In 2021, some bad behaviour was discovered at a literary journal called Black Cat Magazine. Said behaviour implicated other journals with which one editor in particular was involved. In response, writer V.F. Thompson posted a call to action on Twitter: anyone who had submitted work to the now-defunct Black Cat Magazine (or any related journals) could resubmit their work to a new zine called Curi🅐sity Kills. The first release from Dionysian Public Library, the zine comprises five pieces of anarchist, political prose. I am so proud to be a part of the zine, and to present my story “Tell Me the Good Stuff” in full below. At the bottom of the page, I will leave details on how to support the zine.
I hope you enjoy my story.
At last, the jeep crests the hill, and for a moment Jack’s vision turns white. He shields his eyes, blinking rapidly, and squints towards the encampment nestled in the reddish-brown valley. They pass between two bollards that once, he’s sure, must have bracketed a checkpoint, but now serve as pummel horses for shoeless children – some freckled and fair, some with their hair in locs, others grinning through sunburn – who now abandon their game and come running, yelling welcome at the newcomer. Jack’s chest tightens. His hand twitches, but he keeps his head still, stares through cracked and dusty glass.
“Hungry?” The driver glances at him. “You can eat first.”
Jack shakes his head. The children peel away and chase each other, screaming, through the dust. Absurdly, Jack wonders if they’ll let him join them. How old is too old? He frowns at his hands, at the brownish crusts beneath his nails, the stump where his pinkie should be. He chews his thumbnail, thinking how silly it is, to want children to play with you now when they never did before; or if they did, it’s been so long it hardly counts. But he thinks about the children, about their games and stories spawned from fertile, shared imaginations. He thinks (hopes) they’re all friends, and that there are best friends sprinkled in amongst the group. Something niggles at him there, at the base of his skull. It shivers down his spine and agitates his stomach. Best friends.
He gnaws the inside of his cheek.
“Here we are.”
Jack looks up, first at the driver’s kind face, and then beyond, towards the greyish tent.
“We’ll say our hellos first.”
Jack nods and slips from his seat. His feet throb, and he hobbles around the jeep’s idle nose. The driver waits for him, and then embraces a new man, who climbs behind the wheel and rumbles down the track.
“We keep the cars and trucks together,” the driver explains. “All the fuel and everything – it stays in one place. Easy to run low, so we have people to take care of that.” He rubs the back of his neck. “Sure you don’t need anything?”
Jack shakes his head again and tries to smile. He likes this man – who is tall and dark-skinned, with long black hair hanging down his back – and wants this man to like him. Again, he thinks about the children; he thinks that if he were still like them, still young and small, he could go to this man, let himself be swallowed up in his arms, bury his face in his chest. He could ask, even. He could look him in the eye and ask to be held. A little strange, he thinks, for a boy who is really a man to ask someone his equal in height for a hug. But even big men, even men who don’t radiate kindness the way this one does, would allow a tiny, frightened child one small comfort.
“Come on, then.” He helps Jack inside, takes his negligible weight on his arm. They pass through the heavy flaps and sigh in unison. The air is lighter here, and cooler, and with the sun blocked out, they can at last relax.
The people in the tent look at them, curious. But Jack has eyes only for the person at the table: the man with sandy hair and greenish eyes. The man whose jaw drops, who stands and reveals his tall, slim frame. The man whose shirt hangs open, hinting at surgical scars.
They stare at each other. Then Jack cries out – some useless noise – and weeping falls into the man’s arms. He hugs him tight, and Jack hears him ask the driver Where incredulous where did you find him? He holds him at arm’s length, looks into the face that is now opposite his own, and touches his hair.
“Sam,” says Jack, voice hoarse with disuse. He tests the word, the name that might not be right anymore. But the man nods – just once, emphatic, almost proud – and tears roll down his cheeks.
“I told you,” he says. “I told you we’d see each other again.”
Jack hugs him fiercely. He is distantly aware of voices growing softer. A puff of hot air touches the darkened space as the tent flaps move, and then they are alone. Jack marvels at how easy it is, how simple to rearrange himself to match this new version of his friend. Before – so long ago now – when they were both children, Sam was the taller, and painfully thin. He would shrug off Jack’s worried hands, glare at him through sunken eyes. Jack would watch him fiddle with the bandages that bound his chest, loath to remove and replace them. He didn’t understand at the time. He was only five when people started getting sick, too young maybe to know all the words. All he knew was that his friend was sad sometimes, and hurt. His makeshift binder pinched and squeezed, and nights he’d go without, hunched and silent. He explained it once, towards the end, when he was too sick to stand. Then he went away, taken in the back of a truck by people who knew what to do. How to help.
Jack buries his face in Sam’s neck, not wanting to remember, needing to remember nonetheless. Someone held his arms, but the righteous fury unique to seven-year-olds was too much, too hot; he broke away, screaming, and bolted down the potholed road, bare feet ripped raw, tears whipped from his eyes into the dead heat of that August day. Then he was caught, swept up into the last hug of his life before now. When the screaming stopped, so did his words.
“Jack, look at me.”
He looks at him.
“I’m sorry I left you.”
Jack shakes his head, vehement. “Don’t.” He wipes his face. “I – wasn’t angry at you. I was angry they… they took you away. Away from me. I didn’t understand.”
Neither of them says, They could only take one.
“So you’re—” Jack coughs. Sam’s eyes widen, and Jack quickly flaps his hands. “No, it’s okay – my throat – I need some water.”
Sam hands him a canteen and lets him drink.
Quenched, Jack tries again: “So you’re in charge?”
Sam pulls a face. “I don’t like to put it that way. A group of us – I guess you could say we’re in charge. But it’s more equal than that.”
Jack nods. “The man who drove me – I don’t know his name—”
“Bear.” Sam smiles.
Jack feels the possessive child in him stick out his chin, tries to quiet him. “He’s nice, I liked him. Well, he said he was taking me to ‘the boss’.” Jack laughs softly. “I guess he was just joking.”
Sam scratches his head. “He likes to call me that.” The expression on his face is one Jack has never learned to parse. He thinks perhaps in another world – another time, where his parents lived, and maybe no one ever got sick in the first place – at twenty he’d understand expressions like that. But then (and it’s an awful thought, despite the distance between him and half-remembered parents) if no one died, he never would have met Sam. He feels a little sick thinking about that, and tries to push on.
“What are you doing here?” Jack asks. “Where did they—” take you? he thinks. “Where did you go?”
“We’re working,” Sam says. “They took care of me, Jack. And now we’re working to take care of others.” He smiles softly. “You saw?” He opens his shirt a little wider, revealing the scars. “I spoke to someone – they’re still here, I’ll introduce you. Dr Nguyen. Once I was better, they let me talk about how I felt. They did the surgery, too.” He closes the shirt, buttons it halfway. “For a while I was obnoxiously shirtless.”
Jack giggles, setting off Sam – and for a moment they are seven and thirteen again.
Sam pauses. For no reason Jack can see, he looks almost nervous. “You’re not… I mean, it’s okay. Isn’t it?”
Jack frowns. “You explained it to me before. I remember.” He gnaws on his cheek. “It made me sad before. I mean, that you were sad. Because you knew who you were, and I knew who you were, too. But sometimes you didn’t feel like who you were. Is that right?”
“So if you’re not sad anymore. If you’re not hurt. Then it’s okay.” He smiles. “I think before, I just didn’t like that something was making you sad. Something I couldn’t help you with, I mean. When you were sick—” He pauses, shoves aside flashes of his friend’s distended ribs and sallow skin. “When you were sick, even though I knew I couldn’t make you better, I could do something. I could try to look after you. But you were sad sometimes. And angry. And there wasn’t anything I could do. Except…”
Sam watches him closely. “Except what?”
“Be your friend.” He shrugs. “You can’t really do anything except that, I think. You can’t fix things for your friends. You can just be for them.”
Sam is quiet for a moment. Then he laughs. “I hardly remember anything. I don’t know if I lost the memory – if that’s a side-effect – or if I just repressed it.” He hugs himself, briefly. “I’m glad I don’t remember much.” Then, with a small smile: “Except you.”
Jack, who remembers everything – remembers how, on his worst days, Sam would snap and hit; how he’d hate so much it would consume him – thinks, and not for the first time, that children who are hurt so easily must understand easily, too. Furtively, he puts his hands behind his back, fingers the nearly-nothing of his pinkie. And he thinks, no, it’s better Sam doesn’t remember. It’s better he’s well now, and leave it at that.
Jack hugs him again. “Where are we?” he whispers into Sam’s neck. “What is this place?”
Sam squeezes him. “This is the future.” He holds him at arm’s length again. “No one’s sick here, Jack, can you believe it? Well” – he laughs – “I mean, of course people get sick. But what I had – what everyone had – it’s gone here.”
Something pulls at Jack’s chest, loosening and tightening at once. “Gone?”
Sam nods. “Completely. We all tested negative. And we all keep testing negative.”
Jack’s mouth goes dry, and he reaches for the canteen again.
“I was…” Sam sighs. “There’s no point lying – and I’m sure you already figured it out. I was almost dead, when they found us.”
Jack sets his jaw.
“I think that’s why they took me.” He sighs. “You were all right. They needed someone who was sick. Someone they could – well…”
Something snaps in Jack’s chest. “They used you like that?”
Sam pulls a face. “Yeah.” He tries to shrug it off. “They had to be sure. They couldn’t test it on someone who wasn’t—”
“Going to die anyway?”
Sam nods, eyes averted.
Jack’s fists burn, and he’s suddenly aware of his nails digging into his palms. He forces them loose, and rubs them while he asks, “Are they still here?” He feels his mouth twisting, can barely push the words between his lips.
Sam shakes his head. “Long gone. They brought me here, then left. Who knows about them now…”
“Looking for more sick kids to—”
“I don’t think so.” He smiles wanly. “They only needed one.”
Jack sits heavily on the cot in the corner. “I should have been with you.”
Sam comes to him, puts an arm around his thin shoulders. “It was so long ago.” And he repeats, softly: “So long.”
Jack rests his head on his friend’s shoulder. He thinks again about the look that crossed his face when they spoke about the driver. “Is he – Bear – is he your…” He frowns. “Well, I mean, are you—”
“We’re friends.” Sam squeezes him gently.
Jack narrows his eyes. “Best friends?”
Sam throws back his head and laughs.
“Because that’s not fair, if you are. I know we lost touch for a while, but—”
Sam doubles over, and manages: “Were you always funny?”
Jack grins. “Yeah. You just don’t remember.”
With a mischievous glint in his eye, Sam makes to hit him – and Jack flinches so violently Sam not only withdraws his hand, but moves away from him, putting a foot of space between them on the cot. Jack breathes hard and tries to smile, to reassure him, but something flashed across Sam’s face: this time an emotion Jack knows, something old, something of memory.
“I – I’m sorry. I—” Sam puts his hands under his thighs. “I wasn’t going to…” He shakes his head. “I don’t know why I did that.”
“It’s okay,” says Jack, too quickly. “You know, it’s been… Well, I don’t know how this sounds, but it’s been so long since anyone – you know, touched me, I just. I’m not sure—”
“No.” Sam touches his chest. “It’s my fault. I won’t do that again, I promise.”
Jack nods. He brings his legs up, hugs them close to his chest. “What else happens here?”
Sam relaxes visibly. “Everything. It started small, before I got here. We’re making sure we know how to live. People like Bear, they go out to see what’s still out there. What we can salvage, you know. Food and resources, things like that. Greenhouses went up years ago. We grow whatever we can, regulating the soil, the temperature. I don’t pretend to understand how it works.”
They laugh, and Sam moves a little closer again. “And it isn’t just practical things. Not just food and water and supplies. We’re trying to cover as much as we can – anything we think we’ll need, and then anything we want. Whether that’s leisure or education. Whatever. And of course, there are people like Dr Nguyen. People like me, too. We do everything here, for everyone. I said before about being in charge – that group you saw when you came in. But again, it’s more equal than that. We want everyone to have a say. And the consensus is, right now, to make sure we can survive on what we have. To see if things are sustainable. But we don’t want to just stay here. We don’t think that’s fair. If we survived, there must be others, right? Like you.”
“And you’ll have to tell me all about it. But we figure, it can’t be just us. And if we can figure out a way to live, we shouldn’t only keep ourselves alive. Does that make sense?”
Jack nods. “It’s good,” he says. “It’s nice.”
“We hope so.” Sam grins. “So many people died, Jack. I mean. How old were you when it started? Do you remember?”
“So I would have been just eleven.” He gets a faraway look on his face then, and his eyes go glassy. “I think I – I think I can just barely remember seeing something on the news. I don’t know if I just invented the memory. But eleven’s old enough to remember, I think.”
Jack stays quiet, unsure.
“Do you know how many people died?”
Jack pulls a face. “I don’t like to think about it.”
“No.” Sam touches his hand. “Neither do I. Sometimes we have to.”
Knowing the answer, he asks, “You have to think about the bad stuff?”
“It’s not good to do it all the time, but…” He sighs. “Yeah, sometimes.”
Jack gnaws his cheek. “Do you – want me to tell you sometime? About the bad stuff.”
Absently, eyes unfocused again, Sam strokes the spot where Jack’s pinkie should be. “Yeah,” he says, far away again. “But tell me the good stuff first.”
Thank you so much for reading.
Of course, my story is not the only piece in the zine; four other brilliant creatives offered their work, too. If you’d like to read those, too, you can request a copy (digital or print) of Curi🅐sity Kills by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Please make sure to follow V.F. Thompson and Dionysian Public Library on Twitter so you never miss an update on future publications.