September 21, 2016
US Population: ~330 million.
David drifted through space, turning effortlessly as a thousand tiny stars dotted his vision. He reached out to touch one close by, and the tip of his finger burst it like wind to a dandelion. He popped one more, then another, and the tiny specks of light filled the void even further. When it came time to breathe, he could gather no air. That wasn’t too strange, he was in space, after all. However, his lungs felt full of some spongy substance that crept up to his throat. He jabbed his chest, trying to dislodge whatever filled him, but it only grew further, until he could feel it on his tongue. With no breath, his consciousness began to fade, all the stars winking out, giving way to an unceasing sea of black. He awoke, with a pallor gripping him and gooseflesh rippling over his skin. Hang on, air’s going in, air’s going out. It’s just a dream, I’m fine. He paid it little mind, threw off his covers and dressed in the black graphic tee and cargo shorts he wore the day before. Thus began his morning routine, gray eyes and fair hair greeting him in the mirror, but he couldn’t shake the goosebumps. After washing, he started catching up on current events on his favorite message board, when he noticed an odd post pinned to the top of the forum display. “What happened to Maine?” was the title. Having seen nothing on the news, he was reasonably secure in its status as both state and landmass, but curiosity demanded he open the post. It originated at 9 AM, two hours ago.
“I got turned away at the state border, just a bunch of patrol cars, asked if it was a manhunt and they wouldn’t say. Tried calling my friends, but it just rang until voice mail. No response from email, and I can’t find anything on the news. Their local TV sites haven’t even updated since yesterday. Anyone know what’s going on? I’m scared.”
Following it was a list of usernames who were known to reside in Maine and their last log-in date. The latest was 11 PM the previous day, and a post complaining about how many ambulances just drove by. He sent the link out in a couple of his group texts.
The rest of the comments were much the same story as the original posting, no one could get in and no contact with people they knew who lived there. Having a healthy skepticism, David pored over the list of usernames until he found one he recognized. He called, no answer. Then again, he could just be at work. He thought, concern starting to mount as he couldn’t find any news article originating from Maine today. David tried his friend again, this time at their work number, and after two minutes of steady ringing he gave up. They could just be busy, it’s a sandwich shop at lunchtime. He read more of the thread, a couple people said they were in Maine and everything was fine. A few posts later, an administrator stated their IP addresses originated from Florida and Montana. Wait, what sandwich shop isn’t answering their phones at lunch?
He was nearing the end of the comment thread when he saw “Just got to New Hampshire, they wouldn’t let me out and I had to walk through the woods. Don’t know what’s happening, but I’ve had trouble breathing the past hour. Stopped walking a while ago. Something’s up. Stay safe.” It was from ten minutes ago, the same administrator verified the message originated from Northeast New Hampshire.
A half hour later, his good friend and devil on his shoulder, Lawrence responded “404 dude, prank?”. David refreshed, no trace of the thread. Original poster’s account was deleted, same with the administrator verifying IPs. Even for an internet prank, this was going too far. He called Lawrence.
“Hey, what’s good?” A languid tone emanated from the receiver.
“Dude, something happened to Maine. Where are you right now?”
“I’m at home, what do you mean ‘happened to Maine’, is this about that link you sent?”
“Yeah, no one’s heard from the whole state in half a day, can’t get it in. One guy got out, said he’s sick. Nothing on any local news site from there since last night.”
“Ahh, c’mon, this is just some doomsday prepper thing, right?”
“No way, this is not a drill. I’m packing my stuff and coming over. Get what you need, we’re going to the grow house.” He and Lawrence owed a couple semesters worth of tuition to their underground grow-op, built from a Cold War bomb shelter next to his parent’s vacation cottage. They had to pack up the business after starting school, but all the equipment remained. It took a couple hours driving to get there, hopefully they’d beat the rush.
“Oh…uh, yeah man, see you in a few, I guess.” Lawrence hung up, perplexed.
It only took David ten minutes to pack. He wouldn’t need camping gear, that was still lying around the grow house. He managed to cram every water container and non-perishable food item he owned into a small duffle bag. In a backpack, he had a sturdy change of clothes, a pair of hunting knives, a first aid kit, a flash light, batteries, a flare gun kit, a couple state maps and most importantly, duct tape. Lawrence was right to chide him for being a doomsday prepper, all told, he was a couple minutes over his best packing time, not that he’d ever admit he timed himself.
Stepping out on to 2nd Avenue in the Cass Corridor of Detroit, David first started to question whether he fell for a hoax. The scene that greeted him was normal, co-eds with faces buried in their phones, an endless stream of road construction and a homeless man parked outside the corner liquor store. The man had a vicious cough, but it may not be related. He wedged the duffle bag as best he could in his bike basket and readied for the trip to Lawrence’s.
His phone buzzed, finally a reply from someone else, Jon. If it was as bad as he thought, probably best to hear back from a gun nut. “Can’t see link, swamped at work, three people called off sick this morning.” David’s doubts receded. He called him.
“Dude, I said I was at work, what the hell?”
“Something happened. Maine fell off the grid last night, some kind of quarantine but they’re trying to cover it up. People got out, so whatever it is, its spreading.”
“Sounds like something outta the X Files. Sure you didn’t take anything this morning?” Jon chided.
“I don’t trip and use the phone, you know that. This is no joke. I’m headed to Lawrence’s and we’re going to ride it out at the grow house. If you’re comin’ with, bring the guns.” Jon tried his best to look the part of the hunter, he had two rifles and multiple camouflage ensembles dotting his wardrobe. From what David had seen, he was a decent shot…against stationary targets at a gun range.
“I’m kicking your ass if this is a prank. I’m gonna check in with my sis and get back to you.”
“For sure, hope she’s okay. Also…don’t touch anyone if you haven’t already.” Hope that isn’t too little, too late.
David felt a pit in his stomach. He didn’t even think to call his parents. It wasn’t that they had a bad relationship, but he never felt particularly close to them. Statements like “homeless people are homeless because they want to be” got bandied about the dinner table, and left him feeling like he couldn’t bring a problem to them if it didn’t fit neatly into a white picket fence worldview. But they loved him, there was no doubting that. He never had to worry about a roof over his head, or food, clothes, schooling, no matter what, they were always there and never made demands about a return. Could he say he felt the same if it took someone else to remind him?
They were on a trip together in Pennsylvania, he remembered as the pit grew heavier. He called his Dad, straight to voice mail. He called his Mom, and the pit briefly shrunk when he heard a ring. It grew back as those rings eventually stopped, and a saccharine, mechanical voice told him to leave a message.
“Mom…hey, it’s me. Something happened, some kind of outbreak they’re trying to cover up. If you get this, try to get away from everyone. I’m taking some friends to the bunker at the cottage, we’ll be okay. I love you, and thank you, thanks for everything. I’m sorry it took this to say that.” He returned the phone to his pocket, rubbed his eyes and began to pedal North to Lawrence’s, cursing himself the whole way for not calling sooner.
Twenty minutes passed as he coasted into the alley behind Lawrence’s apartment. Bounding up the steps he rapped harshly against the back door. “Yo! It’s David!” He called, but Lawrence was not the one to answer. Instead, a woman dressed in dark jeans ripped at the knee, a leather riding jacket, tortoiseshell glasses and a blue bandana tied around her head. Her face formed a perpetual scowl. Angela, a close friend of Lawrence’s and occasional helper at the grow-op, pushed open the screen door and ushered him inside.
“Lawrence told me, I think I saw the same post. I swear I only called you Doomsday Dave as a joke.” With that phrase, a wave of relief crashed over David. If I wasn’t the only one who saw it, I can’t be going crazy, unless we’re both crazy.
“I think its viral, my folks are in Pennsylvania, I tried calling them a little bit ago and no response, so it must be moving fast. Did you call yours?”
“No. They didn’t want to talk much after I brought my first girlfriend home.”
“I get that, but it kinda seems like the last chance.”
“I…I dunno, I don’t think they’d pick up. If they did, they wouldn’t even believe me.” She bit her lip and looked down.
“No pressure Ang, they made a choice when they kicked you out.” Lawrence said as he came down the stairs, clipping a bandolier of throwing knives over his chest. Her scowl intensified. “Sorry, just sayin’, they made this situation, not you.”
“Dude, I don’t think you’re helping.” David interjected, giving Lawrence a nudge. “Anyways, how’s the packing going?”
“Pretty good, hockey bag’s got the food and water. Got some batteries and a flashlight, a few nice painkillers and a suture kit, couple bottles of grain alcohol for infection and boredom. A few spare cans of gas in the back of the truck. Ang’s got the real good stuff though.” Lawrence indicated, pointing to her backpack.
“Well, I had a few of these left over from the 4th.” She produced a cigar box filled with colored smoke bombs. Setting those aside, she pulled out a small steel pipe with a wick attached. “Made this one today, took apart a few cherry bombs for it. Dunno what’s gonna be in our way, but whatever it is, is gettin’ a surprise.” She allowed herself a momentary smirk of pride. “Also, brought a big bag of books, seems like we might be hunkered down for a while.” David reflexively thumbed through the pile, almost exclusively fantasy, an endless stream of dragons, unicorns and shining armor dotting the covers. It was better than a lot of alternatives, but she could have at least had the decency to include something with robots and spaceships. Still, he couldn’t be picky, and warmly thanked her with an “Alright!” and a light jab on the shoulder.
“Lucky me, having a couple forum junkies as friends. I’m pretty much ready to go, looks like we’ll beat the panic.” Lawrence clipped a sheathed wakizashi to his belt and threw a navy serape over himself, shaking long black hair out from under the collar. The resulting ensemble elicited a barely stifled laugh from Angela.
“Throwing knives, a ninja sword and a cloak? You know its 2016, right? Gunpowder is kind of a thing.”
“It’s a thing that’s noisy. I’m not that big on getting in a straight fight, and if I’m shooting a gun, everyone around knows where I was. These are all quiet, assuming they don’t see me. The serape blends in well with night, keeps my arms free and no one can see what I have. C’mon, back me up, Dave, we’ve talked about this.” Lawrence tried to give a dignified air in response, but looked pleadingly at David by the time he was finished.
“I agree the best defense is no one knowing where you are, but I’m pretty sure clothes granting a tangible stealth bonus is a video game thing. But hey, all I’ve got are hunting knives, so can’t hate.” That seemed to reassure Lawrence, but now David wasn’t sure how seriously he was taking this.
Angela shrugged “Guess it’s a good thing he called me.”
“Anyways, my truck’s out back, let’s get going while we’re still breathing.” Lawrence directed, trundling down the steps with their supplies. Truck was a bit of an overstatement, what greeted them was a decade old, white, Blazer SUV, rust creeping up along the wheel wells and a square of tarp taped over the moon roof. They were just finished loading up when David’s phone rang.
“Hey Jon, how’s the sis?” He asked. Ugh, too casual.
“She…she’s gone. Couldn’t breathe.” He choked through the receiver
“I’m so sorry, are you…”
“Thanks, no, I’m okay, didn’t touch anything.” Jon gave a phlegmy inhale before continuing. “You were right, I’m coming too. Stacy’s with me, we’re packed.” He sniffed again.
“It’s okay, man, we’ll be there in ten.” He felt a shiver as he put his phone back in his pocket. He assumed the worst when he couldn’t reach his parents, but at least there were plenty of good reasons they didn’t answer right away. When Jon said she was dead, it brought down a gavel. David spent many an inebriated night talking about what he’d do in a world ending disaster. He took it far enough to time his packing. But now, he stared at the moment he was preparing for, face-to-face, and he wanted to run. Run back to his room, or his parent’s hotel in Pennsylvania, bury his head in pillows and wake up tomorrow with no more worry than a couple term papers and the quest for a part-time job.
“Houston, are we go for launch?” Lawrence asked, staring at David, whose hand was still clutching the phone in his pocket. It was over, there was no part-time job waiting for him if he ran.
“Yeah, sorry, just gotta pick up Jon first.” He relayed the news once they were in the car. Angela gasped, but it was a silent ride apart from that. Lawrence’s knuckles turned pale with how tightly they gripped the steering wheel.
They turned into Jon’s subdivision and creeped down the street, trying to pick out his home from a seemingly endless row of nigh identical brick ranch houses. He saved them the trouble by standing outside on the front lawn, hard to miss his stocky frame in camo cargo pants and an olive drab T-shirt. His bushy, reddish beard forming a wan smile as they pulled up. To his right was Stacey, her lithe figure dwarfed by Jon. She had khaki capris and an orange camisole, a 10mm pistol in a docker’s clutch bounced off the side of her torso as she joined Jon in the wave, her bushy ponytail tucked through the back of a Rockford Peaches cap. A pile of duffle bags rested in front of them, with two rifle cases leaning against it. A mailwoman eyed them quizzically from a couple houses down, then resumed her route, heaving as she walked.
It was a somber loading party, with Angela comforting Stacey, who lost a best friend when Jon lost his sister. David and Lawrence each gave Jon half a hug as they stowed his belongings in the trunk, sliding the rifles into the rear passenger seat. David didn’t know Stacey that well, he’d hung out with her a few times when Jon or Lawrence and Angela were around and she seemed pleasant enough, and not hard on the eyes, either. He remembered exchanging numbers one night after a party a year ago, but she only ever called him for weed. She had the sense to bring a weapon, that was at least encouraging.
A procession of ambulances passed them by on the boulevard as they drove to the highway. Apart from them, the streets were largely devoid of their usual traffic. At a bus stop, half were heaving while the other half were frantically typing and yelling into their phones.
“Do you know what, exactly, is happening?” Stacey inquired, watching the scene unfold before the traffic light changed.
“Not a ton, apparently its some virus that infects the lungs. Started in Maine yesterday and already hit here. Possibly a bio-weapon, because there was no news from Maine since last night, which sounds like a cover-up.” David replied, his words rehearsed.
“If its airborne or passed by contact, we should already be infected. So if we’re immune, why are we running to your ‘grow house’? Why not stay here?” Stacey pressed, David hadn’t considered this question, he just assumed going to a bunker was the best idea.
“I reckon we’re not the only ones to dodge this bullet, Stace. Cops, doctors, firemen, military…most of them might bite it. Their toys won’t. All that stuff just lying around and no one to watch it? I figure I’ll wanna be outta sight and underground well before that hot mess.” Jon piped up, filling a spare clip. David gave a perfunctory nod of agreement. Stacey’s face contorted at the mention of the police, he vaguely recalled a conversation where she mentioned her father was a detective.
Detroit’s skyline fell away in the rearview mirror as they cruised North on I-75. The highway was emptier than 3 AM, yet the sun hung just past its apex. Occasionally they would spot a well-packed truck or car with a trailer. Another ambulance or three would speed by, but nothing like the curb to curb traffic jams of the disaster movies. The five traveled in silence, watching the streets of their youth blur by, with hardly a person to walk them. Their first big jam was at an exit near a hospital, three lanes were packed with people trying to get off. Lawrence weaved the truck to the inside shoulder to get around, but before he could pull away a gasping man ran in front of the car and slammed one arm on the hood. The other arm was obscured, but appeared to be holding something by the grill. Lawrence perfunctorily laid on the horn and locked the doors.
“Please help me!” He yelled, heaving between each word. “My baby girl, she just stopped breathing. I…I can’t…” He hunched over, trying to catch his breath, but staying in front of the Blazer.
“We should help him!” Stacey said, starting to roll down her window. “Sir! What’s happened to her?”
Lawrence stopped her from the driver’s console, leaving the window open just a sliver. “No way! You don’t know we’re immune.”
“We’re not doctors, either.” Jon stated.
“Sorry, there’s not a whole lot we can do.” David added, waving for the man to get away. He had his daughter in his arms now, trying to look at Stacey. The girl’s face was turning pale. Jon pulled out his rifle and ripped away the tarp covering the moon roof. Standing on the center of the bench seat, he pointed it at the man.
“Back away from the vehicle,” He commanded. His hands shaking.
“Please, sir, my daughter, I don’t…” The staccato created by his heaving making it hard to understand.
“Hey guys, I think we’re starting to get popular.” Angela said looking out of the rear window. A few more cars pulled up behind them, one laid on the horn. From the second a third, a few people tumbled out, doubled over and trying to hack up whatever was lodged in their wind pipe. It was to no avail, as the veins on their temples throbbed and their bodies shivered. Skin turning from white to red.
“Last warning! Back. Off.” Jon repeated, taking the safety off and chambering a round. The man relented, stepping aside. Tears splashed onto the still face of his child. David saw what looked like mold creeping up the girl’s neck as Lawrence pulled away from the traffic jam.
“What the hell is your problem? Pulling a gun on him while his daughter is dying!” Stacey yelled at Jon as he emptied the chamber.
“It’s not like I wanted to shoot him! We couldn’t help and had to get him out of the way.” His puffed chest and authoritative voice from seconds ago now deflated, his face bearing a sheepish expression.
“Stace, you want to do the right thing, I get it. But, we gotta worry about our asses too. There’s no room in the truck and we don’t what this is.” Angela offered a hand on her shoulder, which Stacey promptly brushed away.
“What if we were him, huh? Wouldn’t you want us to help?”
“We’re not.” Lawrence replied flatly, laying on the accelerator.
Featured image credited to Kathie Reilly, found on Pinterest.