“And don’t worry, Captain. The prisoner you’re looking for is still alive.”

A Chance to Regret – Part 3

Soon enough, I had Chubs safely strapped onto the back of my motorcycle and we were off. Of course, I knew where I was going. Sure, the streets looked a little different and the old bodega was some 24-hour convenience store now, but the taqueria across the street was still the same old place. The paint was peeling and the windows were dark, but I remembered every inch of the inside. When I parked my bike, I stood by the windows and looked in, wondering if Maria’s folks still owned it. Probably. If they were alright, anyway. That brought me right back down to Earth. Would she meet me on the streets? Or did I have to go inside? First thing’s first, though, I had to unstrap the cat carrier from the back of my bike.
Carrier in hand, I went to the door of the taqueria and waited, uncertain. There were no lights on inside and the door didn’t budge when I pushed it. Then I heard a click and looked up fast. A man stood in the alley between the storefronts, a mask over the lower half of his face. But I recognized him without trouble. He was thinner than I’d remembered, paler too. It was like the color had been washed out of him. But there was no question he was Maria’s Papi. He looked me over, stepping out onto the sidewalk.
“She’s upstairs, Chiquita.” He held out a hand for the carrier and then pressed a mask into my hands. “I didn’t think we would be seeing you. Too dangerous.”
I shook my head and smiled ruefully.
“Well, no one ever said I was smart when it comes to Mari.”
Then I pulled the mask on, not quite sure why I needed it if we were going inside. I wasn’t sick and Chubs sure didn’t have whatever this mess was. Then a chill shot through me. What about Maria’s Mama? Was she alright?

Part 2: here
Part 1: here

A Chance to Regret – Part 2

“I’m sorry.”
Those were the last words I ever expected to see in stark text on my phone when I woke up. I pulled my knees up to my chest and stared at them in wonder.
“I should be the one saying that, Mari.”
I whispered the words as I typed them out, breaking the morning silence.
“I’m scared, Jess.”
“Where are you?”
Silently, I begged her to tell me, to allow me back in.
“Too dangerous.”
There were hot tears on my cheeks again, just like every morning since she’d left me.
“Stay safe.”
“Maria, I love you.”
“I know.”
My hands were shaking and the phone fell from my fingers. It wasn’t right. It couldn’t possibly end like this. I had to see her again, keep her safe and ward off her fears. I had to make up for what I’d done. I ran my fingers nervously through my hair, trying to keep down the sudden surge of anxiety that was screaming horrors in my mind.
“Jess, if you think you can make it safely, come to where we first met.”
The message flashed at me from within the blankets and I nearly started sobbing again in joy. Then another message.
“And if you don’t bring the Purritto, I will never forgive you.”

Chubs hated his carrier. It was a well-known fact of life, one made more troublesome by his nearly seventeen pounds of feline glory. I managed to coax him in with the last vestiges of carefully hoarded catnip supply and prepared to go. I’d pulled on a jacket and gloves, despite the warmth and wished I had a face mask.
“Come on, you monster, we’re going to see Maria.”
I was so happy I nearly sang. Chubs, for his part, merely yawned and started to sleep.
“Some moral support you are.”

A Chance to Regret – Part 1

Neither of us was watching the tv, though it sat on and the news anchor was talking. It didn’t matter, it was inconsequential compared to the small war happening in our apartment. Tensions had been rising, and the week of Cold War had finally gone hot. Maria flung her hairbrush at me and it smacked the wall resoundingly. For my part, my hands were up defensively and there were tears running down my cheeks. But I had no words to defend myself. I had done what she’d accused me of. It hadn’t just been a one-time indiscretion either. I hung my head in shame, trying to find words, to find promises that would make her stay. Her slap stung my cheek, but I didn’t try to stop her, not even when she turned to stride into our bedroom yelling about how she couldn’t believe I’d abused her trust like this. I wanted to chase after her, tell her she was right and I was worthless. Instead, I sunk to the floor and cried.
I must have fallen asleep like that because I woke up on the floor the next morning when my cat unceremoniously sat on my chest and started meowing in my face.
“Morning, Chubs…”
My voice was rough, even a bit hoarse. I with a sigh, I pulled myself to my feet to get a start on my morning routine, knowing that I at least had to feed the cat before I let my world come crashing down.
“-advised to avoid public places and reminded to wash their hands thoroughly after any contact with others.”
I nearly jumped out of my own skin at the sudden voice. The tv was still on. So, she hadn’t turned it off before she left. I felt the first pangs of pain and squashed them down.
“Feed Chubs now, be a fuck up later.”
He rubbed against my ankles and I smiled weakly. A few minutes later, I left Chubs happily eating and went to go find clean clothes and my shower. Our- My room was absolutely ransacked. I just sighed, shoulders drooped, and picked a clean pair of boxers from the floor. I’d clean it up after work. Adding a bra, a shirt and a pair of jeans to my armload, I trudge into the bathroom.

I couldn’t possibly have heard right.
“I said, don’t bother coming in. We’re closed. The Governor issued a state of emergency, right after the CDC said we’re dealing with an epidemic. Have you been under a rock or something, Jess?”
For a moment, my mind was swamped with images of Maria screaming at me the night before.
“Something like that…”
“Well, pull yourself together and watch the news. You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks, Boss. I will.”
With that, I hung up the phone and plopped myself down in front of the tv. There was a different news anchor now, a blond woman in an uncomfortable looking plaid pantsuit. She had a map behind her and was talking about disease spread and the vectors of transfer. A list of symptoms scrolled across the screen as she talked about home treatments.
“-should be on the lookout for fever, rashes, extreme fatigue, soreness in the joints and periods of dizziness…”
I waited for them to say something about a cure, anything. Nothing. It never came. I fiddled with my phone, trying to decide what to do. I needed food and maybe bottled water. But my eyes kept being drawn to the door. Where was Maria now? Was she safe? Who was she with? Chubs climbed up into my lap and purred, rubbing against my hand.
“Don’t worry, buddy. I’ll make sure to pick up crunchies for you too.”

Hours turned to days and soon, it had been just over two full weeks. I’d started pacing a furrow in my carpet with all my worrying. Chubs and I were running out of food and I’d spent the better part of the morning online learning how to boil the impurities out of water correctly. The whole time, though, all I could think of was Maria. Flopping back into my chair, I looked again at my phone. Then a new resolve overtook me. I unlocked my phone and sent her a text.
“Are you okay?”
That was it. Safe enough. She might even respond. Setting the phone back down, I went to the window to look out at the city I called home. There was smoke coming from somewhere near the harbor and I silently prayed that the city wasn’t burning. It was strange seeing the place like this, no cars on the roads and hardly anyone out. Mostly it was just officials in hazmat suits. The place had turned into a wasteland. Turning away, I went back to the tv. Reports were still coming in, but the hosts seemed stricken now. And they didn’t leave their station anymore. My phone sitting beside me buzzed and I nearly threw it in the excited scramble to scoop it up.
“Yeah. You?”
It wasn’t much of a message, but those bare few words held me. They were a promise and they were my only hope of salvation.
“Not sick. Me and Chubs are alright.” I hesitated for a moment and then added two more words. “Miss you.”
I hit send before I could change my mind and put the phone in my pocket as I went into the small kitchen to scrounge up something to eat.