Reading Time: 10 minutes
Adult Themes/Trigger Warning: Although not lewd or explicit, this piece contains references to violence and abuse.
Tatiana knew Angie was a time bomb – a Trojan horse preparing to unleash destruction on their small fortress – but no one else could see it. She’d told the group that she didn’t trust the newcomer, this strange woman who’d shown up just minutes after the news of Scott’s death. But when Tatiana voiced her suspicions, even David, who had watched Scott die, only muttered caustically: “Maybe that says more about you than it does about her.”
David and Scott had left to find food the day before and only David came back. Apparently some wandering gang ambushed them while they were scavenging an old supermarket. David couldn’t offer any more details. He hadn’t even looked at the killer’s faces. The news hit Tatiana in waves. Death itself had become so mundane that shock and outrage were no longer automatic. Everybody died – and any one of them might die at any moment – this had become the visceral reality of their daily lives. Like the others, she took the news as matter of fact, but as the day wore on a bitterness grew inside her. Scott had been her partner, her confidante, her only true friend in this new world. Now he was gone. And David hadn’t even given his killer a second glance.
Then, with the decision on whether or not to welcome the stranger in the balance, Tava, her only female compatriot in their small tribe, voted against caution. She knew that the group would have admitted the new woman regardless, but Tatiana was hurt and angry that Tava didn’t support her position. In the weeks since Tava’s arrival, Tatiana had welcomed her, as a woman, a friend, and a survivor. They’d forged a tenuous connection – a nascent sisterhood in a world filled with mistrust and death – but, with Tava’s vote of “aye”, all that vanished in an instant.
Tatiana felt certain that Angie was part of the gang that murdered Scott. That she’d been sent along to see if there were any others. And now, Angie had infiltrated their small oasis and stood poised to execute her plan, whatever it might be. And Tatiana stood alone against her.
Tatiana had never felt safer than she had with Scott, despite the fact that they had met during what was surely the apocalypse. But Scott was gone and Tatiana had no one to trust, except herself. At least she could say that much now – she knew she could survive and protect herself even without her partner. Before civilization fell apart she’d never felt secure. It wasn’t until after the curse that she found the courage to resist and assert herself against the world.
Tatiana’s childhood had been spent largely in one wing of a mansion, or perhaps it was a castle, outside of Moscow. Her family simply called it “the cottage.” Her childhood blurred into mush, not because of the years that had passed, but rather the monotony of endless, ritualistic days alone in large sterile rooms, her only company the house staff that continually straightened the furniture that she would displace as she played in her fantasy worlds. Her mother, in random fits of guilt, provided her only reprieve with frantic shopping sprees at nearly empty malls. Her fondest memory of that time was being pinned against the seat, the engine noise from the low, red, sports car engulfing her as her mother accelerated. She liked to imagine herself a cosmonaut rocketing into space.
Her father announced the move on her eleventh birthday. He foresaw an imminent crash that would swamp Russia’s economy and decided to preemptively relocate the family to the States. Tatiana saw it as an amazing adventure. She embraced her new life as an American tween. She only had to listen to her mother’s complaints for a couple of years before her father’s prognostication bore out and he transformed, in her mother’s eyes, from a paranoid narcissist into a political genius.
To Tatiana, her father always seemed the same remote figure, sporadically appearing with some proclamation of supposedly high import but little real impact on her life. Only rarely did he spare a few words about what a beautiful young lady his daughter had become.
It turned out, with the onset of puberty and its aftermath, Tatiana’s beauty – real, imagined, acknowledged, or denied – became the central focus of her life. After losing her virginity in the heat of first love with an inexperienced boy who quickly wanted to test his new prowess with as many girls as he could find, Tatiana, stripped of her naivete, learned to leverage her appeal. Boys all seemed to think that because of her accent she was dumb, but it also made her exotic. She took advantage as best she could. Bored with school and under-supervised at home, she eventually found herself caught up in the rave scene. Tatiana spent the last few years before the curse literally dancing every night away in one warehouse or another, drenched in drugs and used by men. Although her allowance could have easily covered all of her whims and expenses, she emphatically refused to pay for anything. Not with money anyway. All of her drugs, all of her cover charges, all of her access to the DJ lofts and backstage scenes were covered by guys. She didn’t have boyfriends. She didn’t date. She just used her wiles and her underfed, teenage body to get whatever she wanted. And apparently what she wanted was to escape into the soft, blurry warmth of designer drugs and let her body bounce, bend, and twirl in time to the pounding rhythms of electronic dance music. It wasn’t until later, after the curse, in one of her late night conversations with Scott, that she realized the rush of the drugs hitting her brain as she was washed by pulsing beats reminded her of the cosmonaut daydreams from her childhood car rides to the Russian malls.
Tatiana didn’t pay for anything, but that didn’t mean it came for free. Although she sold herself nearly every day, in one way or another, Tatiana never considered herself a victim. She defiantly owned her decisions and took responsibility for her choices. She felt a twisted pleasure in having her beliefs confirmed by others – and despite the pain and humiliation – the reinforcement that Tatiana had no real value apart from her attractiveness to men gave her clear confirmation of her own self worth, or more precisely, the lack thereof. It felt good to be right. As she was fucked and raped and beaten by the men taking their payment for the coke or the ride or the privilege that they had provided, she took a perverse comfort in the notion that this was as it should be, this was her real value. She developed a taste for it – like coffee or whiskey the bitter burn became the nuanced richness of a much anticipated fix. She’d sometimes admit to a man that she had a rape fantasy and then wait for him to rape her. She always secretly hoped that maybe this one wouldn’t do it, but they did. They all did. They all failed the test. She used to say that the lines had been blurred, that it couldn’t be rape if you fantasize about rape, but now, as she stood clear and tall in a brand new world, she recognized that her entire experience as a woman had been a kind of rape. In retrospect, the illusion of her agency vanished like the mystery of a magic trick revealed.
Tatiana had no delusions about the curse. The curse was a blessing, a great equalizer, an unmitigated and unimpeachable democratization of power. No class differences, no racial prejudices, no national boundaries, no governmental regulations could secure, partition, or amass the power that had been gifted on the population. It only took a few days before she, and everyone else, realized that the anarchy that had descended on the world was not, in fact, temporary, but rather the new order. And Tatiana recognized immediately that this meant only freedom.
Her first kill came, literally, as a stranger came inside her – his death, she realized in hindsight, was a gift that he hadn’t deserved, she’d inadvertently spared him the horror of the days that followed. As soon as she understood that she was the agent of his demise, she executed every man she saw. And, after a brief but satisfying spree of revenge in the chaotic three hours it took for the warehouse to clear out, her deep psychological need to be thinner, tighter, more beautiful, and more attractive, lifted like steam from a bath. Her anorexia disappeared overnight. The reality of real power, of real equality, of real superiority, washed her clean of the self-loathing that had soiled her soul ever since the first time her “uncle” had groped her so boldly while playing Sardines during her first summer in the States.
Over the subsequent days, she ate, deeply and thoroughly, not gorging but fully enjoying the flavor and satisfaction of a nourishing meal. She indulged in the richest foods, tasted the unusual and exotic, sampled everything she could find – until the food began to run out. At which point, her experience with years of anorexia surfaced as an unexpected strength; as the weeks wore on and the violence settled and people began to group and divide, pair up and die off, she became a figure of fortitude. She never complained about missing meals, she summoned energy that others couldn’t tap, she emerged as an asset amongst crowds of weepers and weaklings. Her value as a clear-minded and ruthless survivor was what attracted Scotty, and their mutual respect, his respect for her, kept them together.
Scott had been responsible for their introduction to Daniel and his utopian ideas of a new society. Daniel had appeared one day walking boldly down the center of a downtown street, head held high, clomping brashly over debris. She and Scott had slept in a department store bedding section and had stepped out just as Daniel passed. Tatiana wanted to hide but Scott told her to wait and he called out.
Daniel dropped his eyes, raised his hands and turned. “Hello friend,” he said. “I’m just passing through but I’m looking for companions.”
“Haven’t seen anyone down here in a few days.” Scott replied. “What did your friends look like?”
“Sorry,” Daniel said, smiling. Even from across the street his grin was disarming. “I meant I’m looking for people to travel with. I know, some prefer to be alone, and if that’s you, no worries. I won’t disclose your position. But if you need a friend, well… I certainly do.”
The three of them started traveling together and together they began to develop Daniel’s vision, building a set of rules and customs attuned to the realities of the new world. Daniel saw a path out of the chaos and anarchy that threatened to extinguish them all. Tatiana knew that Daniel’s vision was flawed, based on defunct prejudices and presumptions about power and community, but Scott was inspired and she had grown to depend on him, so they joined Daniel’s small band of idealists. She figured they’d ride that wave until it crested and then move on.
Scott was the only man, the only person, that Tatiana had ever really trusted. At first, she took his advances as sexual. His deferential respect seemed like just another strategy to get down her pants, but when she confronted him about it he seemed aghast.
“I don’t want to have sex with you!”
“Why not?” She asked, taunting his lies. “I’m not sexy?”
“You’re plenty attractive.” He replied, looking her up and down, appraisingly. “You just don’t seem to want sex. And that’s…you know…a turn off.”
“So why do you stay with me?” She asked. “If I don’t turn you on. You’re gay?”
“No,” he replied, looking at her quizzically, as if to see whether or not she was just playing with him. At that point she wasn’t. “You are the strongest, most intelligent, most exasperatingly cynical person I’ve ever met. You also have an amazing nose for canned goods. Why would I leave?”
But now she was alone again. She lay on the mattress exhausted and sad, one arm splayed out across the space that Scott had occupied only a day earlier. She remembered him laughing about how he was going to bring back a jar of raspberry jam – just for the two of them.
She hadn’t really slept all night. She woke repeatedly out of a recurring dream wherein she wandered the basement hideout executing all her companions – in a twisted revision of the night of her liberation but in their dark, nearly empty basement instead of a crowded warehouse lit by lasers. She must have looped through her fantasy four or five times during the night, each one a little different, each growing progressively more surreal – people standing in odd places, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone. Towards the morning, the figures were jumping out at her from behind boxes or peering in through cloudy windows. But she managed her way through the mission of her dream – she’d take Angie, always Angie first, Daniel, Carl, David, sometimes even Scott, and Tava. Tava she killed with two spoken words: “Die, bitch.” She felt guilty for that. Tava seemed the only true innocent in the group, always accommodating, never greedy. She had voted to let Angie in, but that was precisely because she was too nice. Trusting. Foolish. Tatiana felt sorry to abandon the girl, but she simply could not forgive her.
Six months since she gave up caring whether or not a man found her attractive, Tatiana still religiously applied her morning make-up. She had never worn it for anyone else anyway – she used the eyeliner, foundation, blush, and mascara to build her persona. Layers of confidence, emotional control, perception, and focus accrued within her as she constructed her mask on the outside. It wasn’t a façade, she didn’t care what others saw or thought of her. The daily construction of her face was a ritual for her alone, an inventory, a tidying, an armoring.
Tatiana always took the extra time to grab handfuls of makeup whenever she went scavenging. After some initial looks of derision and comments, the others stopped judging. In fact, Tava had asked to borrow eyeliner just a week ago – that had actually cemented their nascent bonding.
Tatiana stopped before completing the eyeliner on her lower right waterline – she was tearing up and couldn’t focus. She breathed deep and blinked.
She needed to forge a new alliance. Her choices were limited. She certainly wouldn’t sleep with David – and that’s all he wanted. She wouldn’t sleep with any man. It had taken weeks before she let Scott touch her in that way. She didn’t trust Angie, and Tava had burned her. Carl was handy but too soft and Roy never showed her much respect. Scott had gotten along with all the men, but it seemed like that stereotypical male bonding thing. There was always Daniel…
“Noooo!” Carl’s wail brought Tatiana up and out of her cubby without hesitation. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
She hurried toward the sound and arrived at the scene at the same time as Roy and Daniel. Carl was hunched over his daughter’s body.
“Who did this?!” He bellowed.
There was shouting but Tatiana didn’t really hear words, she couldn’t take her eyes off of Tava. Tava was dead. Just like in her dream.
Was it really only a dream? Had she done this? Die, bitch. Had she killed the girl? But no, in her dream she killed everyone. Everyone here was alive. Except Tava. Had she dreamt her dead?
“Did you kill her by accident?” Carl shouted at Roy.
No, no, she couldn’t have. Could she?
I don’t know! Tatiana thought as she looked up into Angie’s eyes.